Cooking a large Thanksgiving meal, I believe, is a complicated affair. Everyone who does it tells me it is and seeing all the dirty dishes at the end of a meal, I fully believe them. I, however, cannot cook and so have never had the pleasure. I cooked once. And from that moment on my husband and I agreed that my talents would be better spent mowing the lawn. I’m only sort of good at that, but my sort of good yard work is a million miles better than anything I can make for dinner. I do, however, make a mean piece of toast.
Cooking dinner for my particular set of flatmates is beyond complicated. Among our merry band we have a vegan, a carnivore who prefers her starches white, her sauce sauce-less and her spices spice-less, and a couple of omnivores, one of whom likes her sauces saucey and her spices spicey. So when you think about all the dishes you might make for Thanksigivng dinner, multiple it by three and then you know what my long suffering husband has to go through to keep us all happy. Fortunately, B. is either a saint or unaware of how it works in other homes because he never complains. (Just to be safe, we don’t let him get out much).
In The Aesthetics, an account of the nature of art and beauty, German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel distinguishes between works of tragedy and works of comedy. Tragedy, he says, occurs when an individual, seizing on a particular good thing, assumes that it is the whole of the good, the only good thing to be had. Eventually, such a person is faced with a fuller account of what is true, but because they have staked everything on a single principle, they are unable to adapt and are thus destroyed. My cooking is this kind of tragedy. At some point in my childhood I determined that great chefs are not slaves to recipes. Instead, to be great, one needed to improvise, to make substitutions according to whims. Making gingerbread and you don’t have ginger or molasses? No need to panic. No need to go to the store. Instead demonstrate your creative genius. Use corn syrup and cayenne pepper. Needless to say there have been some near disasters and I have no doubt that if I had been left to my own cooking devices that by now someone would be dead. I am a tragedy in the kitchen.
Despite what some might take to be the tragedy of Hegel’s writing style, his broader philosophy accords with his account of comedy, suggesting that one’s Thanksgiving and indeed one’s life need not end in such tragedy but rather in a happy resolution. In comedy, Hegel argues, individuals might take up one part of the whole as the good; however, when this error is brought to light, they are able to withstand the dissolution of what they had previously believed because they recognize and accept the fuller truth as their own. The good is thus not shown to be divided into opposing principles, but, rather, these principles are incorporated and reconciled into a harmony. Hegel thus describes the comic individual, saying, “the comical as such implies an infinite light-heartedness and confidence felt by someone raised altogether above his own inner contradiction and not bitter or miserable about it at all: this is the bliss and ease of a man who, being sure of himself, can bear the frustration of his aims and achievements.” Such a person would be able to admit that while occasionally substitutions are necessary and even good, at the same time recipies have their place.
This same kind of comedic resolution, Hegel argues occurs within history. Like individuals, regimes can adopt a partial account of the good and call it justice. Often this has tragic results. Through the course of human history, Hegel argues, the partiality of a community’s account of justice and the best life will eventually be revealed, and new forms of communities develop, ones that incorporatethe wider and more complete accounts of the good that is now known. Liberal democratic states, he argues, most fully embody the possibility of a comedic solution. For in those communities the diverse and competing accounts of the good represented in the freely chosen actions of citizens are reconciled within and serve the greater good of society as a whole. As Hegel says, “The truly substantial thing which has to be actualized, however, is not the battle between particular aims or characters … but the reconciliation in which the specific individuals and their aims work together harmoniously without opposition and without infringing on one another.” While we might look at current political events or potential political events and conclude that tragedy is the only possible descriptor. Hegel is more hopeful. Political life will never be perfect and all regimes will have set backs, but modern liberal democratic life moves ever closer to a comedic and thus happy resolution for human life.
All of this is just to say that I had a great Thanksgiving. For in cooking the near perfect turkey, a vegan substitute for turkey, the vegan mashed potatoes and the non-vegan mashed, the vegan gravy, the plain gravy, the spicier gravy, etc. my B. achieved a Hegelian miracle-incorporating all of our diverse and competing interests and creating a whole that was made better because of the strangeness of its component parts. So today, as I had to fend for myself at lunchtime, I enjoyed cold stuffing mixed into a kale and wheat berry salad with some cranberry sauce added in. And I was thankful for Hegel. Because he shows how political life is made better and our lives made happier when we accept the strengths and interests of diverse individuals and he reminds us to take the long view. Things might not be perfect, but from the perspective of a hundred years ago, things are better. And, in a hundred hence, even these trials will have passed. (And before you conclude that I am a heartless wench, I was also thankful for B.) (And for the fact that no one was home to make fun of the democratic mashup that I had for lunch).