Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. . . .
[Life] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
— Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
I’ve always liked this quote. Perhaps you have too. It sounds, well, deep, something that I ought to be thinking about.
The first part of it is too pessimistic for me. My yesterdays haven’t been any great shakes, but I don’t like to think that they have merely “lighted fools the way to dusty death.” Perhaps my son or daughter has profited by something I did or said. Heavens knows I gave them plenty of good advice, most of which they ignored. But that’s all right. Both are nice kids who have made good lives for themselves, despite their disregard of my wisdom.
But I like the second part: that life is a tale told by an idiot and thus signifies nothing. Of all the ways of describing life, that’s the one that is closest to my version. Philosophers call this existentialism. That is, life has no intrinsic meaning given to it by supernatural agencies, so you have to give it meaning.
I’ve given my life meaning, as you have, by doing things: drawing pictures, getting married, teaching, etc. I did some good things in my life, some bad.
You know, when I really think hard about it, I guess my overriding purpose was maximizing pleasure, minimizing pain. That word “pleasure” includes, for me, making a piece of furniture, running a marathon, looking at a great piece of art, loving my wife, and of course, the sensual pleasures of eating a cannoli and soaking in a hot tub. I’ve always assumed that most people, no matter what they say, feel much the same way.
I occasional violate the pleasure/pain principle by giving to a charity, helping a friend, and so on. Wait, now that I think further on it, perhaps the small frisson of satisfaction I receive when I do something good follows the pleasure/plain principle after all. I’m a bit confused.
I don’t know if there is an afterlife. I wish there were. I’d love to see my seven-year-old son who died of leukemia about 50 years ago. But I don’t think that will happen. It just sounds too improbable that when my brain, the source of all memories, becomes rich earth I will somehow retain those memories, missing a physical brain in which they once resided, in an afterlife, even if there were one.
I don’t particularly like to think that someday in the near future, my consciousness will be extinguished forever. But it doesn’t particularly bother me. It’s merely an interesting idea to consider.
I’m 81 now, and if the actuary tables can be trusted, I’ll probably live to about 90. I have no regrets because I don’t have much of a conscience. Like you, I’ve cheated, lied, stolen, and so forth. But not in any great amounts, probably not much more than you. Actually, I haven’t done much of those things since attaining adulthood. At any rate, my untroubled conscience doesn’t prick me when I think back on my shortcomings. I just don’t have much of a conscience.
In fact, as I look back now, there is only one episode that stands out that I regret: I mistreated a dog when I was a kid. Otherwise, I’m pretty much regret-free. Rusty, I’m sorry.
So that’s it. It’s perfectly obvious, I see now, that I’ll never make it into the philosophy hall of fame.Published in