Optimism

January 11th, 2010 § 0 comments

I’ve never liked self-help books. So many of them peddle a naive optimism that asks one to pull happiness out of thin air. You could call it crypto-Christianity as seen via Nietzsche’s rendering of Judeo-Christian philosophies in “Beyond Good and Evil.” He called the principle the inversion of values,  which he said made the religion anti-life. This point is illustrated effectively in the promise of an afterlife. To get a reward one first has to die. The enjoyment of life is irrelevant, if not a hindrance to this promised eternity. But the philosopher did effectively put misery on a pedestal himself, though for reasons concurrent with life. He wished nothing but strife on those he loved. It makes them stronger, he contended.

But, much as the Judeo-Christian view defers the benefits of one’s suffering to a hereafter, Nietzsche makes the assumption that strength of character is inherently valuable. He emphasizes misery as an investment in one’s will, but the unspoken sacrifice is happiness and joy. Which is to say the point of life is to become desensitized, to brace for the eventual storm. If one can ask what the value of pain and sacrifice is if there is indeed nothing waiting beyond death, one can ask the same question regarding the turmoil of life itself if one’s focus narrows the coming horror. In either case, one has willingly sacrificed their enjoyment of life for an expectation (one probable but depressing, and one encouraging but undemonstrated).

In practice, Christians rarely self-flagellate anymore, literally or figuratively, for the benefits promised beyond death. They do embrace happiness, sitting within the wide margins of scriptural interpretation. Likewise, Nietzsche advocated the celebration of life itself. He favored philosophies and religions that affirmed life rather than denigrating it.

Nietzsche’s description of views that celebrated poverty and misery over success and pleasure, or concepts that attempted to null the contrast between beneficial and harmful circumstances (e.g. nirvana), placed them under the banner of nihilism. Contrary to the clichéd misinterpretation that’s hounded Nietzsche in popular culture, he didn’t advocate nihilism. In his story of the madman, from which the famous paraphrase about God being dead originated, he observes a modern scientific world in which cause and effect are clearly seen. Without the necessity of superstition, supernatural ideas would become less relevant, relegated to vague symbolism; not the immediate practical functions they’d once served. People will irrigate their plots, not burn a lamb for spiritual favor.

In that world, where metaphysical ideas give way to physical ones, the afterlife comes into question, and with that, meaning itself. Whether there is a meaning to life, a point, a purpose. Is there some deliberate force behind the existence of a living planet, or is it simply an indifferent fluke? That’s the position one is faced with when one lets go of rewards and meaning in an ultimate sense. One is left to question the very value of life to a self-aware animal with apparent choices. Then one must look at things subjectively and try to determine what it is that drives them forward in a much more immediate sense. And one is alone with this decision.

Both concepts of nihilism intersect at the death of meaning. The religious view makes the qualitative differences between events and circumstances null as a deliberate discipline, and the other is an incidental consequence of following a thread of monist logic to its bitter end. In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Nietzsche attempts to reconcile humanity with a rational sense of meaning by deliberately choosing to live, and to overcome one’s inherent weaknesses: things he characterized as useless and detrimental. Emotions like pity, which depress the person, while not fixing anything in itself. Taken as a literal whole, there are callous elements to his ideas, though the man himself, if it makes any difference, was not prone to cruelty. Before his health and mind mysteriously disintegrated, a famous story involved him intervening on behalf of a horse being beaten. Perhaps he was already unhinged by that point, so take it as you will.

Coming back to my original point, optimism and positive thinking share their underpinnings with the nihilistic tendencies described above. It, like the inversion of values, and the death of meaning, is a distortion of the natural impact of circumstances on the psyche. With the view that no event can be qualitatively bad, but instead offers some kind of lesson, or has happened for a reason, the distinction between good and bad events becomes unclear.

With real success, gain, and achievement, a sense of joy is — under most circumstances — completely inevitable. A smile crosses one’s face that couldn’t be straightened out if one wanted to! There’s no need to rationalize this kind of elation. There is no mindfuck at work here. Something qualitatively beneficial has happened, and every nerve and instinct rises to meet it. Certainly, one can become complacent, and the excitement of a victory, even if the spoils are kept, will wear off. Nicholas Taleb, in “Fooled By Randomness,” cited a study that had shown the psychological impact of even a minute beneficial change was greater than the maintenance of a more quantitatively substantial baseline. Seeing one’s bank account grow by a hundred bucks is delightful, even if one has maintained a healthy balance that happened to stagnate for some months.

There are events and circumstances that are simply bad, harmful, injurious. To tell oneself to feel good about them is to suppress a natural reaction. The instinct is there for a reason, so that an animal can survive by knowing what is beneficial and what is not. Just as an animal will ideally disregard its own shit in favor of a fresh, nutritious chunk of wildebeest. If an animal can convince itself everything smells appetizing, I don’t see how it really benefits the animal in the long run. To celebrate horror is to cheapen joy, as any philosophy that equates them through rationalizations will force them to meet in the middle.

The tentative conclusion I can draw from this exercise is that pain needn’t be sought, but is unavoidable and should be felt when appropriate. To acknowledge terrible things for what they are is honest and natural. The only real joy is the inevitable one that follows a qualitative gain.

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