Seneca’s Passion – Managing Anger

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And so, finally, I shall set out to fulfill my earlier promise to write a post on Seneca’s suggestions regarding how to overcome this particularly destructive emotion. By the way, if you were unconvinced by my previous post explaining his arguments showing the negativity of anger, please leave a comment explaining your objections or counter arguments. Philosophy is to a very great extent about discussion, and if there is no such discussion there is very little growth and development. Anyway, if you were convinced, and want to know how the man thought we might do away with anger, this post should give you a decent summary. It is not, however, exhaustive (I try to keep my posts relatively short, so few of them are), and I urge you to read the book if you’re interested in the topic. As said before, it’s quite easy to read compared to most classical texts.

One of Seneca’s first pieces of advice is related to the distinction between simple, manageable tasks and big, complicated ones. He states that if a person applies him or herself solely to undertakings that are – to him or her – of the former kind, said person will be able to avoid frustration and, consequently, anger. Often, he says, when people take on greater challenges, they convince themselves that they’ll be easier than they are and become angry when this turns out not to be the case. This does not, however, mean that people shouldn’t do anything strenuous, it just means that they shouldn’t ever overreach, and that if they do they should strive to be aware of the fact that they are doing so at all times. It’s about understanding one’s weaknesses and maintaining a realistic attitude towards one’s work. Realism features strongly in his advice, as you’ll have seen in the far more basic post I wrote earlier.

He also talks about conditioning. Seneca firmly believed that if people allowed their bodies and minds to become soft and pampered they would be far more prone to irritability. This makes sense; a person who is used to hardship and misfortune will be far more capable of dealing with a bit of bad luck than someone who is used to luxury. A man who lives on the street won’t mind too much if his jacket gets a bit dirty, whereas a wealthy businessman may well throw a tantrum if someone happens to stain his tie. So Seneca thought that we should avoid becoming too soft, striving to form a thicker skin.

He also stated that, since we find it so difficult to suppress anger once it gets a hold of us, we should avoid situations that will make us angry. We should surround ourselves with mild-mannered and agreeable people and avoid their volatile and pugnacious counterparts, so that we won’t constantly end up in arguments and aren’t being insulted all the time. There’s a problem with this argument. First of all, it’s not really fair to people who happen to be of a slightly passionate or argumentative disposition to say that we should shun them – surely instead we should help them, rather than selfishly retreating into a little social bubble. Also, if people were to follow this advice, most married couples would have to file for divorce. The biggest problem, however, is that it seems to go directly against his prior advice on conditioning. And after all, if our defense against anger is so flimsy that we can never allow ourselves to be in the company of someone who might disagree with us, then surely the problem hasn’t actually been dealt with. Nevertheless, his main point is sound – it’s better to avoid a struggle altogether.

Seneca then goes on to suggest that we exercise self-awareness. If you’re naturally irritable, stay away from high stress situations as much as possible. He also says that, as with a disease, it’s better to deal with a passion (which can in some ways be seen as a disease of the mind or emotions) when it’s in its infancy. We should try to suppress our anger when we feel the first stirrings of it, acting as quickly as possible. Also, in order to avoid becoming angry, he suggests that people should learn what angers them specifically. Everybody’s different, and we’re all annoyed more or less by different things. Some hate being mollycoddled, others quite like it; some hate being corrected, others simply see it as an opportunity for growth. In short, know what your Achilles heel is, so that you can protect it better.

He follows this with my personal favourite: “There are many ways in which anger may be checked; most things may be turned into a jest.” If someone insults you, how much better you’ll look if you reply with some witty remark than if you punch the offender. If you bump your head, how much more likable you’ll seem if you laugh rather than wasting your breath on cursing the inanimate object that caused the injury. With a little effort, virtually any insult or misfortune can be turned into a joke. I think this is probably Seneca’s best piece of advice. You don’t necessarily need to make a clever joke of some sort – laughter alone can do wonders do defuse a tense situation, and as with most things, practice does make perfect.

Seneca then covers two topics I can relate to quite well; exaggeration and concealment. He argues that most people make themselves angry by inventing wrongs or exaggerating things. I did this embarrassingly often when I was younger, being something of a tantrum child, and I know it isn’t necessary. His point about concealment is interesting. He claims that when a person fails to quash their anger, they should try to hide it. His argument is that while this is difficult and may feel to some like a kind of cowardice, it’ll mean that the emotion won’t take complete control of you. Being of a shy disposition I often do this instinctively, and I can say with authority that it does work. It’s fully possible to do, and after a while the anger tends to fade away. Time is the best remedy for any passionate emotion. There is of course the problem of internalization to be taken into consideration, but there are ways of safely venting anger (exercise, scream therapy, reflection, etc.).

I hope you feel you’ve gotten something out of this, and wish you a good day!

 

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The Equality of Peoplekind

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Most of us are willing to say, when pressed, that all people are equal. Some are even willing to say that all animals are equal. The problem is, not everyone seems to be really convinced that it’s the truth (the first bit – the second bit is a topic for a different, much longer, post). Some of us get to thinking that there is such a thing as a “better” or “superior” person, especially if we’ve lived a life of privilege. Ironically, it’s probably the more intelligent – scholastically speaking – amongst us who are most prone to this kind of thinking. Being the fairy-eyed little hippie that I am, I of course don’t think it’s true. Fortunately, I do have a lot of great thinkers backing me up. Without further ado, then, allow me to present an argument I recently stumbled upon whilst doing a bit of reading on Stoicism.

It all comes down to a person’s attributes and assets. Very often, when we think “that person’s better than that person” we’ll justify it by saying things like “he’s kinder” or “he’s smarter” or even “he’s richer”. But this is an example of false reasoning. Look at the gorgeously beautiful picture of yours truly above. That’s a rather expensive suit, and it’s been tailored to fit me like a glove (there’s a point to this; I’m no just showing off). Does owning and wearing that suit make me better than someone wearing a poorly constructed, cheap, untailored suit? Of course not! My suit would be superior to this other man’s apparel, but he and I would still be equal. Similarly, does owning a fancy, shiny sports car make you better than a man in a rusty old second-hand car? Most certainly not! Your vehicle is superior, not you yourself. The attribute at the base of this is wealth. Does being richer than an other person make you better than him or her? Nope. Your wealth is superior, not you.

This goes for other things besides wealth. And this is perhaps where the matter at hand gets a tad trickier for some folks, because while it’s quite easy for most of us to see that wealth doesn’t make a person superior to others in more than a very shallow way, we find it harder to say the same for intellect, or kindness, or courage. But the distinction is still there. Are you more eloquent than someone else? That doesn’t make you better than them; all it means is that your skill with words is of a superior quality. Do you have a better sense of style? Again, it’s only your grasp of sartorial aesthetics that is genuinely “better”. Traditionally, one of the counter arguments given against the idea that someone’s better because they possess certain superior attributes is that other’s will possess other superior attributes. Quite often, this is true. You may be more perceptive than someone else, but they may well be more athletic or extraverted. However, this argument isn’t a complete defense. It is quite possible to conceive of a person who is better in every possible way than another (more handsome, more intelligent, wealthier, healthier, etc.). It’s also very easy for people to start thinking of some qualities as better than others (saying, for instance, that appearance is all that really matters, so beautiful people are superior to ugly people). The defense I’ve jotted down here bypasses this problem by taking a different approach.

We always think of a person’s attributes as being the things that make a person better, or worse, than others. But it isn’t logical to go from saying that Eric is a better swimmer than Adam to saying that Eric is superior to Adam. Nobody is ever better than anybody else; it’s only possible for our attributes to be better, or worse, than the attributes of others. Of course, the big kink here is that you can argue that what we are is no more than the sum total of our attributes (what is known as “bundle theory”, one of David Hume’s inventions). To exemplify this, imagine a bowling ball. It is a round, hard object of a particular colour, with holes to fit a person’s fingers. Now try to imagine a bowling ball without these properties, or any other properties. It’s impossible to do so, and the logical conclusion drawn from this is that any object is just a bundle of properties and no more. There’s no “substance” to them. Of course, this only changes the situation slightly. We might be tempted to think that bundle theory means a person is superior if their attributes (properties) are greater than those of others, but what the theory really says is that you don’t exist at all. There is no “self” – all we are is a bundle of properties, like the aforementioned bowling ball. Instead of “you” not being superior, “you” simply don’t exist. So, you’re either equal to everyone else, or you’re nonexistent. The choice is yours.

Seneca’s Passion – Revealing the true nature of Anger

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Inspired by my recent post on frustration, I decided to have a look at Seneca’s “On Anger”. I’m always a tad nervous about reading philosophy books, especially old ones (and this one is, literally, ancient). The reason for this is that they tend to be practically illegible and suffocatingly stuffy, requiring much more energy and concentration to read than I like to invest in any activity. “On Anger” was, however, described by Alain de Botton as being surprisingly fresh and easy to read, so I was hopeful. Fortunately, I was not disappointed; I read the free kindle edition (translated to English, of course), and found it to be an altogether enjoyable experience. I don’t know whether this is because Seneca himself had an unusually accessible and modern style of writing, or whether the translator was an uncommonly good one. Either way, the essays weren’t crammed full of ambiguous archaisms and strange words that haven’t been in use since the early 18th century, and I was able to focus my attention entirely on analyzing and understanding Seneca’s arguments. It is my intention now to pass these on, as best as I can, because what he has to say is really quite insightful. “On Anger” strikes me as one of those books that everyone should read, but that very few people do. I’m thinking I’ll divide this little project into two separate posts, one on Seneca’s musings on the nature of anger, the second on his thoughts regarding how to deal with it. I will, of course, start with the former.

Seneca describes anger as a passion and a vice. He contrasts passion with reason – the former being emotive, the latter intellectual, and holds reason up as one of mankind’s greatest assets. He then sets out to establish, once and for all, just how bad anger truly is. The way in which he does this makes for rather interesting reading, as he illustrates a lot of his points with anecdotes about various historical figures (such as Alexander the Great). But it is of course his arguments that are the most important.

He addresses precisely those questions I’ve written down in the title – how bad anger really is, what it is that makes it bad, and also whether or not there might be any good to it. He begins by pointing out that anger is the most troublesome of all passions, stating that many “wise men” have referred to it as “a short madness”. He then points out the severity of its results, claiming that it has caused “slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations”, and generally describing it as one of the worst plagues to have infected the human race. It is after this that he asks whether anger might have some use, and whether it is a natural thing. He says that while humans are naturally kind and gentle, anger is by nature a destructive and hateful thing. While some may scoff at this and say that humans seem more predisposed to corruption and selfishness than anything else, modern-day scientists have established that people who are physically and mentally healthy are naturally emphatic. Anger, therefore, goes directly against human nature. He then asks, but isn’t it sometimes good for people to become angry with each other, so that people learn when they have done something wrong? Shouldn’t I become angry with my friend, and shout at him, if I see him doing something cruel? Otherwise he’d just continue doing it. Seneca agrees that people need to be taught a lesson every once in a while, but states that anger is the wrong way of going about it – it should be done in a reasoned manner. A person affected by vice, he says, should be corrected in the way we might correct a crooked tool – by bending it back into shape. Anger would sooner have us break the tool than mend it.

After this, Seneca moves on to a pretty big point, namely whether or not anger does have a use. He admits that it “rouses the spirit”, and states that it can fuel certain virtues (such as courage). Sitting here, in my aunt’s kitchen, I’ve just noticed a magnet on her fridge with the words “folks who have no vices have very few virtues” – exactly the issue in question here. In response to this, Seneca reminds us that it is far more difficult to control our passions then it is for us to suppress them completely. He says that reason cannot stand up to passion – an even temper is necessary for her to operate properly. His point being, that while anger may well be useful, it’s a double-edged sword even at the best of times. Once we allow anger to take over, we are in its control. So even if our anger might make us braver, or push us to act when otherwise we might’ve held back, it’s like handing over the reigns to a madman in the hopes that he’ll do what’s necessary. It’s a chancy thing to do, and arguably it’s better to be a little less virtuous and a little less active than to be a slave to our passions. He goes on to state that anger is definitely not useful in itself, and that a genuine virtue shouldn’t need the assistance of a vice. He disagrees with Aristotle, who claimed that anger was necessary and should be controlled like a soldier, stating once again that it can’t be controlled – real anger takes over the mind completely, leaving no room for reason. He makes it clear that anger is never necessary – all those things we normally associate with anger can be done (often better) using reason. There’s nothing to be gained from being angry – it’s a vice, nothing more, and as such we should strive to do away with it as best we can.

 

The Motion Paradox

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We all enjoy a good paradox, right? Well, I thought I’d do a blog post on one particular philosophical paradox that I personally find to be quite – if you’ll forgive the term – cool. It’s the “arrow paradox”, first invented by Zeno (one of those clever Greek fellows) in an attempt to prove that movement is logically impossible – an idea that was the controversial brain child of Parmenides (another Greek). It’s a surprisingly persuasive argument, if you can get past the inherent counter-intuitiveness of it.

First, let’s imagine that we have two points; a point A and a point B.

Now, imagine an object moving from A to B. Traditionally, the example of an arrow fired from a bow is used – an archer fires the arrow from point A, aiming at a bullseye at point B. So far so good. However, basic logic dictates that before the arrow can reach point B, it must pass through a midpoint, M, halfway between A and B.

This is where things start to get a little tricky. You see, applying the exact same indisputable logic, we find that before the arrow can each this midpoint, it must first reach the midpoint between M and A. However, before it can reach that point it has to reach another midpoint, between this new halfway point and the archer, and before it reaches that point it has to reach yet another midpoint, and so on and so forth. It is possible to conceive of an infinite amount of points and midpoints separating A and B, and the arrow has to reach each point before it can advance to the next, which is impossible since the amount of points is infinite.

Therefore, it is logically impossible for the arrow to even start moving towards B. This same concept can be applied to any motion, like your hand moving from your hip to your face, or your finger scratching your butt. Thus, movement is logically impossible. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. It’s said that when Zeno first presented this paradox, Diogenes the Cynic simply stood up and moved, thus disproving the argument’s conclusion. Naturally, he didn’t actually disprove the argument properly by doing this, though I think his response corresponds quite closely to how most people react to the paradox. It is, as said, deeply counter-intuitive. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false.

There are, however, more thorough ways to disprove the paradox. For instance, one might argue that there is a fundamental difference between an object that is in stasis and one that is in motion. The argument being, it makes sense to think of a stationary object as occupying a particular point in space, but an object in motion is moving between points, rather than moving through them. This doesn’t feel entirely convincing, but it is apparently also possible to disprove the paradox using maths. Unfortunately, I promised myself that I’d avoid maths as much as possible after finishing my exams, so if you want to find that particular solution, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

There is one funny thing about the paradox. If it worked, it would prove that time doesn’t move either. This is because you get the same problem popping up when you consider a measure of time, such as an hour (before you can have an hour you have to have half an hour, before that a quarter of an hour, etc. etc.). As Zeno’s paradoxes were designed to help prove Parmenides’ concept of Eternalism – the idea that nothing in the universe ever changes and that past, present and future are all essentially the same thing – this isn’t surprising. Anyway, while the paradox may be disputed, I’ve heard that most modern quantum physicists are firm adherents of Eternalism, for various complex reasons I don’t yet fully understand. So maybe there is some truth to it after all. It seems clear, either way, that the universe is a far stranger and more complicated place than we might think.

On Justice

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What would you consider to be the purpose of modern justice systems? I’m not asking what purpose current systems seem designed to fulfil, but rather what their purpose should be. I recon it’s an important question, and one that needs to be considered more fully. It’s important that we challenge the various systems we have in place to promote prosperity and wellbeing in today’s society, rather than simply striving to keep them functioning. If we don’t, and just assume that things are right the way they are, progress grounds to a halt. Actually, I think I can narrow the question down a wee bit; is the purpose of modern justice systems to prevent crime, or to punish it? Personally I think prevention is far more important, and that punishment is still much too dominant.

On Frustration – because a better title eludes me

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I watched a series of YouTube videos featuring Alain de Botton’s documentary based on his book “The Consolations of Philosophy”. Anyone who, like me, is interested in those aspects of philosophy that help us live happier, fuller lives should watch these – he discusses a lot of interesting points. Each video is centred around a particular philosopher and his or her work, and each one deals with a particular topic. As an example, there’s one on Epicurus and his ideas regarding happiness and how to attain it. Another one, which I found very interesting, was focused on Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, and his thoughts on frustration.

I found this video intriguing because frustration is something I deal with on a daily basis, both my own and that of other people. Being a slow, pensive person, I tend to cause a lot of it. Seneca, apparently, was also dealing with quite a bit of frustration, working as the tutor of the emperor’s son, and frustration in that time and place was a dangerous thing. So it’s only natural that he ended up spending quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to prevent it. What he came up with is that frustration is caused by excessive optimism. It’s when we expect things to turn out well and they don’t that we get frustrated. Just think about it; imagine you have a friend who has a tendency to show up late to things. If you fully expect that said friend will arrive late to your party, and plan things accordingly, then you’ll be fine if he is late, and pleasantly surprised if he’s on time. However, if you don’t expect him to be late, but believe he’ll be on time on this occasion, and if you plan according to that, then you’ll be frustrated when he is late. We only ever become frustrated when things don’t work out the way we expect them to. Think back; can you remember a single occasion where you’ve genuinely said to yourself “oh, I’m sure this or that will happen, and if it does I’ll just have to deal with it in such and such a way” and then become frustrated when it did happen? Generally speaking, if we’re pessimistic about something from the start we’ll only find adversity mildly amusing. I, for one, think this is true. It’s that tried and true bit of advice; if your expectations are low you won’t be disappointed.

There is, however, one problem with this theory. Its conclusion is that we should adopt a more pessimistic attitude in order to avoid disappointment. We should be cynical, always expecting the worst. Many people believe that the opposite is better, that being optimistic is the best approach. I think a lot of people genuinely believe that if they’re positive and are sending out positive “vibes”, good things will come to them. Now, this might actually be the case. After all, if you wake up in the morning and convince yourself from the start that you’re going to have a good day, chances are it will be a good day. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, since you’ll get a kick of energy and will be more prepared to be active, and you’ll erect a sort of “bubble” of good-will and humour around yourself, dealing with problems more effectively. If you’re good at being optimistic, I think it’s possible to be quite content even on a fairly bad day. I recon it might even be possible to combat frustration with optimism. However, eventually you’ll hit a wall. Life has a way of keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground. If you’re pessimistic, on the other hand, you may be less happy in the short-term but you probably won’t be disappointed. It is, in many ways, an easier frame of mind to adopt and maintain than its opposite.

And yet, the idea that we’ll be more content if we’re cynical and pessimistic all the time seems counter intuitive, at least to me. It just doesn’t seem right. But maybe it’s not a question of being pessimistic. In fact, I don’t believe it is. What Seneca was saying was that we should always be prepared for the worst, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for the best. What he was advocating was realism, a simple acceptance of the fact that things really don’t always work out and that we’re bound to bump into problems from time to time. When we do, we should be prepared to say “ah well, that’s just the way of the world” and move on, rather than becoming angry and indignant. We should steep ourselves in reality, always ready to take the good with the bad. And when something goes wrong, we should try to take it philosophically. When the emperor ordered Seneca to kill himself, the man didn’t so much as complain. He took the knife, and then his life. Perhaps the perfect – if a tad lugubrious – illustration of what he was talking about.

On a side note, Alain de Botton has been criticized for popularising philosophy, over simplifying it to make it more accessible to “the masses”. To be frank, I’m not sure this is such a bad idea. I think philosophy has become a little too esoteric, a little too academic, and a little too lofty. Reading a philosophical text can be like trying to decipher some strange code. I believe it’s fully possible to express even the most complex philosophical theories in a simple manner. But I’ve only studied the subject for a while and can’t claim to be an expert. If you happen to have any thoughts on the matter, please share them!

Think About the Kids in Africa

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As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bombarded with a fairly common bit of moralistic advise: think about those starving kids in Africa. The point being, essentially, that I have no right to be unhappy or frustrated with my life, because there are people out there who have it an awful lot worse. I’ve grown up in a wealthy middle class family with happily married parents and a healthy (if somewhat scrawny) body. Not once in my life have I had to worry about money, and at no point have I been forced to go hungry. I’ve never wanted for anything. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was a sort of semi testicular torsion. So really, I should be grateful. And I am, believe me. But I’m not free of discontent, and I’m starting to form the opinion that that’s actually quite alright.

I think I’m justified in saying that most people here in the western world are told at some point in their lives that they have no right to complain. Their lives may be compared to those of people living in the developing world, as in the example above, or to those of their parents. The underlying message remains the same; you don’t have a right to be unhappy, because there are people out there who have it worse than you. Of course, we all go on complaining anyway, but for some of us a speck of guilt appears in our minds. But is this really true? Should we really be thinking like this? The other day I got to pondering it, and I realized that it doesn’t actually add up. First of all, what is the fundamental difference between us and these faceless examples of “people who are worse off”? I’d say it’s money. It’s more than that, of course; it’s a lack of warm clothes and food and water and healthcare. But it’s all very much of a material nature. We’re being told that we’re not allowed to be unhappy because we happen to own certain material things. And yet, as we all know by now, material things are not actually directly linked to happiness. Wealthy, healthy businessmen kill themselves just as surely as sickly paupers do. Naturally, good health and proper nutrition contribute to a person’s overall well-being, but there’s more to it than that.

Now, please don’t misinterpret me. I definitely think it is possible for a person to complain about things they have no real reason to complain about. Throwing a fit because your parents have decided you’re not allowed to get a new Xbox is a bit silly (though it’s very much possible that there’s an underlying reason for why the console in question is considered to be so important). I most certainly don’t think that the problems faced by people living in developing countries are trivial. What I’m disagreeing with is the notion that human rights, healthcare and wealth are the solution to all of mankind’s problems and that once people have these things they should be expected to renounce all discontent. We are complex animals with incredibly advanced minds, and we’re surprisingly fragile at times, both mentally and physically. The key to happiness is not development – it’s just a step in the right direction (and even then only if done in the correct manner). We can’t tell people that they have no reason to be unhappy, unless their unhappiness is based on a faulty belief of some sort.

The basic fact of the matter is that people are sometimes genuinely unhappy, despite favorable circumstances. There’s no denying this. Well to do people feel depressed, lonely and at times angry. Likewise, orphans living in Indian slums are sometimes quite happy. And if a person truly is unhappy, then clearly that is in itself an indication that said individual has a reason to be unhappy. We are after all talking about emotions here, and emotions are subjective by definition. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be “thinking about the kids in Africa” and I’m definitely not of the opinion that we shouldn’t be trying to improve the quality of life of people living in LEDCs. However, we should always remember that everyone has a right to be discontent and that if a person is unhappy, logic dictates that there’s a genuine underlying cause for this. We need to spend more of our time and energy supporting and encouraging one another, even those amongst us who appear to be acting a little selfishly. Of course, that goes for the people in LEDCs, too.

Humor, the Bane of Pain

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…Or something like that.

So, as you can tell, I’ve been thinking about humor today. It’s something I tend to do when I’m feeling stressed, anxious or just discontent, because it’s during times like these that I become aware of the potency of humor as a sort of psychological cure-all. Now, I’ve always been something of a “troubled child” and as I’m growing older I’m finding that only the latter half of that seems likely to change. I struggle. That’s not uncommon, and there are plenty of people who have it far worse than I, but I struggle nonetheless. Through reflective thinking and philosophy, I am starting to figure out how to address my various little issues, but I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be entirely free of them. I’m starting to think that for some of us, that’s something we just have to accept. We can fight it, and we might someday beat it, but until then it’s important that we figure out how to accept and tolerate it.

Studying existentialism and the thoughts of philosophers like Epicurus on the nature of happiness has helped me to heighten my personal contentedness, but I still have bad days. So, I’ve started to work out various coping mechanisms (in fact, I’ve been working on them subconsciously all my life, which I think is true of most people). My primary coping mechanism is reading, and I do so very frequently. The escapism that literature makes possible is a wonderful thing when a little distraction is needed. My other coping mechanism, one I’ve really come to rely on recently, is humor. As far as I’m concerned, one of the few things we can say with any certainty about life is that it’s hard. We’re faced with challenges almost every day. Learning how to see the funny side of such challenges has helped me quite a bit. Humor, as far as I’m concerned, could mean the difference between laughing and crying hysterically on those days when everything just seems to go wrong. Not that I ever cry. I am a man, after all; crying is strictly forbidden to members of my sex.

So today I got to thinking about this marvelous thing. Now, I’m not exactly a psychologist, but humor strikes me as a very interesting aspect of the human psyche. It seems to be one of those distinctly human things, like art and music. The vast majority of us are drawn to it, and we tend to revere those who have a firm grasp of it. So what, exactly, is it? And what purpose does it serve?

I’m thinking humor’s the ultimate coping mechanism. The bane of pain, if you wish to indulge my penchant for rhyming post titles. I see it like this: over millions of years, our species has developed a uniquely powerful brain, one that’s capable of astonishingly deep and reflective thought. We all know the cost  of this – we’ll never be as care-free as our dogs and cats appear to be. We’re too intelligent; we see things too clearly; we think about things too much. And we all know what happens to people who take things too seriously. Without a bit of levity every once in a while, people simply break down.  We need a good laugh now and then. I believe our capacity for humor evolved alongside our capacity for deep thought, not necessarily as a bi-product of our intellect but as a sort of counterweight. It’s simple evolutionary biology; the ones who knew how to laugh didn’t get all wrapped up in existential angst when they were out hunting saber toothed tigers, so they got to survive and have babies. Of course, I’m not a scientist (as I never tire of pointing out), and I’m all for non-scientific explanations for things. Maybe God is actually the Ultimate Joker and in order to help us appreciate the occasional divine prank he outfitted us with the ability to appreciate comedy. Regardless, it seems clear that humor’s a pretty big deal. Comedy’s a serious business.

Here’s my point: humor is vitally important. This is something I’m becoming gradually more convinced of. You have to be able to see the funny side of things, to appreciate the comedy of life. Because if you look at it the right way, life’s kinda funny. Look at us all, running around constantly trying to find some sort of meaning in a world that doesn’t necessarily contain any, solving complex maths problems and composing beautiful symphonies but still having to get up in the middle of the night to take a dump. It’s absurd! It’s funny! But that’s not always easy to appreciate, especially when the going gets tough. Some people find it more difficult than others. I know I’m not always very good at it. You don’t need to laugh at every single little thing, but I recon it’s good to sit down every once in a while and try to look at things in a humorous light. Imagine you’re a comedian looking for material – all of a sudden every obstacle becomes a potential joke.

As Chesterton said: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

A short(ish) post on determinism

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Da podcast!

I was just listening to a great philosophical podcast about moral responsibility (see link to the podcast above, and link to the blog featuring the podcast below), where I was introduced to the following pseudo-syllogism related to determinism:

1st Premise: What you do is determined by who you are.

2nd P: If you can’t control who you are, you can’t control what you do.

3rd P: You can’t control who you are.

Conclusion: Therefore, you can’t control what you do.

I’m not sure whether this is an entirely accurate quote, because I’m too lazy to go back and check, but I do believe I’ve got the gist of it (it certainly works, at least in my head). I just wanted to put this up because I like how concisely it outlines the theory put forth by determinism. As an example, imagine a person who is brought up in a devout Christian community by Christian parents, who later on in life starts writing an anti-LGBT blog (in this example, I’m thinking of a traditional, slightly extremist Christian community – there are of course many Christians today who fully accept non-heterosexual people). Now, we might say that this person had bad moral character. But, really, a reasonable person would have to admit that the individual in question is opposed to the LGBT lifestyle not because hse (sic) is evil, but because hse’s been raised in a particular way.

So there are two things I’d like to talk about related to this. First of all; if we accept determinism (which, of course, we don’t necessarily have to do), then what conclusions can we make regarding ethics? If people aren’t really in control of what they do, then surely there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral action? For someone to be considered a moral agent, they need to have free will – the ability, in the case of ethics, to choose between right and wrong. Here’s what I think; on some level, we can say that an action is wrong even if we do accept determinism, by applying certain tests/moral theories such as utilitarianism. Just because people can’t really choose between right and wrong doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist. However, what we can’t do is judge people because of their actions.

The second thing I’d like to talk about, quite briefly, is the idea that determinism is somehow an unpleasant theory. Generally, whenever determinism pops up (as in the aforementioned podcast), the discussion immediately turns to how horrible it would be if it were true. No free will! We’d be slaves to fate, incapable of making choices, shackled to causal chains that we have no control over whatsoever. People tend to shy away from this. It’s intimidating. We don’t want it to be true. However (and this is my point), freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s a wonderful concept. On paper, it sounds terrific. But if you look at the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (who thought that we were all most definitely free), you’ll find that he was kinda fond of saying that we’re all condemned to be free. He saw freedom as something that was, in a way, unpleasant. His reason for this was, essentially, that with freedom comes responsibility. If we’re free, we have to take responsibility for every conscious action that we take. That can be pretty heavy at times, especially if we’re unsuccessful or unhappy. If life doesn’t go the way we want it to, it’s our fault. In a way, if determinism is true, we have another kind of freedom. In a deterministic world, we’re free of freedom (or responsibility, if you wish). It’s the sort of freedom an animal, plant, or mineral has. The freedom to simply be, and “go with the flow”.

The above may be interpreted in such a way as to promote anarchy. But sometimes we have to ignore “deeper” truths for the greater good of ourselves and society (in other words, it’s all fine and dandy to not believe in personal responsibility, but it’s probably best if you pretend that you do). And, of course, we can’t be sure; determinism may well be incorrect.

Also, I have to admit that I didn’t listen to the entire podcast, so I might be repeating some of the things that were said  towards the end of it. I’ll probably finish listening to it soon (it was very interesting), and if I find this to be the case, I’ll come back and edit what I’ve written here – probably.

Hse: he/she. Pronounced like “see” but with a really husky voice. The Finnish have a word for man/woman (hen), why shouldn’t we? Makes life easier.

A Potential Argument Against Art as a Source of Misery

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Okay, so I said in my last post that I wanted to make an attempt at revising Elizabeth Gilbert’s “argument” in relation to the anxiety often said to originate from artistic practice. I’ll say this again; I’m not doing this because I don’t like Gilbert’s argument, but because I think it might be possible to put it together in a manner that’ll be more intuitively appealing to people who find the idea of magic, spirits or divine forces difficult to accept. I don’t really think Gilbert intended for her argument to be particularly spiritual – indeed I may by promoting a misinterpretation here – but it does comes across as that to some extent, at least to me.

In her Ted talks speech, Gilbert talked about alternative perspectives on art, making specific reference to the daemons and geniuses of Ancient Rome and Greece. Her idea was that these perspectives allowed artists to feel a lot less pressure regarding their work and, as a result, lead somewhat happier and more relaxed lives. They would still have to face a certain amount of pain in having to accept that the quality of their work was never assured, and that their greatest piece might be produced early on in their career, but whenever anything went wrong or their work was not appreciated, they’d not see themselves as being solely responsible. In a sense, artists with this perspective would not say that their art was “who they were” (as many do today), but just “what they did”. That distinction is vital; if a person defines themselves through their art, they’re making themselves tremendously vulnerable. Creative people these days are notorious for being bad at dealing with criticism, and this may well be the cause; when someone criticizes their work – even if it’s just friendly, constructive criticism – an artist may well feel deeply offended and even wounded if they view that work as an expression of their innermost self.

There’s no doubt that modern artists suffer, sometimes extraordinarily, and that their suffering does seem intrinsically linked to their work. People often talk about pain as a source of inspiration. But, considering the above, it might be possible that this is not actually necessary. There is a possibility that a new perspective could halt the current spread of depression and mental instability amongst our great artists, and help them live just as happily as the rest of us. Alcohol, drugs, and other commonly employed means of distraction might be made obsolete (or at least far less alluring) through such a change in perspective. Does that view need to contain an element of the otherworldly, though? Are spiritual artists the only kind that can shield themselves against the pain of creative labour? I say no.

Let’s consider, for a moment, what gives a person his or her identity. I’m going to try very hard to not fall into the trap of trying to devise a simple answer to a complicated question here, but I’ll try to be concise. As far as I’m concerned, a person’s identity comes through one thing and one thing only; causation. So what do I mean by that? Well, we live in what appears to be a deterministic universe. In fact, if we accept that there is an external world and that it is at least remotely similar to what we perceive it to be through our senses, and if we accept that our grasp of basic logic is correct, I don’t see how we could deny that the universe is deterministic. Now, for the sake of those who haven’t read or heard about determinism before now, here’s a quick illustration of it; why are you reading this text? Hopefully, because you saw the title somewhere and thought it might be interesting. Assuming this is true, why did you think it’s interesting? Let’s say, it’s because you have an interest in art and are yourself concerned about the suffering it sometimes seems to cause people. Why do you have this concern? Perhaps because your parents brought you up to empathize with the suffering of other people, or because you’ve suffered yourself. Why did they bring you up like this? Maybe because they were brought up in a similar manner. Why were they brought up like that? Possibly their grandparents had been horribly unsympathetic in their youth, and later came to regret it. This is a (simplified) causative chain, and you could theoretically follow it all the way back to the big bang, and beyond.

So, assuming that determinism is correct, which I would say it is (possibly out of ignorance), how does this relate to an individual’s identity? Well, it means that who they are at any given point in time is simply the result of the immensely complex causative chain that has brought them up to that moment. Right now, I am who I am because I possessed a certain genetic make-up at birth (one resulting from billions of years of evolution*), was brought up in a certain manner by my parents, met and interacted with certain people during my childhood and received a certain form of education. All that I am just now comes from this chain, and this essay can be seen as a sort of biproduct of that chain. This text is not something I’ve brought up from the depths of my soul, created by my intellect and passion, but merely something arising from that immense chain of events. It can be argued that I have a certain degree of free will, and that this post comes, in part, from that free will, but that doesn’t change the fact that said causative chain has presumably had a significant effect on it. The causative chain, then, can be viewed as a sort of daemon, and if you don’t like what I’ve written (which I sincerely hope is not the case), then that isn’t entirely my fault.

This particular kind of determinism is tricky and, in some ways at least, debatable. It raises all sorts of other questions and can be a bit bleak if viewed in the wrong manner (perspective again!). Nevertheless, I think I can say with some confidence that it is possible so view the many “external factors” that affect artists and their work as somewhat less ethereal daemons. But does this conclusively prove that art and suffering are not bound together? Unfortunately not, because it only shows that there exist plausible alternative perspectives on art; it doesn’t prove that such perspectives can prevent said suffering. But attitude may well be the key to a contented artistic life.

More on this coming up soon, so if you like it, stay tuned.

*Once again, corrections from scientifically minded people are much appreciated if I’m found to have said something erroneous (or just plain stupid). Indeed, I appreciate valid corrections of any kind.