Sweating the Petty vs. Petting the Sweaty: Two ways to play the game of life

"Life is a game."

People interpret the parallel between life and games in two ways. The most common implies that like a game, life is no big deal, so you should just relax. This notion can be a comfort when you're feeling stressed—stressed, in fact by the other way to take the statement: that in the game of life, you’re really trying figure out how to win, live right, make the world work better for you and others. And sometimes it’s not easy.

The first interpretation counsels looking beyond the game of life, as though the real action were elsewhere. The second interpretation counsels focusing on the game of life as if to say it’s no dress rehearsal.

This week I noticed that, simplifying a bit, the first interpretation reflects Plato's contribution to philosophy and the second, Aristotle's. Platonists, including most religious people, turn away from earthly matters to focus on the transcendental perfection of some other realm. Aristotelians, including most scientists, focus on earthly matters—seeing the potential for real action, progress, and improved understanding right here.

Which counts more, life or the afterlife? If religious doctrine is right that earthly life is merely a grubby boot camp test that will decide whether you will spend eternity (eternity!) in heaven or hell, then of course it pays to keep your eyes on the prize, which is elsewhere. Throughout much of history, widespread suffering, stress, and lack of earthly progress have dominated people’s experience. Think of how many people have been whipsawed from disease to torture, oppression to calamity without any prospect of an earthly explanation as to why.  It’s no wonder the Platonic idea that life is a simulation in the service of some higher, fairer realm has had a lot of appeal.

As with any of your life’s particulars—job, relationship, career—there's no use flogging a dead horse. You shift your attention away from long shots so you can focus on the investments most likely to pay out. In a way, then, Plato and Aristotle squared off over this everyday question applied to life as a whole. If the chances of finding happiness here are vanishingly low, your mind naturally shifts to the potential elsewhere.

It's also not surprising that the more stressful life is, the more attractive Platonic transcendentalism becomes. This worries me. In the years ahead, facing global warming and other large-scale discouragements, we may flock in ever greater numbers to Platonism, shifting attention away from the potential for earthly improvement just when we need it most. And towards what alternative? To Aristotelians like me, the battles between Shiites and Sunnis, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Arabs are founded on ridiculously petty theological differences.  All these violent conflicts over imaginary afterlives and which rituals will gain you God’s grace—God isn’t dead, he’s deadly.

By 390 AD most of Aristotle’s writings were lost to the West. Christian leaders, campaigning to stamp out paganism, had burned many books, including Aristotle’s. Plato, commingled with Christianity, prevailed here through the dark ages (476-1000 AD) while Aristotle prevailed in the Muslim centers of learning such as Bagdad. The West rediscovered Aristotle during the Crusades (1095-1291). Aquinas (1225-1274) finessed an integration of Aristotle into Christianity, and the central power of the Papacy helped spread the new Aristotelian Scholasticism that resulted. In the 1600s the Aristotelian vision of continued earthly progress and innovation broke free from the Church’s insistence on a fixed, infallible dogma, and the rest is modern history.

To Aristotelians, Platonists seem obsessed with trivialities. With all the real-world challenges we face, why fuss over the details of some magically perfect, unseen metaphysical realm? To Platonists, Aristotelians seem too content to embrace this flawed earthly existence.

So take your pick: sweat the petty or pet the sweaty. I’d pet the sweaty any day. But then my days aren’t so stressful. I get to experience the extraordinary progress we’re making in the game of life. Good things happen for me every day. So, of course, I don’t sweat the petty details about how I can improve my chances of spending eternity in some alleged other world where good things supposedly happen. I’m Aristotelian because I can afford to pet the sweaty.

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