Monday, February 28, 2005

Short Views, Long Views, and the Feel for the Real

Dennis Mangan, responding to a post of mine, writes:

In my own life, I prefer not to think about the "senselessness" of the universe; it's too depressing. Just because something is depressing does not of course make it untrue, as many orthodox religious believers seem to think. The truth may set you free, but it may also imprison you. In life, as the Rev. Sidney Smith said, it is best to take short views.

Is it best to take short views? Sometimes it is. When the going gets tough, it is best to pull in one’s horns, hunker down, and just try to get through the next week, the next day, the next hour. One can always meet the challenge of the next hour. Be here now and deal with what is on your plate at the moment. Most likely you will find a way forward.

But, speaking for myself, a life without long views would not be worth living. I thrill at the passage in Plato’s Republic, Book Six (486a) where the philosopher is described as a "spectator of all time and existence." And then there is this beautiful formulation by our very own William James:

The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man. (Pragmatism, Harvard UP, 1975, p. 56)

I wrote above, "speaking for myself." The expression was not used redundantly inasmuch as it conveys that my philosopher’s preference for the long view is not one that I would want to or try to urge on anyone else. In my experience, one cannot argue with another man’s sensibility. And much of life comes down to precisely that -- sensibility. If people share a sensibility, then argument is useful for its articulation and refinement. But I am none too sanguine about the possibility of arguing someone into, or out of, a sensibility. How argue the atheist out of his abiding sense that the univere is godless, or the radical out of his conviction of human perfectibility? If the passages I cited from Plato and James leave you cold, how could I change your mind? If you sneer at my being thrilled, what then? Argument comes too late. Or if you prefer, sensibility comes too early.

One might also speak of a person’s sense of life, view of what is important, or ‘feel for the real.’ James’ phrase, "feel seriously," is apt. To the superior mind, ultimate questions "feel real," whereas to the shallow mind they appear pointless, unimportant, silly. It is equally true that the superior mind is made such by its wrestling with these questions:

Maximae res, cum parvis quaeruntur, magnos eos solent efficere.

Matters of the greatest importance, when they are investigated by little men, tend to make those men great. (Augustine, Contra Academicos 1. 2. 6.)

Of course, with his talk of the superior and the shallow, James is making a value judgment. I myself have no problem making value judgments, and in particular this one. And I am sure Mangan doesn’t in general either, as witness his thoughts on Brahms.

Although prospects are dim for arguing the other out of his sensibility, civil discussion is not pointless. One comes to understand one’s own view by contrast with another. One learns to respect the sources of the other’s view. That may lead to toleration, which is good within limits. (Osama and the others who do not respect the principle of toleration must not be tolerated, but killed.) For someone with a theoretical bent, the sheer diversity of approaches to life is fascinating and provides endless grist for the theoretical mill.