Schopenhauer believed that the best moments in life are when we are no longer aware of ourselves and are so engrossed in some activity that we cease to be self-consciousness for some period of time. Ligotti wrote that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the contents of their consciousness’. Socrates believed that one should know oneself, yet this can only go so far. Too much knowledge, too much self-awareness, and it may result in nothing but scorn for the human being. It is unclear what consciousness is, what it means to be conscious, and what its limits are. Nevertheless, one might conclude that, paradoxically, our consciousness strives to flee itself. This is because life is suffering. It is not easy. It’s fight or flight. It takes less of an effort to be pulled under than go over. Jordan Peterson reconciles the bleak pessimism of Schopenhauer with the naive optimism of Socrates. Yes, life is suffering, and yes, if one has not contemplated that being itself may not be worthwhile, that it may be better for there to be nothing rather than something, then one has not looked both at oneself and the world properly. But despite this, life is worthwhile. It is worthwhile if there is some meaning, some goal that works toward a higher good, and if unnecessary suffering is eliminated as much as possible. The opposites of chaos and order, of Apollonian and Dionysian, are coupled to formulate a life that justifies its existence. Consciousness can be a terrible, terrible thing, yet it shouldn’t be eliminated for this reason. If it can be manipulated as a potent force for good, then it may justify itself, and we may not have to flee so far from it so often.
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.
Guy Debord wrote about media and the concept of representation in the Society of the Spectacle, a book which was heavily influenced by the thought of Karl Marx, most particularly the ideas of commodities and fetishism in culture and capitalism. Debord believed that the spectacle had become an integral part of society, and that what one had become more important than who one was. It is no longer about what experiences are, but how they are perceived, particularly by other people. Experience, and thereby existence, has become a commodity, something that is represented and ‘sold’ as something for people to watch. The spectacle is for Debord a ‘wish for sleep’, and, like Marx’s idea of religion, holds people back, numbing them and preventing them from truly living.
There is little doubt that Debord would despair at how the spectacle has developed. Image and representation is more rife than ever in the form of social media, the news, and television. The spectacle has grown immensely, shown since the mediation of images having become so common in people’s relation to each other. He writes ‘this society eliminates geographical distance only to produce a new internal separation’. The emergence of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat may prove Debord more true than ever. We can through technology reduce our geography from each other, yet we remain separated nevertheless, since all we are seeing is a representation of something or somebody, leaving users in a state of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Literally a ‘lover of wisdom’, the philosopher can be defined in many ways. Some imagine a philosopher as someone sitting around thinking about abstract concepts which have very little relevance to real life (Marx said that philosophy is to the real world what masturbation is to sex), others may view the philosopher as an antisocial outsider who does not participate in anything public, or as an exclusively academic position. Perhaps the most notable description of what a genuine philosopher is comes from Nietzsche, who wrote that living “as a philosopher” ‘hardly means more than living “prudently and apart”.’ He argues that the genuine philosopher lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely”-‘he risks himself constantly, he plays the wicked game.’ The wicked game, it seems, is the game of making a judgement, ‘a Yes or No, not about the sciences but about life and the value of life’. The philosopher doubts his ability or even duty to this judgement, but he must seek this right ‘only from the most comprehensive-perhaps most disturbing and destructive-experiences, and frequently hesitates, doubts, and lapses into silence.’ Genuine philosophising involves delving into the darkness of existence, and not only contemplating it, but experiencing it. The Yes or No judgement, perhaps the greatest judgement of all, is incredibly complex and not at all straightforward. The answer is unclear, and may remain elusive for great periods of time, perhaps for one’s whole lifetime, yet only through experience and feeling ‘the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life’ can a person begin to become a true philosopher.
Aquinas’ via negativa is well-known. We cannot say what God is, only what he is not. Aquinas is also notorious for his Five Ways. Aquinas seeks to prove the existence of God, claims to have done so, yet also says that God’s nature cannot be known. This seems to be mistaken, however. If one claims to have knowledge that a being or thing exists, then it necessarily follows that one must also have at least some knowledge about that being or thing’s essence. If you claim that X exists, you must have at least some concept of what X is, otherwise you could not claim that X exists, since knowledge of X’s existence includes a minimum amount of knowledge about what X is. One might say that this is only true for things in the universe (contingent), and that God is an exception (necessary), yet this only makes God even more estranged from the universe, making it seem that a deist belief is as far as one can go before stretching beyond the realms of evidence or logic.
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.
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.
Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher who believed that an action is right if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (the principle of utility). Happiness is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. He wrote that nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain. From this Bentham concluded that pleasure is the sole good and pain the sole evil. Bentham grounded his theory of morality upon these terms, and his guide for happiness is to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all misery you are able to remove.’ The happy life consists of as much pleasure and as little pain as possible, not just for oneself, but for others also (for the greatest number). Bentham believed that the foundation of morality lay not in reason (like Kant), nor in language, but in pain and pleasure, hence: ‘The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?’ Bentham constructed the hedonic calculus in order to measure pleasure so that it could be maximized to the greatest extent possible. The components of the action to be measured were certainty, duration, extent, intensity, purity, fecundity and propinquity. Though specific, it has been criticised as impractical and not useful as a tool for deciding how to act.
There are problems with this theory. Firstly, it can justify actions which we would usually think to be completely immoral (most people cite gang rape as a pertinent example), and A.MacIntyre even argued that the Nazi regime could be justified if it were shown that it could have produced more pleasure than pain. Many dislike Bentham’s theory because they see Bentham as making human morality too base, and he lowers our nature to that of swine. Moreover, the utility principle gives little thought to minorities, which would not be accepted today. Finally, the hedonic calculus is not practical, is time consuming, and does not account for events when it is not possible to measure all the different components (if it is at all possible to pleasure in any satisfactory way).
Although there are many problems with Bentham’s theory, it founded utilitarianism and was developed exponentially both the J.S. Mill and more recently Peter Singer. Bentham made insightful observations about human nature, although he may seem to have ignored other parts of human morality and nature. Aristotle was perhaps the first to recognize the importance of pleasure and pain (Nichomachean Ethics Book 1), but he maintained that reason was also crucial in the make-up of humanity, which Bentham saw little room for. His theory of happiness may be effective for a short time, but chasing any kind of pleasure for prolonged periods of time will inevitably lead to destruction and unhappiness.
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.