Humans like to bottle up knowledge into simple narratives. Stories to be told around the campfire or to help us understand the world. Our conception of history is shaped by two grand narratives which sweep beyond their remit to inform our politics and society as well. The fall from grace and march of progress do make for appealing stories, but with one major caveat. They aren’t real.
I seek to read and learn widely, building an understanding across a wide range of areas in order to understand the world I live in. If you’re willing to trawl the internet widely enough to find this blog, then that probably applies to you as well. But what good does all this knowledge do us? Does understanding the dynamics of society improve our lives if we lack the power to change them? Is the ignorant worker-drone who spends his leisure time with mindless entertainment more at peace and happier than one who understands his problems yet cannot solve them?
We are all free to choose our own purpose, our own values and to make our lives our own projects. In a world without godly codes, everything is permitted and it is up to us both as individuals and as members of the greater mankind to decide what is good and just. Our own choices and actions demonstrate what we see as good, and our society’s conception of ‘good’ is the sum of our individual choices. So far, so Jean-Paul Sartre. But most of the folks who make up our society don’t ever actually consider their values or examine their lives the way a bourgeois philosopher might. How many amongst us have ever really considered the meaning of their lives beyond simple surface level goals?
For most of us, our values aren’t defined by a heady contemplation of ethics – we muddle along and try to make the best of the limited information which is readily available. At best, our ethics are informed by looking at parents and role models, at worst by simple osmosis from the society in which we are immersed and only in the case of rare individuals through active contemplation. So if, as Sartre asserts, “everything happens to every man as if the entire human race was staring at him and measuring itself by what he does”, what happens when the bulk of people are not actively choosing, but merely being swept along in their unexamined lives?
I’ve always been keen to do work that I find intellectually challenging and worthwhile. If you have to spend half your waking life working, you should make the best use of that time and do something which will be worthwhile, both in terms of a useful outcome rather than a bullshit job (yes, its the Graeber piece, and yes, I’m going to keep linking it forever) and in terms of personal growth. Or at worst, one of the two. But it seems like I’m in a substantial minority on this, judging from the incredulous reactions I get to the idea of intellectual stagnation in a career. I’ll address that point once I get around to writing my treatise on intellectual stagnation and our society. But for now, I’m interested in looking at whether enough additional money can be sufficient to make up for a job which is unfulfilling.