A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 14

Moral Zeal, Disillusion, and Ecstasy

A. Moral Zeal and Disillusion

THE whole of the preceding inquiry has been concerned with a particular kind of experience, namely, the experience of things or events as good and bad. We have tried to discover what it is that is implied in our diverse uses of these words, what is their common essential meaning; and further, we have tried to elaborate this meaning into a logically coherent concept. Having reached some conclusion on this subject, we considered the meaning and implications of moral obligation. And finally, we came to some very tentative conclusions as to certain characteristics that seemed to be required in the objective ideal. This discussion entailed a very speculative exploration of the relations between subject and object in the act of admiration.

There remains to be considered another type of experience, in which ethical experience seems to be in a manner transcended. I will first try to describe the kind of experience that I mean, and will then close this whole survey with a very tentative speculation as to its significance.

There seem to be at least three moods which the mind may experience with regard to good and evil. I will call them the mood of moral zeal, the mood of disillusion, and the mood of ecstasy. It is ecstasy that I will venture to discuss; but, first, it will be well to distinguish the three moods from one another. They do not necessarily exclude one another. It is possible to have various blends of them in which now one and now another is more prominent. Or perhaps I should rather say that we may attend at once to those diverse aspects of experience which conduce to each of these three moods, and that we may be concerned now chiefly with one, now with another aspect. The mood of ecstasy, indeed, seems in some sense to involve and to transform both the others.

In our customary daily life we seldom experience any of these moods, for we are too closely engaged by the successive strokes of the game of living, to contemplate it as a whole. With little thought as to what it really is that we are doing, we fulfil our private needs and the habitually recognized claims of our neighbours; or we brood upon our defeats, or build castles in the air. Now and again, however, the mind is shocked into a poignant realization of the stark difference between good and bad, and perhaps into some gesture of allegiance to the good.

This mood of moral zeal may sometimes spring from an unusually intense and indignant experience of private need, or from a self-forgetful espousal of the needs of another, or others, or from the spectacle of animal suffering. Or, again, it may arise from the discovery of some inconsistency or insincerity in oneself or another. But. whatever the origin of the moral mood, it consists in a white-hot indignation against all that is conceived as bad, and in particular against all that is conceived as conflicting with the free activities of human beings and perhaps of animals, or (as some would put it) against all that is thought of as ‘contrary to the will of God’. The universe is regarded single-mindedly in relation to the ethical distinction, the great struggle between the powers of light and the powers of darkness, or between life and death, or spirit’s activity and the inertia of matter. We are so impressed by the urgent needs of living things, and perhaps by the needs of a world regarded as itself alive, that the ethical distinction seems to be an absolute distinction between characters of the real itself, and no mere accidental result of our sensitivity. If the stars are indifferent to this vast crusade for the good, so much the worse for them. If they be not themselves alive or seats of life, we may ignore them; unless indeed they can be made somehow instrumental to the achievement of the ideal. If, as some believe, the great enterprise of life on this planet must sooner or later end in defeat, then the universe is contemptible, a brute-mother devouring her divine foster-child. For nothing, in this mood, matters but the abolition of evils and the achievement of goods.

From this zealous mood we may fall into disillusion.96 This is experienced as a definite contraction of the spirit, or a collapse from a more alive to a less alive mode of being. Our headlong ethical enthusiasm is perhaps suddenly and mysteriously checked, as though by a change of weather. As though by spongy ground, we are reduced suddenly from a gallop to a hang-dog walk. Perhaps we have been exhausted by some hidden physiological change, and have projected our jaundiced mood upon the environment. Perhaps, on the other hand, it is mere thought that has fatigued us and projected its pale cast upon the world.

Anyhow, from whatever cause, we find ourselves disillusioned about all values, save probably the fierce negative value of sensory pain. The normal mind seldom sinks so far as to be disillusioned about the badness of pain stimuli. It may indeed transcend their badness, rise to some degree of emancipation from their tyranny, through the experience of higher values; but this transcendence is no mere disillusionment. In disillusion all values above the sensory level simply escape our apprehension. No longer is the world a theatre of intense personal dramas, or of the cosmical epic of good and evil; it is just a tedious and chaotic accident, a foul tangle of thorns and marshes wherein one has somehow to find a tolerable resting place. Of course there are sweets, a few rare berries to be captured now and then. But mostly they turn sour in trte mouth, and always after them comes colic. The prudent man takes as little as possible of the hostile world into his system. He loves as mildly and as rarely as possible. He eschews all loyalties. He exerts his will only to keep reality at arm’s length. For life, in this mood, seems a long and sleepless night in an uncomfortable bed. We toss and yawn, and stop our ears against the clamour of the world, and construct a defence of pleasant fantasies, or hypnotize ourselves with mildly laborious and aimless antics, to entice sleep.

When we succeed to some extent in this attempt to keep ourselves from being implicated in the world that is over against us, our disillusion may achieve a certain cynical complacency of triumph. And this may sometimes be so intense that, buttressed by a little confused thinking, it may persuade us that we have attained a sublime detachment from ephemeral values and have found the goal that transcends good and evil. When, on the other hand, the demands of the body, or of other persons to whose needs we happen to be sensitive, are so insistent that we cannot disengage ourselves from them, or again when we contemplate the insecurity of all our defences, we may taste abject terror on account of our vulnerability. And this terror, so long as it is experienced only in imagination, may sometimes exalt itself into a kind of pseudo-tragic ecstasy. For we are all capable of masochism — at a safe distance from the actual.

But these moods of triumph and terror are in truth mere phases of the disillusioned flight from the enticing and wounding object of experience. And in defence of this withdrawal we may construct or accept all sorts of theories, the gist of which is always that the difference between good and bad is illusory, and that obligation is a meaningless concept; and indeed that the preference for pleasure rather than pain is itself a fortuitous and crazy bias, which the prudent man will seek to escape as far as possible.

B. The Rise to Ecstasy

The third mood, which I venture to call ‘ecstasy’, is less easy to describe. Some would perhaps identify it with the more triumphant kind of disillusion; for in some sense it certainly involves both triumph and detachment from all desire. Others may refuse to distinguish it from disillusion of the more tortured type; for it is not wholly unlike masochism. Some may claim that it is essentially moral, though it is emancipated from every particular moral bias and every moral code; for certainly it is an experience in which a supreme duty seems to be fulfilled by the stripped and cleansed spirit. Others may think of it as the highest reach of that kind of experience which we call aesthetic; for they perhaps know it best in contemplation of works of art. Some, however, would insist that what is under discussion is simply the religious experience, since it is essentially the contemplation of supreme excellence, and the spiritual gesture which we call worship.

Many, of course, would simply deny that there is any such experience as that which I wish to describe. They suspect that anyone who thinks he has, or did have, such experiences is merely mistaken. Some precious dogma or other (they suggest) demands that there should be the possibility of intuitive apprehension of occult reality, or of value other than teleological values; and so in certain moods of zest a believer may persuade himself that he is face to face with the supreme excellence, when, as a matter of fact, he is merely rather excited. It is so easy to believe that an experience has the character that we want it to have, and even easier is it to assume that a past experience: did have the desired character.

In all these spheres there is indeed grave danger of self-deception and faulty introspection. But in the last resort it is only by more rigorous introspection that our error is to be discovered. We cannot afford to discard introspection altogether merely because it sometimes fails us. No doubt many have deceived themselves into believing that they have had definitely super-normal experience. Possibly others, however, really have had such experience, and have been unable to describe it intelligibly to the mystically blind. Indeed, the literature of mysticism is so vast and detailed, and so much in agreement, that the existence, as opposed to the interpretation, of unique mystical experiences may be considered publicly established by the testimony of many persons who, claiming to have had it, have established also their own honesty and their accuracy of introspection. But, alas, it is almost impossible to disentangle their data from their interpretations. The professed mystics may have seen the truth, but they fail to describe it intelligibly, and their interpretations are often naïve.

Here, however, I am concerned with something less remote than the experience of the great mystics, namely, a mood which may happen to very many of us if not to all. Perhaps I am not entitled to use the term ‘ecstasy’ to signify experiences which, it may be, are wholly unlike the alleged mystical ecstasy. Yet I adopt this magniloquent word to mark the fact that the experience under discussion is strikingly different from all our ordinary value-experiences; and that it involves a sense of exaltation; and further, that the excellence which it claims to apprehend is conceived as the attribute not of a part but of the whole universe, or of the whole universe as it is presented to the individual. It is an experience which, though it may occur but rarely in the life of any particular person, is not properly called super-normal. I would hazard the guess that, though many might disown the experience entirely, they have as a matter of fact had it, but have failed to distinguish it from other experiences somewhat like it, or have perhaps simply failed to notice it when it has occurred. For it is an experience which must be very carefully introspected if we would neither overlook it entirely nor mistake it for something else. To careful introspection it appears to be neither an enjoyment of teleological fulfilment nor a mystical apprehension of the reality behind familiar appearances. It is essentially, I should say, the appreciation of an unfamiliar and surpassing excellence in the total object of familiar experience. It is not insight into the ‘reality’ behind ‘appearances’, but discovery of a hitherto unappreciated excellence of the familiar world itself.

As with disillusion, so also the mood which I have called ecstasy is very possibly conditioned by the state of the body. As in the one case certain physiological changes seem to diminish our capacity for intuiting value, so in the other case it may well be that other physiological changes induce in us a more delicate sensitivity, or a shrewder percipience. However this be, the mood comes to us with an enjoyment of intensified psychical activity, a kind of unusual wide-awakeness. This, perhaps, means simply that we find ourselves at grips with a more stimulating, more vivid, or more complex objective field than usual; or, since this much is also characteristic of the intense ethical zeal, it were better to say that in the mood that I am describing we seem to discover in the urgent struggle between goods and bads a more serene and hitherto neglected aspect. We glimpse the same reality from a fresh angle. Or, to use an imperfect but perhaps helpful image, from seeing things single-mindedly, with monocular ethical vision we pass to a stereoscopic, binocular, or argus-eyed vision, in which the ethical is but one factor. What we see is what we saw before, but we see it solid. Whereas before we could appreciate only the good of victory, now we salute a higher kind of excellence which embraces impartially both victory and defeat.

Very diverse situations may afford occasion for this enlightenment, situations so diverse that it seems at first impossible to find any feature common to them all. Fleeting sense-objects are sometimes potent symbols that evoke the experience. A breath of fresh air may be enough, or an odour, or a clash of colours or of sounds, or such more complex objects as a gesture or the curve of a limb. On the other hand, objects of a very different kind may effect the change in us, for instance, a supreme work of art, especially if it be tragic, or a subtle matter of intellectual study which taxes our powers of comprehension and affords the illusion of emancipating us from our human limitations.

In fact, almost any kind of object may afford the stimulus for this mood of ecstasy, or on the other hand may never do so. One kind of situation, however, is perhaps peculiarly significant for an understanding of the experience. Grave personal danger, or conviction of final defeat in some most cherished enterprise, or the danger or final downfall of some dearest object of loyalty — it is perhaps in these situations that the precise content of the mood is best seen.

It is possible, for instance, to be on the verge of panic, to be reduced to quivering incapacity and terror, and yet all the while to be an exultant onlooker, rapt in observation of the spectacle, yet in a queer way aloof. It is possible even in the compulsive reaction to pain in one’s own flesh, and even while helplessly watching a beloved’s pain, to be, precisely, in the very act of frantic revulsion, coldly, brilliantly, enlightened, not as to the excellence of pain, but as to the excellence of the universe.

There seem to be two factors common to these experiences. They all involve the vigorous espousal of some need or other, great or small; and they are all experiences of the defeat of the espoused need. They are all occasions of intense psychical activity, and all occasions of defeat. From unusually intense and thwarted desire we seem to wake, without any disillusionment from the ends at stake. into apprehension of value or excellence of an entirely different order. Not that we pierce beyond illusory appearances to reality itself, or contemptuously turn from the shadow to the substance, but rather, as I have said, we appreciate something that was presented before but was hitherto beyond our appreciation. Not even that we ‘re-value’; for re-valuation implies some denial of the urgency of former values. Rather we prize these even more than formerly; and, just because of this new apprehension, just because experience of this other order of excellence irradiates even the familiar valuations that it transcends, we may be even more active in their defence than we were before our enlightenment. For. paradoxically, the familiar values, even with their new poignancy, are perceived as members in that higher excellence which does indeed both eclipse them and enhance them.

C. Emancipation From Teleology

Well may we call this mood ecstasy, even though perhaps it is profoundly different from the ecstasy of the mystics. For it is essentially a standing outside oneself, and an aloofness from all the familiar objects of the will, a detachment not merely from the private person but equally from the world and its claims, not indeed to deny them, but to appreciate them with a new serenity. To speak almost in the same breath of detachment and of enhanced appreciativeness may seem inconsistent. But anyone who has ever attempted any work of art must understand this description. For it is only when we stand aloof from our work, that we most justly and most keenly appreciate whatever is good in it. Immersed no longer in the technical labour, with all its incidental but engrossing defeats and victories, we can value without distraction (and therefore with closer attention, and therefore more sharply), the aesthetic whole that we have devised.

I do not mean merely that in ecstasy our private desires may come to be regarded as unimportant and contemptible compared with the needs (say) of mankind as a community of interdependent minds; somewhat as, within the individual’s private economy, momentary impulses may be regarded as less worthy of consideration than permanent and deep-seated dispositions. It is not this comparative evaluation of needs and their fulfilments that is in question. In this mood of ecstasy we seem in some manner to pass beyond the whole cramping, limiting distinction between good and bad; we may even contemplate with a kind of cold fervour of acquiescence the possibility even that the whole enterprise of mind in the cosmos should fail, that the richest capacity of the universal active substance should never achieve expression in the supreme level of organism, and that all that has hitherto been achieved should be lost. For in this mood not only victory but also defeat, even final catastrophe, is experienced as good. We seem to stand above the battle in which we ourselves are eager and hard-pressed fighters, and to admire it as a work of divine art, in which tragic aesthetic excellence overwhelmingly vindicates all the defeat and pain even of those who may never have access to this vision.

<>Evidently if this account of ecstasy be true, we have come upon a very serious difficulty for an ethical theory according to which we mean by ‘good’ simply fulfilment of activity or tendency. For if by ‘good’ we mean fulfilment, it is meaningless even to ask of a certain instance of ‘good’ whether it is an instance of fulfilment or not. Let us, however, put aside this difficulty for the present, and pursue our empirical investigation of ecstasy. It is this radical difference between the familiar values and the value glimpsed in ecstasy that leads some to suppose that in ecstasy the distinction between good and bad is seen to be abolished. This I believe to be an error. Detachment from lower values for the sake of higher is mistaken for emancipation from value itself. There is, no doubt, a sense in which the spiritual life involves a 'disintoxication' from the influence of all values,97 an aloofness even in the most exalted delights. But these negative phrases describe only the process of emancipation, not the end for the sake of which emancipation is attempted. And even so they misdescribe; for there is nothing in them to distinguish ecstasy from disillusion, the somnolent failure to value at all from the awakening into a new mode of valuation and a new sphere of values, unnoticed in familiar moods. It is true that in ecstasy we have peace, and that we are indeed emancipated from all desire, and can accept whatever befalls. This, however, does not imply that we have transcended value, but rather that we have discovered, or seem to have discovered, that whatever befalls is good. We admire the issue of fate; we are not indifferent to it. Those who claim that the ‘spiritual life’ consists in an emancipation from value, admit that to the imperfectly spiritual the goal of spirituality constitutes a value, and the supreme value; but, they argue, the goal itself is a state in which value is seen to be illusory. In the spiritual view it matters not whether anyone attains to spirituality, still less whether the world’s enterprises succeed or fail. Therefore, we are told, in the spiritual view value is altogether escaped. But this is to overlook the fact, insisted upon often by the mystics themselves, and even by those who claim that value is transcended, that the spiritual life has its joys. It may be in a sense emancipated from desire, but only in the sense that it possesses what is most desirable, and has no occasion to desire more.</>

This dispute evidently does not turn on the propriety of the use of the words ‘good’ and ‘value’ with reference beyond the familiar plane of teleology. Rather the question is as to whether the experience is or is not affectively toned, and conatively active. Is it mere detachment, meredisintoxication, or is it definitely ‘ecstatic’ in the familiar sense? Surely it comes to us as essentially the contemplation of all object as good, though as good in a manner very different from the familiar manner. It is not mere contemplation, but admiring contemplation. There is a judgment, implicit or explicit, that the object of contemplation ought to be, that it is an end in itself and for itself, and further that when it is delivered to our contemplation we ought to salute it with that gesture of the spirit which we call admiration or worship. If anyone should ask what meaning there is in saying that an object is an end in and for itself, we must answer that in the final ethical analysis it turns out that in all value-judgments, an objective situation, such as organic fulfilment or personal fulfilment, is simply judged good in and for itself. We cannot analyse the experience further.

It is in defeat or tragedy that ecstasy, when it occurs, is most distinguishable; for in defeat it is most opposed to the teleological. In triumph also it is possible; but since it is itself a triumphant mood, we do not easily introspect it as other than the feel of victory. Nevertheless in our triumphs we may sometimes enter upon it, watching ourselves with almost derisive zest. But at such times ecstasy is apt to be mistaken for mere satiety and disillusion. For it is most obviously distinguished from triumph in its detachment and disintoxication from the fruits of victory even in a great cause.

It is perhaps in contemplation of aesthetic objects that) ecstasy is most often achieved. But normal aesthetic appreciation, even when it is intense, is distinct from the ecstasy to which it sometimes gives rise. For while aesthetic appreciation itself is essentially appreciation of a particular object, however complex that object be, ecstasy is appreciation of the whole experienced world, though it may be induced by the aesthetic object. In fact, while in pure aesthetic appreciation we admire the aesthetic object itself, in aesthetic ecstasy we admire the universe through the symbolism of the object.

Moreover, since in aesthetic experience ecstasy is so closely associated with the experience of the harmonious activity of our own powers of apprehension, it is not always distinguished therefrom. Again, since the aesthetic object itself is apt to be regarded as in a manner illusory, the aesthetic ecstasy is often confused and clouded by a certain scepticism. And so, though having it, we may have it without conviction, or cynically ‘explain it away’. The supreme aesthetic objects, however, and especially those which are tragic, can reveal most clearly the peculiar value which is the object of ecstasy. Not that the human significance of such works of art is essential. The most abstract art, it is said, even as the most abstract intellectual study, may enlighten us into ecstasy, may reveal that excellence which is different in kind from all familiar values. But it is in contemplation of those works of art in which human strivings are woven into a tragic aesthetic whole, that we achieve most richly the mood which paradoxically unites the single-minded espousal of needs with the spiritual aloofness consequent on apprehension of value of another order. And the aesthetic ecstasy is the more compelling in proportion as the aesthetic object is on the one hand poignant, through its inclusion of the triumphs and defeats of teleological beings, and on the other hand austere in its subjugation of this material under an abstract form. It is in this subjugation that dramatic art is creative. It evokes in a complex of teleological values and disvalues an excellence which, including them, is other than they.

D. Summary

I would summarize this account of the ecstatic experience as follows. (a) The experient does not seem to himself to apprehend some hitherto hidden reality or occult substance. He seems to appreciate something presented in ordinary experience but not hitherto appreciated. (b) The object which he appreciates is not simply the particular object with which his attention has been engaged, whether an aesthetic object, an object of intellectual contemplation, a tragic or triumphant event, or what not. He appreciates rather the whole of existence as it is revealed to him in ordinary experience. But he appreciates it with the help of, or through the symbolism of, the particular object with which his attention has been engaged. (c) The excellence which he seems to discover in the familiar universe seems to be no ordinary value, no mere fulfilment of the activity of a teleologically active substance. In some sense it is indifferent to, because it is superior to, the ordinary distinction between good and evil. In ecstasy we seem to appreciate the universe for being — just whatever we believe it in fact to be, whether for mind a place of triumph or of defeat. And, if my account is correct, the difference between this excellence of fact, or of fate, and the familiar teleological goods is most obvious in those moments of ecstasy which occur when we are being forced to surrender our most cherished ends. (d) Although there is this striking difference between the excellence cognized in ecstasy and all familiar goods, it is not true that in ecstasy we transcend the sphere of value altogether. In all the ecstatic experiences we do definitely value the universe, which is the total object of contemplation. We admire it, worship it; and we do so because we judge it to be a value, not simply for us, but in and for itself. We are not disintoxicated from all values, but only from all values other than the intrinsic excellence of the universe. Nor, strictly, are we disintoxicated from any values; for, though from our high look-out we can now regard all familiar values with complete detachment, we at the same time see them to be irradiated by the supreme excellence.

96 The word 'disillusion' may either mean literally the process of admitting cherished illusions to be in fact only illusions, together with the emotional attitude of bored disappointment, which such a discovery usually evokes; or it may mean the disappointed emotional attitude alone, whether it happens to be justified by the situation or not. Here I use it in the latter sense, namely, to mean the emotional attitude. It is possible to have an illusory disillusion.

97 G. Santayana, Platonism and the Spiritual Life, p. 30.

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