In one of his letters to his brother Quintus, Marcus Tullius Cicero makes the following observation:
The more virtuous a man is, the less he considers others to be evil. [Letters to Quintus I.4.12]
The idea is the same as that expressed in an old Korean proverb, which I remember from my residence in that country many years ago: “In the eyes of a Buddha, everything is Buddha-like; but to a pig’s eyes, everything appears piggish.” The proverb sounds much more beautiful, of course, in the original Korean; but the point remains valid. A great spirit—a soul imbued with a certain nobility—finds it difficult to comprehend, or accept, venality and baseness displayed by others. Such a man can be trained to recognize and avoid these things, but they will always retain an air of incomprehensibility to him, as if they were fundamentally anathema to his soul. Why is this?
We notice the same dynamic in the study of philosophy. Some people warm to it; they find in it guidance or answers to questions that have oppressed their minds. They are soothed and nurtured by its explanations, its rationales, and its attempts to impose order on turbulence. Others respond differently. They are perturbed by philosophy’s probing analyses and rigorous delineations; and they become deeply unsettled to discover things about the world or themselves that they would prefer not to know. They do not want order, and they do not welcome explanations: they prefer to take refuge in clouds of ambiguity, and hide behind the veil of ignorance.
In one of Cicero’s philosophical dialogues, a speaker attempts to convince a respondent that death is nothing to be feared. As I see it, the speaker is very persuasive in this. When the dialogue has concluded, the respondent lets the speaker know how relieved and refreshed he was to learn, finally, that death is not only nothing to be feared, but is actually something to be embraced and welcomed at the appropriate time. The speaker tells him that this kind of reaction is not surprising: a noble soul will instinctively respond to noble things. Here are his words, which I translate as follows:
I find that hardly surprising. For philosophy produces this result: it is the curative of souls, the remover of unimportant anxieties, the liberator from desires, and the expeller of irrational fears. But it will not cast its spell over everyone to the same degree; its power is most felt when it has been embraced by a character inclined to it by nature. Not only does “fortune favor the brave,” as the old proverb goes, but philosophy does precisely this to a much greater extent; its precepts reinforce, as it were, the effectiveness of courage. Clearly you were born with a certain sublime and exalted nature that disdains petty human affairs. A discourse conducted against death will therefore find an apt abode in a fearless soul. [Tusc. Disp. II.4]
What is important about the passage above is this: it reminds us that the power and greatness of philosophy “is most felt when it has been embraced by a character inclined it by nature.” In other words, a great, noble, and sublime spirit will be drawn as naturally to the beauty and boldness of ethical philosophy, as a moth is drawn to a nocturnal light. Greatness of soul attracts and begets greatness of soul in others. And this is why I have come to believe that an elevated and noble spirit will, of his own accord, seek out and explore that which resonates in his own soul, no matter how distant he may have to travel. He moves with the assurance of a sleep-walker, animated as if by some internal compass whose magnetic poles are known only to a select few. As Cicero says in his essay Dream of Scipio, which can be found in my Stoic Paradoxes, “Men possessing special knowledge have opened up doorways for a return to this divine region by the use of stringed instruments and songs; and others, by applying their outstanding minds during their mortal lives, have cultivated similar divine knowledge.”
This same point was made by Alex Kerr in his Lost Japan, a collection of essays on Japanese art and culture based on his own long residence in that country. Kerr tells us that when he began to take up the subject of collecting Asian artworks, he would often have trouble arranging and coordinating the pieces for display in his residence. He was never entirely sure which pieces would “match” with which pieces, and he was afraid of committing some inadvertent blunder. So he asked a more experienced friend for guidance. The response was: “Arrange the pieces as you see fit. Group them as you are inclined. If the arrangement is not right, you will know it. If one piece does not belong with some others, the others will ‘reject’ it.” Kerr did this, and found the advice to be valid: he could just intuitively sense when things were right, and when they were wrong. The pieces that belonged together “announced” this fact; and those that did not belong together announced this fact as well.
It is as if there is some kind of magnetic attraction that nobility of soul—nobilitas animi—emanates from itself, drawing in the nobility of soul emanated by others. This gravitational pull is unconscious, perhaps, but it is there—and it is powerful. It radiates outward in all directions, emanating in waves, and attracts those animate and inanimate beings who are imbued by the same sublime greatness. Do we not observe this in life? Is there anyone who can doubt that this is true, and perhaps the residue of some divine law? We could repeat here Samuel Johnson’s lines in his “True Objects of Desire”:
These goods for man the laws of heaven ordain,
These goods He grants, who grants the power to gain.
So much for the gravitational pull of noble spirits. But if what I have said above is true, as I think it is, then the converse must also be true: that base and ignoble spirits are equally drawn to one another.
We are assured that our life experience verifies this. I was recently reading about the religious practices of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians; and I was surprised at how great a role demonology played in their rituals. It is a gloomy, fatalistic world in which they moved, or at least it appears so to us, removed as we are by the gulf of millennia. They saw demonic intervention everywhere; evil spirits crowded nature, the fields, the cities, and everywhere else sentient life was present. The line between religion, magic, and medicine was a fine one, and was frequently blurred. Here are a few lines from an Assyrian prayer to keep demonic forces away:
Thou art not to come near my body,
Thou art not to go before me,
Thou art not to follow after me,
Where I stop, thou art not to stop,
Where I am thou art not to sit,
My house thou art not to enter,
My roof thou art not to haunt…
[Quoted in Sabatino Moscati, Face of the Ancient Orient]
At all costs, demons and malevolent influences must be kept away from us. This belief in demonology even found its way into medical practice. If a sick man was “invaded” by evil spirits, then one way to “divert” the incursion of demons was to substitute an animal for the sick man. If an animal were placed beside the sick man, then, the demons would rush from the sick man into the animal. Moscati’s Face of the Ancient Orient, cited above, contains a detailed prescription of how this could be done in practice (the gory details of which I will not burden the reader).
Of course it is easy for us moderns to scoff at such beliefs. We, who are possessed of advanced scientific medicine, are more than satisfied with our prescription drugs and surgical wizardry. And yet perhaps these ancient practices contain more psychological and physical truths than are generally appreciated. It would be interesting to compare, if we could, the success rates of these ancient surgeries with those of modern times; one wonders just how great the difference would be.
Perhaps it is true that, even though ancient Assyrian medicine was permeated with superstition, it nevertheless took into account psychological insights about patients and healing that we, with our modern arrogance, fail to appreciate. Perhaps these ancient doctors understood the role played by the mind in healing better than we; and that, even though their treatments were unscientific, they nevertheless helped sooth and convert the minds of their patients, which in turn enabled the patients to recover. One wonders about such things.
But enough of Assyrian medicine: our original point was that evil is drawn to evil, just as noble souls are drawn to each other. This is a fact of critical importance, and I have always tried to counsel others about this dynamic. Evil influences and debased personalities must be avoided; and the best way to avoid them is not to call out for them. He who produces malignancy will always find a ready audience for it, for the natures of most men incline to fear, weakness, and corruption. It is in the nature of most men to hunt for validation of their own character flaws; and when they find it, they feel they have found the excuses they need to remain immersed in evil.
So a good man must make a special effort to avoid corrupt men. Who you associate with is all-important. I think the humanist Poggio Bracciolini said it best when he advised his friend Niccolo Niccoli on this subject in a letter written in 1428:
And although you flow with such grace and virtue that no one’s crime could defile your name, an association with men of that sort is likely to cast quite a shadow over the honor of those with whom they are involved. And so do not unstitch, but tear off, whatever connection of any kind that may exist between you and him, and leave this man who is unworthy of your company to his own baseness. For sometime he will of necessity fall into the pit which he has dug, and his “violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate.” [Trans. by P.W.G. Gordan]
We must allow the gravitation of noble souls to pull us towards that which is elevated and good, and away from that which is corrupt and pernicious. Know, then, that if you cultivate nobility in yourself, you will become a gravitational beacon to all.
Explore the complete collection (2016 to Jan. 2020) of essays in Digest: