In my recent adventures in the series of tubes, I keep coming across the idea that risk is essential to a good life—that in order for a person to really live fully, they need to experience the possibility of losing the good things in their life. I first ran into this idea while reading an interview with Cătălin Avramescu, a Romanian political philosopher who recently wrote a book called An Intellectual History of Cannibalism. The interview is fascinating for a variety of reasons, but Avramescu’s comments on the welfare state really caught my attention:
That is what makes me critical of the modern welfare state. It is too safe, too comfortable, too orderly. I imagine the realization of our freedom requires us to stare evil in the face. […] The national states of “old Europe,” in spite of their shortcomings, evolved as strong and efficient states. They were the result of a Hobbesian selection from a population of predatory states. Prussia, England, and Sweden are eminent products of this evolution. We have now arrived at a moment when weakness is the norm, the “new black,” as the saying goes. The result of this programmatic weakness of the state is the rise of asymmetrical threats. The ecosystem of weak states opens new niches to old and new forms of exploitation, from hacking and terrorism to the systematic abuse of welfare programs.
In other words, Avramescu thinks that the welfare state makes us soft, that it exposes us to being taken advantage of by those who would game the system for their own benefit—or just to take down the system. Now, I think this Spencerian emphasis on strength and weakness is really dangerous. It’s this kind of thinking that contributed in part to the first, if not both, of the World Wars. So I dismissed Avramescu’s comments without much more thought.
But then I read Richard Klein’s “The Case Against Health,” which raises a related principle. Klein’s article is adapted from a longer book (also called Against Health– I would love to read it), in which he argues that our current ways of thinking about and practicing health actually hurt our well-being more often than they help it. Instead, he advocates an Epicurean approach that considers pleasure to be just as important as health to our well-being. But this approach, of course, entails some risks:
In a sense, of course, that is precisely what distinguishes adult pleasures* from childish ones: adult pleasures can quickly become habitual. But without risk, there is no adult pleasure, and risk is what keeps us alive, not just living on. […] It belongs to the very nature of adult pleasure that it has the potential for getting out of hand. If it did not entail the risk of being immoderate, the pleasure it procures would lose its intensity.
(*For those of you with your minds in the gutter, that’s not what he’s talking about.)
And this really rang true to me. Maybe the same reasons people like roller coasters or bungee jumping—the thrill of putting your safety at risk—is behind all our pleasures, to a greater or lesser extent. Maybe the things that are important to us are meaningful primarily because they’re not guaranteed. Our political freedoms are never fully secure, our penchant for a few drinks after dinner could slide into alcoholism, and so on. So while I still think Avramescu’s rhetoric about “strong and efficient states” is highly pernicious, he and Klein do seem to be on to something. Maybe sometimes we do have to stare evil in the face to remind ourselves to value and protect the things that are important to us.
P.S. For the literary buffs out there, John Milton was getting at something similar with regards to censorship in his Areopagitica. He wins me over with that awesome title alone.
(Photo by sxc.hu)