Monday, January 02, 2006

Be content

Someone whose advice I value enough that I sought it before I deviated into the blogsphere has posted for a second time on a (justly) famous selection ( 10.47) from Martial. Forbearance is a virtue I’ve never been accused of, so herewith is my reaction—not to the posting, but to the sentiments expressed by Martial .

The incipit—my incipits run to two verses-- goes as follows

These are the things, my deligtful Martial,
that create a happpier life

And the final verses are

Wish to be what you are and want nothing more,
Neither fear nor covet thy final day.

Stoic sentiments are not uncommon in Latin poetry, and I do not propose to tax Martial with the criticism that he has not argued his case persuasively. But think about the recommendations we are being given here. If you want a better life, be content with what you are and don’t desire anything more. Forgive me, but how in Hell can that possibly get you a “better” life that way?

“The poet is saying that my life is really fine as it is; I just need to adjust my attitude to it.” No, in all probability, if you dislike your life, things are not OK , and you need more than an attitude adjustment. You need in fact to make some fundamental changes in your life. Stoic dogmas aside, you probably do have the power to make basic changes to the externals in your life. It will be hard and painful, and you may fail, but the attempt is worth it if happiness lies on the other side of the change. I can never understand “be content” when your life does not work as it is. Do not despair of you power to affect change.

As someone who came from a background in Analytic Philosophy, I have always thought that literature and especially poetry are so much more powerful vehicles for examining and commending the Good Life. Good poetry seems to strike the soul as if it were a kataleptic presentation, commanding our assent. When I see will-corroding sentiments like Martial’s so well crafted, I feel the need the jump up and say,”no, no, think about it”. Indulge me.

1 Comments:

Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>If you want a better life, be content with what you are and don’t desire anything more. Forgive me, but how in Hell can that possibly get you a “better” life that way?<<<

The better life is attained by changing your inner dispositions, not by making changes to your external circumstances. If you are able to make changes to your external circumstances, and as a result you feel that you have a better life, then you have not secured what the Stoic means by happiness or well-being. You would have nothing that the Stoic wants.

>>>Stoic dogmas aside, you probably do have the power to make basic changes to the externals in your life. It will be hard and painful, and you may fail, but the attempt is worth it if happiness lies on the other side of the change.<<<

Indeed, any of us may of course have the power to make the changes you have in mind. Whatever it is that lies on the other side of the change, it is not the sort of enduring and indestructible happiness that the Stoic seeks and may well obtain after substantial progress. Is the sort of happiness that you think you will get permanent and unshakable? Even if the changes you have struggled to make fall apart and reverse themselves? I suspect not, and I suspect you and the Stoic are not talking about the same thing.

4:16 PM  

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