Are Wisdom and Happiness Compatible?

Seeking the way out of ignorance

Seeking a way out of the cave of ignorance

This post continues the theme of self-deception introduced here. I want to begin where I left off, with the problem that self-deception presents to philosophers and other truth-seekers. As I said in the first post, insofar as we are “natural-born liars”, a philosophical way of life appears to be more unnatural and less pleasant than the self-deception and ignorance that characterize most human lives. In other words, ignorance—of which self-deception is but one kind—may be natural and it may be bliss, but it is abhorrent to philosophy: no one who loves wisdom relishes the prospect of living in ignorance. Socrates famously captured such a life with the image of a prisoner chained to a wall deep in a cave.

Imagine that you’re a lover of wisdom faced with evidence—data even!—that ignorance and self-deception are built into the structure of your very mind. You learn that evolutionary forces have conspired against you consummating your love of wisdom by fashioning your brain in such a way that, usually, you have no idea what’s on your own mind. This is where all of us start our lives, as prisoners of our ignorance.

As a lover of wisdom who has read his Plato, you’re undaunted. You know that the philosophical path leads from this dark place of ignorance up and out into the light of the true, beautiful, and good. (Cf. Republic, Book VII.) You gamely imagine that by educating yourself and applying yourself to arts such as yoga, pranayama, mindfulness, insight meditation, dreamwork, therapy, and the like, you can bring your unconscious out of the shadows and into the light of consciousness. Once you’ve gained this hard-won self-knowledge, you can begin freeing yourself from those largely unconscious forces of instinct, conditioning and habit that have until now controlled your fate. You can begin living mindfully and deliberately, free at last to be your own master.

A tall order, you know, requiring years of devoted practice, but there’s no question that many truth-seekers journey a long way up this path to self-knowledge and freedom—even though it’s the rare seeker who achieves the self-mastery of a Socrates or Buddha.

But before you devote yourself to such a demanding way of life, you need to consider whether the path may lead you to be more sad, depressed, and melancholy than if you’d stayed in your native cave of ignorance? Is being wise really worth the unhappiness it may bring? What if the cliché is true, and ignorance is bliss? After all, as I reported at the end of my first post, some research suggests that the self-deceived, light-minded majority seem to be happier than the more perceptive and knowing minority.

To which John Stuart Mill famously replied,

A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question… ” (Utilitarianism)

I think many of us—in our better moments at least—agree with Mill’s view. Here’s an astute comment in response to my first post: “I am of the (premature) opinion that the suffering implicit in self knowledge or prying beneath self-deceit is better for the person and society.”  Agreed. But perhaps we can do better than this. For as Mill, Socrates, the Buddha, and just about every advocate for getting out of the cave agrees, there is no reason to assume an opposition between wisdom and happiness. Once again, what the scientists report is hardly news: philosophers, theologians, artists, and psychologists have long known that wisdom is no guarantor of happiness. To acknowledge this is one thing, to imagine you’ve discovered that wisdom and happiness are incompatible is quite another—and almost certainly wrong. I can think of no great philosophers who would agree with that proposition. What’s misleading about studies showing a correlation between self-deception and happiness is the presumption they know what happiness is, and how to measure it.

That said, one can nevertheless acknowledge, as Mill does, that there may often be tension between wisdom and what we commonly call happiness. This same tension runs through the Platonic dialogues, as for example when Callicles insists to Socrates that the conventional life of power and pleasure is better than a philosophical life. (Cf. Gorgias)

Those who’ve been following my blog for awhile may recognize that I’ve arrived at an old question by another route—a question I’ve promised to address but haven’t gotten around to yet. It is this: given the uncertain connection, possibly even the tension, between wisdom and happiness, what is the private apology for the philosophical way of life? Until now I’ve addresed only the public apology, or defense, of the philosophical way of life. I will, eventually, make good on my promise to defend the private good—the good for oneself—of the philosophical path. In light of this discussion, it’s more clear than ever that part of that defense must address the connection of philosophy to our animal nature and to our prospects for happiness.

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2 Responses to Are Wisdom and Happiness Compatible?

  1. Norm says:

    One cannot help but wonder what it is that you mean by “happiness”, here. The quote from Mill comes from Utilitarianism, which argues for the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But Mill seems to mean by happiness (ultimately) some notion of pleasure. So a reflection upon the relation of pleasure and happiness seems to be considered. It would seem odd to call the happy life unpleasant; but it would also be odd to define it by pleasure. Mill’s notion of the Socrates dissatisfied seems to actually insist upon the happiness of Socrates despite his life being unpleasant or characterized by some suffering. Perhaps Socrates would be displeased with a “life of pleasure” without philosophy.

    If happiness were something other than pleasure, then perhaps this private apology becomes possible. Which is not quite to say that philosophy is unpleasant! (Au contraire!)

    I’ll be curious to see how you piece this all out.

    • Yes, of course, the question of the nature of human happiness lurks in the foreground here, and I agree that the private defense of philosophy depends on showing that the philosophical life is at the very least not unpleasant. I’m also curious to see how I piece it all together!

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