You are here

5. Man-Worship: The Idolization of a Self-Sufficient Philosopher

Man-Worship: The Idolization of a Self-Sufficient Philosopher1

We have seen that the impersonal worship of a universal state as a deified institution has an alternative in the personal worship of it as a deified ruler. In the deified philosopher, Man, idolized as an individual, jumps clear of the deified ruler’s dependence on the worship of collective human power and stands upright, without a crutch, as an idol exclusively in his own individual right.

This idolized self-sufficient philosopher is the final product of the liberation of the individual in a parochial community in the first phase of a civilization’s history. In this phase, as we have noticed, the parochial communities into which a nascent civilization articulates itself win the devotion of their members by enabling them, not only to have Life, but to have it more abundantly.2 In primitive societies, self-centredness is in the first person plural. Like the ant in the ant-heap and the bee in the beehive, the primitive human being is a social animal and little more. A progressive transposition of self-centredness from the first person plural into the first person singular through a progressive liberation of the individual is the chief stimulus given to human life by the parochial communities of a society in process of civilization in these communities’ early days. No doubt Man, like the Ant and the Bee, is a social animal by nature, and would be going against his own nature if he were to refuse to express himself in social action. Indeed, any act of self-expression is bound to be a social act as well, since there can be no self-expression without an audience. All the same, the self-expression of an individual who is aware of having a consciousness and a will of his own is a far more stimulating form of social activity than the action of a human being who is under such overwhelming pressure from the society of which he is a member that his sociality holds his individuality down below the level of consciousness. The liberation of the individual in the sense of setting him free, not to repudiate his innate and inalienable sociality, but to fulfil his social nature consciously and deliberately, is the boon that is brought to Man—or at least to some outstanding men—in a parochial community in the first phase of a civilization’s history.

In this chapter of history we can watch the individual emerging by progressive stages. He makes his first appearance as a bare name in a list of annual office-holders whose individual names are recorded for the public purpose of giving distinctive labels to otherwise indistinguishable years in the community’s life—as, for example, in the Assyrian list of holders of the office of limmu, the Attic list of eponymous archons, and the Roman list of consuls. Except for the one point that they are inscribed and not merely committed to memory, these archaic lists of annual office-holders do not carry the individual much farther along the road towards recognition than the primitive lists of ancestors; and a decisive new departure is made only when the individual is entered in the record as the author of an historical achievement.

At this stage the picture preserved in the record becomes stereoscopic. It shows us the individual following some particular career, and this with varying results that may be either good or bad for himself and for the society in whose life he is playing his individual part. He may have recorded his own activities as a builder, like the Assyrian kings who address us in the earliest of the Assyrian inscriptions so far retrieved by Modern Western archaeologists. He may have expounded his policy and have recorded his own successes and failures as a lawgiver and a statesman, as Solon has done in the poems that still circulate under his name. He may be celebrated, like Pheidias, as an artist who has made individual works of art out of the public works that the community has commissioned him to carry out. He may be celebrated, like Aeschylus, as a poet who has made individual works of art out of public celebrations of an annually recurrent religious rite which was originally just repetitive and therefore anonymous. And he may be undeservedly illustrious or deservedly infamous as a conqueror who has won individual renown and power for himself in the warfare between his own parochial community and its neighbours. Classic monuments of this sinister military notoriety are the records of victorious aggressive campaigns which made their appearance in the Assyrian kings’ inscriptions, first as prefaces to innocent building-records, and then as the principal narrative, to which the building-record is now attached perfunctorily as a mere conventional appendage.

The emergence of the individual as a war-lord foreshadows the opening of a breach between liberated individuals and militarized parochial communities. We have seen that the warfare between parochial communities rankles, sooner or later, into war to the death. This disastrous intensification of the violence with which inter-parochial wars are waged is partly due to the scope that these wars give to individuals who make their mark as conquerors. The individuals whose self-expression takes this form find the opportunity for achieving their individual ambitions expanding with each increase in the toll taken by War from Society. But the individuality of the militarists makes these anti-social gains at the cost of the warlords’ fellow-individuals whose fields of activity lie in other directions; and so, in the experience of a majority of the individual members of a militarized parochial community, the process of militarization changes the relation between the community and them. An institution that, in a past chapter of history, has enriched their lives by giving them the opening for a liberation of their individuality, now impoverishes their lives by exacting from them heavier and heavier sacrifices. Yahweh ‘the man of war’3 has revealed himself to be Moloch the ‘horrid king’; and this appalling new epiphany of the old parochial god leads to a parting of the ways in the attitudes of individuals towards their parochial state, along lines corresponding to the differences in their fields of activity.

At this parting of the ways, the war-lords become more devoted than ever to the worship of parochial collective human power that gives such scope for the achievement of military ambitions. In the age of the civilizations of the second generation they stand self-condemned in the gloating war-communiques inscribed by Assyrian kings in the style of Asshur-nasir-pal II and in the still more damning style of Tiglath-pileser III. In the age of the civilizations of the first generation, they stand self-condemned in the grim visual records carved on Naramsin’s stele and on Narmer’s palette. The stele is a monument of Akkadian militarism in action against the highlanders of Gutium during the fight to the death between the contending states of the Sumero-Akkadian World; the palette is a monument of Egyptian militarism at the moment of the fight’s culmination and close through the annihilation of all belligerents except one single victorious survivor.

On the other side of the picture we see the war-lords’ victims revolting against the blood-tax. The repeated revolts of the Assyrian people against the sacrifices exacted from them by their militarist kings were too flagrant to allow even the historiographer-royal to ignore these shocking incidents entirely. The reluctance of the Spartans to continue to make the sacrifices required of them for the reconquest of Messene in the Second Spartano-Messenian War is commemorated in the verses of the poet Tyrtaeus, who was commissioned by the Spartan Government of the day to rally the Spartan warriors’ faltering moral. Tyrtaeus’s success showed that a poet, as well as a king, could become a war-profiteer. While Tyrtaeus’s martial poetry is said to have cajoled the Spartan rank and file into continuing to sacrifice their lives, the poet himself won fame as well as a fee. Another Greek poet, however, won equal fame, not by commending the military virtues, but by repudiating them when he was called upon to pay the blood-tax in his own person.

Archilochus had to fight for his city-state Samos in a colonial war of conquest on the island of Thasos which was as unjust as Sparta’s war to reconquer her Hellenic neighbour Messene. The Samian poet-conscript saved his life by a flagrant breach of the conventional code of military honour, and then aggravated his offence by publishing, in defiance of contemporary Hellenic public opinion, a poem impudently advertising his contempt for the citizen’s traditional obligation to give his life for his country.

My shield is now the pride and joy

Of some pugnacious Saïan boy.

I dropped it by a briar-patch—

As good as new; inside, no scratch.

A pity? Yes, but here am I

Alive. And what’s left if we die?

Old shield, go hang! I’ll buy a new

Replacement quite as good as you.

The fact that this provocative poem is still in circulation shows that, when Archilochus published it, he knew what he was about. He must have reckoned that, in the movement of Hellenic public opinion, the revolt against the blood-tax was now sufficiently wide-spread, whatever Spartan mothers might still say, for a Samian poet to be able to boast of his common-sense cowardice with impunity.

In Hellenic history, this poem of Archilochus’s is a landmark, because he was the first individual member of the Hellenic Society who had the audacity publicly to flout the fiat of his parochial community. But Archilochus had debarred himself from winning a following or starting a movement by choosing to be no hero. His disobedience to his community had taken the uninspiring form of shirking a personal challenge to him to perform a traditional social duty at the risk of his life. In Hellenic history the hero who could and did become the pattern for a new ideal of spiritual self-sufficiency was Socrates, a citizen-philosopher who, in honourable contrast to Archilochus, had scrupulously and cheerfully done his traditional duty by his community in duly risking his life on active military service. This untarnished civic record put Socrates in a strong moral position when, eventually, he deliberately laid his life down in disobeying his community, and voluntarily suffering martyrdom at its hands, because he was unwilling to carry out the state’s orders that he should act against the dictates of his conscience.

Socrates chose to lose his life in order to save it; and, in his encounter with Athens, his conduct was so noble, and hers so invidious, that his martyrdom dealt parochial-community-worship, not only at Athens, but throughout the Hellenic World, a blow from which it was never afterwards able to recover. Since almost every post-Socratic school of Hellenic philosophy looked back, and up, to Socrates as its patriarch, the echoes of the judicial murder committed at Athens in 399 B.C. reverberated down all subsequent centuries of Hellenic history and shook the prestige of city-state sovereignty as severely as the prestige of the royal power in the parochial kingdoms of Medieval Western Christendom was shaken by the echoes of the assassination of Thomas Becket. No doubt, Socrates did not intend or foresee the immense and continuing moral effect that his death was to have. In bringing discredit upon idolized parochial communities, Socrates opened the way in the Hellenic World for the discovery of worthier alternative objects of worship. He became the historic exemplar of a new ideal of a human god—a god incarnate, not in a community, but in an individual human being.

In thus taking the martyrdom of Socrates as the inspiration for a new form of Man-worship—the idolization of a self-sufficient philosopher—the post-Socratic votaries of this new Hellenic faith were misconstruing Socrates’ beliefs and were doing Socrates himself an injustice. In choosing to be made a martyr rather than carry out the state’s orders against his conscience, Socrates was not convicting himself of being one of ‘certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’.4 He believed himself to be following the guidance of a spiritual presence, other than himself, which he called his supernatural monitor, using the Greek word in its diminutive form daimonion to signify the intimacy of his personal relation with this ‘still small voice’. In thus sacrificing his life at the instance of a divine guide that was neither one of the forces of Nature nor the human community of which Socrates was a member, but was also not Socrates himself, Socrates was in truth the precursor, not of the philosophers, Hellenic, Indian, or Chinese—most of whom died peacefully in their beds—but of the Jewish and Christian martyrs.

In the un-Socratic pursuit of spiritual self-sufficiency, the philosophers sought to fill the spiritual vacuum created by the failure of parochial-community-worship; and, in the Hellenic World, India, and China alike, they came near enough to reaching their goal to demonstrate that the individual human soul was capable of rising to spiritual heights that were beyond the reach of any collective projection of the Self. But the Indians alone commanded sufficient intellectual clarity to be able to think out the problem to ultimate conclusions in theory and sufficient moral courage to be able to follow out these conclusions to their goal in practice; and they too, like their Greek and Chinese confrères, were caught out by weaknesses in their common ideal that were both intrinsic and radical.

The Indian philosophers of the Hinayanian Buddhist school grasped, and acted on, the paradoxical truth that, for human beings, the logically inevitable objective of the pursuit of self-sufficiency is self-extinction. Complete spiritual self-sufficiency is unattainable by any living creature so long as it continues to be a self; and this is so because of the contradiction that lies at the very heart of life incarnate—and thereby ‘incarcerate’—in living creatures in their unredeemed state of nature on Earth. Every living creature is trying, as we have observed, to make itself into the centre of the Universe. But the fuel that feeds the flame of the creature’s self-assertion is Desire, and Desire is a bond that binds the individual creature to the rest of Creation and so makes it the slave of the Universe instead of its master. This inner contradiction means that ordinary life is a tension for which another name is Suffering. Without a complete liberation from this painful tension there can be no complete self-sufficiency, and therefore a complete self-sufficiency can be attained only by burning away the spiritual fuel—Desire—that is both the nutriment of self-centredness and the impediment to the achievement of its objective. It is only in Nirvāna—a state of being in which the flame of Desire has been blown out and, in the act, the Self has been completely extinguished—that the tension of ordinary mundane life is resolved.

Nirvāna, which means, literally, ‘being blown out’, is a negative form of expression; and the Buddha is recorded to have parried His disciples’ requests for a positive definition of it in the language of metaphysics, because He was on the watch to keep His sheep from turning aside into the agreeable field of unprofitable speculation out of the hard road of arduous action along which He was shepherding them.5 In the metaphysical terms of contemporary non-Buddhist Indian thought, the blowing out of the flame of Desire might, perhaps, be equated with the act of seeing through Maya—the veil cast over the face of Reality by the illusory world of phenomena—and the attainment of Nirvāna be equated with a consequent intuition that the Self (the Ātman) is identical with Absolute Reality (Brahma): ‘Thou art that’. The Buddha, for His part, if ever He had allowed himself to be drawn on to this metaphysical ground, might perhaps have pronounced that His non-Buddhist Indian contemporaries’ spiritual objective was in truth the same as His own. He might have agreed that Nirvāna and Brahma were merely two different names for the same Absolute Reality, and might not have denied that He and His contemporaries were also of one mind in thinking that, at the level of Absolute Reality—and only at this level—the incompatibility between Self and self-sufficiency disappears. But He would assuredly have gone on to insist that the common objective could be attained only by the exertion of the Will, and never merely by the play of the Intellect. For the practical attainment of Brahma-Nirvāna, a mere intuition of the Self’s identity with this Absolute Reality would not avail, since the reason why Absolute Reality alone is capable of being self-sufficient is because Absolute Reality alone is not a Self. Self is another name for Maya, the illusory world of phenomena; and therefore the only way in which the intuition of the Self’s identity with Absolute Reality can be translated into an act of union is by an act of Will through which the Self burns itself out till nothing but Absolute Reality is left.6

In India in the days of the Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama and His disciples of the primitive Hinayanian school, as in the Hellenic World in the days of Socrates and his successors Zeno and Epicurus, the warfare between parochial states had reached an intolerable pitch of intensity. Both the Buddhist and the Hellenic philosophers detached themselves from the parochial communities into which they happened to have been born; but the Buddhists went much farther than this. They sought to detach themselves from every form of mundane society and, beyond that, from the lusts of mundane life itself; and the very sincerity and resoluteness with which these Hinayanian Buddhist philosophers pursued their spiritual quest raise two questions: Is absolute detachment an attainable objective? And, supposing it to be attainable, is the pursuit of it a good activity?7

Absolute detachment looks as if it might be intrinsically unattainable, because it is hard to see how the intensely arduous spiritual effort to detach oneself from all other desires can be achieved without attaching oneself to the single master-desire of extinguishing every desire save this. Is the extinction of the desire to desire nothing but the extinction of desire a psychological possibility? Evidently the fathers of the Hīnayāna school were aware of this psychological crux in their path, for, in the traditional formulation of the second of their Four Holy Truths, the ‘craving for extinction’ is enumerated, as well as the ‘craving to perpetuate oneself’ and the ‘craving for sensuous experience’, as one of the forms taken by the craving that is the origination of Ill because it is a craving that leads to rebirth.

The second question is whether the pursuit of absolute detachment, if feasible, is also good. If the Buddha was right, as He surely was, in holding that absolute detachment can be achieved only through the extinction of all desire whatsoever, then the Hīnayāna must require not only the suppression of desires that are ordinarily regarded as being selfish, such as those for personal pleasure, prosperity, and power for oneself, but also the suppression of desires that are ordinarily regarded as being altruistic, such as Love and Pity for one’s fellow sentient beings. For a philosopher whose objective is to free himself from all bonds of feeling, an altruistic Love and Pity are no less compromising than a ruthless pursuit of selfish lusts. If this impartial suppression of all desires, bad and good alike, was thus a logical consequence of the Hinayanian Buddhist doctrine, the Buddha Himself was guilty of a sublime inconsistency. For He resisted the temptation to make the immediate exit into Nirvāna that His Enlightenment had brought within His reach, and chose, instead, to postpone His own release from suffering in order to teach the way of release to His fellows. Followers of the latterday Mahayanian school of Buddhism could fairly claim that, on the evidence of a legend included in the Hinayanian canon of Buddhist scripture, the Buddha had practised, not the Hīnayāna, but the Mahāyāna in His own life. But these same Mahayanian Buddhists also accused their Hinayanian predecessors and opponents of having, unlike their common master, been selfishly consistent in following the path of absolute and undiscriminating detachment that the Buddha had prescribed in His teaching. The Mahayanian Buddhist’s verdict on the Hinayanian philosopher can be summed up in an inversion of the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ jibe at Christ on the Cross. ‘He saved himself; others he cannot save.’8

Whether or not this verdict was justly passed on the Buddhist philosophers of the Hinayanian school, it would certainly have been applicable to the Hellenic philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean schools; for these were conspicuously inferior to the Hinayanian Buddhist Indian philosophers both intellectually and morally. In their parallel quest of ‘imperturbability’ and ‘invulnerability’, they did not lay the axe to the root of the tree, as the Hinayanian philosophers did in setting themselves the target of extinguishing their selves. On the other hand, the Hellenic philosophers went to greater lengths than the Hinayanian philosophers went in deliberately extinguishing their unselfish feelings of Love and Pity for their suffering fellow creatures.

Pity is a mental illness induced by the spectacle of other people’s miseries.… The sage does not succumb to mental diseases of that sort.9

If you are kissing a child of yours—or a brother, or a friend—never put your imagination unreservedly into the act and never give your emotion free rein, but curb it and check it.10

These passages from the works of two of the leading exponents of Stoicism in the oecumenical age of Hellenic history are fair samples of Stoic doctrine and damning evidences of Stoicism’s failure. In seeking to make themselves into gods by detaching themselves from their fellow human beings, the Stoics and Epicureans were not raising themselves to the divine level that they aspired to reach. They were depressing themselves to a sub-human level; and the self-defeat to which they brought themselves was the inevitable nemesis of the hybris which they had committed. In truth, Man is not God and cannot make himself into God; and therefore the philosophers’ overweening attempt to attain to a godlike self-sufficiency brings upon them an ironical nemesis by constraining them to contract their godlike human faculties of Love and Pity to sub-human dimensions instead of expanding them to divine dimensions. God alone can be absolutely loving and compassionate as well as absolutely self-sufficient. Man had better hold fast to the measure of Love and Pity that is within his compass, at the price of letting the quest for self-sufficiency go by the board. Even when he has lowered himself to a subhuman level of casting out Love and Pity to the best of his ability, Man is still incapable of self-sufficiency on this side of Nirvāna.

The Chinese philosophers of the Confucian school avoided the half-hearted Hellenic philosophers’ fate of falling between two stools because they did not attempt to cultivate the detachment which was the common objective of the Stoics and the Hinayanian Buddhists. The Confucians were content to leave themselves exposed to pain and frustration by setting themselves the traditional workaday moral targets of being good sons and good civil servants. Confucius’s life-work, like the Buddha’s, was the foundation of a school of practical philosophy; and, like the Buddha’s, again, it was a pis aller from a self-regarding point of view. But, when we go on to consider what course each of them would have taken if he had followed his bent, the outward resemblance between their careers discloses an inward antithesis. The Buddha founded His school at the price of voluntarily postponing His exit into Nirvāna; Confucius founded his in consequence of failing to achieve his ambition to be employed by some parochial prince as his minister of state. Between the unemployed potential civil-servant and the self-deferred potential arhat there is a great gulf fixed.

It will be seen that the Confucian philosophy did not commit its followers to that conflict with the innate sociality of Human Nature to which the Buddhist and Stoic philosophers were committed by their effort to extinguish Desire. In the Indian and the Greek philosophers’ practice, this conflict was partially resolved by a compromise with sociality at the cost of the self-sufficiency which was the philosophers’ objective; and this compromise involved them in intellectual inconsistency, while it did not absolve them from emotional tension. These unhappy experiences were consequences of the sin of hybris which the Indian and the Greek philosophers were committing in setting themselves to attain a godlike self-sufficiency that is not in truth attainable by Man either individually or collectively. The Chinese philosophers were able to avoid these spiritual pitfalls, and to keep their feet on the ground, because they were not too proud to find their targets in traditional human social virtues; and it is assuredly no accident that Confucianism has achieved a solid practical success that puts the practical achievements of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the Hīnayāna in the shade.

In A.D. 1956 it could be surmised that, under a veneer of Communism, Confucianism was still decisively moulding the lives of a Chinese people who, at that date, amounted to something between a fifth and a quarter of the whole living generation of Mankind. From the second century B.C. until after the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of the Christian Era, Confucianism had retained the abiding allegiance of an intellectual elite in this populous Chinese Society. In spite of the occasional inroads of alien and theoretically incompatible ways of life—as, for instance, the Mahayanian form of Buddhism—Confucianism had always hitherto eventually recaptured its hold on the masses, even when these had temporarily wavered away from it. In the same year A.D. 1956 there was not one of the Hellenic philosophies that still had any surviving adherents in any corner of the World; and perhaps the reason why these Hellenic schools had died out was because, in their practical compromise with Society, they had shown the same half-heartedness as in their pursuit of their objective of Self-Sufficiency.

The Hinayanian Buddhist philosophers had shown a greater genius for action in showing a greater contempt for logic. These Indians had pushed their compromise with sociality, as well as their pursuit of self-sufficiency, to lengths to which the Greeks had never gone; and this wholeheartedness at the price of consistency had brought with it a practical reward. In A.D. 1956 the Hinayanian Buddhist philosophy was the dominant way of life in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, and Cambodia; and in that year a Hinayanian Buddhist oecumenical council was in session at Rangoon, sitting placidly within a stone’s throw of the tense borderline between a Communist-dominated and a Western-dominated hemisphere. This serenity was an heroic example of a spirit that was also in evidence in ordinary life in the Hinayanian Buddhist countries. Many Western observers, including Westerners who were still Christians, were impressed by the strength, pervasiveness, and beneficence of the Hīnayāna’s influence on the ethos of the people at large, beyond the small circle of professed philosopher-monks. If philosophers, as well as prophets, are to be known by their fruits,11 the Hinayanian Buddhist philosophers need not fear comparison with their Mahayanian critics. Yet the local survival of the Hīnayāna in South-Eastern Asia was no more than a modest practical success by comparison with the tenacity of Confucianism; and elsewhere the Hīnayāna, like the Hellenic philosophies, had been superseded by other faiths. In its Indian homeland it had been evicted by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism; and, on the threshold of a vast mission-field in China, Korea, and Japan, the adherents of an advancing Buddhism had fallen away from a Hinayanian philosophy to a Mahayanian religion, in which the social demands of Love and Pity had been given patent precedence over the pursuit of self-sufficiency through self-extinction.

The would-be self-sufficient philosopher’s compromise with Sociality is as inevitable as it is illogical; for Man is intrinsically a social animal. His sociality is so much of the essence of his nature that the philosopher’s attempt to eradicate a disastrous idolization of Society by repudiating Society itself is an impossible enterprise for any human being to carry out in practice.

This truth is admitted, rather grudgingly and ungraciously, by Plato in his simile of the Prisoners in the Cave.12 Plato concedes that those few human beings who have escaped from the darkness and the bondage of ordinary human life by struggling up and out into the sunlight of Philosophy must constrain themselves, out of a sense of social duty, to re-descend into the cave in shifts, turn and turn about, in order to give the unfortunate permanent denizens of the Underworld the benefit of the philosophers’ own exceptional enlightenment. Plato is making the same concession on more generous terms when he declares13 that the only hope for a cessation of evils for the parochial states of the Hellenic World, and indeed for all Mankind, is that either philosophers should become kings or kings should take to Philosophy. The hope of being able to help the despot Dionysius II of Syracuse to take to Philosophy did move Plato himself to come out of his academic retreat and implicate himself in the politics of an arbitrarily-governed parochial state.

Plato’s attempt to serve as Dionysius II’s philosopher-adviser was a failure; but less eminent later Hellenic philosophers were more successful in performing this social service for more reputable Hellenic princes. Bion the Borysthenite performed it for King Antigonus Gonatas of Macedon, and Sphaerus the Borysthenite or Bosporan for King Cleomenes III of Sparta. But the historic instance of a philosopher’s success in the role of helping a prince to take to philosophy is Confucius’s posthumous influence, at a time-range of more than 2,000 years away, on the Manchu world-rulers K’ang Hsi and Ch’ien Lung. This remote philosophical control, which had so much greater a political effect than any that Confucius could have achieved in the service of one of the parochial princes of his own day, could not have been exerted if Confucius had not been a philosophe malgré lui as a consequence of being an unemployed candidate for the public service in which he would so much rather have spent his life.

The princes, just cited, who had the grace to take advantage of the services of philosopher-mentors, living or dead, all remained princes first and foremost, with a tincture of Philosophy tempering and mellowing their statesmanship. Princes who have been philosophers first and foremost and have subordinated—or tried to subordinate—raison d’etat to Philosophy have been fewer and farther between. The philosophic crank Alexarchus, who, in a post-Alexandrine Hellenic World, was able to found an ephemeral ‘Uranopolis’ (‘Commonwealth of Heaven’) on the neck of the Athos Peninsula, thanks to the accident of his happening to be the brother of the criminal Macedonian war-lord Cassander, may be mentioned as a curiosity. But Marcus Aurelius, who had become a posthumous disciple of Zeno before ascending the throne, and Acoka, who, when already on the throne, became a posthumous disciple of the Buddha, were, each of them, the ruler of an oecumenical empire; and a priori they might, each of them, have been expected to realize Plato’s hopes on a scale beyond Plato’s dreams. The degree in which Marcus fell short of Acoka in taking effective steps to turn this apparently golden opportunity to account gives the measure, not of the Roman prince’s inferiority in spiritual stature to the Magadhan prince, but of the Stoic philosophy’s inferiority to the Hīnayāna. But the failure of Acoka, as well as Marcus, to produce decisive and lasting spiritual effects gives the measure of Philosophy’s spiritual ineffectiveness even in the hands of an emperor who is, at heart, a philosopher first and foremost, and is not just seeking to make Philosophy serve as a spiritual sanction for his régime, in the place of a discredited deification of Rome and Caesar.

Marcus—to judge by his candid self-revelation in his journal intime—felt as one of Plato’s spiritually emancipated philosophers would have felt if he had found himself condemned to return to the cave, not for an occasional shift, but for life. In Marcus’s experience, the burden of his imperial office was the common burden of life at its maximum weight, and Philosophy’s service to the imperial colporteur, though invaluable, was limited. It was not a way of release from sentient existence for himself and for all his fellow sentient beings; it was a means of easing the incidence of a personal load that might otherwise have proved too heavy for the Soul to carry to the end of the journey of life.

Human life! Its duration is momentary, its substance in perpetual flux, its senses dim, its physical organism perishable, its consciousness a vortex, its destiny dark, its repute uncertain—in fact, the material element is a rolling stream, the spiritual element dreams and vapour, life a war and a sojourning in a far country, fame oblivion. What can see us through? One thing and one only—Philosophy; and that means keeping the spirit within us unspoiled and undishonoured, not giving way to pleasure or pain, never acting unthinkingly or deceitfully or insincerely, and never being dependent on the moral support of others. It also means taking what comes contentedly as all part of the process to which we owe our own being; and, above all, it means facing Death calmly—taking it simply as a dissolution of the atoms of which every living organism is composed. Their perpetual transformation does not hurt the atoms, so why should one mind the whole organism being transformed and dissolved? It is a law of Nature, and Natural Law can never be wrong.14

This tribute of Marcus’s to Philosophy bears the stamp of a noble spirit; yet, for Açoka, Philosophy meant much more than this. It was not just a private citadel into which he could occasionally withdraw to recuperate from a world-ruler’s lifelong spiritual travail; it was an enlightenment that transfigured, for him, the conventional conception of the uses to which a ruler should put his power. Açoka was converted to Buddhism by his horror at the suffering caused by a victorious war of aggression. He had waged this war for the immoral purpose of making his empire conterminous with his world by force; and, during the rest of his reign, he pursued his original aim of world-conquest on a different plane. He now used his power for the purpose of communicating to his fellow human beings the enlightenment that had transformed his own outlook; and the means that he now employed was not coercive military action, which manifestly would have been ineffective for this purpose, but persuasive missionary work. His monuments are the inscriptions in which he has expounded and commended the Hīnayāna to his subjects and has recorded the despatch of missions abroad to the Macedonian successor-states of the Achaemenian Empire.

In voluntarily staying at his post in order to proclaim the good tidings of release to his fellows, Açoka was faithfully following the example of his master Siddhārtha Gautama. For the distinctive feature in the Buddha’s life, experience, and activity is not His intuition that the only way to escape Pain is to extinguish Desire; it is the accompanying conviction, on which He acted for the rest of His life, that the intuition of the liberating truth has laid upon the enlightened spirit a moral obligation to remain in existence in order to teach to others the way of self-release from Suffering. Gautama, like Jesus, dedicated Himself to His mission in the World by victoriously resisting a temptation to take a short cut. At the crisis of His life, Gautama was tempted to use His newly attained spiritual power for the purpose of making His own immediate exit into Nirvāna instead of showing others the way; Jesus was tempted to use it for the purpose of imposing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth instead of preaching it. Both victories over the temptation were deliberate acts of self-sacrifice. Both required a revulsion from a self-regarding personal asceticism to a life of familiar intercourse with ordinary people in order to bring them spiritual aid. And in both cases the victor-missionary’s commerce with the World caused scandal among the professional practitioners of a conventional religion. The Buddha’s life after the temptation shocked the Yogis, as Christ’s life after the temptation shocked the Scribes and Pharisees.

This parallel indicates that, though the Buddha, unlike Christ, set out to teach a philosophy, the spirit in which He acted destined Him also to become the founder of a religion. The Mahāyāna can fairly claim Him as her founder on the evidence of the Hīnayāna’s scriptures. And it is through His love and pity, much more than through His insight into the means of release from the suffering by which His pity and love were evoked, that the Buddha is still alive and at work in the World to-day. If the prescription of spiritual exercises for the attainment of self-sufficiency through self-extinction had been the end, as well as the beginning, of the Buddha’s work, we may guess that His philosophy would have died the death of Zeno’s and Epicurus’s. For a philosophy that is not transfigured into a religion is likely to prove ineffective for several reasons. Philosophy fails to touch the hearts of ordinary people because it is handed down to them from above by an intellectual élite; because it is conveyed to them in the scientific language of the Intellect and not in the poetic language of the Heart; and because it is preached out of a half-reluctant sense of duty, not from a whole-hearted impulse of love. The missionary-philosopher is bound, as a philosopher, to be half-hearted as a missionary. While his illogical sense of social duty requires him to spread enlightenment among his fellow-beings, his self-regarding quest for personal self-sufficiency is counselling him, all the time, not to let himself be diverted from his personal goal by allowing himself to succumb to Love and Pity.

Thus Philosophy fails to fill the spiritual vacuum created by the successive failures of parochial-community-worship and oecumenical-community-worship; and this final failure of Man-worship in the form of the idolization of individual self-sufficiency shows that Man-worship of any kind is unable to satisfy Man’s spiritual needs. The one school of philosophy that has succeeded in satisfying them is Siddhārtha Gautama’s; and it has achieved this by quickening the letter of its doctrine with the spirit of its Founder’s sublimely illogical practice.

  • 1.

    The subject of this chapter has been dealt with in greater detail by the writer in A Study of History, vol. v, pp. 39–40, 56–8; vol. vi, pp. 132–48, 242–59, 366.

  • 2.

    John x. 10.

  • 3.

    Exod. xv. 3.

  • 4.

    Luke xviii. 9.

  • 5.

    See Chapter 2, p. 22, above.

  • 6.

    See further Chapter 6, p. 83, below, for the relation between the Buddha’s attitude and the standpoint of contemporary Indian thinkers.

  • 7.

    These questions are taken up again in Chapter 19, pp. 274–5, and Chapter 20, pp. 289–94, below.

  • 8.

    See Matt, xxvii. 42; Mark xv. 31; Luke xxiii. 35.

  • 9.

    Seneca, De Clementiâ, Book II, chap. 5, § 4.

  • 10.

    Epictetus, Dissertations, Book III, chap. 24, § 85.

  • 11.

    Matt. vii. 16 and 20.

  • 12.

    Republic, 514 A–521 C.

  • 13.

    In Republic, 473 D, 499 B, 501 E.

  • 14.

    Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations, Book II, ad fin.