Sweetness and Light, and a bit of Kipling

  • I was thinking the other day about Rudyard Kipling's Poem "If---", and how it might go some way to shed light on the enduring interest of Britons in Stoicism, when I remembered the work of another Victorian who was a minor interest of mine in college; Matthew Arnold, and the 4th chapter of his long-form essay on Culture and Anarchy.


    Kipling;


    "If---"


    If— by Rudyard Kipling | Poetry Foundation
    If you can keep your head when all about you
    www.poetryfoundation.org


    Arnold;


    On Hebraism and Hellenism, from Culture and Anarchy


    Hebraism and Hellenism


    I was rather more cynical in my atheism in those days, and was always zealous to find "Canon" authors who seemed to share my opinions. Something about this dichotomy between Hellenism and Hebraism struck a chord, and I have occasionally thought of it since. But rereading it now, I find myself less cynical and more thoughtful--and my initial thought is that Arnold's analysis is not particularly useful.


    Here are some questions I would ask him:


    1. How sound is a thesis that rolls all of Greek thought into one, and assumes that this false monolith has a single common aim?


    2. Are 'perfection' and 'salvation' synonymous?


    3. Even if the aim of both Greek and Hebrew really was salvation, are you not glossing over a huge chasm of difference, such as:

    A. The wildly different perceived threats they wanted to be saved from?

    B. The strikingly disparate methods they hoped to use?

    C. The ultimate end that the promise of each kind of salvation offered?


    4. Is the "desire for the love of God", however you choose to dress that up, really "native in man"?


    5. Will you seriously argue that the Christian shattering of the Pagan world was "salutary"!?


    6. And will you seriously argue the same for the Puritan reaction to and containment of the Renaissance?


    --------------


    So that was incredibly disappointing to re-read. I ought to take Charles' cue and look to the French for my reading!

  • First I know there are many great readings of "If" - this is one I came across years ago and really like: https://www.sffaudio.com/librivox-if-by-rudyard-kipling/


    I hate to give up that poem to the stoics and would argue that what is being described there is not really stoicism....


    This reader has the kind of strong and yet friendly voice I really like for the Epicurean material - strong but not overly theatrical.


    I will have to make time to read the Hellenism vs Judaism material. I can't tell much about it from your comments but I generally find the Rome/Athens Vs Jerusalem contrast pretty helpful, as I do see them as eternally at war and the analogy useful as a starting point for setting the battlefield. --But if the article lumps all Greeks in one camp then that's obviously way too overbroad.

  • Quote

    I hate to give up that poem to the stoics and would argue that what is being described there is not really stoicism....

    That was more or less the position I held myself until quite recently, but I don't find that it satisfies. There is too much of duty and indifference and virtue in those lines. Perhaps if the poem was not rendered in the second person, it would not feel so overbearingly paternal.


    My favorite alternative is "Contented wi' little" by Robert Burns.


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    I generally find the Rome/Athens Vs Jerusalem contrast pretty helpful, as I do see them as eternally at war and the analogy useful as a starting point for setting the battlefield.

    I generally support this view, when the comparison is a competent one (as in the hands of Christopher Hitchens). Arnold's main failing is his expressed thesis---that the Greeks and Hebrews were following superficially different paths to the same goal, and that the best life is a balance of the two approaches: a piously Christian conscience and conduct augmented with Greek inquiry and curiosity---and with the subtle insidious disclaimer that the religious half takes precedence out of moral necessity.


    Interestingly enough, he appears to accomplish this maneuver with a threat, in response to a direct reference to the second line of Lucretius!


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    When the alma Venus, the life-giving and joy-giving power of nature, so fondly cherished by the Pagan world, could not save her followers from self- dissatisfaction and ennui, the severe words of the apostle came bracingly and refreshingly: "Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience"


    And to make his point clear;


    Quote

    And, therefore, it is justly said of the Jewish people, who were charged with setting powerfully forth that side of the divine order to which the words conscience and self-conquest point, that they were "entrusted with the oracles of God;" as it is justly said of Christianity, which followed Judaism and which set forth this side with a much deeper effectiveness and a much wider influence, that the wisdom of the old Pagan world was foolishness compared to it.

  • Arnold's main failing is his expressed thesis---that the Greeks and Hebrews were following superficially different paths to the same goal, and that the best life is a balance of the two approaches: a piously Christian conscience and conduct augmented with Greek inquiry and curiosity---and with the subtle insidious disclaimer that the religious half takes precedence out of moral necessity

    Yikes!!! The worst of both worlds!!!!


    I can see why my reading in Arnold has been very thin.