If We Were Free, Really Free...

"The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men."

-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It is interesting that when we speak of "the good life," we have in mind affluence rather than an existence that embodies certain humanistic ideals. The man who has earned a fortune speculating on foreign currencies surely has it good, but does the person of average means who is tending to the sick and the poor in Third World countries?

Most of us would say that the best way to attain "the good life" is "getting a good education." Someone "gets an education" because it is necessary for professional success. One's learning is vindicated by its usefulness, and its usefulness is determined by the marketplace.

It wasn't long ago, either in Europe or America, when the educated classes harbored an altogether different view. An "education" was a lifelong experience in and out of schools; the reward, no less than the aim, was knowledge. Money was seen as binding, not liberating. The whole of one's waking existence was not exhausted by work, and the good life didn't presuppose an economic measurement or materialistic standard.

In Hermann Hesse's Siddartha and Joseph Heller's Bob Slocum modern literature offers a fine contrast of the two perspectives. Slocum, protagonist of Something Happened, is a cynical, selfish, calculating businessman, ingratiating to his superiors, contemptuous of his subordinates; someone rather acquainted with the backstairs pettiness of modern business, with workplace lies, backstabbing, adulterous sex, dishonesty, meanness, avarice, self-loathing. An Andrew Fastow or a Jeffrey Skilling, only a little less wealthy. In one sense, he already "has the good life": an upper middle-class existence, a house in suburban Connecticut, an attractive and loving wife, a couple of kids, plenty of anodynes (booze, paramours). What he gains in social status and money he loses in freedom and self-respect. As the years roll by he is fused to his organization, which he half hates, and fused even more to the ethic of getting ahead. The man isn't happy -- in fact, in many respects he's miserable, and no one could distinguish his private musings from those of a full-blown neurotic. Something quite unexpected and profoundly sad happens to him at the end of the story. "Here's what our great American Dream amounts to," Heller seems to say after 400 pages of free associating.

Siddhartha, by contrast, was born into wealth, the son of parents placed high in the caste system. All the things Slocum spends a lifetime getting Siddhartha already has or can easily get: money, beautiful girls, mansions, manly respect, social prestige. But early in his life he is surfeited with these things, and he feels deep in his soul that something is missing, that something in all of this is hollow. One day he decides to give everything up, to reject the desirability of a privileged existence, to go off in the wilderness and see if there isn't any meaning in nature, in the companionship of total strangers, in the teachings and creeds of esteemed sages. Whereas Slocum renounces his freedom to stay in the game and pant after money, Siddhartha renounces his wealth so that he may gain his freedom. He knows that he may well end up poor, alone, disappointed, disillusioned, but the risk is preferable to spiritual impoverishment. The good life for him is an odyssey, a chance to wrestle with moral and philosophical problems, to ponder the meaning of all existence, to love and to learn.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that modern America lives in the mold of Bob Slocum, and that given a choice between an opulent life that is marred by numerous psychological agonies and that which is indigent but intellectually and spiritually robust, many here would unhesitatingly choose the former. There are obviously exceptions, and often we hear of someone stepping out of the business and professional world to spend years on a favorite hobby or cause: a multi-millionaire businessman retiring young and becoming an avid balloonist; groups spending all their time mountain-climbing or spelunking; inhabitants of the high-tech world leaving in their forties to become philanthropists, loving every moment of it; young adults foregoing a career to visit war-torn, disease-ridden places on the globe. Many, too, are wedded to their work, love what they do and wouldn't give it up under any circumstance.

But in the journalistic and professorial classes there are very few Siddharthas and Thoreaus -- few who would trade a materially secure existence and decent reputation for a chance to be a poor drifter and wanderer. All well and good to quote the Buddha, praise Thoreau, idolize history's nonconformists, but far sounder to live a comfortable bourgeois life. Again, generalizing a bit, I would say the greatest fear among my colleagues isn't poverty or even the unknown, but the prospect of becoming "a nobody" instead of "a somebody," of vanquishing the existential security that comes from living in the professions. The pay is good; the perquisites are better, and life replete with things isn't really all that bad, is it?

Most of us will live six or seven decades before heading for the exit -- scarcely a tick on the geological time clock. What would really be worth giving up? What adventure into meaning would justify saying "to hell with the corporation, to hell with the stupid media world and money!" Here is a tiny list:

1. We could retire prematurely for the sole purpose of reading good literature. People have done this. Famous people. At age 30, Joseph Campbell, the venerated mythologist, retired to Woodstock, NY for four years (an eternity when contrasted with the fiscal quarter) to read novels and poems and philosophy. Here is a passage from JC's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which I've discovered in An Open Life (ed. by John Maher & Denice Briggs): "Whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the Call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration -- a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand."

2. We could decide that our worth as intellectuals doesn't depend on an institution; we could become avid seekers like Siddhartha and Thoreau. Notice how in every walk of intellectual life man and his institutional affiliation are married. Someone isn't just an economist anymore; he's "the Chief Economist for JP Morgan Chase." Someone isn't a lowly philosopher; he's "the Emerson Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University." Recall that Santayana gladly left Harvard before the age of 40 and spent the last 40 years of his life alone in Europe (mostly in Rome), composing essays and books. He lived an abstemious life and was the happier for it.

3. We could decide that six or seven decades is way too brief a span not to let go of job title and salary in search of something bigger. In a mere twelve months we could study Italian, visit Tibet, take up the violin, read ten acclaimed classics of literature, bicycle from east to west coast, know everything there is to know about the oil industry, join the angriest anarchist mobs, experiment with mescalin or peyote, interview four or five world-renowned authors, become authorities on the work of Brahms and Mozart. Quite a long list...What stands in the way, other than an insipid imagination and a fear of standing apart from all that is safe and known?