Our Long Fool’s-Errand to the Grave

As you probably know, Ashley Madison is the big adultery clearinghouse for men and women who have found that marital fidelity just isn’t a good fit. When that sweet honeymoon begins to sour, these restless hearts find the good algorithms at Ashley Madison ready and willing to bring lonely hearts together, not unlike like Yenta the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Oh, Ashley Madison
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch,
Oh, Ashley Madison
Look through your book,
And make me a perfect match.

Of course the book is in Ashley Madison’s case a digital database, but apart from that (and perhaps lingering bronze-age prejudices), it is easy to see that Ashley Madison is just Yenta’s up-to-date and enlightened daughter—a sort of eYenta for men and women who are suffering buyer’s remorse.

These thoughts are inspired by an advertisement that just popped up for my consideration. I don’t know why. Perhaps Google knows things that even I do not know about myself. Here it is:

Now there you see a face contorted with buyer’s remorse. She is not really an adulteress, but a woman who simply asks for second chance at love. And everyone knows that promises are hard to keep, especially to a schlub, and even more especially when you don’t have to.

But what really caught my eye—really, I’m not kidding—was the slogan “life is short.” Ah, yes, I thought. There it is, old mortality. The pathos of life’s evanescence has wrung poetry from the heart of man since he first had the powers of language and reflection. It has fired his religious imagination. And, as in the case at hand, it has in all ages been his go-to excuse for sin.

“It is in truth iniquity on high
To cheat our sentenced soles of aught they crave,
And mar the merriment as you and I
Fare on our long fool’s-errand to the grave.”

A. E. Housman, “The Chestnut Casts his Flambeaux,” in Last Poems (1922)

That each of us is faring on a “long fool’s errand to the grave” is what might be called the philosophic premise of Ashley Madison, just as it is the philosophic premise of all modernity. And this philosophic premise effects, as we see here, a marvelous transformation in the meaning of what Housman calls “iniquity on high,” changing it from the traditional notion of a sin against God (or Nature), to the modern notion of a sin against one’s self.

“My kingdom come, my will be done, on earth ’til I’m six feet under.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson called the premise of the long fool’s-errand the “low light of mortality,” and by this meant that it cast mortality in a false light. This false light was a sort of twilight in which truth and error were mixed. It is true, as Ashley Madison tells us, that “life is short,” but it is false, as Housman tells us (and Ashley Madison presupposes), that it is also “a long fool’s errand.” Viewed in the high noon-day light of, dare I say it, unadulterated truth, Tennyson believed the shortness of life meant something quite different than Housman or Ashley Madison would have us believe.

Something more like this:

“So teach us to number our days,
That we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 90: 12.

Tennyson wrote the phrase “low light of mortality” in Aylmer’s Field, a long poem that he finished in 1863, under the shadow of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which had been published only four years before. It is set in a passage alluding to the state of the world on the eve of the great Deluge of God’s wrath, from which only Noah and his family were saved. Here is how it goes:

“When since had flood, fire, earthquake, thunder, wrought
Such waste and havoc as the idolatries,
Which from the low light of mortality
Shot up their shadows to the Heaven of Heavens,
And worshipt their own darkness as the Highest.”

Tennyson is telling us that, when mortality is viewed in the low light of “a long fool’s errand,” men fall into idolatry, and in this darkness do not stint their “sentenced soles of aught they crave.” Given half a chance, they will even log on to Ashley Madison because life is short!

“Crown thyself, worm, and worship thine own lusts!”

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Aylmer’s Field (1863)

20 thoughts on “Our Long Fool’s-Errand to the Grave

  1. Pingback: Our Long Fool’s-Errand to the Grave | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Our Long Fool’s-Errand to the Grave | Reaction Times

  3. “Their foot shall slide in due time.  Deuteronomy 32:3

    …It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continual experience of the world in all ages, shows this is no evidence, that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world. The unseen, unthought-of ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable.”

    –Jonathan Edwards

  4. “Ashley Madison is the big adultery clearinghouse for men and women…”

    Scratch out “and women” because fewer than one percent of AM users are genuine flesh-and-blood women looking for affairs. A woman never decides to have an affair, it “just happens”. Maybe not, but to maintain her self-respect, she must pretend that it “just happened”, which precludes signing up and paying for an Ashley Madison membership. Besides, it’s not like attractive working women have any trouble finding a guy willing to roll in the hay with them.

  5. Dave:

    Scratch out “and women” because fewer than one percent of AM users are genuine flesh-and-blood women looking for affairs.

    Fewer than one percent of Ashley Madison users are women? Really? This Jan. 1, 2009 Toronto Life article puts the ratio of men-to-women users at 3:1. But who knows:


    Prof. Smith:

    I vaguely recall hearing (or reading) of Ashley Madison before, but didn’t know what the site was/is before I read your post, believe it or not. Indeed, before yesterday if someone had mentioned Ashley Madison to me, the first thought that likely would have come to mind would have been “Ashley Madison: who is she?”

    I read an article yesterday that, in part, told the story of how the name Ashley Madison was chosen. Apparently the original site’s owner plucked the popular names Ashley and Madison out of a list, put them together and said ‘hey, they go together well, we’ll go with that.’ Or something like that.

      • A playboy was the same as a “sport,” which is why his fancy bachelor’s car was called a “sport’s car.”

        I did not before know from whence the term sports car originally came. I just assumed it was derived from the fact that sports cars are, well, sporty. (This is why it’s good advice to ‘never assume nothin” as they say) It seems like now we’ve dropped the possessive form of the “sport’s” in sports car, so who but a few academics would know.
        I said a few days ago under another post that the Orthosphere is a “great site.” The above is part of the reason for that. Thanks for that, Prof. Smith!

    • Ashley Madison sounds like an old-money upper class name, rather like Ralph Lauren. When you are marketing something sordid and shameful, it helps to name it after something with high-class associations. Until the one-hand magazine of the same name appeared, a “playboy” was a rich man’s son, who had no need to work. A playboy was the same as a “sport,” which is why his fancy bachelor’s car was called a “sport’s car.” The magazine Penthouse did the same thing, allowing a lonely wankers to fantasize, not only about you know what, but also about being the most eligible bachelor in town.

      So I would say that the name Ashley Madison was chosen to make adultery sound classy. I believe the reality is that adultery is most common at the top and bottom of society, with the middle for the most part realizing that it cannot afford the instability and disorder that adultery brings. But the middle are also socially ambitious, and so suckers for labels such as Ashley Madison, Ralph Lauren, Playboy, and Penthouse.

  6. Hello dear Orthospherians 🙂

    It’s been a while since I last commented here. That time, it was about how your Morality follows from your arguments for the existence of God ( https://orthosphere.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/defect-of-order-entails-immortality/ ).

    This time, I have a different thought, which I find hard to express. Reading Hobbes, Neoreaction and the Orthosphere has somewhat convinced me that the Catholic way of life is the right way to _organise society_. If we ask “What should be taught to children, what should be believed, so that society will be healthy, reproduce, reach excellency etc.?”, then Traditional Catholicism does indeed seem like the correct answer. Naively, we can see that Modernism is not the correct answer, because the societies who believe in it fail to reproduce, fail to exclude hostile elements and in general seem consigned to self-destruction. I considered pure Libertarianism for a while, but one still needs someone to preach values, to move beyond pure consumerism, to have enough children etc. It doesn’t have to be the state, sure, but someone. The Church seems just right for doing that, and for keeping those values over the centuries.

    Now comes my confusion: The above was a statement about the _Collective_, about the _Commons_. But as _Individual_, I can enjoy my life without “submitting” to the collectively rational doctrine of Catholicism. I can, speaking with Stirner, live according to *my own law* instead of *somebody else’s law*. However, if I *know* that Catholicism is good for society, isn’t it absurd to not adhere to it as well? Here I have conflicting intuitions… For some reason, I keep returning to consider Catholicism, despite having rejected it a few times already, on serious consideration. On pure mathematical rationality, it is surely correct to be a Free Rider ( https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/ ) and not to limit oneself, when one can get away with it. But something feels wrong here… And that is really confusing. Maybe you have ideas on how to lift that confusion. The concept of “The Grace of Faith” keeps appearing in my head, as I seem not to be graced with faith… really confusing, as said. Last time you spoke of the natural teleological purpose of humans, which would be contradicted by the free rider, but this was not convincing to me, since I don’t see how the purpose can be objectively determined. Do you have any other ideas except direct revelation?

    In short, if despite accepting the Catholicism as collectively rational, I keep with Austin Spare’s doctrine of “There is only one sin-suffering. There is only on virtue-the will to self-pleasure.”, what would you say to me?

    • If you are, indeed, on a “long fool’s errand to the grave,” you should certainly follow Housman’s advice and do nothing the “mar the merriment.” You will, of course, understand that social censure and pangs of conscience “mar the merriment,” but insofar as you can elude the former and talk yourself out of the latter, you should do as you please. Because you view suffering as the greatest evil, you will do everything you can to harden yourself against the vicarious sufferings we know as empathy, and against guilt (or you will somehow convert these into a form of pleasure).

      In other words, you will become an Epicurean or rational hedonist.

      None of this is incompatible with maintaining that traditional social morality is good for everyone else, since the repressions and self-denial of others do not increase your suffering. In fact, the most rational behavior on Housman’s hypothesis is what I would call Stealthy Hypocrisy. In other words, the pleasures of antisocial egoism for you, and the pain of pro-social self-denial for everyone else.

      In answer to this, my first question is, how does a Stealthy Hypocrite look in the mirror. Does he look to himself like a very clever fellow? I have known Stealthy Hypocrites who looked in the mirror and saw just this. What I saw was, of course, a Rat. And not a few of the men who have tried to live the life of Stealthy Hypocrisy (who hasn’t?) have looked into the mirror and recoiled in horror when they perceived the tell-a-tail whiskers of a Rat.

      My second question is, what is the meaning of this disgust with Rats? Is it simply a prejudice, to be discarded like all other inhibitions that can be safely discarded. Or is it an intuition of the permanent truth that the traitor is loathsome, because he has denied the bonds of humanity. This is what Dante thought, and is why he put traitors (i.e. Rats, Stealthy Hypocrites) in the ninth and lowest circle of Hell.

      If you are unable to convince yourself that Rats are really very clever fellows that you will follow as role models, and persist in the belief that a Rat is a Rat, they you can begin to work your way back to the whole truth by asking what else must be true.

      • A very beautiful replay, thanks a lot. You understood my situation perfectly. And indeed, Austin Spare explicitly writes “In this incessant glorification of work, I discover a great human secret: ‘Do thou the work-I my pleasure.'” — your precise Stealthy Hypocrite.

        So, we have the exact problem: Is the rational hedonist/egoist a Clever Fellow or a Rat? I’m interested in all argumens for both sides 🙂

        The feeling of disgust that you mentioned could be explained as you do, as a truthful intuition. Nietzsche offers the alternative in his best work (in my view), on the Genealogy of Morals. My summary: The Strong, who were Hedonist, did what they want. Succesfully doing what one wants they called “Good”, and failing that — “Bad”. The weak suffered. The Priests (Jews and Christians, naturally for Nietzsche) came up with the idea to define that which they and the weak *can’t* do, as that which people *shouldn’t* do — and this is how the Values of the Strong became inverted, and Suffering, turning the other cheek, became virtuous. What was Good (doing one’s egoistic will) became “Evil” and what was Bad (not attacking, denying oneself pleasure etc.) became “Good”. A “Good Murderer” still can have two meanings — someone who murders for morally good reasons (“Kill Hitler” is the classic example) or someone who’s just *good at murdering* and getting away with it. According to Nietzsche, the second is the chronologically first, the Strong meaning. So he who does his own will successfully is a Clever Fellow.

        On the other hand, if all people are egoistical, society decays. So he’s a Rat. Both life choices can be attacked, and both could be regretted after the fact. Maybe in some decades, I’ll come to regret that I wasn’t Catholic and you’ll come to regrett that you weren’t Hedonist. How to decide? That is really my question — how to decide when both sides have a point?

      • I think you are mistaking a practical question for a logical question. One may dither and fret for as long as one likes over what one is to believe, but life is urgent and demands an answer. There are no agnostics when it comes to practical questions, because there is no neutral position when it comes to conduct. If I sit in my chair for two hours wondering whether God exists, I may come to no definite conclusion; but if I sit in my chair wondering whether or not I should go for a walk, I have in fact made the decision to stay in the house.

        I believe the first step in answering a practical question is, therefore, to examine your present conduct and ask, what am I actually doing? since this is your real answer to the question. Are you, in fact, conducting yourself like Nietzsche’s “superman,” or more along the lines of his “slave morality”? Do you, in fact, admire (and envy) a man who has successfully cheated on his wife, swindled his employer, or betrayed his country? Or do you think he is a Rat?

        What you will find in your own conduct is what economists call “revealed preference.”

        So, in the case at hand, you must ask what you have already decided to be, a Stealthy Hypocrite or a man who aims at something much more along the lines of Christian love. You may be a very imperfect specimen of one or the other, and you may be far from honest with yourself about which one you are, but the truth is that you are not incapable of making this decision.

        You have already made it!

        The only question is whether you will change your mind. Christians call this repentance, but I’m quite willing to use this word to describe a man who repents a life of self-control and decided to spend what remains of his “long fool’s errand to the grave” as a Stealthy Hypocrite.

        So, your question is not “how to decide,” but what have I already decided? When you’ve answered that question honestly, ask yourself what you think of a person such as yourself. Do you admire him, or think that he is a Rat, or a Fool? If the later, I don’t think you will find this decision splits down the middle, and do think that once you see your present self as a Rat or a Fool, the contradictory evidence will melt away, and you will be on the road to repentance.

    • 1. I’m really sorry for the spelling mistakes in my last comment — circumstances prevented me from proofreading, which means I just shouldn’t have posted until I have more time. Any way I can edit my comment? I can hardly ask you to correct my spelling…
      2. I hope this “Reply”-Button puts my comment in the right spot… I’m a bit confused.
      3. To the actual point: Your thought about one’s own revealed preferences is very cogent! The real question is whether one will change one’s mind, just as you say.
      But here, your solution does not advance my question — I remain somewhat uncertain whether I like what I did so far. I reread Bonald’s “Preliminaries to Catholicism” and two points stood out:
      A) “When I probe into my psyche, what I find is not Descartes’ repository of clear meanings, but a house of mirrors and fog. My own true feelings and intentions are never clear to me, and my capacity for rationalization is boundless.”
      B) “To the extent that I control myself enough to choose good today, to that same extent it will be in my power to repudiate good tomorrow.”
      To B, Bonald says “Once again, the rescue must be to appropriate meaning from without. God it was Who […] allowed my life to have an overall plot.”
      I fail to see how the “problem” of Freedom is solved by this. I might regret having taken vows, as much as not having taken them. Even if I keep myself to my word, I can still regret. And in practice, I can of course always change my path (i.e. change my definition of “Good”), from Stealthy Hypocrite to Catholic or vice versa.

      There is an undeniable Beauty in living honestly. Being Catholic no matter the practical consequences, as is displayed by the Martyrs to the highest extent. But obviously, one can also be anything else (Satanist, Nazi etc.) with full honesty and steadfastly face any problems.
      On the other side, there can be Beauty in Lies and Stealth, as Oskar Schindler lied to the Nazis in order to save innocent lives. Most folks agree that his Deception was morally good.
      Thus the “In-The-Openness” of some doctrine seems no guide to its Truth.

      I remain somewhat undecided — there are two perspectives that both seem to lead to truth, but (apparently) deliver opposite answers. What is best for Society? Catholicism! What is best for the Individual? Hedonism! Because I am an individual, I am inclined to choose the second. But the first holds an undeniable attraction.

      Maybe that attraction comes from this: For society, it is best to have Catholic values even if there really is no God, Heaven or Hell. But when Catholicism is true, then it is of course also best for the Individual to be Catholic. This second part is of course Pascal’s wager, but the first part gives it some additional force…

      Yes! That’s exactly it! Pascal’s Wager! It is usually responded to by saying “Yes, believing falsely in Catholicism is less bad than disbelieving falsely (i.e. Hell), but you can make the same argument for any other religion. It’s not a dichotomy between Catholicism and No Hell. It’s a competition between various threats of Hell, from various religions.” But if (if!) Catholicism is true as a social system, then *that* makes it stand out from the other candidates offering one Pascal’s Wager! And then Pascal’s Wager becomes pretty convincing…. I think this is what my Catholicism-seeking intuition was getting at all the time! What do you think of this way of putting it?

      It’s a real pleasure to think with you, Orthosphereans and JMSmith — thanks a lot. I’ll stop writing for now and think about this “newfound” argument.

      • So, some talking to Catholic and Atheist friends (I am neither 😉 ) revealed the flaws in this reasoning.
        1. Let’s say the true social and political doctrine is “What the Orthospherians believe”. Clearly, the actual Catholic Church does *not* teach that doctrine and is thus wrong on politics.
        2. It at least *looks* like the truth about politics can be arrived at, whithout beginnig with Catholicism or believing it at all. Hobbes and Plato have seen the Light on Democracy and Monarchy independent of Catholicism. So if being right about politics makes one an authority, the authorities still disagree on Catholicism. Thus — conversely — the Church (or the Orthospherians) being right on politics does not show that they are also right on God. This flaw in my reasoning was seen in a minute by my Catholic friend 🙂

        So far, you can probably agree with these points and remain Catholic. My last point is a bit more “hostile”.

        3. It is possible to hold long-term, well-considered desires which are contrary to your doctrine and thus — on your view — sinful. One can for example be a proud thief. You would have the thief reject his desire and instead choose to live according to Catholic desires — “What would Jesus do?” However, if one’s long-term well-considered desire are not in harmony with “Jesus’ desires”, I would say that one literally *cannot live* according to Jesus. If one tries, one has given up one’s *own* life to become an imitation of Jesus. Contrary to Catholicism, one does not Gain Life Eternal, but rather *looses life* completely!

        Thus, even on Catholicism being true, Hell seems *preferable* because then I at least get to *live* (properly understood as living *my way*) for *a while* as opposed to *not at all* by following Jesus instead of myself. The harshness of this position surprises even me 🙂

        Now, of course you can directly deny my point — “God being Truth and Goodness, being an imitation of Jesus just *is* the best way to live one’s life”. And what can I say to you? Take Satan as a role model! He chose damnation because that gives him at least a *bit* of *his own life*. He’d rather *die* his way *later*, than live someone else’s way, since the latter option means he’d never *actually* live *at all*. Have you no Pride?

        No clue if you’re going to publish this, but either way it was a Pleasure to debate with you and I have now reached a statisfactory understanding of “How to live?” Thanks a lot 🙂 As long as we don’t get into some conflict, I wish you all to live the lives you desire 🙂

      • I believe everyone lives with long-term desires on which they do not act. Perhaps these should be called chronic desires, since they tend to go through a cycle of aggravation and abatement. Denying them is not a denial (“giving up”) one’s own life, denying them is part of one’s own life. Take as an innocent example a man who would like to “sleep in,” but instead rises early every morning so that he can hold down a job and feed his family. Was “sleeping in” his true self? Or was denying his desire to “sleep in” his true self?

        The same logic applies to hard cases, such as sexual desires. A man who successfully resists perverse desires is not “giving up” his life; he is living a life that involves “giving up” his desire. Or not. The point of this is that the appetites (what St. Paul called the flesh) is not a man’s “true self.” Nor are they utterly alien to his true self (as the Cathars seem to have taught). A man’s true self is an integration of his appetites, will, reason, and faith, and the way in which these components are integrated will constitute his “life.”

        I don’t know just what you mean by a “well-considered” desire. I presume you mean a desire that you at first resisted and then indulged, reflection having convinced you that your initial resistance was due to cultural conditioning and prejudice. I suppose such reasoning can be valid, but expect it is just as often a rationalization. A man convicted of premeditated murder has, after all, acted on “a long-standing and well-considered desire.”

      • I guess that is the heart of it: does living = one’s long-term well-considered desire(s)? Desires do seem to be rather fickle things, often changing as you point out above.

      • Short term human “desires” are about as stupid as they are human. Wait, what?!

        Personally, I take the Freddie Mercury approach to be just about as close to pure evil as one can come without becoming the Devil himself.

        Everything in between is just a prelude to what comes next.!

      • Take Satan as a role model! He chose damnation because that gives him at least a *bit* of *his own life*. He’d rather *die* his way *later*, than live someone else’s way, since the latter option means he’d never *actually* live *at all*.

        That somewhat begs the question – did Satan really live his life “a little bit” by non serviam, or did he just destroy the vast majority of it by failing to live up to his full potential and give in to just one “desire” – choosing his pride uber alles? After all, he was supposedly the brightest of all the angels. You seem to be equating “living according to Jesus’ rules” as somehow opposed to “living your life.” If God created you, then, among other things, Jesus came to show you how to live to be the best you, not just a “Jesus drone” of sorts. Kind of a divine tech support or user training.

  7. Mr. Smith,

    Don’t forget Catullus 5, in his bid to seduce Lesbia:

    Soles occidere et redire possunt,
    Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
    Nox est perpetua una dormienda

    Many suns can rise then set again,
    But when our brief light falls just once
    The night is one unending sleep.


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