The limits of a horse’s value in the winter of our discontent

Richard III, in a moment of desperation, may have deemed a horse-to-kingdom exchange rate of 1:1 to be fair, and perhaps this is meant, like Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, to show the ultimate fatuity and vanity of wealth and power in a pinch, but it also shows perhaps that the constriction of that over which one has control and the ability to exercise free will can drastically distort one’s assessment of the value of things. In life, as in a casino, not all games are decided by skill. Most people know that the “externalities” of life, the environment, the weather, physical condition, the social network into which we are born, affect not only the events of life but one’s state of mind. Modern Western religions, though not supposing the possibility of total human control over the world, as some technological utopians and Eastern or pseudo-Eastern mystics have in their very different ways, have often offered the possibility indirectly through an divinely ordained connection between human behavior and the workings of fate, whereby ethical or unethical behavior leads to ostensibly unconnected good or bad events happening to the perpetrator. As encouraging as this may potentially be incentive for virtue and justice, the idea sours when individuals and societies become by implication culpable for and punished by every flood, every famine and every death in the family that occurs to them.

In a sense too the ideal of free will can become degraded even in a more pragmatic form. The world burns and breaks all around and the timber of humanity is set crooked. Faced with these disheartening constants that never change, people naturally tend to focus on the problems that can be solved. But while only a part of life may be under our control, the whole of it affects our happiness. Those that forget this and equate the problems that admit of a solution with all the problems of life as a whole, and especially those that believe that solving them will create universal happiness and contentment, indulge in unrealistic and inevitably disappointed expectations, and sometimes dream up , or more often become receptive to the instigations of manipulative cynics acting in the name of, disastrous political utopias. Without this willful blindness to the limitations of life the very connection of political programs with the idea of paradise becomes somewhat ludicrous. As with all ideas, a contrary danger lies within this criticism: that of passivity, acceptance of limitations which are not in fact inevitable. But the mind feels more than it thinks about explicitly, and so its capacity for discontent probably exceeds the bounds of the perfectible, at least for now.

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