Happiness, Schmappiness

What follows is 42% of an article about Schopenhauer written by a philosophy professor for Aeon:

On 13 December 1807, in fashionable Weimar, Johanna Schopenhauer picked up her pen and wrote to her 19-year-old son Arthur: ‘It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy, but not to be a witness to it.’

Two years earlier, in Hamburg, Johanna’s husband Heinrich Floris had been discovered dead in the canal behind their family compound. It is possible that he slipped and fell, but Arthur suspected that his father jumped out of the warehouse loft into the icy waters below. Johanna did not disagree. Four months after the suicide, she had sold the house, soon to leave for Weimar where a successful career as a writer and saloniste awaited her. Arthur stayed behind with the intention of completing the merchant apprenticeship his father had arranged shortly before his death. It wasn’t long, however, before Arthur wanted out too.

In an exchange of letters throughout 1807, mother and son entered tense negotiations over the terms of Arthur’s release. Johanna would be supportive of Arthur’s decision to leave Hamburg in search of an intellectually fulfilling life – how could she not? – including using her connections to help pave the way for his university education. But on one condition: he must leave her alone. Certainly, he must not move to be near her in Weimar, and under no circumstances would she let him stay with her.

What her line of 13 December doesn’t reveal is that Johanna simply couldn’t tolerate Arthur: ‘All your good qualities,’ she wrote on 6 November, ‘become obscured by your super-cleverness and are made useless to the world merely because of your rage at wanting to know everything better than others … If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.’ He was, in short, a boorish and tiresome know-it-all.

If people found Arthur Schopenhauer’s company intolerable, the feeling was mutual. He spent long depressive periods in self-imposed isolation, including the first two months of 1832 in his new rooms in Frankfurt, the city that became his adoptive home after a stint in Berlin. He defended himself against loneliness with the belief that solitude is the only fitting condition for a philosopher: ‘Were I a King,’ he said, ‘my prime command would be – Leave me alone.’ The subject of happiness, then, is not normally associated with Schopenhauer, neither as a person nor as a philosopher. Quite the opposite: he is normally associated with the deepest pessimism in the history of European philosophy.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism is based on two kinds of observation. The first is an inward-looking observation that we aren’t simply rational beings who seek to know and understand the world, but also desiring beings who strive to obtain things from the world. Behind every striving is a painful lack of something, Schopenhauer claims, yet obtaining this thing rarely makes us happy. For, even if we do manage to satisfy one desire, there are always several more unsatisfied ones ready to take its place. Or else we become bored, aware that a life with nothing to desire is dull and empty. If we are lucky enough to satisfy our basic needs, such as hunger and thirst, then in order to escape boredom we develop new needs for luxury items, such as alcohol, tobacco or fashionable clothing. At no point, Schopenhauer says, do we arrive at final and lasting satisfaction. Hence one of his well-known lines: ‘life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom’.

Schopenhauer knew from his extensive studies of classical Indian philosophy that he wasn’t the first to observe that suffering is essential to life. The Buddhists have a word for this suffering, dukkha, which is acknowledged in the first of its Four Noble Truths. The fourth and final of these truths, magga, or the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of dukkha, would also inspire large parts of his moral philosophy.

The second kind of observation is outward-looking. According to Schopenhauer, a glance at the world around us disproves the defining thesis of Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism that ours is the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary, Schopenhauer claims, if our world is ordered in any way, it is ordered to maximise pain and suffering. He gives the example of predatory animals that cannot but devour other animals in order to survive and so become ‘the living grave of thousands of others’. Nature as a whole is ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson later put it, pitting one creature against another, either as the devourer or the devoured, in a deadly fight for survival.

Civilisation doesn’t help much either. It adds so many sites of human suffering. In The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer wrote:

if you led the most unrepentant optimist through the hospitals, military wards, and surgical theatres, through the prisons, torture chambers and slave stalls, through battlefields and places of judgment, and then open for him all the dark dwellings of misery that hide from cold curiosity, then he too would surely come to see the nature of this best of all possible worlds.

If you had to guess the world’s purpose just by looking at the results it achieves, you could only think it was a place of punishment.

These observations, the first on human nature and the second on nature itself, support Schopenhauer’s pessimistic claims that life is not worth living and the world should not exist. We are never given in advance the choice whether to exist or not but, if we were, it would be irrational to choose to exist in a world where we can’t profit from life but only lose. Or as Schopenhauer puts it in another key line: ‘life is a business that does not cover its costs’. . . .

Schopenhauer doesn’t deny that happiness exists. He does, however, think that we are generally mistaken about what happiness is. According to him, happiness is no more than the absence of pain and suffering; the moment of relief occasionally felt between the fulfilment of one desire and the pursuit of the next. For example, imagine the satisfaction of buying your first home. What makes us happy here, Schopenhauer would say, is not the positive state of being a homeowner, but the negative state of relief from the worries that come with not owning your own home (as well as relief from the notoriously stressful process of buying property itself). This happiness, Schopenhauer would be quick to point out, is likely to be short-lived, as a host of new worries and stresses emerge, such as paying down the mortgage, or doing up the bathroom. . . .

Instead, Schopenhauer gives us a different picture of a happy life, one that is not total happiness. While suffering can’t be excluded from life altogether, it can be reduced by making sure no kind of suffering goes on for too long. Going back to Schopenhauer’s image of the pendulum, a happy life would include enough success in fulfilling our desires that we are never in too much pain, but also enough failure to ensure that we are never too bored. It would be a ‘game of constantly passing from desire to satisfaction and from this to a new desire, a game whose rapid course is called happiness and slow course is called suffering.’ A well-paced oscillation between wish and fulfillment, which is at most a semi-satisfied life, is the best we can hope for as far as happiness is concerned.

If a good life, conceived as a happy life, is a futile aim for ethics, this raises the question of what the real aim of ethics should be. The background of Schopenhauer’s pessimism is never far away from this question. It’s not obvious to Schopenhauer that the semi-satisfied life presented above is better than nonexistence. Such a life would still contain a preponderance of suffering, even if no kind of suffering would go on for too long.

Rather than trying to make the world into a happy home, then, Schopenhauer opts for an ethics that might save us from the world altogether. He endorses asceticism, the practice of severe self-denial exemplified in the saints and mystics of many world religions . . .

Note that Schopenhauer’s otherworldly ascetics are not happy. They have entirely given up the game of a semi-satisfied life. Instead, they accept, and come to symbolise, the universality and inevitability of suffering, in order to transcend it. In relation to the ascetic, Schopenhauer is more likely to use words such as composure and peace than happiness and pleasure.

To say that Schopenhauer endorsed asceticism might appear to suggest that he practised it himself. Far from it. The most ascetic part of his daily routine in Frankfurt was the cold sponge bath he took between seven and eight every morning. After that, he made his own coffee and settled down to write for a few hours before receiving selected visitors, until his housekeeper appeared at noon, cuing them to leave. He played flute for half an hour each day – an activity that, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, belied the sincerity of his pessimism – and then made his way to his favourite spot to eat, the Hôtel d’Angleterre, for a hearty afternoon meal. After this he might make himself another coffee, take an hour’s nap, then read a little light literature before walking his dog, a white poodle called Atma, while smoking a cigar, all before settling in for his typical nine-hour sleep. The life of the Buddha it was not.

Unquote. 

Happy or not, we can still vote for every Democrat in November and damage that other party for years, possibly decades, to come. Arthur and Atma would agree.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

John Gray is an English political philosopher. He took the title for Straw Dogs, published in 2002, from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.

In the first line of the book’s acknowledgments, Gray says is trying “to provide a
view of things in which humans are not central” [page ix]. He is generally thought to be an opponent of “humanism”, but he has a distinctive definition of the term:

Humanism can mean many things, but for us [?] it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive [4].

It might clarify his position by contrasting it with a description of humanism from the Humanists UK website:

Roughly speaking, the word “humanist” has come to mean someone who:

(1) trusts the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)

(2) makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals

(3) believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

Regarding (1), Gray is an atheist, so no difference there, but he thinks science and the scientific method are overrated. He admits science has contributed to impressive technological progress, but doesn’t think scientists are especially rational and certainly doesn’t think science can solve all of, or even most of, our problems, a view he seems to attribute to all humanists and most citizens of the modern world.

Concerning (2), Gray doesn’t think highly of ethics either. He blames Christianity for pushing the idea that there is one set of rules that everyone should follow. He says “humans thrive in conditions that morality defends” [107], “moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction” [109] “justice is an artifact of custom… ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions of hats” [103] and “values are only human needs, or the needs of other animals, turned into abstractions” [197]. According to Gray, being ethical is nothing more than getting along with other people, and getting along depends on their expectations, which may or may not correspond to what people in other cultures and circumstances, including religious figures or philosophers, expect.

Finally, Gray agrees with (3) that the universe has no discernible purpose. He would probably agree that seeking happiness and helping other people can give (some) people a sense of meaning, but he denies that there is any particular or any preferred way to be happy. He argues that we don’t have free will and are no more able than any other animal to control our behavior or make ourselves happy.

Gray seems very sure of his positions. He writing is like a series of pronouncements. If I had to characterize his point of view in one word, it would be “pessimism”. We are no better than other animals. In various ways, we are worse. He twice refers to our species as homo rapiens. We excel at eliminating other species. Progress, aside from scientific or technological progress, is an illusion. Overall, the hunter-gatherers who lived thousands of years ago had better lives than we do.

I really don’t know what to make of this book. Reading it is like getting a punch in the stomach. In the end, I’d say that Gray makes a convincing case that homo sapiens is an especially troublesome species. But the fact that we write and read books like Straw Dogs indicates that we have special talents that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Perhaps those special talents have allowed us and will continue to allow us to make more progress than Gray thinks.

Yes, It’s Your Doom and Gloom Roundup, But Maybe With Light at the End of the Tunnel

Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World” (1836):

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theater before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. 

You tell ’em, Art.

Craig Unger, “Trump’s Russian Laundromat”, The New Republic:

A review of the public record reveals a clear and disturbing pattern: Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money…. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics….

By 2004, to the outside world, it appeared that Trump was back on top after his failures in Atlantic City. That January, flush with the appearance of success, Trump launched his newly burnished brand into another medium.

[The Apprentice] instantly revived his career. “The Apprentice turned Trump from a blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through his most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up,” … Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher observe in their book Trump Revealed. “Above all, Apprentice sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident, dispensing his authority and getting immediate results. The analogy to politics was palpable”….

Without the Russian mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.

I sometimes wonder how many of the millions of people who watched The Apprentice for years and years voted for this “poor person’s idea of a rich person” and whether DT’s shady business deals will ever catch up with him.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation”, The Washington Post:

….everything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election….

Had this Russian overture been rejected or promptly reported by the Trump campaign to U.S. authorities, Russian intelligence would have been forced to recalculate the risk vs. gain of continuing its aggressive operation to influence U.S. domestic politics. Russian meddling might have been compromised in its early stages and stopped in its tracks by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies before it reached fruition by the late fall.

So the suggestion that this was a nothing meeting without consequence is, in all likelihood, badly mistaken.

Paul Krugman, “Takers and Fakers”, The New York Times

… throughout the whole campaign against Obamacare, Republicans have been lying about their intentions.

Believe it or not, conservatives actually do have a more or less coherent vision of health care. It’s basically pure Ayn Rand: if you’re sick or poor, you’re on your own…. Specifically:

1. Health care, even the most essential care, is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t get insurance because you have a preexisting condition, because your income isn’t high enough, or both, too bad.

2. People who manage to get insurance through government aid, whether Medicaid, subsidies, or regulation and mandates that force healthy people to buy into a common risk pool, are “takers” exploiting the wealth creators, aka the rich.

3. Even for those who have insurance, it covers too much. Deductibles and co-pays should be much higher, to give people “skin in the game”…

4. All of this applies to seniors as well as younger people. Medicare as we know it should be abolished, replaced with a voucher system that can be used to help pay for private policies – and funding will be steadily cut below currently projected levels, pushing people into high-deductible, high-copay private policies.

This is … what conservative health care “experts” say when they aren’t running for public office, or closely connected to anyone who is. I think it’s a terrible doctrine … because buying health care isn’t and can’t be like buying furniture….

But think of how Republicans have actually run against Obamacare. They’ve lambasted the law for not covering everyone, even though their fundamental philosophy is NOT to cover everyone, or accept any responsibility for the uninsured. They’ve denied that their massive cuts to Medicaid are actually cuts, pretending to care about the people they not-so-privately consider moochers. They’ve denounced Obamacare policies for having excessively high deductibles, when higher deductibles are at the core of their ideas about cost control. And they’ve accused Obamacare of raiding Medicare, a program they’ve been trying to kill since 1995.

In other words, their whole political strategy has been based on lies – not shading the truth, not spinning, but pretending to want exactly the opposite of what they actually want.

And this strategy was wildly successful, right up to the moment when Republicans finally got a chance to put their money – or actually your money – where their mouths were. The trouble they’re having therefore has nothing to do with tactics, or for that matter with Trump. It’s what happens when many years of complete fraudulence come up against reality.

As Krugman writes elsewhere:

… everyone, and I mean everyone, who knows something about insurance markets is declaring the same thing: that the [Republican] bill would be a disaster. We’ve got the insurance industry declaring it “simply unworkable”; the American Academy of Actuaries saying effectively the same thing; AARP up in arms; and more [doctors, nurses, state governors, voters]. 

And yet, it still might become law this month. Why?

Jennifer Rubin, “The GOP’s Moral Rot Is the Problem, Not Donald Trump”, The Washington Post:

… for decades now, demonization — of gays, immigrants, Democrats, the media, feminists, etc. — has been the animating spirit behind much of the right. It has distorted its assessment of reality, … elevating Fox News hosts’ blatantly false propaganda as the counterweight to liberal media bias and preventing serious policy debate. For seven years, the party vilified Obamacare without an accurate assessment of its faults and feasible alternative plans. “Obama bad” or “Clinton bad” became the only credo — leaving the party … with “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code” — and no coherent policies for governing.

We have always had in our political culture narcissists, ideologues and flimflammers, but it took the 21st-century GOP to put one in the White House….

Out of its collective sense of victimhood came the GOP’s disdain for not just intellectuals but also intellectualism, science, Economics 101, history and constitutional fidelity….the GOP became slaves to its own demons and false narratives. A party that has to deny climate change and insist illegal immigrants are creating a crime wave — because that is what “conservatives” must believe, since liberals do not — is a party that will deny Trump’s complicity in gross misconduct. It’s a party as unfit to govern as Trump is unfit to occupy the White House. It’s not by accident that Trump chose to inhabit the party that has defined itself in opposition to reality and to any “external moral truth or ethical code”. 

Helen Keller, Optimism: An Essay (1903):

The test of all beliefs is their practical effects in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. Schopenhauer is an enemy to the race. Even if he earnestly believed that this is the most wretched of possible worlds, he should not promulgate a doctrine which robs men of the incentive to fight with circumstance.

All right, Helen, the good news is that a Republican senator is recovering from surgery and won’t be in Washington this coming week. His vote would be needed to move the Republican bill forward, so the vote has been delayed, giving the opposition more time to terminate this horror show with extreme prejudice.

A Pessimist’s Pessimist

Giacomo Leopardi, born in 1798, was the son of a minor Italian aristocrat. He spent most of his youth in his father’s extensive library. By the time he was ten, he had taught himself Latin, Greek, German and French. Leopardi suffered from poor health throughout his life and died at the age of 38. He is now considered one of Italy’s greatest poets.

He is also revered as the author of a massive intellectual diary, first published in 1898 in seven volumes. Originally titled Pensieri di varia filosofia e bella letteratura (“Various thoughts on philosophy and literature”), it’s now known as Zibaldone (“Hodge-podge”). Last year, a complete English translation was published for the first time. (The translated text is 2,000 pages long, so if you’re interested, an electronic edition might be a good idea.)

In addition to being a great poet, Leopardi was one of Western culture’s great pessimists. Arthur Schopenhauer, probably philosophy’s most famous pessimist, had this to say about him: 

But no one has treated [the misery of our existence] so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi…. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect [The World as Will and Idea].

More recently, Tim Parks summarizes Leopardi in The New York Review of Books (behind a paywall):

Obliged by frequent illness to pass his firstborn’s right to inherit to his younger brother, troubled by constant problems with his eyes, frail and almost grotesque, Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.

In a later biography of his son, [Leopardi’s father] would write of Giacomo in this period that “setting himself to thinking about how one breathes” he found he could no longer breathe… “Thought,” Giacomo wrote in a letter in his early twenties, “can crucify and torment a person.”

Maybe more careful thought, perhaps a life devoted to philosophy, might help? That’s what Plato and Spinoza recommended. Leopardi is skeptical:

Those innumerable and immense questions about time and space, argued over from the beginnings of metaphysics onward,…are none other than wars of words, caused by misunderstandings, and imprecision of thought, and limited ability to understand our mind, which is the only place where time and space, like many other abstract things, exist independently and for themselves…”

In his review, Tim Parks suggests that if Leopardi were writing Zibaldone today, it would be a blog. I wonder if he’d throw in a few lighthearted posts to generate traffic.

Reason, Prejudice, Passion, Pessimism

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) was a great Italian poet. He was also one of Western civilization’s great pessimists. Below is an 1821 extract from his Zibaldone di pensieri (“Commonplace Book of Thoughts”):

The power of nature and the weakness of reason. I’ve said elsewhere that for opinions to have a real influence on people, they must take the form of passions…. One could quote endless examples to demonstrate this point. But since all opinions that aren’t, or don’t seem to be, prejudices will have only pure reason to support them, in the ordinary way of things they are completely powerless to influence people.

Religious folks (even today, and maybe more these days than ever before, in reaction to the opposition they meet) are more passionate about their religion than their other passions (to which religion is hostile); they sincerely hate people who are not religious (though they pretend not to) and would make any sacrifice to see their system triumph (actually they already do this, mortifying inclinations that are natural and contrary to religion), and they feel intense anger whenever religion is humbled or contested.

Non-religious people, on the other hand, so long as their not being religious is simply the result of a cool-headed conviction, or of doubt, don’t hate religious people and wouldn’t make sacrifices for their unbelief, etc., etc. So it is that hatred over matters of opinion is never reciprocal, except in those cases where for both sides the opinion is a prejudice, or takes that form.

There’s no war then between prejudice and reason, but only between prejudice and prejudice, or rather, only prejudice has the will to fight, not reason. The wars, hostilities and hatreds over opinions, so frequent in ancient times, right up to the present day, in fact, wars both public and private, between parties, sects, schools, orders, nations, individuals—wars which naturally made people determined enemies of anyone who held an opinion different from their own—only happened because pure reason never found any place in their opinions, they were all just prejudices, or took that form, and hence were really passions.

Poor philosophy then, that people talk so much about and place so much trust in these days. She can be sure no-one will fight for her, though her enemies will fight her with ever greater determination; and the less philosophy influences the world and reality, the greater her progress will be, I mean the more she purifies herself and distances herself from prejudice and passion. So never hope anything from philosophy or the reasonableness of this century.

About 100 years later, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) expressed a similar thought in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In the 21st century, nobody believes in pure reason anymore. The question now is whether the more reasonable have enough passion to counteract the less reasonable. Leopardi would have been doubtful.

Note: the Leopardi quote is from a New York Review of Books blog post that is much less interesting: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/oct/17/headline-headaches/