Monday, May 27, 2013

My Own Small Vision of Happiness: Introduction

Ever since I can remember, I have had what you might call a hunger for life (what German romantics or at least their interpreters would call Sehnsucht).  As a small child, I couldn't really describe it very well.  I remember standing in the playground outside my old elementary school (when I was about eight years old, before my family moved from Alabama to Georgia and began homeschooling), thinking to myself, "I must remember this moment.  There are trees over there, wind in my face, the sun overcast with a few clouds behind me, and a fence right there in front of me.  I must remember this moment, so that I can look back from the future and see what it was like to exist here and now."  I knew that there was something significant in that moment.  I knew that life was something important.  I knew I had many things ahead of me, many unknowns, and that what I was experiencing right then was somehow meaningful.  But I could not see how.  I did not know what life was.  I had the feeling I was going into something, but I couldn't see what (or what I was supposed to do about it).  As a result, I would repeatedly stop and try to "capture moments" like this one (which remains lodged more deeply in my memory than most of the later ones, though I sometimes think I remember some of them, too--memory being the tricky thing that it is).

As I grew older, my hunger became more concrete (more identified with definite things in my personal environment).  I learned to satisfy it with particular goods, goods that I encountered in my personal experience and cultivated as something unique to me.  These goods could be material things, but in my experience they were always more.  I loved books, not because of the paper or the particular information that they contained, but because there was something incredibly vital and satisfying about sitting down for several hours and reading, learning things about animals, people, places, and things I had never seen (or at least never recognized: books taught me that each thing in my ordinary experience contains a world of context to which I remain always more oblivious than not).  I loved books as an experience more than as things.  Significantly, the experiential value of books was always greater when I chose my own reading.  The books I have enjoyed most throughout my life (from the time I asked my dad to read me The Lord of the Rings out loud before bedtime as a five-year-old until now) have been the ones I picked myself.  I don't want the things people want me to have (books, diplomas, car, house, family, kids, jobs, career, cursus honorum).  I want the experiences I choose for myself (reading, working, friendship, love, victory and defeat, birth and death, virtus).  I didn't have words to say this as a little kid, but it was true then and remains true today.

As I grew up, I learned more about the hunger I carried inside.  I learned that it could be destructive as well as constructive.  The most powerful illustration of its awful power was provided by my interaction with institutions.  Naive and idealistic (like many before me and many since), I identified unreservedly with the groups of people around me, constructing my own virtus deliberately to reflect communal values in the social groups where I participated.  I aimed to be a perfect picture of Mormon virtue (as taught in my local LDS ward), martial virtue (as taught in my local martial arts dojo, which was run by a Southern Baptist preacher), and political virtue (as taught all over in my family, church, the dojo, and eventually the American universities where I studied).  Looking back, I think that this mistake is inevitable and even good, but that doesn't make it universally, unreservedly good (or safe: life is always dangerous, lethally so).  Sometimes, my eagerness to serve the collective paid off in good ways: I became a good student, a strong kid, and a hard worker.  Other times, not so much: I also became neurotic, pessimistic (depressive and obsessed with ways in which I fell short of perfection), and a glutton for others' approval (eager to confess sins and receive absolution, eager to be commanded in all things, slow to do things on my own initiative that might turn out "badly" for my standing with the group that I worshipped too much).  Also, I occasionally lost sight of my own ideals.  I was so concentrated on doing my part for the group that I forgot to take care of myself.  Serving visions of God and fellowman and country, I lost sight of myself.  I lost my own vision.  Committed to collective values, I didn't notice that my own values were becoming increasingly incoherent and even irrelevant (as I deliberately smothered my own idea of good to pursue somebody else's).

For years I did my best to ignore my own visions of good (which were scarcely coherent anyway, in part because I feared the threat their coherence might pose to the incoherence increasingly apparent in the collective values around me).  But it was all in vain.  The day finally came when I awoke--when I found myself sitting under my own bohdi tree, standing on my own mount of transfiguration, hearkening to the daimonion on my own shoulder. The issue of my awakening has been both positive and negative. On the positive side, I have become much more aware of what it is that I really value. This makes me easier to relate to as a person, and has made my friendships more authentic and enduring. On the negative side, people do not always like what I value, particularly when they know me only through my ideas (which occasionally sound much crueler and/or crazier than I like to think I really am). Expressing my personal virtus makes me obnoxious to people who wish that I would just sit quietly and like (or at least pretend to like) what they want me to. Inasmuch as I too feel dislike, I understand on some level the disgust that I inspire, and I think I have come up with some good ways of dealing with it—ways of relating to myself and others that allow us all to be authentic without compromising unnecessarily or impossibly our conflicting ideas of what constitutes happiness. In the posts that follow this one, I want to share some of my ideas about happiness—my own vision of what “the good life” looks like. While this vision necessarily includes the visions of others, I don't mean to dictate what people should like or do. My vision of happiness won't be yours, and that is as it should be. Like my vision or not as you please. My aim is always to make it as little obnoxious to you as possible, as little restrictive of your own moral autonomy as nature allows.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Ingenium misera quia fortunatius arte / credit et excludit sanos Helicone poetas / Democritus, bona pars non unguis ponere curat, / non barbam, secreta petit loca, balnea vitat.

Poetam bonum neminem (id quod a Democrito et Platone in scriptis relictum esse dicunt) sine inflammatione animorum existere posse et sine quodam adflatu quasi furoris.

Some people in the knowledge business talk about "making a career" in terms of (1) picking out a problem to solve, (2) solving it (immediately), and (3) publishing about it continually.  In my experience, this is not what happens.  I don't pick problems.  They pick me.  Try as I may, I cannot get rid of them.  I write not for publications, but because I must: even if I were to get a job elsewhere, I would still be thinking about all the same questions that currently engage me (and I would come to places like this to write "articles" only a few people would glance at).

I also don't really do deadlines.  When I have to, of course, I am as good as the next guy at penning a rhetorical conclusion and signing off.  But that is not always (or usually) the end.  It is just a convenient pause for the people who like such things (whose interests I don't mind serving, particularly while they pay my bills).  The solving process goes on until it finishes in its own time: usually, this takes longer than it is supposed to (years in many cases--I am only now "solving" in provisionally valid ways ethical dilemmas I started wrestling with as a prepubescent kid).  The best problems in the fields I frequent (ethics, literature, philosophy, history) are in some sense insoluble: they require constant provisional solution that can never become too definitive or universal without losing most of its power.  I did not know how to say this as an undergraduate ("I am interested in insoluble problems, professor, not the kind that I can comment upon definitively in a five-page response paper with a handful of well-placed references").

At some point in the future, it may become incumbent upon me to work outside my obsession with ethical problems.  That is OK.  But I will always be thinking about them, not because I must be a professor, but because I am obsessed with these problems.  They were interesting to me as a kid.  Sometimes they disgust me.  Sometimes they attract me.  Sometimes I love working on them.  Sometimes I hate it.  But I have to do it.  There is no alternative.  No shutting off my brain (or telling it that we are simply not going to worry about the nature of justice). 

I imagine other people experience this with other things (e.g. mathematics or music or some other kind of art).  Being an artist is being possessed by something larger than yourself, something more vast than your power to control or understand.  The artist is not absolute master of his domain.  Unlike most people, he doesn't pretend to be.  He doesn't feel the need to dominate or "express himself" (what does that even mean?).  He sees the marble, the equation, the justice or lack of justice in the world, and he cannot help reaching for it, shaping it, playing with it, seeing how it responds to his inquiries (whose outcome he does not know: all he knows is that it will be beautiful).  To be a really great artist, one must first surrender the self (the career, the fixed desires for this or that outcome, the conscious preening that goes on among poseurs who think criticism is not itself a kind of art--not always a very good one).  One must give that self up to the art and then see what art makes of it.  The result, no matter what it is, will always be more beautiful and more satisfying to the true artist than any accolades or career (which if they happen are merely a sideshow, an accident, an aberration--sometimes pleasant, sometimes not, especially when they get in the way of the art).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Modern Sickness

The problem discussed below is ancient, too, but it seems more virulent today (to my biased eye) than in the past.

Mass culture in the United States (and everywhere) creates this strange destructive tendency whereby what is good for one person (under certain circumstances) is assumed to be good (and by extension in some sense obligatory) for all (with no regard for changing circumstances).

Having a house was good in the 50s for some folks. So we must all have houses! Who cares if they are a giant waste of space and nobody can afford them? God will provide (through tithing or taxes, depending on your particular political/religious affiliation).

Going to college works well for some people. So we must all go to college! Who cares if we study art or engineering, if there are jobs or not? God will provide, and when he doesn't we will just pull money out of the sky via quantitative easing and make prosperity last forever.

Having kids can be really rewarding. So we must all have kids, as many as possible, as often as possible. Who cares if we cannot feed them anything worth eating or clothe them in something that isn't a made by slaves in Asia? God will provide (via the crappy products of nice US unions or the nice products of crappy Asian sweatshops: either way he always puts a pile of crap somewhere).

The idea that we should all do the same stuff the same way, following some universal plan, is just pure nonsense--the best recipe for disaster that we have ever come up with. But that doesn't stop us from pushing it. Even when it fails (spectacularly), we simply double down (telling the faithful to pay more tithes and taxes to support even bigger businesses as they behave even more irresponsibly). This modern modus operandi is fundamentally ridiculous. I'm done with it.

Dealing with Authority

I become involved recently in a conversation about "the patriarchy" (something people who self-identify as feminists often bring up as a persistent source of multiple evils in civil society). Here are some thoughts I had that seemed worth preserving (as something for me to think about more).

In my view, the root problem here is not this or that ἀρχή (Greek for authority among other things), but ἀρχή (-archy) in general. Humans, like other social primates, exist in groups where individuals (disproportionately males) arrogate authority.

In primitive societies, this tendency is arrested by the lack of independence that primitive life carries built-in (as strong as I might be, I can still get injured really badly really easily and/or have a bad day hunting: I need the cooperation of weaker folk to survive). The pill in this egalitarian jam is (1) living conditions are rough and (2) low-level violence is actually rather high (as individuals see opportunities to rise in the fluctuating informal hierarchy and take them: kick an alpha when he's down).

In more modern societies (agricultural instead of hunter-gatherer), hierarchies necessarily become more rigid (less egalitarian). I cannot know all the police personally (the way primitive people know everyone in the tribe by name). Leadership is institutional rather than charismatic and tends to move around less (the chieftain or king or prime minister remains in power on a schedule that is predetermined, often such that one individual holds power his entire life). People become stuck in their social place more firmly (entrenching themselves in inequality as primitives don't). The jam with this pill is (1) living conditions are nicer and (2) low-level violence drops (witness Steven Pinker, though it is not right to read him as saying that civilization is necessarily safer than lack of it in terms of outcomes: the elimination of low-level violence creates high-level violence that is much more lethal in smaller doses).

Education should help us understand (1) where human social order is flexible, so that we can avoid making it hurt us unnecessarily; and (2) where human social order is inflexible, so that we can fight back effectively when we are screwed without destroying the order that we require in order to survive. All human social order kills people. The aim is to die as beautifully as possible, recognizing that we will not all die the same way (or have the same idea of what constitutes a truly beautiful death).

I try not to be a misogynist (and this does not really seem hard to me in practical terms, since I have healthy relationships with good women--relationships in which all parties associate voluntarily because we like what happens when we collaborate).

I don't personally mind if people want to be misandrist: hate men all you like, as long as you don't insist on being my friend (and/or demanding that I join your club and hate myself: I promise I already do, and I don't need any help from people who think the solution to self-hatred is making oneself vulnerable to people who reinforce it).

If people like me and want to work with me, then I want to be there for them as much as I can. If people hate me and wish I would drop off the face of the planet and die, then I want to be there for them as little as possible (as they wish).

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Happiness in Brief

Happiness is a little thing that obstinately refuses to grow bigger. No matter how we beg her to become universal and immortal, she insists on being fleeting and parochial.

Happiness is being right where you are, as the person you are, experiencing whatever it is that you experience.  It might be something that many people enjoy, or it might not.  What really matters is your attitude towards whatever it is: if you have the right attitude, one that you adopt consciously and deliberately, then you will always be happy, even when "whatever it is" happens to be something that most people would regard as something very bad. 

Happiness is breaking your leg and passing out from intense pain at the doctor's office, only to wake up later in recovery and realize that you are not dead.  For a moment you don't care about anything else (including the bill you cannot afford).

Happiness is spending years of your life trying to serve people who tell you repeatedly that they hate your guts and wish you would go to hell.  You smile and move away as they curse you, spit at you, punch you, and belittle you.  You regularly attend meetings where well-meaning fools offer you reasons why other people hate you: perhaps you are a sinful wretch, incapable of showing honest affection; or maybe you just lack some basic social awareness--your smile is awkward, you don't shake hands right, and you have this tendency to babble on instead of getting to the point when people actually let you talk instead of spitting on you.  You smile and sit through these meetings.  At the end you shake the speaker's hand and say, "Thank you very much."  And you mean it.

Happiness is going to school to qualify yourself for a job that ceases to exist soon after you graduate.  You smile and release the hope that you had for outcomes that are now impossible.  You see that the small things in life are still there for you--family, friends, food, and even work, too (though it won't be the sort of work you imagined doing as a doe-eyed undergraduate).

Happiness is being reminded constantly how people are better than you.  You learn not to mind this obvious truth.  You stop dwelling on it.  You just accept it and move past it, looking for the way to help in situations where "the best" is not what is needed (since you don't have it to offer: why spend time regretting what you never have? that will not make anyone happier).

Happiness is waking up each day and realizing that your dreams have come true, because they are small dreams--little dreams of small happiness that even the most unlucky person might expect to find fulfilled every now and then.

Happiness is realizing that you never wanted much, and that you have almost all of it nearly all the time.  If you have it, you don't need more.  A little pleasure is sufficient for the greatest happiness humans can achieve.  If you lack it, don't worry.  Human life is fleeting and yours will change soon (losing whatever it is that makes you miserable right now).