Delight Springs

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Voltaire, Socrates, Jesus, Kant

Interesting quartet, in Happiness today.

Voltaire's response to my question the other day, as to whether any of us ever regret the examined life and would occasionally prefer to swap places with Forrest Gump or Winnie the Pooh, is as acerbic as you'd expect. "I should be happy if I were as brainless as my neighbor, and yet I do not desire such happiness." Maybe he'd have been happy to live in a better neighborhood. For my part, as I was saying in class, I try to spend a bit of relatively brainless time in the neighborhood every morning with the dogs. It's a happy time of day. Knowledge and lucidity aren't obstacles to happiness, but too much thinking can be.

Our author Monsieur Lenoir is still pushing us to the "Max": last time he urged maximum pleasure and reason, this time he invokes Andre Comte-Sponville for "maximum happiness in maximum lucidity." Is it always really so wise to push the pedal to the metal? Let up on the lucidity accelerator occasionally, I'd say. It better suits the rambling narrative of this Philosopher's Guide.

"Happiness is the awareness of an overall and enduring state of satisfaction in a meaningful existence founded on truth." I guess. Sometimes it's just a warm puppy, though. Awareness can be implicit and pre-verbal.

Satisfaction is a happy word, when coupled with the love of life. Matthieu Ricard's wish for wisdom, flourishing, and peace in every moment is lofty. But as we were saying last time, wasted moments are gone forever. Make a wish. A smart and willful wish, leading to well-chosen goals. Nietzsche's formula was for "a yes, a no, as straight line, a goal." He wasn't that happy, though, do you imagine?

Nor was Kant, I imagine.  "Full and complete happiness" may not exist on earth, but the promise of their attainment after death rings hollow to Epicureans, humanists, and others who think the "earth of things must resume its rights."
The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. Pragmatism
Deferred gratification is often a necessary condition of our happiness, but is deferred happiness ever a good idea?

Some more questions: Does illusory happiness interest you? Can you be happy in the absence of meaning and truth? Do you share Matthieu Ricard's "primary aspiration"? Does it set the bar too high? Do you know people who "lose themselves in a permanent hyperactivity, artificially filling the emptiness of their lives"? Is that a fair characterization, or an external view from an unsympathetic perspective? Is it your duty to make yourself worthy of happiness, to be as happy as possible, both, neither... or is talk of "duty" irrelevant to the question of happiness? Were Socrates and Jesus happy? Are martyrs happy, generally? Do you wish for a cause to die for?
It's the birthday of H.G. Wells (books by this author), born Herbert George in London (1866). He is the sci-fi writer most known for The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and War of the Worlds. Wells wasn't the first to write about time travel or alien invasions, but his brand of sci-fi was uniquely realistic. He wanted to make the made-up science as believable as possible. Wells called this his "system of ideas" — today we would call it suspension of disbelief... and here's a nice Happiness poem for today, by Cousin Mary:
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don't Hesitate)”

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


It's Socrates and the Socratics (including that dog Diogenes) today in CoPhi. Socrates, they say, was firmly devoted to argumentative reason as a better method than revelation or hope. Should we call his devotion "faith"? Not if that means an unwavering refusal to seek and ponder all evidence, to entertain challenging questions, even to welcome those that question the utility of argumentative reason itself. His fabled humility, his ignorant form of wisdom, officially invites every challenge.

But unofficially, Socrates was definitely betting on reason against superstition and tradition for their own sake. His trust in reason was firm, his delight in philosophical argument was inextinguishable. He drew his dying breath in the middle of an argument his successors have continued to this day, as to the meaning and practical value of a life committed to virtue, curious inquiry, and intellectual integrity. He died in contempt of what he considered the misplaced presumption of fearing death more than vice, "which runs faster than death."

That's how we've come to see him, as a pedestal-mounted figure larger than life, gazing across the centuries in reproach of small-mindedness and irrational fear. We downplay his personal shabbiness and eccentricity, forgetting the actual figure he must have cut as the ancient Athenian equivalent of a street person. How did such a vagabond manage to ingratiate himself with the upper crust elites of his city? It was his spellbinding gift of gab, tiresome to many but entrancing ("bewitching," said the smitten Alcibiades) to many more. People looked beyond the pug nose and the ugly-ass mouth ("more ugly even than an ass's") to the beauty within.

His conversation was compelling but it was not personally revealing. His version of dialectic withheld affirmative assertion, instead soliciting others' definitions and demonstrations in order to trip them over their own inconsistencies and send them (and us, peering over their shoulders) back to the philosophical drawing board.

Athenian democracy had just been overthrown by the Spartans and decimated by their Thirty Tyrants, as Socrates went to trial. His own anti-democratic leanings were well-known. 
If you were heading out on a journey by sea, Socrates asks Adeimantus in Plato's Republic, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.  Why Socrates Hated Democracy, SoL
But did he really hate democracy? Gottlieb says no, he was in fact too democratic for his time and place. He was an ultra-democrat, committed to the examined life for all. This may have sounded to some like an endorsement of "exaggerated individualism" but for Socrates the examined life is also the collaborative conversational life. "Philosophy is an intimate and collaborative activity: it is a matter for discussions among small groups of people who argue together in order that each might find the truth for himself. The spirit of such a pastime cannot accurately be captured in a lecture or a treatise." It's best captured in talk, preferably while walking. Hence Plato's dialogues, and ours.

Not even the Delphic Oracle's authoritative declaration of Socrates' wisdom could stifle the gadfly's appetite for rational argument and inquiry, provoking him to "check the truth of it" for himself. Can we possibly take literally, then, his claim to philosophize at the behests of God or his daimon? No. He just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. 

He also thought it best not to weep and wail for our finitude, even at death's door. "No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing..." Maybe he'll get to meet his "heroes of the old days." Or maybe he'll just have a nice long sleep. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him to worry about an unpleasant or hellish alternative. He was ahead of his time, and Epicurus's, in this regard.

Socrates and Plato were both "unworldly" but in different ways, the former in his shambling indifference to social status, hygiene,and finery, the latter in regarding carnal existence as a form of incarceration in the shadow of eternal essences and Ideas. Socrates kept a sharper focus on the duties and blessings of this world, "not simply a preparation for something else." And he thought we could all do that. "For Plato, philosophy was the ladder to this elevated world of the Forms, but not everyone could climb it." For Socrates, "anybody could examine his own life and ideas and thus lead a worthwhile existence."

The paradigmatic Socratic question: Is something good because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it's good? The Socratic answer: it can't be the former, that's arbitrary. Real gods don't play darts with the universe. Hypothetical gods shouldn't, either.

What would he say about people who achieve wealth and success by behaving badly? Or about the state of our democracy? Would he agree with William James regarding "our national disease"? Would you?

We know how it ended for Socrates. They told him to shut up. He persisted (like Elizabeth Warren, and like Paul Kalinithi), until the hemlock shut him down. It's up to the rest of us, now, to persist when we're told to "shut up about the bad stuff."

Today is the birthday of American poet and essayist Donald Hall (books by this author) born in Hamden, Connecticut (1928), who once said, “Every good poet in the world has written only a few terrific poems.”

At 89 years old, he longer writes poetry. “Not enough testosterone,” he says. Instead, he’s turned to prose: his last book is collection called Essays After Eighty (2014). Starting the book was simple. He said, “One day I looked out the window and began writing about being an old man looking out the window at the year going by.”

Hall was educated at Exeter, where he played softball with visiting poet Robert Frost, whom Hall remembers as “a spoiled brat,” even though Frost was 79 years old at the time... WA==
On Ken Burns' Vietnam last night, LBJ told an aide it's easy to get into a war but hard to get out. Then he jumped in with both feet. When will we ever learn?
It's Constitution Day on our campus, with patriotic music blaring ("Stars and Stripes Forever") ahead of a public reading of that most sacred of human documents. But as a recent op-ed asked, is it still up to the task of governing a society marked increasingly by a wealth gap?
2.9.17. 5:40/6:42, 32/40/26, 5:20. Happy Birthday  to Alice Walker, who said “no person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow”... and to Irish rebel Brendan Behan, who said "Never throw stones at your mother,You'll be sorry for it when she's dead, Never throw stones at your mother, Throw bricks at your father instead." On this day in 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time... 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lenoir's Happiness

In Happiness today we begin Frederic Lenoir's Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide. In case there's any doubt, our author is quite French.

Many professional thinking persons are, unsurprisingly, convinced that a deep curiosity about the world and an unsettled awareness of our peculiar place in it are both prerequisite to living happily and well, and would agree that "it is essential to be aware of our happiness to be happy."

Or, if they're not convinced, they're nonetheless vocationally committed to pursuing inquiry as if they were. As James says so well in Varieties of Religious Experience, "philosophy lives in words" - and it's in words that philosophers must express and transact their curiosity and awareness - "but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation."

So, what's an honest philosopher to do with the realization that happiness may be visited upon us in moments of silence, meditation, and mute appreciation?

Well, he could admit perhaps that sometimes the pleasures of thinking about nothing (if not "NOTHING") and doing nothing may far exceed an intellectual's preconceptions as to the conditions of happiness. As in religion, sometimes a philosopher of happiness must defend experience against philosophy. That's one of my secular acts.

It's hard to dispute Montaigne's suggestion that happiness is amplified when we know and appreciate that we're happy. Clap your hands. Again, though, E.B. White poses the Thinking Man's perennial dilemma: savor the moment, or save the world? ("I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.")

I vote "both," but don't ask me how. Knowing what you want is not the same as knowing how to get it. But we do know, don't we, that moments unsavored are lost? And that no one of us alone can be the Savior? (Who would ever take seriously a presidential candidate, for instance, who said only he could fix things? Deplorable!)

So my unsolicited advice is, guard and enjoy every moment you can. Saving the world is a longer-term project. When planning your day, be sure to leave room for some savoring moments. But also, as we mostly agreed last time (didn't we?): don't be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness. A little Buddhist self-abnegating cherry-picking might be a useful corrective here.

Again, I highly recommend Robert Wright's new book. "Don’t feel like you’re committing a felony-level violation of Buddhist dogma just because you think of yourself as being a self,” but also don't take yourself so seriously that you become indifferent to others' happiness as well as your own. “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” So, awareness is a step on the path to potential enlightenment.

The Pleasure Principle may sound like Freudian flap-doodle to some, but if pleasure had no adaptive value it surely would have gone by the boards long ago. "The vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply," let us hope.

Aristotle, on Lenoir's reading, endorses a life balancing "the maximum of pleasure with the maximum of reason." I'm uneasy about "maximum," but for rational animals such as we aspire to be, those surely must be the right constituent parts. The ratio of the mix might vary, animal to animal and person to person. Not all virtues are equally salient for each of us, some strike a more courageous or magnanimous or gentle note (etc.) - but do take note, there are many virtues available for our respective pursuits of excellence. With all due respect to the student who posted his view that the only real virtues involve deference to God and love for our neighbors, that's needlessly self-limiting.

I'm not familiar with Lenoir's "peasant-philosopher" Pierre Rahbi, but "happy sobriety" sounds Epicurean enough. "Necessary things are easy to attain," by comparison. Food and drink and shelter, once procured, ought to make fine cooking, beautiful clothes, a fancy home (etc.) less urgent, and power and honors entirely gratuitous. If pleasure really is the key to happiness, we ought to give more thought to what pleasures most conduce to lasting happiness, and ought to be prepared to agree with Epicurus that the best things in life are practically free.

Of course, Epicurus presumably never experienced the finest craft beer.

I'm definitely prepared to agree with sourpuss Schopenhauer that 90% of happiness depends on health. I'm surprised he said that. "Keep your health, your splendid health. It's better than all the truths in the firmament."

Meaning, again. Viktor Frankl and Sigmund Freud might agree that most of us are "truly happy only when our lives are pleasant and also have meaning." But is meaning an afterthought, or is it in fact the culmination of human-order pleasure?

Some questions: Do you ever wish you were less susceptible to living the examined life, a little less curious and aware and a bit more like Forrest Gump or Winnie the Pooh? Is there a danger of shrinking or crushing our happinesss, in the very process of observing and savoring ("amplifying") it? Is it generally true, as Darwin asserted, that in our world "the vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply"? Do philosophers overrate the importance of reason and reflection in the pursuit of happiness? Do you espouse "mens sana in corpore sano"? Can you imagine surviving an ordeal like the holocaust or the Vietnam War (check out Ken Burns' new film) with your capacity for happiness intact?
Today is the birthday of essayist Roger Angell (books by this author), born in New York in 1920... His stepfather was E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web... "It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut […] is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. […] It no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift."

Angell roots for the Mets, and doesn't get too discouraged when they lose. He thinks that rooting for a team that wins all the time is overrated, because you take it for granted and there's less drama in watching the game. He said, "Almost winning is almost the best. But you've got to win once in a while."

Angell wrote an essay about getting older in 2014 called "This Old Man," which he included in a book of essays of the same title. He writes about his own experience of changing physically and losing friends, and how society treats elderly people as if they're irrelevant. He describes a conversation where "There's a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they've just left it. What? Hello? Didn't I just say something? Have I left the room? […] When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we're invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You've had your turn, Pops; now it's ours."

His wife, Carol, passed away shortly before he wrote the essay. She had told him, "If you haven't found someone else by a year after I'm gone, I'll come back and haunt you." Angell writes about how we look down on older people when they start dating again, as if we expect them to settle into the background of life and certainly not try anything new that's romantic or sexual. He writes: "But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here's to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week." WA

Monday, September 18, 2017

Measuring atoms

Today in CoPhi it's Democritus and the Sophists.

Democritus, the "laughing philosopher" (did we note that Heraclitus was the "weeping philosopher"?) doesn't really sound like such a barrel of laughs. He urged repentance, preferred a "well-ordered demeanor" and, Gottlieb tells us, was broadly contemptuous of human folly. Was he laughing with us or at us? But you could ask the same of Mark Twain, who damned us, and Kurt Vonnegut (impatient, as previously noted, with our species' penchant for unkindness). Is it misanthropic to deplore misanthropy? It's not unfunny.

Democritus may not been a side-splitter, and he may have been wrong about atoms being unsplittable, but his general outlook was astonishingly ahead of the game even if "he simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right." He was a lucky guy indeed, living to an astonishing 109 and then "cheerfully" (according to Simon Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers) pulling his own plug. Before that, legend has it, he extended his life by inhaling the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

Some early Christians opposed atomism on the grounds that its explanatory hypothesis displaced divine fiat and jettisoned a personal afterlife (with persons and souls dissolved and remixed). That's still the kicker behind lots of present-day science denialism, isn't it?

Leucippus first influenced Democritus with the atoms-and-void idea. Later it was taken up by Epicurus, then Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, "the way things are":
  • “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.” 
  • O minds of mortals, blighted by your blindness! Amid what deep darkness and daunting dangers life’s little day is passed! To think that you should fail to see that nature importantly demands only that the body may be rid of pain, and that the mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment!” 
  • Don't think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with... All such argument, all such interpretation is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use.
  • “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” 
  • “The atoms in it must be used over and over again; thus the death of one thing becomes necessary for the birth of another.”
  • The main obstacles to the goal of tranquillity of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die: as Epicurus neatly and logically puts it: “Death…is nothing to us: when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist.

Atomism grew up "when chemists and physicists developed sophisticated ways to measure material phenomena," to lift them out of the murky realm of subjective and deniable opinion, and lower them down from the transcendent and resplendent but entirely invisible realm of eternal objects and indestructible objects. And then we learned to blow them up. Growing up is not necessarily the same as maturing. We'll have done that when all our leaders learn to stop speaking flippantly about "nuclear options" that are nothing but MAD.

We mentioned Richard Dawkins' rainbow the other day, today we're invited to consider his related views on meaning and design (see Lucretius above). "Is there a meaning to life? What are we for?" We can answer those questions without reverting to superstition, thanks to what we've learned about atoms and the void ever since we stopped proposing fantastic answers to such questions and started charting the world's actual (not alternative) facts. 

The great legacy of Periclean Athens is the value they and we (some of us) place on the ability to speak and debate persuasively, civilly, and sometimes disinterestedly. The old Greek sophistes, Sophists, the likes of Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, et al, shared that value to a much greater extent than is commonly conceded. They taught grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, literary criticism, music, law, religion, human and social origins, math, and natural science. Big History, some now call such a broad portfolio of academic interest. 

Their undeserved bad name seems to have come from the reigning animus people had to those early teachers for presuming to seek remuneration. Fortunately we no longer expect our teachers to live hand-to-mouth, not entirely anyway. Their deserved bad name, and the bad name of contemporary sophists, is not that they get paid but that they don't themselves invest in truth for its own sake. They "could not care less about truth," peddled "ruses," sought to portray a mere "semblance of wisdom without the reality." There are some academics and philosophers who fit that description, but you're more likely to encounter them in law and politics.

In addition, Plato resented the bad Sophists for getting Socrates in trouble. Really he resented Athens and its too-clever satirists (like Aristophanes) for not discerning the difference between a bad Sophist, denizen of the "logic factory," and a good Socrates.

Protagoras is the most interesting Sophist. What does "Man is the measure of all things" mean, if it means to embrace and applaud subjectivity? Does it have to mean an extreme personal relativism? Or cultural relativism? Or maybe something more innocuous like the view my old mentor Lachs calls "relationalism" - all things must be measured by standards and yardsticks actual humans can wield.  

"Protagoras apparently drowned in a shipwreck after he had been tried and banished (or in some stories condemned to death) for his agnostic religious views. He also wrote a treatise on wrestling." (Critchley)

Some questions: If everything is composed of atoms, does it follow that there is no life after death? Does atomism in fact "liberate [us] from superstition, fear of death, and the tyranny of priests"? If thought consists in the motion of mind-atoms, can we freely think our own thoughts? Or are we passive spectators of "our" minds? What difference does it make, if particles are inseparable from forces and fields and bundles of energy and thus cannot be proved to be "unsplittable" (as the ancient atomists said)? Is it "reasonable to suppose that every sort of world crop[s] up somewhere"?

Brian Greene (@bgreene)
The observable universe extends for about 92 billion light-years. No human has ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light-seconds.

Ken Burns' Vietnam premiered last night...

On this day in 1793, George Washington laid the cornerstone to the United States Capitol building... He said "This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, has a just claim to your confidence and support."
...It's the birthday of movie star Greta Garbo (1905). She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafson in Stockholm, Sweden, and was best known for her sultry voice, sharp cheekbones, and sullen demeanor. The Guinness Book of World Records named her "the most beautiful woman who ever lived" in 1954... before she retired she was labeled "box-office poison." For the rest of her life, she lived in New York City, where she became something of a fixture in the city, as she walked her neighborhood in white clothes and large sunglasses. Her appearances in public became kind of a sport for fans and the media. They called it "Garbo-Watching." A good day included playing tennis, snacking on brown beans and Triscuits, and running the elevators in her Manhattan apartment building when the staff went out on strike. She walked 11 miles a day through the streets of the city.Greta Garbo died in 1990. She once said, "I've had a fabulous life." WA

Feminism & the future of philosophy...
2.7.17. 5:20/6:44, 61/65/52, 5:18
Happy birthday to Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, Main Street, and the eerily prophetic It Can't Happen Here, about a 1930s populist fascistic American demagogue who rises to power on a wave of popular discontent. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman... Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Virtue, meaning, and a good life

We finish Daniel Haybron's very fine Very Short Intro to Happiness today.

More important than whether you're happy, says Haybron, is your contribution and legacy. Will you be deservedly well thought-of, for having lived well? So much the better if living well makes you happy, but in the long perspective of history the personal and subjective experience of virtue will barely register. Isn't that all the more reason to make happiness a priority? If you don't, who will?

That's not to endorse "acting badly" in the pursuit, but some will wonder what's to stop any of us from doing so. What compels conscience and compassion, aside from the unpleasant prospect of being poorly thought-of? Decency and virtue might be motivation enough, and their own reward, for the noblest natures. Others rightly care about the judgment of generations to come.

But then there are the deplorables, the philistines, the jerks. They claim the right to be terrible people. Until quite recently I would have said they were marginal to our civilization and not a threat to it. Lately that's less clear. "One should not be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness."

"According to some studies, having kids doesn't make us happier." Having just graduated a couple of them, I've made my own study. I can't imagine the past 20+ years of my life without them. More than that: anticipating them was a source of happiness long before their births. But I know that's not everybody's experience.

"Any life dedicated to worthwhile ends is meaningful," even if the judgment of worth is uncertain or, again, awaits the verdict of history. While we live we have to make that call for ourselves, have to believe we've chosen worthwhile ends, if we're to experience that sort of meaning. Of course, we may never know.

We do know, don't we, that those gawking consumer-touroids on p.104 are draining life of meaning even if they think they're "making memories"? Like selfish and shallow people everywhere, they look more desperate and absurd than happy.

Happiness really is an aspirational ideal, something worth chasing no matter how elusive it may turn out to be.

"Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you're thinking about it," says Nobelist Daniel Kahneman. Hmm. As a professional thinking person that's disconcerting. But as Michael Lewis points out in The Undoing Project, Kahneman and his pal Amos Tversky have shed needed light on the extent to which we ought to mistrust our own intuitions about everything, including what will make us happy. “Man is a deterministic device thrown into a probabilistic universe." Well no wonder we often get it wrong. Wonder's that we ever get it right. On the other hand, “When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice."

More uplifting (and poignant) is that heart-grabbing missive from the battlefield that closes Haybron's book. "I am such a lucky person to have the life that I have." That says it.

Tversky said it too, commenting on his own fatal illness. “Life is a book. The fact that it was a short book doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book. It was a very good book.”
"It's the birthday of Margaret Sanger, born in Corning, New York (1879). She coined the term "birth control," she was its most famous advocate in the United States, and she was the founder of Planned Parenthood. H.G. Wells said of her, "The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time."

Margaret Sanger was born into a working-class Irish family. Her mother died at 50, after 18 pregnancies... In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which in 1946 became Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She also funded research to create a contraceptive pill. She said, "No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother." She died in 1966, at age 87, a year after the landmark Supreme Court decision Griswold vs. Connecticut finally made birth control legal for married couples." WA

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Love & strife

Today in CoPhi it's Empedocles and Anaxagoras.

The little film about Empedocles from the 3-minute guy is quite unprofound, and you'll probably be happy not (like Groundhog Day*) to repeat it over and over. But it usefully summarizes the Sicilian's metaphysical view that our four basic terrestrial elements are constantly bestirred by a never-ending battle between Love and Strife. He, like Phil Conners, thought himself a god too (though not the God). In fact he said we all spring from divine stuff and a golden age of universal harmony,  before we were cast into our "alien garment of flesh." He believed in reincarnation, and claimed in past lives to have been a girl, a fish, a bush (!), and  a bird. A loon, perhaps.

But Phil's story has a sunnier, less "Faustian" outcome than Empedocles' legend avers. (I discount the magical theory that Phil actually died in Punxsutawney on February 1 and was thence stuck in purgatory, preferring the Buddhist interpretation of his release from samsara.) Still, in these calamitous times we all ought to give thought to where we're gonna go when the volcano blows. I just wouldn't count on coming back after the eruption, in any sensate form.

Love and strife clearly apply in many instances of sexual attraction, and sound a lot sexier than gravity and electromagnetism. They're useful categories for analyzing the interpersonal dynamics of social life, but do they really mirror the Big Bang and Big Crunch of astrophysical cosmology? Seems to me the value and relevance of such emotive terms, in mapping our psycho-sociological terrain, lies precisely  in their intimacy - not in the scope, scale, and ultimate impersonality of universal laws. Stephen Hawking and Barbara Cartland aren't well matched after all.

On the other hand, Empedocles' prescience about biology and evolution are impressive. Darwin himself said he found his theory of natural selection "shadowed forth" by the  Maybe Professor Dawkins would be a better match for Ms. Cartland? He does wax eloquent on the romance of science, in Unweaving the Rainbow and elsewhere. “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.” And so, “isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?”

Or if not Dawkins, then maybe we could hook her up with a popularizer of medical science like Lewis Thomas, Sherwin Nuland, Atul Gawande, or Siddhartha Mukherjee? The latter writes: “The art of medicine is long, Hippocrates tells us, "and life is short; opportunity fleeting; the experiment perilous; judgment flawed.” Gottlieb tells us that medicine ("or at least crude physiology") was Empedocles' favorite science.

Empedocles is said to have said:
  • God is a circle whose center is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere.
  • No mortal thing has a beginning, nor does it end in death and obliteration; there is only a mixing and then separating of what was mixed, but by mortal men these processes are named "beginnings.” 
  • The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. 
  • Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace.
  •  Strife is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.
  • Many fires burn below the surface.
Anaxagoras was hugely important in our tradition for bringing naturalism and anti-superstition to Athens. In retrospect that might seem like coals to Newcastle, but in his day (c.460 BCE) Socrates was still an impressionable lad and the Greeks were still to discover the beauty of a rationally ordered nous. “Mind is god and god is Mind.”

Anaxagoras, it might be supposed, first seduced Socrates into a life of impiety (for denying godhood to the sun and moon). But Socrates ultimately thought him too far above superstition, paying "too much attention to the mechanical causes of things and not enough to their meanings and purposes." Wouldn't it be interesting to convene a reading club discussion of Unweaving the Rainbow with Anaxagoras and Socrates?

Anaxagoras thought "the senses provide us with blurred outlines of the world, which reason then brings into focus." Or tries to. That sounds right, so long as reason constantly checks its focus by returning, repeatedly, to the world of sense. A blurred outline is better than a blind speculation.

Was Anaxagoras an atheist? There is nothing anachronistic about this question. In the late 430s, he was put on trial for “impiety,” on the grounds that he denied the divinity of the heavenly bodies (which he undoubtedly did). This may have been the first time in history that an individual was prosecuted for heretical religious beliefs.”

"Set up about 438 BCE, the law against Anaxagoras’s atheism held that society must “denounce those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky.”

“Men would live exceedingly quiet if these two words, mine and thine, were taken away.” George Harrison went to India for that, he could have found it closer to home.

Here's why students should love Anaxagoras: “In exile in Lampsacus, Anaxagoras made his final benefaction to humanity: the invention of the school holiday.”

According to Matt Ridley, “Anaxagoras’ belief that lying on the right side during sex would produce a boy was so influential that centuries later some French aristocrats had their left testicles amputated.”

So, he was a semi-emasculating philosopher. No dualist, he thought one would do. That brings us to one more point of praise for the old naturalist, from my perspective: he "thought of mind as a special form of matter, not as something completely different." 

Finally, though, Anaxagoras was the worst sort of Stoic, far ahead of his time. Told of his sons' premature deaths, he said "I knew that my children were born to die." Knowledge is not always a consolation.
It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," by witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor... Before the war, the American flag had little sentimental significance for most Americans. It was used mainly as a way to designate military garrisons or forts. But after the publication of "The Star-Spangled Banner," even non-military people began to treat the flag as a sacred object... It's the birthday of the "Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe, born in Rosine, Kentucky (1911), a brilliant mandolinist and a hard-driving tenor singer... It's the birthday of British novelist, playwright, and essayist John Boynton — J.B. — Priestley (1894), who said, "Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness — when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven't had time to know how much better it ought to be." And, "Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries." WA
2.2.17. 5:30/6:43, 39/47/29, 5:12. It's James Joyce's birthday. He who worried that people would look for a moral in Ulysses "or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.” Serious or not, there are some good lines: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.... To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.... “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past... Can't bring back time. Like holding water in your hand... I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short time of space.”

He did take himself a bit seriously. When he met the venerated poet W.B. Yeats, he famously said, “We met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me.” And Yeats famously responded, “Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it.”

Yeats, by the way, is usually credited with the bench wisdom attributed in our walnut grove to old Plutarch: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Image result for mtsu walnut grove bench

My favorite Yeats quote, which sounds a lot like Emerson: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
*Groundhog Day, "a legend that traverses centuries" and an American tradition since 1887. Will Bill Murray's Phil Conners see his shadow? Do gods (or bodhisattvas) even cast shadows? Did you know the film's "a profound work of contemporary metaphysics"?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sources and springs, and beyond

Today in Happiness we'll ponder the sources of happiness, or as I like to say (following William James) the springs of delight. And then we'll wonder what's beyond happiness: well-being, flourishing, eudaimonia.

Is delight the same as happiness? The floor is open, on that, but I've never been unhappily delighted. When I am delighted, I am well. It's close enough for me.

Some of us may be genetically predisposed to experience more delight, but "plenty of things can affect how happy we are" whatever our personal "set point." That can be an excuse for not trying, when the evidence is clear that "human beings are remarkably adaptable and resilient" and thus almost always capable of being happier.

 But beware, "people who place a higher value on money, possessions, and status tend to be less happy." Such extrinsic motivators are inferior, while the enlightened rich whose motivation is intrinsic and interior are often less materialistic than the poor. Go figure.

What else matters, besides intrinsic motivation? An outlook that's positive, accepting, and caring. And besides outlook? Security, autonomy, relationships, something to do that's skilled and meaningful.

But circle back to money, which is too frequently given short shrift in these discussions. It can't buy you love, but if you're pulling less than 75K you're going to notice the happiness-income link.

Aristotelians say its in our nature to pursue happiness and fulfillment as activities in accordance with virtue. So, if you could plug into an Experience Machine that made you feel happy, would you be happy? Wouldn't you like to find out?

"Desire theories assert that what's good for you is getting what you want." You can't always get what you want. What do you need? "People often want things that aren't good for them," so perhaps we should challenge James's contention that "the only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all..." MPML

As for the strivers and enjoyers, I find myself allied with the great E.B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” So, different days for different desires?

Lots more provocative questions for discussion today. My favorites: Is happiness really a choice? Is accepting things as they are really responsible? How would YOU use the Experience Machine?

I'm happy to pass along this Happiness wisdom from cousin Mary, the poet:
Oliver said: “I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”
(If you're landlocked, you're going to have to substitute for the clams.)

And as for Desire Theory, it's hard to dispute Calvin & Hobbes:

It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H.L. (Henry Louis) Mencken (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He graduated as the valedictorian from his high school at the age of 15, but even though he was burning to write, he did exactly what his father expected: He took a job at the cigar factory. He started out rolling the cigars alongside the other blue-collar men, and he actually enjoyed that manual labor. But when he was promoted to the front office, he was hopelessly bored... When asked what he would like for an epitaph, Mencken wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."