As a Nordic person, it always warms my cold heart to discuss anything related to pessimism. During long and dark winter months, Hud Hudson’s work was a source of great elation. I am thankful for the opportunity it provided for me to think more deeply about these difficult matters.

book cover

OUP, 2021

In his work, Hudson makes a reference to the World Happiness Report, in which my home country Finland has been continuously ranked as the happiest country in the world. Finns typically find this both amusing and somewhat uncomfortable. An interesting detail in the Report is that while we excel in everything else, we rank quite low in generosity and positive affect. While we do enjoy the benefits of a stable and relatively uncorrupt society, we still rank high, e.g., on suicide rates. A few years ago, I discussed this with an Asian refugee (who flourished in his new home in the North). He could not name even one person in his home country, whom he had known and who had killed himself. I could easily name almost ten, including close family members, and not including those who have tried without succeeding.

Thus, there is something rotten amidst of this excessive happiness. This is also anecdotally confirmed by various instances of our popular culture. Already worn out and repetitive genre of Nordic Noir exposes the evils that lurk beneath the surface of the happiest societies in the world. If you open a random garage door in Finland, you are more likely than not to find a heavy metal band inside (we have the most heavy metal bands per capita ratio in the world). Our sense of humor is dark, twisted, and sacrilegious.

This leads me to Hell. To be fair, Finland is not Hell; in fact, it seems to be the closest thing to paradise, if we believe what the Report says. Yes, we did name our capital Helsinki, but that is probably just a coincidence, or possibly a higher form of cosmic fine-tuning. And while we are at it, Dante’s Satan does appear to be “stuck mid-breast in ice” (Inferno, canto XXXIV). So maybe there is something hellish about the northern way of life . . .

On the one hand, our society seems to be able to create highest form of human flourishing by providing material and existential security. On the other hand, it seems to create something ominous. Instead of following Mammon’s call to make “a Heaven of Hell,” which might be a more American aspiration in my view, we intend to make “a Hell of Heaven, to pursue despair and achieve misery,” to turn Mammon’s creed upside down.

What explains this? Among the natural causes for this occupation with grim things could be long winters, harsh climate, lack of sunlight, and genetic propensity to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. But one would expect that the goods of the democratic society would negate these natural conditions. Instead, they seem to contribute to apatheia and nihilism, not for everyone, to be honest, but still for a significant part of the population.

While plowing seemingly endless amounts of snow, I have been listening to, among other things, psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s commentary on the Abraham story. In the first act, 75-year-old Abraham is still living in his parents’ household in Ur. In all likelihood, his life probably was not that bad; safe, yes, but uneventful and dull. Then God appears to him and asks him to leave this anodyne setting behind. He sets off for an adventure with huge risks. This way he finds meaning and purpose in his life, but it does come with great costs. Peterson, who has worked with people suffering from destructive forms of nihilism, recognizes the dangers of stagnation. Being somewhat satisfied, so that you do not simply die, but without direction or purpose, is a recipe for disaster. Thus, it was good for Abraham, the Ur-Incel, to move from passive safety to active unsafety in order to flourish.

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky makes a point that humans are not able to tolerate happiness for a long period of time. We start to wreak havoc and create chaos, and we revel in it: “The pleasure of despair. But then, it is in despair that we find the most acute pleasure, especially when we are aware of the hopelessness of the situation.” Dostoevsky’s observation can be taken as a commentary on vaguely Marxist theories of human flourishing: when you fix the material problems, the flourishing will follow. As we know, this was not how things developed. The working class never embraced Marxism; instead, it became the new middle class, which was thankful for the gifts that capitalism had provided to them. Then the theory flourishing changed to accommodate this new reality. A reworked contemporary version of this would be the following: when your identity, or your deepest desires, have been affirmed, the flourishing will follow.

But even this theory of happiness and flourishing is still too material. It is all about me and what I want. I believe that Hudson’s theory of Psychic Affirmation is a major step into the right direction as it both combines and amends other contemporary theories. Combined with the relational and transcendental element, it breaks the material and solipsistic prison, something into which Satan and Mammon would like to throw us in. One of Hudson’s elements of Psychic Affirmation is Engagement, the lack of which produces the deadly sin of sloth or boredom. According to Hudson, “Engagement is a sort of emotional exuberance, a commitment to living passionately and grappling with life’s elements. It is an inoculation against ennui, an expansive yea-saying attitude to one’s experience and its goods and ills.” This is why Hell is cold. There is no one else except you and your desires.

This is why Hell is cold. There is no one else except you and your desires.

Hudson’s third element is Attunement, which is build upon “persistent feelings of security, of not needing to be on one’s guard against the world.” Only a fool would downplay this, yet, as I pointed out, merely focusing on safety will create those very Finnish problems, the lack of generosity and positive affect. Finland enables you just to linger on, just like the denizens of Heaven in the penultimate episode of the tv-series The Good Place. All your wants have been satisfied, yet you still feel miserable. To put it more even more grimly and speculatively: Was Satan attuned in Heaven before his downfall and was this attunement the source of his primal sin?

Then, an afterthought. Could Finland help us to understand the primal Fall, one of the hardest puzzles in theology? Why would anyone immersed in perfection choose something that is less? Why would Lucifer prefer to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven? Why would Finns, the happiest people on the face of the Earth, decide the end their lives en masse?

Sören Kierkegaard interprets the Fall in his Concept of Anxiety as being stuck on perpetual roundabout, where the Fall is a decision to leave the self-repeating cycle. Some Christian and Gnostic myths of the Fall see it as an ambiguous event. On the one hand, humans become succumbed by the forces of chaos. On the other hand, they gain higher consciousness of their own responsibility and guilt.

Now, there might be a route from this hellish realm to heaven through felix culpa. By recognizing our sinfulness, we also come to realize our interconnectedness and need for reconciliation. This, allegedly, raises us to a higher level in hierarchy of beings. We become relational. We do not seek define ourselves, but we become what we are meant to be in connection with everyone else and everything in the cosmos. This would be the high road.

The low road is all too well known to us as we travel this road daily. We turn into minor Gollums, holding on to our precious needs, which eventually leads us into a confusion concerning our very identities.

We turn into minor Gollums, holding on to our precious needs, which eventually leads us into a confusion concerning our very identities.

The Finnish-Kierkegaard theory of the primal sin would, however, require giving up the idea of original state as a state of perfection. Maybe Satan in its highest form was still an imperfect and fragmented creature, maybe it was still in the process of becoming something more solid and whole? Consequently, neither Adam nor Satan knew what is true good and what it is that makes us flourish. This is something that only the event we call the Fall could teach us. But why most of us merely seem to fall, and why so few of us flourish? Why the pressure produces so much ash and so few diamonds?