Archive for the ‘happiness’ Category

Mystically festive

June 14, 2013

Most festival goers are just there for the party, I know, and some for the Experience, while a few are seeking something spirited and meaningful and liberating.

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness… Charles Bukowski

Older Daughter says she’s “just trying to accept that I’ve got three more days of this.” I think that’s the sunburn and travel fatigue talking, but she’s usually not one for Greek-style party mysticism. Jennifer Hecht has interesting thoughts on all this.

We first-world moderns are not like everybody else. Historically the average person expected to be a little miserable most of the time, and ecstatic on festival days. We now expect to be happy all the time, but never riotously so.

I usually expect to be happy while walking around looking at stuff and thinking about things (or not thinking about them). It definitely looks to me like there’s plenty to walk around and gawk at, at the ‘roo-fest. I should go. Can any of my music friends still get me backstage to see Paul, I wonder? He should remember a thing or two about mystery  tours and manic ecstasy, even if he’s on the wrong side of 64.

A new metaphor

June 12, 2013

Sometimes, particularly in summer, I surprise myself at the end of a walk by deciding, impulsively and unpremeditatively, to just do something I’ve been putting off forever.

Yesterday morning I strolled home and suddenly decided to just clean out that unnavigable overstuffed “potting shed.” Told myself it would take just a few minutes. Of course, it ended up taking hours. And of course, yesterday was the first really summery day we’ve had here. It hit 90 before I was through. (And oh how good the pool felt, at last!)

Removed a large, mostly empty large wooden crate my Dad gave me many years ago (after confiscating it from a negligent renter). I used to keep dogfood in it, lately it’s been home to spiders and empty space.

Also removed that large platform I got from I don’t recall where, that I imagined I’d someday repurpose as a daybed for my Little House.

Now they’re both down the hill in the dog barn, to gather new coats of dust and house the next generations of spiders.

Threw away a ton of forgotten stuff, including a few broken pots. Younger Daughter’s moldy old Hannah Montana purse, and her doll stroller. Kept the little red wagon.

And a light bulb came on: the rapacious rabbits won’t eat elevated potted petunias, will they?

So now I have a “clean” shed and a fresh planting project. “A fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” Wittgenstein might have said.

And a new metaphor. Gretchen Rubin says projects are better than journeys. I like both.


Postscript, 6.13.13-

My new Project. Move over @michaelpollan. (Thanks for the inspiration @gretchenrubin!)


The sufficient moment

May 17, 2013

In 1870 a young and previously-irresolute William James confided to his diary,

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Within the decade, the vacillating, self-doubting, despairing young man had given way to the confident philosopher who would vigorously defend “the sentiment of rationality,” a diverting phrase that was really his own masked synonym for happiness.

When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion or of thought, we are in a sort of anaesthetic state in which we might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything about ourselves at such times, “I am sufficient as I am.” This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness,–this absence of all need to explain it, account for it, or justify it,–is what I call the Sentiment of Rationality.

Just as I am, sufficient unto the moment: it’s a condition and a state of mind an honest and ambitious person can’t reasonably hope to sustain indefinitely, but James learned and taught that it can be recaptured frequently and regularly throughout a lifetime. Different strategies serve different people. One of mine, like James, is to walk.

A universe not made for us

April 27, 2013

Raining, but it won’t rain us out today. They moved Older Daughter’s final regular-season game up to Friday afternoon, anticipating today’s deluge, and she celebrated Senior Day with a couple of key hits in a decisive 12-2 win. (I know the score, they made me scorekeeper.)

Following Younger Daughter’s big game-tying  hit and game-winning run on Thursday, after her Tigers rallied from a huge deficit against arch-rival Ensworth, it made for a very satisfying conclusion to the Spring softball season.

A happy ending, for sure. Meaningful too?

Well, it meant a lot to those of us who were there, who cared. Could there be any deeper or more cosmic meaning to our happiness?

It may be too big a question for a rainy Saturday morning. We’ll take it up next Fall in The Philosophy of Happiness, with questions like:

 What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish.

Meanwhile, Carl Sagan says “if we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Beating St. Cecelia and Ensworth were worthy goals. But, what do we really want?


Affecting the quality of the day

March 30, 2013

Well that was interesting: logged on as usual but, for the first time in 1K+ dawns, was met by an ominous “Oops” from wordpress. “Small system error” etc. (??!!)

Small death, more like. (Just watched Princess Bride the other night with Older Daughter, Mandy Patinkin’s “prepare to die” still echoing with fresh awful resonance.) The set and comforting habit of a thousand dawns does not die quietly. I’ve heard tales of blogs mysteriously disappearing into the void, never to be recovered.

But not today, thank goodness. “Refresh” worked. (Hope I’ve been doing the “export” backup correctly.)

So what I was just about to say, before the “system” so rudely interrupted…

If the days are gods, Emerson must’ve known, they’re not clones of the Judeo-Christian god: they’re not officially “all good.” A case could be made, though, for the worst of them fitting Dawkins’  description.

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

(What a confrontation he and He might have at the Pearly Gates, as cleverly imagined here.)

No, the day-gods are Greek and Roman: powerful, unpredictable, delightful, terrible, capricious, reassuring, painful, pleasant, emotional, disconnected, willful, forgiving, mean, generous, dreary, sunny, short, long, busy, boring, creative, sluggish.

And at daybreak, whenever we rise to meet them, they’re still always full of challenge and possibility. And for us too, most important of all, they’re mortal. Hence the deep wisdom of Henry’s  observation: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Affecting the quality of the day is how we mortals pursue happiness, or don’t. The quality of my day was elevated yesterday by a few things, lunch with Older Daughter at Woodlands not least. Then the pleasure of assembling a flyer for PHIL 3160, The Philosophy of Happiness, for which students at my school will soon be registering in droves. Then Jon Miller and the Giants on the MLB channel from SF, stoking my eager anticipation of another season in the sun.

If the days are gods, what does that make Opening Day?

Pyrrho, Epicurus, Blackburn, Sandel

January 29, 2013

That’s the menu today in CoPhi. A deep skeptic, a seeker of simple pleasures and happiness, an anti-relativist, and an anti-doping anti-perfectionist (with the world’s most popular course on justice.)

But first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

pigReminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Hecht comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.

piranhaOne more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus:

Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Last time we had this discussion in CoPhi, Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. Lance Armstrong must be feeling a pretty big meaning-deficit these days.

I’ve been thinking some more, btw, about a student’s question whether Oprah is a philosopher. I’d say she has philosophical moments, sometimes asks the hard questions, and is indeed seeking to have and share a “graceful” (if opulent) life. So, sure. Same for the poets (like Whitman) who let us off the hook for contradicting ourselves (“I contain multitudes.”) I don’t think the Philosophy Club should be exclusive or restrictive. Many of my colleagues would disagree, amongst themselves, at their annual association meetings and in their ivory towers. They’ll never give me a car, either.

Anyway: we won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

Gross national happiness

November 27, 2012

We had a pleasant visit with our esteemed university president yesterday in Environmental Ethics class. He didn’t formally commit to signing the ACUPCC yet, but said he’d study it some more. And he said we were already plenty green, greener, in fact, than most of us know.

He said our new Student Center and Science Building, for instance, are LEED-certified. If that’s true, we should be trumpeting the news. The community needs to hear about it, we need to stand up and get credit for doing the right thing. That’s leading by example, and it’s how real and lasting change comes to a society: via snowball. One small signature can catalyze events. A low profile doesn’t make waves, but it doesn’t make change either. It’s more like an epiphenomenon.

But the president’s parting words were a reminder that ours is a very Red state, and our allotment from the legislature is down 40% from just two years ago. Science Building? We should just be glad we have one at all, and we’d best be careful what they study in there. Better not confirm the reality of climate change.

No, he didn’t say that. He did say we need to plead our case with our elected representatives. So here they are.

In chapter one of Stoic Pragmatism John Lachs (who has never shied away from an opportunity to educate our “leaders” in public, even when he considered himself an epiphenomenalist) repeatedly alludes to the real problems of ordinary human beings as deserving (if not typically taking) priority over the technical problems of philosophers. He notes that

The recently published Encyclopedia of American Philosophy [which he and Rob Talisse co-edited, and to which I was privileged to contribute a couple of modest entries] promises additional resources for leaving what has been called “the linguistic turn” behind and facing at last the multitude of real-life problems that beset us. Many philosophers have already turned in this new direction.

Environmental ethicists and bioethicists have “turned,” for instance. As John Dewey said back in 1917, philosophy will be fully healthy only when its practitioners break free of their self-imposed bubble of specialized scholastic isolation and speak up in public about issues of common concern.

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men. John Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery in Philosophy”

In this spirit Lachs writes:

The U.S. would be a better nation if, in addition to a Council of Economic Advisors, it also had a Council of Ethics staffed by philosophers.

Now why didn’t I think of that, back when I was serving my term on the American Philosophical Association‘s sub-committee on alternative jobs for philosophers? But he’s right, and I’d add: we need a council to demonstrate ways of enhancing not GDP but GNH, Gross National Happiness. Better appoint some Bhutanese to show us how it’s done. They’ll know where to find a genuinely new direction and “additional resources.” They’re familiar with the geography of bliss. Just leave at least one spot on the Council of Happiness Advisors for a western academician with an interest in the philosophy of happiness.


Don’t get any ideas

October 29, 2012

The calendar says it’s still October, but the Series ended last night as the big storm gathers and the grading-pile calls.  It’s winter.

Time again to recall the wisdom of Thoreau (“live in each season as it passes”) and Santayana:

To be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

Anyway, tensed time is supposed to be an illusion, right? We deceive ourselves in thinking that spring is far in the past or future. Be here now.

I notice, btw, that the estate of William Faulkner is suing Woody Allen for using that line about the past not even being past in “Midnight in Paris.” Come after me too, rebs, I dare ya. It’ll liven my winter.

One of my other favorite lines from that film: “He walks. He gets ideas.”

But I’m stalling. Grade, grade, grade.

The greatest happiness

October 5, 2012

I mentioned in class yesterday that what I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is another example.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I’ve just learned of them since swinging by our campus library after class. The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) he too was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly-“amusing” man.

Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’

So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…

Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.

And following up on Rousseau and Kant and the mystery of what it was about the former’s Emile that kept the latter off the streets– “Everybody who does Education has to read Emile cover-to-cover,” says this jet-lagged Yale lecturer— Rousseau’s Dog is instructive:

According to one anecdote, the fastidious Immanuel Kant, whose daily routine was so rigid and undeviating that people set their watches by him, became so absorbed in Émile that he bewildered his neighbors by forgetting to take his usual post-lunch constitutional… Rousseau understood, he thought, the paradox of autonomy—that freedom meant conformity to a rule. As he was writing his own masterpiece, the Critique of Pure Reason, he had a single portrait in his house—of Jean- Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s Dog

So while it was Hume whom he credited with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber,” it was the somber Swiss who really inspired his work and set his Copernican Revolution spinning.

But I still wonder what the dog thought.

Gentle bliss & an uplifting dream

September 10, 2012

We’re talking Epicurus (among others, Lord knows) today in CoPhi. Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment.

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, he said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett aired yesterday again. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

The dream of restorative environmentalism growing from the grassroots also continues in EEA today. We begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent SpringIt’s serial publication in 1962 was greeted by one reader with the claim that “we can live without birds and animals” but not without business.

Many of our fellow Americans still believe, with Mr. Mitt, that corporations really are people too. Not just legally-contrived “persons,” but individuals with rights and dignity and grace and a capacity for bliss in their own right. Dream on.