How should one lead a life? What makes a life a good life? What does it take to live well, to to achieve well-being, both for some interval in one’s life, or better yet, for the duration of one’s life? At this level of generality, we would expect answers to this question to also be quite general and abstract, and philosophers have provided us with such answers. But “Cavender is Coming” approaches the problem from the bottom up, by raising the question in the form of a task for Cavender, an angel trying to earn his wings: Take a particular life that is being led, and make it better.
This episode bears a striking resemblance to “Mr. Bevis,” in which a guardian angel was dispatched to improve the lot one Mr. Bevis. Now the subject is Agnes Grep, and the angel is Cavender. Both Bevis and Grep are quirky, off-beat characters, subject to frequent job changes and unusual interests. Neither is fast-tracked on career or social ladders, but both appear to be closely connected to their neighbors and to individuals who work in the neighborhood. Both guardian angels are mature males, with conventional values and expectations for others.
The two episodes introduce questions about well-being and about what constitutes a good life. Against the standards of middle class America in the 1960s, Bevis and Grep, from the perspective of their angelic handlers, appear ripe for improvement. Their handlers’ strategy is simply to elevate the social and economic rank of their charge. Grep finds herself hobnobbing with the rich at the Morgan Mansion. But she finds herself in such settings without context and without preparation, and more significantly, without any connection to the people with whom she now intermingles.
The efforts of the guardian angels fail to achieve the goal of elevating the happiness of their charges, in large measure because, drawing on a distinction made by Shelly Kagan, they can make changes to someone’s life, but they can’t change who the person is. Grep’s life is changed when Cavender alters her social connections, but that doesn’t alter Grep’s likes and dislikes, proclivities and values. The interests and values of her new associates don’t resonate with her, and she can’t take an interest in their interest, and she doesn’t see how she can help them or participate in their lives the way she could in her prior setting.
Both “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender is Coming” demonstrate the pitfalls of attempting to assess happiness and the quality of life from the outside. Both angels fail to “get” their charges. Their conventional conceptions of the good life simply do not apply to the mortals they are trying to help, who are really early hippies. The fact that the angels can perform miracles, and do, doesn’t make their jobs any easier.
With that said, it would be a mistake to take these episodes as arguing for hedonism, or other views that take well-being to be based on self-satisfaction. Rather, they make the case that the two mortals, Mr. Bevis and Ms. Grep, are models of individuals who have already achieved well-being before their guardian angels appear to try to help them. Bevis and Grep are not self-promoters. They are, however, tuned into the needs and cares of the children, care-givers, and modest merchants in their modest neighborhoods and dwellings. Both struggle with managing their own finances and jobs, but that’s not because they are incompetent, but rather because it is not their focus. Instead, they derive pleasure from the interaction with and support they provide others, regardless of their social status. They treat others as ends in themselves, to use Kant’s famous phrase.
Feldman, Fred, What is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Kagan, Shelly, “Me and My Life,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 94 (1994), pp. 309-324.
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, H. J. Paton, trans., (Harper, 1964).