Step 6: Live by an examined ideal.
What’s the upshot of these realizations about the meanings of your life and the lives of others? What are James’s ten commandments? What’s his categorical imperative? What rules and guidelines can we lay down to keep life in line and the future stable? He beautifully refuses to provide us with this kind of answers. Hands off. We are possibles in the plural. “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing—the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.—And whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.” The two key words there are “unhabitual” and “marriage.” The ideal that you and you alone must discover, though it very well may be part of a religious or cultural inheritance, must be unhabitual, because the true marriage of yourself with your purpose inevitably results in something never before encountered. All jazz musicians play triplets; but until you’ve made that triplet your own signature, you’re not really playing. All of us must play the blues; but until you’ve found that “balance struck by sympathy, insight, and good will,” and discovered the “inner joyfulness at the increased importance of our common life,” you’re not really playing.
The fear pluralism always strikes into the heart is that it will lead swiftly and inexorably to chaos. If everybody starts pursuing an unhabitual ideal, we’ll all soon be at cross purposes. If we allow one person to have a meaningful life, pretty soon everybody will want to have one! The usual way of conceiving the genius of liberal institutions is to see them as cordoning off our ideals into the private realm and setting up a bulwark of rights and laws so that the pursuit of these ideals doesn’t lead to disaster. James’s philosophy along with the example of any decent jazz combo suggest a deeper understanding of live-and-let-live. James and jazz affirm that our plurality can come together in public to make something richer than what we can do in private; in fact, it’s only through the encounter and collaboration with those of other ideals that we can really attain the greater depths of our own life.
The fear that pluralism leads to chaos isn’t altogether false, but a little chaos can also reveal the merits of pluralism. A mentality like James’s positively thrills to the occasional dose of chaos. Once, when James was serving a stint at Stanford, he woke early in the morning: his bed began to “waggle.” Soon an earthquake—it turns out to be the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906—was “shaking the room exactly as a terrier shakes a rat.” James was thrown on his face. Everything in his flat slid off, toppled over, crashed down. What did he feel? In his “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake,” he writes,
The emotion consisted wholly of glee and admiration; glee at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely; and admiration at the way in which the frail little wooden house could hold itself together in spite of such a shaking. I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.
In the horrible aftermath, human nature shone. It wasn’t that the damaged systems of order led to greater chaos. Sure, there were a few pilferers. But for the most part, the plurality of humanity coordinated naturally to help out and do what had to be done.
Two things in retrospect strike me especially [. . .] Both are reassuring as to human nature. The first of these was the rapidity of the improvisation of order out of chaos. It is clear that just as in every thousand human beings there will be statistically so many artists, so many athletes, so many thinkers, and so many potentially good soldiers, so there will be so many potential organizers in times of emergency [. . .] The second thing that struck me was the universal equanimity.
Rapidity of improvisation and universal equanimity: in a word, jazz.
PS: Billy’s full name – of Billy and Dad – is William James Samuelson.