Our souls are split and that’s a good thing. Part of us chases fame and fortune, the material successes that afford us the “good life.” Another part of us reaches out for significance, the idea that we need to know that we matter to the world and that we are judged by other good people as being a good person. We are all very complicated creatures with competing needs and desires, but perhaps the most interesting confluence is our competing but always conflicting needs for success and significance. As for the former, it might seem obvious that without material wealth, at least at some level, we won’t have what is required to meet our most basic necessities. Studies since the 1970s have shown repeatedly that without a steady income to purchase food, clothing, and shelter, true happiness cannot be found. However, these studies have shown that as one rises in income and the necessities of life are met, there is a complementary rise in a sense of meaninglessness. For every new purchase, the feeling of success lasts a shorter and shorter period of time, threatening an addiction of sorts to the material. As the medieval Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico put it, “People first sense what is necessary, then consider what is useful, next attend to comfort, later delight in pleasures, soon grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad squandering their estates.” The need for success can be as destructive as it is constructive.
On the other side, our need for significance is equally burdened with problems. The Harvard psychologist Dr. Jerome Kagan, a towering figure in the field of developmental psychology, recognized the split. He found that we are born into the world with particular temperaments, like being shy or bold. Parents who successfully helped their children navigate novel situations knowing their child’s temperament saw their child blossom and grow. However, no matter the temperament of the child, one thing was universal: each child, as early as two years old, evaluated their behavior in terms of being right or wrong and needed to think of themselves as being a good person. “The desire to believe that the self is ethically worthy.is universal,” writes Kagan in his magnus, Three Seductive Ideas. The conclusion Kagan draws is that children cannot be socialized into adulthood without an internal moral sense. We need to know that we are good and our life choices are moral.
However, he also writes, “Seeking evidence to prove one’s virtue” is part of the self-sculpting of the human spirit. Our moral sense can easily be divorced from morality. That is, knowing what is right, and feeling that we are right, are two different things. We don’t need to scratch the surface too hard to pick out examples where we find human self-righteousness replacing actual righteousness and where our absolute need to be significant leads us away from each other instead of binding us more closely together.
This is why our souls must be split. Why our need for success and our need for significance must temper each other.
Far from being new wisdom, this is precisely the knowledge that Moses told to the Israelites who are about to enter the land in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. Moses looks over this next generation and tells them, “When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget that YHVH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me’.… Remember it is YHVH that gives you the power to get wealth…and if you forget you will perish” (Deuteronomy 8:10-18)
On the one hand the Torah is teaching that we should not be afraid of wealth — building homes and establishing ourselves is a wonderful dream for a future. Success matters. But Moses is very quick to show that when we combine our need for success with our sense of personal significance, we place ourselves at the center of our own moral universe. When we forget where we came from and convince ourselves that our individual lives are the sole yardsticks for what is good and right, the whole world suffers. Whether you believe in God or not, Moses’s advice still rings true. You must split your soul and put success and significance in competition with each other by allowing an outside force — call it God, the universe, or whatever, to help guide you to a greater and more purposeful life. As one commentator added, “It all depends on what you say in your heart..that the Holy One will only guide you in what God has given you the power to do.” (Hamek HaDavar, Eikev) That is, you should take Moses’s advice and split your soul.
Societies succeed and fail on the power of each of us to force these needs to compete with each other. Without it, we slide into the banality of luxury and ethical relativity that can destroy the fabric of societies. Success and significance must play tug-of-war with our conscience if we are to continue to build a just and equitable community. We must split our souls.