We may live dangerously for mercy has a human heart

July 21, 2012
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 21st July 2012

There have been some splendid books recently on philosophy as a way of life, among them Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, subtitled Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, and Jules Evans’ Philosophy for Life. Readable and engaging, they recover for us the wisdom of the ancients, Epictetus, Seneca, Epicurus, the Stoics, Sceptics and Cynics – a group more profound and honest than much of today’s If-you-want-it-you-can-have-it literature of self-help.

There is a compelling logic about Greek thought in the three centuries before the birth of Christianity and the Roman Sages for two centuries thereafter. For them, life, nature and the universe are governed by inexorable laws that are fundamentally indifferent to our existence. We are biological creatures. We are born, we live, we die. There is no transcendent purpose to existence. At best we are creatures of reason, and by using reason we can cure ourselves of emotional excess. Purged of both hope and fear, we find courage in the face of helplessness, insignificance and uncertainty.

So: consider worst-case scenarios and realise that the worst that can happen is not that bad. Don’t get too attached to anyone or anything and you will spare yourself the tragedy of loss. Don’t be afraid to die because, as Epicurus put it, when we are here, death is not, and when death is here, we are not. Besides which, if life gets too bad, you can always end it. The Stoics accepted suicide with astonishing equanimity. Their highest aspiration was apatheia, a passionless equanimity in the face of all things, all fates. There is something noble, if also something inhuman, about this view of life.

Why then was I never attracted to this way of life? Because it is risk-averse. Because it celebrates detachment rather than attachment. Because it lacks the exuberance and vulnerability of love. Because it is about the self and self-control rather than about opening oneself to the other. Because it is predicated on keeping the rest of humanity at a distance. Because it plays it safe.

It is no accident that the heroes of these recent books – and they are real heroes – tend to be soldiers under fire, prisoners of war, hostages or victims of terror, people who survived the kind of adversity that would break the rest of us. Under such circumstances the Stoic virtues are indeed life-saving and awe-inspiring. But to think of this as a metaphor for life as a whole is strange indeed. How did people come to think this way?

We forget, and contemporary writers fail to remind us, that these philosophies were expressions of a civilization in decline. The Epicureans, Cynics and Sceptics had seen Athens past its prime. Centuries later Seneca had witnessed at close quarters two corrupt emperors, Caligula and Nero. When people feel that the great days of a culture are over, that public life has been debased, that service, honour and integrity no longer rule the minds of those who rule our destiny and that we are in the grip of forces we can’t control, they turn inward, looking for a safe space where they can find solace in cultivating the higher pleasures of the mind while the rest of society rushes, lemming-like, to its destruction.

There is another way: the way of Abraham and the prophets and those who are inspired by them. They believe that we are more than biological organisms. The universe is more than mere matter in motion. It and we were brought into being by a Creator who seeks our good. When we love and make loving commitments, we create families and communities within which people can grow and take risks, knowing that hands will be there to catch them should they fall. In an ecology of love, people can relate in trust and face the future without fear. They do not need to play it safe. They can take uncertainty in their stride.

They do not believe that the deepest wisdom is impersonal. With William Blake they sense that “Mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face, And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress.” They believe with perfect faith that “Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell, There God is dwelling too.”

Compared to Stoicism, this is a high-risk strategy. It makes you vulnerable to betrayal, misunderstanding, ridicule and abuse. But civilizations that live by taking the risk of love never grow old, while those that play it safe always do.