Quotes & Commentary #22: Charlotte Brontë

Quotes & Commentary #22: Charlotte Brontë

Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and the soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolable they shall be.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

This passage made a lasting impression on me the first time I read it.

In the story, Jane is at her lowest ebb. She just agreed to marry Rochester; and at the last moment it was revealed that he was already married. Rochester begs her to run away with him, to flee the hypocritical, pretentious morality of England and to have a happy life together. Jane is sorely tempted. She recognizes the injustice of the situation, and she is deeply in love with Rochester. But in the end, her principles overrule her passions, and she forces herself to leave him.

My feeling about this were mixed. On the one hand, it was clear to me, a modern, secular American, that the law preventing Rochester and Jane from marrying was idiotic and unjust. There was simply no logic behind it, just dumb prejudice and unthinking tradition. If I were Jane, I would have ran off with Rochester, and left all those dimwits to live within the narrow confines of their self-righteous morality. So I was a bit disappointed in Jane, normally a rebellious spirit, for being such a slave to custom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring Jane for doing what she thought was right, even though it caused her so much pain. The second time I read the book, I found myself admiring her even more. What seemed at first to be obeisance to an old-fashioned prejudice looked now like loyalty to herself.

Jane knew that the negative opinion of eloping existed for a reason. Even though it was extremely tempting, she knew that running away with Rochester would ultimately be a betrayal of herself. It would be compromising on what she wanted and deserved: to be legally bound with someone she loved, in a union accepted and recognized by the community.

Remember that Jane was poor, and Rochester rich. Running away with him without the sanction of society would thus have put her fully and completely under his power. She would have no recourse if, one day, Rochester suddenly changed his mind and decided to leave her. She would have no claim on him. Thus her apparently unselfish act—to run away from Rochester—was really a more intelligent form of selfishness. (In my opinion, nobility normally consists, not in acting unselfishly, but in being more intelligently selfish.)

This quote and this story encapsulates why humans create moral rules. Most of the time, in daily life, our short-term and long-term desires are in harmony. We can satisfy our immediate desires without jeopardizing our future goals. In these situations, moral rules become rather irrelevant, or at the very least automatic, since the function of moral rules is, at base, to harmonize individual interests with group interests.

For example, no moral injunction is needed for me to go to work; nor is one needed for my employer to hire me. Both of us act selfishly, but in harmony, because each of our desires is satisfied by the other. I have something to gain from work (money), and my employer has something to gain from my work (English classes), so what need is there of any rule?

There are situations in life, however, when our short-term desires are so markedly out of harmony with our long-term goals that rules are needed to guide behavior. Jane Eyre’s situation was one such example; and in the end the choice turned out to be the right one.

The difficulty is that, sometimes, the temptations to have one’s cake and eat it too can be overwhelming. This especially applies in cases where, even if it is against the rules of society, an unethical act will most likely escape detection, and thus escape consequences. Every human has an interest in maintaining the rules of society as far as other people are concerned, and strategically breaking them in their own case. This is why E.O. Wilson, in his book about human nature, said: “It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken.”

But every breach of the moral code, however carefully concealed, carries a risk of detection. And even if you aren’t detected, the stress associated with concealing a secret can be punishment in itself. Epicurus made this point: “It is impossible for the person who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for right on to the end of his life he is never sure he will not be detected.”

Thus I think it is wise, as much as possible, to be consistent with your words and deeds, with the code you hold others to and the code you hold yourself to, and to act as though everything you do will one day be revealed. But, of course, all this is easier said than done.

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.