Friday, May 12, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Knowing Goodness

Aesthetic Life: 1:12
“Happy is the man…”

“Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.”
Michel de Montaigne [1533–1592], 
Essais (1595); Book I, Chapter 25

“I hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism. I just couldn’t stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That’s all there is to it. Really, nothing more.”
Oskar Schindler [1908–1974], 
in “Schindler : Why did he do it?” (2010), by Louis Bülow

In an article (“Love in the Time of Numbness; or, Doctor Chekhov, Writer;” April 11, 2017) in The New YorkerSiddhartha Mukherjee, who is an oncologist and an author, writes: 
Chekhov used Sakhalin as an antidote. It may not have restored his health, but it restored his sensitivity. He moved beyond his own numbness and found a new means of engagement with his world—and, in doing so, invented a new kind of writing. Today, and especially today, as the threat of desensitization—and the accompanying seductions of detachment, outrage, revulsion, indignation, piety, and narcissism—looms over all our lives, we might need to ask ourselves the question that Chekhov asked himself in the spring of 1890: What will move me beyond this state of anesthesia? How will I counteract the lassitude that creeps over my soul?
This short paragraph describes precisely the times that we live in, and what I often feel and fight against, an everyday battle to resist the sameness of life that leads to indifference and boredom. At the root of it is a feeling that one’s desires to do good are generally futile, that the individual has morphed into an amorphous blob, and that the moral life—the one worth living—no longer exists since it is no longer relevant. 

One can feel this way even if one has a religious belief or follows a religious tradition. One requires a knowledge of goodness, which is not the same as the absence of evil. Goodness is a positive force, where the individual takes direct action with the idea of doing good; this is ever-present in mind of such a person. It is not, generally speaking, about some future reward but about the need for the present action.

This existential idea was nicely captured in a film that I recently viewed, Night Train to Lisbon (2013), a film which garnered generally bad reviews, but one which I deeply enjoyed, notably for its artistic presentation of beauty, truth, justice and love—the four universals of humanity. It is based on the 2004 same-titled novel by Pascal Mercier, the nom de plume of Peter Bieri [born in 1944], a Swiss philosopher. It is a novel of ideas; in the end it is about goodness.

The bad reviews of a philosophical work is no surprise. This says enough about what such critics and, by extension, millions of others who read their judgments fail (or fear) to value. The film is probably too slow moving, too thoughtful and too philosophical for most, requiring a certain cast of mind, and of heart to appreciate. Even so, I also suspect that in a few decades this film will be viewed and considered more favorably than it is today. 

One does not escape the numbness, the lassitude, “this state of anesthesia” by the watching of action films, by watching blood and gore and the gratuitous use of violence, so common today in films and TV. Why do such films and TV shows, so similar in theme, garner so much praise? I find the majority of them filled with bad writing and bad acting; in fact, it is all about “badness” in the giving of attention to the hero (or anti-hero), as if bad today needs greater understanding, greater empathy. It is a collection of negatives. 

There is no art, no depiction of goodness and no revelation of beauty and love. 

This leads to simple ideas, often erroneous, of the human condition, most notably that goodness is rare, that people are selfish, that people are opportunistic, and that beauty does not exist. It is a bleak view of humanity, offering little in the way of hope. This makes humanity appear smaller; its frequent viewing will encourage feelings of despair, that there is no possibility to make things better, no need to fight what oppresses the soul. Why bother? This, however, is always the wrong moral choice.

Goodness can come from the most unexpected sources (as can badness), from people whose lives would seem to defy the definition of goodness. Oskar Schindler is an exceptional case, no doubt, but there are others. Persons who have done good for no other reason than their conscience dictated they should; the world does not know of their deeds. We used to call such people decent men and women. 

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