If only…

Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— pretty much deserves a line by line analysis of how it is awesome description of what it is to be a virtuous man.* Unfortunately, that would take too long and would be redundant since most of the poem is self-explanatory. A few lines take a bit of thought to sort out, however.

For example, the line “If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,” is not self-evidently virtuous. “If you can think—” is an interesting clause. Every person thinks, so it seems likely that Kipling means “If you can think well.”  The ability to organize one’s thoughts and to use one’s reason seems like a sort of virtue in itself, but there is more to it than that. The ability to think may be the very source of virtue. One could argue that without rational thought, virtue is impossible. Rarely do we ascribe virtue (and even more rarely vice) to animals and plants; their actions are guided by instinct, not reason. Is it virtuous to breathe? Or to blink? Can any action be virtuous that is involuntary? And what is a “voluntary” action except one that requires thought?

But the second half of that line, “and not make thoughts your aim,” is a bit trickier. If “thoughts” are not the proper aim, what is? Are “thoughts” being set up in opposition to “thought” in general? That is, is Kipling exhorting his son to avoid becoming obsessed with specific ideas instead of properly appreciating a more rounded “life of the mind”? Many intellectuals would like this to be the answer:  thought (in the sense of philosophy) as the proper aim of life. However, I suspect that Kipling has a more active aim in mind.

The whole poem seems to be a call to action, but action is not a proper aim in itself. Unlike philosophy, which may exist for its own sake, action ought to have a separate aim. Little harm can come of thinking for the sake of thinking, but acting for the sake of acting can be dangerous. One ought “not make thoughts or action their aim,” action must be toward some external goal.

So what is the proper aim of life? It seems by the end of the poem that it is to “be a man”. Perhaps simply fulfilling the promise of this poem is the real aim one should strive for.

Beer of the Week: Kunstmann Bock – Goodness, how very dark this beer is! The head is rather quick to fade, but is a lovely tan color on top of the nearly black beer. The taste is absolutely dominated by smokey malt. Some burnt caramel may be detected in the flavor and there is a hint of dark roasted coffee in the finish.  The beer is smooth and thick (for a lager) and although I do not particularly care for such dark beers, this offering from Kunstmann is quite good. Not altogether surprising after reviewing Kunstmann’s Pale Ale.

Reading of the week: If— by Rudyard Kipling – This poem is just about impossible to read without feeling inspired. It encourages level-headedness,  a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort.

*Question of the week: Kipling was writing to his son. Would his advice be different if he were writing to his daughter?

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2 Comments on “If only…”

  1. Cole Simmons says:

    Nicomachean Ethics, book 7, chapter 2, tells us something like the following: Socrates used to do battle against the notion that action would not follow true knowledge. That it would be the worst thing in the world if this were the case.

    In book 8 of his Confessions, Augustine says that the mind’s inability to guide action is a “monstrous situation”, a “monstrous fact” and a “monstrosity.” If only he had been able to read Plato instead of the neo-Platonists! Seriously, Catholicism would be an entirely different animal.

    However, Augustine relates this all too reasonable feeling: “I hate Greek … the difficulty of learning a foreign language … sprinkles gall, as it were, over all the charm of the stories the Greeks tell.”

  2. Marni says:

    It’s always a relief when someone with obvious exsrteipe answers. Thanks!


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