Before von Mises, in his admirable opus, Human Action, goes on to tell us that Humankind is driven by its very nature to improve its situation, he first puts to the reader the very serious question: Why bother?
In this, my last post on the thought of von Mises, I would like to quote some of his statements concerning the biggest existential question of all– not only because the question has been well-put by von Mises, but to show that he was a great thinker who– though he was quite sure of his own beliefs– was not ignorant of the arguments on the other side. In fact, his knowledge of contending beliefs is what makes his own assertions so strong and so often difficult for mere mortals to successfully assail…
Science, says von Mises, keeps silent on this awesome question: Is life worth living?
Expanding the question, von Mises writes… “What is the meaning of all these human endeavors and activities if in the end nobody can escape death and decomposition? Man lives in the shadow of death. Whatever he may have achieved in the course of his pilgrimage, he must one day pass away and abandon all that he has built. Each instant can become his last. There is only one thing that is certain about the individual’s future– death. Seen from the point of view of this ultimate and inescapable outcome, all human striving appears vain and futile.”
He continues… “Moreover, human action must be called inane even when judged merely with regard to its IMMEDIATE goals. It can never bring full satisfaction; it merely gives for an evanescent instant a partial removal of uneasiness. As soon as one want is satisfied, new wants spring up and ask for satisfaction.”
All our hard work, our “busy doings and dealings,” our “hurrying, pushing, and bustling”– all seems “nonsensical” upon reflection, “for they provide neither happiness nor quiet.” And perhaps those are correct who contend that society– by dent of its focus on supplying entertainments, material goods, and other pleasures– only serves to make people ultimately worse off, for it “multiplies their wishes and does not soothe –but kindles– desires.”
Sadly, von Mises can answer this question no more satisfyingly than other great thinkers who have tried. Ultimately, he must take it as a given facet of human nature that we will wish to improve our situation.
He then spends a thousand pages or so telling how best to do just that.
Thanks for your thought-provoking work, Herr von Mises. I do not have to agree with everything you said to place you on my short list of the 20th century’s top philosophers.
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