Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Class thoughts on desire and impermanence

In one of my classes yesterday, we were finishing up our much-too-quick discussion of the basic Buddhist account of the human condition. It’s a class in which students are always asking the right sorts of questions. As I was reiterating the purported relationship between desire or craving and suffering—one that almost appeals to me for Stoic reasons—a student offered the objection that desire can also make our lives better. 
I had been using as an example the way social media and our exposure to the perfectly curated lives of others can make us unhappy. For instance, I had been arguing, when I see the perfect vacation another has taken or I see the interminable post-gym selfies, I can be made unhappy because I have no such vacation but now I desire it or I think my body doesn’t look as good and my desire to look better makes me unhappy.
His response was that, desire at least in the latter case, can be a drive to improvement. Seeing someone else’s success in the gym—though it might also be in a dozen other ways: the publication of their book, a new job, an award—and the desire that follows from it can serve as a goad to effort. That effort itself can lead to greater fitness and the attainment of what one had desired. Surely, in that, there is nothing to cause suffering.
He was right, in a way. There is nothing wrong in ambition or desire insofar as it can lead us to the better if not the good. Epictetus says somewhere in the Enchiridion that we ought to strive but we ought to be realistic about what that striving will cost us and how likely it is that we might fail (and how we will feel if and when we do).
There remains another problem, I said, and that’s impermanence. 
Now, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I injured a shoulder almost three months ago and, though I think it’s finally on the mend after a late trip to the doctor, it has caused me no end of problems physically. And, because the gym plays the role of therapist for me—it is the one hour of the day when I feel totally in control and where I feel like I achieve something—it has caused me quite a bit of emotional distress. It’s not good to be the not-funny kind of obsessive-compulsive.
Whatever your desire leads you to achieve won’t last. The better body will fade with age. The book will be forgotten or surpassed. The next promotion might not come. You will die.
What’s the answer? To enjoy what you have while you have it and even when you’re striving, I suppose, but not to be so attached that you will suffer when it’s gone, or in the case of love to accept the future suffering as part of the enjoyment now. Is that possible? Dunno.
Anyhow, the student had been concerned that the outlook was too pessimistic. I probably took it further.

Tomorrow, for what it’s worth, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, and Ecclesiastes are on tap. Always uplifting!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Beginning to think through some things about giving meaning to

Drawing on Nietzsche and his own harrowing experiences in the concentration camps to which he lost his family, Viktor Frankl re-emphasized the importance of finding meaning of some sort in order to survive. We are meaning-needing creatures. I don't know that this is unique to us. Domesticated animals, at least, can become listless, bored, and depressed without some directed activity. Most of us have also seen animals in the zoo pacing a dirt-path in their enclosures perhaps because the activity toward which their lives would normally be directed or devoted have been taken from them.
We can give meaning to the world and to objects in it. This is more plausibly unique to us as a species. We are not only need-ers of, but also creators of, meaning. And, we can give meaning not just to words, but also to objects and places and any number of things. A trivial example: I have a small pebble, blood-colored and roughly in the shape of a heart. It has a meaning for me, though it of course has no meaning in itself, no natural meaning. (That's saying nothing more than objects in the world are not intentional unless they are given intentionality by semantic monsters like us.)
What I've been puzzling over recently is the difficulty of giving meaning to an object. The pebble for instance has a meaning that I gave to it, but I wasn't able to do that as a pure act of the will. It should be clear that I'm playing loosely with the notion of meaning, thinking about denotation and connotation and various other members of the family of meanings, but it seems to me in any case, an individual isn't enough to give something meaning. There's Wittgenstein's private language argument in the Investigations—unless there is no such argument to be found—but there's also a more general sense in which I think one individual cannot create meaning out of whole cloth. The pebble has the kind of meaning it does for me because of some of its own characteristics (shape, color, etc.) and the context of its being found by me while walking my dog Mateo and the subsequent events of Mateo's death shortly thereafter. None of these is sufficient for it to have any kind of meaning; though a human is necessary to give meaning even if—as in this case—the meaning is in a sense private—a meaning only for me—I don't think I could give whatever meaning I wished to whatever object or word or experience just by an act of the will, by fiat. That's the sense, it seems to me, in which the perhaps-illusory private language argument is correct: no individual by herself is sufficient to create meaning, because meaning has to be answerable to some other constraint in order really to be meaning. 
Even in the case of language, I'm not sure that constraint has to be another language user.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

mother!, connection, and a few other things

I left Darren Aronofsy’s new film mother! with a lot to think about. Don’t worry, this isn't going to be a movie review; I have neither the interest nor the chops needed to provide one of those.
A lot of people I know and respect hated the movie and I understand why one would have that response. Among its failings has to be counted a marketing campaign that positioned it as a horror film. While horrifying, that isn’t what it is. I liked it—I might want to say I loved it, but, as with really difficult theater, I’m not sure that’s quite an emotion one can sustain toward this piece. I suspect it’s a movie that, in spite of its high-powered cast might have been better placed in arthouse cinemas than the AMC cineplex I saw it in. It has more in common with a move like Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In than than IT. When we were walking back to the car, Fernando noted the way it felt like a story by Cortázar. That, too, seems right.
The movie’s best (or maybe, most easily) seen as an allegory. As with the best allegories, it operates at different levels. At the most obvious level, we have a stark and unsympathetic retelling of Christian salvation history with its Garden of Eden, Fall, the murder of Abel by Cain, Incarnation and Redemption, and even Apocalypse. A student told me that he thought the movie “tried too hard,” and maybe the allegory is a little on the nose at this level. I don’t think so, but opinions may vary.
At another level, though, Bardem is not God—nor even the lesser creative mind he might represent at yet another level of allegory—but instead might represent any one of us. He stands for a perennial facet of the human condition that finds more expression in our world of immediate and total connection.
Bardem’s Him has someone in Lawrence’s mother! who loves him completely. She lives for Him, has created a world for Him, serves Him, and, as we see, is willing to die for Him and give Him her love as her ultimate gift. Only her child is able to compete with Him for her devotion.
Alas, it is not enough. As Bardem’s character says, “It is never enough.” That’s not a situation peculiar to a God who creates a world in order to be loved and who wants even the worst of His creatures to love him. It’s a situation many, if not all, of us find ourselves, one that’s exacerbated by the connectedness of our world.
As much as Him, I find myself searching for the approbation of people I barely know or who merely barely know people I barely know. Too often, I do that at the cost of appreciating and returning the real love and affection of those few who are closest to me, those few who invest their energies and lives in me.
That’s not new. As long as there have been crowds, we’ve looked for the superficial and fickle love of the crowds over the deeper, more constant, and therefore more real love of our true intimates. No matter the axiom, the birds in the bush are more attractive than the one in hand because they are yet to be captured.
For the first time in human history, however, most of us in the technologically advanced world have the real ability to chase a crowd. An insignificant fellow like myself could never have gathered more than a handful of people around himself before the last decade or so. Now, I can reach out to scores or hundreds of “followers” or “friends” on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever will come in their wake. Because their approval, their likes, their retweets, their shares are outside my control, it can be tempting to work harder for them than I ought. It can be just as tempting to overvalue them, to be too buoyed when I get them and too hard hit when I don’t. The energy, whether positive or negative, that’s expended and created in this chase can only come at the cost of other social interactions. Whatever else might be said about me—about us—our emotional capacities are limited. To paraphrase one of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity for another purpose—I think I’m getting this right—he who loves everyone, loves no one. Or, as Aristotle had it, one cannot have more than a few friends and expect them actually to be friends. In chasing a million interactions as though they were the most important, I run the risk of losing the ones that are most important. In making sure than I’m not alone, I might just end up that way.

That might just be me, but I think it might also be a more general truth. 

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Some passing thoughts on Nietzsche, velvet ropes, and marriage

Ressentiment is a characteristic of all “slave moralities,” according to Nietzsche’s picture in Genealogy of Morals. Roughly, ressentiment is an emotion of imagined revenge felt and nurtured by the underclass against those who do or are felt to oppress them. Because part of what it is to be in the underclass is to be powerless, those at the bottom of society have no real way to lash out  at those above them and so they imagine a punishment, whether that is the inevitable revolution or karma or the punishments of hell. “Though we may be downtrodden now, you will get yours in the days or world to come,” the oppressed mutter under their breath and it makes them feel better, even as it poisons the world for them.
Nietzsche gathers many examples of ressentiment in action, but one that has always stuck with me is drawn from Aquinas. In the Supplement to the Summa (question 94), Aquinas considers the ways in which those in Heaven will rejoice in their knowledge that others will be damned. Nietzsche is, perhaps, too harsh on this passage—Christianity is his bête noire—and Aquinas does say that the saved will not rejoice in the punishment of others as such, but only in knowing what could have happened to them but did not and in seeing Divine justice done.
That is, at least from the modern perspective, fairly dark stuff and Nietzsche uses it to argue that the religion of Love is actually a religion of Hate. I’m not endorsing dear Friedrich’s conclusions, but he points out something interesting here about traditional Christian conceptions of Hell and Heaven. Part of the joy of Heaven consists—even if it is indirectly so—in the fact that there are others in Hell, others who did not get in and have to suffer. You see this even today among those conservative Christians—I know mostly of Catholics—who get extremely angry when one of their co-religionists suggests that Hell will be not empty but very sparsely populated.
I think of this as a the velvet-rope theory of Heaven: it’s really only valuable if others can’t have it. If you take away its exclusivity, it isn't worth much. (Someone of a more biblical or theological bent might want to think through this is in the context of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.)
What, you might ask, has me thinking about this? Debates about marriage, I might reply.
It seems quite likely to me that same-sex marriage has a short future in the United States, at least in any sense stronger than just a license with no attendant rights or responsibilities. There are many arguments against state recognition of same-sex marriage and they come from different backgrounds. Some are full-throated religious arguments. Some rely heavily on tradition. Some rely on old-fashioned natural law. Many rely on the weird hybrid theory that is the new natural law. But many of them have as at least part of their content, a claim that the recognition—in civil law alone—is a harm to the institution of marriage and their own marriages. (See, for instance, link, but there are many more examples.)
Some of these last sort of arguments are worth thinking through even if we disagree with them, but very many of them amount to little more than a velvet-rope theory of marriage: if you let those people in, it will cheapen mine. We saw a version of this, of course, in arguments against miscegenation. Even if some opponents are right that same-sex marriage decreases the attractiveness of traditional marriage, it’s important to ask why that is.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

One quick thought about atomistic moral minimalism

Americans at least tend to elide the distinction between the law and ethics. Students, I find, often have a hard time maintaining the distinction and, when questioned about the morality of some action or practice, will respond by asking what the law says about it. Of course, there are important connections between the law and morality. Murder and theft and battery are all illegal and they are immoral.
But, this elision leads to a common problem in our moral thinking. Quite rightly, our laws are premised on negative rights. That is, I have a (legal) right to life and this means that ceteris paribus you may not kill me. I have a legal right to property and this means that ceteris paribus you may not take my property away from me. These rights give me no legal claim for your assistance in my living nor in the acquisition or maintenance of my property. I have relatively few positive (legal) rights.
If you take that as the basis of your moral thinking—if you can't distinguish between legal and moral thinking—you end up with an extremely atomistic account of morality. You end up with a moral minimalism that is indistinguishable from ethical egoism. You end up thinking that my only obligation to another person is to keep out of their way and that there is no deeper connection between us except that requirement.
I fear that's where we've gotten as a society. I think this prevents any real kind of human flourishing. I think it vastly underestimates our intrinsic sociality and the obligations we have to the society through which we have come to be. To put it in the word of a now-prominent figure, I think it is: "Sad!"

Friday, December 16, 2016

Remembering some things about the real America

We’ve heard a lot recently about the real America and how it has been overlooked and forgotten recently. Pundits tell us we misunderstand it and sleight it at our own risk. Most of those pundits have never spent more than a week in any one part of it and know nothing of it, by the way. Nonetheless, they are writing a mythology of that magical place.
I’m from that real America. I grew up in the same area that (part of) my family had been in for just over 140 years at my birth. Granted, some of the rest of my family were incomers, but all from other parts of that great real America, all of them having settled somewhere in middle America—if we include Appalachia—well before the Civil War and many before the Revolution.
My hometown was a great place to grow up, with some important caveats and for only some groups. But there’s a tendency now to talk about places like Huntington as if they are citadels of virtue to be contrasted with the Babylons and Sodoms of the big cities and the coasts. That’s just not the case. I’ve been thinking about just some of what went on in my town. Here, I give a partial list:

  • The son of my first grade teacher got into an argument outside a drug store with another boy from the high school. He was beaten so badly that, though he continued to age, he returned to the mentality of a mere child.
  • My elementary school had a fourth-grade teacher who regularly had male students sit on his lap. Everybody knew about it. Everybody talked about it. Everyone warned their boys about it. No one did anything about it.
  • When I was in elementary school or junior high, a man killed his father after his father “looked at him wrong.” They were cutting wood at the time. So, he hacked him to death.
  • When I was in high school, three boys went to the home of an eccentric and probably gay businessman, ostensibly to rob him. Well, maybe two of them thought it was a robbery or they were going to settle some dispute the third of them had had with the man. In fact, that man also ended up being axed to death by the third boy.
  • Also, when I was in high school, there was a rash—I mean it seemed like an epidemic if such things could be catching—of men being found hanged at one of our local reservoirs. They had hanged themselves in the pursuit of the perfect orgasm through autoerotic asphyxiation. They, of course, were not the only ones pursuing release at the reservoirs.
  • There was another fellow who was arrested numerous times for criminal trespass. It seems he couldn’t resist the wiles of a group of llamas living on another person’s farm.
  • Another man recruited men for his surgery hobby. How this was possible in the days before Craigslist, I don’t quite know. Anyway, he offered them amateur castrations., effected with everyday tools. Several men took him up on this. He kept the fruits of his labors in jars. He was only caught and jailed when the girlfriend of a recruit found out what he was offering.

That’s not all, but it’s enough to get to my point. What’s my point? There’s no real America. There’s no idyllic place where everything is perfect and virtue still reigns. That’s not because everything is horrible. And, it’s not a denial that there are or might be better and worse places, but humans are everywhere and the evils of human life and the goods of human are everywhere where humans are. Seeing one part of the country as either the only real one or a cesspool is not only unhelpful, it’s a reflection of an unwillingness to think much about anything, especially the political.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A quick thought about a liberal arts education

Before the very idea of a liberal arts education becomes entirely subsumed in concerns about marketability and utility and the the equally horrid buzzwords of twenty-first century pedagogy, it's important to remember something that was distinctive about it once upon a time. 
Its goal was never the same thing as that of professional education. If you study business, you are doing so in order to go into business. And, that's right and good. 
But, that's not what studying literature or philosophy is in the first instance. Sure, lots of people get degrees in philosophy and then go on to study more philosophy in graduate school. That's fine. And, it satisfies to some small degree that hated and hateful question: "What are you going to do with a degree in that?"
No, the point of a liberal arts education, once upon a time, was the education of a person, a person who could go on to do a lot of different things. That person was a person who was going to be able to think liberally and philosophically and humanistically (and mathematically and logically and ...). (Such a person would be an intellectual in the best sense, not that we have any value for intellectuals these days.) That education involved a specialization, but as Oakeshott argued, that specialization was itself a training in the ability to delve into a subject, to explore more deeply, to dedicate oneself. It wasn't, or didn't have to be, a commitment to do this thing professionally or for the rest of one's life.
I don't know how many people recognize this as valuable anymore or how many realize the importance of leisure and non-utilitarian, non-box-checking approaches to the world to this pursuit, but I think we are paying a price and will continue paying a price in the polis for the loss of this idea of education.