Nothing is important or unimportant, but thinking makes it so. Nevertheless, other people’s priorities infuriate us: We think them fools for worrying over trifles, while they disregard entirely what we think is of the greatest significance.
No one’s emotions are stirred, however, in precise proportion to the importance we ascribe to the matters that stir those emotions. I may think the Crimean crisis is a turning point in world history, but I am much more concerned by a tax demand or an argument with my wife. I do not think I am unusual in this; on the contrary, it is perfectly normal, and this in theory should make intellectuals in particular more tolerant of the interests others express, though it seldom does. Besides, a world in which everyone was moved in precise proportion to a rational scale (if such a scale could ever be laid down) would be intolerably boring.
There is a further point: Man is irremediably a symbol-manipulating animal. What may seem at first trivial is often symbolic of something much more important: Disagreement over something trivial may really be disagreement about fundamental philosophical problems. And at least for intellectuals, there is no greater fun to be had than disagreement over the fundamentals of philosophy. Such disagreements stave off boredom and also the fear of personal insignificance that bests us all whenever we look at the starry heavens above.
So let us not sneer, then, about the worldwide, or at least Europe-wide, furor over the death of Marius, the two-year-old giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo. Marius was deemed by the zoo’s scientific staff to be surplus to its requirements and to those of all zoos throughout Europe. He was therefore shot, autopsied, and thrown to the zoo’s lions (four of whom, it so happened, were soon to follow him). The death of a single Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata born in captivity sparked more commentary and emotion than the million human tragedies that must have occurred the same day. Often, it seems, we love animals more than ourselves, and with good reason (by “ourselves” I mean other human beings, not ourself). The subsequent polemics were about more than the fate of poor little Marius.