Rambling Andrej

Where my inner frustration meets the outside world.

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Is the life of Socrates better than the life of a fool?

A man looking at the sky.

Although many of my teachers said never start an essay with a quote, because it seldom works, here I want to start with one, because the whole discussion I want to have follows from it. This is a quote from John Stuart Mill: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.1

Mill boldly states it is better to be dissatisfied with life but have an intellectual depth, than to be satisfied but lack the depth. So often I am the first to agree with such a statement, I assume the life of the “philosopher”, the life of Socrates, is superior to the life of the fool, of the intellectually impoverished.

However, the more I encounter this idea, the less persuasive it seems and for that reason, I decided to give it a closer look, here on my blog, since I also want to know the answer and I might as well share it with the few who will read this essay. So, is it the case that it is better to be dissatisfied Socrates than to be a satisfied fool?

 

I want to start with the idea of the fool. From the context of Mill’s remark, we can assume the fool Mill speaks of is someone whose capacities for enjoyment are of a lower kind. Thus the chance that these people will have their desires satisfied is higher, and this satisfaction leads to happiness. About the “Socrates” Mill writes, “a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness that he can look for, given how the world is, is imperfect.” This leads to dissatisfaction, however, Mill claims the highly endowed being can “learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they won’t make him envy the person who isn’t conscious of the imperfections only because he has no sense of the good that those imperfections are imperfections of.” Mill claims one can learn to care more about the reality of the world, seeing its imperfections, then to be deluded and through it have an easier path to happiness. The “endowed being” can learn to see the value in seeing the world as it is and will not find a reason to envy the person who is unable to see the imperfections. This ability to see the goodness of the world, as it is, and thus not to be satisfied with baser thrills, is what distinguishes the human from the pig, Socrates from the fool. 

Then, which one are we and should we even care? Mill claims, it is better to be Socrates than to be a fool. What is the difference? If the difference between these two modes of existence is the ability and inability to enjoy both levels of pleasure, it indeed seems the life of Socrates is more desirable.

 

However, I think this is where we encounter the central problem of Mill’s assertion. Is it really better to be dissatisfied Socrates than to be a satisfied fool? Is it not possible that the life of the endowed being is on average less happy, less pleasurable than of the pig even if we account for the depth of their experience? Ignorance is bliss, as the well-known phrase says, and I think there is a good argument to be made for such assertion.

Mill offers an ambiguous reply, he says, “Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness – that the superior being in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior – confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and contentment.” The reason I say this is an ambiguous reply is that Mill does not explain the difference between the two. Is happiness the same as contentment? If not, is it then another thing we value for itself? This cannot be the case, if, as Mill writes in chapter four of Utilitarianism, it is true that, “happiness is the sole end of human action.” 

Thus, should we value contentment because it leads to happiness? What if the road to contentment only an endowed being can undergo would be rocky enough to make the entire walk less pleasurable than going by cable car, even when we take into account the splendor we saw, the fresh air we breathed, the challenge we overcome? Yes, Mill says, “being in anything like equal circumstances,” but the fool and Socrates are rarely in the same circumstances, and if they were, Mill would have even more difficult case to defend. Put an “endowed being” (I hate that phrase) to a manual 6 to 4 job our “fool” would have and see how far his appreciation for the higher pleasure will take him/her. The appreciation for the higher pleasures will if anything make the experience even more distressing, because of the nagging feeling of wasting one’s time and energy on pointless tasks. That is not to say the nobler kind cannot find solace in such circumstances, but it will be more difficult for them than for the simpler minded. A beer and TV after work will not suffice.

I thus claim Mill’s brushing off the significance of Socrates having a less happy existence is unjustified on this account. I will later address one other reason for why he thinks this is not a problem.

 

Seeing the world as it is can be exhilarating, moreover, it almost always is exhilarating. It uncovers many of its hidden intricacies, its beauties, complexities, however, it also uncovers its deficiencies, deformations, vacancies. The satisfaction derived from seeing the world as it is is often a matter of where we look. If we look at all that is good and beautiful, we will likely derive a greater contentment through it then from the baser thrills. However, as we look, we also see the cracks, we see the deficiencies of our world, and looking at the ugly, the deformed, the vacant, our happiness and contentment can quickly fade. The endowed being has both more beauty to appreciate but also more pain, meaninglessness, emptiness to see, sometimes experience, and it is not always the case that the satisfaction from the higher pleasures outweighs the anxiety, sadness, and emptiness. They often are not equal to bear.

Take for example the inclination towards existential depression in endowed beings. People who have greater intellectual abilities, deeper emotional perception, greater creativity, also have a proclivity to experience existential depression. Existential depression is tied to four issues, according to Yalom2, to the ultimate concerns, that being death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. The consensus behind why gifted individuals are more prone to suffer this type of depression is that for this ultimate concerns to even matter to an individual, one has to be a deep thinker. If someone is bound by the lower thrills, these issues will rarely become a concern to them. And although the discomfort existential depression brings can often lead to creative works of great splendor and significance, as it has been the case in history, the anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and meaninglessness can hardly be seen as easy to bear, especially since there is no guarantee one will overcome those emotions. Additionally, gifted individuals often struggle with existential depression recurrently, and it is hard to see how one can claim this is still better condition to be in, than being a fool, especially on Mill’s utilitarian view.

Thus, Mill’s assumption that the most desirable thing in the world is happiness, and that happiness is the only thing we value for itself, not as a mere means to another end, seems to contradict his claim that it is better to be Socrates than fool. Being Socrates often does not lead to a greater amount of pleasure. Seeing the imperfections of the world is indeed easier to bear when we see the complete good that the imperfections are a part of, which is visible only to the endowed being. However, that does not mean its emotional and psychological consequences, which have a significant effect on our ability to experience happiness, are always, or often, or even ever overcome by seeing the bigger picture. For some endowed beings the imperfections may be too heavy to bear as the proclivity to existential depression shows.

 

I agree with Mill that seeing the greater good, seeing the beauty and magnificence of which the imperfections are a part of is deeply satisfying and can bring much more intense joy than the base pleasures. However, is this ability needed or even desirable if the goal of life is the maximization of happiness? 

In the case of the majority of people, you don’t need much to be satisfied, to be happy, beer, couch, football game, and peace are enough. You don’t ever need to consider if what you are doing has any meaning beyond your momentary satisfaction, whether you can ever find a reasonable meaning to your existence, whether you are living morally, whether you are living up to your potential, whether the world around you is living up to its potential. You don’t have to suffer isolation from other people because of the depth of your thought and emotion, you don’t have to undergo the disappointment of not being free to express what you really think, and its depth.

And although looking from a distance I am quick to say, of course, the life of Socrates is better, I then go back into the trenches, back to my inner world, and again I experience how difficult it can be to bear the burden of seeing the world as it is. I ask myself, is this better? Is it not arrogant of us to say the life of Socrates is the superior life?

Maybe in the total utilitarian calculation, the depth of my experience would outweigh all the suffering the depth brings, however, since this is impossible to calculate, I am drawn to doubt whether the life of Socrates is more desirable than the life of a fool.

Mill has a hard case to defend as a utilitarian. His hedonistic remark that “happiness is desirable as an •end, and is the only thing that is so; anything else that is desirable is only desirable as •means to that end,” should make us doubt whether the life of Socrates brings us closer to the goal of utilitarianism, the maximization of pleasure. 

However, we should not forget about the second part of the utilitarian maxim, the maximization of pleasure for all people. Later in the second chapter of Utilitarianism Mill gives a reply to my objection. Speaking of the utilitarian standard “for that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” He claims, that even if the greatest amount of happiness for the individual will not be achieved through the enjoyment of the higher pleasures, “such a character certainly makes other people happier, and the world in general gains immensely from its existence.” So the condition of utilitarianism would be satisfied because even if the nobler individual has to sacrifice some of their happiness, this will lead to a global increase in happiness and in total the world will be better off. 

One might also argue if all endowed beings had an attitude of acceptance towards their condition, a condition that can often be less happy, each of them could benefit from the other’s acceptance. For example, thanks to the suffering Goethe experienced as an endowed being, which he would have never experienced were he able to attain only the base pleasures, we have wonderful works of literature that inspire, revive, spread knowledge, touch the soul. “I will say nothing,” allegedly writes Goethe in 1824, “against the course of my existence. But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.” Goethe accepted his lot, but it was a great burden to bear.

Mill thus can argue that in the likeness of Goethe, all endowed beings should accept their lot and thereby with reference to all other beings increase the global happiness, satisfying the utilitarian condition.

 

So it seems Mill argued his case well. Yet, we should not forget, the original claim, that it is better to be Socrates than a fool, and it is better to be a human than a pig. In the light of the previous discussion, does this claim stand? In terms of what is better for the individual, I believe Mill hasn’t defended this claim. Endowed individuals live a life of, as Goethe says, “the perpetual rolling of the rock,” without the ability to immerse themselves in base pleasures that would make the experience bearable. And although the higher pleasures are available to them, and even though the higher pleasure often bring deeper experience of thrill  and satisfaction, it is not guaranteed their subjective experience of life will be better of. In times of existential depression, of paralyzing anxiety, in times of isolation, meaninglessness, the endowed being is worse off than the fool. And even if the nobler person would never change their lot for the life of the fool it is difficult to see how is one better from the other. If the subjective experience of life is taken into account Mill’s claim of superiority is unjustified. One has to go beyond oneself, to justify the suffering they undergo without the soothing base thrills. And although their life will lead to greater happiness of all, one can still ask in what way is their life superior, without introducing other ends.

I rest my case here. I think the quality of life of the “endowed being” justifies its pain with the depth of the pleasures not available to all. However, to make a claim of superiority about the two lives is egotistical. It is hard for me to see why is my life of a philosophy university student, living of his parents money, yet pondering deep thoughts, and experiencing powerful emotions, is in any way superior to the life of Mick Crocodile Dundee, who lives in the bush, hunts prey, fishes, drinks, laughs, doesn’t even know what day of the week it is or when he was born or what is new with the nuclear conflict. As Walter in the movie says, “He doesn’t know, he doesn’t care. Lucky bastard!” To call him a pig would be the pinnacle of arrogance. If he is a pig, then I also want to be a pig, at least to some extent.

Please add your take in the comments below!

  1. John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism, Chapter 2, all other quotes of Mill are from the second chapter.
  2. Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

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