The fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs

By David Parkinson

Tree is to bud as human is to dream.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world.
(Bertrand Russell, 1903, “A Free Man’s Worship“, published in 1918 in Mysticism and Logic)

Midwinter is the time of soldiering on, resigned to the weather and the strange weightlessness of days spent mainly indoors, waiting for the better weather and longer days to come. This is the time of the year when we are most likely to give way to our darker imaginings; it’s harder to shake off the blues when the weather is at its most negatively pathetic-fallacious, and any emotional reversal is likely to make connections quickly in our psyches and sprout a network of worries, fears, and insecurities. No wonder so many of us flee to warmer places to wait out the wet and dreary days.

By some fluke of lineage or upbringing I am less affected by the winter blahs than most people around here seem to be, although I sometimes wonder if there aren’t more people out there who float unruffled through the winter, complaining in company with others but only as a form of considerate camouflage. After all, no unhappy person wants to have to deal with someone handling the situation perfectly well, thanks. So maybe we’re all secretly enjoying the rain and cold days, only none of use dares admit it out of a false belief that everyone else is suffering.

While the world idles, in the background, out of sight, under the surface of the soil, the plots and plans that will define the coming year are brewing. I allow this blog to slide off current events and on to matters less calendrical, more vague and inward-looking. I think a lot of the perpetual question of how we are supposed to dream our way forward into a better future, when there are so many pitfalls and distractions preventing useful action. Some people see a problem needing a solution — or a predicament calling for an adjustment of attitude — and then do something about it; some see the problem or predicament and don’t know what to do, caught up in the many compelling reasons for apathy or paralysis; some avert their eyes so as neither to do anything nor feel guilty for shirking; the great majority hope to find nothing wrong in the world around them and thus find nothing wrong. (They might be the happiest of us all.) The world is shaped by apathy, obliviousness, and acceptance. To remark on this is not to pathologize these very human traits but to take note of them dispassionately and face up to the inescapable reality that we are flawed creatures out of whose flaws come many wonderful things along with the terrors and nightmares you might expect.

It makes no sense to me to kick against the pricks and find myself in constant opposition to the world. Your mileage may vary. There is much going on around me and further out in my far outer orbits which horrifies me and fills me with despair. A good example is that, as the world slides into an economic blowout and as more people are falling into poverty and suffering, the political sphere shows all signs of becoming uglier and less forgiving. Using human misery as a rock-solid justification for sawing apart the safety nets strikes me as just about the lowest behaviour that a person can exhibit. And yet there it is: those with the most in this world are working tirelessly to cause ever-greater suffering in the service of a psychopathic ideology of extreme individualism. Oh, but enough of that.

Sometimes while reading I’ll come across a passage which resonates so strongly for me that I need to put it aside for future use. The Russell quotation at the head of this week’s post is one of these: I don’t know how many months ago I was reading the essays collected in Mysticism and Logic when this passage jumped out at me, but I wrote it down thinking that I wanted to return to it. I really like his characterization of a saner stance towards the things in the world that we find wrong and want to change, and I worry that too many people fall into a position of indignation which is emotionally satisfying but ultimately self-defeating and impotent. It’s just too easy to be constantly enraged; what we need is more of Russell’s resignation, which is not apathy but the humane recognition that we are born flawed, doomed to become caught up in systems beyond our control or comprehension, and that rage and resistance are no use when they pit us against unchangeable human nature or the impassable limits of our existence. The “fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs,” as Russell very aptly calls it, should be no more than the first and briefest phase of engagement, the launching point of a trajectory that has to pass through understanding and compassion or else burn itself out in some kind of psychic mutilation, whether directed outward or inward.

But to see the trajectory implies a human tradition of sanity that calls things by their real names and spends no time entertaining infantile fantasies of total control over nature and society. A critical look at the way we run our affairs suggests that we’re not about to develop this sort of tradition anytime soon. Any ideological system powerful enough to do this work will catch the virus which attacks all such systems, become corrupted and dangerous, and replicate only those aspects which serve the self-interested coercers whose excess benefits give them power to game the system, yielding greater future benefits. The only way out is the endless undermining of every system which threatens to become complete enough to become an ideological self-replicator. Skepticism, mockery, suspicion are the proper tools for this work, and that is why we are taught to despise them.

I’m especially interested in Russell’s invocation of Stoicism. I want to write much more about that, but it would take more concentration and a more sustained effort of composition than I seem able to put into this blog these days. (I need a sabbatical!) I find Stoicism to be a very useful set of tools for recognizing the limits of the world, laying out the boundaries of human possibility, accepting the fallibility and finiteness of all human enterprise and facing our common lot as mortal animals, and — most usefully — distinguishing between what we can change (our own attitudes to things) and what we cannot (other people, the bare conditions of our existence). There is much about Stoicism as historically recorded which is less useful, but these aspects mostly have to do with areas of inquiry which centuries of science have illuminated since Stoicism was a philosophical school. We now understand the cosmology and religious thought of the ancient world to be mistaken or incoherent, but in matters of human existence and the experience of being stranded on a hostile planet surrounded by mysterious beings and other unexplained phenomena, without an instruction manual… well, they still have something to teach us.

It strikes me that we could all do much worse than to adopt a position of radical resignation, so long as it is accompanied by the desire and the ability to make progress on the things we can make progress on. Resignation should mean only the abandonment of efforts to intervene in vain, whether through misunderstanding or the urge to self-aggrandizement. This is a lot to ask of the heroic personalities among us who would rather spectacularly fail to make a dent in history than quietly succeed at solving a small but serious problem — or learn to cope in the face of some predicament. I don’t really know why this misplaced heroism is such a common pattern; but it certainly is one, and that explains to some extent why things get no better. So much wild energy battering so many immovables. So many solvables staying invisible.

At the same time as we let the fierceness of our desire to change the world lead us astray, the place where our freedom is greatest — our imagination and capacity to dream better worlds, even small ones, into being — suffers from neglect and marginalization, maybe because we let ourselves foolishly believe that the only purpose of human creativity is to change the world. This means a constant ratcheting-downwards of our hopes and visions to make them mesh with the world we claim to want to change, diluting them and rendering them ineffectual or (worse) counterproductive. Again, misdirected effort directed against the things we cannot change, ignoring the ones we certainly can.


2 Responses to “The fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs”

  1. 1 Anita February 17, 2011 at 14:04

    Hello David,

    I have been following your posts for a little while, and just want to say how much I appreciate what you have to say – your voice clear and courageous and your words spoken so honestly and directly, reaching out from heart to heart. Your thoughtfulness, common sense and humanity make for a little pocket of sanity. Thank you (from the Scottish Highlands)…

  2. 2 David Parkinson February 17, 2011 at 15:20

    Thanks, Anita. So nice to hear from a real reader! I’m always surprised to find that they exist…

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