|Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp||MARIUS THE EPICUREAN
THE last words of Gautama-Buddha, when, sitting under the Sâl-tree, he
prepared for his imminent advent into Nirvana, were, "Beware of the illusions of
matter." Marius, in whose imaginary biography Walter Pater has embodied all that is
highest and finest in Epicureanism, would recognise these socalled illusions as the only
criteria of truth, rendering himself up, as he strove from the first to do, in a complete
surrender "to the dominion of outward impressions."
It is the narration of the sensations and ideas of a late disciple of the son of Neocles, of one whose life is cast in that fascinating period of Roman history when Paganism really died under the philosophically universal toleration of Marcus Aurelius, that Pater has set himself to accomplish ; and it is only giving expression to a palpable truth to say that he has fulfilled his purpose with a sympathetic thoroughness which could be equalled by no living writer. On its own merits this work would challenge widespread attention, doubly so from the fact that its author (as it seems to the writer ) is the chief living exponent of the really essential part of that doctrine which close upon twenty-two centuries ago, amid the restful pleasures of his Athenian garden, Epicurus promulgated to the listening ears of Hermarchus, his future successor, and of Metrodorus, that beloved and faithful disciple concerning whose children the last recorded utterances of the Gargettian sage were spoken to Idomeneus, "If you would prove yourself worthy, take care of the children of Metrodorus."
Certainly, ardent discipleship did not pass away with the decease of the famous philosopher, or even with the natural end of Hermarchus, Colotes, Philodemus, and others little removed from the master in point of years. As an actually vital philosophic system the teaching of Epicurus was accepted, though in gradually attenuating degree, for over six hundred years, finding, as it did, devoted adherents even so late as in the third century after Christ. At long intervals, and in diverse, countries, it ever and again appears as if the spirit of the founder of the philosophy of Sensation found rebirth---as in France midway and during the latter half of the seventeenth century, when Gassendi, the rival of Descartes, proved anew indisputably in his Philosophioe Epicuri Syntagma the possibility of uniting Epicurean principles with a high code of morals; when La Rochefoucauld published his philosophic maxims for the conduct of life, and when St. Evremond lived freely and wrote worthily ; or, again, as in the France of a later day, when Helvetius preached his doctrine of Sensation (Sensibilité) as the means of knowledge, and of self-satisfaction as the end of life, having his own philosophic calm put to the test by the public burning of his great work De l'Esprit ; as in England by Jeremy Bentham and one or two others, and lastly, and most effectively of all by Walter Pater.* * With Pater's name should be coupled that of Richard Jefferies---a true Epicurean in the best sense of the term, as may be gathered from the following words, taken from one of Mr. Jefferies' most characteristic productions: "The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things, so much the more is snatched from inevitable time. . . . These are the only hours that are not wasted---these hours that absorb the soul and fill it with beauty. This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance. It is not the present purpose of the writer to discuss the question of the merits and demerits of the Epicurean philosophy ; he will content himself with saying that never has it been represented with greater fidelity .in its weakness as in its strength, than in these two volumes by Walter Pater, where it may be apprehended in as enticing an aspect as Cicero (in reality a bitter opponent to Epicureanism) shows it in the first book of his De Finibus. The Epicureanism of Marius is that of the master, more than that of Aristippus and the Cyrenaics, still more than that of Timocrates *[Diogenes Laërtius, Bk. x.] and other apostates from the pure teachings of the founder. It may or may not be the case, as Mr. Lecky says, that Epicureanism, while logically compatible with a very high degree of virtue, has a practical tendency towards vice ; but it is undeniably the case that men of fine nature may live up to and within its central doctrine and its limitations and yet suffer no deterioration of nature. The question is not does such a nature deteriorate, but rather does it attain to anything like the same spiritual development which it might by a sterner, a less select philosophy of life have otherwise reached? But a "Cyrenaic" without flaw was Marius. Epicurus, at the end of one of his definitions of his scheme of life, adds concerning his ideal man " that sometimes he will die for his friend." In this also, by no means characteristic of the Epicureans as a body, does Marius approach his ideal prototype, for he ultimately meets the solution to his many questionings through an act of generous self -sacrifice.
Marius is a true Hedonist, and. accordingly, he indulges in no vain pursuit of pleasure. For, after all, the true Hedonism is neither more nor less than cultured receptivity, openness to all thrilling or pleasant associations, avoidance of all that is mean and painful. This Hedonism, Epicureanism, or by whatever name it may be called, does not prevent or seek to prevent due attention to and performance of the ordinary daily duties of life ; but it would teach us, where possible, to throw around these some glamour of beauty or significance, or at any rate not to let them interfere with our serenity more than we can avoid. For, as Epicurus himself has declared, pleasure, in the ordinary sense of the word, is not the end of a wise man's life, but health, ease, serenity Concerning those minor observances of daily life, it should be with us as it was with Marius: "Those simple gifts, like other objects equally trivial---bread, oil, wine, milk---had regained for him, by their use in such religious service, that poetic and, as it were, moral significance which surely belongs to all the means of our daily life, could we but break through the veil of our familiarity with things by no means vulgar in themselves." And again: " He was acquiring what it is ever the chief function of all higher education to teach---a system or art, namely, of so relieving the ideal or poetic traits, the elements of distinction, in our everyday life, of so exclusively living in them, that the unadorned remainder of it, the mere drift and dibris of life, becomes as though it were not."
While to the question, What is the criterion of truth ? Epicurus replies Sensation, Walter Pater would add that for the ideal life one must possess two qualities, serenity of spirit and contemplative insight. The value of finely balanced receptivity to Sensation cannot well be over-estimated: at its highest development it will prevent vain regret and vague anticipation--- it will serve as the most effectual protest against the mere narrow concep tion of means and ends in life. As Walter Pater says, in his fine essay on Wordsworth, "the higher morality might well endeavour rather to draw men's attention from the conception of means and ends in life altogether"---and again, against the predominance of machinery in life (i.e., against the conception of means and ends as a comprehensive conception of life as a whole) all that is really great in art and poetry is a continual protest.
To witness with appropriate emotion the great spectacle of life, life in its widest and most comprehensive significance, is, says Walter Pater, in the essay already alluded to, the aim of all culture. Moreover, "that the end of life is not action, but contemplation, being as distinct from doing, a certain disposition of the mind, is in some shape or other the principle of all the higher morality. In poetry, as in art, if you enter into their true spirit at all, you touch this principle in part ; these, by their very sterility, are a type of beholding for the mere joy of beholding. To treat life in the spirit of art is to make life a thing in which means and ends are identified. This, then, is the true moral significance of art and poetry. . . . impassioned contemplation."
Two extracts from Marius the Epicurean will further serve to illustrate the author's position :
"In Italy all natural things are woven through and through
with gold thread, even the cypress revealing it among the folds of its blackness. And it
is with gold dust or gold thread that these Venetian painters seem to work, spinning its
fine filaments through the solemn human flesh, out away into the white plastered walls of
the thatched huts."