Tarot Philosophy: Non, Je Regrette Tout: Aristotle and Edith Piaf

We all sometimes feel regret about things we have said or done but does the feeling of regret changes anything at all?  In general, is it good or bad to be too regretful? Spinoza thinks that regret is a pain opposed to pleasure and that regret is a special kind of pain: when we regret, we add a second-order pain to the first-order pain we have now or had in the past. First, we hurt ourselves (or others) and then we torment ourselves in vain. 

According to Aristotle, the genuine reflexive positive nature of regret makes it a virtue. Regret affirms the existence of a virtue that aspires to become part of our character. Therefore, regret does not concern, as is commonly thought, the evil deed we have done but the fact that we could not be in the harmonious existence of virtue.

What involves the fact that we are often so determined to regret? What are the actual facts that may lead us to regret? We basically believe that we feel regret because we assume that now we are correctly grasping our moral state; what happened?

It is generally believed that regret is a moral problem concerning our ever changing needs. Occasionally those feelings lack moral coherence and causing us to prefer one of them. But is it really the case? We know that we might feel regret and still morally err, we might feel regret and not be evil.

Perhaps regret is not defined as a lack of moral coherence but as a relation between knowledge and the lack of knowledge. Therefore, we may feel regret because we now know things we did not know at all in the past or we will not acknowledge in the future. But if regret is a relation between knowledge and the lack of knowledge, then the feelings accompanying the fact that I could do things differently and yet consciously (or unconsciously) chose to do otherwise are unreasonable. Why we cannot just avoid the sense of regret? We need to define the connection between regret and morality. This is exactly what Aristotle tells us in his book the “Nicomachean Ethics”. 

In the “Nicomachean Ethics” Aristotle defines our involuntary actions and passions (Akousios). He claims that our involuntary actions and passions (as opposed to voluntary ones) are performed out of compulsion or not in agreement with our inner nature and will. When the cause of our actions or passions is out of our control then the action (or passion) is purely compulsory. The actions and passions are partially compulsory when the choice to act is ours and is made in order to avoid some unwanted consequence. 

If our involuntary actions are done not according to our will then they are performed by reason of ignorance. Acting by reason of ignorance is unlike acting in ignorance: when I am drunk, I act in ignorance but not by reason of ignorance; and when I accidently shoot a deer, I act by reason of ignorance and not in ignorance. We are not responsible for actions done by reason of ignorance. They are casually determined from the outside world and do not belong to our will.  

The actions done by reason of ignorance are involuntary (Akousios) or non-voluntary (Ouch Hekousios). We can regret our involuntary actions; we would not have done them if we only knew the state of affairs. The non-voluntary actions done by reason of ignorance involve no regret; it is possible that we would have done them anyway. If we do not regret an action done by reasons of ignorance then we were and still non-willing. If we do regret an involuntary action done by reasons of ignorance then we were unwilling and now we are regretful.

We must stress here that Aristotle thinks that neither voluntary inner natured actions (of any kind) nor compulsory non-voluntary ignorant action involve regret. I can only regret actions done by reason of ignorance and are involuntary. For example, I can regret that I have (against my will) cheated in the test (involuntary action) but not that I have urgently taken a piss in public (non-voluntary ignorant action) or that I have chosen to pretend that I am ill and not go to the test (voluntary action done by reason of ignorance). Only our involuntary actions can testify for the existence of unaccomplished virtue. Involuntary actions are those that we regretfully realize that they were done against our will and Non-voluntary actions are not related to our will at all so we cannot regret them. 

Aristotle would like us to understand how we judge a particular action as not virtuous if we do not understand the state of affairs at the time of its execution. 

If I do not feel regret at all then my will was not involved in my action. Everything happened without my agency, I was unwilling. On the other hand, if I know that I could have acted differently than I have acted, it likely that I would feel regret for not being willingly virtuous. Regret is an active and positive mental force which prevents us from being indifferent to our mental life. Aristotle writes that the object of our regret is always involuntary actions done by people and not the existence of non-living things. If an earthquake destroys my house then I regret my decision to live in that region and not the unexpected tectonic movement.

Regret also plays a key role in differentiating between the intemperate and the incontinent persons. The incontinent lack of self-control is expressed by her weakness of the will (Akrasia). The intemperate person is wicked and does not feel regret at all.

She is incurable, since she totally abides by her decision when she acts. Thus our regret is not the passionate outcome of embarrassment or humiliation but a misconception of ourselves as moral creatures accompanied afterwards by the awareness to our immoral nature. Aristotle takes here an empirical approach: the akratic person feels regret due to her intelligent use of her wisdom and not her injudicious passions. Emotional acts such as outbursts of anger are not deeds done knowingly and intentionally and therefore we cannot regret them. We can regret our Akrasia or lack of self-control because we did, knowingly and voluntarily, the opposite of what we believes in.  We are therefore held responsible for our acts and regret is possible. Akrasia is a power taking control of our minds and we can regretfully acknowledge it. The akratic person acts contrary to reason as a result of a certain pathos (emotion). The non-akratic person experiences pathos as well, but she operates in accordance with her logic. The acratic person not only experiences the pathos, but she also succumbed to it more often.

We said earlier that the intemperate person is wicked and does not feel regret at all. In what sense is she different from the akratic?  The akratic has a weak sense of knowing on which even when she involuntary loses control, she still has knowledge of the good action; but it is not durable enough to be displayed in her behavior. The intemperate has her practical moral inference as well but she does not possess the knowledge of the morally good action. We have to pay attention that Aristotle does not claim that the weak reason of the akratic was defeated by the strong pathos (emotion); the pathos could be weak but its reasoning could prevail the morally good wisdom and cause Akrasia. The akratic is like an actress on stage: she could express similar words to those who have real knowledge; however, this does not prove that she really does have such knowledge. We said earlier that according to Aristotle, the genuine reflexive positive nature of regret makes it a virtue. When the akratic person regrets her involuntary actions she actually affirms the existence of knowledge of the good that aspires to become part of her character; even though she acted differently. 

The Lover and Tower cards in the Tarot can tell us a lot about regret. Apparently, the Lover card tells us the story of falling in love, a romantic relationship. Actually, the lovers in the card are in a strenuous emotional mess. The middle figure is in a tense dilemma between reason (right figure) and passion (left figure). He is incontinent (akratic) and his regret in manifested in his hesitant gestures. Like the incontinent, he knows reason and can even feel its gentle touch but his emotions (pathos) lays their heavy hands (burden) on his shoulders. He lived a life of desire and lack of confidence and now his present tells him to go forward and choose. It will not be easy: the arrows of wisdom can hurt him. It seems that we encounter him when he is willing to choose a life of reason even though he knows that his choice has some far-reaching consequences. His regret unifies present reason with past emotion to their intellectual promise.

 Incontinence involve a conflict between reason and passion and according to Aristotle, continence involves the same conflict. The incontinent (akratic) gives in to passion while the continent person feels the same passions, but resists them and choses reason. In this context, we can understand the meaning of the Tower card as the therapist of the Lover card. We saw that the Lover was incontinent but the sudden rational realization of the Tower have healed the Lover from its Akrasia. We can heal our weakness of will by a sudden insight or idea that undermines the existing emotional structures we have built.

At first sight, we think that the figures in the Tower card are falling down as a result of a catastrophic physical disaster, but they are actually happy to find again their new moral ground. Aristotle claims that the incontinent are ignorant of a particular premise, not the universal premise. The Tower card displays the striking of a specific truth in a specific place; thus it symbolizes the striking of a new particular premise which leads to a new moral choice. 

For example, the incontinent knows that cigarettes are bad for every person; he also knows that he is person. He chooses to smoke because he is partially unaware of the premise that “This is a cigarette”. The continent is exposed to the same temptation but resists it.

The song sounds like a hymn and the lyrics tell us that the storyteller “regret nothing”. She does not regret the good things that have been done to her nor the bad things; she does not regret her past troubles and pleasures and claims that she does not need them anymore, they are “swept away, forgotten”. 

If we understand the figures in the Tower card as healing from incontinence towards continence, we can claim that their old perceptual knowledge (tower) has collapsed, but they see their crisis as an opportunity for a personal growth. The continent person falls on his moral ground and so are they. This is the joy of finding their new-born wisdom; they dance their new personal reality around the old tower of ignorance with no regret in their hearts. 

The song “Non, Je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”) performed by the French cabaret singer, songwriter and actress Edith Piaf (1915-1963) is one of the most famous songs of all times. Piaf charismatic voice breaks from the French chanson norms by her vocal presentation, emphasizing the emotional lyrics. Piaf sings the fantastic blend of regret and her freedom of will, a blending of electrifying opposites. She does not sing from her heart, she sings her personal life story. When Piaf heard the song for the second time she cried: “this is the song I have been waiting for. It will be my biggest success! I want it for my coming performance at L’Olympia!”

I grasp Piaf’s mental condition as “ascending the cliffs” of incontinence. Her continence is so weak that she is prone to abandon every belief she had. I see her losing her mastery and acts against her reason. Her new love and life makes her submit, maybe for the first time in her life, to pathos (emotion). She is ready to give in to her involuntary feelings rather than reason.  The song is about the denial of regret but in its final lines we feel that the annihilation of regret of unsuccessful; like the sphinx, it rises up out of Piaf’s emotional desert. As the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams said, she regains her identity as a person in the world.

We clearly notice that Piaf’s denial of regret is almost justified in the Aristotelian terms. Mostly she does not regret the “things that have been done” to her and her passive emotions. We saw that the regretful Aristotelian akratic person can regret her involuntary actions due to his previous weakness of will, but her actions are always non-compulsory and active. Hence the non-akratic Piaf cannot regret things done to her against her will or without her genuine choice. We have to mention here that Piaf’s denial of regret is in non-Spinozistic as well because she does not support her denial by the reason of an excessive redundant emotion.

But as the song continues, her attitude becomes more passive and she undermines her previous denial of regret. She does not care about the past; it’s all the same for her. She is swept away and hopes to start again from zero. Her new life and joys will begin “today…with you”. We clearly notice that in the Aristotelian sense she is not a temperate person because she hints us about her excessive or dishonorable past desires. She cannot be a strong continent person as well: She was not an active desiring person who did something improper due to weakness of her will.  Although some of her desires were good, the state that prevented her from following them were weak. In Aristotelian terms, her continence “is nothing impressive”.

The song’s ending tells us that her new love makes her choose to start over. But is it really a choice? She says rather passively that her life begins with her new object of love. Thus her extremely weak continence makes her, in Aristotle words, “prone to abide by every belief”. She accepts every false (or true) belief as long as it is new.

I grasp Piaf’s mental condition as “ascending the cliffs” of incontinence. Her continence is so weak that she is prone to abandon every belief she had. I see her losing her mastery and acts against her reason. Her new love and life makes her submit, maybe for the first time in her life, to pathos (emotion). She is ready to give in to her involuntary feelings rather than reason.  The song is about the denial of regret but in its final lines we feel that the annihilation of regret of unsuccessful; like the sphinx, it rises up out of Piaf’s emotional desert. As the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams said, she regains her identity as a person in the world.

We have seen that human emotions like anger and regret reflect on our mental and physiological states. This reflection involves a meta-information about our persona as whole. According to Jung, the persona is a mixture of masks, behind which we can hide our psyche. The persona is like a hall of mirrors where our thoughts and feelings are twisted in endless and socio-elastic shapes. 

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01/21/2022 · 1:38 pm

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