Fiala on ethics: New Year: Look both ways before you cross

December 27, 2013 

January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus is a two-faced god, who looks backward and forward at the same time. Janus was also the god of doorways and gates, a reminder that every entrance is also an exit and that what passes away can also return.

As the calendar turns, it's easy to think of time as a circle. Nature is made up of repeating circular patterns. A year is how long it takes the earth to complete its orbit around the sun. Life itself makes a cycle from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. An old one dies and a new one is born.

Holiday traditions heighten the sense of recurrence. We sing the same songs, eat the same food, tell the same stories and visit the same people. We feel the stabilizing depth of decades of repetition: in the echoes of Christmas carols, in the homey spice of tannenbaum and in the flavor of Grandma's cookies. Each Christmas reverberates with the ghosts of Christmas past.

But a week after Christmas, we resolve to leave these ghosts behind. We enter the new year with a kind of moralistic optimism, determined to make progress. Modern people tend to be forward-looking. We view nostalgia as a lazy distraction. We celebrate the progress we have made. We expect growth and expansion to continue, without decline or regress — as if things can always keep getting better.

We would certainly not want to circle back to slavery, to the subjugation of women and to superstitious mythologies. A fitting new year's resolution is to work for further progress in terms of social justice and enlightenment.

The ritual of making new year's resolutions celebrates the progressive, linear understanding of time and of life. To make a resolution affirms hopeful confidence and ambitious self-assertion. We think it is possible to innovate and revolutionize.

But this optimistic anticipation of improvement can cause frustration. Some things cannot be changed, despite our best efforts. There is wisdom in learning to accept things as they are. We cannot change history — or our own past biography — no matter how hard we try.

The ancient Stoic philosophers are associated with this sort of accepting resignation. They also held that time was circular. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius explained, "all things are of like forms and come round in a circle." Things happen in regular repeating patterns. Even empires rise and fall. Complaining about this won't change it. So Marcus advises us to find our place within the patterned whole, to do our duty, and to accept all that happens with Stoic indifference.

In the nineteenth century, this idea was explored by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche thought that there was an eternal recurrence of the same thing. The idea that everything repeats, including this very moment, can be a burden — especially if we are not happy with our lot in life. The goal, then, is to create a life you would be willing to live again … and again. The challenge is to learn to love this world just as it is.

On New Year's Day in 1882, Nietzsche made the following resolution: "I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati ("love of fate"): let that be my love henceforth!"

Love affirms the beloved for what it is, without judgment or reserve. It accepts what is. An ambitious new year's resolution is to learn to love things as they are.

On the other hand, this can be a recipe for stagnation and conservatism. Stoic resignation may encourage the slave to love his chains. If you are doomed to be a slave, perhaps that is the best you can do. But resigned affirmation does not break the chains that bind us.

In the end, wisdom is Janus-faced, a matter of ambivalence and ambiguity. Time is a circle but also a line. Resigned acceptance is beneficial but so is progressive work for social justice. The door to the future is open: we can begin again. But we've also been here before: we carry the past with us. January is a time of looking both ways. And it's always wise to look both ways before crossing any threshold.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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