When one examines the characters of different civilizations, one begins to notice commonalities of concern. That is, recurring patterns. Especially in the most ancient of civilizations. There is this obsession with capturing the Spirit of Life, mastering its principles, and using that Mastery as a sort of pole-vault—if you will—to leap over the Wall of Life into the realm of the After-Life. Look at those old Assyrian stone reliefs, showing the bearded kings pollinating their date-plants, which were the staff of life in the ancient Near East. Look at the pharaoh smiting his enemies with a mace, and enjoying every minute of it. Mastering life in order to master death, in other words.
You just feel it in these ancient places: for our ancestors had an instinctive grasp of this need to capture the Ideal of Life in order to master death, when it eventually came knocking.
These concerns were focused on mastering:
- The capabilities of the senses
- The potential of the intellect
- The balance between procreation and destruction
And if man could master these things, he would be able to exert some control over himself and his environment. This control would mean he could prepare himself for the after-life. He would be able to appease those froth-mouthed gods who tormented him in his sleep, and occupied his thoughts during sunrise. D.H. Lawrence, when he visited some old Etruscan tombs in the 1920s, was able to see this:
But one radical thing the Etruscan people never forgot, because it was in their blood as well as in the blood of their masters [the Romans]: and that was the mystery of the journey out of life, and into death; the death-journey, and the sojourn in the after-life. The wonder of their soul continued to play round the mystery of this journey and this sojourn.
In the tombs we see it: throes of wonder and vivid feeling throbbing over death. Man moves naked and glowing through the universe. Then comes death: he dives into the sea, he departs into the underworld. The sea is that vast primordial creature that has a soul also, whose inwardness is womb of all things, out of which all things emerged, and into which they are devoured back. Balancing the sea is the earth of inner fire, of after-life and before-life.
Maybe it is so. We instinctively feel it, in these old places. Around every reminder of life—every erect phallic symbol in stone announcing the presence of life—is an equally counterbalancing symbol of death. I saw it in Tusculum, too, in the Alban Hills, as an erect column of stone balanced out a crushed skull being slowly excavated from the earth. It is a dichotomy, a duality. We can ignore it, or say it is nothing. But perhaps there is something to it.
This journey out of life begins with an understanding of the capabilities of the senses. But what does this mean? How can anyone know the capabilities of the senses? We have to feel our way along, as if we were crossing a roaring stream stone by stone: step our way gradually along, lest we plunge into the boiling rapids. As Cicero says in On Moral Ends (V.15):
Man’s powers are so created by nature that they seem to have been made for him to acquire every virtue. So children are moved by the likenesses of the virtues without needing to be taught, since they carry the seeds of virtue within themselves; these are the primary elements of human nature that, once they have germinated, will grow into fully-developed virtue. For we have been designed from birth to hold within ourselves the principles of creative action, love, kindness, and gratitude; we also possess intellects well-adapted for knowledge, prudence, and courage. The opposites of these qualities are alien to us.
It makes perfect sense that we detect in children those sparks of virtue I have just noted; the flame of the philosopher’s reason should be kindled from these divine sparks, so that a mature man, following reason as a divine light, may attain nature’s ultimate purpose. As I have often said, the capabilities of our nature are understood through a fog of uncertainty in our early years, since our minds remain feeble; yet with the progress of years, the intellect is fortified, and apprehends the power of human nature. It learns that this nature can make further progress: by itself, its power remains inchoate.
We know our senses, because we love ourselves and know ourselves. I do not subscribe to the view, so common among us moderns, that we need to “get in touch” with ourselves, that we need to somehow “realize” ourselves. No. There is no “getting in touch.” We already know ourselves, in our deepest bones. That is not the issue, and that is not the point. The problem is not knowing, the problem is what to do with what we know. The real question is: what are we going to do with this knowledge? Are we going to launch ourselves out into the world and conquer our share, or are we going to slink into an obsequious subservience to the slave-master? Every man makes this decision at some point in his life, whether he cares to admit it or not.
Old Cicero knew this precisely. He was not impressed with man’s squealing about “not knowing myself.” He was a man of worldly affairs, and had no illusions about the nature of man. He knew that man loved himself, and craved the elevation of his person. Again in On Moral Ends (V.17) he says:
Let me begin with the body. Do you notice that people will conceal a limb that is deformed, dysfunctional, or impaired, and that they make great efforts to hide, if possible, this physical impairment, or at least minimize its visibility? They will endure much pain to rehabilitate their bodies, even if the condition of their limbs will not only not improve, but will even get worse. All men inherently believe themselves to be desirable as a whole—not because of some external reason, but because of themselves.
So we have this self-love, this awareness of the senses, that primes the intellect. The activation of the senses leads to this: the necessity for self-preservation and reproduction. This sensory-awareness is what gives each of us his spark. You can see it in people, if you look attentively enough. Some people just have that spark. Some do not. It starts in the base of the spine, and works its way inexorably upward, to animate a man’s entire frame, conferring the Flame of Life on him. This is what makes a good soldier walk upright, with pride and strength; and the lack of this divine spark is what makes the hunched-over cur such a useless, detestable animal. He really is a reprehensible thing, an animal unfit for the journey.
And the essence of the intellect is to know this, to appreciate it in one’s bones. Every sense must be actuated with this power of reason: this vis rationis. As Theodore Roosevelt was stumbling down the River of Doubt in the Amazon in 1914, he was surprised to see that most of the creatures of the jungle remained hidden. He expected to find game for the taking, yet he could find nothing. This was not like the savannahs of East Africa, those hunting grounds where game proliferated. No: this was something very, very different. The competition for life and resources occupied every calorie of energy, every square centimeter of space, for every organism. It did not matter whether the organism was a plant or an animal. It was pure, elemental struggle: competition refined to its must pure capacity. This is the jungle. You can try to sugar-coat it all you want. But you cannot escape that elemental truth.
This balance between procreation and destruction is the essence of life, and the elemental force that every civilization in history has sought to understand and to master. The will to survive is an activation of all the senses, all directed to one purpose. We cannot shrink from this knowledge, or evade it with pleasantries and artful misdirection: we can try, of course. Modern man is expert in nothing so much as lying to himself, in averting his eyes from the truth. Is it so bad to say that the jungle cat is one of Nature’s great creations, in its perfect balance of destructive power and Will to Life? Is it so bad to say that there is nothing more life-affirming, nothing so inspiring, than to see a warrior walk erect, his spine as solid as an oak, confident in his powers and in the refined activity of his senses? In some ways I suspect that modern man’s queasiness with this truth is the source of many of his complexes. He would be better off if he spent some time in Nature’s cathedrals, or among the ancient places.
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