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Marius the epicurean %E2.., p.2

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2, page 2

 part  #2 of  Marius the Epicurean Series

 

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2
 


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  CHAPTER XVI: SECOND THOUGHTS

  [14] AND Marius, for his part, was grave enough. The discourse ofCornelius Fronto, with its wide prospect over the human, the spiritual,horizon, had set him on a review--on a review of the isolatingnarrowness, in particular, of his own theoretic scheme. Long after thevery latest roses were faded, when "the town" had departed to countryvillas, or the baths, or the war, he remained behind in Rome; anxiousto try the lastingness of his own Epicurean rose-garden; setting towork over again, and deliberately passing from point to point of hisold argument with himself, down to its practical conclusions. That ageand our own have much in common--many difficulties and hopes. Let thereader pardon me if here and there I seem to be passing from Marius tohis modern representatives--from Rome, to Paris or London.

  What really were its claims as a theory of practice, of the sympathiesthat determine [15] practice? It had been a theory, avowedly, of lossand gain (so to call it) of an economy. If, therefore, it missedsomething in the commerce of life, which some other theory of practicewas able to include, if it made a needless sacrifice, then it must be,in a manner, inconsistent with itself, and lack theoretic completeness.Did it make such a sacrifice? What did it lose, or cause one to lose?

  And we may note, as Marius could hardly have done, that Cyrenaicism isever the characteristic philosophy of youth, ardent, but narrow in itssurvey--sincere, but apt to become one-sided, or even fanatical. It isone of those subjective and partial ideals, based on vivid, becauselimited, apprehension of the truth of one aspect of experience (in thiscase, of the beauty of the world and the brevity of man's life there)which it may be said to be the special vocation of the young toexpress. In the school of Cyrene, in that comparatively fresh Greekworld, we see this philosophy where it is least blase, as we say; inits most pleasant, its blithest and yet perhaps its wisest form,youthfully bright in the youth of European thought. But it grows youngagain for a while in almost every youthful soul. It is spoken ofsometimes as the appropriate utterance of jaded men; but in them it canhardly be sincere, or, by the nature of the case, an enthusiasm. "Walkin the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes," is,indeed, most often, [16] according to the supposition of the book fromwhich I quote it, the counsel of the young, who feel that the sunshineis pleasant along their veins, and wintry weather, though in a generalsense foreseen, a long way off. The youthful enthusiasm or fanaticism,the self-abandonment to one favourite mode of thought or taste, whichoccurs, quite naturally, at the outset of every really vigorousintellectual career, finds its special opportunity in a theory such asthat so carefully put together by Marius, just because it seems to callon one to make the sacrifice, accompanied by a vivid sensation of powerand will, of what others value--sacrifice of some conviction, ordoctrine, or supposed first principle--for the sake of that clear-eyedintellectual consistency, which is like spotless bodily cleanliness, orscrupulous personal honour, and has itself for the mind of the youthfulstudent, when he first comes to appreciate it, the fascination of anideal.

  The Cyrenaic doctrine, then, realised as a motive of strenuousness orenthusiasm, is not so properly the utterance of the "jaded Epicurean,"as of the strong young man in all the freshness of thought and feeling,fascinated by the notion of raising his life to the level of a daringtheory, while, in the first genial heat of existence, the beauty of thephysical world strikes potently upon his wide-open, unwearied senses.He discovers a great new poem every spring, with a hundred delightfulthings he too has felt, but [16] which have never been expressed, or atleast never so truly, before. The workshops of the artists, who canselect and set before us what is really most distinguished in visiblelife, are open to him. He thinks that the old Platonic, or the newBaconian philosophy, has been better explained than by the authorsthemselves, or with some striking original development, this verymonth. In the quiet heat of early summer, on the dusty gold morning,the music comes, louder at intervals, above the hum of voices from someneighbouring church, among the flowering trees, valued now, perhaps,only for the poetically rapt faces among priests or worshippers, or themere skill and eloquence, it may be, of its preachers of faith andrighteousness. In his scrupulous idealism, indeed, he too feelshimself to be something of a priest, and that devotion of his days tothe contemplation of what is beautiful, a sort of perpetual religiousservice. Afar off, how many fair cities and delicate sea-coasts awaithim! At that age, with minds of a certain constitution, no very choiceor exceptional circumstances are needed to provoke an enthusiasmsomething like this. Life in modern London even, in the heavy glow ofsummer, is stuff sufficient for the fresh imagination of a youth tobuild its "palace of art" of; and the very sense and enjoyment of anexperience in which all is new, are but enhanced, like that glow ofsummer itself, by the [18] thought of its brevity, giving him somethingof a gambler's zest, in the apprehension, by dexterous act ordiligently appreciative thought, of the highly coloured moments whichare to pass away so quickly. At bottom, perhaps, in his elaboratelydeveloped self-consciousness, his sensibilities, his almost fiercegrasp upon the things he values at all, he has, beyond all others, aninward need of something permanent in its character, to hold by: ofwhich circumstance, also, he may be partly aware, and that, as with thebrilliant Claudio in Measure for Measure, it is, in truth, but darknesshe is, "encountering, like a bride." But the inevitable falling of thecurtain is probably distant; and in the daylight, at least, it is notoften that he really shudders at the thought of the grave--the weightabove, the narrow world and its company, within. When the thought ofit does occur to him, he may say to himself:--Well! and the rude monk,for instance, who has renounced all this, on the security of some dimworld beyond it, really acquiesces in that "fifth act," amid all theconsoling ministries around him, as little as I should at this moment;though I may hope, that, as at the real ending of a play, however wellacted, I may already have had quite enough of it, and find a truewell-being in eternal sleep.

  And precisely in this circumstance, that, consistently with thefunction of youth in general, Cyrenaicism will always be more or [19]less the special philosophy, or "prophecy," of the young, when theideal of a rich experience comes to them in the ripeness of thereceptive, if not of the reflective, powers--precisely in thiscircumstance, if we rightly consider it, lies the duly prescribedcorrective of that philosophy. For it is by its exclusiveness, and bynegation rather than positively, that such theories fail to satisfy uspermanently; and what they really need for their correction, is thecomplementary influence of some greater system, in which they may findtheir due place. That Sturm und Drang of the spirit, as it has beencalled, that ardent and special apprehension of half-truths, in theenthusiastic, and as it were "prophetic" advocacy of which, devotion totruth, in the case of the young--apprehending but one point at a timein the great circumference--most usually embodies itself, is levelleddown, safely enough, afterwards, as in history so in the individual, bythe weakness and mere weariness, as well as by the maturer wisdom, ofour nature. And though truth indeed, resides, as has been said, "inthe whole"--in harmonisings and adjustments like this--yet thosespecial apprehensions may still owe their full value, in this sense of"the whole," to that earlier, one-sided but ardent pre-occupation withthem.

  Cynicism and Cyrenaicism:--they are the earlier Greek forms of RomanStoicism and Epicureanism, and in that world of old Greek [20] thought,we may notice with some surprise that, in a little while, the noblerform of Cyrenaicism--Cyrenaicism cured of its faults--met the noblerform of Cynicism half-way. Starting from opposed points, they merged,each in its most refined form, in a single ideal of temperance ormoderation. Something of the same kind may be noticed regarding somelater phases of Cyrenaic theory. If it starts with considerationsopposed to the religious temper, which the religious temper holds it aduty to repress, it is like it, nevertheless, and very unlike any lowerdevelopment of temper, in its stress and earnestness, its seriousapplication to the pursuit of a very unworldly type of perfection. Thesaint, and the Cyrenaic lover of beauty, i
t may be thought, would atleast understand each other better than either would understand themere man of the world. Carry their respective positions a pointfurther, shift the terms a little, and they might actually touch.

  Perhaps all theories of practice tend, as they rise to their best, asunderstood by their worthiest representatives, to identification witheach other. For the variety of men's possible reflections on theirexperience, as of that experience itself, is not really so great as itseems; and as the highest and most disinterested ethical formulae,filtering down into men's everyday existence, reach the same poor levelof vulgar egotism, so, we may fairly suppose that all the highestspirits, from [21] whatever contrasted points they have started, wouldyet be found to entertain, in the moral consciousness realised bythemselves, much the same kind of mental company; to hold, far morethan might be thought probable, at first sight, the same personal typesof character, and even the same artistic and literary types, in esteemor aversion; to convey, all of them alike, the same savour ofunworldliness. And Cyrenaicism or Epicureanism too, new or old, may benoticed, in proportion to the completeness of its development, toapproach, as to the nobler form of Cynicism, so also to the more noblydeveloped phases of the old, or traditional morality. In the gravityof its conception of life, in its pursuit after nothing less than aperfection, in its apprehension of the value of time--the passion andthe seriousness which are like a consecration--la passion et le serieuxqui consacrent--it may be conceived, as regards its main drift, to benot so much opposed to the old morality, as an exaggeration of onespecial motive in it.

  Some cramping, narrowing, costly preference of one part of his ownnature, and of the nature of things, to another, Marius seemed to havedetected in himself, meantime,--in himself, as also in those oldmasters of the Cyrenaic philosophy. If they did realise themonochronos hedone+ as it was called--the pleasure of the "IdealNow"--if certain moments of their lives were high-pitched, passionatelycoloured, intent with sensation, [22] and a kind of knowledge which, inits vivid clearness, was like sensation--if, now and then, theyapprehended the world in its fulness, and had a vision, almost"beatific," of ideal personalities in life and art, yet these momentswere a very costly matter: they paid a great price for them, in thesacrifice of a thousand possible sympathies, of things only to beenjoyed through sympathy, from which they detached themselves, inintellectual pride, in loyalty to a mere theory that would take nothingfor granted, and assent to no approximate or hypothetical truths. Intheir unfriendly, repellent attitude towards the Greek religion, andthe old Greek morality, surely, they had been but faulty economists.The Greek religion was then alive: then, still more than in its laterday of dissolution, the higher view of it was possible, even for thephilosopher. Its story made little or no demand for a reasoned orformal acceptance. A religion, which had grown through and throughman's life, with so much natural strength; had meant so much for somany generations; which expressed so much of their hopes, in forms sofamiliar and so winning; linked by associations so manifold to man ashe had been and was--a religion like this, one would think, might havehad its uses, even for a philosophic sceptic. Yet those beautifulgods, with the whole round of their poetic worship, the school ofCyrene definitely renounced.

  [23] The old Greek morality, again, with all its imperfections, wascertainly a comely thing.--Yes! a harmony, a music, in men's ways, onemight well hesitate to jar. The merely aesthetic sense might have hada legitimate satisfaction in the spectacle of that fair order of choicemanners, in those attractive conventions, enveloping, so gracefully,the whole of life, insuring some sweetness, some security at leastagainst offence, in the intercourse of the world. Beyond an obviousutility, it could claim, indeed but custom--use-and-wont, as wesay--for its sanction. But then, one of the advantages of that libertyof spirit among the Cyrenaics (in which, through theory, they hadbecome dead to theory, so that all theory, as such, was reallyindifferent to them, and indeed nothing valuable but in its tangibleministration to life) was precisely this, that it gave them free playin using as their ministers or servants, things which, to theuninitiated, must be masters or nothing. Yet, how little the followersof Aristippus made of that whole comely system of manners or morals,then actually in possession of life, is shown by the bold practicalconsequence, which one of them maintained (with a hard,self-opinionated adherence to his peculiar theory of values) in the notvery amiable paradox that friendship and patriotism were things onecould do without; while another--Death's-advocate, as he wascalled--helped so many to self-destruction, by his [24] pessimisticeloquence on the evils of life, that his lecture-room was closed. Thatthis was in the range of their consequences--that this was a possible,if remote, deduction from the premisses of the discreet Aristippus--wassurely an inconsistency in a thinker who professed above all things aneconomy of the moments of life. And yet those old Cyrenaics felt theirway, as if in the dark, we may be sure, like other men in the ordinarytransactions of life, beyond the narrow limits they drew of clear andabsolutely legitimate knowledge, admitting what was not of immediatesensation, and drawing upon that "fantastic" future which might nevercome. A little more of such "walking by faith," a little more of suchnot unreasonable "assent," and they might have profited by a hundredservices to their culture, from Greek religion and Greek morality, asthey actually were. The spectacle of their fierce, exclusive,tenacious hold on their own narrow apprehension, makes one think of apicture with no relief, no soft shadows nor breadth of space, or of adrama without proportionate repose.

  Yet it was of perfection that Marius (to return to him again from hismasters, his intellectual heirs) had been really thinking all the time:a narrow perfection it might be objected, the perfection of but onepart of his nature--his capacities of feeling, of exquisite physicalimpressions, of an imaginative sympathy--but still, a true perfectionof those capacities, wrought out [25] to their utmost degree, admirableenough in its way. He too is an economist: he hopes, by that "insight"of which the old Cyrenaics made so much, by skilful apprehension of theconditions of spiritual success as they really are, the specialcircumstances of the occasion with which he has to deal, the specialfelicities of his own nature, to make the most, in no mean or vulgarsense, of the few years of life; few, indeed, for the attainment ofanything like general perfection! With the brevity of that sum ofyears his mind is exceptionally impressed; and this purpose makes himno frivolous dilettante, but graver than other men: his scheme is notthat of a trifler, but rather of one who gives a meaning of his own,yet a very real one, to those old words--Let us work while it is day!He has a strong apprehension, also, of the beauty of the visible thingsaround him; their fading, momentary, graces and attractions. Hisnatural susceptibility in this direction, enlarged by experience, seemsto demand of him an almost exclusive pre-occupation with the aspects ofthings; with their aesthetic character, as it is called--theirrevelations to the eye and the imagination: not so much because thoseaspects of them yield him the largest amount of enjoyment, as becauseto be occupied, in this way, with the aesthetic or imaginative side ofthings, is to be in real contact with those elements of his own nature,and of theirs, which, for him at [26] least, are matter of the mostreal kind of apprehension. As other men are concentrated upon truthsof number, for instance, or on business, or it may be on the pleasuresof appetite, so he is wholly bent on living in that full stream ofrefined sensation. And in the prosecution of this love of beauty, heclaims an entire personal liberty, liberty of heart and mind, liberty,above all, from what may seem conventional answers to first questions.

  But, without him there is a venerable system of sentiment and idea,widely extended in time and place, in a kind of impregnable possessionof human life--a system, which, like some other great products of theconjoint efforts of human mind through many generations, is rich in theworld's experience; so that, in attaching oneself to it, one lets in agreat tide of that experience, and makes, as it were with a singlestep, a great experience of one's own, and with great consequentincrease to one's sense of colour, variety, an
d relief, in thespectacle of men and things. The mere sense that one belongs to asystem--an imperial system or organisation--has, in itself, theexpanding power of a great experience; as some have felt who have beenadmitted from narrower sects into the communion of the catholic church;or as the old Roman citizen felt. It is, we might fancy, what thecoming into possession of a very widely spoken language might be, witha great literature, which is also [27] the speech of the people we haveto live among.

  A wonderful order, actually in possession of human life!--growninextricably through and through it; penetrating into its laws, itsvery language, its mere habits of decorum, in a thousand half-consciousways; yet still felt to be, in part, an unfulfilled ideal; and, assuch, awakening hope, and an aim, identical with the one onlyconsistent aspiration of mankind! In the apprehension of that, justthen, Marius seemed to have joined company once more with his own oldself; to have overtaken on the road the pilgrim who had come to Rome,with absolute sincerity, on the search for perfection. It defined notso much a change of practice, as of sympathy--a new departure, anexpansion, of sympathy. It involved, certainly, some curtailment ofhis liberty, in concession to the actual manner, the distinctions, theenactments of that great crowd of admirable spirits, who have electedso, and not otherwise, in their conduct of life, and are not here togive one, so to term it, an "indulgence." But then, under thesupposition of their disapproval, no roses would ever seem worthplucking again. The authority they exercised was like that of classictaste--an influence so subtle, yet so real, as defining the loyalty ofthe scholar; or of some beautiful and venerable ritual, in which everyobservance is become spontaneous and almost mechanical, yet is found,[28] the more carefully one considers it, to have a reasonablesignificance and a natural history.

  And Marius saw that he would be but an inconsistent Cyrenaic, mistakenin his estimate of values, of loss and gain, and untrue to thewell-considered economy of life which he had brought with him toRome--that some drops of the great cup would fall to the ground--if hedid not make that concession, if he did but remain just there.

  NOTES

  21. +Transliteration: monochronos hedone. Pater's definition "thepleasure of the ideal present, of the mystic now." The definition isfitting; the unusual adjective monochronos means, literally, "single orunitary time."

 
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