If, I say

If, as they say, wisdom — or at least practical wisdom or prudence — demands that we seek to control those things within our province and ignore those things we cannot possibly change, if, I say, that is what wisdom demands, then we need to ask a few questions. To begin with, we need to be able to recognize those things within our province. What things are within reach, as it were? What things CAN we control? Please note that this demands not only self-awareness, but knowledge of the world around us.

We are faced with many very large problems, nationally and globally. There is not much we can do about many of those problems except to elect leaders who seem to mean what they say and hope they are not simply lying in order to be elected. They may have the power and position to do something about, say, nuclear disarmament. We do not. Based on the historical record, however, we should not be too optimistic on that account.

Let’s stay a bit closer to home. Take global warming. Again, this is a huge problem and we can only hope that those we elect to public office realize the problem and are willing to risk their careers to take on the corporations that are determined to deny the problem in the name of larger and larger profits. Radical change requires a major commitment on the part of governments and those who support governments. But there are things we can do as well.

We can recycle; avoid plastics whenever possible; turn the heat down in the winter and put on a sweater; turn the air conditioning up in the Summer; drive economical cars or, better yet, walk or ride a bicycle; replace inefficient heating and lighting systems with more efficient and economical ones. You know, small things that matter. We can become engaged in movements to save the planet if we determine that those movements show promise. We can support them financially and, better still, become involved personally. And there are other things of this sort that we can determine are “within our province” — if we are serious about addressing the problem.

But closer than that to home are the folks around us who are homeless and without food. Those of us who can help with donations to worthy causes can do that; those who are in position to do so can help out at food kitchens and participate in drives to raise money for food and clothing for those around us who suffer. It appears that there are many in this country who do genuinely care and who grab their checkbooks when they read or hear that there are those in need. There are some who belittle this effort, saying that it is the easy way out. But for many this is the only option if they are to help at all. And it is something that helps those who need help.

And we can love those around us, family and friends, who need our support and who support us in our hour of need. There are many things we can do to “be there” for those close to us. This sounds trite, but it is a step toward the wisdom we seek, the wisdom that eventually leads to happiness.

 

Advertisements

True Happiness

In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.

Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.

The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.

For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?

The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.

In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.

It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.

Faust’s Bargain

While many who even think about the character Faust and the bargain he made with the devil confuse Christopher Marlowe’s Faust with Goethe’s — as I noted in an earlier post — the Faust of Goethe resembles in remarkable ways many of us and is thus more worthy of serious consideration. Marlowe’s Faust simply sells his soul for pleasure and wealth (and that does describe many of us, I confess). But Goethe’s Faust agrees to give up his soul only if the devil can provide him with an activity that is so engrossing that he will no longer experience the ennui, the boredom, that is deeply affecting him as the play opens. He is a thoroughly cynical and jaded person, bordering on the suicidal. As he makes his bargain with the devil, Faust says:

“If I be quieted with a bed of ease,

Then let that moment be the end of me!

If ever flattering lies of yours can please

And soothe my soul to self-sufficiency,

And make me one of pleasure’s devotees,

Then take my soul, for I desire to die:

And that is the wager!

To which Mephistopheles says “Done!”

According to Arthur Schopenhauer (who had read his Faust carefully) this is a profound and meaningful bargain that so many contemporary men and women have made with the devil. According to Schopenhauer, most of us are lead primarily by a will that seeks pleasure and satisfaction., We confuse pleasure with happiness and after willing satisfaction in a certain pleasure — say a good meal — afterwards we are bored and must find another motive to direct the will elsewhere. And so on. Life for most of us, as Schopenhauer sees it, is a relentless attempt to avoid becoming bored, seeking one pleasure after another, one diversion after another to keep us from being alone with our thoughts, much like Goethe’s Faust. The only escape, for Schopenhauer, is to find release in poetry, philosophy, and music, the world of Ideas:

“the beauty of nature, i.e., pure knowing free from will, which certainly as a matter of fact is the only pure happiness, which is neither preceded by suffering or want nor necessarily followed by repentance, sorrow, emptiness, or satiety.”

Of course as a philosopher Schopenhauer would say that! Many a philosopher has said the same thing before and many a critic has noted that this is self-serving. But it is worth considering, since it is possible that he is correct and that the rest of us are missing something. One thing is certain, and that is that until we have experienced what he is talking about we cannot possibly be in a position to judge him to be incorrect.

In any event, Goethe’s Faust finds happiness, not in “the beauty of nature,” but in immersing himself in the problems of others and working toward a solution; he finds happiness in “the Deed.” Toward the end of his life he becomes engrossed in helping the citizens of Holland keep the ocean from swallowing up their land. As he lies dying he says :

“And so, ringed all about by perils, here

Youth, manhood, age will spend their strenuous year.

Such teeming would I see upon this land,

On acres free among free people stand.

I might entreat the fleeting moment:

Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

Mephistopheles is delighted because he thinks he was won the bargain! He has gained Faust’s soul. But, wait! God intervenes and takes Faust up to Heaven because he has not actually said he wishes the moment to tarry, he only has said that if certain things take place he might then want the moment to tarry. It’s a verbal trick and it infuriates the devil as it has puzzled commentators over the years. Did the devil win Faust’s soul or did he not?

Whatever the answer to this question, and I have my own theory, it is clear that in Goethe’s mind the man who loses himself in helping others is worth saving. Such a man can find true happiness not by seeking pleasure or endless diversions (as Schopenhauer correctly pointed out), but by directing the will toward the happiness of other people. True happiness consists in forgetting about our own happiness and committing oneself to the well-being of others.

An interesting notion and something worth pondering as the year comes to a close.

Are We Happy Yet?

Toward the end of that incredibly prescient novel, Brave New World, the Controller is having a discussion with Helmholtz and the Savage who have come to the point where they cannot accept the Brave New World and are about to be shipped off to an island where other malcontents live, though the Savage will hang himself before that can happen..

The Savage has been brought up in a reservation as an outcast reading, of all things, Shakespeare and he has been asking the director if such books are read any more in the Brave New World. Of course, they haven’t. Folks like Shakespeare simply don’t happen in the Brave New World. This world, the world Huxley sees as our future, has traded great artists and creative minds for “happiness.” As the Controller says:

“. . .our world is not the same world as Othello’s world. You can’t make [fast cars] without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they are safe; they are never ill; . . . they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. . . . that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art.”

Hopefully the reader will recognize the allusions to what is going on in Huxley’s dystopia. But there are several points I want to make that do not require any familiarity with the novel. To begin with, we might note the comment at the very end of his snippet: “we’ve sacrificed high art.” I used to assign this book to my students many of whom simply could not see what it had to do with them. But it has everything to do with them, because in so many respects ours resembles Huxley’s world. We have, consciously or not, traded high art for what we deem to be happiness. But, then, we have no more idea what happiness is than do the citizens of Huxley’s world. We think it’s all about pleasure as we live our hedonistic lives eating, drinking and making merry (or Sally or Ruth, or Ben) while our minds atrophy on the constant bombardment from television and electronic media and we gleefully replace the real world with social media. We even have soma — or any number of reasonable substitutes.

Huxley’s world is based on the premise that stability is better than unrest and discontent. Those who are discontented are simply removed. We haven’t gotten to that point yet — certainly not the elimination of discontented people. But if one of the two principals running for president of this country has his way we will get there. The man is deluded, of course, and wouldn’t recognize high art if it bit him in the butt. But he’s all for stability and insularity, getting rid of those who just don’t fit — i.e., those who would disagree with him and his insane policies.

It is, of course, discontent and even resentment that have formed the warp and woof of this country since a group of rebels got together and threw off the yoke of British rule and then declared their independence and wrote a constitution which is, for the most part, one of the truly great documents created by the human mind. But since that time we have seen the country gravitate more and more in the direction of Huxley’s dystopia. We seem to want to rid ourselves of those who would disagree with us or who are simply different. We certainly won’t listen to them. Rather than embrace difference and dissent, which are the lifeblood of any democracy, we seem to be content to see the country head further and further down the road toward oligarchy: let the rich buy the country and tell us what we want. After all, they are the ones who provide us with entertainment and keep our minds off real problems while, with their other hand, they rake in the profits. If this means that a great many people will die from guns going off haphazardly it matters not as long as they don’t go off in my direction. If it means that the wealthy will continue to suck the life out of a dying planet, so be it, as long as the planet lasts long enough for me to get in another round of golf.

Like the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, we know about diversions and having fun. We avoid strong feelings of love and affection — though we allow hatred to run rampant. We don’t have any Shakespeares any more, or any Beethovens, or build buildings that inspire deep feelings, such as the Cathedrals of old. Instead, those few with creative minds invent and tinker with inventions, ways to make our lives easier, make sure we don’t have to suffer or do without.  What is left of the arts is largely ignored in our haste to get back to our iPads. We no longer have the attention spans or the imagination necessary to engage art fully.

The fact that so many of my students couldn’t see what Brave New World had to do with their world is the thought that shakes me the deepest. We cannot possibly address our problems if we refuse to admit that  they are there, and we seem perfectly content to be….content..

True Freedom

In re-reading some of John Steinbeck’s stories I came across “The Pearl,” which I had not read before. It is a fascinating story, well told, like all of Steinbeck’s stories, and one with a deep and disturbing message.

The story is about a young man, his wife, and their new-born baby who live in a poor village near the sea where the father makes a bare subsistence by diving for pearls. One day the young man, Kino, finds the “Pearl of the World,” a huge pearl that all pearl divers dream of but never actually find. But he has found it and with that discovery his life changes forever. He dreams of the wonderful things he will be able to buy with the pearl. And he dreams that he and his wife will finally be able to be married in the Church and their baby can be baptised. Previously they could not afford this. But with the dreams comes a creeping fear and anxiety. The entire village, and eventually the entire town, learn about Kino’s find and while the villagers are happy for him, there are those who would steal it because if its immense value. Steinbeck carefully creates the atmosphere in which Kino and his family are now living:

“In the brush houses by the shore, Kino’s neighbors sat long over their breakfasts, and they spoke of what they would do if they had found the pearl. And one man said that he would give it as a present to the Holy Father in Rome. Another said that he would buy Masses for the souls of his family for a thousand years. Another thought he might take the money and distribute it among the poor of La Paz; and a fourth thought of all the good things one could do with the money from the pearl, of all the charities, benefits, of all the rescues one could perform of one had money, All of the neighbors hoped that sudden wealth would not turn Kino’s head, would not make a rich man of him, would not graft onto him evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness. For Kino was a well-liked man;it would be a shame if the pearl destroyed him.”

Kino sleeps uneasily at night and hears evil music in his ears while others from the town plot to steal the pearl. There are several attempts to steal the pearl from his home, which is burned to the ground in the process. After he has returned from the town where he had gone to sell the pearl only to be told it was worthless and offered a fraction of what he instinctively knew was its real worth, he is attacked and kills one of his attackers. With his wife and baby in tow, he leaves the village in the dark of night and heads over the mountains to the city where he hopes to find an honest dealer who will buy the pearl for its true value.

Kino and his family are followed by a man with a rifle on horseback and two professional trackers who eventually catch up with the small and desperate family. After a violent altercation in which Kino kills the man with the rifle, takes it and shoots the other two men, his baby is killed. He and his wife return to the village with their dead son wrapped in a blanket. They walk through the town and the village to the seaside and Kino flings the pearl into the ocean.

The story is fascinating in so many ways. Its message to all of us is crystal clear. Indeed, it almost seems like a lengthy parable from the New Testament. We do not own things; they own us. They take possession of our souls and dictate our feelings and actions; they displace such things as compassion and fellow-feelings, just as Kino can no longer hear the family music and feel in harmony with his world: he hears only the evil music, is anxious, and cannot find peace. Until we free ourselves from the burden of our possessions we cannot be truly free. It’s ironic that so many in our culture are convinced of the opposite: that it is the things we buy that will make us free. But, as Kino discovers, those things bring fear and uncertainty, worry over things unseen and unheard, specters in the night. We bar our houses and change our passwords. We sleep uneasily and we make sure that the doors are locked tight. Kino never felt fear until he found the pearl. He was never free from that fear until he had flung the pearl into the sea. But in the meantime his infant son was killed and his house burned to the ground while he and his young wife lived through a nightmare only to discover that true happiness was theirs before they found the pearl. And it might never be theirs again. As I say, Steinbeck tells a remarkable story that is deeply disturbing in so many ways.

What About Me?

I mentioned in one of my very early blogs that at one point while I was teaching we had a required Freshman course in which the students were required to read Huxley’s Brave New World. I also mentioned one of the comments made by one of those students in the evaluations we asked them to write at the end of the semester. He said, in a comment echoed by a number of other students, “What does this have to do with me?” In a nutshell he told us a great deal abut what is wrong with his generation. For anyone who has half a brain and has read the book (which may exclude that student on both counts), the answer is obvious. Huxley’s world is one in which pleasure is the only recognizable value, much as it is in our world.

Toward the end of the novel John the savage has a remarkable dialogue with the Director about the strengths and weaknesses of Brave New World. The director, who goes by the name of Mustapha Mond, defends his world against the criticisms of the savage. After all, in Mond’s world everyone does what he wants to do and no one suffers needlessly. What’s not to like? As Mond says in a rather lengthy speech:

“. . .The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what [we think] you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears — that’s what soma is.”

In response to this and other similar comments, the savage retorts: “Nothing costs enough here.” And that says it all.

Bearing in mind that soma is the Brave New World’s all-purpose tranquilizer and that while the parallel is not exact it is striking, since we have pills now for every malady — even some we merely imagine; the goal of constant pleasure is found both in Huxley’s and in our world, along with a type of Christianity that is designed (counter to its Founder’s intentions as I read the New Testament) to make things as delightful as possible and guarantee that everyone feels good about himself or herself no matter how low on the human scale they stand or crawl.

In a word, the book was written in the 1930s and still has the ring of truth which while loud and clear apparently falls on many a deaf ear. What does the book have to do with us? In both worlds, nothing costs enough. We seem to have traded a human world of struggle and suffering compensated by unexpected love, pleasure and delight for a world of satisfied ants in an ant-hill where there is no suffering or struggle — and no real love or delight in the world around us. “What does this have to do with me?” Everything.

I Also Have A Dream

[In honor of his day, I have decided to re-blog a post I wrote some months ago that attempts to echo some of the great man’s words.]

Martin Luther King had a dream that one day people would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. I share that dream, but I also have a related dream that pops up (on alternative nights) that some day people will be judged by the content of their character rather than the size of their pocketbook. It has always bothered me that we measure success by such ridiculous standards as income and the number of toys in the three-car garage. But the point was made long ago by Herodotus, “the father of history” who wrote in order “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” One would also hope that we would learn by reading history, since we are very much like the people who preceded us, though we seem determined to make the same mistakes our predecessors made. Herodotus tells a story about the visit of Solon of Athens, reputed to be a wise man, to the domain of Croesus in Sardis, reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world.

“In the course of his travels, [Solon] visited Croesus in Sardis, where Croesus put him up as his guest in his palace. Two or three days after his arrival, Croesus had some attendants give Solon a thorough tour of his treasuries and show him how magnificent and valuable everything was. Once Solon had seen and examined everything, Croesus found an opportunity to put a question to him. ‘My dear guest from Athens,’ he said, ‘we have often heard about you in Sardis: you are famous for your learning and your travels. We hear that you love knowledge and have journeyed far and wide to see the world. So I really want to ask you whether you have ever come across anyone who is happier than everyone else?’

In asking the question, he was expecting to be named as the happiest of all men, but Solon preferred truth to flattery and said, ‘Yes, my lord: Tellus of Athens.’

Croesus was surprised at the answer and asked urgently: ‘What makes you think Tellus is the happiest of men?’

‘In the first place,’ Solon replied, ‘while living in a prosperous state, Tellus had sons who were fine, upstanding men and he lived to see them all have children, all of whom survived. In the second place, his death came at a time when he had a good income, by our standards, and it was a glorious death. . . and the Athenians awarded him a public funeral and greatly honored him.'”

The Greeks were convinced that happiness can only be measured by the way a person lives and cannot be measured until the day of that person’s death. It doesn’t matter how much wealth that person happens to have — since wealth can be lost in the blink of an eye (as Croesus learned to his chagrin) — but how one lives one’s life: it’s a question of a bit of luck and living what the Greeks considered “the good life.” One wonders if anyone today can even begin to grasp what Solon was saying.

Good Fortune

In reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov I have noticed a number of recurring themes. I have commented in a previous blog on one of them: the conviction on Chekhov’s part that in great measure a person’s good fortune is simply a matter of luck. Another theme that recurs is the conviction that one person’s good fortune is only possible as a result of the hard work, suffering, and even death of others less fortunate. This is a thought that may or may not be true, but it is almost certainly one that never crosses the minds of very wealthy folks, like the Koch brothers, for example, who have earned their millions by sending the less fortunate to work in their coal mines and oil fields to sweat and strain so the brothers can use their millions to live the high life and attempt to buy a government. Nor does it occur, I dare say, to John Schnatter the founder of Papa John’s pizza chain whose employees work for minimum wage and are cajoled into voting for the candidate of the owner’s choice at election time. And one must wonder how much time the descendants of Sam Walton have spent worrying about the thousands of exploited workers who sweat and toil so the Walton heirs can sleep on silk sheets and eat at the best restaurants. In any event, it does seem to me to be a thought worth considering and I have selected a couple of passages from two short stories by Chekhov to convey the rather persuasive way he presents his case.

In the first case, “Gooseberries,” the narrator has this reflection:

“obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would not be possible. It’s a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as the wind stirs an aspen — and everything is fine.”

We hear the echoes of the notion that good fortune and happiness are a matter of luck, and as Chekhov says in another place, quoting Pushkin, “Dearer to us than a host of truths is an exalting illusion.” Indeed. But the notion that happiness for one person rides on the backs of misery for countless others is repeated in another of Chekhov’s stories, “On Official Business,” where the narrator, a coroner investigating the apparent suicide of an impoverished man, after a sleepless night in which he was haunted by dreams, reflects as follows:

“What [the men in his dream] sang had occurred to him before, but this thought had somehow sat behind other thoughts in his head and flashed timidly, like a distant lantern in misty weather. And he felt that this suicide and the peasant’s grievances lay in his conscience too; to be reconciled with the fact that these people, submissive to their lot, heaped on themselves what was heaviest and darkest in life — how terrible it was! To be reconciled with that, and to wish for oneself a bright, boisterous life among happy, contented people, and to dream constantly of such a life, meant to dream of new suicides by overworked, careworn people, or by weak neglected people, whom one sometimes talked about with vexation or mockery over dinner, but whom one did not go to help.”

At the end of the second of Chekhov’s stories above, the beadle,  a poor man, dressed in tatters,  who works hard to keep body and soul together, struggles on foot through the deep snows left by a blizzard that fell overnight and has kept the coroner and his doctor friend trapped at a friend’s house a mile out of town; he hopes to find them and assist them on their way back into town. He remarks with a mixture of relief and concern that “Folks are very worried, the kids are crying . . . .We thought you’d gone back to [Moscow], Your Honor. For God’s sake, take pity on us, dear benefactors. . . ”  But, as Chekhov says with stinging irony, “The doctor and the coroner said nothing, got into the sleigh, and drove to Syrnya.” The beadle, of course, will walk back to town through the deep snow. No thanks, no tip. He doesn’t really expect any. After a night of soul-searching on the coroner’s part, it’s back to business as usual.

Indeed it is a truth that should challenge our cherished illusions that those who are careworn and suffer in this culture are dismissed “over dinner” by the contented fat-cats as lazy and shiftless. And yet it is precisely those people, struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level, who make the easy life possible for the fat-cats.

I Also Have A Dream

Martin Luther King had a dream that one day people would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. I share that dream, but I also have a related dream that pops up (on alternative nights) that some day people will be judged by the content of their character rather than the size of their pocketbook. It has always bothered me that we measure success by such ridiculous standards as income and the number of toys in the three-car garage. But the point was made long ago by Herodotus, “the father of history” who wrote in order “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” One would also hope that we would learn by reading history, since we are very much like the people who preceded us, though we seem determined to make the same mistakes our predecessors made. Herodotus tells a story about the visit of Solon of Athens, reputed to be a wise man, to the domain of Croesus in Sardis, reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world.

“In the course of his travels, [Solon] visited Croesus in Sardis, where Croesus put him up as his guest in his palace. Two or three days after his arrival, Croesus had some attendants give Solon a thorough tour of his treasuries and show him how magnificent and valuable everything was. Once Solon had seen and examined everything, Croesus found an opportunity to put a question to him. ‘My dear guest from Athens,’ he said, ‘we have often heard about you in Sardis: you are famous for your learning and your travels. We hear that you love knowledge and have journeyed far and wide to see the world. So I really want to ask you whether you have ever come across anyone who is happier than everyone else?’

In asking the question, he was expecting to be named as the happiest of all men, but Solon preferred truth to flattery and said, ‘Yes, my lord: Tellus of Athens.’

Croesus was surprised at the answer and asked urgently: ‘What makes you think Tellus is the happiest of men?’

‘In the first place,’ Solon replied, ‘while living in a prosperous state, Tellus had sons who were fine, upstanding men and he lived to see them all have children, all of whom survived. In the second place, his death came at a time when he had a good income, by our standards, and it was a glorious death. . . and the Athenians awarded him a public funeral and greatly honored him.'”

The Greeks were convinced that happiness can only be measured by the way a person lives and cannot be measured until the day of that person’s death. It doesn’t matter how much wealth that person happens to have — since wealth can be lost in the blink of an eye (as Croesus learned to his chagrin) — but how one lives one’s life: it’s a question of a bit of luck and living what the Greeks considered “the good life.” One wonders if anyone today can even begin to grasp what Solon was saying.

Let It All Hang Out

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can find anyone to listen that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a situation that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

 “I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible — the redirecting of creative energy outward. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also struck by the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.