The Pain Principle

There is a lot of misery in the world, it would be useless to deny it. The description of the world as a vale of tears surely conveys something to every one of us. And yet, all things considered, it could be worse, even much worse, at least for very large numbers of people.

I think that intellectuals are rather inclined to overestimate, or at least to dwell upon, the misery of both themselves and others, and often to misidentify its sources even when it is real enough. There are good reasons for this—I don’t mean morally good reasons, of course, but satisfactory explanations—which are not difficult to guess.

When we are miserable, we know it at once; when we are happy, we do not. Misery is immediate, happiness is retrospective. Moreover, it is generally easier to spot in others than is happiness, for it is more manifest. It is the same with heaven and hell: Heaven is very difficult to conceive of, but a thousand different hells spring to mind immediately, for example being stuck in a car motionless in a traffic jam forever and ever.

To deny that all is for the worst in this the worst of all possible worlds is often regarded by intellectuals as a betrayal of those who are miserable. Worse still is it not to be, or rather to claim not to be, miserable oneself. This is unfeeling: How can you bear or dare to be happy, or at least not miserable, when you know that there is so much suffering everywhere? If you want a reputation as a good human being, then, you have a duty to partake of the woes of the world, and not to insult the misery of others with either displays or feelings of contentment. Life is, and ought to be, appalling, at least until it be made perfect.

I often suffer from this déformation professionelle myself, for nothing is easier than to project one’s own desires or tastes onto others and to wonder how they can be content with their lives as they are. I would not like to be in their shoes, therefore they do not like to be in their shoes. I would not like to do their job, therefore they do not like to do their job, even if to all appearances they do like it.

Of course, their enjoyment of what I would not enjoy can be explained, or explained away: They must be dissembling. Do we all not dissemble sometimes, and appear to be content or happy when we are not? So when those unfortunates are smiling or laughing, they are not really smiling or laughing inside. As Pagliacci sings in the opera, why must I (they) laugh when my (their) heart is breaking?

They dissemble because they are oppressed but are obliged to appear content; their job depends upon it, and to be without a job would be even worse (even though, in fact, all is already for the worst in this, the worst of all possible worlds). When they smile or laugh, then, they have murder in their hearts. Their job is humiliating enough, but to have to pretend to like it! That is the icing on the cake, or rather the bitterest pill to swallow.

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