Friday, November 07, 2014

Notes toward a mid-life crisis

When I was a boy, I knew about men who left their wives and families, gave up their responsibilities, and began new lives, usually with much younger women (or a string of them). Somewhere in the mix there was usually a sportscar or a motorcycle and the adoption of hobbies, habits, and styles appropriate to the much younger. To be fair, it wasn't always men; my godmother did much the same thing in her middle years.
Whatever the specifics, the judgment was always the same. I was taught that this was the sloughing off of a person’s commitments and, not only wrong, but beyond understanding. To the young legalist, surrounded by his Stoic elders, this judgment felt exactly right.
As I got older, I saw the same thing happen to people I knew, people I worked with, people I socialized with. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, partners, long-term companions would be abandoned for a new life and—usually—a new younger, fresher, fitter, hotter, partner. Where once there had been a couple, now there was one irresponsible and slightly ridiculous person with a new life and one needlessly suffering and trying to pick up the shards of a once-shared life. 
I may have gotten older and more experienced—not wiser—in the ways of the world, but the judgment and lack of understanding remained. How could anyone do this? What is this beast, the mid-life crisis. Like so much of human life and interaction, it was something I couldn't quite grasp.
But, as I drift into—and through—my forties, the phenomenon begins to look differently to me. It becomes clearer. What I used to see merely as the shedding of an old life with all of its commitments and responsibilities (i.e., those things that define an adult life, it still seems), I now see as more truly a crisis, even if the nature of the crisis—it’s existential—isn’t always obvious to the person whose crisis it is.
It’s hard to approach the middle of life without beginning to question whether any of the first half of that life has meant anything. You don’t have to be Camus to ask yourself whether your  life is simply a Sisyphean task leading to nothing but being forgotten a few years after your ever-closer death.
Until middle age so much of life is consumed with preparation, with education, with finding a career and making something of it, with finding a partner or spouse and making a life, with having and beginning to raise children, with making a home. And then, when all the preparation is done, you can find yourself, like Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty (or Annette Bening’s), standing in the shower or in front of a bathroom mirror in someone else’s house asking: Is this what I was preparing for? Is this what I have worked for?
In the words of the great Leiber/Stoller song: “Is that all there is?”
This is akin to staring into the Abyss until, as Nietzsche warns, the Abyss begins to stare back. Seeing that emptiness and meaninglessness—and it’s enough that it appears to be empty and meaningless—is terrifying. (I’m reminded of what the Tenth Doctor says, in “The Sound of Drums,” about looking into the Untempered Schism: Some go crazy and some run away. Such it is with the perception of meaninglessness in a human life. Of course, there are other options.)
There are different ways to react to this. One can, of course, decide that absolute or objective meaning isn’t needed anyway. (Go, Existentialism!) One can decide that there is actually objective meaning here. (Is this a delusion?) One can lose oneself in a larger purpose. (Dedication to nation or church or party, perhaps.) One can embrace what is here and now with a delighted or ironic resignation. (Both the absurdists and, I think, some types of conservatives take this option.) And, there are others.
But one reaction is to find all that has gone before meaningless, and because it is meaningless in the grand scheme of thing, to cast it away and try to start over, to buy that Mustang or Miata, get a personal trainer or sleep with one, divorce, break up, leave job or city. To go back to one of the last times when things made sense, when life seemed full of purpose and promise and pleasure. To recapture youth and see if you can’t get to meaning from there this time. To run away from the me I’ve become and try to find a different me. (And, I think it is always the self that’s being run away from; I cast aside others to cast aside the self my relationships make.)
That’s the path of the mid-life crisis. And, it looks like immaturity, like the unending American adolescence. Maybe it is, after all. But, in the middle of life, as I stare at my feet in the shower, the soap running down my body and into the drain, thinking of the years running out of my life, I can at least begin to understand how someone takes that path, how someone tries to regain youth. 

I don’t think it’s the right path. I don’t think running away from meaninglessness gives you meaning. I don’t think running away from life or yourself fixes the problems with your own life. After all, wherever you run, there you are going to be. But, I understand. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

My father, myself

"Estrangement" barely approaches the relationship between my father and me. My parents broke up when I was one. They divorced when I was two. He moved out of town and, when I was four, he moved from Indiana to Colorado. He was never much of a presence in my life. We saw each other every few years, sometimes at Christmas, sometimes in the summer.
I've lived a lot of my life resenting him and wondering what was so wrong with me that someone wouldn't want to know me. I mean, I know there are a lot of things wrong with me, but why would this non-stranger not be interested in me? 
Out of this mix grew a special kind of self-loathing: I came to dislike everything about myself that reminded me of him. Twenty-five years ago, I trained myself to speak more than a half-octave below my natural range to sound less like him.
This past weekend, I flew to Minnesota to see him for the first time in over twenty years.
It was uncomfortable in the way that all social interaction for me always is, intensified by it being social interaction with someone as uncomfortable with social interaction as I am. To put it another way, it was very much like interacting with someone almost exactly like myself, but twenty-three years older.
For all the ways I've tried not to be like him, I am very, very much like him. We share characteristics I dislike about myself. We share characteristics that other people think make me charming. And, honestly, I found some of those characteristics charming about him. There's an argument to be made here for the role of nature in our characters, but that's one for another day.
Importantly, I've realized at forty-one that, if I'm ever going to come to like myself, I have to be open to liking him. And, for all our history—or lack of it—there's a lot to like there.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why I can't be trusted with a gun

When we were outside Friday evening, Mateo and I on the porch and Fernando watering a few of the plants in the front yard, a man started scavenging through our recycling. Fernando asked him to stop. He walked away, but from across the street—where we don't know, as we hadn't noticed him before—another man arrived. He began yelling, telling us everyone has a right to go through trash once it's on the street. He overturned a couple of the cans and then told us he was going to do the same thing to us, that he was going to lay us out and fuck us up and a few more things to that effect.

Since he had approached Fernando, I had gotten up. I wanted to get him to back up and back off. Rather than moving away, he rose to what he took to be a challenge. He approached me, started to walk into our yard—keeping himself just at the very edge—and increased the level and volume of his threats. He was clearly dangerous and certainly high (I know what meth looks like) or crazy. It was probably a mixture of the two. Neither one of us is small and I've appeared ominous to people I was trying to befriend. There was nothing rational in challenging us, especially when he hadn't apparently had anything to do with the original situation. I suppose it's possible that he saw himself as a Batman of the streets, but that's not a sign of good judgment, either, even if, as he so clearly discerned and announced, the men you are challenging are "fucking faggots."

So, I went in to get my phone and called the police. I explained what was going on—loudly, as my adrenaline levels were up—and he walked away, having heard me describe him to the dispatcher. As he walked away, yelling, he stripped off identifying clothing.

But, what if I had had something else in my house? What if I could have gone in to get a gun rather than my phone? For me, fight-or-flight is more fight than flight. And, here was a person threatening me and my family and coming onto my property. 

I'm not interested in the legal question of gun control or the Constitutional question. I cannot understand the connection between a well-regulated militia and the right to carry a concealed weapon into a movie theater or onto a campus, but that's not my concern.

Instead, I'm worried about what the presence of a weapon can do. In the last few years, we have seen a number of situations in which the presence of a gun allowed situations to escalate to killings. And, there is something natural and understandable about this. When threatened, it is natural to defend oneself. And, when one wants to defend herself, she will want to do it in the surest way. When a gun is available, use of the gun will be the surest way. And, that will often mean that someone ends up dead. Tools have a way of demanding their use.

Absent a gun, something else has to be done. The situation cannot escalate in quite the same way. It will have to be defused or the police will have to be called or people will have to walk away. 

I understand that one natural response is to ask, "But what if he had a gun?" Of course, he didn't.  The vast majority of people who get in arguments or elicit fear in others doesn't. And, in many of the most highly publicized cases recently—Renisha McBride's case is particularly relevant—the person who ended up dead wasn't armed, but the killer claimed to be afraid and, having a gun, used deadly force to address that claimed fear.

I don't have a gun because I am afraid that I might use it and that I might use it when it wasn't warranted. It might be that I am particularly vicious and so cannot be trusted with weapons. Or, that I am peculiarly prone to anger. Both or either of those might be true. I think there is as much chance that I am a little more reflective on this question and my own proclivities than those who think that weapons don't increase the likelihood that they will be used.

Guns don't kill people, but their possession makes killing more likely. 

Friday, July 04, 2014

Works before faith: against orthodoxies

We seem to care much more about what people believe than what they do. Or, rather, we care more about what they affirm than what they do and what their actions show to be their real commitments.
Maybe this is the result of the Reformation with its talk of the Inner and Outer Man and salvation by Faith but not Works. Maybe it is an expression of the older mind/body dualism that those Reformers inherited from Augustine. Maybe it's just the result of reading a lot of Plato; here I jest. Most likely, it is at least partially a result of the fantasy that there is a real—more authentic, more virtuous, and fully private—me independent of my actions, a true and hidden character; the fantasy that let's people say things like, "I wasn't myself yesterday," and, "I'm sorry for what I said, that wasn't me." And, then we can be told, contrary to all behavioral evidence, what a person really believes or what her character really is.
Whatever the cause or causes, this emphasis on belief (as affirmed) over action feeds into real strife. At least in the United States, we prize orthodoxy. We judge one another based on our political and religious ideologies. And, we use these ideologies as epithets. Someone is just a stupid liberal or a heartless conservative, a godless atheist or a deluded believer. And, too often, when someone is on the other side of such a divide, we immediately dismiss them. Of course, this damages discourse, because we disengage, but it damages other kinds of human interaction even more deeply.
When someone disagrees with us we are quick, I think, to dismiss them as a cooperator. Because one of us is a liberal and the other a conservative, we are unwilling to work together, even when what we want is the same thing. Lots of people on the left and lots of people on parts of the right are very concerned about poverty and, believe it or not, mothers and children. Working together, though, is too often forestalled by ideological difference: I can't work with those socialists; I won't work with fascists.
I remember several years ago Hillary Clinton—I'm not generally a fan—calling for cooperation between the left and the right on abortion. Since she thought both sides had an interest in reducing the number of abortions, they should come together to discuss those things that they could both get behind to achieve a reduction. But orthodoxies and principle continue to keep anything like that from happening. As always, the perfect is made the enemy of the good.
One more personal reminiscence: The year between university and graduate school, I worked at a  Church-sponsored meal program and clinic for the homeless and near-homeless. As you might expect, most of the people involved were unreformed 60's-style liberals, with a fair smattering of Catholic Workers. But, there were also deeply conservative volunteers, including a far-right Republican police detective who washed dishes at the meal several days a week. Rather than seeing an ideological divide, he and the other volunteers worked together for something they both valued. The fact that they disagreed about sociopolitical causes and solutions to homelessness and poverty didn't matter at that moment. What mattered was the work. (And, the work they were doing probably said a lot more about what their real beliefs were than their stated ones.)
Now, I don't want to claim that beliefs as affirmed don't matter. Of course, the causes of poverty matter, but so does feeding the poor. And, as a philosopher, I care deeply about beliefs. But, in interpersonal relations, I care more about actions and the real beliefs they express.
It's all good to deride deluded Christians, but if they are fighting oppression and you are doing nothing, what does the right belief matter? It's wonderful to scream about godless atheists, but if they are fighting human rights abuses while you are reading a devotional, who cares? It's fun to talk about heartless conservatives, but if with their heartless beliefs they are also helping refugees, what is more important?
Only last week, I was told that I lacked principle—utterly true, if for different reasons—because I teach at a Catholic university, and no gay atheist should do that. Leaving aside the mischaracterization of my beliefs, I can only mourn a viewpoint that says I should have nothing to do with those whose orthodoxy or ideological purity is suspect, or that I cannot cooperate with them in a project that we both find worthwhile, e.g., education.
I have colleagues and students and friends who I think are utterly deluded about all sorts of things and I have pretty serious philosophical and political differences with my partner of 18 years, but at the end of the day, it is by their works that I judge them. As it should be.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Sound of Silence: the most terrifying sound of all

We live in a more constantly cacophonous world than humans probably ever have, both literally and metaphorically. Any store or mall or office or elevator is likely to have music playing. We are talked to and sung at even when waiting to talk to someone on the phone. We wear headphones or earbuds while walking the dog or working out or even when sitting at our desks. I have to fight with students to take their earbuds out—both of them—when they are in lecture; some of them request that they be allowed to use them when they are taking exams. We chatter at one another about the most meaningless of things all the time: reality television, sporting events that we aren't even interested in, the details of celebrities' lives, what we've purchased or intend to purchase, the weather or lack of it. We turn on the television to give us background noise, we set our radios to sleep so that we have noise with which to fall asleep, as much to cover the quiet as to block out any noises. It is almost as if we cannot stand silence. Rather, it is quite literally that we cannot stand silence. By way of illustration, the gym I go to most days plays no music; it is maddening.
We cannot even stand the figurative silence of not being distracted. Left without anything to entertain us, we log onto Facebook or Twitter or Google-+ (well, not that), to engage in virtual conversation. But, again, these aren't conversations about anything, unless 17 things that will change the way you think about cruciferous vegetables is really a topic any more interesting than the gastrointestinal health of your great aunt. And, yet, try to go a day without engaging in them. Try to get students to go fifty-five minutes without checking Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or Tinder or their text messages. Or watch as parents put an iPad in front of their child at a restaurant. 
(Another day, I will have to think about why we prefer these virtual conversations to ones with the real people around us.)
In moments of silence, we are left with nothing more than ourselves and our own thoughts. We are left in a certain kind of solitude. Historically, this was often thought a good thing. Aristotle in the Ethics could think of nothing better than to be allowed just to think, self-sufficiently. Nietzsche in the Genealogy said that ascetics fled to the desert so that they could avoid being distracted and be left alone with their own thoughts, the things they really loved, as an expectant mother loves the child growing in her. But both of these stances require that we like our own thoughts, that we find something interesting and fruitful in them, that we find them to be of value. They require that when we look inside we find something there, and that we are not ashamed of what we find. 
If we dread silence, what does this say about our own relationship to ourselves and our thoughts? I fear it means either that we find nothing inside ourselves—that we are the Abyss to ourselves—or that we cannot bear what we do find and so need constantly to be distracted from it. As Simon says in Lord of the Flies, we discover that we are the Beast and we don't want to be left alone with it. Whether we find ourselves boring or terrifying, it cannot be a good sign. And, what else can our dread of silence mean?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is it right to do what you have a right to do?

A common argument form, at least in the American context, goes like this:

  1. I have a right to x.
  2. It is right to exercise one's rights.
  3. Thus, it is right to x.
  4. A right that is not exercised may disappear.
  5. Thus, I should x, on pain of losing the right.

For sake of illustration, substitute the following for x: "carry a firearm into Chipotle," "use a racial/sexual/national epithet," "express the opinion I have formed without any evidence or reflection," "ridicule people with beliefs I take to be irrational," etc. It's left as an exercise for the reader to find other substitution instances. 

We have all heard arguments of exactly this form when someone obnoxiously and pointlessly does something he may very well technically or legally have a right to do. "But, I have a right to!"

I don't think we are the only ones who argue this way, or at least implicitly accept this argument form. In fact, I think it occurs in any culture that has taken rights to be the central category around which morality revolves and upon which society rests. That may mean that all of us who live in a post-Enlightenment world will tend to find this sort of argument sympathetic. 

Insofar as we make this type of argument or find it compelling, we are dooming ourselves to a non-civil society. And, maybe we are providing a reductio of the (centrality or primacy of a) notion of rights.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Of dread and power

I've just read—maybe re-read, since I'm not sure—Thomas Merton's Contemplative Prayer. My library and interests are eclectic, to say the least. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, the connections Merton draws between his own analysis of religious contemplation and the existentialist account of absurdity and angst. In some ways, he sees contemplative prayer as a Nietzschean staring into the Abyss and waiting for the Abyss—in this case the ineffable Ground of Being—to embrace one. One of his central themes is dread.
This is something I know a lot more about than I do any mystical experiences. There was that one time I had something religious-experience-adjacent when walking the streets of my hometown trying to fix the adolescent depths of obsessive depression and, seeing a slug cross my path, I tasted sublimity. That was a one-off experience. Overall, my life experience has been more one of obsessive depression than of the sublime. But, I know dread, if only on one side.
For me dread is a recognition of lack of control. It is different to Sartrean anxiety at the absolute responsibility that comes with every choice, though I sometimes can be paralyzed by that, as well. Instead, it is a feeling that much of my life and what I value is determined by factors entirely out of my control, a recognition of the vicissitudes of Fortune. And, perhaps, a sub-rational belief that there is a way to counteract or control Fortune. 
I could give any number of examples, but the one closest at hand is the process we are currently in of selling our home and buying another. We have done our part. And, we have done it pretty well, it seems. What ultimately happens, however, depends on the actions of a number of other people: our buyer, our seller, our agent, the agents of both other parties, friends and relatives who might influence the buyer and seller, other people who might—in butterfly-effect ways—impact upon the lives of all these people. And, we have no control over any of these people. Of course, there could also be a number of natural events or disasters or water main breaks or who knows that could affect the whole mess in any number of ways.
If it seems like I've worried too much about this, I am a master of worrying. It runs in my blood and I have years of practice doing it.
Since, there are so many parts of this process—and everything that happens in my life—the rational thing would be not to worry. Or, rather only to worry about those parts of the process over which I can have some control or at least influence. Worrying about the rest of it seems counterproductive. The part of me that admires the Stoics tells me this is what I should do.
I should just give up the worry and let the rest of the world take care of itself. If things work out, well. If they don't, I have done my part. But, not worrying leads to an even deeper dread. A greater anxiety. I probably admire the Stoics because they preach something I cannot achieve.
What purpose does the anxiety serve? Why worry? I think the worry is an attempt to control—in some way—what cannot be controlled. To admit that it is all out of my control is too much; it's to admit to a helplessness that I cannot abide, or that I know is there but I have to ignore. But to worry about it and to worry about it constantly, though it too is a kind of dread, is to hold it all together in my mind. And, if I can hold it together in thought, then that is almost, almost, like willing it together.  To let it slip my thought is to let it be the chaos I really know it is. Of course, my worrying doesn't have this effect. The Secret doesn't work. But, a kind of mental order substitutes for the order that is missing in the messy, the chaotic, world.
The dread of constant worry is horrible, but it is less horrible than the dread of powerlessness and insignificance even to those things that matter most to my own life and my subjective enjoyment of it.
I have more to say, in another context, about the attempt to put order on a world that lacks it, but I'll save that for later. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Of Aristotle, monks, gods, and beasts

It's summertime and the living, so they say, is easy. Or, it's easier than it is during the academic year. if it weren't for the stresses of (at least an attempt at) moving house, I wouldn't be having any anxiety dreams at all. At least they mostly aren't about teaching at the moment.
So, I have some time to read for pleasure. And, at the moment I am re-reading—apart from the four or five other books I'm in the middle of—Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, an account of a number of sojourns among monastics.
He is at pains to make his reader see some sense in the notion of a contemplative live as more than just a useless or slothful one. This is a hard thing to do in a world that has been so deeply influenced by the combination of our Reformation heritage, a utilitarian outlook, and secularism. The first tells us that monasteries are dens of iniquity and escapism. The second tells us that contemplation can only be of value if it is of use. And, the third tells us that it can be of no use, as the world to which it is directed does not exist.
I'm not going to defend monasticism here. But, there is something to say—or can it be said?—about contemplation.
When I teach Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, parts of which I discuss almost every semester, I take one standard approach to his account of the best life for humans.
He says that the ideal, the perfect, life for a human being would be one of pure, philosophical contemplation. This is the life that most fully engages the highest part of us, our reason. It is the activity that brings us closest to (the Aristotelian) God. It is, he says, a divine activity in which we participate in immortality. This is not, for him, because it makes us immortal but because we grasp undying truths. Or, this is what it seems he means, since immortality doesn't really seem to be on the table for Aristotle.
As I said, I take one standard approach to discussing this, which is to say that I tell students that Aristotle probably shouldn't have said what he says, since he then seems to take it back by devoting the rest of his account to the second-best life of practical reason. And, of course, he seems to set up the contemplative life as inaccessible for most people and inconsistent with their flourishing. It is both the most pleasant of all activities and one that would not be pleasant for most people. And, pure contemplation is valued, partly, because it is self-sufficient. Yet, this seems to set the contemplative up as someone who does not need society. But, without society, Aristotle tells us, we become either gods or beasts. And, the implication is that most of us become beasts. Finally, the contemplative life fully realizes our desire to understand, but seems to ignore our desire to be active.
So, I tend to treat this emphasis on the contemplative life as a throwaway comment, safely ignored in a text that is, after all, supposed to tell us about how to live. It is a work in ethics, after all.
But, I fear that I make a few pretty important mistakes in doing this. In the first place, I am telling students that unless they can find an application for something, unless they can find it practical, it has no value. In other words, I am playing into that good old American utilitarian pragmatism that is not so slowly strangling philosophy as a discipline.
More specifically, I am telling them that pure contemplation, thinking for the sake of thinking—and, by extension, reading for the sake of reading—is of no value. The mind is but a tool and never to be fed for its own sake.
And, I am telling them that there is no point is having an ideal that they may not be able to reach. That there is no value in aiming at something beyond themselves. This one may not be as clear, but if I am telling them that the contemplative life is to be devalued because not everyone can achieve it, that is an insidious sort of leveling.
Contemplation, pure thought, may just be valuable because it isn't intrinsically valuable, because it doesn't have an aim outside itself, because it is a practice that can only have value from the inside.  And, it's hard. Most people won't achieve it, but they get some good—one only they can see and one primarily for themselves—in trying, because what they are aiming at is a good in itself. And, after all, that fits with what Aristotle says about the goodness of any life. So maybe I need to start pushing the pointless precisely because it is pointless to anyone not engaged in it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What Alec Baldwin could have said

Instead of this, what if Alec Baldwin had just said:

"Anyone who has followed my career over the years knows that when someone affects my family I get angry. I'm an imperfect human being. And, when I get angry, I sometimes do and say things I shouldn't. I can't promise it won't happen again. That's not a fact I'm proud of, but it also doesn't define me. Anyone who has followed my professional and philanthropic work knows there is much more to me. I am sorry, but I ask that people judge me on the larger picture. Thank you."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Farm-trucks and firearms

We live in a society and time when the odds that you will die as a result of interpersonal violence are lower than they have been in all of human history. And, we also live in a time when more and more people are claiming a need to carry concealed weapons with them everywhere: churches, bars, schools, private businesses, public spaces, etc. 
More than half the men I see on campus or in a store are displaying the clip of a so-called tactical knife on their pants' pocket. Are they secretly SEALs? 
In spite of the sensationalism of the media and the overstatement of the dangers of the world from left and right—it's not a Hobbesian state of nature out there and the New World Order is not right around the corner—we are safer than we have ever been and many of us feel more need to protect ourselves.

Similarly, we live in a society and time when fewer of us live rural lives than any time in human history since the development of agriculture. Yet, I see more people driving Silverados and F-150s than I ever saw in the rural community where I grew up. Of course, in farming communities people tend to leave the farm truck on the farm and drive the car into town; something about pig shit in your truck makes it less presentable.
We have less need of large-bed trucks than ever, and now we drive them as luxury items. It cannot be because they are needed or because of their convenience in cities.

I think both phenomena are related. We live in a society where we are less and less self-sufficient. And, where what we do doesn't produce anything tangible, certainly nothing tangible that directly impacts our own lives—apart from money. You don't have to be a Marxist or influenced by Rousseau or a devotee of Ayn Rand to think that there's something in our nature that strives for autonomy and production and a sense of self-sufficiency. And our society doesn't provide much of any of that.
But a firearm or knife or farm-truck or pair of cowboy boots or even home brewery can signal, to some small degree, that I am after all in charge and capable of taking care of myself. It might still be a fantasy, but no less psychologically important for all that.

Friday, February 07, 2014

On loving teaching

To the relief of my students, we put Plato to rest today. I like to finish up talking about him by talking a little bit about the speeches of Aristophanes and Socrates in the Symposium. Having talked a lot about how reason—and philosophy—can help us ascend to the world of the Forms and into the presence of the Good, it's nice to get a little discussion of love and how it can do the same thing.
We discuss Aristophanes because I find his speech beautiful and a good precursor for other discussions of the need for an other to complement and complete us. And, there's something so damned funny about the idea of eight-legged double-humans rolling around and angering the gods. (That's where Hedwig and the Angry Inch got it.)
Then we talk about Socrates' (Diotima's) account. I don't go into a great deal of detail, because we are doing a survey, but I hit the idea that all love is love of the Good as it is reflected in the object of love, that love begins with love of particular bodies and moves upward, and that all love is a longing for immortality. On that last point, we talk about the way that procreation is a hungering for immortality. And, then I talk about other ways to live on. Usually, I talk about living on through whatever influence I have on my students. 
And, today I told them that I love them. And, I do. It's a hard thing to say, because we so often take love to either be romantic love, or familial love, or the totally banal I-love-you-man non-emotion. We devalue the loves of friendship, I think.
After doing it for sixteen years, I still find teaching absolutely terrifying. I still get sick to my stomach every morning that I have to teach. I still don't know what to do in the minutes before lecture or discussion begins. I'm still as socially awkward in those moments as I am at a party. 
But, I love teaching. I'm not always sure I'm very good at it. But, I'm pretty damned lucky to get to discuss things I get excited about and other interesting ideas with groups of young women and men. And, as I told one class, they are as close to my children as I'm going to have. And, for all of that, I love them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Do I represent the human condition?

Last year I had the pleasure to teach a class on 20th Century Continental Philosophy. I’m not sure that I have an area of expertise, but Continental philosophy certainly isn’t it. The class involved me having to learn and read a lot of new things. And, I cheated a little by starting with reading Nietzsche—I mean, he almost made it into the 20th Century, right?
Among the things we read was Sartre’s novel Nausea. I’m not particularly sympathetic to Sartrean existentialism, but I do find an affinity with his sense of despair. That’s a problem, though.
It’s not a problem peculiar to Sartre, but one he shares with any number of philosophers. Where it begins I don’t know. It seems to be particularly endemic after the end of the modern era, after the end of the great system builders who attempted to achieve objective, perspective-less truths. You see it in Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, but it is also there in Rousseau, Hobbes, and even the Buddha and the ethical views of Plato and Aristotle. It is simply to see oneself as a fully-representational map of the cosmos—or, at least of the human condition.
What I mean is this: Sartre sees his life as one filled with anxiety and despair. And, he draws the conclusion that this is the human condition. It might well be. Of course, it would take argument to establish that. And, I won’t deny that Sartre supplies argument. But it still looks as if the argument isn’t driving the conclusion, it’s in service of a pre-established sense that all lives are like Sartre’s. Mightn’t he be exceptional?
You see this when a student—or a group of students—reacts to Sartre by saying, “Yeah, but life really isn’t that bad.” What the Sartrean has to say is that the student hasn’t really looked very hard at her life. And, unless the student can be brought to despair, we have evidence that she isn’t reflective.
The same goes for the student who responds to the Buddha by saying that, in fact, all existence isn’t suffused with suffering. Or, who reads Schopenhauer, and thinks that there really are other drives than the will to continue existing. And, so on.
That’s not too different to telling the patient that, of course, he doesn't remember the Oedipal conflict, but it occurred nonetheless. There’s just something funny going on there.

There’s a temptation for all of us to see our own experiences as somehow universal—I am often tempted to think that my neuroses are really the result of being more in touch with the real human condition, but I don’t really matter, nor do my views. This temptation is understandable, but it is a fatal flaw in a philosopher to take her own life as the paradigm case of what a human life is like.