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Lives Of Meaning Versus Lives Of Amusement: A Useful Dichotomy

December 11, 2007

I hate false dichotomies. When writing or thinking, I make every attempt to avoid them. The world is generally too complex to reduce things to two. This error is also sometimes called a “false dilemma” or “bifurcation fallacy.” I learned of them as dichotomies, so I’ll stick with that phrasing.

When reading the works of others I’m always ready to pounce on any perceived false dichotomy. It’s mostly unconscious, but I sometimes feel like a bloodhound. If fallacies are a philosopher’s weapon of choice when deploring another’s work, then identifying a false dichotomy is like cutting the legs from under your opponent. Your opponent won’t be able to move in defense; he or she will have to reconstruct their argument or lose your audience.

With my own hang-up in mind, I cautiously submit to you an argument containing a dichotomy. It comes in the form of an editorial written by by Louis Rene Beres [right] for the Chicago Tribune. Beres is a professor in the Political Science Department at Purdue University.

I present Professor Beres’s piece because it resonates deeply with my educational and familial experience. I feel connected to the article both in terms of my own history, and as part of my experience with the world around me today.

Titled “The Few, The Proud, The Individuals” and published December 9, here are excerpts from the piece with my interspersed commentary:


– “We Americans now live with an entirely reasonable fear of terror. Yet we seem to express little apprehension about a very different species of threat — not the sort of peril that arises from politics, violence and ideology, but rather from inside.”

TL: I’m not sure our fear of terror is always entirely reasonable. That aside, I agree with the implicit sentiment that we, both individually and collectively, might be our own worst enemy.

– “Today, while an entire nation does worry dutifully about the nature and direction of future attacks on the homeland with bullets, bombs or microbes, there is precious little evidence that any of us is seriously worrying about becoming ‘mass.’ “
– “What do I mean by mass? It is a leveling collection of persons in which each singular identity has been sacrificed at the altar of group conformance. Essential individual identity is lost.”

TL: This has the faint air of the Frankfurt School, a school of thought with which I share a great deal of sympathy.

– “Once upon a time, each American’s objective was to become an individual. Even long after the philosophical reign of Emerson, Thoreau [right] and the American Transcendentalists, an ethos of ‘rugged individualism’ remained an integral part of the culture.”

TL: While I agree that individualism is a prominent characteristic of U.S. citizens in general, I disagree with the “once upon a time” statement. In fact, the ethereality of the statement’s introduction fits my view of the generalization.

Aside: The same day’s Tribune contained a review of Philip F. Gura’s American Transcendentalism.

– “Young people especially strove to rise meaningfully, not as the viscerally obedient servants of raw commerce, but as authentic owners of their own discrete futures.”

TL: The young only? The past tense of strove implies a period, I believe, but to what period is Professor Beres referring? What particular, historical American youth culture strove to “rise meaningfully?”

– “Now, submission to multitudes has become our true state religion. A pervasive and general resignation prevails, a far-reaching surrender of personhood that augurs badly for democratic institutions, national survival and individual dignity. Look only to the still-expanding uniformity of pop culture, compulsive consumption and public education.”

TL: I believe there is some truth to this, but the danger of the “submission to multitudes” lies in the size of multitude under consideration. This reminds of the sentiment, bandied a few years back, that the United States has become a nation of variously sized tribes. But if your tribe consists of 3-4 people, how dangerous is your groupthink? This aside, I do worry somewhat about the uniformity of our popular culture/s. In this way I have a lot of sympathy for the Frankfurt School’s critique of Western mass society and its intersections with capitalism.

– “Mass defiles all that falls under its spell. Charles Dickens [right], while on his first visit to America in 1842, uttered prophetically: “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example to the earth.”

TL: This reminds me, I’ve been meaning to read Dickens’s American Notes for some time now (assuming that’s the source of the quote).

– “Currently, we Americans have successfully maintained our political freedom…but we also have surrendered our liberty to become authentic persons. Openly deploring
a life of meaning, we confuse wealth with success and noise with happiness. The unmistakable purpose of all this delirium is to keep us from remembering ourselves.”

TL: I agree with the sentiment, but disagree that it must be conflated with radical or rugged individualism. And I don’t believe that what the Transcendentalists intended either.

” ‘The most radical division,’ said Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset [right] in 1930, ‘is that which splits humanity into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties, and those who demand nothing special of themselves.’ “

TL: I’ve been in love with Gasset since reading The Revolt of the Masses many years ago. But on the quote, clearly approved by Beres and underscored here by me, constitutes a useful dichotomy in my experience. It is not a lazy/hard worker split, but an attempt to put into words the difference between, as Gasset says, “make great demands…and those demand nothing special” (italics mine). Many people do the minimum; few demand a great deal of themselves.

– “In 1965, Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel [right] offered an almost identical argument. Lamenting that “The emancipated man is yet to emerge,” Heschel then urged all human beings to ask themselves: “What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”

TL: I feel very ignorant. I had never heard of Heschel, nor ever seen his name referenced, before this editorial.

– “As opposed to the ‘mass,’ the ‘few’ contemplate these questions. To become few was, for Heschel, a sacred responsibility. Living in yet another moment of existential peril, we must resist camouflage and concealment in the mass. Courageous individuals who will risk disapproval for the sake of resisting mass now offer America the only republic worth saving. Otherwise our culture will remain obsessed with celebrity scandals and the dreary pornography of voyeuristic gratifications, such as the mobs at pro football games that scream out for cheerleaders.

TL: Readers of H&E might feel inclined to ask the kinds of questions of themselves that Heschel poses. But how can you and I motivate others to think more deeply about their purpose in life or their obligations, Kantian duties?

– “Today, the American mass seemingly wants to remain mass. A good portion of the few now even wishes to be blended with the mass. In essence, genuine excellence in America has become something to be shunned, an embarrassment, and a naive and archaic goal that stands annoyingly in the way of ‘progress’ and personal fortunes.”

TL: The “seemingly” in the first statement allows me to stay with Beres. I agree—although I have no proof, only anecdotes and impressions. But is Beres forgetting that the pursuit of excellence comes many guises? It’s not a question of whether a particular excellence is “genuine,” but rather whether its of wider or lesser value to the common good. I have a brother who pursues excellence in automobile restoration. It’s a genuine excellence, but I’m not sure of its broadest significance (he’d agree).

– “To join the few, each interested American must first wish to separate himself or herself from the demeaning ideas that intellectual achievement is measured by academic test scores and that personal importance is determined by frank imitation and unbridled consumption. Gorged with bad food and enchanted by bad taste, we Americans now literally amuse ourselves to death” (italics mine).

TL: I love the Neil Postman reference because I believe it’s true of a great many of us. I have not read the book, but I too feel the need to be watchful of my leisure. It need not all be of the amusement variety.

– “Living in a society where reading difficult books is taken as arrogance and where universities are more comfortable with ‘branding’ than with independent thought, we have forgotten Heschel’s injunction to hold ourselves sacred.”

TL: As a critical (meaning, not reactionary) fan of the great books idea, I can verify the sentiment that many perceive one’s love of challenging fiction and non-fiction as arrogance.

– “This division of American society into the few and the mass is not an elitist division into vanity-based polarities — rich and poor, educated and uneducated, black and white, native and foreigner — but a separation of those who are spectators from those who seek involvement.”

TL: This sums up my thinking quite well. And Beres comforts me by acknowledging the false dichotomies of American society. Too many perceive the actions of those who challenge themselves as elitist. Getting involved can be something as simple as asking questions. In a university setting, it means attempting to view your classwork as more than a step towards a credential and money. Plus, in an education setting, getting involved means getting what you pay for.

– “In the plainly absurd theater of these United States, there no longer are declared protagonists. There are some actors, to be sure, but the play is generally about chorus. Look at the way we steadfastly refuse to expend any serious intellectual efforts or to acquaint ourselves with any demanding literature. The malls are always full (our economy even depends on it), but our libraries are usually empty.”

TL: But is the problem structural, in that our society doesn’t adequately reward those who really pursue virtue, or punish those that pursue vice? What if we gave tax credits to those who purchased books, or attended lectures (not just in academia)?

– ” ‘The mass,’ said Ortega y Gasset, ‘crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.’ “

TL: There does exist this tendency, both in the U.S. and abroad. How does one balance social cohesion and fostering common culture with excellence? My answer, in part, is to tweak common culture into democratic culture. Raise the standards of common culture.

– “Today, in craven deference to the mass, the intellectually and culturally unambitious not only celebrate the commonplace, they openly proclaim and spread our American ethos of mediocrity as the most enviable form of democracy. The candidates we currently select as presidential aspirants are the perfect example. Not one would be capable of leading our declining nation in this era of unique peril.”

TL: While I sympathize with the first sentence, I disagree with the last two. The current political system in the U.S. does force us into a kind of false dichotomy in each election. But I wouldn’t say that any of our current batch of presidential candidates—Democrat and Republican—celebrates mediocrity.

– “None of this is an argument for traditional aristocracy. It is not a call for hierarchic separations based upon considerations of wealth or birth. It is instead a plaintive cry that we now demand more of ourselves, as empathetic Americans, as persons, as thinkers and as a people of courage.”


There is a final section, where Beres encourages the few who with intelligent, individualist stances and pursuits of excellence, to simply maintain. You can read that at the Tribune‘s link.


Why am I posting this? Do I believe we can all be easily separated into those who pursue lives of meaning and those who live only for amusement? No. Nonetheless, I see this as a useful and not false dichotomy. I observe people everyday, and remember many from my adolescence and college, who seemed only to seek amusement. They were never bored, and they were not lazy in their pursuits. They even challenged themselves. But the energy and challenges they pursued never seemed to have a priority, to involve deeper understanding and the search for deeper meaning.

And it’s not that I don’t believe in amusement. I’ve spent many an hour watching the Cubs and reading Tolkien, for the umpteenth time—but those hours were respites from deeper pursuits. My gripe is with those who make amusements their ends, who confuse the eddies with the deep river. You can be an individual and still intelligently challenge yourself.

I began this post discussing the notion of a false dichotomy. I hope I’ve avoided the pitfalls of that fallacy. The dichotomy forwarded for your consideration is, I believe, a real one.

I suspect that most H&E readers truly challenge themselves. I have little doubt that you are pursuing lives of meaning. What can we do to help those around us? Can we do it without offending? – TL

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