Monday, August 4, 2014


There is an interesting choice that civilization makes possible.  We can choose to be sick and weak for an extended period of time (rather than dying in short order as we would in nature). 

Going back to the old Greek fable, civilization puts us at a strange crossroads.  We can head downhill toward Pleasure, who will make our wasting and waning momentarily sweet (and chronically painful as we lose mobility, strength, flexibility, and eventually our lives).  Or we can head uphill toward Virtue, who will make our growth and stasis satisfying and fun in the long-term (while she gives us hell in the short, as we practice mobility, strength, flexibility, and living--hard tasks that really beat us up).  Heracles went up, of course, but his choice is not very popular. 

The thing about Pleasure is that it really wants to look like Virtue.  These days, it goes to the gym and the office.  It eats right.  It passes easy judgement on people who don't do the right thing (i.e. whatever it happens to like doing in the gym, the office, or the dining room).  If you don't look carefully, it wears a very compelling mask of Virtue.  The thing that gives it away, semper et ubique, is its focus on aesthetics over ethics.  It wants to look good.  It wants to win medals.  It wants to play, not work.  When its regimen gets hard, it goes home (and complains about "austerity" in the office, "chalk on the floor" in the gym, etc., while noshing some sweet snack--approved once by some nutrition guru--in the dining room).  It does not see value in learning through loss (what the old poet Aeschylus calls "suffering into truth," the bequest of gods to humanity).  It does not know how to value the suffering that outsiders do not see or recognize (with some external reward, some outward sign of approval that must become ever louder and more extravagant to keep people's pleasure-sensors firing wildly).  Virtue is different because it can take pleasure in defeat, and in victories that the outside world does not see (victories too small to be rewarded with money and prizes and shit, but they are some of life's most important gifts to humanity).

Virtue does not mind if you like to look at yourself in the gym, if your job at the office is mostly make-believe and pretend ("well, the boss needs this BS, so we will give it to him in the best order we can"), or if you indulge in the occasional "bad" food (all food is poisonous to somebody at sometime).  But if you never strive to live beyond your "comfort zone," if you never push away from the apathetic pleasure of relaxing into the active (and pathetic) pleasure of acting, then you will not know Virtue.  Your strengths will decay into weakness, your pleasure into slow pain, and you will live and die prematurely senile (rotting like untreated grapes rather than aging like fine wine).  If you live in the artificial world of civilization, the world in which you are not starving or homeless, then this choice is real for you.  Will you suffer here and now to feel better for years to come?  Or will you kick back and feel good here and now to feel like crap as you move into "the golden years" (which will be pleasantly unpleasant, punctuated by intrusions of chronic illness)?

The mind and the body are not separate in our human environment: we use both, and we use them together.  Naturally, we must exercise both if we want to retain function (and push our little envelope of blood and guts up Virtue's path).  What applies to your muscles applies to your mind, too.  Keep reading.  Keep learning (new information, new languages, new applications for theoretical understanding).  Keep looking for ways to integrate thoughts with action.  Keep looking for inconsistencies in yourself, in your environment, in whatever fantasy of reason or unreason you have constructed to make sense of the world.  The path of Virtue is a path of relentless inquiry--a process of defining, honing, perfecting, breaking, and discarding the self, which must then be built again, and again, and again, over and over as many times as possible until death. 

Some people, devotees of Pleasure, want you to build "the one true self," preferably when you are very young, and then carry it unscathed from adolescence to old age.  This is a recipe for avoiding Virtue.  You must banish "the one true self" from your life, if you take Virtue's path.  You must take a sledgehammer to that self, prove its weakness (for it is always weak), and build another.  There is no end to this process, no perfect self creatable that can withstand everything you or the world might throw at it, but the end-result of a lifetime building and breaking selves is that you become much better at the process.  You still tell lies.  You still make weak selves, mortal selves that disintegrate as you wish they wouldn't.  But you do it so much better--so much better than you did as a little kid, when you scarcely knew what it was to be coherent, to make a self.  

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