Archive for September, 2017

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Brains, Proust, & Woody

September 28, 2017

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Brains, Proust, & Woody

September 28, 2017

Today in Happiness we look at the brain and its molecules of emotion. The brain regarding itself is an uncanny experience, isn’t it? Persons aren’t just brains, of course, but the seat of conscious thought seems like a good place to search for leverage when addressing the happiness of a whole person. That’s a bootstrap operation if ever there was one. Pull yourself up by your neurotransmitters, one might implore. But we mustn’t forget, “neurotransmitters are hampered by an unbalanced diet, emotional upset and a lack of sleep.” Brains don’t exist in a vacuum. 

 Dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin have much to do with happiness, as indicated by brain imaging research. They impact our appetite for life, motivation, decision-making, intro/extroversion, impulsiveness, violence, trust, empathy, generositycreativity, intuition, sociability, adventurousness, memory, capacity for enjoyment, optimism, contentment, serenity, sleep… Is there anything they don’t have to do with? Do they explain too much, leaving too little to what we like to think of as our spontaneous characters and personalities? Do those explain anything at all, after all? Should we feel threatened by all this talk of chemically-induced happiness or misery? Should we feel diminished, or empowered?

“Our happiness is nourished by the quality of attention we bring to bear on what we are doing,” said the old Stoics and Epicureans.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to, said William James, and “Attention … is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought, localization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others…” When we fail to deploy attention selectively and with intention, our world becomes a “gray chaotic indiscriminateness.” Brainpickings

When we do attend to our experience with selective intelligence, we open ourselves to the delighted “dilution” of awareness known as reverie. That’s why Montaigne rode his horse, and got back in the saddle after a near-fatal dismount. It’s why I walk the dogs, or why the dogs and I walk each other: I defy anyone to interpret my dachsund/beagle’s evidently-delighted expression, when in full exuberant stride, as anything short of reverie. I try to learn from him, daily, how to live in the present.
We’ve noted, recall, that there’s a problem about that, and an Aristotelian solution.

These days, many of us would rather not be living in the present, a time of persistent crisis, political uncertainty and fear. Not that the future looks better, shadowed by technological advances that threaten widespread unemployment and by the perils of catastrophic climate change. No wonder some are tempted by the comforts of a nostalgically imagined past.
Inspiring as it seems on first inspection, the self-help slogan “live in the present” slips rapidly out of focus. What would living in the present mean? To live each day as if it were your last, without a thought for the future, is simply bad advice, a recipe for recklessness. The idea that one can make oneself invulnerable to what happens by detaching from everything but the present is an irresponsible delusion.
Despite this, there is an interpretation of living in the present, inspired by Aristotle, that can help us to confront the present crisis and the perpetual crises of struggle and failure in life. There is an insight in the self-help slogan that philosophy can redeem… (continues)

The present moment, specious though it is, lends itself to attention and reverie for those who learn to notice. But it passes quickly, and so our happiness also depends crucially on memory and the ability to “dig up happy times.” That’s what the author of À la recherche du temps perdu was about, with his cookies etc. (And there’s my entry in the “All England Summarize Proust” competition.)

Lenoir recuses Schopenhauer from membership in the Woody Allen school of pessimism (“life is ‘a grim, painful, nightmarish experience … the only way that you an be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself”) and actually implies that he might better belong with Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists who “insist on the need to develop our positive thoughts while eliminating our old negative beliefs”… but, “avoid having too many hopes and fears.” 
Lenoir doesn’t quote Woody’s paradoxical caveat: life is painful, nightmarish, etc. etc., and “it’s all over much too soon.” Go figure.

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Aristotle

September 27, 2017

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September 27, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s our first pass at Aristotle. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer” (or a spring-were the Greeks really so vague about the seasons as these alternative translations suggest?) was his most poetic observation by far.

 If then the work of Man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason, or at least not independently of reason… and we assume the work of Man to be life of a certain kind, that is to say a working of the soul, and actions with reason, and of a good man to do these things well and nobly, and in fact everything is finished off well in the way of the excellence which peculiarly belongs to it: if all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be “a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence,” or, if Excellence admits of degrees, in the way of the best and most perfect Excellence.

And we must add, in a complete life; for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

Happiness is far more than the sum of its parts, it’s a quality of soul steeped in a lifetime of habitual virtue. Or so we say, when interchanging “happiness” with “eudaimonia.” Flourishing or well-being are better substitutes. By whatever name, though, Aristotle’s saying the good life takes time, possibly more time than a lifetime affords. If your child suffers a tragic and premature end, even after you’ve gone, your life has suffered diminution. In some non-trivial sense your well-being has taken a hit, your flourishing has foundered.

From 335 B.C. to 323 B.C. (in which latter year Alexander died), Aristotle lived at Athens. It was during these twelve years that he founded his school and wrote most of his books. At the death of Alexander, the Athenians rebelled, and turned on his friends, including Aristotle, who was indicted for impiety, but, unlike Socrates, fled to avoid punishment. In the next year ( 322) he died. Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm. 

Russell didn’t much like Aristotle’s perennial quest for the “mean” between extremes, particularly when applied to truth and other intellectual virtues. But splitting the difference between excess and deficiency is often the right strategy in life.

…with respect to acting in the face of danger, courage {Gk. ανδρεια [andreia]} is a mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice; with respect to the enjoyment of pleasures, temperance {Gk. σωφρσυνη [sophrosúnê]} is a mean between the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility; with respect to spending money, generosity is a mean between the excess of wastefulness and the deficiency of stinginess; with respect to relations with strangers, being friendly is a mean between the excess of being ingratiating and the deficiency of being surly; and with respect to self-esteem, magnanimity {Gk. μεγαλοψυχι&alpha [megalopsychia]} is a mean between the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity.

So many of the circumstances of life are beyond our control, on either side of the grave. Can we increase our chance of eudaimonia, or must we just learn to accept our fate and let happiness happen or not? Aristotle says we can take steps to develop our character, form strong habits, and live the good life. This is only partly subject to our control, since much depends on the quality of our early nurture. Some overcome adverse beginnings, others are derailed. Life and luck are unfair.

And that’s why Aristotle was so concerned to create a just society, a polis capable of nurturing and supporting all its citizens (except slaves and women-in this regard Plato scores over his pupil). “We live together, and need to find our happiness by interacting well with those around us in a well-ordered state.” If you choose to go it alone, you may or may not be pleased with your life but you definitely won’t flourish in Aristotle’s terms. 

The middle ages enshrined Aristotle as The Philosopher, the great authority not to be challenged. He would have hated that, inimical as it is to the spirit of free and open debate governed by reason alone.

Only hedonists conflate pleasure and happiness, but that doesn’t mean the relation between them is easy to pin down. Wouldn’t Aristotle admit that it might be possible to indulge the right pleasures at the right time for the right reasons etc., thus acknowledging that the time and place for pleasure is always a matter of judicious discretion? Bertrand Russell seemed to think he would not, and for that reason found the Nichomachean Ethics less than wholly appealing.  “The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seveteenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.” Repulsive!

I would have said tepid, not repulsive, but Russell has a bit of a point. I’ll still line up on Aristotle’s side of the School of Athens, though. Which side are you on?
2.16.17. It’s the birthday of historian Henry Adams and novelist Richard Ford. Adams once complained to William James about entropy, the laws of thermodynamics, and the ultimate futility of living. James replied that there’s nothing in the laws of physics ruling out the possibility of human happiness. “The last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.” On another occasion James wrote: “What an awful trade that of professor is, paid to talk, talk, talk! . . . It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Richard Ford’s character Frank Bascombe expanded on the same theme: “Real mystery, the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book, was [to some pedantic scholars] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away-live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble.”

5:30/6:34, 29/59, 5:27

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Schopenhauer happy?

September 26, 2017

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Schopenhauer happy?

September 26, 2017

Today in Happiness we tackle Schopenhauer, who always seems to hover around our discussions. We kicked off the semester with his potentially disillusioning (but also potentially liberating?) disavowal of the whole subject.

“What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.”

And yet, we noted him last time explicitly identifying health as a condition of happiness. So, he throws not a total disavowal but at least a big dash of cold water into every smiling face. 

Likewise, his statement that “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” The intended implication may be that health and happiness alike are a matter of luck, not design. The inevitable rejoinder, from happy people everywhere, must be Branch Rickey’s: sometimes, at least, luck is the residue of design. Get happy.

 Carl Jung’s “process of individuation,” I’ll bet, hits philosophers and philosophy majors earlier than most and before forty, for sure. Isn’t that why we take courses like this, to get to the bottom of our “true individuality” and “pay more attention to our own sensibility”-even if only to challenge and replace it with a corrected view?

Goethe suggested that sensibility, character, and taste are less affected by externals than by the sheer spontaneous surge of “personal being” that defines “a child of Earth’s chief happiness,” but that’s not Schopenhauer’s (or the Buddha’s) view. Or is it?

Frederic Lenoir says Schopenhauer “took up Goethe’s idea and went even further… our nature predisposes us to be happy or unhappy.” But Will is not personal for him. How we respond to the hypothesis of implacable impersonal Will might be. 
Plato long ago distinguished grouches (duskolos) from more cheerful types (eukolos). But as some self-avowed grouches insist, whether the glass is happily half-full depends on what’s in it.

Schopenhauer’s “curious contradiction” suggests we can be determinists and at the same time be happier, mostly by acknowledging Will and then not choosing not to feed it. Lenoir says that’s not what he means by changing our inner lives. “We can be happier… by modifying our view of things, our thoughts and beliefs.” We can “will what we will,” then? But can we confirm that we can? Is it better if we can’t?

Sonja Lyubomirsky says 40% of happiness “stems from personal efforts,” a vague-enough statement to entertain if not entirely to understand. I’m hoping that won’t be conclusively disconfirmed, 40% sounds good even if it implies a slight tilt to genetic predisposition that we probably shouldn’t call determinism and certainly shouldn’t call fatalism.

“No one will be happy if tormented by the thought of someone else who is happier,” said Seneca before surrendering his own happy pursuit to the madness of the tormentor Nero.

Flaubert said “everyone takes his enjoyment in his own way and for himself alone.” Some do, but there are altruists among us who aren’t in it for themselves alone. The egocentric view may reassure hyper-egoists, but I hope the rest of us find it beside the point. 

Do we all have a peculiarly personal “deeper nature”? If you find the “atmosphere that suits” you best, have you found something deep? Must atmospheres be deep, to conduce to happiness? Or just, as the pluralists say, wide enough, at least, to accommodate the varieties of happy experience? 

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Socrates & Plato in love

September 25, 2017

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Socrates & Plato in love

September 25, 2017

In CoPhi today it’s another (simpler) look at Socrates, Plato, and reports on Peter Singer’s altruism, Homer Simpson’s pursuit of happiness, and George Orwell’s ideological dystopia in which “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Before all that, though, a new John Lachs podcast interview reveals the heart and mind of “a wise old wizard” forever seeking the true pivot point between stoic acceptance of limits and a pragmatic “can do” spirit of intelligence and reason brought to bear on the boundless challenges of living. Living is hard, and Lachs loves to stir things up by saying the thing you least expect to hear. Here, for instance, he declares compassion and guilt useless emotions, and activism too often a misspent passion. In fact he’s one of the most compassionate and caring people I’ve ever known, and one of the most committed agents of constructive change. He’s a tireless proponent of liberty, hence a foe of “meddling”. He says we all need to stop telling others how to be happy, and let them seek their own good in their own ways. He’s a paragon of the purpose-driven life.

Another new podcast features my Vandy friends Aikin and Talisse, delivering 15 minute bursts of unscripted philosophizing. So many good words, so little time!

We would be remiss, on this holiday of love, not to take just a bit of time and spend a few good words on the subject. In Socrates in Love one of our contemporaries says “I’m worried my beloved America is becoming as loveless as ancient Athens in its days of decline.” There’s a lot not to love, lately and always, but also the reverse. The same speaker says Socrates “epitomized the fact that you’re meant to stay open to all views, to all human experiences, because that’s how you deepen your love for people and of wisdom.” All views, in this Age of Deplorables? No. But the spirit of the remark is true.

Is there any figurative truth to the old Greek myth that humans originally had four arms, four legs and a head with two faces, before Zeus split us into two separate parts so we’d have to search for our better halves? Is that any part of the story and glory of love? Or is it a formula for frustration and self-inflicted solitude?

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates say Diotima taught him all about amor. “She was my instructress in the art of love,” which she declares an intermediate “spirit” between mortals and the divine. It begins “from the beauties of earth and mount(s) upwards for the sake of that other beauty, the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is… beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he [the true philosopher of love] will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities…”

Sounds good, I guess, but these realities of a higher love sound a bit thin and wordy. Academic, even. On Valentines Day, and most days really, don’t we want something a little more substantial?

Romantic love is deemed to be of a higher metaphysical and ethical status than sexual or physical attractiveness alone. The idea of romantic love initially stems from the Platonic tradition that love is a desire for beauty-a value that transcends the particularities of the physical body. For Plato, the love of beauty culminates in the love of philosophy, the subject that pursues the highest capacity of thinking. The romantic love of knights and damsels emerged in the early medieval ages (11thCentury France, fine amour) a philosophical echo of both Platonic and Aristotelian love and literally a derivative of the Roman poet, Ovid and his Ars Amatoria. Romantic love theoretically was not to be consummated, for such love was transcendentally motivated by a deep respect for the lady; however, it was to be actively pursued in chivalric deeds rather than contemplated-which is in contrast to Ovid’s persistent sensual pursuit of conquests!

Modern romantic love returns to Aristotle’s version of the special love two people find in each other’s virtues-one soul and two bodies, as he poetically puts it. It is deemed to be of a higher status, ethically, aesthetically, and even metaphysically than the love that behaviorists or physicalists describe. IEP

That’s a step in the right direction, back down the ladder. Count on Aristotle to move away from the Academy and keep us grounded. But it was bachelor Nietzsche, of all people, who knew “it is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

If you can believe the crowd that sources goodreads, Marilyn Monroe was the great authority on love. “You’ll never find that half who makes you whole and that goes for everything… [but] Keep trying… keep smiling, because life’s a beautiful thing and there’s so much to smile about.”

Plato was rightly (if insufficiently) “nagged by a doubt about the Academic way of life: ‘I feared to see myself at last altogether nothing but words, so to speak-a man who would never willingly lay hand to any concrete task.” That’s a reasonable concern. If you’re holding out for “absolute beauty” you may be spending a few holidays alone. Better to climb the ladder of love in both directions. Remember what Heraclitus said about the way up and the way down? Don’t kick that ladder away. The cave can be a very cozy place, with the right company, and your “better half” may not be a needle in a haystack after all.
2.14.17. Happy Valentine’s Day, when “more than a billion letters of affection are sent and 60 million pounds of chocolate are purchased”… 36 questions lead to love… On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. It expressed his philosophy that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” I wish I’d said that, Oscar. Since it’s my birthday, today I will.

5:30/6:37, 42/49/40, 5:25

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“Dotard”=senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness, from Korean “neukdari”=old, lazy, useless, demented. Synonym=”drumpf”

September 22, 2017

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Voltaire, Socrates, Jesus, Kant

September 21, 2017

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