Happiness and Ignorance or Appreciation and Wisdom?

As John Stuart Mill said in his Utilitarianism,

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

The question that immediately comes to mind after reading this quotation is: Is this true? Is wisdom truly worth more than satisfaction? Would someone truly rather be happy and ignorant than face the absurdity and meaningless of life, and thereby touching upon – what might – be the ‘true’ nature of our existence? In other words: a happy fool or an enlightened absurdist, what to choose?

You can look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to be wiped from this earth within – at most – a few decades,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here, and I’ll probably never figure it out’ or ‘Does what I am about to do today contribute anything to the course of humanity?’ Each of these questions seems to come from a very reasonable reflection on life. Philosophy, being the human quest for wisdom, should not turn walk away from questions like these, even though they might turn out to be unanswerable or depressing. Philosophy is not a quest that should be focused on creating finished products, like carpentry or painting. Philosophy, like any attempt to obtain ‘the truth’, is a never-ending activity, whose value resides within calming down our feelings of despair. It might be comparable to drugs, but instead of deciding not to face the absurdity of life by lowering one’s state of consciousness, one tries to convince one’s consciousness that there must be a road to certainty; a road that one, in blinding naivety, hopes to stumble upon. This is the life of the absurdist.

But there is another way to live. You could look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’ve got to hurry up, I’ve got to be at work at 8 o’clock,’ ‘I still have to tell John that he has to cook dinner tonight, since I will be home late’ and ‘Oh it’s Tuesday! That means that there will be soccer on television tonight!’ You could force yourself to try and turn off the existential, reflective part of your mind and commit to living the robotic or auto-pilot-like life. You could try to become immersed in the rat-race called life to such an extent that all of your thinking power is required just for sticking to your rat-race-like planning. There is no time for reflection; all your time is needed for action. Life consists of the ever recurring 9 to 5 cycles stringed together by knots of transient and superficial moments of happiness. This is the life of the fool.

The advantage of being a happy fool is that one, in contrast to the absurdist, is able to experience happiness, no matter how superficial this might be. The fool is able to get lost in the dopamine-flow triggered by the utterly irrelevant phenomena he finds interesting or amusing. He turns his back towards the absurdity of life; he lives his life the ‘normal’ way: the way (almost) everyone lives it. Moreover, it is the manner in which any animal on earth lives its life. And that’s exactly where the sadness kicks in. Since, we could ask ourselves, how ‘human’ is a life that doesn’t differ in any fundamental sense of the life of a pig? A life that is lived on cruise-control, only taken control of when our biological urges seem incapable of doing the job, when humans seem equal to mice? And even though we – in contrast to the mice – have the thinking power to live a different life at our disposal, we rather let our animal brains control our bodies: no thinking means good thinking.

And this is where the Socrates comes in. Although the Socrates realizes that he might not have chosen the hedonistic path to happiness, it is the outer part – the ‘human’ part – of his brain that gets freed from the shackles of social and biological conditioning; he takes control of his life. Happiness gets bypassed, and fulfillment is being striven for. And it is by accepting the inability of his mind to ever find the path to certainty that he enters a vicious circle that starts and ends with absurdity: the highest state of enlightenment attainable for the human mind. It is only in the absurdist spheres of consciousness that happiness can be judged for what it really is: an empty goal created to prolong the dominance of the animalistic parts of our brains.

Should we see it as our duty to enlighten ourselves, to reach the level of consciousness we can reach; a level that is filled with reflection on the absurdity of life? Or should we succumb under the temptation of hedonism, give up the analytic an logic reflection on ‘this thing called life’, and long for bursts of momentary happiness? What is the human way to live?

What do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

3 thoughts on “Happiness and Ignorance or Appreciation and Wisdom?

  1. Interesting text.
    Even though the path to enlightenment is full of absurdities, who said “final enlightenment” was absurd? Doesn’t absurdity only stem from our lack of total understanding, hence stand in opposition to the understanding we would reach through enlightenment?

    • Thank you for your comment Kirsten. I indeed believe that absurdity stems from our inherently lack of understanding. However, I don’t believe that this stands in opposition to the understanding we would reach through enlightenment. The reason for this is that – in enlightenment – we do not reach an understanding of anything; even more, in enlightenment we accept our ignorance and therefore our lack of understanding. This is the position I refer to by “Absurdity”. So it’s indeed true that absurdity follows from our lack of understanding, but it’s only when we accept this position that we’ve reach enlightenment; a state of mind in which the longing for “true” knowledge is gone; it’s the acceptance of knowing that you don’t understand anything.

      But what do you think about this position; do you think it’s even possible to attain such a state of “Absurdity”?

  2. Pingback: Why Are We? | TheYoungSocrates

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