POEM: The Philosopher [Day 16 NaPoMo: Narrative]

Said a man, standing on a crate,
“Thought and comfort are species that cannot mate.”

This philosopher continued:
“An idea unchallenged can’t claim merit. Sacred stories are paper tigers.

“Anything sanctified may lead to murder. For one person’s sacred object will bump into that of another, and it’s only by brute force that such conflicts are resolved. ”

The mayor was captivated by the philosopher’s words, and thought:
The youth are lumps, existing free…
-of challenge
-of thought
-of dignity
-of power

So the mayor invited the philosopher to his town.

The townsfolk were not pleased.

The philosopher’s first act was the erection of a sign that read,

Your god is the wrong God!

One resident said, “How can you make such a statement?”

“I’m not here to offer instruction about how language works, but — rather — about how  a thoughtfully lived life can be achieved.”

The first man kicked the philosopher in his left shin, and stormed off.

The second shouted, “But what gives you the right?”

“The right to what? To write a statement? To expose it to public scrutiny?”

“To make claims about which god is the true God.”

“I make no such claims.”

“But your sign says so.”

“Do you claim the sign is wrong, or that I have no right to make the comment — regardless whether it is true or false?”

“Well, mostly, the first one. The sign is not right,”

“Perhaps the sign IS untrue, and if proven so, I would certainly have to remove it. So tell me, is your counter-claim that your god is truly God?”

“It most certainly is,”

“Then tell me, how can I know that your claim is the correct one?”

“It is written in the scriptures.”

“So anything that is written in a religion’s scripture is true?”

“No. Not just any religion’s scriptures, just ours.” said, the man, thinking he’d anticipated the philosopher’s argument about how mutually exclusive statements can be true.

“And why just yours?”

“Because ours were written by the hand of God,”

“And how could a person such as myself be convinced of the truth of such a statement?”

“Because it is written…”

“So the scriptures of other religions don’t say they are the truth from God?”

“They may say it, but it’s not true.”

“So do you have more of an argument than that you believe something written centuries before your birth must be true and statements contrary to it must be false? If not, I must maintain that the statement on the sign has as much validity as your counterclaim. Both statements may or may not be true and with unassignable probabilities.”

And so the second man punched the philosopher in his right eye, and walked off in a huff.

A third man, a missionary, said, “That man was wrong,”

“I agree,” said the philosopher holding his palm over his eye, “violence is not a winning argument,”

“No,” said the third man, “not about punching you. He was wrong that what matters is the scriptures. I know my god is the God because I feel it’s true.”

“I had vertigo once. It felt like the room was spinning and like I would fall over, but neither was true. So, I can’t say that I put much faith in what I feel as arbiter of truth, but I definitely don’t have any feeling about the existence of your god — one way or the other. Are you saying he might be god to you — who feel this presence — and not to me, and to all those others, who don’t have such a feeling?”

“I’m not saying that…”

“Oh, good, because I was going to ask why you make so much effort to convert people to a subjective god?”

The third man kicked the philosopher in the right shin, shook his head, and walked off.

A fourth man approached and said, “Your sign is wrong because I have no god. I don’t believe in such hokum.”

The philosopher took out a marker and made some editorial changes. He wedged a large “V” in between the word “Your” and the word “god” and wrote “lack of” above it. He then crossed out the words “the” and “God.” The edited sign read:

Your lack of god is wrong!

“Surely, you aren’t going to attempt a proof for the existence of god after what you told your previous conversant?”

“I am not. You watched the previous discussions and should realize that I claim no more than that my statement holds as much validity as yours. Unless, that is, you are more successful at proving the non-existence of a god than the previous individuals did at proving its existence.”

“I cite Occam’s razor,” the fourth man said smugly, adding, “are you familiar with it?”

The philosopher said, “Indeed I am. But I wonder, why is it not called ‘Occam’s Law?’ Is it always the case that the simplest explanation is invariably true? Could we not find in the natural world instances in which the explanation for an observed phenomena was more complicated than an explanation we could theoretically imagine?”

“Not invariably, but a good rule…”

“So you base an absolute conclusion on a ‘good rule of thumb?’ Isn’t there potential for…”

The fourth man socked the philosopher in his left eye.

The philosopher, blinded with two swollen eyes and with a knob under each knee, sat by his sign, awaiting more takers.

The mayor came by and said, “I’m afraid this hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped. I’ve gotten so many complaints. Perhaps, it would be best if you move along.”

So, the philosopher grabbed his meager possessions, and limped one painful step at a time out of town.

***

Two weeks later, a colonizing army invaded.

The officers told the residents that they must convert.

The townsfolk all said that they would never convert.

The generalissimo said, “Convert or die. Those are your options.”

“That’s unfair,” said one man.

“What gives you the right?” said a woman.

The generalissimo then said, “OK. OK. If any of you can give me a sound reason why your religion cannot be supplanted by our own, I will reconsider…”

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans

The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic ExperienceThe Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a philosopher’s account of sampling from the various wells of ecstatic experience. It’s one of many works these days on what the ancient Greeks called ekstasis. There’s been major interest in investigating the topic in recent years. Historically, religion was the means by which people pursued ecstasy, but – increasingly — people who don’t care for the dogma and tribalism of religion are starting to crave its more blissful and ego-shedding aspects.

As a work of immersion journalism, the book is a mixed bag. Evans does seek some firsthand experience of most of the topics covered, but the extent of his immersion and his discussion of it varies greatly. For example, he goes into great detail in pursuing and discussing mystic Christianity, but isn’t so comprehensive in discussing neo-Tantrism (i.e. Western, or sex-centric, Tantra) and his discussion of psychedelics draws heavily upon decisions / experiences made as a teenager (which, it could be argued, is a little like commenting on the Eucharist based on that time you got drunk on Boone’s Farm and scarfed down a bag of Doritos. Though, to be fair, the author is clear and cognizant that his youthful dalliances weren’t necessarily equivalent to a conscientious pursuit of heightened consciousness, but are more a warning to heed Leary’s advice on “set and setting.”) At any rate, if you are expecting immersion journalism on the level of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” you’ll find this book isn’t consistently on par (though it does have its moments.) That said, Evans does a fantastic job of researching the topic and presenting interesting perspectives on the subject, and he does so with humor and inquisitiveness. (I will say that in the latter chapters I sometimes found myself very intrigued by the discussion, but it would occur to me that I couldn’t see a direct link being made to the pursuit of ecstatic experience. Maybe it was just me, but if he strayed, he strayed interestingly – which is better than the alternative.)

The book consists of an introduction and ten chapters. The chapters cover such approaches to ecstasy as: religion (primarily Christianity is discussed, obviously focusing on sects and subsects that pursue [rather than shun] ecstatic experience), the arts, rock-n-roll (with an intriguing focus on its surprising resemblance to religion), psychedelic substances, meditation, neo-Tantrism, war and violence, communing with nature, and transhumanist efforts.

With the exception of Evans’ investigation into meditation, for which his experience involved Vipassana — a nominally Theravadin Buddhist system, Evans’ book focuses heavily on Western approaches. I actually enjoyed this because it seems like there is much more discussion of Eastern approaches and those rooted in them.

The book is annotated and has a section of photos in the back as well as a few other graphics where needed.

I enjoyed this book and learned lot from it. As immersion journalism it displayed a wide variance of depth and openness, but it was well-researched and the information was delivered in a light and readable manner.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a great little guide for a person considering the Stoic life. Stoicism was one of more well-known philosophies to come out of the ancient world, though it suffered a setback with changing philosophical trends and the rise of the great monotheistic religions. For those who know the term “stoic” as a small-s adjective, it’s worth noting that its definition (emotionless / impassive) is not the distinguishing trait of this school of philosophy. (Something similar can be said for Cynic v. cynic and Epicurean v. epicurean.) Still, there is a thin connection in that Stoics believed in not being controlled by emotion to one’s detriment, and not becoming emotional over things about which one has no control.

This book offers some historical background, showing how Stoicism evolved as it moved from Greece to Rome (and later how it might continue to evolve to appeal to — and work for — a modern following.) It also gives one some idea of the subtle differences of perspective among the Stoics. Usually when one bones up on Stoicism, one does so through the writings of a particular philosopher, be it Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and so it’s interesting to see how these men with varied backgrounds lived and taught Stoicism.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses what a life philosophy is, it gives Stoicism a context within other ancient philosophies, and it compares and contrasts Greek and Roman Stoicism. The second part describes the techniques that Stoics used to achieve their worldview and approach to living. These techniques include negative visualization (mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios in a way that one becomes desensitized to them), classifying events by whether one can do anything about them or not and adopting a fatalistic acceptance of what one cannot influence, self-denial (i.e. avoiding excessive pursuit of comfort or pleasure), and meditation (being aware of one’s behavior so one can learn to implement Stoic approaches to living.)

Part three describes the advice of Stoics on a range of issues that are confronted in life. These include: duty, social relationships, insults, grief, anger, desire for fame, desire for luxury, exile, old age, dying, and becoming a Stoic. You may note, most of these are as valid today as they were in the day of the great Stoics, if not more so, and even “exile” has modern day analogies.

Part four discusses Stoicism for modern living. Among the issues covered include how a secular humanist might justify the practice of Stoicism. (The historical justifications were couched in theistic assumptions about the world.) It also delves into nuts and bolts considerations for the would-be Stoic. (Specifically, Irvine suggests practicing something he calls “stealth Stoicism,” which involves living in accord with the tenets of the philosophy while avoiding drawing attention to it from friends and family who might think you’ve become a lunatic who will soon be showing up to the 4th of July BBQ in a toga.)

Besides annotations and a works cited section, the back matter also includes a Stoic reading program as an Appendix.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’ve read works by Stoics, but it was nice to learn about Stoicism through a broader, overhead lens. If you’re interested in a philosophy of life, in general, or Stoicism in particular, this is a good book to read.

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5 Philosophical Questions Life Forces You to Answer

Like it or not, life makes philosophers of us all. You may hate philosophy, but you can’t escape it. You can — as many people do — outsource how you answer these questions, but that still requires a decision.

5.) How do I know a thing is true?  Sometimes the answer is self-evident, but, more often then people acknowledge, it’s not. This is exacerbated by the confusion of subjective truth (a personal “truth”) with objective truth (the universally true.)

Some people relinquish decision to an authority — be it a teacher, a scripture, or the scientific consensus. Some people only believe what said person’s personal experience tells them.

There is a related question of how tightly should one hold onto whatever beliefs one acts as if are true. The scientific approach suggests one should be ready to abandon something one believes is true in light of new information (assuming the new information is sound and can be validated.) Religions tend to prefer that the truths that have been handed down should be grasped firmly no matter what one sees, hears, or learns. One’s philosophical stance may take either approach, or one in between.

4.) [Who] am I?  As the brackets suggest, this is actually two questions. The full question, “Who am I?” presumes that there is a self (an I.) Some philosophies, e.g. Buddhism, reject this presumption, hence the more fundamental question of “Is there an I?”

3.) What constitutes a virtuous or moral life? Of course, some philosophies would reject the ingrained presumption that one should care, but that’s a fringe position. Maybe the more general question of “What constitutes a good life?” is a better one.

2.) What does it mean for something to be real? Some will say, “Come on. I know what’s real. I don’t need to philosophize about that?” Really? Because the best minds in the world are constantly debating this and have reached no consensus on the subject. It’s certainly possible to get through life behaving as though reality is “x,” whether or not “x” turns out to be true. But that’s very different from knowing what is true.

1.) Is there free will, and — if so — in what sense?  It feels like we have complete free will, but there are a couple of grounds on which this has been questioned. For the religious, reconciling an omnipotent god and free will takes some mental gymnastics. (If one can act completely freely, how can a god also?)

But more recently, free will has been challenged by science as well. Benjamin Libet’s work showed that “decisions” take place before people become conscious of them, and — therefore — aren’t decisions in the sense we usually understand that word (i.e. the product of conscious deliberation.) Of course, while some have argued that the repeated validation of Libet’s work shows free will is purely an illusion, there remain many who argue there are still possible ways in which some form of free will exists. (Including, apparently, Libet who believed we at least have “free won’t” even if we don’t have free will — i.e. we can consciously veto deterministic “decisions.”)

Best of luck picking — or building — your own life philosophy.

POEM: Truth & Beauty

Philosophers speak of truth and beauty in the same sentence.

The only connection I see is that neither can be seized tightly.

Beauty blanches or crumples under the force of a tight fist,

and any truth that flies from a tender grip isn’t so true as you’d like it to be.

Sometimes, the truth is ugly.

Sometimes, beauty is a lie.

Hell, sometimes the truth is a lie and a lie is true,

and often times a beauty is ugly & ugliness is beautiful.

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Living by Epictetus; ed. by Sharon Lebell

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and EffectivenessThe Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This thin volume is packed with the wisdom of Epictetus. Epictetus was a freed slave who made a name for himself as a philosopher in Rome about a century after the birth of Christ. While small-s “stoic” conjures an image of a dour automaton, the Stoics were philosophers who believed [he oversimplified] that there’s nothing worth getting broken up about. If you can do something to influence the outcome of an event, you just need to pick the virtuous course. And if you can’t do anything about it, getting mopey is futile. In many ways, Stoicism is the Western philosophy that is most in-line with Eastern philosophies in that it emphasizes that your internal mental state is independent of what is happening outside you; so, if you can rule your mind you can find your bliss. Lebell, the editor of this volume, heavily accentuates that similarity.

When I called this thin, I didn’t mean “thin” as a derogatory comment. That said, this book is even thinner than it’s 113-page count would suggest because (as with most poetry collections) there’s a lot of white space left under a few lines of text. I actually think it’s kind of nice that the publisher didn’t do what is usually done with such short books, which is to pad them out with various unnecessary ancillary material. That said, if you can get the e-book, you’ll save some trees from dying for blank space. If they would have placed more than one maxim per page, it would probably have been cut to about 60pp.

I found this book to be well-written and nicely presented, and would recommend it for someone who wants a simple and concise overview of Stoicism.

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POEM: Epictetus & the Gentleman

Epictetus asked a man if he was free.

“I own land, can vote, and am deemed gentry.”

“But are you free?” the stoic repeated.

“Are you daft?” the man’s words came out heated.

 

And in that outburst the truth was revealed.

 

POEM: Forced Philosophizing

Life makes philosophers of us all.

You’re forced to decide how you will know your truth.

And it is “your truth,” or “my truth.”

We are powerless to determine THE truth, having only a limited capacity to even discern it.

“Your truth” is the concoction of fact and fiction by which you dance through life.

Now, you may say,

“Life may force me to be a liar, a whore, and a scoundrel, but I’ll never stand for it to make me a philosopher!”

Maybe you think you can side-step philosophy by taking answers straight from science, scripture, or lockstep walking with your tribe, but making that decision has still forced you to philosophize.

No matter what default you choose, knowledge of truth will remain limited and sometimes faulty.

I favor holding truths like an intact bird’s egg found fallen out of a nest — careful not to grasp too tightly for fear of either crushing it or having a misidentified velociraptor chick pop out and bite off my thumb.

I can’t say that this is a better approach than those who hold truths in the way of a rodeo rider with a dislocated elbow and shoulder who — never-the-less — stayed his eight.

It’s not just in matters of truth and knowledge that we are forced to philosophize.

One also has to determine what constitutes a virtuous life, and to what degree one finds chasing said path worth the effort. Again, the choice to outsource future thought to a holy book is still an act of philosophizing.

I understand that most people don’t want to be seen as a philosopher anymore than than they would want to be seen as a masochist — a lifestyle which bears something in common with philosophy.

After all, the philosopher is one who insists on engaging in rigorous and tedious thought on subjects that offer no right answers — just a huge slate of equally least-worst options.

If she wanted to engage in such thought AND uncover the right answer, she’d be a scientist.

If he wanted to wax eloquent on his love of living in the dark, he’d study language or literature.

But the philosopher likes his thought like he likes his tragic figures of Greek mythology –Sisyphean.

BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

Book of WordsBook of Words by Abay Kunanbayev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Book of Words is a collection of 45 short essays by Abay Kunanbayev (1845 – 1904), one of Kazakhstan’s preeminent men of letters. Abay is known both as a poet and philosopher. This book includes more prose philosophy than poetry, though it does contain a few lines in verse.

I picked this book up while traveling in Kazakhstan. It should be noted that much of the book is a rant against the Kazakhs of Abay’s day. The book advocates for individuals to be both more scholarly, more virtuous, and more piously religious, and it skewers Kazakhs as simpletons who only care about the size and state of their livestock herds and the wealth that said herds can bring them. It’s eloquently written, but there’s not much more to it than that. With his Book of Words, Abay is trying to goad the Kazakh’s into being more virtuous and well-read. Judging from both the prominence of his name in Almaty (a huge statue, a major road, and one of the Metro stops named for him) and the success seen in Almaty, many Kazakhs probably took his words to heart.

There was a forward by someone named Nursultan Umbetov who is living, but far less famous (internationally, at least) than Kunanbayev. However, that front matter is the only ancillary matter for the edition I read. It does have explanatory footnotes where necessary to clarify something that wouldn’t make sense to non-Kazakhs.

If you want to gain insight into Kazakh culture, and how it’s changed since the 19th century, this book is worth reading. Much of the book may be viewed as trite truisms rather than earth-shattering wisdom, but it’s concise and well-articulated.

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