Louis Lavelle (1883-1951), The Dilemma of Narcissus, tr. W. T. Gairdner (New York: Humanities Press, 1973), p. 153:
Life breaks the surface of reality and emerges at the present moment; we must not hold our gaze fixed on a future which, when it comes, will be merely another present. The unhappy man is he who is forever thinking back into the past or forward into the future; the happy man does not try to escape from the present, but rather to penetrate within it and take possession of it. Almost always we ask of the future to bring us a happiness which, if it came, we would have to enjoy in another present; but this is to see the problem the wrong way round. For it is out of the present which we have already, and from the way we make use of it, without turning our eyes to right or to left, that will emerge the only happy future we will ever have.
I am a lover of the Stoics. Why waste time on New Age hucksters when one can read Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius? But while the Stoics can take us a good stretch down the road to wisdom, they cannot bring us to the end — a fact long appreciated by first-rate minds. In late antiquity, Aurelius Augustinus offered a critique of the Stoics in Book XIX, Chapter 4 of The City of God, a critique worthy of being called classical. We will have to examine that critique one of these days. But today I want to draw your attention to some passages from Chapter 10, Section 4 of Louis Lavelle's The Dilemma of Narcissus (Allen & Unwin, 1973, tr. Gairdner):
The Stoics claimed that happiness depends on accurately distinguishing between the things which depend on us and those which do not. Govern the former by reason, and ignore the latter — this was their principle of supreme wisdom, to the practice of which our will should be unceasingly applied.
But hiding behind this apparent humility there is the spirit of sovereign pride and contempt, contempt for all those things which do not depend on us but of which our life is nevertheless composed, and with which it is inextricably entwined. It is impossible to assert that we can remain indifferent to them . . . . (p. 154)
There are things that are in our power, and things that are not. The flood that sweeps away my house is not in my power; but my response to the flood is. I can make myself miserable by blaming other people, from the president down; or I can limit my suffering by taking control of my own mind. Your insulting me is not in my power; but whether or not I let it affect me is in my power. And so on.
The Stoics had a very important insight into the mind's power to regulate itself. When you really understand their point it can come as quite a revelation. I was once thinking of a dead relative and how he had wronged me. I began to succumb to negative thoughts, but caught myself and suddenly realized that I am doing it. In other words, I am allowing these negative thoughts to arise and I have the power to blot them out. The incident was years in the past, and the malefactor was long dead. So the present perturbatio mentis was entirely my own creation. My sudden realization of this — aided no doubt by my reading of Stoic and other wisdom literature — caused it to vanish.
In short, the Stoics discerned the mind's amazing power to regulate itself and master, rather than be mastered by, its thoughts. They saw that, within certain limits, we create our own reality. Within limits, we can make ourselves miserable and we can make ourselves blessed. There is an inner citadel into which one can retreat, and where a very real peace can be enjoyed -- assuming that one is willing to practice, rather than merely read about, the Stoic precepts.
What Lavelle sees, however, is that Stoic practices take one only so far along the road to happiness. He sees that Stoicism cannot be a final solution since it rests on a denial of our finitude. In theistic terms, it rests on a denial of our createdness. (A materialist could perhaps agree with my general point by substituting material conditionedness for createdness.)
My creaturely finitude is reflected in the fact that I have no control over either my existence or my essence (nature). Thus it was little more than existentialist braggadocio and romantic posturing when the early Sartre in "Existentialism is a Humanism" (1946) claimed that "existence precedes essence" in a sense to deny that there is any pre-given human nature, and that "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself."
The truth is that we have a nature whether created by God or 'created' by material forces, and this nature prescribes limits to our freedom. As prescribing limits to our freedom, our nature is not within the control of our freedom. We cannot lift ourselves into an enduring happiness by our own bootstraps. We are held hostage by a physical world that is not our making and not in our control, except superficially. Tranquillitas animi is a wonderful thing, and partially attainable by Stoic and cognate methods; but it can't be worth that much if a stomach cramp or a buzzing fly can interrupt it. I can to a certain extent identify with the hegemonikon or guiding element within me which stands above the fray, observing it. I am that ruling element, that transcendental witness. But I am also this indigent body, this wholly exposed mass of frailties. And try as I might, I cannot dissociate myself from it. The ideal of the Sage who negotiates with perfect equanimity fortune and misfortune alike is unattainable by us. In the end, the precepts and practices of Stoicism leave us in the lurch.
We cannot save ourselves via the path of political activism as many 20th century Communists learned the hard way. But a wholly self-reliant quietism is also a dead-end. We cannot be lamps unto ourselves. If salvation is to be had, it must come from Elsewhere. Nur ein Gott kann uns retten, "Only a God can save us," as Heidegger said in his Spiegel-interview near the end of his life.
Louis Lavelle, The Dilemma of Narcissus, tr. Gairdner, Allen and Unwin, 1973, p. 165:
The centaur, the sphinx, and the siren express the idea that man emerges out of an animal, and that he never sheds his hoofs, his claws, his scales. Man is a mixture; his dual nature is what makes him man; it is the essence of his vocation and destiny. It is folly to imagine him a god or reduce him to an animal; he is more like a satyr with two natures, and it would be hard to say whether his deepest desire is to raise the animal within him to the contemplation of the divine light, or to bring the god down into his animal body, and make him feel every impulse coursing through his flesh.
I would only add that it is man's spiritual nature that allows him to make such errors as to think that he is -- nothing but an animal.
I need the reassurance and the help of friends, but I need men's hatred too. It tests me, forces me to become aware of my limitations, to grow, to perform a work of ceaseless self-purification; it makes me more and more faithful to myself, protects me against all the temptations to take the easy way to 'success'; it compels me to fall back on what is deepest, most secret and most spiritual in me, where those who hate me are powerless to hurt, where they meet no object into which to fix their claws, and nothing they can destroy.
Louis Lavelle, The Dilemma of Narcissus, tr. W. T. Gairdner (New York: Humanities Press, 1973), p. 156:
We must refrain from every dispute in which the victory counts for more than what one wins by it. If the defeat of our enemy is also the defeat of the truth, it is our defeat too. It follows that battles over ideas are more to be feared than any other, for they stimulate men's amour-propre [self-love, high opinion of oneself] in the very domain where it is our especial duty to subdue it. Every dispute darkens the inner light: the wise man perceives this light precisely because he preserves his soul in peace. And if he is wrong, he finds more happiness in giving way than he would have found in a triumph; for in the latter case he merely keeps what he already had, in the former he gains something new.
This passage approaches perfection in both content and style. To comment on it would be to sully it — or invite disputation.