Quotes & Commentary #50: Campbell

Quotes & Commentary #50: Campbell

You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.

—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

I ended my last post with the dreary thought that we cannot help harming others. Almost inevitably, a system we must operate within—be it the economy, the school system, or a company we work for—will have undesirable consequences: it will exploit the disadvantaged, increase inequality, reinforce the status quo, or any of the other ugly things our social systems do.

Apart from this, it is worth considering that, even if we were operating within a relatively just and fair system, we could still unintentionally harm others. What if I take the job you had your dreams set on? Or if I marry the girl you’ve always had a crush on? Or take the last spot in your ideal university? A promotion, the lottery, the last potato chip in the bag—all these are limited resources, of which you deprive others by using.

As long as we live on a finite world with infinite wants, as long as our desires outpace our means, we will inevitably have to compete for some resources; and this competition will make us get in the way of each other’s happiness.

It is easy to get angry or depressed about this. The gazelle who has just been tackled by the lion probably thinks that life is monstrously unfair, and that the lion is being very unjust. The lion, for her part, probably thinks that it is perfectly fair that she eat this gazelle, since he was the slowest in the herd.

And I think they’re both right. From one perspective, life is horribly unfair; and from another, life is fairness itself. As long as there is limited gazelle meat in the world, there will be some competition for its use—the gazelle for its body, the lion for its food.

To be alive means participating in this struggle for resources; and in that respect, being alive means harming others, since any resources you take for yourself are unavailable for others. And if inflicting harm means doing evil, this means that, to some people, sometimes, you are evil. Being alive means participating in this basic, universal evil.

So if evil is inevitable, what does it mean to be moral?

Well, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think that morality is a system of behavior that allows individuals to live safely within the same community. This system consists of interpersonal rules: how you need to act towards others. For example, a safe community isn’t logically possible where theft and murder are considered permissible; thus moral rules prohibit these behaviors. These rules are enforced by the community through punishments. This way, behaviors incompatible with safe communal living are discouraged and diminished, allowing each member to live in relative peace and security.

Provided that these communal rules are not flawed (and historically they often have been) then by following them you are a by definition a moral person. Accepting a promotion—and, by doing so, depriving a coworker of the same promotion—may be “evil” from your coworker’s perspective, but it is not strictly immoral, since granting and accepting promotions are morally allowable actions. (By “morally allowable” I mean that these actions don’t inflict any harm, other than the unavoidable harm of allocating limited resources; and that they don’t make an exception of anyone, in that they don’t violate anyone’s rights.)

Moral systems (and their offspring, the concept of rights) are how we have learned to negotiate the crisscrossing pattern of desires, the unavoidable conflicts of interest, that exist when any two creatures inhabit the same space. By having general guidelines of conduct, we have an impartial, communally approved standard of deciding what is fair or unfair, a standard that treats every member of the community equally. In a way, a moral system is a way of imposing order onto the tragedy and comedy of all creation. It is a set of rules that tells you what desires you can or can’t satisfy—where, when, and how it is appropriate to obtain what you want. Moral systems legitimate some desires and delegitimate others. 

And the beauty of moral rules is that, by curbing some desires, and disallowing certain actions, it actually benefits for each community member in the long run, since it is these rules that make the community possible at all. Without them, the community would disintegrate into chaos, or at the very least would need oppressive force to hold it together, both of which are undesirable situations.

The problem is that any moral system, however well-constructed, cannot make life fair. Morality makes social life fair, but not life itself. No matter what, some people will be born with certain talents, some people will be born into wealthy families, some people will be born into privilege, and others will be cursed with abusive parents or struck down by disease. Aside from the accident of birth, luck intervenes at every important junction: relationships, careers, school, friendships, everything.

The omnipresence of luck—the enemy of fairness—and the finitude of life, makes unhappiness unavoidable, even in a perfectly constructed utopia. Our desires will always outpace our means, and reality will always baffle our attempts to control it. We want the impossible. We want to live forever with all our friends and family, eating wonderful meals five times daily, never feeling any pain or discomfort, bedding every attractive person we see. Of course we know this can’t happen, and so feel little bitterness, usually, that life is very different.

Nevertheless, how often do we feel that life is treating us unfairly? How often do we resent those around us for taking what we want, or shake our fists at the injustice of the universe for giving other people all the luck? This feeling of injustice most often results in anger; indeed, I think anger is the ego’s defense against the feeling of impotence. When we can’t get what we want, and things aren’t going our way, we naturally grow resentful and feel that the situation is somehow wrong. It is not our desires that are wrong—to the contrary, the universe should be cooperating, since the universe created me with these desires!—but the universe that is wrong. Right?

This is the reverse-side of Campbell’s point: Not only will you be evil to somebody, but somebody will also be evil to you, even when everyone is abiding by the dictates of morality. The wise course, I think, is to try to keep the whole in perspective, to realize that what seems unjust to you may seem perfectly just to others, and vice versa.

From up close, life is tragic, since we can never get everything we want, or even a fraction; but from a distance, seen as a whole, life is also comic, because we want the impossible and don’t appreciate what we have. This double-aspect of tragedy and comedy is, indeed, one of the ironies of creation. 

Quotes & Commentary #27: Aesop

Quotes & Commentary #27: Aesop

What is worth most is often valued least.

—Aesop

This quote is the moral of the fable, “The Stag at the Pool.” The story, like all of Aesop’s fables, is elegant and simple.

A beautiful stag stops at a pool to take a drink of water. But while bending down, he notices his reflection in the pool. “What beautiful antlers I have!” he says to himself, and begins to turn his head left and right, admiring his antlers. “I would be the paragon of animals if I didn’t have such pitiful, skinny legs!” he says.

Just then, a lion spring out of a nearby bush. The stag turns to run. On his skinny legs he is fleet enough to put distance between himself and the lion. He takes cover in a wooded area. The lion is falling behind, and the stag seems to be losing him. But just then, the stag’s antlers get stuck in a tree branch. No matter how much he twists and turns, he can’t extricate himself.

“What a fool I am!” he says to himself. “I despised my legs, which allowed me to escape, and praised my antlers, which doomed me.” But before the late-blooming philosopher can get any further in his thoughts, he is eaten by the lion.

This moral now reminds me of something Bryan Magee said in his intellectual autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher. He is attempting to summarize the central insight of most religions (and many philosophies, I’d say):

The world is governed by false values. People in all societies seem anxious to do what they think is the done thing, and are terrified of social disapproval. They set their hearts on getting on in the world, being thought highly of by their fellows, being powerful, acquiring money and possessions, knowing “important” people.

As I have discussed in my review of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, I think it is, to a certain extent, inevitable that society be governed by these “false values”: wealth, power, attractiveness, coolness, fame, skill, and popularity. Society simply cannot function without them, because society inevitably involves competition: for power, for wealth, for mates, and for fame. Any time there is a competition—with more competitors than prizes—then there arise, ipso facto, standards for determining winners and losers. The competition for wealth causes us to admire the rich; the competition for mates causes us to admire the beautiful; and so on, and so forth.

But these values, which we often put so much stock in, are ultimately superficial and vain. They measure the individual—a constantly evolving, chaotic mixture of virtues, vices, skills, traits, and follies—by external things, like money or power, which are as often as not gotten by luck or villainy. The superficiality of these measures is apparent whenever someone suffers an acute reversal of fortune. A woman in an apparently successful marriage discovers that her husband is having an affair; a young entrepreneur makes a bad choice and goes bankrupt; a one-hit-wonder musician is washed up by thirty. The people themselves did not change; their luck did. And luck is not the measure of a person’s worth.

I do not think society need be condemned for being governed by superficial values. But because this is always so, we must constantly remind ourselves that all these values of the game, these values of the competition for worldly success, and all the relentless, never-ending messages we imbibe every day about the definition of success—all this might as well be a puff of smoke for all its permanence.

The really valuable things are not the prizes of competitions, but are available to anyone. The smell of the air on a chilly autumn day; the chirping of birds and the ringing of church bells echoing through a town; the reds and yellows of a cloudy sunset. Art, love, the pursuit of truth, the laughter of friends—these are what we most enjoy, and it is not a coincidence that enjoying them doesn’t require winning any game.

The story of the stag and his antlers illustrates this point very well. The stag is proud of his antlers, because antlers are what stags use to fight for mates. The stag with the biggest antlers is thus the manliest, the most successful in the eyes of the herd. But the superficiality of this herd value is apparent when the lion attacks. Now what is most valuable? The thing that is given to every stag at birth: his legs.

So remember: never overvalue your antlers at the expense of your legs. When bad luck hits—whether its in the form of a lion or a breakup—then its your legs that will get you through, and your big, impressive antlers will just get in the way.

Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive … so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Right now I’m reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. A concentration camp survivor and a psychologist, Frankl created what is now school the “Third Vienesse School of Psychotherapy,” in which Frankl posits a will to meaning in contrast with Adler’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure. (The Germans and Austrians have a strange fascination with “will” that I find difficult to empathize with.)

Logotherapy is often called existentialist because of its preoccupation with preventing nihilism, and its conviction that humans make their own meaning. Frankl thought that humans could find meaning in any circumstances, even in the dehumanizing torture of a concentration camp. This meaning is what gives us resolve, courage, and hope. Thus, in his therapy sessions, Frankl encouraged his patients to find a meaning in their situation, whatever it was.

This reminded me of the above quotation by Joseph Campbell. As soon as I heard it (Campbell said this in the course of an interview with Bill Moyers), I was struck by how similar his view was to mine. Life, in itself, is meaningless; meaning only exists in experience.

I know from experience that people are apt to get upset when I say this. “What do you mean that life is meaningless?” they say, aghast. Even Bill Moyers, normally in accord with Campbell’s views, fought him on this point. So I think it’s worth specifying what is being argued.

In the past I used to torture myself about the meaning of life. “What is the point of it all?” I would ask myself. “Sooner or later everything will come to an end. The sun will swallow the earth, and entropy will increase until the universe decays into a pool of heat. And in any case, whatever I do or accomplish in my life won’t change the fact that I’m going to die, and thus lose everything.”

Viewed from this perspective—human life as viewed from the cosmos, that is, from nowhere in particular—everything thing I did and could do seemed totally pointless, absurd, just the twitching of organic matter on a watery rock. Viewed this way, as a small-scale physical phenomenon, life is just as meaningless as an asteroid, a star, or the vacuum of space. Joseph Campbell put it nicely when he said: “I don’t believe life has a purpose. Life is a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.”

Life is not unique in this respect. Simply nothing has meaning in itself. Meaning is not a property of objects, and thus has no objective existence. (By objective I mean existing without any observer.) Life exists in itself, and has certain discoverable properties, such as that it chemically reproduces itself. But that’s just a physical process; it’s just as “meaningful” as the nuclear fusion that goes on inside the sun.

This is a consequence of the nature of meaning. In order for meaning to exist, there must exist some perspective; meaning is necessarily subjective—it exists in the mind of an observer. Thus people are committing a category mistake when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Life, in itself, cannot have a meaning, in just the same way that sugar, without anybody to taste it, doesn’t have a taste. Like life, sugar has a certain objective reality as a chemical; and like life’s meaning, the sweet flavor of sugar only exists in experience.

Experience, then, is where the meaning of life is to be found. But every second of experience is unique and different. Every moment is transitory and cannot be reproduced. Thus life has no permanent, fixed, unchanging meaning, but rather each moment of experience has a different meaning. Meaningfulness has thus no relationship with duration; something that lasts longer is not more meaningful than something that lasts a mere instant.

Once I began to think of meaning this way, as an interpretation that my mind imposes upon objective reality, then I ceased to be troubled by my bleak thoughts about the end of life and the universe. What does it matter if everything will end one day? My future end has no effect on my ability to enjoy my life now. And what does it matter if, viewed from nowhere, life is meaningless? I don’t view the life from nowhere, but from my own perspective. And because a meaning is an interpretation, and all interpretation is arbitrary, that means it is within my ability to choose how to see and understand the world.

There are some barriers to this, however. The main barrier, in my experience, is habit. We can become so used to doing the same thing, day after day, automatically and unthinkingly, that we forget that each moment is unique. Through routine, we become deadened to the distinctness of each passing second. But sometimes we can awake from this malaise, and re-experience the “rapture of being alive.” This rapture is simply the full awareness of the preciousness and uniqueness of each passing moment, achieved by being so fully and completely engaged in the moment that time seems to slow down.

For me and many others, great art, music, literature, and philosophy can do this. So can falling in love, or having a great conversation with a friend. Even moments of great pain can connect us to the rapture of being alive, if we experience them the right way.

I am reminded of something Louis C.K. said during an interview. He was driving in his car when, suddenly, he began to feel very sad. His impulse was to reach for his phone and text some friends—that is, to retreat into his habitual patterns—but, instead, he pulled over by the side of the road and let the emotions hit him. And although the moment was tremendously sad, it was also sublimely beautiful, because it broke through the apathy of routine and connected him with the reality of his experience.

David D. Burns, the psychologist, reported a similar experience when, as a medical student, he had to tell a family that their loved one was dying. He told them the news, and then broke down and cried; and although he recognized the tragedy of the situation, he also recognized that there was something precious and poetic about his sadness.

The more moments like these we have, the more alive we are. This is where meaning is to be found.