Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defense

The poet Jack Gilbert died this week. One of his most famous poems is “A Brief for the Defense,” from which I quote a couple of excerpts:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. …

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

The charge against us is that we enjoy life despite others’ suffering. Does the defense (quoted above) make a good case on our behalf? Does it depend on the mention of God? Or is there a secular, ethical case for relishing life despite suffering?

Some years ago, I would have said that the best way to live is not to count one’s own happiness more than anyone else’s. My welfare or happiness should (ideally) represent about one seven-billionth of my concern. Now I am not so sure. I think that subjective happiness is only roughly correlated with objective conditions, such as prosperity and freedom. As Gilbert puts it in this poem, “There is laughter / every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” On the other hand, people are generally bad at being happy, we cannot make each other happy, and a world in which we all strove for each other’s happiness would be strangely empty. Everyone would be taking in other people’s laundry. Emerson and Nietzsche put the point too strongly, but they has an insight. Not only demanding justice for others but also achieving happiness for ourselves is a worthy moral objective. (See also my posts on “all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth,” “unhappiness and injustice are different problems,” and “Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?.”)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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