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January 5, 2012 / theslowblitz

A reasonable look at temptation

It is common in this time of the year to come across longing for change and the outward burst of motivation to do so. It is also common to come across commentaries on how these resolutions are doomed to fail by our very human natures. It is often the case that having laid out the reasons we fail, the same authors then prescribe means to circumvent our animal natures and achieve our human potential.

They are all missing the point.

They assume that only the desires of our higher nature are genuine. They assume that losing weight, writing that new book, and other noble goals are truly desired. What we truly desire is best demonstrated through action, and simple observation of our actions show this belief to be entirely unjustified. It might be said of such observations that they are incomplete. We may act in one way while desiring another.

Our thought processes count too – the same thought processes which exhort us to put off our plans for another day and instead watch Big Brother. We are neither willing to act upon our noble desires nor deny these ‘lesser’ desires. Procrastination and rationalization is the end result.

I will not deny that most people view a life of sloth as wasteful and almost sinful. Sins such as sloth, anger and greed cause great angst amongst those who possess them and view them as such, which is why we repeatedly attempt to exorcise ourselves of these demons. At the same time, that we are repeatedly unable to cast off such ‘sins’ suggests that they are more a part of ourselves that we like to admit.

We cast ourselves as heroes in a battle between reason and temptation, forgetting the services of our sins. Laziness defends us from unwarranted effort, and has many times been the mother of invention. Procrastination protects us from risk. Greed ensures the survival of our own. I do not mean to claim that these vices are good in and of themselves, but the case against them is less than clear.

A more reasonable depiction is of different desires arising in different circumstances. The birth of a new year harkens a time of change, and our innate drive for self-improvement is stoked. After returning home from a long day at school, we wish to rest, to conserve and rebuild our resources, so we spend time in cognitively undemanding activities.

Torturing ourselves over a desire that is natural is not only painful; it is meaningless. We cannot lie to ourselves over what we truly desire. The very act itself raises our awareness of the deception, and all the more we aim to fight it. When we desire to change, we shall change. Virtue, as well as vice, is embedded within our natures. Desiring meaning, we soon tire of spending our lives in a meaningless way, if only we allowed ourselves the full freedom to do so.

When we refuse to allow ourselves such freedom, we lock ourselves into an unwinnable conflict with ourselves. Every petty vice will remind us that we are the lesser for these desires. If we may not win, we may then admit defeat. Weakness is my nature. Those strong in will live an existence above my own. I find myself in loathing of such worldviews.

If not through fighting vice, how then may we be for the better? Yet, what is meant by the ‘better’? This question has dogged the greatest minds since the golden age of Greece. We treat it as if it were a simple matter.

It is becoming more attractive, scoring that scholarship or improving our relationships. It is whatever happens to be prized and celebrated by the people around us. The sense of achievement, recognition and respect we draw from these imaginary triumphs convince us that these are our one true goal. We adopt these prized traits into our narratives, and they provide a bulwark of stability in our lives.

At the very core, these identities are nothing more than social values fully integrated into ourselves without us ever realizing it. The ancient Greeks prized heroism and martial values. Its children dreamt of the day they would fight to win honour on its battlefields. The Victorian elite valued dignified self-mastery, and so the noble men of the day aspired to be gentlemen. The same applies to our values today.

There exists no empirical reason to uphold such values.

Vice and virtue exist as unequals only in the eyes of society, which benefits from the latter and is hurt by the former. Inevitably we tend towards the latter, having been shaped by society to prefer its views. I find such a state of affairs preferable to a society without such guidance, but if such belief causes meaningless suffering, I see only benefit in an awareness of its fundamentally imaginary roots.

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