Fruitful thought experiments

April 22nd, 2008

This a selection from the book Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two — the book is a collection of articles, bits and pieces from a bunch of different people. Roger Scruton is one of them (this is Roger’s web site), and he wrote this. I typed it in for my friend Joachim, who I thought would find this something good to think about.

By Roger Scruton, Philosopher
Pleasures go stale, but happiness is always fresh and fulfilling. Even if you are only interested in yourself, therefore, you should ask how happiness is obtained and how, once obtained, it can be kept. The most important ingredient in happiness is self-esteem: the knowledge that it is good to be what you are. This knowledge requires the distinction between good and bad. And this is not learned from judging, yourself, but from judging others and being judged by them. To be happy, therefore, you must see yourself as others might, and find no obstacle to approbation. What you admire in others, you should string to imitate in yourself.

This is a fruitful thought experiment. Take all the things that you want to do, and ask yourself, Would it endear another to me, to know that he did them? Consider infidelity. Why is it that, in all the great literature of love, the reader finds himself instinctively on the side of the faithful, and unable to take the betrayer to heart? If you are moved to sympathy for the adulterer, say, it is almost invariably because the writer or artist has portrayed him or her as pursuing an extramarital but faithful love against the background of a marriage imposed by force, convention, or habit. This is what Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina, or Wagner in Tristan and Isolde. The problematic cases are problematic for this very reason. Does our heart, in the end, really go out to Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel, or to Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera?

Consider all your character traits in this light and you will soon learn which ones should be amended; violent temper, injustice, cowardice, and gross self-indulgence all place an insuperable obstacle before our affections. So let them place an obstacle before the affection that you naturally feel for yourself.

Once you begin to think in this moralized way about your life, you will recognize an important distinction not only between the good and the bad, but between the good and the nice. Nice people may be good, but in many cases niceness is a mask behind which self-interest negotiates an easy passage to its target. Nice people may charm us, do their best to get us on their side, encumber us with easily offered and cost-free expressions of affection. But it does not follow that we can trust them to help us in the real emergency, or to make sacrifices on our behalf or on behalf of anyone. For this something deeper is required — the thing that we know as virtue.

Aristotle argues that true friendship requires virtue in those who are joined by it. He meant that friendship is not just a good and a part of happiness; it is also laden with duties and obligations and cannot be sustained without cost. The cost is worthwhile, but it may not be pleasant. Virtue is the disposition to meet that cost from your own resources: to take risks on your friend’s behalf, to stand up for him in difficulties, to expose yourself to obloquy when justice requires. Without courage, wisdom, and justice, therefore, friendship is only a ghost.

To retain happiness is not so hard, if our faithful companions are beside us. They are our comfort in adversity and the partners of our joys. All promiscuous affection tends to sever these lasting relationships of love and trust, and although this may bring regards in terms of instant pleasure, it erodes the foundations of esteem. But lasting loves and friendships imply that grief will one day afflict us. And grief is a mourning, not only for the other, but for the self. We die with those whom we love, and this rehearsal for our final exit is one that many find hard to bear.

Here is another thought experiment. Imagine your own death, in a world where no one loves you or regrets your passing, but in which you have had your fair share of instant pleasures. Now imagine your death in a world where you are mourned and regretted, and where images of your character and deeds are treasured by those whom you leave behind. Soon you will come to prefer this second world, not only in the future when you have left it, but in the present, when death is only approaching at its accustomed pace. And you will come to see that there are worse things than death, and that, in the end, death is not the most grievous of your losses. Far worse is to live too long, clinging to a life that has lost its enchantment. (Janacek’s opera the Makropulos Case, based on a play by Karel Capek, makes this point beautifully.) This is part of what Nietzsche meant in recommending “timely death.” And beware of the health fanatics and the cult of youth, which tell you to keep the pristine shell of a human being while the inner soul goes rotten. Grow mature with confidence and old with dignity, and accept your death as the price. It is well worth it.


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