HARDER THAN THE TRUTH: THE POWER OF OUR POWERLESSNESS
by Jeff Clark
Nothing but the truth
Common words in use
Hard to find excuse
Harder than the truth —Keith Reid
My most fond gratitude to the Keith Reid of Procol Harum and to Václav Havel that they both exist in the world we continue to share.
Occupying the Emperor’s Clothes: second fitting
Being creatures of story, we say that we enter in the middle of things as if in a popular novel: in medias res. In life rather than literature that may be a new job, a new home, a move to a new state or country: I’m a stranger here, ready to learn the ropes, the lay of the land, both of which I didn’t create. In medias res is the process of life itself: born into the middle of it, growing to learn the stories our world stuffs us with, figuring out which ones are appealing and which ones are true and whether they’re the same. The process of learning stories and our preferences, and the wisdom that may survive this process, draw on our nature, working with and worked upon by the sociopolitical ocean of our times. We grow into optimism or pessimism, depending on our nature inborn and our experiences beyond. Some of them comfort and encourage the path we’re on, others smart sharply like a slap we weren’t expecting and which may reroute us. All of this colors the stories we hear, we retain and repeat, we reject or revise.
The only thing we can have in common besides a bedrock humanity—right out of the box—is our faculty of reason applied to the world we experience. Mated to a self-awareness we can’t escape, it’s still capable of standing apart from us and peering at our world and ourselves. Sometimes reason can rouse from the comfort of our nearby clutch of trees, and take us hiking tentatively through the nearby grove, the unfolding forest we might still encounter if we persevere.
When our feelings aren’t yoked to reason—paused and processed by it into some kind of knowledge, broader perspective, and even wisdom—they are a dime a dozen. Feelings by themselves are little more than phenomena; animals have them, bugs and even plants when threatened. Figuring out what to value among our feelings, why, and what to act on, requires reasoning toward conclusions that are durable: not just your personal conclusions but ones relevant to others who can use them too. Concluding our way to values gives us the visionary material to shape the events of our lives. To make sense of life’s stories and to give us a direction in which to proceed—whether or not that also prompts us to embrace the kind of goals that religions bring us.
So values are our building blocks, essential components of our foundation as social beings. We need for the moment to forget about our current social circumstances and turn amateur philosopher. Start thinking basics without the baggage of “issues.”
To try and reverse-engineer our way to values—starting from where we are, right now, and working our way back to tease out values from our public preoccupations, till we arrive at some foundational notion—is a laborious trap. There’s too much opportunity for pitfall: rationalizations that steer us away from fact and perception inconvenient to our habitual mindset; ingenious mystifications that feel more credible and sturdy but are a sleight of hand playing with minus-a-full-deck of data; and even the mental short circuit—where we pretend we’ve examined a value and boxed it, when we haven’t gone far enough and have just simplified the pursuit. We get to the grove, maybe, but forget about the forest. We think we know those grapes are sour, so why bother to jump for them?
Let’s just fling “issues” that preoccupy us to the side and start playing with our building blocks in a philosophical way.
A declaration of basics
For Americans, the U.S. Constitution gives us an operating manual for social conduct, and the Declaration of Independence offers, let’s say, the guiding spirit and purpose with which it should be applied. When Jefferson (with the assent of the signing founders) cited “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “inalienable rights,” he had a lengthy Western philosophical tradition to draw from deliberately—especially from John Locke. “Inalienable” means, in Jefferson’s use, not separable from person through an act of independent self-will. You can’t “lose” your right to life or liberty or striving for happiness, unless any of these natural rights are taken by an irresistible outside force that overrules you, intentionally and unjustly. Because these inalienable natural rights entail essential conditions of living itself, it makes sense that “pursuit of happiness” was an intentional substitute for “possessions“ or property (which originated from Locke). For common sense consistency, it would not do: property can be deliberately separated by an act of voluntary will, an exchange or transfer among persons, unlike the living rights enumerated.
But I want to dwell on the focus of these rights further and make the sense of them more basic still. So consider this: “inalienable” as not only inseparable from but inherent in the natural makeup of human beings (or of any living creature for that matter).
Life. The inherent condition we are given as entrance to this world, whether we believe it is deity-derived or not. It’s the state of being that seems to us senses-sure obvious. Every organism has it; human beings are conscious of it.
Liberty. An inherent need that makes logical sense because our lives, the life we have is that of an individual in the world. We need relative independence of action in order to provide sustenance and shelter that sustains our life at its most basic level. While we can sympathize, we can empathize, we can devote ourselves to each other—we enter life, live it and leave it as separate, discrete beings. Our consciousness makes us acutely aware of this. Sometimes we are alone in an intoxicating way that frees us to create, explore and exercise natural talents we find ourselves possessed of. Sometimes we can be lonely beyond bearing. So liberty functions as more than a tool to sustain physical life. Only through liberty can we exercise aloneness in a constructive way to pursue talents, or to take actions that bridge a loneliness with sympathy, empathy, devotion. Liberty is the freedom of motion, physical and mental and emotionally expressive, to pursue what we need in order to make life livable in a way larger than food and shelter.
Pursuit of happiness. Which takes life beyond the bearable, the livable. It’s a quest, and a kind of tropism of our existence that engages the creative or the social or the spiritual in ourselves. Happiness achieved is a state of being—never continuous, sometimes infrequent, always “peak” and personal for the individual life it happens to—that makes life precious. That motivates the individual to want to keep on living and living until the limits of a natural ending. Liberty enables the pursuit.
Liberty and happiness are natural to the continuance of life—and as I just suggested, they interact with each other, are not independent and absolute. It’s possible to forgo some things you acknowledge and even desire as liberty, and yet still achieve a state of existence capable of enough happiness in it. The variety of societies, and their cultural adaptations, tell us that this is true. They’d soon collapse and vanish if it weren’t—peopled by inhabitants so far from liberty or the prospect of happiness that they’d have to wreck their social world or themselves. It’s also possible to exercise liberty and pursue happiness in ways that enhance or obstruct these things for others.
On the other hand, it’s possible to have every liberty you can imagine, and yet gain little or no happiness even though you pursue it relentlessly. Being able to take any action at will, go with any impulse, is like traveling without a sense of direction or a choice of one. Perhaps it’s the void of outer space, where there are no directions—up, down, left, right, east or west or north and south—at all. Unless you can thrive in such a condition, you need to identify and choose your limits, your focus and goals with meaning for you.
In the way I’ve suggested that life, liberty, and pursued happiness are “inherent” to our nature as living organisms, it is obvious that property wouldn’t fit the same class. The notion of property—especially as we automatically assume it to mean personal and private property—is something of an invention of our human cultures. We can’t definitively say that a human being is born into the empirical world with a desire to “own” the things in it. That’s very possibly not an inherent behavior—it is learned thinking and behavior that make its expression so pervasive that it becomes for us what seems an inevitable way of seeing the world.
So for Jefferson property is not an inalienable right because it can be detached from and transferred by its owner; for me that property is not inherent to our natures but more likely a learned behavior.
The living context within which we have to practice our inalienable/inherent rights, however, is inevitable: society.
Getting social traction
There’s Robinson Crusoe and there’s Ted Kaczynski as ends of a spectrum that centripetally flings out from society. Crusoe is isolated as a victim of shipwreck misfortune; Kaczynski is self-isolated with increasingly disaffected views of a society he abhors, evolving into the Unabomber. The rest of us align on this spectrum in a more “normal” way—still feeling the outward force, thinly or more strongly, depending on how we value the idea of individualism set against society itself.
The extremist view of individual and society takes the latter for granted. Society is a resource for the individual; it may benefit or impede him, but it doesn’t seem to shape him and he has minimum obligation to it. It’s as if we’ve “been there and done that”: invented society as a kind of perpetual motion machine that then maintains itself.
But human beings are social animals who need each other in ways that may fit the definition of society as a “resource,” but more expansively. We’re in a symbiotic relationship with our host collective, the society of other people—we’re a part of that collective while being “apart,” but not self-sufficient without it. Unless you are literally in Crusoe’s predicament, you always draw on others and their efforts, what everyone’s created in living together that keeps the wolf from the door. Even if your door seems to be as far into the wilderness as you can find your way alone… you’ve brought with you material support you didn’t devise, and cultural habits you can’t escape even if you abhor and reject them. Crusoe himself was stranded with the British culture of his period. No man is an island, even on Crusoe’s.
So the bottom line question becomes: Do we owe anything to society because we are part of it? And the simple, indirect answer to this question is: Name something in our experience of life that once acquired or created, needs no further maintenance on our part at all. A house, a car, a lawn, a relationship with other person or dog. Are they a simple matter of been there, done that? If you can’t find a thing in the world inorganic, organic and/or spiritual that fits the no-maintenance paradigm, then you’ve found your answer.
The next question is: if I do owe, what is the debt’s nature and how much?
The answer to this question depends on how you think the symbiotic relationship between you and society works, and how you regard your fellows who make up society along with yourself.
That and much more are next.