The Uncertainty of Good and Evil

“All fear is in itself painful, and when it conduces not to safety is painful without use.”—Samuel Johnson

My latest meditation is based on Johnson’s Rambler essay “The folly of anticipating misfortunes” (No. 29). Few things in life are so misleading to our conduct and disquieting to our peace of mind as an uncontrolled imagination. Johnson admits that the person whose motto is “carpe diem,” living only for the moment because he lacks physical and emotional discipline, is barely human.

Principles should guide us. Yet they must be lived from moment to moment. The mind that is perpetually escaping into scenes of future delight or terror is verging on instability if not madness. We should think ahead, but most of our plans can only extend to the immediate horizon.

It is a maxim commonly received, that a wise man is never surprised…. and if a wise man is not amazed at sudden occurrences, it is not that he has thought more, but less upon futurity.

By that same token “Evil is uncertain in the same degree as good, and for the reason that we ought not to hope too securely, we ought not to fear with too much dejection.” We are surprised not only that so many of our day dreams never comes to pass, but that just as many fears are mitigated or avoided. At least that has been my experience. Too often our anxiety about the future is more mischievous than the evils we actually encounter—a fixation on fantasy deters us from our daily resolutions; it leaves us distracted, unreliable, inanely cheerful or morosely cantankerous in dealings with others.

It goes without saying that such forbearance with the ordeals of existence only makes sense if there is an ultimate good which surpasses the lesser benefits and tribulations of daily life. Therein lies the paradox of Johnson’s Christian worldview, in which we act with purpose but conduct ourselves with resignation. As the London sage explains in another essay

The chief security against the fruitless anguish of impatience, must arise from frequent reflection on the wisdom and goodness of the God of nature, in whose hands are riches and poverty, honour and disgrace, pleasure and pain, and life and death. A settled conviction of the tendency of every thing to our good, and of the possibility of turning miseries into happiness, by receiving them rightly, will incline us to bless the name of the Lord, whether he gives or takes away (Rambler, No. 32).

It is at once the simplest of teachings and the hardest of rules to live by, which is no doubt why Johnson devoted so much time to it. For further reading, see the Yale edition of selected essays.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson

Mankind is Governed by Names

I have continued my reading of Gibbon, with his discussion of the Roman Constitution and the decline of the republic. The true and lasting origins of imperial power, we are told, lay not in the spectacular and short-lived dictatorship of Julius Caesar but in the carefully fabricated monarchical edifice of Caesar Augustus.

His tender respect for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards lay aside.

Gibbon notes that during the bloody purge which followed Caesar’s assassination, Octavian (later Augustus) pardoned enemies who were friends of his allies while condemning friends, as demanded by political expediency. This included the beheading of the senator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was Octavian’s former mentor. In time, Octavian even turned on his brilliant but erratic ally, Marc Antony (see related comments). Gibbon says of the future emperor:

His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world. When he framed the artful system of the Imperial authority, his moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government.

Such are the ambivalent origins of empire at the hands of a man who was a supreme opportunist yet prudent enough to understand the need for stability after decades of civil war. The irony is that the Romans had a hereditary detestation of “kingship” following the overthrow of the legendary Tarquins by republican rule; therefore, absolute power had to be cloaked by the respectable endorsement of a puppet Senate.

The title of king had armed the Romans against his life. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.

It is a perceptive and ironic insight typical of Gibbons. The tendency of people to be “governed by names,” though seemingly Orwellian, is as old as humanity itself. Over time some disparity between the grandeur of traditional appellations and the changing exigencies of life is inescapable. That said, there can never be a complete disconnect between the name and the reality of a thing, especially if labels (e.g. “democracy” or “tolerance”) are used in ways that undermine their stated intention while conferring false authority on those who exploit them in the interests of wealth and power. When taken to such extremes we do indeed end up living in the fashion of the inhabitants of Oceania, where “Freedom is Slavery.” Such a facade cannot be maintained indefinitely, as the Romans themselves eventually discovered.

Posted in History, Literature, Politics

Arts and Farces

I came across a 2016 article in The New Yorker about Sir Kenneth Clark, creator of the famous television series Civilisation. It is a reasonably fair (and not overlong) tribute to the British art historian. However, the author is dead wrong when he claims that the series “succeeds despite its underlying ideas, not because of them.” Of course the show is memorable because Clark was perceptive and eloquent. But what makes his documentary more than just a witty museum tour is the conviction that high culture is something greater than the sum of its material accomplishments. The ethos behind our aesthetic choices is not always easy to pin down; but it is real and important. To let the “grand mandarin” speak for himself:

People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria, they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater.

We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.

For related comments, see Looking at Pictures with Sir Kenneth Clark and Rembrandt’s Face.

I have not closely followed the debate over the impeding apocalypse of the “war on science,” but did find the editorial commentary in the May issue of Nature magazine (not exactly an “alt-right” hotbed) to be intellectually refreshing. The piece deflates the current notion of an “official” scientific consensus – an oxymoronic idea that could only thrive under totalitarian regimes – as well as the laughable idea that Republic politicians are all flat-earthers and Luddites.

Science does not speak with a single voice. Sit at a hotel bar during any conference and you will hear impassioned debate over what the data have to say about a certain question…. Those who claim persecution in their pursuit of science would do well to consider whether the pursuit is as pure as they might wish.

One of the last great men of letters, Theodore Dalrymple, has served up some superb commentaries. The first treats of yet another “tell all” celebrity interview, this time by Prince Harry, to which Dalrymple responds with righteous exasperation:

He was widely praised for his openness when, of course, he should have been firmly reprehended for his emotional incontinence and exhibitionism. Alas, this kind of psychological kitsch is fashionable….

For more about the dysfunction of modern society, particularly in Britain, where “children are regularly found to be the most miserable in Europe,” read “Psychobabble On.”

Finally, returning to the edifying realm of creative endeavor, I recommend Dalrymple’s sardonic article, “The Deal of the Art,” which examines the surprising challenges facing the Irish government since it began insisting that subsidized artists actually produce works of aesthetic merit. Imagine that.

Posted in Art and Culture

Chronicles of Empire

“I have not read all of the books in the English language, but of such as I have read, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is far and away the most readable.”—Hilaire Belloc

Belloc celebrates Edward Gibbon as one of the masters of English prose, though he is highly critical of him as an historian. Indeed it is hard not to be impressed by these opening lines:

In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury…. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in the modern edition, fills three volumes amounting to over 3,500 pages. It is not a work I would tackle its entirety (except perhaps in retirement). Fortunately, I have an older Penguin Classics abridgement, edited by Dero Saunders, which trims Gibbon’s chronicle down to just a fifth of the original.* There is something to be said for judicious selections as they provide the reader an opportunity of sampling a classic that might otherwise go untouched given the imposing size of the complete work.

In the early chapters the author informs us that the “principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic,” from Spain and Gaul in the west, to the German frontiers in the north, to Asia Minor, Syria-Palestine and Eygpt in the east, and Libya and Mauritania in the south. The first emperor, Augustus, set an important precedent of setting a limit to ambition, beyond which, says Gibbon, Rome “had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms.” In a witty turn of phrase, Gibbon adds that “Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors.”

One cannot help but think that these observations were an oblique warning to the leaders of contemporary of England against overextending the boundaries of Pax Britannica, especially since the first volume went to press in 1776, at a time when the American colonies were asserting their independence. As I delve further into Gibbon’s masterpiece, I hope to comment on it future posts.

* In 2001 a new one volume version was issued by Penguin, edited by David P. Womersley.

Posted in History, Literature

Justifying Our Actions

I came across an essay in which the author laments the fact that contemporary society “excludes God, natural law, and higher goods.” This reminded me of a recent commentary in Politics & Prosperity on the invariably perplexing topic of “natural law.”

I was introduced to the idea of natural law in college. In sum, the idea is that there are certain moral principles inherent in human nature and that these sanctions are discoverable by a society which views ethics in a transcendent manner. At the other end of the spectrum are systems of morality based purely on convenience or hedonism. Natural law theory has its roots in the Greek and Roman Stoics who looked for rules of conduct which recognized common elements of human dignity and freedom that went beyond laws dictated by mere civic affiliation. By this way of thinking it was not right to deprive people of their lives or maltreat them—as slaves, for example—simply because of their social status. It was a noble outlook, but it never became the majority view.

The arrival of Christianity fostered similar tenets, albeit more pervasively, for the simple reason that these beliefs were proclaimed as revealed truths and were disseminated through a widespread clerical hierarchy. I would argue that this combination of factors, more than any other, gave rise to traditional “Western values.” It is also on this point that I am inclined to question the efficacy of natural law concepts as the primary foundation of societal norms. The reason for this is that very few people are motivated by philosophical speculation. As Samuel Johnson put it, “the man involved in life… is forced to act without deliberation, and obliged to choose before he can examine” every contingency (The Rambler, No. 14).

The concept of natural law is undoubtedly useful as a sort of “comparative morality” much as C. S. Lewis sets forth in his classic Mere Christianity. It is an indicator of the role of conscience. However inchoate our ethical constructs may seem at times, that inner voice is unshakeable. The more that people try to repress it, the more insistent it becomes. Morality is not something imposed from the outside in an arbitrary fashion but actually forces us to come to grips with life as it really is. By contrast, a great deal of psychological and social dysfunction is traceable to ethical shirking.

Looking at virtue and vice not in terms of how things “ought to be,” but how people in fact behave, theory is not enough. There must ultimately be some well-defined authority which people defer to in ordering their activities. This social force comprises two elements—the first is a tradition that has taken root in a culture and matured over time; the second is a temporal power that reinforces the dictates of mere conscience, sets boundaries to our actions and rewards or punishes actions accordingly. Ironically, the deterioration of genuine authority makes room not for unlimited freedom but new claimants to righteousness, often in totalitarian guise.

Posted in Philosophy

Curing the Irascible Soul

The Greek writer Plutarch is best known for his biographical studies, but he was also an important moralist. I am reading his commentary “On the Control of Anger,” found in volume VI of the Loeb edition. In it he explains that

when anger persists and its outbursts are frequent, there is created in the soul an evil state which is called irascibility, and this usually results in sudden outbursts of rage, moroseness, and peevishness when the temper becomes ulcerated, easily offended, and liable to find fault for even trivial offenses…. But if judgement at once opposes the fits of anger and represses them, it not only cures them for the present, but for the future it also renders the soul firm and difficult for passion to attack.

Plutarch gives many reasons for excessive anger such as pettiness and impatience. An even temper requires forbearance. While displays of anger may be mistaken by some as a sign of strength, Plutarch demurs. He says that “the whole demeanor of angry persons” reveals “their utter littleness and weakness” in the face of challenges. Mind you, he’s not denouncing rational anger (like the “righteous anger” attributed to divinity, which is an intellectual and moral quality) but unbridled emotion where we are not so much opposing evil as we are indulging in egotistical tantrums.

The ancient sage makes the point that we can best gauge our actions by observing others. It is surprising how foibles that seem insignificant in our own eyes appear pathetic or appalling when seen from the outside. Adam Smith, better known for his economic writings, makes this same point in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The insolence and brutality of anger… when we indulge its fury without check or restraint, is, of all objects, the most detestable. But we admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest injuries, not by the rage which they are apt to excite in the breast of the sufferer, but by the indignation which they naturally call forth in that of the impartial spectator; which allows no word, no gesture, to escape it beyond what this more equitable sentiment would dictate; which never, even in thought, attempts any greater vengeance, nor desires to inflict any greater punishment, than what every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed.

Even when there is justification for upset, we lose all sympathy if our reactions are disproportionate to the cause. According to Plutarch, one of the surest checks to irascibility is to delay any action we take, to see if our anger does not diminish over time, and when a wrong still needs to be redressed we are more apt to do so in a calm and objective manner.

Posted in Philosophy, Plutarch

All the Comforts of Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are among my favorite works of fiction. Nor is it even the ingenious elements of detection that make them what they are. Other imaginary mysteries are more clever, though far less entertaining. Rather, it is the characters, dialogue and the atmosphere – as well as the superb literary economy – that is key to Conan Doyle’s art.

Perusing the adventures of the London private investigator, I note a couple of  leitmotifs that contribute to the overall Holmesian ambience. First is the quintessentially English sense of coziness which, as Orwell (a major fan of the stories) pointed out, is most often a study in contrast to the surrounding gloom that only heightens our own sense of comfort and good cheer. One sees this in the opening of “A Case of Identity”:

“My dear fellow,” said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent….”

It is even more picturesquely presented in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”:

It was a wild, tempestuous night towards the close of November…. I walked to the window and looked out on the deserted street. The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement. A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end.

Second, and apparently indispensable to any Victorian gentleman’s notion of creature comforts, is the use of tobacco. One could make a vast catalogue of the references to smoking in Holmes’ chronicles, much as the detective did in one of his numerous forensic monographs.

“I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enables me to pronounce as an Indian cigar. I have, as you know, devoted some attention to this, and written a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”).

Smoking naturally lends itself to reflection. Take for example Holmes’ studious habits as described in “The Red-Headed League”:

“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.

The detective and his companion, Dr. Watson, frequently avail themselves of their pipes as a respite from tracking criminals, as in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” wherein Holmes propounds the famous nostrum that “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.” I could quote from the stories endlessly. But this is a good start. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot.”

Related posts: Return to Baker Street and The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Literature

Epictetus for Lent

Reading the pagan Stoics during this traditional Christian penitential season might seem unusual except that Stoic writings, especially those of the Greek Epictetus, have long been admired by even the most austere orders of monks. Later Christian philosophers, like Justus Lipsius and Guillame de Vair, even formulated a modified brand of neo-Stoicism. There are many parallels between the ancient moralists and the great works of Christian spirituality and it would be interesting if someday a scholar were to compile a concordance comparing the two. Take for example this passage from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis:

…take great care to ensure that in every place, action, and outward occupation you remain inwardly free and your own master. Control  circumstances, and do not allow them to control you (III.38).

This attitude is at the very heart of Epictetus’ philosophy:

If you keep yourself free from emotion, and remain imperturbable and composed, if you make yourself a spectator of events rather than offering yourself as a spectacle… what is there that you lack? (Discourses, IV.4).

There are countless variations on the same theme.

He who is discontented with what he has, and with what has been granted to him by fortune, is one who is ignorant of the art of living, but he who bears that in a noble spirit, and makes reasonable use of all that comes from it, deserves to be regarded as a good man (Fragments, 2).

It is true that not long ago I discussed the shortcomings of Stoicism, in light of some of Samuel Johnson’s perceptive criticisms. That said, I would also agree with Johnson that we should not too readily carp at the imperfections of the better moral systems since that is frequently a disingenuous way of avoiding any effort at self-discipline. It’s like the excuses we make for giving up a diet or exercise plan, jumping from one fad to the next, as if the key was in the novelty of a system, rather than in mere persistence and hard work. So for the remainder of Lent it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to take at least some of Epictetus’ advice more seriously to heart.

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Stoicism

The Rules of the Game

A few years ago I commented on H. G. Wells’ Little Wars, a game to “be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty [and] by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women.” I am happy to say that Dover has issued a facsimile reprint featuring the original black and white photographs and charming marginal illustrations by J. R. Sinclair. These alone are worth the price of the volume, and even small children will delight in them.

Wells opens his chronicle with a whimsical history of miniature warfare in its earlier, cruder forms, in which lead figures were simply lined up and knocked down with rocks or slingshots. In more advanced wargaming, he introduces troop movements (with different distances for foot soldiers and cavalry), the use of artillery, hand-to-hand combat and the taking of prisoners. To add to the interest of the battle, hills and buildings made out of wooden blocks are scattered across the imaginary terrain.

Some things have changed since Wells’ day. Miniature spring-operated cannons, the centerpiece of Little Wars, are no longer available except perhaps as rare collectibles. Meanwhile the toy soldier of the last few decades has transitioned from painted metal to unadorned plastic. The latter are not as colorful, but they are cheap, plentiful and more durable. It is not the exact rules that are important – I am inclined to modify Wells’ system considerably – rather it is the incitement to creative fun and, unlike computer games, it is an enjoyable spectator sport.

“The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor,” declares the author. A big space to plan and play in. The concluding part of the book comprises chapters describing grandiose projects like imaginary islands, with savages and ships full of explorers as well as elaborate cities with toy civilians, animals, shops and steam trains. Even in the peacetime scenarios there are certain rules of etiquette to be observed, not least of which is to avoid stepping on the other player’s toys.

In closing, it is perhaps ironic that this work of Wells, the progressive socialist of his day, should require a brief warning in the modern edition for its lack of political correctness. But fortunately the publishers have not bowdlerized the original text.

Posted in H. G. Wells

Seneca’s World-Weary Wisdom

“There is only one liberal study that deserves the name—because it makes a person free—and that is the pursuit of wisdom.”—Seneca, Letter LXXXVIII

The epistles of the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca are full of jaded charm and acidulous wit. Having lived a privileged life we wonder if he was not like so many insincere celebrities today who inveigh against the evils of money and fame. We have no idea if Seneca put his theories of moral austerity into practice. Perhaps over time he grew weary with his upper class existence and discovered in philosophy a refuge for mind and spirit. In any event, he bequeathed to subsequent generations priceless insights into ancient society and enduring reflections on the human condition.

In a letter to his friend Lucillius, Seneca discusses the nature of the “liberal arts”—so called because they were subjects “worthy of a free man.” This included the study of literature, music and mathematics. Seneca was certainly a erudite individual, known in his day as both a statesman and a successful playwright. Yet he asks, “What is there in all this [learning] that dispels fear, roots out desire or reins in passion?” Speaking of geometry’s practical applications, he wonders if it is possible  to “measure a man’s soul.” It is not that he dismisses the value of learning. It is necessary to the intellectual life as food is to bodily health.

Why then do we give our sons a liberal education? Not because it can make them morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral virtues.

That said, he admits it is quite possible for a person to be wise without book learning. If we care for nothing more than acquiring knowledge it is just as possible to be an intellectual glutton as it is to be a physical one, with equally debilitating results. Putting that knowledge to use is a different matter. Seneca discusses the importance of such qualities as courage, self-restraint, modesty and kindness.

Finally, in addressing the pedantry and speculative triviality of many thinkers, he ends his letter on an appropriately sardonic note:

To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance…. The scholar Didymus wrote four thousands works: I should feel sorry for him if he had merely read so many useless works. In these works he discusses such questions as Homer’s origin, who was Aeneas’ real mother, whether Anachreon’s manner of life was more that of a lecher or that of a drunkard, whether Sappho slept with anyone who asked her, and other things that would be better unlearned if one actually knew them!

Excerpts are taken from Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics). For related commentary see my earlier post.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism