To the Right Highly-Esteemed Misunderstood Undoubtedly-Noble Maharajah of Meaning and Ameer of Angst—
Someday our correspondence will constitute Appendix A of one or both of our Collected Works. (Properly edited, of course.) While it’s always nice to get mail, there’s no adventure quite like reading an S. Williams epistle. Just wanted to let you know that I do appreciate your injections of metaphysical quandary and Socratic examination.
But trying to answer them!
Let me explain… no, there is not enough time. Let me sum up:
1) Nobility is adherence to the Good even at the expense of the self.
2.a) YES, it can exist and should be cultivated.
2.b) NO, our world is not devoid of meaning or optimism.
3) (For extra credit) It is NOT true that Deconstructionism and the cult of Isolated Individualism are the heralds of death to any constructive discourse about morals and ethics. (However, as we’ll see later, Isolated Individualism is a death blow to the existence of any moral system. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them.)
Whew. But wait—I can tell you’re not satisfied. You’re not CONVINCED. Sure, it’s easy enough to SAY Nobility lives, but can you PROVE it? As the man says:
Faith—faith is an island in the setting sun, but
Proof—proof is the bottom line for everyone
—Paul Simon, “Proof,” Rhythm of the Saints
OK, fine. Never say we (the Imperial we) are afraid to put our money where our ink-jetted hieroglyphs are. Tighten your belt, pilgrim, and philosophize like the Duke…
Webster’s 9th lists 6 definitions of “noble,” only the fifth of which I believe to be relevant: “possessing, characterized by, or arising from superiority of mind or character or of ideals or morals.”
As you pointed out in your letter, this requires some serious backtracking. What is a “superior” mind or character, what are “superior” ideals or morals? ARE THERE minds, characters, ideals or morals?
I think (at least I HOPE) we can take it for granted that those first two quantities do exist; and I would argue that Nihilism notwithstanding, ideals and morals also exist. In fact, Nihilism is itself an ideal and a moral stance. “I am a Nihilist, therefore I am moral,” as Rainy-Day Cart said just before he blew himself up and was neither.
But since we speak of nobility, I assume your question really means is: do good morals and ideals exist? That is, morals which are tenable and compelling, both ethically and rationally. And here again, my answer is “yes.”
This is old ground, so I won’t go into depth. (For a copy of my earlier magnum opus, Ethics Aesthetica, dial 1-800-CON GAME, that’s 1-800-266-4263, or send a check or money order for $125.00 to Volume CCLXXIV of the Collected Works of Professor Doctor Elliot Grant, PO BOX 666, Gehenna, HL, 54321.) Basically, as living organisms, the greatest wrong that can be done to us is the causation of pain. As self-aware entities, our greatest need is freedom. So it is wrong to cause pain or deprive freedom, and deliberately acting to do either is a sin. All sins derive ultimately from those two basic wrongs, while all virtues are based on the [deliberate] lessening of pain and the enhancement of freedom.
Nietzsche can proselytize all he wants, but these moral criteria are unaffected by the death of God. (By the way, according to the big N, we didn’t kill God. The full quote, from The Gay Science, is: “God is dead. Pity for mankind has killed him.” Of course, you know the equally famous: “God is dead.—Nietzsche; Nietzsche is dead.—God; Nietzsche is God.—The Dead.”) They arise solely from the circumstances of our existence, and are thus universal and unrelated to any religious moral standards.
I hold these truths to be self-evident: that all creatures are alive and all humans self-aware; that as such they are entitled to certain inalienable rights; that primary among these are life and liberty without harm.
Furthermore, since they are implicit in the definition of our situation, I find them compelling as well tenable. There is no denying that pain is wrong. That is the definition of pain—something is wrong with our body. Likewise, the only way to be human is to exercise choice; so freedom is a necessary good.
However, it is only the description which is compelling. There never has been, there never will be, AND THERE NEVER SHOULD BE a morality which is compelling (by which I mean a reason to be good so strong that anyone who knows it cannot do evil). Such a morality would actually and ironically enough be itself evil—it would abnegate freedom. A true morality does not demand obedience, it only points out correct and incorrect choices. Apart from telling the conscious evil-doer that s/he is wrong, there is no answer to his/er behavior.
But even for those who are not evil, there are numerous reasons to do wrong. Acting to insure other people’s freedom and happiness (a term I’ll use instead of “freedom from pain”) often means hurting yourself. And since you’re just as entitled to freedom and happiness as anyone else, why shouldn’t you take care of yourself at the expense of others?
The thing is, it’s rarely a choice of causing yourself pain versus causing someone else pain. In such a case, there is no clear and easy solution of the right choice. You may recall my rampaging berserker scenario from an earlier letter. There, given the possibility of hurting yourself by inaction or hurting someone else (by firing your AK-47), it seems proper to protect yourself. In another situation, say one in which you can cut in line to save yourself a half hour and thereby add a half hour to someone else’s wait, it is generally considered proper to take the onus upon yourself. My above outline doesn’t make clear why this is the moral choice, but it’s where Nobility comes in.
It’s sort of a chain of morality. Since we are human, we should strive for freedom. Since we’re alive, we should strive for happiness. Let’s take it one step back. Since we are, we should… what? Freedom we owe our fellow humans, and lack of pain we owe our fellow creatures, but what do we owe other things?
I can’t argue we owe anything to a particular rock, but (and here’s where I go PC) we are part of a Big Picture. And I think we owe this tapestry of everything that exists an aesthetic harmony.
I’m not sure how well I can explain this, but it goes back to the importance of Art over Entropy. Creation is an Artistic process, and so everything that is created is a work of Art. This applies to both individual entities and to the cosmos at large. When we forget our place in the large work of Art, we slip into Isolated Individualism. Nothing matters except oneself.
Now, I’m all in favor of Individualism. That’s artistic—the infinite variety of life. Infinite works of art enriching the greatest work of Art, the universe. No tapestry looks good if all the threads are the same.
But Isolated Individualism is Entropic. When all ties to the others, all conception of the Big Picture, is lost, the result is a numbing sameness. Innumerable pockets of non-communication, all alike in their complete difference. There’s sort of a “Paradox of Extremities” Principle at work, just as complete perfection is imperfect and change implies continuity. Most good things pushed to their extreme become bad.
So Isolated Individualism is wrong. We individuals must base our moral actions on their effect to the community as well as to ourselves. Unfortunately, what is best for the community is often not best for oneself. Sometimes the moral choice involves hurting yourself.
Now, it’s possible to act in accordance with good principles and live morally while avoiding choices that would hurt yourself. You may not be enriching the universe, but at least you’re not detracting from it. But the truly moral person shuns this course. Believe it or not, it’s not good enough just to be good. The superior person pursues goodness to the point of (if necessary—And it isn’t always. Don’t construe this as some sort of Utilitarianism.) sacrificing his/er own welfare for the good of the community. This may sound familiar from 1)—so let us state that this person is Noble.
It should not come as a surprise that Nobility is really only enhanced Goodness. That’s exactly how Webster’s defined it (see above). The Good person doesn’t commit wrong acts, but the Noble person actively does Good whenever possible.
Let’s go back to the cutting in line example. It is Noble to retain your proper place in line, because that’s better for the community. Not just now, when you’ll disrupt order, which is necessary for any community to survive, but also in the future. Nobility is self-replicating: by staying in line now, you’re encouraging others to follow your example. Of course, ignobility, or Baseness, is also self-replicating. That’s why it’s so insidious. One Base, Isolated Individual usually corrupts many others.
And I do think that Noble people exist. Anyone who has dedicated his/er life to the good of the community is Noble—Mother Theresa is a prime example, and you must know others. So we’ve covered 1), 2a), and 3) of your original questions. That leaves 2b), aka What about meaning and optimism?
You might expect me to say that Art and/or Nobility and/or Goodness, Freedom, or one of those things is the Meaning of Life. Nuh-uh. Life has no meaning. Meaning is a human creation, life isn’t. Life, or the Universe, or “The way things are”—all interchangeable terms—simply is. It doesn’t mean anything to be an apple. But humans, who are self-aware and free, can use their mental liberty to create meaning—to, literally, “make sense” of the Universe. “Apple” means harvest, or original sin, or whatever we want it to mean.
We’re not finding some sense that’s already there. The Universe is not anthropocentric. But when we make sense, when we give things meaning, we create a way of life that is geared towards ourselves.
One of the most important things we can give a meaning to is our own life. “Life” has no meaning, so we are free to find whatever path through it we want and thus give individual lives meanings. So meaning exists, though “the meaning of life” does not.
Onwards… In some earlier letter, you took exception to my statement that Hope and Love were both crucial to a good life. Loving something to me means not causing it pain, so you can see why I consider it so important. But Hope doesn’t seem to derive directly from my morality outline, so where does it fit in? (Thinking it over recently, I decided that Truth doesn’t directly derive either. That is, Truth is important only insofar as it leads to Freedom. We need knowledge to improve our lives, give us more options, etc, but the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is only shallow triviality. So I am dropping Truth and Hope from my list of primary important things.)
Let’s see what we have so far: we’re discussing a morality, which is a peculiarly human creation, so we’re interested in how we, as humans, should behave. In order to decide this, we must understand what it is to be human.
It seems to me that there are three important distinguishing features of humanity:
- Humans are
- Humans are alive
- Humans are self-aware
The first criterion separates us from all the things that don’t exist; the second, from all inanimate objects; and the third, from all non-sentient life forms. Obviously, you could subsume the first two into the last and state that humans are self-aware creatures. That would certainly be enough to define our species, and indeed I feel it is the keystone of humanity, the only trait we do not share with anything else. But I leave in the first two steps because we are still bound by their conditions.
Philosophers who have split the mind from the body in an effort to determine which is more truly “human” are missing the forest for the trees. As we see from the above listing, to be human is precisely to be a mind in a body.
Those who focus only on the mind are a long way from being human. Paradoxically (I love paradox!), higher development as a human means returning to the lower evolutionary traits. To see why I feel this way, let me make a correlation between the three human traits and the three moral strictures we’ve discussed. (After making the first correlation (the first two terms of each line), I’ve come back and added more correlations which will only make sense when you’ve read further. Bear with me, I’m making this up as I go along.)
Existence—Art—Nobility—Matter—The Universe—Reaction | —> Life—Love—Goodness—The Body—Plants and Animals—Action | —> Sentience—Freedom—Awareness—The Mind—Humanity—Determined Action
Though sentience is the highest of the three human characteristics in terms of evolutionary development, the person who only develops that one trait (let’s call that person “aware”) is only achieving part of humanity’s potential. That person has not taken into account humanity’s place in the ranks of the living. This person does not Love, which is the prerequisite for Goodness.
Of course, Love by itself is Good, but not human. Animals can love. Spiritually developed humans are those who are both Aware—conscious of their Freedom—and Good. They direct their actions by their Love.
Higher developed than either the Aware or the Good person is the Noble person, the one who has reached back into his origin to feel his place is the cosmos, and freely directs his actions from both Love and Art. This, to my mind, is the best of what humanity has to offer.
Put all these traits together and you get Hope, the feeling that things can be better. It is a natural feeling for one who is Aware that free action can create meaning; who Loves his/er fellow creatures, and wishes them happiness; and who Artistically comprehends the harmony of the Universe and is dedicated to the triumph of Art over Entropy. This person is, of course, Noble; and s/he cannot help but hope.
Hope is Progress. Without Hope, no one would ever “waste” their time trying to change things for the better. It is direction, and so is a meaning. To the cosmos, there is no progress. There are only different states of being. Humans, though, can create meanings like Good and Bad; and then they can direct their actions to achieve one or the other.
That should express the importance I attach to Hope, the feeling that things can be better. I don’t particularly care about Optimism, the feeling that things will be better. This attitude is contrary to the open-eyed truthfulness necessary to Freedom. Likewise, I have no patience with Pessimism, the feeling that things will be worse; Despair, the feeling that things can’t get better; or Cynicism, the feeling that things can be worse. My problem with Realism, the stance which refuses to assign a direction to the future, except that it’s a dull and stagnant position, and therefore Entropic.
Whew. Please forgive the somewhat rambling nature of this discourse. I’ve had to rethink a lot of my ideas working things out, and I’m not sure it’s all coherent yet. I think I’ll just close with a harking back to the letter of yours which started all this.
In my response to that missive, I threw together some kind of creed which I suggested might be the core of a Noble Order. I don’t recall now what it was, but I’m sure it wasn’t very good. I would like to offer a new one now, which takes into account all the revisionism of this monograph and adds one new element: Paradise.
Paradise is the aim of Hope. There’s nothing religious about it, it merely means the best of all possible worlds. Which for me means a world in which each of the three primary traits (Art, Love, Freedom) have been achieved. Alternatively, you might call it a world in which everyone is Noble.
This is a picture I believe in because it could actually occur, unlike most religious heavens which posit some other-worldly perfection. Also, no perfection (which I distrust, as it seems terribly entropic) is guaranteed. Just because everyone is Noble doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen. Nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Moral situations aren’t clear-cut. But I feel that any world in which each citizen is Noble would be a paradise.
Progress must lead towards something better; and what could be better than the best of all possible worlds? And since progress, or Hope, is the realm of the Noble, what is a more appropriate paradise than a world of Nobility?
Here then is my new effort:
THE ESTHETIC CREED
As I am at all, so am I art.
As I am alive, so shall I love.
As I am aware, so shall I free.
Guided by hope, I shall ever seek Paradise.
Ye gods. Sometimes I think that all philosophy does is take very clear things and make them impossible to understand. Somehow, this all makes sense to me; but I’m not sure it’s quite as scientific as all these labels and diagrams suggest. Oh well.
I look forward to your next missive, so I can change my position on these important issues yet again. As I told my boss when he asked why I shaved my beard: “Life is change.”
His Peerless Pomposity, the Great Panjandrum of Philosophy and Emir of Ethics,
Elliot “Jammies” Grant