Posts Tagged ‘Blogger’

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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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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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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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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Voltaire, Socrates, Jesus, Kant

September 21, 2017

Interesting quartet, in Happiness today.

Voltaire’s response to my question the other day, as to whether any of us ever regret the examined life and would occasionally prefer to swap places with Forrest Gump or Winnie the Pooh, is as acerbic as you’d expect. “I should be happy if I were as brainless as my neighbor, and yet I do not desire such happiness.” Maybe he’d have been happy to live in a better neighborhood. For my part, as I was saying in class, I try to spend a bit of relatively brainless time in the neighborhood every morning with the dogs. It’s a happy time of day. Knowledge and lucidity aren’t obstacles to happiness, but too much thinking can be.

Our author Monsieur Lenoir is still pushing us to the “Max”: last time he urged maximum pleasure and reason, this time he invokes Andre Comte-Sponville for “maximum happiness in maximum lucidity.” Is it always really so wise to push the pedal to the metal? Let up on the lucidity accelerator occasionally, I’d say. It better suits the rambling narrative of this Philosopher’s Guide.

“Happiness is the awareness of an overall and enduring state of satisfaction in a meaningful existence founded on truth.” I guess. Sometimes it’s just a warm puppy, though. Awareness can be implicit and pre-verbal.

Satisfaction is a happy word, when coupled with the love of life. Matthieu Ricard’s wish for wisdom, flourishing, and peace in every moment is lofty. But as we were saying last time, wasted moments are gone forever. Make a wish. A smart and willful wish, leading to well-chosen goals. Nietzsche’s formula was for “a yes, a no, as straight line, a goal.” He wasn’t that happy, though, do you imagine?

Nor was Kant, I imagine.  “Full and complete happiness” may not exist on earth, but the promise of their attainment after death rings hollow to Epicureans, humanists, and others who think the “earth of things must resume its rights.”

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. Pragmatism

Deferred gratification is often a necessary condition of our happiness, but is deferred happiness ever a good idea?

Some more questions: Does illusory happiness interest you? Can you be happy in the absence of meaning and truth? Do you share Matthieu Ricard’s “primary aspiration”? Does it set the bar too high? Do you know people who “lose themselves in a permanent hyperactivity, artificially filling the emptiness of their lives”? Is that a fair characterization, or an external view from an unsympathetic perspective? Is it your duty to make yourself worthy of happiness, to be as happy as possible, both, neither… or is talk of “duty” irrelevant to the question of happiness? Were Socrates and Jesus happy? Are martyrs happy, generally? Do you wish for a cause to die for?

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September 20, 2017

It’s Socrates and the Socratics (including that dog Diogenes) today in CoPhi. Socrates, they say, was firmly devoted to argumentative reason as a better method than revelation or hope. Should we call his devotion “faith“? Not if that means an unwavering refusal to seek and ponder all evidence, to entertain challenging questions, even to welcome those that question the utility of argumentative reason itself. His fabled humility, his ignorant form of wisdom, officially invites every challenge.

But unofficially, Socrates was definitely betting on reason against superstition and tradition for their own sake. His trust in reason was firm, his delight in philosophical argument was inextinguishable. He drew his dying breath in the middle of an argument his successors have continued to this day, as to the meaning and practical value of a life committed to virtue, curious inquiry, and intellectual integrity. He died in contempt of what he considered the misplaced presumption of fearing death more than vice, “which runs faster than death.”

That’s how we’ve come to see him, as a pedestal-mounted figure larger than life, gazing across the centuries in reproach of small-mindedness and irrational fear. We downplay his personal shabbiness and eccentricity, forgetting the actual figure he must have cut as the ancient Athenian equivalent of a street person. How did such a vagabond manage to ingratiate himself with the upper crust elites of his city? It was his spellbinding gift of gab, tiresome to many but entrancing (“bewitching,” said the smitten Alcibiades) to many more. People looked beyond the pug nose and the ugly-ass mouth (“more ugly even than an ass’s”) to the beauty within.

His conversation was compelling but it was not personally revealing. His version of dialectic withheld affirmative assertion, instead soliciting others’ definitions and demonstrations in order to trip them over their own inconsistencies and send them (and us, peering over their shoulders) back to the philosophical drawing board.

Athenian democracy had just been overthrown by the Spartans and decimated by their Thirty Tyrants, as Socrates went to trial. His own anti-democratic leanings were well-known. 

If you were heading out on a journey by sea, Socrates asks Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.  Why Socrates Hated Democracy, SoL

But did he really hate democracy? Gottlieb says no, he was in fact too democratic for his time and place. He was an ultra-democrat, committed to the examined life for all. This may have sounded to some like an endorsement of “exaggerated individualism” but for Socrates the examined life is also the collaborative conversational life. “Philosophy is an intimate and collaborative activity: it is a matter for discussions among small groups of people who argue together in order that each might find the truth for himself. The spirit of such a pastime cannot accurately be captured in a lecture or a treatise.” It’s best captured in talk, preferably while walking. Hence Plato’s dialogues, and ours.

Not even the Delphic Oracle‘s authoritative declaration of Socrates’ wisdom could stifle the gadfly’s appetite for rational argument and inquiry, provoking him to “check the truth of it” for himself. Can we possibly take literally, then, his claim to philosophize at the behests of God or his daimon? No. He just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. 

He also thought it best not to weep and wail for our finitude, even at death’s door. “No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing…” Maybe he’ll get to meet his “heroes of the old days.” Or maybe he’ll just have a nice long sleep. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to worry about an unpleasant or hellish alternative. He was ahead of his time, and Epicurus’s, in this regard.

Socrates and Plato were both “unworldly” but in different ways, the former in his shambling indifference to social status, hygiene,and finery, the latter in regarding carnal existence as a form of incarceration in the shadow of eternal essences and Ideas. Socrates kept a sharper focus on the duties and blessings of this world, “not simply a preparation for something else.” And he thought we could all do that. “For Plato, philosophy was the ladder to this elevated world of the Forms, but not everyone could climb it.” For Socrates, “anybody could examine his own life and ideas and thus lead a worthwhile existence.”

The paradigmatic Socratic question: Is something good because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it’s good? The Socratic answer: it can’t be the former, that’s arbitrary. Real gods don’t play darts with the universe. Hypothetical gods shouldn’t, either.

What would he say about people who achieve wealth and success by behaving badly? Or about the state of our democracy? Would he agree with William James regarding “our national disease“? Would you?

We know how it ended for Socrates. They told him to shut up. He persisted (like Elizabeth Warren, and like Paul Kalinithi), until the hemlock shut him down. It’s up to the rest of us, now, to persist when we’re told to “shut up about the bad stuff.”
2.9.17. 5:40/6:42, 32/40/26, 5:20. Happy Birthday  to Alice Walker, who said “no person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow”… and to Irish rebel Brendan Behan, who said “Never throw stones at your mother,You’ll be sorry for it when she’s dead, Never throw stones at your mother, Throw bricks at your father instead.” On this day in 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time… 

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Lenoir’s Happiness

September 19, 2017

In Happiness today we begin Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide. In case there’s any doubt, our author is quite French.

Many professional thinking persons are, unsurprisingly, convinced that a deep curiosity about the world and an unsettled awareness of our peculiar place in it are both prerequisite to living happily and well, and would agree that “it is essential to be aware of our happiness to be happy.”

Or, if they’re not convinced, they’re nonetheless vocationally committed to pursuing inquiry as if they were. As James says so well in Varieties of Religious Experience, “philosophy lives in words” – and it’s in words that philosophers must express and transact their curiosity and awareness – “but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.”

So, what’s an honest philosopher to do with the realization that happiness may be visited upon us in moments of silence, meditation, and mute appreciation?

Well, he could admit perhaps that sometimes the pleasures of thinking about nothing (if not “NOTHING”) and doing nothing may far exceed an intellectual’s preconceptions as to the conditions of happiness. As in religion, sometimes a philosopher of happiness must defend experience against philosophy. That’s one of my secular acts.

It’s hard to dispute Montaigne’s suggestion that happiness is amplified when we know and appreciate that we’re happy. Clap your hands. Again, though, E.B. White poses the Thinking Man’s perennial dilemma: savor the moment, or save the world? I vote “both,” but don’t ask me how. Knowing what you want is not the same as knowing how to get it. But we do know, don’t we, that moments unsavored are lost? And that no one of us alone can be the Savior? So my advice is, guard and enjoy every moment you can. Saving the world is a longer-term project. When planning your day, be sure to leave room for some savoring moments.

The Pleasure Principle may sound like Freudian flap-doodle to some, but if pleasure had no adaptive value it surely would have gone by the boards long ago. “The vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply,” let us hope.

Aristotle, on Lenoir’s reading, endorses a life balancing “the maximum of pleasure with the maximum of reason.” I’m uneasy about “maximum,” but for a rational animal such as we aspire to be, those surely must be the right constituent parts. The ratio of the mix might vary, animal to animal and person to person. Not all virtues are equally salient for each of us, some strike a more courageous or magnanimous or gentle note (etc.) – but do take note, there are many virtues available for our respective pursuits of excellence. With all due respect to the student who posted his view that the only real virtues involve deference to God and love for our neighbors, that’s needlessly self-limiting.

I’m not familiar with Lenoir’s “peasant-philosopher” Pierre Rahbi, but “happy sobriety” sounds Epicurean enough. “Necessary things are easy to attain,” by comparison. Food and drink and shelter, once procured, ought to make fine cooking, beautiful clothes, a fancy home (etc.) less urgent, and power and honors entirely gratuitous. If pleasure really is the key to happiness, we ought to give more thought to what pleasures most conduce to lasting happiness, and ought to be prepared to agree with Epicurus that the best things in life are practically free.

Of course, Epicurus presumably never experienced the finest craft beer.

I’m definitely prepared to agree with sourpuss Schopenhauer that 90% of happiness depends on health. I’m surprised he said that. “Keep your health, your splendid health. It’s better than all the truths in the firmament.”

Meaning, again. Viktor Frankl and Sigmund Freud might agree that most of us are “truly happy only when our lives are pleasant and also have meaning.” But is meaning an afterthought, or is it in fact the culmination of human-order pleasure?

Some questions: Do you ever wish you were less susceptible to living the examined life, a little less curious and aware and a bit more like Forrest Gump or Winnie the Pooh? Is there a danger of shrinking or crushing our happinesss, in the very process of observing and savoring (“amplifying”) it? Is it generally true, as Darwin asserted, that in our world “the vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply”? Do philosophers overrate the importance of reason and reflection in the pursuit of happiness? Do you espouse “mens sana in corpore sano”? Can you imagine surviving an ordeal like the holocaust or the Vietnam War (check out Ken Burns’ new film) with your capacity for happiness intact?

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Measuring atoms

September 18, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s Democritus and the Sophists.

Democritus, the “laughing philosopher” (did we note that Heraclitus was the “weeping philosopher“?) doesn’t really sound like such a barrel of laughs. He urged repentance, preferred a “well-ordered demeanor” and, Gottlieb tells us, was broadly contemptuous of human folly. Was he laughing with us or at us? But you could ask the same of Mark Twain, who damned us, and Kurt Vonnegut (impatient, as previously noted, with our species’ penchant for unkindness). Is it misanthropic to deplore misanthropy? It’s not unfunny.
Democritus may not been a side-splitter, and he may have been wrong about atoms being unsplittable, but his general outlook was astonishingly ahead of the game even if “he simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right.” He was a lucky guy indeed, living to an astonishing 109 and then “cheerfully” (according to Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers) pulling his own plug. Before that, legend has it, he extended his life by inhaling the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

Some early Christians opposed atomism on the grounds that its explanatory hypothesis displaced divine fiat and jettisoned a personal afterlife (with persons and souls dissolved and remixed). That’s still the kicker behind lots of present-day science denialism, isn’t it?

Leucippus first influenced Democritus with the atoms-and-void idea. Later it was taken up by Epicurus, then Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, “the way things are“:

  • “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.” 
  • O minds of mortals, blighted by your blindness! Amid what deep darkness and daunting dangers life’s little day is passed! To think that you should fail to see that nature importantly demands only that the body may be rid of pain, and that the mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment!” 
  • Don’t think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with… All such argument, all such interpretation is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use.
  • “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” 
  • “The atoms in it must be used over and over again; thus the death of one thing becomes necessary for the birth of another.”
  • The main obstacles to the goal of tranquillity of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die: as Epicurus neatly and logically puts it: “Death…is nothing to us: when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist.

Atomism grew up “when chemists and physicists developed sophisticated ways to measure material phenomena,” to lift them out of the murky realm of subjective and deniable opinion, and lower them down from the transcendent and resplendent but entirely invisible realm of eternal objects and indestructible objects. And then we learned to blow them up. Growing up is not necessarily the same as maturing. We’ll have done that when all our leaders learn to stop speaking flippantly about “nuclear options” that are nothing but MAD.

We mentioned Richard Dawkins’ rainbow the other day, today we’re invited to consider his related views on meaning and design (see Lucretius above). “Is there a meaning to life? What are we for?” We can answer those questions without reverting to superstition, thanks to what we’ve learned about atoms and the void ever since we stopped proposing fantastic answers to such questions and started charting the world’s actual (not alternative) facts. 

The great legacy of Periclean Athens is the value they and we (some of us) place on the ability to speak and debate persuasively, civilly, and sometimes disinterestedly. The old Greek sophistes, Sophists, the likes of Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, et al, shared that value to a much greater extent than is commonly conceded. They taught grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, literary criticism, music, law, religion, human and social origins, math, and natural science. Big History, some now call such a broad portfolio of academic interest. 
Their undeserved bad name seems to have come from the reigning animus people had to those early teachers for presuming to seek remuneration. Fortunately we no longer expect our teachers to live hand-to-mouth, not entirely anyway. Their deserved bad name, and the bad name of contemporary sophists, is not that they get paid but that they don’t themselves invest in truth for its own sake. They “could not care less about truth,” peddled “ruses,” sought to portray a mere “semblance of wisdom without the reality.” There are some academics and philosophers who fit that description, but you’re more likely to encounter them in law and politics.

In addition, Plato resented the bad Sophists for getting Socrates in trouble. Really he resented Athens and its too-clever satirists (like Aristophanes) for not discerning the difference between a bad Sophist, denizen of the “logic factory,” and a good Socrates.

Protagoras is the most interesting Sophist. What does “Man is the measure of all things” mean, if it means to embrace and applaud subjectivity? Does it have to mean an extreme personal relativism? Or cultural relativism? Or maybe something more innocuous like the view my old mentor Lachs calls “relationalism” – all things must be measured by standards and yardsticks actual humans can wield.  
“Protagoras apparently drowned in a shipwreck after he had been tried and banished (or in some stories condemned to death) for his agnostic religious views. He also wrote a treatise on wrestling.” (Critchley)

Some questions: If everything is composed of atoms, does it follow that there is no life after death? Does atomism in fact “liberate [us] from superstition, fear of death, and the tyranny of priests”? If thought consists in the motion of mind-atoms, can we freely think our own thoughts? Or are we passive spectators of “our” minds? What difference does it make, if particles are inseparable from forces and fields and bundles of energy and thus cannot be proved to be “unsplittable” (as the ancient atomists said)? Is it “reasonable to suppose that every sort of world crop[s] up somewhere”?


Brian Greene (@bgreene)
The observable universe extends for about 92 billion light-years. No human has ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light-seconds.

2.7.17. 5:20/6:44, 61/65/52, 5:18
Happy birthday to Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, Main Street, and the eerily prophetic It Can’t Happen Here, about a 1930s populist fascistic American demagogue who rises to power on a wave of popular discontent. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman… Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

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Virtue, meaning, and a good life

September 14, 2017

We finish Daniel Haybron’s very fine Very Short Intro to Happiness today.

More important than whether you’re happy, says Haybron, is your contribution and legacy. Will you be deservedly well thought-of, for having lived well? So much the better if living well makes you happy, but in the long perspective of history the personal and subjective experience of virtue will barely register. Isn’t that all the more reason to make happiness a priority? If you don’t, who will?

That’s not to endorse “acting badly” in the pursuit, but some will wonder what’s to stop any of us from doing so. What compels conscience and compassion, aside from the unpleasant prospect of being poorly thought-of? Decency and virtue might be motivation enough, and their own reward, for the noblest natures. Others rightly care about the judgment of generations to come.

But then there are the deplorables, the philistines, the jerks. They claim the right to be terrible people. Until quite recently I would have said they were marginal to our civilization and not a threat to it. Lately that’s less clear. “One should not be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness.”

“According to some studies, having kids doesn’t make us happier.” Having just graduated a couple of them, I’ve made my own study. I can’t imagine the past 20+ years of my life without them. More than that: anticipating them was a source of happiness long before their births. But I know that’s not everybody’s experience.

“Any life dedicated to worthwhile ends is meaningful,” even if the judgment of worth is uncertain or, again, awaits the verdict of history. While we live we have to make that call for ourselves, have to believe we’ve chosen worthwhile ends, if we’re to experience that sort of meaning. Of course, we may never know.

We do know, don’t we, that those gawking consumer-touroids on p.104 are draining life of meaning even if they think they’re “making memories”? Like selfish and shallow people everywhere, they look more desperate and absurd than happy.

Happiness really is an aspirational ideal, something worth chasing no matter how elusive it may turn out to be.

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it,” says Nobelist Daniel Kahneman. Hmm. As a professional thinking person that’s disconcerting. More uplifting (and poignant) is that heart-grabbing missive from the battlefield that closes Haybron’s book. “I am such a lucky person to have the life that I have.” That says it.

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Love & strife

September 13, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s Empedocles and Anaxagoras.

The little film about Empedocles from the 3-minute guy is quite unprofound, and you’ll probably be happy not (like Groundhog Day*) to repeat it over and over. But it usefully summarizes the Sicilian’s metaphysical view that our four basic terrestrial elements are constantly bestirred by a never-ending battle between Love and Strife. He, like Phil Conners, thought himself a god too (though not the God). In fact he said we all spring from divine stuff and a golden age of universal harmony,  before we were cast into our “alien garment of flesh.” He believed in reincarnation, and claimed in past lives to have been a girl, a fish, a bush (!), and  a bird. A loon, perhaps.
But Phil’s story has a sunnier, less “Faustian” outcome than Empedocles’ legend avers. (I discount the magical theory that Phil actually died in Punxsutawney on February 1 and was thence stuck in purgatory, preferring the Buddhist interpretation of his release from samsara.) Still, in these calamitous times we all ought to give thought to where we’re gonna go when the volcano blows. I just wouldn’t count on coming back after the eruption, in any sensate form.

Love and strife clearly apply in many instances of sexual attraction, and sound a lot sexier than gravity and electromagnetism. They’re useful categories for analyzing the interpersonal dynamics of social life, but do they really mirror the Big Bang and Big Crunch of astrophysical cosmology? Seems to me the value and relevance of such emotive terms, in mapping our psycho-sociological terrain, lies precisely  in their intimacy – not in the scope, scale, and ultimate impersonality of universal laws. Stephen Hawking and Barbara Cartland aren’t well matched after all.

On the other hand, Empedocles’ prescience about biology and evolution are impressive. Darwin himself said he found his theory of natural selection “shadowed forth” by the  Maybe Professor Dawkins would be a better match for Ms. Cartland? He does wax eloquent on the romance of science, in Unweaving the Rainbow and elsewhere. “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.” And so, “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 part of it?”

Or if not Dawkins, then maybe we could hook her up with a popularizer of medical science like Lewis Thomas, Sherwin Nuland, Atul Gawande, or Siddhartha Mukherjee? The latter writes: “The art of medicine is long, Hippocrates tells us, “and life is short; opportunity fleeting; the experiment perilous; judgment flawed.” Gottlieb tells us that medicine (“or at least crude physiology”) was Empedocles’ favorite science.

Empedocles is said to have said:

  • God is a circle whose center is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere.
  • No mortal thing has a beginning, nor does it end in death and obliteration; there is only a mixing and then separating of what was mixed, but by mortal men these processes are named “beginnings.” 
  • The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. 
  • Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace.
  •  Strife is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.
  • Many fires burn below the surface.
Anaxagoras was hugely important in our tradition for bringing naturalism and anti-superstition to Athens. In retrospect that might seem like coals to Newcastle, but in his day (c.460 BCE) Socrates was still an impressionable lad and the Greeks were still to discover the beauty of a rationally ordered nous. “Mind is god and god is Mind.”

Anaxagoras, it might be supposed, first seduced Socrates into a life of impiety (for denying godhood to the sun and moon). But Socrates ultimately thought him too far above superstition, paying “too much attention to the mechanical causes of things and not enough to their meanings and purposes.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to convene a reading club discussion of Unweaving the Rainbow with Anaxagoras and Socrates?

Anaxagoras thought “the senses provide us with blurred outlines of the world, which reason then brings into focus.” Or tries to. That sounds right, so long as reason constantly checks its focus by returning, repeatedly, to the world of sense. A blurred outline is better than a blind speculation.

Was Anaxagoras an atheist? There is nothing anachronistic about this question. In the late 430s, he was put on trial for “impiety,” on the grounds that he denied the divinity of the heavenly bodies (which he undoubtedly did). This may have been the first time in history that an individual was prosecuted for heretical religious beliefs.”

“Set up about 438 BCE, the law against Anaxagoras’s atheism held that society must “denounce those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky.”

“Men would live exceedingly quiet if these two words, mine and thine, were taken away.” George Harrison went to India for that, he could have found it closer to home.

Here’s why students should love Anaxagoras: “In exile in Lampsacus, Anaxagoras made his final benefaction to humanity: the invention of the school holiday.”

According to Matt Ridley, “Anaxagoras’ belief that lying on the right side during sex would produce a boy was so influential that centuries later some French aristocrats had their left testicles amputated.”

So, he was a semi-emasculating philosopher. No dualist, he thought one would do. That brings us to one more point of praise for the old naturalist, from my perspective: he “thought of mind as a special form of matter, not as something completely different.” 
Finally, though, Anaxagoras was the worst sort of Stoic, far ahead of his time. Told of his sons’ premature deaths, he said “I knew that my children were born to die.” Knowledge is not always a consolation.
2.2.17. 5:30/6:43, 39/47/29, 5:12. It’s James Joyce’s birthday. He who worried that people would look for a moral in Ulysses “or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.” Serious or not, there are some good lines: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake…. To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher…. “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past… Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand… I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short time of space.”

He did take himself a bit seriously. When he met the venerated poet W.B. Yeats, he famously said, “We met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me.” And Yeats famously responded, “Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it.”

Yeats, by the way, is usually credited with the bench wisdom attributed in our walnut grove to old Plutarch: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Image result for mtsu walnut grove bench

My favorite Yeats quote, which sounds a lot like Emerson: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

*Groundhog Day, “a legend that traverses centuries” and an American tradition since 1887. Will Bill Murray’s Phil Conners see his shadow? Do gods (or bodhisattvas) even cast shadows? Did you know the film’s “a profound work of contemporary metaphysics“?

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