A good society is a society which believes that it is not good enough; that it is the task of the collectivity to insure individuals against individually suffered misfortune; and that the quality of society is measured by the quality of life of its weakest, just like the carrying power of a bridge is measured by its weakest pillar.
The average person appreciates a value only “in the course of, and through comparison” with the possessions, condition, plight or quality of other persons. … The awareness that the acquisition and enjoyment of that value is beyond the person’s capacity … triggers two mutually opposite, but equally vigorous reactions: an overwhelming desire (all the more tormenting because of the suspicion that it might be impossible to fulfill); and ressentiment—a rancor caused by a desperate urge to ward off self-deprecation and self-contempt by demeaning, deriding and degrading the value in question, together with its possessors.
pp. 24-25 [Quote is from Max Scheler, “Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen”]
Our vulnerability [to ressentiment], is unavoidable (and probably incurable) in a kind of society in which relative equality of political and other rights and formally acknowledged social equality go hand in hand with enormous differences in genuine power, possessions and education; a society in which everyone “has the right” to consider himself equal to everybody else, while in fact being unequal to them.
As Christopher Marlowe’s Faust learned the hard way, wishing for a moment of bliss to say “the same” indefinitely is guaranteed to procure indefinite commitment to hell instead of indefinite happiness. … A state of rest would not be a state of happiness but of boredom.
Until now, neither the distinction between “worthy, since durable” and “vain, since transient,” nor the unbridgeable abyss separating the two, has disappeared for a moment from reflections on human happiness. Nonentity, the demeaning and humiliating insignificance of the individual bodily presence in the world by comparison with the unperturbed eternity of the world itself, has haunted philosophers (and non-philosophers, during their brief spells of falling into and staying in a philosophical mood) for more than two millennia. In the Middle Ages it was raised to the rank of the highest purpose and supreme concern of mortals, and deployed to promote spiritual values over the pleasures of the flesh—as well as to explain (and, hopefully argue away) the pain and misery of the brief earthly existence as a necessary and therefore welcome prelude to the endless bliss of the afterlife. It returned with the advent of the modern era in a new garb: that of the futility of individual interests and concerns, shown to be abominably short-lived, fleeting and vagrant when juxtaposed with the interests of “the social whole”—the nation, the state, the cause.
A powerful case for that refurbished, secularized response to individual mortality was constructed and extensively argued by Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology. He strove to insert and settle “society” in the place vacated by God and by Nature viewed as God’s creation or embodiment—and thereby to claim for the nascent nation-state that right to articulate, pronounce and enforce moral commandments and command the supreme loyalties of its subjects; the right previously reserved for the Lord of the Universe and His anointed earthly lieutenants.
Avoid the crowd, avoid mass audiences, keep your own counsel, which is the counsel of philosophy—of wisdom you can acquire and make your own.
The problem is, eternity is barred to humans, and so humans, all too painfully aware of that and entertaining little hope of appealing against that verdict of fate, seek to stifle and deafen their tragic wisdom in a hubbub of frail and fleeting pleasures. This admittedly being a false calculation—for the same reason which prompted it (that tragic wisdom can never be chased or conjured away for good)—they condemn themselves, whatever their material wealth, to perpetual spiritual poverty: to continuous unhappiness (‘A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself to be’). Instead of seeking the way to happiness within the limits of their predicament, they take a long detour, hoping that somewhere along the route their odious and repulsive destiny may be escaped or fooled—only to land back in the despair that prompted them to start on their voyage of (dearly wished for, yet unattainable) discovery. The only discovery humans can possibly make on that voyage is that the route they have taken was but a detour that sooner or later will bring them back to the starting line.
Marcus Aurelius appoints personal character and conscience the ultimate refuge of happiness-seekers: the only place where dreams of happiness, doomed to die childless and intestate anywhere else, are not bound to be frustrated.
Pascal suggests that people avoid looking inwards and keep running in the vain hope of escaping a face-to-face encounter with their predicament, which is to face up to their utter insignificance whenever they recall the infinity of the universe. And he censures them and castigates them for doing so. It is, he says, that morbid inclination to hassle around rather than stay put which ought to be blamed for all unhappiness. One could, however, object that Pascal, even if only implicitly, does not present us with the choice between a happy and an unhappy life, but between two kinds of unhappiness: whether we choose to run or stay put, we are doomed to be unhappy. The only (putative and misleading!) advantage of being on the move (as long as we keep moving) is that we postpone for a while the moment of that truth. This is, many would agree, a genuine advantage of running out of rather than staying in our rooms—and most certainly it is a temptation difficult to resist. And they will choose to surrender to that temptation, allow themselves to be allured and seduced—if only because as long as they remain seduced they will manage to stave off the danger of discovering the compulsion and addiction that prompts them to run, screened by what is called “freedom of choice” or “self-assertion.” But, inevitably, they will end up longing for the virtues they once possessed but have now abandoned for the sake of getting rid of the agony which practicing them, and taking responsibility for that practice, might have caused.
“To imitate Socrates” meant, in other words, to staunchly refuse imitation; refuse imitation of the person “Socrates”—or any other person, however worthy. The model of life Socrates selected, painstakingly composed and laboriously cultivated for himself might have perfectly suited his kind of person, but it would not necessarily suit all those who made a point of living as Socrates did. A slavish imitation of the specific mode of life that Socrates constructed on his own, and to which he remained unhesitatingly, steadfastly loyal throughout, would amount to a betrayal of his legacy, to the rejection of his message—a message calling people first and foremost to listen to their own reason, and calling thereby for individual autonomy and responsibility. Such an imitation could suit a copier or a scanner, but it will never result in an original artistic creation, which (as Socrates suggested) human life should strive to become.