Ok, so blogging to me is like writing is to Irvine Welsh – I’m a binge blogger. I promised another email on a new project which I’ll post on Monday, but here is another…
I have started reading Nietzsche again after a few years of not doing so and he’s keeping me awake at night. I started reading him when I was 15 and return to his ideas time and again. It’s a mild obsession that is probably quite healthy. Reading him is exhilarating, even if (perhaps partly because) I find myself swearing at him and protesting with him at very regular intervals.
One of the key trains of thought in his work is the importance of opposites, or better still, apparent opposites. He begins Beyond Good and Evil by chastising philosophers for their love of truth and goodness over falsehood and evil, partly because he thinks they’re self-deluding (everything for him is a perspective which reminds me of Ian McGilchrist’s brilliant Heideggerian-influenced analysis of attention in The Master and his Emissary) and insincere, but also because he contends that evil and falsehood, or how our society understands them, are positive, creative forces that enable people and society to flourish – there is a very interesting link here to “positive deviance” (another current obsession of mine) I’ll take up another time.
This has got me thinking about happiness. The ideal of happiness is deeply embedded in Western thought. Aristotle wrote of happiness being the highest human virtue that should guide how we live our lives and also how we view ourselves and others. Utilitarian’s like Bentham and Mill had a very different understanding of happiness but also considered it to be the essential goal of life.
One of their big differences is the status of pleasure in their respective conceptions of happiness which, as Foucault shows in the final volumes of The History of Sexuality, has been an enduring problem for Western culture for the best part of two and half thousand years. While Aristotle largely considered pleasure to be dangerous, anticipating much of what Freud said on the necessity of sexual repression for maintaining social order, Bentham often seemed to make a virtue of pleasure, at times suggesting that happiness can be subsumed within it.
The Government now seeks to measure happiness as a way of determining the performance of government. When David Cameron first spoke about introducing a ‘happiness index’ to measure how the country is doing many people rejected the idea out of hand. Much of the commentary (from left and right) was rather silly, but legitimate questions were raised regarding the challenges of defining happiness and then measuring it.
One question not asked was why happiness? The question sounds ridiculous to the ear, frightening even, which says a great deal about our modern addiction to the promise of happiness. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the nagging suspicion that happiness might be a false prophet – the more you search for it the more elusive it becomes. In a strange Lacanian way, the act of talking, or at least feeling the need to talk about something, often says more about its absence or lack. Examples abound: the screwed up psychoanalyst treating other people’s neuroses, the self-styled child care expert who neglects the basic needs of their own children, and the libidinous priest who preaches the virtue of abstinence.
Nietzsche considered happiness a shallow virtue. To negate suffering is to negate an important part of life itself. Suffering, he argued, produces a wisdom and deep insight into life that happiness (or what people describe as happiness) can cover up, burying the drive, creativity and life-affirming intensity hardship often produces. He urged people to seek out suffering and hardship as an exercise in self-affirmation and development. I wouldn’t go so far – in any case, it’s hardly like we need to search very hard or far for it – but his reflections on truth and suffering tell us important things about the hidden value of apparent opposites and the need to think differently and to question even our most deeply-held beliefs.