‘Insofar as the individual is seeking happiness, one ought not to tender him any prescriptions as to the path to happiness: for individual happiness springs from one's own unknown laws, and prescriptions from without can only hinder it’.
Christmas day musings on self-help:
Pretty obviously, self-help is about people making things better for themselves. Self-help systems aim to provide a formula to enable people to achieve that better life. The key measure of better is the extent to which it makes us happier.
The starting assumption for all self-help systems is that life is something to be improved, and it is true that for the majority of us, on balance, life is harder than we would prefer. Happiness seems to be difficult to achieve, certainly in any lasting way. There are even those, such as the ancient stoics, who claim that the pains of life far outweigh the pleasures.
Though no stoic, the great Aristotle relates the Greek myth of the satyr, Silenus, a companion of Dionysus, who claimed that it is better for men not to have been born at all, but once they are born, the second best thing is to die quickly.
Looking beyond the Western worldview, the first noble truth of Buddhism is that 'all life is suffering'. However, I think Arthur Schopenhauer illustrated this pessimistic sentiment towards life most vividly in this grisly image:
Certainly, none of us want to be eaten and it is to be hoped that we will be spared that dreadful fate. But in a world of less terrifying misfortunes, where the pleasures we obtain are frequently feeble and ephemeral, we too often feel unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
Naturally then, we seek a means to improve our lot. We want to banish misery, pain, disappointment, tedium and self-doubt. We want to have more money, more freedom and more options. We want a life filled with excitement, adventure - perhaps even fame. We crave the carnal pleasures of attractive lovers, the company of stimulating friends and a rich family life. In short, we want to be free of suffering and we want to be happy.
But we all need a little help achieving this stuff, right? It's tough making life changes. Not least because we don't have much free time - most of us have to spend the greater part of our waking hours doing a job that might not be the realisation of our wildest dreams. We may also lack confidence, inspiration or direction, and much of the time we are just plain lazy. Clearly, we could use advice. And there is no shortage of it, both on what the ideal life should be and on how you might achieve it.
I just checked the New York Times bestseller list to find out how many self-help books were on it. What I found is that such books have a New York Times bestseller list almost all to themselves, such is their prominence. It is called the 'Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous' list. Here's how it stands right now:
1. The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Come and Get It! Cookery.
2. Tribe Of Mentors By Timothy Ferriss - he of the 4-hour Work Week.
‘Tim Ferriss tracked down more than 100 eclectic experts to help him, and you, navigate life.’
‘Most of us struggle throughout our lives by giving too many fucks in situations where fucks do not deserve to be given.’
‘The Smart Things I've Learned from Doing Stupid Stuff.’
‘Features insightful selections from the most meaningful conversations between Oprah Winfrey and some of today's most admired thought leaders.’
‘How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.’
‘Making your bed is a simple act with powerful consequences. To rise in the morning and complete the first task of the day will give you motivation to do more; to accomplish more.’
8. Tb12 Method by Tom Brady – a diet book that shows you...
‘How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance.’
9. Smitten Kitchen Every Day – More cookery.
‘You don't have to be an entrepreneur to think like one and take flight with your dreams.’
Search ‘self-help’ on Amazon and you will get over half a million product hits. There are thousands of self-help systems and, if we define self-help as theories for attaining happiness and overcoming suffering, the field has a very long history indeed.
Two and a half thousand years ago, the aforementioned Aristotle outlined his own understanding of the best life in his Eudemian Ethics. To encapsulate it in a nutshell, his view is that is that it should be one of moderation, taking the middle-way between extremes and pursuing the life of rational inquiry as the most edifying existence one can strive for.
Another notable example from antiquity is Marcus Aurelius with his Meditations. In this work, a genuine, bona-fide Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the world at that time, offers advice to himself on the conduct of the good man in a world of tribulations. He’s a stoic, so he advises sobriety, detachment, equanimity and justice.
More recently, Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People tells you what you should be aiming for and how to achieve it. This work appears at the forefront of that most recent self-help movement; one that prizes success in business, with the entrepreneur becoming the exemplar of fulfilment.
Contemporary examples of hugely successful books include The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; The Power of Positive Thinking and the truly dreadful The Secret - worth reading just to see how thin and spurious the theory behind a self-help system can be (the eponymous ‘secret’? Just wish for what you want hard enough, be grateful towards the universe, then apparently it will plop into your lap).
Some of these books and systems are quasi-religious. You only have to look at self-help gurus like Tony Robbins. He was recently the focus of a Netflix documentary called I am not your Guru. Having watched it, methinks the lady doth protest too much. It is interesting to consider how the waning of religious observance and the rise of secular society in the west may have created a vacant space for more self-help philosophies because it’s hard not to see religions themselves as self-help systems of a particular kind. They most definitely tell you how to live your life, for one thing.
Nietzsche himself was unequivocally concerned with this cultural problem. His fear was that with the death of god (a metaphor for the collapse of the credibility of the Christian cosmogony) a crisis of nihilism would become unavoidable. To fill the gap he predicted people would flail around looking for a replacement that could give their lives meaning and purpose.
Nationalism was the most obvious sop that he feared might be substituted for the enfeebled transcendental religions, but he believed aspiration towards human advancement and improvement was a preferable alternative. One wonders to what extent the means of self-realisation offered by our many, many contemporary self-help systems, would meet with his approval. Not greatly, I feel. He would probably say that though they have dropped the trappings of Christian dogma, the Christian morality remains intact. Tony Robbins is a good example of this. Watch the Netflix film and see just how much his seminar-events resemble evangelist Christian meetings.
Speaking more broadly, Nietzsche would probably find post-modern, secular humanism little more than a form of Christianity by stealth. One to explore another time in this blog.
When it comes to Nietzsche’s own blueprint for human advancement and improvement, he elaborates vivid descriptions of human excellence, of self-transcendence and ultimately of greatness. His vision for these goals and the means of their achievement is distinctive. For one thing, the simple kind of happiness that comes with a higher income, a more expensive car or even good health, is not any kind of goal for the ideal life. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes:
‘I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of
reproach but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.’
Nietzschian ‘happiness’ is a complicated beast, but it is a state Nietzsche passionately believes is more profound and more fulfilling than realising any number of the everyday pleasures and aspirations we generally strive for. There are questions to be explored here around the goals and unstated presuppositions of conventional self-help systems and the similarities and dissimilarities with this Nietzschian 'happiness'.
It seems its key is in striving rather than arriving, and though many self-help systems demand sacrifice, discipline and hard work for their realisation (‘no pain, no gain’) Nietzsche does not see suffering as a means to a happier end; instead suffering is an integral component of the fulfilled life itself, and within this higher life, there is no end of suffering.
Comment-Contribute. Like-Share. Adapt-Overcome.