The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.

I’m reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” on a Friday night while sipping tea at the campus coffee shop on a Friday night because I’ve been far too busy for far too long and I’m treating myself.

Never let me treat myself again.

The book entertained the following question: what is quality?

I smirked and tipped my tea (which was conveniently enough called, Zen!). Quality is how good or bad something is in comparison to something else.

The book pinched it’s lips together to hide it’s self-assured grin before posing another question: what is quality without comparison?

I stopped smiling. How can you tell how good or bad something is without a comparison? For example, a short story — perhaps the very short story that I turned in for my Creative Writing class. Was it good? Or terrible? How was I to know?

Perhaps it was the writing style, the exquisite details that I used, the fresh dialogue that invoked the perfect emotion at the perfect time without being bogged down my cliches? All of these literary characteristics makes something good, yes?

I suppose they do — but only in comparison to another work that used these characteristics poorly. And yet, the teacher, when grading my work, surely has some scale of quality to which my work is measured against? What is that scale comprised of? I’m not exactly sure. But if I told my teacher to read four short stories submitted for the class and rank them in order of quality, she would be able to do so. AND perhaps most importantly, if we had people in the class (who didn’t write those stories so as to keep them from being biased towards their own work) read those stories, their rankings of quality would be almost, if not exactly, the same as the teachers.

Clearly there is some undefinable characteristic of quality that is instilled in all of us so that we can recognize when we see it even if there is no verbal description for it.

Or perhaps, use beauty. Redefine beauty as “quality of face” and then try to tell me what makes a person beautiful. If my roommates and I stood in our large mirror and ranked our faces by the “most beautiful,” we could most certainly do so (although the conflict resulting from that comparison could get pretty ugly…). However, if only I stood in the mirror and had no one to compare my face to, how could I call myself beautiful? What are the characteristics that make “beauty” and how can they be achieved without comparison to someone who doesn’t possess those characteristics?

This got me thinking.

What if, hypothetically speaking, there was only one person on the face of this earth. They have an unlimited supply of paper and ink, language skills, and all the time in the world. If they wrote a paper, would it be a paper of quality?

With nothing to compare it to, the first paper written would certainly have no basis for quality. However, the second paper could be compared to the first — or vice versa — and all of sudden, we can rank them. Now, don’t think of the two papers as two separate entities, but rather one example of writing from one person. The person could write a million papers and we would still think of them as one collective body of work from one person.

Anything multiplied by one is itself. This holds true for every single number stretching out to infinity. If this body of work demonstrated quality, then there would infinite quality in the work. However, if this work doesn’t represent any sort of quality (like the number 0), then there would be 0 amount of quality in the work.

How can something be infinite and still 0 at the same time?

This is the question that I am wrestling with and one that I don’t currently have an answer to — assuming that eventually I could come up with a satisfactory answer.

This is why I shouldn’t treat myself.

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2 thoughts on “The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.

  1. Kevin says:

    Good analysis, Syd. You are nibbling at the edges of the biggest “philosophical chocolate chip cookie”: the debate over whether “absolutes” exist. Endless hours of enjoyable debate have occurred over many different types of beverages over whether there is such a thing as “absolute truth”. This question is at the heart of the “modern vs post-modern” angst (with the post-modern view that everything must be looked at in context seemingly being against absolutes). I believe that there is absolute truth but that it is so big (you could call it “God-sized”) that our finite brains can only grasp parts of that truth (leading to arguments with others who grasp a different part). However, the key thing on my last sentence are the words ” I believe “. Since a proof requires a frame of reference (or a basis for comparison like you described in your blog), proving an absolute that stands aloof from comparison is a logical conundrum. At the bottom of the pile, after you pull all the other stuff off, you’ll find a basic question of identity: Do I believe in absolute truth or not? If the answer is “yes”, the next question is: Am I willing to dedicate my life grappling with that immense Truth to understand it better (which some call ” getting to know God “)?

    As you know, I like chocolate chip cookies (philosophical or material) so I enjoy your blog.

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