The Pig, the Fool, and Socrates
Would you prefer to be an animal?
A reader opines:
I like animals because I think they're a higher form of life. They have no pretenses about what they are; a dog can achieve levels of serenity and fulfillment of which I cannot conceive by merely being a dog and doing dog things. I, on the other hand, could be the next Einstein with the face of James Dean and still very likely be miserable all my life.
I like animals too, but not because they are a higher form of life. They are lower forms of life. The ascription of pretentiousness to a cat or dog is of course absurd, but equally so is the ascription of serenity and fulfillment to them if these words carry the meaning that we attach to them. It is because man is a spiritual being that he can pretend and fake and dissemble and posture and blow up his ego like a balloon to blot out the sun. And it is because man is a spiritual being that he can know serenity, fulfillment, and in rare cases the peace that surpasseth all understanding. Man has not only the power of thought but also the mystical power to transcend thought. All of this is beyond the animal. If you disagree, then I will ask you to produce the mathematical and metaphysical and mystical treatises of the dolphins and the apes. Who among them is a Paul Erdös or a Plato or a Juan de la Cruz? As Martin Heidegger says, "An abyss yawns between man and animal."
On the other hand no animal knows misery like we do. Barred out heights, they are also barred our depths of wretchedness and despair.
So while I have many bones to pick with John Stuart Mill on the score of his utilitarianism and his hedonism and his psychologism in logic and his internally inconsistent attempt at distinguishing higher from lower pleasures, his is a noble soul and I agree with the sentiment expressed in this well-known passage from Utilitarianism, Chapter II:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
I wonder if Mill can validate this noble thought within his paltry hedonist scheme. His thought is in any case a value judgment and I am not sure I would be able to refute someone who preferred the life of a cat or a dog or a contented cow to that of a man, half-angel, half-beast, tormented, crazed, but a possible participant in highest bliss. There is no denying that human life is troubled, provisional, seemingly on the way to something better, something dimly descried “as through a glass darkly” but never clearly envisaged while we are on the way. Human life is difficult to affirm. I agree with Nietzsche that man is something to be overcome, though not along the lines he proposes. We need perfecting. I cannot forbear to quote his marvellous jab at the English hedonists from The Twilight of the Idols:
If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does. ("Maxims and Arrows," #12, tr. W. Kaufmann.)