Here’s a question for all you people pondering resolutions for the New Year to think on: when does a positive characteristic become a negative trait? Okay I’m sorry; it’s December 27th and everyone’s feeling hung over still from too much whatever on Christmas and Boxing Day to want to have to deal with heavy philosophical questions, but think about it for a moment when you’ve got a clearer head.
Think about all the virtues we extol that can be turned on their heads to become character flaws when taken to excess. To be honest this isn’t even that new an idea; it’s actually one of the oldest concepts in Western thought. The classical Greeks were the first to come up with the idea that there could be too much of a good thing.
They had a term for it, logos meaning balance. Placing too much emphasis on one characteristic or trait would cause an imbalance and lead to disaster. Our word logic, which if you think about it means balancing ones thoughts, derives from it, but logos is a concept that can be applied to all aspects of life, not just thought.
In his Poetics Aristotle defined tragedy as a hero being defeated by his own tragic flaw, which was a characteristic taken to an extreme. Ambition is thought of as being a positive attribute, it encourages us to try and succeed in life. But in the play Macbeth too much ambition is the downfall of both the title character and his wife. They obsess with ambition to the extent that their lives are dominated by it until nothing else matters. They are out of balance.
Our word moderation is probably the nearest equivalent we have in contemporary language to expressing the concept in one word. That and temper seem to be the words we use to reign people in when they appear to be going to excess in one way or another.
What this is all leading up to, you knew it had to be going somewhere didn’t you, is the concern that we are living in a society that has increasingly been out of balance. This is not in terms of who holds the reigns of power or who controls the money, but how positive traits that were the foundations of our society have become detriments to the over all health of our world.
The greatest strength of the free market capitalist system has always been the power of the individual. Whether the entrepreneur who starts a business from scratch and turns it into a growing concern that provides jobs and boosts the economy, or the artist who creates a stunning work of art.Without them our society would not have succeeded.
Unlike the so-called communist states like Soviet Russia and China, which have suppressed the individual for the good of the state, and in the process crushed original thinking, we have allowed it free reign. There is no denying that it has stood us in good stead and allowed for the creation of a lot that is great and wonderful.
But there comes a time when the needs of the individual do need to be tempered by the needs of the society as a whole. That’s what laws are for, to ensure the protection of one individual’s rights from another. For the longest time there was what seemed to be an unspoken social contract as well that governed behaviour, which kept a balance between the needs of the individual and what was good for the world around them.
But in the last twenty or so years that contract seems to have been gradually forgotten with individuality beginning to be confused with selfishness. Not just selfishness on the personal level of refusing to give to charity or something like that, but in the sense of an every person for themselves attitude becomming all pervasive through-out society.
From the corporation that lies through it’s teeth about dumping chemicals so it can scoop a few extra dollars into the pockets of it’s board members to politicians cynically appealing to people’s selfish nature to win votes. Sure that type of behaviour has been going on for decades, but that’s the problem. We have reached the saturation level.
There used to be some tempering of this behaviour on the part of individuals and organizations. But their influence is getting less and less as the years pass. How many Enron’s are out there which we will never find out about? How many other bosses are lining their pockets at the expense of shareholders and workers and cooking the books to hide it?
When did it become more important to make an extra million dollars than to keep three thousand jobs in North America? How much longer can it be pretended that the world is t an infinite resource supplier and that we won’t run out of fresh water and fresh air? When did the rights of the individual become confused with I don’t care what happens to everyone else as long as I get what I can out of the world?
Is this just the inevitable outcome of capitalism run amok without checks or balances, or is something deeper and more ingrained? As it gets harder and harder to make ends meet, for an individual to hold onto a job, and for a business to compete does some primal survival instinct become triggered that blinds us to anything but our own well being?
Both those play a part in it to be sure, but in some ways they are symptoms not the cause. While the importance to the individual cannot be denied the problem is that we place far too much stress on individual goals and achievement from an early age. There is very little balancing of it with how to use those personal achievements for the advancement of society or even the greater good.
Maybe it’s taught in the schools, but look around at the mass media today and the glamour magazines chock full of stories emphasising the wonders of being a star. All these reality shows are about becoming a star. Everybody should be striving for individual glory so they can wind up on the cover of “People” or “Us” or the equivalent.
People now want to have fame just for the sake of fame, not for having done something spectacular. We can lay the blame at the feet of Andy Warhol if we like with his idea that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but he was commenting on the situation not promoting it.
If everyone one is the centre of the universe with everything revolving around them, there’s not much room for anything else in the world is there? Hundreds of millions of little individual galaxies bumping into each other without ever really making contact doesn’t make for much of a community.
When does the line between individual fulfillment and selfishness get crossed? When does preoccupation with meeting ones own needs become a detriment rather than a positive? Pop psychology would have us believe that by taking care of ourselves we are taking care of the world, and there is some truth to that sentiment. The healthier we are the better we can contribute to the world around us.
Unfortunately our preoccupation with self and individualism has reached a state of imbalance with our concern for the rest of the world. The increased polarization between nations, religions, and political thinking is a sign of how we are rapidly closing our minds to all but ourselves. My way or the highway is synonymous with the selfish mind.
It is important for people to have their own individual goals and aspirations. That’s the engine that drives creativity and development. Without individuality some of the world’s greatest works of art and inventions would never have happened.
However Western society has forgotten how to temper individual need with an understanding of the greater good of society. Too many decisions on a myriad of levels are made on the basis of what’s in it for me instead of considering the wider implications. As a society we are living dangerously out of balance in seeking to satisfy our own desires at the expense of the world at large.
The cost incurred for this self-indulgence grows on a daily basis. Unless we are careful we will soon find ourselves with a bill that we will not be able to pay.