24 Jan Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied (Daniel Klein)
The goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body.
Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, (1872 – 1970),
One of the things Russell is doing in this statement is aligning himself with the long line of philosophers who believe that thinking supplies us with one of life’s greatest pleasures. When the nineteenth-century social philosopher John Stuart Mill laid down the Greatest Happiness Principle as the basis of Utilitarianism, he stressed that purely animal pleasures don’t make the grade. Wrote Mill, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
For him, there are lower pleasures and higher pleasures, with intellectual fun being the high-quality stuff. Call it Cerebral Hedonism. / think, therefore I feel good.
Russell is not just saying that thinking is a prerequisite for leading a gratifying life as Socrates meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Rather, Russell believes that examining life is one of the essential treats that make life worth living. He thinks that thinking is delightful in itself, possibly even better than a roll in the hay. It is worth noting that, unlike the celibate Epicurus, Russell had a very active sex life both within and without marriage, so he does not speak naively about the “goods of the body.” There are just good goods and then there are very good goods—the kind you pick up while sitting alone in your easy chair puzzling over philosophical questions.
It is philosophical thinking that Russell finds particularly life-enriching. In his lovely and highly accessible essay “The Value of Philosophy,” Russell demonstrates how confronting the big questions enlarges us.
Questions like: “Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of atoms?
Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become impossible?
Are good and evil of importance to the universe or only to man?”
Russell readily admits that such questions are ultimately unanswerable.
He says that “those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.”
It is that residue of unanswerable questions that he finds so stimulating and inspiring.
Russell knows full well that “many men . . . are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.”
Russell believed just the opposite. He wrote, “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the
prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. . . . [But Philosophy] keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”
I particularly love those last two lines.
Among other things, they contain the most powerful antidote to boredom I know of.
My wonderings certainly never really get me anything or anywhere. But they do happen to make me feel more alive, so I am grateful for the capacity to wonder that was nurtured by reading philosophers.
Toward the end of this essay, Russell offers a nod to classical Greek hedonism when he says that “the philosophic life is calm and free.” Epicurus believed that life does not get any better than that; a tranquil life is brimful of pleasure. But then Russell raises his sights even higher for the life of the philosophical mind. He concludes that “through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”
Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It
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