Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pride and fall

Constantly bring to your recollection those who have complained greatly about anything, those who have been most conspicuous by the greatest fame or misfortunes or enmities or fortunes of any kind: then think where are they all now? Smoke and ash and a tale, or not even a tale. And let there be present to your mind also everything of this sort, immense how Fabius Catullinus lived in the country, and Lucius Lupus in his gardens, and Stertinius at Baiae, and Tiberius at Capreae and Velius Rufus (or Rufus at Velia); and in fine think of the eager pursuit of anything conjoined with pride; and how worthless everything is after which men and women violently strain; and how much more philosophical it is in the opportunities presented to you to show yourself just, temperate, obedient to the gods, and to do this with all simplicity: for the pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all.
That's Marcus, of course. It's Meditations XII, 27, and specifically about pride. The first passage there is essentially a restatement of the old "Let every action aim solely for the common good." It's a reminder that virtuous actions for the benefit of others will make a person happy (or, at least make a Stoic happy) while self-directed actions will, in the long run, make us unhappy. Pride is part of that because many self-directed actions are driven by pride. Wanting to succeed, wanting to achieve, wanting to display, wanting to be seen or known or revered or admired; all forms of pride. That's something that I've been struggling with for most of my life.

As I've noted before, for all my supposed intelligence, my accomplishments are relatively few and far-between. For all of my pride in my ability to comprehend and utilize information, I haven't turned that into any kind of sustained success. I'm not talking solely about material success, although that would be nice. If I could find my way to a regular writing gig that I could make a career out of, that'd be great. I could make a living doing something that I enjoy and that at least a few people have suggested I have a certain amount of talent for and that they enjoy. But I found that I had just as much pride in accomplishing something that served more people than just me and in more than simply entertainment, in true Stoic fashion. I took pride in those virtuous actions for the public weal. Is that counter-intuitive for the Stoic? Somewhat. After all, that last line about acting with simplicity and false modesty being the worst sort of pride is directed primarily at those who would hold themselves up to be respected for their virtue.

Of course, part of my struggle has always been from another well-known quote of Marcus': "Man is worth as much as what he is interested in is worth." - Meditations VII, 3. If one is interested in the more virtuous of ideals in one's society, is that not a form of pride? Those things are worth more, therefore said person is worth more. Is that the measure of it or a faulty interpretation? Is it appropriate to use pride to drive oneself to be more active and more successful in those idealistic pursuits, knowing that one is not only serving the community but also making himself "worth" more? It seems to become wrong to want to be worth more. It should instead be left up to society to measure that worth and then, perhaps, take equal doses of pride and humility in the fact that one has achieved "greater worth". Of course, given the idiotically skewed values of our current society, expecting that one's worth will be properly measured is a mortgage-backed security of a rather profound quality. Or is it simply my failing as a Stoic that I would perhaps enjoy writing about films more than I would organizing another progressive campaign?

And if one's worth really is greater from this expression of selflessness, does it make sense that the most self-directed action of all- suicide -becomes even more of a crime of self-indulgence for depriving society of that supposed worth? That sounds an awful lot like an expression of extreme pride. One engages in that ultimate self-directed act and presumes that people will feel loss because of one's supposed virtue (this is putting aside emotional attachments, of course; this is part of why Stoics are often perceived as 'unemotional'), so that is properly perceived as an expression of pride (and, unlike the standard Stoic belief, one won't be unhappy after that's over...) But pride in the loss or pride in the action?

For that matter, if one isn't contributing anything useful to society at this point, then there is no virtue to deny said society except for unknown potential. So, suicide deprives no one except the actor of anything. It remains a very self-directed act and not directly beneficial to society, but not implicitly harmful, either. And, of course, classical Stoicism (outside of Marcus) tends to speak on this repeatedly, in that once a person recognizes that a "naturally flourishing" life is unattainable, suicide becomes justifiable with no harm to one's inherent virtue. Seneca, for example, spoke frequently about "living well", as opposed to "mere living" and suggested that a wise person "lives as long as he ought, not as long as he can." Marcus, no different, said essentially the same thing:
When you have assumed these names, good, modest, true, rational, a person of equanimity, and magnanimous, take care that you do not change these names; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them. And remember that the term Rational was intended to signify a discriminating attention to every single detail and to do so with due diligence; and that Equanimity is the voluntary acceptance of the things which are assigned to you by the common nature; and that Magnanimity is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh, and above that poor thing called fame, and death, and all such things. If, then, you maintain yourself in the possession of these names, without desiring to be called by these names by others, you will be another person and will enter on another life. For to continue to be such as you have hitherto been, and to be torn in pieces and defiled in such a life, is the character of a very stupid person and one overfond of life, and like those half-devoured fighters with wild beasts, who though covered with wounds and gore, still plead to be kept to the following day, though they will be exposed in the same state to the same claws and bites. Therefore fix yourself in the possession of these few names: and if you are able to abide in them, abide as if you were removed to certain islands of the Happy. But if you shall perceive that you fall out of them and do not maintain your hold, go courageously into some nook where you shall maintain them, or even depart at once from life, not in passion, but with simplicity and freedom and modesty, after doing this one laudable thing at least in your life, to have gone out of it thus. In order, however, to the remembrance of these names, it will greatly help you, if you remember the gods, and that they wish not to be flattered, but wish all reasonable beings to be made like themselves; and if you remember that what does the work of a fig-tree is a fig-tree, and that what does the work of a dog is a dog, and that what does the work of a bee is a bee, and that what does the work of a human being is a human being.
The question then becomes: Why is that naturally flourishing life unattainable and is it a failure of self or simply an expression of fate? "Every event happens in such a way that your nature can either support it or cannot." X, 3. " "Either you go on living in the world and are familiar with it by now, or you go out, and that by your own will, or else you die and your service is accomplished. There is nothing beside these three; therefore be of good courage." X, 22.


  1. "If one is interested in the more virtuous of ideals in one's society, is that not a form of pride? Those things are worth more, therefore said person is worth more."

    I don't know about this. For one, I'm not sure there's any agreement (or needs to be) about what kinds of interests/pursuits are "worth more" or "more virtuous." You seem to be saying that political organizing is an inherently worthier interest than entertainment, and thus people who do politics are worth more. So pursuing politics is a form of pride, because it's an attempt to be "worth more."

    But do you really think art is a less virtuous interest than politics? Or is this an issue of "entertainment" being lowlier than "art"? I think that distinction is probably more about the class of people who enjoy it than any real difference in its social function or value. A great story--whether it's pulp or part of the canon--probably brings more joy and richness to more peoples' lives than most kinds of political organizing.

    In any case, even if there WERE some objective hierarchy of worthiness of pursuits, we wouldn't want everyone to pursue the "most valuable" thing. Healing people is valuable, but even if we decided that was the most valuable thing, we wouldn't want everyone to do it. Especially because the vast majority would probably be shitty healers.

    All of which is to say, I don't think most people pursue the thing they think is the "most valuable" in order to increase their own personal worth or value. I think people try to do things they don't suck at, powerfully constrained by the necessities of survival. If they're lucky, maybe the thing they do to survive will seem valuable to them, and/or they'll have free time in which to pursue something else that they think is valuable on the side.

  2. Yeah, I was presenting that as kind of a speciously rhetorical question and didn't properly follow up on it (one of the downsides to just clattering these things out in less than an hour.) I don't think that organizing is inherently more worthwhile than art and that's part of what I was trying to allude to with "in true, Stoic fashion." It's one of the things I've struggled with over the years in attempting to reconcile what I like with the philosophy; in the same way that pride tends to compel me to do self-directed things as opposed to the presumably virtuous things.

    And, you're right. Most people don't do the things that are "most valuable". That's an aspect of our world that Marcus would have found most discouraging, not least because those powerful (economic and social) constraints are systematic and thus prevent people from making it a more virtuous society even if they all wanted to. It was the same in his era and that's part of why he wrote what he did and undertook many of the reforms that he did.

    In some ways, I was writing this to confront some of the questions that I'm dealing with (aka "what the hell am I doing with my life, other than wasting it?") and kind of publicly reason out what seems most worthy to me at this point. That may, in fact, be writing about films as opposed to trying to lead the revolution (something I haven't been doing a good job of in the past 7 years, anyway.) I guess we'll see.

  3. But when you say this: "Most people don't do the things that are "most valuable". That's an aspect of our world that Marcus would have found most discouraging"... I just think: really? Did he honestly think there was a "most valuable" pursuit or even objectively more/less valuable pursuits? Did he have a ranking in mind? Where did chemical engineering fit? Or is it all relative: everyone should pursue what they think is the most valuable pursuit, and whatever they think is right for them?

    I suspect most people are pretty highly motivated to see things they happen to be good at or just happen into as more valuable, e.g. people who inherit the family farm thinking that growing food is the "most valuable" pursuit, teachers thinking that teaching is the "most valuable" pursuit, people who excel at politics thinking that's the "most valuable pursuit, etc. Would Marcus say one of them is right and the rest are wrong or is everyone right, and the only problem is when you can't construct the thing you happen to or have to do as "most valuable."

    Stocking goods at Walmart and waiting tables at Applebee's lend themselves less readily to grand narratives about higher purpose, although if we're going to have stores & restaurants, we do need people do to those things too. And it's not like the professions that can easily be constructed as "valuable" like teaching and medicine actually involve higher-purspose-driven work all the time--how many doctors spend most of their time prescribing unnecessary drugs and doing insurance-mandated paperwork and how many teachers spend most of their time drilling kids on testable material? Not because they're bad people, of course. But maybe the Walmart stockers actually do less harm.

    Nothing is inherently valuable. It all depends on the stories we tell ourselves. You're only wasting your life if you don't have a good enough story to tell yourself about the value of whatever you're doing, whether it's writing about films or leading a revolution.

  4. No. Don't trivialize what I'm saying. Context is a necessary thing and Meditations never suggests that there is a "most valuable" profession or endeavor. The ideal is that people would act in ways that benefit those around them. If that benefit comes in the form of food, medical assistance, or entertainment then, they you go. While he may have had a personal opinion on what is more important (as we all do, in one context or another), the basic principle was to not let one's life be determined by selfish motives that are often displayed in the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and other such things.

    Now, some people would say that the insane accumulation of wealth by hedge fund managers benefits more than just themselves, but I'm not trying to entertain every specious argument about the modern world. What I was trying to say is that, from my perspective, there are ways to live and reasons to live that make said life worthwhile (or flourish, as it were.) Some people base it on career, some base it on family, some base it on entertaining themselves as much as possible. I don't currently have any of those things (or find them relevant) and that's what I was tossing around last night. In other words, there's no story that would make what I'm doing right now either interesting or worthwhile or, at the very least, not one that I'd accept as credible.

    1. I'm not trying to trivialize it or make specious arguments, I honestly just don't get how trying to do something valuable is a form of "pride." It seems awfully self-defeating to avoid doing things you think are valuable, particularly whatever you might think is "most valuable" whether or not anyone else agrees, because it might therefore make you feel valuable.

  5. Random relevant research: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/04/study-of-the-day-the-kind-of-pride-that-leads-to-prejudice/256389/