“The resistance displayed towards these important thinkers is most regrettable, and for all the Complacent Men quick to criticize them, doing so makes you no closer to achieving your ever so desired—and elusive—’happiness.'”
“Man has had to fight for every atom of the truth, and has had to pay for it almost everything that the heart, that human love, that human trust cling to. Greatness of soul is needed for this business: the service of truth is the hardest of all services.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (The Antichrist)
Let me first state that I am not arguing for the abolishment of pleasure or to criticize unduly the people who walk down the road of hedonism; I just would not suggest it. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with being happy; if it crosses your path, you certainly should not ignore it. But what I want to make clear is that making happiness an end-in-itself will make anything (or anyone) that stands in the way of that goal an enemy, especially those who are skeptical about it, like some public intellectuals who are gaining increasing popularity today. Jordan B. Peterson, for example, called it a simplification of life itself, and Slavoj Žižek described happiness as fitting for the category of slaves. You can despise them (or me) all you want for destroying your fundamental goals in life, but let me first explain in more detail why I believe happiness is something you shouldn’t aim for.
The Intelligence to Conform
My first thought about the tendency to conform to simple ideas and philosophies has always been that differing degrees of intelligence was a factor. Many social psychologists agree with this, and there is even some evidence to support this view. But as of late, I find myself believing this explanation less and less. Regardless of the presence of bright individuals, the informational influence to conform—the process where people accept information from other group members in order to paint a picture of reality—still exists. When the majority within a certain group follows an ideology, theory, or idea, it’s very difficult not to conform to this.
I don’t want to state that conformity is a bad thing because it isn’t necessarily. We often don’t know everything about every subject or possible situation. In these cases, we look to others for possible answers to our lack of knowledge. Another reason to conform is to stabilize social relations within a certain group. Cass Sunstein described this in his book Conformity: The Power of Social Influences: that a nonconformist or dissenter causes a lot of tension within a group when he or she does not abide by the group’s norms. This makes the role of dissenter not very popular, but, at the same time, Sunstein believes that role is sometimes very much needed. For instance, when certain groups censor important information—and nobody within the group reacts in a responsible way by not tolerating the use of censorship—that vital role falls to the dissenter.
Conformists to prevailing trends, thus, can stand in the way of progress itself, such as when, for example, they claim that certain subjects or social/political issues must not be discussed. Sunstein notes the detrimental effect on societies and groups when certain information is hidden: “The real problem is that when cascades are occurring, people do not disclose information from which others would benefit. The result is that both individuals and private and public groups can blunder, sometimes catastrophically.”
Additionally, the fear of being offended by new ideas gives rise to individual weakness. To some degree, this weakness is justified by the individual’s need for comfortability. Unfortunately, the individual does not perceive comfortability as a weakness, as he should. Rather, he too often sees it as compensation for occasionally encountering misfortunes during his life. Achieving this compensation is believed to bring him a step closer towards achieving any individual’s primary end goal: to attain a continuous state of pleasure and happiness.
The Complacent Man
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduces us to the Last Man, which is characterized as the modern man who has low ambitions, seeks equality, deindividuation, and is the antithesis of the Higher Man. The Higher Man’s ambitions exceed his own expectations of life. The Higher Man is motivated to create something that can outlive himself.
Sadly, this quality of striving towards a goal that is of greater significance than mere personal aims—has been replaced by its opposite: narrow and individualistic ambitions. Nietzsche notes in Human All Too Human how the modern man lacks this quality of the Higher Man: “[The modern] individual looks his own short life span too squarely in the eye and feels no strong incentives to build on enduring institutions, designed for ages. He wants to pick the fruit from the tree he has planted himself, and therefore no longer likes to plant those trees which require regular care over centuries, trees that are destined to overshade long successions of generations.”
These higher level of ambitions make the Last Man resentful towards the Higher Man; for the Last Man will continuously be confronted with his own lousy goals. In today’s world, we see another rendition of the Last Man. Here is where I propose the concept of The Complacent Man, who has equally low ambitions, puts pleasure and comfortability as his highest values, and despises challenging and difficult ideas. Nevertheless, his arrogance gives him the strength to be more than satisfied with himself than the Last Man.
The distinction between these different kinds of human beings is visible in the way they engage with intellectual progress and the acceptance of suffering as an unalterable axiom. The Higher Man will approach both of them with a kind of courage—without ignorance or naivety. This is unique to the Higher Man. The Last Man and the Complacent Man both engage in the denial of misfortune, whereby both try to disregard suffering as a way to remain ensconced in their comfortable lives. When we touch upon the attainment of knowledge, we see a clear difference between the Last Man and the Complacent Man; the Last Man will utter anything that comes to his mind, without any concern for offending others, while the Complacent Man would rather censor that which might be considered offensive or challenging. The Complacent Man is the one who poses a great danger to intellectual progress.
The Hedonic Paradox
One of the most important goals in Western society appears to be achieving continuous pleasure and most of all, happiness. In the last few years, much has been written about this aim and why it’s wrong. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who didn’t get the message.
The reason may be found in the definition of happiness. Everyone wants to be happy, right? Happiness brings with it the effortless thought of being in such a state where suffering is non-existent. Unfortunately, this is far from ever being accomplished, as Sigmund Freud states in Civilization and Its Discontents: “It [being the primary aim for happiness] is quite incapable of being realized; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of ‘creation’.” This is where the desire to be happy and its realization collide.
If these people claim their fundamental aim is pleasure and happiness, then you would suppose that you would encounter someone who is genuinely happy most of the time , but this is not the case. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle noticed the same nonexistence of a continuous state of pleasure: “How is it, then, that we are incapable of continuous pleasure? Perhaps the reason is that we become exhausted; for no human faculty is capable of continuous exercise. Pleasure, then, also cannot be continuous; for it is an accompaniment of the exercise of faculty.” Being able to experience pleasure/happiness occasionally and constantly desiring it are two different things.
As Aristotle described, pleasure is a side-product of activity—where pleasure is activated during the performance of an activity as a way to achieve perfection at it. This makes pleasure not an end-in-itself. For this reason, pleasure should not be considered a desirable end goal in the long term (or even the short term). This introduces the Hedonic Paradox in which the intrinsic aim for personal pleasure will result in failing to acquire it.
It still remains the case that the prevalence of hedonic individuals at some rate could trigger the belief that someone could also achieve happiness just by aiming at it. This assumption eventually works as a tool to suppress the conscious thought of suffering . By only thinking about pleasure, you don’t have to think about all the misfortunes that work against achieving happiness. The simplicity that the Complacent Man wears with him, which is based on an undue focus on pleasure and happiness, can be seen as innocence. Even if the aim of happiness may seem harmless to the naïve individual, in reality, it’s far from it. This is the trait of the Complacent Man that keeps him from changing for the better and exposing himself to truths about the world.
The notion that happiness is the highest achievable goal there is, is for many people indisputable, regardless of its failure to be realized. Richard Taylor had suggested in Good and Evil that it’s perhaps for this reason (adherence to the high value of pleasure and happiness ) that hedonism is among the most popular philosophies people adopt.
People expect pleasure and happiness as the reward for overcoming suffering. Perhaps it can be viewed as a way to calm oneself down before approaching a possibly suffering situation. One can make little optimistic predictions about when one might be freed of suffering, which may look something like this: When this [fill in your prospective miserable situation] is over, life will be much better, and I’ll finally be happy. But we know this end state is seldom realized.
Ignoring the Dragon and the Mice.
There are many who despise thinking about philosophical, existential, or metaphysical questions and choose instead to surround themselves with people who avoid engaging with important but potentially unnerving areas of thought.
But it’s the rejection of suffering (or the refusal of its existence) that leads one astray. Perhaps one might think of it along the lines of “Seth’s dream,” which refers to the myth of Osiris when he, the king of Egypt, was murdered by his own brother, Seth, and was sent to the underworld. This was all a consequence of Osiris’ naivety towards the evil character of his brother. In Maps of Meaning, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson not only describes this myth in greater detail, but he asserts the danger of taking a naïve stance towards malevolence. This he considers to be the most significant take-away from the myth of Osiris.
When Leo Tolstoy was struggling to find meaning for himself, and science didn’t give him the answer he desired, he began to look at the morality of people around him who weren’t drowned in nihilism. He argues there are four different ways to get out of the state of nihilism. Before getting to the “anti-nihilism recipes” that he describes in A Confession, he tells an old fable:
“There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes a twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon’s jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the inescapable dragon and mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. And this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.”
Tolstoy describes four different kinds of people that respond in their own way towards, in his view, the meaninglessness of life. The morality of the second group of individuals is most important for our purposes. He views them as dull and ignorant. Their naïve attitude towards the dragon or the mice makes them look only towards the honey, even though they remain aware of both forces that are working against reaching a joyful state. Just like these individuals, the Complacent Man only wants the pleasurable things about life, without experiencing also the suffering.
There needs to be someone who sees through the innocent character of the Complacent Man, someone who doesn’t take the easy definition as the only one . There must be someone who sheds light on the Complacent Man’s morality and shows him why it’s toxic. This individual we call the skeptic. Just for now, I’ll introduce two versions of the skeptic; the empty skeptic and the genuine skeptic.
Let’s start with the empty skeptic; he will criticize your perspective and morality just for the sake of criticizing. He is a skeptic, just to be skeptic. He brings no treasure, only his useless moral rejection. The empty skeptic does not differ much from the Complacent Man because he takes the easiest route available to him. In some sense, the empty skeptic is even worse than the Complacent Man; for he will not even conform to those ideas that need to be conformed to.
When the empty skeptic engages in a discussion—instead of having the motivation to learn something from the one he disagrees—he is only motivated by a desire to win the discussion or debate. In order to obtain this goal, he may use tactics such as the Straw man. A great example is the popular Channel 4 interview between Cathy Newman and Dr. Jordan B. Peterson–where Newman plays the role of the empty skeptic by repeatedly rephrasing Dr. Peterson’s arguments in such a way that his arguments lose their strength and overall message. Only then does it become easy for her to mock his persuasive points.
Let me continue with the genuine skeptic: the only one who will appear as a real challenge to the Complacent Man. Let it be clear that we should not underestimate these individuals, for their intellect is hiding behind a curtain of pleasure and decadence. The genuine skeptic will put his values aside so he that might be able to benefit the community. Therefore, he is identical to the dissenter. He is always needed to remind the conformists about their flaws and errors in thinking.
The skeptic is always the one who ruins the party, but the majority uses its language and thought patterns to marginalize the skeptic in an effort to reduce his role to the non-existent. The moment the skeptic shows any marked disagreement with the majority, his value will decline. Skepticism itself opposes overprotection and safe spaces. We know that because safe spaces don’t make any distinction between offending utterances and actual psychological harm. So just to be safe, their proponents censor anything that might even be interpreted as offensive. Sunstein concludes later in his book that the institutions that promote conformity (and all innocent and weak traits that accompany them) are destined to fall apart.
It should not matter how progress is achieved , and this refers to progress as the search for truth. One, who is living correctly, ought not seek comfortability. He ought to want to be challenged—that’s where the potential for the much-discussed happiness lies. In the most challenging situations, happiness can appear as a byproduct of achievements, but happiness, again, shouldn’t be sought for itself. As the comedian Tim Minchin concluded during his University of Western Australia commencement speech; “We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented Homo erectus got eaten before passing on their genes.”
We should aspire to be the genuine skeptic , which is to know to avoid conforming to simple ideologies and philosophies. Our goal should be to forgo dismissing the dragon and the mice and to confront the existential questions that life provides.
The notion that Western societies have attained all their goals and are able to make pleasure their highest value is a foolish one. Many who begin to resemble The Complacent Man are aware of their faulty morality, but as was stated before, it can be exceedingly difficult to stand in opposition to the majority: to dissent.
Regardless of the negative effects on group harmony, we need those who open our eyes to the other side of the conversation. We need this other half to engage in debates so as to reach the truth. Fortunately, today this is already happening, thanks to public intellectuals like Dr. Gad Saad, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, Bret Weinstein, and many others. These figures have put their personal values aside to bring discussions to light that tremendously benefit the public. In some ways, they are the killjoys of the societal party—but in the best way possible. The resistance displayed towards these important thinkers is most regrettable, and for all the Complacent Men quick to criticize them, doing so makes you no closer to achieving your ever so desired—and elusive—”happiness.”.
Alessandro van den Berg is an economics teacher in the Netherlands.