Pitfalls of the Melancholic

“The superior man is not a utensil”

This quotation from Confucius in the Analects (2:12) can be interpreted in various ways, but my preferred interpretation is that the ideal human being is not useful. The ideal human and, by extension, the pursuit of virtue, are not a means to some other end. For someone of a melancholic temperament the corollary is that being an idealist will make life extremely difficult, since earning a living in the present era appears to require either that one be pragmatically useful to others, or pretend to be useful to others. The latter is unsavoury, but the former is subject to the kind of bizarre Catch-22 that only a true melancholic could manufacture out of otherwise ordinary facts of life.

The melancholic is driven by ideals and suffers when his ideals are frustrated. Ideals can exist within a hierarchy: everything from the ideal way to live one’s life, to the ideal job, to the ideal cup of coffee. Ideals are how the melancholic makes sense of the world and also how he motivates himself to act towards goals.

The pitfall of the melancholic is that because he looks at the world through the prism of ideals, he risks inhabiting a state of almost perpetual disappointment. He is acutely aware of how things do not measure up to the ideal, and how his admittedly vague ideals fail to find any correlate in reality. For example, the melancholic may not know what the perfect house looks like, he only knows that he hasn’t yet come across it. He may not know how the ideal political party should function, but he sees how the actual politicians fall short of it. He may have no idea what the ideal job would entail, but he knows it hasn’t yet turned up on the job-search database. Over time, the melancholic grows accustomed to the disparity between his ideals and reality, and this results in pessimism: the expectation that reality will continue to fall short of the ideal.

While a choleric might be able to accept that reality falls short of the ideal, for a melancholic this pessimism is poison. After all, the melancholic depends on his ideals for comprehension and motivation. If his ideals fail, the melancholic risks becoming disoriented, demotivated, and totally cynical.

This is where the aforementioned Catch-22 emerges: the melancholic might by this stage be fully aware that he would be happier, wealthier, and more productive if he gave up his ideals and focused instead on simple worldly ambitions like a good income, climbing the corporate ladder, having a nicer car and a nicer home, or going on an expensive holiday. But for the melancholic, giving up on ideals would amount to psychological self-destruction. Even the idea of embracing a happier and more simple life of worldly ambitions appeals to the melancholic under the aspect of an ideal: as though life would be perfect if he just forgot all this nonsense and enjoyed an ordinary existence.

In the eponymous novel, the original Catch-22 is described as follows:

“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch”, Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

The upshot of this Catch-22 is that getting out of combat duty is entirely beyond one’s control, and the thought of achieving it is merely a tantalising hope. Translating this into melancholic terms: while it is true that one might be happier being content with worldly ambitions and simple goals rather than unattainable ideals, such a scenario is merely a pleasant fantasy for the melancholic to enjoy when the frustration of his ideals starts to get to him. Even the melancholic’s allegedly pragmatic alternative is really just another idealistic fantasy.

A more constructive response to such frustrations might be to recognise that though the melancholic may suffer pitfalls, these are the result of inhabiting such an interesting landscape in the first place. The melancholic’s ideals might be intangible, but they are also immediate. They might be unattainable, but they are also profoundly inspiring. They may even be completely useless, but that is because ‘use’ is beneath the highest ideals: the superior man is no utensil.

2 thoughts on “Pitfalls of the Melancholic

  1. Usefulness is not a virtue in itself. I get that.

    But given the melancholic’s strong sense of their unique ideals, wouldn’t they judge their personal usefulness – and by extension virtue – against their ability to achieve those ideals? That is to say, melancholics will judge themselves and others based on their ‘usefulness’, but in pursuit of uncommon ideals.

    Or perhaps I am confusing them with another personality type.

    • I think we have to be careful because the term ‘useful’ can be quite ambiguous.
      So your point is valid, and shows that my use of the term was not definitive.
      Sometimes broad brush-strokes are good at conveying an impression, but the impression will be imprecise.
      I’ll see if I can be more precise:
      The melancholic finds value in ideals that are not calibrated directly to more tangible goals such as making money, holding the esteem of the masses, building a career that the majority would consider desirable, etc. This gives the melancholic the impression that his ideals, though attractive to himself, will not meet with popular approval because they do not directly or indirectly lead to the aforementioned tangible and mainstream goals.
      Bringing in the notion of ‘usefulness’, it is indeed relative as you suggest. I was using it in the sense of ‘useful for obtaining tangible mainstream goals’. But it could also be used in relation to the melancholic’s own ideals.

      I should add that the melancholic is known to be highly self-critical for failing to meet his own ideals.

      Whether the melancholic judges people against his own ideals…I think this does happen. For example, I often think about the ideal way a boss, a subordinate, a police officer, a politician, etc. should behave. But I’m also conscious of ideals that are peculiar to me, and I don’t seem to hold others to those ideals.

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