I have been reading The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck. It is the chronicle of a six week marine specimen collecting trip around the Sea of Cortez. While describing the adventure, he frequently ascends to philosophical rumination about creatures, humankind and the universe. This morning I read the following:
There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man—a viewing-point man—while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. When such a viewing-point man thinks of Jesus or St. Augustine or Socrates he regards them with love because they are the symbols of the good he admires, and he hates the symbols of the bad. But actually he would rather be successful than good. In an animal other than man we would replace the term “good” with “weak survival quotient” and the term “bad” with “strong survival quotient.” Thus, man in his thinking or reverie status admires the progression toward extinction, but in the unthinking stimulus which really activates him he tends toward survival. 1
The passage hits home for me as I am the sort that falls into the “weak survival quotient” category. I have often thought, a little despairingly, about my inability to make a solid enough living to enable me to pass on my genes to a new generation.
But there is something wrong with his analysis. In earlier passages of the same chapter, Steinbeck talks about how powerful families don’t often remain powerful beyond a few generations and sometimes don’t last one generation. Comparatively, the power of Jesus and St. Augustine and Socrates has extended across a multitude of generations (for better or worse) and inhabited the minds of far more people. Our concept of what power is might be inadequate. Spiritual and intellectual accomplishment is remembered far longer. Oligarchs are memorable mostly to the communities directly affected by them. Who talks about Aristotle Socrates Onassis anymore?
In my thinking and reading of late, I am finding that the very qualities of the “strong survival quotient” are the ones that plunder the planet and exploit human beings; a system that values and rewards destructive instincts, not constructive ones. As Steinbeck suggests, we have known since the beginning of recorded thought what constitutes good and bad, but have failed for just as long to put “the good” at the center of how our societies function.
We are not very far removed from our primal selves it seems. Steinbeck speculates this may be part of the problem. He wonders if we were ready for consciousness:
Perhaps no other animal is so torn between alternatives. Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness. 2
A recent New Yorker article on Wendell Berry finds him echoing Steinbeck’s conception of human beings as two legged paradoxes:
The following year, he marched against the Vietnam War in Lexington, where he told the crowd that, as a member of the human race, he was “in the worst possible company: communists, fascists and totalitarians of all sorts, militarists and tyrants, exploiters, vandals, gluttons, ignoramuses, murderers.” But, he insisted, he was given hope by people “who through all the sad destructive centuries of our history have kept alive the vision of peace and kindness and generosity and humility and freedom.” 3
Steinbeck has some things to say about hope too:
It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies infect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grows toward perfection; animals grow toward man; bad grows toward good; and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to live.4
We are a puzzling species. Full of hope for better. Full of desire that continuously draws us to the worst. How we overcome ourselves is a question for the ages.
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p80 ↩︎
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p72 ↩︎