At the very end of her brilliant novel Romola — to which I have referred previously — George Eliot shares the following insight:
“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painfiul.”
There is much food for thought here (as there is in all of Eliot’s novels) and I do wonder in this age in which pleasure sits on a throne worshipped by so many of us how much we have lost by ignoring those things that once were thought to build character, those things that give us “strength to endure what is hard and painful.”
Eliot was writing toward the end of the nineteenth century when capitalism and the industrial revolution that gave it birth were making it possible for all men and women to pursue those things that made life easier — or at the very least to dream about such things as real possibilities in the not-so-distant future. Surely, humans have always sought pleasure. Some would argue that we all do all the time (more about that later). But there were times when a great many people worried about things that pleasure cannot assure us, such things as what used to be called “the good life,” or the pursuit of “virtue.”
Eliot sees human life as a struggle between pleasure, on the one hand, and our duties to one another, on the other hand. I wrote about this previously because I do think it is true, though I doubted at the time (as I do now) that very many of us worry much about our duties to other humans and to the world at large. In any event, it is worth pondering why it is that we have simply bought into the notion that what we want is invariably what we need, that the purpose of a human life is to pursue pleasure. As the bumper-sticker says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Indeed, it is all about toys for so many of us. And this at a time when there are “so many things wrong and difficult in the world.”
Those who insist that all human motivation is about pleasure and talk about duty is bogus are referred to as “hedonists.” And there is considerable evidence that we all do, to a degree, pursue pleasure, and seek at all costs to avoid pain. But I do wonder if that’s the end of things when it comes to the question human motivation.
Of all the things I have thought about over the years, the question of what is is that motivates each of us has caused me the most difficulty. To be sure, most of our motivation can be seen to be an attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But what about the starving mother clutching her starving and crying baby who finds a crust of bread and gives it to her baby rather than eat it herself? Is she motivated by pleasure, or is it more accurate to say that giving her baby the bread gives her pleasure but it was not the reason why she gave the bread to the baby? She gave the bread because it was her maternal duty to do so — and probably because of what we are told is the maternal “instinct.” But the motivation is not about pleasure or the reduction of pain. It is more complicated than that: it is about doing the right thing, even if little thought is involved in the decision.
There are other examples one might point to that raise the question of whether the hedonist is correct in her thinking. But we need only read novels by great writers such as George Eliot — who are in many cases great psychologists — to make us think again. As I say, human motivation is terribly complicated. How many of us know why we do what we do most of the time, much less all of the time? But, in then end, I conclude that possible to do a thing because it is the right thing to do — even if it causes us pain to do it.
I think Eliot is on to something.