Plutarch's Table

In Praise of Levity | December 4, 2010

I went to a great party a few nights ago.  It was in support of a wonderful cause, the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, so everyone was feeling good, and in addition to great music, food and drink, there were some really interesting people to talk to. I am pretty sure that I didn’t engage in any small talk at all, since everyone I met seemed to be passionate about something really important and eager to share their ideas and their visions.  But it was a party, and appropriately during all this talk about important things everyone was having fun.  This got me thinking about Nietzsche’s critique of seriousness, of the heaviness he sees as such a destructive part of the legacy of Western thought and civilization, which is a large part of my inspiration for the salons.   His view is that if you think that everything you do and say will have consequences for your eternal existence, then living becomes a pretty serious business.  What is important – grown-up matters for mature people – absolutely cannot be fun to talk about.  I think we can agree that what is never fun – at a party or anywhere else – are fanaticism and dogmatism, and these just aren’t an option for those with a light-hearted attitude to life, the laughers and the children.  For Nietzsche the extreme nihilism that is the modern predicament can turn with the flick of a switch – a radical change of perspective – into the recognition that life has no transcendent meaning, and that it waits for us to affirm it.  In contrast to the denial of the value of this life in favour of that other (true and eternal) life that Nietzsche sees as having saturated our thought with such heaviness, nihilism can lead us to affirm this life, to love the earth and our bodies and temporal existence in all its fleeting richness.  When the shepherd in the vision at the climax of Thus Spoke Zarathustra finally bites off the head of the snake that is choking him, he is transformed into a “dancing, laughing being”, a powerful, healthy and unserious but philosophical sort of creature such as the earth has not yet seen.  Zarathustra is a prophet for the coming of this new creature, preparing the way for humans to live less seriously and with more substance.  The superhuman lives kinder and smarter and has way more fun doing it.

If it goes without saying that we could all stand to be a little less serious some of the time, it can be hard to imagine being less serious when it comes to those things that we hold to be of the highest importance.  What if you are fighting for social justice?  Is there any sense to the claim that you should be less serious about this endeavour?  Perhaps not, but my guess is that there would be a lot less injustice in the world in the first place if there were less gravity.  We are serious, I think, when our positions involve our own vested interests.  Henry Miller talks about the “ferocious gaiety” of a certain philosophical indifference that comes with the recognition that “all is flux, all is perishable”.  This refusal of attachment has a very Buddhist element to it, but in Miller’s more Nietzschean view it is very much a sense of dying to moralistic gravity in order to be born to a genuinely celebratory love for the temporal.  Miller as he describes himself is certainly capable of some reprehensible behaviour, but I always think he is the kind of person who would be utterly incapable of real baseness on the scale we now see it every day on the news, and just because of this lightness, this lack of personal investment in anything but expanding his perspective as much as he can.  The very thing that makes him seem cruel to the overly serious – he seems particularly talented at bringing impious hilarity to funeral scenes in Tropic of Capricorn, for example – is what makes him relatively harmless, as well as enormously fun and full of life.  Making light of things, and its concomitant irreverence, seems incompatible with genuine cruelty.  I wonder – if we take some position to be of great importance and are passionate about it without any personal interest whatsoever, would it not necessarily be a good, affirmative position?  Or put another way, is it even possible to be passionate about something that is negative and destructive without some personal interest guiding us?  I suspect not.  Of course, it must be nearly impossible to be entirely free of personal interest in anything.  But we can aim for that, and can aim to be less serious people, without having to let go of the notion that some things really are more important than others.  Some things call for our commitment and passion and dedicated attention, and may be harder to laugh about, but in this short life if we begin to take anything too seriously we may get stuck in the trap of dogmatism.  Since even good causes can turn dogmatic, I think it is imperative to practice philosophy in the spirit of levity, and to make a clear distinction between the important and the serious.



  1. Lots to talk about here – gallows humour vs. stoicism vs. proportionality (‘The Situation is Hopeless But Not Serious’), and so on. Regarding personal interest/detachment, I prefer Kierkegaard’s position (to my stereotypical understanding of Buddhism): to be invested in something, and yet not be heartbroken if it ends in failure. Of course, this may not be psychologically plausible, and hence the seemingly more realistic Buddhist detachment (if you don’t care about it, it can’t harm you). Not that is it so easy not to care.
    Another issue, for me: nobody expects someone to ‘cheer the fuck up’ after they’ve JUST lost a loved one (for example). Making jokes/light of events, within a certain short time-period, is surely symptomatic of something else. So, the old ‘tragedy + time = comedy’ comes up. But how much time is appropriate? And for what kind of event? What if one is stared in the face with tragedy everyday – isn’t that a proper licence to be a serious/miserable sod?
    I don’t know – pass the cheesecake.

    Comment by John Mullarkey — December 5, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    • Thanks, yes – a lot to think about here. I was always uninterested in Buddhism because I believed that it called for detachment in precisely the sense of holding back any real engagement – which really is the Stoic position, and about that I’ve always thought ‘all very sensible if you don’t want to experience living very much’. But I have started reading more about Buddhism (particularly Stephen Batchelor) and have discovered that detachment does not really mean not caring but means freeing ourselves from our enchainment to habit, compulsion and (dogmatic) belief. The Buddhist ‘emptiness’ is about seeing things, including ourselves, as part of the unceasing flow of life and becoming. This keeps us open and fluid and vulnerable, and means that we can both suffer and celebrate life more deeply, and it is also, in Batchelor’s account, the beginning of compassion. My view of Miller is that he is deeply compassionate, but his lack of investment in any system of beliefs and his lack of concern for being seen as a nice guy (a grasping sense of self that tends to be extremely important to people) allows him to expose the stupidities and cruelties of nice, well-behaved people. He is engaged without what I have called ‘vested interests’ – without grasping, to put it in Buddhist terms.

      As for cheering the fuck up – actually more and more people DO expect this, but I’m certainly not one of them. In fact, in my happiness discussions I always have to argue rather vigorously against the positive thinking trend – there’s a lot of self-help nonsense out there telling us to think good thoughts and everything will be better. So I have to distinguish what I am saying about levity from positive thinking, and though they might seem similar they are, I think, worlds apart. If the release from moralistic gravity allows us to suffer more as well, it is because we are left with no respite or reward in any eternal or moral realm, and this is exactly what allows us to see life as a less serious matter. So suffering, which is deeply necessary, is not opposed to levity, I think. Nietzsche as you know objects both to the religious perspective and to the leveling out of all this that is characteristic of the ‘happy’ people – the position that can neither laugh at life nor feel it very deeply, because it is concerned with superficial contentment. And Miller accentuates his irreverence in order to make a point, I think, but it is evident that he suffers intensely.
      As for misery, I hope it’s only Rhonda Byrne (the author of The Secret) who would tell people facing real tragedy to cheer up (she argued that the tsunami victims could have avoided the disaster if they had been putting out more positive energy).

      So I would say that my objection isn’t to misery or to suffering, but to two slightly different versions of the same thing: 1) moralistic seriousness that considers both suffering and enjoyment to be unseemly and impious and 2) the positive thinking position that refrains from engaging deeply in life out of fear of the vulnerability of either extreme.

      As for Kierkegaard, he seems to me like the heaviest of heavy thinkers, though he can laugh and suffer pretty spectacularly…I just suspect that his suffering is too guilty and his laughter not real levity because there is a bit too much resentment in it.

      Comment by Joanna Polley — December 5, 2010 @ 11:11 am

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About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.







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