When presumed to apologize, before being sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens and being impious” (euphemisms for caring about his fellow souls), Socrates told the Athenians that he deserved free meals for the rest of his life for working to save them, an exhaustive job he would keep on doing. The philosopher went against everyone’s opinions, not only scorning death and saying that it was not evil, but even refusing to go along with an attempt, by his own friends, to set him free from prison. What allowed this man to look at death in the face and to live forever from there on?
Well, he had what he called ‘daemon’.
This inner voice told Socrates what was right and what was wrong, both congratulating him if he did the former and correcting him if he did the latter. What was this “divine” voice that made him go against everyone, including, perhaps, himself?
It was reason. The ever-present reason that made him a “gadfly” for everyone who knew him. For he acted, with his mere presence, as a reminder of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. To examine our life is to choose our life; to choose our life often involves going against people’s opinions or, more precisely, against the opinions of the people they received theirs from. Thus, Socrates’ wisdom for the world might as well be summarized by a simple, imperative and unavoidable “THINK FOR YOURSELF.”
It would be easier to state how many big figures in human history did not go against other people’s views than to state the ones who did. And even then, the list wouldn’t be too long. Whether we speak about great philosophers like the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates or Plato (let alone Nietzsche), or whether we speak about scientific figures like Copernicus, Galileo or Newton (let alone Einstein); they all had one feature in common: They listened to and followed their own daemon.
Now, calling back Socrates’ help in Plato’s Euthyphro, we must recognize that following our inner voice is not good because great men and women have done so, but, rather, they are great precisely because they have followed their inner voice. Following our inner voice is, therefore, good in itself. And going against other people’s opinions, if necessary, is just going consistently with our own. I have argued that this inner voice is our reason, our own consideration of things, but where does it lead to and why is it important to follow it?
The inner voice goes towards the truth. Truth is the only thing that can make us truly happy. Note that I’ve added the word “truly”, to denote the difference between the Greek term “eudemonia”, which might be translated as flourishing, and our modern term “happiness”. This one speaks about our life as a whole, about the virtues we need to cultivate to live a good life; the other speaks simply about pleasure, paying no heed whatever to the need of knowledge.
It would be good to point out that the quest for the truth itself does not become good because it makes us happy, for it might be necessary to destroy our happiness in order to get it (here understood as a proto-happiness) but that the values and virtues needed for the search itself are the constituents of the true happiness. Values and virtues that, at the end, come from our capacity to think and choose the kind of people we want to be. To live consistently is necessary for happiness, and anyone who really desires to have it will exercise reason, a means to the truth and to the application of it.
What is the ultimate human desire but to be happy? Indeed, every desire, as Aristotle put it, is subject to it, including, of course, our desire for acceptance and belonging. Who is he who will reject true happiness for merely a feature of a smaller one?
As truth is necessary for happiness and as the quest for truth is usually necessary for truth, then the very quest implies a certain amount of what it leads to. The quest implies certain virtues that we must exercise, like intellectual integrity and strength of character. Quoting Steve Jobs, “Not letting the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice” is, for as long as it comes from these virtues, a logical implication of the search for happiness.
It naturally comes to mind, when one says that reason (which leads to knowledge) leads to happiness, the objection that feelings and desires might be at odds with it. But what are feelings and desires, if not consequences of our putative knowledge of the world?
If I came from a planet where no other species apart from mine had ever existed, and if I were to find a bear in a forest of the Earth, would I get scared? Likewise, if I happened to have no idea what money is for, and I happened to win the lottery, would I be happier in any way?
As Epictetus said, “It is not things themselves that disturb us, but our judgment of things.”
Feelings might, however, be out of our control, as is the case of a person that falls in love, but they are still born from the very judgment of the involved persons’ features.
I grant the fact that there exists a number of things with which the human being is naturally irrational, like fearing a picture of a snake or thinking that it is more dangerous to fly on an airplane than it is to drive through a highway, as many psychological studies have pointed out. But this, too, can be rationalized as an unavoidable irrationality we must take into account.
Yet, if our feelings and desires come from reason and have a reason, can they not mean something we cannot see? Is “following our heart”, as the second part of Steve Jobs’ advice goes, reasonable?
I say yes, because our hearts can insist on something we do not give enough importance to, once it departs from reason, and because they are closely linked to something Steve adds, too: “Follow your intuition.”
Our intuition is like an implicit reasoning, quite often impossible to be put into words, one that might notice data our conscious reason does not see at all. Thus, many an accident has been avoided by people who follow their intuition, just for them to remember later the exact cues that led them to the conclusions they could not understand before.
Our heart and intuition must be our third eye, the helper of our reason. And, given that it is as dangerous to follow them as it is to ignore them, to do so takes the same courage that standing up for our own opinions takes.
It requires, in summary, the courage to be happy.