Long Views and Short Views
Is shorter better?
The long views of philosophy are not to everyone's taste. If not bored, many are depressed by the contemplation of death and pain, God and the soul, the meaning or meaninglessness of our lives. They prefer not to think of such things and consider it best to take short views. If the contemplation sub specie aeternitatis of one's daily doings drains them of seriousness, one is under no obligation to view them under the aspect of eternity.
Is it best to take short views? Sometimes it is. When the going gets tough, it is best to pull in one’s horns, hunker down, and just try to get through the next week, the next day, the next hour. One can always meet the challenge of the next hour. Be here now and deal with what is on your plate at the moment. Most likely you will find a way forward.
But, speaking for myself, a life without long views would not be worth living. I thrill at the passage in Plato’s Republic, Book Six (486a), where the philosopher is described as a "spectator of all time and existence." And then there is this beautiful formulation by William James:
The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man. (Pragmatism, Harvard UP, 1975, p. 56)
I wrote above, "speaking for myself." The expression was not used redundantly inasmuch as it conveys that my philosopher’s preference for the long view is not one that I would want to or try to urge on anyone else. In my experience, one cannot argue with another’s sensibility. And much of life comes down to precisely that — sensibility. If people share a sensibility, then argument is useful for its articulation and refinement. But I am none too sanguine about the possibility of arguing someone into, or out of, a sensibility.
How argue the atheist out of his abiding sense that the universe is godless, or the radical leftist out of his conviction of human perfectibility? If the passages I cited from Plato and James leave you cold, how could I change your mind? If you sneer at my being thrilled, what then? Argument comes too late. Or if you prefer, sensibility comes too early.
One might also speak of a person’s sense of life, view of what is important, or ‘feel for the real.’ James’ phrase, "feel seriously," is apt. To the superior mind, ultimate questions "feel real," whereas to the shallow mind they appear pointless, unimportant, silly. It is equally true that the superior mind is made such by its wrestling with these questions.
Maximae res, cum parvis quaeruntur, magnos eos solent efficere.
Matters of the greatest importance, when they are investigated by little men, tend to make those men great. (Augustine, Contra Academicos 1. 2. 6.)
Of course, with his talk of the superior and the shallow, James is making a value judgment. I myself have no problem making value judgments, and in particular this one. Evaluation is unavoidable. Condemn it and you do what you condemn.
Although prospects are dim for arguing the other out of his sensibility, civil discussion is not pointless. One comes to understand one’s own view by contrast with another. One learns to respect the sources and resources of the other’s view. This may lead to toleration, which is good within limits. For someone with a theoretical bent, the sheer diversity of approaches to life is fascinating and provides endless grist for the theoretical mill. If the theoretician is a blogger, he has blog-fodder for a lifetime.
As for the problem of how to get along with people with wildly different views, I recommend voluntary segregation.