These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John 15:11
Over the last year a number of events have forced me to significantly reconceive the purpose and aim of this introduction to philosophy course. I want to recount a couple of these incidents to give you all a feel for what we will be doing together and why I take it to be vitally important. In every class that I teach, I make a point to take a period every month or so to ask students what sorts of things they are thinking about and what questions they are asking. Last spring (2021), after raising this question, I received an unexpected response.
One of my more timid students raised their hand and nervously stated, “I’m sorry if this sounds kind of dark, but my roommates and I have been really disturbed by a question and have been talking about it a ton lately. Do our lives actually matter? I know we are supposed to live like they do and treat others like they do, but what if everything is ultimately meaningless?” This is something of a philosopher’s dream as this is a real question coming from real life into the classroom and as it so happens, it is a question that I find maximally interesting. However, I could tell this wasn’t just a theoretical concern for my student. They were actually uncertain whether or not their life had some intrinsic value such that it was worth living. This didn’t end there, however. Immediately another student raised their hand and said that their roommate is really depressed and has been asking the same question lately. This prompted a third student to raise their hand echoing the sentiments of the first two. While I took this as an opportunity to remind everyone of the university counseling services and to tread gently with one another, this forced me to scrap my syllabus for the semester and return to the drawing board. It actually does matter whether or not our lives have some intrinsic value, and we spent most of spring 2021 trying to explore why that is the case.
The second instance I want to highlight comes from our class together last semester. We were discussing Aristotle’s contention that we learn through imitation. Aristotle argues that happiness is what we are all seeking and it is attained through some combination of luck and virtue. Virtues are simply those activities and habits that lead to happiness. He argues that because we learn through imitation, we ought to find some happy people and do what they are doing. At this point, I asked the class, “Who do you all know that is genuinely happy (in Aristotle’s sense of Eudaimonia)?”
In an otherwise usually talkative class… crickets. I let the silence sit for a time and reframed the question, “Who in your life seems to have a sense of stable joy and not merely fleeting pleasure?” Again, everyone seemed to genuinely struggle to think of a happy person. In other contexts, this may have been unsurprising. Perhaps in a war-torn country suffering under a brutal government or dictatorship, or in a context of extreme poverty and food scarcity, this might be expected. However, this class is neither of those things. If our class is consonant with the broader demographics at this institution, most here are coming from backgrounds of privilege and while you all have to work incredibly hard, most of you are primed for successful lives and careers. Yet, if your lives and those of your friends and family are any indication, this success is failing us.1
These experiences have forced me to evaluate what precisely we are supposed to be doing here. One common answer to the question is that I am supposed to teach you a number of transferable skills—such as critical thinking, logical reasoning, and clear and persuasive communication—that will help you advance in your future career. Another answer is that I am supposed to expose you to the greatest ideas from the greatest thinkers in our tradition. This seems closer to the correct answer than the first option, but we are not quite there yet. If you ask Fox News what I am up to, they will tell you that I am attempting to indoctrinate you to become a raging Marxist, trying to rip up the foundations of the family and the free market. If you ask some on the left, they might say that because this is a Catholic school, I must be trying to indoctrinate you to become a Christian. As you might guess, I find all of these answers wanting. Logical reasoning is important, great books are my favorite books, Marx has some good ideas, and I do love the good Lord, but truthfully, the magnitude of the despair I can see in the faces of my peers, elders, and students indicate none of this is enough. I have many friends that are leftists who are remarkably depressed and many friends that are devout Christians that are crippled by anxiety. So, if none of these are the answer, what could it be?
The conservative and liberal critics are both wrong because both fail to appreciate the extent of what I hope we can accomplish together. My goal and ambition for our course is nothing less than to question at a fundamental level why so many of us are so full of despair. Most of my students have been told their whole lives that they can change the world, but many of these same students are just struggling to get out of bed. It seems that even if they were to attain the elusive success they are promised, deep down they suspect it will not actually make them happy.
Let me explain with recourse to the words of Søren Kierkegaard.
When I was young, I forgot how to laugh in the cave of Trophonius; when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to attain a high position; that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship’s blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.2
This laughter is the knowing and cynical gaze that recognizes the common, bourgeois, picture of a successful life is ultimately empty. However, this despair is not confined to 19th century Danish culture. It is a similar mixture of cynicism and despair that one can hear in the recent song by Bo Burnham, covered by Phoebe Bridgers, “that funny feeling.” Rather than focusing on a cultured life with friends and family, here one finds a world that is truncated to technological mediation, consumption, and self-medication. In what is purportedly a comedy special, Burnham sings the following lyrics:
Stunning 8K resolution meditation app
In honor of the revolution, it's half off at the gap
Deadpool's self-awareness, loving parents, harmless fun
The backlash to the backlash to the thing that's just begun
There it is again
That funny feeling
That funny feeling
There it is again
That funny feeling
That funny feeling
The surgeon generals' pop-up shop, Robert Iger's face
Discount Etsy agitprop, Bugles' take on race
Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war
The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door
The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show
Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go
Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul
A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall
There it is again
That funny feeling
That funny feeling
There it is again
That funny feeling
That funny feeling
Reading Pornhub's terms of service, going for a drive
And obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto V
Full agoraphobic, losing focus, cover blown
A book on getting better hand-delivered by a drone
Total disassociation, fully out your mind
Googling "derealization", hating what you find
That unapparent summer air in early fall
The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.3
Now at this point, I imagine at least some of you are wondering isn’t all of this a bit melodramatic or extreme? I mean what’s wrong with a normal life? Aren’t these just the questions of someone who is depressed and either needs medication or to go out more?
This existential question of life’s value and the possibility of joy may be raised in unique moments of personal difficulty, but I don’t take this to just be indicative of a few melancholic students struggling during Covid, I take it to be reflective of a broader cultural moment wherein it is unclear what if anything can grant life some objective meaning and purpose.
The theologian Paul Tillich has argued that every culture cries out some ultimate question that is indicative of the moment they inhabit. He argued that for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the question was: how do we grapple with fate and death? One can see this in ancient tragedies like Oedipus Rex or epics like the Odyssey. For medieval Europe the question seems to be how do we atone for sin and ameliorate guilt? These are the questions that led to the protestant reformation. However, in the contemporary Western world Tillich argued our primary question is no longer how do I escape death or deal with my guilt, rather it is: does any of this actually matter at all, or are we just clever animals tricking ourselves with our big words into thinking this collection of matter at this moment is somehow cosmically significant?4
Ours he contends is an age of anxiety. And who could contest this? In a 2018 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, 43 percent of undergraduates expressed feeling “so depressed that it was hard to function” at some point in the last year and 64 percent expressed feeling overwhelming anxiety.5 In his recent book The Weariness of the Self, the sociologist Alain Ehrenberg has persuasively argued that, “Depression and addiction are what trace the outline of the individual at the end of the twentieth century.”6
While there is undoubtedly a chemical dimension to this problem, and psychiatric intervention can be incredibly helpful, when most of my closest friends have to be on some drug to experience a modicum of joy and self-togetherness I have to wonder, what societal factors are causing this chemical imbalance? In America we love to individualize our problems so that we can individualize our solutions. You don’t feel good, well you probably just need to download this app, do these breathing techniques, consume these products, vote red or blue, listen to this ted talk, read this book, do this yoga, practice this religion, take these meds, and so on. All of that is a load of bullshit. While these things all have their place and can be helpful to ameliorate individual suffering, if we fail to question our despair at a more fundamental level, much of this can become an exercise in treating symptoms. It is incredibly difficult to live a flourishing human life in an inhuman culture. One cannot simply provide individual solutions to cure collective pathology. Plato was right that there is a correspondence between the city and the soul. And, friends, we inhabit a time and place where the city is sick and the soul has gone missing.
Let me give just a few examples of this sickness. Today in America roughly ¼ of all women and 1/6 of all men are sexually abused at some point in their lives7 and persons on the autism spectrum are 7 times more likely on average to be sexually abused.8 We continue consuming fossil fuels at a rate that will lead to irreversible climate catastrophe. If we continue on the path we are on, moderate estimates tell us that we will have upwards of one billion climate refugees by 2050.9 If we were a more cosmopolitan world, this might not be a huge problem, but when we see this great displacement combined with a new rising nationalism led by authoritarian and draconian people all over the world, this great displacement will only further stoke the fires of racial antagonism. As western nations become more anxious about maintaining their distinctive national identity, their racism receives cover under the guise of concern for national unity.10 We would like to think that genocides and concentration camps are a thing of the past, but the ethnic cleansing and religious persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offer a more chilling reality. Finally, to bring this all closer to home, your generation, raised on smartphones and social media, has seen a seemingly unending stream of police violence against unarmed black people—violence only mirrored by an endless and escalating barrage of school shootings. And yet we are told if we just breath and take our meds everything will be ok. Again, I say, bullshit. Today, truth cries out in the streets, “I can’t breathe,” while the knee of corporate greed and racist power chokes it out.
These overwhelming realities can easily lead one to a state of resigned apathy. After all, in the face of such enormous cultural crises what can I do? Such resignation is not, however, the only option. Some may valiantly turn to activism or art as means of resistance. This was certainly the case for David Foster Wallace. He famously said that his fiction was trying to tell us “what it looks like to be a fucking human being,” in a world that is increasingly inhuman.7 That is, until they found him in a garage with a noose around his neck, two years after presenting his now famous “This is Water” address.
Some will tell you that our primary problem today is laziness, fragility, or “finite” rather than “infinite” thinking. Some will say we are still on the long march of progress and while there are still kinks in the system, things really are getting better. I again call BS. Many of us live in quiet despair and it seems to me that our primary challenge is not to become smarter, more technologically proficient, or even necessarily more compassionate. Our problem is that we are in a fight to the death with despair. We must learn to ask again, what can we rightfully hope for? What makes life worth living? Can we still find joy even in the midst of suffering? Can life still be beautiful or have we come too late? Finally, and I think still most importantly, what do you want? Who do you love? And, what is true?
Like Kierkegaard, we are not just after truth as some storehouse of cold hard facts that we can either accept or deny. In his private journals he wrote, “what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not … The thing is to understand myself: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. That is what I now recognize as the most important thing.”8
I titled this opening reflection a love letter to my students, because I want to tell you at the outset of this semester, I do love you. Not in some weird, creepy, sexual way, but I genuinely care about your wellbeing. I want you live flourishing, joyful, and fulfilling lives. I don’t want you all to get to 40 with a nice house, car, family, and job and realize you don’t know what the hell you are living for. I want to help you see that life is still worth living and the world does not have to be this way. In fact, it can be better. Each of you have an intrinsic value whether you feel like it or not. That said, what I think is less important than what you think and what you will come to learn.
Now lest there be any confusion, philosophy is not therapy and this is not a group session. However, the quality of this course will largely be dependent upon our capacity to honestly raise the questions of our lives and time. In this class, we will spend the first half of the semester learning how the city came to be sick. Why is it that so many people live in lonely, quiet despair? This will require learning about the metaphysical and political philosophy that has shaped the western world. In the second half of the semester, we will pivot to look at the crisis of meaning and value that was inaugurated by what Nietzsche called “the death of God.” Things are the way they are for specific reasons and if we want them to be different, we must interrogate how they came to be this way and explore what we can do about it.
During the Spanish Civil War, the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti argued, “The only illuminating church is a burning one.”9 I want to add the only illuminating life is a burning one. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the art of firefighting, but often water is insufficient for things like gas or electric fires. In these cases, the fire will burn through the water. Here, one has to fight fire with fire. That is, one will have to introduce more fire that will suck the oxygen out of the air so the fire cannot keep burning.
I know few people who would contest the idea that the world is on fire. However, this is a fire that offers only ravaging heat and no light. It is a bit like C.S. Lewis’ description of the cold in Narnia. It is always winter but never Christmas. It is my hope that together this year we can set our lives ablaze with the light of truth so that we may suck the oxygen out of the despair engulfing our individual and collective worlds.
I realize that this might all sound a bit grandiose, but I am absolutely serious. I love David Foster Wallace, but I don’t think the end of his life paints the only way to be a fucking human being. There is another, better way to inhabit the world and I want us to discover it together. I promise to give you the best that I have this semester and if you invest yourself in this course and material, it could change your life. To end where we began, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
- See J. Aaron Simmons, “The Failure of Success.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4beiEp-xZ4
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or A Fragment of Life, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1987), 34.
- Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 1951), 32-63.
- American College Health Association, “National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2018,” Silver Spring, MD: American College Health Association, 2018, https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_Spring_2018_Undergraduate_Reference_Group_Executive_Summary.pdf
- Alain Ehrenberg, The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age, trans. David Homel, et al. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Quebec City, 2010), 12.
- Tad Delay, “Denial Futures.” https://salvage.zone/denial-futures/
- Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (Harpers Torchbooks: New York, NY, 1958), 44.
- See Slavoj Zižek, “The Only Church That Illuminates is a Burning Church.” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-only-church-that-illuminates-is-a-burning-church/10101264