PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys
PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Architects of Tragedy

Architects of Tragedy

Ancient Greek philosophy is a trove of wisdom and insight into human nature that stands unrivaled in the long march of history since. The truth of this prompted Alfred North Whitehead to remark that all of European philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of all human failings, the Greeks regarded hubris as the most heinous and dangerous—especially hubris before the gods, those dialectically governing forces that lie outside the control of our will, erupting into our experience and determining our fate as though with a will of their own. Any man or woman who exaggerates his or her will, refusing to recognize such forces and defer to their greater authority, becomes an architect of tragic outcomes that at some point are inescapable. Sophocles’s perennial play, Oedipus Rex, in dramatizing this vital piece of instruction, placed posterity on notice that the only safe path is the path of humility in the face of how little we can control or even anticipate the great unfolding of causes and consequences.

Over and against the wisdom of acknowledging and living in humble cooperation with the limits of human will is the modern “post-truth” view. In a world where relativism and subjectivity have achieved a kind of stolen primacy, nothing is true anymore in the old sense. The warning of the Greeks recedes into one position among many, all equally true or false, since those terms no longer have any meaning, and the only thing regarded as ultimately true is relativism itself. It doesn’t take a graduate degree in philosophy to recognize that in asserting itself to be true, relativism becomes self-contradictory, and thus is no longer a “position” at all, since the only way that relativism can avoid this fatal mistake is to admit that its own central claim is only relatively true, and that the non-relativist view of truth is equally true, at which point the conversation falls into nonsense.

The mythical king Oedipus had his day. Every dog does, as the saying goes. But the Greeks knew that there are subtle forces at play in every life—call them “the gods,” or “chaos theory” or anything you please—that no man can elude forever, however infatuated with his will he may be. Most importantly, the Greeks knew that these forces somehow play out according to a person’s character or lack thereof, such that our fate is a lever balanced on the fulcrum of our hubris or humility. “A man’s character,” writes Heraclitus, “is his fate.”

Sadly, there are those who have risen to positions of political power in the U.S. on the crest of runaway hubris, men and women who would have us believe that any revelation of truth that exposes them is “fake news.” Demonstrating little if any interest in learning the lessons of even their own history let alone those of the ancients, they protest their innocence while indictments are being handed down and the seeds of tragedy they have planted for themselves have begun to take root and germinate. They posture and bully and dissemble and retaliate against every slight, turn on those who have the courage to stand up to them, defend the indefensible, and in all ways blithely assert their will as though there is no truth moving behind the scenes, in the shadows, biding its time. Such individuals, whatever their rank or title, are the architects of tragedy. At the end of even the longest day, they are fated to learn the lesson buried two millennia ago in the sands of Athens, the terrible lesson learned by Oedipus, who was king for a short time.

30 October, 2017

To Be A Man

Not for ourselves alone are we born.
| Cicero

To Be A Man

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

Amor Fati

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

Amor Fati

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

Cocoons of Change

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different
from what any one supposed, and luckier.
| Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Cocoons of Change

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

Soul Tyranny

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

Soul Tyranny

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

The Fiction of “Post-Truth”

The Fiction of

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

A Question of Boundaries

A Question of Boundaries

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

Stillness

It can be more effective to accomplish what you need to accomplish with the minimum effort. Watch Anthony Hopkins. He doesn’t appear to be doing anything. He is so still that you can’t see him working, but you are drawn into his character through his very stillness.

| Morgan Freeman

Stillness

In the 19th century, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “What our age lacks is not reflection but passion.” Today, we might say that what our age lacks is stillness. With knowledge now doubling every year, the sheer pace of modern life has accelerated to the point that we may rarely slow down and take the moment required to retrieve stillness and return to the misplaced present. Air travel, ever faster microchips and computing devices, overnight delivery and near instant access to information literally at our fingertips, the knee-jerk culture of social media, and the supplanting of real community with unknown others who can become our “friends” with a click—all have created an existential cacophony, and the inherent stillness of things is lost in the shuffle.

Why is this furious acceleration of human life so important, and so detrimental? Because there is an intimate connection between pace and awareness. The faster we go, the farther we stray from the present, which isn’t fast at all, because it never goes anywhere, The present simply is. Often, in philosophical counseling sessions, the first thing I do is invite the client to slow down. Speedy client narratives invariably signal a flight from the present, usually to escape some uncomfortable or difficult truth. Put another way, speediness can be a form of denial. For some clients, the willingness simply to slow down and come back to present awareness is half the work. Here is another essential equation: The more awareness slows down, the more it expands. To achieve “cosmic consciousness,” the yogi must enter descending states of stillness in which brainwave activity slows measurably from beta to alpha, then theta and even delta, and perhaps states of yet deeper stillness that elude measurement. The more we slow down, the less we miss, the more inclusive our awareness becomes. The blur of living always for the next moment and the next and the next is brought into sharp focus, and we may feel that we’re seeing things as they are for the first time.

This is not something that the mind can grasp or appreciate except in principle. One has to experience it for oneself. Awareness is a great mystery; it permeates and surrounds us, yet we may ignore it for a lifetime. To explore this mystery, as we have said, we must slow down, recall ourselves, as it were, from the speed and distractions of modern life, and enter our native state of stillness. In this state, we become aware of awareness itself as the medium or “horizon” within which all phenomena exist in time and space. If these phenomena are thought of as musical notes making up, say, a symphony, then awareness is the stillness between the notes, the momentary pauses that pervade the instrumental piece, without which music could not exist. In other words, the musical notes ride on a medium of stillness; it is not the other way around. Stillness is fundamental, not only to music, but to the entire cosmos world and every manifest thing, including ourselves. When we return to stillness, we return to our origins. In stillness, we come home to ourselves.

Socrates tells us that philosophy begins with wonder, and wonder is rooted in stillness. Note here that stillness is not the same as silence. We can be still without being silent and silent without being still. Rather, stillness is a unique state in which awareness, aware of itself, opens up in the living present until it recognizes itself as encompassing all that exists, as the horizon of being. The experience is characterized by a sense of expanding, and this sense of expanding is inherently joyful, as though life, having come full circle, is happy to be alive.

Practicing stillness grounds us in the living present, transforming us at the deepest levels of our being. Many benefits obtain as a result. Energetic imbalances in mind and body resolve, old emotional wounds are spontaneously healed without the need to consult the mind, the body releases its various holdings and relaxes into being-here, circumstances lose their ability to throw us off-center, and we may find work, sleep, digestion, and many other areas of life improved or enhanced. Even the fear of death can be mitigated by the experience of horizon awareness, within which we can sense that we are something far greater than the body. It is a consummate paradox that the happiness we may chase all our life in this or that set of worldly conditions is hiding in the stillness that abides at the center of each of us, awaiting our recognition and homecoming.

31 March, 2017

True Living in the “Post-Truth” World

True Living

“Truth is high, but even higher is true living,” according to one spiritual teacher from the East. Nowadays, in the madhouse rush of our so-called post-truth world, with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” with social media shaping politics and trivializing what it means to communicate, and every personal reaction no matter how thoughtless or hateful or banal stealing its fifteen minutes (or 140 characters) of “fame,” we might wonder what a term such as “true living” can mean. Questions of this sort generally have been left to philosophy to ponder, the worldly being disinclined to take them seriously. During my days at university, when business majors and others would ask what I was studying, the answer typically earned wry smiles and patronizing looks. “Philosophy? What can you do with that?” Heidegger, it seemed to me, had answered this best, suggesting that we can’t do anything with philosophy, but that if we let it, perhaps philosophy can do something with us. The golden opportunity to study inspiring subjects with gifted professors seemed far too important to reduce to the business of earning a living. And then there was the more fundamental matter of how to live, of what our lives meant and could mean, of what was required to live well, to live skillfully and creatively and deliberately, so that our lives might count for something, even if only in the private reckoning of our own values. But such things were the fanciful concerns of humanities majors, and of little interest to those for whom a thinking life had no projectionable cash value.

True living must mean living in agreement with what is true, but for the ancient Greeks, what was true was inseparable from what was good and beautiful, as these three were regarded as aspects of the same eternal standard. For them, living truly involved a certain skill in practical matters, and eventually even a virtuosity in living they called phronesis. Even today, over two millennia later, this standard holds up, such that if we lived by its light, our living would be transformed into a work of art. Phronesis seeks to serve the greater good, is self-possessed, picks its battles, recognizes and cooperates with the timing of things, is not rash or reactive, moves with rather than against conditions, is humble in knowledge and willing to learn, and so on.

Sadly, the art of true living prized by the ancients appears to be a lost art. Sullied by rampant relativity and an infatuation with the subjective and the momentary promoted by personal technology and social media that borders on the narcissistic, we seem to have lost that faculty that lets us know when something is true or not, and in this, the standards of beauty and goodness have fallen from our hands, as well. We eagerly adopt, upgrade, and bring into our homes technological gadgets without taking even a moment to consider whether or not they are good for us. Convenience is allowed to trump privacy to the point that our “smart” devices seem to be smarter than we are. We engage each other less, relying instead on virtual surrogates. We get out of our chairs and off our couches less. Consequently, we move less, breathe less, experience less. If we want to know something, instead of researching and investigating it and testing it, we simply “Google” it or look it up in Wikipedia, both of which are designed to provide quick answers, not necessarily true ones. Prejudiced by algorithms that rate search returns by popularity rather than truth, goodness, or beauty, Google establishes a truthless reality as the new standard for modern life. Wikipedia entries can be posted and edited by anyone, qualified or not. In a world where everything and anything can be “true,” facts can be “alternative,” dissenting journalism can be dismissed as “fake,” and scientific and rational evidence are derided and rejected out of hand, there is no compass heading and no way to avoid the paralyzing effects of nihilism, for if everything and anything can be true, then nothing is true. We can make the truth whatever we wish it to be, and who is to refute us?

It may be hard for us to wake ourselves from the dream of relativity and subjectivism sufficiently to retrieve a sense of what the truth, apart from conflicting opinions about it, might be. And this is where the statement cited at the beginning of this piece becomes central, perhaps even saving. “Truth is high, but even higher is true living.” Plug this into the Greek equation, and a glimmer of light appears on the horizon that can guide us back to a sustainable way of being, for the qualities of true living are always beautiful and good, and in these matters, we need no one to instruct us, for the voice of the beautiful and the good, and so, of the true, lives within us. The Greeks called it the daimon, and regarded it as a divine presence placed in each person by the gods to guide him on his life’s journey.

Does anyone doubt that the qualities of courage, generosity of spirit, fairness in dealing with others, compassion, kindness, humility, and the willingness to empathize with others are good and beautiful? Will anyone, even in the age of subjectivity, seriously deny that cowardice, pettiness and selfishness, cheating or exploiting others for personal gain, mean-spiritedness, indifference to the suffering of others, vindictiveness, self-aggrandizement, hatred, and cruelty are ugly and destructive? The light on the horizon soon expands into a beacon: There is no truth in adhering to principles that hurt others. People are more important than principles, as one professor of mine told me many years ago—a truth that true living never forgets, among others.

In the Gorgias, Socrates tells us that the truth cannot be refuted. The statement is practically a definition. Put another way, the truth endures. For this reason, it—and it alone—is sustainable. If we do the philosophical math here, we find it adds up to an inescapable conclusion: We may continue living only insofar as we live truly, which is to say, in agreement with the truth. No amount of relativistic reductionism or subjective cleverness can overtake the truth for long. What is, is. Whatever sets itself against the truth—and so, inevitably, the good and the beautiful, as Lao Tze states in the Tao Te Ching, “comes to an early end.” We did not create this world or ourselves; we do not create what is true, but what is true abides, and abides in the beautiful and the good. There is, as the Greeks knew in a wisdom we would be wise to retrieve at this late hour of history, no other refuge for humankind.

26 February, 2017

Our Own Worst Enemy

Our Own Worst Enemy

One of the most remarkable things I see as a philosophical counselor is the zeal with which clients sometimes argue for their limitations. The work can run deep, so it’s not surprising that during the course of the philosophical conversation, we hit pockets of turbulence. Change can be challenging, and acknowledging a long-held contradiction or a truth denied can take more than a little courage. As a rule, the client comes to the session with sufficient willingness to move through to resolution, but not always. Sometimes, unexpectedly, a client will start defending some belief, assumption, or construct that is working against him. It can be a startling experience for the counselor, who relies on the client’s willingness to move into and through the dialectical arc to a higher vantage. One of the things that makes this sensitive is that it is the counselor’s primary responsibility to identify, call out, and deconstruct the contradictions and false opinions that lie at the root of the client’s suffering. The process is rarely head-on and always respectful. When a client’s contradiction grabs the mic and takes the session hostage, the philosophical counselor may be at a loss as to how to proceed.

Philosophical counseling is an educational rather than therapeutic process. It seeks not to treat but to illuminate. The assumptions grounding the method are that the client is 1) a free and responsible agent, 2) capable of recognizing the truth even when it is inconvenient if not daunting, and 3) both willing and able to make choices according to his or her own better knowing. It is a proven and effective method, often life-changing, due to the indubitable power of the truth to set us free, even if only through disabusing us of error. The philosophical counselor, through Socratic engagement, helps to unpack elements of the client’s belief system that are rooted either in contradiction or in some misguided belief, assumption, paradigm, conclusion, stance, or story. Almost without exception, clients demonstrate the courage and willingness needed to complete the dialectical transcendence and “break through” to a liberating re-vision of their situation, and centrally, of their participation in it. Such re-visioning implies and facilitates new choices that leave suffering behind. All of this occurs within the framework of a collaboration between counselor and client. Because the work can be deep and highly charged, however, philosophical counseling sessions leave the door ajar to some of the same dynamics that may slip in to more therapeutic models, viz., projection, transference, and projective identification. So, the client may project emotions onto the philosophical counselor, e.g., when a client harboring disowned feelings of anger experiences the counselor as angry; or may transfer feelings onto the counselor, e.g., when a client grieving the loss of a romantic partnership mistakes the counselor’s attention or empathy for romantic interest; or may projectively identify, unwittingly “placing into” the counselor some bit of unfinished business the client does not know how to resolve, e.g., when a client who refuses to call others on irresponsible behavior shows up in in session irresponsibly in order to observe how the counselor deals with it, and by observing this, to learn how to deal with it himself.

It takes a good bit of experience, intuitive alertness, and skill for the philosophical counselor to recognize when such dynamics have entered the dialogue. The best response varies, of course. The counselor whose client is projectively identifying, for example, may accept the projection and role-play a solution, which the client is then free to accept or reject. On the other hand, the more productive direction may be to point out to the client what he or she is doing, refuse the projection, and work directly on the core issue together. Transference usually resolves as the work progresses; projection almost always needs to be called out. In all cases, however, the counselor fails the client if he allows any narrative defending what needs to be deconstructed and transcended to go on for too long. The effect of a protracted client monologue on what “doesn’t work” amounts to a kind of filibustering that can run out the clock, postponing self-work and its immeasurable benefits.

In such cases, it is the philosophical counselor’s duty, at some point, to interrupt the client’s narrative, which may take on a relentless, stream-of-consciousness quality that seems all but designed to keep the counselor from getting a word in. No one likes to be interrupted, of course, least of all clients arguing for a highly charged limitation, but it is not the counselor’s job to give audience to untruth, nor to allow the client’s fear or commitment to a false or contradicted belief to use up the allotted time. It doesn’t seem to me that any counselor worthy of the title will collude with a client who, lost in immersion, seems more committed to being right than being happy.

It is useful, in general terms, to be aware that we may slip into a narrative, inner or outer, that seeks to make a case for ways of being that hold us back, deny our better understanding, and perpetuate our distress. Getting “under” such a narrative requires a profound honesty and teachability. But the fact that we can be our own worst enemy should be sobering for us all.

The first of Aristotle’s three “laws of thought,” the law of identity, tells us that “x equals x.” The second, the law of noncontradiction, tells us that “x never equals not-x.” These equations seem so obvious. one wonders why Aristotle felt the need to state them. And yet, in every philosophical counseling session, it comes down to this—to helping the client sort out “x” from “not-x,” and stop confusing or conflating them. Even when the cost of coming back to the truth is high, it is never as high as the cost of staying immersed in contradiction, false opinion, and suffering.

30 January, 2017