The question of what philosophy can do to help us deal with or overcome depression is a question that pops up almost every few weeks over on /r/askphilosophy—probably the best philosophy related place to ask philosophy questions you’ll find on the Internet— and often enough the answer is usually to first see a shrink and second to maybe read up on some of those nice Stoics; you should probably do both if you can, to be honest.
I have a history with depression, but I’m not going to share my entire life story here. I do, however, want to say that from my own experience, I gained a lot from philosophy—if not for overcoming depression completely, at least for coming to terms with it in important ways and coping with it. Since not all of us can afford to see a shrink when we need one and some of us are highly stubborn when it comes to the notion of needing someone else to figure ourselves out, many of us seek ways in which to help ourselves. There are a LOT of self-help books out there, but that industry keeps churning while the wheels of depression keep on turning for most of us, so clearly they aren’t quite working. When these things fail, it seems to be that some of us find it a common line of thought that if what’s needed is a change of perspective, then maybe finding a new point of view that convinces and satisfies may do the trick, and what could be more convincing than good old rational argument? If only we understood ourselves, we think, or maybe if we just knew what to do, we would be able to overcome depression.
Depression and Despair
Four thinkers above all had an immense impact in my understanding of despair, the feeling that dominated my psyche in the depths of my depression. They were Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Georg Hegel, and a non-philosopher many have heard of, Alan Watts.
From Marx, I mainly gained the confidence of the possibility of objective social science, a structural monism from the early Marx, and a disregard for purely intellectual abstract ethics. When one gives up the ideals of rigid reason, one can give up on the despair that comes from the feeling of impotence in making one’s fellow humans see that the world as it exists is unreasonable. With Marx, I was able to make sense of a world that had not made sense when I still held purely individualistic views on humanity which made me put a great deal of blame on individuals for their irrationality, a view which is quite embittering and misanthropic. I also gained from Marx an ontological view of ethics, which I partly connected to Aristotle’s objective normativity concerning the telos of things, that took that what was good for society and individual was what truly was essentially human; for Marx, this was free creative activity. One easily finds even a small comfort in the self-righteousness of being sure of what is true, good, and right—especially when it removes from one the urgency of individual action and weight to change the world.
From Kierkegaard, though I read him little, I gained an appreciation of despair itself. Despite the misery of despair, having a personal background with a long stretch of years where I had not known much feeling, I was very quick in grasping at my experience of despair as positive. Despair was not for me a horrible thing not wished to anyone, but rather became a sign of my own humanity. It was the human condition to despair, and it was in despair that we found the contrast which made good times so great, et cetera. Why, even if life and its emotional despair was so terrible as to end our lives, is despair not something interesting? I took seriously the notion of life as a narrative, one that was to me valuable even if merely interesting rather than happy. Kierkegaard somewhere says something along the lines of “All lives end, but not all conclude.” This, for me, was a beautiful way to view our personal lives and struggles for meaning. Not a long life, or a short life, but a life story that concluded, or at least aimed at a conclusion, was what we should hope for. I thought that my life, miserable as it was, might end without conclusion, but wasn’t it interesting in the end? Admittedly, it seems a morbid positivity on life, but hey, one copes how one copes.
I became aware around the same time of some general points of Hegel’s views on despair, and I likewise found solace in the inevitability, the necessity, and the constitutive part which despair played in our collective and personal lives. Like Kierkegaard, Hegel also holds to an ontological despair beyond the mere psychological feeling we are accustomed to consider when thinking of despair. We despair of knowing, we despair of love, we despair of incompleteness, we despair of our inability to be perfect—it seemed that despair was inevitable and ever present, yet it is also a necessary structure for our very being the kind of being that we are. Kierkegaard and Hegel humanized despair for me. It made despair not something which only defective or sick individuals experienced, but something all individuals were destined to experience in varying degrees—some of us just had a whole lot more than others. They who do not despair, one could say, are not human.
In Alan Watts, and Eastern mysticism in general, for a short moment, I found an extension of my views of the interesting aspects of despair in life. Watts, for those who don’t know, was a popularizer of Eastern mysticism—mainly his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Zen Buddhism and Hinduism in general. While he definitely touched on philosophical topics and issues, he did not deal with them with any deep philosophical rigor, so to call him a philosopher as some do—I once did—would be a bit too much. That said, Watts offered solace to those who despair and find no way out, for to him, life is meaningless and simply God’s ultimate game of chicken to see just how far it can go while believing itself to really be finite and individual. God issues aside, the positive nihilism that Watts offered was comforting when all that surrounds you is despair, when a past that haunts you is a series of traumas and unwelcome occurrences, and when the future seems hopeless. One can both take it that this historical existence of ours is not ultimately real as well as take it from a point of a narrative—and who does not find interest in the narrative of struggle even when it may be hopeless?
Of the four, only Watts has lost most of his influence on me, mostly due to the experience that the more I learned of the others, the less enticing Watts’ position became. This is most certainly to do with my own personal experiences in the time afterward, as well as strong personal interest and commitment to the social sphere, both of which drove me away from Watts’ nihilism, positive as it was in an individual sense of freedom. I no longer found his idea of Eastern ‘enlightenment’ interesting or desirable after I began engaging Hegel more seriously. I did look into the notion from the side of Buddhists and Hindus beyond Watts as well, but I also find no more appeal in theirs either.
Due to a significant set of life events and encounters, and a commitment to deep self-reflection and comprehension, I came to find a desire to live again, but not simply to live: I wanted to be human and live a human life, to know happiness and sorrow, to struggle along with others and for the betterment of most, if not all. In Marx, Kierkegaard, and Hegel, I found the acknowledgement of human suffering, its inevitability, its positive aspect in our constitution as individuals, the social dimension of humanity, and what we could hope to do about it. I found an intellectual appreciation to accompany a newfound experiential appreciation of the negative experience of the most positive emotions and relations in life. Eastern notions of enlightenment now seem to me like a running away from others, and while for some this may be their way of coping while living, it cannot be an answer for me.
Nowadays, I’m mainly focusing on my understanding of Hegel, but I would lie if I said I did not find philosophy beyond the major three to not be therapeutic in a personal sense. Sometimes I find myself in a few lines of Plato, a random bit by Spinoza, some bit by Benjamin, et cetera. Sometimes the strangest things strike me as deeply meaningful, even when dealing with metaphysical abstractions. The picture which the grand narratives, the great systems, give is perhaps itself a way to attempt to bridge that gap of incompleteness that I and many others feel.
While it may not be a cure, however, philosophy can be a great internal companion and aid to us in our darkest moments.