Is it a bad sign if, over your morning coffee, you read “The Vanity of Human Wishes” to make yourself feel better?
It can happen.
Suppose you’re the sort of person not much traveled in the realms of money—nor much of an earner of it either—and suppose you come across a month-old Wall Street Journal article in which you discover that “when entertainment mogul David Geffen gave $100 million in early March for the renovation of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York—it will soon be renamed David Geffen Hall—Mr. [Peter] Singer questioned why people thought he was doing so much good.”
You might catch your breath at the figure of a hundred million dollars, because to you even a hundred bucks would make nice pocket change. You might be surprised to learn that there are “entertainment moguls” in this world. (I was, but then I get almost all of my entertainment from such real-life sitcoms as committee meetings.) You might even take an interest in the article because you recognize the name “Peter Singer,” international scholar and “public intellectual” not unacquainted with controversy.
Count me among the breath-caught surprised and interested. A hundred million dollars to me is like an atom to the naked eye: it can’t really be said to exist anywhere. And as someone who opted out of television and movies a long time ago because of all the free amusement readily available around me, I guess I need reminding that there are people getting rich in what must surely be one of the oddest things under the sun: the entertainment industry—a sign if ever there were one that people need more to do, that for capitulating to labor-saving devices we are paying the penalty in aimlessness and satiety, just as John Crowe Ransom predicted back in 1930. And though I hope no fate will misunderstand me and slap on my back the label “public intellectual,” I have taken a bit of interest in the career of Peter Singer, whom I might admire and I might not. I haven’t decided.
The WSJ article in question, “Peter Singer on the Ethics of Philanthropy” (by Alexandra Wolf), does a credible job getting at the heart of Singer’s project: let’s make sure basic needs are met around the world. Let’s do that first. Once that’s been done, then let’s put stemware-holders next to eco-flush toilets in the women’s can on the main floor of the David Geffen, nee Avery Fisher, Hall.
I don’t mind admitting that I like high culture—if we have to call it that—though I like low culture too. (I like limericks and would never be caught without one.) I prefer English choral music to opera, but I don’t begrudge those who like to hear the fat lady sing. I’ll grant that her pipes are impressive. And I know that people are into pipes. So let there be pipes. Indeed, though my preferences run to the violin and oboe, let organ pipes roar for all I care.
But it cannot go unremarked that I say all this as someone clothed and well-fed and sitting indoors. There’s a beer at my elbow, and, notwithstanding the baseball and the tennis and all the other things I was able to misspend my youth on because I wasn’t busy starving, my elbow still works well enough to lift the suds to my lips. If I want I can quit writing, turn on the stereo, and settle in with a book instead. Perhaps you wish I would.
But as the WSJ article reminds us, “a donation of less than a $100 could restore sight to someone who is blind.” Not exactly pocket change to me, but a child with seriously compromised vision standing before me, imploring me for a donation so he can simply see me might inaugurate a reevaluation of the purpose of a hundred million George Washingtons. Were I the child, I would very likely prefer sight to choral music, opera, violin, oboe, and eco-flush toilets tricked out with stemware holders—perhaps even to the long unending roar of the organ.
You see the point that Singer is making, whatever you may think of him: starve your belly, not your ear, or go thirsty for water instead of the show of sophistication, and then ask yourself where the money should go. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the hero of the gospels would have an opinion on this. Near as we can tell, he went around healing people, not performing in some proto-Palestinian version of Die Fledermaus. And although he also spent some time doing other things, like weeping over Jerusalem, I don’t remember him ever giving rich men a free pass.
I’m not saying that solves the issue. I’m only bringing it to bear.
I went to bed troubled by the WSJ article and, as is my wont, woke up not much later. No matter. I love the morning darkness. By the time the coffee was ready I had leafed through a volume of poems near at hand—there’s danger in not reshelving your books at night—and I found myself staring at Dr. Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes,” which I think of as a kind of litmus test: if you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you, and you can probably forget about being my friend.
Samuel Johnson was an eighteenth-century raconteur, lexicographer, poet, playwright, and essayist, a man of immense learning and even greater wit and appetite, the sort of writer you needn’t agree with to admire. What he did with English prose is a bit like what Jack Nicklaus did with a one-iron, making the rest of us feel as if we are merely walking outside the ropes, clapping quietly in amazement and admiration.
In the poem aforementioned Johnson ranges over the landscape of human wishes and reminds us all, from the Geffens to the Singers, of what fools we are. The whole age of Johnson retained a special reservoir of venom for the sin of human pride. Johnson’s elder of a little over twenty years, Alexander Pope, called pride “the never-failing vice of fools”; Johnson called it the “venturous” vice by which we are invariably “betrayed.” The age also marveled at how little we put right reason to use: “rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,” Johnson said.
I sometimes wonder whether careful training in eighteenth-century poetry would at all change the way we think money should behave—or the way we should behave when we’ve got it. (You might think my vocation requires me to believe it would, but I don’t have the progressivist’s certainty that education is The Answer.) Johnson, for his part, wastes no time implicating money in our folly. It’s the topic of the first verse paragraph after the introduction:
But scarce observed, the knowing and the bold
Fall in the general massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfined,
And crowds with crimes the records of mankind.
Johnson goes onto say that judges distort the law for gold as readily as ruffians draw their swords for it. Some two hundred lines later we’re told that the miser, whose joints are invaded by unnumbered maladies, is yet more afflicted by the “unextinguished avarice” that “still remains,”
And dreaded losses aggravate his pains;
He turns, with anxious heart and crippled hands,
His bonds of debt, and mortgages of land;
Or views his coffers with suspicious eyes,
Unlocks his gold, and counts it till he dies.
Perhaps I should state plainly for those who don’t regularly consult the heroic couplet—and no one blames you if you don’t—that this is not a flattering depiction of a greedy old man.
In the WSJ article we learn that Singer thinks people in wealthier nations—and he means pretty much everyone—should be working toward giving away about a third of their wealth and that he himself endeavors to do this. Something tells me Dr. Johnson would publicly approve (even if he would privately refuse to comply: he was no stranger to penury), but I doubt he would exempt Professor Singer from his survey in “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” The criticism, because it intends to leave nothing out, extends even to the academy:
Yet hope not life from grief or danger free
Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee.
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause a while from letters, to be wise.
There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
Johnson had his own trouble with patrons, but he wouldn’t have the point be lost: the Geffens and the Singers alike fall within the vanity of human wishes. And the voice of the poet, only insofar as it aligns itself with the will of heaven, stands outside the survey:
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.
I awoke in the morning darkness with Singer’s question on my mind: why did people think Geffen was doing so much good? Why not beat the doors of heaven, and also the doors of the entertainment moguls, for something more humane than red-velvet seat cushions?
Even there Johnson recommends a little reticence: that we hope to be
Safe in His power, whose eyes discern afar
The secret ambush of a specious prayer.
It is well to think hard about the good we’re doing, and I’ll allow that both Geffen, who is rich, and Singer, who is less rich, are “doing good.” I also think their dispute is a real one. But although I incline toward Singer’s point of view, I think it is well to remember that even in our best intentions there might be lurking a secret ambush. Dr. Johnson was stingy in allowing that we can get a clear uncomplicated perspective on human affairs. Perhaps he even hoped that someone would come along and let that grim thought improve his day.