Wednesday, August 3, 2011

sane, high and heroic...

Longtime readers know that I have long been attracted to Stoicism, especially the later Roman style, which I find very congenial to the Boston Unitarian angle of vision. This from the Introduction to "Marcus Aurelius" by the Boston Lawyer and writer Henry Dwight Sedgwick (1861-1957)

"GOETHE'S saying, "Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Teil/' does not need the recommendation of his name; it carries its own authority. Among the qualities that go to make up character, a sensitiveness to the feeling of awe is the surest sign of the higher life. It lies deeper than other susceptibilities, sensuous or spiritual. Love, fame, or truth, have greater power to dazzle and overcome, but awe bestows the more abiding satisfaction; it sets a man apart from the many, it lifts him into communion with what for him is the highest, and ennobles his condition. This sense of awe is the fruit of the religious life, whether that life be lived in the solitude of the monastery, library, or wood, in the company of people consecrated to an ideal, or in the hurly-burly of the world. But the leaven of religion is not always at work, even in men of religious life. The spirit bloweth where and when it listeth. Sometimes the causes that lead men to religion are close at hand, bereavement, disappointment, sin; sometimes public calamities turn whole communities to the great fundamental question of life, Is there a God? and, sometimes, a religious genius comes with healing on his lips and rouses men, both singly and in multitudes, to perceive the beauty of a universe in which there is a God, and the desolation of a universe in which there is none. But religion does not lie at beck and call;

We cannot kindle when we will, The fire which in the heart resides. There are times when the temple of the soul is empty. We may acknowledge, with our intelligence, the supreme nobleness of that overpowering sense of reverence which turns a man in upon his heart and fills him with a consciousness of a presence, interpret that consciousness or that presence as we will; and yet we cannot conjure it to come. Awe lies beyond the reach of the human will. It is in these empty times, these barren moods, that there is need of some doctrine, some rule of action, that shall serve as makeshift to occupy the empty place which the sense of awe should occupy. Such a makeshift is the Stoic philosophy.

Under the long dominion of Christian dogma, chosen souls have experienced, in a sharper or duller degree, das Schaudern, the shudder of awe from the consciousness of what they believed to be a manifestation of the divine presence. But the Christian faith has lost its ancient authority, and though there are many cries, Lo here! Lo there! as yet no new religion has come to preach the gospel of what is to be. And it is not impossible, nor yet unlikely, that the principles underneath Stoic philosophy may still be of service today, to teach the pilgrim soul to find that support within himself which he does not find without.

The ancient Stoics were in the same ignorance as seekers today who are no longer Christians. They had no authoritative revelation, no word of God, to teach them the nature of the world in which they found themselves, no divine code of laws to tell them what to do. They looked about and beheld sorrow, disease, old age, maladjustments of all sorts, wars between states, civil strife, contention among neighbors, earthquakes, and tempests. Such was the world then; it is not very different now. In a world of this sort, what shall a man do to persuade himself that it is a world of order and not of chaos, that there is something in it other than vanity, that it has what the human heart, if the human heart had spiritual eyes, would pronounce to be a meaning? The Stoics were honest men and would not go beyond the evidence of the senses, they turned away from Plato's dream that the soul released from the body may behold divine beauty, and from Socrates' hope of communion with the heroic dead, and created what they called a philosophy, but what we may more properly call a religion, out of the world as their human senses saw it, a religion, austere and cold, but sane, high, and heroic."


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