February 12th, 2020

Is wisdom inherently saddening, or only situationally saddening?

A recurring theme in my writing over the years has been how sad the life of a wise person is. This is an idea which has been known since antiquity; in this context, I typically quote Ecclesiastes 1:18, which says "In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow", to illustrate that this is not a modern phenomenon (the life of a wise person hasn't suddenly become sad because of circumstances unique to the modern era), but rather something which has been the case for about as long as written records of human history go, and probably before that as well.

This is a relevant theme because of how debilitating the sadness associated with wisdom is. If it were just something unpleasant, like the prick of a needle or the bitterness of foul-tasting medicine, one could say that the wise should simply toughen up and bear it for a while until the unpleasantness goes away, but in the depths of wisdom are griefs stronger than what most people must endure in their everyday lives, sorrows and hopelessness beyond what most people will ever know. The sadness associated with wisdom is so strong that it destroys people's will to live, making them wish for the release of death. That's not an ordeal you can simply endure by "being tough" about it; it's a serious problem that destroys people. And the thing is, unlike many other types of pain, the pain of wisdom never goes away, because you feel it every moment of every day. It's not something you can run away from by going to another place, either literally or figuratively.

Recently, however, I've been wondering whether the pain and sadness associated with being wise are something situational--that is to say, they persist because of the conditions of the world we live in--or rather something inherent to wisdom itself, meaning they would torment the wise under any circumstances, no matter what kind of world they lived in or what kind of lives they had.

Among people who are wise, the general idea I have typically seen is that the sadness of wisdom is situational: Wise people are not sad because there is inherent sadness in wisdom, but rather because we live in a world which makes wise people sad. In the movie Idiocracy, a vision of the future is portrayed which is dystopian not because of the effects of technology, but because people in it are so accursedly stupid, and love that stupidity: One of the most popular television shows is titled Ow! My Balls! and consists entirely of clips of a man being struck in the crotch and shouting "Ow! My balls!" To be sure, it is saddening to live in a world where most people's idea of an enjoyable life is watching such programming and saying "Ha ha, he got hit in the balls!" The wise are made sad to realize that they live in a world where most people's greatest ambition in life is to watch such entertainment.

Among the wise people who recognize this problem, the usual instinctive response is to try to get away from such people and the places where they live; there is a strong tendency among people who hunger for knowledge, awareness, and understanding to try to form a sort of "club" or other social group which concentrates such people together so that they can get away from the idiocy and destructive carelessness of the majority of the world's people. The desire to create an ideal society built around wisdom is the fundamental drive behind Plato's Republic, one of the earliest great writings extant in the world today, and this pattern repeats in various forms of fiction and non-fiction throughout history, such as in the utopian vision of "Galt's Gulch" from Atlas Shrugged, a secret valley populated by the brightest people in the world where they can be free of the choking foolishness of the majority. Real-life attempts to create such clubs have also existed throughout history, including the Illuminati and the present-day Mensa.

These visions of "a better future" all assume that the sadness associated with wisdom is situational: That if we could create a world where there were less people whose greatest joy in life is laughing about getting hit in the testicles and more people who took joy in talking about how patterns of human behavior intersect with biological processes and political structures, then wisdom would be less saddening; that if there were less people mindlessly making so many babies that humanity's collective biomass is destroying the entire planet's ecosystem, if there were less people filling our ecosystem with physical garbage, our communication networks with informational garbage, and our everyday conversations with conversational garbage, then being wise wouldn't be such an unhappy experience, but could actually be something enjoyable and happy.

Like most people, I want humanity to have a good life, but must admit that the whole concept of "a good life" is vague and subjective. Certainly, a good life usually depends on having material means: It is difficult to be happy when one is sick, starving, or homeless, and so a great deal of effort toward creating human happiness focuses on these material means, trying to not only provide people with places to live and food to eat, but also systems which are sustainable enough that those people won't need to worry about being homeless or unable to get food at any point in the future. While I support such efforts and recognize them as important and necessary, it's apparent that efforts to promote and sustain human happiness have often ignored the psychological and emotional needs of human beings, assuming that if people have homes to live in and food to eat, then they'll find something that can satisfy these more nebulous needs. In reality, this is often not the case, leading to the lifestyle which we see today in most of the developed world: A society of people who are generally well fed and not worried about becoming homeless, but who suffer from a cavernous void that exists deep within their souls. These are people who are biological life forms, but they are not truly alive; one cannot say that they are living beings.

In this sense, then, while much of present-day "wisdom" focuses on the political and economic problems of creating sustainable wealth among people so that they can have a middle-class "good life", and while these efforts are probably necessary and important, they are not the final word on how wisdom and happiness can be unified and reconciled with each other. A few years ago, I wrote about "The middle class as humanity's terminal point", speculating that a physically comfortable middle-class existence may be inherently opposed to wisdom, because people who are comfortable and lack reasons to worry are inherently disinclined to struggle with philosophical ideas. And the truth is that coming to terms with these ideas is a struggle: Whenever I have difficult ideas about humanity, I struggle with my ideas, and this mental struggle is an everyday occurrence. It isn't something that stops, because even if I come to a satisfactory conclusion about one idea, there are countless other ideas that rush in and trouble me.

Here we see the more fundamental vision of wisdom as something inherently saddening: The problem is not just that people's greatest joy and ambition in life is to watch testicular television and take psychoactive drugs; people with comfortable lives do tend to reproducibly fall into such patterns, but even if they didn't, is there really any possibility for a person to meditate on serious and fundamental problems of existence and yet simultaneously live a peaceful, contented, and (physically and mentally) healthy life? I'm beginning to have my doubts about that.

Certainly, the world we live in doesn't help. If we as humans were biologically different, if we didn't have these fundamental biological urges to constantly do things like eat, copulate, and pleasure ourselves with stupidity, the world would be a better place. But what would such a world really be like? Would people really be happy? Would they really be wise? Would they really have any reason for being alive at all? And if the answers to the latter three questions would still be "No", then would such a world really be meaningfully different from the one we actually live in?

Is wisdom inherently saddening, or only situationally saddening? The world may never know. We may suspect it's one or the other, but one thing which is certain is that people's efforts to make the world a better place are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst, serving mainly to make people feel better about themselves and convince themselves that they are doing something necessary, meaningful, and important when in reality, all they are doing is getting in other people's way--people with important things to do, like buy cheap food so they can run home and watch a guy getting hit in the crotch.