For the ancient Greeks, sôphrosune (σωφροσύνη) or temperance was a key virtue. The ancients understood that our emotions and desires can be excessive, and that a virtuous person must have a capacity for moderation. Sôphrosune was accordingly understood as something close to “self-restraint.” As with the other virtues, temperance is not innate; it must be learned. But what exactly does it mean, to be tempered and moderate in our endeavors? Is there something we can call a balanced life — not too wild and excessive, but also not too inhibited and frustrating?
In his book Unforbidden Pleasures, Adam Phillips points out that “there are always other things we want to do.” So much of what we want is forbidden or beyond reach. We live in a world of rules and restrictions in which our many desires must be repressed. But this can lead us into a trap. Our desire to be moral can make us want “to forget the multifariousness of our pleasures; to simplify (and sanitize) the hedonism in the service of traditional safeties.”
Phillips brings up the example of Oscar Wilde, who suggested that we should “seek out the immoral in order to see what we think we feel about it. [What if] we found the forbidden a little less forbidding? What if we used the idea of forbidden pleasures to play with, rather than to stop ourselves thinking?”
For Wilde, one should not seek to simplify life; one should seek to expand it. Society has a tendency to narrow our minds. There is something very gregarious in simply being what others want us to be. “Other people are relentless wanters for Wilde, monstrous in their greed, and in their greed for reassurance.”
John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that “he who lets the world […] choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” Ape-like imitation is the exact opposite of the artistic expression that Wilde longed for, which aimed to explore new things to value.
Men such as Wilde and Nietzsche point to some kind of possibility that one could love being alive. “The issue for them was not the difficulty of living, but the difficulty of really enjoying living.”
Wilde found an escape in art. For him, “art helps us to be as mad [as] we need to feel fully alive […] Great art, in Wilde’s view, enables us to forget ourselves, our rational, conforming, intelligible, law-abiding, too timid, explaining selves.”
“We are punished for our refusals,” Lord Henry Wotton says in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Every impulse we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us… the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Wilde’s book shocked many of its readers as it explored ideas and attitudes that were strictly forbidden in Victorian England.
“If disobedience can be a forbidden pleasure,” Phillips writes, “obedience can be an unforbidden one.” Unlike Wilde, he invites us to question whether there might not be some kind of pleasure in obedience.
“Who we obey and how we obey — and what we are doing when we obey — will be the defining factors in our lives, from the very beginning to the more or less bitter end. It is a question of who we take to be superior and why.” Phillips muses that “the word ‘obedience’ itself makes us think about legitimacy, about the pleasures of being agreeable, about what following a rule can lead you into.” But how exactly can we figure this out?
A philosophy of experimentation
Perhaps the best examples of experimentation are to be found in children, who both need to discover the world and are taught from an early age to follow rules. In many ways their relationship to rules reflects our own.
First, Phillips argues, children who are over-compliant have the pleasure of short-term safety, while “the non-compliant child is free to find out what the mother’s range might be, and, by the same token, what his range might be.” Non-compliance involves a discovery or revelation, especially the first time it is committed.
Second, “the compliant child resigns himself, the non-compliant child risks himself; the compliant child consolidates, the non-compliant child experiments.” One could say that the propensity for risk-taking is a matter of subjective perspective, in which the emphasis can be to limit potential loss or maximize potential gain.
Third, the compliant child is always at risk of eventually becoming a rebel, while the non-compliant child is at risk of wanting “a permanent state of revolution.” It is difficult to always follow a forbidding rule and never give in; and when we do defy it and win, we also risk making fools of ourselves by pushing our luck too hard.
Freud argued that the repression of our impulses is required for civilized society to exist. The Hobbesian belief that man is wolf to man — that deep down we are opportunistic, egoistic creatures capable of violence — has now become so widespread that it effectively constrains our field of possibilities.
“Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous and he must be very weak if he requires so much protection,” Phillips argues, “we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are essentially radically antisocial and dangerous to ourselves and others. We must be the only animal that lives as if this grandiose absurdity were true.”
Phillips notes that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, “forbidden pleasures have always coexisted with unforbidden pleasures in the Garden of Eden.”
The story of Eden should be read as an allegory of human nature. Its key message is that desire is a consequence of knowledge. For Adam and Eve, “all they know before the Fall is that there is something they must not do, which means there is something they must not want. But knowing this makes it known (and wanted).”
For Phillips, such knowledge had to be acted upon. “Something was sacrificed, or at least given up, and something else was gained […] Now, at least, they had done the worst, and they could discover, for better and for worse, what their life was like in the aftermath of the Fall, instead of what it was like in anticipation of eating the fruit. Real morality for them could begin only after the worst thing had happened, or rather, after they had done the worst thing. And so it might be for us.”
In a world of forbidden things, a certain degree of experimentation might be desirable. Someone who sinned just once at least acted, at least experienced and learned something real; that person is likely more trustworthy than someone who has never sinned and dogmatically follows rules. In this sense, having yielded to our impulses may be a good thing — in some cases — if it leads us to discovering something true about the world.
He commits a crime, who is not ashamed of his first.
— Publilius Syrus
A philosophy of experimentation would necessarily be concerned about outcomes, about the answer to “what if I tried this?” If one is inclined to experiment, it is better to do so through small trials and errors, minimizing the probability of extreme negative consequences, where one would put welfare at risk.
Human fantasy knows no bounds. Some wants may be too serious to warrant experimentation. So one should always experiment in such a way as to avoid inflicting serious harm to oneself and others.
Sometimes, however, we simply do not have the foresight required to gage whether something is excessive or not. Adolescents tend to be excessive in their behavior precisely because of the undeveloped sense of proportion in their risk-taking. This type of behavior will often lead to very hard lessons; lessons in which we come to learn that we are helpless creatures in an unforgiving world.
Accepting our helplessness
Phillips observes that “we can be competent, but we are always helpless.” We live in a world where we are all “helplessly desiring creatures,” in which our fate and our mind can torment us. In other words, the important thing to note about our human nature isn’t just our uncontrollable desires, it’s our helplessness. For Phillips, this helplessness never stops; it only progressively increases as we age.
He recounts his experience working on a ward for children with cancer. There was a child who had been brought in after having gone through several treatments. The mother told him, pointing to her daughter in the hospital bed, “We are relying on her now.” There is only so much that modern technology and medicine can do to shield us from our helplessness. “After all the help that is available, we are helplessly dependent on our own bodies.”
Being helpless means “having an impotence foisted upon us,” and organizing our life around this fact. Phillips believes that “helplessness is the precondition for human bonds, for exchange; you have to be a helpless subject in order to be helped, in order to be understood, in order to become a moral creature.”
“Our fundamental response to our helplessness is to create an enchanted world, a world of gods, a world in which we seek protection from our helplessness, but not engagement with it.” With maturity comes a realization of our fate: “It is almost as though the child underestimates her helplessness; or that what adulthood brings is a sense of just how helpless we really are.”
“The experience of helplessness can lure us into a nihilistic pact: if you give up on the experience of satisfaction, you can be protected.” This is the false promise of Stoicism, which seeks to achieve a complete detachment from our desires in order to protect us against the blows of fate.
Phillips then asks, “If helpless is what we are — there is no other way of being, no way of being anything else — how and why have we made it such a problem?”
The critic Denis Denoghue once wrote that “you can either resent the way life is ordained, or be intrigued by it.” Phillips thinks that “we are inclined — and perhaps even encouraged, even educated — to resent our helplessness, to be frightened of it rather than intrigued by it. Because we seek to relieve our helplessness we think of it as something that we suffer, or suffer from.”
Perhaps we would benefit from coming to terms with our helplessness, and from achieving an acceptance of our vulnerability. But then what should we make of all our frustrations?
A sense of frustration
In another of his works, entitled Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, Phillips writes that “tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic. Whether it is called ambition, the quest for love, or the search for truth, tragedies expose as simply as possible, what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like.”
For Phillips, “lives are tragic not merely when people can’t have everything they want but when their wanting mutilates them; when what they want entails an unbearable loss.”
This reflects one of my fundamental beliefs: that our lives are really just tragedies with happy moments. You may consider yourself happy right now, but that is a highly contingent state of mind. At some point, fate will remind you of life’s tragic bent: whether it is a serious health issue, the death of someone you love, the suffering of a child, or just your own inevitably deteriorating condition as you age. All of these are tragedies waiting to happen. You may not have experienced any of them yet, but that is likely just a matter of time.
Phillips astutely observes that “at the beginning of a tragedy everyone is a pragmatist; people have answers and believe that solutions probably exist […] Frustration is optimistic in the sense that it believes that what is wanted is available, so we might talk of frustration as a form of faith.”
Frustrations are born from the trials of life, in which we encounter opposition and difficult choices must inevitably be made. “To choose one thing may involve frustrating ourselves of something else. So a lot depends on whether we can bear frustration and whether we want to.”
There is “one ineluctable fact, one experience that is integral to our development, something that is structural to human relations right from their very beginning; and that is, that if someone can satisfy you they can frustrate you. Only someone who gives you satisfaction can give you frustration.”
For Phillips, our lives are “a project of recovery and restitution” from our frustrations, a long iterative process in which “the failure of an initial wished-for satisfaction leads to a more realistic satisfaction.”
We always face a choice “between evading frustration and modifying it. If thinking is the way to modify it, then attacking one’s capacity to think would be the evasion; failures of imagination would be the unwillingness to bear with frustration.”
“What is at stake in these problems and solutions is contact with reality. And reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us. We are tempted, initially, to be self-satisfying creatures, to live in a fantasy world, to live in our minds, but the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality.”
The problem for Phillips is that “there is nothing more opaque than our frustrations.” He points out that “learning from experience means finding ways of making your need compatible with living in the world.” But this requires a certain capacity for reflection and self-assessment. “If we can’t think our frustrations – figure them out, think them through, phrase them – we can’t seek our satisfactions. We will have, as they say, no idea what they are.”
“Knowledge liberates,” Isaiah Berlin writes in his Two Concepts of Liberty, “not by offering us more open possibilities amongst which we can make our choice, but by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible.”
In the end, “it is only from our sense of frustration that we get a clue about the possibilities of satisfaction.” One gets a sense of youth being a period of experimentation and frustration; as we get older, we end up forming a more realistic view of the world, which offers a hope of greater contentment. However, it is a journey in which we should remain wary that “some frustrations have only tragic solutions.” Such tragic outcomes very often have their root in excess.
Phillips wonders, in his book On Balance, “What would it be to be a person whom no one could easily describe, or whom no one could come up with a description of that seemed pertinent or useful or illuminating? When we meet one of these people – and we are more likely to meet them in fiction in the novels, say, of Dostoyevsky than in the novels of Jane Austen, it exposes the tacit knowledge, the tacit assumption, that we tend to live by; that there are many people whom we think we do more or less get.”
We have a tendency to label people, to categorize them — he is conservative, she is stubborn, he is this, she is that, and so on. But this shows a very limited knowledge at best. “It seems odd to say that we know people but we don’t know them as desiring creatures […] We may know what food they like, their favorite color, their artistic tastes and distastes, and these are things we can know. But it amounts to very little.”
Our judgments of others, and our reaction to their excesses actually reveal more about ourselves. “All truths,” the philosopher Alain Badiou writes, “are woven from extreme consequences.” It’s only when we encounter extraordinary situations that we really learn about our true preferences.
“Perhaps the road of excess, through the very disillusionments it produces, is a source of wisdom; that it is not the alcoholic but the recovering alcoholic who has something to tell us. Perhaps as part of growing up we need to be excessive – to try to break all the rules just to be able to find out what, if anything, the rules are made of, and why they matter.”
Thomas Mann once wrote of a story of his childhood, in which he recounts that after nagging his parents to buy him sweets, his father finally decided to take him to the shop to eat as much candy as he wanted. Somehow the experience did not turn out to be as the young Mann had expected. “We were amazed how quickly we reached the limit of our desire, which we had believed to be infinite.”
Our appetites have a natural limit; and yet our desires seem to have endless proportions. “It is worth wondering why, in our fantasy lives, we tend to be excessive; why, at least in fantasy, excessive appetite and its satisfaction is so appealing to us.”
For Phillips, it is as if we humans are “frustrated animals who can’t easily identify what we need, and who are terrified of the experience of frustration.” It is as if we “conceal from ourselves what we hunger for.”
He offers an interesting analysis of the child’s journey to adulthood. For Phillips, “adolescents are excessive compared with the children they once were and the adults they are supposed to become. But adolescence, at least for modern people, seems to be peculiarly difficult to grow out of. Indeed, one of the biggest problems that adolescents now have is that the adults often envy them; and what contemporary adults tend to envy about adolescents is their excessive behavior.”
“It would be comforting to think that if we could only locate our real needs and get them met we would no longer need to be the animals that we are: excessive in our appetites, and excessive in our refusals of appetite. And yet it seems more likely that we are always going to have only a limited capacity to recognize our needs.” It is as if there is something about our wants that remains forever hidden, or impossible to understand.
It is not that reality is disappointing, but that fantasies, in their very excess, are unrealistic. We always want more than we can have; but we are more inclined to blame the world for letting us down than to notice just how unrealistic our desires are.
We discover in adolescence that “the people and the experiences we want are surprisingly elusive.” For most of us, when we were children, “when we cried with hunger we were fed. When we desire someone, when we long for someone sexually, as adults, it is never that simple. The excesses of fantasy keep us hopeful in a very uncertain world.”
As a therapist, Phillips observes that “it is not unusual for us to feel that life is too much for us. And it is not unusual to feel that we really should be up to it; that there may be too much to cope with – too many demands – but that we should have the wherewithal to deal with it.”
“Faced with the stresses and strains of everyday life it is easy now for people to feel that they are failing; and what they are failing at, one way or another, is managing the ordinary excesses that we are beset by: too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on.”
Many of his patients excuse themselves saying “perhaps I am overreacting but…” Phillips counters this by proposing that “it is impossible to overreact,” that “when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be.”
In other words, we should not only be concerned about the intensity of our emotions. Rather, the very fact that we have an emotional reaction (say, anger) tells us more than we think about our personal preferences. Negative emotions often provide important information, in the sense that they tell us something about circumstances that we would prefer to avoid.
Yet not all real-world situations can be avoided, and challenging circumstances remain inevitable. “If the cry of a crying baby wasn’t, in some sense, too much for us – something we have to respond to, something we need to stop, if possible – the baby wouldn’t survive. And all parents at some time feel overwhelmed by their children; feel that their children ask more of them than they can provide.”
As Paul Portesi says, “most don’t realize but in life, you’re brought to your knees before you can truly stand up.” What Phillips invites us to think about is our capacity to bear with frustration, and to what extent we can come to terms with our helplessness.