Monday, October 26, 2009

The Sense of an Ending

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
So begins John Berryman's Dream Song 14. His instruction was ignored by Bernard Williams in "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immorality." His argument, in brief: if one lives sufficiently long, one must either remain the same, and so become hopelessly bored; or become so different that one might as well be someone else. If you want to live forever from self-interest you are out of luck.

One might hope that an argument against immortality would reconcile us to death. But it does not follow from Williams' conclusion – that I should not want to live forever – that I should ever not want to live. Nor that I should want there to be a future time at which I die. For even if I will become so different that self-interest cannot sustain concern for my 'future self,' that is no reason to wish him ill!

In any case, both sides of the dilemma have their flaws. Why should even radical change in my desires, my character, my occupations, destroy identity of the kind that underwrites self-love? And if it does, why should consistency in those matters precipitate boredom?

Not that having final ends is sufficient to prevent it. As Elijah Millgram argues, one can have things to do for their own sakes, even things that matter very much, without being the least bit interested. Along with practical rationality, we have "a kind of intellectual phototropism": "interest and boredom […] are involuntary" and "[their] function is not to stabilize the self" but to push us towards the adoption of new ends.

Part of this seems right: we must distinguish interests – in the colloquial sense – from ends. But it does not explain why we need to be pushed: why it is that ends stagnate or fail to sustain our indefinite engagement. It is oddly circular to argue for the necessity of boredom as a provocation to new pursuits. More economical, surely, to have our interests last forever.

These questions may defeat philosophy. Perhaps this is simply how it is: a matter of psychological fact. But I wonder, with hesitation, if there is not something more to say. Think about the possible objects of interest, among our possible ends. They are, it seems to me, completable, things that can be done but only if one makes it to some final point. Walking aimlessly is pleasant enough, but it cannot be interesting. More exalted aims like doing philosophy, or being happy, or treating others well – they can be sources of much interest, but not in themselves. The interest lies in the projects one undertakes in order to be happy, do philosophy, act decently. Again, this may be mere psychology, if it is true at all. But it may instead reflect the logic of interest, the sort of end by which it can intelligibly be sustained.

That would explain what is so peculiar in Aristotle's picture of the ideal life as one of contemplation, not discovery: not that contemplation must be boring, as my students insist, but that it cannot be interesting in itself.

If interest depends on completable ends, it is inevitably finite. It expires. It must be renewed. This conflicts with a certain philosophical vision – Platonic-Aristotelian – of life as governed by a single inexhaustible end. If everything I do is for the sake of philosophy, still my interest turns on finding problems to solve. If I fail, no good. If I solve them, I need more. To the problem of boredom itself, there can be no permanent solution: no end to the need for difficulties, enterprises, work.


Blogger Michael Drake said...

Even in your garden variety mortal life, though, one is bound to become many Parfitian selves. Did Williams not anticipate this objection?

Your own, threshold objection is also apt. Being an otherwise unindividuated locus of eternal becoming beats being an individuated locus of terminal senescence any day.

Nothing left but to be episodist.

7:13 AM  

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