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Chapter II. Stoicism and the Supremacy of Reason

1. Stoicism is the most remarkable experiment on record in the surrender of life to reason at the expense of feeling and desire. It was not a wholly new conception of the good life; like so much else in western thought, it had its root in the teachings of the three great Greeks. The stress of the great three was on the connection of goodness with intelligence, which they conceived as the highest of human faculties. According to Aristotle, what was distinctive in man was not his bodily processes of sensation, feeling, and impulse, for these he shared with the animals, still less such processes as growth and reproduction, for these he shared with all living things. It was rather his reason, taken as the power to grasp concepts and their connections. The ability to live and move in this region was what made the human mind human. Plato had taught that the real world was a framework of these concepts, intelligibly connected, and Socrates had taught that if we achieved rational knowledge, virtue automatically followed. The Stoics put these teachings together. The maxim of the good life, they held, was to follow nature, which meant: (1) to follow the guidance of that which was distinctive and essential in our own nature, namely, reason; (2) to conform to that which was likewise essential in outward nature, namely, its intelligible law, conceived as expressing a divine reason to which our own might respond.

The tendency of a view that exalted thought so highly was to make men try to live not only in accordance with their reason but in it, and to find their good in abstract contemplation. Marcus Aurelius went so far as to say that a man's self is identical with his reason. So far as he can retreat into this reason and live there, he will be beyond the reach of the ills that flesh is heir to. In a sense, he cannot avoid going outside himself, for his thought must have objects to deal with, but such objects will not be the particular things and successions that present themselves to the senses, but the changeless concepts and laws of which these are the appearances; like the mathematician, the philosopher will use particular figures only as aids to the universal. In living on this level, he will be participating in the nature of God himself. ‘What is the nature of God?’ asks the other saint of Stoicism, Epictetus, and answers, ‘It is intelligence, knowledge, right reason.’1 The wise man will thus be in the world but not of it. ‘Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it.… The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within.’2

2. Now when we ‘remodel things’ in this way by reflective judgment, what do we see? We see that whatever happens around us, whatever happens to us, is governed by intelligible law, and therefore had to occur exactly as it did. This is just as true of the actions of persons as it is of the flow of rivers and the falling of the rain. When a man insults you, when a lover jilts you, when a supposed friend betrays you, you can always see in the light of the circumstances that what happened was inevitable. If you are angry or depressed about it, that is because you were taken by surprise, because you did not know enough to foresee the inevitable and adjust yourself to it. Emotion, at least of the violent and disturbing kind, is always due to this lack of vision. Hence, as our understanding grows, our emotions die away. If we suppose that someone who has offended us has done so out of wanton malignance, we shall probably be furious with him. When we realize that he was only acting in accordance with such lights as he had, and, given these imperfect lights, was bound to act so, we shall say, ‘There, but by the grace of God go I’, and think no more about it. ‘Whenever someone offends you, consider straightway how he has erred in his conceptions of good and evil. When you see where his error lies, you will pity him, and be neither surprised nor angry… Your duty then is to forgive.’3

Thus to understand all is to forgive all. Indeed, in Stoic thought, it is to go very much farther. It is to eradicate from our experience all fear, grief, and even desire. We can see on reflection that we feel these things because our reason has been invaded from below. Our animal nature is full of restless impulses and desires, and these seep up into our thought and delude us into taking their ends as really good or bad. We can see on reflection that they are neither the one nor the other, that to the man who lives in his understanding, they are beneath notice. They are particulars, and he lives in the universal; they are bound up with the body, and since his real riches are in his mind, his heart will be where his treasure is. It will therefore be genuinely indifferent to him whether his food is appetizing or his clothes in style, even whether his house burns down or his friends desert him, whether he is a slave like Epictetus, or lord of the civilized world like Marcus Aurelius. The ups and downs of fortune cannot touch him where he really lives, which is in the eternal world of unchanging ideas and relations. To desert this world and go off in search of particular and sensual satisfactions is a sort of treason to one's own nature.

It may be replied that some of these ills are not due to any perverted chasing after false gods, but are imposed by nature itself; if one's house burns down, that is surely an infliction from without, but none the less bad because it is nature's work. In his dissent from this view, the Stoic showed an element of faith that has often reappeared in rationalist philosophies. He believed that what satisfied the reason must in the end satisfy the demands of the moral sense; a world which is rational through and through will also, and therefore, be good; hence, whether we can see the justification of our house's burning or not, we can rest assured that, being necessary in both the causal and logical senses, it is necessary also to the moral order of the world. To think otherwise would be for a Stoic a species of impiety. In Marcus Aurelius this mood of faith and resignation found a lyric religious expression: ‘I am in tune with all that is of thy harmony, O Nature. For me nothing is too early and nothing is too late that comes in thy good time. All is fruit to me, O Nature, that thy seasons bring. From thee are all things, thou comprehendest all, and all returns to thee. The poet says “O dear City of Cecrops!” Shall I not say, “Dear City of God”!’4

3. A cynic might remark that this high line about fear, anger, and loss was all very well if one sat in an emperor's seat and could make good from a bottomless treasury the deficiencies of one's theory. But not everyone is so happily placed, and not all evils are so obliging as to vanish before this somewhat airy exorcism. What about pain? Let anyone try to prove to himself in this fashion that the pain of a broken leg is unreal and see how far he gets. These criticisms were not unknown to the Stoics. Indeed they received in the life of Epictetus a more striking answer than could be provided by any sort of dialectic. Epictetus was at the opposite end of the social ladder from the emperor, and, as a slave, he was in a better position to put their joint theories to a convincing test. If tradition is to be trusted, he came through the test impressively. He was a cripple, and there is a well-known story that when a brutal master once began to twist his leg by way of a savage joke, Epictetus warned him, without anger, that if he went on, he would break the leg, and when he did break it, bore the pain with what we should call stoicism and without resentment. Cicero, who was much influenced by the Stoics, reports that when Pompey went on a visit to the Stoic teacher, Posidonius, he found him ill and in great pain, and expressed his disappointment that he was not able to hear the discourse he had expected. ‘But you are able’, said Posidonius, and proceeded with his discourse on the nature of the good. When the paroxysm of pain returned, he paused only long enough to say, ‘It is no use, pain! No matter how you attack me, I will never admit that you are an evil.’5 It is small wonder that among a people so given as the Romans were to admiration for stern self-command, the ethics of such teachers, with its call to a passionless wisdom beyond the reach of circumstance, should have been for some two centuries the successful rival of Christianity.

4. Our own interest in it is as the most notable of all experiments in a morality, and indeed a religion, of pure reason, with feeling virtually excluded. Was the experiment a success? Certainly it achieved a surprising measure of what it set out to do, and it did so because it laid hold of a very important principle, namely that emotion can be indirectly controlled by means of its object. Some object or other an emotion must normally have, and since that object is largely an intellectual construction, it can be modified by thought. Take fear, for example. If you are afraid, there must be, in fact or in idea, something that you are afraid of—a dog, lightning, drunken men, the failure of your business. Suppose it is a dog. Then the fear is due to some belief about the dog, such as that he is likely to attack you when you are passing his gate. He may be as friendly as a kitten, but not knowing his ways, you are free to clothe him in surmises which in turn give rise to fear. As soon as these are replaced by definite knowledge that he is in fact unaggressive and friendly, the object that aroused your fear is transformed into something neutral. This principle that feeling can be induced, removed, or modified, through the intellectual reconstruction of its object, provides the main channel for the influence of thought on feeling. Its understanding is indispensable if we are to gain any sort of insight into the religious and moral experience of peoples culturally remote from us. For example, the practice of killing parents when they reach the borders of old age seems like appalling heartlessness till one learns the intellectual situation in which it is done, which is perhaps that these killers conceive the parents as retaining through eternity the powers they take with them from this world; when seen in the light of such a belief, actions that seemed like heartless cruelty may take on the aspect of devotion. The way to understand the practice or to alter it is to change the conception that has produced it.

5. The Stoics grasped this principle and applied it with remarkable results. They saw that the most common and lasting of men's emotions are the negative ones of fear, dislike, envy, anger, and worry; they saw that with the possible exception of love, these emotions were more intense than the positive ones, just as our capacity for pain is greater than our capacity for pleasure; they were convinced, therefore, that emotion tended, on the whole, to make life miserable; and they discovered that it could be largely controlled by the discipline of thought.

This discipline did not take the easy form adopted by some optimists of simply averting one's eyes from the evils of the world and fixing them elsewhere, nor the fanatical form of denying that such things as pain and death occurred, nor yet the purely conjectural form of holding that these things were punishments for past sins or means of educating us for an unknown future. Their line was an intellectual one. They held that what makes us angry or worried was always a partial aspect or appearance, that as we set this appearance in its context of causes and effects, and ultimately in the context of the universe as a whole, its character was transmuted for us into something to which anger and worry were no longer appropriate responses. We have seen how effective this may be in the case of anger. William James, who was an indeterminist, once suggested that it would be a good practical rule to believe that we ourselves had free will and that everyone else was determined; such determinism regarding others he thought an excellent recipe for charity, as no doubt it is. Nor can it be denied that Marcus Aurelius's practice of trying to see things in larger perspective is a good working specific for worries and petty egoisms. Bertrand Russell tells us that there was a period in his life when having to make a public speech always plunged him into a misery of apprehension. He found that an effective way of curing this was to ask himself precisely what difference it would make a hundred years hence whether his speech was a failure or a success. In the light of the obvious answer, he could face the ordeal with calm. Emerson has described how, rushing out in a passion one night from some meeting or other, he looked up at the stars and seemed to catch a quiet rebuke from them, ‘Why so hot, little man?’ That is in the mood of Aurelius.

6. Thought can do much, then, to control and reduce emotion. But we can only concede that the rationalism which sought by means of it to blot emotion out altogether proved in the end a failure, a failure both in practice and in theory. There are some things that continue to be repellent and fearful, no matter how fully we understand them and how much their context is widened. Understanding can reconcile us to them in the sense that it can prepare us for them, and prevent their taking us by surprise, but not in the other sense of making them really acceptable to us. One reads, for example, how the devoted and kindly Mary Lamb went insane and killed her mother with a knife; is one's horror dissipated when one gathers from a psychiatrist's account that such a result was inevitable? A changed perspective may reduce a major tragedy to a minor one, but the tragic element does not simply vanish. Even in the neutralizing perspective of a century, the failure of a speech is still a failure and not a success.

Death is a crucial test case here, as the Stoics recognized. Unfortunately, not all the consolations of philosophy and religion can make death acceptable to most men. To some, indeed, they seem to have done so. Santayana wrote in old age, ‘Think what an incubus life would be if death were not destined to cancel it, as far as any fact can be cancelled. That is the very image of hell.’6 In others reflection has induced a comparative neutrality; Charles Kingsley said that he looked forward to the day of his death with profound curiosity. But probably most thoughtful men would agree with W. H. Hudson: ‘When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it, or that they look with equanimity to its end, I am apt to think they have never been properly alive nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it—not a blade of grass.’7 And the brave and honest T. H. Huxley wrote, ‘I find my dislike to the thought of extinction increasing as I get older and nearer the goal. It flashes across me at all sorts of times with a sort of horror that in 1900 I shall probably know no more of what is going on than I did in 1800. I had sooner be in hell a good deal—at any rate in one of the upper circles, where the climate and company are not too trying.’8 Against death as a mere transition the dialectics of Epicurus, borrowed by the Stoics, were fortifying enough; in a sense it is not an experience at all, for ‘when we are present, death is not, and when it is present, we are not’. But death as the blotting out, once and for all, of one's joy, achievement, and hope, is something to which no Stoic or other dialectic has ever succeeded in reconciling the normal lover of life.

7. In this attempt to deal with the ills of the world by understanding them there is a further difficulty which has always given trouble to those who have tried to retain optimism along with a thoroughgoing rationalism. If evil things lose their evil when placed in a broad explanatory context, are not good things bound to lose their goodness when treated in the same way? We say that fear will be dissipated when, by reflection on its object, we come to see that it contains nothing really fearful. Must we not also say that love will be dissipated when by reflection we come to see that in its object there is nothing really lovable? How can we introduce this sort of alchemy into the world and put any limit to its dissolving effects? Why should we suppose that the argument is applicable only to the bad things that we want to see transformed and not also to the precious things that we would keep just as they are? The argument, if valid at all, lets loose a sort of tidal wave whose final work, as Spinoza saw, is not to turn apparent evil into good, but to engulf all good and evil in a limitless grey sea. The tendency of such reasoning to get out of hand is a notorious danger to theologians who wish to use the argument from design. They have often maintained, for example, that the good in the world requires the belief in a good Designer. When it is pointed out that the evil in the world is hardly consistent with that conclusion, the reply is made that if we saw this evil in perspective it would not be evil at all. The next step, however, is to realize that if this line of reflection is extended, it will show that ‘good’ is not really good. But the argument started from the premise that we observe around us many things that really are good, and with the retraction of that premise, there is nothing to argue about.

8. Most persons who have reasoned in this way seem to have convinced themselves that what is good will somehow resist the dissolving process they have applied to evil. It is one of the merits of the Stoics to have tried, at least, to avoid such incoherence and to carry their case consistently through. In doing so they frankly admitted that goods which the normal man prized most of all had no attraction for them. ‘If you love an earthen jar, say, “It is an earthen jar that I love”,’ writes Epictetus, ‘for when it is broken, you will not be disturbed.’ Sensible enough, we say. But then he continues, ‘if you kiss your little child or your wife, say that it is a human being whom you are kissing, for when either of them dies, you will not be disturbed’.9 Here we feel the touch of icy fingers. Most of us find something admirable in a self-control so stern that it can regard pleasure and pain alike as indifferent; but we hang back if one goes on, as the Stoics did, to draw the logical consequence that pity and sympathy with others’ suffering are signs of weakness. ‘When you see a person weeping in sorrow’, says Epictetus, ‘… so far as words go, do not be unwilling to show him sympathy, and even if it happens so, to lament with him. But take care that you do not lament internally also.’10 Such coldness seems scarcely human. With heroic consistency the Stoics carried their indifference through to the point where life itself seemed a thing of small value, to be cast aside like a worn coat when the owner wearied of it; Zeno, Cleanthes, Seneca, Cato, all took their own lives, not in desperation, but calmly and deliberately; ‘the cabin smokes—so I take leave of it. Why make ado?’11 Here the logic that sought to dignify life has managed instead to cheapen it. Assume that whatever nature sends is necessary, that whatever is necessary is reasonable, and that whatever is reasonable is good, and you have in your hands a proof that life and death are both good, as are pleasure and pain, health and disease. But this is absurd. For if all these things are to be called good alike, the line between good and bad has ceased to exist, and goodness has lost all distinguishing marks. In short, where everything is good, nothing is.

9. Unfortunately, the psychology of this extreme rationalism is as defective as its logic. Suppose that, recognizing the disturbing influence of emotion, one institutes a campaign against it which eradicates it completely. What will be the result? One will have triumphantly got rid of fear, hatred, jealousy, melancholy, worry, and grief, and may return—so it may be thought—to the placid enjoyments which form for most of us ‘the C major of this life’. But we must play the game fairly. Enjoyment is itself a feeling or emotion, and if our experiment is to be decisive, that must vanish with the rest. Very well, we abolish it too. Would such a general ban be disastrous? It would not seem so at first sight. An enormous range of experience would apparently be left us—the whole range of science, the whole of history, the dispassionate contemplation of the philosopher, and such part—not great, perhaps—of the life of action as could be carried on by knowledge and will without feeling. Much of our social life we should have, indeed to forgo; and we should have to do without art, since such experiences as poetry, music, and the enjoyment of painting would be closed to a mind incapable of feeling. It would be pointless, for example, for a person who could not be moved by either grief or ‘verbal magic’ to read Lycidas, for the poem in its very essence is an expression of feeling, and to anyone incapable of responding in kind, the poem would not strictly be a poem. Similarly of all other genuine art.

But then a suspicion arises. Would anything have value for us if we were incapable of feeling about it? We have suggested that for a feelingless man the realm of knowledge would in theory still be open. But would it? The people who sit over their microscopes for hours daily, watching the performance of paramoecia, are fascinated by what they see; whatever it may be to us, the behaviour of unicellular organisms is for them interesting and even exciting. But suppose they had absolutely no feeling about it, one way or the other, would they ever be moved to study it, or attach any value to knowledge of it? Probably not. Someone tells us that the knowledge of trigonometry is valuable. We ask him why he thinks so. He tells us that he finds such knowledge satisfying in itself. We ask him whether that means that he takes satisfaction in it, in the sense that he enjoys it and finds it interesting. Yes, he says, that does seem to be what he means. Well then, we ask, would the knowledge of trigonometry have this value for anyone who did not feel that way about it? No, he answers, perhaps not. Still, he goes on, even for such persons it still has value in another sense; though it may not have value in itself, it may have value as a means; it is indispensable for example, to engineers in the building of bridges. The value of mathematics, then, turns on the value of such things as bridges; very well, do they have value? Of course they have, we are told; people make use of them constantly to get to their offices and their golf. The value of the bridge, then, turns on the value of the activities it makes possible; do these have value? It is needless to go on; we can see where we are going to come out. All instrumental goods are valued in the end because they are means to what is valued in itself, such as comfort and the respect of one's fellows, or, on a smaller scale, the experience of playing a difficult hole in par. Regarding these, we must ask again the question we asked about knowledge in itself. Suppose that in point of feeling, a man were absolutely indifferent to what others thought or felt about him; would their respect be good for him, or have any sort of value? It is hard, surely, to say anything but no. Of course, this lack on his part would not prevent others, who did find satisfaction or enjoyment in such things, from talking about their value. But to the man himself who found no satisfaction or enjoyment whatever in them, they would be salt that had no savour.

10. Such feelinglessness would wreck the moral life. Where no prospective experience is more attractive than any other, and the results of every action are equally indifferent, why should one seek or avoid any of them, or prefer one to another? If the question presented itself, Shall I read Shaw this evening or listen to a broadcast of Schubert, a man would be practically, though not theoretically, in the position of Buridan's ass, which, placed at exactly equal distances from two equally appetizing bales of hay, starved to death. The only difference would be that in this case the alternatives, instead of being alike in attractiveness, would be alike in having no attraction whatever. It might be said that though one took no interest oneself in music, one could still recognize that others did, and if one believed this to be true, it would provide a sufficient motive for trying to give them the experience, indeed one might have a clear, though purely intellectual, recognition that one ought so to try, and this of itself might move one's will But we must remember that such a person could have no conception of what being interested in anything meant, nor, therefore, what the point would be in trying to satisfy that interest; and further, that doing his duty would itself have no more attraction for him than doing nothing. To say that a man ought to do something when he can take no satisfaction in duty or in achieving anything that dutifulness might bring, is to ask what is practically superhuman.

11. The point has been laboured enough. But the importance of feeling, if any of the goods of life are to be realized, has been so strikingly shown in the autobiography of a famous writer that we must make at least a passing reference to it. John Stuart Mill, as is well known, was trained by his father from babyhood to be a philosopher. From the age of three, when he began the study of Greek, he lived in his intellect; and his achievements in this realm during his tender years would be past belief if they were not so well attested. But these achievements were bought at a price. He explains that the normal growth of his feelings was not only stunted by his being cut off from the play and companionship in which most boys find their interest, but also by his analytic habits themselves. One's coming to find value in something is, at least very commonly, a casual matter of association; whether a boy likes dancing or stamp-collections or novels, or on the contrary hates them, is likely to depend on whether his early exposure to them has given him associations of delight or the reverse. But if, before habits of enjoying such objects can firmly fix themselves, critical reflection is brought to bear upon them, questioning whether enjoyment would be well-placed, and breaking the object up after the manner of mental analysis, the normal habits of unreflective delight never grow up; they are withered before they can take root. Mill wrote that when he reached the age of twenty,

‘it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.… I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else.… I frequently asked myself, if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner.’12

Fortunately, Mill did decide to go on living. After some months of this bleak existence, suddenly and to his surprise he found himself moved to tears in the course of reading a French memoir. The emotionally starved young analyst was delighted and relieved to find that he could be moved by anything. ‘From this moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stick or a stone.’ With the help of Wordsworth, whose writing managed to bathe familiar things with gentle feeling, ‘I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs’.13

What is proved by these cases of emotional starvation? Not, I think, that the value of things is reducible to, or simply consists in, the feelings we have about them. This view is now widely held, and must be considered later. But such cases do show this, that our experience of value is normally bound up with our feelings, and that in their absence we are value-blind. A man may increase his knowledge and develop his intellect without limit, but if he is unable to feel, the world will hold for him no goodness and no attraction.

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