As a homo sapiens, we’re part of various interlocking systems that are barely understandable to our limited minds. Even if we fail to see it, we’re a replaceable cog in a vast unconscious, unfathomably complex machine. A select few may be lucky enough to hear and acknowledge the constant low whirring of the engine, but none of them really know its true purpose or end goal.
Our biology has primed us to be likely to do and make us believe in certain things – to follow our evolutionary imperative. We’re a machine whose purpose seems be to make copies of itself to be passed on to the next generation. In the meantime, we’ve allied with other such machines to take over the planet, and we have decided that the best way to do so is by sharing certain behavioural patterns that are designed for stability and social welfare.
The interesting thing is that much like evolution, society is not particularly concerned with the wellbeing of its individual components – it’s an unconscious mechanism that seeks to perpetuate itself at all possible costs. It doesn’t matter whether you’re happy or sad, as long as the system evolves and manages to survive and perpetuate itself to the next generation. It’s not to say that society won’t congratulate you for following the rules, it’s just that looking at it objectively the rewards hardly seem to be worth the cost. To quote Napoleon “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
Yet I think this is what we get if we follow the well trodden path, bits of meaningless praise for shedding blood, sweat and tears. Take parenthood as an example, a noble profession if there ever was one. Looking at it in objective terms, it seems to be a pretty raw deal. Not only do you sacrifice eighteen years of your own life and youth, at the altar of children; but in the end, statistically speaking, you get a mediocre adult, who will rarely fully appreciate the time, money and effort you put into them, until they repeat the cycle themselves. Furthermore, research seems to suggest that day by day you will tend to feel far more miserable than your childfree counterparts. That said, you will report feeling more meaning in your life than the rest of the populace. You did a good job after all, so you get your ribbon!
I’m not judging the fact that billions of people decide to follow this path. It is a completely natural desire to want to have children. Nor do I doubt that some people can truly be happy by having sacrificed so much. As a species and as a society, we need people who are wired that way. I just think that far too many people do it for the ribbon, rather than the task itself. Some poor people will do, and succeed at everything, that society and evolution commanded them to do; but there will always be a pit in their stomach hinting that they might’ve unknowingly lead the wrong life, that they could’ve been happier doing something else. As such, despite following their imperative, they lead a miserable existence, yet the system as a whole will profit from their suffering.
Unconscious systems are neutral to the morality of any specific action. The means will always justify the ends. Take slavery, as an example of how a system as a whole may profit from creating untold misery. Arguably it’s one of the most horrific things that humans have ever done to one another. Yet it’s among the best things that ever happened to humanity.
As Adam Smith, the inventor of classical economics, put it “It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased.” The problem arises in that humans have a limit on the amount and the kind of labour that they’re willing to do, regardless of compensation. Consequently, if you want to create a social class that will have enough time and resources to be able learn to understand the world in such a way that they can create machines that will eliminate the need for labour entirely, you need to overwork another subset of your population, which will pick up the slack of the intelligentsia.
In other words, slavery implicitly gave us the modern world of machines, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. A terrifying set of circumstances led to a world that was beyond the wildest dreams of anyone born even a hundred years ago. Nowadays, a single man whose name you don’t even know has saved more people, maybe even yourself, in his lifetime than slavery ever killed in human history. If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the gates to Heaven are crafted in the fires of Hell.
I’m not a moralist, I’m a pragmatist. Suffering exists, and it shall always exist. This is an unavoidable part of being human. Nevertheless, what we can control is the intensity of the pain. Slaves have shackles that tie them down to one specific set of circumstances – they will toil their lives away without ever coming close to living a happy life. You do not have such shackles. You do not need to be cannon fodder for Napoleon’s army, you do not need to have children, you do not need to be normal. Let others take the bullet, after all you’re merely a replaceable cog in the grand machine of life. Any baggage that ties you to a specific situation is there because of your own choosing. It is, in a word, your karma.
I’ve heard it said before that the one of the most powerful men in human history was not an emperor, nor a king, nor a pope, nor a lowly baron. The most powerful man that ever might have been, was the Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. All things considered, it seems like a bizarre choice, but he had something that most powerful men lack – freedom.
Kings, after all, have duties to God and country. If they don’t deliver, their lives are forfeit. Some men of influence come to resent the sword of Damocles to such an extent that it drives them to the brink of madness. For example, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius hated the purple mantle so much that he had to write one of the most important philosophical works in history, to convince himself to turn up to work the next day. Is that truly a way to live? You may live in a gilded cage, but it’s still a cage nonetheless.
On the other hand, we have our haughty impressionist. At middle age, he led a perfectly average life with a wife and children. Slowly, he drifted away from them, abandoned this lifestyle wholesale and became a bohemian painter. The children were cared for by their mother and he was free from any obligations. As a result, for the rest of his life he did as he pleased as a successful painter. He died in 1903, following his passion, painting naked women in the idyllic tropical island of Tahiti.
In other words, he managed to do what not even the most highly regarded men in human history did. He found his role in life, and played it to the hilt. I truly envy that he managed to freely follow his passion up to his dying breath. Admittedly he did a bad thing to be able to do so, by abandoning his responsibilities and maybe even harming others. Although I personally think the ends justify the means in a utilitarian sense, I also believe in the harm principle, which advocates that one should seek to not harm others with one’s own actions. Fortunately, I’m in my youth, I have yet to make any permanent, undesired commitments. Because of this, I can preemptively align myself with my passions, burn the bridges I don’t need or ever want to take, and thus avoid the traps that the unconscious mechanisms have laid before me. Happiness is a choice, which we make every day. It’s up to oneself to decide where that happiness may lie.
A man chooses, a slave obeys…
We welcome back Richard, the blogger prime over at Tantalus Reborn. History, philosophy, relationships – if you want thoughts provoked, Richard is your resident thought-provoking blogger. Agree with him or not, visit his blog for more of his content.