Who Can You Believe?

Who Can You Believe?

Since I don’t ask questions like the one above just to answer them with an urbane shoulder shrug, I’ll be glad to tell you.  About a week ago, I received a call from someone I really trust.

She’s a horse.

It was California, whom I used to ride back before the pandemic.  She’d been sending intuitive reminders of me simultaneously to Serena, my trainer, and to Mary who owns a stableful of highly evolved Arabians.  It was Mary who telephoned.  It would be hard to describe the horse place she runs, since I know of nothing like it on this planet.

First, they assume that horses are at least as smart as we are or, in some cases, smarter.  Mary’s stable is like the last land discovered in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Gulliver’s voyage takes him to a land where the people are too little, then to a country where they are grotesquely oversized, till he finally lands at a place where the people, called Houyhnhnms, are normal and know how to behave.  That’s because they are horses.

In a better world, people would not be allowed to own horses if they can’t listen, or are neurotic, or need to prove how tough they are.  One would have to pass a multi-layered competency test, much more challenging than our test for a driver’s license.

Let me try to describe the riding lesson at Mary’s stable.  Somehow, the trainer gets the horse to tell her what the rider needs to learn today.  I don’t know how the horse knows that or how she tells the trainer.  Does she speak English?  There must be something communicated behind the words since the rider normally hasn’t a clue and can’t help.

Once mounted, if the rider starts saying something false, a horse like California will stop and simply stand there.  Between people, a lie might have tremendous persuasive power.  But not with a horse.

What did Mary say to me when she called?

         “California’s been worried about you!”

         “How amazing that you called!  I’ve just been having a crisis of meaning!”  The particulars I had in mind are a bit complicated and I didn’t try to spell them out then and there.  Crises of that kind are familiar to philosophers.  In case you’re curious, I’ll explain it here.

John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century philosopher, had a crisis of meaning in his youth.  He’d inherited his philosophic- and life-purposes from his father’s mentor Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian.  (I’ve seen Bentham, where he sat embalmed in London’s University College.  He looked rather small in his period costume.)  In life, Bentham’s stated aim had been to bring about “the greatest happiness for the greatest number, each man [person] to count for one.”  

One day, it occurred to Mill to ask himself, Suppose the Utilitarian goal were actually and fully achieved?  After that, what purpose would my life have?  Picturing such a fulfillment, Mill felt deflated and went into a depression.  He was able to cure himself only by modifying Bentham’s ideal, which had put all pleasures, whether crude or refined, on one level.  In Mill’s revision, the refined pleasures, like that of poetry, gained higher rank.

My own crisis of meaning had come about in similar fashion.  I happened to ask myself, Suppose my goal — of persuading people to live dialectically self-corrective, truthful life stories (and, not incidentally, drop their life-distorting projections about Jews) — were finally and universally realized? Would I too, like Mill, feel deflated and purposeless?

Contemplating that imagined happy ending for a long moment, I looked it up and down and sidewise.  At length I saw that I would NOT feel at all deflated or purposeless.  I would feel just fine!  Although I do have a purpose, I don’t have it in bad faith – just to be distracted from that abyss of absurdity that some philosophers claim to perceive whenever they look down.  Nope.  If my overarching aim in life were attained, I’d be delighted.

So the crisis of meaning passed while I was at home, but I thought I should still go see California.  It’s the dead of winter, but Mary’s new ring is heated and the new mounting block higher for my out-of-practice legs. My winter riding britches, that I haven’t pulled on in years, are warm enough.  Everyone but the horses wears masks, and one needn’t get too close to anybody.

At the stable, I was also greeted by a shaggy dog of uncertain breed named Legend.  To my immense gratification, he seemed to take to me and allowed me to stroke his wooly grey face all over.

California was undemonstrative but wholly in tune with me, eliciting reports from me to Serena on my inward and outward states as we circled back and forth in unpredictable patterns.

What is it about our four-footed friends that we so need and value?  They know who we are.  They can’t be fooled.  It’s like a mother nursing a child.  In such relations, there are no circumlocutions, no pretending.  So far as I can tell,

that’s precious and rare.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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