Not for ourselves alone are we born.
The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras declared, “Man is the measure of all things.” But what is it to be a man? This is a question that philosophers have sought to answer for millennia. The word man, in its fullest sense, is existential, something the Greeks understood in a deeply practical way, as the attainment and embodiment of numerous virtues including heroism, truthfulness, social responsibility, temperance, and others that lately have gotten lost in the shuffle of “alternative facts” concocted to whitewash gloves-off opportunism at the highest levels of government. For the time being, the worst of us have managed to seize the microphone and the limelight through brazen acts of irresponsibility, moral cowardice, ignorance, deception, and a flagrant abdication of the most basic dictates of human decency, yet the higher vision that the Greeks strove to embody remains as close to us as our willingness to recall and embrace it, like an echo emanating from deep within us, calling us to come back to ourselves.
To be a man is to be truthful, even when the truth is distasteful. It is to lift others up, not tear them down; to build consensus and community, not destroy them. To be a man is to be patient rather than reactive, to bring understanding and empathy to those who are suffering or struggling, not censure and criticism. It is the willingness not only to own and admit one’s errors but also to do one’s best to correct them, not the willful denial of responsibility through blame-shifting, excuses, and half-truths. These various virtues are all elements of a practical wisdom that the Greeks called phronesis, a word that implied skillfulness in living. Being a man presupposes maturity, self-possession, courage, fairness, and self-restraint, an open mind and heart, and above all else, that humility in the face of how little we know at any given time that saves us from complacency, dogmatism, and self-aggrandizement—failings that mark the death of dialogue and cut us off from saving truths. A man is someone who can listen to others with interest, hear them, feel their predicament, and collaborate with them on solutions; he does not always immediately change the topic of conversation to himself, his achievements, his trials. Narcissism is not manly. Recklessness is not manly. Neither are name-calling or bullying or posturing. A pathological disregard for others is a confession of unmanliness, and what is unmanly can never be made manly through tiresome, arbitrary, neurotically repetitive complaints and protests. The Greeks also had a term for those who exhibited such unmanly qualities, whose petty self-absorption precluded social responsibility and political involvement for the greater good. They called them idiotes.
It should be clear that the ennobling qualities of manhood are the same as those of womanhood, for what we have here is not an issue of gender but of excellence in humanness. To be a man or woman, in the sense that can be trusted to be the “measure of all things,” to safeguard the planet and the future and to consider the interests of all, is first and last to be a person. Without these qualities of character, these virtues, an individual fails the defining test of personhood, and by his or her words and actions betrays that he or she is something less, an arrested psyche with no thinking life and no sense of others, incapable of measuring anything beyond perceived self-interest; a being who reacts impulsively to inner and outer urges, unpredictable, unreliable, a clear and present danger to all.
30 September, 2017
My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity.
| Friedrich Nietzsche
Rooted in the wisdom of the ancient Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium, the Latin term amor fati translates to “love of fate,” or “love of one’s fate.” For the Stoics, this state in which one is in friendly acceptance of fate was the consummate achievement of human life, and the only path to happiness. The logic of this is fairly straightforward. “Fate” comprises all the events over which an individual has no control, events that, as the Stoics describe it, are “indifferent” to the will of man. The “sage” accepts with equanimity every situation, whether it obliges his desires or presents him with the greatest adversity, because no good can come from doing otherwise. To resist what is beyond our control is futile and the greatest ignorance, for it condemns us to suffering, compromises our strength, and squanders our resources.
One might take this to be promoting a kind of enlightened resignation, but the Stoics went further. They proposed that everything that happens unfolds with necessity, and that this necessity, described in some Stoic writings as the causality of Nature, in others as the Will of God, moves with inevitability toward some good if unseen end. To resist any event or situation is to set oneself against the whole, a futile and exhausting stance that cannot be justified in light of the inevitable limitations and fallibility of human vision, knowledge, and understanding. Thus, loving fate, given the necessity with which every event takes its place in the great causal unfolding, implies loving every “indifferent” thing that happens as necessary in the longterm evolution of the greater good. Free will is left intact within this “compatibilist” model, because our choices, while subject to the eternal chain of causes, are themselves proximate causes that are at least to some extent determined by our character. The Stoics described this through the idea that some things are “up to us.” This preserves free will experientially, even if one holds that our character itself is the ineluctable effect of all the causes that brought us forth and made us who we are. Put another way, fate unfolds with necessity through our participation in the causal chain. We do not choose, then, in the sense that we are free to choose otherwise in the moment, but rather because free will, too, is determined. In hindsight, it will turn out that we always choose as necessity dictates, but in the moment, because we do not see the imperatives of that necessity, we have no choice but to choose, and to make the best choice we can, all things considered that are available to us to consider.
There are, of course, any number of objections that could be raised here: How does the Stoic know that life is deterministic, that events occur with necessity? On what does the Stoic base the assumption that, even if one grants the assumption of determinism, the causal sequence has a purpose, let alone a good one? Furthermore, isn’t the compatibilist version of free will really just a clever denial of free will? And if philosophy were nothing more than reason and theory and the sort of endless wrangling one finds in philosophy departments in universities everywhere, such objections might be hard if not impossible to satisfy. But it isn’t. Especially for the ancient Greeks, philosophy was a living thing, a lamp that illuminated one’s life and one’s way. Its value lay not in scholarly proof or polemics but in the degree of happiness and excellence in living conferred by its practice.
The directive to “love one’s fate” has much more to offer us than simply a method for avoiding the pointless, frustrating, and often self-defeating attempt to control or manage circumstances that enter our experience without our permission, affect us greatly as though with a will of their own, and move on only when something greater than our will has spoken the releasing word. If we look more closely at amor fati, we see an invitation and a challenge—to find in the events of our life, however adverse they may be, a meaning that we can embrace and affirm, one for which we even will feel grateful. A practical, if general, example shows how this works. Suppose that something adverse happens to you, something that in the moment you would regard as “bad.” Perhaps it tests your strength, your courage, your resilience—and as a result, you emerge from the experience stronger than you were, or wiser, or more enlightened. Was the adverse event bad? Or was it made good by what you took from it? The answer depends on whether or not you can find it in yourself to love your fate, to find the redeeming value or meaning that reveals the telos of a greater good.
We might allow that this resolve to see the good in even the most daunting adversity makes sense in hindsight. After all, who hasn’t bemoaned some turn of fate only to look back, perhaps years later, and see the diamond that was hiding in the lump of coal? But to do this before the fact? Or during the fact, while under fire? To anticipate and trust that the good is working out when everything is falling from our hands—it seems to be asking too much. It is indeed a great deal to ask of oneself, something the Stoics understood only too well, but it is not too much, because as they saw it, there is nothing in life more worth achieving. The practice of amor fati places in one’s open hand the key to happiness, quickening the ability to meet life and its many challenges with head high, and even to meet death with equanimity and that sanguine expectation that, in the heart of the sage, performs the ultimate alchemy of transmuting suffering and complaint into joy and gratitude.
10 August, 2017
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different
from what any one supposed, and luckier.
| Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
The butterfly doesn’t spring fully formed from the chrysalis immediately, nor the baby from its mother’s womb, nor a deep and abiding love at the first encounter. There is a point, certainly, when “cocooning” has completed its gestation, and life bursts forth into transformed expression—but only after the required time, at the fated hour, after being fashioned by invisible hands that move outside our will. Nowhere is this more evident than during our entrance into and exit from this world. Both birth and death gather the life force at some mysterious center, drawing attention gravitationally into a density only echoed during the many transitions we undergo as we grow and develop, as though in preparation for the implosion into life at the next level. It is humbling and heartbreaking to witness these primal transitions, humbling because we cannot but recognize that we are in the presence of something great, heartbreaking for the sheer magnitude of life gathering itself in readiness for the next iteration. In this sense, birth and death are evolutionary.
Of course, between our birth and our death is all that time in between. Steadied by the progression of the passing years, perhaps mesmerized by it, we soon forget our arrival through the doorway of the sacred, and may spend much of our life denying our inevitable appointment at that same door when breath begins to take its leave, and the unseen hands that prepared us for this world begin preparing us for the next. And yet, we have something to say about this. I mean that we have it within our means, at least somewhat, to remember, to meet the sacred halfway, so to speak, to recognize the mysterious in the everyday. Especially during times of profound transition—falling in love, falling ill, in the crucible of loss, when unnamed rites of passage overtake us—there is the opportunity to deliberately, intentionally enter the cocoon of change and allow mystery to move through us, to carry us along and reshape us. Such moments stand out as quietly momentous. They rewrite the rules and call us to transcend, to open ourselves to something unimagined, and to defer in our marrow to the something greater that has overtaken us.
It is possible, then, for us to “die” consciously, to willingly cooperate in the cocoons of change rather than fight, resist, assert our will, and all the rest of the ways we seem determined to make ourselves miserable. Instead, recognizing that change is at hand, that it has its own direction and timing, we can simply bow, cooperate, allow, move with. This requires a bit of practice in recognizing when it is time to stop doing and turn our attention to being. Conditions may be closing in upon us, like the contractions of birth and death that signal that life is ready, but we are safe in the refuge of having released all concern about outcomes, in trusting, as Rilke writes, that life has us in its hands and will not let us fall.
When we have come to the end of our will, when all further doing refuses to make a difference, every effort has the reverse effect, and our best plans only make things worse, we have a better option: We can bow. And this simple act of humility, of willingly entering the cocoon when it is time in the faith that life knows what it is doing even when we do not, can see us through to the other side.
30 July, 2017
Under the tyranny of erotic love he has permanently become while awake what he used to become occasionally while asleep.
| Socrates, The Republic, Book IX
The ancient Greeks, whose insight into human life arguably far surpasses anything that’s come along since, termed the soul, “psyche”—a word that also denoted “breath,” “self-mover,” and something like “life force.” Our descended form of this word, watered down through the Latin, is associated with the mind and perhaps also more broadly with consciousness, forming the root of such words as psychology and psychiatry, which seek to map, measure, assess, and treat a person’s soul or consciousness. Thus, psychosis, etymologically, refers to a sickness or abnormality of the mind, but in a sense truer to the original, a sickness or abnormality of the soul.
Plato explores this sense of soul sickness at length in Book IX of The Republic, which presents a number of arguments for the Socrates’s claim that the just life is in and of itself good, and that without virtue and a commitment to truth, there can be no true happiness—a position Plato introduces in a more abbreviated form in his dialogue Gorgias, which in this respect anticipates The Republic. One of the most intriguing and useful philosophical ideas we find in both the Gorgias and The Republic points to the close connection between soul and character, indicated by whether a person’s psyche is informed by virtue (arete) or vice (kakos).
One of the insights shared in this analysis is that the tyrant—whether a personal tyrant or, worse, a political tyrant—is tyrannized by his own tyranny, that he is a prisoner of urges and impulses that drive him inexorably toward self-destruction, a slave to a perverse side of love (eros) that drives him into ever deeper states of degeneracy, untruth, abusive and immoral acts, and along with these, isolation, fear, and suffering that can only be understood as a living nightmare. The reason that the political tyrant is worse—and worse off—than the personal tyrant, is that in rising to a position of power, he acquires the resources to indulge the sickness of his soul, the result of which is that he sets fires of resentment all around him, untempered by good judgment or any concern for consequences, even from those in his inner circle, and thus becomes even more isolated, living in constant fear of reprisal for all that he has stolen and all those whom he has exploited and injured along the way. It is a condition of catastrophic soul-disorder that eventually leaves the tyrant stranded in a living hell with no way out.
In the Gorgias, Socrates states that the person who gets away with a crime is actually worse off than the criminal who is caught and punished, since punishment serves as a penance, purging the soul of guilt and to that extent at least, restoring order. We likely all have set foot on the path of pettiness more than once, all had moments of vice or “viciousness” we regret—in our dreams at night or occasional moments when we were, though awake, asleep to our better knowing—but for most of us, there is a remedy that we see proven in philosophical counseling sessions every day, a remedy that becomes available the moment we stop blaming others and own whatever part we have been playing in the problem. Responsibility is never blame, but the creative act of taking back our power to tell the truth and do the right and good thing. Without the willingness to acknowledge and step up to this responsibility, we remain victims, powerless, slaves to the inner tyrant, whose destructive character, in the end, burdened by unbearable weight of its own tyranny, collapses on itself like a dying star.
30 June, 2017
Much has been made lately of the fact that we are supposedly living in a “post-truth” era, one in which science and reason are repudiated as elitist, relativity and subjectivism are the order of the day, and “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “perception management” have become accepted methods of government. George Orwell predicted this ascendency of untruth in his classic novel, 1984, where “doublethink” and “doublespeak” are used to control entire superstate populations. The truth has become whatever those in power say it is. Government surveillance, brainwashing, and torture are routinely used to enforce compliance in this dark dystopia of absolute and ruthless authoritarian rule.
The danger at the root of this hijacking of truth is that those who endorse and practice it are either up to their ears in ignorance or worse, manipulators without character or conscience. There actually exist a group of people who maintain that there is no such thing as truth anymore, that “post-truth” (postmodern, deconstructionist, etc.) thinking has exposed it as an empty concept, one that has been used through the ages to claim authority and wield that authority over the people. The Church is a good example. Before the invention of the printing press, the Church could claim esoteric knowledge of the Bible. Its priests were regarded as the guardians and interpreters of that knowledge, which was inaccessible to the lay person. After Gutenberg and mass printing of the Bible, the source material became widely available. The caste of priests no longer was the exclusive keeper of the sacred keys, and the Protestant Reformation was one of the more noteworthy results.
Ironically, in the so-called post-truth era, those in power seem to be bent on the same purpose as the erstwhile “truth on high” proponents, but this time the aim is to acquire and consolidate power through the denial that there is any such thing as truth at all. In Orwellian fashion, “the truth” becomes whatever they wish it to be, which is to say, whatever serves their Machiavellian interests—and who is there to question them once they have seized control of the levers of personal propaganda, promulgated largely through social media outlets? The truth can be revised or reversed in 140 characters through simple declaration, no evidence required. What was claimed as true yesterday can be denied tomorrow, because there are enough people who look to these outlets for their understanding of what is true and what is not to add up to an electoral majority. In this way, the Internet, like Gutenberg’s “Bible for everyone,” has made information available instantly on an unprecedented scale, and though this time the rhetoric involves the denial of truth rather than the sequestering of it, the effect is the same—the consolidation of power and manipulation by the few of those whose discernment requires nothing more than 140 characters.
Even a cursory examination makes clear that anyone who seriously holds that there is no longer any such thing as truth is snared in a fatal contradiction, since the position amounts to claiming that the proposition, “there is no truth,” is true. In this sense, the term “post-truth” is a contradiction. In reality, however, “post-truth” adherents don’t wish to deny the idea of truth entirely; rather, their aim is to weaken its epistemological status in order to sell their brand of it to buyers who are too gullible or ignorant or lazy to fact check, and to attack any truth, however well substantiated by evidence, that threatens their interests. “Post-truth” comes down to selfishness on a grand scale. When it rises to political power, it is particularly dangerous, and should be called out of every shadow in which it tries to hide.
Truth has ontological standing. This means that “the truth” is grounded in Being, in what is. If I ask you to tell me the truth about something, I’m asking you to tell me what is, not what isn’t. Telling me what isn’t, when it’s deliberate, is lying, and no lie is made true simply in the claim that it is true, no matter how many times one tweets the lie. What is true has the authority of Being behind it; what is untrue invariably proves to be unsupportable and so, unsustainable. Five hundred years before Christ, Lao tze put it like this: “What goes against the Way comes to an early end.”
The incessant drama of the political situation here in the United States over the past months bears witness to an Orwellian attempt to distort, misrepresent, manipulate, evade, and recreate the truth in the image of those who have come to power, or those who, through complicity and a lack of character and ethical gumption, have stood by silently while the truth was manhandled and cast aside. They have set themselves against Being, and so much the worse for them when the “alternative facts” begin to unravel. Whatever the extent to which we either are committed to a thinking life, good character, and truthfulness or in flight from these honorable practices, one thing is certain: We live on the same earth and will suffer the same consequences. What is, is. We do not change what is by insisting that it is otherwise, or by denying it. This is one of the great achievements of science, viz., to take knowledge beyond the confines of superstitious thinking and test possible truths against Being to see if they hold up. When we abandon the truth, we are abandoning Being, and may expect that, before long, Being will return the favor.
28 May, 2017
So, this guy goes to a psychiatrist to get some help with his romantic life, which never seems to go well. The psychiatrist holds up a picture of a rectangle and asks the fellow what he sees. “That’s a window,” he says, “and there are two people in there having wild and crazy sex.” The psychiatrist then holds up a picture of a triangle and asks the man what he sees there. “That’s a keyhole,” is the reply, “and boy are they having wild and crazy sex in there.” Finally, the psychiatrist shows him a picture of a circle and asks, “And here?” The man studies it for a moment, then says, “That’s a porthole—and the people in the cabin are having wild and crazy sex.” Putting down the cards, the psychiatrist declares, “Well, I’ve heard enough. I can tell you without doubt that you’re sexually preoccupied.” “I’m sexually preoccupied?” the man replies. “They’re your dirty pictures.”
Funny joke. Not so funny when this sort of thing shows up in a real counseling session. Ideally, as we mature, we learn where we end and others begin. It’s a question of the boundaries of self. Seems simple enough. Yet many miss this crucial developmental advance, and end up caught in mazes of disowned responsibility, projection, blame-shifting, denial, exaggeration of the will, victimhood, excessive or otherwise inappropriate expectations of others, overreaction, and many other forms of what the ancient Greeks understood as a “disordered soul.”
There’s a philosophical term for this sort of failure to recognize the boundaries of self, that psychic demarcation where self ends and others begin. It’s called solipsism. According to the solipsistic position, “I alone am real.” Others are mere projections, figments of my consciousness, characters in my private play. While solipsism sounds bizarre on the face of it (and turns out to be self-contradictory), it is a position that has been to a great degree promoted by postmodern thinking, which has “deconstructed” truth into something subjective and relativistic. The doctrine of idealism, which has its roots in Platonic thought, became the central problem of modern philosophy, captured in Descartes’s famous, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), and running through Berkeley, Hume, and Kant who, like the ancient Greek Protagoras, argued that “man is the measure of all things,” leading inevitably to the conclusion that what we call reality, and always have taken to be objectively “out there” in the world, existing independently of us, is an organized collection of sensory and thus empirical impressions—as far as we can know, made up of nothing more than the contents of our own consciousness, and thus having no identifiable “objective” or independent existence. Indeed, what else could we know but our own sensory data? There appears to be no escape from the “subjective predicament,” as it’s been called. Any reality, by definition, must be someone’s. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no experiencer present, we’re forced to conclude not only that the tree didn’t make a sound, but that there was no tree to fall. “Falling tree,” like the term “sound,” describes a certain kind of experience. “No experiencer” is a special condition that vetoes even hypothetical experience, since all experience, by definition, presupposes an experiencer, or if you prefer, a point of view.
This is not just semantics. It’s a philosophical Gordian knot that has far-reaching implications for every area of our understanding from quantum mechanics to what it means to love someone. In the subjectified world, “other” is reduced to the set of one’s reactions—in other words, otherness is denied. The complaint, “You made me angry,” serves to illustrate how this works. In such a charge, the plaintiff has projected his or her painful reactions onto another in a disowning of responsibility that seems to justify the accusation. In the denial of other, however, notice that the self also is denied, for “you made me angry” exports our authority and in doing so, forfeits the power we have to make choices about our inner life, reactions included. “They’re your dirty pictures” may be convincing to the subjectivist, but the stance comes at an extortionate price, robbing us not only of real others but also of our power to reinvent ourselves, to learn, to improve. When there is no standard for acknowledging a truth beyond our current view, there is nothing to call us to be more, to grow, to evolve. We can’t stand on subjective ground alone, or it soon becomes quicksand. Therein may lie the hope of our age. At some point, the reality of otherness must be acknowledged, in all its mystery, existing in its own right beyond our perceptions, preconceptions, stories, and projections. As Martin Buber tell us, reality in its fullest sense is discovered in the encounter between I and Thou.
We can begin to apply this in little ways that can make a big difference simply by slowing down and being willing to suspend judgments and conclusions, especially those that indict others in favor of taking responsibility for our reactions. No one can “make us mad” without our permission. The unwillingness to accept responsibility for our subjective states no doubt has ended many marriages and friendships that otherwise might have flourished. Everyone is carrying a burden, how great a burden, who can say? As Hesse writes, “To each his lot, and none is light.” If we take a moment to look at a situation through the eyes of another, we may be less inclined to condemn. To be sure, denying our inner experience can be as destructive, and at the end of the day, misappropriating responsibility, enabling, and willfully struggling to accept the unacceptable are no more sustainable than denial, projection, and exporting authority. It is, as always, a matter of balancing complementary truths. And this, as it turns out, is a matter of taking a moment to consider where the boundary lies between self and other. That moment can be an investment that pays priceless dividends.
23 April, 2017