One of the phone calls that greeted me this New Year’s Day drove me to some serious contemplation. The friend quoted the example of Galileo who retracted his scientific theory before the religious Inquisitors and later explained his action: “Science doesn’t need martyrs.”
My meditation led me to the notion of freedom provided by the 17th century philosopher, Spinoza. He argued that we were not totally free. We are controlled by certain inescapable laws of nature as well as our genetic makeup. Evil is also an essential part of nature. “The evil which ensues from evil deeds is not therefore less to be feared because it comes of necessity;” said Spinoza, “whether our actions are free or not, our motives still are hope and fear.”
Hope for a better future; fear about the present situation. The martyr is not afraid for himself; his fear is about the future of the society.
Martyrdom need not be a virtue. To be really great is not to be placed above humanity, ruling or controlling others, counsels Spinoza. Real greatness lies in rising above the partialities and futilities of uninformed desires, and ruling one’s self.
Desires or passions drive human beings. Passion for wealth, power, luxury, assets, fame… “A passion ceases to be a passion,” says Spinoza, “as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it...” When we understand our passion adequately, it becomes a virtue. All intelligent behaviour – i.e., all reaction which arises from an understanding of the total situation – is virtuous action. Spinoza even goes to the extent of saying that there is no virtue but intelligence.
“Men who are good by reason – i.e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them – desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.” Spinoza’s words.
Can I invert that wisdom? We don’t live in 17th century anyway. If you live in a society of human beings who do not desire for the rest of mankind what they desire for themselves, use your reason and find your escape route. What good would Galileo have done had he accepted martyrdom for the sake of preserving his integrity? Visualise him in his given situation, of course; it would be absurd to argue that integrity is immaterial. Intelligence is virtue. And Galileo was not acting without integrity; he was acting with the virtue of intelligence.
I’m convinced Spinoza is right even 337 years after his death.