Aphorisms for Our Age of Anxiety

1.) No one has ever been mocked, insulted, or beaten into the best version of themselves.

2.) The brain sticks little value labels on everything, labels that have no real existence - but very real consequences.

3.)Whatever else one may be, life insists one be a philosopher.

4.)One can't fathom another's malfunction while discounting that person's fears. 

5.)Hold nothing that drags you down. 

6.)Before going crazy, contemplate your crazy. 

7.) Any dope can see the beauty in beautiful things, a strong mind sees the beauty in all things.

8.) To know a thing's name and classification is to know nothing.  

9.) Don't discount the profound power of imaginary worlds. Read.

BOOK REVIEW: Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Indian Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionIndian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A concise guide to Indian Philosophy is a tall order. Over millennia, the discipline has had time to swell. This necessitated some careful pruning and selection on the part of the author. While the book does present key distinctions between all six of the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy (i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta,) the only one of the heterodox schools that it substantially addresses is that of Buddhism. (There are three major heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy by most accounts – Caravaka, Buddhist, and Jain, though some also include Ajivika and Ajnana to make five.)

This book focuses on the most novel ideas of each of philosophical schools under study, and it particularly focuses on points of debate where there is disagreement within or between schools. The book, therefore, moves metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, but doesn’t explore all major philosophical questions for all the schools.

If you’re looking for a book that sums up the key points of debate between and within major schools of Indian philosophy, this is a great book. It does the job quite well and with a minimal page count. If you need a book that offers insight into more than the major points of contention, but extends into a given school’s stance on some of the less provocative questions, I’d recommend Chatterjee and Datta’s “An Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (it’s much longer and denser, but dives deeper and farms wider.)

I like how this book was organized and thought it did a good job of being both concise and clear (a duo that doesn’t play well together with regards complex philosophical subjects.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Avadhūta Gītā by Dattātreya

The Avadhuta Gita - Song of the AsceticThe Avadhuta Gita – Song of the Ascetic by Dattātreya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Online: Sankaracharya.com

An Avadhūta is a mystic who’s transcended a dualistic view of the world, avoiding distinctions between self and everything else. Often, these sages are compared to those of various spiritual traditions who display divine madness, theia mania, crazy wisdom, or whatever one wishes to call it (e.g. the Nyönpa of Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism, or sages such as Ikkyu [Zen] or Saint Simeon [Christian.]) That’s because said individuals may behave in ways that seem strange because the conventions of society often doesn’t make sense in the context of the Avadhūta’s worldview.

“Avadhūta Gītā” translates to “Song of the Free Soul,” and it consists of eight chapters of poetry that read like sutras or epigrams (concisely stated bits of wisdom.) The poem can feel a bit redundant as it repeatedly hammers home the experience of a world free of duality and distinction, singing the virtues of oneness in oh so many ways. That said, other valuable lessons are eloquently conveyed throughout. For example, chapter two explains why one shouldn’t worry on the bona fides of one’s teacher, but rather take from him or her what is of use and not worry if a teacher doesn’t know everything. It makes the apt comparison that one doesn’t need a freshly-painted and ornately-trimmed boat to cross the river, anything with essential boat-like qualities will do.

There are many English translations of this poem. I compared two, and they read quite differently but conveyed the same gist. I’m not qualified to speak to how either compared to the original Sanskrit, but I didn’t feel either translation greatly outpaced the other in terms of conveying ideas (though one was more eloquently composed [though arguably with less clarity.])

If you’re interested in Yogic and Indian philosophy, I’d recommend giving this poem a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.


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POEM: Figment

I'm in a special 
mode of mind.
One in which nothing 
is ahead or behind.

Everything is shades
of a me that doesn't exist.

So, maybe I'm
a reflection 
of all that is --
in as much as 
there is an "I."

I don't know how
I slipped into this
anti-solipsist stance --
believing everything exists,
but I.

I'm a figment,
but since I can't be
a figment of my own imagination,
I'm not sure what 
flavor of figment
I might be. 

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson [Ill. by Chris Garratt]

Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one title in the “A Graphic Guide” series of books, many of which (including this one) are available on Amazon Prime. The books in the series explain fundamentals for a wide range of academic subjects, using simple descriptions supported by graphics. This particular book examines the philosophy of ethics and morality.

The book consists of a large number (almost 130) short topical sections, each with supporting graphics. Each section is just a page or two in length. The book has a chronological flow, moving from Socrates through the Postmodern philosophers. The nature of the topics varies, sometimes it is the view of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy, sometimes it’s a fundamental question or point of contention, and sometimes it’s a specific ethical issue. The last twenty-ish statements elaborate on two specific cases that the book addresses in detail: animal rights and euthanasia.

I felt the author did a good job of laying out a number of fault lines, controversies at the heart of differing views of ethics. The controversy that gets the most attention is that between absolutists and relativists. (Absolutists claim there are a set of core moral rules that are universally applicable, while relativists say one can’t make such rules because the morality of every action is relative, be it: situationally, culturally, or individually. An extreme view from either perspective is inconsistent with what one tends to sees in the real world.) A second point of contention regards whether ethical constraints are determined at the individual level or the societal / tribal / group level? A third controversy consists of a subjectivity versus objectivity divide – i.e. is morality just about what feels right or is there an objective way of defining moral knowledge? A significant portion of the book deals with the rivalries about these points, and – to a lesser degree – others (e.g. is biology the root of ethics or is it a domain devoid of ethics?)

There are cartoon drawings with most of the sections that illustrate key points, and / or depict interactions between rival philosophers. There is a “further reading” section in the back that suggests books to expand one’s grasp of the subject beyond the bare fundamentals that are addressed in this book.

I thought this book did a good job of laying out the issues. The cases (animal rights and euthanasia) helped show how different schools of thought apply their ideas to specific questions. I particularly enjoyed how the book clarified the subject through discussion of key questions of contention. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s definitely worth checking this one out. If not, you may want to see how it compares to the “A Very Short Introduction” guide for Oxford University Press, which is a similar series that explains the basics of a subject in a concise fashion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Civil DisobedienceCivil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This 30+ page political philosophy essay argues that it is one’s responsibility to avoid letting the government make one complicit in its unjust activities. The major points of contention for Thoreau were two-fold: state facilitation of the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War (which Thoreau – like many – saw as a shameless land grab.) Thoreau put his money where his mouth was, and was briefly jailed for failure to pay taxes. [This brief stay might have been much longer had not someone paid the tax bill without Thoreau’s knowledge. While Thoreau doesn’t name said individual (if he ever knew who it was,) he treats that person as someone who did a bad deed in his name rather than someone to be thanked.] The discussion focuses heavily on tax-paying (or, rather, non-payment) as opposed to other acts of civil disobedience / passive resistance / non-violence such as breaking unjust laws.

This essay has been cited as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and many who are less well-known as proponents of non-violent resistance against oppressive or unjust governance. While the meeting of unjust governance with passive resistance has shown itself to be a powerful strategy in the intervening years, Thoreau was at the vanguard of thinking on this issue. Later activists would expand the domain of civil disobedience greatly, and it would become more explicitly associated with non-violent opposition. [Thoreau doesn’t talk up the virtue of avoiding violence like Gandhi does, but he also doesn’t mention violence as an alternative to his approach — and it seems he would find violent acts as morally reprehensible as supporting the government in its acts of aggressive violence.] I would be interested to know the following of this essay by different elements of the political spectrum today, and how that following was influenced by those who took up its banner. [It has a libertarian “the government is fundamentally untrustworthy” vibe going, but I suspect it is probably popular with elements the left who generally view the government as a savior against corporations, given the essay’s past proponents. Though I could be wrong.]

Thoreau doesn’t focus on his own case, which he only gets to well into the essay and which he addresses in quick manner. Rather, he spends most of the essay discussing the justification for breaking the law (i.e. not paying taxes) and what is moral and proper and what is not. [e.g. He says that he pays the highway tax because his desire to be a good neighbor matches his desire to be a poor subject. [paraphrased.]] Obviously, it’s a nuanced issue. If no one paid their taxes who had a gripe with the government, it might just result in everyone finding a gripe with the government – in perpetuity. Thoreau, himself, has quite a negative view of government’s ability to be just. While his focus is on abolition of slavery and the war with Mexico, it’s not as though he proposes that these are exceptional and uncharacteristic cases.

Though it is short, this essay can be obtained as a standalone work (as it’s reviewed here,) but it’s also included in many Thoreau collections and political philosophy anthologies. Like it or lump it, it’s definitely worth reading because it addresses some pretty fundamental questions about what an individual’s responsibilities are to the government as well as what are one’s responsibilities to resist the government’s activities.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff

The Te of PigletThe Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Once in a while, one runs across a book that is much beloved by the general public, and one can’t figure out why. For me, this is one of those books, (as is its predecessor, “The Tao of Pooh.”) I certainly get the appeal of such a book, in principle. A book that clarifies and simplifies a subject as complex as philosophy using straightforward, down-to-earth, and well-known children’s stories like those from A.A. Milne’s “Pooh” book series is a brilliant idea, and is the kind of book I’d generally enjoy reading. [I’m a big believer in Einstein’s notion that, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”] Maybe that’s why I gave this book a rare second-chance. I’d listened to the audiobook from the library many years back, and didn’t much care for it at the time. However, the idea of the book was so appealing that I picked up a copy at a used bookstore recently, figuring that I’ve certainly changed my mind on many things over the years. Unfortunately, my opinion of this book has not improved. It’s a stellar book idea that, in my view, was poorly executed.

Before I get into what I found objectionable about this book, it’s worth noting that when the book is at its best it delivers some beautiful lessons on Taoist thought in a humorous and lighthearted way, illustrating these lessons through a mix of Pooh character interactions and quotes and tales from Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi, and other Taoist sources. When is the book at its best? When there is an interaction between two streams of voice: Taoist sage and Pooh-universe kid’s characters. Perhaps surprisingly, those two voices work well together – harmoniously and effectively.

So, what, you may ask, is my problem. It is the frequent interjection of a third voice, one that I will call “angry ideologue.” This angry ideologue is not at all in harmony with the other two voices, and –in fact — frequently detracts from the lessons by violating them outright. A prime example of this can be seen with respect to the fifth chapter’s (i.e. “The Eeyore Effect”) lesson against belittling others to make oneself feel bigger. A great lesson, except that Hoff is so quick to behave in conflict with it. A minor, but unfortunately not atypical, example can be seen in the previous chapter in which Hoff proves unable of extolling the virtues of Taiji and Pa Kua Chang (two Chinese martial arts) with the need denigrate a couple of Japanese martial arts (judo and aikido) in the process.

The most widespread example of his failure to do as he says, however, involves Hoff’s attacks against Confucianism. To be fair, there is a long history of Taoist and Confucianists badmouthing each other, but this need to tear down others to feel better about oneself is not consistent with the ideas that are explicitly expressed in the book. Hoff greatly oversimplifies Confucianist arguments, and while it’s certainly alright to simplify for the purposes of such a book, one can employ simplification as a weapon — cherry-picking ideas and statements out of context to make the other side look inept and illogical. Hoff violently swerves between the book that is advertised into political diatribes that often employ gratuitous attacks. To be fair, these digressions are probably not so dominant in the book as I make them sound, but the effect is multiplied by the distraction created – particularly when there is a sequence in which Hoff shares some Pooh wisdom to be kind, tolerant, or humble and he follows this by being none-of-the-above in his vilification of those with differing views.

While there are obviously many who would disagree with me, I’d recommend one look elsewhere to better understand the tenets of Taoism. There are certainly books that are more balanced and which will teach one more about Taoist thinking (as opposed to how to cherry-pick and twist Taoist ideas so that they seem to support a particular political stance.)

That said, one advantage of this book (and its predecessor) is that it is designed to speak to a wide age-range, and while books like Puett’s “The Path” and Slingerhand’s “Trying Not to Try” are better books for learning about Taoism but yet are very readable for a non-scholarly reader, they are not necessarily kid-friendly. I can’t say that I know any good kid-oriented books on Taoism (though some may well exist,) but I tend to believe that kids are more likely to pick up bad habits of thinking about people with different points of view and about interacting with others through this book then they are to learn good habits of mind. [Although, if one skips over the diatribes, it might serve quite well. And if one doesn’t skip them, one will still be preparing your child to participate in what passes for political discourse in the modern era.]

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ESSAY: This I Believe [Including My Views on Unicorns]

Occasionally, I’m asked whether I BELIEVE some idea or BELIEVE in X [i.e. fill in the person, place, thing, or concept.]

If I were to answer these questions honestly, that answer would almost invariably be, “No.”

But, because that can seem overly contrarian — not to mention insane — I often try to guess the sense in which the questioner is using the words “BELIEVE” and “BELIEF,” and then answer accordingly.

Like many words, BELIEVE is one whose meaning meanders, and shadows fall across it in different ways, creating different hues [and impressions thereof,] depending upon one’s vantage point.

Often, people seem to use the phrase, “I BELIEVE X ” synonymously with “I understand X to be true.” “I BELIEVE it” can mean: I behave as though X is true, [but am not necessarily commenting on the degree to which X is supported by evidence or reason.] I, on the other hand, try to use BELIEVE in the sense of: “I accept the truth of X and behave accordingly, but I don’t really have any solid basis on which to rest this conclusion.” I like to draw as few such conclusions as possible, though sometimes it’s hard not to. For example, like most people, I live my life as if we are living in base reality — as opposed to being in some “Matrix”-like computer simulated world, but — if pressed — I’d have to admit that I can’t really support this belief convincingly.

If I were to be asked whether I BELIEVE there is a force that inexorably pulls me toward the Earth’s center, using my own interpretation of the word “BELIEVE,” I would reply in the negative. Before you ask how I can be so anti-gravity [pun not intended, but acknowledged,] let me say that I firmly understand there to be such a force as gravity. This is not to say that I fully understand the mechanism by which gravity works — which I certainly do not — but rather to say that I recognize the truth of such a force’s existence. I can experience gravity in my pathetic vertical leap, and even note it in the very impressive vertical leap of skilled athletes. I see it in the red leaf, twirling as it falls to the ground. I feel it upon takeoff as an airplane’s seat raises against my butt. Furthermore, I recognize that there are many scientists who’ve come to understand a great deal more about gravity than I, but also that none of what they’ve learned through their vast number of controlled observations contradicts my basic idea that I’m being pulled toward the planet (and it toward me.)

At the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, I was once asked whether I BELIEVED in astronomy and astrology? The questioner clearly thought this was a closed-ended, yes or no, question — as if the two fields dealt in identical content. Of course, from my perspective, it was a question similar to: “Do you BELIEVE in Zebras and Magical Unicorns?” — which is to say, not at all a straightforward and closed-ended yes or no question. [Incidentally, the reason I used the modifier “magical” is because I do “believe” in unicorns. I just call them “Indian Rhinoceroses” [Latin name: Rhinoceros Unicornis.]]

A Unicorn — i.e. the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis

The long and short of the matter is this: I strive to BELIEVE as little as I can, and to hold even those BELIEFs only so tightly that they might fall away in the face of learning. Otherwise, what’s learning for [or is it even possible?]

POEM: Piscine Metaphysics [Prose Poem]

Looking at the water’s surface, seeing the reflection on display, a fuzzy and easily perturbed version of the trees beside and clouds above, I feel the watery world is less real than my own.

Then I consider the fish. At best, the fish sees those trees and clouds as a hazy and rippling representation, dim or, perhaps, shimmering. On the other hand, I suspect the fish sees the yellowed bases of the cat’s tail stalks and the rumpled car that a teenager drove into the lake twenty years ago in high-definition clarity, though I cannot see those things even with my nose to the water.

As my intraspecific conceit can only stretch so far, I’m left with the reassuring (or disconcerting) realization that all of it is equally real (or none of it is real at all.)