Have you noticed that, by and large, few people get angry today? That few stand up for themselves and lash out? Get irritated? Yes. Ornery? Sure. Persnickety? No doubt. But blood boiling? No.
Have you also noticed how most people get–and are–really sad? They have the blues, they’re in a foul mood, they’re down in the dumps, they’re melancholic, they’re lying in bed, they’re feeling dreary, their outlook is bleak, they act like a wet noodle.
My question is: how come anger as a public expression (outrage, most notably) is mostly gone and how come sadness runs rampant?
I have no short answer to this question, but I believe that the difference between a cheerful, tough outlook and the dreary, downtrodden outlook holds the key.
I argued in earlier posts that there has been a great, albeit incremental shift from toughness to softness (or, in Nietzsche’s terms, from cheerfulness to dreariness). Our culture has become soft, yet our times, I urged, calls for the cultivation of toughness.
I argued also that cultivating toughness produces a cheerful outlook. At times, a spirited, fiery, cheerful view of life may mean getting demonstrably angry. Ideally, one’s spirit is, as Nietzsche sought to show in The Birth of Tragedy, first fired up (the Dionysian) and second given proper expression in art (the Apolline). Ideally, one’s powers can be cultivated and channeled into something wondrous.
But ours is not a cheerful time; it is a damnedly bleak time. I note that the rise of bleakness, the opposite of cheerfulness, coincides with the dominant emotion of sadness. It is not anger that defines most human beings who have become and who are taken to be soft, fragile, and weak; it is sadness, with its dreary and melancholic undertones, its dampness and coldness and dissipation. Nearly everyone is afraid of hurting someone else and of being hurt. Sadness is bred and bred some more. All this is very intriguing.
I think Spinoza might be of some help. A passion in Spinoza effectively means that we are acted on, i.e., are reacting to something. Joy is distinct from sadness in that joy marks a human being’s elevated powers of acting whereas sadness marks his being acted on such that his powers are ‘diminished or restrained’ (Spinoza, Ethics).
To understand why sadness is holding us in its grip, we need to reflect upon our contemporary (and erroneous) picture of human beings. If the dominant metaphysical picture is that human beings are sensuous animals imminently susceptible to being harmed (from speech acts, physical acts, misfortunes, ill will, unlucky birth), then this would give rise and legitimacy to a therapeutic dispensation in which the victim must, above all, be soothed. The proper response to the victim is ‘holding,’ ‘supporting,’ ‘soothing,’ etc. Softness begetting softness. The hurt will not go away, the story goes, because the world is a hurting place, yet the hurt will start to hurt less if it is soothed, calmed, mollified. What does such a sensuous animal need? The answer comes immediately–and it is wrong:
Compassion! Compassion! More compassion! We all need more compassion and need to become more compassionate!
But observe, from Spinoza’s point of view, what has actually occurred. A person is sad just in case he does not act but is acted upon and thereby his powers of acting are diminished. I was wrong when in earlier posts I tried to make a modest case for hope and hoping. I now think that hoping, wishing, fantasizing, and the like are simply manifestations of the diminishment in my powers of acting. Since I think I cannot act, only be acted upon, I am both sad and I conjure up a life that is better and that must remain at a distance. When I am sad, what I don’t do is ask: ‘How can I think this through and act?’
Given our picture of our being sensuous animals imminently susceptible to being harmed, tenderly vulnerable and given the ethical offshoot that our powers of acting are diminishing and diminished, it would follow that sadness would hold sway as we kept reacting instinctively to things without being able to step out of the picture to think clearly and act energetically. If we were to step out of the picture, then we would be able to unleash our powers of thinking and acting, and sometimes we would get angry too. Some things would just piss us off (for me, the preponderance of bullshit and sentimentality) so much that, becoming good Nietzscheans, we would channel that angry power into beautiful and good form.