Sunday 2 December 2012

Digging in the Dark

I bought 'The Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton some time after Dunk and I went to Oxford where we saw an exhibition about his work. What is good about this book is that it is very much written for the non-academic reader, for someone who might ask the question, "What's the use of philosophy?" It has a reputation for being cerebral and remote from real life, when in fact it is quite the opposite, and is concerned essentially with the way that human beings choose to live.

"Every society has notions of what one should believe and how one should behave in order  to avoid suspicion and unpopularity. Some of these societal conventions are given explicit formulation in a legal code, others are more intuitively held in a vast body of ethical and practical judgements described as 'common sense', which dictates what we should wear, which financial values we should adopt, whom we should esteem, which etiquette we should follow and what domestic life we should lead. To start questioning these conventions would seem bizarre, even aggressive. If common sense is cordoned off from questions, it is because its judgements are deemed plainly too sensible to be the targets of scrutiny." (p.9)

It seems to be the job of philosophy to do just this, even if, as poor Socrates found, it annoys people so much they demand your execution. So through the millennia philosophers have set out to question assumptions about the way humans live. Socrates was executed on the order of a jury of 500:
"Socrates would naturally have conceded that there are times when we are in the wrong and should be made to doubt our views, but he would have added a vital detail to alter our sense of truth's relation to unpopularity: errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.
What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so. We should therefore divert our attention away from the presence of unpopularity to the explanations for it." (p.29-30)

The book is a browse through the variety of worries and concerns that human beings suffer, and the ways in which various philosophers have addressed these concerns. Rationality seems to be at the root of most philosophy, the use of reason and logic to understand. I like this one from Epicurus on death:

"Epicurus was especially concerned that he and his friends learn to analyse their anxieties about money, illness, death and the supernatural. If one thought rationally about mortality, one would, Epicurus argued, realise that there was nothing but oblivion after death, and that 'what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation.' It was senseless to alarm oneself in advance about a state which one would never experience." (p.59)

Epicurus is very in tune with the current notion of downshifting and simple living, with him emphasis on satisfying the simple basic needs of human beings and avoiding excessive consumerism, placing more value on things like simple pleasures and the importance of friendship. Botton's definition of an 'acquisitions list' for happiness consists of: a place to live, friendship, 'to avoid superiors, patronization, infighting and competition', thought, and (tongue in cheek I guess) a strange obsession with Madonna by Giovanni Bellini.

We then move on to Seneca. What I enjoyed so much was that each chapter gave me a whole new way of looking at things, and that I found ideas within each philosophy that were already part of my own thinking, but articulated them in a way that I have never bothered with. Seneca introduces the element of 'Fortune' into human affairs, that things happen to people and it was not a moral judgement on them:

"We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing  will ever be the same again. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the latter that Seneca invoked the goddess. ...
The cornucopia was a symbol of her power to bestow favours, the rudder a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies. She would scatter gifts, then with terrifying speed shift the rudder's course, maintaining an imperturbable smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone or disappear in a landslide."

His 'praemeditatio' sums it up:
"The wise will start each day with the thought ...
Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.
Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.
Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said 'a day' had granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires." (p.91)

An idea of 'justice' is inculcated in education and in most religions; that if you are honourable you will be rewarded, if you are bad you will be punished. Then when you have acted correctly but bad things happen there ensures confusion, a feeling that maybe you were bad after all and deserve the punishment. There is an appeal to 'injustice', which shows a continued belief that the world should be fundamentally 'just'. But it isn't. Seneca's own life became a perfect example of his philosophy at work; he loses everything after falling out of favour with Claudius, a situation which could have led to self-blame, bitterness and resentment, however:

"Seneca's political failure did not have to be read as retribution for sins, it was no rational punishment meted out after examination of the evidence by an all-seeing Providence in a divine courtroom; it was a cruel but morally meaningless by-product of the machinations of a rancorous Empress."

While it sounds like it could potentially be a little depressing I found it quite enlightening, because he also emphasises that events and inanimate objects are not deliberately conspiring against you, that nature and the world are neutral in relation to your existence. It is kind of at the root of that slightly twee quote about accepting the things you cannot change, changing the things you can and wisdom to know the difference. Sometime, despite this, people so often give too much weight and importance to things and events outside their control. It is not a recipe for passivity and acceptance but for the use of reason to not waste energy trying to alter the genuinely inevitable, but to save it for the things that are alterable. A neat little conclusion:

"To calm us down in noisy streets, we should trust that those making a noise know nothing of us. We should place a fireguard between the noise outside  and an internal sense of deserving punishment. We should not import into scenarios where they don't belong pessimistic interpretations of others' motives. Thereafter, noise will never be pleasant, but it will not have to make us furious." (p.105)

"When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk, he said, 'Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.' " (p.108)

The book then jumps several hundred years to Michel de Montaigne, who lived in France in the 16th century. The influences however travel as thread through history, since everyone has been influenced by those who came before, and such a thing is never more true than when it comes to philosophy. The ancient greeks loom large right through to the modern day thinkers. Montaigne was another who worked hard as questioning the assumptions of his culture, but also to question the authority of great thinkers:

"It is tempting to quote authors when they express our very own thoughts but with a clairty and psychological accuracy we cannot match. They know us better than we know ourselves...

But rather than illuminating our experiences and goading us on to our own discoveries, great books may come to cast a problematic shadow. They may lead us to dismiss aspects of our lives of which there is not printed testimony. Far from expanding our horizons, they may unjustly come to mark their limits. ... 

Their genius inhibits the sense of irreverence vital  to creative work in their successors. Aristotle may, paradoxically, prevent those who most respect him from behaving like him. He rose to greatness only by doubting much of the knowledge that had been built up before him, not by refusing to read Plato or Heraclitus, but by mounting a salient critique of some of their weaknesses based on an appreciation of their strengths." (p.161-3)

What I really liked about him is that he thought, and reiterated frequently, that leading an ordinary quiet life gave you just as much insight into the human condition as being in the thick of politics and 'society'.  And he was equally critical of pretension in writing and philosophy:

"It is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it. Profound ideas cannot, after all, be explained in the language of children. Yet the association between difficulty and profundity might less generously be described as a manifestation in the literary sphere of a perversity familiar from emotional life, where people who are mysterious and elusive can inspire a respect in modest minds that reliable fear ones do not. ...

Every difficult work presents us with a choice of whether to judge the author inept for not being clear, or ourselves stupid for not grasping what is going on. Montaigne encouraged us to blame the author. An incomprehensible prose-style  is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness; what reads easily is rarely so written. Or else such prose masks an absence of content; being incomprehensible offers unparalleled protection against having nothing to say." (p.157-8)

Schopenhauer gives us our consolation for a broken heart; a philosophy born, I felt, out of his own inability to find love. He defines for us the life force, or will-to-live, the thing that disrupts our rationality and makes life so damn difficult.

"He felt particular sympathy for the mole, a stunted monstrosity dwelling in damp narrow corridors, who rarely saw the light of day and whose offspring look like gelatinous worms - but who still did everything in its power to survive and perpetuate itself. ...

We do have one advantage over moles. We may have to fight for survival and hunt for partners and have children as they do, but we can in addition go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and in bed in the evenings, we can read novels, philosophy and epic poems - and it is in these activities that Schopenhauer located a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life. What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image." (p.199) (and the quote continues here)

And thus:
"We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge." (p.202)

"Few philosophers have been thought of highly for feeling wretched. A wise life has traditionally been associated with an attempt to reduce suffering: anxiety, despair, anger, self-contempt and heartache.

Then again, pointed out Friedrich Nietzsche, the majority of philosophers have always been 'cabbage-heads'. " (p.205)

Who would have thought that Nietzsche would have been the one to make me laugh. My ex studied Existentialism at university and Nietzsche was much a topic of conversation in our house for a while, from whence the expression 'existential angst' entered my vocabulary, and very useful it has been too. Botton's description of it however I found to be much more positive and life affirming than I had understood. He understands life as the balancing of pain and pleasure, that life's satisfactions are nothing unless hard earned:

"Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples, and ask yourself whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. ...

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable." (p.215)

So, a clumsy and woefully incomplete and incoherent examination of a wonderfully enlightening book. It has inspired me to read some more philosophy and to try and get my head round some new ideas. The best advice however comes, again from Nietzsche, right at the end, and I read it as NaNoWriMo finished. However it puts the 30 days nicely into perspective. How to write a novel:

"One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, none longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes every day until one has learnt how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one's eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present; one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer ... one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human action, disdain no signposts for instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night. One should continue in this many-sided exercise for some ten years; what is then created in the workshop ... will be fit to go out into the world." (p.217)

Oh well.

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