We live in the Information Age.
I call it the “Too Much Information Age.”
It’s hard to think. Our brains swirl in a hurricane of statistics, opinions, regulations, memes, blog posts, podcasts, and other media. It seems like you can’t take a stance on anything without hearing a howling wind of resistance. There’s no intellectual safe space.
Sometimes, you just want to take intellectual comfort, as you might in a well-ordered living room. You want to kick up your mental feet and breathe calmly.
And, despite the culture’s howl, I think it’s possible.
But first, you need furniture for the living room: items that provide a place to sit or lie down and also provide a semblance of order. I think there are dozens of pieces of intellectual furniture. I hope to explore them in future pieces.
But for now, I offer five basic pieces of furniture.
Like a couch or chair, each piece is solid but simple.
Each piece is solid in the sense that it doesn’t require anything else. It just “is,” like a chair, which needs nothing else to justify its existence. It could be in a room all by itself and still perform the function of giving us a place to sit.
Each piece is simple. Like the chair that gives us a place to sit, it doesn’t do much of anything else.
Each piece, in other words, requires no proof or justification, but neither does each piece give us any proof or justification. Each piece provides intellectual comfort but provides no intellectual weapons.
Each piece settles nothing but ought to inform everything.
You could argue that these truths are impractical, but here’s the thing: you can take each of these truths and build on them, especially by combining the basic truths in different ways. If you furnish your mental living room, they help clear muddled thinking and can, when applied, lead to conclusions that are the most practical things in the world.
Couch: The rational creature cannot wish not to be happy.
This observation by the thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas is huge. It probably deserves more space than the other furniture items below combined.
The key takeaway: It’s not even possible not to want happiness.
Even if you wallow in self-loathsomeness, it’s only because, at some level, you believe it’s what will make you happy.
Let’s say you have low self-esteem and conclude that you’re worth nothing and deserve even less. You’ve concluded that you neither have nor will attain happiness. But you still desire it. The mere act of reaching such a conclusion is an attempt at happiness: you’ve set your expectations really (really, really) low, so you have no disappointment, which results in you being a bit happier.
It’s unavoidable. Every one of us desires happiness.
This couch helps structure your mental living room in many ways.
It instinctively gives you a measure of goodwill toward others. All of us desire happiness. Happiness is a good thing. Therefore, all of us desire something good. That creep in the corner may have warped notions of what is good and what will make him happy, but he desires happiness, just like you.
It helps you understand yourself. No matter what you’re doing, you’re looking for your own happiness, whether it’s getting drunk at the bar or worshipping on Sunday morning: you’re reaching for happiness. Again, your specific effort might be wise or stupid, effective or ineffective, artfully or clumsily carried out, but the deepest desire is the same: the desire for happiness.
Chair: There is no desire which is not directed towards a good.
We cannot help but desire happiness. It follows that every desire is directed towards a good, at least as perceived by each individual.
“At least as perceived by each individual.” That part is crucial.
King Midas asked the god Dionysus to change everything Midas touched into gold. Dionysus, owing Midas a favor, granted it. As a result, everything Midas touched turned to gold, including food. He starved to death.
The problem is, we rarely know or see what we want, so we ask for, pursue, desire things that aren’t good. Our perception is wrong . . . almost always, unless you’re very wise, with the result that we ask for specific goods that aren’t goods at all.
Our tendency to desire things that aren’t really good and, indeed, are often evil or bad, is an intellectual problem. It’s not an existential problem. You can desire to be the demon child of a twisted surrogate gay love affair between Stalin and Hitler with all the accordant earthly power to carry out massive sinister deeds . . . and you are still desiring a good. The form you think the good takes is twisted and perverse and wrongheaded, but you’re still desiring a good.
Like the couch described above, deep tolerance is embedded in this. No matter how stupid, debased, or wicked someone’s desires might seem, he is reaching for something good.
Chair: Nobody can strive after evil for its own sake.
Midas desired gold; the modern person wants to win the lottery. Money, or the love of money, might be the root of all evil, but neither Midas nor the modern man desire evil. Even the devil worshipper isn’t seeking evil. Midas sees something good in the gold; the modern man sees something good in money; the devil worshipper sees something good in the devil. They’re all wrong to see such things as good, but none of them are seeking evil for its own sake.
We cannot wish not to be happy and therefore we all desire good and therefore we cannot strive after evil for its own sake.
Small Sofa: Man acts.
I’m not sure it gets more fundamental than this. Every person acts. Even when a person chooses not to act, he’s acting. Every second of your day entails an action, at least at some level.
Consider mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the effort to leave the world of “doing” and enter the world of “being.” It might the most anti-acting thing in the world: it is, by definition, refusing to act . . . refusing even to think about acting (doing).
Yet it is an act. It is the act of meditation, and many of us are increasingly choosing to pursue it because it takes us away from “doing” mode, which is where most of life takes place, and into “being” mode.
But, paradoxically, we must “do” meditation in order to leave the world of doing. We must perform the “act” of meditation in order to escape the world of action.
Coffee Table: In order to act, a person must choose.
Put another way: Every action is both an affirmation and a negation.
If you do one thing (an affirming act), you can’t do another thing (a negative act) at that moment or with that resource. If you spend a dollar on candy, you can’t spend that same dollar on beer. If you spend an hour at the gym, you can’t spend that hour at church.
Even if you choose to do nothing (“I’m just going to stare at the wall”), you’re still choosing: to do nothing (and/or to stare at the wall).
Arranging the Living Room
There are many other items of furniture. You could add a rug (“the act itself of choosing is morally neutral”), an end table (“suffering is real”), and other items of furniture . . . and you no doubt do so (consciously or unconsciously) every day of your life.
But I think those five are the most basic pieces of furniture every person should have in his mental living room.
Each person needs to arrange those pieces of furniture to bring together a larger worldview.
A person, for instance, can combine those five pieces of furniture and conclude, “Every action is intended to produce happiness or goodness.” From there, you can start to question whether certain actions are wise or stupid, depending on whether they produce happiness or goodness.
The drunk, for instance, might think he’s pursuing happiness or goodness, but we can all see the miserable results. The pieces of furniture above let us judge him for making such a mess out of things.
But they also require us to be merciful: he acted, as he must, in a manner that he thought would make himself happy, just like we all do.