Welcome to Notes on Quotes, a new print and podcast series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quote. This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated. Listen to the podcast & sign-up for the new newsletter.
This is Notes on Quotes. I'm Stephen Harrison. I'm a writer and lawyer who has written for the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, and I currently write the Source Notes column for Slate about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
And I'm passionate about quotes—words of wisdom that have played a meaningful role in people’s lives. Each episode, I'm asking an interesting guest to come on the show and chat about a quotation of their choosing. My guest today is Zoë A. Johnson King.
She completed her bachelor’s and master’s in philosophy at the University of Cambridge before receiving her PhD at the University of Michigan. Today, she’s a Bersoff Fellow on the faculty at NYU, and in June 2020, she’ll be moving to a permanent post at USC. As a philosopher, Zoë specializes in the philosophy of action, ethics, and metaethics.
Her doctoral dissertation defended the value of trying to act rightly. Zoë is also a proponent of public philosophy, which she has said is, quote, “literally the most important thing that philosophers can do.” Zoë, welcome to the show.
Zoë Johnson King: Thank you so much for having me.
So what quote will we be chatting about today?
I will be discussing a quote from the nonsense poet Edward Lear, who apparently wrote in his diary, “I see life as basically tragic and futile, and the only thing that matters is making little jokes.”
I was excited you picked this quote because I wasn’t very familiar with Edward Lear or his work. So, I did some research: Edward Lear was a 19th century English poet and author, best known for his nonsense poetry and prose. The key work he wrote is A Book of Nonsense, which is a collection of limericks. To me, he seems like the Dr. Seuss of the 1800s.
That’s fair to say. A very eccentric character. Just kind of silly.
Do you remember when you first came across Lear and his work?
I was trying to cast my mind back in preparation for this interview, though I think this pre-dates the age that I can’t remember behind! But I'm very confident that I was introduced to Edward Lear, nonsense poetry, limericks, and word play in general by my grandpa. He actually lived in Belgium for the intersection of his life and mine, but grew up in England, and had an eccentric sense of humor. So I'm pretty confident that I first learned this quote from my grandpa. But that’s a guess. I don’t actually remember him telling me. It’s just something I’ve always carried with me, which is why it was a natural choice for my favorite quote.
Sometimes those are the best quotes—the ones that are incepted in you. Any ideas on why you like this quote so much?
So I think there’s sort of two angles you can take on the quote:  The life is tragic and futile angle, and  the making little jokes angle. Thinking about my past history—my temperament, my dispositions, the things I’ve always cared about (up to and including my dissertation that you mentioned)—I can see why this mix of the pessimistic and the optimistic really appealed to me.
I've always had a romantic attachment to the idea of using our time and energy to try to lift other people’s spirits as much as possible, which is part of why I like silly humor, and why I've now ended up in philosophy working on moral motivation. (There’s a more coherent thread here than I realized myself prior to thinking about what to say in this interview!)
There are so many—I’m not sure if I’m allowed to swear—there are so many bad things about the world. We as individuals can do so little to try to remedy systemic structural injustices or large-scale economic degradation, all the serious crises of our time or the previous crises across history. And that can really get you down.
So, you can think about life as being essentially tragic and futile. You can think about your efforts as a mere drop in the ocean. You can kind of see yourself from the point of view of the universe and feel like nothing you do will ever matter… And it’s hard to know how to move on from that kind of state.
But one thing you can do is find other people who are in a similar existential crisis, or another kind of crisis, or who stubbed their toe, or whose partner broke up with them, or who had an argument with somebody—and you can cheer them up. That’s one thing you can do. That’s a small way that you can make what is probably going to be a tiny but real improvement in the world.
Background for our readers: You and I first met when I was writing an article for Slate about the ethics of writing online reviews for sites like Google or Yelp. We talked about writing a review of the local taco restaurant nearby me. One of the things you impressed on me is that there was value in writing a positive review, especially for a small business, and that small acts matter. I found that to be a very optimistic takeaway. So I was a bit surprised when you picked this Edward Lear quote because to me, it seemed a little sad.
This always happens when I tell people this is my favorite quote because most people know me as a smiley, positive person. When I tell them my quote and say the bit about “tragic and futile,” they’re like, “Whoa…” People think maybe there is not enough redemption in the second half.
I was zeroing in on the word “matters” in the second part of the quote. The little jokes matter.
Yes, and I have to explain the spin on it where making little jokes is quite broadly construed. It’s not just making wisecracks, but everything we can do to be positive sources of moral support for each other.
There’s this view of the universe I have which is that it’s actually quite relaxing to think about the tragic, futile side of things. Because if you take seriously the thought that ultimately nothing really matters, then there’s only so much you can mess up! Some people think, “Nothing I do will ever to come anything.” But the flip side of that is nothing you do is that bad either.
From the point of view of the universe, that time when you said the wrong word to your boss or your crush, or whatever else is worrying you right now, it’s not that big of a deal.
To the point about it not being such a big deal—I’m wondering if you associate this quote with any school of philosophy. Nihilism? Absurdism?
There’s one thinker who I think would probably be the most famous philosopher most likely to endorse this quotation. But I’m a little afraid to say it because I don’t usually agree with this person that much. It’s Nietzche.
I thought you might say him!
Nietzche is all about staring in the face of the cold hard reality of the bleakness of it all, and nonetheless willing himself to go forward. In fact, one of Nietzceh’s more widely-known ideas is meant to get across this point. Nietzche asked us to imagine what he called the Eternal Recurrence. The idea is that there isn’t an afterlife, a heaven and hell, or anything like that. Instead the exact course of history as it is playing out right now will continue to play out in the future. And it happens again and again, in the exact same way, eternally.
It’s an interesting thought experiment that Nietzche recommends to us. You might imbue your actions with more of a sense of importance if you imagine that everything you do, every single choice you make, you will make again over and over forever. I sometimes think about the Eternal Recurrence when I'm snoozing my alarm too many times.
If I’m remembering Nietzche correctly, though, he might not have had the temperament for Lear’s “tiny little jokes.”
Oh no. He would see them as pointless frivolity, at best a distraction, and so on. And he would certainly not be on board with the philosophy of moral motivation that I write about now. We disagree on that point.
Thank you so much, Zoë, for coming on the show to talk about Edward Lear and Nietzche and tiny little jokes. For our readers, here’s Zoë’s website and the book of philosophical thought experiments that Zoë recommends is called The Pig That Wants to be Eaten.