Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living…”
Interestingly, I find that the moments I am most pensive and introspective, reflecting on life and the universe, often come about when I’m standing by myself, smoking. It’s as if I’m taking one step closer to my ultimate demise with each drag I take, yet it allows me to take time away from the hectic pace of reality and sit back, relax and silently ponder over what I’m doing with myself, where I’m going and what I must do before said demise comes. Like the smoke emanating from my cigarette, the irony of the situation smacks me right in the face; it’s just like when someone’s life flashes before their eyes – and they then truly begin to reflect on their life – just as they’re about to die. I sometimes wonder what philosophers would say about smoking, which is why I’m writing this post. Ultimately, I feel any discussion over the ethics of smoking is a farce, but it’s food for thought anyway.
Smokers are always confronted with daunting life-changing decisions such as, “should I really be spending hundreds of bucks a week on cigarettes?” or “is the pursuit of fleeting pleasures granted by smokes worth the risk of developing lung cancer and other diseases?”. In this sense, smokers are more likely to examine their lives than non-smokers, who wouldn’t have to worry about such significant decisions on a daily basis. Smokers are constantly examining and re-examining who they are and what they’re doing, just like how a fugitive is constantly looking out for his safety. Socrates once said (or at least Plato once said he said) that an unexamined life is not worth living. So, for a smoker, wouldn’t this mean that a life without smoking – which doesn’t force him or her to examine him-or her-self – is also not worth living? In other words, wouldn’t Socrates say a life without smoking is not worth living…
Additionally, a smoker would also realise – having had smoking put things into perspective for him or her – that you only live once and, accordingly, life is brittle and ultimately trivial and meaningless. Smoking highlights the fragility and insignificance of life in the overall scheme of things, such as when smokers justify their consumption of tar and other toxic chemicals by saying, “fuck it, we’re all gonna to die anyway”. We live on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam; we are but grains of sand in an hourglass; we are a puff of smoke rising into the atmosphere – here for an instant and gone the next. Therefore, not even an examined life would seem to be worth living…
OK, I’m talking shit here. But smoking does put things into perspective and perspective is one of the most important things to have in life. Does that mean people should take up smoking? No, probably not. There are plenty of ways to gain perspective, most of which probably don’t necessitate developing an addiction or coughing up a lung.
Nietzsche: “If smoking doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger…”
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.”
~~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Of course, it should be said that Nietzsche never uttered the now uber-famous maxim, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, to which he is ascribed and nor would he have ever approved of smoking, having been fervently against other substances such as alcohol and religion. However, the motto encapsulates his philosophical outlook concerning suffering. Nietzsche firmly believed that suffering was a means to happiness and humans should strive to tackle suffering to become ubermenschen (or supermen) just as they would aim to scale a mountain to reach the top. So adamant was he that humans should confront suffering that he made the radical statement above, that it would have been compassionate of him to wish suffering on others, so that they were able to overcome it and grow emotionally and mature in so doing.
And smoking causes suffering, through all the diseases it can inflict and all-consuming addictions it can create. So, using Nietzsche’s logic, wouldn’t he wish that humans should smoke in order to overcome the suffering that it causes and become better people in the long run? Wouldn’t Nietzsche take up smoking to try to overcome a lung cancer or just to make his friends and relatives despair over it? Of course, it sounds like a cop-out – just as it would when a soccer player scores an own goal to lose a match for his team to teach his team-mates a lesson in humility – and I’m sure that’s not what the man meant (but then again, I’m not that sure, considering it’s Friedrich bloody Nietzsche we’re talking about here). But it is interesting – and refreshing – that someone sees suffering as the root of pleasure. Today in Western society, we are so immersed in utilitarian perspectives – which Nietzsche hated, mind you – making us look to maximise our comforts and pleasures, and minimise our suffering and try to avoid it. Nietzsche saw things inversely, and saw despair as the beginning of the road towards happiness, like beginning at the bottom of the ladder is the start towards getting to the top. However, just make sure you don’t fall off the ladder and die in the meantime.
Seneca: “Fate rules the affairs of mankind with no recognizable order…”
Stoicism is perhaps the most consoling of all philosophies. Seneca, a major philosophical figure in Imperial Rome, was one of the most famous stoics. His core philosophy was that humans are not in control of their destinies and all their frustrations and anxieties come from an inability to accept this reality. For stoics like Seneca, reality is unyielding like a wall, while our wishes and desires are like forces trying to break through the wall. Accordingly, frustration is borne of a collision of a wish (the force) with an inflexible reality (the wall). The sources of our satisfaction lie beyond this wall and instead of accepting reality and moving on (scaling the wall and maneuvering the softest landing possible, we try to run straight at through it, head-first. The more unwavering our reality (the harder the wall) the more frustrated and upset we become (the more we are hurt by trying to run straight through a wall).
So, how does this relate to smoking? Well anyone with an addiction will tell you that they are consumed in an unyielding reality through which they cannot penetrate by simply wishing they could. And this, people, is a great metaphor for life. We are all just like smokers addicted to harmful substances, cursing our fates but doing little to help ourselves, hoping we’ll fix our problems later in the future. We are addicted to success, to comforts and pleasures, to being wanted, accepted or, in some cases, popular, to money and ultimately, to all that which satisfies and perpetuates our egos and senses of self. If you want to get real deep, we are at the end of the day, addicted to our own survival, just like the animals we are. Stoics teach us to be stoic: to accept that we are enslaved by our egos, our wants and wishes, and that we will become most happy when we adjust them to sync- up with reality. Sometimes we may be able to change our reality a little bit (and wear down that wall), but most of the time we can only change and manage our expectations of reality, just as how we look for alternative options – plan Bs – when our preferred outcome doesn’t materialise.