Healthy-Mindedness and the Sick Soul

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Third and final in a series on death

The recent solar eclipse was almost total here in Charlotte, and a large number of people gathered on the Queens University campus to watch the event.  For the folks around me and those shown in videos from around the country, the atmosphere was of celebration or deep awe at this rare celestial event.  At our campus there were enough eclipse sun-glasses to share so that everyone could gaze as the moon came closer and closer to blocking the sun.   For weeks, there had been dire warnings about the dangers of looking directly at the sun.  I wonder:  should there be similar warnings about staring at death, as it eclipses our lives?  Is our joy destroyed by that evil shadow creeping over our vitality?

We always need lenses through which to look at the deepest philosophical questions, and I find the philosopher and psychologist William James to be of great help.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), his method is to collect and categorize human responses to the question of “What is the character of this universe in which we live?”[1]  After examining these responses as shown in “feelings, acts and experiences,”[2] he offers philosophical hypotheses and conclusions to answer two key philosophical questions, what is true and what is best.

The healthy-minded temperament and strategy

James describes two main types of temperament toward viewing evil and death.  The first he calls the “healthy-minded”:  “In many persons, happiness is congenital….when unhappiness is offered to them” they “positively refuse to feel it [unhappiness], as if it were something mean and wrong.”[3]  Evil has no reality.  Their soul is “sky-blue” and their “affinities are rather with flowers and birds…than with dark human passions… [and they] can think no ill of man or God.”[4]

People with the totally healthy-minded temperament manage not to see the reality of death at all.  When James published The Varieties in 1902, there was in America (as there is now) a great emphasis on happiness or “healthy-mindedness.” Today those who are not naturally as optimistic can voluntarily adopt strategies to become happier through therapy, medication, or meditation.  Healthy-mindedness can be not only a temperament, but a strategy.

In my most recent post on death, “Out of Sight, or Front and Center?” I wrote of our study tour visiting the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where the bones of thousands of past monks are on display.  The healthy-minded in our group would have preferred to never have entered in the first place (“Why go to such a gloomy place on such a beautiful day, and in romantic Italy, for God’s sake!?”).  And many of us left after viewing the Crypt moving as quickly as possible to find a cappuccino or a beer, trying to restore healthy-mindedness, happiness. And why not?  Don’t we want to be happy?  Isn’t happiness a good thing?  And if the young naturally cannot conceive of the reality of their death, why should we focus on it, either?

The temperament of the sick soul 

James describes a second temperament which he names the “sick soul.”  For people with this temperament “the evil aspects of our life are of the very essence…the world’s meaning most comes to us when we lay them most to heart”[5]  For these people, it’s as if they are born to a life where from every pleasure, “something bitter rises up:…a touch of nausea…a whiff of melancholy,” which have “a feeling of coming from a deeper region.” [6]

If you’ve ever had a time when evil and sadness overwhelmed you for extended periods of time, you know how inadequate this description is to what you felt or feel.  We know now that at least part of this temperament (as well as the temperament of the healthy-minded) is genetic.  Whether from genetic or other reasons, the sick soul can overcome us.  In The Varieties, James gives a vivid description of someone overwhelmed by depression.

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.  Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin….This image and my   fear entered into a species of combination with each other.  That shape am I, I felt, potentially.  Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.  There was such a horror of him… that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since.  It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.[7]

James later admitted the sufferer was himself, in a period of depression early on his life.  Clearly, the category of the unhealthy-minded was no mere philosophical abstraction for James; he had experienced it with the depth of his being.

What strikes many people immediately upon viewing the Capuchin crypt and all those human bones is a feeling of disgust, easily seen in the faces of the viewers. The word several people in our group used is that it’s just “morbid.”  If that viewing and that sense of morbidity, darkness and gloom dominated a person for long periods of time, we might well judge that to be unhealthy.To the sick soul it is not the pleasure of the beer and human company that is the most real, it is the feeling of death to come.

Which is true and best: the healthy-minded or the sick soul? 

Like so many questions of this sort, the question of whether the healthy-minded or the sick soul presents a true view of reality and is the best way to live is a false dilemma.  There are other possible answers.  There are both different levels and combinations of these two temperaments that form a philosophy for living.

There is something to be said from within the morbid-minded view, especially when it is taken not from the extreme of debilitating depression but from its more philosophical form.    James writes that the view of the sick soul is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.”[8]

I think that is why so many of the great works of literature deal with death and suffering.  That why Tolstoy grabs us so strongly with the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It’s the truth and reality of the unhappiness that reels us in.  It’s why Walker Percy’s The Second Coming has stuck so many as a powerful truth, as the central character deals with the sadness and emptiness he feels and sees in his past, his self, and the society around him.

James points out that there are different levels of both healthy-mindedness and morbid-mindedness people have some mixture of the two temperaments.  He stated in his 1895-96 lectures on abnormal psychology that “A life healthy on the whole must have some morbid elements.”[9]  Finally, he argues that the morbid-minded philosophical position is superior in some ways to the healthy-minded, as the former ranges over a “wider scale of experience” and because “the evil facts which [healthy-mindedness] refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality.”[10]

Refusing to see and experience the reality of death and suffering narrows and constricts our experiences, while acknowledging and feeling their reality paradoxically enriches our lives.  Acknowledging and feeling the reality of death, suffering, and evil turns out to be healthier than trying to deny it.

A truly healthy philosophy for living has the proper relationship between the healthy-minded and the sick soul.  An Epicurean life of simple pleasures and serenity is not enough, for an adequate philosophy will value the struggle.

A healthy worldview calls both for acknowledging and for an overcoming of death in some way, whether by a life demonstrating courage and human excellence, and/or by a life continued – in some way — beyond this one, through an afterlife, reincarnation, or the influences we leave in the world.  We are elevated by the lives of good, honest, courageous, and hopeful people, and they inspire us to do likewise.
__________________________________________________

[1] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Penguin Classics, 1982), 35.
[2] James, The Varieties, 31.
[3] James, The Varieties, 75.
[4] James, The Varieties, 8o.
[5] James, The Varieties, 131.
[6] James, The Varieties, 136.
[7] James, The Varieties, 160 – 161.
[8] James, The Varieties. 131.
[9] James, “Notes for the Lowell Institute Lectures on Exceptional Mental States,” Manuscript Lectures, (Harvard University Press), 63.
[10] James, The Varieties, 163.

Photo Credit:  NASA

 

Death: Out of Sight, or Front and Center?

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series

My thanks to you for the many thoughtful responses, both on my website and on Facebook, about my first post on death.  A couple of you wrote that you don’t fear death, thus challenging my idea of “that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.”  Everyone, however, offered some explanation of the role of death in our lives.

Urban living and modern science and medicine have changed our experience of death.   In earlier times, death occurred in the home and often rather quickly.  People grew old, perhaps got pneumonia (“the old person’s friend”) and died in the home.  Even young children observed the death of their elders.  Today for many of us the death of those we know has become a bit more “out of sight, out of mind.”

Death Front and Center

Seventeen years ago I was a faculty leader on a Queens University of Charlotte student study tour of Italy.  We started the tour on the beautiful Amalfi coast, where our hotel overlooked the sparking Tyrrhenian Sea.  We took a boat to Capri, rode a taxi to the top of the island, where we sat under a restaurant umbrella enjoying the world’s best cappuccino.  It was morning, we and the world were young, full of possibilities, relaxed and enjoying life in the best Epicurean fashion.

The next day we rode the bus to Rome, which was beautiful in its own way, but also busy, noisy and crowded.  We had to be alert when crossing the street to avoid being hit by cars.  The students adapted, though, and quickly found the best clubs and bars, staying out just as late as possible.

One morning our itinerary showed we were to visit Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins).  The students assumed it was yet another church where we would see and “appreciate” sculpture.  Neither they nor we faculty were fully prepared for the key feature of the church, The Capuchin Crypt.  We faculty walked to the entrance of the Crypt, paid the entrance fees for us all, and stood aside to let the students go in first.  Their initial responses of “Oh my god!” appeared the most reverent of any church we had entered — except their “Oh my god!” exclamations were closer to disgust than to awe.  Before us in the first of six chapels/crypts were displays of bones arranged to form a theme.    We were overwhelmed both by the gargantuan number of bones as well as by the arrangements where bones had been clothed to resembled a body.

In all, there are the bones of about 4,000 skeletons.  The students who had been out late at the bar may have been thinking about how good it would be to take a nap, but this tableau no doubt left them wide awake.

For the professors who hold the knowledge in their brains in such high esteem, there was also this in The Crypt of the Skulls.

We no longer felt young and relaxed, with the world at our fingertips.

Bringing It Home

When the Capuchins, an order of the Franciscans, moved to this location in 1631, the Vatican ordered that they take with them the remains of their deceased brothers The Capuchins went one step further than “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” They apparently decided “when the Pope gives you bones, make art.”

Just as we whispered to ourselves little jokes and smiles as we went through the Crypt twenty years ago, I find myself even now trying to make light of the all-too-real bones.  The whole crypt does seem macabre.  Why would anyone construct such a crypt?  In fact, why would anyone visit there?

The answer, and the very most chilling thing we saw, was a small plaque among the bones, which read

“What you are now, we once were;
What we are now, you shall be.”

Oh. My. God.  They were once like us, young, happy, excited.  And we shall one day be as them:  mere bones.

We could not wait to get out of there.  After exiting we dispersed quickly to find a late cappuccino or an early lunch or even better, a beer.  Whew….  We smiled, we even laughed, but for a while we could not shake off the image of our own deaths.

Was it worth the shock?

The Capuchin friars clearly want to remind us of the temporary nature of our life here on earth, in hope that we will be reminded of the eternal life to come after this one.  We need to be oriented toward the world to come, and to rid ourselves of the vanity of putting too much emphasis on this life.  We aren’t all that.

The Epicureans also recognize that life is fleeting, but they offer no hope for a life after this one.  Instead, they urge us to live this life as fully as possible.  As the poet Horace writes,

“While we are talking, jealous time has fled. 
So seize the day, and do not trust the morrow!” [1] 

Carpe diem.

The Capuchins and the Epicureans hold radically opposite beliefs about an afterlife.  However, they share the belief that it is important that we face the reality:  we will die.  Facing reality is a good thing.  Our own culture has as much as possible removed death from the home, placing it in sanitized hospitals and funeral homes, lessening its reality.  People in the developed world spend a great deal of time in the virtual reality of the internet.  National politics in the U.S. are often divorced from reality.

So the Capuchins have done a good thing in helping us to face reality.  It’s up to us now as to what we do with that knowledge.  Thinking of all those bones and the reality of death, we could do a lot worse than to follow Horace’s advice:

“Persuade yourself that each new day that dawns will be your last.  Then you will receive each unexpected hour with gratitude.”[2]

To be continued

 


[1] Horace, Odes, I, 11, 7, in Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy, 126.

[2] Horace, Epistles, I, 4, 13, in Hadot, 126.

Picture credits:  Norris Frederick; http://tripfreakz.com/offthebeatenpath/the-capuchin-crypt-in-rome-italy ; and http://www.romeing.it/museum-and-crypt-of-the-capuchin-friars-rome/ .

Death: Many Questions

By Dr. Norris Frederick

There’s been way too much death in my world in the last year:  four nearby neighbors, three cousins, two close high school friends, and one Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that had an enormous influence on me.  These deaths have affected me in ways I don’t yet fully understand.  They may have something to do with the writer’s block that has locked my mind and typing fingers.

Objectively, ten deaths is nothing in this world.  Eighteen people died just yesterday in the terrorist attack in London, just as they were going about their normal day, going to work, shopping.  And that pales beside the years-long carnage in Syria.  When I hear about those deaths, I suffer briefly with them, but typically go on to the next thing and their deaths fade from my being until some event brings it back.  But for most all of us, when our friends and family die, we feel the loss in a deep, existential sense that rocks our world.

I talk every week with a very good friend who lives near D.C.  He’s listened sympathetically to me talk about the deaths of my friends, but it wasn’t until recently when he had a close friend die that he really felt what I was experiencing.  Words failed us both as we tried to explain, but now we share the experience.

Aristotle writes that one of the essential goods of a person’s life is friendship.  Who would want to live a life without friends?  We realize that by paying attention to the feeling when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies.

One conception of philosophy is that it deals with far-out, abstract ideas that have no connection with reality.  Guys and gals sit around, drinking or perhaps smoking dope, saying, “Hey, man, what if ….?”  But in fact the best philosophy begins with wonder or mysteries or problems or deep experiences, and tries to think about those problems and experiences in ways that connect back fruitfully to our lives, so that we both understand better and live better.

The full experience of death raises so many questions:  Do we just live and die, fini, that’s all, folks? Or does something transcend?   Does some part of us survive in another world, or perhaps are we re-born into this world?  Does death take away the meaning of life?  Is death the ultimate proof that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing?”

There are some strange asymmetries in the way we think about death.   Adults have no trouble conceiving of a time before we are born (after all I know I was not alive during the Civil War), but it’s difficult for us to conceive of a time after we are dead – how can the world go on without me?

Ancient Greek philosophies offer ways for us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life now.  The Epicureans, who believe that everything is composed of atoms, say that when I die the atoms that are “me” disperse, so “I” no longer am.  Thus, “When I am, death is not; when death is I am not.”  The key is to enjoy life while we are alive, and to realize that we should not fear death, for when it occurs we will have no pain.  The Stoics argue that when we die, we return to the Logos, the eternal ongoing impersonal, rational process of the world.  “Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be:  short or long.  What is yours is to play the assigned part well.”

The reasoning of the Epicureans and Stoics each make sense, at least to a certain extent.  They capture what I often think during the daytime.  They don’t capture what I feel and think when I wake up in the middle of the night.  For that I need to turn to the 20th-century existentialist Miguel de Unamuno who writes in The Tragic Sense of Life, in an attempt to capture the way we really feel about death, despite listening to good reasons:

I do not want to die – no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  I want this “I” to live – this poor “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me.

That’s it.  Unamuno nailed it that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.   I do grieve, truly grieve for the deaths of those I know, and for their families and friends.  But I also grieve for me.  I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  That wild, deep feeling he describes is perhaps more “me” than reason.

So, you ask, what good is there for my life in recognizing this existential terror?  There are three goods that come to mind.  First, you now have admitted to consciousness knowledge you did not have before. Second, you move from being alone to being companioned; we are all in the same boat regarding death. Finally, realizing that there are no easy answers to the questions of death, you can do the best thing someone can do for a bereaved friend:  just sit with them, just be with them. Just sit with yourself, just observe, just be,

To be continued


Photo credit:  Norris Frederick

 

Still Teaching After All These Years

by Dr. Norris Frederick

The fall semester – finally – has come to an end.  And even though I don’t have a real job – like welding, for example – I’m exhausted, just as I have been after every semester for the past 40 years or so.  You’d think a rational person would be ready to hang it up and walk away. Instead, I’m thinking about the spring semester classes I’ll teach, especially about my upcoming class on the philosophy of religion.

As I write this, the people of the United States are perhaps more divided than ever on major issues of politics, ethics, and religion.  In the last year we’ve seen raging hatred, mass murders of citizens and police by individuals, senseless killings by police, international slaughter in Syria, and a vicious political campaign season. Confidence in political figures is at all-time lows.

Many of our students — in response to these hatreds and fears and in their desire to welcome others  — confuse acceptance of differences with subjectivism: “Whatever you believe, that’s right for you.”

My philosophy of religion classes attempt to model a sympathetic approach to deeply held beliefs, and also to move beyond “whatever you think is true” to critically examine current beliefs in order to move toward more adequate beliefs, thus benefitting both the individual and our society.

William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience, with its basis in human experience and pluralism, is the backbone of my approach.  The book contains hundreds of often first-hand accounts of the religious experience of various forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  James focuses both on the differences and also on the underlying psychological and philosophical similarities.

I also find a guiding idea to my teaching in his Talks to Teachers.  On its first page, he urges teachers to “reproduce sympathetically in [our] imagination, the mental life of [the] pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be.”  Note that this respect is both ethical and pedagogical.  It assigns a worth to the current life of each student as that student experiences it.  It’s a worth very different from the “I respect your right to be an idiot.”  It’s different because we’re asked to sympathetically imagine the unity that the student feels.  The ethical is based in the fact that the mental lives of the students and our own as teachers are based in the same processes of the stream of consciousness, association, habit, and so on.  Every person’s life – including that of the professor — is built largely on the same principles.

We hardly feel that everyone in the profession of teaching philosophy – let alone in teaching other disciplines – should come to the exact same conceptions about the nature of the good life and what the aims of life should be.  Our lives and our democracy are better to the extent that we can sympathetically imagine the lives of others and thus extend respect to their lives.  So it is with the lives of our students.

As I think back upon my teaching, some of the best moments in class and I hope some of the best learning took place with assignments that allowed the students to think about their lives and at the same time allowed me to sympathetically imagine their lives.  In my introductory Philosophy of Religion class last time I taught it, the assignment for the second meeting was to write a couple of pages on “What influences did your parents have on your worldview?  Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?”  The students were told in advance that I’d ask them to discuss or read part of their papers in class, although they could pass if they weren’t comfortable with sharing what they’d written.

There were a wide variety of responses that led to a lively class discussion which offered the opportunity for the students to sympathetically imagine the mental lives of each other.  Many chose to describe their religious upbringing or absence thereof.  Some asked others for more details about their upbringing.  The second question (“Do one’s parents determine one’s worldview?”) allowed for students not only to further describe their parents’ influence and the student’s actions, but also to develop a definition of “determine,” and to offer evidence and reasons.

The assignment was connected to the topic of the day’s reading on “worldviews,” and it appealed to each student’s strong interest in the self and to their curiosity about concrete and lively details in the upbringing of others.

The discussion gave me an opportunity both to learn more about my students’ lives, to strive for distinctions (such as the difference between “influence” and “determine”), and to ask whether some of the evidence offered was sufficient or relevant to claims being offered.  When I commented in class and later when I read and wrote comments on the papers, I not only sympathetically responded to the student’s present self, but also invited her to grow into a wider and deeper self.  As James makes clear, sympathetically imagining the unity of a student’s mental life is not mutually exclusive with challenging a student’s thought.  We who teach philosophy have an obligation to our students to move them toward a broader and deeper set of ideas that is more adequate for meeting life.

With that introduction to the course, the students felt more free both to express their own views and to realize that critically examining those views might get to a more adequate response.  In my most recent philosophy of religion class some memorable discussions occurred between two of my students who in many ways could not have been more different.  She was a middle-aged African-American woman from a rural town in the South, whose strong Christian faith was formed in youth and sustained by community.  He was a 20-something white male from the Northeast whose major in biology and military deployment in several countries had led to a sort of reverse conversion, through which he now happily found himself a naturalist, an atheist.

These students played a leading role in class discussions in which several realizations occurred over the course of the semester.  She came to realize that there are plausible arguments for atheism, even though she would never find them strong enough to become an atheist.  He was particularly interested in reading and discussing instances of conversion and transcendence.  He had at first dismissed these experiences as non-scientific and thus non-veridical, but as we discussed and read the arguments of James and others, he came to see the value of the experience of transcendence.  For him, the object of that transcendent experience was not God, but nature.  Both he and the theist came to realize that each found value in a transcendent experience.

While they might have left the semester’s discussions alienated and estranged, instead they found themselves companioned, in community. And both had deepened their understanding of philosophy, religion, and self.  That’s one valuable thing philosophy can offer to the modern university, and to our culture.

And that’s one reason I’m still teaching after all these years.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________________________________________________________________

A slightly different version of this article appears at http://philosophyofreligion.org/?p=524969 .

Photo credit:  Norris Frederick

 

Philosophy Unlimited: Intelligent Pleasure

by Dr. Norris Frederick

20160910_195157

One of the joys of travel to another country is the discovery of new landscapes, new customs and cultures, and new people.  We find some ways in which the culture and people differ from our own, as well as ways in which they are similar.  If we are open, we find we can learn from both the differences and similarities. This is especially true if we are not just tourists (spectators) but are being-with the people of that country.  Upon return we think about some ways we might think and live differently, and are reaffirmed about other of our current habits of thinking and being.

The same is true of traveling to other philosophies and their worldviews (which is a darn lot cheaper than travelling to other countries, not that it must be an either/or).  Everyone has a worldview, and a key value of philosophy lies in helping us bring our worldviews to consciousness and thus enabling us to compare them to other worldviews.  Maybe I will name this type of travel “Philosophy Time-Travel Unlimited:  Experiencing Worldviews since 600 BC.”

If we reverse the metaphor of our travel abroad, visitors to the USA from developing nations are often overwhelmed by the vast array of goods in our stores.  If you are like me, you’re having a related experience as you enter stores from early October on: astoundingly, even though I know it happens every year, Christmas decorations and items are already appearing in stores.  Nerves tense, stomachs tighten, with the obligation to buy gifts that will bring the requisite pleasure to friends and family.  All this is just part of a bigger picture of the race for pleasure in which many of us engage.  “Buying and selling” has become so dominant that it threatens to enslave us.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with pleasure; in fact, a life without any would be very grim.   It’s just that we go about seeking pleasure in such an unintelligent manner.  We can learn much from philosophy traveling to Greece, about 300 BC, to experience being-with Epicurus, whose worldview is all about pleasure, but an intelligent version of it.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) taught that pleasure is the ultimate good, “the alpha and omega of a blessed life.”[1]  Although he was a hedonist (from Greek, hedone,  meaning “pleasure”), his hedonism is quite different from ours.    To experience his worldview, we need to listen to a few of his central ideas about his metaphysics (what’s really real) of the physical universe and the self, and his view of what’s valuable, which Epicurus says is pleasure

Epicurus was a materialist, writing over 2,000 years ago that everything in the universe consists of “atoms” (from the Greek word meaning “not divisible”).  Unlike modern scientists who used sophisticated equipment to discover the atom, Epicurus used only reason.  Take any object, such as a tree.  Divide that tree by cutting off its limbs and sectioning its trunk.  Start cutting a limb into as small parts as possible.  Ultimately, continuing this thought experiment, one gets to the point where the matter that is left can’t be cut any smaller: the atoms of the tree.  Not only the tree, but all beings in the world – including humans – are made of atoms.  Our minds consist of “fine atoms,” which register the sense-impressions of other atoms.

As the several types of atoms move through empty space they “hook up,” creating objects:  trees, cows, humans, you name it.  The huge oak trees in front of my university succumbed to disease last month and now they no longer exist.  Through one process or another, all beings – including humans – perish.  Only the atoms are eternal.  I will not live forever.

While not living forever sounds incredibly depressing, the realization of that truth can actually be liberating.  Epicurus teaches that if we reflect on our material nature, we see that we have nothing to fear from death.  When the atoms that form “me” are no longer connected, I no longer exist. “Death, therefore, thought the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”[2]

Epicurus certainly did not think that someone hearing or reading these words for the first time would be rid of their fear of death.  But the friends who lived with him in the community named “the Garden” outside of Athens learned to tame their fears by frequent repetition of the phrase:

“Where I am, death is not;
Where death is, I am not.”

But you, being a critical thinker, ask Epicurus, “Shouldn’t hedonists, even if they don’t fear death, bemoan the loss of future pleasure?” Not so, he replies, if we understand the nature of pleasure.  Seeking pleasure intelligently does not mean that we “choose every pleasure whatsoever, but we will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them.”[3]  Many of us are caught on the hedonic treadmill.  If I just had the next thing, I would be happy.  But then i get the next thing, and soon that’s not enough and I’m back to being unhappy, so I say to myself if I just had one more next thing I would be happy.  The process is repeated.   And I continue anxiously looking for the next thing that will make me happy.  Worrying that death will cost us future pleasures is yet another way of missing the enjoyment of the pleasures are right here in the present.

Instead, says Epicurus to his community, we should choose pleasures that are simple and that are not followed by painful consequences. “Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips.”  Simple food and wine, friendship, reading and thinking are the type of pleasures that make for a good life.   The expensive meals, cars, and houses not only don’t bring happiness because they are part of our being on the hedonic treadmill, but because they also bring about the anxiety of being able to pay for them.  We are enslaved by our desires and our objects.  Pleasure, properly understood, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”[4]

To our 21st century minds, Epicurus’ definition is not at all what we mean by pleasure: it’s not Disney World, or the new cell phone, or the ability to spend $5,000 on a dinner as celebrities are reported to do.   Epicurus’ pleasure is in a sense negative: the absence of pain physically and psychically.  What’s the good of that?

The good of an Epicurean understanding of pleasure is that it opens us to something broader and deeper and infinitely more satisfying, the awareness of being, the astonishing fact of being alive when I might not exist at all.[5]  Like everything else in the universe, I might never have existed, and I might not tomorrow, but I do now!  It’s astonishing to be here, in this place, right now.

I suggest you try going beyond just thinking about his ideas and try them out.  To experience his philosophy, remind yourself that you have all the simple pleasures you need.  Then step out into a quiet place on one of these cool fall mornings or nights, and contemplate these words of Lucretius, a Roman follower of Epicurus in the first century B.C.E.:

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by the mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been.  Yet think how no one now, wearied with satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky![6]

 

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References and Credits:

[1] Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” translated by Robert Drew Hick, http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html
[2]
“Letter to Menoeceus”
[3] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[4] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[5]  Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?,  translated by Michael Chase, 126 (Belknap Press, 2002).
[6]  Luretius, On The Nature of Things, as quoted in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. by Arnold Davidson and translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell, Publishing 1995), 258.

Photo Credit:  Norris Frederick

Philosophy and Hope, in a Jar

by Dr. Norris Frederick

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Recently I was browsing the internet, looking at philosophy websites.  I came across one with a prime domain name:  philosophy.com.  I wondered what philosophers and topics were covered there.  Plato?  Sartre?  Perhaps a discussion of contemporary ethics?  So I clicked on the url, and was quite surprised to find that philosophy.com is a site for…perhaps you guessed it or knew…a line of products for beautiful skin.

I found myself thinking about philosophy.com for several days, wondering why it stayed on my mind.  And then it hit me that Soren Kierkegaard had given the diagnosis for this symptom long ago:

“Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale.  Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.[1]

Kierkegaard wrote these words to open his book Fear and Trembling, first published in 1843, as an indictment of his native Copenhagen and Denmark.  His words and thoughts still ring true in American society today, where many of us not only want fast and easy food, but fast and easy ideas and beliefs.

In every known epoch and culture the appeal of easy ideas has been powerful.  Why bother to struggle and think when the persuasive words of others can think for us?  In 399 B.C., at his trial on the charges of worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth, Socrates has to open his defense to his fellow citizens and jurors by saying of his accusers that “I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak.  And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true.” [2]  It takes a Socrates or a Kierkegaard to sting us into the realization that often our ideas are not our own and that we have bought for cheap vital ideas that can be earned for oneself only through long struggle.

Kierkegaard’s age was one in which commerce — the buying and selling of goods — was coming to dominate the culture.  In his eyes, society mostly consists of sleepwalkers following the vision of the collective society; those who realize this become insomniacs.

Our own age has surpassed Kierkegaard’s in selling ideas for cheap through the use of the image, brought to us through magazines, television, and now the internet.  Thanks to cell phones, images and persuasion can now reach us most anywhere and anytime.

In the images above and below, “philosophy” does not refer to thinking critically or to a coherent worldview, but to a line of skin care.  You can now buy philosophy from a bottle or a jar.  One can move out of despair and toward a good life by purchasing “renewed hope in a jar” for as little as $16!  The jar below tells us “philosophy:  live with optimism, renew with hope.”  Wow, I feel better already! (Let’s see now, the $16 jar buys 0.5 oz., but for $47 I can get 2.0 oz., oh yeah, that is the smarter buy!)

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Philosophy.com also offers to help us easily achieve with purchases of the products “purity made simple” and “amazing grace” what some people would consider religious and spiritual blessings.

The point is not that the advertisers and philosophy® Official Site‎ are evil, and it’s certainly not that there is anything wrong with wanting to look good and feel good.    The point is that this selling of philosophy® is just one visible image of what Kierkegaard described – the selling of ideas so cheap that perhaps there may not be any buyers.  The astonishing thing is how difficult it is to even have the thought that there is something a little odd about buying philosophy®, purity, and grace. (Wait!  Am I now violating trademark by even using the word “philosophy®”?  Should I be referencing those who own the word every time I mention it in class?)

Kierkegaard argues in Fear and Trembling that no one today can truly understand the gut-wrenching, fierce and raging struggle from which Abraham’s faith was forged in responding to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Kierkegaard writes that listeners in those comfortable pews are mentally asleep, and perhaps too the preachers.  And today, as we have learned, one can literally buy “purity made simple” and “amazing grace.”

Kierkegaard would tell us we need to wake up.  “I’m just fine!” we reply.  Kierkegaard, that physician of the soul, writes that “…the specific character of despair is precisely this:  it is unaware of being despair.”[3]  When we buy products such as “renewed hope,” we do not know that in the world of ideas one cannot get genuine renewed hope without doing the work, and the first step of the work is realizing that we may well be in despair, the complete absence of hope.  That despair is masked and soothed by a culture that tells us through images that if we just buy more, just buy the right type of product, earn or inherit the money to get the right house and send our kids to the right schools, all will be well.

Sometimes being disturbed by one’s thoughts is a good thing.  It’s really okay to have insomnia once in a while.  The hope that Kierkegaard offers is that in the world of ideas – unlike the world of market exchange where some inherit their wealth – in the world of ideas “only one who works get bread, and only one who knows anguish finds rest.”[4] Getting through the anguish and insomnia to another resting place is hard work, but it is a truer and better place to rest.

 

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[1] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay (New York:  Penguin Books, 1985), p. 49.

[2] Plato, The Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates  translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1975), p. 22.

[3] Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.

[4] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 57.

Thrown-ness: Understanding an experience of disruption

by Dr.  Norris Frederick

Philosophy offers us new ways of seeing the world and living in the world, thus helping us live and enriching our consciousness.  At first these new insights create a rupture in our thinking and feeling and an unpleasant sense of dizziness or confusion.   However, if we learn to persist in integrating new ways of thinking and being into our lives, we also come to experience feeling excited at the possibilities offered by philosophical challenges and we broaden our understanding of reality.

One of those insights is that of “thrown-ness,” first named and elucidated by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), author of Being and Time.  What’s it like to be a human being?  Are there characteristics of experience that all humans share?  Heidegger thought so.  We ordinarily are engaged in activities and tasks in ways in which we use the objects and tools around us.  I type these thoughts but as I do so I’m not focused on the keyboard. We dig with a shovel but we’re not focused on the shovel but rather on the topsoil we’re blending into the garden.  We live with a family with whom we prepare meals and clean the house.  We’re engaged in what we do.

But then one day the handle snaps off the blade of the shovel, or a grandmother dies.  Suddenly my attention shifts from the task at hand to the presence of the shovel I was barely aware of before and to the missing presence of the grandmother.  I am jerked from my ordinary pursuits into a disorienting sense of looking at beings in a strange way.  My grandmother was just here, solid and real and fully being, and now she is gone.

I was 13 when my grandmother died, and her death led to a series of reflections in my consciousness.  There were the comforting reflections from family and friends (“she’s now with grandpa in heaven”), but simultaneously there was also the unpleasant experience that people can be here one moment and gone the next.  As we get older we get used to death in most cases as we go about our daily tasks, but there is always an opening in which we can sense the presence of death, the absence of a loved one, in a way akin to vertigo.  (I think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo spinning round and round as he goes down, down, down).

Stewart in Vertigo

For me, these reflections led to my first experience of “thrown-ness,” although of course I didn’t know this strange word.  After the shock and after the funeral of this kind woman with whom my family lived, I began to have a related sense of vertigo that began one day as I sat on our porch after school, trying to catch a breeze in that hot Carolina September.  I thought about and looked at my parents, sisters, and brother:  who ARE these people? In my altered state, I now had an alien strangeness about them.  Previously I was engaged in everyday life with them and never thought anything about it – they’re my family–  but now I wondered WHY am I in this family?  Couldn’t I have been living with some other family?  And would I have been someone else?  WHY was I born into this family, with these people?

For a teenage boy whose main interest was baseball and who was just beginning an interest in girls, it was a strange and disorienting feeling.  So strange that I never told anyone about the experience for years.  I was experiencing “thrown-ness”:  we are thrown into the world in a way not of our choosing.  We don’t choose our family, the century we’re born, nor the country and culture of our birth.  While I was well aware of making choices (“Shall we play baseball this morning?”), the reality of the “thrown-ness” of life hit me like a fastball straight to the pit of my stomach.  Worse, just when I thought this feeling had gone away, it returned at unexpected times like when we were all sitting down to watch “Gunsmoke” on Saturday night.  Who ARE these people? And who am I?

Not only is the existence of shovels and people contingent on circumstances, but our relationships and thus who we are is contingent in ways in which many of us are not aware in everyday life.  The idea of thrown-ness expands and deepens our understanding of reality.  The idea of thrown-ness also offers to us the reality that we are not alone in this contingency.  My teenage experience of thrown-ness resulted from my new awareness of death and my family.  At the time I felt that something was strange and wrong with me to even feel this sense of alienation, but now when I read Heidegger’s thoughts about thrown-ness, I no longer feel estranged but companioned.

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