Undertaking a new task, a new challenge, is always difficult. The goals which reap the most are almost always the ones which will require the most effort and the most pain. Yes, it will hurt, for now, and perhaps for a while, but the outcome of that pain will have made it worth it. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and teacher of Emperor Nero, recognised that life is at times, if not always, painful. The endurance of pain itself is testing and undesirable, but the ability to look back, Seneca says, and remember how we endured such pain, is worth much. Not only does it give us the ability to see how far we have come, but also to understand that we are capable of endurance if only we pursued it and willed it strongly enough. The usefulness of pain is an almost eternal concept, an idea which has been supported for thousands of years, and it is certainly true that without sacrifice, nothing can be achieved.
Why do we become angry? Epictetus says. Because we attach value to external things not in our power. To refrain from anger, we must give things up, such as attachment to our clothes, so that we count them as nothing, and then if they are stolen, say, then we will no longer be angry. Moreover, Epictetus says, as long as we attach value to these things which are not in our control, we should be angry with ourselves, rather than the thief who takes our clothes. This idea of attachment is key to Epictetus, and he says that ‘one can only lose what one has…our losses and our pains only affect things that are in our possession.’ What does he advise to cope with the difficulties of life? He uses the Socratic idea-know yourself.
He goes on to say that we should not give expression to grief (an idea which seemed to influence Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about suffering in silence), and that the invincible human being is ‘one who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’ This relates back to Epictetus’ key idea that we must know that some things are in our control, while others are not. We must remember that ‘it is our own judgements that disturb us’. He uses this example to illustrate his point:
‘For when the tyrant says to someone “I’ll have your leg shackled,” one who attaches value to his leg will reply, “No have pity on me,” while one who attaches value, by contrast, to his choice will say, “If you think that will do you any good, chain it up.”-“You don’t care?”-Not in the least.-“I’ll show you that I’m master.”
We must, therefore, detach ourselves from what is not in our power or control, while, perhaps, simultaneously expecting rather poor outcomes to circumstances. We must not outwards for coping mechanisms-the only mechanism that guarantees success is the one inside us-our mind.
To the Buddha, it was desire which causes suffering. Being alive, however, means to desire, and so he concluded that life is therefore suffering. Our brains have evolved to the extent that we are continuously desiring. Once a desire is fulfilled, another desire comes along, perhaps with an intermittent stage of boredom. Our brains evolved like this for survival. Maintaining a continuous flow of desire means maintaining existence which is, ultimately, the goal of the brain-to preserve the human species. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively on the suffering of the world, and argued that life ‘swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.’ We may at times find ourselves either bored or dissatisfied with life, or both simultaneously. How, then, can we remove unnecessary or unwanted pain? First, we should remember that some pain is necessary and useful, but if pain is truly unwanted, and we believe that the pain will not benefit us in the future or aid us in achieving future goals, then there are few things which we can do:
Tyler Durden of Fight Club said that ‘it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.’ Even if we do not want to lose everything, we can still remove the things in our life which we do not want or enjoy or need. We should also recognise that the time that matters is here and now, and that although the future is important to some extent, it doesn’t even exist yet, and so we should, perhaps, focus on today, rather than worrying about tomorrow. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we must remind ourselves, when times seem bad, that it could be much, much worse. Yes, it could be better, but reminding ourselves that it could be worse may give us a slightly more objective viewpoint which may help put things in perspective. Another point is that, eventually, one day, you will be dead. None of this pain or boredom now will not matter to you. Nothing at all will matter to you when you’re dead, and on the spectrum of the universe, death is going to come pretty soon, so perhaps reminding ourselves of death’s nearing hand may, strangely, cheer us up since we know that petty complaining and suffering may seem to matter now, but once you’re on your death bed, will you regret allowing all that worry and pain and stress to get to you, rather than enjoying life while it allows you to?
Schopenhauer himself may have advised turning pain into knowledge, and using suffering as a tool for achievement. We may now, though, conclude that a great deal of our suffering, pain and boredom can be dealt with simply by altering our perspective and the way we see the world, existence, and ultimately, our own selves.
We all have comfort zones, accustomed places and routines. It’s not surprising really, given that it’s in our nature to seek comfort. Comfort is what it is-comforting. Yet, should we always seek comfort so easily? One might say that comfort is both uninteresting and mediocre. Little worthwhile is gained from comfort. Alain de Botton said that people only start to become interesting ‘when they start to rattle the bars of their cages.’ Great things come from pain, sacrifice, discomfort. How can we evolve if all we spend our time doing is working for money and watching endless TV and endless social media feeds? A life of comfort is nothing to be ashamed of, yet is it something to be truly proud of? Comfort is good, I do not deny that, but is comfort always good? Perhaps, you might say, it is. But if you always lived in ‘comfort’, would you have created anything you thought was worth anything? The best of things are made from the worst of times.
If you want to come near to experiencing the feeling of being alive, first you must leave your comfort zone.
Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.
To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.
John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.
Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.
Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.
The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.
In today’s world, talking about our suffering and pain is mightily encouraged, and keeping things which cause us anguish to ourselves is discouraged and seen as wrong-nobody should have to suffer alone. Of course, there are different scales of suffering, from petty everyday troubles to genuine hardship through poverty, disease, and mental illness. There is no doubt that talking can help, since it allows us to know that we are not alone, and it gives our sufferings an objective viewpoint. Nevertheless, should we always be talking about our hardships and pains of life?
Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the lily in the field and the bird in the sky, saying that even though they suffered, they suffered silently. One should not take this completely literally-obviously the lily is silent! Yet his point is that we, as humans, are not able to remain silent in our suffering. It may be that our troubles always seem so much worse than they actually are is because of our inability to remain silent. Kierkegaard wrote that ‘to suffer is to suffer, no more and no less.’ Perhaps what Kierkegaard may be implicitly calling us to do is to accept our suffering, rather than always trying to talk about it and make a fuss about it which may, ultimately, be a way of fleeing from it. Not all suffering should be accepted, yet not all of it should be extinguished. Life is full of trials and tribulations, and at times the best thing may be to speak to someone, to call out to them for help, but at others, it may be best if we do not speak, but remain silent, and calm, and to use the suffering for something rather than talk about it. Much of the great art we have today may be thanks to suffering. Suffering inspires and motivates. We do not always have to talk about our pains, but rather we can create something-a book, a song, a poem, or a drawing, and through this act of creation, we may discover that not only does it help ourselves, but it has the power to help others also.
Feuerbach counters the argument that the preservation of the world and of mankind is some act of God which accords with his will. He says that nature has little care for single individuals-‘thousands of them are sacrificed without hesitation or repentance in the plenty of Nature’. This argument calls upon the existence of evil, especially natural evil, to present Nature’s merciless nature. Furthermore, since Nature does not care for us, and does not provide for us as we would like, Feuerbach says that at this point people turn to God ‘whose eye shines upon me just where Nature’s light is extinguished.’ When things are not going our way and nature can provide no help, it is then that we turn to God. Feuerbach also claims that God owes his existence to two things: fear and hope. It is these two feelings that rule our imagination of the future, and so we may find ourselves believing in God because of our fear and hope of the future since it is these two that sway most of our decisions.
Feuerbach argues that the existence of God stems from man’s desire to be like God: unlimited, self-sufficient, always good, immortal. God and humanity have the same rules of life, only that God has no exceptions or limitations, which is what we desire to have, and if we worship him, then we can be like that too-‘the Deity is the destruction of the deficiencies and weaknesses in man which are the very causes of the exceptions’.
In the final part, Pt.4, the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Religion will be concluded.
‘Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing.’ Chuck Palahniuk
It is a commonly held view that pain is bad and that suffering is to be avoided. It’s true that avoiding suffering is generally easier than facing it and dealing with it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what we should do. The idea of the importance of bearing with suffering goes back to Nietzsche who emphasised that suffering was necessary for greatness. Nothing good can come without pain, sacrifice, hard work.
An easy life can come from avoiding suffering. The most fulfilled lives, however, the lives of the greats, were made by suffering. It is because of suffering that we are able to listen to the likes of Mozart, to look at the likes of da Vinci, and to read the likes of Homer. The suffering itself may be incredibly painful, at times almost unbearable, but it is this suffering which will enable us to create art of another level. Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a heavy influence on the thought of Nietzsche, once said ‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.’ Only through enduring pain and suffering can we become greater human beings, and, if we wish, create something worthwhile.