Posts filed under ‘Psychology’
In the last few days, my mind has turned (as it sometimes does) to some of the great passages and speeches in Shakespeare, and one that came to mind was the “Band of Brothers” speech delivered by Henry V to his troops in the play of the same name.
I must say that I have mixed feelings about such battle-cry speeches. On the one hand, the bravery and emotion expressed in them can be quite moving. On the other hand, I find it chilling how easily men (mostly men) are moved to slaughter others and let themselves be slaughtered.
The possible reasons for this human propensity to war and violence have been treated by many authors from many different angles. A recent one is Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning, which I just started reading today.
But whatever your own feelings on war, the “Band of Brothers” speech is still a great piece of literature. Here it is:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Last week, I briefly talked about the concept of selfishness and maintained that calling it a virtue, like Ayn Rand did, was not helpful. However, I’m painfully aware of how inadequate my post was to fully address the intelligent apologias for selfishness that are out there, and, to be honest, I doubt that this post will be much more adequate than the last one.
Human selfishness and self-interest really is a complicated subject matter, isn’t it? There are so many levels on which you could address human motivation. Plato, Epicurus, and Hobbes all wrote about human self-interest, but in quite different ways. One may easily add Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche to the mix. That is, we could talk about human self-interest on the level of evolutionary biology, or on the level of psychology, or on the level of cultural influences.
Rather than writing a careful analysis of all these, let me just throw out three random points:
(1) I recognize that there are many people who struggle with undue guilt and have a hard time enjoying legitimate pleasures. But, because human motivation is such a complex affair, I think the solutions to these people need to be addressed on an individual basis.
One woman might struggle with undue guilt because her father was always very critical of her. One man might struggle with undue guilt because he grew up in a culture dominated by a Protestant work ethic. Another one might struggle with guilt because one has so many responsibilities and feels that one is falling behind if one allows oneself to take time off. Or because one has received lots of privilege and favors from others, and now feels that one needs to work off the debt. Or because of one’s boss, or one’s school, or one’s spouse.
The possible reasons for undue guilt are endless and can be very different from person to person. Therefore, I doubt that a cookie-cutter answer of saying, "Learn to embrace selfishness!" will do justice to the various root problems of undue guilt. More likely than not, saying that selfishness is actually a good thing will not bring the desired cure to people’s psychological problems.
(2) At what point would the term "selfishness," used in a positive way, become an appropriate term to describe my activities? Would I say that my breathing is selfish? Um, no, that strikes me as rather silly, though breathing is of course an entirely self-interested activity. Would I say that nourishing my body with the right nutrients is selfish? Again, I find the use of the word "selfish" in this respect silly. Would I say that giving my body the exercise it needs is selfish?
All activities that seem entirely legitimate ways of taking care of myself and enjoying myself, though clearly motivated by self-interest, do not merit the badge of "selfishness." The dividing line between taking care of yourself in a healthy way and being selfish seems to me the question of whether the enjoyment is legitimate. Admittedly, the question of legitimacy is also a highly complex question, and there are many different angles from which you can answer it, but it seems to me a good starting point for distinguishing healthy self-interest from unhealthy selfishness.
(3) Almost anything we do and say can be motivated by selfishness in the traditional bad sense of the word. For example, though reading a book to one’s children is generally seen as a positive, loving act, I can also read to, say, my oldest daughter for entirely selfish reasons: I can read to her because she is MY daughter, and I want MY daughter to be well-educated and respected in society, because what MY daughter does reflects on ME. I have heard people constantly speak of their family members in this way: MY wife, MY son, MY daughter. Even MY God.
Always, the emphasis lies on "my," as if the man owned his wife, his children, and even his God. Accordingly, he expects a certain behavior from his family members and a certain way others are supposed to treat his religion, because he – unconscious as it might be – considers himself the owner of his family and his religion. He does not expect his children to behave in a certain way primarily so that they might have a good life but because they are HIS children, and HIS children behave in a certain way.
This does not just go for fathers. How many mothers have suffocated their children out of supposed "love"? Selfishness comes in all forms of guises. Blowing one’s altruistic trumpet can be the epitome of selfishness.
A couple of days ago, I quoted a passage from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Here is another one that stood out for me:
You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better. We see that in sports all the time, don’t we? The tennis challenger starts strong but soon loses confidence in his playing. The champion racks up the games. But in the final set, when the challenger has nothing left to lose, he becomes relaxed again, insouciant, daring. Suddenly he’s playing like the devil and the champion must work hard to get those last points. So it was with me. To cope with a hyena seemed remotely possible, but I was so obviously outmatched by Richard Parker hat it wasn’t even worth worrying about. With a tiger aboard, my life was over. That being settled, why not do something about my parched throat?
This reminds of when I was part of a table tennis team as a teenager, back in the day when you had the 21-point scoring system. At one match, my opponent already had 20 points, and I had only managed to score a few points against him. But, as Pi points out, since I had nothing left to lose, I started playing like the devil, and I actually ended up winning the game!
But of course the larger question is whether an overall pessimistic outlook on life is actually psychologically freeing or not.
In one of my recent posts, I mentioned Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness as a virtue. While I recognize that using the word “selfishness” in a positive way can have a kind of provocative value in order to make a certain point, I am still greatly in doubt that making the word “selfishness” denote a virtue is very helpful overall. I don’t see that we gain much by giving the word a positive connotation, but I do think that we lose something.
For instance, I would not say that writing this post is a “selfish” activity. It is simply an activity in which I am being human: in which I exercise my rational faculties and put something (I hope) meaningful on the internet. Now if my wife came to me now and, after a long day of taking care of the children, asked me to hold the baby for a few minutes because she needed to do something where she had to use two hands, and if I refused because I was so engrossed in writing this post and felt irritated to be interrupted in an enjoyable activity, that would be selfish.
If we use the word “selfish” in a positive way, what then do we call my behavior when I am unreasonably putting my own felt needs over the real needs of others? Wouldn’t it be better to let “selfishness” remain a negative term? There are lots of other ways in which I can describe what a positive use of selfishness is meant to convey: striving for excellence, using my gifts, enjoying life, rejuvenating, having time off, appreciating beauty, liking to create, having goals, etc. Using the word “selfishness” to describe these activities only has the effect of having no word left when someone acts selfishly in the traditional sense of the word.
Now I do admit that it is a somewhat open question what counts as selfishness. Am I being selfish because I am not currently in Syria helping people who are affected by the war? Am I not allowed to enjoy a glass of wine until the last person on earth no longer has to go hungry? No, I don’t think so. My own rule of thumb is to say that within my domain, within my area of responsibility, within my means, I try to be considerate of other people’s needs and not act like a selfish prig. But I cannot save the whole world.
Neither, however, do I say, like Thoreau, that altruism is simply not my gifting. Even though I am by nature probably not the most altruistic person on the planet, I try to recognize some of my real selfishness as a defect rather than defend it as a virtue or excuse it as simply a lack of gifting.
But the issue is a complex one. A few more thoughts on that next week.
Last time, I talked about J.S. Mill’s way in and out of his depression, saying that in his striving for objectivity he had lost touch with a subjective appreciation of life, which he regained by reading the Romantics.
Someone pointed out to me, however, that American author Richard Reeves has a different take on this. In his biography on Mill, he apparently suggests that Mill had been raised with Benthamism as a kind of religion, and he was supposed to be the Apostle Peter of the new creed: the one with the key who would unlock the doors of the world and let in the doctrine of Utilitarianism. Accordingly, when Mill came to doubt some aspects of these Benthamite creeds, his whole mission in life appeared to fall apart, and so he fell apart with it. Hence the depression.
My correspondent even went so far as to suggest that Mill had gotten out of his depression by discovering more or less what Ayn Rand has called the positive value of “selfishness”: not trying to sacrifice your whole existence to some supposedly altruistic goal, but to embrace first and foremost living for yourself.
I do find Richard Reeves’ interpretation worthwhile considering. Though I tend to be sceptical of overly psychological interpretations of people long dead, since the grave seldom makes for a good couch, what Reeve says struck me as quite possible when I first read it. Now, however, I have some reservations about it.
To begin with, I think that comparing Mill’s personal awakening to Ayn Rand’s value of selfishness is a stretch. It’s been a few years since I read Atlas Shrugged, and apart from watching a few interviews, I have never read anything else by her, but what Mill writes about his recovery from depression seems to me quite different from Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. In fact, in some respects it is almost the opposite, since it is in connection with his recovery that Mill makes his famous statement, "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so."
Mill attributes this notion to the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and calls it the "anti-self-consciousness" theory of happiness. Through his experience with depression, Mill became convinced that one could only attain happiness by not making it the direct end. In other words, far from saying that prior to his depression he had lived for something greater than himself and recovered by learning to live selfishly, he says that only those are happy "who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory [after the depression]) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient."
So, what Mill criticized about his pre-depression life was not that he had lived for a goal greater than himself; that Benthamism was some kind of religion he had grown up in and for which he had lived as a knight in shining Utilitarianism. This inherently unselfish part he emphasized more than ever after his depression. What he did criticize was what this goal consisted of, namely of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. As quoted above, he now recognized that you can never achieve happiness by making happiness the goal, either for yourself or for society at large; happiness is always a by-product of something else. He recognized that you cannot objectify and quantify happiness, as Bentham had attempted to do.
Maybe one can even put Mill’s new life philosophy in Objectivist terms and say that you can never attain your true self by making selfishness a virtue. Lose yourself in some greater pursuit, and you win yourself. Make yourself your prime object, and you lose yourself.
A number of years ago, I read a few works by the influential English thinker John Stuart Mill (1806-73), such as On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and The Subjection of Women. At the time, I also heard about the ambitious educational goals of John Stuart Mill’s father, starting little John on Greek at the age of three and emphasizing familiarity with the Great Books. At the age of twenty, then, Mill had a nervous breakdown, and I got the impression from what I read that this was due to the over-zealous education he “suffered.”
More recently, I actually bothered to read Mill’s autobiography, and I now find my previous view of Mill’s depression inadequate, as it was based merely on hearsay. Well, by the hearing of the ear I had heard of it, but now mine eye has seen the Mill.
Mill’s own account of what got him into and out of his depression is much more interesting than simply to say: He read too many books, didn’t go out play enough, and so all his learning eventually became too much and caused a nervous breakdown. There was an inner journey involved that such a summary fails to capture.
He says that from the moment he first read Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the pioneer of utilitarian ethics, he had an object in life, namely to be a reformer of the world. His conception of his own happiness was entirely identified with this object. “I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed,” he writes, “through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment.”
This worked quite well for him for several years, until he “awakened from this as from a dream.” He asked himself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: “No!”
At this, Mill felt that the whole foundation on which his life was constructed fell apart. He seemed to have nothing left to live for. At first he hoped that this cloud of depression would pass, but it did not. He read without feeling, he did his work mechanically, and he had no one to confide in. He says that his father, to whom it would have been natural for him to turn to in any practical difficulties, was the last person he looked for help in such a case as this. “My education,” he explains, “which was wholly his work, had been conducted without any regard to the possibility of its ending in this result; and I saw no use in giving him the pain of thinking that his plans had failed, when the failure was probably irremediable, and, at all events, beyond the power of his remedies.”
Now what did get Mill finally out of his depression? What helped this rational mind raised on a steady diet of utilitarianism to again find meaning in life? What made him regain his spirit? The surprising answer: a subjective appreciation of the Romantics—the Romantics, who were such strong critics of what they saw as the tyranny of that overly scientific thinking which, they maintained, failed to see the beauty of a forest because it kept counting its leaves.
Not that Mill condoned the Romantics in every respect. He says that Goethe’s writings, for example, are penetrated throughout by views of morals and of conduct that are not defensible. And yet, he derived much from Goethe and other Romantic authors that helped him cultivate his feelings.
Particularly Wordsworth helped him out of his depression, because his poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of his pleasurable susceptibilities, “the love of rural objects and natural scenery.” But, he says, “Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. … What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not of mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.”
I find Mill’s experience with depression highly illuminating. While I want to be cautious in drawing unmerited comparisons or making too quick generalizations, Mill’s story reminded me of Darwin’s famous comment in his later life that, though he had appreciated poetry and literature as a young man, he now found Shakespeare nauseating. Perhaps Darwin’s loss of appreciation for the poetic, more subjective productions of human creativity was not directly caused by his life-long scientific, objective study of nature—I cannot really say—but it might have been.
In my personal experience, I have found that when I spend extended periods of time studying science, after a while philosophy begins to look too speculative and poetic viewpoints too subjective. On the other hand, when I spend extended periods of time with philosophy and poetic viewpoints, after a while science begins to feel too cold and meaningless. I therefore can easily imagine someone who spends his whole life in scientific pursuits completely losing their taste for the subjective.
Maybe a more pertinent example than Darwin is James Joyce, who purportedly said that he lost his subjective appreciation of music when he meticulously researched musical themes because he wanted to mimic their structure in his chapter on the Sirens in Ulysses.
This might not apply to every person, but people like Joyce seemed to notice that it was no easy task to be scientifically minded and at the same time stay in touch with a subjective appreciation of music, art, and poetry. You can count the leaves of a forest one hour and appreciate its beauty the next, but it is hard to do both at the same time. And if you spend most of your days counting leaves, you might eventually find yourself unable to still look at the whole forest and be overwhelmed by its beauty.
In Mill’s case, this dichotomy between the objective and the subjective was maybe not the whole story; I’ll look at some other interpretations of the cause of Mill’s depression in my next post. But like Mill, I, too, am a person who consciously needs to nourish his subjective side in order not to cool off in respect to that aspect of human existence. If others experience this differently, I have to take their word for it.
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.
I ended my last post by saying that the desire for novelty and unfulfilled dreams can rob us of the joy of what we actually have and experience. Our desires can lead us to forsake our duties and throw usefulness to the wind.
Of course, some Romantics would say that it is better to live that way. By all means, they assert, throw your life to the wind. As long as your heart is in, it does not matter how enjoyable or morally praiseworthy or useful your life is. What counts is that you feel your life is truly yours; that you are being true to yourself. Authentic.
I must confess, I find this Romantic notion highly appealing. In the past, one feeling I’ve repeatedly had when spending time with my family was that the family man was not the real “me.” The real me, I sometimes told myself, was the artist, the intellectual, the traveller, the explorer. I tended to feel more at home sitting in an airplane 30,000 feet over the ocean than at the kitchen table with my family.
Why do I have a tendency to feel this way? Why did I sometimes feel that I left the real me at the airport when I walked through the door to my home? It certainly was not because my family was horrible. Quite the contrary, my wife and children were and still are wonderful human beings, more than worthy of my love. But I think I sometimes felt that the real me sat in an airplane rather than at the kitchen table because the one came naturally to me and the other did not.
I did not have to work at wanting to see new places. I did not have to work at being interested in literature, philosophy, history, science, art, and religion. I did not have to work at getting new ideas of what I could write, paint, or sing. Granted, not everything I wrote (and still write) was worthwhile reading, and my singing voice was (and is) definitely not worthwhile listening to, but still, my inclination toward creativity felt natural to me, no matter what the quality of the outcome might have been. And because it felt natural, it felt like it was the real me.
In contrast, sitting down to eat dinner with my family or going camping with them required a conscious effort to put the books or the crayons or the guitar aside and pay attention to those human beings who were closest to me. It was this conscious effort, this decision to say no to my natural inclinations and yes to my family, that produced the feeling of the family man not being the real me.
One could say, however, that it is precisely in those cases of a conscious decision that the real me comes forth. Sure, like any other animal, I have certain drives and dispositions. On the most basic level, I have the desire to eat and sleep and copulate, and on a more refined level, I might have the desire to read Shakespeare. But it is not my desires that make up my sense of having a self; it is my decisions that do so. Through them, I have the feeling of being a person that can act into the world. My “I,” my ego, is that part of me that decides between different options and says, “I will go this way, not that way; I will do this, not that.” If I always went with my natural inclinations, no decision would be needed. I would not need an “I,” a self, to steer my life; my life would be steered for me by my natural inclinations. I would be driven; I would not drive myself.
If I always went with my inclination to do something else rather than spend time with my family, no self would be needed to make this decision. If, in contrast, I decide against my natural inclination that it is a good thing to spend time with my family, a conscious self is needed to make this decision. In that sense, I am being more “myself” when I do something against my natural inclinations than when I simply follow them.