Wednesday, November 6, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Eighteen

“Fortitude,” pages 179-187

Sometimes fears (Chapter Seventeen) are reasonable and present. One such fear is that the West and the world more generally are on the brink of a period of much suffering. At such times, it is easy to become unmoored, to lose sight of what we need to accomplish. With a little forethought, however, we can steel ourselves and preserve our equanimity when dangers arise.

The fall of Rome was a dangerous period, and Plotinus (c. 205-270) chose one route, that of contemplating on eternal matters, to navigate through the ruins. His approach was incomplete, however; “Contemplation, if it is to be wholesome and valuable, must be married to practice [p. 180]...”. Boethius (c. 480-524) is a better guide. He was immersed in the affairs of the world, but when imprisoned, he produced a book that kept alive, through long, dark ages, the best of the classical world for posterity. [Coincidentally, I am typing this on October 23, which is they feast day for Boethius.] It is the example of Boethius that our modern learned people should emulate, to encapsulate for our descendants “the achievements, the hopes and the ideals which have made our time great [p. 181].”

The Cold War pits two different conceptions of man against each other. In the West, individuality, personal development, and freedom are prized, while the state is there to serve our interests, not to dominate us. In Russia, the government’s view (flowing from Hegel and Marx) is that individuals are expendable inputs, while the output that matters is the health of the State, which is distinct from the wellbeing of the populace. Soviet citizens thus can take pride in betraying their comrades for lapses in their regard for the State.

The Soviet cult of the State cannot win this struggle if human life is to have value. For the West to win, “we must be clear in our own minds as to what it is that we value, and we must, like Boethius, fortify our courage against the threat of adversity [p. 182].”

No man is an island, and wisdom and morals both recommend widening your circle of good feeling and empathy as widely as possible, beyond your family, friends, neighborhood, and nation. Our sympathies, indeed, should even encompass humans of ages past and to come, if we aim to keep our bearings in turbulent times. (Nor is it likely that humanity represents the acme of life within the universe – page 184.)

The history of man – itself a speck in the history of the universe –largely has been one of a struggle for existence, red in tooth and claw, like that of other animals. Only recently has human intelligence allowed us, in some places, to rise above that history, to provide secure subsistence. The Western nations which have achieved these advantages should be proud of their progress; their discoveries point the way forward for all of our globe.

Humanity’s advance has been painfully slow and undone at times by retrogression – but the advance occurred nonetheless. Adopting a long-term perspective can help us overcome present trials, which are barriers, but (as the past teaches) not insuperable ones, to further progress. Those who hold this perspective approach Spinoza’s ideal of evaluating events from the point of view of eternity.

The person who has inured himself to present difficulties is not cold-blooded; rather the opposite, in fact, he can enter more readily into friendship and empathy. His self-regard does not stand in the way of his regard for others. He still feels pain, but has learned to endure it, and will not concoct pleasing stories that allow him to ignore the pain of others. His understanding encompasses the unaccommodated man of Lear’s clarity-in-madness, as well as the god-like qualities that reside, as Hamlet recognizes, within our human quintessence of dust.

The broadening of the mind and its circle of sympathy is feasible for everyone. Spiritual leaders like Buddha and Jesus capture human imaginations precisely because of their success in embracing a comprehensive love. Today, only specialists in history recall anything about cruel Tiberius, Christ’s powerful contemporary.

A life well lived, even in obscurity, will radiate outwards, with beneficent influence that can go far afield geographically and temporally. “The individual, if he is filled with love of mankind, with breadth of vision, with courage and with endurance, can do a great deal [p. 186].”

Mankind probably will manage to avoid driving itself extinct. The achievements of man in his brief speck of time on earth suggest that despite frequent and even lengthy setbacks, progress will remain part of the story. We must show fealty to this potential, and our commitment can help us through difficult times. Adversity can breed wisdom, but if we achieve wisdom hastily, we can reduce future adversity, and deliver an unprecedented happiness to humanity.

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