A Choice Of Two Lives

"Is the erection of an illiterate man any less virile than that of a man of letters?"

-- Michel de Montaigne, In Defense of Raymond Sebond

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."

-- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

Imagine if, before being born, we were presented with a choice of two lives to lead. A preternatural entity -- angel or demon -- would give us a general description of each life, and then ask us which of the two we preferred. The choice would be all ours.

The first would be the life of the intellectual/philosopher, and would consist of reading and studying often, spending our adult life in a university, pondering all the big questions of existence, writing articles for academic journals (the kind nobody reads), and occasionally traveling. The prospect of being either rich or famous would be remote at best, and years of contemplation would yield few rewards and little or no recognition. The reward for this life would be attaining a few golden insights along the way, maybe being wiser than most people, occasionally experiencing what Einstein called "cosmic religious feeling."

The second would be the life of the garden-variety entertainer (actor or pop musician) -- rich and famous, successful and glamorous, handsome/beautiful and possibly quite happy. This is the life free of pecuniary worries, the life played out in Hollywood Hills and the Hamptons. The life, moreover, of grand and elegant soirees, of glitz and glamor, of constant media attention and adoration.

Which we would choose? Are there any good philosophical reasons for preferring the second life?

Most philosophers, from the pre-Socratics of ancient Greece right up to the American pragmatists of the last two centuries, would say no. They would tell us, variously, that intellectual pleasures are superior to material pleasures; that wealth itself can breed any number of vices, from avarice and hubris to the love and worship of power; that fame, like everything else, is fleeting, and the greater the earthly elevation, the steeper the eventual fall. They would remind us that the best things in life are either inexpensive or free -- sunshine, fresh air, recreation, good conversation, friendship, and (though not always inexpensive) love.

Recall, for instance, Voltaire's Story of the Good Brahmin. After spending a lifetime contemplating life's deepest mysteries, the Brahmin feels miserable because he hasn't solved a single big problem and is just as confused as he was when he started out philosophizing in his youth. He's told that his neighbor, a happy and contented woman, has never spent a day of her life musing over such matters as the nature of consciousness and the human soul. She believes in the ways of Vishnu and merely takes the routines of life for granted, not burdening herself with deep thinking.

What is the Brahmin's response upon hearing this? That her happiness is not the kind he prefers; that he would rather be miserable than trade places with the woman.

This position, however, has not been universally shared among history's sages. Michel de Montaigne, for one, questioned the usefulness of knowledge. He claimed to have seen countless ignorant working-men who were happier than those toiling away in the universities. He thinks that we are too quick to exalt knowledge, and that we do so always from a distance. In his chief work, In Defense of Raymond Sebond (New American Library ed., 1970), he has this to say:

"As humans we are marked by inconstancy, irresolution, uncertainty, grief, superstition, concern for the future, avarice, jealousy, disordered appetites which we cannot control, war, lies, treachery and curiosity. Without a doubt, considering the infinite number of passions which hold us in their grip, we have paid an excessively high price for what we glory in. We can take some satisfaction, of course, as Socrates does, in that we have one advantage over animals, that whereas nature has put limits to the seasons in which animals succumb to voluptuousness, it places no such limit on us and lets us have free rein in those appetites at all times, in all seasons...

"Of what good has the knowledge of many things been to Varro and Aristotle? Did reason free them from human ills? Did it free them from the sudden accidents such as those that plague a common porter? Did logic help their gout? In discovering how this humor lodges in the joints, did they feel the pain any less? Did they learn to come to terms with death because some peoples rejoice in it, and with cuckoldry because in some countries women are held in common? On the contrary, although we know that these two thinkers were outstanding among Romans and Greeks, we are not at all sure that they were particularly happy; we know that the Greek, for his part, had some trouble in erasing some particularly conspicuous blemishes in his life.

"Are we sure that pleasure and health are more savory to him who knows astrology [sic] and grammar?

"Is the erection of an illiterate man any less virile than that of a man of letters?

"Are shame and poverty less hard to endure?...

"In my time I have seen a hundred artisans and plowmen wiser and happier than rectors of universities -- and I would prefer to resemble those plowmen. Learning, I feel, ranks among those necessities of life such as glory, nobility, dignity -- or at best, such as beauty, riches and other traits which do indeed add to life but indirectly, and more because of what we imagine them to be rather than what they really are.

"We have no more need of offices, rules, and laws for our social life than do cranes and ants; and notwithstanding we see that these animals govern themselves without learning. If man were wise he would appreciate that the value of things is in proportion to the extent that they are useful and proper to life."