I was recently reading the play An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley and it’s considered one of the greatest political works in theatre and at it’s core, a socialist morality play. Yet, perhaps, rather unintentionally, this is also a lesson in stoic philosophy. Of course, I could be reinventing the wheel here, but I’m having fun nevertheless.
“But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.” – Inspector Goole, An Inspector Calls
I’ve spoken before about the service we have for each other and that there is no such thing as a career or office for a stoic. There is only service and service to each other and the common good. The Inspector, amongst vice, stands alone and hated in the Birling household. He is both the calm and the storm in their lives and they despise him for the virtue. Does he care? No – he teaches a better way.
“Injustice is sin. When universal Nature has constituted rational creatures for the sake of each other – to benefit one another as deserved, but never to harm – anyone contravening her will is clearly a sin agaisnt the oldest of the gods: because universal Nature is the nature of ultimate reality, to which all present existence is related” – Meditations 9.1.1
“So anyone who is not himself indifferent to pain and pleasure, death and life, fame and obscurity – things which universal Nature treats indifferently – is clearly committing a sin.” – Mediations 9.1.4
The Birling family is guilty of the old stoic definition of sin. They fear the erosion of personal power, reputation, wealth and pleasures. They represent the bourgeoise for Priestly and the hubris of the time – of course very popular with the Soviets. Yet, it’s not a political matter in my eyes, but a philosophical one. One where we have an example of vice being exposed by virtue, or at the very least: simply exposed.
“It means that we’ve no excuse now for putting on airs and that if we’ve any sense
we won’t try. Father threw this girl out because she asked for decent wages. I went and pushed
her farther out, right into the street, just because I was angry and she was pretty. Gerald set her
up as his mistress and then dropped her when it suited him. And now you’re pretending you don’t
recognize her from that photograph. I admit I don’t know why you should, but I know jolly well
you did in fact recognize her, from the way you looked. And if you’re not telling the truth, why
should the Inspector apologize? And can’t you see, both of you, you’re making it worse?” – Sheila Birling, An Inspector Calls
It’s stubborn, and deep rooted vice. Like a stain that won’t wash out, it takes time to life from the fabric of our lives and great effort. It permeates the threads of our society and seems to be woven into reality by Clotho and the Fates themselves. I’ve carried the stain on myself. In many ways I still do. My impressions of people are not reality, much like Mrs Birling’s view on the lower classes. She builds a wall between herself and them to elevate her own shit from the rest of the stink. Perhaps in my own cloying romances, I assume myself more important than others for some people, I also assume I matter less. Is either true, or am I just projecting a framework of internalized prejudices that require an exorcism?
We all need an inspector for ourselves. That stoic voice in our own minds to expose our vices, hypocrisies and hubris. Eva Smith is the name of everyone we’ve ever hurt either passively or impassively. She’s the mark we leave and she’s the one who needs our help. Sometimes, perhaps, we are our own Eva Smith.
“Inspector: And be quiet for a moment and listen to me. I don’t need to know any more. Neither do
you. This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her.
Remember that. Never forget it. (He looks from one to the other of them carefully.) But then I
don’t think you ever will. Remember what you did, Mrs Birling. You turned her away when she
most needed help. You refused her even the pitiable little bit of organized charity you had in
your power to grant her. Remember what you did —
Eric: (unhappily) My God – I’m not likely to forget.
Inspector: Just used her for the end of a stupid drunken evening, as if she was an animal,
a thing, not a person. No, you won’t forget. (He looks at Sheila.)
Sheila: (bitterly) I know. I had her turned out of a job. I started it.
Inspector: You helped – but you didn’t start it.( rather savagely, to Birling.) You started
it. She wanted twenty-five shillings a week instead of twenty-two and sixpence. You made her
pay a heavy price for that. And now she’ll make you pay a heavier price still.
Birling: ( unhappily) Look, Inspector – I’d give thousands – yes, thousands.
Inspector: You’re offering the money at the wrong time. Mr Birling. (He makes a move as
if concluding the session, possibly shutting up notebook, etc. Then surveys them sardonically.)
No, I don’t think any of you will forget. Nor that young man, Croft, though he at least had some
affection for her and made her happy for a time. Well, Eva Smith’s gone. You can’t do her any
more harm. And you can’t do her any good now, either. You can’t even say ‘I’m sorry, Eva
Reflect on your life. Question yourself and see your actions for what they are. Would you stand up to the scrutiny? No? Then it’s time to break out the stain remover by the names of Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus and get scrubbing. The present moment is all you have, use it wisely.