Philosophical Leadership

Today, the concept of happiness has been so popularised that it has almost become a burden, perhaps even a cliché. There is a booming happiness industry of self-help books and programmes that rarely serve as more than a plaster on a sick and stressed culture. Companies hire ‘chief happiness officers’ in a valiant attempt to measure, weigh and quantify happiness, as if a person were just ‘another brick in the wall’.

The importance of balance

According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, happiness is rather less tangible than the happy pop lyrics of today. To him, happiness was leading a life worth living. Such a life is able to stay in balance despite the changing winds of time.

Even the art of balancing depends on our abilities and general life circumstances. But what seems to be crucial is independence from the time restraints and stress of our surroundings. It is good for our well-being to be extravagant with time every once in a while. Aristotle spoke of the golden mean as the way to a life worth living: neither too much nor too little. This is not as easy as it sounds, which many young people experience in their initial encounters with carousels, candy or alcohol. Buddha also spoke of the Middle Path between austerity and indulgence.

Kill your idols

This balanced path is found or even created as you gradually investigate life’s opportunities. Yet, unlike many contemporary self-help programmes that advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, the philosophical path to a happier life is paved with innumerable exits.

A happier life is never more than a side effect of leading a life worth living, a meaningful life.

It requires an understanding that the world’s so-called ideologies are never more than fleeting ideas disguised as incontestable and unalterable truths. Even Buddha said, ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.’ Meaning: kill the idealised concept that inhibits a critical examination of your own mind.

Explore, experiment, try things out.

Philosophical love

Instead of focusing on happiness, I suggest concentrating on creating a meaningful existence through cultivating a more caring and loving relationship with all aspects of life: family, friends, work, nature, etc.

I am not, therefore, referring to obsessive narcissistic self-love, nor the romantic love of the nuclear family. Rather, I try to propose a worldlier, more politically or socially transformative love. A love that does not discriminate but embraces life in its multiplicity.

The challenge for a philosophical leader is to step back and make room for love, that is, to relinquish one’s need to control, one’s desire to polish one’s ego.

Only through a more honest and humble approach can we establish meaningful relationships. Only this way can love’s multifaceted revelations become manifest.

Philosophical leadership is about protecting life’s various energies, not one’s own ego. Therein also lies the potential for creating a future without domination; one of trust, respect, care and equality for all.

First published at the TBS blog

How Should I Live?

Before I try to give a decent answer, I would like to emphasize that I’m glad the question is personal. It refers to me, not you, or someone else. I don’t like moralizing, that is, telling other people how they should live, but I do like the element of self-knowledge and care that this question addresses.

Thus, “How should I live?” should live a joyous life.

Life, of course, is full of both joy and sadness, suffering and pleasure. Some of these are related to individual limitations, e.g. intellectual abilities. Others are related to social or political circumstances, e.g. financial.

Still, a useful guide is to live in a way that enhances a life’s joyous moments regardless of the circumstances.

How do I do that? From the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, I’ve learned that we always have the thoughts and feelings that we deserve. At first this can seem brutally arrogant, but what he aims at is that our mental state depends on how we relate to or approach our experiences. The challenge that we all share, regardless of setback or misfortunes, is how we become worthy of what is happening. This is not acceptance as a kind of resignation; rather, it’s an approach to life that confronts obstacles or setbacks by trying to create a new form of life that minimizes the effects of what is hindering ourselves from living freely.

Therefore, I should live as a compassionate fighter, that is, become a person that fights by exploring what a life may become. What is possible? I fight hate, discrimination, domination, violence, etc. because it kills life. And by involving myself in this fight — although I have to acknowledge my intellectual limitations – I feel better. Actually, I feel alive. And to live a joyous life is to have an intimate affair with life, to experiment, and dance with it.

I remember the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño once said that children typically are full of joy, and then he wondered why it’s so, before answering, that they are alive.

It sounds like a tautology: a joyous life is synonymous with how I should live because joy emerges through appreciation of being alive, which I accomplish by destroying  everything that seem to hinder life from flourishing, just as I create room for things that flourish. Nothing comes for free, except death.

Joy and happiness require hard work.

Camus: A Life Worth Living

The French writer, Albert Camus was ‘a moralist who insisted that while the world is absurd and allows for no hope, we are not condemned to despair.’

Like this, the historian Robert Zaretsky presents Camus in the book, A Life Worth Living — with the subtitle, Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Camus was a moralist, but not a moralizer. He did not judge from a higher or more lucrative position, but tried to grasp what took place. He tried to create meaning where none was given.

Zaretsky organizes his portrait of Camus around five key-concepts: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity and Revolt. The concepts are strongly related; that is to say that certain points in Camus’ thinking are repeated, but never in a tiring way. On the contrary, Zaretsky develops an intimate portrait of Camus showing how it most likely was for him to be in this world. Camus is placed both in his historical context — whether it is the struggles between Algeria and France, or between Sartre and Camus — and in conversation with contemporary thinkers.

What do we learn about Camus?

Like Nietzsche, Camus detested any kind of resentment. He knew that being faithful was not a virtue in itself. Instead, one only ought to be faithful towards a life served in happiness. Happiness, therefore, seems to be the main thread in Camus’ struggle. Not as something shallow, but as an existential guide that could help him balance his thoughts. This is an interesting reading.

Happiness is, of course, a difficult task for Camus. First of all, the world is absurd. It is without any meaning. One must invent meaning, just as one must ‘create happiness in order to protect against the universe of unhappiness.’ At times one can only do so by being silent. As Camus says, ‘we do not write in order to say things, but in order not to say them.’

Camus was a pragmatic. He did not idealize life or describe it through theoretical abstractions. He wished to witness life as an experience — no matter how painful or beautiful it appeared. This practical approach caused him several problems, going from his battles with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, especially their idealized Marxism, to the confrontation with an Algerian student who, the day before Camus received the Nobel Prize in literature, criticized Camus for his silence over Algeria. At one point, Camus famously said: ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’

Zaretsky portrays Camus as a real human being, albeit a bit more gifted than most of us. His most impressive achievement is, I think, that he succeeds in describing Camus’ quest for meaning as if it was a psychological case-study. Recent studies in psychology show that a one-sided quest for happiness can result in the opposite. Instead, having a purpose or being able to produce meaning is more important to make a life flourish. ‘Today,’ Camus said in an interview, ‘happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.’ Sixty years later, happiness seems to be something quite ordinary, vague even, that the majority of people like to expose. And yet, whether eccentric or ordinary, a deep felt happiness — then as now — is something that requires ‘attention and effort.’ There is no quick fix for achieving a life worth living.

For Camus, suffering is part of thinking. It is related with one’s active involvement in life. Paying attention. Trying to make sense. One might realize that violence is ‘unjustifiable,’ because of one’s compassion and empathy. As a consequence, one acts. ‘Rebellion, Camus declares, is born of the spectacle of irrationality.’ Like the ancient Greeks, Camus based his thoughts on the idea of limits, Zaretsky says. Nothing should be carried to extremes. Nothing should be denied beforehand. The quest for meaning never stops.

I believe that Zaretsky’s book  is not only interesting for readers of Camus, laymen as well as scholars (i.e. scholars from various disciplines, e.g., literature, philosophy, history and psychology), but also for anyone who would like to change the state of things. It can serve as a toolbox for future moralist! Changing the world requires more than a glittering or candied ideal. In fact, it requires a courageous and honest sensuality that allows one to be touched by life and death as something real — an experience.

Camus questioned life from within this life, the only life there is. No appeal is possible. Still, if we trust Zaretsky, Camus lived a life worth living because of his ongoing quest for meaning, a quest that brought him moments of happiness. ‘For Camus, true nobility lies in lucid acceptance of the world, its beauties and its limits, its joys and its demands, its inhabitants and our common lot,’ Zaretsky concludes beautifully. Absurdity might ‘ambush us on a street corner or a sun-blasted beach. But so, too, do beauty and the happiness that attends it.’ All it requires is attention and effort.

This book is worth reading.

Finn Janning, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer.

Review first published in Metapsychology, Volume 18, Issue 30

Meet the Author

For me, philosophy is a way of living and not an academic discipline that requires you to swallow a certain amount of information to pass. Most great novelists are philosophers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that literature in order to become philosophy must become fiction. I like that. It also shows that the distinction between philosophy and literature is rather new—perhaps stemming from Kant—but does it matter if Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, and all the others are classified as philosophers or writers?

Read the rest of the interview in Under the Gum Tree.