Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"As on a Darkling Plain"

It's not exactly the cheeriest of poems, but I've always been fond of it.  I refer of course to Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach."  It's one of those poems high school students were required to read in the distant days when I was in high school, so it is a kind of "oldie" to me in the manner of old popular songs.  But it was a poem I admired at the time, and there were not many of those.

The poem isn't cheery at all, in fact, though it begins mildly enough.  Unsurprisingly, it takes a dark turn when you encounter the reference to "human misery" which the narrator opines was brought to the mind of Sophocles by the tide or waves of the Aegean, crashing onto the shore.  Those waves which crash upon the shore at Dover Beach, presumably, brings human misery to the mind of the narrator of the poem, in any case. and from there he's off to the lugubrious races, referring to the world, so apparently beautiful, as having neither joy nor love nor light nor certitude nor hope of relief from pain.  From that the poem concludes with reckoning that we exist on that damned darkling plain, "swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night."

Perhaps the poem's appeal was to the romantic, alienated teenager in the me of that time.  But Arnold was a sturdy Victorian for the most part, pontificating magisterially on art and other things.  And why, if angst makes it admirable, would I still find it admirable now, when I aschew angst and romanticism of any kind?

I suppose because it seems a particularly apt description of the world of our times, if not that of Arnold, if we take the short view.  The short view is one taken naturally, though.  The world does indeed seem at times to be one vast plain on which we ignorantly clash, here in God's favorite country and elsewhere.  "Ignorance" is the word of the hour.  The word of the age, perhaps.  We have, after all, elected as president a preening ignoramus.

It's doubtful we've ever been so ill-informed now that most of us always have information at hand, instantly.   Maybe a lot of information is as dangerous as a little knowledge.  Maybe it's more dangerous.  Too much information is daunting and encourages us to look for what meets with our expectations and no more than that.

The plain on which we clash so ignorantly, however, is the world with us in it.  We do the clashing.  The clashing is not due to the rest of the world but to a particular, and very small, part of it (infinitely small if "world" is taken to mean "universe").  We are similarly ignorant due to our own fault.  The rest of the world has no responsibility for our ignorance.  We're responsible for it.

An aspiring Stoic will find the belief that we each of us possess a part of the Divine Reason or partake of it a hard one to accept in these times and no doubt did at other times.  Our capacity to be irrational seems boundless.  The traditional Stoic response, I think, is that those of us who fail to follow reason and instead indulge in the passions do so because of their ignorance, not because they're inherently bad.  Ignorant armies which clash at night or at any other time, therefore, are made up of those who are not Stoics, who do not follow the Stoic path.

I think that then as now, the clashing occurs because of the very un-Stoic tendency to concern ourselves with things which and people who are not in our control.  It seems to me that the acceptance of this very simple precept--that some things are in our control and some are not, and those which are not do not have real significance--would eliminate anxiety, fear, envy, greed, hatred; the reasons for our clashes.

So would be the acceptance of other precepts, I suppose.  Some have long maintained that if we were all true Christians, for example, all would be well in the garden which, somehow, exists within our darkling plain.  Or if we all love one another, or all do onto others as we would like them to do to us, etc.

Such precepts strike me, however, as more difficult to understand or follow.  We aren't all Christians and we never will be (very few of us are to begin with, if one is Christian if one follows what Jesus said as best as we can determine).  We simply cannot love one another, if love is what we feel for those close to us.  We love people because they're close to us.  We simply treat those who are not close to us differently; we don't have the knowledge of them, trust in them, admiration in them needed to love them.  As for doing onto others, etc., that would certainly serve, but until such time as we treat things beyond our control as insignificant I doubt anyone would consistently apply that precept.  Without it, we desire or fear those things too much.

I view the Stoic precept as fundamental to a reasonable course of life.  It's simple, easy to understand (relatively speaking), has no necessary connection to acceptance of a particular deity, and eliminates the anxious pursuit of or flight from things not in our control which is otherwise a constant preoccupation.

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