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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

 

“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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

View all my reviews