Category Archives: religion

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.

Selling ideas for cheap

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?)

Insomnia is not always a bad thing

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.

 

 

(First posted September 26,  2016)

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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.

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.
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[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

 

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