When you are stuck in essay purgatory, your perception of the world changes. You burrow yourself like a little mole into your study alcove. Emerging on rare trips from your lair, the sky presses in oppressively, you glare enviously at fellow students, wrapped in the latest rug-scarf fashion objects, the merry sounds of banter ring harshly in your ears as you walk to the shop in your tatty study cosies to buy some crap food that you will regret eating. In the Spar you notice your reflection in the mirror. You have forgotten to shave but you can’t grow a decent beard either so you just look like you slept on a pile of dog moulting. As you climb back up the four stories of the Ussher to the philosophy section, your skin desiccating in the dry stale air of the library, your mind pickling in the acrid brine of abstract conceptions, you begin to wonder what is the point of it all.
Philosophy will do that to you. The writer Julian Barnes once said that studying philosophy at university “seemed to consist of telling you one week why the philosophy you had studied the previous week was entirely wrong.” When you do philosophy in college, you’re supposed to be learning the answers to the fundamental questions of the world (sort of, none of our lecturers actually said this explicitly), but there’s no consensus as to what these answers are, and there’s a long list of philosophers going back to Plato, all with distinctive arguments. A recent survey by Bourget and Chalmers of nearly 2,000 leading professional philosophers showed wide divergence in responses to a list of 30 major philosophical questions. So instead of shoring up your worldview you are confronted again and again with a battery of disputed and conflicting opinions about every issue you could possibly conceive of. No assumption, no matter how basic, is left unquestioned, and, faced with trying to establish the truth in the face of conflicting opinions developed by intimidatingly intelligent people who have dedicated their lives to their research, the best response is simply not to care. But that’s not an option when you have to write 10,000 words in a week. So you descend into essay purgatory, trying to wring words from the abstruse and overwritten sentences of philosophy dons, like squeezing lemon juice from a stone. Shocker: this “you” which I have been referring to is actually me.
But philosophy is not entirely useless. This period of essay purgatory has taught me some moderately useful life survival skills, life hacks I might call them if I were a twat. The skills are not profoundly useful, they are more applicable to circumstances of fairly grim but low-level misery. For example: waiting in the doctor’s office for the diagnosis of a nasty yet minor ailment, or sitting through dinner with your mother’s friend who is a massive loudmouth Lucinda Creighton fan.
Virtue ethics is one of the three main schools of moral philosophy. Unlike the other two – deontology and consequentialism – virtue ethics does not really care about coming up with criteria for how to act in specific situations. Instead it places an emphasis on how to develop virtuous character traits. Aristotle, its founder, thought that it is only through cultivating excellence in a wide range of complementary virtues that one can become truly happy. I had to do one of my essays on this.
Anyway, I have developed a virtue ethics specifically designed to help you not only survive, but thrive in periods of low-level misery. Who knows, it might help you to become truly happy… In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle enumerates a number of virtues which he thinks it necessary to develop in order to become virtuous, such as courage, temperance, and magnificence. Magnificence is a key virtue. My school of virtue ethics, however, has some different virtues in mind.
Virtue 1: Self-pleasuring.
Think I’m being facetious? Not at all. Masturbation is a topic of central and enduring relevance in philosophy. Karl Marx, in one of his early philosophical works, said that “Philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love.” Nietzsche, meanwhile, boasted of his “dangerously supple wrist.” In a 2005 paper, Young argued that: “Speaking ontologically, Heidegger’s theories can be developed to show that masturbation it is not privative, but “stretched” in time and place. Moreover, masturbation plays a practical role in the creative development of the self, including the self’s essential bodiliness.”
It’s free, it’s fun, and in this era of sex-positivity, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. You should definitely spend many hours cultivating excellence in this virtue.
Virtue 2: Culture
Feeling down? No problem, there are thousands of writers, musicians, filmmakers etc who have created artistic products perfectly tailored to your situation. Suffering from a vague and ineffable ennui due to living in the alienating and atomising culture of postmodern late capitalism? Read Murakami to see how a stoic and stubbornly individualistic young man deals with such problems by cooking delicious food, meditating in wells, and playing it cool with Sheep Men. Were you looking for a job and then you found a job, and are you miserable now? Do you wonder why you smile at people who you’d much rather kick in the eye? Well those are Smiths lyrics so you should listen to their entire discography so that you can hum a pithy Morrissey lyric to yourself in appropriately glum scenarios.
Virtue 3: Bitter internal remonstration
Has someone wronged you, even in the slightest way? Spend some time developing a thorough scheme for enacting your revenge. Dwell on how you will make them pay for the injustices they visited upon you. How sorry they will feel as they beg for mercy before your fingers close around their neck.
Virtue 4: Magnificence
This is perhaps the most important of all virtues. One must always be magnificent. So that’s it. Follow these rules and you will be virtuous, and therefore happy. Or at least not miserable.
Illustration: Daniel Tatlow