It is the responsibility of every man to keep himself out of the abyss. Yet he cannot do this job alone; a set of guiding principles must light the way along the dark and confusing pathways of the forest. In some cases, he must be hectored, badgered, cajoled, and—in the end—forced to keep along the path; in other cases, he need only be guided by gentle instruction in the illuminating lights of philosophical inquiry. Every situation is different, and calls for different remedies.
And yet man is a slippery animal. Often he does not say what he means; he likes to cloak his true desires and motivations in garments of varying shape and color. Rare is the man who is honest with others; even rarer is he who is honest with himself. As Leonardo Bruni reminds us,
The motivations of man are dark; very often his words and face will deceive.
Before the decline of institutions and religions, a man could be assured that an elaborate system of social rules and obligations would point the direction of his life. His fears, desires, weaknesses, and foibles would be checked and banked on every side by religion, family, clan, and the obligations to the state. So while his degree of “freedom” may not have enjoyed the latitude of modern man, his soul in many ways was assured of a certain level of peace from the constant distractions of desire and uncertainty that torment us today. We should not be too certain that we are superior to our ancestors. The rudder of stability is desperately needed in the face of Fortune’s constant attempts to overturn our raft:
Time brings us many challenges, and countless vicissitudes slither across our paths.
So we cannot count on the guides that once served us: they are gone. The traditional social structures of the past have declined or vanished, and man is left to face the world alone, with nothing but his hands, his brain, and his sword. But these, it turns out, are enough. For the man animated by the right spirit, the soul imbued with the right excellences, can move mountains, master himself, and cope with Fortune.
He must first free himself from the enervating nihilism and cynicism that is so much a feature of modern life. One does not fully appreciate the toxicity of this brew until one travels extensively, or until one hears about the sad fates of celebrities who, despite enjoying the lives of kings and queens, still are unable to find ways to calm the tumescence generated by their dark souls. Some people believe that cynicism and nihilism provide a refuge from the world’s unpleasant truths; they scorn the traditions and rules of the past, and believe themselves to be above such things. Of course this is nothing but ignorance and arrogance on their part; they forget that institutions develop over millennia to serve very practical purposes:
Even if man cannot do so, time and experience—the ultimate controllers of events—reject what is bad, and do not permit them to survive for long.
And so they cut their ties to the few things that might save them, becoming rudderless and adrift, and floating on the empty ocean. When this happens, they are at the mercy of all sorts of predators that appear in various guises: lust, greed, the need for acceptance, vanity, and similar evils of these types. And it is his own fault, in many ways, for he has failed to develop a personal creed that would have protected him from the storms of Fate.
Of course suicide is no solution. There is a good reason why the world’s major religions condemn it, and believe it to be a sin. Your life is not yours to traffic as you please; you are not permitted simply to vanish when you wish, to leave others to deal with your problems. This is unmanly, and cannot be called anything other than craven. There are some rare exceptions to this rule, as the ancient sages tell us, such that taking one’s life may be permitted or even desirable. But these exceptions are very rare. Soldiers in hopeless situations, or those suffering from terminal illnesses, may be seen as qualifying exceptions. In a battle in 1289 between the Florentines and the Aretines, one Bishop Guglielmino of Arezzo, when told by an attendant that his infantry forces could not be saved from destruction, said:
Then death will be the common fate of myself and my soldiers. I will never abandon the men I have led into danger.
He thereupon re-entered the battle with the fury of a doomed man, and fought bravely until he was cut down. He is remembered today as a model of bravery, while generals like Arthur Percival, who led British forces in Singapore in 1942, are rightfully seen as disgraces to their profession. No commander should ever abandon his men on the field, as Douglas MacArthur did in the Philippines in 1941 when he escaped to Australia in a motorboat while his men suffered and died in captivity. It does not matter that he was “ordered” to evacuate by his president; these were orders that he should have disobeyed. He proved more than willing to disobey orders when it was expedient for him to do so, but could not muster the determination to stand his ground and fight the invading Japanese to the death, thereby guaranteeing his immortality as a commander of unquestioned bravery. On this matter, of course, every reader will have to decide for himself. But let us return to our topic.
When we speak of embracing an ethic that gives our life a transcendent meaning, I am talking about an ethic that ennobles man, and dignifies his mortal struggle. As Cicero tells us in On Moral Ends,
Who really thinks that the wise man, when he has decided that his life must end, will not be emotionally moved by saying goodbye to his family, and by leaving behind the flame of life? The power of our nature is quite clearly apparent in this predictable result, since many men will tolerate destitute beggary in order to continue living; some men advanced in age are distressed by the realization of their impending death, and suffer what we witness Philoctetes suffering in Accius’s play. Despite being tormented by physical agonies that could not be alleviated, he prolonged his life by taking up the sport of bird-catching:
He was slow, but brought down the speedy with arrows;
And standing, he brought down the swift in flight.
Accius also tells us that by weaving together feathers, Philoctetes constructed a functional article of clothing…
From all this it can be seen that, because we love ourselves and want everything in our minds and bodies to be perfect, these attributes are precious to us for their own sakes, and are of the utmost significance in leading a happy life. If a man’s objective is to preserve himself, he will certainly hold his constituent parts to be most dear. The more perfect they are, and the more praiseworthy they become in their own category, the more dear they will be held. We seek a life that should be permeated with the virtues of body and mind: and this life must constitute the Supreme Good, since it exists as the Ultimate End of all desirable things. Once this is clearly understood, we cannot doubt that, since men cherish themselves for their own sakes and of their own free will, the parts of the body and mind and the respective capabilities of each that are in motion or at rest are cultivated for their own special value, and desired for their own sakes.
We may conclude from these observations that the capabilities most desired by us are those that display the greatest excellence; so that the virtue we should most seek, the virtue that is desirable for its own sake, is the virtue derived from the best part of our being. It is thus inevitable that the mind’s virtue will come before the body’s virtue, and the mind’s voluntary virtues will be superior to the involuntary ones. The voluntary virtues are indeed preeminent and truly deserving of the name, because they arise from reason, the quality in man that is the most divinely inspired. The Supreme Good for all insentient or nearly insentient organisms created and guided by nature resides in their physical bodies; along these lines, I believe it has been accurately said about the pig that its mind was given to it by nature to act as salt, so that its body would not spoil. [V.11, V.13]
Very few situations are so hopeless that one would need recourse to suicide. Such a decision must be counted as craven and unmanly, and unworthy of the purpose for which man was placed on this earth. Man is not an inanimate beast, fit only for eating, drinking, sleeping, and wandering around; he is a divine being endowed by Nature with the ability to comprehend, in some way, her secrets. To embrace nihilism and cynicism is nothing less than an offense against Nature herself: it is the action of an ingrate.
A man must start from an early age to prepare his mind for this ethic. He must protect himself from negative, destructive ideologies that seek to turn him into a coward or a slave. He must walk erect, with proper bearing, so as to communicate pride in himself and in his life’s mission. Other people will notice this. The slide into moral corruption and degradation begins with bad posture and a slovenly attitude toward one’s person. As Cicero says, again in On Moral Ends:
In form, appearance, and disposition, the various parts of our body are clearly well-suited to our nature. Neither is there any doubt that the utility to man of the face, eyes, ears, and other bodily parts can be readily comprehended. But it is certainly a requirement that these bodily parts be healthy, well-conditioned, and capable of their natural movements and functions, to the extent that no vital component should be missing, unsound or incapacitated. Nature indeed wishes it to be so. There is, moreover, an expected kind of activity which holds the motions and physical positions of the body in congruence with nature.
If a man were to violate these requirements through some distortion, deviation, or deformity of movement or physical bearing—for example, if he were to walk on his hands, or walk backwards instead of forwards—then he would look as if he were running away from himself, discarding his humanity, and despising his own nature. For this reason certain ways of sitting, various hunched-over postures, and physically weak movements (of the type habitually done by the impudent or the unmanly) are contrary to nature; and although such behavior arises from a mental deficiency, it nevertheless appears as if man’s nature is being bodily degraded. [V.12]
Any action that a man takes to degrade or defile his nature is a step along the road to ruin. Of course there will be missteps along the way; no one is perfect, and life’s detours and byways are an essential part of the learning process. Yet there must always be a concern for what is our Ultimate Good in this life, that is, what gives our struggle meaning and purpose. It is this knowledge that will keep us out of the abyss.
And should we ever lose heart, should we ever begin to despair, let us stand beneath the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome; let us muse among the colossal ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the sand-blasted stones of Karnak and Luxor; let us gaze in wonder on Il Toro Farnese in Naples, or the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or the haunting spires of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; let us, too, walk in solemn reverence through the halls of Versailles, or the gilded rooms of the old czars in St. Petersburg.
Stand there, my brother, and hold your breath as you gaze upward. Say to yourself, I came from this, and I am yet a part of this. Never will I abandon hope.
- Bruni, History of the Florentine People, III.36.
- Id., III.38.
- Id., III.59.
- Id., IV.10.