Posts Tagged ‘Sartre’

suffering

September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.

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renunciation

September 24, 2009

Matthieu Ricard begins Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by trying to rehabilitate an idea I confess I’ve always looked down on: renunciation, “a much-misunderstood concept.” It’s not about giving up anything good or beautiful or meaningful, he says; it’s about “freedom from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions,” and “meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

So it doesn’t parallel “negation,” is in fact an affirming state of mind? Joyous, even? It will be a stretch for me to make that connection, I thought joi de vivre was a condition requiring active, energetic, integrative and positive movement– none of which are normally connoted for me by the word “renounce.” But I’m listening.

Here’s an illustration of how I’ve tended to think about renunciation: “The purity of [the Jamesian concept of ] pure experience,” I wrote, ” is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die… you can reach a state of consciousness called ‘clear consciousness’ in which the mind is perfectly lucid, without being caught up in discursive thoughts.” We can reach such a state, but James does not advise futile efforts to stay there. Life presses forward.”

Renunciation, in other words, has always seemed to me to mean something like stagnation, torpor, ennui, even suicide. But I stand ready and receptive to Brother Matthieu’s correction.

meditate-on-a-mountainBut I also note that some advocates of renunciation are quite frank: it means “losing interest in life’s activities… letting go of all desires and attachments… turning inward instead of constantly being focused outward.” This is the diametrical contradiction of Russell’s advice in Conquest of Happiness. Happy people of my stripe take an active interest in the  far-flung “outward” world. Is there some reason I’m missing, why we can’t honor our inner subjectivity while also caring about people, places, and things out there?

It’s not, they say, about “going off to meditate on a mountain and escaping the world.” But Ricard opened his TED talk with that enticing Tibetan mountain view. It sure looks, at the very least, like holding the world at arm’s length. It looks like detachment, when engagement seems the more responsible attitude. Is this just semantics?

Then, Ricard gently disputes Henri Bergson’s view that the vagueness of “happiness” is a virtue, allowing us each to interpret its meaning as we see fit. He wants to be more precise.

Can we agree that the Sage of Konigsburg, dutifully bearing the world of pure and practical reason on his back, following his impersonal imperatives and acting categorically for all humanity, was badly mistaken when he said happiness must be “rational and devoid of anyKant personal taint.” Taint?!

can kantThis is one of the nubs of the issue, for me. Personal values, predilections, enthusiasms, interests, idiosyncracies, peccadillos… these are our delights. For us to abandon them for the rational, impersonal, categorical (etc.) out of a sense of duty to the Moral Law and Reason for its own sake, is not to pursue happiness, it’s to denigrate happiness as peripheral to more important things (to be ascertained by always supposing that our choices must legislate for all, imperatively, impersonally, and categorically).  Kantians can help us remember not to denigrate the common world, and bless them for that. But if happiness  is not, at the end of the day, about personal satisfactions and my individual flourishing (and yours), I say it’s over-rated. It is, though. So it isn’t. Critique that, Immanuel.

This looks like a more promising formulation: happiness is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind… not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” And the stoic element of Buddhism is prominent here too: “while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” I’m prepared to take that possibility as axiomatic, though it seems impossible to “prove.” No problem.

I think Ricard must (to his credit) be a walker, with his example of a perfectly happy pedestrian “walking through a serene wilderness, [with] no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.” Yep, that’s precisely the feeling behind my goofball smile, if you ever spot me ambling down the street or around the lake. (Kant was a daily walker too, I wonder what his problem was.)

But that’s not the whole nine yards, “the difference between these flashes… and the immutable peacefulness of the sage is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of the needle and the limitless expanses of outer space.” So it’s vast, cosmic. I’m familiar with the flash, and find it readily repeatable. But I wonder how I’d do as a sage.

Better than Sartre, I hope. We’ve already seen that he has no use for what he regards as the silly American pursuit of happiness. He makes me sick. Nauseous. Dukkha-filled. Redundant. Superfluous. Suicidal. Well, he would if I swallowed his Nothingness nostrums.

Jean_Paul_SartreIn fairness, Sartre is expressing the state of mind of the pre-Existentialist hero who has yet to take full personal responsibility for creating his own essence, when he says “we hadn’t the slightest reason to be [here].” He’s quite clear, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that fashioning one’s own raison d’etre is a worthy and meaningful undertaking. He’s also quite clear in subverting that activity through the concept of “bad faith.” No wonder he sat around in bars smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes, suffering logorrhea and the “wicked world syndrome.” (And I suppose I might, too, if the Nazis occupied my country.)

“Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions,” and Ricard says it is also an undistortive window on reality. My framing question remains: can I have some without disengaging from responsible activity and involvement in the world? Windows are good. So are doors.

So: how to begin to meditate. I love the instruction to just “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts… do not be bothered by them.” I do it every day. But I don’t sit first, I walk out the door and I keep going. Works for me. But what works for you?

“No!”

September 1, 2009

It’s time at last for Happiness (the course). The philosophers I like the most, from Aristotle to Mill to James to Russell, advocated and celebrated happiness. But plenty of philosophers have had another view.  Can you match the thinker to the thought? (Larkin, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein… answers below*)

“The intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of Creation.”

“The existentialist says that man is in anguish.”

“Throughout the ages the wisest of men have passed the same judgement of life: it is no good.”

“I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”

“Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse…” [In other words: “No!”]

“Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.”

==

(*Freud, Sartre, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Larkin… from Happiness: the Science Behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle)

It’s customary among philosophers to regard the overcoming of negativity and emotional dyspepsia as a struggle requiring the greatest effort: Nietzsche’s life-affirming personal philosophy of will (or “power”), for instance, must overcome its own pessimism. Nietzsche was in fact a young Schopenhauerian to whom the dark mood seemed stylish and romantic. My faves, as I say, don’t feel that way about it. James pities “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies,” Mill stumps for the greatest happiness, Russell says we should “conquer” our flourishing, Aristotle says it’s the one intrinsic good in the universe.

But if you want to feel good about feeling good, look at Michael Gates Gill‘s humble account of how he claimed his happiness behind the coffee bar. He’s not a deep thinker, but let’s face it: depth is not always conducive to joy.

Coming soon: “Atheism and spirituality”

July 31, 2009

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” I’m looking ahead to a new course in the Spring (2010) semester.

First I was going to blaze trails, at least around these parts, with  Atheism Old & New. (Epicurus, David Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell are “old,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Shermer are among the more notable new.)

Then I thought it would be more politically prudent, in these troubled times for public education funding (and, frankly, with tenure in the balance) , to do a Spirituality course instead.

Now, reaching for a grand synthesis and throwing caution to the winds (but ducking the blow-back), I’ve decided that atheism and spirituality deserve each other. As William James pointed out, the absurdity of religion is matched only by the spiritual audacity of its intentions. “Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

The religious impulse is inseparable from  what some have called elan vital or life force. That’s what spirituality is largely about: living, breathing, attending, caring, learning. Paying rapt attention to each present moment, one after another as conveniently measured by our restless, respiring consciousness. What does that get us? More life, we hope. “Not God, but more life” is our most natural human aspiration. Eternal life even, in the most audacious old dream.

Yet, James  informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by the progressive epic of evolution. And it requires death. A lot of it. “I [am] incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” Scratch 9 out of 10 atheists, you’ll find an evolutionist craving “more life.”

But more for whom? Is there sufficient consolation in the hope of a future life for humankind (and its unimaginably evolved spawn) at large?

sleeperOr must the saving life to come be mine, all mine? Recall Woody Allen on this point: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children… I want to achieve it through not dying.” We’ll see how that works out for Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Well, perhaps somebody will see.

Evolution as salvation? That’s a proposition whose meaning and truth (or falsehood) a course on atheism and spirituality could have a lot of fun figuring out. Spiritual atheists and evolutionists do exist, after all, as do jaded believers and “Young Earth creationists” pantomiming the motions of a lifeless faith. (And don’t forget Francis Collins and the theistic evolutionists.)

although all the special manifestations of
religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories),
yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important
function.

Watch this space for course details. First, though, the new Fall course connects with spirituality too: would life be worth living, if we couldn’t pursue happiness?