The Spirit of the Ultimate Game

Come on pretty boy
Can't you show me nothing but surrender

Economists call it the Ultimate Game. James Surowiecki gives a good description of it:

“Take two people. Give them a hundred dollars to split. One person (the proposer) decides, on his own, what the split should be (fifty-fifty, seventy-thirty, or whatever) and makes the other person a take-it-or-leave-it offer. If he accepts the deal, both players get their share of the money. If he rejects it, both players walk away empty-handed.

The rational thing for the second person to do is to accept the offer, whatever it is, since even one dollar is better than nothing. But in practice this rarely happens. Instead, lowball offers are almost always rejected. Apparently, people would rather throw away money than let someone else walk away with too much. Other experiments illustrate the same idea. Essentially, people are willing to pay to punish those they think are free-riding or acting unfairly, even when doing so brings them no material benefits.”

The Ultimate Game has been known since the beginning of civilization. Among other things, the Iliad might be considered to be a poem about the Ultimate Game. Naturally, it is presided over by a divinity, in this case, the goddess Nemesis.

LI finds it curiously stirring that Herder turned to Nemesis in 1787, two years before the French Revolution (of which he was, to begin with, an ardent supporter – and even after the Terror, he never lost his sense that ultimately, the Revolution was a good thing), at the very peak of the culture of enlightened hedonism.

Classicists today still find Nemesis a puzzling figure. She was a double goddess, or a goddess with two aspects. Herder’s essay on Nemesis is an attempt to understand this mystery – and to understand it on behalf of bright Nemesis, the fair goddess, mother of Helen.

The psycho-social heart of his essay is about happiness and indifference. He tries to understand how one deals with another’s happiness and unhappiness. In particular, why is it that “we sympathize more immediately and strongly with the unhappy than the happy”?

“And so the lightest kind of Nemesis was born, that is actually not envy, not jealousy, but a kind of indifference, that allows us no pleasing fusion with another. By raw spirits this breaks out in cold repulsion [Unwillen]; and the more the other shows off his happiness, the less he understands how to put a pleasing disguise over his advantages, the more he arouses, when not envy, yet repulsion against himself. For even those who would grant him his happiness, become indignant over the fact that he doesn’t enjoy it more wisely and know how to be measured in his enjoyment. This Nemesis lies in all hearts; it was even, as the Greek idioms show, the first that the language and mythology observed. It is, when it wildly breaks out, a daughter of the night, the companion of quarrels, hatred and schadenfreude; in brief, the Nemesis, who Hesiod describes in his Theogony as an evil Goddess. In noble spirits on the other hand, just this cold observation of the ethos of others in their happier hours preserves its pure essnce, and since it mixes neither with pain [Leide] or with pity [Mitleiden], it thus becomes the sharpest point in their scale of judgment. This is the good Nemesis, that looks on, cold and indifferent; but it also must be assuaged or reconciled, then it is an incorruptible judge of virtue and truth.

And how does one most honorable reconcile it? No otherwise than that one makes oneself the observer of one’s happiness and ethos; look there, the goddess with the measuring rod and bridle, who drives away black envy. She drives it away since she hats all passionate presumption and binds the presumptions of men with her bridle; and in this way alone does the good Nemesis defeat the evil one.” [141]

His biographer, Haym, writing in the 1880s, calls this essay an “archaeology of antiquity”. As LI has already pointed out, the appearance of an essay on Nemesis in the time period that saw the first fine extension of happiness from a mere passing feeling to both a norm concerning one’s total life and a norm concerning the political and economic arrangements of the social life already signals a certain dissent. This is Haym’s judgment:

“There is nothing so distinctive as the fact that just at this time, in the 80s, Herder was mightily grasped by this symbol. It is the symbol for the beautiful equilibrium into which with his being he committed his activity and art as a writer. This symbol could not have been predicted by the writing of his earlier period. After the thrusting and enthusiasm, the numerous incidents that lacked measure and that stepped over the line, in which his views, his appearance, his ambitious striving, his unbridled hate and love itself, his style, the whole way of being and art in which he moved, he was now at the point of recognizing the mean, adherence to noble forms, submission to necessity, to decorum, like Goethe, and expressed this with the appropriate words, as Goethe did with other words. He had to pay homage to Nemesis after his Sturm und Drang period had passed as Goethe had already, after traveling through Switzerland in 1779, wanted to erect an altar to Fortuna, Genius and Terminus.” (329)