Badiou's Happiness Lesson


Is it selfish to want to be happy? On the contrary, thinks Alain Badiou: happiness is fundamentally egalitarian and to demand it, against its apparent impossibility, is a militant act. The interview below was translated by David Broder; see the original French text here.

(Photo: Badiou at Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Rapids, 2014)

What encounters proved most decisive in giving your life its direction?

Alain Badiou: Before theatre and philosophy, it was something that my father said. Indeed, during the Second World War I had this screen memory take form, which was of decisive importance for my subsequent existence. I was six years old at the time. My father, who was in the Resistance – for which reason he was appointed Mayor of Toulouse upon Liberation – put up a big map of the military operations, in particular covering the developments on the Russian front. The frontline was marked out by a thin piece of string, pinned to the wall with tacks. I saw that the string and the tacks kept moving, though I did not ask too many questions; as a man operating in clandestinity, in front of the children my father was evasive about anything regarding the political situation and the war. This was spring 1944. One day, at the moment of the Soviet offensive in Crimea, I saw my father moving the string further left, clearly showing that the Germans were retreating toward the West. Not only had their conquering advance been held back, but now it was they who were losing vast swathes of territory. With a flash of understanding I said to him, ‘But then, maybe we’ll win the war?’ and for once he gave a very clear answer: ‘But of course, Alain! We just need to want it’.

And that phrase became your maxim?

This response was a true paternal inscription. I inherited his conviction that no matter what the circumstances, what we want and decide is of capital importance. Since then I have almost always rebelled against the dominant opinions, because they are almost always conservative, and I have never given up on a conviction just because it wasn’t in fashion any more.

You place great emphasis on will. But a great philosophical tradition – Stoicism – advised men to let what happens happen, and to make that their will, in order to be happy. Isn’t it wiser to accept the world as it is, rather than want to change it?

In the 1940s our fate was that of having lost the war. So would a Stoic have said that it was reasonable for everyone to become a Pétainist? Marshal Pétain was a triumph when he went around provincial France, as some thought that he had saved the country from the worst of the war. Should we have gone along with this? I distrust Stoicism – the Stoicism of the immensely wealthy Seneca in his gold bathtub, telling people to accept their fate.

There were also rigorous materialists, the Epicureans, who considered it absurd to rise up against the world’s laws and thus to risk your life in vain. But what did that doctrine lead to? The pleasure of the present moment, Horace’s famous Carpe diem? That is nothing sensational. These ancient wisdoms have a fundamental element of selfishness: the subject has to find a tranquil place in the world such as it is, without worrying if this world ravages other people’s lives. 

What is the origin of these selfish ethics?

Wisdom of this kind prospered in the Roman Empire, whose historical situation very much resembles our own: a world hegemony offering little opportunity to define and practice any orientation contrary to the one required by the economic and political system. This kind of situation everywhere encourages the idea that we ought to adapt to this system, in order to get ourselves the best possible place within it.

So should the ‘realist’ philosopher then say ‘Let’s abandon any perspective for changing the world – let’s find our perch’? Or, in the version Pascal Bruckner offered of this stubborn conservatism: ‘The Western way of life is non-negotiable’. I am not resigned to that. I want something else. So there is my loyalty to my father’s maxim.

After the war there was a teacher who introduced you to the theatre. Why was this encounter so decisive? How did it become a guide for your life?

When I was doing my studies everyone at high school immediately began with Racine, Corneille and Molière. Like it or not, we had to study them meticulously right up till première [grade for 16-17 year-olds], doing one of each of their plays each year: that was the programme. But you more easily encounter a person than a programme. And that’s what happened to me: in the quatrième [grade for 13-14 year-olds] I had a French teacher who treated theatre as a marvel that we could ourselves participate in, since the essential thing was not to study it but to perform it. He created a troupe that each willing volunteer could have a place in. And so gradually I along with others became an actor. What an encounter this was! It was a sort of interruption of our ordinary lives as school kids. We got up on stage in front of an audience, and were alone responsible for what happened next. Again, like my father said, we had to want it! I played the title role in Les Fourberies de Scapin, which trained me in ruse and repartee. I remember how I trembled as I cast myself into the spotlight and delivered my first line – ‘What’s this, Mr. Octave? What’s the matter? What is it? What trouble are you in?’ – as, bounding onto the stage, I had to project toward an audience of unknowns. Yes, to do theatre you have to want it, and get past the extreme difficulty of being there in the spotlight, alone in front of everyone with your stage fright – which is something within you that rebels against the risk you are taking.

Is there a subjective conservatism – a human disposition toward conserving the self and the world such as it is?

Yes, there is something profoundly conservative in the human mind, and that comes from life itself. Before anything else, you have to keep living. You have to protect yourself, as Spinoza wrote, in order to ‘persevere in your being’. When my father told me that will can be enough, he was implying that you sometimes have to subdue this conservative disposition within you.

The theatre is also a moment when the living body serves a fiction. There, something enters into contradiction with the pure and simple instinct for survival. In the actor’s act there is the miraculous decision to take on the risk of totally exposing yourself. Thanks to my teacher in the quatrième French class, I encountered all that. Theatre was my first calling – and one that I always go back to.

So with theatre you encountered both decision and the encounter itself…

Most importantly I encountered someone: my French teacher. He was the living mediation of my encounter with the theatre. That is exactly what Plato explains in his Symposium, where he explains that philosophy itself always depends on an encounter with someone. That is the meaning of Alcibiades’s marvellous account of his encounter with Socrates. It is through this encounter with someone that the questions of will, decision, self-exposition and relation to the other are posed. All that puts you in a magnificent, perilous, vital situation.

Your other encounter was philosophy and reading Jean-Paul Sartre. Why did you choose philosophy as a direction for your life?

Philosophy such as I encountered it in Sartre’s mediations was also an extension of my father’s maxim. I remain loyal to Sartre on one essential point: you cannot use the situation as an argument for doing nothing. That is a central point of his philosophy: the situation is never such as to justify ceasing to want, to decide and to act. For Sartre, it is free consciousness and that alone that gives meaning to a situation, and so you cannot abandon your own responsibility, whatever the circumstances. Even if the situation seems to make what your will wants impossible, then you have to want the radical changing of that situation. That’s Sartre’s lesson.

How can philosophy help us to be happy?

Happiness is what happens when you discover that you are capable of something that you did not know that you were capable of. For example, in a romantic encounter you discover something that troubles your fundamental conservative selfishness: you accept that your existence is utterly dependent on another person. Before experiencing it, you hadn’t had the slightest idea of that.

You suddenly accept that your own existence depends on the other. And this other who has become part of your existence challenges the precautions that you usually take in order to protect yourself. Then you have to seek to draw the consequences of this happiness, to try and keep it at its apogee, or attempt to recover or reconstitute it, in order to continue living this primordial novelty. So you have to accept that this happiness can sometimes work against satisfaction.

Why do you counterpose happiness and satisfaction?

First of all, happiness is fundamentally egalitarian, integrating the question of the other, whereas satisfaction, linked to the selfishness of survival, knows nothing of equality. And satisfaction is not dependent on the encounter or the decision. It occurs when we find a good place in this world – a good job, a beautiful car, nice holidays abroad. Satisfaction is the consumption of things that we fought to obtain. After all, we try to occupy a suitable place in the world such as it is, precisely in order to be able to enjoy its perks. So satisfaction is a restricted figure of subjectivity, as compared to happiness – it is the figure of success according to the world’s norms.

The Stoic could say ‘be satisfied with being satisfied’. That is a commonplace position that everyone including me more or less shares. But as a philosopher I have to say that this is something different from what I call happiness. And philosophy has always sought to orient humanity toward this real happiness, including when this can only be obtained to the detriment of satisfaction.

If happiness consists of enjoying the powerful and creative existence of something that seemed impossible, is it necessary to change the world in order to be happy?

The normal relation to the world is governed by the dialectic between satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Fundamentally, this is a dialectic of demands: we might call it a ‘trade union view of the world’. But real happiness is not a normal category of social life. When you make a demand for happiness and the answer is a ‘No’, you have two possibilities. The first consists of changing yourself and ceasing to demand this impossible something. You forbid yourself happiness, enjoining yourself to settle for satisfaction. You obey. That is the subjective root of conservatism.

The second possibility is what Lacan talks about, not giving up on your desire – or, as my father said, not to stop wanting what you want. Then there is a moment where you need the desire to change the world in order to save the figure of humanity within you, rather than giving in to the injunction to accept the impossibility of happiness.

So you can change the world when you are happy?

Yes! That is, in staying faithful to the idea of being happy, and defending the fact that happiness does not look like satisfaction. The world’s masters do not like change, so if you choose to maintain, against winds and tides, that something else is possible, then they will use all means at hand in order to tell you that you are wrong. That is exactly Greece’s problem today: the Greek people said ‘We don’t want your financial tyranny. We want to live a different way’. The European institutions responded ‘You have to want what we want, even against your own wishes, and if you continue not wanting what you don’t want, then you’ll see what happens to you!’

People get threats when they start refusing voluntary servitude. So the Greeks’ demand is not to remain in the dialectic of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. They have explained that they would like to be able to decide that something else is possible, different to what’s being imposed on them. So here we are not talking about the register of utopia: plenty of utterly conservative economists are saying that we could restructure the Greek debt – which means erasing the debt, even if they don’t put it like that. In reality, what the European leaders consider impossible is letting a people decide on this point. This is not a rational economic measure, but political punishment. It is punishment of the desire for happiness, in the name of an unsatisfying satisfaction.

Pascal wrote that ‘We never live but we hope to live; and as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so’. Does a true happiness have to be desperate?

There’s a sinister phrase! But when Pascal wrote that, it was precisely because he thought that salvation was waiting in the next world. All those who insist on the impossibility of happiness in philosophy promise another happiness: they know that you can’t enthuse your reader with a proof that happiness is impossible. So they pull some transcendent happiness out of their hats.

I am absolutely against the notion that there is this happiness that we always dream of but never arrive at. That’s wrong: happiness is absolutely possible, but not in the form of a conservative satisfaction. It is possible on condition that we take risks in our encounters and decisions; and ultimately that choice is posed in every human life, at one moment or another.

But what about the unhappiness that you run into: illness, the accidents of life, dramas, break-ups and contentious separations?

The fact that there is a difference between happiness and satisfaction also entails a division within the word ‘unhappiness’. There is an unhappiness that amounts to nothing more than deep dissatisfaction. But even in the most ruinous situations, the path to happiness is rarely entirely blocked off, since the location and the importance of the possible shift. For someone with two legs in good health, taking three steps is nothing: for a paralysed person going through rehabilitation, it means immense happiness. So we should never say that happiness has been wiped out: it does exist, but the limit between the possible and the impossible in a determinate situation changes. Happiness consists of not letting yourself be overwhelmed by abstract, general impossibilities. 

So what is unhappiness?

We could firstly define unhappiness as a state of deep dissatisfaction and of the extreme extension of impossibility. But unhappiness can also be the failure of happiness. The norm of loyalty that I have introduced – and which is always linked to an encounter, and thus to happiness – proposes that the permanence of this search for happiness is itself imperative. Loyalty is the only ethical imperative, but this imperative is not insurance against all risks.

We ought to recognise that happiness runs into catastrophes. These catastrophes are of various different orders: some result from tiredness and surrender, others from disloyalty or betrayal. In my philosophy, evil is the fact of being subjectively responsible for a catastrophe of happiness. I call that a disaster. This experience is just as terrible as the experience of happiness is intense. Conservatives very much like disasters, because it’s from disasters that they draw their main argument for settling for satisfaction. 

But you say ‘better a disaster than an “unbeing” [desêtre]’…

Well yes! Better run the risk of a disaster – but, therefore, also have the chance of real happiness – than forbid yourself that from the outset. What I call ‘unbeing’ is the human subject’s conservative disposition that pulls her back to her animal survival, to her mere satisfaction and place in society. ‘Unbeing’ is what forbids a subject from discovering what she is truly capable of.

Are ties of love and friendship altered by this reign of the satisfaction of immediate needs?

The world today has a fundamental model of alterity and exchange, namely the commercial paradigm. We are tempted to reduce all our relations to the other to a contractual dimension of recognised reciprocal interests. That is why separation is much more threatening today than it was previously. We very quickly get the premature feeling that something is becoming obsolete, along the model of products becoming obsolete. The consumer is the dominant objective figure that makes the world turn. Our masters anxiously track the level at which people are buying commodities, for if suddenly no one bought anything any more, then the system would collapse like a row of skittles. So we are chained to the need to buy things as they come out, in all their novelty, their utter uselessness or criminal ugliness. And I think that this can’t but contaminate the generic shape of the relations among humans, relations that now officially valorise competition.                                                

And you would sing the praises of loyalty?

In a sense, because this obsession with the latest novelty-commodity, often disguised as fashion, is a phenomenon that strikes a blow against our happiness: in all its forms, loyalty is a value that is under threat. We don’t have the right to be indefinitely loyal to our own car: we have to buy a new one, or else the economic system will be under threat!

This imperative penetrates the personal or collective universe and creates a great many separations. As against this logic, we have to propound the maxim inherited from my father: ‘You can continue to want what you desired, what you wanted, and what you know yourself capable of. You can, therefore you must’.

Interview by Nicolas Truong

- See more interviews, articles and books from Alain Badiou here.