Saturday, February 19, 2011

Genius, Danger, And The Meaning Of Life: What's Wrong With Boring?

Gaugin, Still Life With Three Puppies.
I try be generous in spirit when people start talking about the meaning of life.

The reason I have to try to be generous is that it's so hard to say anything interesting and plausible about this question that I'm always annoyed by the answers people give.

The reason, though, that I do try to be generous is it's so hard to say anything interesting and plausible about this question that ... well, I feel like critcizing is like shooting fish in a barrel.

But I had to really struggle to be generous when reading Ronald Dworkin's discussion of the question in a recent New York Review of Books

It wasn't so much Dworkin's idea of life as a kind of attempted performance that got to me -- though, indeed,  I had some difficulties there too -- but more the idea that to live a good life requires some kind of striving, achievement, a rising to the challenge.

He puts it this way:
In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had.
Later, he talks about the good of accepting risks in a good life.  The kind of case he mentions has become a standard philosophical example -- though people seem to disagree about what it's an example of, exactly.  The example is the Great Artist who has to decide whether to Sacrifice His Family to Pursue His Great Art -- something like what Gaugin supposedly did when he left his wife and five children alone to go off to paint full-time.

It's commonly thought -- and Dworkin agrees -- that when the Great Artist really does produce Great Art, the sacrifice is vindicated.  It's somehow worth it.  Dworkin goes further, though, and says that not only does the success of such a venture make for a good life, even the attempt at such a venture makes for a good life.  We might value daring in life, even if it risks making our lives worse, just as entrepreneurs and dare-devil skiers do.  So the Gaugin types -- they're really onto something.

But look, we can't all be special, can we?  It really bugs me, the idea that to have a good life you have to be trying really hard to create something special and magical, bucking convention, striving to really make it something distinctive and unusual.  Like, it's not enough to be a nice person and good parent and generally helpful kind of guy or gal.  No, to have a good life you have to climb Mount Everest, or travel among some undiscovered tribes, or fight in some war, or discover some new type of beetle or something.

Can we just pause to tally up the problems that have arisen from this way of thinking?  Places like Mount Everest are becoming overrun with adventure seekers; the poor undiscovered tribes who just want to be left alone have had their habitat ruined by oil-seeking outsiders; young people around the world are set to fighting against and killing one another, and other young people who aren't all that interested in beetles are full of self-loathing and worry because, really, all they want to do is have a nice time, maybe have a beer and watch the game.

It seems to me what we need around here are more models for the good life that aren't full of adventure and striving.  Models that show us how to celebrate the ordinary day to day things, like eating dinner with people, going for a walk, and looking at interesting stuff in a museum or a field or whatever.

Sure, you can turn any of those activities into a striving for achievement:  "I'll make adventurous or gluttonous food! I'll walk faster, harder, longer than anyone else! I'll learn all the paintings by heart!"  But doesn't that sound horrible and depressing?

As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to the meaning of live, no one has really improved on Voltaire's Candide instructing us that "we must cultivate our garden."  Engage yourself in a practical pursuit, and the boring will be transformed to interesting, the flowers will entertain you, the vegetables will grow for eating, and you'll forget about all these stupid questions like what is the meaning of life.

7 comments:

Daniel said...

I'm with you. The part of RD's quote that really gets me is that the life is not good, EVEN IF the liver thinks it is and has thoroughly enjoyed it. What??!! If I am able to thoroughly enjoy my life, I will consider it a blazing success.

Patricia said...

Hi Daniel,
Yeah, no kidding. It's exhausting just thinking about all the extra proposed requirements!

Success Learner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mare said...

This has been bugging me for a few years now. On one end, everyone expects you to succeed and do something extraordinary. On the other end, there are these simple pleasures in life, like books & free Sunday mornings with a nice, freshly prepared espresso. Both lifestyles have their advantages, but it is no secret that "adventurous life" leaves people depressed because they forget how to enjoy the ordinary things in life when all the "accomplishments" become meaningless.

I think people should look at life as something other than the survival of the fittest. Maybe then we will all realize how fragile our lives are.

Patricia said...

Hi Mare, I agree that the "adventurous" life has this problem. And since it's hard not to measure your accomplishments by comparing them to the accomplishments of others, you get the same problem you have in sports -- one happy winner and a whole collection of unhappy people who didn't meet their own goals and expectations.

Anyway, yes, let's hear it for books, Sunday mornings, and espresso!

Christopher Grisdale said...

I'm totally with you when you say that it is really hard to say anything interesting or plausible about the meaning of life.

That question is tricky, I can't make heads or tails of it. And that's largely because I don't understand the question.

Is the good life the same as the meaning of life? Call me crazy, but I took those to be different things.

Sometimes I think that the meaning-of-life question is a relic of some old, theological world-view. And made sense if you looked at the world that way.

The question, outside of that world view, is confusing.

And if the meaning-of-life question is really the purpose-of-life question, I can help but think the same thing: the purpose-of-life question seems natural from the theological point of view.

Patricia said...

Hi Christopher, yeah, I agree the meaning question is puzzling. I don't think it has an answer, when you're really talking about meaning. I think the good life -- well, still puzzling, but maybe you can say that *if* there's a way people ought to aspire to live, that is the good life. And given that I do think there are some things people ought to aspire to -- like tolerance, open-mindedness, etc -- it doesn't seem crazy to ask whether there's some a unifying feature to all those things, which would then be the good life. But I doubt the answer is yes, and thus the difficulty comes right back at you.