Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Victor Hugo on the Ingratitude of Nature

Just finished Les Miserables (the book, not the musical). Lots of interesting reflections in there (and a great tale, too). In the final chapter the novel's hero, the Christ-like ex-convict Jean Valjean, after bringing about the happy marriage between his adopted daughter Cosette, whom he had saved from a miserable life and whom he has taken care of for the last ten years, and Marius, the man she loves and whose life he saved not long ago, allows himself to be cast aside, suddenly no longer needed and wanted when he tells Marius about his past. There are some misunderstandings, and Marius doesn't know that Jean has saved his life, while Cosette doesn't really understand what is going on, but given all that Jean has done for them, their behaviour still amounts to gross ingratitude. In the end they learn the whole truth, realise just how ungrateful they have been and try to make up for it, but before that happens, Victor Hugo, or his narrator, reflects on how grave the moral failure of the two ungrateful lovers actually is. And rather surprisingly he finds their behaviour, and generally that of young people, who tend to forget the benefits they have received from the old, not only excusable, but almost justified:

"what is sometimes over-severely described as the ingratitude of the young is not always so reprehensible as one may suppose. It is the ingratitude of Nature herself. Nature (...) always 'looks ahead'; she divides living creatures into those who are arriving and those who are leaving. Those leaving look towards darkness, and those arriving look towards light. Hence the gulf between them, fateful to the old, involuntary on the part of the young. The gulf, at first imperceptibly, grows gradually wider, like the spreading branches of a tree. It is not the fault of the branches that, without detaching themselves from the trunk, they grow remote from it. Youth goes in search of joy and festitivity, bright light and love. Age moves towards the end. They do not lose sight of one another, but there is no longer any closeness between them. Young folk feel the cooling of life; old people feel the chill of the grave. Let us not be too hard on the young."

So in other words, it is not only natural for the young to forget the good that they have received from the old, but it is also, for this very reason, right. It is exactly as it should be.

4 comments:

  1. This ingratitude of the young reminds me of the movie "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" with Sidney Poitier. I can't remember how exactly the conversation went between father and son but the father said to Poitier's character that he never thanked him for bringing him up. Pointier answered that he shouldn't have to since that was the father's duty.

    The sense of duty is perhaps why there is generally so little gratitude shown by humans or Nature.

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    1. I don't know the film, but the question raised by the scene you describe seems to be that of whether children owe their parents gratitude for bringing them up. And since we only owe gratitude for what Seneca called benefits, that is freely given goods, and not for what was the other's duty to give, it can be argued that we don't owe our parents gratitude for bringing us up since, or if, that is their duty. But Hugo is not really making this argument, but goes a step further. Jean Valjean, in the novel, does much more than merely his duty, he benefits the two lovers and harms himself for their sake, and still Hugo finds their ingratitude excusable, on the grounds that this is only natural and insofar exactly as it should be. I find this a remarkable claim.

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  2. I am thinking about "Unfit For The Future" and Moral Enhancement. Is there a connection between those subjects and ingratitude? I sense something.

    Does ingratitude lead to a kind of moral enhancement? Perhaps if we showed more gratitude to past generations for making society freer and more open we would cease in the struggle to improve things even more. Showing gratitude could be like becoming complacent, which can be a lack of drive and lead to our atrophying. Ingratitude could be a "creative tension" that keeps thing vital.

    Just thinking!

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    1. Yes, it could. But it could also be the other way around: being grateful for what those who went before us have done for us (certain civil liberties etc.) entails that we appreciate it, that we are aware of its goodness. And this may in turn inspire a sense of obligation: that this is something that we are not allowed to waste, that we should honour and defend, that we should use as best as we can. Without gratitude we don't appreciate what we have received and hence do not see any reason to fight for it. Discontent, of course, can drive one forward too, the sense that all this is by far not good enough, but I'm not sure whether the resulting future orientation (that of the discontented) leads to the kind of progress that we should wish for.

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