JR'S Free Thought Pages
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                                                  Is That All There Is? – Thoughts springing from Peggy Lee’s song

August 2008

I was listening to some tunes by the great Peggy (you give me Fever) Lee the other day including the profoundly philosophical “Is That All There Is”? She has one of the most endearing voices, not only her fabulous singing voice, but her normal speaking voice as well. You may listen to this great song and accompanying video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTpFUT-lxls

What I think it’s all about?

I think this song can be interpreted in several different ways depending on your world view as well as your state of mind at the time you listen to it. For me the song is about the impact of events over which you have no control, the enigmatic nature of happiness and the futility of pursuing it as an end in itself. Someone once said that happiness is the brief interval between periods of unhappiness. That is undoubtedly true for many. Someone else said that the two primary causes of unhappiness are to want something and then getting it. I think this is closer to the truth and perhaps explains the general malaise and discontent that seems to infuse our impoverished culture of greed, envy and acquisitiveness. This societal illness, referred to by some social critics as “affluenza” is a difficult virus from which to escape because we are incessantly bombarded by the mantra of accumulating what often amounts to useless “stuff” the minute we turn on the television. But studies on happiness from the 1950s to the present have clearly demonstrated that people are no happier today in spite of the massive increase in crap we can purchase to cram into our homes.

In spite of all the “stuff” we have crammed into our homes and overflowed into garages, crawl spaces and attics, many people are bored.  Nietzsche once said, “Isn’t life too short to be bored? To me this is a truism because it’s inconceivable to me that, given free will,  anyone can be bored  (not because of any affection for “stuff”) because I have rarely if ever been bored given the proviso that I’ve had sufficient free time to pursue my passions, to “follow my bliss” as Joseph Campbell called it. Of course most of us have to make a living and finding a vocation that requires often 40 or more hours a week and isn’t going to eat your brain is a challenge for us all. I’ve often thought that retirement should start at birth and continue on until about age 50 at which point you work until you drop. But for many, once they “have it all” by achieving their goal of material possessions and subsequent freedoms beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, the enigma of happiness and peace of mind so many still ask themselves: “Is that all there is?” For many people life is nothing but an never-ending power trip which they attempt to satisfy by endlessly accumulating wealth and material possessions until they croak, never quite getting enough, never able to retire to a life of tranquility, personal freedom and reflection. I suppose, as Albert Camus argued, if they did, suicide might be their only option because they would realize the futility and bankruptcy of their game plan for achieving happiness and contentment.

The seemingly endless market for self help books that promote some mystical misguided path or “secret” to happiness (usually material happiness with “wealth” measured strictly in terms of dollar signs) is evidence of this general malaise because people can’t seem to figure it out for themselves. But neither can anyone else, so if it’s a personal savior or “life coach “you’re searching for, try looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking it through on your own. No one else can provide purpose for your life although there are an endless number of religious organizations and new Age gurus who would like to provide it – for a hefty admission price. Let’s face it; life has purpose for anyone willing to take an interest in it. My advice is to throw the Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and self-help books, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed in the trash can. “Know thyself”, says the famous Greek aphorism. It’s not rocket science folks. The first element is Socratic, knowing what you believe and why. The second is Freudian and is concerned with knowing who you are. The third is solitary and is concerned with training yourself to think for yourself, to take your intellect as your own personal companion and best friend. 

Bertrand Russell on Happiness

Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness (1930), tells us ”to let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things and personas that interest you be a far as possible friendly rather than hostile.” Russell did not write this book for people unable to remedy their circumstances, whether due to the exigencies of poverty, oppression, mental illness and other diseases, or even tragic personal circumstances. He was not so foolish as to believe that anyone could overcome any adversity. He wrote it for people not beset with the most serious obstacles—those who were most likely to read it in the first place. Furthermore, while he thought the absence of unhappiness was a necessary condition for happiness, he did not see it as a sufficient condition; rather, happiness was something one had to acquire, indeed, conquer, as the title suggests. The first part of the book deals with the principal sources of unhappiness. Russell begins by describing "Byronic unhappiness," or the tendency of intellectuals and world-weary people to equate wisdom with despair rooted in cynicism. The dyspeptic perspective of certain existentialist philosophers might be representative of such an outlook, but I would disagree with Russell on this point. Existentialism, at least the strain espoused by Jean Paul Sartre, I find liberating – a philosophy of freedom and personal accountability. We are” condemned to be free” Sartre tells us and I think he put it this way because so many violate their authenticity as persons by handing over their intellectual autonomy to someone or something else. Russell also writes about the dangers of excessive competitiveness focusing primarily on commercial affairs, for which, like many academics, Russell betrays a subtle disdain. However, he readily admits that excessive competitiveness exists also in artistic, athletic and scholarly pursuits, as well as in other human endeavors.

Next, he takes on boredom, which he believes is a uniquely human problem and (assuming a non-coercive environment) often a product of self-inflicted monotony, though he says modern humans have much less about which to be bored than our ancestors. At the same time, he eschews "excitement" over the fleeting pleasures that leave one feeling empty, using the kind of satisfaction derived from gambling as an example.  Russell then goes on to discuss the problems of fatigue, often induced by having too much to do, the bane of people who work too hard or have too many interests; envy, an especially pernicious source of unhappiness caused by coveting what we don't have or can't possibly have, and, often enough, don't really need; "persecution mania," the idea that one is the constant object of the plots and malefactions of others; and the oppressive fear of public opinion, which stultifies the personal freedom necessary for creative growth. I suppose if we took the Biblical commandment about the vice of greed and the dictum “do not covet thy neighbor’s goods” seriously, the capitalist system would collapse in a heartbeat. Most Christians these days conveniently ignore that one though.

Of particular interest among Russell's sources of unhappiness is our "sense of sin." As I said at the outset, Russell thought religion was a major cause of human misery in the world, not least of all due to the feelings of guilt it engenders. The propensity to focus on one's lack of virtue is merely a form of self-absorption, one which can be so overwhelming as to make us not only unhappy but irrational and even irresponsible. Russell would be horror-struck by the conservative religious apologists populating today's airwaves and the Bush administration, those who believe godless liberalism and an insufficient sense of human wretchedness are the chief causes of psychological disorders and society's downfall.

Many of the ideas about what constituted sinfulness were absurd to Russell, especially in matters dealing with sexuality. He certainly understood that one can violate a rational code of conduct; however, constantly dwelling on our failures is counterproductive. According to Russell, one should "regard his own undesirable acts, as he regards those of others, as acts produced by certain circumstances, and to be avoided by a fuller realization that they are undesirable, or, where this is possible, by avoidance of the circumstances that caused them"

Russell devoted fewer pages to the matter of acquiring happiness, probably because the formula for it seemed more obvious to him. He realized perfect happiness is not simply what philosophers from Plato to John Stuart Mill imagined it to be, namely, the rarified pleasures of contemplating philosophy. It is clear from his discussions about the joy derived from more mundane things that he did not entirely buy Mill's famous dictum, "Better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." While not denying the pleasures of the intellect, he did not give them undue weight. However, he did believe scientists might enjoy some advantages over others, for the scientist is able to "utilize his abilities to the full, and he achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannot in the smallest degree understand them. In this, he is more fortunate than the artist".

According to Russell, the common denominator among all happy people is "zest," by which he roughly meant a kind of joyous interest in the multifarious aspects of our lives, not with excessive zeal, but with moderation in an Aristotelian sense.  People with such a balanced but engaged temperament are likely to be happier than their counterparts, who could range from one who would starve one­self at one end of the spectrum to a gourmand at the other end.

Russell then described the importance of both giving and receiving affection; having meaningful and productive work to do, but not to excess; having one or more a-vocational interests to challenge the mind, perhaps even benefiting others in the process, while preventing monotony and boredom; and placing satisfying effort into the things that one can meaningfully improve, at the same time understanding when one ought to be resigned to insurmountable realities. While external factors can impede happiness, and in some cases make it unattainable, Russell also believed that, when circumstances allow, it is important not to wait passively for it, as it does not "drop into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances".

On a final note, Russell also wrote about the importance of having close family relationships. Russell lived to the age of 98 and his incredible passion and intellect were razor-sharp right to the very end. He continued to be active intellectually in his areas of expertise of Mathematics and Philosophy, as well as a harsh social critic, demonstrating against nuclear armaments and other important issues well into his eighties – even getting himself arrested. Russell went through four marriages and his own family ties were strained for much of his life, except when his three children were quite young, and later during his marriage to Edith Finch—his last—which by all accounts was a happy one. His daughter, Katherine Tait, wrote in My Father Bertrand Russell (1975), "He was the most fascinating man I have ever known, the only man I ever loved, the greatest man I shall ever meet, the wittiest, the gayest, the most charming. It was a privilege to know him, and I thank God he was my father." This would have made Russell very happy, despite the object of her gratitude.                                                                                     

Something for which Russell had nothing but contempt is the desire of so many to attempt to find happiness (and salvation)  in a suspension of reality, believing in some delusional ethereal other world of an all powerful benevolent dictator in the sky who will, with a delusional bribe, promise everlasting life. Of course it’s logically possible and just as plausible that an afterlife exists with no deity. Of course there has been so far not a shred of scientific evidence presented for such an existence. What is not articulated by these metaphysical fairy tales is what the promised afterlife will be like or why we should accept the bribe. Reading God’s book from cover to cover tells us nothing you can wrap your noggin around.  If there is such a beneficent supernatural entity, why not just give us everlasting life in this world. In addition, if he gives a rat’s ass about us, why could he not, in his omnipotence and benevolence, grant us a life in which our bodies and minds do not have to endure continual deterioration for some eighty years (if you are lucky enough to choose your parents wisely) to the point of annihilation? Of course there’s no more reason to believe any of this far- fetched superstition than there is that Apollo drives the sun and moon across the sky or that Leprechauns paint the grass green.

Perhaps the price of admission to the Christian or Muslim heaven is to use the brain that God gave you and nurture a rational skeptical critical thinking dispositional state that compels one to disbelieve. It’s just as plausible. But as Dostoevsky demonstrated so well in his parable of The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, people are only too happy to believe that all the answers to life’s problems and mysteries are to found in a single book and be relieved of the onerous tasks of intellectual reflection and growth, free thought, free will and moral responsibility. Actual worship of anything ought to ne anathema to any mature thinking adult. When I recently saw a bumper sticker in the YMCA parking lot with the inscription “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Moreover, the price of admission in joining one of the exclusive monotheistic clubs is be lobotomized and then depict all non-members as dupes of Satan, thereby condemning them to eternal damnation in Hell. I I’m sorry Jesus Number One, but I personally have no desire to join such a club - and especially if it would accept an iconoclastic heretic like me as a member.

If there is some other world beyond this one, a heaven as Christians and Moslems call it, then I suspect most, once they arrived at the undefined unspecified location in the sky, would still exclaim: “Is that all there is?” Could you imagine anything more boring than playing a harp with Jesus on Cloud Nine or frolicking with 72 virgins for eternity?  Well let me qualify that – the latter might be interesting for a day or two.

          I am the master of my fate.  I am the captain of my soul (Invictus, William Ernest Henley)


          Book Recommendation: The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Michael Hecht (2008) - JR


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