In Job's Balances \ III \ Vehement Words


     Now I think it is time to recall Pascal and his considerations on Epictetus. Epictetus was the philosopher whom Pascal loved best. He esteemed in him the man who had grasped the idea of duty better than any other. In so far as Epictetus preached submission to fate and readiness to accept from the gods, without murmur, the difficulties of life, Pascal was altogether on his side. Yet something repelled him from Epictetus. And this "something" he called, in a very strong phrase, "superbe diabolique". We may, I think, assume that Pascal found this "diabolical pride" in the words which I quoted above. Epictetus believed that he was the most modest of men, and that his gift of working miracles, far from being in contradiction with his general doctrine of our duties towards the gods, grew, on the contrary, logically and naturally out of his doctrine. Our duty, our very first duty, was to live "in accordance with nature", and thus he who lives in accordance with nature achieves most. The teaching of Plotinus appears at first sight to be the same. For him too the miracle of final union with God is only possible for those who by katharsis, by faultless fulfillment of supreme duty, have put their souls in a state in which the barriers which divide man from the higher world drop away automatically. To be able to perceive supreme beauty our soul must first itself become beautiful. And just like the Stoics, Plotinus sees katharsis in liberation from the power of the body. And Plotinus - I emphasize this now because it is of decisive importance, hymned his miracle of the final liberation and union with God incomparably better than Epictetus his Mercury's wand. But they were both seeking the miracle. The manner of seeking was the same with both; both were convinced that it is only after overcoming the self-evident truths transmitted to us by the senses that we can attain the last freedom, the freedom of creation out of nothingness which Epictetus calls the good and Plotinus union with God.

     Pascal did not know Plotinus; but I think that if he had known him, he would have spoken of superbe diabolique in his case also. And he would have kept this opinion, even if his learned friends from Port Royal had pointed out that St. Augustine himself had been unable to withstand the charm of the last great Greek philosopher, and that the works of the leading Fathers of the Church and of the incomparable mediaeval mystics are full of Plotinus's spirit; he would - strange as it may seem at first sight - have cried out with fear and horror that behind this lies without doubt an "enchantement et assoupissement surnaturel"; in other words, that the ambition entertained both by the Stoics and also by the Neo-Platonists and the Early Fathers and mystics who were influenced by Greek philosophy, of overcoming self-evident truth, has been transformed by supernatural force into its contrary. Both Epictetus, who believed that he possessed Mercury's magic wand, and Plotinus, who thought that after liberation from the body he would climb up to heaven and unite with the Divine Essence, were victims of their pride. They wanted to be as God and to create out of nothingness; and they created out of nothingness and thought that their creation could be ranked with God's creation or even above it.

     How could so mad a thought occur to man, and above all, to men like Epictetus and Plotinus? Is it not clear that a supernatural force is at work here? And is it not clear that in all this what should interest us most is not so much Epictetus's and Plotinus's unusual "achievements", but rather this unknown and obviously supernatural force which condemned the highest efforts of such notable men to fruitlessness? Epictetus and Plotinus triumph; they think that they have at last overcome the unrest instilled into them by Socrates, that they no longer need to seek with unrest, but may extol and preach. Plotinus seems even to have forgotten that he has renounced reason, and hopes with the help of this very reason to change the visions granted him at particular moments into general and necessary judgments accessible to all men at any time. Perhaps Plotinus himself did not want this. Perhaps it was only his pupils who demanded it, because it was only under this condition that they could learn anything from him.

     It was Porphyry and all those who studied Plotinus's published works who sought and found in him general and necessary judgments. Of himself we know from Porphyry's testimony that he never re-read what he had written down; he suspected that if he read what he had once written, repeated what he had once said, his "truth" would become a "judgment"; and every judgment is the death of truth. And he could have repudiated responsibility for what his pupils or "history" have made of his achievements; he aimed at liberation from the power of the Greek ideas, which were dictated by reason; for the ancient world knew no salvation outside reason. He knew, as we have seen, that epistÍmÍ and logos mean multiplicity, or, expressed in modern language, in Zeller's lucid phrase, he had lost absolute confidence in reason. He saw that reason had the power to destroy the world, that it could indeed "prove" the deception and illusory existence of all things, but that it had not the power to create anything out of nothing, for reason has above it the ineluctable law: ex nihilo nihil fit.

     It seems therefore that in his battle against self-evident truths Plotinus directed his attacks against the wrong quarter; he was absolutely right in saying that human souls are in a state of sleep; equally right was his violent struggle to awake out of that sleep. The ceaseless unrest which filled his soul is still perceptible to us in the inner enthusiasm which shines through his works. But he, like Epictetus and all other philosophers, in so far as they speak to man, are forced to begin with the supposition that everything here on earth has a beginning and an end. But unrest is only the beginning, the beginning which must lead before our eyes to some end; for like the laws of ex nihilo nihil fit and "the whole is greater than the part", so too the law that everything which has a beginning has also an end, is a fundamental principle of reason. These are all self-evident facts which cannot be contested; for it is also axiomatic that one cannot aim at the impossible.

     Finally, one more self-evident law which is of especial importance to us here: philosophy must teach man, in no other way can it justify its existence. So Socrates, too, thought. He called himself a gadfly, declared that his role consisted, so to speak, in stinging men up, in transmitting the unrest of which he could not free himself. But even Socrates could not confine himself to this role; even he was burdened by the self-evident truths, which he did not dare attack. He awakened and stung men, but he also promised them truth, a new world, where none would sleep but all wake; in other words, he promised to free the old world from the magic of the evil powers.

     Epictetus was not the first to proclaim that power was given him to transform the ugly and terrible into the good and beautiful. It was Socrates who, seduced by the words of the Delphic god that he was the wisest of all men, dreamed, first of the philosophers, of his omnipotence. Apollo seduced Socrates, and Socrates seduced the next generation of Greek philosophers; it was he who, as Plato bears witness in the Apology, said in his defence that, contrary to self-evident truth, no one could do harm to a good man. Moreover, Socrates demanded that his assertion of his should be recognized as reasonable, i.e. as universally valid, necessary, and more self-evident than daily experience; for that experience teaches us, as Spinoza says, that success and failure fall in equal measure to the just and the unjust. Epictetus in his fiery outcry was only pouring new life into an old thought of Socrates'. Plotinus also, when he wished to teach men, sought the truth from Socrates; in his Enneads (III, ii, 6), he repeats this phrase of Socrates' word for word.

Orphus system

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