Monday, February 20, 2017

Wisdom and Destiny by Maurice Maeterlinck

Post-Christian Stoicism
Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature, was a Belgian playwright, poet, and essayist. His essays often blur the line between literature and philosophy, and perhaps in none of his works is this more true than his 1898 book Wisdom and Destiny. In this volume, Maeterlinck takes on the role of life coach. In 112 numbered passages, he provides his readers with thoughtful guidance on how to achieve a life of virtue, happiness, tranquility, and love.

Much of Maeterlinck’s personal philosophy is built upon a foundation of Greek and Roman Stoicism. In essence, the book is like a 19th-century version of William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Maeterlinck does deviate somewhat from the precepts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, however, and he expresses his teachings in a literary style all his own. One can also find inklings of Arthur Schopenhauer’s fatalism, but Maeterlinck expresses it in a kinder, gentler, more optimistic manner. Maeterlinck was raised in the Catholic tradition, but became disillusioned with organized religion as he grew older. Writing in the 19th century to a European audience, it was necessary that he must at least address Christianity. The philosophical advice he dispenses in this volume can be utilized by theists and atheists alike, but usually when he references God it sounds like the pantheistic god of the Stoics. Maeterlinck cites Jesus Christ as an example of a “sage” from whom we can learn valuable life lessons, alongside other positive and negative examples, including historical figures like Louis XVI, Marcus Aurelius, and Emily Bronte, or fictional characters such as Hamlet or Balzac’s Pierrette.

As a frequent reader of philosophy and an admirer of Stoic thought, I should have appreciated this book more than I did. Outside of philosophers themselves, no one really likes the jargon and dry, ultralogical prose that’s used to express most philosophical arguments, yet there is a good reason for it. The complex reasoning often requires a precision and clarity that conversational language cannot provide. Here, Maeterlinck errs in the opposite direction, eschewing clarity in favor of ambiguity. His poetic prose and flowery language come across as pretentious, flighty, and ill-suited to getting his point across. If one compares Maeterlinck’s writing to that of another literary/philosophical life coach, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Belgian author uses simpler vocabulary, but his syntax is far more obscurely circuitous than even the transcendentalist’s dense prose. To be fair, the English translation by Alfred Sutro might be partly to blame. Words like wisdom, destiny, love, virtue, happiness, consciousness, truth, and reason are bandied about in vague constructions. These terms are never adequately defined, or rather they are overdefined to the point where their definitions encompass everything and they simply become interchangeable.

Occasional pearls of insightful wisdom emerge from this verbal maze, enough to demonstrate that Maeterlinck was indeed a profound thinker, but such gems are few and far between. The medium does not do justice to the message. I much prefer Maeterlinck’s 1911 book Death, which is written in more straightforward language. If I were to read Wisdom and Destiny three or four times, I might eventually decipher Maeterlinck’s philosophical platform, but I would rather just reread the Discourses of Epictetus or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
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