10/12/2014

On the saying "Alisifuyejua, limemwangaza", Roger Scruton, and Stephin Merrit


"Alisifuyejua, limemwangaza" is a Kiswahili proverb meaning "the sun shines on the one who praises it".* I like it a whole lot; it says a couple of things about human happiness. (I admit there's a suggestion of positive-thinking woo to it — as if the world responded causally to devotion — but I encourage you to discard that in favour of the following):

    1. People are the loci of value; value is produced by the interface of minds with certain parts of the world; it is not written into just us or the order of things.

    2. Receptivity, responding to stimuli, is needed for value to exist.**

    3. Misery can destroy much of the lived world.

Other things I take it to not be saying: "Fake it til you make it"; "misery is the fault of the miserable"; "hope is enough to be happy". (The conditional is: if not receptive, then not value. The amount that our receptivity is under our control is the key question. But it will take some odd psychology work to capture that particular variable.)


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But is generalised levity possible, or desirable? There is an old current of thought dead set against it (I call it "lacrimism", to go with the ancient but newly motivated doctrine "deathism"). Roger Scruton can always be counted upon to piss in the beer with style: he believes that ubiquitous wonder and joy is either impossible or would make us swinish idiots, "a kind of postmodern individual" he doesn't want to be seated next to at a dinner party:

Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is... The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.

There is reason to listen to this, but more reason not to heed it. Not least because lacrimism is self-fulfilling: if no-one believes that it is possible to have good life without suffering and vice, it can never become possible. This sounds idealistic, but I think its counter-quietism is inherent to science:

the greatest enrichment the scientific culture could give us is... a moral one... scientists know, as starkly as any men have known, that the individual human condition is tragic... But what they will not admit is that, because the individual condition is tragic, therefore the social condition must be tragic, too... The impulse behind the scientists drives them to limit the area of tragedy, to take nothing as tragic that can conceivably lie within men’s will....

- CP Snow



Scruton as Merritt's protagonist.


* (Or more literally "Whoso praises it, is in sunshine".)

** I think you can sensibly distinguish 'receptivity to good' from hope, and hope from expectation. Or, I hope so.

(There's an actually interesting political-theory discussion of being receptive as the key to most good things here.)

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