Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sour Grapes

As I get older I find that three things are more and more the case.

First, I am secure enough to admit that my life is good but not perfect, that there are things I want to be so that are not. More precisely, I can admit that there are things I cannot attain because I have chosen others. More importantly, I can admit that those things I cannot attain are still good.

Second, I find simple and traditional wisdom immediately helpful more often than complex philosophizing. The deep thinking is necessary for arriving at the right action as well as articulating it, but for help you can't turn to it in a pinch.

Third, I often find traditional wisdom congruous with deep thinking. Take the case of Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes.

Who cannot sympathize with the fox, pining after the lofty grapes, and who does not see himself within that furry exterior, assuming that which he cannot attain must surely be rotten? It is a feeling of disdain born not from reasoned consideration of evidence, but of weakness. It is an attempt to devalue something so that you are raised. It is envy.

It might seem at first erroneous to call the fox's feeling envy since no one else is getting the grapes, but another person is surely implied, for it is not the lack of desiderata that makes one envious, but rather it is their presence in the hands of others. No one would assume, for example, that there is nothing atop a mountain or that climbing it is foolish, simply because he wants to climb it and cannot. He simply regards the situation as impossible, and no one is bothered by what cannot be changed and cannot have been any other way. Rather it is the fact that someone else can or may climb the mountain that can makes one envious (if one wanted to climb it) because one realizes that it is possible for the but not for me.

Such demonstrates the genius of Aristotle's definition of envy: pain at the sight of the good not with the idea of getting it for ourselves, but because other people have it. (1387b) Aristotle offers a catalog of who feels envy, but one sentence from his Rhetoric seems to capture the whole of the emotion:

We envy those whose possession of or success in a thing is a reproach to us: these are our neighbors and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question; this annoys us, and excites envy in us. (1388a)
There are two brilliant chords in this definition.

First, that we feel envy toward equals, be it of age, birth, wealth, or disposition. We  do not care about the success of inferiors or superiors because we understand our situations to be so different from theirs that the outcomes are incomparable. Yet when we see someone who is so much the same, except more successful in one or more things, we wonder why our peer has surpassed us. With frightening speed our minds turn afoul: he has cheated, someone has helped him, he is only pretending success, his achievement is somehow incomplete or corrupted.

Second, that envy is pain. Pain of perhaps the deepest and most afflicting kind because it is comes from an existential insult. Since there are many reasons not to do most things and plenty of reasons not to like most things, what one chooses to have and do very much make up the man. As a result, every action and act of possession is an affirmation of one thing and a rejection of others.

Now we understand that very different people are just that, so their live invite little comparison to ours and therefore trouble us little. However, when we see an equal who lives differently than we do, we feel repudiated. When the difference is small we question our judgment, when it is great we feel that our character, will, and self—in essence our whole life and existence—have been repudiated. Such is why we find peace and calm in the presence of people who are like us: that they affirm that being who we are is good.

Such a high degree of envy is liable to take on a different character, that of disgust, and such a combination is called contempt. When we are disgusted neither evidence nor even the characters of others matter in our appraisal. So deep is the insult to us that we reject the offending thing or deed as a contagion. The offense and its perpetrator or owner are incompatible with us and must be avoided as a disease. It is fitting that Aesop's fox calls the grapes sour, that is, bitter, the essence of what repels us.

This condition seldom confines itself. "Contempt," Dr. Johnson in his Life of Blackmore writes, "is a kind of gangrene which, if it seizes one part of a character, corrupts all the rest by degrees." It spreads and spreads until you are unrecognizable to the world, with nothing of you in it nor it in you. Anything that is not already of you, or about you, sanctioned by you, or for you, is not just undesirable, but taboo. This madness is disgust at all otherness, which severs the last ties with reality. An ending ripe for tragedy.

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