January 18, 2022 10:02 pm

Which is better, to be a happy fool or a dissatisfied Socrates?

Erling Kagge on one of the expeditions that have taken him to the ends of the earth.Børge Ousland

Have you ever wondered if you are happy and why you are? I have. And although when I asked myself the question I felt that I was happy, I began to doubt the answer.

One of Aristotle’s fundamental ideas is that human beings who want to have a good life should strive to develop their potential and to live up to it. You should not fight for the wrong things, like wealth or fame. The good life is about using your senses, seeking knowledge, living in brotherhood with others, and engaging in that struggle. Simply put, satisfaction will come to those who feel satisfied. It may be quite dangerous to pick just a couple of ideas from Aristotle’s work; However, this gives me great pleasure because it reminds me that those fundamental thoughts and challenges have remained throughout history, they are the same today as they were 2,300 years ago.

When I have actively sought happiness, I have never found it. I do not deny that others are capable of finding a unique and absolute meaning for life, but I have not succeeded. In my experience, the meaning of life changes from day to day, year to year, and person to person. Therefore, for me the challenge is to find meaning in the different paths of life.

Today I lead a very different life, in many ways, than the one I led as an adventurer. Taking physical danger no longer tempts me as much as it used to. My family life and the excitement of my work give me a purpose that my day-to-day life lacked before. However, to live a full life, I need to constantly expand my limits, put myself to the test. That life can have meaning in all circumstances is something I forget too easily. Its my choice. It doesn’t have to be big; a short ski trip, caring for others, reading a good book, showing generosity, spending time with my daughters, looking at art, talking to a stranger on the street – all of these things can bring as much happiness and meaning to life as hanging of a rope under the highest peak in the world. Occasionally, the latter is even insignificant compared to the rest. As many before me have pointed out, it is not about finding a single meaning for life, but a variety of them paying attention to day to day, moment to moment.

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“It is better to be a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig; it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool ”. The first time I read this phrase by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) I reacted negatively to his rather crude words, but I liked the dilemma and the idea that goals and pleasures are of varying quality. One experience can be qualitatively better than another. There is a big difference between diving into cold water to cool off and diving into that same water to save a life, although both situations can bring great happiness. According to Mill, it is better to think for yourself, make decisions and behave wisely in relation to the world than to lack these qualities, even if you consider yourself happier without them. The British philosopher believed that the reason why someone can be content to be a happy fool rather than a dissatisfied Socrates is that the former only knows one side of existence, while the latter knows both. Because if you know both, you will choose the more authentic one, which according to Mill is the choice of greater value. His conclusion is echoed by adventurous people. When I think of other explorers, none of them would have opted for a more comfortable life, even if that means waking up early when it’s forty degrees below zero inside the tent.

One great experience few explorers talk about, perhaps because it is too obvious to them, is that life generally seems long when you live close to nature and slowly wear yourself out from walking all day. Many people I have met in Oslo and other urban areas that I have visited in my travels consider their lives to be short, especially when they start to get older. It seems a bit sad to me. I get the feeling that they focus more on their perceptions than on accepting the laws of physics.

Two thousand years ago, the philosopher Seneca wrote with great wisdom that time can be experienced on an emotional scale: “You live as if you were destined to live forever.” Later he affirmed that humans live through other people and are never focused on our own existence. We are careless with our time. While we protect our heritage and our social status as if they were the most important thing in life, we show a totally relaxed attitude towards time; the only thing we know for sure is that it is finite. Those who exist “live life in haste and feel troubled by the longing for the future and the exhaustion of the present.” When they reach the end of their days, “the poor wretches realize too late that all that time they have been absorbed in doing nothing.” Seneca’s biggest nightmare was dying while taking care of your accounts and your heirs licking their heads looking at them over your shoulder.

Of course, Seneca is generalizing a lot in this case, but I agree with him that life will seem long enough to us if we don’t waste time. It is about living in the moment and less through other people or screens.

In September 2002, researchers obtained images of the brain of a Buddhist monk – for which they used a cap fitted with 256 thin cables – as he gradually plunged into a state of deep meditation and the feeling of happiness that followed him. characterizes. On the screen, parts of the brain could be seen to light up thanks to electrical activity as the monk became abstracted. According to the American psychiatrist Richard J. Davidson, who was part of the research team, this made it clear that happiness is not a vague and indescribable feeling: “It is a physical state of the brain”, something that can be induced deliberately. In other words, scientists were on their way to demonstrating what Buddhist meditation practice has known for centuries: happiness is a state that we can achieve on our own, but that has little to do with what is going on around us.

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