O, Unhappy Philosopher!

Friday July 6, 2007


I’m currently reading a little book by Daniel Nettle on , which is an illuminating and intriguing read. One thing particularly striking about the book is the way that he compares philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, in particular in the 19th and 20th centuries, with global studies into the levels of happiness that people actually experience, and comes to the conclusion that in general people tend to report that they are happy whilst those gloomy philosophers insist that au contraire, the world is a grim and miserable place. This split between what people generally say and what philosophers have tended to claim is worth dwelling on. It might, of course, be that the philosophers are right, that they are so damn clever that they can see deeply into the nature of things in a way that the rest of us cannot, and that whilst the masses are deluded in their happiness, the philosophers have access to a deeper truth about the world. Alas, I think, the alternative explanation is more likely to be true: that philosophy – indeed that much scholarship – is a pursuit that attracts the melancholy by nature, who spend their lives attempting to find a firm basis for their sorrowful outlook on the world.

This has been a question that has occupied me considerably over the past couple of years. Take, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, in whose company I have spent the last five or so years whilst working on my PhD thesis. Whilst Levinas arguably has a great deal of interest to say about ethics – here, at least, is a philosopher who sees ethics as rooted not in abstract philosophical principles so much as in living relationships – his thinking takes place against a decidedly dark and gloomy backdrop. “There is something tragic in being”, he writes at one point. His early book Existence and Existents, is thoroughly pervaded by this horror of being. This, on the one hand, is to some extent understandable: Levinas started work on Existence and Existents whilst in a German internment camp in the Second World War. Yet at the same time it seems to me to be mistaken, not only in the way that it paints everything that can be known as participating, to some extent, in this dark and tragic existence, but also in the way that it is used to justify the messianic dream of something ‘beyond being’ (wherever that is) that might redeem this tragedy. God, in other words.

A few weeks ago, I was talking through some final edits of my PhD thesis with my supervisor, and he raised a question. In one particular passage, I write that it is not philosophically more acceptable to rise up in the morning with a sick and heavy heart than with a nimble-footed sense of joy. ‘Is that really true?’ he asked. ‘After all, the philosphical tradition has spent much more time taking the former view than the latter view. Aren’t there good philosphical reasons for this emphasis on the gloomy aspects of existence?’

My gut feeling on this question is that if there are good philosphical reasons for this gloom, it is probably because, sadly, some of the most penetrating minds in philosophy have spent their time reflecting on gloom and coming up with good reasons, not because gloom is in itself more amenable to being philosophically well-founded. I can see no a priori reason to assume that a gloomy position is a more philosophically responsible one or that pessimism is philosphically more necessary than cheerfulness, and I am not convinced by many of the arguments that seek to demonstrate that the happiness it seems most people report is, in fact, a delusion.

This is not to say that the world we live in is one of endless delight. We all know that it is not. There is immense suffering, and we would do well not to forget it. But I am not sure if the best way of responding to suffering is by essentialising it and by extending the idea of it to every nook, corner and crevice of the world, so that we can claim that everything, without exception, is miserable by nature – a claim, we should not forget, that is also made by some Buddhists. I can’t help thinking that this in the end is a form of aversion that must blind us to the world and cause us to hold back from the business of living.

For me, it is a question of how we really want to live out our days. Do we want to live them in gloom, resenting the fact that the world is how it is, bearing grudges against the world? Or do we want to find ways in which, whilst doing our best to ease the sufferings that are there, we can understand the world as it is, and through this understanding, can live with good cheer, cultivating friendship with each other and with the world.

# · Andy

While Western philosophy has had more than its fair share of miserable gits – Schopenhauer and Hobbes spring to mind – we’ve also been blessed with Aristotle teaching us to pursue a life that is ‘eudaimon’ – happy, virtuous, flourishing – and Nietzsche who, like Buddha, rejected nihilism and asceticism, to celebrate joie de vivre.

I think what appeals to me in Buddhism is its ability to combine gloom with hope. Life is suffering, sure, but we can do something about it. We’re all buddhas down here in the shit.

And that, I think, is how most of us experience life. It’s neither bliss nor gloom, but a bittersweet mixture of both. Perhaps, with practice, we can learn to hold onto the bliss while never forgetting the gloom.

# · Will

True, Andy. Aristotle on eudaimonia is a notable exception, as is Nietzsche (who Nettle mistakenly puts in the gloomy camp). And then there’s my own favourite cheerful philosopher, Epicurus…
Best wishes,

# · Melanie

Very interesting post. My first thought was that if one expects to be “happy” it takes an awful lot of hard work to achieve this state. If one expects to be miserable, life can prove a lot less challenging. For instance, the news focusses on the bad in the world and sometimes adds a feelgood snippet at the end. For many people this reflects life – most of it is filled with suffering with just enough of a smattering of happiness to stop one throwing in the towel.

# · Tom

Doesn’t it just scream to us that life is a cosmic joke, a custard pie in the face, when the author of the book “Happiness” is named Nettle?

Anyway, I’m reading St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” presently. And IT IS about happiness. Happiness is found when you come out the other side of all your difficulties, including most especially the difficulty of just Being.

Life without dealing with it is misery as far as the eye can see. And dealing with it entails more misery. Lucky for us. How boring it would all be to just sit around and be happy. A deeper, darkier more miserable kind of misery that would be.

# · Anthony

It seems to me the trick is to be happy while living in full awareness of the sufferings of life. Perhaps the reason lots of people report high levels of happiness is that they are good at distracting themselves from the realities of impermanence, their own deaths and those of the ones they love. Philosophers are committed to the truth, which means keeping these things in mind. I do believe there is a higher happiness that is lived in awareness of the transient nature of things, but it’s hard sometimes. When you get into meditation and philosophy you are opening yourself up to things that previously you had preferred to forget. Maybe there’s a period of gloom one has to go through before you can really begin to live contentedly with impermanence.

Then again, maybe it’s just a question of individual temperament. Neuroscience reports that people have a kind of base line of happiness, which they do not tend to depart from very much, no matter what befals them in life. Some people verge on the ‘happy’ side, some on the melancholy. Philosophers have tended to come from the latter portion of the population, and have simply projected their brain chemistry onto the external world, which, as ever, continues to resist all our attempts to characterise it.

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