No, the title is not a joke. Please indulge me for this morning. I have a need to rant about things that are a bit off the beaten path. I won’t be able to get to trivia such as world wars and the banality of evil until it’s off my chest.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. — Samuel Johnson
Then either I’m a blockhead, or the celebrated Dr. Johnson was a soulless boor. (Pipe down, you in the peanut gallery shouting “Why not and?”)
The tropisms of Man are few. Abraham Maslow identified most of them accurately. While they do fall into a priority scheme, the strength of the “later” ones is easy to underestimate. This is often the case for those who haven’t yet met the “earlier” ones adequately.
I had a bit of difficulty phrasing the above sentiments. The primacy of survival doesn’t render it absolutely more important than self-actualization; it’s merely the one that must be addressed first. Dead men don’t have the time or energy to work on improving themselves.
Among the glories of the United States of America is that its attainments in the material realm have made it possible for men to seek attainments in the non-material realm: knowledge, wisdom, and beauty. These things are at the top of the Maslovian hierarchy. When our society is functioning properly, each man chooses a path by which to travel from the lower levels of the pyramid to the top. While not everyone “goes the distance,” those who do can create further glories by which others may be gratified, comforted, or inspired. Among the ironies of our time – yes, yes, and many other times and places as well – is that there is a gaggle of persons, who often call themselves “reformers” or “idealists,” who seek to destroy the base of the pyramid in the name of “equality.”
The height of a civilization is measured at its pinnacle, not at its base. We don’t judge the classical civilizations by their middens, but by their greatest achievements. Should Mankind perish, whoever comes after us will do similarly.
“I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. – John Adams
We’ve become a race of engineers. What we never seem to understand is that after it’s time to railroad, there’s time to build a beautiful railroad. – John Varley
It’s easy, and graceless, to disparage “engineers,” by which I mean those who create, build, and maintain the physical comforts of our society. People in the arts do so frequently, seldom pausing to reflect on the criticality of those comforts to the very possibility of their pursuits. But it’s equally easy and graceless for “engineers” to disparage the arts. Why strive for an ever higher, ever more secure standard of living if there’s nothing else to achieve?
Yes, yes, there are persons, and many at that, who don’t “do” beauty. They too have their place, as with Sandburg’s nail. But they can appreciate beauty when they come upon it. They who create beauty labor as much for those unable to do so as for their peers. And the most perceptive of their tribe will frequently come upon a thing of beauty which at first might be taken for a mere contrivance or convenience, a grubby little artifact made to complete some chore. And they will celebrate it as a thing proper to their pursuit quite as much as the works of their own minds and hands.
I recently acquired something beautiful. Here it is:
Why yes! It is a gun. A Ruger American Ranch rifle, to be precise. Bolt-action, removable magazine, chambered for the .223 Remington or 5.56 NATO cartridge. And yes, it could be used to kill. As I purchased it used, it’s possible that its previous owner did kill something with it, though I doubt it. The .223 round isn’t the best for taking down significant game, and bolt-action rifles aren’t suitable for self-defense. None of that diminishes its beauty.
This rifle expresses beauty in material terms quite as well as any Rodin sculpture. It’s a simple mechanism, in the best sense of the word simple. It has every feature it needs to perform its design function: i.e., to propel a bullet downrange accurately. It has no features that don’t conduce to that end.
If I were never to fire that rifle – never to put it to any use whatsoever – it would still be beautiful. It epitomizes elegance in design and fabrication. It is as good, and as appealing, a thing as can be made for its purpose. And that is one of the reasons I bought it.
I labored for many years as an engineer. Those labors equipped me with both the means and the insight required to appreciate and celebrate beauty. Now that I’m retired from my material trade, I can put what I earned in those years to creating beauties of my own. Whatever monetary profit I might make from doing so is essentially irrelevant.
“This love, you say, comes only once while the hross lives?”
“But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; then he rears them; then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom.”
“But the pleasure he must be content only to remember?”
“That is like saying, ‘My food I must be content only to eat.’ ”
“I do not understand.”
“A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.”
[C. S. Lewis, Out Of The Silent Planet]
The pinnacle position of the Maslovian hierarchy embodies a certain ambiguity. What does it mean to “self-actualize?” Different persons answer the question differently. A friend of mine, a brilliant engineer with an incredible range of skills, does so by building model train layouts – and yes, they are beautiful. (They’d better be; otherwise his wife wouldn’t allow him most of their house for the purpose.) Another friend, a retired priest, has plunged deeply into the intellectual / scholastic part of Scriptural exegesis. He hopes to elicit even more significance, even more beauty, from the writings of the Judean and early Christian eras.
Those men are highly “self-actualized”…in the more usual terms, highly fulfilled. Their lives’ work, much of it mundane and some of it even unpleasant, has brought them to a point in space, time, and circumstance where they can give themselves over to the full-time pursuit of beauty. They get no material reward for their efforts. That the media through which they pursue it are wholly different is irrelevant.
My chosen medium is storytelling. I have a modest readership. Ironically, the bulk of my readers live in other nations. I write for them, yes, but principally for myself: to satisfy my desire to make something meaningful and beautiful. For me, that is “self-actualization.”
Even though that’s clear to me at the moment, there are times when I lament the relatively small number of readers I’ve attracted. But that’s no better a measure of “self-actualization” than the precision of a statement of the speed of light in furlongs per fortnight. I wrote this piece in large measure as a reminder to myself. Apologies for inflicting it on you, Gentle Reader.
But I digress. (Yes, I do it a lot.) In any man’s life there comes a peak: a point of highest achievement. He cannot know when it will come. Indeed, he cannot know whether it has come. Mine may be behind me already. Sometimes I ponder that possibility, with a wistfulness you may imagine. But I continue in the hope it might yet lie ahead.
Back to Dr. Johnson’s idiocy: If you are engaged in doing something because of a paramount desire for material gain, you’re likely to slough other considerations. In particular, you’re likely to embrace the “not good, but Tuesday” ethos of production above all other things. They who labor to earn know that pressure.
But if you are under no such pressure, you have been given a great gift: the gift of time. It’s yours to use as you please. My engineer and clerical friends above have chosen their media, as I have chosen mine.
So I strive to write beauty. I do the best I can with it. I want every sentence to be perfect: i.e., to express perfectly exactly what I have in mind as I craft it. That’s why it’s taken me nearly thirty years to complete a mere nineteen novels. No, they’re not perfect. They contain numerous imperfections. But that’s life as a mortal, fallible man under the veil of time.
Just a few early-morning thoughts. For a little more along similar lines, please read this essay by writer John C. Wright. On the other hand, if you’ve already had as much as you can stand…have a nice day!