Pursuit of Happiness

Submitted by Tom Last on Thu, 06/05/2008 - 1:37am.

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The "Philosophy Of Freedom" by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)
Chapter 13, The Value Of Life (Optimism and Pessimism)
What is the Value of Life?

Optimism And Pessimism
[1] One view says that this world is the best that could conceivably exist, and that to live and to act in it is a blessing of untold value. Everything that exists displays harmonious and purposeful co-operation and is worthy of admiration. Even what is apparently bad and evil may, from a higher point of view, be seen to be good, for it represents an agreeable contrast with the good; we are the more able to appreciate the good when it is clearly contrasted with evil. Moreover, evil is not genuinely real; what we feel as evil is only a lesser degree of good. Evil is the absence of good; it has no significance in itself.

[2] The other view maintains that life is full of misery and want; everywhere pain outweighs pleasure, sorrow outweighs joy. Existence is a burden, and non-existence would in all circumstances be preferable to existence.

[3] The chief representatives of the former view, optimism, are Shaftesbury and Leibnitz; those of the latter, pessimism, are Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann.

Best Possible World
[4] Leibnitz believes the world is the best of all possible worlds. A better one is impossible. For God is good and wise. A good God wants to create the best possible world; a wise God knows which is the best possible -- He is able to distinguish the best from all other possible worse ones. Only an evil or an unwise God would be able to create a world worse than the best possible.

[5] Whoever starts from this point of view will find it easy to lay down the direction that human action must follow in order to make its contribution to the greatest good of the world. All that man need do is to find out the counsels of God and to behave in accordance with them. If he knows what God's intentions are concerning the world and mankind, he will be able to do what is right. And he will be happy in the feeling that he is adding his share to the other good in the world. From this optimistic standpoint, then, life is worth living. It must stimulate us to co-operative participation.

Pain Of Striving
[6] Schopenhauer pictures things quite differently. He thinks of the foundation of the world not as an all-wise and all-beneficent being, but as blind urge or will. Eternal striving, ceaseless craving for satisfaction which is ever beyond reach, this is the fundamental characteristic of all active will. For no sooner is one goal attained, than a fresh need springs up, and so on. Satisfaction, when it occurs, lasts only for an infinitesimal time. The entire remaining content of our life is unsatisfied craving, that is, dissatisfaction and suffering. If at last blind craving is dulled, then all content is gone from our lives; an infinite boredom pervades our existence. Hence the best we can do is to stifle all wishes and needs within us and exterminate the will. Schopenhauer's pessimism leads to complete inactivity; his moral aim is universal idleness.

Pain Outweighs Pleasure
[7] From the observation of life he hopes to discover whether pleasure or pain outweighs the other in the world. He parades whatever appears to men as blessing and fortune before the tribunal of reason, in order to show that all alleged satisfaction turns out on closer inspection to be illusion. It is illusion when we believe that in health, youth, freedom, sufficient income, love (sexual satisfaction), pity, friendship and family life, self-respect, honor, fame, power, religious edification, pursuit of science and of art, hope of a life hereafter, participation in the progress of civilization -- that in all these we have sources of happiness and satisfaction. Soberly considered, every enjoyment brings much more evil and misery into the world than pleasure. The disagreeableness of the hangover is always greater than the agreeableness of getting drunk. Pain far outweighs pleasure in the world. No man, even though relatively the happiest, would, if asked, wish to live through this miserable life a second time. The pain of created beings is, however, nothing but God's pain itself, for the life of the world as a whole is identical with the life of God. An all-wise Being can, however, see his goal only in release from suffering, and, since all existence is suffering, in release from existence. To transform existence into the far better state of non-existence is the purpose of all creation. The course of the world is a continuous battle against God's pain, which ends at last with the annihilation of all existence. The moral life of men, therefore, will consist in taking part in the annihilation of existence. God has created the world so that through it He may free Himself from His infinite pain. The world is "to be regarded, more or less, as an itching eruption upon the Absolute," by means of which the unconscious healing power of the Absolute rids itself of an inward disease, "or even as a painful poultice which the All-One applies to himself in order first to divert the inner pain outwards, and then to get rid of it altogether."

[8] Man has to permeate his whole being with the recognition that the pursuit of individual satisfaction (egoism) is a folly, and that he ought to be guided solely by the task of dedicating himself to the redemption of God by unselfish devotion (service) to the progress of the world. Thus, in contrast to Schopenhauer's, von Hartmann's pessimism leads us to activity devoted to a sublime task.

[9] But is it really based on experience?

Pleasure Of Striving
[10] To strive for satisfaction means that our activity reaches out beyond the actual content of our lives. A creature is hungry, that is, it strives for repletion, when its organic functions, if they are to continue, demand the supply of fresh means of life in the form of nourishment. The striving for honor means that a man only regards what he personally does or leaves undone as valuable when his activity is approved by others. The striving for knowledge arises when a man finds that something is missing from the world that he sees, hears, and so on, as long as he has not understood it. The fulfillment of the striving creates pleasure in the striving individual, failure creates pain. It is important here to observe that pleasure and pain are dependent only upon the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of my striving. The striving itself can by no means be counted as pain. Hence, if it happens that in the very moment in which a striving is fulfilled a new striving at once arises, this is no ground for saying that, because in every case enjoyment gives rise to a desire for its repetition or for a fresh pleasure, my pleasure has given birth to pain. I can speak of pain only when desire runs up against the impossibility of fulfillment. Even when an enjoyment that I have had creates in me the desire for the experience of greater or more refined pleasure, I cannot speak of this desire as a pain created by the previous pleasure until the means of experiencing the greater or more refined pleasure fail me. Only when pain appears as a natural consequence of pleasure, as for instance when a woman's sexual pleasure is followed by the suffering of childbirth and the cares of a family, can I find in the enjoyment the originator of the pain. If striving by itself called forth pain, then each reduction of striving would have to be accompanied by pleasure. But the opposite is the case. To have no striving in one's life creates boredom, and this is connected with displeasure. Now, since it may be a long time before striving meets with fulfillment, and since, in the interval, it is content with the hope of fulfillment, we must acknowledge that the pain has nothing whatever to do with the striving as such, but depends solely on the non-fulfillment of the striving. Schopenhauer, then, is in any case wrong to take desiring or striving (will) as being in itself the source of pain.

[11] In fact, just the opposite is correct. Striving (desiring) in itself gives pleasure. Who does not know the enjoyment given by the hope of a remote but intensely desired goal? This joy is the companion of all labor that gives us its fruits only in the future. It is a pleasure quite independent of the attainment of the goal. For when the goal has been reached, the pleasure of fulfillment is added as something new to the pleasure of striving. If anyone were to argue that the pain caused by an unsatisfied aim is increased by the pain of disappointed hope, and that thus, in the end, the pain of non-fulfillment will eventually outweigh the possible pleasure of fulfillment, we shall have to reply that the reverse may be the case, and that the recollection of past enjoyment at a time of unfulfilled desire will just as often mitigate the pain of non-fulfillment. Whoever exclaims in the face of shattered hopes, "I have done my part," is a proof of this assertion. The blissful feeling of having tried one's best is overlooked by those who say of every unsatisfied desire that not only is the joy of fulfillment absent but the enjoyment of the desiring itself has been destroyed.

Quantity Of Pleasure
[12] The fulfillment of a desire brings pleasure and its nonfulfillment brings pain. But from this we must not conclude that pleasure is the satisfaction of a desire, and pain its non-satisfaction. Both pleasure and pain can be experienced without being the consequence of desire. Illness is pain not preceded by desire. If anyone were to maintain that illness is unsatisfied desire for health, he would be making the mistake of regarding the unconscious wish not to fall ill, which we all take for granted, as a positive desire. When someone receives a legacy from a rich relative of whose existence he had not the faintest idea, this fills him with pleasure without any preceding desire.

[13] Hence, if we set out to enquire whether the balance is on the side of pleasure or of pain, we must take into account the pleasure of desiring, the pleasure at the fulfillment of a desire, and the pleasure which comes to us without any striving. On the other side of the account we shall have to enter the displeasure of boredom, the pain of unfulfilled striving, and lastly the pain which comes to us without any desiring on our part. Under this last heading we shall have to put also the displeasure caused by work, not chosen by ourselves, that has been forced upon us.

[14] This leads to the question: What is the right method for striking the balance between these credit and debit columns? Eduard von Hartmann believes that it is reason that holds the scales. It is true that he says, "Pain and pleasure exist only in so far as they are actually felt." It follows that there can be no yardstick for pleasure other than the subjective one of feeling. I must feel whether the sum of my disagreeable feelings together with my agreeable feelings leaves me with a balance of pleasure or of pain. But for all that, von Hartmann maintains that, "though the value of the life of every person can be set down only according to his own subjective measure, yet it by no means follows that every person is able to arrive at the correct algebraic sum from all the collected emotions in his life -- or, in other words, that his total estimate of his own life, with regard to his subjective experiences, would be correct." With this, the rational estimation of feeling is once more made the evaluator.

Quality Of Pleasure
[15] Anyone who follows fairly closely the line of thought of such thinkers as Eduard von Hartmann may believe it necessity, in order to arrive at a correct valuation of life, to clear out of the way those factors which falsify our judgment about the balance of pleasure and pain. He can try to do this in two ways. Firstly, by showing that our desire (instinct, will) interferes with our sober estimation of feeling values in a disturbing way. Whereas, for instance, we ought to say to ourselves that sexual enjoyment is a source of evil, we are misled by the fact that the sexual instinct is very strong in us into conjuring up the prospect of a pleasure which just is not there in that degree at all. We want to enjoy ourselves; hence we do not admit to ourselves that we suffer under the enjoyment. Secondly, he can do it by subjecting feelings to a critical examination and attempting to prove that the objects to which our feelings attach themselves are revealed as illusions by the light of reason, and that they are destroyed from the moment that our ever growing intelligence sees through the illusions.

[16] He can think of the matter in the following way. If an ambitious man wants to determine clearly whether, up to the moment of his enquiry, there has been a surplus of pleasure or of pain in his life, then he has to free himself from two sources of error that may affect his judgment. Being ambitious, this fundamental feature of his character will make him see the joys due to the recognition of his achievements through a magnifying glass, and the humiliations due to his rebuffs through a diminishing glass. At the time when he suffered the rebuffs he felt the humiliations just because he was ambitious; in recollection they appear to him in a milder light, whereas the joys of recognition to which he is so susceptible leave a far deeper impression. Now, for an ambitious man it is an undeniable blessing that it should be so. The deception diminishes his pain in the moment of self-analysis. None the less, his judgment is wrong. The sufferings over which a veil is now drawn were actually experienced by him in all their intensity, and hence he enters them at a wrong valuation in his life's account book. In order to arrive at a correct estimate, an ambitious man would have to lay aside his ambition for the time of his enquiry. He would have to review his past life without any distorting glasses before his mind's eye. Otherwise he would resemble a merchant who, in making up his books, enters among the items on the credit side his own zeal in business.

[17] But the holder of this view can go even further. He can say: The ambitious man will even make clear to himself that the recognition he pursues is a worthless thing. Either by himself, or through the influence of others, he will come to see that for an intelligent man recognition by others counts for very little, seeing that "in all such matters, other than those that are questions of sheer existence or that are already finally settled by science," one can be quite sure "that the majority is wrong and the minority right.... Whoever makes ambition the lode-star of his life puts his life's happiness at the mercy of such a judgment." If the ambitious man admits all this to himself, then he must regard as illusion what his ambition had pictured as reality, and thus also the feelings attached to these illusions of his ambition. On this basis it could then be said that such feelings of pleasure as are produced by illusion must also be struck out of the balance sheet of life's values; what then remains represents the sum total of life's pleasures stripped of all illusion, and this is so small compared with the sum total of pain that life is no joy and non-existence preferable to existence.

[18] But while it is immediately evident that the deception produced by the instinct of ambition leads to a false result when striking the balance of pleasure, we must none the less challenge what has been said about the recognition of the illusory character of the objects of pleasure. The elimination from the credit side of life of all pleasurable feelings which accompany actual or supposed illusions would positively falsify the balance of pleasure and pain. For an ambitious man has genuinely enjoyed the acclamations of the multitude, irrespective of whether subsequently he himself, or some other person, recognizes that this acclamation is an illusion. The pleasant sensation he has had is not in the least diminished by this recognition. The elimination of all such "illusory" feelings from life's balance does not make our judgment about our feelings more correct, but rather obliterates from life feelings which were actually there.

[19] And why should these feelings be eliminated? For whoever has them, they are certainly pleasure-giving; for whoever has conquered them, a purely mental but none the less significant pleasure arises through the experience of self-conquest (not through the vain emotion: What a noble fellow I am! but through the objective sources of pleasure which lie in the self-conquest). If we strike out feelings from the pleasure side of the balance on the ground that they are attached to objects which turn out to have been illusory, we make the value of life dependent not on the quantity but on the quality of pleasure, and this, in turn, on the value of the objects which cause the pleasure. But if I want to determine the value of life in the first place by the quantity of pleasure or pain which it brings, I may nor presuppose something else which already determines the positive or negative value of the pleasure. If I say I want to compare the quantity of pleasure with the quantity of pain in order to see which is greater, I am bound to bring into my account all pleasures and pains in their actual intensities, whether they are based on illusions or not. Whoever ascribes a lesser value for life to a pleasure which is based on an illusion than to one which can justify itself before the tribunal of reason, makes the value of life dependent on factors other than pleasure.

[20] Whoever puts down pleasure as less valuable when it is attached to a worthless object, resembles a merchant who enters the considerable profits of a toy factory in his account at a quarter of their actual amount on the ground that the factory produces nothing but playthings for children.

[21] If the point is simply to weigh quantity of pleasure against quantity of pain, then the illusory character of the objects causing certain feelings of pleasure must be left right out of the question.

Pursuit of Pleasure
[22] The method recommended by von Hartmann, that is, rational consideration of the quantities of pleasure and pain produced by life, has thus led us to the point where we know how we are to set out our accounts, what we are to put down on the one side of our book and what on the other. But how is the calculation now to be made? Is reason actually capable of striking the balance?

[23] A merchant has made a mistake in his reckoning if his calculated profit does not agree with the demonstrable results or expectations of his business. Similarly, the philosopher will undoubtedly have made a mistake in his estimate if he cannot demonstrate in actual feeling the surplus of pleasure, or pain, that he has somehow extracted from his accounts.

[24] For the present I shall not look into the calculations of those pessimists whose opinion of the world is measured by reason; but if one is to decide whether to carry on the business of life or not, one will first demand to be shown where the alleged surplus of pain is to be found.

[25] Here we touch the point where reason is not in a position to determine by itself the surplus of pleasure or of pain, but where it must demonstrate this surplus as a percept in life. For man reaches reality not through concepts alone but through the interpenetration of concepts and percepts (and feelings are percepts) which thinking brings about (see page 67 ff.). A merchant, after all, will give up his business only when the losses calculated by his accountant are confirmed by the facts. If this does not happen, he gets his accountant to make the calculation over again. That is exactly what a man will do in the business of life. If a philosopher wants to prove to him that the pain is far greater than the pleasure, but he himself does not feel it to be so, then he will reply, "You have gone astray in your reckoning; think it all out again." But should there come a time in a business when the losses are really so great that the firm's credit no longer suffices to satisfy the creditors, then bankruptcy will result if the merchant fails to keep himself informed about the state of his affairs by careful accounting. Similarly, if the quantity of pain in a man's life became at any time so great that no hope of future pleasure (credit) could help him to get over the pain, then the bankruptcy of life's business would inevitably follow.

[26] Now the number of those who kill themselves is relatively unimportant when compared with the multitude of those who live bravely on. Only very few men give up the business of life because of the pain involved. What follows from this? Either that it is untrue to say that the quantity of pain is greater than the quantity of pleasure, or that we do not at all make the continuation of life dependent on the quantity of pleasure or pain that is felt.

[27] In a very curious way, Eduard von Hartmann's pessimism comes to the conclusion that life is valueless because it contains a surplus of pain and yet affirms the necessity of going on with it. This necessity lies in the fact that the world purpose mentioned above (page 177) can be achieved only by the ceaseless, devoted labour of human beings. But as long as men still pursue their egotistical cravings they are unfit for such selfless labour. Not until they have convinced themselves through experience and reason that the pleasures of life pursued by egoism cannot be attained, do they devote themselves to their proper tasks. In this way the pessimistic conviction is supposed to be the source of unselfishness. An education based on pessimism should exterminate egoism by making it see the hopelessness of its case.

[28] According to this view, then, the striving for pleasure is inherent in human nature from the outset. Only when fulfillment is seen to be impossible does this striving retire in favour of higher tasks for mankind.

[29] It cannot be said that egoism is overcome in the true sense of the word by an ethical world conception that expects a devotion to unselfish aims in life through the acceptance of pessimism. The moral ideals are said not to be strong enough to dominate the will until man has learnt that selfish striving after pleasure cannot lead to any satisfaction. Man, whose selfishness desires the grapes of pleasure, finds them sour because he cannot reach them, and so he turns his back on them and devotes himself to an unselfish way of life. Moral ideals, then, according to the opinion of pessimists, are not strong enough to overcome egoism; but they establish their dominion on the ground previously cleared for them by the recognition of the hopelessness of egoism.

[30] If men by nature were to strive after pleasure but were unable to reach it, then annihilation of existence, and salvation through non-existence, would be the only rational goal. And if one holds the view that the real bearer of the pain of the world is God, then man's task would consist in bringing about the salvation of God. Through the suicide of the individual, the realization of this aim is not advanced, but hindered. Rationally, God can only have created men in order to bring about his salvation through their actions. Otherwise creation would be purposeless. And it is extra-human purposes that such a world conception has in mind. Each one of us has to perform his own particular task in the general work of salvation. If he withdraws from the task by suicide, then the work which was intended for him must be done by another. Somebody else must bear the torment of existence in his stead. And since within every being it is God who actually bears all pain, the suicide does not in the least diminish the quantity of God's pain, but rather imposes upon God the additional difficulty of providing a substitute.