Matt Murphy, Contributor
This submission is part of the Trin Reads Initiative, organized by Trinity Times and the Trinity Heads of College. Community members were invited to read a book over Reading Week and write a short reflection or book review.
I have long struggled with the question of how much sacrifice is enough in the quest for justice in a world marked by structural violence. Marcus Aurelius’ exhortation to stand “straight, not straightened” has shaped much of my thinking. The goal should be, in my reading of Meditations, not to sacrifice at all. Rather, the goal is to shape our values so that what we once deemed a sacrifice — a need to be straightened — is now the course most consistent with our values — the “straight” path — and hence not a sacrifice at all.
Unfortunately, value transformation is easier said than done. Agnes Callard’s book develops a rational theory of value acquisition, which she calls aspiration. Callard emphasizes that aspiration is an extended process, marked by uncertainty. At the outset of his aspirational journey, the aspirant does not fully grasp the value which he hopes to acquire. As such, it is not even obvious that we can acquire new values rationally: how can I choose to value something whose value I cannot understand?
The aspirant does know that there is something to value, and in hoping to gain a more complete understanding of this value, he looks to others in whom he perceives his prospective value and emulates them. However, because he doesn’t have the value, his reasons for emulation are not in service to the value itself but rather are “bad” reasons (“bad” insofar as they stem not from the value itself but from other motivations. For example, he might reward himself for not checking his phone during lecture by eating a piece of chocolate). He forces himself to stand straightened, hoping that someday he might stand straight, and know why he does.