Obligation to beat long odds

Then, there’s this other Gramscian dimension to your thought. He once said, “In the medium of the intellect, I am a pessimist, but when it comes to the medium of the will, I am an optimistic.” There’s this seesawing back and forth of the extreme pessimism and extreme optimism.

I see that in your work, too. You’re an Italian who came to the US with such high hopes. In many ways, you love it, but in other ways, you’re deeply disappointed. You keep on seeing the unities between US and Italy, corporations and government, and the practical pessimism of this state of affairs. Yet, you’re propelled to do something about it by writing, speaking, being a public figure, and so on.

That would be like my two‑minute version of who you are, what you do. What do you say to that?

That was how Tyler Cowen described Luigi Zingales to Zingales himself. He called it the two-minute version. The full interview is here.

If the battle of the will and the intellect applied to many in the U.S. and Italy, it must be more applicable to the millions toiling away in India, outside India and for India.

Strangely, it found some resonance in this lovely article that Jason Zweig about himself and his work. It was first written more than two years ago.

My senior year of college, my father was dying of lung cancer. Most weekends, I would take the train up from New York City to Fort Edward (then the nearest train station to where I grew up in rural upstate New York).

On one of my last visits, even as my father was in severe pain, he asked me the same question he always did: What are you reading?

I fluffed my feathers a bit and said: Kierkegaard. “What is he telling you?” asked my dad. I had just been reading a volume of Kierkegaard’s journals on the train, immersed in the poetic ruminations of the great Danish philosopher. So I immediately spouted, verbatim and with the appropriate pauses for world-weary effect, the words I still remember to this day: “No individual can assist or save the age. He can only express that it is lost.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, my dad retorted: “He’s right. But that’s exactly why you must try to assist and save the age.”

In that one moment, my dad put a callow youth gently in his place, out-existentialized the great existentialist and gave me words to conduct a career by.

Only years later did I understand fully what he meant: We can’t assist or save the age, but the attempt to do so is the only way we have of even coming close to realizing some dignity and meaning for our lives. The longer the odds, the greater the obligation to try to beat them.

I am sure that Jason Zweig would not have failed to realise the paradox of his last sentence. ‘The longer the odds; the greater is the obligation to try and beat them’ is context-specific. The odds of beating the market in finance is long. Jason Zweig would not advice an investor to do nor is making returns from an overvalued market an outcome with short odd. It is a long-odd outcome. Jason Zweig would not advise that either. In the context of ‘saving the age’ or ‘serving the nation’, it is perfectly apt.

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