Archive for October, 2015

Meaning’s up to us

October 30, 2015

Our Camus class yesterday prompted a student to say:

Life inherently has no meaning. We are all Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. You must create your own meaning. Life has no meaning so you are free to give it whatever meaning you want to. So don’t let the futility of existence get you down. Embrace futility dance with the absurdity and see that through the absurdity and meaningless of your existence comes with the infinity of existence.

And it prompted me to recall what Hitch said about that:

A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities…” Christopher Hitchens

And what Sagan said:

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us. Carl Sagan

And Dawkins:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?” ― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

And Bertrand Russell:

The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need — of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed. A Free Man’s Worship

And finally again, Camus:

Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Keep on pushing.

Happy Halloween.

Almost forgot the Pythons:

Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. Monty Python’s Meaning of Life

“Nothing very special”? But it can be: and that’s what means the most.

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October 29, 2015

Our friendly regional Peace Corps rep visited my classes yesterday, seeking possible future recruits for one of the better options available to young people in transition, in uncertain times. (Aren’t they always?) We recently noted Voltaire’s counsel to “cultivate our garden,” a call to service the Corps answers better than anyone. They’ve come in from the Cold War, and applications are spiking since they streamlined the process. Oh to be twenty again, with a world to save!

Immanuel Kant, who I bashed a bit yesterday for his deontological cold-hearted refusal to admit our universal worthiness to be happy, deserves kudos for his “perpetual peace” campaign. “To pay men to kill or to be killed seems to entail using them as mere machines and tools in the hand of the state, and this is hardly compatible with the rights of mankind.” He’d support the Corps, to pay for peace and pay it forward. Its success is one great measure of our worthiness. War and the perpetual threat of war have been our species’ norm, at least as far back as the hypothetical state of nature. We have to initiate and establish a state of peace, and continually work to sustain it. If we’re unwilling to do that, maybe we don’t deserve happiness.

That “debate” in Boulder last night was anything but peaceful. Or worthy, or real, or generous.

Still thinking about Camus, whose Nietzschean roots I now finally grasp. In Richard Powers’ Generosity: An EnhancementRussell Stone (get it?) is Sisyphus, striving to overcome his own inertia. As noted in Happiness last time, we’re not very good at assessing the extent of our own flourishing. But if we’ve faced down the absurd, and the threat of self-annihilation, maybe it’s true: we must imagine ourselves happy, or at least push ourselves in that direction. “Maybe happiness is like a virus,” Stone thinks. “Maybe it’s one of those bugs that sits for a long time, so we don’t even know that we are infected.” It would be nice to know.

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Brave new world

October 28, 2015

In Happiness yesterday we belayed Sisyphus and caught up with Nietzsche, considering his “gifts” of adversity, hardship, and total recurrence – thanks, but no – the formula of his happiness (“a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal”), and his dream of a stark new “dawn of day” for

the mountain climber, who, although he sees his goal far above him, nevertheless falls asleep on the way from utter exhaustion, and dreams of the happiness of the contrast this effortless rolling down hill.

So we did sort of get to Sisyphus, with that image of strenuous ascent relieved by a revery of hope for the other side of the mountain. It looks like a deluded revery, for the condemned man. But Nietzsche’s point is also Camus’s: in just such moments we may seek our happiness. We must. Or we imagine we must.
Or as Daniel Haybron puts it in The Pursuit of Unhappiness, reported by Crystal, Jesse, and Dilyse, “Even when things don’t go very well, even when life is hard, it still tends to be a pretty wonderful thing to be alive.” 

Yes, it’s a wonderful life. But no, I can’t write a blank check to the demon for every “this,” when he asks: “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” I’m not that well disposed to suffering, which does not always offer a saving grace. I refuse to reduce it all to a single thumbs up or down. On this this, I’m with the meliorists, the utilitarians, and the Buddhists.

Still, we need our contrarians. Haybron concludes with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World “Savage”:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want
freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the nght to be
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have
syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the
right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to- morrow; the
right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every
kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

The Savage is welcome to have it all, all over again, eternally, in a world without end and with few comforts (no soma, no beer), with pain, suffering, “real danger,” and self-overcoming – the right to engineer one’s own nonconformity. It’s not what most of us mean by happiness, but it’s a perspective that needs representing in a course on happiness. It takes all kinds.

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October 27, 2015

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Really? Why?

Those are our Happiness questions today. But first I have to say: Happy Birthday, Older Daughter! The day of your birth back in the halcyon ’90s was the least Sisyphean, the least routine or repetitive, the most inimitably joyous, I’d ever experienced. 
Did Sisyphus have kids? 
If all the days of your life, save one or two, were filled with unpleasant drudgery, but those one or two were as ecstatic as the birth of a child, would you call yourself happy? I think I would. Fortunately I’ve had many more than one or two great days, and relatively few days of dread. Thanks to my walking habit, even most of those were salvaged by a happy hour away from the rock of pointless routine. And because I find my teaching vocation mostly gratifying, most of my routine feels purposive, not pointless (except when pushing paper and filling out forms for our administrative overlords).
If Sisyphus had no children, no down-time to himself, and no hope for early retirement, I really can’t imagine him happy. (Maybe he was a secret Buddhist, meditating on the transience of existence and willing the good of all sentient beings, behind his rock.) Nor can I really imagine Samuel Beckett’s “Unnamable” happiness: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” But apparently, happily, some can.

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Supremely happy

October 26, 2015

It’s been a Humean autumn: we did David Hume on happiness a couple of weeks ago, in Happiness, I’ve been enjoying our independent readings course on Hume, and today it’s Hume in CoPhi. “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness… Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”

After a few youthful bumps in the road, Hume seems to arrived and stayed in a lifelong condition of supreme happiness. He learned both to practice and to sporadically suspend “abstruse” scholarship, in order that he might “be still a man” amidst his philosophizing.

Hume is commonly misunderstood as a firebrand atheist. He was an atheist, in the strictest sense: he did not affirm the existence of a supernatural creator god, and found much fault with the standard reasons people give for doing so. But Simon Blackburn points out that his practical bent focused his main interest on the natural implications and consequences of belief. So, for instance,

if you find a religious text telling you that homosexuality is a bad thing, well that text is written by someone and he brought to it his ethics, and he takes out of it his ethics. So, in a nutshell, as I like to put it, Hume’s position is you can’t check out of Hotel Supernatural with any more baggage than you took into it. That’s a very important discovery. It means that arguing about the existence of God becomes kind of pointless. What you should argue about is the implications people think they can draw from it.

Whether there is a god or not, in other words, Hume’s point was that nobody can ever prove He/She/It shares, sanctions, or will reward our prejudices. We have to work it out for ourselves.

James Boswell, who we’ve already consulted for a first-hand account of Dr. Johnson’s rocky refutation of Berkeleyan idealism, was also present to refute the legend of Hume’s unmanly demise.

On Sunday forenoon the 7 of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just adying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke… He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious. This was just an extravagant reverse of the common remark as to infidels.

I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever…

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes…

He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state…

…Mr. Hume’s pleasantry was such that there was no solemnity in the scene; and death for the time did not seem dismal. It surprised me to find him talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time…

Le Bon David had, by this account, as good a death as he had a life. Thus he refuted his critics, no craven foxhole conversion, no rocks needing to be kicked. He’d smile to know we’ll next be talking Sisyphus.

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A conversation with Nietzsche

October 23, 2015

We never even got to Nietzschean happiness yesterday – did he? – when, at a reporter’s request, we flipped our usual process and did reports first. And that was the ballgame, so positively provocative were our reporters’ questions. But it’s ok, Nietzsche recurs.

I wonder: what would Nietzsche say, in reply to the questions that pre-empted him?

  1. Are you interested in illusory happiness?
  2. Can you be happy in an unhappy environment?
  3. Would you allow or regulate genetic engineering intended to make people happier?

I suspect he’d evade the first question, with talk of masks, perspectives, and rhetorical shots at the very concept of “real” happiness as a pleasure-seeking convention of weakness .

To the second, he’d disingenuously boast of his own icy and superior state of flourishing amidst the warm-hearted herd.

To the third, he’d insist – perhaps rightly – that to truly enjoy and appreciate one’s ascent and arrival at the peak, one must have endured the arduous climb. So, no to Happy designer-genes.

And what would Fritz have said about one of the more heated peripheral topics to arise in our free-flowing response to #3, on GMOs? “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” maybe?

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October 22, 2015
“We are Hyperboreans,” proclaimed poor hyper-driven Nietzsche in the opening lines of The Antichrist. He was truly a man out of time, never at home with his contemporaries or at ease with the (“all too”) human race. What did he mean? And what did he mean, “we“? Where is Hyperborea?
It’s nowhere yet. When, then? 
Nietzsche often wrote of the philosophers of the future, with whom he identified. His prophet Zarathustra, laughed out of town, said he’d come too soon. Hyperborea is his dreamworld of free spirited Ubermenschen who’ve shucked their mere humanity and crossed the abyss (“man is a rope over an abyss”), having made their transition to a post-human world free of resentment, envy, and legalistic constraint. Their creative revaluative power is unbounded, except by their own wills.
The rest of us, who don’t make the crossing, presumably will be the couch-potato left-behind leftovers whose liberal champions (in Nietzsche’s slanted estimation) were people like J.S. Mill. “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.” 
The preceding sentence in that Twilight of the Idols aphorism, by the way, profoundly inspired Viktor Frankl, in his Nazi captivity: “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.”
Are Hyperboreans happy? You would think so:

HYPERBOREA was a fabulous realm of eternal spring located in the far north beyond the land of winter. Its people were a blessed, long-lived race free of war, hard toil, and the ravages of old age and disease.

But happiness in the “all-too-human” English sense, concerned to maximize the common flourishing of the greatest number, is not what Nietzschean Hyperboreans are seeking. Their happiness, is a harder colder thing, something most of us might find difficult to distinguish from monomania, intolerance, and incivility.

Better to live among ice than among modern virtues and other south winds! … We were brave enough, we spared neither ourselves nor others: but for long we did not know where to apply our courage. We became gloomy, we were called fatalists. Our fatality — was the plenitude, the tension, the blocking-up of our forces. We thirsted for lightning and action, of all things we kept ourselves furthest from the happiness of the weaklings, from ‘resignation’…

Nietzsche never shakes fatalism, so far as I can tell, but combined with his stoicism it becomes for him a great “gift” of affirmation and the source of “our happiness.” Eternal recurrence in Hyperborea is not my idea of the good life, but Nietzsche’s popularity endures with a small but assertive few for whom “a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal” is the road from here to there. Perhaps we can tolerate them.

CoPhi-Nietzschean happiness
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Cultivating our classroom garden

October 21, 2015

Voltaire and Leibniz are up, today in CoPhi.

Yesterday in Happiness we had a constructive, positive conversation about J.S. Mill’s recovery after a pressure-cooker childhood of experimental education, thanks to his belated discovery of the indispensable importance of cultivating an inner life. Identifying one’s own peculiar sources of joy, one’s wellsprings of personal delight, is crucial. Saving the world while sacrificing yourself may sound noble, but it’s literally self-defeating. Fortunately young JSM rallied in time.

And then, a report purportedly on happiness (“the happiest people we know” was the original proposal) that instead featured a YouTube video of Christian apologist William Lane Craig bashing evolution and an attack on Richard Dawkins for not debating him. It didn’t make me happy, having just read Dawkins’ rationale in Brief Candle in the Dark. (He views Craig as a scripted science-denier and defender of genocidal scripture, not an honest debater.)

But it did remind me of my resolve to do the Atheism course next semester in a different spirit, to foster a climate of mutual affirmation, to make sure we all spend our classtime articulating views positively, not engaging in paltry polemics. Our theme will be Atheism & the Afterlife, exploring the reasons why godless people happily affirm mortality.

Today will be good practice. Voltaire was a master of parodic satire, which can be executed in a positive way but is more often construed by its targets as hostility. If I were a Leibnizian, I’d have a hard time not responding defensively to Dr. Pangloss. But I might find it easier to engage a discussion of what Voltaire meant when he urged us all to “cultivate our garden.” We’ll focus on that, on Voltaire’s garden and on ours. The classroom will be our garden, our crop will be civility. The best of possible worlds surely must be, as J.S. Mill also discovered, a world of happy, productive cultivators.

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Becoming J.S. Mill

October 20, 2015

It’s John Stuart Mill today in Happiness. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Sounds simple, but most of us are not the most adept promoters. Nor was Mill, as a twenty-something just getting over a mental collapse precipitated by his father’s pressure-cooker experiment in utilitarian pedagogy.

We may actually have regressed, since Mill’s time: many of us, it has emerged in class, are uncomfortable with the promotional program. We don’t want to seem too happy, or too interested in being happy. Could some of that attitude be swayed by Mill’s civic-minded emphasis on promoting the general happiness, and not merely one’s own? Maybe it’s less uncool to take an interest in others’ flourishing?

And maybe Mill was right when he said most of us do better not to pursue happiness so actively at all, that it is

only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for the great majority of mankind.

If he’s right about this, and about the danger of too much outward “analysis” uncompensated by sufficient inward “cultivation” of enjoyment via music, literature, and other sources of personal delight, we must beware the shoals of academia. Young Mill was a prodigy, and a recovering analyst. He found music and poetry just in time.

But isn’t it amusing, he worried that he and we would eventually weary of Mozart and music generally. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations.” I recall thinking the same thing in my own youthful enthusiasm for the Beatles. The inveterate and perennial habit of youth is to imagine it has discovered the transient apex of possibility, soon to be lost and lamented.

Wordsworth’s poetry seems to have been Mill’s greater salvation, not because he was the greatest poet but because he was the right one, at the right time, for the overstressed homeschooled utilitarian-in-utero.

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.

In a word (or two), Wordsworth taught Mill the value of subjectivity and feeling. Objective analysis and dispassion have their place in life, but a happy life also cultivates its own enthusiastic delights. The greatest happiness for the greatest number is good, but must not be allowed to displace one’s own capacity for joy.

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Bridging identity

October 19, 2015

My weekend was highlighted by a ceremonial event on Saturday for a man who never stood on ceremony, and who probably wouldn’t have approved all the pomp and fuss of the occasion. My late father-in-law, Freddie William Roth, was honored with the dedication of a bridge named in his memory.

It was, in fact, the last of more than a thousand such bridges he built in middle Tennessee over the span of a decades-long career. Several of his old coworkers commented on his intelligence and memory, his uncanny ability quickly to calculate the complex mathematics involved in supporting weight and defying gravity, and his absolute refusal to cheat or cut corners. “When you crossed one of Freddie’s bridges you knew you were safe.” “If you wanted a job done right, you called Freddie.”

He had a year of college, but mostly taught himself his craft and code of honor. “School of life,” indeed. And he knew exactly who he was.

He’s who I think of first, whenever my philosophy classes address topics like today’s –  personal identity. How do you know you’re the same person you were yesterday, or last year, or last decade? I think Freddie would just shake his head and chuckle, and remember why he became impatient with school back in the day. If you built a thousand bridges, you’d know. You wouldn’t have to ask.

In fairness to my discipline, I think most of us have little use for extreme versions of the identity question. We realize that if we ever really don’t know who we are, we probably need to consult psychiatric specialists. Urgently. Most of us accept the continuity of life as we encounter it in our own individuated experience, and in our accreted memory, as bedrock common sense.

And yet, it’s worth wondering how the experience of memory secures that sense of self, worth pondering how tenuous our identities are when memories fade, are forgotten, or are falsely resurrected. Thomas Reid, of the Scottish “common sense” school, said we just need enough overlapping memories to hang our stories on, to know we’re who we think we are. That does make sense, more at least than the unrealistic Lockean demand for total recall; but it doesn’t eliminate the worry that at least some of our overlaps may be more fabricated or reconstructed than accurately recollected.

So, the practical common sense solution is to take good notes and archive them. Notch experience on your stick, as you go. Build a lifetime of solid recorded memories, and they’ll be a bridge to the past you won’t fear to cross, a legacy to attach your name to.

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