Los Angeles Guitar Quartet: Pachelbel Canon in D (the "Loose")
This Is Not My Opinion Of Evangelii Gaudium

Walker Percy, thou shouldst be living at this hour

This appeared one day last week in Dear Abby:

DEAR ABBY: I read the obituaries in our local newspaper every day to see if someone I know has died. But when I don't see any familiar name, I feel let down and disappointed. Is that weird? -- STILL ALIVE IN SAN DIEGO

Here's the heading for number 9 in the series of self-help questions posed in Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos:

(9) The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self--though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill--in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossp about Neighbors getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

And "Abby"--actually not the original Abigail Van Buren, who was actually not herself the WASPy-sounding Abigail Van Buren but Pauline Esther Friedman, but rather Pauline's daughter Jeanne Phillips--replies as follows:

DEAR STILL ALIVE: People read the obituary section for various reasons, including the fact that some of the deceased have lived very interesting lives. Some do it hoping they won't find their own name listed. If they see the name of an acquaintance, they may feel sadness at the loss or sympathy for the family, knowing each death leaves a hole in someone's heart. But to feel "let down" seems to me like a lack of empathy, and in my opinion, it is weird.

Which I think Percy would also have enjoyed.


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But would he have thought it was weird? It's just what he would have expected.


Exactly. That's what I mean--he probably would have loved seeing this straight-up instance of exactly what he was talking about, followed by the conventional demurral. And I suspect he would have suspected that if Abby looked closely enough at her own inner life she'd find at least some traces of the weirdness there.

It's not (I know you know this, but...) that Still Alive actively wants other people to die, but that the news that they have makes her own life suddenly somehow more interesting.

Several possibly relevant quotes from La Rochefoucauld:

There is something in the misfortunes of our best friends which does not wholly displease us.

We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others.

If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.

The evil that we do does not attract to us so much persecution and hatred as our good qualities.

Those who know their minds do not necessarily know their hearts.

People are often vain of their passions, even of the worst, but envy is a passion so timid and shame-faced that no one ever dare avow her.

Whatever care we take to conceal our passions under the appearances of piety and honour, they are always to be seen through these veils.

The first and fifth are especially apropos.

There is something in the misfortunes of our best friends which does not wholly displease us.

The first time I saw this I laughed, partly because such a blunt, cynical admission is simply not done, but also because of the sudden jolt of recognition that he's talking about me.

But that's OK. It's a common trait and I'm not too bad on the schadenfreude scale, especially not with real friends. More importantly, I'll try to better myself in this and other respects, and a clear-eyed, brutally honest look at one's self is a necessary first step in the process.

I've known some people who probably do genuinely intend to make themselves more decent, ethical and kind, but they skip that crucial first step--and generally seem pretty low in psychological self-awareness--so their efforts at self-improvement come to naught.

One guy I knew presented himself in an ostentatiously righteous manner while actually being dishonest, egotistical, underhanded and selfish. IMHO, knowing a lot about scripture, philosophy and other specifics of ethical theories, theology, metaphysics and such is not enough. One must also be psychologically self-aware. I suspect the "righteous" guy fully bought his own sales pitch or, at best, was very dimly aware of his negative traits. Hence the danger of these types:

Those who know their minds do not necessarily know their hearts.

Please pardon my excessive chatter.

knowing a lot about scripture, philosophy and other specifics of ethical theories, theology, metaphysics and such is not enough

There's a 17th-century Chinese ghost story about a scholar who rents a house. It transpires the house is haunted, although nobody was aware of the fact (the ghost being a retiring sort), and the ghost, liking the scholar's quiet ways, reveals himself and suggests that if they kick up a fuss about the house being haunted, the owner will sell it for less than it is worth and the scholar can live there permanently. The scholar is horrified at the suggestion, rejecting it immediately as unworthy. The ghost apologises, saying "I only suggested it because I saw all those works on ethics amongst your books. I didn't realise you were a man of upright character."

That's wonderful. Especially apt now, when we have people formally designated as "ethicists" who are often a menace to humanity.

Excessive chatter is welcome, Gary.

In the context of Lost in the Cosmos, Percy doesn't seem to me to be referring only to schadenfreude itself, but to the vacancy in the self that makes one susceptible to it. In a bit from that same chapter which is too long for me to quote here, he describes how one's unease at the good fortune of a friend might be dispelled by the news that an earthquake has leveled Manhattan.

Paul: That's a funny story, and right on point. The self-righteous fellow I mentioned was not lacking in knowledge or intelligence, and could bloviate at length on the most obscure points of theology. Yet all this formal learning did not seem to enhance his wisdom or improve his character much--especially not the inflated sense of self-importance/entitlement, which I think was the source of the other flaws.

BTW, this is yet another reason why I think raw intelligence is grossly overrated.

I appreciate your patient hospitality, Mac.

"...Percy doesn't seem to me to be referring only to schadenfreude itself, but to the vacancy in the self that makes one susceptible to it."

This might be getting deep. I need to ponder this. Clearly a person who enjoys the misfortune of a friend feels some kind of deficiency that is lessened by seeing the friend knocked down a peg or two, thus evening the score a bit. And since a friend's success only worsens the deficit, it will resented. But I suspect Percy means something more general than this by "vacancy in the self."

I'm just glad that I've been able to provide my best friends with so much pleasure this year. ;-)


Thank you! :-) I have to say it wasn't actually much fun, though.

I take it you haven't read Lost in the Cosmos, Gary? It's really worth checking out. Percy's ideas are pretty striking and not easily summarized. And the book is a whole lot of fun.

"raw intelligence is grossly overrated."

Indeed it is. It's a great thing, but it's only a tool. The smartest group of people I've ever been around were the electrical engineers I worked with for a while. They had more raw intellectual horsepower than most of the academics I've known. But they were not especially wise. (I was not one of them, btw--I was a software guy, and they looked at us with a certain condescension.)

This is becoming a bit of thing with me, arguing against the alleged wonders of high intelligence, since there seems to be a kind of fetish for the thing. High intelligence is a potentially powerful tool, but one that can be useless or even very destructive when unaided by other virtues including, but not limited to: common sense, industriousness, persistence, honesty, courage, and humility. If raw intelligence by itself were so wonderful, how could it be that some of the dumbest ideas emanate from some of the smartest people?

A surprisingly large percentage of the most screwed-up people I've encountered have also been among the most intelligent. If you've got a mind that stubbornly refuses to admit error, rationalizes away anything that doesn't fit your worldview, allows to accumulate an ungodly jumble of inconsistent ideas and insists that abstract theory trumps concrete facts, then your 140 IQ is not going to save you. In fact, it can actually work against you (eg really clever people can--and do--sometimes generate the most amazingly complex rationalizations rather than simply face the truth head-on and deal with it).

In case you haven't yet seen it, I highly recommend the article Clever Sillies - Why the high IQ lack common sense.

"I take it you haven't read Lost in the Cosmos, Gary? It's really worth checking out."

Thanks for the recommendation, Mac. I know I've seen it, and maybe even read some parts of it, but don't recall much else. I'll have to get a copy of it.

Gary, It can also be a hook that the enemy of our souls uses to war against our faith. He uses it to get us into these long, intricate debates with ourselves about some point of doctrine or other and we think that because we are so intelligent that if we can't explain it to ourselves rationally, we can't believe it. And we can never win these arguments because he's so much better at it than we are.


"And since evolved common sense usually produces the right answers in the social domain; this implies that, when it comes to solving social problems, the most intelligent people are more likely than those of average intelligence to have novel but silly ideas, and therefore to believe and behave maladaptively."

Ha! That's great. I don't have time to read the entire article but I like the abstract.

"...useless or even very destructive..." e.g. the modern professional ethicist who tends to be inordinately keen on undermining tradition and/or religious ethics. Peter Singer. Scott Adams (Dilbert) is unquestionably a very smart person, and much of Dilbert's humor involved logical traps and conundrums. But the other day he was in the news for expressing the wish that anyone opposed to euthanasia would die slowly in agony.

Janet, I often think of your "evil lunatics" characterization of certain unmoored philosophers.

Janet, I'm aware that you, Mac and others here are devout Christians, but I'm not religious in any organized or disciplined way. But--contrary to the current trend where the un-religious are often quite hostile to religion--I fully respect your faith and peruse some of the religious discussion here, perhaps in the hope of gleaning some wisdom I can use.

So I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and comment thoughtfully. I certainly am the kind of person whose mind spins "intricate debates" and cannot believe almost anything without powerful evidence and/or ironclad argument. I've sensed a kind of quiet, generous peace emanating from some of the Christians I've met and suspect you and Mac are this sort.

May this be a joyous Christmas, AMDG, for you, your family and friends.

I hope we are, and thank you very much. Same to you.


"Ha! That's great. I don't have time to read the entire article but I like the abstract."

That's fine. It's a good abstract that well summarizes his thesis. He focuses on "social problems" but I think his ideas are much more general, applying to any situation in which conclusions based on common-sense and experience (and intuition?) are superior to the often silly results one obtains by starting from some (usually arbitrary or slightly askew) assumptions and then rigorously reasoning your way forward. Real life situations are almost always too subtle and complex to be adequately captured by formal mathematical reasoning.

Professor Singer imagines his brilliant mind will outdo the Ten Commandments. I don't think so. Some of his ideas would be laughable if they weren't so vicious.

As to Scott Adams: now there's a thoughtful, nuanced and tolerant view. Also not very funny.

Evidently he must be extremely brilliant, having deduced that there is absolutely nothing of value in the view that human life is sacred and that there are serious dangers in the devaluing of such life via euthanasia.

PS Mac, I appreciate this venue and the excellent exchanges with you and others, but am getting self-conscious about the volume of stuff I'm spewing forth. So I hope you don't feel obliged to respond to my posts (though I certainly welcome it), especially not during a busy holiday season. A very merry Christmas to you.

Thank you, Gary. Those are high compliments. Your discussion is most certainly welcomed. My participation is sometimes limited by other things going on in my life, but I can assure you I read and think about everything discussed here. Tomorrow, for instance, I'll be gone all day.

"I certainly am the kind of person whose mind spins "intricate debates" and cannot believe almost anything without powerful evidence and/or ironclad argument."

I can very much relate to that. I would describe my own tendency a bit differently, but it's similar: there is no powerful evidence and/or ironclad argument for which I can't find *some* ground for skepticism. So, if I'm not to remain suspended forever, in the end I have to make some sort of conscious decision to choose to stop listening to that voice. Or to proceed in spite of it.

A very merry Christmas to you, too.

Just here very briefly - but now I know why I'm reluctant to share much of my misfortunes of recent years with others.

It accounts too, perhaps, for the feelings of shame which many grieving people feel.


Not that I came here to be negative! :)

I don't have but a second, either, but I think I know what you mean.

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