One of the world’s biggest social media stars has publicly declared his hatred for Twitter. Recently, Felix Kjellberg—known online as PewDiePie—released a YouTube video in which he explained his contempt for Twitter as a “cesspool of opinion” where even lies and falsehoods get rewarded. Staying true to his word, that very day Kjellberg deleted his twitter account which, at the time of its deletion, had amassed over nineteen million followers.
Kjellberg’s chief concern is, first, the excessive moral posturing that takes place on Twitter (and other similar social media networks) and second, the arbitrary reward system tied into it. In the Twitterverse, for instance, little pats on the back in the forms of “Likes” and “Retweets” are a dime a dozen. Rewards come easy—even for the most blasphemous of sophists—whether one is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false.
Talk is cheap, the old adage goes. But on Twitter it seems everyone gets rewarded no matter how cheap their talk may be. You just need to be connected with people who like what you say. Herein lies the problem, Kjellberg argues. He contrasts the online world with the wide world of sports where talk is especially cheap—and action is what counts.
On Twitter, even losers win simply by subjective approval. Compare that to, say, ice hockey, where there is no reward for the losers. The veracity of your opinion of yourself and your team will play itself out on the rink. Sports don’t lie. The winners win and get their due reward—and the losers have nowhere to hide. In sport, a clear line is drawn between the winners and the losers. The real problem with Twitter (returning to Kjellberg’s critique) is not the possibility of lying or misleading others. Social media provides a fertile environment for the nonvirtuous to be empowered and potentially even strengthened in their vices.
Everyone Wants to be Happy
Why do people behave as they do on social media? Kjellberg boils it down to the fact that everyone is seeking happiness, on and offline. On Twitter, people seek social approval because they believe it will lead them closer to the happiness they incessantly seek. They want people to see, to think, they are good and virtuous. But no amount of social approval is enough for happiness, Kjellberg argues. Social approval comes to us passively. But real happiness can only be obtained actively—through virtue.
The world’s most popular YouTuber is correct: there is a deep-seated desire within every human being for happiness. This drives all intentional human behavior. He is also right that mere talk of morality and virtue divorced from virtuous action is futile. As Elizabeth Anscombe argued, in order to be truthful we must do the truth. Here (though also adding her own philosophical nuances) she was essentially following her academic mentor and friend, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who instructed that language is endowed with meaning by being woven into action.
Kjellberg seems to have a solid grasp of this notion that bodily action and language together form a natural synthesis. Thus, the world’s most popular YouTuber unblushingly admits that no amount of approval on social media will lead to the human thriving we all long for. Rather, it is the slow and steady execution of action married with truth—virtue—that is the path to happiness. He ridicules today’s never-ending barrage of self-help books, all of which attempt to answer a question that was answered over two millennia ago by the ancient Greeks, the first virtue ethicists. That question is this: How can I be happy and stay happy?
Aristotle agrees with us that everybody wants to be happy. But really his position is subtler than that. He claims that everybody wants to achieve not mere happiness, but what he calls eudaimonia. A direct translation would be something like “good soul.” Another is simply “flourishing.”
To be happy on Aristotelian terms, then, is not simply to be in a pleasant emotional state. It involves the flourishing of more than simply his emotions. Because the human being is both sensible and rational—Aristotle calls man a “rational animal”—then true happiness includes the thriving of body and soul compositely. Simply put, happiness involves the flourishing of the whole human person.
To flourish is simply to excel at being what one is. A cow will flourish if it is permitted to act like a cow, grazing freely outdoors, eating grass, and drinking water. A cow will not flourish if it is left to survive in the middle of a corralled-off parking lot, say, where it can no longer graze, eat, and drink what it naturally needs and desires. A central principle thus arises: things must act and be treated according to what they are if they are going to be the best version of themselves. To put it another way, things must act and be treated according to their purpose, or what Aristotle calls their telos.
What determines something’s telos? Well, that which makes one entity substantially different from another—that which makes a cow a cow, and not a man, or chimpanzee, or tree—is the thing’s nature, says Aristotle. From a thing’s nature follows its purpose; and from a thing’s purpose follows the facts regarding how it must behave and be treated to flourish. Put another way, a nature determines what a thing is; and what a thing is determines what it is for; and what a thing is for determines what is good for it—that is to say, what will make it flourish.
What are we for?
For Aristotle, to be virtuous means to act in harmony with the human nature and thus in accordance with the human telos, to do it habitually, and to enjoy doing it. As Kjellberg points out in his video, one good act doesn’t result in virtue. Virtues like prudence, temperance, courage, and justice aren’t formed by episodic successes. Rather, virtues are something like skills—they must be practiced and honed. Virtue is an acquired good habit.
How do we identify which habits are “good” for us? By identifying what exactly we are as humans. Aristotle says that man is a rational animal. Being a composite of body, intellect, and will, then, we should seek to become habitually wise, temperate, courageous, and so on. St. Thomas Aquinas agrees, but doesn’t think this goes far enough. He therefore draws together the Aristotelian theory of happiness and Catholic theology.
Man is a rational animal, affirms St. Thomas, but he is also made in the image and likeness of God. He is made by God for God. So man’s ultimate good (and what all the virtues ultimately move him towards) is God. But complete, perfect, unbuffered communion with God cannot be attained in this life. Therefore, real and lasting happiness cannot be had in this life. It follows, then, that this life is only the antechamber to everlasting beatitude. Kjellberg gets interestingly close to this conclusion in his video. But his lesson in ancient philosophy tapers off just as things get really interesting—that is, just as things get theological.
Made for God
If you won a hundred dollars, Kjellberg asks, what would you do with it? Buy a car, perhaps. But why would you buy a car? To get from point A to point B. And why would you want to do that? To achieve a certain goal—to be happy. The YouTube star identifies happiness as the motive behind all man’s actions. He’s right. But do we ever really achieve our goal? Do we ever really rest in total satisfaction and stay there? Never. Not in this life.
But why is it that we never rest and remain in complete happiness in this life? And more importantly, why do we keep seeking it anyways? The most probable explanation, C.S. Lewis famously wrote and defended in his Mere Christianity, is that we were made for another world.
Now, let’s loop back and revisit Kjellberg’s critique one more time. He argued that Twitter and other social networks provide a fertile environment for virtue signaling and temperamental finger-pointing. More seriously, such moralizing is rewarded unjustly and arbitrarily on these networks. So, instead of merely calling ourselves moral or virtuous, we should aim to actually be virtuous. By doing so, we will achieve what is really driving all our behavior in the first place: happiness. But this requires an understanding of the human nature and telos, both of which can only be adequately grasped once man has recognized that he is made by, like, and for God.
It is significant that one the world’s most popular social media personalities has provided the critique he has, and acted upon his critique by deleting his massively followed Twitter account. Kjellberg’s appraisal is not without warrant to be sure. But perhaps what is more significant—at least from a Catholic point of view—is his turn to Aristotle and the Greeks for wisdom and guidance.
The Greek philosophers of antiquity, many of whom came to uncover significant metaphysical truths through the natural light of their own reason, have for centuries established themselves as acquaintances (if not friends) of Catholic thought.
The Catholic faith is suffused with mystery. We cannot know all there is to know about everything—at least, not in this life. But we can come to know a great deal here and now, as the Greeks of antiquity have proven. Indeed, ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle can teach us much about ourselves and the world, teachings that can serve as “preparations” for the Gospel. For this reason, we should be glad that the world’s most popular YouTuber (no matter what his personal religious sentiments may be) has turned the attention of millions of social networkers—if even for a moment—from the helter-skelter world of the Twitterverse to the serious but serene world of ancient Greek philosophy.