During the three years I spent at Queen’s, I took a fair few political philosophy courses, all of which were engaging, interesting and even, occasionally, enlightening.
But, barely any of which, thanks to the nuerone-obliterating lifestyle I was leading at the time, can I recall with much clarity today.
Isn’t it a comic irony that students are gifted three years and thousands of pounds to improve their minds, and we spend both trying to destroy our brains?
‘The perfect waste of time and money’, I say, but some craic, all the same.
Anyway, the topic of this column is not the ubiquitous and shameless squandering of time, money and opportunity, that many would insist is the hallmark of places like the Holylands.
No; today’s chunk of column is actually based on something I heard during a ‘Modern Political Thought’ lecture about half-a-decade ago.
The ‘something’ I am referring to is an incredibly simple and insightful observation made by an 18th century philosopher; one which I found to be so compelling in its truth, that even the excesses of the busy extracurricular life I was leading at the time ,have proven insufficient to dull my memory of it, some five years on.
The man who came out with the spake I’m alluding to was a bucko by the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau – a Swiss philosopher of the Enlightenment.
Now, if my misty memory can be half-trusted, JJR was a bit like one of them boys who seem like the organic offspring of their favourite bar stool; he was prone to sitting about, probably chain-smoking, giving his opinion on things that nobody asked him about.
One of his favourite things to publicly ponder was how a person’s natural freedom is compromised within an organised society.
“What do yous think of that?” he’d ask his exhausted company.
Then, finishing his jar and lighting another, auld JRR would wreck every head in the pub with a long, unsolicited lecture on how security and governance could be squared with liberty.
“I’m going home if he is going to start this again tonight,” the boys would whisper to one another, adjusting their wigs in agitation.
And the reason JJR’s drinking partners probably couldn’t stand him when he started into his political pontificating was because, regardless of how original and important his thoughts were deemed by the intellectuals of his day, they had no obvious application in, or bearing on, the life of the average person.
However, while it’s usually right to leave the pub when your gut says so, you always risk missing something important; perhaps, a diamond in the dirt, a ruby among a drunkard’s ramblings. This was JJR’s ruby…
Paraphrasing, he said, people were generally happy when they were in ‘the state of nature’ – this was a kind of imagined pre-societal wilderness, where human beings lived separate from one another.
Then, goes the theory, society was born and alongside it, from which emerged the devil of comparison. Comparison, according to JJR, is the mother of much of our misery. The thing which underpins the majority of our unhappiness.
This, to me, seems spot on. And now, with the way social media has caused the world to contract, this problem seems worse than ever. At least in the 1700s, you could only measure yourself against that which you could see in the flesh.
Your teeth were black, and crumbling and stalactite-like, your brother’s were brown, and crooked and chipped.
You were single and lonely and desperate, but your married neighbour was sick and so was his wife and so were their kids.
You had a bony and malnourished and wilting horse… And so on.
Point being, the comparisons you made – which no doubt could still be the source of terrible anguish – were based on the world around you. How this situation is made worse by the technology of today does not have to be reiterated.
However, across the street from this problem lives the solution.
Just as comparison can be the basis of unhappiness, so, too, can it be a source of contentment. It all depends on what you compare yourself to.
JJR correctly pointed out that we tend to measure ourselves against people we see as above us, thus creating the illusion that we are smaller, weaker, and/or lesser than we actually are.
My suggestion is this that we look from the other direction.
So, when you find you’ve fallen into this self-diminishing, psychological trap of looking up and feeling small, invert your gaze and peer down the line.
Look close enough, and you’ll finally find that you haven’t got it so bad after all.
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