Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Age of Absurdity - Michael Foley

The good news is that the great thinkers from history have proposed the same strategies for happiness and fulfilment. The bad news is that these turn out to be the very things most discouraged by contemporary culture.

At one point in this book Michael Foley laments his own tendency to buy books and CDs in pursuit of some transcendental experience - the books are going to give him arcane knowledge and explain the meaning of it all. Of course, they stay on the shelf, eventually becoming a source of guilt and stress. This is ironic, because The Age of Absurdity comes as close as anyone ever will to giving you arcane knowledge and explaining the meaning of it all.

I'm simplifying a complex and detailed argument here. But, in brief, Foley argues (or at least I take him to be arguing) that the modern world has placed two major barriers in the path of happiness - the `culture of entitlement' and the worship of potential. (NB: Foley breaks down the analysis into more categories, but I think there's good reason for thinking that these are the main issues). The culture of entitlement is so much part of the zeitgeist that we can hardly see it anymore - it drives the talentless to obsessively seek fame, spawns a million `self esteem' workshops, and ensures that every thug knows his rights without considering that he even has responsibilities. (And if you think it's just thugs, ask yourself when you last concluded a whinge by observing that `someone' - some unnameable `they' - should do something about it). But it also means that when the world fails to notice our talents or respect our rights - which, let's face it, is most of the time - we feel hard done by. We are all poisoning our lives with a terminal feeling of injustice; all have a chip on our shoulder big enough to overbalance us.

The worship of potential is what causes dowdy frumps to face humiliation on TV for the sake of a swift makeover, hi-tech firms to lay off anyone who looks over 40, middle-aged dads to dress as their toddlers (all bright artificial fibres with toggles on), everyone to love travel even if they have no idea where they want to go, and society in general to become dumbed-down and infantalised (don't want to grow up? Don't bother! Why should you?). It also leaves people with a constant sense that they're missing something, that a better time is to be had elsewhere, so we're constantly on the look out for the next big thing - job, relationship, possession. And it discourages us from making the firm decisions which, in a way, define and develop our characters.

It's probably no coincidence that modern capitalism needs both these things - the worship of potential keeps us wanting the newest thing; the culture of entitlement (`because you're worth it!') makes us believe we deserve it, whether or not we have the money.

Many of our problems are the problems of abundance, so Foley draws extensively on the Stoics, (who were writing for a rich, decadent late-Roman audience with many of the same problems). He also makes considerable use of the existentialists, proto-existentialists like Schopenhauer, and Buddhist thought. Obviously it does no harm to have come across these thinkers already. But for anyone who hasn't he leads you in gently, so the lack of a philosophical background isn't too much of a handicap. Indeed, his prose throughout is clear and accessible (just as well for an age which eschews difficulty!)

Two things really make this book special. One is the incisiveness with which he analyses the modern condition. Time and time again, Foley hits the nail on the head - often to the point of being uncomfortable. I'd come to similar conclusions myself about some of the points he makes here, but I hadn't reasoned them through as thoroughly. So it was sobering to be continually confronted by descriptions of my own behaviour. There I was thinking that my problems were interesting and complex, and lo and behold they're everyone's problems. For a while it made me squirm, but actually it's quite reassuring.

Secondly, there are no glib answers. Yes, Foley makes some suggestions for how we might be happier - consider learning to meditate, allow yourself to daydream more, develop the Stoics' mental habit of accepting whatever life throws at you and asking yourself how you might turn it to your advantage in one way or another. But the main answer is that there is no `answer' - we make our own deals with life. The best thing we can do is come to a clear understanding of just what the main issues are - and that's what philosophy (and this book) can help us with. - modern life is rubbish


  1. I am going to get this book now. I also am guilty of buying self-help books and meditation CD's and other things to "fix" myself. Deep down, something in me knows there is no one answer, although for my whole life, I have been running in circles to find it. If I had the money back that I'd spent on self-help books and gadgets, I'd been in better shape today for a comfortable retirement (whenever that's going to be).

  2. Thanks for this certainly echos one of my all time favorite books: by Christopher Lasch; The Culture of Narcissism. The problems associated with a delusional belief in inherent "entitlement" and the "worship of potential" is never so prominent as it is with upper middle-class parents. They fail to realize that half of all children are below average (by definition) intellectually (and all other respects) and that of the 50% of kids who are above average, 33% are not spectacularly so. That leaves a small 17% who have the inherent capacity to truly exceed. Of that 17% many because of circumstances, bad decisions, intentionality, or luck, will not be exceptional in any substantial way. The unrealistic expectations that these parents project on their kids and on to themselves creates enormous pressure that, in the worst of circumstances, leads to depression, clinical levels of anxiety, drug abuse, and suicide. Somehow we've lost the respectability and sanity of appreciating and (dare I say) honoring, the average. The average kid, average grades (who ever said Cs were failing?!), average looks, average levels of motivation and charm. Most of the teens and young adults who are brought to me by their parents (for "treatment") are simply average. They are great, average kids. Their "disorder" or "problem" is that they have failed to be spectacular. It is most difficult to get the parents (and unfortunately the kids) to see that being an average kid is an honorable and respectable thing. And that the best thing they can do for their kids is to have "average" expectations for them and to be happy when they mostly succeed at being average in most things.