Theses on Seriousness


  1. Life is to be lived excellently.
  2. Excellent living may be reached without ethical speculation: an excellent life can be achieved without falling into, and pulling oneself out of, a philosophical quagmire.
  3. Those who do not achieve excellent living instinctively may do so after a process of ethical or moral reflection.
  4. All moral and ethical speculation is for the purpose of steering one’s life toward excellence.
  5. Whether achieved instinctively or through reflection, the possibility of an excellent life hinges upon a matter of attitude: of striving toward seriousness and avoiding frivolity. In the former case, a person instinctively recognizes the seriousness of action and decision-making; in the latter, seriousness makes the fruits of speculation worth heeding in action.
  6. Serious-minded people may be swayed by the soundness of an argument; the frivolous, on the other hand, are prepared to avoid responsibility by any means necessary, whether through cultivated indifference, sophistry, psychologism, etc.
  7. A proof from the other side: No action is meaningful when conducted frivolously, no coward is rewarded for completely accidental acts of heroism. But heroes—who are defined as such primarily for facing reality seriously—are praised even in their failure.
  8. Don DeLillo, Point Omega: “Why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?” As with all virtues—and seriousness may be thought of in terms of virtue, as the ground in which all virtue must grow—seriousness is subject to excess. Becoming “too serious” is to pass beyond seriousness into ridiculousness and absurdity.
  9. As with all other virtues, an excess of seriousness is likely preferable to a deficiency. But absurd strictness detrimental to excellent living is as clownish as the worst frivolity.
  10. Seriousness is not Stoicism. A serious attitude toward the world does not imply immovability or a lack of emotion. On the contrary, for the serious person, the world and the things that populate it are constant sources of bewilderment, delight, frustration, amusement, dissatisfaction, elation, and anguish.
  11. “Although Goethe was intimately connected to the social and cultural life of his time, he also knew how to maintain his individuality. His principle was to take in only as much of the world as he could process. Whatever he could not respond to in a productive way he chose to disregard. In other words, he was an expert at ignoring things.”—Rüdiger Safranski, “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.” The principal tool against the temptation to ridiculousness is the art of indifference: of ignoring those things that are not worthy of one’s attention. One’s attention should be directed only at those things worthy of serious consideration; the rest should be disregarded rather than scorned.
  12. Expressed as a tautology: to be serious is to regard as serious those things worth taking seriously.
  13. Therefore, seriousness is principally an art of attention, a way of seeing: a serious attitude toward the world demands a clear vision—or an aspiration thereto—of what is really happening, what is at stake, what possibilities for action are available.
  14. First and foremost, seriousness entails a visceral, tangible recognition of the most basic fact of living: that one will eventually die. In the light of one’s eventual death, the serious and frivolous things of the world are revealed for what they are.
  15. Seriousness, then, implies ethical immediacy: the things worth doing are worth doing now, and excuses motivated to delay right action are simply expressions of frivolity.

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