Archive for April, 2012
When one has a strong, single-minded feeling of love, it is easy to bear all kinds of trouble for the sake of love. In fact, the strength of the feeling is proved by how much trouble one is willing to undergo for the beloved. We find a good example of this in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“This swift business,” says Prospero about Ferdinand and Miranda having fallen in love, “I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.” But no matter how great the burden that Prospero heaves on Ferdinand, it all stays light for him: “My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel, the wreck of all my friends, nor this man’s threats, to whom I am subdued, are but light to me, might I but through my prison once a day behold this maid: all corners else o’ the earth let liberty make use of; space enough have I in such a prison.”
Ferdinand is willing to give up all other freedom and to bear all manner of trouble, if only he is allowed to behold his object of love. “There be some sports are painful,” he pronounces while bearing a log, “and their labour delight in them sets off: some kinds of baseness are nobly undergone and most poor matters point to rich ends. This my mean task would be as heavy to me as odious, but the mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead and makes my labours pleasures.”
Indeed, “these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours, most busy lest, when I do it.” Without the overpowering feeling of love, he “would no more endure this wooden slavery than to suffer the flesh-fly blow [his] mouth.” Only for Miranda’s sake is he “this patient log-man.” Miranda, in turn, being equally overpowered by feelings of love, would heartily throw herself into being a log-woman: “It would become me as well as it does you: and I should do it with much more ease; for my good will is to it.”
Shakespeare does not tell us what Miranda and Ferdinand feel for each other a few weeks or years into their marriage, but we can surmise that even wonderful Ferdinand will sometimes tire of being a patient log-man, and even flawless Miranda will find her good will falter on occasion. In other words, the overpowering feeling of love will not always be as strong as it is now. In fact, it will probably never be as strong again as in the first hours of infatuation.
Now what will Ferdinand do when he wakes up one morning and notices to his own astonishment that he finds Miranda’s morning breath unpleasant? What will Miranda do when she feels mad at him because he neglects her in favor of his political life as Prince and later, we may suppose, King of Naples? What will they do when they are no longer being carried along by amorous feelings?
The answer is that they will need to learn to walk on their own two feet. They will need to learn that feelings can only get you so far, and that at some point Reason has to take over once more. Reason would tell Ferdinand, “I don’t have an overpowering sense of love for Miranda today, but I still want her best and will do my best today to make her best happen.”
Last time I said that the real “me” isn’t so much defined by my desires as by my decisions.
Obviously, one can take this too far. It would be self-destructive of me to completely deny my inclinations. I need food and water and sleep; I am a sexual being. And I like Shakespeare. No use denying that. But freedom does not just consist in being free to follow these inclinations; it also means being free to decide against them when they clash with what I perceive to be good or useful.
In an ideal world, my natural inclinations would always coincide with the good and useful. There would be no dichotomy between Aristotle’s three categories of joy, moral duty, and utility. They would be one and the same thing. And it is certainly a worthy goal to learn to “love my fate,” that is, to enjoy doing my duty and being useful.
To achieve this, I might tell myself that I really do not have to do anything. I do not have to spend time with my family, for instance. In fact, I could ditch them right now. But do I really want to? No, because I want them to have a good life. Hence I need to decide that I want to spend time with them, not merely give in because I feel that I have to spend time with them.
On that view, nothing in this life is a compulsion, because I always have the option not to do it. There is always another option, and, last of all, the option of opting out of life completely. If all else fails, I can commit suicide. But if I want to live, then I also want to do certain things that affirm life. I do not have to live. Therefore, I do not have to do anything. I want to live, and therefore I want my particular life. I love my fate.
Like the Romantic ideal of self-realization, I find the ideal of loving your fate appealing. However, it ignores the fact that I am a complex psychological being who will always have a certain ambivalence to it. That is to say, until I have reached perfect moral character (probably not in this life!), I will always have conflicting desires and will never achieve being this single-minded entity that completely loves its fate because it manages to embrace necessity and blocks out all contrary desires.