In one of the last interviews the philosopher Richard Dworkin (1913 – 2013) gave, he was asked what is wrong with a person spending their entire life collecting matchboxes. His answer was that such a hobby is not a real challenge, it is trivial, the result is only a collection of matchboxes. He goes on to say, at the end of the interview, that the matchbox collector may well have gained a good deal of pleasure from his hobby but, at the end of his life, no matter how long it may be, all he has to show is a collection of matchboxes; he has no children; he has not contributed to science and he has seen nothing worthwhile during his life.
With this Dworkin has condemned countless hobbies to the realm of uselessness. He has effectively placed the value of a person’s life at the lowest end of the scale – for those who follow any form of activity – claiming that they have made no contribution to the world or their own lives, aside from having some personal pleasure in amassing their collection. What he fails to take into consideration, though, is the individual and, to a certain extent, society.
We live in a world which is constantly changing, where what was has quickly been replaced by something new, something better. What was disappears into the mists of time, often with scarcely a memory of its existence being left to show that it once, no matter how long ago, commanded a place in our lives. And here it makes no difference whether we consider matchboxes or any of the other artifacts which may well have been a common sight, a normal part of former lives. It would be just as easy to write off those who collect old photographs, books, maps and other artifacts from the present which, with these constant changes to our world, are quickly outdated, replaced, moribund. There is always something better, he seems to be saying, so we should leave the trivial behind us and concentrate on other things.
Photo Source: Simon Steiner – Creative Commons
What, amongst all these trivial, everyday things, can we raise to the ranks of the worthwhile? What should we be doing with our lives that leaves something of ourselves, as well as helping the furtherance of society, behind when we finally draw our last breath? The idea of several billion people all trying to leave something worthwhile behind them, something which will make their name stand out forever, something which will improve the lives of all others, defies reality. If every single person becomes a philosopher and spends their days contemplating the meaning of life, is there any real meaning to their lives?
For the matchbox collector, on the other hand, there is meaning. The challenge of finding and preserving rare examples, of presenting them to the public or, as many do, having them there as a personal pleasure. Such a hobby is, on a much smaller scale, the province of the great museums around the world: to collect, to show, to illustrate what was and what could be. Should we write off all the museums, the art collections, the libraries of rare books as being trivial, as being a sign of a wasted life? Or are they all, from the smallest upwards, a part of our lives, of our society in that they illustrate what was, show us the skills, the inventiveness, the creativity of our ancestors?
Richard Dworkin also says he would never condemn a person for spending their entire life collecting matchboxes; the person has managed to shape their own life as they wish and has a right to follow this hobby, whether it be rated as trivial by someone else or not. It is still, he claims, a major mistake, since there is so much this person could have done with their time on earth. He has no right, he admits, to interfere with this person’s life decision, with the direction they have chosen, with their interests.
Sadly the interviewer does not go further into the claim that the matchbox collector has no children and that he has not helped science or society in one form or another. What the collector has done is preserve something of our past, and he or she may well have traveled around the world, complete with a family, searching for the rarest examples to add to the collection.
As a philosopher, perhaps Richard Dworkin could have gone further into the idea of what an individual is, and what motivates them through life, rather than generalizing about their lives, condemning them, in effect, to a lifestyle only a very few follow. It is possible to follow a hobby in the greatest intensity and still have a family and friends, still see the world, and leave something behind which is of worth.
- Viktoria Michaelis.