Can We Count Ourselves Happy?
Is This a Good Universe with Evil Stripes, or an Evil Universe with Good Stripes?
Framing is everything. What causes pain and suffering today may be a blessing in disguise if, by it, we obtain some greater good tomorrow. What causes pleasure and happiness today may be a curse in disguise if, by it, we obtain some worse harm tomorrow. Whether we count ourselves blessed or cursed depends on the scale and scope of our perspective, and this raises the question: can we know which perspective is best?
Count No Man Happy Until You Know His End
“Count no man happy until you know his end,” said Herodotus, in his telling of the history of the rich King Croesus. After he lavishly wined and dined the philosopher, Solon, Croesus asked him who was the world’s happiest man. Having just flaunted his luxurious lifestyle before Solon, the king was confident that he would be told that he was happiest; but he was shocked when Solon instead answered with the name of a commoner, who had lived a long and fulfilling life, who was beloved by his family and friends, and who, though he was mortally wounded on the battlefield, did not die before he was able to see his children and grandchildren one last time, and after seeing all of them strong and healthy and living good lives, he was able to die in peace. King Croesus did not know it at the time, but he would outlive both his favorite son and his empire. After he was defeated by the Persian army of King Cyrus, Croesus was condemned to be executed by being burned alive. As he awaited this terrible fate, Croesus remembered the words of Solon. Now, knowing his end, the deposed king greatly envied the happy life of the anonymous peasant.
The details of our day-to-day affairs can be judged only in relation to the bigger picture of our lives as a whole. Of course, this creates a “chicken-and-egg” problem, because our lives as a whole are formed mostly out of a million mundane decisions, tons of tiny tasks, and our moment-by-moment responses to the petty challenges and small opportunities that Life throws at us each day.
Begin with the End in Mind?
“Begin with the end in mind,” advises Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This counsel sounds good, but it’s incomplete. Nobody begins Life with the end in mind. We are all born under a veil of ignorance.
Many of us have a recurring sense that there is something more to our existence than what we can perceive directly with our physical senses, and the founding myths of every indigenous culture seem to confirm this suspicion. The only problem is, nobody really knows or can agree on what this “something else” is or what it means, and we are born without any clear understanding of any of it. Some people claim to know, but as Socrates discovered in one dialogue after another, those who profess the greatest certainty (at least about substantive, rather than procedural, knowledge) tend to be the most absurdly ignorant. We must “begin with the end in mind,” but we are ignorant of the broader context needed to assess which ends are best.
Then, even if we leave out metaphysics, there remains the readily observable reality that humans are not interchangeable widgets, but that we are fundamentally unique in some pretty important ways. We are not blank slates. We are born with a definite and distinct set of incipient talents, interests, likes, and dislikes (or at least those of us who are not Hylics or NPCs — another wrinkle in this already confusing subject matter). Thus, one person may be thoroughly fulfilled with a livelihood and lifestyle that another would find intolerable (and vice versa). We cannot simply borrow a set of ends from others; we have to formulate our own; but to do that, we require self-awareness and maturity; and to gain self-awareness and maturity, we need real life experience, something we do not have when we are just starting out. We must “begin with the end in mind,” but we do not know ourselves well enough to decide which ends are best for us.
On top of that, we are confounded by the rapid rate of cultural and technological change. We do not even know what the challenges and opportunities of the future will be, or how best to prepare for them today. As Alvin Toffler observed in Future Shock, we will arrive in the future like refugees in a foreign country, unable to return to the culture in which we grew up, and feeling out-of-place in the world wherein we find ourselves as old men. This is largely why we tend to gravitate towards peers that came of age in roughly the same era we did: we share a common homeland; we share a stock of cultural references and analogous experiences. Imagine telling a young man in ancient Atlantis to “begin with the end in mind,” knowing that his civilization was about to be destroyed and that he would be one of the survivors landing on the shores of Egypt; how could he prepare for life in Egypt, when Egyptian culture was so radically different from the culture of Atlantis? Our hypothetical Atlantean youth would have been in much the same situation that any young man in the West finds himself in today: nobody knows what the world will be like when he is middle-aged, only that it will almost certainly be very different. So how does a young man today “begin with the end in mind,” when he has no idea what the end will even be?
But we must begin with some end in mind. If we don’t, we will be playthings of circumstance. Our lives will be characterized by false starts and haphazard mistakes. If we aim at nothing, we practically condemn ourselves to arrive nowhere worthwhile, especially since we live in a clownworld culture that is so manifestly contrary to human Nature. We have to formulate an appropriate end for ourselves as best we can, using the information and insights available to us; but because our knowledge and understanding are hopelessly incomplete, we must hold our conclusions tentatively, keeping them at arms length, so that when new information and insights show us that we are mistaken, we can amend our ultimate goals.
Is there a God?
Okay, I know it’s absurd even to raise that question in a Substack post. How many people, many of them much smarter than me, have already asked and attempted to answer that question? And how many tens of thousands of pages have they written in those attempts? Nevertheless, I’ll briefly add my two cents [feel free to let me know how full of shit you think I am in the comments].
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