Sublime Failure

October 8, 2009

William Gillis posed this question today on his Facebook profile:

A communist with some degree of knowledge on the subject once told me that what defined anarchists and anarchism was a total incapacity for any form of acceptance. In short, our affinity for valiant loosing battles was not indicative of any moral superiority, but rather a strange psychological — and possibly neurological — handicap when it came to surrender. Ignoring the source, what say you?

I’m inclined to take a different angle and agree with Guyau that, far from a handicap, it is “a medium useful for the development of life itself” “raised into sublimity”, that it instead represents what is well and good about being human, a virtue, as long as it is considered in unity with other virtues, such as reason. But the success of the struggle itself is not what makes the goal rational or a sign of flourishing in the individual, I think.

It is rare that real sacrifices present themselves in life as certain. The soldier, for instance, is not certain of falling in the fight; far from it: there is here only a mere possibility. In other words, there is danger. Now, it is necessary to see if danger, even independently of all idea of moral obligation, is not a medium useful for the development of life itself—a powerful stimulant of all the faculties, capable of carrying them to their maximum of energy, and capable also of producing a maximum of pleasure…

Let us note that the pleasure of contest alters its form without disappearing, be it in the struggle with an animated being (war or chase), or in the struggle with visible obstacles (sea, mountain), or in the struggle with invisible things (illness to be cured, difficulties of all sorts to be conquered). The struggle always partakes of the same character—that of a passionate duel. In truth, the doctor who starts for Senegal has decided upon a kind of duel with the yellow fever. The struggle passes from the domain of things physical to the intellectual domain, without losing anything of its ardour or of its fascination. The struggle may also pass into the special domain of morals. There is an inward struggle between the will and the passions, as captivating as any other, and in which the victory brings an infinite joy…


In short, man [sic] needs to feel himself great, in order now and again to have full consciousness of the sublimity of his will. This consciousness he gets in struggle—struggle with himself, with his passions, or with material and intellectual obstacles. Now, this struggle to satisfy our reason must have an aim. Man [sic] is too rational a being to fully approve of the monkeys of Cambodia playing for fun with the jaws of the crocodile, or of the Englishman Baldwin going into the heart of Africa for the pleasure of hunting. The intoxication of danger exists at times in everyone of us, even in the most timid; but this instinct of danger requires to be more reasonably exercised. Although, in many cases, there is only a superficial difference
between temerity and courage, he who, for instance, dies for his country is conscious of not having accomplished an idle deed. The need of danger and of struggle, on condition of it being thus directed and utilized by reason, assumes a moral importance all the greater, as it is one of the rare instincts which have no fixed direction. It may be used without resistance for any social end…

Moreover, danger in endless shades and degrees—from the danger of losing one’s life to the danger of losing one’s money—remains one of the important features of social existence. There is not a movement in the social body which does not imply a risk. And intelligent boldness to run this risk identifies itself up to a certain point with the very instinct of progress, and liberalism; while the fear of danger identifies
itself with the conservative instinct, which, after all, is always doomed to be beaten as long as the world exists and progresses. Thus, in the danger incurred on behalf of somebody (myself or some one else), there is nothing contrary to the deep instincts and laws of life. Far from it; to expose one’s self to danger is something normal in a morally well-constituted individual; to expose one’s self to danger for the sake of others is but going a step further on the same road…


From this side self-sacrifice again takes its place among the general laws of life, from which it at first seemed to completely escape. The peril confronted for oneself or for others—intrepidity or self-sacrifice—is not a mere negation of self and of personal life; it is this life itself raised into sublimity. The sublime in ethics, as well as in aesthetics, at first seems to be in contradiction to the order constituting the beautiful; but this is only a superficial contradiction. The roots of the sublime and the beautiful are the same, and the intensity of feeling which it pre-supposes does not prevent a certain inward rationality.

Jean-Marie Guyau’s A Sketch of Morality Independent of Obligation and Sanction


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