044 - On Class And Philosophy - Moral Letters for Modern Times
You say that you come from humble origins, that your family was lower middle class at best, as if this had anything to do with your ability to mine your reason and become truly rich in happiness! Philosophy cares not a bit for your social class. Though your family may be rich or impoverished in money and circumstance, we are each born with the same inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Think how much better your situation is today than humankind throughout most of history, a third or more of whom toiled in slavery. To become wealthy and powerful was the province of kings and generals, and even these could never rest easy because they could lose everything in a moment’s weakness. Today we are born free, and we are free agents, able to direct our attention where we would like and to reap the consequences of our actions. That which we create with our own hands and by our own effort belongs to us, which none can take without due process of law.
If you wish to climb the ladder of social mobility, Deuteros, there is no better time to be clutching the rungs of progress than today. Your own career bears out the proof of what I say. Though you were born to poverty and obscurity, you have risen to your current position of prominence through your own hard work. It is your own efforts you should applaud, for which of your ancestors labored alongside you in getting you to where you are today?
Go back down the family tree of mankind, and you see that we all share a common ancestor. Do you want noble blood in your family? Look but a bit further and you will find your kingly kinship. But take little comfort from your royalty, because you will also find all manner of rogues and scoundrels among these relatives, who wreaked havoc and destruction on humanity. If you wish to bask in the reflected glory of others’ deeds, you must also accept to be doused in shame and remorse from their misdeeds.
No, it is our great luck and our greatest burden that philosophy holds out to us the exact same opportunity, regardless of birth, gender, class, or wealth. Truly the way is open to all, though few tread these paths and fewer march confidently in a consistent direction. “The good fortune I understand,” you say, “because I see that we all have potential. But why do you say our opportunity is also a burden?”
Responsibility is both wonderful and terrible, Deuteros, depending on whether you take it. To take responsibility for yourself and your progress gives your life meaning. Nothing makes an achievement sweeter than knowing it was hard-earned. But look how many shirk from responsibility, from the consequences of their thoughts and actions. Because we live in an age of peace and prosperity, a person can choose to be idle, to be uninspired.
But to be average in your ambitions when others excel, where no one has forced your hand, is to know that you could have done more. Thus, people either willfully ignore their promise, or are weighed down by their potential. This can be more damning to their spirits than if freedom was taken from them against their will. For in the latter case, at least their lot is not their fault, and they are freed of the burden of responsibility.
Let me give you a final reason why you should be happy for your modest social origins. Those born to privilege are surrounded by fine things in their cradle, and their tastes quickly grow accustomed to rich fare. Great is the risk they will set out on a path to maintaining their status and wealth. How many will have cause to question whether wealth consists in things? And if they never question the wisdom of their choices, but blindly pursue prosperity, why should philosophy hold any appeal to them? Though they amass wealth and power, they remain unsatisfied the whole while, and worst of all, do not know why.
I say the fortunate at birth are those who have few luxuries. For though they may start by fervently wishing for all they do not have, they have a better chance of realizing that happiness can be found in more places than their bank account, such as a walk on the beach, a vibrant sunset, a meal with friends. Because their progress is not assured, they take responsibility for their actions, and in this way find meaning. The lessons of philosophy take root more readily in such a one, because the admission to this club requires only a well-ordered mind.