There must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; for example, of male and female, that the race may continue; and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves.
– Aristotle, Politics
Many people get into the arts, or crafting, or even construction, as a tool for self-expression. “Giving back” is not the right tone to describe the foundational motivation behind such endeavors, even though that is often how it is phrased.
Selflessness is good PR.
Life is short, and we have a limited amount of time to expend the energy we have. In the end, what we expend our energy upon — and its results — serve as the basis for judgement (others’ and our own) on our lives. The question am I a good person? can be answered morally — indeed, much of progressive morality is the vain attempt to make whether or not one is a “good person” a matter of what one says. But this always fails in the end. It can only last as long as everyone pretends to agree upon the importance of words. In times of crisis or any other moment of importance, humans will act as if words are less important than behavior. Descriptively speaking, morality is about action, and therefore, there is no way to separate morality from competence. The question of whether or not one is a good person can be answered — at least in part — by asking what did you do?
For the purpose of measuring one’s life, we look to the greatest acts of creation, made over the course of our entire lifetimes. If Frank is a carpenter, then we get to the emotive heart of the matter brought up the question, is Frank a good person? when we look to the quality of his wood-work.
This is not a matter of what we ought to do. I am positing that this is generally how we think. We may despise a particular author, for example — perhaps we disagree with their politics, or their personal habits, or how they treat other people — but if they write excellent stories, then we will naturally (however begrudgingly) think generally positively about them.
There are doubtlessly exceptions to this trend, and certain ideological lenses can overpower our natural tendencies. I have no doubt that many people will consider Thomas Jefferson a “bad person” for owning slaves, despite helping to found a new state (and despite writing three bills against slavery). Conversely, many hard-line religious people believe that anyone who does not believe in their particular God is a “bad person.” Nevertheless, these zealots are the exception, sometimes even in their own lives. The good life is a function of what we do, not what we say or believe.
Hence the impulse to art, music, construction, and works of creation — be that creation a physical object, a skill, an experience, or anything else that we might be known by, through the quality of our creation.
But are personal endeavors, like art or weight-training or painting, really the best way to accomplish the aim which motivates these behaviors?
I don’t think that it is… at least, not directly.
No work of art, no building, no temple, no physique, no ballad or painting or garden, can ever match the complexity, the beauty, the potential, and the longevity contained in another human being. What you create will almost certainly fade, or be destroyed or forgotten, but children pass on what is you indefinitely into the future.
Artists and romantics who like to imagine that they are elitist often dismiss this attitude on the basis that anyone can have a child. There is no value in what is universal.
But can anyone have a child? Finding a suitable spouse is often easier said than done, especially if one is looking for someone of quality. And the act of sex itself isn’t difficult, pregnancy and the subsequent 18+ years of raising a child is exceptionally demanding. It is little wonder that women are so picky in who they are willing to date. Condoms may reduce the risk of pregnancy, but they don’t change the psychological associations surrounding sex that have built up over millions of generations. If you don’t look like you have quality genes, your odds of procreation are fairly slim.
Perhaps that was the purpose of art and other synthetic acts of creation: to demonstrate inner quality that perhaps might not be as visible, and thereby increase the odds of reproductive success. It isn’t the primary, conscious motivation of most artists today–at least the ones I’ve met–but it might explain why we have this artistic impulse.
We can see the importance of this in religious texts. In Genesis 12:2, God’s great promise to Abraham is to make of him “a great nation.” This nation is to be the vehicle of God’s message to the world, and it is, accordingly, the greatest promise that God can give to his chosen people. Nothing is greater than having one’s children become a great and known people unto themselves, a nation that changes the world.
But God isn’t necessary to accomplish this goal.
According to one relatively famous study from 2003, approximately 16 million men worldwide (~0.5% of the global population) are descendants of the Mongolian king, Ghengis Khan.
Just think about the genetic impact of that one man on the world. We write songs to induce changes in feeling and emotion in others, but that man literally changed who they were. They were now made in the image of a Mongolian war-lord, rather than some other hypothetical father.
We are not individuals. We inherit a great deal of our character, taste, preferences and proclivities from our ancestors. This nature is ultimately molded by our environment too, of course. But a different person with a different genetic background may have adapted in a different fashion. When lots of people with a similar genetic background live together — a “nation” — then the character of the progenitor doesn’t merely live on in his offspring, but in their creations as well. Mongolian architecture, Kazak clothing, Chinese food, Uzbek painting, all of these might reflect — in some small way — the character of Ghengis Khan.
Just as the culture of the Jews today might reflect the character of Abraham.
There is nothing that anyone can make or do that is more profoundly creative or impactful than having a child — the more, the greater. Deferring family so that they can live your own life and “make something of yourself” is like selling your car so you can buy more gas.
Of course, if no one is willing to make a family with you, making something of yourself might be the best path towards that goal.
It seemed to work for the Khan and his children.
If you are naturally inclined towards family, more power to you. And if your instincts steer you towards the arts and other, non-biological acts of creation, wonderful. Some people simply aren’t motivated to “make a difference.” They simply want to pursue enjoyable past-times until they die, and part of that is making things of beauty and value. So be it. The world needs that too.
But if you find yourself at a fork in the road, and are contemplating whether to have more children, or to pursue a more personally-fulfilling career because you want to “make a difference,” remember that the man who conquered all of Asia had a more lasting impact on the world through his progeny than by his own military actions. The latter is only significantly felt and remembered today as a result of the former.
Nothing you will do can compare to what may be done by your descendants — in aggregate, or perhaps even independently.
And remember: you don’t need to be Ghengis Khan to leave a legacy. The descendants of Abraham wrote that the person who saves one life saves the world, but it could just as meaningfully be said that the person who creates one life creates the world.
And what work of art, what military act, what opera or poem or book could compare to the experience of the whole world?