The End of Everything

Wittgenstein said something like ‘the world of the happy man is not that of the happy man’. I’ve always agreed with that, though I never knew what he actually meant.

But it is a supreme comment about the nature of human subjectivity. A single element can change. and instantly nothing is the same. And, being human, happiness/satisfaction is key.

But, I also believe, the world of the unhappy man is unlike anything else.

This Again…

To begin with a very specific concept in Nietzsche’s work, I hope to terminate in the broader and more general consideration deriving from it. The concept being that of the eternal recurrence. Something of an odd one, in that body of work, since it has the hallmarks of sounding like a metaphysical thesis, something which I am going to assume it is not (well, ‘conclude’, but for reasons of space-saving…).

The basic idea is simple. Imagine every instant in the entire progression of time replaying without deviation from start to finish, once this world’s lifespan has reached its finish. The metaphysical tempt is clear. It immediately betrays hallmarks of some strands of scientific cosmology as well as religious traditions. The clear difference is in the invariance. No positing of quantum effects, infinitesimal discrepancies in starting conditions, or necessities of free will to allow changes in the unfolding universe.

So what is the point? It is not a metaphysical thesis even in part because a) it is ludicrous and b) since the far more salient point is the psychology of the thesis, the complete lack of our awareness of this repetition would render that beyond useless. The point is clearly a psychological one because of the question about what such a consideration would mean to us.

The pithy and attractive answer for the stygian mindstated such as myself is that this is the most horrifying idea imaginable, and that is almost its own point. Of course, the eternal recurrence would mean that perfect summer day came around again, your childhood dog is alive again, and the endless re-manufacture of those sweets you used to enjoy. But, in the main, it means every millisecond of agony, pain, and loss, occurring forever, without surcease or mutation or hope of appeal.

But, this is Nietzsche, of a certain period, and so the invitation is for joy rather than despair. And I can see how. Because it is horrific beyond compare, to encompass this idea, to imagine it so completely you can, momentarily at least, believe it, and remain standing, is a triumph. To encompass it and laugh, transcendent.  This fits with the brittle and shallow, if largely correct, interpretation of so much of this type of Nietzschean expression, but it still misses one point. There are lines in his work pertaining to this idea exhorting us to change every ‘it was’ into an ‘I will it thus’. To, it seems to me, take a personal responsibility for all that has happened, or at least happened because of us. That is happened because of us, not to us. That each such moment had its necessity, and that each one stood upon those preceding, and we can no more wish for the ‘bad’ things to be excoriated from history than the ‘good’.

In my thinking this was the invitation, and the point. To redeem the misery and tragedy of life, by asking us to see and accept a type of unity in our own experience. That what is is because of all that went before and we should not wish for alteration, if we are to affirm anything in our lives.

Perhaps this sucks the joy out of joy. But then anyone who finds joy easy, or commonplace, does not need to agonise so. As a struggler, I am stirred by the attempt, whatever I believe its validity to be.

Happiness, More or Less

There is an oft trotted out pseudo-statistic about how theists regularly score higher on reported levels of happiness than atheists. As usual, the surrounding tone and implication is that this somehow proves (let us not imagine anyone involved would use the more accurate term ‘confirms’) the veracity of religion. A cheap shot here would be to point out that there is no calculus of happiness, not just because there is no possible Standard Index unit of happiness (seeing someone slip and fall on ice does not raise us 15 milligiddies), but because even subjectively gauging one’s own happiness is a mostly blind and entirely inconsistent effort. A far better shot would be: And?

Does it come as any sort of surprise that a belief, especially a strong belief, in an ordered universe, a being or beings which in some fashion watch out for and care for us, that death is not an ending, that books and hierarchies that know Truth exist to guide us when we’re lost, would help to make such believers feel happier? Conversely, does it come as any surprise that the solitary, ultimately meaningless, unrewarding, often bitter taste of real atheism carries little of this (even if it does salve somewhat with the intensely smug satisfaction of being right and undeluded)?

Happiness is not proof or confirmation of anything, especially not truth (whatever that may be). It’s right up there with conviction as a complete irrelevance to the epistemology and ontology of the whole debate. One could slap electrodes in the brain to create a permanent sensation of bliss. Would that be more ‘true’ than… well, examples are always a struggle for me, especially when trying to find one of happiness. The question simply sounds strange, and not just because of the half-hearted bailing out.

As someone who has always had a lot of sympathy with the philosophical meme that happiness is the highest good, I have often had to wrestle with a nature that not only places truth above happiness, but in fact frequently beats it over its beatific, blithe face. The tentative resolution is that any happiness not based on truth is inherently fragile and subject to dismissal when truths are revealed. And that there is no virtue in holding onto delusions once they are revealed as such. Happiness without delusion may typically be less, in amount and degree, but it is intrinsically more valuable for that.

‘Better a man unsatisfied than a pig satisfied’, said Aristotle. Perspicacious as always, and evidently a man who knew that a satisfied pig makes a wonderful bacon butty. In the cold mornings after existential dark nights of the soul, that can often be good enough.