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The Ordinary Man's values
In the fourth century before Christ, Aristotle declared that the ordinary man regarded the good life as a life of physical pleasure, wealth, or honor. In the seventeenth century Spinoza reaffirmed the validity of the Aristotelian formula for his own time, substituting only the word "fame" for the word "honor." Nor is there any dearth of contemporary philosophers who would be willing to accept Spinoza's generalization as valid for the twentieth century, provided only that a term such as "social approval" be substituted for the word "fame."
Although the adequacy of such classifications of the ordinary man's goals might be debated, there can be no question that philosophers who have seen fit to express themselves on this issue have almost unanimously endorsed such classifications. At the same time they have almost unanimously denounced the ordinary man's pursuits in favor of some mode of life by which the frustrations and disillusionment which they believe inevitably to accompany these pursuits may be mitigated or overcome.
The existentialists are no exception to the general rule. In this respect they fall into a tradition almost as old as philosophy itself, and it is as the chief modern-day heirs of this tradition that they may be best understood. Their originality consists primarily in their sensitivity to certain human values which not only the ordinary man but also the classical philosophical and religious tradition tended to overlook.
The reader who has dipped only casually into existentialist literature or who knows the existentialists only at second hand may be surprised to hear the existentialists represented as advocates of a class of human values. Are they not rather nihilists? He may also be surprised to hear that the existentialists are seeking to mitigate or overcome frustration and disillusionment. Is it not rather their belief that frustration and disillusionment are integral features of the human condition?
The subtlety of the existentialist position makes it difficult to cope adequately with these questions at this point. It should, however, be borne in mind that mankind has clung so long and so tenaciously to the ordinary man's values that the negative side of any doctrine which denounces these values in favor of others will almost inevitably strike the uninitiated more forcefully than its positive side. Christ, for instance, was no nihilist; but the publican urged to abandon the flesh, the rich man asked to renounce his wealth, and the ostentatiously pious man enjoined to pray in privacy no doubt tended to think he was.
Moreover, from the fact that one denounces the ordinary ambitions of mankind as vain and preaches another way of life it does not necessarily follow that one will regard the abandonment of ordinary ambitions as a matter of little moment. Kierkegaard refused a parsonage which would have brought him a steady income, abandoned his fiancée together with the hope of a comfortable family life, and deliberately used his talent to bring ridicule upon himself—all in the conviction that comfort, money, and public approval are inferior values. Nowhere, however, did he suggest that such sacrifices come easily. On the contrary, he would certainly agree with Spinoza, who said: "If salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labor, how is it possible that it should be neglected by almost everybody? All noble things are as difficult as they are rare."
The point here is that salvation, however dearly purchased, is still salvation. The tragic sense of life which gives impetus to movements of salvation is far from being nihilistic. If the existentialists' pronouncements on the bitterness of the human condition are to be regarded as evidence of nihilism, then logic requires that the same charge be leveled at Aeschylus and Shakespeare. Like the great tragic authors of the Western world, the existentialists have mastered the technique of reaffirming the value of life while boldly depicting its horrors. Two of the most popular pieces of existentialist literature are The Philosophy of Tragedy by Léon Shestov and The Tragic Sense of Life by Unamuno; but there are few works by existentialist authors which could not appropriately have borne these titles.
There is still a third consideration which may profitably be urged at this point to help dispel the popular prejudice according to which existentialism is a nihilistic philosophy of despair. The focal aims of the ordinary man of today may be the same as those of the ordinary man in Aristotle's day—but they are not his only aims. Though inconsistently and imperfectly, the ordinary man of today has imbibed the values of the Western philosophical and religious tradition. These values figure less prominently in the actual conduct of his life than wealth, pleasure, and prestige; but he clings to them hardly less tenaciously. When, therefore, the existentialist proclaims that the messages of salvation and consolation sanctioned by tradition are no less vain than the hope of fulfillment through wordly pursuits, the ordinary man is doubly offended. Not only his first, but his second, line of defense has been breached. He is in despair. With a logic which is wholly indefensible, though understandable enough, he cries: I am in despair, you have reduced me to despair, therefore you are in despair. But no! the existentialist answers. You were in despair in the first place. It is for that reason you have heard and understood me when I stripped you of your illusions. All that I have done is to make you fully conscious of your despair, and now if you will listen further I will help you master your despair.
If, of course, the existentialists' uncompromising rejection of the so-called worldly values and of traditional messages of salvation is unwarranted or if their own message of salvation rests upon illusions peculiar to themselves, then the movement may properly be regarded as nihilistic in effect. But the movement is not nihilistic in intent.
Values in Traditional Philosophy
In view of the richness and variety of the Western heritage, traditional philosophers' criticisms of the ordinary man's way of life are remarkably uniform, and the basic strategies by which they hoped to free themselves from the evils they believe to characterize that way of life, surprisingly few.
A life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and fame has been condemned on three grounds. First, the attainment of such goals depends only in small part upon the efforts of the individual himself. External circumstances almost too numerous to catalogue and almost wholly beyond the individual's control may thwart him at any moment. Second, no matter how successful the individual has been, he cannot be secure in his possessions. The caprice of a king, the cunning of an enemy, a natural catastrophe such as flood or earthquake may cause him to lose everything in a single day. Third, even if the individual attained and secured the goals he originally set for himself, the satisfaction he experienced would be short-lived and he would soon revert to a life of painful striving. There is no natural limit to the amount of wealth, fame, or pleasure which a man may covet, and the brief satisfaction he experiences upon the attainment of some degree of these goods only whets his appetite for more. The desire for these worldly or material goods is like an itch. There is a momentary satisfaction when the desire is apparently fulfilled, as there is when one scratches an itch. But it would be better to be without the desire altogether, as it would be better to be without the itch. A life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, or fame is thus by its nature a life of frustration, insecurity, and painful striving—illuminated perhaps by moments of brief satisfaction but without lasting value.
Of the various techniques philosophers have recommended to emancipate oneself from the ordinary man's round of desire, the simplest and most radical is that of the Stoics. Since the common source of frustration, insecurity, and painful striving is desire, one need only root it out. Suppress one's desires and accept willingly whatever the external circumstances of one's life may be. "Seek not," says the Stoic slave philosopher Epictetus, "that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life." We cannot command goods such as wealth, pleasure, or fame; these depend upon accident or good fortune rather than voluntary individual efforts. But we can command our hopes and fears, our desires and aversions, since these have their source within us.
The signs of resignation and world-weariness in the Stoic counsel are evident, and the great popularity of Stoicism during the Hellenistic period must be attributed in large part to the political disorders and economic uncertainties of that era in ancient history. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Stoicism as nothing more than a philosophy of resignation. There was nothing flabby or self-indulgent in the Stoics' renunciation of worldly ambitions, as the common phrase "stoic heroism" rightly indicates. If the Stoics were pessimistic in their estimate of what man could achieve in the world, they were by no means pessimistic about what man could achieve within himself. Their goal was not merely quiescence or absence of desire, but also a sense of individual dignity to be achieved by rigorous self-discipline. Indifference or apathy with respect to the natural and social environment is only one side of their doctrine. The other side is the energetic pursuit of independence through a proud exercise of the human will; and it is this latter half of the doctrine which sets Stoicism apart from the more radical philosophies of resignation which until recent times prevailed in the Orient.
The second basic type of philosophy by which men have hoped to overcome the ills of ordinary life is in one sense directly opposed to that of the Stoics. For want of a more generic title, it will be referred to as the philosophy of the Enlightenment. This philosophy, like that of the Stoics, reflects the social conditions of the era in which it thrived and is utterly unthinkable in a society unacquainted with a well-advanced technology. Let it be granted, say thinkers of this school, that the individual cannot by his own efforts hope to attain and enjoy in security the goods of this world. It does not necessarily follow that the individual must adjust to this fact as an ultimate necessity. To be sure, an unfavorable physical environment may impede the achievement of the human desire for worldly goods, but by a concerted and rational effort men may and should reshape their physical environment so as to promote rather than impede the achievement of these desires. To be sure, political, economic, and social institutions may stand as obstacles in the way of individual fulfillment, but again concerted and rational efforts may and should be undertaken to devise institutions which will promote individual fulfillment. The part of wisdom is to act upon and to modify the world rather than to act upon and modify original human desires.
The Enlightenment outlook may seem very close to that of the ordinary man. In fact, however, the two outlooks are poles apart. More often than not the ordinary man's political sentiments are avowedly conservative. And even in those cases where he formally favors political or social reform, his primary concern is happiness for himself during his lifetime and his field of action a narrow one. He takes his physical and social environment more or less for granted as a stable framework within which he seeks personal well-being. The Enlightenment philosophers, on the contrary, took it more or less for granted that individual well-being within the existing physical and social environment is impossible; and even the most optimistic of them were aware that the creation of a favorable environment would require the co-operative endeavors of many men over many generations.
Although, therefore, Enlightenment philosophers sanction the goal of worldly happiness and to this extent belong in the camp of the ordinary man, they are in reality much closer to the Stoics. For them it is mankind, not the existing individual, who can achieve worldly happiness. The existing individual lives in a world which must inevitably thwart his primary desires, and he must adjust to this fact, as did the Stoics, by a change of mind and heart. That change of mind and heart will produce a zeal for social reform and lead him to act upon the world, but it will not lead to the fulfillment of his personal desire for worldly goods. The happiness available to the existing individual is that of the generous idealist who can identify in imagination with the whole of mankind, thus vicariously enjoying the happiness of future generations. As these implications of the Enlightenment attitude became more evident, especially with the failure of the French Revolution, the movement itself was gradually transformed into a humanism, of which Auguste Comte's religious cult of humanity in the nineteenth century was an extreme expression.
The third basic method by which philosophers have hoped to escape the frustration, insecurity, and painful striving which they believe to be part and parcel of the ordinary man's life is by far the most common. The values of the ordinary man, it will be recalled, were rejected on the grounds that they are ephemeral and impossible of achievement without external aid. Why not, then, seek out an object of allegiance which is not ephemeral and to which man may relate with a minimum of outside help? In this case it is not a question, as with the Stoics, of suppressing all desire, nor, as with the philosophers of the Enlightenment, of creating an environment which permits the realization of worldly desires. The aim is rather to redirect desire toward some eternal object, it alone being considered worthy of deep human concern.
The first of the great philosophers to take this path were Socrates and Plato, but their fellow travelers include almost all the major figures in philosophy up to and including Hegel. They are, in fact, so numerous and their quarrels among themselves occupy so important a place in the history of philosophy that it is only from the vantage point of the present day that the essential similarity begins to come into view, and even from the vantage point of the present day their differences remain as important as their points in common.
In the Symposium, one of Plato's most remarkable dialogues, a group of Athenians have gathered together in order to celebrate a dramatic success of the host. At a certain point in the celebration the entertainers are sent away, and it is proposed that each of the guests, Socrates among them, make a speech in praise of love. The last of the speeches is by the wealthy, pleasure-loving, and popular Alcibiades. Unwilling to compete with Socrates on the theme of love, he decides instead to deliver a eulogy of Socrates. Ironically, he praises Socrates for his total indifference to pleasure, wealth, and honor, illustrating his theme with numerous examples from the life of the subject. The chief interest of the dialogue, however, is the speech of Socrates, in which indifference to the ordinary man's values is explained and justified.
Socrates begins his speech by remarking that those who spoke before him were too extravagant in their praise of love. Love, he says, is a symbol of want or need, not of completion or fulfillment. To love is to desire, and to desire is to seek; but nobody seeks that which he already possesses. We seek only that which we lack. The lover may, of course, enter into possession of the body of the beloved, but even then he is inflamed by the desire to perpetuate his good fortune and continues to seek a future happiness, which as future is beyond his grasp. Moreover, so long as the object of the lover is the beauty of another's body, the lover is doomed to disappointment; for the beauty of the body soon fades. Even if the object of the lover is the beauty of another's soul, he still faces inevitable disappointment. A beautiful soul may survive the decay of the body; but it, too, in its own way is a fragile and finite object. The lover can be secure only if the object of his search is the pure, simple, and eternal Idea of beauty itself—a transcendent object of which finite things are but perishable and imperfect copies.
A fuller understanding of these remarks on love is possible only within the framework of Platonic metaphysics. For Plato all things may be placed within one of two categories. On the one hand, there are things such as the Idea of beauty itself which are immutable, self-sufficient, and eternal. On the other hand, there are things such as the human body which exist in time and which are not sufficient unto themselves. The former alone belong to the realm of Being in the true sense of the word "Being." The latter belong to the domain of Becoming. They come into existence and pass out of existence; and so long as they are in existence, they are subject to change through the impact of other objects. Although for Plato the principal items in the realm of Being are Ideas, the gods also people this realm. For this reason Socrates in his speech on love chastises the other speakers for referring to love as a god. It is ridiculous, says Socrates, that the gods should love; for to love is to lack, and a god lacks nothing.
Excerpted from An Introduction to Existentialism by Robert G. Olson. Copyright © 1962 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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