ON GOALS IN LIFE
Plato wrote that philosophers should attempt to identify the “form of the good” so that they might be able to recognize more clearly its instances in the world. He believed that once men understood the ideal type of sublime elements such as beauty, truth, or the good, they would have no trouble distinguishing them from life’s other elements. The philosopher could then bring forth everything that is desirable in society, even as a carpenter makes benches or chairs from a drawing.
It has been 2,500 years since Plato formulated this goal for philosophy. Still no one has managed to define the good so that mankind could have it as easily as industrial products. Many have tried, and the exercise has been personally enlightening to some of them. However, the failure of philosophy to provide definite knowledge has given it a reputation of being useless. In contrast to the more certain principles of science and technology, philosophic teachings seem to be merely the opinions of individuals. Philosophy has wandered into the quicksands of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and metaphysical truth instead of remaining on the firm ground of natural observation and experimentation.
Now philosophers themselves are saying that there may be an unbridgeable chasm between the world of fact and the realm of human values. One man’s values as as good as another’s. It has not yet been possible to find a universal formula for the good - a general equivalence to worldly things from which everything good might be deduced.
Actually, moral or aesthetic understanding may be no less clear to people than the knowledge of machines. They grasp the one by intuition as easily as they grasp the other. Convention is as much responsible for teaching men to organize raw sense data into the features of a chair as for enabling them to appreciate the beauty of a garden. The philosopher cannot insist that his own outlook is the proper one for all experience. His searching for truth is a speciality, not the framework for all understandings.
Nevertheless, one should appreciate the philosopher’s attempt to establish a universal standard for the good (or the true and the beautiful) Whenever there is a dispute about what a person ought to be doing, personal intuition sometimes cannot provide a clear direction for making the choice. One would appreciate having a sound standard to weigh the options and arrive at the right decision in a logical fashion. To set standards it might help to reflect upon the nature of right and wrong generally. Once the outlines have been established, the subordinate decisions can be expected to follow in good order.
Some will ask why anyone would try to solve problems of this sort if the best philosophy to date has only reached an impasse. I mean not to slight the efforts of the many philosophers throughout the ages who have tried these things before. However, contemporary philosophy has degenerated too much into the history of philosophy. Its truths have become snarled up in the great accumulation of doctrines included in a complete history. To combat the belief that “everything is equally valid”, I offer a fresh start, naive about much that has gone before.
Our target is the question: “What is the good?” First we observe that goodness is not found in nature. It pertains instead to the world which men have built for themselves: human society. “Good” pertains to certain actions undertaken within this human environment. We observe that man’s will makes it possible for him to undertake these actions instead of something else. “Good” means that certain actions should be given support. It elicits approval for what is good, and encourages the decision to seek its accomplishment. I would consider this a sufficient definition of the good although it does not yet specify any objects.
Now we consider the question: “What actions ought to be undertaken?” No simple statement can be found to answer such a question which encompasses a multitude of circumstances. We recognize, however, that actions are undertaken for the sake of what they produce. If a certain goal or end can be justified, then actions which are the means of its achievement ought to be undertaken. Aristotle pointed out that certain ends are subsidiary to other, larger ends. For example, setting the table is subsidiary to preparing and eating a meal, rather than an end in itself. We see that only the larger ends in life need explanation, not their means.
These larger ends are positions or patterns in life which a person works to achieve. It really matter to a person whether or not to have them. Each man has his own set of favorites. Some persons want love, some want comfort, some want power. It would seem impossible to find a goal suitable for everyone. To say, however, that one ought to seek a certain goal, we should require that the goal prove satisfactory to him if and when it is reached. It should bring him happiness, not have too many attendant disadvantages, and still the deep longings and restlessness for something else. It should make him content to linger awhile with his accomplishment.
I think we have found the ontological bridge from the world of fact to the world of human value: desire. Indeed desire is this almost by definition; it is the psychic mechanism which makes certain things valuable and important to someone among all others in the world. The concept of desire contains within it the idea that its object ought to be achieved. Its whole meaning lies in gaining the object. We have seen that the good is an object that brings final satisfaction. Then, with certain qualifications, we may state that the good is fulfilled desire.
This principle does not apply to all cases of desire, though, but only to the most basic ones. For example, a child might wish to eat five bars of candy. It is not good that he do so if the candy makes him sick. People may not always be wise enough to desire what is in their best interest. The good attaches to a person’s long-range interest rather than to petty desires interfering with it. Personal goals must then be evaluated as factors in the whole life and only those which are satisfactory on this uppermost level should be considered good.
This is the “good” in its basic sense. The “desire”, “wish”, or “want” sets up a normative charge which can only be discharged by its fulfillment. Virtues such as courage, intelligence, endurance, and other attributes related to the good are all factors enabling a man to succeed in his desirous enterprise. From a man’s own standpoint it is good that his purposes be achieved. It is generally thought good that legitimate aspirations be satisfied by the expenditure of labor. In Ecclesiastes 2: 24 the Preacher says, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor.” The book of Genesis states, after each day that God worked to create something, “God saw that it was good.” Nature was the product of the divine purpose.
On the other hand, “good” has taken on qualities in the common mind that tend to deny it is the satisfaction of desire. We think of desire as a craving of immediate pleasure, and of good as a force opposing this. We picture the good man as a selfless individual who suppresses his desires for the benefit of others. Christianity might have given “the good” this unnatural tinge. Because a man’s long-range interest often conflicts with his immediate pleasure, goodness does frequently throw its weight against pleasure, but this is not necessarily so. Also, when a man’s private goals encroach upon the rights of other men, the public good may be opposed to his satisfying them.
And so, the good has come to refer to public ends more than to those of individuals. Whatever promotes the interest of human society we call the good. The bad is associated with individuals working against this. Although a bank robber may want his robbery to be successful, we instead consider it good if he is caught during the hold-up. His personal goal conflicts with the public interest.
It is hard to say what society in general desires. In socialist nations, the good might be considered to be what helps the state’s master plan to be implemented. Other types of society want the state to provide maximum freedom for individuals to pursue their separate ambitions. In that case the good is obedience to the law. We imagine that, without law, a man who tried to gain all he could for himself would soon come into conflict with other people. A universal free-for-all would cause a general frustration of purposes. Therefore, a community has to impose certain limitations on personal freedom.
“ Good” in a more militant sense is applied to persons who serve other people although there is no prior obligation to do this. Out of sympathy such people anticipate the needs of others who require help. Their selfishness, which comes out of a feeling of duty to God or their fellow human beings, offsets man’s natural selfishness. It thereby eases the social friction which would could injure society’s weaker members. Law-abiding persons who pursue their own interests are morally neutral. They take on the conspicuous quality of “good” when they subordinate their own desires to the needs of the community.
Christian goodness is also taken in this positive sense. The Hebrew religion required the “righteous” man to obey the law of Moses. Jesus required beyond this an active commitment to the kingdom of Heaven. Christians might effect this by denying their own worldly interest and, instead, setting their hopes on the prospect of eternal life. God’s will was to become the Christian’s own; he was to find happiness in the fulfillment of that divine purpose.
Beyond such connotations, however, “the good” refers primarily to a man’s own welfare. Desire is native to the individual; only secondarily does a public interest emerge. The public good has overshadowed the private, perhaps, because it is more carefully articulated. To convince others to support a certain enterprise, a speaker is obliged to show the good it will do for public rather than for himself. People are not too zealous in urging someone to fulfill himself or his desires.
A man’s own good comes, as we said, from satisfying his ultimate desires. He should desire something which brings lasting or ultimate satisfaction. What is worthy to be such an end? Aristotle, wrote that the ultimate end of human life is happiness. However, this seems to be a tautology because an ultimate end, almost by definition, satisfies. Moreover, happiness is experienced after the fact; it is a feeling which accompanies a life that is satisfactory. One does not seek happiness directly except perhaps through a pill or through psychological attempts to induce a happy mood. Such states of consciousness would not last long enough to be an ultimate end.
Happiness is, then, too subjective and ill-defined to be a goal which one might achieve methodically. It affords an easy overpass to “pleasure” and the sensualistic pursuits that have sometimes been taken up in the name of philosophy. Instead of specifying something needing to be done, happiness implies a lazy enjoyment of whatever is at hand. One could argue that the deepest wisdom is to be content with the present situation. However, I find it an odd conclusion to say that the only end worth expending energy to achieve is to be doing nothing at all.
Work is in its place, and enjoyment of results is in its place. To make work out of finding pleasure does not necessarily produce more pleasure because an excess quantity of it dulls the natural appetites. Happiness is more a long-term condition than the sum of many smaller happy experiences. It is often like a shadow cast backward from the anticipation of success. A person needs the steady framework which work provides so that its sense of well-being can be extended over a period of time. On the other hand, a person also needs to seize the pleasures between the work so he can recharge his spirit.
Fulfilling the simpler desires gives rise to pleasure; fulfilling the larger ones brings satisfaction and peace. The simplest desires arise from the needs of the body for food, air, evacuation, sex, comfort, rest, etc. Some desires are caused by an outburst of native energy as when the body grows restless or the mind rushes out in curiosity to observe and experience the world. Eventually a person develops his own projects. Some of these are to satisfy the physical needs, some are expressions of personal exuberance, but some are the elaboration or strengthening of what has gone before.
Among the latter desires should be included attempts at self-improvement. Education tries to equip children with the knowledge and discipline to perform as adults. Adults try to develop their talents. They may practice their skills apart from the times when the skills are being used. Some try to gain mastery over themselves and their lazy inclinations. These men want to know they can count on a reservoir of disciplined habits to support them when the time comes to act.
Similarly, in our highly competitive society men attempt to gain security. They create a margin of protection for themselves. Worldly reverses can be absorbed into this buffer until the intervening material runs out. That may be a motive for men build who empires of wealth or power. They feel pleasure at watching their accomplishments grow larger and more secure. Some men lard their accumulations of wealth in many places. They scatter their investments, or buy insurance, so that the worst scenario will still leave them with something.
Even charity can be seen in this light. A good deed merits another in return. Sympathy brings sympathy, love evokes love, virtue earns freedom from just criticism. Even if the good man receives injury in return, he has recourse to the sympathies of others who understand how he was treated unjustly. Even if the whole world should turn against him, the man of charity and religion knows that God will repay his goodness.
Upward and outward are compounded the types of human motivation. They reflect previous purposes as well as newer ones. At the top there is, theoretically, a chief motivation for each person. It is hard to say what this is or whether it is justified. It is still harder to say what motives people in general.
Whatever we might choose as a worthy goal in life, one thing is clear: It is better to fulfill that goal than to fail. If a man succeeds in accomplishing what he really wanted, he will be happy. If he is not able to accomplish it, he will experience dissatisfaction and frustration. A philosophy cannot say what individuals should want to do; that is for them to find in their own hearts. A philosophy can, however, set some guidelines for accomplishing the goals once they are set.
Desires are often set by example. A person may want a physical object. His happiness then depends on whether the object is for sale and whether he has enough money to buy it. A person may want to be someone. He may want to do something, or her may want to be able to do something. This type of desire is instrumental in setting personal goals.
A man observes another man doing something or being someone. If attractive to him, he gains a desire to do or be likewise. Immediately, he must improve himself to be in the position to emulate the other’s condition. It is important to note, however, that a man will seriously desire only what seems to him possible to obtain. For example, few men would be too upset if they were not elected President of the United States. Often desire is kindled just by seeing that something is possible.
Whether or not a man succeeds depends largely upon how ambitious his goals are. The latter, in turn, depends upon how great a gap exist between his present position and the position he desires. It depends upon his abilities to cross that gap. If his standards are set too high, he will be less likely to meet them successfully than if they are lower. How high the standards are is relative to his level of abilities. Repairing a computer may be a difficult challenge to someone without an aptitude for electronics but present no problem to an expert in the field.
It might seem, therefore, that the more modest the goal, the greater the chance for success, and that the best advice for how to be happy is to aim low. Indeed the Buddhists have found such a way to gain happiness: to eliminate the possibility that desires will remain unsatisfied, they eliminate desire. They cultivate a lack of desire. What physical needs these monks have they satisfy by begging, making sure that they stay far enough from worldly cares not to contract ordinary desire. When they have achieved a certain mental detachment, they feel enlightened.
To some westerners this might seem the coward’s way out. It chooses emptiness rather than to experience the riches and sorrows of life. A man who systematically sets his goals too modestly might realize on his death-bed that he could have achieved marvelous things had he tried.
Happiness might not be the only worthwhile goal in life. An idiot seems happy; yet who would be jealous of his situation? Happiness is all in the mind; it might be possible to dream a life of happiness or achieve it by implanting electrodes in the brain. I think that true happiness requires something more tangible, involving both mind and the world which a person inhabits.
To live fully in the world a man should keep loose his free-roving scan of desire. If his sights are set too short, he may feel a gnawing dissatisfaction when he starts to broaden his horizons. He may become jealous of a man whom he considers his peer who has reached a more glorious place because he dared. If his goals are too great, on the other hand, he will likely fail. Therefore he should set realistic goals. The man of modest abilities should set modest goals, and the man of greater talents more ambitious ones. Each should decide for himself what he can accomplish.
While a person is working toward a goal, he will be shielded from unhappiness for a time by the hope of eventual success. All the minor set-backs along the way will not discourage him if he has hope that the crux of his problems can be overcome. Yet this hopeful spirit may be undermined by an implacable anxiety if the results of his work are too small compared with his outer confidence. Hope may then become a delusion to keep him from adjusting his plans to a more realistic focus. The Christian, of course places his hope in the promise of eternal life. This belief is fool-proof against the deflating effect of normal set-backs.
A man who wants something must realize that worldly circumstances will not automatically rearrange themselves into the desired pattern but that he must be an instrument of the rearrangement. He must exert his will to accomplish it. As long as his will is geared up to the task, he will be happy He will be free, in the sense which Kant called “the autonomy of the will.” Certainly no man can hope that every wish will come true. Nature limits what is possible. Realizing this neutralizes the frustration a man might otherwise have felt when he could not achieve some of his far-reaching dreams.
As they grow up, men learn to focus their desires more realistically. No longer do they wish to be “Superman” or the hero of an impossible adventure story. Even so many people retain a vagueness of desire that keeps them from being successful. They may draw nearer to their goal, but they will will never achieve it unless there is a definite path connecting their current state of being and the situation which is desired. Only labor should stand in the way of the completed act. One step should lead to another. The first step should be immediately within a person’s grasp; he must be able to will it outright. If that is not possible, he should have in mind a set of instructions comprised of simpler and smaller steps until it is within his range of powers to execute them. Then he should string them together, the one step making the other possible, until at length the entire distance is covered. There cannot be any gaps.
Therefore it is well that a man who has a firm desire should try to articulate the path by which he hopes to reach its end. Though he needs not work out every detail, he should have a clear view of the whole route so he knows where to expect difficulties and so that he knows how well he is progressing once he has embarked upon the course. He should be able to visualize the final goal and pay-off. This will whet his appetite for the work he has to do. To reach tricks to a seal, the trainer throws it a fish when the seal has done what was asked.
Certain kinds of desire are unrealistic because a person lacks a reasonable sets of steps to fulfill them. It is not so much that success is impossible but that the crucial factors are irrational and unpredictable. For example, when people want to be liked by others, they cannot directly cause this to happen. The other people’s wills and affections are free to decide in their own way. Thus, friendships cannot be formed with any certainty, politicians can never be completely sure of election results, nor can artists and writers depend on their works becoming popular.
Love is the most severe case. No amount of persuasion can win a woman’s heart once she has made up her mind not to love. The luckless suitor may wrack his brain to find a way to win her back but he can only conclude that it was imprudent to have based his happiness so much on the affection of another person. The means of success are out of his hands. There is no connecting path between anything he can do and the lady’s change of heart.
Love is therefore a foolish enterprise for anyone who wants to be happy. Love between a man and woman means wanting to merge their selves because of the desire they have for each other. This union is frustrated if one party does not consent. Romantic love always has this savor; it feeds upon the theme of the lovers becoming lost to each other, which whips it up into an urgent passion. Neither is sure that the other is really in love. Neither feels worthy of being loved by the other, which adds to the anxiety. Love feeds upon the impermanence of feelings.
Marriage attempts to smooth out the unsteadiness of affection between the lovers, and child-bearing enables life to continue regardless of their relationship. Love accelerates through passion, and marriage tries to maintain its inertia. If the lovers desire each other, the logical conclusion is for them to make a permanent alliance. After the union is complete, the lover no longer desires on behalf of himself alone, but also on behalf of the beloved. The success of one is the other’s also. They share happiness.
The love of a parent for a child is secured through birth rather than mutual consent. When the mother loves her child, she suppresses her own desires to some extent and instead devotes herself to the child’s well-being. This is a dangerous proposition for the mother. So long as the child is young, she can exercise a great measure of influence and control. But when the child grows older and develops a will of his own, the mother cannot prevent him from pursuing ends that contradict what she wants. She has let her own interest lapse. She has let happiness slip from her own hands when she placed her love upon another person.
The most reasonable kind of love according to this analysis is self-love because it is always more or less within a person’s power to control himself. If he is unhappy, he will feel a need to do something about it. He will not have to beg another person to manage his affairs better. He can do it himself.
However, it is a piece of of sophistry to denounce friendship, forbid marriages, and urge parents to be indifferent to their children all on the theory that this is how to be happy If a person needs human affection, he will never have that object unless he is willing to risk disappointment. The first step to being loved is to love. Even so, a man is generally aware of whether or not he is lovable. A strong, cheerful, responsive, mature person is more apt to be loved than a self-contained personality. However, a little self-sufficiency is good to have before falling in love so that happiness can survive a possible failure.
The love which holds a family together is different from the more general love of man for humanity. Priests and politicians urge all men to be brothers, but we do not know how this advice should be taken. David Hume raised the paradox that we wish others success through natural sympathy but wish them failure through competitive comparison. A completely unselfish man might walk the earth, devoting his energies to benefit various people yet the beneficiaries might appreciate him more if he were more of a personality in his own right.
Even if a man takes pride in another man’s accomplishments, he cannot ignore the standards they imply for himself. What he himself wishes to do is set by the example of others. He can only chide himself if he fails to live up to that example. It is true that his success depends upon his own performance rather than on what others are doing. Still it is hard to improve in complete isolation. The common level of performance sets a man’s notions of how well he is doing. His will to win contains some desire that his rivals lose.
There is a kind of love, however, which does not aim for positive success but to bring misfortune up to normality. This is sympathy. Here one man sees that another is suffering and he feels it a duty to help. For that assignment his desires are redirected from himself to the sufferer. The sympathy lasts until the needy person’s affairs are corrected and the helper goes back to his own business.
Sympathy, like love, causes one will to supersede the will of another. Presumably the latter cannot then manage his affairs satisfactorily so he invites a benevolent party to move in and take charge. However, there is a danger in this procedure that the will of the beneficiary may be injured when the other will takes over its responsibilities. The usurpation would be justified if the supplanted one were ineffectual and if the act of sympathy served eventually to restore control.
A man of true sympathy would make every attempt to respect the dignity of the one whose will he is temporarily supplanting. If he does this out of duty rather, he is less likely to step too far. He might pretend that his benevolent act was done only to fulfill his part of an implied contract among human beings, pledging to come to each other’s assistance in time of need. For, whatever is done in contract is done between equals. This arrangement preserves the dignity of all.
The issue of human rights rests upon the concept of will, which is a person’s capacity to desire, to decide, and to execute decisions. Each man has a will, housed in his mind. He has certain faculties such as his brain, parts of his body, his memory and talents, his tools, his possessions, and ultimately whatever position he has achieved for himself. These faculties are within his power to direct.
Human dignity requires that the will be given control over its personal domain. No other will can seek to utilize its resources without dealing directly through it. In other words, one person must persuade another if he wants the other to do something. He cannot force someone to do labor. He cannot simply start using another person’s property, or usurp offices that he holds. The use of physical coercion or its threat is generally forbidden by law. The use of trickery or deception to get past reason is also forbidden in most cases. The legitimate way to induce action is to persuade with reasoning.
Respect is one will’s recognition of another which has fulfilled itself. This implies a limitation upon itself to treat the other as an equal rather than as a thing. However, respect goes beyond dignity; it includes admiration for the achievement of the other will in fulfilling itself. It adheres to those who have an identity or a status of being within a larger field of activity. For example a chess player has this status of dignity and respect when he moves the pieces; the kibbitzers and on-lookers have none, because they do not make the actual decisions.
However, no man’s will is universal and almighty. It must respect the territory held by other wills. It must also respect the common will, which is the law. Law is not an imposition upon human dignity because in a democracy it has theoretically been created by the people being governed. Each man in agreeing to live in a nation thereby consents to respect its laws. Of course, this democratic ideal is strained when laws are made by the interplay of political forces instead of by men who honestly represent the people or when government goes beyond the scope of power granted by the people.
Merit is the notion that a man should have the fruit of his labors if these are accomplished legitimately. For example, a man who constructs a bridge merits success if he has followed the best principles of science and technology. A competitor “deserves to win” if he has trained hard for the competition and fought hard. Merit within the scope of human law is part of morality. Men add to the laws of nature their own agreements, many of which are enforced in society. A man merits what he has earned under the law. But merit goes beyond this to express what ought to be.
Now we must take a different course. The foregoing philosophy expresses a static view of life but life is really dynamic. It is organic in nature. People at the fringes of life - the very young and the very old - know that they are undergoing a radical change from one time to another, but those in between are tempted to see their situation as a permanent condition. They do not realize that their minds and bodies, after rising to a plateau of health and strength, must fall back down to nothingness on the other side. The more keenly a man realizes his eventual death, the more it will affect his philosophy.
Some have written that philosophy’s chief purpose is to prepare men for death. One approach used by philosophers is to argue that death is better than life in many respects: Life is filled with pain and sorrow. Therefore, death, its negation, must be better. Death is perfect happiness since there can be no unfulfilled desires.
However, to speak of death as freedom from pain and sorrow seems to contradict some observations. If a man jumps from a second story window, he will sprain his ankle and experience a certain amount of pain. If he jumps from a fourth story window and lands on his head, he will be killed. Who can say that this is any less painful? When death is entered through a gateway of such terrible pain, who can paint a comforting picture? Death also suggests a loneliness beyond anything experienced in life.
It is true that death destroys the consciousness needed to suffer these miseries but the same loss would rule out any positive experience comparable to happiness in life. At best death would bring release to someone whose life had grown burdensome, forgetting the short, fearful, and often painful moments of transition.
Plato and the Christian thinkers take a different position. They have combined forces to convince Western man that the human soul is immortal. Immortality means that, after a man dies, the personality and character he has built up during life continues to exist somewhere in an unimpaired state until the end of time. The Christians would say that the proper goal of life is to build that soul into a greater state of moral perfection - or be a believer at the time of death - because the eternity which the soul will endure is so much longer than the years of earthly life. Men should direct all their efforts toward to the moment of the permanent freeze.
The problem is to decide whether that theory is true. Plato advances his arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo. He makes two kinds of arguments. First, Plato contends that everything comes from its opposite. For example, sleeping comes from an awakened condition, and waking comes from sleeping. In this case, since there is a death from life, there must be a life from death. Second, he argues that our knowledge of “universals” - ideas - which are not experienced directly in this life proves that we must be remembering them from another life. The soul must have existed before birth to experience this and provide memories; and so it is immortal.
However, it is also possible to argue that the circular pattern may not hold in all cases. Even if death came from life, life could change to death and then stay there. With respect to our knowledge of universals, Plato assumes that mind merely copies the world. It is possible that the mind arrives at universals through a process of inductive reasoning. From concrete objects, it has a tendency to create patterns. This life alone is sufficient for such ideas to be conceived.
Christianity took its doctrine of the soul’s immortality largely from the Platonists. In the Hebrew religion, God’s promise applied mainly to the Jewish nation in history. However, Christianity does have an argument for human immortality in the personal example of Jesus Christ. Jesus preached victory over sin and death, and was himself restored to life after being dead for three days. But we must remember that this was a single example, and not all agree on the facts. Mainly Christianity rests on faith in Christ’s resurrection. Faith comes from philosophy, but philosophy is not faith. Sometimes it leads to further questioning.
Life looks different if a person understands clearly that he will die and be dead forevermore. However, the knowledge of certain death does not necessarily tarnish life. Thomas Mann, the German novelist, in The Magic Mountain tells of a vision which his hero has while lost in a snow storm in a Swiss mountain. The hero sees a sunny valley in which a race of happy people are playing. In the midst of this valley is a huge stone temple. He is horrified to find in the innermost chamber of this temple a monster which is devouring the limbs and trunks of these beautiful people one by one. Yet the people continue to frolic outside as if nothing was happening.
Then the hero of Mann’s novel realizes that death is similarly planted in the midst of mankind. It can either bring fear or else it can cause men to cherish the limited moments of life they have together. It can cause them to love their parents, brothers, sisters, and friends, who will one day be taken away. Life is too short for serious hatreds. Does this not accomplish the same benign purpose as the Christian myth? It would be a shame for the delusion of immortality to keep mankind blind to the need to appreciate life - or fuel the dreams of suicide bombers, I might add. If this life were valued, we would end the insane ritual of war.
Under the delusion that he is immortal, man may lacks the incentive and courage to deal with important issues of his life. He more easily puts off making decisions which would give it a clear direction. He drifts into circumstances. He does not wish to commit himself too soon because he imagines a great length of time he might live to regret it. But then he grows older and realizes that he has already committed himself without having chosen anything. His years of opportunity are past.
If life were thought to be only seventy years instead of an indefinite period of time with an eternity following it, men might spend it to better advantage. Why should life be a burden to you or me? Why should it be so fragile? If a man of fifty is run over by a car, he has lost twenty years of living; this is not an infinite loss. If a man of twenty is killed, he has lost fifty years of life, which is greater. If a man falls down a mountain cliff, he has something he would have missed if he died in bed several years later.
In our present society, this way of thinking is anathema. We proudly believe in the supreme worth of the individual human life. This means maintaining as many human lives as possible and prolonging each as long as possible. We would rather spend hundreds of thousands of dollars extending the life of an eighty-year-old man to the age of eighty-one than allow the same man at age forty-five to take a half year’s vacation to gain a greater life experience. Money is nothing to us though it is time out of some working man’s hide during his best years.
Under the delusion that they will live beyond their normal years, some men will spend twenty-five years acquiring an advanced education so that they will be “better prepared for life”. How much preparation will make up for the life they are missing in the meanwhile? Similarly, some men will spend years acquiring knowledge and understanding only to take it with them to the grave. Even if they write it all down, how can their posterity be expected to make use of this wisdom if they themselves do not know?
Therefore, while life is everything to each person, it is unfortunately limited. Mistakes are not necessarily bad, because human intelligence is unlikely to accomplish much in such a short time anyhow. Even a dubious goal is usually better than none. Men are given seventy years, more or less, and a nearly free rein to fill those years with their own special product. Almost anything done is a gain.
What death teaches especially is that doing is better than being. All that presently exists can be destroyed or will be left behind at death, but what has once been done cannot be undone. On the deathbed the memories of a life well spent will give a man more comfort than all the power and wealth which he possesses at that moment. He cannot take his empires with him. It would be best for life not to owe him much when he leaves because the afterlife may default in its payment.
Life, being of an organic nature, experiences a part of its loss before the actual end. A decrepit old man or woman seems to have little enough left to lose by actually passing over the brink. Even before then all is not steady progress.
One view of life has man advancing steadily toward a goal, except when he temporarily succumbs to temptation, as in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. What happens, however, when men do reach their goals? They do not then enter an era of permanent bliss but instead set new goals beyond this so that they live continually in pursuit of unfulfilled desires. The glow of happiness lasts only awhile after they have brought their labors to a successful conclusion. Then the practice must start over again for time demands an activity of some kind. People wish, then work, and finally achieve. They cannot expend their energies by resting in a completed state.
Another problem is that accomplishments that have been won do not stay won forever. A student can spend hours studying German grammar so that it all seems to be under his belt; then a week later he finds that he has forgotten much. Or, a manufacturer can work for years to gain a certain percentage of the industry’s sales; it slips away quickly if he does not continue to devote enough attention to the business. The ground is forever shifting back on him automatically. Each achievement is a known increment to what he has cultivated. At the same time, something is taken away from him unnoticed as the materials in his possession deteriorate.
Human accomplishments, therefore, cannot be set solidly on a previous ones like the stones of a building. Those at the bottom may not be so secure. Achievements are valid only when they are won and for a short time afterwards. Each moment has its own outlook of possibilities. Some goals drop by the wayside as the circumstances shift. Others may continue to loom ahead and draw nearer as a man approaches them. However, the path is seldom straight or secure. Man is more like a lumberjack hopping from log to log as he walks upstream.
Goals are usually intended to achieve a greater scope of activity or possession. A man tries to increase the size of his role as an actor in the world. This role consists of routine activity plus an inflow of new problems which are solved by the active intellect before being absorbed into the routine. The latter is handled through habit, the mechanism which enables a person to perform familiar operations without thinking about them. Habit furnishes a constant structure of response for the rush of fresh challenges. It embodies a person’s own ability to act in the world. All external resources, instruments, and positions are extensions of this capacity. Therefore, habit stands at the center of a man’s accomplishments, and is the basis of his hopes and plans.
Habit, which is the capacity to repeat a certain personal motion at will, is like a stone being twirled on the end of a string. The motion is due partly to the present effort of the man holding the string and partly to the momentum of the stone which has been built up in previous revolutions. Each revolution, the man lets out the string so that the stone can travel in a wider and faster circle. The device then becomes harder to keep from hitting the ground. Soon the twirler is tugging with all his might just to maintain the orbit which the projectile has reached. This is analogous to the position of a man with a wide range of worldly affairs. His circle of activities, which has required time and energy to develop, now requires his full energy and attention to maintain.
Size is represented by the circumference of the circle. Important men have large circles, befitting their personal capacity. In general, the will seeks to widen the circle to the greatest and most vigorous extent a man’s energies justify. The intellect watches for opportunities to jump into a wider orbit. Should the man want to relax, he would have to draw in the string so that the stone can travel around in a smaller circle. This he can sustain with a smaller effort. An equilibrium will be reached when the limited energy he has matches the energy necessary to keep the present orbit.
One observes that a man’s accomplishments suffer a natural deterioration when he no longer attends to them. The more extensive the empire he must protect, the more susceptible it is to deteriorating. For example, the man who knows German, French, and Portuguese will forget more than the man who knows just German, if he does not practice his languages. The effort he has to expend to keep his current possessions corresponds to the stone twirler’s task of maintaining a large orbit. The more a man possesses, the less energy he will have left to strike out after new possessions; or if he does, he will lose something else was not adequately protected.
It is hard to understand that there is a limit to progress. As children, we have become used to the idea that each year we will be a little bigger, stronger, and wiser. In school children advance from one grade to the next where they encounter more difficult subjects. The smarter ones skip grades or delve into profound areas of interest. When there seems to be no further place to go, they try the occult sciences or explore the mysteries of personal corruption. They spin around this way until they learn to make peace with reasonable levels of achievement and enjoy life.
When a man has experienced success, he runs into a problem in trying to live beyond it. He is forced to change his attitudes but not without paying a price. For, the successful man is used to seeing his position grow better. Improvement becomes his badge of pride. Then for various reasons this success begins to taper off. Either his efforts are matched by the rate of deterioration or diminishing returns have set into his enterprise and he loses interest in what he is doing. His conscience begins to bother him. He finds it harder to retain his self-respect watching things go downhill.
For some time he has been telling himself he was successful because of his tireless energy, his unwillingness to settle for less than the best, or other virtues. He is convinced that a greater dose of these virtues can stem the receding tide. However, the problem is not so much a moral slackening as the difficulty of maintaining a personal empire once the expansionary thrust has been lost.
The proud, desperate man may try to recover the old streak of improvement by applying more intensely the virtues he imagines were responsible. Only frustration can come of this, and sometimes worse. If the man responds with a new burst of effort, his fortunes may improve for a time but eventually the standing problem will take its toll. His unrequited labors may then discourage him from making further efforts, which will accelerate his ruin. Or else he will grind away at his work with a numb and dwindling performance after his spirit has been bleached away.
The man who clings more zealously to his own unspoiled manner of living may only become bitter toward those who accept a greater luxury. An example of this was Henry Ford, who often complained of “high living” whenever his son Edsel took a cocktail at a party. His father’s relentless antagonism might well have helped drive Edsel Ford to an early death. The trouble with staying humble in such a way is that it becomes another form of pride. The successful man will be trying to keep success from going to his head. He will become proud of not being proud, and realizing this dilemma, will shift back again on an unproductive seesaw.
Success can force a man to keep up appearances though his inner resources may be crumbling. It can lead a man to steal or embezzle money if he is used to entertaining lavishly. It can cause him to slap down those once considered his inferiors who now threaten to become an equal. Success brings respectability and the need to maintain respectability can become a tyrant. A man will retreat into a frozen moral position to buy himself a few more moments of respectability. On the other hand, the man with no reputation to protect can say what he thinks and do what he feels like doing, and this gives him a greater vitality.
What should be done about an impending decline? First one should recognize that any full development brings with it certain changes. One runs out of opportunities to proceed as before. The organization assembled to accomplish the growing work itself grows itself to a point that internal demands set in. Continual progress as before becomes impossible. Therefore, one should set expectations from the present. If it is as hard to hold together an enterprise as to build one up, there is no disgrace in failing to build any more even if this does not make such a good story.
Instead of worrying whether he can maintain a certain state of perfection, a man should calmly reassess the outlook for further development. This might mean accepting decay as a part of life. It might mean recognizing that the success fulfills only this part of his life and he must now prepare for a new phase. Instead of having pride in particular accomplishments, a man could acquire a general faith in himself to succeed in the variety of ways which life requires. One development builds upon the ruins of another as the giant pines of the forest grow in soil laid down by generations of ferns and other plants of a lower order.
It is time to conclude this essay which seeks a worthwhile goal for man in view of life’s own goal of self-destruction. Death casts doubt upon the value of all personal achievements. Accumulations of money do not benefit the man who accumulated them. Power and influence vanish when a man dies. Fame lingers on but is unpredictable. For instance, the memory of Abraham Lincoln continues to bloom, but General Ulysses S. Grant is best known to many by the joke, “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?’
Death’s handiwork is a favorite theme of philosophers even if Plato’s theory of eternal forms tends to obscure it. To avoid a pessimistic viewpoint, we must find something truly valuable which can be left behind after death, or something which contains its own reward as it is being used up during life. If all men are equal in the grave, is there yet some difference between them, which makes it more advantageous to have lived in one way rather than in another?
An afterlife promised by religion is one possibility, but philosophy cannot offer proof convincing to people today. The totality of moments of happiness experienced during life might be another but these are nothing to the man in the grave. The fact that a man might have come to grips with life’s real issues means nothing then either. Perhaps it is the memory of what a man did during his life which can inspire or help the surviving generations. Perhaps it is actually his worldly accomplishments. Perhaps he has “left the world a better place in which to live.” Yet what are these in many years? Every trace of them, too, will fade away.
When we have set our hearts and minds upon things in this world, we do not even know what the status of the place is. It cannot be worth much in a universal sense. The Earth is a planet subsidiary to one of the millions of billions of stars, whose complex might be part of a still larger order of existence that is buried within an infinity of time and space. Our whole realm of being could be completely lost like a small grain of sand dropped into the ocean. Then what does some small treasure in this world matter in the larger scheme of things?
Perhaps there are no ends in life as such. There are just life’s smaller goals which the philosophers have stretched to a logical limit. These life-goals might not exist for anyone except for the man who took such constructions seriously. Perhaps life is just a period of time presenting a series of occasions and situations that people experience. It does not have to be made into anything greater.
Yet all is not equally valid. Some aspirations do bring a greater satisfaction than others. The French writer Voltaire in his philosophical novel Candide identifies “working in the garden” as a proper goal for mankind. He believes, in other words, that man is truly happy when he is doing his life-work - not so much for what it accomplishes as for the daily rhythm it provides. The German poet Schiller says that man’s best situation is “work and love”, and Freud concurs with this formulation. Work is a relationship between man and nature, and love is between two people, or in a wider sense a harmony among mankind. They are universally important.
I would take a more specific pair of goals from this combination of experiences suggesting that these are ultimately worthwhile in life:
Perfection of one’s own posterity. Children are something of value that is left behind after death. A man’s true wealth is his own body. Through the generation of children he extends this wealth beyond himself. All the other valuable goods are just accessories to life’s basic endowment. If there were no people, music would be a meaningless noise; cities would be rock piles; happiness, wisdom, and friendship could not exist. Therefore, a man should prize the life given him above what he can accomplish with it. What can he himself contribute? He can try to have the best possible parent for his children. Though he cannot choose a better self, he can at least choose the sex partner. Instead of being merely the accomplice of a passing desire, that person’s life should be worth reproducing.
Completion of unfulfilled tendencies. What is begun and developed to a point deserves to be brought to fruition. However, not all beginnings merit further development; mainly those which bring out a man’s true talents and experiences. On one hand, this principle restates Aristotle’s saying that a man ought to fulfill his own nature, or, as commonly stated, that each man should develop his full potential. On the other hand, it means that a man should bring a conclusion to whatever he has already spent time and energy doing. He should either drop an unproductive labor salvaging what he can, or he should finish it. He should not leave too many loose threads hanging.
It should be clear that an unfulfilled labor is not so much like painting a room or closing a sale as it is about developing a man’s abilities and position. The important goals are states of activity rather than static possessions. The objects which are posited as ends do not matter as much as the activities they make possible.
For example, some men will say they want to make a million dollars. What do they see in a million dollars? To some persons this sum of money would be a milestone of fulfillment for all the days they have received and carefully spent their money and computed their bank balance. Such a man might even become upset if near the end of his labors a rich relative suddenly decided to give him the million dollars. His happiness comes more from gaining the money, not having it.
Another man might want a million dollars for a variety of small reasons: driving to work in a luxury car, arousing envious attention (including from those who thought he would never succeed); holding conferences with the promoters of new companies who are anxious for him to invest; touring university campuses with the Dean who wants to show him the plans for a new physics lab; the deferential look in the eyes of people who know how much money he has. These are some of the attractions of owning a million dollars. The money is not as important as the millionaire’s different kind of life, with its own customs and practices.
This dynamic pattern I wish to call rhythm. Music is its own special language. Out of ordinary circumstances come additionally the rhythms which fulfill life. They are centered in the people taking part in them. Each personality vibrates according to its habitual nature, and the tremors fan out into the world which then gives its response. People are sounding boards for each other. One can feel another’s presence from the returning vibrations even as a bat knows the shape of spaces and objects from the sound waves that bounce back. Each person modifies his own vibrations to fit in gracefully with the motions of another. This sympathetic dance builds up to a state of resonance which loosens the doors that normally imprison a man’s nature and make other people, and even things in the world, extensions of his own vibrating personality. That is the experience of rhythm.
Rhythm specifies little. Its materials are whatever a man has at hand. His particular talents, experiences, and predispositions shape his own part of the act. Other people, events, and circumstances determine how it will be played in the world. Rhythm is possible for a slum dweller as well as for a prospering suburbanite, for a dentist as well as for a fisherman, for a small girl as well a for a fat grandfather, or for anyone in any situation. Therefore, it is not specifically informative to know that rhythm is a true end in life.
Despite its variety, however, rhythm is a particular type of being which is special. It purifies and completes the coarser materials of life, excluding much. There is a greater self-consistency or cohesion between parts than is usually found in life’s experience. There is a more direct expression of important tendencies. Also, as required of a final goal, there is self-sufficiency. Once rhythm is reached it does not proceed to change itself into something else. Rhythm is self-sustaining. It can spread to other situations except that its vigorous pace of involvement requires greater personal energy than a man can always give.
Rhythm is equivalent in its medium to a beauty that does not change. We know that man cannot maintain an eternal pose. He cannot reach a goal and say, “Now my labor’s done, and I have everything I want.” For desire piles on desire out of sheer restlessness. A recurring vibration is the closest thing we have to changelessness in a world of flowing time. The rhythm of a tuning fork emits a sound that stays the same.
Similarly, a man finds routines for himself, but they do not always satisfy him. He seeks a larger orbit in which to flex the full extent of his personality. He wants activities by which to move in harmonious concert with those other other people so his nature can be appreciated. His intellect perceives at each point whether the present routine is satisfactory or another can take him along to something better. When he reaches a place where rhythm shines clearly enough, he stops. Life does not stop, however, for his pattern of activity now carries through as recurring habit. In this psychological state of perfection he has only to bear down more or less intensely to feel the rhythm pulsing through everything he touches.
So there is rhythm in striving for a goal and rhythm also after the goal has been reached. A goal is only a framework of possibilities to be developed. Those who contend that the value of a goal lies in the psychological experience had during the struggle to achieve it need to understand that the goal of rhythm pertains to achieving a degree of intensity rather than creating permanent conditions in the world. Its struggle, once successful, continues to demand attention. To understand rhythm gives comfort that one does not have to maintain a certain rate of improvement toward a particular state of being. A man can move in and out of its keener moments without regret. The perfection must reach a crest and subside, but this experience brings pleasure. One lives more in the moment.
Rhythm kindled in one place tends to spread like fire to other places. The enlightened man never reverts to total darkness. He does not fear to take excellence when it comes and to let it go when its possibilities have been exhausted for he has confidence that there are other substances which can also sustain the flame.
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