I am surprised by how often we are urged, at work or school, by presidents and rebels, to “save the earth.” This can mean something as prosaic as putting a can of Coke in the recycling bin, or as titanic as struggling against fire and flood, with every possible meaning in between — pray for the mountain gorilla, emote on behalf of the tropical rainforest, feel the pain of the ANWR tundra. Petitions, Earth Day celebrations, political gestures — the idea that you or I can be an agent of global salvation by such humdrum activities practically defines the concept of “hubris.” One can only surmise this to be a pale, secular after-image of the Christian injunction to save one’s soul.
That, of course, is much harder. Saving the earth is a welcome interruption from wrestling with myself: a contest in which, paradoxically, I lose more often than I win. One of my favorite Dickens characters is Mrs. Jellyby, whose house and family are a rolling disaster because she has zealously dedicated herself to assist “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.” Like today’s global saviors, she found “telescopic philanthropy” much more comfortable than self-rule.
This blog is about the relation between freedom and morality. The predicate of both, what I would call — in the hallowed language of Star Trek — the prime directive to every human grownup, is this: rule yourself. Preside over your own actions. Impose a theme on the muddle of desires that is every human life, your own included.
Self-rule is a Stoic ideal. For ancient followers of this persuasion, like the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the struggle against desire was a strenuous daily ordeal, very much in the Puritanical mode. “Let thy every action, word, and thought,” he told himself, “be that of one who is at any moment prepared to quit this life.”
The philosophy was Americanized by Emerson, a descendant of Puritans and a bit of one himself — though with a difference. Emerson’s vision was bolder and more generous than anything the crabbed Roman emperor could muster.
And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
This may sound a tad telescopic, but Emerson was concerned strictly with the internal struggle. He named his ideal “self-reliance,” equated it with nonconformism, and helped to make it the prototypical American virtue.
I am no kind of a Stoic. I merely make an obvious observation: if American men and women can’t exercise sovereignty over their private actions, American citizens won’t retain sovereignty over public affairs. The moment I lure you from your principles and intentions to gratify an immediate desire — money, sex, food, write in your weakness — the Constitution totters. When Jefferson wrote “the pursuit of happiness,” he meant the achievement of virtue.
How, then, to achieve mastery over myself? The Stoics proposed to follow reason. But reason is a tool to describe the environment and discern relationships in it. Given the world it describes, reason can’t tell me what to do, much less what I ought to do. Only desire can do that. I hasten to add that these propositions aren’t based on ideology or romanticism, but on science: reason can tell us the limits of reason. It’s a fact in the world it describes.
Self-rule means choosing the right desires. Those are neither invented nor discovered by the individual, but given by the community. How we learn to choose the right desire, and achieve self-rule, is something I have posted on before, so I won’t belabor the question here. Briefly put, by a sort of training we habituate ourselves to behave correctly in specific situations.
That is the reason policemen risk getting shot to protect strangers, and firemen rush toward the fire to save people they may not even like. That is the reason, more mundanely, that husbands and wives are loyal to each other, and employees are honest with the company’s money. All are self-trained to right. All are habituated. In this we are assisted by nature, which has instilled in us a desire to do right: what is sometimes called the moral sense or sentiment.
I note that self-rule is almost coextensive with freedom, but only a prerequisite to morality. I can be wholly self-controlled, and perpetrate monstrous evil. Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were none of them ranting lunatics: they were cold, calculating characters, endowed with towering wills and utter contempt for the rules their countrymen lived by.
Here one must depart from Emerson, whose idealization of nonconformism was cushioned by his place in time. We know better now. To be moral means to exercise self-rule with, as the Founders said, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”