Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness provides a fascinating rumination on the motivating mentalities behind our actions:
For my part, I think action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion…A life confined to what is personal is likely, sooner or later, to become unbearably painful; it is only by windows into a larger and less fretful cosmos that the more tragic parts of life become endurable.”
Perhaps unnecessarily cynical in its end, but Bertrand Russell joins the chorus of great minds noting the undesirable route of self-interest. Somewhat ironically, the often proposed remedy for this “unbearably painful” self-assertion is to pay greater attention to that self. This is in line with what many Asian philosophies have taught for decades, that an obsession with self, and its subsequent self-assertion noted by Russell, is a principle root of suffering. By studying that self intensely, it’s said that we can attain a more enduring well-being for both ourselves, and others.
Nourishing the diversity of interests beyond self-assertion is a role Russell attributes to culture:
Culture gives a man less harmful forms of power and more deserving ways of making himself admired.”
Taking this to an extreme, Carl Jung depicts the purpose of culture as an infrastructure supporting the pursuit of self-knowledge:
Attainment of consciousness is culture in the broadest sense, and self-knowledge is therefore the heart and essence of this process.”
The ‘purpose’ of culture is an interesting question. Should culture have a purpose? Or is culture just an incidental byproduct of its citizens’ behaviors? This probably dips into the difference between society and culture, and ultimately back to social contract theory. As a collective group of humans abiding by relatively shared norms and interwoven by our many shared institutions, are we, on the whole, aiming at something, or not?
I like Russell’s comfort in striving towards “windows into a larger and less fretful cosmos”, whatever that means. Maybe those windows are to be found though Jung’s self-knowledge?