“Pursuit of Happiness”: Philosophical Music – Hip Hop

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The most striking thing about Kid Cudi’s 2009 song and video, Pursuit of Happiness, is the stark contrast between its superficial pleasures and deep miseries. The video presents much as many other hip-hop videos of the time, a crowded club filled with young, beautiful people, laughing, spending money and drinking champagne (or pouring it on each other). The best clue of a mismatch between the singer and his song is the way the scene slides in and out of slow-motion, often without its narrator, who seems increasingly disconnected from the bacchanal around him.

As the second verse starts, the lyrical content takes a sudden left turn, as Cudi reveals his problems with night terrors and insomnia. Meanwhile, the party continues without a pause, until both the song and video come to a conclusion unique in the genre –drunken regret, alone in the hallway.

I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold, hey
I’ll be fine once I get it, yeah
I’ll be good.

It might be a stretch to call Kid Cudi a modern Epicurus, but there are some real echoes here of the ancient Greek sage best known for his philosophy of pleasure. Both Epicurus and Cudi are advocates for the pursuit of pleasure, yet both also warn us against the dangers of taking a good thing too far.

Since antiquity, Epicurus’ philosophy has been misrepresented as promoting unmediated hedonism, life as a nonstop orgy of sensual pleasures, the Garden of Earthly Delights. This state of affairs (vividly dramatized in Cudi’s video) is the very end warned against in Plato’s Republic as inevitably leading to self-destruction and misery. However, according to scholars of Epicurus’ work (largely unavailable in its original form) this is a slander on Epicurus, who in fact preached that a life of moderation was more likely to bring true peace and happiness –a position closest, perhaps, to the admonition in the existentialist Book of Ecclesiastes (from the Bible):

There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility. So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

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