A friend of mine wrote a book. Well, he has written a few and edited some more on top of that. But one of his most recent is, in my estimation, a book that pretty much everyone should read. If you are looking for fluff, shallow affirmation, or a feel-good self-help sort of book, move along. But if you would dare look into the dark depths of human existence, stare it in the face, and still find meaning and joy in life, then read my friend’s book.
A great thing about this book is that while it is chock-full of philosophical, literary, and artistic depth, it is accessible and readable for non-specialists. My friend is Brian Treanor, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. The book to which I refer is Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living.
Disclosures and disclaimers: Brian has not asked me to write anything here on his behalf or to promote his book. I am choosing to write this here because I think this book is very important and certainly worth reading in our times. My thoughts here are my own and, while I think I interpret Brian reasonably well, any shortcomings here do not reflect defects in the book, just my ability to articulate its meaning. All that said, this post is not a review of the book. I did a full review for the journal Worldviews. Here, I want to focus my attention on a sole sentence at the end of chapter two.
“Joy does not deny the absolute reality of death, dissolution, and evil; it denies their absolute significance.”Brian Treanor, Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living (p. 45). Emphasis original.
A little background will be useful. Most of us come into this world being cared for, our every need being attended to. We experience love from parents, siblings, family, and friends. The world is a beautiful place. We are dwelling in light. This is a naïve joy that has not yet encountered the darkness or the weight of hardship. Inevitably, though, we have that youthful, naïve joy snatched away from us. The darkness finds us. Reality is not the least bit fun and it, as Brian writes, “would counsel despair.”
But he asks whether despair is the “last word” or even the “only word.” We can remain in the dark; but, in hope, Brian proposes that it is possible to live “after dark” and that it is likewise possible that we can teach ourselves to do so. After the dark, perhaps we can find a “second naïveté” after that initial one has been shattered and consumed by the dark. Brian says that “goodness, beauty, life, and meaning” are stubbornly persistent. So, while we do not try to slip back into innocence and deny that the darkness ever was, we nonetheless stubbornly persist in the belief that joy remains.
With that background (first naïveté → darkness → second naïveté), I return to the quotation cited above. Joy in life does not deny the absolute reality of death, dissolution, and evil. Joy denies the absolute significance of these things. First, I want to point out the importance of the word absolute here. The character of the reality of death and evil in the world is truly absolute. It is simply not possible to sidestep them. But while the reality of death and evil is absolute, their significance is not. Death and evil cannot not be real, but what they mean, that which they sign-i-fy, is not all there is.
Significance, here, is a loaded word. Significance is what something means, the truth to which something points. Death and evil do indeed have significance—undeniable (and dark) truth. Death points to our finitude and absolute contingency in this world. Evil in the world points to so many things, such as our failure to live up to the best of our humanity; or that often bad happens and there is no “why” that, if we could just find it out, we could find solace. But this significance is not absolute. It is not the only meaning in the world or even the greatest, most powerful meaning.
Yes, from the moment we are born, each and every one of us is on a short journey to the moment of death. But there are many more moments in between those two moments! There are moments of joy and moments of sadness. But shall we let the sadness deny the persistent reality of the sources of joy? Perhaps the joy that we can have is what Brian Treanor has called melancholic joy. Melancholic joy does not deny the sadness, but neither does it allow the sadness to deny joy and force us to despair (despair denies any and all hope).
What good is good anyway?
I have an acquaintance who, after experiencing a tragedy, nearly slipped into despair. After her tragedy, she fell into the temptation of believing death and evil had an absolute significance. She would point out other horrible tragedies, such as a news report of a man who had shot his wife and child, and then turned the gun on himself. Citing every bad thing she could find that happened day to day, she concluded that there was no point in doing good because we can never eradicate evil. Why volunteer at a soup kitchen, for example, or donate to good causes when evil would just keep pushing, insisting on itself. Doing good had become meaningless.
But is the primary point of doing good to eradicate all evil? Is it an all or nothing situation where one or the other must be absolute? If it is, then it is indeed pointless to do good because it will not succeed. The point of doing good, however, is no more, no less than doing good is a good thing to do and it is good to do it! Every good we fail to do is good that may have been, but never was. Or worse, a good that is not done leaves a gap to be filled by evil. For example, every hungry person that we do not feed when we could have, is a person that remains unnecessarily hungry. Every act of kindness not done robs a fellow human of being reminded that they have worth.
This is not a quantitative game or an aim to aggregate good. Good is just done for itself, even if that good is the only one that ever was. Embracing that “stubborn persistence of goodness, beauty, life, and meaning,” even in spite of evil, ugliness, death, and absurdity, is worthwhile for itself, and the alternative is only to add to the latter. I think Brian is right. Entering into a second naïveté is something we should make every effort to do. Perhaps our joy must be melancholic, but it is no less joy. We do not deny the absolute reality of things we wish were not, but we can and must deny their absolute significance.
I will take melancholic joy any day over no joy at all.