So one of the questions that I frequently raise on The Existential Files, is whether life is worth living. I think it is important that this question is not about whether one should kill oneself or not (though I agree with Camus, that that is an important consideration unto itself). No, we find ourselves in the position of being given a gift that we did not ask for, and we open the box and lo, it’s not quite what we wanted. It is a judgement call. We’ve all been there. When you’re a child a pair of socks is no Christmas present. When you’re an adult, meh, what’s Christmas anyway?
I was reading through a book of aphorisms by Thomas Szasz and discovered these wise words:
Happiness: tranquil illusion that life is worth living.Sadness: tranquil recognition that life is not worth living.Mania: frenzied version of happiness.Depression: frenzied version of sadness.
True words indeed, and Szasz is a man who talks a great deal of sense! I have mentioned a few times on the podcast the debate between the eminent lawyer Clarence Darrow and the academic Frederick Starr on whether life is worth living. Darrow as the pessimist, argues the negative. I heartily recommend you read the exchange between the two men, so as to get a handle on what Darrow’s opinion is. Some thoughts on it though:
Firstly, Darrow argues that this question is distinct from whether life is enjoyable or not. One can enjoy life and still believe that on the whole it is not worth living. I am in total agreement of course. To put it coarsely, we may enjoy fucking an ugly woman, but we may not want to be married to her. The same is true for life. Whether we enjoy fucking her is distinct from whether we believe she is a beautiful, wondrous thing! Next, Darrow responds to some of Starr’s arguments, by suggesting that the things he says are good about life (for example hard work) are merely attempts to distract from the ultimate crapness of life (dopes as Darrow refers to them). Hard work and sleep both remove our ability to dwell on the problems of life, and that is what makes them enjoyable. But of course, since in a way both states are almost types of non-existence, they’re not really good arguments for the value of living! Again, this seems a fair argument. A horse that wears blinkers its entire life may never bolt and harm itself. But is a blinkered life really living?
Let us consider two quotes from Darrow’s speech:
Does all that prove that life is worth living? It proves that it is not worth living. I will tell you why it proves it. It proves that there is nobody on earth who can stand the realities of life. That is what it proves. It proves that when the consciousness of life comes to one who is intelligent, that he straightway uses every effort in his power to prove that life is not life; pain is not pain and death is not death; that he takes every dope that is given him by someone else to make him dream, and if he cannot find anything given him by someone else that will put him to sleep he makes one for himself that puts him to sleep. And, if perchance, he is too intelligent, even to manufacture a dope that will put him to sleep, and if he cannot find one that will put him to sleep, then he resorts to hard work, so he cannot think of himself.
What is it I said on a recent podcast? Ignorance is bliss, but it’s still ignorance! And more from Darrow:
I want to read you just in closing a short statement that I found from Sir Arthur J. Balfour, the English statesman, which seems to me to put this question of life, and of man, and of his existence on earth, better and simpler and more concisely than I have ever seen it before. It is from his well-known work, "Foundations of Belief."
“Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets. Of the combination of causes which first converted a dead organic compound into the living progenitors of humanity, science indeed as yet knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and mutual slaughter, fit nurses of the future lords of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant. We survey the past and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a long space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. ‘Imperishable monuments’ and ‘immortal deeds,’ death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been. Nor will anything that is be better or worse for all that the labour, genius, devotion, and suffering of men had striven through countless generations to effect.”
It seems to me that is life; that is man. Is it worth while? I want to make just one confession on this question. I know the Professor will agree with me on this. I take dope. I have tried pretty nearly every dope on earth. Somehow it doesn’t catch. I am no different in what I try to do than the silly fellow who says: Love is God and God is love. If I could believe God is love and love is God I would do it. I cannot. To me life is of little value. I don’t mean to me individually, but as I see life. This great senseless, wasteful, cruel spawning of life upon the earth! I see not only its pain, but its pleasures, and its joys annoy me more than its sorrows, for I don’t want to lose them. I love my friends; I love people; I love life; but it’s everlasting uncertainty; its infinite miseries; its manifest futility; its unavoidable troubles and its tragic end appalls me. That is the truth about it. And, I am glad to take refuge in the one consolation, which I think is philosophy, but which may be dope, that life does not amount to much, and I should worry!
My opinion then? I am in broad agreement with the quotes supplied. Life is inherently a bad joke. There are no allies here. We may long for solid ground, but reality is merely illusion and delusion combined. We find ourselves thrown into the universe. We did not ask to be born. Finding ourselves at the end of a biological process which has blindly shaped life upon this planet (namely evolution), we are expected to find some peace in this most inhospitable of places. Then the world of man demands we play its rules. Respect this. Revere that. Don’t stand on the grass. And yet, who would play a game of Monopoly if the best addresses were already allotted before the start of play? Funny that those who bemoan those calling for fairness and change, are themselves in the best of positions. And then finally, in our minds even. Where am I? The universe is an illusion. I am an illusion. What is weird is that we take any of it for value and worth…
That doesn’t mean we should just kill ourselves. If we understand our predicament we are already ahead of 99.9% of things that will ever exist. And let’s face it, non-existence is coming sooner or later. But (and this is something that I often say), if this were an Amazon review, life would get a one star rating. Wouldn’t buy again. Was delivered broken. No instructions. No refunds. Doesn’t really seem very useful. Yes some of it is pretty. Some of it has very sharp edges and I’ve lost some pints of blood to it. Sweat and tears too.
And it is in this way that I conclude that life is not worth living. That I wouldn’t inflict this shit upon my worst enemy (well maybe my worst enemy, but certainly not something I profess to care for). Madness writ large and small. If only my mother had kept her legs closed that fateful evening…
And to give the last words to Darrow (who is now long gone from this sorry excuse for a game):
[life] is an unpleasant interruption of nothing, and the best thing you can say of it is that it does not last long.Go Top