This Hegelian Life

I’m a big fan of the second movement from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. There’s a great scene from the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown where Schroeder plays through the entire piece, coupled with a psychedelic animation sequence. I’ve liked this piece ever since watching this movie. (As a side note, I like imagining the scrunched up noses that the studio executives made upon hearing that there would be a 5 minute classical music interlude in this children’s movie that they were paying for. Hopefully there are still filmmakers out there who are willing to take a chance on weird artistic choices like that.)

Later in life, I started taking piano lessons, which gave me an opportunity to learn to play this piece. I found that my piano teacher had a very close relationship with this piece of music as well. When I told her that I wanted to learn the second movement from the Pathétique, she immediately took my sheet music from me and proceeded to mark it up with her pen. The markings did not seem to have much to do with playing the piano. At the beginning of the piece, I saw that she had written “BIRTH,” and at the end, “DEATH.”

“This piece is like the passage of life,” my piano teacher told me. Her interpretation: the first notes are played with the image of a baby passing into consciousness, opening its eyes, and taking its first steps. Later in life, the safety of childhood is left behind, and the tone becomes dark and tumultuous as life’s various challenges are confronted. In old age, those challenges are relegated to the past, and a sort of resignation and contentment sets in instead. And then life comes to a close, ending with a tone that is strongly reminiscent of how it began. Experiencing the Pathétique in this way is very moving for me. As the piece comes to an end with the beginning motif, you really get the feeling that the music is in sync with some sort of natural order, a cycle that has been repeated a countless number of times, and will continue on long after you play the final notes of the piece and take your foot off the sustain pedal.

In this idea of life as the Sonata Pathétique, life is defined by a sort of template, or a form, which probably involves generic accomplishments such as getting married, having kids, etc. So I guess in this worldview, a life is judged as being “good” according to the degree that it adheres to the structure imposed by this template. This idea is tied to a related idea of what a “good” society is; a society can be called good to the extent that its structure resembles that of some sort of ideal form.

This view of life seems to me to be ancient, although maybe it’s not. While this view of life is still important in our culture, I feel that its influence has waned in favor of a more modern ideal of the “good life” — which is to say that, it seems like the idea of what a life should look like has shifted in tandem with how our idea of what a society should look like has shifted. I think that the modern idea of society originates with Hegel’s idea that history is directional. Just as a disclaimer, I could see myself being completely wrong about this and the following statements, but whatever.

The directionality of history contains the idea that society as it exists is imperfect, but it is constantly improving. The ideal society doesn’t exist as a template, but rather as an abstract ideal, which is defined as a comparative — as something that is “better” than what we have today. I think this idea of progress is basically at the foundation of what we consider to be a “good” society. The clearest, but by no means only expression of this in our society is the idea that there will always be economic growth. Under this idea, a society is good if it is wealthy. It is assumed that a society will experience economic growth, pushing it closer to its goal of wealth. This is an assumption underpinning a shocking proportion of decisions that our society makes. Interestingly, though I don’t quite understand this concept, apparently money originates not at the point when it comes off the government printing press, but at the point when banks make loans for interest, so in essence, the very concept of money necessitates growth.

In any case, translated onto a personal level, this Hegelian worldview means that a life path is not good insofar as it fits into some pre-defined template. Instead, a good life is directional, and is constantly improving, moving towards some definition of “success.” What this means: education as a series of levels to be cleared, each level increasing your access to success. A job, and then a different, better job. Another skill you can check off on your LinkedIn profile. Income increasing every year, home value increasing every year, stock investments growing in value, 401(k) growing in value. Each stage of your life measured in terms of how much you have improved on what the previous generation had.

The benefit of this Hegelian lifestyle would seem to be that it gives everyone the freedom to pursue goodness, even those people who would otherwise be excluded from a more traditional, pre-determined sort of life ideal, which can often be discriminatory and exclusive. The downside seems to be that, due to the lack of clear destination, people can use the pursuit of success as an excuse to indefinitely put off achieving anything like contentment. If the whole goal of life is improvement, this obviously conflicts with the idea that many people quietly carry in the back of their minds that “when I have X and Y, and I’m finished with Z, I will finally be content.” There is no clear concept of what “enough” means in this worldview.

Of course this is all assuming that this sort of constant improvement is even achievable in practice. Often it seems like people who have met all of their needs still suffer anguish solely due to the fact that their life paths do not really fulfill this ideal of improvement. How realistic is it really to live up to the pressure of always improving upon your parents’ achievements, and improving upon your own achievements each year? It also seems like we are hitting up against hard limits to growth that are imposed by the size of the planet that we live on. So we are facing both ecological and psychological constraints to this idea of constant growth.

Obviously there are a lot of interesting opinions on what an alternative to the growth mindset could look like for society at large. But on an individual level, it is really hard to know what the alternative to the pursuit of growth and improvement could be. A lot of us recognize that the constant improvement mindset is bankrupt, but we either can’t or won’t return to a more ancient ideal of a templated life, and without those guiding ideals life seems to be aimless and directionless in a way that is very anxiety inducing. And taking advantage of this vacuum of philosophy is an endless stream of self-help gurus, lifestyle bloggers, political agitators, garbage content streams…

I guess the only thing we can conclude is that figuring things out can be pretty hard. So let’s cut ourselves and others a little bit of slack, and try to stay warm over the Holidays, and rejoice, because why not?