Friday, March 30, 2007

Pierre Leroux, Necessity of Evil, pt. 1

Pierre Leroux, "Necessity of Evil" [part 1 of 2], The Spirit of the Age, I, 18 (November 3, 1849), 273-5.

Translated for The Spirit of the Age,



WE exist only in relation with the exterior world, or with internal ideas which have their source in our previous relation with this world. If this relation is agreeable we call it pleasure, but this is a transient thing. Happiness is such a state that we should demand its duration without change. Now if the exterior world were unchangeable, immutable, there would be no reason nor possibility of our intervening or acting upon it; and if in changing it should excite only pleasure, or if the ideas and passions awakened by this exterior relation wore immutable, or pleasant only, all this would preclude any wish to interfere with these relations, they would awake no desire, consequently no activity, no personality, and the result of this immutability would be not life but death, not happiness but annihilation.

If, as a celebrated myth says, man had his beginning in happiness, he existed only as an appendix to his creator; he lived in the bosom of God, innocent but unconscious. In passing from this state he has not fallen, but has exchanged happiness for virtue, unconscious innocence for activity, for personality, that is for true life.

Evil is then necessary to awaken desire and consequently activity and personality, that is, it is the very condition of actual life; its need ceases as soon as the force within us is sufficiently vital to act in the perfecting of life and the world, without being pricked into action by its sting.

Under the myth of the three places, Eden, Earth, Paradise, lies the fact of an unconscious inactive life, then a life active through suffering, thence to a life active without suffering; but the placing of the first and last of these states in a chimerical Eden and Paradise has caused the middle term Earth to fail of being appreciated, and it has been so slandered by theologians that from time to time there have arisen up partisans in its behalf, defenders of earth from the charge of absolute evil laid upon it.

In fact, absolute evil is as impossible as absolute happiness. The same instability of things, which precludes the one, precludes also the other. Evil is transformed by time, by memory, by the development of contrary passions, even by the exhaustion of the power of suffering. But although there is in nature, apart from any religious ideas, a perpetual resource and remedy against suffering, yet the doctrine of compensation which teaches that the happiness of all is equal, and that a deficiency in one point is made up by a superfluity in another, and the reverse, is not true.

This point of view has arisen and should arise in the train of Protestantism, for Protestantism was already to a certain extent a return to nature. Next to Protestantism came the controversy of Boyle; then the religious Optimism of Leibnitz; then the Epicurean Optimism of which we speak.

The first point of this philosophy is that happiness is the law and rule of all beings.

The second that in the destiny of each, good and evil are mutually compensated.

The third that consequently all destinies share equally in good and evil: so says Voltaire.

As heaven about us wove our human life
It used a mingled thread of peace and strife;
Desire, distaste, calm reason, folly free,
Moments of pleasure, days of misery;
These wake up man, in these his essence lies,
His nature formed of blended contraries;
All equal weighed in God's impartial scale,
All taste the sweet and none the bitter fail.[1]

The conclusion of this system is immobility; for if all conditions are equal, if all have the same measure of good and evil, and if the sole law of our being is happiness as this system understands it, then it would be folly to wish to change the conditions of the world. As well fool as wise man; as well barbarous as civilized; and one may finally arrive at the conclusion, that the happiest of organized beings is the most simple—an oyster or a coral.

The principle of the system is absurd. Happiness, as it is understood, in the first axiom of Voltaire, is not the end of created beings. Creatures are not made to be happy, but to live and to become developed by advancing towards a certain type of perfection.

The lyric Pindar said "Life is the track of a chariot;" but it is of elapsed life, of dead life, he speaks. Living life is the, wheel in movement. The revolving, advancing wheel is never fixed; it is never between the points, yet it passes successively all points. So of life: we are never in an idea nor pleasure nor suffering; but we are ever coming out of one to pass into another.

Our life is the emersion from an anterior state and immersion into a future state. Therefore the only permanent condition of our being is aspiration.

The problem of Happiness is the foundation of philosophy and religion. What is good? the only question among the sects of Greece; it gave rise to the hundred and eighty sects enumerated by Varro which may be reduced essentially to three: that of Plato, Zeno and Epicurus. 1. Those satisfied with nature or if not satisfied, accepting it as a master from whom there is no appeal; (Epicurus). 2 Those discontented with nature and appealing from it to themselves; (Zeno). 3. Those who regard nature as an imperfect and transitory state, the faults of which it is possible to correct by conforming one's self to a certain ideal; (Plato).

Plato preceded the others by a century: a century before Plato, Democritus and Heraclitus represented the contrasted ideas of Zeno and Epicurus.

The principle of the school of Epicurus was the acceptance of nature as it is; of Zeno, the reprobation of nature and the complete substitution of a different life called virtue; Plato neither absolutely accepts or rejects nature, but imports into Greece the oriental ideas of the fall and redemption.

The philosophic partisans of nature in the eighteenth century, the Deism of Bolingbroke, Pope and Voltaire, the egotism of Rochefoucauld, the sensualism of Condillac, the well-understood interest of Helvetius, the atomic materialism of the French Savans, the utilitarianism of Bentham are all comprised in Epicuns. This great man appears in history among the greatest of sages. By a curious symbol of his destiny he was called in his childhood a hunter of spectres, because ho went with his poor mother from house to house making lustrations in order to put to flight evil spirits. He has ever been and will be the hunter of Spectres, he who saves from superstition. It is useful and necessary to bring men back to a view of a earth. What distinguishes Epicurus from his followers is the sanctity with which he did this work, instaurating a contentment with the earth in a manner altogether religious. Among all the ancient sects Epicurianism endured the longest; it flourished around the author in his garden and still subsisted six hundred years late; when Christianity carried all before it. It flourished at the fail of Paganism as it was re-born at the fall of Christianity; and thereby is shown the necessity humanity is under, of destroying through doubt the old religions, which obstruct its path; thus its reign at certain epochs is good and necessary When religions fall into decay, man is forced to accept the present life as it is; the sage seeks to pass it away with the least possible torment; the fool wastes and devours it. Then come those epochs so marked in history of double-refined passions, of unbridled pleasures and profound melancholy, of incredulity and superstition. Then also comes Epicurus, under this or some other name, calming the insatiable desire of happiness with which men are enfevered, and saving them as far as possible from false voluptuousness itself. This doctrine is a retreat for humanity, preventing a complete overthrow. Yet humanity having rallied and under this shelter re-taken confidence in itself, it soon perceives that its fate is not to fly, not to take refuge in anything; but to march onward to now conflicts. Epicurianism, at all times an influence useful in some respects; has at certain epochs an office of incontestable legitimacy.

This system, which has for its principle the acceptance of and satisfaction with nature, can only be comprehended and adopted by the favored few; the slave Epictetus needs a Zeno: Thence arises a sect which reproves and rejects nature. The nature of man, according to the Stoics, consists only in his liberty. He is free only in attaching himself to nothing which is not completely in his power. The participation of the Stoic in life consists only in voluntarily obeying destiny, that is in voluntarily doing the part destiny bestows, but without being interested in it; for in being interested he ceases to be free. The morality of the Stoics was to despise life by taking refuge in one's self; to leave to destiny the responsibility of its work; not to temper the passions but to uproot them; to make of one's self a free intelligence, a liberty. Such was their disdain of life that they were desirous to demonstrate that the human soul is perishable; and such their disgust of the world, that their system gave to the sage the right of taking away his own life this right being the natural result of his liberty and the need of his virtue.

Plato, as it has been said, neither absolutely accepted or rejected nature. His works are a mingling of Socratic inspirations and Oriental solutions. The double character, of a Greek who had conversed eight years with Socrates and then, long a disciple of the Pythagoreans and the priests of Egypt, is seen in his works. With Socrates all investigation turned upon the question of morality and happiness; Plato accepts this direction, but solves the problem with a Theology drawn from the Egyptians and the Pythagoreans of Magna Graecia, themselves a branch of eastern philosophy. Plato, following Socrates; says that the object of all study is to find The Good; and the mode to this is the study of man, self-knowledge; but instead of adhering to this mode, he solves the question of "the good" and "the best'' by some ancient religious solution—no longer a Socratic Greek but a priest of Memphis. The soul, according to Plato, is a self-active force, but fallen and united to matter; it lives in a kind of imprisonment and exile; so that man is composed of two different principles: 1st, the rational; 2nd, the animal. The former has power to return to the blessedness of spirits. How is this return possible? By renewing its knowledge of Ideas, the eternal types and models of things.

These Ideas exist in God and traverse the world, for God has made the world on the model of Ideas. How can the soul gain knowledge of Ideas, disembarrass itself of Nature and so rise to God?

Through love. Love of the supreme Beauty; great in proportion as the soul is pure; adoration of this Beauty produces virtue.

Happiness consists not in the relation we have to terrestrial objects; but in our relation to the supreme Beauty which is concealed behind these objects as behind a veil. These Ideas; archetypes of things exist, in God; he is therefore the Supreme Good, and man's happiness consists in being as like to him as possible; thus the two guides to God, or good, are reason and love.

Let what Plato calls love be named Grace; explain moreover the real and objective existence of Ideas, the mysterious tie between God and the world j realize completely this Word, this Wisdom, which Plato distinguishes in God, the creative thought of God in potentia, as the Ideas are his creative thought already effectuated; find for this Word a man in which to incarnate it; make for him a history, a tradition; and all the links of the mysterious chain that unites man to God are illuminated and lo!—Christianity.

Plato applies his doctrine not to the rejection of but to the perfecting of human life; he also held the Pythagorean opinions of metempsychosis and successive existences and so was saved from the total rejection of nature and life, into which the Stoics and Christians fell. Our being, according to him is an aspiration to reach the Sovereign Good, but this can be reached only through the world; not immediately but progressively by uniting one's self with all the finite manifestations of good Science; art; polity, draw their reason of being from the Idea of the Sovereign Good, which is their aim.

Platonism, Stoicism; Epicureanism; the three solutions of the question proposed by Socrates; being largely developed; the work of Greece was accomplished and then Christianity appeared, a mingling of Platonism and Stoicism; its theology Platonic, its morality Stoic. Like the Stoics the Christians rejected the world, but the former took refuge in man; the latter, realizing the Word of Plato bowed to the divine Word, and substituted grace or divine action for human virtue; the Stoics abolished nature and substituted virtue or human force, the Christians abolished both nature and man and substituted divine action or grace. The protest of nature and man against this sacrifice appears in the revival of the Epicureanism or modern Deism.

[1] Discourse in verse.

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