The key to contentment? Embrace strife and woe

Today’s overly emotional young people should read some Schopenhauer.

Patrick West


Children today are suffering from ’emotional obesity’ because they are encouraged to talk about their feelings too much, according to a behaviour expert.

In her new book, Sweet Distress, the teacher and therapist Gillian Bridge says that allowing children to wallow in their emotions is akin to giving them sugary treats: it makes them feel better in the short term, but it’s bad for long-term mental health. She argues that instead of teaching pupils introspection, they should be given a sense of being part of history, to be taken outside of themselves.

This is not merely a matter for teachers, she says. It is part of a wider problem, concerning the way society deals with feelings. ‘What we’re doing a lot of the time – getting people to focus on their emotional wellbeing – is making things worse, not better’, she told The Times recently. ‘It’s taking people who are vulnerable to begin with and asking them to focus inwards. This focus on “I, myself and me” is the problem.’

Introspection can indeed be a pointless and perilous pursuit. It can lead to worry or finding faults with oneself – faults that can never truly be repaired. If it really worked, the self-help industry would no longer exist, having solved the eternal problem of mankind’s unhappiness and woe.

Contrary to a myth that has been with us since the 18th century, and propagated by the wilder elements among the Enlightenment movement, by political utopians, the advertising industry, psychotherapists and the pharmaceutical industry, mankind, and men, can never attain a utopia or utopian state of mind.

If you believe happiness to be the norm, or live in expectation of its arrival, you are, paradoxically, only going to end up more unhappy. This is what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed.

Widely caricatured as the philosopher of misery, Schopenhauer wasn’t trying to make us feel depressed by his ostensibly gloomy writings; rather, he was trying to liberate us from false expectations. As he wrote in his most influential work, the two-volume The World as Will and Representation (1819, 1844): ‘There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error… the world seems to us full of contradictions.’

He would have wise counsel for today’s youth, who have been taught to focus on their feelings. He wrote in his final work, Parerga and Paralipomena (1851): ‘What disturbs and renders unhappy… the age of youth… is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises the constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness of our dreams hover before us in capriciously selected shapes and we search in vain for their original.’

The ultimate lesson to be drawn from Schopenhauer is that the key to happiness is not to seek it. As one of his disciples, a certain Friedrich Nietzsche, put it: ‘The right way of life does not want happiness, turns away from happiness.’ Nietzsche concluded that life was primarily about struggle. To embrace strife and woe: this is the emancipatory war that lets us finally become content and complete.

Defining sexist language

There is currently a petition calling upon Oxford University Press to change the ‘sexist’ definitions of the word ‘woman’ in some of its dictionaries. It has been signed by 30,000 people.

It was launched by the PR consultant Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, who found that some OUP dictionaries contain such synonyms to this word as bitch, piece, bit, mare, wench, bird, bint, biddy and filly. Sentences to show use of the word include ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’ and ‘I told you to be home when I get home, little woman’.

The petition says that the sentences depict ‘women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men’ and calls on OUP to ‘eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women’.

The petition misses the point on two counts. First, it is the duty of a dictionary to describe what a word means and how it is used, not as you or the editors wish it to be. Most dictionaries have sexist words in them for the same reason they have racist and rude words in them: because people use them that way.

Secondly, if there is sexism in the world, isn’t it better that a dictionary, in alluding to reality, draw attention to that fact by explaining how it is expressed in language? Or do we pretend it doesn’t exist, and erase expressions of sexism from the lexicon?

Shakespeare in German

It was recently revealed that the late Michael Redgrave, one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, preferred reading the works of the Bard in German translation. Vanessa Redgrave told a Financial Times event last month that her father, who had studied at Heidelberg University, ‘knew German very, very well’, and he ‘claimed King Lear in German was better than Shakespeare’s English’.

This makes sense. Not only were the Germans, particularly Goethe, responsible for launching the cult of Shakespeare in the 18th century, but Germans have persistently claimed that he sounds better in their language.

There is a good linguistic reason for this. The English used by Shakespeare is closer to German than today’s English is. Most famously, Shakespeare used the now archaic second-person familiar singular version of you, ‘thou’, which still today has its equivalent in ‘du’. The two are even conjugated similarly in both languages. ‘Du kannst’ is German for ‘thou canst’, as in ‘I do protest I never injured thee, But love thee better than thou canst devise.’ (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1)

Shakespeare also rarely uses the verb ‘to do’ in an auxiliary manner. Instead of ‘did you see him today?’, the Bard reverses the subject and verb to make a question, as in German: ‘Where is Romeo? Saw you him today?’ Nor does Shakespeare use the progressive construction (‘I am going; look how I’m going’), a construction that doesn’t exist in German. He employs only the Germanic plain present tense: ‘I go; look how I go.’ Negation in Elizabethan English also follows a German pattern. Rather than ‘I don’t know him’, it is ‘I know him not.’

The idea that Shakespeare’s work sounds better in German is not outlandish, because it kind of is in German already.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

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Claire D

7th October 2019 at 5:21 pm

How interesting about Shakespeare, but not surprising because Anglo-Saxon/Old English which was originally West German, was spoken and written in England from 450 AD when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded until after the Norman Conquest. Even then it must have continued to some extent despite Anglo-Norman gradually taking over. Almost all our small words, ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘him’, ‘you’ ‘in’, ‘it’ and our simple words, ‘sun’, ‘moon’, ‘tree’, ‘wood’, ‘rain’, ‘owl’, are Old English/Anglo-Saxon/West German in origin.

Linda Payne

6th October 2019 at 8:23 pm

I don’t know how this can help with clinical depression for example because it follows no rules it just is and unkillable; it can wreck your life and still hangs around for more; I never expect to be happy but to be just free of this thing in my head even if just for a while is something I dream of, one day there will be a cure for this because it really is an illness and not just feeling down

Winston Stanley

6th October 2019 at 10:47 pm

Have you tried CBD?

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CBD oil helps to significantly improve depressive symptoms and the individual’s quality of life.

Gareth Edward KING

6th October 2019 at 11:53 am

Patrick is undoubtedly right about Shakespeare. Do go tell to today’s English teachers who aren’t even expected to teach their class to appreciate D.H. Lawrence texts which contain many references (untranslated) in both German and Italian (‘Women in Love’, for example), as well as dialect from Nottingham. I did my A’levels in 1981 when Lawrence was quite rightly on the syllabus. It’s a truism to state that expectations have plumetted in the today’s classroom.

Michael Lynch

6th October 2019 at 11:44 am

‘If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.’ The generation of today’s Western world needs to ponder how the human race survived for millennia without having to be introspective. Right now there are children walking for miles to fetch and drink filthy water. I very much doubt they are searching their inner selves in the pursuit of happiness whilst trying to simply survive.

Winston Stanley

5th October 2019 at 11:40 pm

Phil argues that happiness is possible and desirable and that the method is indifference toward inner happiness, and the embrace of outer struggle, which he says is what we should undertake. That argument may sound odd and even contradictory but it does have respectable pedigree.

He is talking about the finis bonorum of Cicero, the end/ purpose/ aim of ethical theories/ ways of life. Phil is a half-way skeptic, following his master Nietzsche. He is talking about the ataraxia, “a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. In non-philosophical usage, the term was used to describe the ideal mental state for soldiers entering battle.”

Phyrro is the Greek founder of Phyrronic skepticism, elaborated for posterity by Sextus Empiricus. That is my own school which took over the Academy of Plato in antiquity, the New or Third Academy.

Phil is half-way b/c he does not conjoin indifference to the inner with a suspension of judgement and an indifference toward the outer.

The skeptic attains ataraxia, the state of pleasant calm through the suspension of any judgement toward all questions, especially those that touch upon the ethical, both personal and social and political, through the employment of the method of the five logical modes of suspension and the critique of the criterion of truth.

“The skeptic is happy.” “He who claims to knows nothing and who strives for nothing is disturbed by nothing and he attains it all.”

One is then calm and pleasant once one seeks no truth or aim in society. Thus the skeptic attains what he disavows, ataraxia. Phil has gone only halfway and he is lined up with the soldiers as cannon fodder, “struggle”.

Schopenhauer sought ataraxia through the denial of the personal life instinct in the embrace of art, philosophy and music – and especially in sympathy for others. Nietzsche simply ditches the last and embraces the struggle of life.

The skeptic rather takes no dogmatic stance on political questions. He engages with the “appearances” as they appear to him but he never takes them too seriously in such a manner as to dismay or frustrate the self. One is simply engaging with life and with society as its presents itself but with Shakespeare one sees it as a passing dream in the day.

“Life is a dream passing in the night.” What is it, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” “All the world is a stage.”

If Phil wants to understand “modern” philosophy (and Shakespeare) then he needs a foundation in classical philosophy, especially Sextus Empiricus, who was translated into modern Western languages quite early.

I could make him up a reading list but he completely ignored the list that I made him for Nietzsche, so I am sceptical of the value of any list now. Obviously read the works of SE, Cicero on the Ends of Goods and Evils (all Loeb) and Diogenes Laertius. And Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Basically read all of the Greeks and Romans as background to the later Westerners.

If all philosophy is footnotes on Plato then all modern philosophy is footnotes on Sextus Empiricus and the Third Academy.

Linda Payne

5th October 2019 at 6:27 pm

Reminds me of the great Victor Frankl and his assertions of embracing suffering; he also said the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, he experienced both in the concentration camps and he knew what he was talking about

jessica christon

5th October 2019 at 8:54 pm

I’d heard – and even used – that expression about the opposite of love, but never had any idea where it came from.

Winston Stanley

5th October 2019 at 11:59 pm

It is not true, indifference is the middle, neutral between “love and hate”.

Victor was simply lying in a rhetorical manner to emphasise that he is a victim and that all have to support him.

Ven Oods

5th October 2019 at 8:46 am

Even though I studied German Language and have read most of Shakespeare, I’d never noticed the grammatical similarities, which probably says much about my powers of observation.

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