The ancient Greeks regarded the Good, along with Truth and Beauty, as attributes of the divine. Like three facets of a diamond, these qualities belonged to each other, a philosophical view that led to the development of the “virtue ethics” of Socrates and later, the Stoics, and to the Greek ideal of phronesis—a term that denoted living one’s life with the sort of practical wisdom that imbues it with the beauty we might associate with a work of art. To this day, the values of goodness and truth inhere in our sense of what it means to live well, and even those who seem tone deaf to the virtues espoused by the Greeks such as humility, courage, temperance, social responsibility, and so on—most notably those in positions of political power and influence—do so under cover of lies and dissembling, thus confessing that at some level, even they are aware that it is prudent to at least give the appearance of acting in service to the good. The truth, however, is not so easily cast aside, for hubris, lies, and hypocrisy have a bad smell that cannot be concealed for long. This is the lesson brought home by the great Greek tragedies. Those who foolishly exaggerate the power of their will and flout what is true and good and beautiful unwittingly create a culture of ugliness that eventually turns on and destroys itself.
For many of us, good never seems to be good enough. The saying, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet,” reminds us to be grateful for the good that is ours. Without a measure of such gratitude, we may find ourselves chasing happiness, believing it to be ever somewhere else, and squander our days missing the sometimes transforming truth that there already is much in our lives that is good and beautiful. Remembering to appreciate the good that life has brought to us is indispensable to living well, a gem of wisdom that led the 13th century mystic Meister Elkhart to declare, “If your only prayer were ‘thank you,’ it would be sufficient.” Along these lines, Voltaire offers this cautionary observation: “Better is the enemy of good.”
Of course, good is also the enemy of better. This has to do with the downside of comfort zones, becoming complacent, settling for the merely acceptable, and so on. Life evolves. It seeks to become more, express more, find new forms, and if it were not for this ontological restlessness that drives and prods and reaches for the stars, we might all be blue green algae swimming about in a stagnant primordial pool. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for,” Browning reminds us. So, there is a balance between gratitude and striving, between the truthful acknowledgment of all we have accomplished and the gravitational pull of our dreams. Phronesis discerns and lives this balance, so that we never allow our contentment to make us complacent, nor our desire for more to make us victims of ingratitude.
I often work with clients who haven’t yet arrived at this discernment. Struggling with a decision to move to a new city, quit a job, end a relationship, or make some other big change, they bring to the session a list of reasons that make their current situation wrong—as though one has to condemn where one is standing in order to move to higher ground. It hasn’t occurred to them that they can appreciate where they are, be grateful for what it has brought them and taught them, see its value in the longer arc of the story of their life, and either make the change or not from a place of willingness and nonresistance. It is possible to move to a new city or job without hating the old one, to leave behind a situation that one has outgrown with a sense of appreciation for how it served. Good and better don’t have to be enemies.
As with so many aspects of phronesis, this comes down to a matter of moving with the currents of experience rather than against them—in this case, with both our present situation and the natural tension that calls us to be, achieve, and realize more. The living present doesn’t stand still; it moves on, urging us to follow, to strive naturally, not chasing anything but simply allowing, following, and trusting the inner imperative to evolve—in these choices, good and better converge, rekindling the enthusiasm of youth and illuminating the path of human flourishing.
25 May, 2019
Spring is springing again in the northern hemisphere as though bearing perennial witness to renewal. Here in Gainesville, azaleas and impatiens are blossoming, while redbud and dogwood trees fill the air with color and a heady fragrance, inducing a recollection of the insistence of life that had lain dormant during the long months of cold weather when Nature seemed to be holding her breath, waiting for the sun to reach the point along the ecliptic that crosses the celestial equator. Life on planet Earth is governed by such events, cosmic timings that operate with the precision and inevitability of clockwork, but which may go largely unnoticed until their effects rise to meet us, and we remember once more the power and beauty of all we take for granted here.
This week, I observed the same principle moving through the microcosm of a counseling session. The client came to the call lost in the dismal winter of a problem that seemed irremediable. He had looked at the situation from every angle, and there simply was no way out. Yet it was clear to me that this sense of hopelessness was a function not of the facts but of the beliefs and assumptions in which the client was immersed. Philosophical counseling is dialectical. This means two things. First, it means that the problem in which a client may feel stuck contains within itself the seed of its own resolution. Under the right conditions—those provided by philosophical counseling—that seed can burst forth suddenly into something surprisingly beautiful and liberating. Second, it means that in order for this to happen, the client must be willing to question beliefs and assumptions that seem so obviously true that it might never occur to the client to question them. In other words, the problem can’t be solved at the level of the problem. A transcendence to a higher perspective is required, one that exposes the client’s unwitting participation in creating or perpetuating his or her own suffering. It is not unlike solving a problem in a dream by waking up. As with all processes, this is a matter of timing. We can’t wake up before we’re ready. Once we start waking up, however, we can’t entirely go back to sleep. So we do the work, patiently, exploring the client’s beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, paradigms, and values, and trust that regardless of how bleak things may appear, spring is on the way.
The message of the season is clear. The unfathomable intelligence that set the planets spinning in their orbits, that ignited the sun and scheduled the seasons cannot be thwarted by human hubris. We may be convinced that our situation is irremediable, that there is no solution because we cannot see one. Yet there is always more than we can see. Some relief can be found immediately simply by acknowledging that humbling truth. However lost we may feel, life can find us. There is no situation that lies beyond the power of renewal that is coded into the very stars. The most important thing is to stay open to something unexpected, a new way of looking at things that revises our understanding, the courage to take responsibility we did not know we had denied or overlooked, a little curiosity, an experimental faith in something greater than our will. We are no less a part of the season than the flowers and trees, which in their natural wisdom, offer no resistance to the hands that fashioned them. The same force that renews them can renew us, provided we are willing.
27 April, 2019
Philosophy at its best is natural. It takes place with friends over coffee, provided the friends are the sort who are unflaggingly truthful with each other, who empathize with and encourage and support each other in shedding false opinions and contradictions, none of which requires formal training in philosophy as an academic discipline. In practicing this sort of “philosophy in the marketplace,” as the ancient Greeks did, two qualities are needed: love and courage. Love here refers to the love of wisdom, the very meaning of the word philosophy, and love of the truth beyond one’s beliefs, opinions, conclusions, assumptions, and other holdings. Courage is needed because the truth often calls us out of the familiar into an unanticipated perspective, with no compass heading but the better knowing that lies buried in the depths of us patiently waiting to be unearthed. Socrates describes the process as “recollection,” suggesting that we are already in possession of the truth we seek, but, as he puts it, “possess it in forgetfulness.” The medium of such discovery is dialogue. A trusted friend who, having our best interests at heart, is willing to meet us in dialogue and hold up the mirror is an invaluable resource.
If the truth sets us free, it follows that if we aren’t free, then there must be some truth we haven’t acknowledged. Usually this is because facing the truth lays a claim on us. It calls us to step up, speak up, and bring our outer life into agreement with our inner life. This may mean admitting something we’ve been denying, saying no where we’ve been saying yes or yes where we’ve been too intimidated to say no, taking a chance on ourselves, letting go, moving on, and so on. Whatever the truth requires, we cannot be set against it and flourish.
As a philosophical counselor, I often feel like a professional friend to my clients. My formal training in philosophy gives me a wealth of inspired ideas, memorable quotes, illuminating metaphors, and stories that encourage recollection, but at the end of the day, I know that philosophical conversation does not depend on formal training, and that whatever talent I may have for doing this work comes from the same fascination with the hidden side of things that informed my childhood, and the fact that I’ve been privileged to live as long as I have, which has given me time to develop a certain nose for the truth and the many ingenious ways we humans have for avoiding it. My role is the same as the role of any friend who recognizes that our evolution requires our participation, and is willing to engage others in dialogue in order to reflect back to them the choices and belief commitments they’ve made, often unwittingly, that are set against their innate wisdom. Philosophy at its best happens naturally whenever two or more sit down together to be present to each other, to listen closely, question the obvious, and call out anything that doesn’t add up. With a friend such as that, wisdom can be had for the price of a cup of coffee.
30 March, 2019
As a philosophical counselor, I work with many clients who are living as victims, who view every setback as a commentary on their life, who take it personally when things don’t go their way, who walk around expecting to be mistreated or wronged, who believe that life or the universe or fate has singled them out for misfortune. The odd thing is, as they talk about their experiences, they seem to be right. In many cases, bad luck appears to be dogging them, testing them to their limits, making their life miserable at every turn. Relationships, finances, health—it’s one thing after another, and they wonder what they’re doing wrong, and how they can change the sad and demoralizing story in which they feel trapped.
There are giveaways in the narrative. Those who adopt the victim stance don’t describe an adverse experience as “this,” but as “this, too” or “this, again.” Because they keep score, with every loss or setback, they bear the accumulated burden of all losses, all setbacks. Pain is never merely pain, for they suffer their pain acutely. They will recount another’s hurtful act as though it were personal, its effect premeditated—not “she did this,” but “she did this to me.” Overreaction and a readiness to feel put upon are the hallmarks of such a stance. Keys drop from their hands, machines fail, even traffic lights conspire against them. In moments of clarity, they realize they are their own worst enemy, that the hands about their throat are their own, but they see no way to gain access to the levers of choice, particularly in the heat of the moment when life is once again proving their most pessimistic assumptions. Sound familiar?
This tendency to take things personally is usually a sign of arrested development at an early age. Young children have a talent for believing that everything is about them, their responsibility, their fault. Because they have not yet developed a healthy will complete with boundaries, a sense of limitations, and the understanding that some gratifications have to be delayed, they feel entitled to have what they want when they want it, and feel aggrieved when things for one reason or another don’t go their way. Clients who are developmentally stuck in this stage need a way to resume their stalled development and grow up—and in far less time than it takes normally. They begin to shift out of victimhood and into a more spacious life when they accept that events are not personal, that no one wins all the time, that what looks like a loss or setback in the moment often turns out to have been good fortune in disguise, that as nothing in the great run-on sentence of our life is a conclusion, we do well to stop punctuating it with periods and exclamation marks that do nothing but ensure our misery.
A friend of mine once shared something she had heard: “When we’re 20, we care a great deal what others think of us. At 30, we don’t care as much what others think of us. At 40, we don’t care at all what others think of us, and at 50, we realize others aren’t thinking of us.” It may be in our nature to take things personally, to adjudge ourselves innocent for the same acts that we deem malicious when committed by others. We are all far more blameless than we may allow when we are living in the constricting coils of victimhood. Life may have brought us pain, and will again. When it does, it is saving to remember that we can choose to feel our pain without suffering it or carrying it forward, to acknowledge a hurtful moment, a loss, a setback without building a house there. Then, “this, too” or “this, again” can be just “this.” “She did this to me” can be “she did this,” nothing more, nothing worse.
What we dwell on, we dwell in. The ancient Stoics regarded the forces of fate and circumstance as “indifferent” to us, and advised us to meet them with the same indifference. One does not need to do this for long to see the wisdom in it.
28 February, 2019
Much of the work we do at PhilosophyCenter, both self-work and with clients in session, comes down to practicing the Socratic art of exposing and deconstructing “false opinion,” sometimes also referred to in Plato’s dialogues as “false knowledge” and even “false conceit of knowledge” in the Apology. This is because so much suffering is rooted in our being convinced that we know something that, in truth, we only think we know, something that upon careful and diligent examination, turns out to be what Socrates describes as a “wind baby,” a notion without substance. We suffer because we’ve given ourselves to false beliefs, and because we cling to them and are loathe to defer to the remedial truth that, in order to set us free, first must prove us wrong.
This is something a philosophical counselor or coach has to understand and approach with empathy and respect. Old beliefs die hard. It isn’t just a matter of our not wanting to be caught in an error or look bad. Beliefs are like living structures in the psyche as surely as nerves and vessels are living structures in the body. They become so much a part of us that letting go of a false opinion may be experienced as losing a part of who we are, and the greater the investment, charge, and identification, the greater the sense of loss. It takes character and not a little courage to care more about the truth than about one’s opinions, to be willing to give birth to a new understanding, and accept the mantle of responsibility that a new belief lays upon us.
Sometimes the opinion that turns out to be false, to have been false, involves spiritual or existential identity. It can change our view of partnership, disrupt longstanding unexamined assumptions about what matters, or revise our self-definition. In philosophical dialogue, there are no sacred cows; any belief that has become problematic, that is no longer working or has set us against the ineluctable truths of living, is fair game. It’s no wonder that even those who feel drawn to philosophical self-work often hit pockets of turbulence that may leave them feeling off-balance and uncertain about who they are and where to go next. A false opinion, caught in the dazzling light of Socratic scrutiny, may fall apart with no new and improved belief at the ready to replace it. When this happens it is helpful to remember that along the path of the examined life, there are times to not know, natural stretches of uncertainty out of which, in an unexpected hour, a new sense of self and world emerges as though from a chrysalis, one made lighter by having shed the lead weights of false opinion. We don’t have to know everything every moment. Becoming more aware has tides and seasons, cycles of ebb and flow that can be as daunting as they are rewarding. As a rule, however, the most daunting periods, those in which one feels lost or rudderless or beside oneself, are harbingers of epiphany, spontaneous insight, and liberating realization. To find buried treasure, one must dig deeply. In our experience, the treasure is always there to be found. All that’s required is that one love the truth more than one’s opinions, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sooner or later, life rewards the willingness to be more than we have been. And it is far better to be wrong and free than to live in a prison of complacency, however familiar it may have become.
For those who have the requisite love for the truth and the courage needed to venture into the unknown, the trappings of belief that as a rule are acquired in childhood fall away. In each new encounter with the truth, one sheds these old skins, becoming more defenseless and less encumbered, and it is a humbling paradox that we become wiser largely in knowing how little we know.
24 January, 2019
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
| Alexander Pope, An Essay On Criticism
As the headlines each day confirm the increasingly damaging impact of climate change, only the most ignorant and complacent of us still refuse to acknowledge that the consequences of what passes for human civilization may be moving us toward the brink of global catastrophe, perhaps extinction. It is not the first time that we, as a species, have been summoned to confront what we have created. If Oppenheimer, Feynman, Szilard, Fermi, Bethe, and the others responsible for the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos had considered the longterm consequences of what they were unleashing, the Manhattan Project might never have happened—and how different our world would be today. There was a context, of course, within which developing the bomb made sense. The Germans were already at work on enriching uranium. Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt made clear that the Allies could ill afford to let the Nazis gain the atomic advantage, and therefore that the United States had no choice but to inaugurate what would become the nuclear arms race. Wielding the awesome power of science recklessly, not even knowing what to expect, they opened Pandora’s Box, perhaps setting history on a road with no turns and sealing the fate of humankind and the planet.
It did not take long for them to realize the enormity of what they had done. On 16 July, 1945 at the Trinity test site, upon witnessing the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, which yielded a roughly 20 kiloton explosion and sent a mushroom cloud towering nearly eight miles into the sky, Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, said, “We’re all sons of bitches now.” Similarly appalled, Robert Oppenheimer, who had been chosen to head up the project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” and when this “foul and awesome display,” as Bainbridge later described it, was reprised over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was stricken with a crisis of conscience that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Years later, Einstein, who had played no direct role in the Manhattan Project, said: “I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed the letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”
At the time that he signed what would become known as “Einstein’s Letter,” which Fermi actually had written, Einstein saw “no other way out.” The situation was clear: Either we get the bomb first, or they do. Such reasoning is guilty of the fallacy of “false dilemma” in presuming that there are only two options, in this case both based on the assumption that successful development of the atomic bomb was a fait accompli, which it was not. There were other courses of action open. Roosevelt could have ordered aggressive steps to disrupt the German effort rather than throwing open the door to the proliferation of weapons capable of such monstrously destructive power that the future of humanity would hang in an increasingly precarious balance. The same binary logic was used to justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ostensibly to “save lives,” and end the war—but was there really no “other way out?” Japan already had been defeated by a merciless campaign of incendiary bombing under the orders of Gen. Curtis LeMay that had reduced all of its cities capable of producing the machinery of war to smoldering ruins, immolating hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.
When an overriding focus on technological capability is given unchecked license, it becomes possible to proceed with the unthinkable. But the fact that we can do something does not mean that we ought to do it. In these terms, the evolution of scientific knowledge and its technological spawn bears tragic witness to our corresponding failure to evolve socially, philosophically, and spiritually. Long before technology releases the vast power biding its time in the equations on the theorist’s blackboard, our wisdom or lack of it is setting the stage in ways that may have calamitous consequences. For better or worse, the awesome power of science and technology rests in the hands of a species that time and time again has proven itself too rash, too shortsighted, too reactive, and too violent to be entrusted with it.
The development of weapons of mass destruction is not the only example of heedless science. Another coming out of the quantum camp, the so-called Simulation Hypothesis, views the universe, including ourselves, as the encoded information of an advanced computer program running on supercomputers somewhere in the distant future. Taken seriously, the claim might be existentially disturbing were it not riddled with circular reasoning, slanting, and other fallacies that render it impotent, but that is beside the point. Theorists often put forth ill-conceived hypotheses and interpretations with little or no consideration for their real-world consequences. In light of the juggernaut of video games involving first-person shooters bobbing across virtual landscapes as they blithely commit increasingly lifelike acts of virtual carnage, one shudders imagining what the impact might be of the Simulation Hypothesis on certain unstable individuals upon hearing the idea that the physical reality around them, including other people, are mere simulations. All too frequent news of mass shootings suggest that there are a growing number of such individuals with ready access to automatic weapons who already have a sociopathic inability to recognize let alone empathize with others. Entering a school or shopping mall or place of worship “locked and loaded” for mass murder somehow constitutes for them what William James calls a “live option” in a way that for most of us would be incomprehensible. This is not to say that video games are either directly or solely the cause of such violence, or that the perpetrators of these shootings necessarily suffer from an inability to distinguish the real from the virtual. It is, however, to point out, that the suggestion that reality is a simulation is far more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution, because the simulated violence that sells video games has a desensitizing component over which developers do not appear to be losing much sleep.
The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken seriously by about twenty percent of the world’s leading physicists, may similarly contribute, even if unwittingly, to a devaluing of life by claiming that all versions of reality exist. Apart from the contradictions and other logical problems with the interpretation and despite the fact that many of the assumptions made by its most vocal proponents are baseless, there are the ethical implications that such a model tends to overlook. Nor does it do to argue that quantum interpretation is a highly specialized field, and as such, far removed from the mainstream where the moral question can take on life-or-death significance. In the age of the Internet, even sophisticated scientific ideas have a way of seeping down into the soil of popular culture where those exposed to them as a rule do not have the safeguards against misunderstanding enjoyed by their authors. Beyond this, as we noted earlier, there is the question of the difference one interpretation may make over another in the technological advances to which it inevitably leads—advances that affect the life and future not only of those who endorse it, but potentially the whole of civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. David Mermin’s instruction to physicists to “shut up and calculate” is an ignorant and negligent mandate, because how we understand and interpret and explain reality, the universe, and ourselves may well save or destroy us.
Mermin’s “shut up and calculate” follows from the fact that virtually all current interpretations of quantum mechanics are consistent with the same predictions, a position that hubristically presumes that predictions are all that matter. This is a serious problem for science and for all of us. As the ancient Greeks warned, hubris before the gods is a fatal mistake. In modern terms, we might say that whether or not we survive as a species, whether or not life and the planet have a future, depends on whether or not we will finally grow up and acknowledge that however much scientific knowledge we may accumulate, there is always a great deal that we cannot see about the forces affecting us. We cannot see what lies in the shadows or around the next corner, indifferent to our preconceptions. Hiding in the atom was the power to obliterate entire populations literally in a flash, and who can say what irremediable horror, “its hour come round at last,” as Yeats puts it, lies waiting in the things we have yet to discover. Those who live and work at the leading edge of science and technology, who design and conduct experiments or interpret their results and certainly who apply those results to the development of new technologies have a far-reaching moral duty to look beyond the political exigencies of the moment, to think carefully before promoting views concerning the nature of reality, and to remember that we are engaging elements that we did not create and may not be able to manage, even when we think we can. If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a little humility that errs on the side of caution, in the end, may be the thing that saves us from ourselves.
20 November, 2018