It’s getting cool out there on the trail – middle thirties when I rode a few days last week. Today was balmier (in the fifties) and I reflected again about the peculiar phenomenon of my hour and a half a day biking habit. In spite of a lifelong prejudice against physical culture, this morning found this aging aesthete still at it. Like all unlikely anomalies, the dissonance demands further investigation.
The obvious motives remain valid, of course: first of all, the cardio-vascular benefit which, while it will not beat the reaper, may keep him at bay a while. In addition the biker is allowed the pleasures of an extra thousand calories at table. But surely such rational explanations may cover less straightforward ends.
I have come to think that I probably do it – such is human perversity – simply because it is difficult. A moment’s reflection suggested that pursuing such ambitions has been a pattern of my life.
Contrary to the career-minded youth who welcome our universities' transformation into vocational schools, I pursued studies of no value in the marketplace: poetry, dead languages, comparative literature, and literary theory. As a graduate student, I declined to teach essay-writing, declaring that I was a critic and not a pedagogue, though prudent elders cautioned that a teacher of expository writing is more marketable. As a student, I gave my first attention to my least “useful” subject, Classical Greek, though I had no prospect of teaching it, and it played no role in my dissertation.
When I took the grand tour of Europe, I simply flew over without reservations or itinerary and proceeded to seek the very cheapest accommodations and cuisine, confident that this policy would guarantee the richest experience. Whether that expectation was true or not, it complicated the traveler’s task immeasurably.
Similarly, living at home on a few thousand a year meant all sorts of making-do, dodges and makeshifts to get by, all of which would have been unnecessary had I taken the high road to the bourgeoisie which was readily available (at least at first).
I have regularly worked in situations that were unpaid or underpaid: VISTA volunteer, free-lance writer, occasional translator, substitute teacher, adjunct professor, chair of several non-profit (or, as I sometimes like to say, “anti-profit”) organizations. My income, well below the government’s official poverty line, for years created barriers between me and my less scrupulous associates. Integrity was closely bound with penury in my mind, precisely because living without money was challenging enough to be an ordeal, a test of ability. Whatever one thinks of such an attitude, and I realize it is daft to many, it is no easy matter to practice. We always made all food from scratch, buying only basic materials, and yet we ate like luxurious gourmets every day. I drove ancient cars so debilitated that one could hardly know upon setting out whether the vehicle would safely return to its home in a few hours. I regarded the difficulties with the same proud relish sometimes evident in an expatriate in the Nigerian bush explaining his dealings with the bureaucracy or a New Yorker talking about how he found his apartment.
My politics have always been impossibilist in the sense in which that term was used at the 1900 Paris Congress of the Second International. To me structural change is the precondition of meaningful reform. Though I have not been as rigorous in recent years about maintaining an exclusively extra-parliamentary opposition, I have never seen the victory of a candidate I fully support and I never expect to.
Surely the pattern of making things hard for myself could arise from ego as well as from the cultivation of arete. There may be some allure in the ability to refer casually to knowing ancient Greek or propelling myself twenty-two miles a day, as I was pleased to do (the latter boast, that is) when a workman arrived just as I breezed in the driveway. Braggadocio, of course, was considered salutary by the Greeks, an inspiration of excellence. For Aristotle the same word meant both ego-satisfaction and magnanimity, a great-heartedness in generosity. Pride for him was “crown of the virtues” as it encourages all the others. (Nicomachean Ethics 4,3) Nietzsche need not have fulminated against Christian humility; few Christians, indeed, really reject pride with the author of Proverbs 11:2: “When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom.”
Furthermore, pride is strangely elusive. Is the soldier’s valor the less for his pride? Are intellectuals indicted by their very reasonable presumption that they excel the norm in thinking? Father Damien who died with his lepers may have been the most egotistical of men, “headstrong and bigoted,” according to the Rev. Hyde, but that has little to do with his work or, indeed, I would say, with his saintliness.
Claiming neither the saint’s self-sacrifice nor the hero’s fearlessness, I see no harm in mentioning when appropriate my bicycling, my passing acquaintance with Greek particles, or my familiarity with a few back lanes in Kathmandu. Though it may matter to no one else, to me the difficulty of earning each of these remarks is of primary importance. Tossed into this life, we look about at the marvels on every side. A sporting spirit will want to create a few challenges so one knows at least that one has played before the game is over.