Posts Tagged ‘IFTTT’


October 10, 2019

“It’s a long season, you gotta trust it,” said Crash Davis. Cards and Nats fans are feeling that this morning, after their teams upended the two NL teams with better season records to take their respective divisions series’.  Braves and Dodgers fans are probably not.

The situation is a bit like the sinking boat scenario we were discussing out on the JUB stoa yesterday afternoon in CoPhi. The boat sinks, all aboard are lost, but one would-be passenger who didn’t board thinks it must have been his destiny, his “fate” to survive. But what about the actual passengers? Their trust was not rewarded, Crash.

Oh well, says the trusting believer. Life’s a mystery. Why do bad things happen to good and innocent people? Why must the innocent die young? Why must the team with 106 regular-season wins now go home watch its inferiors contend for glory? God only knows.

Or the gods, as the interlocutors in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods would say.
Cotta the Skeptic, Velleius the Epicurean, and Balbus the Stoic talk it out in an conversation that’s still fresh and relevant. All score points at various moments in the discussion. We’re giving it a glance today in Happiness.  

Early in the dialogue, Velleius mocks the idea of a Master Planner god who’s got the whole world in his hands. (NOTE, class: this is a different translation than we’re reading, cited by J.M. Hecht in Doubt: A History.) “So you have smuggled into our minds the idea of some eternal overlord, whom we must fear by day and night. Who  would not fear a god who foresees everything, ponders everything, notices everything? A god who makes everything his own concern, a curious god, a universal busybody? …Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free.”
I recall being afraid, as a small child, that the god we sang about in Sunday School was snooping on my every indiscretion. “His eye is on the sparrow, I know he’s watching me.” Yikes! If trust is purchased with fear and thus (for an Epicurean) any prospect of true happiness, it’s not worth it. Better to picture the god(s) as indifferent to our fate, uninterested in either protecting, rewarding, or punishing us.
Cotta the Skeptic takes it a step further. “Divine Providence was supposed to be able ‘to accomplish anything it pleases’ and yet it lets people die.” 
“It follows from this theory of yours that this Divine Providence is either unaware of its own powers or is indifferent to human life. Or else it is unable to judge what is best. ‘Providence is not concerned with individuals,’ you say. I can well believe it.”
Fate? You really can’t trust it. Or the gods, or the God, fate’s reputed Master Planner and divine engineer. We cannot count on a cosmic ally or savior to secure our happiness. We’re on our own. We must cultivate our Garden.

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October 9, 2019

I noted in class yesterday that one of my baseball heroes provides a strong riposte to Thomas Hobbes’s implicitly unflattering portrayal of human nature. Pre-civilized life in a state of nature, Hobbes said, would be a war of all against all. Without the brake and censure of lawful civic authority, he was sure, we’d be mutually hostile and viciously competitive in the struggle for survival.

Well, Hobbes never met Buck O’Neil. “It’s much easier to love than it is to hate! Hate eats you up on the inside!”

An old post.

“Hobbes (the English social contract philosopher, not the tiger) was fond of his dram,” sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick-his walking stick. He used it not only to perambulate but also to record his thoughts as they came to him, on his daily rambles. Like an iPhone recorder, without need of a battery.

He was also a Royalist, a materialist, a determinist, and a pessimist about human nature. He was “difficult to classify” (Russell). I had an undergrad prof at UMSL, back in the day, who spoke weirdly of “mainlining on utopia with Tommy Hobbes.” The Hobbesian utopia is no place I want to live.

But still I like much of what I know about him, particularly his daily morning ramble habit.

I was amused when my old friend said he’d just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle’s more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking with our Study Abroad course in Britain.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, he lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say pre-social contract humans were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Just that their lives would’ve been.

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel Warburton in his Little History, why do you lock your doors?

Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to secure it? How much have you? How secure do you feel? Still relevant questions in our time, and Hobbes’s answers were extreme indeed. But he was no monster, he was a peace-seeker and a civilizer. Most walkers are.

But, would life in a state of nature really be as bad as Hobbes thought? Most of us find most people less than totally distrustful, hostile, aggressive, and vicious, most of the time. On the other hand, we’re most of us hardly “noble savages” either. Civilization and its discontent-engendering institutions account for a percentage of everyday bad behavior, but surely not all of it. So Hobbes may have been onto something, with his claim that we’re wired for trouble and must be subdued by something bigger than us all, something leviathan-like.

The Hobbesian threat of insecurity and fear of violent death, in our time, may be great enough to override everyone’s desire for personal freedom. Is safety more important than liberty? “Better red (or whatever) than dead?” Better to have government snoops monitoring your calls, emails, etc., than… than what, exactly?

Even if you agree with Hobbes that humans left to themselves would revert to base, aggressive, instinctive behavior, you may yet hesitate to agree that the only corrective for this condition is an all-powerful and authoritative central state. You may prefer not to concede the mechanistic, physicalistic, materialist model of humans as incapable of changing, of choosing to become more kind and compassionate, less fearful and selfish. You may hold out for a species capable of rewriting its default programming.

Speculations about human nature as inherently good or bad have always slighted the individuality of persons, absorbing them in abstractions about universal nature. We should seek instead to grasp the particularity of our separate natures. Our separate plural natures. Our plurality, subjectivity, uniqueness.

Common sense” gets things wrong often enough and egregiously enough, doesn’t it? – the flatness of earth, the rectitude of slavery, etc. – to give serious pause. Uncommon sense is in shorter supply, and greater demand. Just like decency, honesty, and humility. We need the Buck O’Neils of the world, now more than ever.

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A new Stoicism

October 8, 2019

We conclude our short intro to Stoicism today in Happiness. For the Stoics, humans are endowed by nature with “innate inclinations which we are programmed to follow and which we must follow and perfect if we are ever to be fully successful versions of ourselves (that is, to achieve our goal, happiness).”

In what sense should we construe our “program”? Is it a solecism, or even an anachronism, to think of it by way of analogy to computing? If so, may or can we defy the program? Is it deviancy, perversity, or creativity to want to defy those innate inclinations? Is it freedom? Is happiness our proper primary goal? And is it ours? Are we in fact programmed for virtue, social solidarity, rationality, and truth, with respect to all of which these truly are times that try our souls… or, if you will, that challenge the integrity of our program.

The Stoics thought of the world and (therefore) ourselves as rationally ordered and infused with divine purpose. Let’s grant the order of nature, but admit the central concern of our times: we humans have too frequently been monkey wrenches in the Nature machine, a source of unreason and deranged disorder. “Great and unmatched wisdom” is on occasional but rare display. More frequent is arrogance, hubris, and megalomaniacal insanity.

And yet… the Stoic call to hone our reason, harmonize with Nature, “proceed on to something higher than just opinion” and thus attain our personal and species perfection, our arete, is seductive. The promise of an equanimity in the face of natural necessity (as we noted in connection with Spinoza’s pantheistic version of stoic fatalism), that we need “never be upset,” is powerful.

But, the old concern with this philosophy: is it sternly suppresive of the best and most humane part of us, our capacity to care and feel and  love? Does it threaten to turn us cold, distant,  and indifferent? Is it a Vulcan philosophy, but not so appealing as IDIC? Would it make us Spocks? Or would it simply mask an underlying but undemonstrative “constant joy and tranquility,” the ethos of “completely rational people”?

And so, the penultimate chapter is devoted to Stoic logic. “Illogical, Captain”-if he said it once he said it a thousand times. “Defensive wall,” indeed. He meant irrational, but even at age ten we knew what he meant. “The ability to give or withhold assent” based on reason and evidence, not arbitrary preference or whim, is what makes rational animals potentially logical. Exclusive devotion to logic, though, can seem to deny our humanity. All of us, like Spock, are at least half human. We must cultivate our emotional intelligence too.

Is now the time for a new Stoicism? (Do some of us want to read and report on Lawrence Becker’s book, class? g’r) A “grand, integrative vision of a good human life” that honored the entirety of our thinking-and-feeling natures would be welcome. If “following nature means following the facts,” the time is overripe. Might just be our salvation. Live long and prosper.

Image result for live long and prosper

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Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Royce

October 7, 2019

Friday’s Lyceum with Robert Talisse, on Overdoing Democracy, was timely, entertaining, instructive, and fundamentally right: democracy is supposed to enable us to pursue good lives in multiple dimensions, not just obsess all the time over politics and the shortcomings, imbecilities,  and crimes of our foes; and, it’s supposed to enable peaceable, mutually respectable coexistence with our fellow citizens whether we voted for the same candidates or not. Instead, we’ve allowed our civic life to be invaded by a branding mentality that villifies the very humanity of partisans for the other party.

There was a tense moment during the Q-&-A that threatened to subvert the larger message, but the moment passed. It did for me, anyway. Talisse is indeed, as our chair told him at the reception later, a star. Glad he could shine in front of his mom at our show.

Another weekend highlight: on the first rainy Sunday in a month of Sundays we went to see Downton Abbey. As an Anglophile and hereditary Anglo on my father’s side (descended from Olivers who resided in Bristol U.K. before landing in Kentucky and eventually mid-Missouri, if the genealogy my dad passed along can be believed), I revel in representations of the Old Country and its upstairs-downstairs social strata… even while sympathizing with Irish Republican resisters like Tom Branson.

He would understand Talisse’s message: people for whose politics he “wouldn’t give a tuppence” are, nonethelss, decent at their core. And in his case they’re also family. They love his daughter, giving her (and him) a place to call home. Remembering such things puts politics in its place.

 What a lovely film, sentimentally nodding to the both the charm and the contradictions of a bygone era that seems much more distant in time than it really is. Carson was so sure that Crawleys would still inhabit Downton in our day. Some heirs of the ancient estates do in fact still haunt those old mansions, mostly for the tourist trade. The class rigidity of that world is well lost, not to mention its various, racist, homophobic, xenophobic (etc.) intolerances and snooty superiorities. But they did know how to entertain royalty.

I had a hard time buying Arthur Dent as King George V, though.

Image result for arthur dent king george simon jones Image result for king george v

Also this weekend: Monty Python turned 50, Naomi Klein was on BookTV, the Cards lost twice to the Braves… and Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, and Aquinas remained long dead, though not forgotten.

Not quite so long dead, but largely forgotten until a recent small revival of interest got him a shout-out from David Brooks in the Times, is Josiah Royce. “Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.” Loyalty to a worthy cause makes life meaningful and satisfying, if not exactly happy in the conventional and superficial sense. “How does the individual fit into the community and how does each community fit into the whole? He offered a shift in perspective. When evaluating your life, don’t ask, ‘How happy am I?’ Ask, ‘How loyal am I, and to what?'”

William James, left, and Josiah Royce, circa 1910.Contrarily, self-centered individualism in pursuit of “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires makes for hollow, unhappy, antagonized and antagonistic lives of lonely isolation. Royce showed us, and could show us again if we wanted to be shown, an alternative way to live good lives that’s rooted as much in western philosophical traditions as individualism. You don’t have to embrace Buddha, he said, to find nirvana. Or at least to find peace, love, and understanding. Was he right? That’s what he and his friend James talked about on that wall.

Even if he is right, are we receptive to that news? A piece in yesterday’s Times suggests many are not. They cling to a self-defeating “go-it-alone” self-reliance that’s not working for them, but they’re stubbornly “determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.” They don’t read, or support the local library. They won’t read Royce.

An old post. In late antiquity and the middle ages the big questions tended to be more about life’s rumored sequel and how to achieve it. Augustine first thought you had to make alliance with the forces of good, in their death struggle with the forces of darkness. He was on the right track, I tend to think, before his big conversion. He was right to suppose that our side needs all good hands on deck, to resist and overcome evil. He put that conversion off as long as he could, praying for purity but only in due course. For the record, though: I don’t think he was right to think of our carnal condition as an entombment. Incorporeal souls sow no wild oats, ascetics enjoy few existential delights.

So, buoyed by Platonism, he “put all forms of materialism firmly behind him” and “turned back the clock of intellectual history.” The old Greek commitment to reason was not finally comforting enough to him. “He returned to a version of the comforting supernatural stories which most of the first philosophers sought to dispense with, or at least to rationalize.”

Boethius‘s Consolation of Philosophy dialogue found its own form of comfort, not in Augustine’s Christianity but in Lady Philosophy’s timeless stoicism. God (or Good?) sees all in a single atemporal sweep, “at a go,” and thus somehow leaves the hapless victim of tortured persecution and execution as free as it found him. He can still choose to be “philosophical” about every misfortune, even to his dying breath on the rack. His freedom’s a lot like Kris Kristofferson’s and Janis Joplin’s, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Anselm‘s God, “than which nothing greater can be conceived,” and his famous “proof” thereof, is another of those notorious sleights of hand made to do heavy philosophical lifting with nothing more muscular than verbiage. It’s still shocking to me, how many bright people (including young Russell, briefly) it’s seduced.

Speaking of great misfortune, poor Abelard‘s is painful to ponder. Gottlieb blames “his scholarly prowess and his passionate involvement with logic” for emboldening him to undertake his own fateful seduction. How ironic, that he would go on to make his mark as “the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times” and “to apply rational analysis to the nature of moral goodness.” Too little, too late.

Moses Maimonides did not address Abelard’s peculiar form of perplexity but did try to bring philosophy, science, and religion together. “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” But try telling that to the world. He was right, though. “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” But, “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”

He was onto confirmation bias early. “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it. […] The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”

Was he really the first to say this?: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Did he anticipate James’s Will to Believe notion that “our errors are not such awfully solemn things”? “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

He was sort of a bioethicist before his time: “The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it.” And, “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” Actually that might have helped Abelard, with a little timely saltpeter in his diet.

William of Ockham‘s famous “razor” said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. “It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less.” Remember Goober’s beard?

Remember Buridan’s Ass? Apparently “no such animal appears in his writings.” Too bad, he’s been such a workhorse for logicians.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic friar, but he also had a vivd scifi imagination. He said there must be other worlds and “countless suns” out there in the Void, “innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow.” We’ve only confirmed that in the past twenty years or so. It (and other heresies) got him torched in 1600. Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson tell his story.

Finally today, Aquinas. His First Cause Argument, echoing Aristotle, said a never-ending series of causes and effects would lead to an unacceptable regress. The first term in any explanatory sequence, he thought, has to be self-evident. But is that itself self-evident? Russell says, of “the supposed impossibility of a series having no first term: Every mathematician knows that there is no such impossibility; the series of negative integers ending with minus one is an instance to the contrary. But here again no Catholic is likely to abandon belief in God even if he becomes convinced that Saint Thomas’s arguments are bad; he will invent other arguments, or take refuge in revelation.” It’s not just Catholics. Remember confirmation bias?

March 2017

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Fate, love it or…

October 3, 2019

We were to have had a report in Happiness today on Nietzsche, whose notion of a life-affirming philosophy of life included a strong dose of fatalism. But fate intervened, calling one of the reporters away to deal with a family emergency. So as fate will have it, Nietzsche will wait.

But I can’t wait to think about fate and stoicism. Is it true that, truly to love life, we must accept and embrace whatever has happened and even to wish that it all may happen again, and again, and again… eternally?  Eternal recurrence is harsh medicine, purgative and clarifying. Nietzsche called it a gift. A scene is When Nietzsche Wept, a film I’ll be grateful not to see again and again in its entirety, depicts him conveying that gift to his shrink. Thanks a lot.

Epictetus the slave said we could free our minds by not concerning ourselves with things beyond our power. “Demand not that events should happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen and you will go on well.”

If Stoicism is acceptance of what was and what is, of events beyond our control construed as external realities beyond the reach of our wills, does that not entail advance acceptance of events yet to come? That seemed to be the Spinoza’s line on freedom, and seems to be Royce’s too. The only thing presumed to lie within our personal power, for a metaphysical idealist and rationalist, would be the refashioning of our inner lives, calibrating will to synchronize with necessity, not presuming to possess agency and efficacy. But why should fate respect the stipulated boundary between external reality and inner adjustment?

Might that boundary just be a pragmatic stipulation, more or less arbitrarily drawn, without which we could not “go on well”? Might stoic pragmatism be an improvement on stoic fatalism? Might that be what Royce and James were really arguing about, all those years at Harvard and on the wall in Chocorua?

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Stoics & Epicureans

October 2, 2019
“Insight,” Josiah Royce’s name for philosophy–“this curious scrutiny of ours into the truth…this game of reflection”–sponsors, he says, the philosopher’s “return to life.”
Return to life – I don’t recall being at all struck by that phrase or even noticing it, on my first reading of The Spirit of Modern Philosophy. It may have registered subliminally, though, because it grabbed me sharply later when I came across William James’s insistence that “the return to life can’t come about by talking.” 
Curious indeed. I wonder if Royce and James talked about that. They must have, they talked incessantly. James was sure that Royce’s talk led to the wrong “insight,” the metaphysical idealism which–from James’s point of view–subsumes individuals under an Absolute scheme of rational order (“intellectualism”) that absorbs their autonomy and co-ops their freedom. Royce, for his part, was convinced that James’s talk led to intellectual anarchy and atomistic isolation. 
Both were sure that life itself, or rather our sense of continuity with all the currents of life, hung in the balance. Both avidly sought the terms of our return. Ours? Or theirs? Most non-philosophers, and perhaps most people generally, are unaware of feeling so entirely detached from life that they must urgently investigate the way home. We all have our bad days, but many fewer of us regularly experience an Oz-like “not in Kansas anymore” sense of ourselves as cut off from the only life we’ve known and loved. Or say so in public, anyway. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland are exceptional and extreme. Most of us escape the rabbit hole. Right? 
Well, James and Royce were exceptional. Both thought it their job to clear the path back from Wonderland, back to Kansas, back to life as they thought they knew it. “I actually dread to die until I have settled the Universe’s hash in one more book,” James mocked himself and his vocation a few short years before he died. The hash remains unsettled, though it must be said that James’s empiricist form of settling has enjoyed more general sympathy in the decades since his and Royce’s departure than the latter’s absolute metaphysical idealist approach. But as we know, popularity is not the last word. Words aren’t even the last word. “I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk…” 
The Stoics and Epicureans, like the Skeptics before them, understood too that “this curious scrutiny of ours into the truth” has to issue in something more tangible than talk if it’s to provide useful therapy. 
An old post:
There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.
Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)
Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]
Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”
Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:
He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?
Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,
by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.
Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.
The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”
Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.
But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.
Stoics & Epicureans @dawn

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Stoic pragmatists and epicureans

October 1, 2019

Josiah Royce took the long and hopeful view, in supposing we’ll have (as a species) “thousands of years to develop for humanity the full significance of [a given philosopher’s] reflective thought.” Or more.

There’s a nobly Stoic dimension to that kind of patience, in its way admirable but also possibly not the best fit for the urgent and even desperate moment we find ourselves in. If it takes a philosophy that long to mature, to find ripeness and relevance, we’d better look back a millennium or two for vintage wisdom to apply to the converging crises of the 21st century. We don’t have all the time in the world, we certainly don’t have time to grow a new Stoic philosophy.

On the other hand, Thoreau said it’s a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. I’m sure his 19th century felt every bit as bustling, chaotic, and out of control. The steam locomotive and telegraph were agents of rapid and unforeseen violation of old norms, much as the Internet and social media are ours. (Who was their Trump? He’s probably unprecedented.)

Stoicism should be in the mix, in our search for saving wisdom we can use now. And Pragmatism, which after all is just “a new name for some old ways of thinking.” So…

Stoic Pragmatism it is. What can philosophy do to make life better? What’s the right therapy for our disease, the cure for our ills? First, says John Lachs, it’s the recognition that “many things riling people greatly do not matter at all.” Second, it’s a deep appreciation of “ordinary experience, immediacy, and the qualitative element in life.” Stoics aren’t easily riled by trifles, stoic pragmatists are sharply attentive to “modest pleasures” and the saving graces of everyday. They may in fact be indistinguishable from Catherine Wilson’s Epicureans. Theirs, again,

is not a fatalistic philosophy. It lays great weight on human choices and preferences… It invites us to take pleasure in what is near at hand: in warmth, food, and drink, in moderation; in the company of those we happen, for whatever reason, to like; in the recurrence of spring after winter; and in the surround of foliage and flowers, and the appearance of new life.

But third, crucially, our therapy is going to have to bestir itself to understand that the recurrence of spring and new life can’t be taken for granted. If we want our garden to grow we must nurture the soil, stop leaching the planet, listen to Greta.

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Garden wisdom

September 26, 2019

“For the Epicureans,” writes Catherine Wilson, politics implied a striving for power and admiration which was incompatible with virtue, pleasure, and peace of mind.” So, they retreated to their garden outside the city and cultivated “true friendship.” Tempting. I’ve definitely had a touch of the apolitical blues lately, the seductive cure for which seems to be disengagement from the civic arena and investment in relationships of trust and mutual support that don’t depend on polarized party partisanship.

But somebody’s got to hold the pols to account. It’s a false dilemma that pits private against public life. Did the Stoics have a better understanding of this?

“The earliest humans, Lucretius proposed, were wild shaggy creatures living solitary lives in caves and forests… they raised themselves by degrees to a condition of civilization.” Are we there yet? We’re only as civilized as our institutions and practices and (as has been much remarked in the past three years) norms allow us to be. That’s why even Epicureans sometimes have to summon the grit to exit the garden, enter the arena, and prosecute a case against those who threaten our tenuous hold on civilization in the name of truth and philosophy 

The normalization of Drumpf and Trumpism—allowing those things to be defined merely as a political problem needing a political cure—degrades democracy. Calculating political advantage, too, narrowly misses the point of taking part in politics, which is to defend values.”

Or as old Neil, gadfly to southern men and Republican presidents from way back, said: let’s impeach the president. Then, we can all “avoid contact with the person causing [us] pain.” To do nothing in the face of his incessant insults and anti-democratic degradations would be to surrender to fatalism, and as Wilson concludes her little book:

Epicureanism is not a fatalistic philosophy. It lays great weight on human choices and preferences… It invites us to take pleasure in what is near at hand: in warmth, food, and drink, in moderation; in the company of those we happen, for whatever reason, to like; in the recurrence of spring after winter; and in the surround of foliage and flowers, and the appearance of new life.

There will be, as Chance the gardener knew, new growth in the spring. It’s really very simple.

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The expanded consciousness of a Democritean cosmopolite

September 24, 2019

Today in Happiness we begin by noting the Epicureans’ departure from both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions in their thoroughly material approach to mind/soul. Our spirit is for them ineluctably embodied, anchored to our organism, dependent on our situation in the material world.

It’s a feet-on-the-ground philosophy, a grounded worldview that potentially opens onto rich tapestries of experience. More ethereal souls would not understand, mediated as they would have to be in their recessive duality, cut off from the immediacy that may well be our surest source of happiness. “The notion that the soul is distributed and corporeal is in many ways more appealing than the notion that an incorporeal soul is lodged in the brain,” writes Catherine Wilson. As material spirits, our most ordinary encounters are capable of delighting us. Every fiber of our being may be alive and receptive to extraordinary perceptions.
May, not must. We have to attend to the inherent possibilities of delight, and constantly cultivate our perceptual acuity, lest we become dull and inured to the monotony of everydayness. If we don’t, and if we’ve been saddled with a temperament given to misgiving and ruminative regret – very few of us, it seems, are entirely exempt from such feelings – we’ll not flourish. “The worm at the core of our usual springs of delight can turn us into melancholy metaphysicians. But the music can commence again, and again and again, at intervals.”
The music of life is available and on tap for those who’ve grasped their intrinsic consanguinity with the cosmos. You could call this insight Democritean cosmopolitanism. “To a wise man,” wrote Democritus, “the whole earth is open, because the true country of a virtuous soul is the entire universe.” (Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity).
More simply: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” That’s Carl Sagan, who was a big fan of Democritus
The travel writer Pico Iyer just published an essay on this theme. In The Beauty of the Ordinary he writes of Fall and the cycles of the seasons,

the season’s special lesson is to cherish everything because it cannot last; from Vermont to Beijing, people relish autumn days precisely because they’re reminders of how much we cannot afford to take for granted, and how much there is to celebrate right now, this shining late September afternoon… I’m more enamored of the fall, if only because it has spring inside it, and memories, and the acute awareness that almost nothing lasts forever. Every day in autumn — a cyclical sense of things reminds us — brings us a little bit closer to the spring.

Bart Giamatti, not long before his own time here was cut tragically short, said he knew nothing’s forever but needed to think so. “I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

George Santayana also said a similar thing. “There’s no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.” Life offers many happy returns, while we’re here and paying attention in our animal bodies, with our animal minds.

But now, what if an artificially intelligent being emerges someday and somehow wires itself to attend to things and reflect on their beauty? Is that possible, conceivable, comprehensible by us? Would its “body” not then in some meaningful sense be the whole world?

But then, aren’t ours – on the Democritean premise – that already? That which we perceive being inseparable from that with which we perceive, the composite of our material atomic substance, can’t we already say we are the world? We don’t need to de-corporalize and upload our consciousness, to have and enjoy this delightful insight. We just need to expand and open it.

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Urgency and the Epicure

September 19, 2019

It’s on to Catherine Wilson’s Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction in Happiness today.

We’re catching up, since Tuesday’s class was pre-empted by the panel discussion on Suffrage and the Constitution. The Epicureans famously retreated to their Garden commune, in pursuit of life’s simpler and less mediated pleasures. Would they have been engaged at all in the sort of civic activism that brought women the vote in 1920, or that is attempting to bring young people out to vote in 2020, or that tomorrow will bring citizens (the younger the better) out to demand action on the climate crisis? Would they have acknowledged any “urgent need of acting now,” if that perturbed their garden delights? Where can we find the right balance between personal gratification and public commitment?

Those are some of our questions today. Others include

  • Is it in fact foolish to fear “complete and personal annihilation”? -“To fear death, then, is foolish, since death is the final and complete annihilation of personal identity, the ultimate release from anxiety and pain.” ― Titus Lucretius Carus, On the Nature of Things… Gutenberg etext
  • Do you think Epicurus was on the right track in thinking of atomic “swerve” as a “basis for free will”? 11 If they swerve randomly and unpredictably, how does that refute or challenge determinism? Or is his point that we can try to emulate their example and be random and unpredictable ourselves? Is random unpredictability really another name for freedom? (Remind me to tell my undergrad pub story…)
  • Does Epicurus’s analogy of atoms to “dust motes dancing in a sunbeam” remind you, as it does me, of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot (“a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” 12)? Do you see any parallels between Sagan’s cosmic philosophy and Epicureanism? What about the “multiplicity of worlds” hypothesis vs. the view of Christian salvation as limited to “one small corner of the many world universe” etc. 16
  • Do you think it will ever be possible to discover how and why the structure and activity of atoms in the brain and nervous system give rise to consciousness and the subjective feeling of selfhood?
  • Do you agree that generation and dying are symmetrical processes? 51 In other words, do each of us owe the world a death? Do you find beauty and consolation in that perspective? Is death a peaceful sleep and a dispersal of spirit and soul atoms? 
Talking about these things is indeed an Epicurean delight, or can be. But gathering in the streets to demand social justice and climate sanity can too. A good Epicurean knows when to take a break in the conversation and go pound the pavements.

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