Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Tragic Dimension of Life

John Armstrong:

Erasmus calls his book a 'praise' of folly; this is meant ironically. He does not like folly. But as he multiplies the examples of human stupidity, greed, corruption and confusion, something else begins to emerge: the sheer normality of messing things up. Erasmus is no longer castigating an aberration, which — with a bit of coaxing and prodding — could be put right. He seems to be describing our fate.

If we take this seriously, the pursuit of civilization cannot be cast as the project of removing folly from the world. It has to aim lower: at coping and trying to flourish, given the crooked timbers of humanity.

...In an intimate way, tragedy is founded on the fact that not all good things are compatible: it may be (for most people) impossible to have a happy marriage and a raucous erotic life; or to have a well-paid job and follow your own vocation; it may be that you cannot live in the place where you most want to live; responsibility is tedious and frightening; yet taking responsibility is important. The longing to live an interesting and enjoyable life is always confronted by poverty, fragility, bad luck, death. Things we want to control are often beyond our control. We do not choose the political, moral or economic world in which we have to live; you can wear yourself out seeking genuine progress and end up making none.

So the ambition of civilization, in the face of this, is to strengthen us to face disappointment and suffering. The tragic dimension of life cannot be removed by planning and legislation. Instead we have to cultivate what are called 'stoic' virtues: the capacity to do without, to postpone pleasure, to make ourselves do things we do not want to do (when there is good reason to do them); to put up with minor irritations, to avoid complaint and useless criticism.

In a civilized society, these virtues are communicated and inculcated from generation to generation. There is a species of 'take control of your life' rhetoric that is superficially connected to this, but is in fact radically different. The message of 'take control' is that you will have to suffer a little now (go on a diet, be assertive, work hard), but soon, as a result, you will be successful, rich, famous and beautiful. The reality, however, is that we have to practice the stoic virtues not as a means to securing happy celebrity, but as a way of coping with tragedy. We have to be controlled, effortful, patient and uncomplaining without the expectation of any special reward.

Increasingly, I feel that the lesson most people took away from the failed utopian political experiments of the recent past was merely that such changes can't be made all at once, in a top-down manner. The idea that we can still achieve a near-perfect world by improving one thing at a time, while refreshingly sane by comparison, still acts as if utopia is achievable. I say "acts" because I don't know if anyone has really thought about it to that extent. Do we honestly believe that we can progressively eliminate undesirable things from the world through enlightened management and technique, or have we simply accepted it as our Sisyphean task to forever attempt to improve the world even if we're destined to fail?

The question is not based an a false dichotomy between a "static" world, as in the popular caricature of the Middle Ages, and our current one. People have always used reasoning and problem-solving skills to make changes to the world, going back to the first stone tools at Olduvai. But it is only recently in history that we have come to feel that there is never any good reason to stop trying to optimize things. Settling for "good enough", especially in a political context, is seen as a moral deficiency. I'm proceeding from the assumption that since the Enlightenment, it has become reflexive to see there being no inherent limits in our ability to shape the world in accordance with our desires. If our rational, technological schemes bring disaster, it's only because we overlooked something in the planning or application. This is a technical problem which can be fixed. And even if the problem proves a lot more intractable than it initially appeared, attempting to fix it is an existential imperative for us. The stoic virtues can be tolerated on the individual level, but for society as a whole? I find it difficult (though interesting) to imagine what that would even look like.