Hirschman on a Life Without Disappointment

A passage from Hirschman’s (1982) Shifting Involvements.

Human societies have a peculiarly wide latitude for deterioration because of one of their characteristic achievements: the surplus above subsistence. Once this proposition is extended from the social to the individual level, a fresh meaning can be given to the rather tired saying errare humanum est or “To err is human.” Ordinarily understood as an invitation to forbearance for an occasional mistake, the saying can be totally reinterpreted to mean that mistake-making is an exclusive faculty of humans. In other words, the meaning of the saying is not “to err is only human,” but “only humans err.” In all of creation, only man is empowered to make mistakes and every once in a while he or she does use this power to the fullest. Lichtenberg, the eighteenth-century German scientist and aphorist, pointed to this meaning when he wrote: “To make mistakes is also human in the sense that animals make few mistakes or none at all, with the possible exception of the most intelligent among them.” If it is accepted that mistake-making is the inevitable counterpart of the very rise of man above subsistence and animal existence, then another inevitability follows: that of regret and disappointment resulting from the errors of one’s ways which were surely paved not only with good intentions, but with high expectations not to make mistakes. So much for the possibility of ever conquering disappointment. But supposing even it were possible, would the elimination of disappointment be desirable?

While a life filled with disappointment is a sad affair, a life without any disappointment may not be bearable at all. For disappointment is the natural counterpart of man’s propensity to entertain magnificent vistas and aspirations. Is this propensity unfortunate and irrational? Given the certainty of death (for one thing), what would life be without the ever renewed production of such disappointment-yielding expectations and aspirations? In other words, the “cost” of disappointments may well be less than the “benefit” yielded by man’s ability to entertain over and over again the idea of bliss and happiness, disappointment-bound though it may be. As a friend of Don Quixote exclaims after the Knight of the Mournful Countenance has been cured of his madness, close to the end of his life:

God forgive you for the damage you have caused everyone in wishing to return to sanity this most amusing fool! Don’t you realize, Sir, that the benefit that might accrue from the sanity of Don Quixote will never come up to the pleasure he gives us through his follies?

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