*This was written on May, 4 2018.
The lives that many of us lead today are often anything but quiet. We scurry from one thing to another, our attention spans are stunted, our capacity for boredom is limited, and our ability to sit and ponder without glancing at our phones or being entertained has become inert. The stream of companies, products, and people vying for our attention has become absurd as well. It often seems impossible to escape it. They pursue you wherever you are online with ads from the pair of Birkenstocks you almost bought. They trail you on your phone when that pernicious red bubble pops up on any of your apps demanding to be opened. They even show up in more benevolent forms such a non-urgent text from a friend, which also creates that malicious bubble that cannot be ignored. Between all of these stimuli, I’m beginning to believe Emerson’s notion that society is in “conspiracy” against the manhood and individuality of every person to be true. The tasks of self-reflection, contemplation, and even sitting still have become far too challenging. This has led me to seek to become more contemplative and reflective in my own life and more specifically in my reading. It’s become easy to take this modern frantic “go-go-go” approach to my reading and study. Instead of soaking up the ideas and themes of a text, I’ll often look towards what’s next. Instead of seeking first to ascertain what the writer was trying to communicate or even what I learned, I jump to the next piece of literature that tickles my fancy. It seems that this “conspiracy” has begun to infiltrate my learning.
So, in an effort to become more reflective, contemplative and in active rebellion against our cultural zeitgeist, I’m offerings some reflections (or thoughts) from the most recent book I’ve read—Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Although this particular reflection avoids some of the work’s major themes (e.g., friendship), I’ve decided to drill down on one theme that I’ve been pondering for some time now.
Great Expectations: A Synopsis [Spoiler Alert]
In case you’re not familiar with the book, I’ll give you my crude synopsis. A young boy named Pip who has been adopted by his aunt lives in a small rural town somewhere outside of London. The family is poor during a time when class distinctions based on socioeconomic status were much sharper than today. This is spelled out in the distinction Dickens’ often makes about someone being a “gentleman” (i.e., a wealthy educated man) as opposed to a normal person or “low” person. Pip, like most young country folk, is very simple-minded and has a good sense of morality. One night he runs across a prisoner who has escaped from a prison ship who is on the brink of death. He demands that the boy bring him a file (to remove his chains) and some food. Pip supplies the man’s needs generously at the risk of being caught by his sister for stealing. The man is extremely grateful since Pip saved his life. Later Pip is invited into the home of a rich old lady, which opens up the possibility of “great expectations” for him. Soon he is on the brink of the upper echelon of society and immediately begins to resent his old “low-life,” including his relationship with his best friend Joe—a brawny blacksmith with a tender heart. Eventually Pip is promised an inheritance from a wealthy but unknown benefactor, and his spending resultantly increases. Pip’s benefactor is later revealed as the prisoner who he aided when he was a boy. Pip’s “great expectations” are soon squashed as the former-prisoner shows up at his door risking Pip’s “gentleman-like” life. Pip comes to realize that his “great expectations” have not made him any happier than he was before as he reflects on his previous simpler life. Finally, instead of turning his back on his deranged criminal benefactor, he decides to help him escape out of the country. Although this effort fails, Pip changes as he learns to not abandon his true friends and to avoid the entrapments of wealth.
Mo Money, Mo Problems
Pip’s experience with wealth is a bit prodigal. Although instead of wasting away his inheritance on booze and women, he acquires a number of rich habits as he begins receiving an allowance from his benefactor. He’s no longer able to reside at his aunt’s house when in town. He must now stay at the luxurious inn. He can no longer inhabit the clothes of a workman. He must now dress like a gentleman. His fancy for food, jewelry, and furniture quickly become excessive. As he anticipates his forthcoming fortune, he acquires the spending habits of the rich although he is not yet wealthy. This obviously creates a number of problems. Regardless of the dissonance between his expenses and income, Pip eventually learns that wealth can create a lot of problems that those who lack it more easily avoid.
Before I dive into these problems, let me clarify what I mean by wealth in this instance. When I refer to wealth here, I’m referring to when someone easily has the access and ability to acquire more than what one needs (i.e., the majority of people reading this article).
First, when one acquires wealth he or she becomes vulnerable to losing it. It’s a psychological fact that the fear of losing something is a much more powerful emotion than the hope of gaining something. Consider all of the people’s lives who have been destroyed by the emotional impact of some form of loss. Second, once someone has a taste for luxury it becomes difficult for them stoop down to that which is common or cheap. This creates a dangerous cycle of need that can be avoided if one simply cannot afford luxuries. Third, wealth creates somewhat of a material vacuum that can seemingly eliminate a level of suffering and disappointment. It can in a sense function as a levy from the common human experience of suffering, discomfort, inconvenience, and need. The lives of those who are wealthy come closer to the experience of Nietzsche’s “last man” (if you’re not familiar with this yet, I’ll get to it later in the article). Although some believe this to be a good thing, it often creates weak, hedonistic, and selfish individuals. Each of these problems feed the others potentially creating a mess of a human being. This is not surprising when you reflect on the lives of the rich and famous, which there is no need to elaborate on.
The illustration that I wanted to create (but obviously didn’t) would have shown how wealth can create an evolution that leads to 1) degenerating character 2) personal fragility. The increasing need for more convenience, comfort, luxury and excess prevents one from experiencing the potentially character-altering effects that Pip experienced in the novel. Furthermore, all of these so-called benefits are completely external meaning that they are not in one’s own control. At any moment in time a person’s world could come crashing down if they lose access to these external perks. Regarding personal fragility, the absence of suffering and discomfort make the individual weaker and his or her happiness contingent upon that which is material. Much like the bones of some professional cyclists, the lack of stress makes them fragile and brittle. This not only makes one vulnerable to loss but also fragile to emotional upheaval or an emotional fracture.
The cryptic words of Christ regarding the rich man, the eye of a needle, and a camel are now becoming clearer. I’ve often thought, “why is Jesus so harsh to rich people? Why would he say that it’s almost impossible for a wealthy man to enter into the kingdom of heaven?”
The Wealth of Character, Market Fluctuations, and Offshore Accounts
But what if instead of jumping onto this downward path towards moral degradation and personal fragility, we jump onto an equally evolving path that leads in different direction. What if we fashion our own levies to shore ourselves from the entrapments of wealth? I’m not proposing that you find a job that makes less money or that you decide to become a vagabond. I’m proposing that if you have the capacity for any type of excess or luxury (which most of us do), then you should take steps to avoid the problems mentioned above. This could help you become less reliant on the volatile material comforts and convenience that wealth can generate. This could also produce more stalwart character and personal resilience. In a way it’s like securing the “wealth” of your character in an offshore bank—safe from the American tax system and the fluctuation of the markets. Furthermore, the more you take part in this evolution the more you may not only avoid the potential problems of wealth you might even flourish to an extent. This evolution can continue from fragile to resilient to anti-fragile where problems result in you becoming stronger as opposed to weaker. Although this is a bit idealistic, at the very least I’m proposing that we exercise our character before these market fluctuations happen or before you have pay your taxes (being a “contract” laborer sucks—instead of receiving a check (i.e., tax refund) you receive a bill of an unimaginable amount of money—maybe that’s why we’re discussing this in the first place—I’m obviously bitter). So maybe the solution is just that—exercise.
How do we do this? Maybe I’ll save that for another article. For now, I’m working towards really soaking up this idea of becoming more resilient to the potential destructive effects of wealth. I really want to get the “why” before I jump into the “how” so that I can have a sustained effort at this. To help us really grasp the “why,” let’s take a second to visualize something that I have found to be very helpful—Nietzsche’s “last man.”
Nietzsche’s “Last Man”
Friedrich Nietzsche is known for a few things: his incredibly large mustache, his statement that “God is dead, and we have killed him…”, and his supposed philosophical influence on the Third Reich. To quickly respond to these matters: 1) his mustache is quite large (see image below) 2) he did say this statement though not in some maniacal manner as most think he did, but instead it was much more of a statement of deep concern 3) after Nietzsche’s death his sister (a Nazi sympathizer) positioned his work in a way that seemed to support the Nazi cause, which it didn’t. He actually resented many of his closest contemporaries anti-Semitic and nationalist view. Whew! Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to Nietzsche’s “last man.”
Nietzsche’s last man is intriguing to say the least. He’s the antithesis to what Nietzsche calls the Übermensch or “overman,” which is what he proposes mankind should be striving towards. In his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the main character of the book Zarathustra ventures down from a mountain where he has lived as a hermit for the past 10 years. Now being enlightened, he resolves to share what he has learned with the populace. In an attempt to help them visualize why they should seek to become the “overman,” he describes what he calls the “last man.” Ironically the crowd falls in love with this “last man” as opposed to the “overman.”
The “last man” is a man who seeks comfort, convenience, and security while completely avoiding pain, suffering and risk. He values harmony and unity while devaluing individuality and social hierarchies. In Nietzsche’s mind he is weak, comfortable, and spineless. The “overman” on the other hand takes creative risks. He is willing to endure suffering to accomplish something great. He exhibits the “will to power” (a loaded term for Nietzsche) courageously accepting reality and pushing through difficulty to make the world better. Nietzsche feared that after the “death of god” people would seek to become the “last man,” and that science, technology, and wealth would generate an environment where one could become the “last man.” Nietzsche’s “last man” greatly resembles Aldous Huxley’s society in A Brave New World. The eerie final lines of the book will forever ring in my own mind as the young man’s body hangs after he loses hope and is ridiculed by a society made of up individuals very similar to Nietzsche’s “last man;”
“Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east…”
These chilling words paint a picture of someone realizing that life as the “last man” isn’t really a life at all. They brush the strokes of someone grasping that suffering cannot be meaningless. The question that we must ask ourselves is—“do we want to become like the “last man?” Do we really want to live in a society made up of people only seeking to maximize their levels of pleasure and minimize their levels of suffering? Would life without suffering, difficulty, achievement, creativity, and striving be meaningful? Or would it be empty—like the empty carbs of a Krispy Kreme donut that gives a sweet rush before quickly leaving you with a headache and an empty stomach. Even if we found a way to avoid “the sugar crash” (much like Huxley’s A Brave New World), would it still be good.
Krispy Kreme: To Eat or Not to Eat?
Wealth can offer a number of the benefits that the “last man” would enjoy: convenience, the absence of need, comfort, and pleasure. All of these are not bad in themselves—for the most part they are actually great. Yet if they are enjoyed too liberally, they may become problematic. I’m not encouraging you to not enjoy wealth and life to the fullest. Please do! Drink it up and savor it! Enjoy it! Instead, what if we just “work out” every once in a while, exercising our will through suffering, discomfort, and inconvenience even if it’s not forced upon us? Maybe “get in shape” so we can eat that doughnut. Just a thought.