Hamlet & Human Nature

Program for a nineteenth-century production of <i>Hamlet</i>

Program for a nineteenth-century production of Hamlet

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What follows in this note and the linked essay below may be obvious to you. Maybe such things become more obvious to most of us the longer we live; and if, in living longer, we find ourselves among the fortunate who learn from our experience. I think the matter of decision-making prior to taking actions in our lives is worth thinking about to some degree, at least occasionally.

Doing so seems especially important in our teens. Or maybe later in early adulthood when we start to put in practice and test the ideas we learned, fully or partially, as teenagers. But, really, who among us ever did this in our youth? Rarely, except maybe when we were smacked between eyes by the reality of some stupid action we had taken, did we stop and consider what led us to such an action. And when we did we were seldom able to ferret out a good, useful answer from our under-cooked brains and the cauldron of hormones we were drowning in. That said, I think it is important from time to time – in our youth, in our prime, and in old age – to occasionally revisit our means of personal decision-making.

What is the point of such an effort? To become sagely wise? Very few of us become sages including first and foremost, yours truly. In fact, I’ve never met a sage and if I did or ever will I am not smart enough to know it. Should we study our moral decision-making because Socrates insisted that “an unexamined life is not worth living?” I don’t think either justification has merit or is inherently worth pursuing. Self examination should be attempted for good practical reasons and purposes. The Stoic Epictetus put it this way: “This, then, is the beginning of philosophy – an awareness of one’s own mental fitness.” More to the point, he said: “If you didn’t learn these things (the principles of philosophy) in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” In short, we should pursue wisdom and self-knowledge in order to become better persons.

As for you who have a means of personal decision-making you are satisfied with, or have no difficulty with the imperfect way most of us muddle through, I salute you. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m skeptical that the confidence and comfort you feel comes from a decision based on blind faith for the sake of making the anxiety of uncertainty tolerable, if not “go away.” I understand that. “Hamlet moments” of indecision over the serious matters arising in our lives are unpleasant. And the act of agonizing over these episodes solves nothing. I think for most people making these decisions is a practical matter. That is, make the best decision you are capable of at the time, in a way that keeps one’s stress level as low as possible, then just move on. I suppose, sooner or later, we all end up doing this.

But I sometimes wonder, is it better to be comforted based on such faith, or be practical and not agonize over our dilemmas, or to live in the ebb and flow of anxiousness from trying to truthfully, objectively stare the uncertainty of our moral decision-making in the eye? Maybe there is room for a full range of valid and viable approaches among Humankind. Maybe there always has been and always will be. Then again, maybe there is a way out of the recurring dilemma of whether to act or not, and if to act, in what way? To find out, let’s consider the main character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and an author and a reviewer’s respective views of him and his moral decision-making.

Hamlet & Morality – Where The Buck Stops

Is Hamlet the moral, decision-fearing weakling we were taught in high school or college? Was Hamlet no different from the rest of us at present?  That is, being too often overwhelmed when facing serious moral dilemmas – to be, or not to be; to act or not act? How is it many of us so often find ourselves blocked from making a decision about action on a serious matter because we don’t have, or refuse to avail ourselves of, a satisfying moral system to turn for help in making our decisions? For example, when someone finds no help in the rigid moral codes of religion, or secular reasoning such (including Stoicism), or the common sense of folk psychology? And in the end is left on his/her own, with only the question of what is best for ourselves and, maybe, for others? Then, finding our ‘self,’ by its very nature, torn between our personal needs for survival, virtue and self-respect on the one hand; and on the other the needs of other people – the moral obligation to honor our family and larger groups, and live up to that which others say a honorable person should do to be human?

All social animals often face and must resolve this dilemma. Sometimes the result has serious if not deadly consequences. That is, deciding what is best for oneself and/or what is best for the group. Humans, and perhaps all sentient social creatures, are born with and improve upon inherent capacities to do this. But each of us must resign ourselves to probabilities rather than guarantees that the choices we make and actions we take will benefit us and/or others appropriately.

Of course, during our respective lives some of our possible and actual choices and actions are better than others. But we can never know for sure beforehand, only afterwards. Even then, the outcome can be mixed as to its virtue or morality. That is to say, acting in a compromising manner that partially satisfies oneself and the other can be a disappointment to all.

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The Nguni Bantu peoples of southern Africa (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, & others) provide some insight on these matters. Their notion of ubuntu, “I am because we are” or “a sense of and appreciation for the humanity of others” is helpful. The Nguni take the long view – in your decision-making give first priority to what is best for the group not the self, that is, one’s family and one’s community. Their rationale being, if all give first priority all the time to the self, the group will eventually fail and disappear. When that happens there will be no more groups to give birth to, nurture, protect, and support new selves.

However, there is seldom a clear and unequivocal choice between what is best for me or what is best for us. Further, whatever decision is made or action taken, on all matters great or small, the outcome that is played out in our lives and among our fellows is for the most part beyond our control.

The book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness and a review of it “The Question of Hamlet” provide respective views on Hamlet’s decision making. Both consider the consequences of relying either on the groups’ moral systems or on his (our) personal, self-oriented needs. The author and reviewer both seem to argue there is no way to resolve the dilemma. That it is an endeavor each individual is bound to lose, especially when choosing what best suits the self.

Here’s my take. Your best chance to survive and possibly thrive is to learn the rules of the game, take the stage, make decisions and take actions you think best. Sometimes this will favor your own interests, other times the interests of your groups. Then, once your action is taken, respond to the consequences as best you can in a like manner. Maybe you will survive. Maybe you will flourish. Maybe not. In the course of your life, that being the evolutionary short term, consider if each action option matters to you, and consider what you see of your self living within the group after each of the options is taken. In the group’s life, the long evolutionary term, you and your decisions only really matter to the extent your actions help the group – to survive, to flourish.

Your thoughts?

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