Sunday, May 18, 2014

Therapy vs Consolation

More of man's activity–more than any would care to admit–is centered around the Sisyphean task, not the grandeur of finding meaning, but of avoiding disruption. We are weak and construct easily punctured bubbles of tales, half-truths, and useful lies which allow us to float through unperturbed. Yet life is disruptive and threatens to break our bubble, and us. The problem is not, contra Camus, that the world is unreasonable, but that the world is not entirely reasonable. With more providence and poetry Boethius asked:

Omnia certo fine gubernans
hominum solos respuis actus
merito rector cohibere modo.
Nam cur tantas lubrica uersat
Fortuna uices?
(De consolatione, Book I Metrum 5, 25-29)

So much is ordered, yet man's life is so volatile. How to reconcile? 

The first path is that of transgression, avoiding the conundrum, called absurd, by confronting instead the norms which others have established in pursuit of order. For all its sway among intellectuals, this path seems little followed. You don't have to think that the Commendatore in Don Giovanni is sent from God in order to find passion a more cruel master than Fortune. On the milder side of transgression we have vandalism against mores. Whether it's Duchamp's urinal or tattooing, vandalism finds pleasure in the barbarity of degradation and leveling.

By far the most common path is that of therapy, by which man embraces what he hopes will cure his ailing incompletion. Some embrace political and social causes which they expect to usher in new eras of peace, prosperity, liberty, and so on, or they rail against causes so they may preserve the status quo. Some lavish on themselves material comfort as distraction, whether with food or expensive accoutrements. Some devote themselves to work, a productive if only diverting task. Some few people devote themselves to others, as charity or obligation.

This therapeutic mindset of our age is easy to summarize: the pleasurable is good and everything else is work. Hence, pleasure is therapy. People of course find different things pleasurable, see above, but it's no small coincidence that in the twilight of the gods we can see a surge in activities which people refer to as their religion: art, music, truth, love. Speaking of love, we mock the arranged marriages of the past, those set to preserve family fame and fortune, but still today relationships, romantic and otherwise, seem rooted the utilitarian balancing of strengths and weaknesses. How noble or romantic is this? Expedit esse amorem.

Yet the slightest admixture of effort and adversity results in that evil object, work. To avoid such an invidious burden, relationships become transitory and skills supplanted by technology. Character languishes amidst ease. While we didn't look up to their heroes, there is something of Nietzsche's Last Man and the antithesis of Camus' Absurd Man in this sketch. A tedious life.

The third path is that of consolation, which seeks neither remedy nor transgression but rather comfort. Today comfort has a softish connotation, conjuring images of ease and safety, but it in fact hails from Latin's con-fortis, with strength. Consolation consists neither in denying meaning nor in chasing perfection, but in forbearing  difficulty through virtue. It meets the world not with passions or faculties but virtuous character. To live so, with consolation but not cure, requires more courage and prudence than to live for nothing or chasing perfection.

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