Pierre Leroux, "Necessity of Evil" [part 2 of 2], The Spirit of the Age, I, 19 (November 10, 1849), 289-91.
Translated for The Spirit of the Age,
NECESSITY OF EVIL.
FROM PIERRE LEROUX'S L'HUMANITE.
In answer to the question: "What is our condition in this life and how should we comport ourselves in relation to the good and ill found in it?" Plato replies: we must live this life and concern ourselves with it but idealize it. Epicurus merely accepts it; and Zeno inculcates the not being interested in it, making of oneself a free force, an absolute power, emancipating oneself from life by contemning it. The doctrine of
The Means, indicated by these different philosophers, are conformable to the different aims they assign.
What says, "Love—seeking God in thy love." Epicurus: "Love thyself," Zeno: "Deny thyself." Paul: "Love only God."
Love is the means equally indicated by Platonism, Epicureanism, Christianity. The Stoics perish from having no object; the Christian turn away from man to love God. If one loves neither the world nor its creatures, it is necessary to love God and this is what Christianity has done; while Stoicism disappears from being no object of love. Stoicism, true at its commencement, soon became an error. Its principle, that we should aspire to be a free force, is true; but the pretension, that we should be a force entirely free, destroys instantly all the goodness of its principle. Its fundamental error is in having exaggerated the effort we should make; so that believing nothing done as long as we have not arrived at a complete emancipation, we thereby destroy all tie with life and the a world. To be a Stoic and to take a real interest in the world was an inconsistency. Some great men doubtless committed this happy inconsistency and having by force made of themselves Gods, they regarded this holy Spirit, which they believed to be in them, as a kind of favoring
Epicureanism is ordinarily represented as the doctrine of pleasure; nothing is more false as far as it regards the teaching of Epicurus. His true doctrine was on the contrary very sad. One should seek contentment, it is true, but of an altogether negative kind. The aim was merely not to be unhappy, to avoid agitation, cares, inquietudes, all occasions of suffering. Conceal thy life was the proverb of the Epicureans. Their maxim was not to intermeddle in public affairs. Sensual luxury was considered as a necessity; but far from maintaining that voluptuousness was in itself a good, the wise man strove only to diminish this necessity, to live more and more in repose, out of the reach both of the passions and of the world.
The sovereign good of Epicurus consisted in a calm with a certain sort of contentment, founded on the consciousness of not suffering and of having escaped numberless perils. This quietude is altogether negative; so that Epicureanism has never been able to remain in it: and this is so true that what is commonly understood by this word is rather the doctrine of the Cyrenian school than that of Epicurus. Deprived of all ideal, one is insensibly habituated to regard sensuality as a good and not as a cure of ill; it is sought rather than waited for. Such a tendency is inevitable. The profound cause of this is, that our life is a continual aspiration, and without some firm resting place we cannot resist the force that draws us on. Epicureanism necessarily results in a narrow egotism or in sensualism; the maxim of Epicurus "Love-thy-self" is transformed either into egotistic prudence, full of void and weariness, or into irregulated earthly loves.
To Platonism is opened equally two different routes "Love God," said Plato, "love the Beautiful, love the Celestial Goodness from which thou hast sprung and whither thou returnest." If thou lovest not this end, in vain wilt thou seek thy happiness in created things; thou wilt find no sustenance for thy, soul for thy soul can be nourished only on the beautiful. One may understand this precept in two ways. One may, as Plato positively indicates, seek the beautiful, through the world, by the means of the world, in the world; extract it thence and return it thither again: or considering only the object God, the Infinite Beauty, one may fancy oneself capable of being put in immediate relation with that object independently of the world, and so call out with passionate appeal for every thing to disappear before it. This last has Christianity done.
The maxim of Plato was "Strive to become like to God as much as is in thy power." The Christians cut off this restrictive condition which preserves nature and life. Like the Stoics they have desired a prompt; rapid, instantaneous salvation.
They have said to the world as the sage of Seneca: " Non placet; Liceat eo reverti, unde venio." In this consists the separation of Christianity from Platonism. Plato has two means to remount to God, reason and love: the Christians recognize only Grace; this is the doctrine of
Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Epicurus, Paul, Augustine, are the successive terms of the development of the question of Happiness; Socrates begun in the west the philosophic antiquity that Augustine terminated, by opening the religion of the Middle Ages. It is a continuous argument. This sublime dialogue lasted ten centuries, and yet it might be formulated in a few words:
Socrates. Let the sophists be silent. Let the learned cease to puff themselves with pride and heap up foolish hypotheses to explain the world. Let the artists know that art without aim is a puerility and a poison. The sole knowledge worthy of man, which gives to Science and Art a true distinction, is the knowledge of "the good" and "the best," and this is acquired only by study of ourselves; know thyself therefore.
Plato. From the study of ourselves we learn that man is a force originally free, not actually united to Tatter which appears coeternal with God. We tend to return to our source by the natural effect of life, which is an aspiration, a continual and endless love; we can return thither only by attaching ourselves to the perceptible rays of Divine Beauty. It is therefore towards God that Science, Art and all Life should aim. O! Greeks, you are children. I have traveled among those who have given you all the knowledge you possess, and this is what those masters have taught me.
Zeno. If man is originally a free force, why not emancipate himself at once? Why not recover his true nature by separating himself rationally from the world?
Epicurus. You are dreamers. I am the first of sages. Are you not all under the yoke of Nature which has created you in one of its infinite combinations? All wisdom consists in obeying Nature's inevitable prescriptions, shielding oneself from its blows as one does from a fierce animal that one wishes to use.
Pelagius. At least we are free in something; if we tend to God, it is in virtue of an inherent force, by our own liberty and merit.
The advantage resulting from Epicureanism is the perfecting of the material life. By sanctifying the care of the material life, Epicureanism has been the indirect cause of those numerous capabilities of perfection that human intelligence has found in the properties of matter.
If the life that we hold in common with animals had not met a reasonable justification, human intelligence would have been still farther precipitated into that purely contemplative route into which Christianity plunged with so much ardor. It is evident, that all the sciences of experiment, which consist in discovering the will of Nature in order to turn away evil effects and to accumulate good, have fundamentally a certain affinity with Epicureanism; so they have always sought in it the justification of their efforts. And let it not be said that men would have made these discoveries without this philosophy; from the sole fact that they are useful. If there were no doctrine which presented utility under a moral aspect, humanity would utterly have condemned it: for the law of humanity is to be moral.
A sublime effort towards liberty, Stoicism has given birth the benefits of another order. With Epicurus the work is to avoid evils by obeying Nature as an intelligent slave; with Zeno it is necessary to be free. Twenty centuries have rolled away; and now let us ask if the evolutions of the world have not wrought a growth of liberty in our natural and social conception, and if this aspiration to be free,—source of Stoicism—has not had its realization. Man has enfranchised himself from man and Nature. He will free himself more and more. Man will become more and more the equal of man, and nature will become obedient to him. We are to-day almost as powerful over Nature as the Jupiter of the Greek Olympus; and the time approaches, in which Epictetus can no longer be another's slave.
But of these various solutions, that which has had the greatest influence on the World is incontestibly the idealism of Plato. This was truly the spark of life that animated the West. Like the statue of Pygmalion, which is marble until the moment of contact with divine love, the West remained without moral light until the revelation of Plato. It is Plato; so long surnamed the Divine, happy interpreter of the anterior philosophy, who first caused to descend upon us the fire by which we live.
When he taught that the distinction of men consisted in the satisfaction of an innate need of beauty and goodness, human morality awoke to self-consciousness. Then truly for the first time Western man turned his face towards heaven. For the revelation of this attraction towards the beautiful was the revelation of what is called Heaven.
The sciences were for Plato the incomplete but accessible realization of the human ideal. The known sciences received a new impulse from Idealism; those almost unknown sprung to life. In the bosom of Plato was found Aristotle, as strongly attracted towards virtue as his master. Aristotle produced Alexander, that missionary of philosophy, so penetrated with the ideal that the earth could neither satisfy or contain him. Alexander transported
Idealism, realized anthropomorphically by the Jews, produced Christianity. Then the whole West became directed with so much earnestness towards the Ideal, that not only was the material life despised, but man fancied himself able to unite himself, without the mediation of this life, to the Divine Beauty. Thence Monkery and the Christianity of the Middle Ages; thence the Anthonys, Basils, and Benedicts, those sublime practicians of Platonism interpreted by Paul, Athanasius and Augustine; thence two orders, two worlds.
Science and Art had received the illumination of baptism and Plato embraces the whole modern world by two universal ties; love and art. What artists have come forth from Idealism! If Lucretius and Horace are the sons of Epicurus, how much more numerous is the posterity of Plato! In his Divine Comedy, Dante relates that it was Virgil who was his guide to Heaven. In reality Virgil is a reflection of Plato, and a reflection which announces Christianity. From Virgil to us what tolerably sublime monument of art is there that is not imprinted with Idealism.
The alliance of Stoicism and Platonism in Christianity, that is, a supreme contempt of earth united to a love of the ideal, was absolutely necessary, in order to effect the emancipation of Women and Slaves, and to civilize the Barbarians. It is by elevation to absolute purity, absolute isolation from humanity, through renunciation of the world, celibacy and convents, that the human type was first perfected.
But this consideration must not make us forget that Epicureanism has been the counterpoise to the excess of Platonic Stoicism. It has said to the proud Idealism that menaced to destroy the terrestrial basis of existence. Thou shall go no farther. It has sanctified that kind of devotion to the natural laws which has been the source of so many discoveries, and whence has resulted the industrial power.
Already, it is the alliance of this power over nature with the social sentiments sprung from Platonism, which has caused the result that we now see thirty millions of men living in a kind of Equality, while ancient nations know only the condition of Castes.