"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Be Good Or Have Fun? An Easy Choice In A Hobbesian World

Delia Weaver inherited all her Italian mother’s la dolce vita genes. Life was too short to spend worrying about the cares of others let alone of the world.  Even if one did not look at life as cynically as Hobbes (‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’) or as profoundly as Tolstoy (‘the cruel irony of being born with wit, intelligence, insight, and creativity; living for a few short decades; and then spending an eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes’), four-score years of life was nothing at all, hardly worth mentioning.

La dolce vita
So the constant whinging about social justice, civil rights, climate change, and world peace not only seemed unnecessary but almost unseemly. Nietzsche was as right as rain when he said that the only validation of life is the expression of individual will. Or, to paraphrase Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich), ‘We all die alone’.

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Ivan Ilyich had carefully constructed his world to keep the affairs of others out of his hair.  Routine, discipline, and order allowed him to control his life and his simple destiny. As he lies dying, his diffidence becomes misanthropy as he hears his former colleagues already turning the page to the days after his death.  It was all pointless, Ivan thought.  No life had any real purpose and his efforts to close it off were just as meaningless.  There was only death of which he was insufferably afraid.  His final epiphany comes in the moments before his death. There is only death, he now sees, an absolute finality for all; so why has he worried and fretted so. Peace at last.

Hobbes’ cynicism was based on what he saw was the mechanistic nature of the universe.  He did not believe in the soul or in any higher-order spiritual or metaphysical realities. Human beings were little more than machines which operated according to the laws of physics (motion and collision) and were therefore without meaning and purpose. As such, men pursued their own self-interest above all else, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure.  Society, as the collectivity of individuals, was no different. Looked at as organic wholes, societies acted as selfishly and egotistically as the men who comprised it.

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Shakespeare held the same views many years before Hobbes.  As the literary critic Jan Kott observed, if one were to lay out all of the poet’s Histories in chronological order, one would find a predictable repetition of events, and an equally predictable litany of causes and reasons.  Human nature was behind the workings of the Grand Mechanism of history, propelling it in circles with no progress or regression.

Dostoevsky suggested (Ivan Karamazov) that ‘without immortality there can be no morality’. In other words Christianity developed the theory of eternal life to assure the docility and compliance of its subjects.  Christ himself, Dostoevsky says in the chapter on The Grand Inquisitor, sold mankind a bill of goods – the promise of salvation and eternal life in heaven through faith in him.  ‘Man cannot live by bread alone’, Christ said in the desert and by so doing, justified the misery, penury, and eternal suffering of mankind.  Hobbes’ world was created by Jesus Christ himself.

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This combination of nihilistic philosophy and the devil-may-care Epicurean love of life, pleasure, and ease of her mother was irresistible to Delia. If immortality was a convenient fiction; if there was no such thing as Platonic dualism and the permanence of ‘morality’; if there was no logos which existed before God and for all eternity, then one was on one’s own.  Goodness would not be rewarded nor evil punished in some Final Judgment. Secular laws were created to keep order and facilitate economic productivity and must be obeyed; but looking for greater benefits from doing or being good was sheer nonsense.

Nor was it any concern of hers that most people led the brutish lives described by Hobbes; nor that most people were members of the plodding, following, slavish and uninspired herd, and only the very few were Übermenschen. Her fate had been decided by the luck of he draw, the unique combination of genes within her DNA, the chance happenings of her birth, ancestry, and social and economic circumstances.  Everyone was a cog in Hobbes’ machine and all helped keep the engine of The Grand Mechanism turning.

Double helix

She did not feel connected to others in any metaphysical way let alone feel any social one.  She had been born to a family of wealth and privilege, some of whom had earned fortunes and others who had rested upon the laurels of ancestry, prestige, and independent wealth. Neither Delia nor her parents made any fuss about who earned what, who contributed their fair share, and who lived only comfortably and pleasantly. The life of their forbears were of no concern to them. 

Throughout her childhood and adolescence Delia’s parents insisted that she profit from all the advantages she had inherited either through her genes, her pedigree, or her experiences.  Never once did they teach noblesse oblige or ‘giving back’ to those who made her life so comfortable.  There was no duty and obligation to anyone in a world of random events and random selection.  As Nietzsche had said, the only validation of human life – the only quality that gives it any meaning or salience at all in a meaningless world – is the expression of individual will.

Obviously no one can survive very long operating only on this principle Genghis Khan, Stalin, and Pol Pot notwithstanding.  A certain degree of socialization was always required to permit full access to the easy life.  Fortunately the sons and daughters of the Weaver and Liguria families had all been brought up properly – according to the principles of Cato the Elder whose distichs guided the education of young Roman aristocrats.  Honesty, integrity, courage, honor, respect, and duty were taught to the Weavers and the Ligurias as severely as to Gaius Augustus and his friends.

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Under these circumstances, Delia’s parents – nor any of the extended family for that matter – worried about the dangers of inherited privilege – arrogance, dismissiveness, idleness, or indifference.  With a proper moral foundation, natural intelligence, and the supreme confidence that comes from class, heritage, and tradition, there were few fears that she would stray far from home.

By the time Delia’s children were born, the carefully maneuvered natural selection process had assured that they too would be without blemish, as smart as their parents, and as confident and ambitious as anyone from their class.  There were no tragedies, only minor reverses.  The trajectory of each and every one of them was as smooth as that of a Saturn rocket.

Of course over time some corrupted genes made their way into the Liguria-Weaver family tree.  There were black sheep, but the family had found ways to neutralize or marginalize them; but all in all, the families did quite well indeed.

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