Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Thousand Natural Shocks

John Gray argues that Freud is out of fashion these days owing to his basically tragic view of human nature, according to which we are fundamentally conflicted creatures condemned to interpersonal (and intrapersonal) struggle. The point, to Freud, was to learn to live productively with that state of affairs--no "chicken soup for the soul" here! Full social and personal harmony and ultimate existential consolation are ideals we cannot achieve, so our best and only redemption is to learn to do without them.
Personally I happen to find this aspect of Freud appealing, much more so at any rate than his overweening dogmatism or his far-fetched psychosexual speculation. But if Freud was in fact a modern Stoic, his decline in influence and popularity merely reflects the fact that stoicism as a way of life has never been a mainstream ethos, at least in Western civilization. We'll be waiting a long time to hear a presidential candidate declare that his favorite philosopher is Epictetus. Whether wisely or not, human nature seems to crave more than what some of the more dour tenets of psychoanalysis can provide.
In a similar vein, Daniel Smith in the Times wonders (having trouble with the hyperlink function, sorry) at the persistently high level of anxiety in western culture, which objectively speaking is one of the more successful societies in history. Even the poor in the United States enjoy levels of material comfort unimagined by all but the most wealthy in most past eras. Whereas we experience "stress," the countless generations of history endured miseries of labor, climate, poverty, the random death of children due to infectious disease. This goes to show (unless we want to assume that our forebears experienced their lives as appalling affliction) that beyond a visceral baseline, suffering is never objective or absolute, but rather relative to our expectations, for ourselves and relative to others.

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