The second 2012 Berry Lecture in Public Philosophy last night featured my old friend Rob Talisse, co-author of Reasonable Atheism and author of eight other books in his first nine years at Vanderbilt, according to John Lachs’s introduction). His topic: “Must Life be Tragic?”
It is, of course, for us humans, if we just mean that we’re going to die and we know it. None of us will achieve all that is worth achieving. We can dream of far more than we can ever attain, in a finite lifetime.
But Talisse meant to say more than that. He is a quick, aggressive, insightful, iconoclastic thinker. His thesis was in part that pluralists (like me), who hold “value”to be varied and incommensurable, make life even more tragic for ourselves by acknowledging a greater plurality of uncompensated unique goods than does the non-pluralist who thinks that “value is one big thing.”
But note: as Talisse is defining the term, a philosopher like John Stuart Mill is a non-pluralist: value for him is one big thing, namely utility (or pleasure, or happiness). The way I typically use the term, Mill is a pluralist. How could he not be? He was William James’s hero, an exponent of liberty and eccentricity. They always entail variety, often of the incommensurable type.
But that’s another conversation. What most intrigues me this morning is the implication that I make my life more tragic because I acknowledge that I might have traveled other roads in life, might have pursued other goods than those available to a professional philosopher. Those other goods are whispering to me: “I ought to be pursued by you.” But I’m a finite human, I can’t have it all. And that adds a layer of tragedy beyond the impending loss we all must anticipate, by virtue of our intrinsic mortality.
I find it strange to think of merely hypothetical (though possible) goods laying claim on how I apportion my days. It’s the other way around, seems to me: we all make claims on the world. Claims are mirrors of desire, which the world apart from us entirely lacks. But Talisse says that view commits a kind of “value phenomenalism” he finds objectionable. Still another conversation.
So, let’s pretend I could have become a great St. Louis Cardinal. But instead I chose to stay in school and eventually became an academic who occasionally writes and talks baseball but will never fulfill that old childhood dream of playing it at the highest level. I’ll not make it to Cooperstown, not even as a writer/sage. A few have, but I’m no Grantland Rice. And there are no plans to open a philosophy wing at the Hall of Fame. They do host an annual academic symposium there, in which I did participate once, but that’s not the same. I’ll do my thing again this month at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, but that’s not the same either.
So my life is thus, on Talisse’s telling, more tragic than if I were to renounce the pluralist line. I could then silence that annoying, nagging whisper: No, I’m pursuing my highest good right here in the philosophy department. I ought not to have chased that illusory baseball dream.
Instead I have to say that philosophy and baseball were for me incommensurable, heterogeneous goods. I can never know that one was my optimal good. I must always fret that my choice cut me off, permanently and ineradicably, from my best life. So whatever life I’ve lived or might have, was inevitably going to be tragic for its renunciations.
But: is the hypothesized fact that I could not be a philosopher and a great ballplayer, but had to choose and may have chosen the wrong incommensurable good, really so tragic? Isn’t the greater tragedy of life, beyond mere mortality, the fact that many of us fail to achieve many complementary goods that we need not renounce, that were “compossible,” but that we’ve simply and contingently failed to secure?
I can be a good philosopher, spouse, dad, friend, neighbor, humanitarian, philanthropist, amateur athlete, whatever… but for whatever failures of will or imagination or industry or ambition, I end up achieving only a subset of those goods. I never really lose a moment’s peace thinking about the games I haven’t played. I do sometimes fret about missed opportunities I can’t possibly blame on my choice of vocation.
But it’s March, it’s Spring Break, it’s Spring Training! It would be a personal tragedy not to enjoy it at least as much as I enjoyed Rob Talisse’s lecture last night.