The extent to which we have control over our lives is somewhat more limited than what we might perhaps first assume: Where, when and how we are born, how we are brought up, who our parents are, how our childhood pans out. All of these are clearly beyond our control, yet it would appear that the same non-existence of control holds for ourselves- Do we have free will? Do I have any control whatsoever over anything? Is talk of ‘I’ meaningless?
A hard materialist would say that free will is an illusion which we experience when conscious, perhaps because this illusion is in fact incredibly pragmatic-it enables us to feel in control of our lives, gives us a sense of responsibility, and allows us to hold others accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, an illusion is all it may be. First, if we are free, this must mean that there is some part of us which is not bound by the natural world, which can separate itself from the scientific laws and rise above them-something non-physical. There is no hard evidence for such a faculty (because of its nature). Second, the talk of ‘I’ is ambiguous. One might argue that ‘I’ can choose freely without being controlled by external factors, such as one’s environment, one’s memory, one’s state of mind (e.g. homicidal), yet what is the ‘I’, if anything at all, but the amalgamation of all these and more?
It could perhaps be said that free will is an illusion if the brain is responsible for our mental states (which evidence suggests it is), but that it is an illusion that we cannot do any with. A sense of morality would collapse, and society could no longer justifiably punish anyone because they were guilty. Freedom may be an illusion, but a necessary one.
Never before has it been easier to live a life of simple pleasures without hardship and without hard work. One can be lazy and still survive. Mediocrity is the easiest way of life, and provides an existence free from pain, danger, and suffering. Yet at its centre, it is a life of mediocrity, a form of life that Nietzsche detested. He said ‘I abhor Christianity with a deadly hatred’ because it puts the crowd above the exceptions, and mediocrity is worshipped and heralded. He criticises the idea of moderation, saying that this is mediocrity feigned as a moral virtue. For Nietzsche the answer to a meaningful existence was to live dangerously-to embrace the pain and suffering and to make something of it, rather than cowing away from it. We can never be great if we are satisfied with a painless life without any real toil.
Taking risks is dangerous, but it is what distinguishes people and leads to the recognition of a fruitful life. At the end of one’s existence, it may be haunting to realise that we did not take enough risks, that we did not push ourselves out of comfort, and that our sense of security held us back from becoming the best version of ourselves.
Cicero was a Roman lawyer, philosopher and orator, who was rather Stoic in his thought, and who lived from 106 BC-43 BC. Cicero emphasised the importance of friendship, arguing that ‘friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and dividing of our grief.’ Why must friendship, an inherently social relationship, be a great source of happiness? Because for Cicero ‘happiness would lose all its joy if nobody rejoiced with us.’ This maintains Aristotle’s idea that man is by nature a social animal. If this is the case, then it would follow that happiness is to be found in what is social. For Cicero, ‘life is nothing without friendship.’
The explicitly Stoic part of Cicero’s thoughts about happiness are clear when he wrote ‘a happy consists in tranquillity of mind.’ This is an idea prominent in the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, who both argued that happiness relies on the internal, rather than the external-we ultimately rely on ourselves for happiness, and although there are external aids and necessities that must be fulfilled, the happiest person is ‘the one who depends on himself only’. It is our state of mind, then, which deems whether we are happy or not. So we should strengthen our mind, so that we can become a fulfilled human being. How is this possible? For Seneca, it would be through philosophy. For Cicero, well perhaps one should start by reading books. For as he said, ‘if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’
We can’t be sure. Yet the Fall represents the development of self-consciousness of man-Adam and Eve are aware of themselves, just like we are aware of ourselves. We know that we will die, we don’t know why we live, and we know that this causes us a great deal of anguish. Self-consciousness has led to the creation of music, art and the inventions of a great deal of technologies we use today. Self-consciousness is simultaneously a brilliant and tragic thing. Consciousness brings both anxiety and hope. Thomas Ligotti wrote that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’ Ironically, we manipulate our consciousness so that we can limit our consciousness. Because consciousness brings with it so many troubling questions, such as ‘is death the end? does life have any meaning? who am I? does God exist?’, we have created a multiplicity of distractions so that these questions rarely arise in us. Most of these distractions lie in the realm of technology. Thinking is not easy, and can be painful, and so in many different ways we go to great lengths so as to save us from having to think-believing in God without really questioning his existence (or the opposite), blindly supporting a hopeful yet unrealistic ideology (e.g. communism), spending hours playing video games or browsing social media-the list goes on. We try to limit thought-a state similar to that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. But constantly striving to prevent thought does not lead to much-hedonistic mindlessness works, but only for a short time. After a while it results in depression, anxiety, hopelessness and nihilism. Thought is painful, yes, but life is meant to be painful. That’s what life is. Limiting consciousness, trying to return to the Garden of Eden, is life-negating. Although it may be easier not to think, it may not be better. Non-thinking alone results in destruction, as does thinking. Therefore, a balance between the two must be sought.
It might have been better for consciousness never to have arisen, yet we must not ignore the fact that it has, and we must therefore act on this reality.
George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish philosopher who, although an atheist, valued Catholicism in terms of its practices, rituals and values. He seems to have been influenced by the ancient materialist philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius, who maintained that the world consists of a finite number of atoms. Santayana said that ‘knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness’, which suggests him being influenced by the Stoic Epictetus, who famously said that ‘some things are within your control. And some things are not.’ There must be some kind of detachment from the world for Santayana, John Gray noted, if we are to be happy. Happiness is the ‘only sanction of life’, and so we must become happy, otherwise ‘existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.’
But how exactly are we to become happy? The basis of happiness is character, an idea Santayana probably developed from Aristotle. He compares happiness to a flower-it withers when plucked. Therefore, happiness is not a single moment, it is a gradual development that must grow and strengthen over time. Why does Santayana, an atheist, believe in the possibility of happiness? Because happiness becomes a reality ‘if one cultivates intuition and outlives the grosser passions, including optimism.’
Plato is a notorious Greek philosopher, a pupil of Socrates, and wrote extensively on love, wisdom, knowledge and virtue, among other things.
Plato’s idea of happiness was influenced by Socrates, who emphasised the importance of virtue, arguing that knowledge is virtue, and that by truly knowing what is virtuous we will duly become virtuous. Happiness was not the goal for Socrates, however. Instead, it was wisdom and the discussion of ideas. For Plato, perhaps, the ultimate goal is to escape the cave. Anyhow, Plato writes that ‘happiness springs from doing good and helping others.’ Plato believed that acting virtuously would lead to happiness, an idea broadened by Aristotle. Virtue is of primary importance when it comes to happiness, and through virtue comes happiness, yet one’s aim should not be happiness but doing good. Moderation is also something that Plato believes leads to a happy life, yet perhaps moderation of moderation itself is also important (Oscar Wilde said ‘be moderate in all things, including moderation.’)
For Plato, then, happiness is a by-product of virtuous activity, rather than the goal (Aristotle). Act virtuously, and happiness should arise.
Although the title may seem paradoxical, Arthur Schopenhauer did indeed think that happiness is some kind of attainable entity or state. Nevertheless, his view of happiness seems somewhat skewed. Firstly, he writes that ‘the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom’, and also says that ‘life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom’, suggesting that happiness is ultimately out of the question. Yet this is not the case.
Schopenhauer says that ‘the nine-tenths of our happiness depends on health’. To be happy, be healthy. He also emphasises that happiness will never be discovered if we’re constantly consciously searching for it, arguing instead that our happiest moments are when we become completely unaware of our desire for happiness, when we become so engrossed in what we are doing that existential questions disappear and our attention is wholeheartedly focused on what we are doing at a certain time, be it playing music, painting, or writing.
For Schopenhauer, happiness is not something easily obtained, yet it is not by looking for it that can be happy. Rather, it may be in moments where we completely forget the concept of happiness that we feel most satisfied.
Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, and was a biologist, zoologist, physicist and philosopher among other things. He believed that happiness lay in eudaimonia, most commonly translated as flourishing. Eudaimonia is a life of virtue in accordance with reason. Happiness is a ‘state of activity.’ Virtue is to be found within a Golden Mean, which lies between two vices-the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency (e.g. courage is the mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice). The mean is discovered through practical reasoning (phronesis). Aristotle did believe that some kind of fortune was required for happiness-one must be healthy and not ugly and have some kind of wealth as well as being self-sufficient, yet he maintains that ‘happiness depends upon ourselves.’ It is up to ourselves to work towards happiness. Eudaimonia is a state acquired over a long period of time rather than a fleeting feeling or moment. It is not an easy acquisition, but worthwhile and it justifies the pain experienced. Happiness lies in virtuous activities rather than pleasure, although Aristotle does acknowledge the important role of pleasure and pain in our lives-acting virtuously should become pleasurable over time.
Happiness is not something easily attained for Aristotle, yet for him it is the telos of human existence, and although it may be a tough and harsh road, the outcome makes all the toil worthwhile.
Christianity is all for responsibility and owning up for one’s actions, yet the concept of Christ’s death as the greatest act of redemption and forgiveness is troubling. Jesus sacrificed himself for the good of humanity in order that we could attain eternal life (I have come that they may have life Jn 10:10b), and Jesus’ soteriological crucifixion enabled us, according to Christianity, to eventually be with God. It is our responsibility to act as best as we possibly can, yet our nature as humans means that we require Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice in order the attain ultimate reality.
Christianity does not strip us of our accountability for what we have done immediately, but it does so if we are sorry and if we repent. If we feel guilt for what we have done and we repent, then we are forgiven. There is a certain amount of responsibility present in this-we must recognize that we have done wrong and that therefore we should turn back to God, and away from the sins we have committed. Yet the concept of forgiveness is also lax on its concept of responsibility. Just because we feel guilty and sorry does not mean that we can lose any sense of responsibility and we can escape punishment. We cannot ever come out of a confessional genuinely clean and ‘pure’ from our transgressions, since our actions, good or bad, are still in effect. Responsibility is not something which one has and loses time and time again. Responsibility is ever-present (or ever-absent). The death of Jesus has been interpreted as a sacrifice which frees us from sin once we truly repent, yet this seems nothing more than a ideology. Complete forgiveness cannot exist, since this would mean sins and transgressions are removed completely from our responsibility and placed either into nothingness or into God’s hands, and this just isn’t possible in the world we live in-our actions affect the future in ways we cannot know and no action can be singularly taken from it and supposedly removed as if were not there at all. We must accept responsibility for every knowing action that we take, and we cannot expect that it be removed completely from our past. There is no clean slate. Our responsibility does not subside once we repent, and Jesus, if he really was the son of God, could not have bore that responsibility for us. Forgiveness is not a cessation of accountability. We are no less guilty and are no less free from our mistakes or the effects that they have. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement in the mind of another that we have made a mistake and that it will not be held against us unjustifiably. What justifiable accountability is, however, is another question altogether. Christ cannot carry your cross for you, and you must carry yours like he did-continuously until the moment you die.
There is no alternative to genuine sacrifice and responsibility. Like Jesus, the results may be far beyond you could possibly imagine. Jesus’ death should not be seen as a sacrifice, but rather as an example of what humanity should embody-acting for the good of humanity and fighting through the suffering that comes with it.
Too easy is it to give way to others and not to stick by yourself and your decisions. It is more difficult to go one way when everyone else is going down the other, or when they try to push you their way. Standing your ground and not giving way to the wants of others both requires respect and earns respect. You must respect yourself, and once this becomes apparent to others, they too will respect you like you respect yourself.
Giving way to people endlessly and doing what others want you do to rather than doing what you want to do is weak, and it reveals to others that you do not trust yourself and are easily swayed by others, making you seem meek-minded. All respect is lost to those who do not respect themselves and seek only to please others. Not giving way, as Thucydides writes, is a sign of strength and mental fortitude, therefore deeming oneself worthy of respect.
What else can be taken from this? That maintaining one’s frame and not aiming to please others is a desirable trait when meeting people. That even though being praised may seem like something that people want, not always giving people what they want may lead to a greater degree of regard for a person.