Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]

For example, the writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) spoke for many of his contemporaries when he penned “The Darkling Thrush” in December 31, 1900:

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

And so you have it: a sick, old bird singing on a cold, grey December day for no good reason. Happy New Year. I suppose we should all go out caroling or drinking hot chocolate now, the sound of this “frail, gaunt, and small” bird in the breeze as it heralds some hope we can’t really see.

Or, if this is still too optimistic, one has Matthew Arnold’s concluding stanza for “Dover Beach,” published in 1867:

…the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
As writers like Arnold opined the withdrawing “sea of faith” and the alienation of modern life, they joined muckrakers, ashcan artists, and photographers like Jacob Riis trying to capture and combat the corruption and poverty around them.
From Jacob Riis' How the other Half Lives (1890). [Image from Harvard.edu]
From Jacob A. Riis’ 1890 How the Other Half Lives [Image from Harvard.edu]

Many optimists and optimistic things remained. One always has a Horatio Alger to cheer the spirits. But still, a cruel paradox seems to be at work: as people advance and “civilize,” according to the traditional model, new problems arise, taking the place of old ones.

Today, most Americans don’t worry about cholera, plague, or widespread starvation, like the Victorians did. Instead, we worry about job security, college debt, eating disorders, and diabetes, cancer, and other “diseases of civilization,” while studies confirm a major growth in anxiety and depression, especially among children.

I’m sure science has clever answers why this occurs, or why I’m imagining the whole thing. Maybe modern diagnoses allow doctors to monitor and report diseases that formerly went unchecked. I know this is a common argument for many mental health disorders. Or evolutionary adaptations aren’t suited for modern life in developed nations, with all its unnatural accommodations like education, 9-to-5 office jobs, and industrial agriculture.

But even these explanations, and others, don’t help those who ask “Why get better?”

Complicating this, world poverty remains huge. The “bottom billion,” as its been called, even lost economic development in the 90s by 5 percent, as the developed world’s economies grew in a “golden age” of sorts. This poverty brings major issues. As Oxford economist Paul Collier wrote in his book The Bottom Billion, “The countries at the bottom coexist with the twenty-first century, but their reality is the fourteenth century: civil war, plague, ignorance.”

But even within a few hours of my home, generational poverty is a painful reality.

"Heather and her daughter Jada" (2010) [Photo by Brenda Ann Kenneally; image from above hyperlink]
“Heather and her daughter Jada” (2010) [Photo by Brenda Ann Kenneally; image from above hyperlink @Slate.com]
So what’s the solution? Is it the voluntourism of rich millenials who Instagram pictures of themselves helping African orphans? Is it more soup kitchens? More government subsidies and social welfare? Start only buying fair trade coffee, lobbying the government, and growing food in an organic garden in the backyard?

And most of all, why be better in the first place? It seems that we can never be “good enough.”

Perhaps Kant was right, “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Or as Camus said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured.” I think any realistic person, looking at human history and our current condition, would agree, challenging the whole notion of “progress.”

Camus, in an unusually peppy mood. [Image from Google Images]
Camus, in an unusually peppy mood. [Image from Google Images]
Stalled by this, I’ve started reexamining the question itself, asking what “better” really means. Clearly a “better” that leads to “diseases of civilization” isn’t the sort of better we ought to seek, but another “better” may exist. Something with more compassion and genuine self-worth, something that really does do something about the poverty that afflicts the developing world. A better that doesn’t hurt the planet or conceal issues beneath the bread-and-circus treadmill of consumerism.

I don’t know if such a better exists. And if it does, it’s likely cantilevered between the idealistic and the impossible. But it’s worth looking for and striving toward, at least at the individual level, because the alternatives–give up all hope in “progress,” lose our agency, or regress–don’t sound good to me.

How shall we know what progress is then? As the pragmatic philosopher Nicholas Rescher used to quote, “Ye shall judge them by their fruits.” In other words, judge the “fruit” growing from the ideals a person has. If it reduces suffering, makes human life more meaningful, and softens ecological strain it’s likely a good ideal.

Personally, I think self-education is central. As Socrates famously said at his trial, or so Plato relates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This Socratic dictum to “know thyself” requires more than navel-gazing and introspection. To truly examine life, one must investigate and question everything, applying a healthy skepticism and a tested criteria to people, ideas, and personal biases. Doing so isn’t easy. It can annoy and threaten, as Socrates discovered, and leads to”Socratic ignorance,” where one remains stuck in perpetual doubt about truth and reality in a “learned confusion.”

"Scumbad Socrates" prepared to pester you at the forum [image from perceptemeu]
“Scumbad Socrates” prepared to pester you at the forum [image from perceptemeu]
But without the capacity to learn and question–central skills for building maturity and empathy–individuals will likely stagnate, no matter how much they learn or experience. They would echo Aesop’s story of the miser who melts all his gold into a giant lump, buries in the ground, and visits it each day. One day someone robs him. Disconsolate, the miser asks for help, and a man replies, “Come and look at the empty hole; It will do you as much good.”

In other words, hording anything, whether wealth or knowledge, means nothing unless one uses it. Learning to examine life, like Socrates did, puts knowledge to task. It turns it from a passive horde of facts into a living, growing enterprise. In doing this, one learns the bounds of knowledge.

That’s why Socrates, as pestering and self-righteous as he could be, remains a poster child for humanism and philosophy: he recognized his own ignorance, making him the wisest man in Greece, according the Oracle. No one has a monopoly on truth–not the scientists, the philosophers, the prophets, or me, or you. We are all ignorant or wrong about something.

The sooner we realize this, the “better”we will be because we won’t try to impose our understandings as Truth. Many issues arise because people impose their own worldviews on the world, trusting their belief is Truth. This could be a religion, an ideology, or a thought of what the good life is. But as Socratic doubt shows, a belief is simply a belief, not a reality. Some may be more “accurate” or “precise” according to certain criteria, like empirical data, logical rigor, or standards of compassion and beauty, but nothing is categorically limitless and perfect.

Here, I’m caught in another paradox: trying to say what one should do to be better, while advocating that no one knows the reality or the truth of what being “better” really means. I guess I can’t help that. But I think I differ on two counts. First, I’m saying what I think, not what I know. And second, I’m willing to acknowledge that this argument has flaws. To use another Socratic analogy, it’s like a raft that has continued to carry me into a happier, humbler, more compassionate outlook, despite its imperfections and occasional tweaks. Moreover, I don’t think its philosophical bias is a coincidence.

That is all I can say.

I can’t say it’s perfect because nothing is. We can never fully improve, never fully know truth. Our knowledge is a gradually shifting patchwork of false steps and beautiful revelations. This is the fragile masterpiece of what it means to be human. We want one or the other–truth and falsehood, improvement and decline, better or worse–but it’s all dappled and shot-through, mingled with the drift and blur of everything, emerging and concealing constantly.

And so, I conclude with one final 19th Century poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

6 thoughts on “Why be better?

  1. This is why I miss your posts so much, but when one is written it gets me thinking on so many levels… Ennui seems to be a part of our existence. The reasons and rationality of its existence may change, but it always exists and in difficult times people come face-to-face with the idea of how futile striving for anything in life can be.

    I am sure that everyone at one time or another asks the same question you pose “It seems that we can never be “good enough.” Yet while such feelings may put any mind in a funk, where the danger is a downward spiral that becomes more difficult to break, it also sparks part of the mind to wander, to ask philosophical questions and through this causes us to learn (whether we want to or not).

    And the great ability the mind is to take experiences and question life which can give impetuous to act unconsciously…resulting in defining a new path, movement and popping out of any funk the mind may be dwelling. Cannot conclude this any better than your words: “This is the fragile masterpiece of what it means to be human.”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dalo! (I always love reading them as well). I realize I did not talk much about the silver lining in these questions, but I think you’re right. In a sense, they often make us question and think in new ways. I like Camus’ phrase for when one begins asking these why questions: “weariness tinged with amazement.”

  2. I do not know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else experiencing problems with your blog.
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