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A Chapter on Comparison and Society

by Emily (follow)
Mind (33)      society (11)      Relationships (7)      philosophy (3)     
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This is an edited extracts from my thesis, and is meant to be conducive to thought and exploration, rather than present a solution to the problem. It is a chapter on comparing oneself to others, and what it means to embrace or reject society.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the philosopher Seneca received a letter from his friend Serenus asking for help. Serenus wrote that he felt disturbed, somehow unsettled; ‘harried not by a tempest but by sea-sickness.’ He tells Seneca of his wavering certainty when he returns to his own plainer home after being a guest at the house of a rich and splendid man: ‘I come back not a worse but a sadder man; I don’t move my head so high among my trivial possessions; and a secret gnawing doubt undermines me whether that life is superior.’ Serenus has been living a plainer, simpler life, but doubts the wisdom of his choice to return to such an existence.

"Me in time" by Vincent_AF

This restlessness, the push and tug of person and society, is also explored by Ekstrom in her article ‘Ambivalence and Authentic Agency’, where she notes: ‘we feel pulled in different directions. We have difficulty figuring out how much we want to invest in various relationships, and we experience confusion over which concerns and projects fit most authentically in our lives.’

"Sepia hat and middle aged woman - self portrait" by jo-marshall

Turning away from society is a persistent theme in ideas of discovering one’s “true” self. It is not supposed by any author to be easy, but the idea remains strong. Author Jesse Prinz examines the guilt of consumerism as ‘a blend of more primitive emotions,’ namely, sadness, fear, affection and anger, implicitly encouraging us to return to a pre-modern lifestyle. Seneca’s response is likewise to turn away from possessions, the idea being that if one has nothing, one has nothing to lose. He asserts that material goods, and thus the societies which produces them, are the source of man’s unhappiness.

This same rejection of material society in order to find a more authentic way of living is famously encapsulated in a passage by Henry David Thoreau, who explains his retreat to a bare cottage thus: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

"Hut #3" by Bill Baroud

See more:
Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 135.

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