On Friendship by Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, famous for popularising the essay as a literary genre. The final edition of the Essays was published posthumously in 1595. It was divided into three books containing 107 essays, featuring some of the most influential essays ever written. The first edition, published in 1580, was quickly translated into English and some scholars have detected the influence of Montaigne’s thoughts and phrasing in Shakespeare’s plays.

Essayer

I’ve always loved the fact that our English word, essay, comes direct from the French, essai, which is the noun form of the verb essayer meaning ‘to try’. So an essay is a try or trial, or attempt, to marshall your thoughts on a particular topic, to see if they make sense and hang together.

Thus Montaigne’s essays are the opposite of what most written texts up to his time had been, namely dogmatic and didactic. Instead they are tentative explorations, of what he knows or can find out on a particular topic. They are experiments in knowing.

A novel kind of autobiography

And this explains why he, Montaigne, is such a persistent presence in so many of the essays. They address not only the nominal subjects but continually shed light on “some traits of my character and of my humours.” They are experiments in what he knows or can understand. Or, as he admitted in the introduction, “I am myself the matter of this book”. As well as meditations on specific subjects, his essays build up to become a novel and innovative form of autobiography.

Que sais-je?

And the most attractive quality that comes over from the essays is Montaigne’s frank scepticism. As a devout Catholic he believed that whereas truth, like God, is infinite, the human capacity to grasp it is very finite, very limited. Chances are there’s nothing we can really know for sure. Hence the personal motto he adopted and had engraved on the medal he wore round his neck in the handful of portraits we have of him: ‘Que sais-je?’ – ‘What do I know?’

What, indeed. This scepticism is often generalised into commiseration for the plight of humans, endowed with a divine spark but trapped in a body fragile and finite and subject to a thousand afflictions, in a mind easily buffeted by emotions or pain.

In his own time Montaigne’s extensive inclusion of his own thoughts and reflections in his essays was criticised, but over the course of the centuries, as the essay’s factual knowledge or classical references have become outdated and antiquarian, it is the autobiographical element which has endured and continues to attract many readers.

All this is very well, but for most modern readers the most striking thing about these essays will probably be the way they contain blizzards of quotations from ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts. In Montaigne’s day these classical quotes were what data and statistics are to modern essays – his evidence, his proof. Nowadays, they are mostly a pain to read (and a double pain because, since most of them are in Latin, most of us have to read them in translation, further undermining their utility) and the temptation is just to skip them.

To be precise, in these 13 pages Montaigne quotes from Horace (4 times), Cicero (3 times), Catullus (twice), Terence (twice), Ariosto, Plato and Virgil.

Montaigne on friendship

Montaigne’s essay on friendship forms chapter 28 of Book I. It is 13 pages long in the Penguin edition.

He commences with a self deprecating description of the essays themselves:

What are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?

But it quickly becomes clear that the main body of the text is going to describe in some detail his friendship with an older writer named Étienne de la Boétie.

Montaigne starts by explaining how, some years earlier, a Latin satire against tyranny by de la Boétie came into his hands and was his first introduction to the man who would go on to become a friend of unique depth and unanimity. Which leads us into his theme:

There is nothing for which nature seems to have given us such a bent as for society.

Of a perfect society friendship is the peak.

Insofar as human relationships involve cause or aim or incentive, motives or calculation – they are not true friendships, which are pure and selfless.

The love between parents and children is nothing like it, for parents cannot confess their feelings and thoughts without showing inappropriate intimacy, and children cannot chastise their parents – but a good friend can.

Brothers ought to be friends but the fact that they have to make their same way in the world, from the same place, at the same time, inevitably gives rise to jostling and rivalry. Also, the connection between brothers is imposed by nature and fact, whereas the essence of friendship is that it is freely given.

Love binds strangers but it is reckless and changeable and fickle. Friendship, by contrast, is temperate and constant.

Sexual desire is the opposite of friendship. It is a burning flame which vanishes as soon as it is achieved whereas friendship doesn’t flame out but grows the more it is possessed. The more you are in company with a friend, talking, joking, the deeper the friendship becomes.

Marriages can be close but are built on legal and moral restraints, unlike friendship which encourages total freedom.

In a passage which eliminates half the population from his fan club, Montaigne asserts that women lack the depth and constancy required for friendship:

The normal capacity of women is unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond [of friendship] is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie. (p.95)

Homosexuality, even as practiced by the high-minded Greeks was, so far as we can tell, all about the external appearance of beautiful young men i.e. not about mature minds, like the friendship Montaigne is extolling. There is an inequality built into the love between an older man and a younger youth which, in the base and vulgar, often involves fishing for money or advancement.

And so, after this consideration of alternative social bonds, back to Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de la Boétie. He feels it was fated by a ‘power of destiny’, because they knew of each other’s books before they met. And as soon as they met they had a complete mutual understanding. In fact De la Boétie wrote a work on the power of their attraction. It didn’t grow slowly through a hundred and one meetings and occurrences, but was the whole thing immediately. They lost themselves in each other and henceforth both were part of the other.

A digression to the story (told by Cicero in his essay on friendship) about Laelius questioning Gaius Blossius about his friendship with Gaius Gracchus, after the latter was arrested for sedition. ‘Would you have done anything for him?’ asks Laelius. ‘Even set the temples on fire?’ ‘He would never have asked such a thing,’ says Blossius. ‘Yes, but if he had, would you have?’ asks Laelius, and Blossius replies ‘Yes’. Cicero, the conservative patriot, thinks this is a disgraceful answer and uses it to establish a rule that we should do anything for a friend unless it leads us into immoral behaviour at which point we should immediately stop and drop the friend. Montaigne, on the other hand, admires Blossius’s answer. Friendship means total abandonment to each other’s wills and personalities.

It is a deliberate indication of the distance between Cicero’s stern Republican patriotism and Montaigne’s politically detached, sophisticated humanism.

Montaigne and de la Boétie’s souls and will were as one, they travelled together, read and talked together, they saw into each other’s hearts.

Montaigne draws a distinction between the Super Friendship he is describing, and all the other ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships which most of us experience. With those one can never relax because you are never truly united with each other. One must ride with one hand on the bridle because at any moment this more superficial type of friend might do something unpredictable, questionable or immoral, and you must be ready to pull away.

By contrast the Super Friendship he is describing does not count help and gifts because there is a complete ‘fusion of wills’ and so helping your friend requires no more explanation than helping yourself. All concepts such as benefit, obligation, gratitude, request and thanks are inappropriate because they imply separation where there is no separation; there is a complete fusion of two souls.

He tells a story from antiquity about a man who draws up a will bequeathing his two friends, not money and goods, but the obligations (to look after his mother and marry off his daughter) which he left unfulfilled at his death. Bystanders thought this was hilarious, but it displays the quality of True Friendship which is that you are grateful to undertake obligations for your friend – you consider it an honour.

Mind you, the fact that the story names two friends to the dying man is an imperfection i.e. it depicts three friends. Friendship of the type Montaigne is describing is only possible between two men and no more.

Again he draws a distinction between ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships, which are divisible i.e. you love one man for his beauty, another for his easy manner, another for his liberality and so on – and the grand True Friendship he is describing. This second type ‘dissolves all other obligations’. It is ‘absolutely single and indivisible’. A friendship like this is rare indeed and only comes along once in a lifetime, if then:

It is easy enough to find men fit for a superficial acquaintance, but here, where a man commits himself from the depths of his heart, keeping nothing back, it is essential that all the springs of action be perfectly clean and reliable. (p.101)

Compared with the four years during which Montaigne knew de la Boétie, the rest of his life seems like smoke, ‘but a dark and tedious night’ (p.103). He had grown so used to being completely united with him, that since his death he feels like half a man.

The text ends with a page explaining that he was minded to republish his friend’s essay against tyranny within his own book of essays except that it has recently been published by ‘those who wish to change the form of the French government’ (he means French Protestants who were engaged in a long low-level conflict with the Catholic authorities which periodically burst out into open civil war). And these enemies have published de la Boétie’s essay in a collection lumped in amid a load of their own tracts as if de la Boétie was one of theirs – which Montaigne strongly objects to. He goes on to emphasise that the essay was written when his friend was only 16, as a schoolboy exercise, and so doesn’t reflect his mature thought.

Finally, Montaigne concludes by emphasising that, contrary to the implication of the essay being published by Protestant subversives, his friend was a good Catholic and law-abiding patriot. This maxim was imprinted on his soul:

That he must most religiously obey and submit to the laws under which he was born. There was never a better citizen, nor one who cared more for his country’s peace; no one more hostile to the commotions and revolutions of his time. (p.105)

Hm. So although he was at pains to separate himself from Cicero’s moralising patriotism, Montaigne himself ends up doing something similar in the end, asserting, albeit a little more subtly, the value of true religion and patriotic feeling.

Thoughts

Having written a brief introduction to Montaigne which emphasised the modernity of his sceptical and experimental approach, I was, to be honest, surprised that the essay on friendship is so very much in thrall to ancient philosophy, to notions of Oneness and Uniqueness deriving from Plato and the Stoics in its depiction of the Super Friendship between him and de la Boétie.

Surprised and a dismayed. It felt much more medieval than I remembered Montaigne to be. He sounds more like Cicero, who died 1,600 years earlier, than Bacon, who was only a 28 years his junior, and gives frank, realistic advice which we can all relate to. A bit staggering that the droll, pithy Bacon overlaps with Cicero-quoting Montaigne and was writing his early, pithy essays as Montaigne was writing his final, wordy ones. They feel worlds apart.

Second reflection is that the essay should really be called ‘Super Friendship: On The One Unique Soul-Sharing Friendship Which Comes Only Once In A Lifetime’. It would be handy if that was more clearly explained at the start. And it would clarify that Montaigne doesn’t really touch on the practical aspects of ordinary friendship and acquaintance, such as you or I might experience them.

Third reflection is that the extenuation of de la Boétie which concludes the essay sheds light back on everything which preceded it. It makes you wonder whether Montaigne’s entire motivation for writing the essay was less an objective exploration of the quality of (super) friendship than to mount a spirited defence of his friend from posthumous accusations of treachery. A suspicion fortified when you learn that, instead of publishing his friend’s essay in the body of this volume, he published 29 sonnets by de la Boétie. I.e. that the essay is less a reflection about friendship than an embodiment of the obligations and responsibilities he felt towards a particular friend.

In that respect it exemplifies, it’s a contemporary embodiment, of the story about the Roman citizen who left his friends not his fortune but his obligations. It’s of a piece.

The essay is fairly interesting in its working through and conceptualisation of the type of Super Friendship he’s chosen to describe, but does feel rather airless and asphyxiating in the same kind of way that Cicero does, in circumscribed by a limiting agenda. I prefer being in the real world with Bacon and his practical maxims.

You could almost say that Montaigne demonstrates (in this essay at least) the kind of thralldom to ancient wisdom and to famous authors and dusty old poetry which Bacon thought needed to be chucked out of the intellectual world in order for us to really frankly assess who we are and how we live. Bacon was never able to describe this new world of knowledge since so little scientific discovery existed in his day: but his fervent belief that it was the right way to proceed turned out to be bang on the money.

Credit

All references are to the translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays by J.M. Cohen published by Penguin books in 1958.


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Of Friendship by Francis Bacon

Bacon is a hugely enjoyable read and his pithy brevity is a welcome break from Cicero’s rambling verbosity.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born in 1561 into an eminent family. His uncle was the Lord Cecil who became the first minister to Queen Elizabeth. Like Cicero he made a career at the bar and in politics, sitting as MP for various constituencies. He was helped up the ladder by the Earl of Essex so when the latter rebelled against Elizabeth in 1601, Bacon’s zealous prosecution of his former patron aroused much bad feeling.

When the old queen died and was replaced by James VI in 1603 Bacon’s ascent up what Disraeli called the slippery pole continued. He was knighted, became clerk of the Star Chamber, Attorney General, Privy Counsellor and Lord Keeper of the Seal, finally becoming Lord Chancellor.

It was at the height of his success, in 1621, that Bacon was charged in Parliament with receiving bribes in his various posts, was found guilty, fined, briefly imprisoned and barred from holding public office. The king let him hold on to his titles.

He had always been many-minded, interested in many aspects of the society of his day, and now was free to devote himself full time to writing. He had already written a number of long works, in the three areas of moral philosophy and theology; legal works; and proto-scientific works, and now he added to them.

In his ‘scientific’ works such as The Advancement and Proficience of Learning Divine and Human (1605) and the Novum Organum (1620) Bacon promoted a universal reform of knowledge by sweeping away the useless scholastic theology inherited from the Middle Ages and promoting forms of knowledge based on close examination of the real world using inductive reasoning.

Though he died in 1626 the influence of these calls for a comprehensive reform of human knowledge along experimental and scientific lines was highly influential for a century or more afterwards. Bacon was cited as a guiding spirit of the Royal Society founded under Charles II in 1660.

Bacon’s Essays

In contrast to these weighty tomes, his brief essays on miscellaneous subjects were for a long time seen as incidental frivolities. However, as time passed and the scientific worldview became more solidly embedded in intellectual life, his big works came to feel more and more dated – whereas the essays, with their shrewd insights into the realities of daily life, became steadily more popular. To quote the blurb on the back of the 1972 Everyman edition:

The Essays consist of reflections and generalisations, together with extracts from ancient writers and examples drawn from the author’s own experience, woven into counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.

They are not intended to promote a rather abstruse philosophy (as Cicero’s essays are) but to be pithy and hard-headed, combining shrewd reflections with practical advice.

They are wonderfully short – many barely more than a page long – and contain entertaining and amusing formulations, some of which have gone on to become reasonably famous:

  • ‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. (Of Truth)
  • Revenge is a kind of wild justice. (Of Revenge)
  • He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune. (Of Marriage and Single Life)
  • The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. (Of Love)

He added to the essays throughout his life: the first edition of 1597 had just 10 essays, the second edition of 1612 had 38 essays and the third and final edition of 1625 had no fewer than 58.

Of Friendship

This is one of the longer essays, at 8 pages (the five essays before it all barely stretch to a page and a half).

By this stage of the late Renaissance there had been a good deal of writing about friendship, going back, arguably, to the Italian poet Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters in 1345. The topic of friendship became of central importance to what became known as humanism, strongly influenced by the huge figure of Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus (1466 to 1536).

All these precedents and the centrality of the concept to humanist’s notion of their selves and their project help to explain why the friendship essay is one of Bacon’s longest, but even here he applies his style of being as focused and pithy as possible.

Summary

A natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.

A crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

In a great town friends are scattered; so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part, which is in less neighbourhoods.

True friends; without which the world is but a wilderness.

Whosoever in the frame of his nature and affections, is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast, and not from humanity.

The essay is addresses three ‘fruits of friendship’.

1. The first or principal fruit of friendship is to bring ‘peace in the affections’. It is:

the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.

Friendship helps soften the violence of passions and emotions. It is psychologically beneficial:

No receipt [medicine] openeth the heart but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

That ‘kind of’ is very typical. Bacons finds thoughtful analogies, which shed interesting light on everyday topics.

He expands this thought by considering how great kings and princes have been so driven by the need for friendship that they have often raised ordinary people to be their companions or ‘favourites’ ‘which many times sorteth to inconvenience.’ I love Bacon’s Jacobean English.

There follows a long passage of examples from the ancient and modern world, namely:

  • Sulla’s promotion of the boy wonder general, Pompey
  • Julius Caesar’s friendship with Decimus Brutus, who went on to lure him to his death
  • Augustus’s promotion of his loyal lieutenant Agrippa
  • Tiberius’s promotion of Sejanus which led the Senate to devote a temple to Friendship
  • Septimius Severus and Plautianus

The point being that these rulers were among the most powerful the world has ever since but accounted their lives incomplete unless they had an intimate confidant to ‘supply the comfort of friendship’.

By contrast he briefly summarises the experiences of Commineus (Philippe de Commines, 1447 to 1511, writer and diplomat in the courts of Burgundy and France) under two rulers, Charles Duke of Burgundy and King Louis XIII, who did not confide their worries, were very secretive, thus impairing their judgement and giving themselves much torment. The gnawing worries which a man without friends subjects himself to can be summarised:

Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts.

2. The second fruit of friendship is ‘support of the judgment’; that it has a comparable effect on the rational faculties of the mind as on the emotional, namely helping to steady and clarify our thoughts. It:

maketh a fair day in the affections from storm and tempests…it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.

Sharing our thoughts with someone else helps us order and clarify them:

Whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another. He tosseth his thoughts more easily, he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words. Finally, he waxeth wiser than himself, and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation.

An hour’s conversation with a friend helps us sort out our thoughts more effectively than a day’s agonising by ourselves. The best kind of friend is one who gives you feedback and advice, but even without bonus, just the act of saying your thoughts out loud forces you to marshall your thoughts and, often, realise what you’re trying to say:

man learneth of himself and bringeth his own thoughts to light and whetteth his wits as against a stone.

As to benefiting from a friend’s advice:

The light that a man receiveth by counsel from another, is drier and purer, than that which cometh from his own understanding and judgment, which is ever infused, and drenched, in his affections and customs.

It’s a simple metaphor – dry good, wet bad – but unusual and memorable. Our own thoughts tend to flatter ourselves, be kind and compliant, in a way a good friend won’t.

Bacon then divides friendly advice into two types:

Counsel is of two sorts: the one concerning manners, the other concerning business.

Of the first kind:

Reading good books of morality is a little flat and dead. Observing our faults in others, is sometimes improper for our case. But the best receipt (best, I say, to work, and best to take) is the admonition of a friend.

‘Reading good books of morality being a little flat and dead’ certainly describes my experience of reading Cicero’s essays.

As for the second kind of friendly advice, concerning business:

the help of good counsel, is that which setteth business straight.

There is a risk here, of taking advice in fragments from different sources, in fact two risks: one, that it will be biased and reflect the counsellor’s concerns; the other that even if advice is well intentioned, if it doesn’t take into account the full situation of the advisee it might do more harm than good, like a doctor treating one symptom without knowing about the patent’s overall health.

Therefore rest not upon scattered counsels; they will rather distract and mislead, than settle and direct.

3. The third fruit is more multifarious: it is to giving ‘aid and bearing a part, in all actions and occasions’. When you consider how many things you cannot do for yourself, you realise that a friend is kind of ‘another you’, a doubling of your resources and skills. If a man dies with many cares and responsibilities unfinished (such as the care of children) a true friend is like another you, who will complete them.

A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him, and his deputy. For he may exercise them by his friend.

A man cannot promote himself and extol his merits without appearing to brag, but a friend can.

More subtly, we are limited in many of our communications with significant others by our position or role in relationship to them, whereas a friend can speak more freely, communicate more freely with them what we want to convey, because he or she is not so constrained:

A man cannot speak to his son but as a father; to his wife but as a husband; to his enemy but upon terms: whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not as it sorteth with the person.

At which point the essay abruptly ends. Compared with Cicero’s long essay on the same subject, it is short, practical, to the point, entirely lacking the elaborate scene-setting of Cicero’s debates, and unconstrained by Cicero’s tedious commitment to Stoic theology and his obsession with God, Morality, Reason, Wisdom and the rest of his junkyard of worthy but baseless abstractions.


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Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Theatre

On Friendship by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Friendship is the noblest and most delightful of all the gifts the gods have given to mankind.’
(On Friendship, section 5)

On Friendship is a treatise or long essay by Marcus Tullius Cicero, 50 pages long in the Penguin volume titled On The Good Life. The setting is a little convoluted. It is set in the year 129 BC a few days after the death of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, also known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger, and referred to in the text simply as Scipio.

This is the same Scipio who is the lead character in Cicero’s dialogue De republica. He was one of the leading figures of mid-second century BC Rome, twice consul, and the victorious general who destroyed Carthage in 146 and then crushed anti-Roman resistance in Spain in 133.

This is all relevant because, in the fiction of the dialogue, his death has prompted some visitors to the house of Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s great good friend, to ask about Scipio’s character and their friendship. This relaxed conversation – between Laelius (the older man) and his two son-in-laws, Quintus Mucius Scaevola the augur and Gaius Fannius – makes up the main body of the text.

But the narrator actually opens the text by telling us that he himself used to frequent the house of Quintus Mucius Scaevola the augur, and that the latter used to tell stories about his father-in-law, Gaius Laelius and that’s where he first heard about this long discussion.

So the text is – according to this frame narrative – actually the record of the narrator’s memory of Scaevola’s describing to him his memory of the original conversation the latter took part in.

All this takes quite a few pages during which the reader is wondering why Cicero is bothering with this elaborate framing. Is it an artful indication of the multiple distance from ‘the real world’ which all texts imply? Or is it just Cicero being characteristically long-winded? Or is it an indication that we are still in the very early days of coping with the problem of narratives and who tells them and how much they can  realistically know or remember, and that Cicero is handling the issue with unnecessary complication? Is is long winded and clumsy or slyly adroit?

None of the summaries of this dialogue even mention this elaborate setup but, in a way, it’s the most teasing and thought-provoking part of the text.

Anyway, after a few pages of sorting all this out, the dialogue proper opens with Fannius asking Laelius how he is coping with the recent death of his old friend (Scipio) which prompts Laelius into delivering a couple of pages of eulogy on what a Perfect Man he (Scipio) was:

There was no better man than Africanus, and no one more illustrious.

Wordy

The opening pages relating Laelius’s eulogy to the great Scipio are very proper and fitting for a pious Roman work, showing due respect to the glorious dead, but to a modern reader are wordy and verbose. The text includes not only the eulogy to Scipio but references to umpteen other great and worthy Romans from history, before we finally arrive at the dialogue proper.

(None of this surprises me because, having just read The Republic and The Laws, which purport to be objective investigations of the ideal constitution and the ideal laws and end up discovering that Rome is the Ideal State and Roman laws are the Perfect Laws, I am newly alert to the rich vein of Roman patriotism, to the profound piety and respect for the illustrious forebears, which runs very deep in Cicero.)

True friendship must be based on moral excellence or goodness

When the treatise does finally get going, the fundamental ideas are simple and typical of Cicero the ‘philosopher’:

  • true friendship is only possible between good men
  • friendship is more likely between fellow countrymen than foreigners, and between relatives than strangers
  • friendship is a following of nature and emerges naturally from human nature

Then a definition:

Friendship may be defined as a complete identity of feeling about all things on heaven and earth: an identity which is strengthened by mutual goodwill and affection. With the single exception of wisdom, I am inclined to regard it as the greatest gift the gods bestowed upon mankind…A school of thought believes that the supreme blessing is moral goodness, and this is the right view. Moreover, this is the quality to which friendship owes its entire origin and character. Without goodness, it cannot even exist. (6)

Central to the idea is the Stoic belief that Goodness is the ultimate Virtue, the only foundation for happiness and a Good Life:

Goodness is the strongest resource a man can command. (14)

And that true friendship consists of Good Souls attracting other Good Souls in a perfect bond. This is because Goodness inspires and attracts:

Goodness exercises an altogether exceptional appeal and incentive towards the establishment of affection. (8)

So that:

Only good men have the capacity to become good friends. (18)

And:

What unites friends in the first place…and what keeps them friends is goodness and character. All harmony and permanence and fidelity come from that. (26)

And:

No one can be a friend unless he is a good man. (27)

So. Quite a heavy emphasis on Goodness, and an insistence that True Friendship can only exist between Good Men. Would you agree?

The philosopher’s fault (seeking perfection)

Reading the opening section my heart sank. Cicero’s text only tangentially sheds light on friendship as it exists among normal people in the real world. Instead it very clearly demonstrates the way Cicero, and the Greek philosophers he copied, turned every subject under the sun into a vehicle to promote their same old hobby horses: human reason is a gift from the gods; therefore, of all the human virtues, the correct use of this divine reason i.e. wisdom, is supreme; and so cultivating this divine reason in order to attain its maximum potential / wisdom, is the noblest human aim; and managing your life so as to put wisdom into action i.e. implement moral virtue (goodness) is the highest goal to aspire to in life; and all this shouldn’t be a strain because it is following nature i.e. our minds are made that way.

The tendency in all this is always to ignore the chaotic real world experience of ordinary, far-from-perfect people, and the unexpected friendships many of us experience in a world full of flawed strangers, in order to focus on the exceptional, ‘the pure and faultless kind’:

I am not now speaking of the ordinary and commonplace friendship — delightful and profitable as it is — but of that pure and faultless kind, such as was that of the few whose friendships are known to fame.

Although he makes scattered concessions to the ‘ordinary’ friendships of the likes of you and me, Laelius/Cicero really focuses on the super friendship of a moral elite.

Friendship built on shared values

The essence of friendship is sharing experience:

It is the most satisfying experience in the world to have someone you can speak to as freely as your own self about any and every subject upon earth.

Other things we aim at give only one pleasure – the pursuit of wealth gives us money, of power to secure obedience, of public office to gain prestige. Friendship, by contrast, brings a host of different rewards, rewarding all levels of our minds and characters.

Friendship isn’t contingent on day to day events; it is available at every moment; no barriers keep it out.

Friendship adds a glow to success and relieves adversity by sharing the burden. A friend is like a mirror of the self. Even when absent he is present. Even when dead he is still here. Knowledge of him raises and ennobles life.

Reference to the De republica

At this point Laelius is made to take a break in his exposition. Interestingly, Scaevola is made to refer to the colloquy held recently at Scipio’s own house in which the latter held forth about state affairs and Laelius and Philus debated the role of justice in politics and the reader realises Cicero is referring to his own book, De republica which, in the fictional world of these dialogues, appears to have taken place only a little time before this one i.e. while Scipio was still alive.

Amicitia and amor

The the dialogue resumes and it’s back to friendship. Laelius goes on to say the Latin word for friendship, amicitia, is clearly derived from the word for love, amor. Both are selfless. Friendship is not calculating, it does not seek to repair deficiencies in a person by extracting services and favours: it is an overflowing, a surplus of affection.

He compares the love between parents and children, natural and deep; sometimes this can be replicated between friends. Sometimes we find a person whose habits and character attract us so much that we look upon him as ‘a shining light of goodness and excellence’.

The positive effects of goodness

Goodness is always attractive. When we hear about a good act we feel better. When we think of people famous for their goodness, we feel better. How much better do we feel when we meet and get to know someone who demonstrates goodness in their lives. We share in it. Their goodness elevates us too. Another source of friendship is simply seeing a lot of someone in everyday life.

Friendship has no ulterior motives, is not out for gain. We do not behave kindly in expectation of gain. Acting kindly is the natural thing to do. The expression of kindness is a good in itself requiring no return or profit.

Feelings of affection and attachment to other people are entirely natural, and inspired by the other person’s fine qualities. Because true friendship is based on nature, and nature is everlasting, a true friendship is everlasting too.

How friendships end

Friendships may end for a number of reasons: you may end up competing for something only one can have, such as a wife or political position. People’s political views change. ‘Altered tastes are what bring friendships to an end’ (20). A person’s character changes, due to misfortune or age. The most destructive force which ends friendships is falling out over money. Or, if friendship is based on goodness, if one or other friend falls off into vice, behaves badly, then the friendship must end. (11).

Thus if your friend asks you to do something dishonourable, turn him down flat. In fact Laelius turns this into The First Law of Friendship:

Never ask your friends for anything that is not right, and never do anything for them yourself unless it is right. But then do it without even waiting to be asked! Always be ready to help; never hang back. Offer advice, too, willingly and without hesitation, just as you yourself, if you have a friend whose advice is good, should always pay attention to what he says. But when you are the adviser, use your influence, as a friend, to speak frankly, and even, if the occasion demands, severely. And if you are the recipient of equally stern advice, listen to it and act on it. (12)

Cicero’s patriotism

It is characteristic of Cicero that he demonstrates this point by using examples of patriotic and unpatriotic behaviour among their Roman forebears. His example of a bad person who his friends ought to have abandoned is the reformer Tiberius Gracchus.

To excuse oneself for committing a misdemeanour on the grounds that it was done for the sake of a friend is entirely unacceptable. Such an excuse is no justification for any offence whatever, and least of all for offences against our country. (12)

This is the peg for a lengthy digression on how Gracchus led a number of followers astray, into populist, crowd-pleasing policies (the redistribution of land to Rome’s poor) which led to street violence and serious schisms in the Roman political class. And this itself leads onto references to leaders who turned against their own countries, Coriolanus the Roman and Themistocles the Greek. And all this to make the rather obvious point that one shouldn’t let friendship lead you into treason and betrayal.

It is, on the face of it, an odd digression, but a vivid reminder of the highly embattled worldview which underpinned Cicero’s patriotic conservatism. Throughout his life, in all his writings, he acts on the belief that the Republic is in mortal danger which explains why he has Laelius say at one point: ‘I am no less concerned for what the condition of the commonwealth will be after my death, than I am for its condition today.’

Anti Epicurus

It is just as revealing that the text then moves on from addressing one set of bogeymen (populists and traitors) to another, familiar, enemy – the Epicureans. Laelius is made to attack the Epicurean notion that the Wise Man should hold aloof from all passions and therefore all ties with any other human being.

Cicero has Laelius say that the Epicurean ideal of complete detachment is impossible because any man with values must hurt to see those values breached and trampled and will be prompted by nature to intervene.

Any good act implies involvement, helping someone, charity. It is difficult to imagine a life where we don’t involve ourselves to try and alleviate others’ pain or suffering or discomfort or help their situations. Therefore, even the wisest man cannot possibly avoid feelings.

To remove friendship from our lives just because it might bring us worries would be the greatest mistake.

Friendship is sensitive. It is, by definition, an involvement with another. Precisely insofar as we share our friend’s ups and downs, do we vicariously experience their emotions, of triumph or abjectness. Therefore the Epicurean ideal of non-involvement renders friendship, one of the greatest gifts of the gods, inoperable. So yah boo to Epicureanism.

Rules

The final third of the text more on from the theoretical to suggest some practical rules of friendship:

  • friendship is based on trust so friends should always be open and candid
  • friends should be amiable and congenial, good humoured, pleasant with one another
  • when a new friendship beckons one should be cautious and sound out the person in order to discover whether you really do share enough in common to qualify for friendship (‘Become devoted to your friend only after you have tried him out’)
  • if one friend is notably superior in rank or wealth, if he is a true friend then the superior one will support the lowlier one and encourage his best interests
  • but you only ought to support a friend to the limit of their capacity to receive help i.e. not be showy or drown them in generosity
  • if a friendship comes to an end try to do it gently, not by tearing but slowly detaching oneself
  • do anything to avoid an old friend becoming a bitter enemy

Laelius links these rules to the actual life and sayings of Scipio. He ends his presentation by repeating how much he loved Scipio, how they shared a perfect union, how the memory of his goodness doesn’t make him sad but inspires him every day. Next to moral excellence / goodness / virtue, friendship is the best thing in the world. (27)

Thoughts

As mentioned, it feels that, rather than being a genuinely objective investigation of friendship, this is more like a shoe-horning of Cicero’s familiar concerns (with the primacy of wisdom, virtue and the need to ‘follow nature’ in everything, on the one hand; and his anxieties about the welfare of the Republic, on the other) into the subject.

Admittedly, many of the things Laelius says do shed light on the ideal friendship, and the essay as a whole forces you to reflect on your own friendships, their origins and histories, and you may find yourself agreeing with many of his formulations. Wouldn’t it be nice if life was as pure and simple as these high-minded sayings indicate.

Psychological simplicity

Nonetheless, it comes from a world 2,000 years before Freud introduced much more subtle and complicated notions of human nature, human needs and the complex interactions between all of us, which characterise the intellectual and cultural world we now live in.

This psychological simple-mindedness explains the childlike feel of the entire text, because it deals in such monolithic, unexamined terms – friendship, nature, wisdom, virtue, love. It’s like a painting made entirely with primary colours, with no subtlety of shading or design.

As always with Cicero, quite a few phrases or sentences stick out and are very quotable, would look good on t-shirts or mugs.

Nature abhors solitude and and always demands that everything should have some support to rely on. For any human being, the best support is a good friend. (23)

But overall, the impression is of an odd superficiality, and the entire thing, like the proverbial Chinese meal, seems to disappear from your memory half an hour after you’ve consumed it.

Logical inconsistencies

There are also logical flaws or inconsistencies in his presentation. In some places Laelius says he will not describe the impossible perfection demanded by some philosophers; and yet for the majority of the discourse he does precisely that, as quoted above and here:

Friendships are formed when an exemplar of shining goodness makes itself manifest and when some congenial spirit feels the desire to fasten onto this model.

This super high-minded model contrasts with the different tone, more prosaic tone when, for example, he acknowledges that the soundest basis for friendship is shared interests:

Our tastes and aims and views were identical and that is where the essence of a friendship must always lie. (4)

So sometimes he describes a Platonic ultra-perfection:

Friendship may be identified as a complete identity of feeling about all things in heaven and earth.

Since nature is the originator [of friendship] and nature is everlasting, authentic friendship is permanent too.

But at other times is much more frank and down-to-earth:

The greatest of all possible incentives to friendship remains congeniality of temperament.

In another onconsistency, sometimes he says, as in the quotation above, that authentic friendship is permanent or, later on, that ‘Friendship remains a firm and durable asset’. Yet he has a half page devoted to all the reasons which can cause a friendship to end.

I think this unevenness, these apparent contradictions, point to Cicero’s inability to fully reconcile the many different Greek sources he was copying. He takes the best bits from his sources and stitches them together and if they don’t perfectly dovetail, so be it. There is an overarching unity in his concerns and he repeats the same ideas quite a lot, but nonetheless, this eclecticism renders his own text ‘bitty’.

On the plus side, it leads to all these quotable quotes which can be cherry-picked, pasted onto photos of vibrant young people, and turned into sweet internet memes (and who cares if you spell his name wroing – pedant!)

On the down side, these inconsistencies leave the text wanting if you’re looking for a really logical and precise exposition; it makes it more of an amiable ramble by a man who has a bit of an obsession with Divine Reason. but then his genial good-humoured ramblingness is what a lot of Cicero’s devotees enjoy about him.

Cicero’s mono-mindedness

To come at it from this angle, you could argue that the presentation is not inconsistent enough, in the sense that the inconsistences are only about a very narrow range of topics. For example the way in one place Laelius says friendship is based on shared interests, but in other places sticks more to the Stoic line that friendship is based on the moral goodness of the friend. Mulling over the difference between these premises open doors in the text which momentarily suggest escape from than Cicero’s hyper-idealised world into the actual, flesh and blood, difficult-to-understand and navigate world which most of us live in.

In my critique of On the Republic I became increasingly aware of its tremendously reductive worldview – Cicero’s repeated insistence that there is One God, with One Divine Mind, who created One World, in which only One Species (Mankind) can rule over all the other animals because He Alone is blessed with Right Reason, and so into a train of thought which leads up to the conclusion that there can be only One Ideal State with One Ideal Constitution and that this state, happily enough, turns out to be the ancient Rome of Cicero’s time! Reading it I felt highly coerced towards this rather absurd conclusion.

What makes the Stoic philosophy Cicero espoused so boring is the way it is quite literally monotonous, mono-toned, in the sense that it is always looking for the One Thing which is best and unique – the best species (Man), the best human attribute (Reason), the best mental quality (Virtue), the Ideal Statesman, the Ideal State, the Ideal Laws and now, in this text, the One, Ideal, Friendship.

Hence the umpteen repetitions throughout the exposition of the Spock-like, logical but bloodless axiom that true friendship can only exist between morally good i.e. wise men.

It is a narrow-minded and ultimately coercive worldview, which tends to erase the diversity, weirdness, and unpredictability of human beings, human cultures and human life. For me life is about the strange and unpredictable and tangential aspects of human nature and human relationships, fleeting moments or unexpected friendships which flourish between the most unlikely people. And that’s why I studied literature and not philosophy, because it is wild and anarchic and unexpected and all kinds of illogical, irrational, immoral and inexplicable things happen in it – as in real life.

As a teenager I realised I was more interested in literature with its endless celebration of diversity than in philosophy with its underlying drive towards joyless uniformities and bloodless abstractions. I find Cicero’s relentless attempts to reduce the world of unpredictable human interactions down to One Thing – to The Good, The Virtuous, The True – have an airless, asphyxiating and ultimately unreal quality.


Credit

I read the translation of On Friendship by Michael Grant included in the Penguin volume On The Good Life, published in 1971.

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On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


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Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting suicide as the apparently ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes quite a long time to finally getting round to saying this. In reading Camus I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and, unlike the philosopher, the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument. He can be quite content with an entertaining flow of ideas.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big philosophical names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists yanking in flowery quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’.

Thus Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments, a point he makes repeatedly himself:

The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…

If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…

Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…

Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus has a reputation for being clear and lucid, but this book is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy feels like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using (aptly for the man of Africa) the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place, you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and from this point I became alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was, after all, himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)

By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves.

This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive too often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual chiming of this word may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me. Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)

It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)

A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description of a traditional moralist, whose text is just the glue which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, these jewels being meant to be taken away and meditated on.

To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped to reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty-year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China. The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant, shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. In fact all of us know that absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish which Camus describes aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

My son suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the crushing humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people at the time followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide, wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation.

There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

The last few pages of the book describe the Greek myth of Sisyphus and the text gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Soul of Man under Socialism by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

 A brief recap

Wilde, born in 1854, made his literary debut with a volume of slender and derivative poems in 1881 (aged 26) and was promptly invited to undertake a lecture tour of America in 1882 (27) which proved fabulously successful. Throughout the 1880s he established a reputation via essays, reviews and articles (not least for The Woman’s World magazine, which he edited for a spell, 1887 to 1889) as a flamboyant journalist, a leading representative of the Aesthetic movement, as well as fashioning himself into one of the London’s most notorious and newsworthy personalities.

Tiring of makepiece journalism, towards the end of the decade Wilde made the transition to being a full-time writer of prose, with a series of short stories and essays, collected in a series of volumes:

He also wrote his inspired and fabulous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), before embarking on the series of comic dramas which clinched his reputation:

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan  (1892)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1894)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The Soul of Man Under Socialism, published in 1891, was therefore written at the height of Wilde’s powers as a prose artist.


The Soul of Man under Socialism

Believe it or not, this essay was written under the influence of the contemporary anarchist philosopher, Peter Kropotkin, whose works Wilde had been reading.

It is foolish to try and extract too sensible, coherent or linear an argument from a Wilde text. His whole purpose is to entertain and delight so that in his works witty paradoxes or bon mots will always take precedence over logic. And sure enough the second half of this long essay does wander a long way from the ostensible topic, so much so that it ceases to be a consideration of socialism, the political platform espoused by (in their very different ways) contemporaries like George Bernard Shaw or William Morris, and becomes a long defence of Wilde’s theory of Individualism.

In the first part, insofar as there is an ‘argument’ in what amounts to Wilde’s only statement on politics, it can be summed up quickly: Capitalism forces men to waste their energy and genius trying to help each other in vain and silly ‘politics’ or pointless ‘charity’. In a world set free by technology, everyone would be free to express themselves creatively. Wilde the artist and art critic (rather inevitably) sees Art as the highest form of being, and involvement in creating or appreciating Art as the highest fulfilment of human nature.

His vision of socialism is one where everyone devotes all their energies to developing and moulding themselves into the most exquisite works of art possible. It is everyone’s duty to cultivate their individuality. Anything which prevents this (i.e. the entire ideology of Victorian society) is bad.

Arguments for individualism

Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.

Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

In the central part of the essay, at its hinge or transition, Wilde makes a prolonged case for Jesus as the first prophet of Individualism. This is obviously a radical reinterpretation, spangled with Wildean paradox, but it eventually becomes quite convincing, quite as convincing as many of the other sects which have felt free to interpret the Messiah’s teachings.

Wilde presents a Jesus who is continually emphasising that the kingdom of God is within you and so nothing to do with external possessions, or even actions:

He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’

At moments a straightforward rehash of Jesus’s teachings, at other moments the essay suddenly sheds new light, transforming Jesus into an 1890s Aesthete. This section can’t have made him many friends with the sternly religious late-Victorians, and it would be brought against him at his trial. Indeed, everything beautiful and inspiring which he wrote would be used against him.

And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

It is to be noted also that Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation. In fact, it does not come to man with any claims upon him at all. It comes naturally and inevitably out of man. It is the point to which all development tends. It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow. It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens. And so Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

‘Sickly cant about duty.’ This feels like a deliberate insult to the Kipling worldview and the administrative ethos of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. For the public school ethos, as perfected during the 19th century, aimed to provide the administrators of the Empire for whom Duty is paramount, and Duty is about suppressing the self, crushing the self, denying the self, in order to do your duty by God and Her Majesty the Queen-Empress.

Knowing what lay ahead for Wilde i.e. his arrest, trial and imprisonment, it is impossible to read this bating of the Establishment of his day without anxiety and sadness.

Against coercion

Wilde repeatedly warns that the whole point of socialism or communism (in his view) is to free people to do as they want and to be themselves. It follows that any sign of compulsion in the movement will risk instituting a new tyranny worse than the current one. (How horribly prophetic.)

I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

[For] all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.

No Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous…all authority is equally bad.

William Morris and Oscar Wilde

Both men are more radical than their modern, watered-down reputations suggest. Morris vehemently called for a violent revolution. Wilde supported Irish nationalism and signed petitions supporting anarchists who’d been arrested. They both fiercely attacked the British Establishment. They both thought the British Empire was ridiculous and immoral. (When Kipling returned to London for the first time as an adult in 1889, this is the kind of ‘treasonous’ literary culture and writing which he found  so offensively ignorant and irresponsible. Which side would you have been on?)

Superficially their utopias sound very different: Morris’s utopia, in News from Nowhere, is rural and simple and arts and crafts-y. It in effect calls for a radical simplification of human nature, until everyone is reduced to the level of a pipe-smoking rustic. Wilde’s utopia sounds, at first, as if it lies at the other extreme, overwhelmingly urban, upper-class, cosmopolitan and super-sophisticated.

And yet Wilde – after the Jesus section mentioned above – disconcerts the reader by going on to describe a vision of the future, a vision of a liberated, humanity, a vision which is in its way even more wilfully infantile than Morris’s:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.

More art, more individualism

The second half of the essay wanders away from politics altogeher to become an extended disquisition on the nature of Individualism and the necessary individualism of the artist. It explains how, as a result of being individualists, all genuine artists must prompt the enmity of the stupid, suburban, philistine English and their lackeys in the popular press, the critics who always want more of the same and never understand the New or the Beautiful.

‘Socialism’ is left quite a way behind in all this. The essay should really have been called something like ‘The Necessity of Individualism’.

And on reflection I realise this is the weakness in Wilde’s argument (if it is, indeed, an argument rather than a collection of beautifully written witticisms and generalisations about Art). It is that no matter how many times he writes that he is thinking about everyone in society when he urges a philosophy of Individualism, in practice his figure of the Individual is always set against the hectoring of vile popular journalists, ignorant art critics, bombastic politicians and, behind them all, the vast stupid public, brought up to have the lowest, most degraded taste, and to be the great squid against which the true Individual must struggle to assert himself.

This, as Morris, Shaw and others realised, was not the language of the joiner, the supporter, the member of any political movement they recognised. How to get from a society where a few scattered individuals (like Wilde and his clique) were fortunate enough to be able to truly express themselves to one where everyone, absolutely everyone, either wants to or can express themselves, is a vast leap Wilde just takes for granted.

Just as Morris struggled to imagine how society could possibly make the transition from dirty, crowded, polluted Victorian industrialism to the clean and village-based utopia described in News from Nowhere, and can only resort to describing it in the vaguest terms as some kind of great spiritual awakening.

We now know that revolution is brought about by social breakdown, anarchy and then the seizure of power by a well-organised vanguard who seize the mechanism of the state and institute a reign of terror. England 1647. Paris 1792. Petersburg 1917. Tehran 1979. And Wildean individualism is the first thing to go, all artists being dragooned into parroting the Party line or shot.

Individualistic socialism of the type Wilde describes at such length is a lovely, if flawed idea. But in the world we actually live in Authoritarian Socialism has always, and will always, triumph.

Summary

The Soul of Man under Socialism is often spoilt, wilful, showy, overly paradoxical. And yet in his disgust at the poverty and misery of so many of his fellow human beings in Victorian England’s grotesquely unfair society and his genuine wish to do something about it – and in his warning against the coercive element in Socialism which threatened to  impose a tyranny far worse than the ills it set out to cure, Wilde was bang on the nail.

And in his combination of good humour, clever sophistry, lucid style and witty paradoxes, Wilde is a master of the essay form, to be enjoyed and relished for his skill and peerless prose, no matter what he’s saying.


Related links

Essays, stories and novel

  • The Happy Prince and Other Tales (May 1888)
    1. The Happy Prince
    2. The Nightingale and the Rose
    3. The Selfish Giant
    4. The Devoted Friend
    5. The Remarkable Rocket
  • The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889)
  • The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)
  • A House of Pomegranates (4 fairy tales: 1891)
    1. The Young King
    2. The Birthday of the Infanta
    3. The Fisherman and his Soul
    4. The Star-Child
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (April 1891)
  • Intentions (4 critical essays: May 1891)
    1. The Decay of Lying: A Dialogue
    2. Pen, Pencil and Poison
    3. The Critic As Artist
    4. The Truth Of Masks: A note on illusion
  • Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891)
    1. Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime
    2. The Canterville Ghost
    3. The Sphinx Without a Secret
    4. The Model Millionaire
  • Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894)
  • A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated (1894)

Poetry

  • The Sphinx (long poem: 1894)
  • Poems in Prose (1894)
    1. The Artist
    2. The Doer of Good
    3. The Disciple
    4. The Master
    5. The House of Judgement
    6. The Teacher of Wisdom

The plays

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan (premiered February 1892)
  • Salome (published 1893)
  • A Woman of No Importance (premiered April 1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (premiered January 1895)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (premiered February 1895)

After prison

  • The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)
  • De Profundis (1897)

The Beauty of Life by William Morris (1880)

HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOUSES WHICH YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL.

A lecture delivered to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, February 19, 1880. Reading around the subject I discover that the Birmingham school was in fact the first municipal school of art in the country and that Birmingham, through Burne-Jones and his circle, played a leading role in the Arts & Crafts movement.

Repetition

Morris apologises for repeating himself and this is, indeed, the most obvious feature of this lecture, that it is made up of the same ideas as the previous lectures:

  • current civilisation in the Century of Commerce is degraded
  • the arts have become split between a high art of demoralised artists working only for the super-rich or just for their own small coterie (art for art’s sake)…
  • …while the popular arts, the decoration and ornamentation of the everyday objects most people see most of their lives, have become crude and cheap
  • this reflects the unfair nature of Victorian class society ie a small number of parasite rich leading a life of luxury paid for by the wealth extracted from a vast class of slave labourers condemned to lives of servitude and ugliness
  • whereas everything we know about history and prehistory suggests that decorating and ornamenting everyday objects is a central element of human nature; preventing men doing that is cruel and stupid
  • thus, an ideal society would remove the parasite rich and, by doing so, liberate workers to work shorter hours and take more care over what they make – the pleasure of and pride in their work would be restored to everyone who works
  • it may seem a long way off but we handicraftsmen must set the tone and aim for this goal and have hope of better things to come

To be fair there are new sections here: the recap of the history of civilisation which takes in the Romans and Greeks and noticably downplays the Renaissance; a short passage about how his friends the pre-Raphaelites have saved English art; a section on the Environment and a plea not to litter, not to cut down trees; a section on the contents of the Ideal Home.

Sermon

I read that Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford earnestly wanted to become priests, ambitions that took some time to die, and only when they transferred their zeal and passion to Art, as practised by the new pre-Raphaelites and expounded by John ‘the Baptist’ Ruskin. These Morris lectures, in their high-minded but vague phraseology, their uplifting vision of the New Jerusalem, and their call for moral reform, are much more like sermons than any factual and informative lecture I’ve ever heard.

A young socialist, Bruce Glasier, has left his impression of hearing Morris lecture in 1884:

On the lecture itself I only remember that it seemed to me something more than a lecture, a kind of parable or prediction, in which art and labour were held forth, not as mere circumstances or incidents to life, but as life or the act of living itself.

Quotes

I must once again call the faithful of art to a battle wider and more distracting than that kindly struggle with nature, to which all true craftsmen are born…

Most people live as if the beauty of life were irrelevant or an unaffordable luxury, whereas art and beauty in the widest sense, are vital elements in the life Nature intended us to lead.

The lack of art, or rather the murder of art, that curses our streets from the sordidness of the surroundings of the lower classes, has its exact counterpart in the dulness and vulgarity of those of the middle classes, and the double-distilled dulness, and scarcely less vulgarity of those of the upper classes.

Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.

The danger is that the present course of civilisation will destroy the beauty of life…

My message is, in short, to call on you to face the latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts, and thereby enslave simple people to them, and themselves to themselves, and so at last drag the world into a second barbarism more ignoble, and a thousandfold more hopeless, than the first.

So much is now known of the periods of art that have left abundant examples of their work behind them, that we can judge of the art of all periods by comparing these with the remains of times of which less has been left us; and we cannot fail to come to the conclusion that down to very recent days everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful: so that in those days all people who made anything shared in art, as well as all people who used the things so made: that is, ALL people shared in art.

It is strange and perplexing that from those days forward the lapse of time, which, through plenteous confusion and failure, has on the whole been steadily destroying privilege and exclusiveness in other matters, has delivered up art to be the exclusive privilege of a few, and has taken from the people their birthright; while both wronged and wrongers have been wholly unconscious of what they were doing.

I believe that art made by the people and for the people as a joy both to the maker and the user would further progress in other matters rather than hinder it, so also I firmly believe that that higher art produced only by great brains and miraculously gifted hands cannot exist without it.

We must work towards an art MADE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY FOR THE MAKER AND THE USER.

To be a man is to understand and create and appreciate art. Men in these degraded times have shut down that feeling in themselves, and so acquiesce in the squalor of the times. If men were whole again, it would inspire them to want to reform and change society. A feeling for art would prompt feelings for reform if not revolution!

Well, people will not take the trouble or spend the money necessary to beginning this sort of reforms, because they do not feel the evils they live amongst, because they have degraded themselves into something less than men; they are unmanly because they have ceased to have their due share of art.

You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you can give them a share in art.

He has a good passage describing the subtlety of the influences by which the system has ensnared us, by making the lives of so many people so much more comfortable in so many ways – but at the price of new forms of slavery for the oppressed.

If civilisation is to go no further than this, it had better not have gone so far: if it does not aim at getting rid of this misery and giving some share in the happiness and dignity of life to ALL the people that it has created, and which it spends such unwearying energy in creating, it is simply an organised injustice, a mere instrument for oppression, so much the worse than that which has gone before it, as its pretensions are higher, its slavery subtler, its mastery harder to overthrow, because supported by such a dense mass of commonplace well-being and comfort.

And Art, far from being the irrelevant luxury that the people in power believe it to be, can play a vital role in restoring to slaves their humanity.

… that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.

This is what we should set ourselves to aim for, a true and noble goal of creating a free, just society, not the continuation of our crass materialistic culture.

I had thought that civilisation meant the attainment of peace and order and freedom, of goodwill between man and man, of the love of truth and the hatred of injustice, and by consequence the attainment of the good life which these things breed, a life free from craven fear, but full of incident: that was what I thought it meant, not more stuffed chairs and more cushions, and more carpets and gas, and more dainty meat and drink–and therewithal more and sharper differences between class and class.

What I want to do to-night is to put definitely before you a cause for which to strive. That cause is the Democracy of Art, the ennobling of daily and common work, which will one day put hope and pleasure in the place of fear and pain, as the forces which move men to labour and keep the world a-going.

The pre-Raphaelites

There is an unblushing passage about the role of his friends (and himself) in restoring art to England.

You know well that one of the master-arts, the art of painting, has been revolutionised. I have a genuine difficulty in speaking to you of men who are my own personal friends, nay my masters: still, since I cannot quite say nothing of them I must say the plain truth, which is this; never in the whole history of art did any set of men come nearer to the feat of making something out of nothing than that little knot of painters who have raised English art from what it was, when as a boy I used to go to the Royal Academy Exhibition, to what it is now.

It is amusingly revealing that later in the lecture, in his brief historical overview of western history, he uses the same phraseology to describe the founders of Christianity.

Therefore no tyrant was too base, no pretext too hollow, for enslaving the grandsons of the men of Salamis and Thermopylae: therefore did the descendants of those stern and self-restrained Romans, who were ready to give up everything, and life as the least of things, to the glory of their commonweal, produce monsters of license and reckless folly. Therefore did a little knot of Galilean peasants overthrow the Roman Empire.

The pre-Raphaelite mindset of a small group of high-minded men determined to change the world morphs seamlessly into Morris’s vision of a small group of artists who can bring about a transformation of society, a vision still in the loose and open phase in these early lectures but which crystallises into the notion of a vanguard political party in his later political phase.

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Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

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