The Elimination of Disappointment

“Human societies have a peculiarly wide latitude for deterioration because of one of their characteristic achievements: the surplus above subsistence. Once this proposition is extended from the social to the individual level, a fresh meaning can be given to the rather tired saying errare humanum est or ‘To err is human’. Ordinarily understood as an invitation to forbearance for an occasional mistake, the saying can be totally reinterpreted to mean that mistake-making is an exclusive faculty of humans. In other words, the meaning of the saying is not ‘to err is only human’, but ‘only humans err’. In all of creation, only man is empowered to make mistakes and every once in a while he or she does use this power to the fullest. Lichtenberg, the eighteenth-century German scientist and aphorist, pointed to this meaning when he wrote: ‘To make mistakes is also human in the sense that animals make few mistakes or none at all, with the possible exception of the most intelligent among them.’ If it is accepted that mistake-making is the inevitable counterpart of the very rise of man above subsistence and animal existence, then another inevitability follows: that of regret and disappointment resulting from the errors of one’s ways which were surely paved not only with good intentions, but with high expectations not to make mistakes. So much for the possibility of ever conquering disappointment. But supposing even it were possible, would the elimination of disappointment be desirable?

“While a life filled with disappointment is a sad affair, a life without any disappointment may not be bearable at all. For disappointment is the natural counterpart of man’s propensity to entertain magnificent vistas and aspirations. Is this propensity unfortunate and irrational? Given the certainty of death (for one thing), what would life be without the ever renewed production of such disappointment-yielding expectations and aspirations? In other words, the ‘cost’ of disappointments may well be less than the ‘benefit’ yielded by man’s ability to entertain over and over again the idea of bliss and happiness, disappointment-bound though it may be. As a friend of Don Quixote exclaims after the Knight of the Mournful Countenance has been cured of his madness, close to the end of his life:

“God forgive you for the damage you have caused everyone in wishing to return to sanity this most amusing fool! Don’t you realize, Sir, that the benefit that might accrue from the sanity of Don Quixote will never come up to the pleasure he gives us through his follies?” (Albert Hirschman, Shifting Involvements, 1982.)

We Are Still Growing

“The plays of Shakespeare marshal themselves in the beyond. They stand in a place outside of our deduction. Their cosmos is greater than our philosophy. They are like the forces of nature and the operations of life in the vivid world about us. We may measure our intellectual growth by the new horizons we see opening within them. So long as they continue to live and change, to expand and deepen, to be filled with new harmony and new suggestion, we may rest content; we are still growing. At the moment we think we have comprehended them, at the moment we see them as stationary things, we may be sure something is wrong; we are beginning to petrify. Our fresh interest in life has been arrested.” (John Jay Chapman, A Study of Romeo, 1899)

Impossible Without This Mixture

“We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only one kind, what would he have to say? He must know how to use them together and blend them. And so must we do with good and evil, which are consubstantial with our life. Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one element is no less necessary for it than the other. To try to kick against natural necessity is to imitate the folly of Ctesiphon, who undertook a kicking match with his mule.” (Montaigne, Essays, tr. Donald Frame)

Two Classes of Creatures

“For there is no doubt that the most radical division that is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it 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, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.” (Ortega y Gasset, 1930, The Revolt of the Masses)

Not by Length

“The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it. It lies in your will, not in the number of years, for you to have lived enough.” (Montaigne, I:20, 67, Frame)