What is seriousness? What are its proper objects?
In news articles you see things like: “Democrats are Getting Serious About Impeachment” or “Is Trump Serious About the Wall?” In these examples, seriousness looks to be tied to action. That is, are the Democrats going to gripe about Trump or are they going to actually try to impeach him? Is Trump really going to build a wall or what? When people fail to act on something they claim to be serious about, we suspect that they were never serious to begin with. Failing to act on the basis of what we say we are serious about is embarrassing.
To say that something is serious is to say that something matters to us. When we watch the American show The Office, we see Dwight Schrute taking his job far too seriously. He sells paper to other businesses. Yet, he holds the office he is in to be some kind of cosmos where everything matters: stealing paperclips, wasting time, insubordination, and the like. Dwight is massively concerned with slight injustices. He seems to imagine some terrifying god overlooking the office who will punish and reward those who are obedient–even though the place is run by a capricious moron who is not even gracious to those who love him. Dwight is a paradigm of misplaced seriousness. We can’t help but think that his efforts ought to be directed elsewhere. But where?
We usually see people become grave or serious at the prospect of dying. Life usually matters to us; unfortunately, many become serious about the potential loss of mere life or mere preservation (as opposed to actual Life, the drive to find the space necessary to develop our inborn capacities or life as awareness of our own healthy growth or life as the overflowing of strength that accompanies our submission to strong instincts). But this point is too obvious. What is the kind of seriousness that lies in between death and frivolity?
Let’s try to look at our own experience of seriousness. Imagine sitting down to write something important. Noise and distractions become obstacles; the serious writer eliminates, mitigates, goes around these obstacles. There are no excuses for the serious person! Imagine lifting weights. Today you want to push your limits; you want to see feel the outer limits of your strength. You have no time for friends who make jokes during the lift; you make jokes in between while recovering. Once we become serious about something, while we are in grip of seriousness, we don’t question why we are serious. Questioning is behind us. Seriousness is resoluteness.
We need to be serious sometimes in order to live well. But seriousness also clouds our vision. As Flannery O’Conner suggests, in our age, we have increased our tenderness toward the suffering, but, this has come at the price of a loss of vision. We can become so preoccupied and serious about minor sufferings and infractions that we lose sight of the way things are or think that somehow the injustices or troubles of our time are far greater than they are at any other time. Many people say that because of Trump, we live in “very interesting political times.”–as if Trump’s abilities, goals, and disruptions could even lay a hand on the likes of an Alcibiades! Our time might be interesting, but not for the reasons that most people think.
In Thucydides’ History, he takes a moment to imagine investigators in the future finding Sparta and Athens completely uninhabited. Thucydides knows that regimes come and go. It is almost as if he can view these cities from the perspective of eternity. Almost. He is serious enough, or cares enough, about the war to write it up. But he is not so serious about either city that he is a partisan. Politics is important to him. But awareness of political life, of the way that humans are, of the ways that motion and rest are, are more important to him. The kind of seriousness that is possible for Thucydides is not possible for most human beings. What, then, should we be more serious about? Awareness or action? Must they be in conflict? By even asking this question are we already lost, already adrift?