This post contrasts my views about what drives and motivates common people like me against the ideals espoused by Aristotle and Pascal, both brilliant men and far smarter than am I. I believe that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is somewhat comparable to Pascal’s wager because the former is interested in the attainment of a happy life and the latter is focused on the belief in God as a means to a happy life here and forever. The basic underlying thesis is that living in a certain way, virtues for Aristotle and, one assumes, right Christian practice (orthopraxis) for Pascal, achieves the desired ends which drive the habits of living, and the logic is that finite cost with assured infinite gain always outweighs finite gain with infinite loss.
Both Aristotle and Pascal have assumed that these happy ends are the reasons, the driving force, for the actions and the means chosen, and that universal ideas and laws satisfactorily define those ends with the means being additionally motivated through teaching, habitude, and force. I find these brilliant humans inspiring, but I differ strongly with the notion that universals drive the actions of people like you and me. There is one thing, however, a recurring theme: we all want to be happy however each of us defines that illusive term and, when not compelled through necessity or threat, we tend towards things that we think will make us happy. On this, there seems to be broad consensus.
Aristotle’s route to happiness is the adoption of the virtuous life (that’s what his Nicomachean Ethics is about). Living that life will, says he, necessarily lead to fulfillment and happiness, or the best results when dealing with misfortune, whereas those choosing contrary behaviors fail to achieve the primary goal of life, happiness. The problem is that the virtuous life is out of reach for the common person, at least in terms of the time and perhaps the requisite education to contemplate (one moral virtue), the money to be magnanimous (another moral virtue) and to be great souled (another moral virtue). The overarching notion that laws truly have the universal good as a driving force is also problematic and Aristotle himself gives us the feeling that he’s being cautious to avoid the same fate as Socrates, whose criticism of Athenian democracy, “corrupting the youth” with such free critical thinking, and rejection of at least portions of the Athenian Pantheon led to his death sentence. Nonetheless, Aristotle goes on to state that the law cannot fully reflect the mind of the legislator and therefore requires case by case treatment on the basis of equity, not equality but equity of gain and loss and how they are felt by the parties involved.
Pascal’s wager, on the other hand, assumes that the reward for belief in the triune Christian deity is eternal bliss and, therefore, infinite happiness. Clearly, this is a wholesome motivation for those who sacrifice themselves in the service of others, and it also aligns with the specific promises given in the New Testament as well as the Qur’an. The unstated problem is that belief is transformational and many even most people also believe that certain right actions, orthopraxis, are required and must be enforced as a result. This creates direct alignment with the virtuous life espoused by Aristotle, and while both Aristotle and Pascal discuss what we’d call “going through the motions”, feigned belief is not a motivating force; evading detection as a cad (Aristotle) or non-believer (Pascal) becomes a motivating force.
The base problem with this and much philosophical thought is that the thinkers do not state and compensate for the biases created by their life experiences and demographics. Sirach, as recorded by his son Jesus Ben Sirach, states this outright:
The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise.
How can one become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls? He sets his heart on plowing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers. So too is every artisan and master artisan who labors by night as well as by day; those who cut the signets of seals, each is diligent in making a great variety; they set their heart on painting a lifelike image, and they are careful to finish their work.
So too is the smith, sitting by the anvil, intent on his iron-work; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace; the sound of the hammer deafens his ears, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration.
So too is the potter sitting at his work and turning the wheel with his feet; he is always deeply concerned over his products, and he produces them in quantity. He molds the clay with his arm and makes it pliable with his feet; he sets his heart to finish the glazing, and he takes care in firing the kiln.
All these rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the decisions of the courts; they cannot expound discipline or judgment, and they are not found among the rulers. But they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade.
How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! (Sirach 38:24-34 NRS)
Part of the American experiment is to reverse some of this thinking, to seek out common people for council, to elect representatives of the common people to the public assembly, and to allow the people to be judged by their peers through juries and judges that are of, by, and for the people and are not chosen by place of birth, race, gender, sexual orientation or any other differentiating human characteristic apart from ideas, character, and qualifications for the tasks of a specific job. We have a long, long way to go in realizing this lofty goal, and this should be a strong motivating force in our society.
Accordingly, when reading and considering philosophical ponderings, it is important and indeed necessary to weigh their views against their demographics and concern for the common person. And when it comes to drive and motivation, these demographics are of major, even quintessential import in assessing the breadth of applicability of the proposed solutions to the question – what drives us and what should drive us.
Having opened that demographic door, a summary of my own demographics is necessary. I’ll try and keep it minimal; this is not a memoir.
I’m a white forth/fifth generation American guy (Swedish, Irish, English, Dutch and, I’m told, dog) at the end of my 50’s from Metairie, Louisiana, living in Dallas since 1982. I grew up middle class, Dad being a Sr. Manager with Shell. Mom and Dad were from Southwestern Kanas families that struggled through the dust bowl and depression, mom’s folks having a 13 square mile farm / cattle ranch established through home/tree steading in 1865 and on which I’ve spent time in feed-lots (in knee deep snow) and thinning the prairie dog population with my bolt action .22. Dad was a soda jerk before being drafted and serving in WWII, opting for the Army Air Corps, and taking advantage of the GI bill, and Mom’s hard secretarial work, to get a college education. I have two sisters 10 and 11 years older than I, one born in Corpus Christi, Texas and the other born on Beaumont, Texas.
My formal education consists of K-4 at Kehoe France (private) followed by one year at James Madison Elementary (public) followed by grades 6 through 12 at St. Martin’s Episcopal (private) concluding with four years and a BSEE from Tulane University (private). Mom saw to piano, voice, and typing lessons and I’ve been in choirs and like to sing. I learned about dealing with mental patients, including their capture and restraint starting around age 10, due to my mother’s acute alcoholism and repeated delirium tremens. Long story. My mentor during this period was Mrs. Anna Mae Poplis, an African American woman who cleaned and befriended our family and was counted as a member thereof.
Confirmed Methodist and later converted to Episcopalian, I am a Christian who’s experienced transformative interventions of Christ Jesus in my life. If you read my bibliography post, you will discover that I am a bible scholar, student of theology, and ardent supporter historical methods used by N. T. Wright. My luck with churches has been bad, and my criticisms are many. Enough said for the purposes of this post.
Employment started at age 10 including retail clerk/stock boy (my first), plumber’s helper changing urinals, janitor’s assistant, pet store clerk cleaning dog and cat cages and selling pets, subliminal audio and video production assistant. Then followed jobs at a PBS station where I came to know artists, actors, and their patrons: switchboard operator, receptionist, stand-in secretary, key-punch operator, computer programmer, purchasing agent, alternate Varsity Quiz Bowl judge, assistant to the finance director, interim finance director, computer project manager. Finally, 38 years and counting in engineering: electrical design engineer (after college graduation with a BSEE in 1982), systems engineer, and now Chief Engineer / Sr. Manager.
I married late in life, at age 42, to a farm girl turned big city aviation insurance manager and have no children. We love both dogs and cats and animals in general but keep only cats. We share several medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and I’ve got the normal range of abnormalities including some vertebrae in my neck that remained fused at birth (I can’t look up like you can). I went blind due to early onset cataracts which were surgically remedied in 2009. Once again, I can see “da plane”.
I’m a typical American Mongrel and that’s all you get in the 550 words I allocated to this mini-biography.
Throughout my life, I have been described as driven. I have also been described as a driver or more directly as one who drives people to drink or drives them mad. That’s why I found a job at 10 – my father told me to go out and get a job because I was driving my mother crazy. He had no idea that I would do just that, neither was he proud that I did, the story of my life. Accordingly, along with discussing what motivates the typical American Mongrel, I’ll be exploring that motivates me personally.
Before we discuss these more complex motives, the basics must be before us. Humans do have instinctive drives that are endemic to all animals – to survive and to have sex. In some cases, such as the salmon and the poor male praying mantis, the former and the latter are mutually exclusive but are nonetheless imperative. Aristotle recognizes these needs in treatment of virtues, but I’ve not read enough of Pascal to see if he tarried there; it’s highly doubtful in his time that things such as sex would be discussed. While Sigmund Freud would perhaps tell us that sex is the underpinning drive for everything, I’m not interested in the universal as much as I am in the specific, daily drive that keeps one going and often doing arduous things for no apparent reason. Therefore, while our continuing to exist and to satisfy instinctive and endemic needs is perhaps the strongest drive we have, I’ll not go down that path because it may be interesting but it will most likely not provide specific answers. It is therefore reasonable to concede that our first motivation is the broad range of needs endemic to being human.
The pursuit of happiness is such an omnipresent motivator that it is enshrined in the founding documents of the United States of America. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a treatise on how to find a happy life, and my own book is about the hunt for happiness, and Pascal’s wager is framed in terms of bliss – happiness. Clearly, we are driven by those things which we think will make us happy, but happiness is such a broad term that we need to break this down into smaller chunks to understand the ends that are sought. Often, happiness is pursued by avoiding that which we believe will make us unhappy, boredom for instance, but it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?
Conventional wisdom tells us “idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece”, a phrase that comes for Tyndale’s 1535 English edition of the Bible, Proverbs 16:27, perhaps interpreted rather than translated; no other translation says this and neither does any extant manuscript. Nonetheless, like things on the internet, people took it to be correct and it’s a durable phrase. The notion here is that one must keep busy to avoid doing bad things.
Livy writes that some historians before his era (59 BCE-17 CE) recounted the creation of religious rituals and festivals to keep people busy when not at war. Philo of Alexandria (50 BCE-20 CE) writes that, when not employed, people like to make “innovations” by which he means rebellion and uprising. And of course Voltaire has his character tell off the high minded (Leibnizian optimistic) philosopher Prof. Pangloss with “All that is well, but we must cultivate our garden” at the end of Candide, echoing Martin’s sentiments “Let’s work without speculating; it’s the only way of rendering life bearable.” The notion here is that keeping busy distracts from the contemplation of unpleasant things and therefore leads to peace and some level of contentment.
To be clear, this drive to dull the pain and ennui, the boredom of everyday life through various means has been with us since the earliest records and artifacts of mankind. Mind altering substances have been in use for thousands of years as Homer writes, pornea is a Greek word from which comes our word pornography, and pornographic images on Greek pottery, Indian temples, and frankly all over the place attest not only to pornographic material but also to the sexual acts that they depict. None of that is new, and the reasons for those behaviors vary from religious to escapist, from cultural to hedonistic, and beyond, far beyond if one reads, for instance, the Marquis de Sade as have I. The notion here is to use any means necessary for a temporary escape from existential reality through indulgence in pleasure – or pain – or mind altering substances.
While these approaches have perhaps provided some relief from boredom and unpleasant thoughts, they have not brought about happiness. What’s the connection? Why do people think things like this will make them happy? Firstly, we cannot objectively tell if a person is happy or if a person is a believer; we can only tell what they appear to be. Likewise, we cannot know what others think and, even when others tell us what they think, we cannot know the truth of their statements.
Some people feign beliefs and are not committed to them. Some also feign happiness, projecting a façade of happiness and the notion that living as they advise creates a happy life, and we know that, in a social gathering or a phone call, putting on the appearance of being happy can indeed help others achieve happiness creating a paradox between true happiness and feigned happiness which often collapses as we, the actors, fade into the aura of happiness when we let our guards down enough to be vulnerable and connect with some of the other actors. Happiness is often, perhaps most often, created in sharing and catalyzed by spontaneity. Does the end of happiness for self and others motivate spontaneous actions that our out of step with established praxis? I believe it does, so while the façade of feigned belief or going through the motions may not be philosophically pure, it can in some cases be a means not only towards the end of happiness but also to the end of happiness of others. It’s fair to say that I’ve envied people who can pull this off with grace, and I myself us humor in difficult situations to lighten the mood.
That said, focus on popular appeal can result in loss of self through satisfying the perceived needs of image projection and protection, conveying a certain style and panache, and otherwise in trying to become the character that people find popular. I’ve known quite a few folks in theater in my life, and I’ve watched some build their masks so well that I cannot find, except on rare occasions and usually in devastating circumstances, the person for whom I have affection. In many cases, they too lose that person, their true selves. This is one reason why our ancient relatives held actors and performers in such low esteem: the person was thought to be a chameleon and therefore impervious to commitment and honesty; unable to disconnect projection from existential reality. The fact that I find this problematic is perhaps insightful regarding my own motivations and, assuming you’re not a rock star, perhaps yours as well.
The notion that popularity brings happiness along with it is one formed in youth and often from envy and a desire for attention (this paraphrases Aristotle …). Those who achieve popularity, especially as attention has become a matter of public scrutiny rather than well crafted media access, find their every deed under the microscope and open to public comment and demands on them, their sponsors, and so forth and so on. You see, they may be popular and have millions of people following their every tweet, but they have few friends. That’s the twist in seeking popularity – friendship requires a level of authenticity that pierces the façades of the friends, at least at times.
Seeking popularity is also seeking the opportunity to find friends in the group of people amongst whom one is popular. For those who become famous this is not true, however, for the normal run of the mill human, it is. And, if we take Aristotle at his word, having some friends to share one’s life with is necessary for happiness, as is sufficient self-love to consider one’s self worthy of friends.
Mirror, Mirror on the wall, do I merit friends at all? Common folks sometimes struggle with meriting existence, friends, job, mates, and with the contraries constantly thrust forward so painfully, the things that other say that we lack, the shame others say we should have. Simple yet a strong motivation, a source of rebellion, and a source of despair. Motivation while hope exists, rebellion when the rules are unfair, and despair when hope fades. Even a motivation in deciding not to be, with such depth of belief in worthlessness that non-existence is imagined an improvement to the world.
This question, “do I merit?”, always gets a negative response when I pose it. This is indeed my motivating factor and always has been, something I did not understand before I undertook this post, and a realization that’s left me struggling to write for a few weeks. I’d previously thought that I struggled to fit in; now I know that I struggle to be good enough to enter and it’s not really the perspective of other people about me but my own perspective about myself.
It is little wonder, then, that I feel such passion and empathy for others whom society rejects, for even in my privileged state, I understand what it is to feel compelled to prove one’s worth. I didn’t want to believe that I am a son of privilege either, but those who seek objectivity cannot ignore the truth, and the advantages of being a white male in our society, and the privileges that this status conveys, are indeed enormous, unjust, and unmerited.
That’s about it for what really motivates us: Basic endemic human needs, things that we think will make us happy, things that we think will make others happy, escape from the boredom and troubles of the world, the need for friends, and the need to merit existence and status in the first place.
Both Aristotle and Pascal have assumed a place of birth establishes this meritorious status, which is incorrect in societies, even American society. Indeed, for the many it is quite the opposite. Likewise, they have assumed that happiness or bliss is some external thing and not something that we ourselves create and I find that notion inadequate to the task of definition.
To Pascal’s point, I can say that being in the presence of the Christ was, for me, the most wonderful feeling possible. However, I’d not characterize this as happiness in our commonly understood use of the word. No, it’s quite different from that, more of an enhanced or ultimate sense of wellbeing. If this is what Pascal means by bliss, then it is indeed bliss albeit Pascal made no claims of “being in the presence” that I’m aware of. It’s a common thing that is uncommonly spoken of, especially in the modern and post modern world. That said, I know many who’ve experienced this which is most often, as with me, not a visual thing at all, but a revealing of words and a mysterious conveyance of a feeling, of comfort – perhaps the advocate, the helper, in Greek the paracletos, the Holy Spirit, but I digress and wildly so.
As for Aristotle, one must remember that he posits what should be true from what is known or commonly believed to be true. One must also take care in reading and interpreting ancient texts to place them in the times and cultures whence they came lest one mangle the reading in such a way as to see one’s self in the mirror and not the author or authors (and editors and redactors as the text is passed down). That said, I think we can agree in large measure with what he writes as important to having a good life but not as necessities, given the impossibility of attainment for the average Joe/Josephine, or as sufficient given the discussion of this post.
The bigger problem with these philosophical and logical discussion is that the base assumptions, that if you do this then that will happen, are incorrect. Aristotle accounts for this partially by discussing bad luck and injustice but hold the course that his virtues still allow a person to have the best life even in bad circumstances. Pascal does not mention the compliance requirements of being a believer in his wager, nor does he mention that fact that in his and our times being a believer or at least feigning this role does provide entry into important circles of power. The old story about Christians of denominations who aren’t allowed to drink ducking when you walk into the liquor store is applicable; follow the rules lest ye be shunned.
In those cases, as in all things really, the notion conveyed is that the picture is complete. This is not so, and the wisdom seeker and truth speaker must know that we’ve not yet fully grasped anything much, especially not what does and should drive the individual to fully realize their dreams and potentials.
Therefore, I’d like to suggest an addition to the stack of things to do. It’s something that Aristotle alludes to when he discusses age and the tendencies of youth, prime, and old ages. In a way, it’s also the task Frodo is given in the Lord of the Rings, and the task given seekers at the Oracle of Delphi: Know thyself.
There is a mystical metamorphosis that the many enter, secular or religious, known as the dark night of the soul. Here we can walk alongside Aristotle, Pascal, Sirach, and many others as welcome pilgrims towards truth and understanding, wisdom and compassion. Like Frodo, we’re not extraordinary except inasmuch as we accept the task and the way. We, too, will be tempted to give up, to give in to the ancient evil, to become Gollum or to let the dark Lord have his way. Our task does not end at Mount Doom, or in triumph at Minas Tirith. No, far from it. Our task, our metamorphosis, expunges the dross of our foolish and incorrect beliefs and perceptions, struggles for truth both personal and universal.
What I’m writing about is the need for society to change and for us to be agents of that change towards the end of making it possible, even probable, that others of all ilks can have a happy life. This is a common theme in my writings because I am deep in the dark night of the soul and have been for over a decade after having finally understood that I didn’t’ understand. Perhaps I have thereby achieved a goodly measure of one of Aristotle’s virtues, contemplation. Give it a try, and you will see hope for the world. You will also see the face of evil, even sometimes in the mirror. Know thyself.