In Job's Balances \ III \ Vehement Words


     Socrates' decision to set his daemon with its enigmatic "suddenly" (eksaiphnęs) in the place of the logos and the physikę anankę was, of course, the first step towards a breach with scientific philosophy. He would have been answered that men - if each man were to appeal to his own daemon - could never agree together, and that a senseless chaos and an intolerable discord would arise in place of the compelling unity and the necessary concord which he strove to attain in his first life. Such a reply would have seemed quite unanswerable to the Socrates of two thousand five hundred years ago. He might even have decided to abandon his daemon, or at least to relegate it to the background. This daemon is precisely the "unrest" which so distinguished Socrates from his contemporaries, and also from his successors. But in the two thousand five hundred years of his life in the world beyond, outside history, Socrates has presumably learnt a good deal; perhaps the doctrine of the twofold truth has been revealed to him in the other world, and perhaps also the doctrine that even in our empirical existence the truth cannot and will not be one alone; in other words, that truth tolerates no unity, even as it tolerates no immutability.

     The basic quality of truth from beyond, i.e. metaphysical truth in our world, is the mutability so feared and shunned by man, and the incessant unrest bound up with this mutability. Therefore, I repeat, philosophy can never reconcile itself with science. Science aims at self-evident truths and finds in them that "natural necessity" which, after having proclaimed itself for ever eternal, claims to serve as the foundation of all knowledge and strives to rule over all wanton "suddenly". But philosophy has always been, and will always be, a fight with and a conquest of self-evident truths; philosophy is not looking for any "natural necessity", it sees in naturalness and in necessity alike an evil magic, which, if one cannot quite shake it off (for in this no mortal has ever yet succeeded), yet one must at least call by its right name; and even this is an important step! Accordingly the theory of knowledge, in so far as it is philosophy, strives, if not openly, at least in secret, not to justify positive knowledge but to chasten it. Almost every philosopher has kept himself a Deus ex machina, small, perhaps, but sovereign, for emergencies. Even the care-free Epicures speaks, it seems to me, with ill-concealed exultation of the barely perceptible but yet arbitrary and entirely ungrounded deviation of the atom from its "natural" direction. The deeper and bolder a philosopher's knowledge has been, the more he has mingled the wormwood of the problematic and inexplicable with the honey of comprehensible knowledge; thus even the Stoics, who have usually been held for materialists and rationalists, yet not only never rejected the "miraculous" but sought and even performed miracles just like the other schools of philosophy.

     I will quote here a small section out of Epictetus's Diatribes, in which the essence of Stoicism is expressed more accurately than in Seneca's interminable writings, or in all the meditations of the Stoics that have come down to us. Epictetus says: "Verily this is the wand of Mercury; all that thou touchest with it will become gold. Give me what thou wilt and I will turn it into a Good (ho theleis phere, kagô auto agathon poięsô). Bring hither sickness and death, poverty and suffering, condemnation to death; through the magic wand all this shall be turned to profit." (Diatr. III, 20.) So Epictetus could speak at times, and herein lies the ultimate meaning, the heart's ambition of Stoicism. Not only Epictetus, not only the Stoics hold this view of the tasks of philosophy. The fundamental problem of philosophy has always been an ontological one. Philosophers have always rebelled, openly in antiquity and secretly today, against the role of outside "observers" assigned them by the uninitiated. They have wanted, like Epictetus, to do miracles, to create supreme values out of the useless, the waste stuff of life, even out of absolute nothingness itself. Every one knows that poverty and sickness, condemnation and death are matter out of which nothing can be created; that is so apparent, so undeniable a truth that only fools or madmen could contest it. Epictetus, however, who, of course, knows very well what "every one thinks, says fearlessly that every one is wrong, and declares solemnly that he possesses Mercury's wand through whose touch the ugliest and most frightful of things is turned into beauty and "the good".

     I have mentioned several times, but I think it well to repeat once more, that the history of philosophy has always underestimated the importance of Stoicism. It is, indeed, impossible to name any philosophic system the basis and deepest roots of which are not Stoic. In speaking of truth, all philosophers have aimed at almighty power; all have sought after Mercury's wand, whose touch changes any object into pure gold. In this respect Plotinus is much nearer to Epictetus than to Aristotle or even Plato. Plotinus, too, has as his first aim to break through the walls of self-evident truth and reach the open spaces of free creation; this is why ethics and theodicy take so prominent a place in his writings. Ethics in Plotinus, as in Epictetus and modern philosophy, is the doctrine of the possibility of an unmotivated action, or rather of an action without a cause; for that reason ethics has always wished to be autonomous; it does not recognize the "law" of sufficient reason, it has its own "law".

     Usually men bring their actions into harmony with the conditions of their existence: man has a natural desire to be healthy, and therefore chooses the nourishment suitable to his health; man wishes to be rich, and therefore, he works in the sweat of his brow and saves for a rainy day; man wishes to live long, therefore he avoids dangers, seeks strong friends and allies, etc. The Stoics and Plotinus after them reject all these "therefores" with scorn; they refuse to accept health, riches, etc., everything by which the actions of men are directed, as sufficient "reason". Other "fools" direct themselves by these things and see in them a "good" because they themselves can create no goods and receive them ready-made from nature's hands. Epictetus points out again and again that everything not done by man is indifferent to man; only what man himself creates, which is therefore in his power, is important. In his "doctrine" that the soul must liberate itself from the body in order to awake to freedom, Plotinus obviously agrees with Epictetus; he, too, refuses to accept a ready-made "good" from nature or even from the hands of the gods; man must create his own good, and what he cannot himself create has no value. Like Epictetus, Plotinus despises not only riches, health, and honour, but also friends, kinsmen, and even his fatherland; he is inexhaustible in proofs that all these things are no goods, but illusions, and that only the folly of man could hold illusion for reality.

     Interesting, too, is the following argument in Plotinus's ethics, which is also closely akin to the line of argument of the Stoics, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and others. He accepts without hesitation the principle that the whole is more than its parts, and deduces that if we wish to understand life, we must look on the world as a whole without considering the fate of the single individual. Then that which seems valueless or bad to us becomes valuable and good, even as a picture cannot consist of bright and shining colours alone, or a play of virtuous and noble heroes alone; unimportant and ridiculous characters must also come on the scene. This favourite argument of the Stoics' was taken over whole by Plotinus and occupies a central place in his "system". The fates of individual men do not interest him; or rather, according to his doctrine, they should not interest any one. When a solemn procession moves upward to the temple and treads a toad under foot on the way, because it was too cumbrous and heavy to escape in time, is that a reason for perturbation? And suppose it is not a toad but a man - perhaps Job in the Bible - would there be any more "reason" for perturbation? There can be no question of it. Our inquiry must be directed quite differently. We must consider not individual cases but the general, the whole. Then we shall attain what is most necessary; then we shall get Mercury's wand and do miracles; we shall transform poverty, banishment, sickness, and death itself into good. Then ethics will replace ontology and we shall be able to forget Job and his "words that are swallowed up".

Orphus system

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