Stoicism and Enthusiasm

It’s a depressing thought, really. No getting around it. It’s depressing and discouraging – in fact it’s tragic – to think that our best qualities are so inseparable from our worst. That (if this idea has anything right about it) we can’t even aim to make things better, do great things, right wrongs, improve the world, without risking turning into a butcher or an apologist for butchers. But it seems difficult to deny. Of course some people manage it, of course there have been improvers who don’t become homicidal maniacs or their lackeys. But the inherent risk of it seems difficult to deny – I suppose because the two seem to be actually the same thing only in different forms. What the Romantics valued as intensity, what Hume and James Mill suspected or scorned as enthusiasm. Passion. The Stoics were very wary of it, too. Horatio is a Stoic. ‘Give me that man that is not passion’s slave,’ says Hamlet admiringly, ‘and I will wear him at my heart’s core.’ But we don’t love Horatio, we love Hamlet, and with good reason. He cares – and not just about himself, though some productions give that impression; no, he cares about the world, about the something rotten in Denmark; he cares about love and memory and loyalty and truth. As he should. And yet what havoc he wreaks – as people who care often do.

No, the safest course is to take things as they are, to roll with the punches, to be laid-back, to eat what’s put on your plate. Montaigne knew that, living as he did in the midst of a bloody civil war about (in reality) nothing – disagreements over theology. But…

But this is where the hesitant good word for utopia comes in. There is some obstinate core in me somewhere that thinks we shouldn’t just take things as they are, shouldn’t just settle for the world as it is. That we should want to and try to make things better. And yet I know how quickly and easily that kind of thing can run amok – into orthodoxy-imposing and heresy-hunting, persecution and excommunication, and thinking of people as large abstract units to be shoved around or eliminated and then forgotten. It seems safer to cultiver the old jardin and let it go at that. But then – that thought ‘could do better’ returns. We could be less selfish, less greedy, less trivial…Yes and be more like Ted Kasczynski, I suppose. Ted, meet Osama; Osama, Ted. Have a nice day.

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