“You’ll ruin your life!”
I have objected to this phrase, commonly enough used by parents (and others) to admonish their recalcitrant children (and others), all of my adult life and even into my youth, so something over 40 years now. The only ruin a life will find is death, and even that might not be a ruin, depending on how well lived that life was. Certainly there are things a person can do that will permanently redefine the direction of that life. For example, young persons who, in a fit of rage, murders another person, and as a result ends up spending the remainder of that life in prison, has certainly changed the direction of that live in a manner that is unlikely to match very closely anything the individual ever hoped for or dreamed of. But is that life ruined? Isn’t it still a life, a life that might yet rise above its petty and benumbedi existence to genuinely mean something? A ruin is something that once was, but now only exists as a mere husk of its former glory. A life is something that is not over until it is over, regardless of whatever unexpected and (possibly) undesired twists and turns that occur in the process of that life.
The ancient Greeks had a saying: “Count no man happy until he is dead.” The point being that the quality of a life can turn at a moment, so that the most successful individual might suddenly be cast down from the pinnacle of success to utter “ruin.” One of the favorite tales along this line is that of Oedipus, who rises from the status of an abandoned orphan to the all powerful king of a great country. Unfortunately for Oedipus, he gets there by unwittingly murdering his own father, and marrying and having sex with his own mother, all following the iron-clad declarations of a deterministic prophecy that allowed for no deviation. He ends up a blind beggar wandering the countryside. Such were the vicissitudes of life in the ancient world, success was fragile and life was harsh. Yet, they might as easily have said, “count no man disappointed until he is dead.” For life’s struggles may be constant, yet our success in dealing with those struggles can be a story of heroism or failure at almost – almost – any level.
The qualifier in the preceding sentence is an important one, and must be addressed. There is a kind of “California” (I’m a native, so I get to invoke this criticism) pseudo-spiritual woo-woo bullshit that says we all create our own reality. This fatuous twaddle is so far beyond disgusting that it is scarcely possible to imagine a degree of contempt and vituperation that could be heaped upon it that would even begin to approach the measure of disgust it actually deserves. The people spouting this drivel should be dropped into the middle of South Sudan or the Syrian civil war, and find out just how little their infantile “positive thinking” has on the objective realities that are imposing themselves without mercy upon them, to say nothing of the people who must genuinely live in such nightmares. As Aristotle observed in the Nicomachean Ethics, it is impossible to live a good life without a minimal quality of life to begin with. So it is only with such a minimal life I will concern myself with here. Persons who are starving to death, persons who are being constantly bombed and shot at, with no possibility of any form of medical care, or even temporary sanctuary, do not meet this minimal limit. Arguably, at least, for all of its horrific traumas, someone in a modern prison does. So the bar here is not set in a sub-basement level, but on a ground floor, where it is still possible to walk out and breath at least some kind of air. Sometimes it is even possible to rise above one’s self and situation.
This is where “virtue ethics” comes in. The “far end” of virtue ethics, the (comparatively) “extreme” form, is stoicism. Realistically, stoicism is not all that extreme, but it does place higher stakes on personal discipline and inner centeredness than I wish to discuss. At the “near end,” the more ordinarily realizable, is Aristotle’s ethics. It is with this latter I will primarily concern myself.
For Aristotle, there were two broad categories of virtues. While translations vary, we can usefully classify these as the “intellectual” virtues, and the “moral” virtues. The intellectual virtues include such things as intelligence, education, aesthetic sensitivity, etc. These stand out because there is no such thing as having too much of any of them. As intelligent and educated as you might be, being more so can only make you a better person. Regardless of your depth of artistic appreciation, having a deeper appreciation can only improve you as a human being. There is no extreme here, except in the lack; more is always better.
Moral virtues, however, are fundamentally different, because they are inextricably bound up with practical actions, as opposed to purely “ideal,” intellectual achievements. Because of this vitally practical content, moral virtues can fail by being either too much or too little: practical wisdom is found in the balance. Thus, being overly “generous” makes one profligate and wasteful; being inadequately generous makes one stingy and miserly. Alternatively, being too prone to anger makes one hot-headed, even violent; being incapable of anger makes one passive and compliant. But there is a right amount of generosity, which represents the best of one’s spirit and resources, that is neither too much nor too little. There is also a right amount of anger (one should be angered by injustice, for example) that is neither lame, silent complicity, nor unbounded rage at trivialities.
As a sidebar, I would mention that Aristotle also argued that persons of extraordinary wealth and resources also had extraordinary responsibilities. For a wealthy person, generosity was not enough. Having been graced by God(s) (the Greeks in Plato and Aristotle’s day were one inch from monotheism) the wealthy person had to spread that grace magnificently. Such persons were bound by basic decency to give back, in a spectacular fashion, to the community that made their wealth and prosperity possible. Consider how this contrasts with the Butthurt Baby in Chief, who wants everything to be a reflection of his own ego, and nothing else. For Aristotle, the virtuous person of wealth expresses that virtue in magnificent contributions to the community. I disagree with a number of the specific moves which Bill Gates finances in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but, along with the Clinton Foundation, and Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity and his elimination of guinea worm in Africa, are all examples of genuine magnificence. (And not one of them involves a garish casino.)
Few of us poor, sad schlubs have any hope of finding ourselves in such rarefied atmospheres, even as a “plus one” guest. (Inexplicably, I have found myself there on a couple of occasions – go figure.) But we can still find the practical, moral center of our lives – lives that are not ruins, despite what society might tell us.
I was told that, should I persist in my study of philosophy (rather than something “honorable” or “useful,” like computer science or law) that I would ruin my life. My father was one of the people telling me that and, oddly enough, I was graced with the opportunity to see him come around. As the only person in my family with an earned Ph.D., as well as some in person discussions of the kinds of issues I was working on, he became my most enthusiastic supporter. I’m not sure which moment was his proudest: seeing me “hooded” (the graduation ceremony for Ph.D.’s), or when I gave him a signed copy of my first book. My unscientific survey of fellow graduate students leads me to believe that this sort of reconciliation is unique. Of those fellow graduate students, many have full time jobs while I continue to scratch along as an “independent scholar.” More than a few of those full time jobs involve dying by inches in cubicle farms. One of the Aristotelian virtues is to cultivate those things we are excellent at, an experience that is deficient in a cubicle. (On the other hand, going “full Van Gogh,” cutting off an ear and committing suicide, might well be viewed as excessive.) So which of us has ruined our lives?
That last question is rhetorical and deliberately foolish. My life remains my life, even though things did not work out as I might have hoped. I am not hungry or wanting for shelter, so my life is MY life. Ruins are things that are past, about which we try to construct stories. Lives are things that are present, whose stories are yet to be found in the making.
iI am embarrassed to admit, that this is an homage to Heidegger. My life is ruined …