On Resolutions and Resignations
Shakespeare has Macbeth deliver a nihilistic soliloquy that begins, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” When death waits for each of us, what can be the ultimate meaning of our lives regardless of how floridly or cleverly they are described in exquisite language?
A classical education, because of both its breadth and scrutiny of human intent, motive, action, and consequence, has the unique capacity to encourage the cultivation of a self-reflective disposition, a quality that is a prerequisite for the formation of resolutions. Such an education reveals to us that we are the inheritors of a long-established tradition of making resolutions in a desire to be better than we are. Our underlying motives and intentions may be as different as they are mysterious, but each of us recognizes excellence just as we uncomfortably acknowledge its opposite. That we can be better than we are and that we ought to, is an idée-force that has held power for millennia. As Aristotle averred, “Fine things are the objects of praise, base things of blame; at the head of the fine stand the virtues, at the head of the base the vices; consequently the virtues are the object of praise, and also the causes of the virtues are objects of praise, and the things that accompany the virtues and that result from them, and their works, while the opposite are the objects of blame.”
We see evidence of this four millennia ago as Babylonians promised to return borrowed objects and make good on debts, two millennia ago as the Romans made promises to Janus, a millennia ago when knights took the ‘peacock vow’ reaffirming their commitment to the chivalric code, and as Jews and Christians have practiced their traditions calling them to prayer, to reflect upon their wrongdoings, to atone, to seek forgiveness, to reflect upon self-improvement, and to make Lenten sacrifices. As the American Medical Association’s research showed at the close of the twentieth century, around fifty percent of Americans made resolutions, and this diminished only slightly to forty-four percent in 2018. Contemporary Americans are resolving to lose weight and get fit, to save money, give more to charity, spend more time with family, less time on social media, and better their career among much else. Their results are something of a curate’s egg: something like eighty-eight percent of them will fail, but among those who succeed, they are ten times more likely to be successful in keeping resolutions made at the New Year than at any other time.
A self-reflective disposition is not the only prerequisite however, we also need humility in order to recognize that we might improve and resolve in order to overcome the inertia of custom and convenience. If we are to turn the conversation from smaller matters to larger ones – from the things we do (or refrain from doing) to who we fundamentally are – we stand a very much better chance of altering all aspects of our lives. This was part of Aristotle’s contention in his Nicomachean Ethics when writing that, “We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it.” We must go beyond the sort of clinquant academic knowledge of ethics and proceeding through the pretended motions of things to the actual doing of virtuous actions. The Bible, in exhorting us to love, advocates for something similar in 1 John 3:18, “…let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.”
In planning out our resolutions, let us consider Aristotle’s four virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. How can we take these from an intellectual abstraction and carry them into practical implementation in our daily lives? While the impetus to make a resolution may be annual, for real change to be realized, we cannot employ a stochastic will and waver day to day. In the early twentieth century, Americans were reminded of this by messages such as this:
A Resolve for Every Morning of the New Year
I will this day try to live a simple, sincere, and serene life repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust and a child-like trust in God.
We are too secular and heterogenous a society to see such sentiments broadcast today, but with these classical virtues, we can aspire and contemplate on magnanimity, justice and fairness, phronesis (practical wisdom), the virtue of being a good friend, and the nobility of καλοκαγαθία – or gentlemanly conduct, if such a thing is not too outdated. In the process, we may discover who we have been, who we are, and who we might become. We are not pursuing perfectionism in a resolution so much as we are a steady and ineluctable improvement. Getting fit, saving money, and being more charitable are means taken in pursuit of a greater end – they culminate in larger alterations than a diminishment of our waistlines, but in alterations of our whole character…if we keep our resolve.
If we proceed through the New Year with only pridian concerns, the greater ends towards which we might aim shall remain out of focus. Of course, we are resolute and see clearly today, but life will intrude, we will be ambushed by the unforeseen, and we shall inundate ourselves with excuses. In a parable from Works of Love, Kierkegaard relates a story called “The Man Who Walked Backwards.” Herein, Kierkegaard writes of irresolution: “With the help of intentions and promises he maintains an orientation towards the good, he is turned towards the good, and with this orientation towards the good he moves backwards farther and farther away from it. With every renewed intention and promise it seems as if he takes a step forward, and yet he not only remains standing still but really takes a step backward. The intention taken in vain, the unfulfilled promise leaves a residue of despondency, dejection, which perhaps soon again flares up in more passionate protestations of intention, which leave behind only greatly languor.”
Macbeth’s dark manifesto concludes with this:
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
We stand betwixt two alternate paths: one like Macbeth’s resignation that life will be what it will be, and that whatever it is will be of little lasting consequence; or, one of defiant resolve – that we should champion the permanent things and put greater faith in our better selves to not only live better, but to be better. How much greater meaning could the throwaway cliché “new year, new me” have than this? Through self-reflection, humility, and resolve, we can be better than we are.
Happy New Year!