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.