QOTD (2009-09-20), and a Rant

From Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, in the section on Florence Nightingale:

As the years passed, a restlessness began to grow upon her. She was unhappy, and at last she knew it. Mrs. Nightingale, too, began to notice that there was something wrong. It was very odd; what could be the matter
with dear Flo? Mr. Nightingale suggested that a husband might be advisable; but the curious thing was that she seemed to take no interest in husbands. And with her attractions, and her accomplishments, too! There was nothing in the world to prevent her making a really brilliant match. But no! She would think of nothing but how to satisfy that singular craving of hers to be doing something.

Reader, I can relate. So much of my life recently has been a struggle not to feel guilt for not doing enough, for not putting the greater good ahead of my emotional (and intellectual!) needs as much as I feel that I ought to. Maybe the “general will” and “duty” and “freedom of the fully rational will” in the Rousseau and Kant and Hegel I’m reading in my political theory class is getting to me; maybe it’s just that I’ve made my activist bed, and now I have to lie in it. I have to actually comply with my own exhortations to action; I’ve adopted a community, and now I have to work for it. In the space of a year, I’ve gone from sitting around a lunch table bitching about the place to actually changing it for the better.

But at the end of the day, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life lobbying and writing emails and sitting through committee meetings and talking to people and doing the logistical organizing for events. Those things are really, really important, and I’m glad that people want to do them, and I’m glad that people continue. But I want to spend the rest of my life in the classroom and the library, and honestly, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. You can satisfy your long-term emotional needs, and still be doing something too.

In his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel outlines three forms of freedom (yeah, I know this is getting a little bizarre, for one of my posts. Bear with me). The first and most basic of these is the freedom of the immediate will, which is a sort of “life, liberty, property,” human-rights idea—the right to do what you want in your own home. The second is the freedom of the reflective will, which means making choices for yourself in accordance with a long-term vision of your personal happiness (e.g. if I judge that becoming a professor will bring me the greatest happiness, I should make choices that will result in my excelling at undergrad and grad school). The third, and according to Hegel, the highest form of freedom is that of the fully rational will, which holds that our freedom is embodied in the institutions of “ethical life”—the family, the state, and the civil society—and that to ensure our freedom we have to invest ourselves in and uphold those institutions, in so far as we judge them to be rational and moral (e.g. we might not have to live in accordance with a state that allows slavery, or a family structure that condones domestic abuse). However, each of these three forms of freedom builds on the others—they’re all necessary when it comes to being and acting as a free individual.

Now, this may seem like a total tangent and just a rehashing of my professor’s lecture last Thursday, and you’re probably wondering, “How does this connect back to Florence Nightingale, and what the fuck is Emily going on about?” But I’m inclined to read the Hegel like this: there is a side to living as a fully realized individual which involves acting in accordance with what will further the greater good of society and its institutions, and there is a side which involves acting in the way that will best further your own personal happiness. These are both constituent parts of Hegel’s freedom; they’re both necessary.

And so if, like Florence Nightingale, you’re going to assign a moral value to “doing something,” the best way to go about this is to ensure that “doing something” will result both in furthering your own personal happiness and the greater good. I haven’t finished the Strachey, and his take on Nightingale is obviously different from the folklore we get in school, but we learn about her today in terms of the greater good she served—not in terms of who she was as a person, and what her idea of happiness might have been. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing that we care so much about how selfless she was; selflessness (very obviously) implies that there is no “self.” No identity. No personhood. And if that’s what doing something entails, well frankly, I’m not too sure I want to be identifying with Nightingale and her desire to be constructive.

I went to talk with someone today about some administrative issues, and I wound up sitting in her office for over an hour ranting at her about all this stuff. (Well, I didn’t bore her with tales of Florence Nightingale and Lytton Strachey and Hegel, but the gist was the same.) It was then, taking up the poor woman’s time with my still-so-teenlike angst, that I realized I really need to get a grip. But you can babble about 19th-century intellectuals all you like, and still go to bed wondering what you’ve done all day that’s made the world a better place. My desire to become more culturally literate (as I sit in precept or at meals every day so very aware of the enormous gaps in my knowledge) is having it out in my head with my desire to become just a shell inhabited by a desire to fix the world, and it’s enough to make me want to move to Canada permanently before I explode. (In Canada, after all, we have marriage equality and much less sexism in politics and government health care and multiculturalism and French and beautiful scenery and a Conservative party that isn’t convinced that Armageddon is nigh.)

I don’t think I can keep going on like this. I feel as if one side is going to win out sooner or later—but I dread the guilt I will be consumed by when this happens, and the lingering fear that I won’t have made the right choice.

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