Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Climbing the Ladder of Pleasure

[Cinnamon and Rufus had this exchange earlier today.]

4:40 PM Cinnamon: Is there any reason that pleasure should not be the purpose of living? My friend is still stuck on that.
4:45 PM Rufus: hmm yes
  pleasure is always the pleasure of an act
  people don't realize this
4:46 PM there isn't some detachable quality of acts called "pleasure", each kind of pleasure is particular to the act that provides it
  consequently it doesn't make sense to live for pleasure in the abstract
  you want to live for the best kinds of pleasure
  but the best kinds of pleasure are in the best acts
4:47 PM and here you have to clarify
  is there included in pleasure only physical pleasure, or also mental pleasure, i.e. the pleasure that comes from judging that something is good or delightful.
4:48 PM Because if you're just living for physical pleasure, then basically, you're just a brute animal and I have no interest in having anything to do with you any longer.
  But if you include mental pleasure, then you've got to start asking what acts are the best, what makes them the most enjoyable, and what the basis of our judgment of the excellence of things is
4:49 PM But then your living for pleasure changes from something stupid like mediocre hedonism, to something higher, something based on the intrinsic perfection and nature of things. This way of pursuing pleasure is capable of being intelligent and perfective of who you are as a human being.
4:50 PM And finally, when you pursue pleasure in this way, your search for the best things leads to you discover the principle which grounds all goodness, of which the diverse excellences you discover in things are simply a mirror or reflection.
4:51 PM And if you make that discovery, you will find that as a thoughtful hedonist you cannot help but turn toward God.
  But at this point you cease to be a hedonist, really, and become something different.

[A little later, their conversation continued...]

5:12 PM Cinnamon: He's saying that the life of the mind is important but the life of the body equally so
 Rufus: why?
5:13 PM Cinnamon: Hmm I think there's something to this that I should try to address
5:14 PM Sigh I don't know
5:15 PM Well, I think if he's saying anything legitimate, it's that we aren't just disembodied little floaty minds and that we actually have bodies and psychology and chemistry going on with us and whatever
 Rufus: absolutely
 Cinnamon: but that still doesn't mean that those
5:16 PM Rufus: but see he's jumping around
  he said he was going to live for pleasure
  that's fine
  then follow the thought through
  but now he's talking about giving the body its due
  this is a different concern from hedonism
  this is more about respecting the nature of things
  so we've left hedonism behind
5:17 PM unless he's saying that you can't have higher mental pleasures without a modicum of bodily pleasures alongside
  in which case you'll point out to him that the body has appetites that are very greedy, and so in order to prevent your better pursuits from being sidetracked by bodily appetites you need a rule, and you need control
5:18 PM in which case really we're talking about temperance and the rational mean
5:19 PM but the pure hedonist doesn't even care about the rational mean, he cares about shaping himself so he can go straight for the best things
  and not being tied down by petty wants and distractions
5:20 PM see there's a logic in human desire that, if you hold steady and pursue it straightforwardly in the context of human nature, can't help but point toward (1) virtue and (2) happiness as ultimate perfection.


[These are the notes from a lecture I gave this past summer as part of a series on the Secunda Secundae of Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae.  It's imperfect, but I think a reasonably good outline of the subject matter.  Chances are that I deviate from St. Thomas periodically through ignorance. Mea culpa.]

Prudence and Art

1.  Today we're going to talk about three important virtues: ART, PRUDENCE, and JUSTICE.  Before getting tangled up in the details, we should pause to define our terms.  So here we go:

  • ART is the virtue of a craftsman: it is the ability to see how things should be made.  
  • PRUDENCE is the virtue of self-governance: the ability to see what is to be done in particular circumstances to achieve a given goal.  
  • JUSTICE is the virtue of equity and balance: the tendency to find and respect what is right in relationships with others.  

2.  To get an idea of how these virtues work, let's use an example that involves all three.  Imagine you're a carpenter and you're building a chair.  In order to build a chair, you need to know what kind of materials, tools, and techniques are good to use.  Some kinds of wood are better, some designs are more stable than others, some are more comfortable.  ART is the ability to know how a chair should be constructed in general, and the ability to execute that design effectively.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Looking for an Angry Fix

[This was published for Fare Forward two weeks ago.  I have another post there coming up this Thursday.]

This morning when I woke up, the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl ran through my head. I had to look it up again to get them right, but when I did they struck me much like an old painting, long ago admired, studied and rejected, that returns to redisclose some of its original excellence.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

Howl is one of the necessary stops in the education of any earnest literate, and much could be said about it on that score. At some stage we all like to imagine ourselves on the road with Ginsberg or Kerouac, reading Blake, St. John of the Cross and Plotinus on LSD and feeling eternity quiver in the words, struggling with the tangle of our roots, with the problems of ourselves and other people and God. What is great in all this is the wanting after greatness, what is heroic is the ability to strike out in pursuit of the One, to reject these dark satanic mills, to share in the optimism of the Internationalewhile suffering exile, poverty and disease, without eliding the meaningfulness of pain by ordering it to some higher good. Etc.

None of these things crossed my mind this morning. I paused over the obvious: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. Instead of dreaming of a new Beat, equating our hipsterswith those hipsters, I thought of how the minds of my generation have been destroyed by madness, how we find ourselves burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. I thought of our schizophrenia and dissipation, and the consequences of displacing the singleness of personal identity into an aggregate of text and images. How we tend to numb ourselves to that burning desire by gorging the mind on possibilities, people, places, by re-injecting every pin drop of our heartless solipsism into the echo chamber of the internet and simulating the clamor of voices with the patter of text.

If we call “mad” any frame of mind that effectively dissociates thought and action from reality, then the virtual world is a machine for madness. It is the place where everyone can adopt a new persona at any given moment, where the self does not subsist except as aggregated bits of text in a series of hard drives, where the principle of noncontradiction loses its force. In this place I am never who I am, because the “who” no longer refers to a subject. Instead, I am the perpetual act of saying, I am reference without referent. I am many. I create myself. I subsist across space and time, and by my words I dissolve space and time. For me all things are possible, all things are true, and because of this, communication is no longer a system of gestures at some external reality, but the generation and life of reality itself.

This universal place is the home of our satanic mills, this is the city whose alleyways we wander at dawn looking for an angry fix. The problem, of course, is that awash in the sea of our multiplicity we suffer from a lack: there is not enough of us. We talk continuously “from park to pad to bar” at all hours of day and night, and we pour out endless streams of text to nail down the complex of the self and establish its presence as a fixed thing in the virtual world. But of course persons are incommunicable, and we will never find ourselves in what we’ve said. We will never discover that desire, the pain of which drove us to so much pettiness and distraction. We will never draw close to the motions of eternity by which that longing is filled. Finally, as the night reaches toward the dawn and the internet falls silent, the facts lie open to every beholder. At the end of our virtual parade of vanities there is really nothing left but the abyss of unfulfilled possibilities, passed over while we were enjoying the show.

Tell Them Who You Are

[I wrote this as an Op-Ed for the Yale Daily News back in 2009.  Going back to it, I expected to dislike it.  Except for the last two paragraphs, I think it's fantastic.]

The urge to confess is among the strongest and deepest in our society. From the little booths in churches to sofas in analysts’ offices, our longing to reveal ourselves moves out into theaters and living rooms.

We are a society driven by the monologue. Our literature is confessional, our philosophy almost morbidly self-conscious; someone is always exposing a viewpoint, a crime, a scandal. Beyond this there is reality television, the passive viewer’s way of fantasizing about disclosing his own life and thoughts about his peers, an expression of desire for an openness and exposure that goes beyond the one-way conveyor belt of the mass media.

Our confessional tendencies have blossomed again through the Internet, yielding millions of blogs and public journals, giving us Facebook and now Twitter. These utilities reflect a deep longing to pour out some encapsulation of our thoughts and struggles, to be heard and recognized.

I have felt this longing myself; maybe that’s why I think it exists so widely. Maybe I’m wrong. But whenever I try to indulge these impulses, my attempts are frustrated.

My Facebook account has caused me tremendous irritation over the years. It is structured on the assumption that my identity can be pinned down through a few lists, quotes and a brief personal statement. Whenever I fill out these things I feel guilty because I’m probably misrepresenting myself. I am annoyed because I couldn’t possibly say anything accurate about myself in so small a space, and I wouldn’t want to post an honest statement for general consumption if I could. That obnoxious text box underneath my profile picture commands, “Say something about yourself!” No, stupid box, I refuse to say anything about myself! I will not submit to your demands for self-reduction!

Self-reduction? I guess I’ve made a leap here into what I’m really interested in saying. When I decided, to the tune of general astonishment, to shave my head this summer, I did it to say symbolically that I was willing to open up and expose myself, to give up my fears of humiliation. And yet since that moment I have felt a tension between my desire to be honest and humble and my inability to truly explain why I did it. Even here, characterizing the act as a gesture of openness, I’m reducing it to one of its aspects at the expense of others. There was more to it, more than I can explain, more even than I can understand at any given moment.

I think life is like that in general, and more importantly people are like that. We can never really figure out the core of our problems or identities, no matter how many psychological, historical or other interpretive schemes we use to divide up our selves or reduce our amorphous masses of “me” into neat sets of predicates or mechanisms. Somehow “I” am still looking at it all, understanding it, living it. This “I” eludes reduction.

So what does this mean for our desire to explain ourselves, to confess? What is the point of all these miserably inadequate encapsulations we offer to ourselves and to each other? The point, I think, is manifold. First, our confessions are the expression of an impulse to work out our selves in a way just as reductive and predictive as the way science works out the material world. Confession can be, in this way, an attempt to blot out the anxieties so deeply engraved in our sense of freedom, in our orientation toward unclear values and ideals.

Second, the need to be recognized reflects the deeply solitary nature of life in our society. The impulse to confess is an impulse to bring the life of my life out into the open and share it with someone. If I cannot share it in particular, in private, I must share it generally, impersonally. Jonathan Franzen writes that we have lost the private sphere to prying reporters and gossip columnists. My confessions arise out of a misguided attempt to counter the solitude of publicness by pouring my private life out into the open.

Third, our confessions reflect a desire to reverse the causal link drawn between body and mind. In the world of the Internet, everyone can be a 23-year-old model. We can all manufacture the mental and physical profiles we want to have. Confessions are, in this way, also a form of concealment. Why else would we so zealously “un-tag” the less-savory images of us, or remove the News Feed items that seem antithetical to who we “really are”?

It seems there is something wrong with this impulse. Instead of fleeing from responsibility, friendship and sincerity, a proper confession should embrace precisely these things. It should do so individually and privately, face-to-face, recognizing the essential irreducibility of my life and yours, and insisting that we are all, each and every one of us, people. Facebook, Twitter and reality TV seem to work against this.

Perhaps all this striving to reveal the truth of our selves is a clever way of evading a more corporate truth. Maybe it’s time for us to rediscover the meaning of personhood, to re-close the private sphere and satisfy that deeper desire for community and communion, which all our confessions so fruitlessly try to soothe.

The Game of Identity

[The following is taken from an interview with Foucault done in June 1982, about two years before his death.  The passage is noteworthy, I think, because it suggests an approaching shift in the politics of sexual identity.  At the moment the appeal of fringe sexual groups is always to a natural principle: desire inscribed in my identity cannot be wrong, therefore it should be embraced.  Society at large can only sustain a few possible "natural" sexual identities, however, and the very form of sexual perversity involves the proliferation of differences and the cultivation of new areas of eroticism.  Hence we will soon see a shift, already anticipated in Foucault, from appeals to nature toward appeals to the creative individuality of sexual agents, unconstrained by any supposedly determinate nature or identity.]

Q. Is it significant that there are, to a large degree, identities forming around new sexual practices, like S&M? These identities help in exploring such practices and defending the right to engage in them. But are they also limiting in regards to the possibilities of individuals?

M. F. Well, if identity is only a game, if it is only a procedure to have relations, social and sexual pleasure relationships that create new friendships, it is useful. But if identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think that they have to "uncover" their "own identity," and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is "Does this thing conform to my identity?" then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it must be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring. We must not exclude identity if people find their pleasure through this identity, but we must not think of this identity as an ethical universal rule.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Aus deinen Bildern ist sie aufgebaut."

Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manches Mal
in langer Nacht mit hartem Klopfen störe, -
so ists, weil ich dich selten atmen höre
und weiß: Du bist allein im Saal.
Und wenn du etwas brauchst, ist keiner da,
um deinem Tasten einen Trank zu reichen:
ich horche immer. Gib ein kleines Zeichen.
Ich bin ganz nah.

Nur eine schmale Wand ist zwischen uns,
durch Zufall; denn es könnte sein:
ein Rufen deines oder meines Munds -
und sie bricht ein
ganz ohne Lärm und Laut.

Aus deinen Bildern ist sie aufgebaut.

Und deine Bilder stehn vor dir wie Namen.
Und wenn einmal in mir das Licht entbrennt,
mit welchem meine Tiefe dich erkennt,
vergeudet sichs als Glanz auf ihren Rahmen.

Und meine Sinne, welche schnell erlahmen,
sind ohne Heimat und von dir getrennt.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Being Oneself, Whoever You Decide That Is

[This was written for a private blog some years ago.]

Esteemed Contemporaries!

As I stood in St. Mary’s earlier today, before the noon mass, I felt a strong desire to write to you all about something I felt was unclear among our group.  The non-problematic nature of what I have to point out is obvious to me, but because we (mercifully) neither agree with each other entirely nor understand each other fully, I can still hope that this will be a chance to edify and enlighten.

My thoughts begin with the point that the Existentialist ethic of authenticity should be rejected.  To me this is obvious, but I know most of us haven’t wandered through the mire of 19th and 20th century germano-frankish philosophy as much as me, so I’ll explain a little.  First there is this philosophical movement called “existentialism”.  Existentialism is a short name for the set of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, and a few others.  The name presupposes some unifying characteristics to the group.  Nietzsche obviously does not fit well here, since his objections and replies run rather deeper than anyone else’s (despite Heidegger’s pretensions).  What are the general issues which the “existentialists” face, and what is common to their solutions?

First, all of these philosophers are dealing with the collapse of the epistemological project of modernity after Kant.  The project was an attempt to ground our knowledge of the world in pure rational principles, to do away with dependence on tradition and authority and let thought find its path through the guidance of reason alone.  In Kant this project fails, and all of his successors (the romantics) are forced to bring in elements of life which are traditionally excluded from the enlightenment conception of reason in order to revive the hopes of a firmly grounded rationalistic system.  The existentialists are the successors to Kant’s successors, and are, in a sense, two generations after the death of the enlightenment.  The first existentialist is Kierkegaard, who is himself almost a Romantic and who engages primarily with Hegel.  Kierkegaard’s thought is a rebellion against the treatment of subjectivity in Hegel.  Where Hegel dissolves the individual consciousness into a world-historical progression which culminates in Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard insists that subjectivity cannot be bound by a deterministic dialectic.  Furthermore, subjectivity alwayspreserves hiddenness.  This last point is deeply perplexing to Kierkegaard and forms the crux of his famous discussion of faith in Fear and Trembling.  The “knight of faith” is the man who cannot fully explain himself, for whom there cannot be an exhaustive ideological/systematic treatment.  Kierkegaard aspires to be like this knight, but thinks it (nearly!) impossible.  We might say that this is his great failing both as a philosopher and as a human being: the assumption that genuine human relationships demand transparency and that transparency is possible at all.

What is characteristically “existentialist” about Kierkegaard’s thought is first of all its focus on the individual.  The individual is in crisis, suffers from anxiety.  What is this anxiety, and where does it come from?  Anxiety is the sense that at the base of my identity is something free, something undetermined which I myself must determine.  Anxiety is a sort of fear, but fear not of something in particular, but of that nothing, that lack of determination which lies at the root of my very self.  It is the burrowing “Why?” which can never be satisfied, which will dig down through soil and bedrock until it reaches and hollows out the core, finding there only itself and the empty space surrounding it.  Anxiety is, we might say, the first concept of all existentialist philosophy, and it grows directly out of the sense of rational groundlessness which accompanies the collapse of the Enlightenment epistemological project.

Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger all emphasize the horror which accompanies anxiety, and see addressing this anxiety as (perhaps) the primary problem of human existence.  The old question “What is the meaning of life?”, if we could remember what it asked, would be seen to be an expression of this same anxiety.  The fact that as a culture we treat this question as baffling and answerless indicates that we participate on a large scale, and perhaps unconsciously, in the crisis which Kierkegaard diagnosed a century and a half ago.  If the question of life’s meaning is answerless and even uninteresting, this is a sure sign that we have fallen into to nihilism.

However, the existentialists are unified not only in their identification of the primary problem of human existence (the anxiety, the groundlessness, of our own being), but also offer solutions which share certain general qualities.  The proper solution, all of them agree, is for the individual to exist “authentically”.  Authenticity has a few angles and is fairly easy to explain:

1.  Authenticity is contrasted to inauthenticity, in which the individual avoids the problem of anxiety by losing sight of his individuality through experience or business etc., or borrows an unquestioned solution to life’s questions from an external authority (the masses, the church, etc.)

2.  Authenticity is tied to both the idea of authorship and that of property.  It is the individual’s taking authority of himself, taking control of the self which he “owns”, “owning up” to himself, so to speak.  It is also the individual’s participation in the determination (the authorship) of his identity.  In authentic living, the individual is capable of supplying the meaning fundamental to his existence, merely by fiat.  This aspect of individual self-determination is especially important for Sartre, whereas both Kierkegaard and Heidegger tend to talk about authentic existence as more of an honest coming-to-terms with the self and reaffirming it in the face of anxiety.

Now we approach the point I originally wanted to raise.  In Kierkegaard, authenticity depends on total self-transparency, “the self-relating itself to itself in the relation”.  In Sartre it is the willful affirmation of an idea merely for the sake of freedom.  Both of these are deeply misguided and will do great damage to anyone who pursues them earnestly.  So we want to reject them.  Of course, in rejecting the ethic of authenticity, we also reject the philosophical psychology (psychology in the sense that de Anima is psychology) fundamental to liberal modernity.  The feel-good messages given everywhere to children in our society are:

1.  Be yourself!
2.  You can be whoever you want to be!

The implications of these two messages are terrifying.  The first prioritizes personal experience and the development of the self over every external influence.  It posits a “true self” which everyone is called to uncover in himself and to embrace.  (A genealogy of this principle clearly points toward protestantism and the priority of the individual experience of God over the authority imposed by religious leadership.)  The second principle undermines the first, by suggesting that the development of person is not bound by nature or ability (and therefore not by any “true self”) but only by force of will.  (Here the genealogy points toward the American rags-to-riches mythos and certain Jeffersonian catchphrases.)  Combined they yield the American liberal mindset: my first duty is to myself, and my self is a creation of my will.  Therefore, whatever I desire is legitimate, since desires arise from the self, and if I will it it is good.

We obviously want to reject this, but at the same time, there are certain facts which are difficult to escape.  First, people are in fact different from each other, and we generally agree that difference is not simply a fault.  Human perfection preserves difference and may even magnify it, as each individual reflects some aspect of the perfection of God.  To this extent we endorse the idea of vocation and we acknowledge diversity among the possible valid ends of a human life.  At the same time, we seem to insist on uniformity in both belief and behavior, and it becomes difficult to see to what extent difference is acceptable.  How far can oddity go before it is an offense?  Before it is detrimental to society?  On what basis can we object to difference?  Can we ridicule the exceptional? Is it bad to break with any tradition, to violate any norm?  And if not, which norms can be violated?  Cultural change depends to a large extent on the low level violation of behavioral norms.  In a perfect society, however, it seems that change would be impermissible, and hence that all difference would be wrong.  Is this thinking correct?

I hope it is clear how deeply these questions are related to my (overlong) explanation of anxiety and authenticity.  The matter of moderating external influence and independent self-determination is a pressing one.  It’s also very interesting.  I hope others agree.

Chris and Betsy discuss Do-Gooders and the Meaning of Life

[Betsy and Christopher recently had this fine conversation about whether and how your good deeds are beneficial to you personally.]

 [...]Betsy: why do you wish they were religious?
7:03 PM Christopher: because they're afloat on the sea of life without any intellectual grounding or (as far as I can tell) sense of what they're after in the long run, and this is just not a good way to live
  it's a very bad way to live, because it's too easy to coast along like that and sustain yourself on shallow truisms and suspension of judgment and moving with the consensus of your peers without ever really thinking
7:04 PM and what's a human life at the end of it if you've lived like that?
  it's just a shell
7:06 PM even if you've done good things and helped people, that's great for whoever you've helped, but if it doesn't mean anything beyond a nice moral truism, I don't see what good it does you
  do you feel me, bets?
7:07 PM Betsy: i guess i disagree with that last part
  i don't know what human life is all about if not doing good things and helping people
 Christopher: well if it's not about people doing well, then what good is helping people?
7:08 PM and helping people doesn't make sense if the only good is helping people
7:09 PM Betsy: you don't really have to be doing well yourself in order to help other people
  and maybe that even helps you, while helping other people
 Christopher: sure, I think mostly it does
  but the notion of "helping people" is parasitic on some prior good that you're promoting in others
7:10 PM and if helping people is for the sake of something else: food or security or friendship or community or love, then that's why it's good
  it can't be good in itself without reference to one of those things
  do you see what I'm saying?
  it's very hard to express it
7:11 PM "helping people" means "doing good to someone", but in order for that to mean anything "good" has to be something other than just "helping people"
 Betsy: i mean, i guess what i'm saying is that i don't think you need to have a fully fleshed out theology, or even be theistic or religious, to do good
  because a lot of goods are self evident
 Christopher: oh I agree absolutely
7:12 PM Betsy: comfort the bereaved, visit the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked
  and i don't think that a life spent doing these goods is empty simply because it lacks a religious foundation
7:13 PM Christopher: (I didn't say empty.)
 Betsy: i don't even think that a life where those goods are performed sporadically is empty
 Christopher: but it's unfulfilled
 Betsy: well, you said it was a shell
 Christopher: fair enough
 Betsy: i figured that was close
 Christopher: right
  I guess empty is more absolute than what I meant
7:14 PM Betsy: i mean...
  isn't the sense of fulfillment somewhat subjective?
 Christopher: yes
  but fulfillment also objective
  in a shell, there's something there, and it has the form of the real thing, but the heart of it is missing
7:15 PM take two cases
7:16 PM Cynthia spends her free time in service to the poor because she thinks serving others is good, because it's the thing to do, but she never really takes it beyond that. Cynthia's service is wonderful and meritorious and virtuous. We love her for it.
7:19 PM But then take Clare. Clare spends her free time in service to the poor because she thinks that by serving the poor she is a friend to them, that her actions express love, communicate to them that they're loved, and that by doing this she enriches the bonds of charity between people and enables them to appreciate what has been given to us all, and to share it with each other, and offer praise and thanksgiving to God, who is love.
7:20 PM Objectively Clare and Cynthia do exactly the same thing, and both benefit from it, and both are worthy of praise. But because Clare understands what she does on a higher level, because her motivation is so much richer, she benefits from it much more than Cynthia does.
7:21 PM In a way, the depth of love which suffuses Clare's actions, though they're objectively the same as Cynthia's, makes them more praiseworthy and excellent, and they make her a better person.
7:22 PM You have to mean something for your actions to really be beneficial to you. If what you do is meaningless to you, not matter how much it helps other people, it's going to be missing some fundamental value to you. And, I think in the extreme, it's going to be worthless.
7:24 PM God can do good deeds through Pharaoh, though phararoh is corrupt and malicious. But since pharaoh does not see or desire the good that comes from his actions, their good effects don't benefit him, and instead they're credited to God.
7:25 PM Betsy: that's different than the example you gave above, because then one will is willing through another
7:26 PM i might agree with you, but i'm not sure
 Christopher: God accomplishes his plans through our actions, good and bad.
  but we don't need to debate that right now
 Betsy: yeah, let's not
7:27 PM Christopher: if it's not helpful to see the Clare/Cynthia example, ignore it
  *if the case of pharaoh isn't helpful...
  ... for understanding the Clare/Cynthia example
 Betsy: ok
  i'll think about it
  i need to go call my parents
7:28 PM Christopher: ok
 Betsy: talk to you soon!
  happy preemptive thanksgiving
 Christopher: likewise!

And the Glory of Europe is Extinguished Forever

[The following was written some years ago for a private blog.]

Esteemed Contemporaries!

Since our discussions about specific citations from Burke in the past weeks, the above phrase has returned often to my mind.  The glory of Europe is, in itself, a grand concept.  What is the glory of Europe?  What a thought that it is forever extinguished, that we have passed into an age of permanent death and decay in which only the memory of greatness can preserve us from vice, pusilanimity and general corruption.

But the phrase “the glory of Europe” demonstrates a principle of all good rhetoric: it inspires the attributes it describes.  How awesome that this speaker should even know such glory!  How wonderful that here we have a description of it, even in vague terms — that it is even mentioned!  And so Burke’s text creates in us a mirror of the events it describes.  We are elevated, and then feel our own tragic (and therefore almost more beautiful) demise. 

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis criticizes Gaius and Titius (his pseudonymous textbook authors) for teaching a very abstract principle of rhetoric in place of more basic literary criticism.  They claim that “the waterfall is sublime” means “I have sublime feelings about the waterfall” and Lewis scoffs at them.  Rightly so, if their point is that all beauty and goodness is merely a product of the mind beholding, if they are siding with Hamlet, who tells us that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  In that case we, too, scoff at them and their ignorance of beauty and goodness, for only someone woefully inexperienced in the wonders of nature and the joys of life could think that either beauty or goodness is confined merely to minds.  The fault of the reductive mind arises not from a knowledge too precise, but from a failure to know at all.

But were we more generous with Gaius and Titius, we could see a way in which they are correct.  Not that the attributes I see in things are merely attributes of my perceptions of those things (I do not have green feelings about a green crayon, e.g.), but that in everything we see that is good, true and beautiful, insofar as we recognize these qualities, we feel ourselves called onward to goodness, truth and beauty.  If Plato teaches us well when he has Socrates define rhetoric as the ability to move men’s souls with words, then we can see something of rhetoric in the world at large, some more communicative side to the rocks and trees and hills.

And so, it seems that this is one of the ways God speaks to us in life.  Four years ago I was applying to college and needed an activities essay for the Common Application.  I was struggling with a rather unpleasant bout of depression at the time, and so when I just let myself go I generated the following:
I agonize.  This is a strange fact, but an important one.  Frequently I, a lesser mortal, find myself without words, motivations, or thoughts.  I am blank, but really I am not blank.  I am filled with thoughts of blankness, which motivate me to search through the words of dead men for something worth saying.  

“Surely mortal man is a broomstick!” “Do bats eat cats?  Do cats eat bats?”  Scraps like these take over my mind like viruses, and all I do is moan and chant them at anyone who will listen.  Few people put up with me during the empty days.  They tell me I am isolated, and I admit this isolation.  They tell me I am depressed, and I say “Yes, I am depressed.”  But then I turn to those who sneer at me and say, well, nothing.  It is in the moments of emptiness that the disorder of our lives comes to a point, and we are lost.

The essay was, of course, never submitted (I wrote one on my love of socratic interrogation instead), but it captured the general breathlessness, the despiration (were that a word), of the time.  I have admired the aptness of the expression in that short piece ever since.  In particular I am fond of the last line:  “It is in the moments of emptiness that the disorder of our lives comes to a point, and we are lost.”  There is something wonderful in finding a succinct description of what we already know very well.  I know that feeling very well, and so delight in its description (forgive the self-indulgence).

But the reason I bring up this short essay is that its final sentence, the one I always loved best, contains a factual error.  Melancholy and depression never lead us to a “point”.  Disorder is not pointed, but rather vague and fuzzy.  The closest thing to emptiness we can experience in life is a sense of dispersion.  The real existential crises come when we are alone: when we feel that everything is receding.  Perhaps this is why in Annie Hall the young Alvie Singer stops doing his homework after he finds out that the universe is expanding.  Anxiety is a fear before nothing — a fear whose object could never ultimately be realized.  And thus we experience anxiety in isolation, for things can always become more distant from us; the world can become less significant to us; we might always matter less and less.  There is no end to the feeling of anxiety, and so there cannot be a point to it.  Anxiety unfocuses, insignifies, distances.  The falcon cannot see the falconer, and flies out into the empty expanse of space.

So what I would like to say about the final sentence of that essay is that its greatness, the rhetorical flair in it that has always given me such pleasure, is borrowed from a topic not its own.  The essay tricks us (as we melancholy ones often trick ourselves) into enjoying sadness and anxiety by draping what is sickly and vicious with the trappings of beauty, virtue and goodness.  This confirms the Thomistic thesis that in everything we pursue, what draws us is some perceived good.  But I have wandered far from my original point.

“The glory of Europe is extinguished forever,” says Burke.  I decided to write this essay in a fit of inspiration.  I was listening to Philip Glass, thinking about my friends and their successes, and I felt (as I have so often felt over the past year) the opposite of what I described in that essay.  It is when we are most keenly aware of the fullness of things that the order of life comes to a glittering point, a veil is torn aside, and we behold the stones crying out the glory of God so that even the mundane trappings of a dirty dorm room suggest a deeper life and significance. 
That’s what I wanted to say.

Old Thoughts on Hipsters

[I wrote this for a communal blog run by the Yale Federalist Party about two years ago.]

There was a period of about two and a half years when I could write only about what I was writing, when everything devolved into a hyper-self-conscious narrative about the construction of narratives, the limitations of text, and the problems of communication in general.  Everything was a half-ironic apology for its own statement, and maintained two definite assumptions: (1) that everything said was obvious to every possible reader; (2) that there remained an insurmountable gap between my mind and “yours.”  The consequence of this apologetic self-consciousness was a lack of content matched only in the writing of scribblers like Jacques Derrida, but it was given content by the two assumptions, which together establish a task for the writer.  If you’re sharp, O Reader, you will realize that this task is the task of the self-conscious hipster in all of us.  In fact, it is the crisis underlying the hipster culture: how can I express myself without being trite?

Now, this phenomenon, which I call the basic crisis of hipsterness, arises from something like the perpetual exaggerations and lies of the mass media and the bland repetitiveness of industrial culture. These give rise to a pessimism about the meaningfulness of communication and doubts about the possibility of authentic expression. Given these doubts, the modern dualistic person takes the alienation of his soul from his body and realizes (with modern philosophy) that meaning is alienated from signifiers, so that the way to be authentic is to communicate self-consciously, and the way to communicate that one is self-conscious is to do things which are ridiculous but not be ashamed of them, so that it is clear that one is doing them only ironically. Thus in order to bridge the gap between meaning and signifier, one has to sever the two and graft meaning onto a new signifier, often the opposite of the old one. This is “irony” in contemporary usage. The ironist does something and implicitly says “I’m not really doing this; I’m ironically doing this.”

However this has two consequences: first and most obviously the ironist is incapable of expressing values positively, because his communication never really gets past sarcasm. Second, the increasing gap between meaning and signifier forces the ironist to buy into a strong idea of interiority.  The result is a kind of kierkegaardian despair, which looks like the kind of writing I described in the first paragraph. It is utterly contentless, except in its descriptions of its own formal qualities, descriptions which are themselves blighted by the plague of hyper-interiority.  Interiority becomes a sort of postmodern defense mechanism, which assumes the existence of an insurmountable barrier protecting the self from intrusion by others. The individual cannot be understood, and thus cannot be judged, cannot be held accountable. Therefore, the thought goes, his freedom in his own sphere is absolute.  However, the ironist is nonetheless human, and as such requires fellowship. But he cannot go outside the limits of his own sphere, because to do so would involve re-attaching meanings to their original signifiers, and this, he worries, means submitting his authentic, proper self to the inauthenticity and cliche which is the medium of all intersubjectivity. So he remains alone.

To Himself, on Beginnings

[This was written as the first post for an old blog of mine, several years ago.]

Well, W—I'll avoid empty phrases and rhetorical questions. The danger in the former is empty repetition (repetition!), the danger in the latter is a step down off the road into the ditch that runs aside. Etc. In any case, I meant to begin with the observation (about beginning) that every beginning must be in medias res. This is seen from several different angles. Obviously there is the angle of the hearer/reader/observer. He cannot have an absolute beginning, because such a beginning (like in time, for Kant) could not possibly be understood. There must always be fore-knowledge, a sense of tone, some placement within a context of language, personality, identity. Someone cannot simply step out of the void and into my world, because my world would not be able to contain them, and, failing to hold them, would collapse (the absurd). Absurd communication is simply not, ergo, etc.

The less obvious problem with absolute beginnings is from the speaker's side. I cannot provide a beginning, because for me there are no beginnings. Were there a genuine beginning, then this story would stretch from the beginning of my life. And of course, there cannot be such a story. People fade in and fade out. There are no beginnings. There are only haystacks, and, like Monet's, these Haystacks are not made of discrete bits of straw stacked one on another. There are lines, brushstrokes, continuities, but there are no quantum bits added to make me, such that when the sum of all bits exceeds X, (and not before!) the story begins. But my story begins even before its beginning. It too needs a context, a history, an explanation. One not given in the third person, but in the second. Tradition in this sense differs from history, surpasses history, in its ability to capture and contextualize reality. History in the third person fails....

But this is all beside the point! From the speaker's side there can be no beginning, because to pretend that the story starts HERE, at the top of a page, cleanly planned, smooth and organized (how I love those first lines! "Hide from myself I cannot")—to do so is to open with a lie. Immediately, there is something suspicious about this piece of so-called communication which you have decided to give me. If you want to say something, why have you put on this mask? Where is the truth!

Those first lines, written by Kierkegaard's "B", are perfect: "My friend, The lines upon which your eye falls first were written last." Perfect! Everything is there. Here we have an honest fellow (note that this honest fellow is himself merely a lie, a mask, a cleverly-disguised mannequin whose ventriloquist puppet-master gives life)— here we have a man who is forthright, self-conscious, and self-respecting. He speaks TO someone, and is honest from the first. He does not pretend to have a bit of heavenly substance materialized on his doorstep. He speaks to his reader.

—And perhaps there is even something dishonest in this bit of communication. There is a problem posed by the fact that I am talking TO no one in particular (this "in particular" seems almost to be an excuse, but a poor one... "being" is not the emptiest of concepts, nor the most general, but this "no one in particular" is just that. A mask for nothingness, emptiness, misdirection)—

A defense of my saying anything at all... Yes, this is difficult too. So many books published, they say, so many papers written, but it's almost never clear to whom, or why. The why is a philosophical question, and hence must have answers on both sides (or so the PSR insists)—both sides: the author, the reader. To whom is all too clearly meaningless on the side of most authors, and idiotically answered "to me!" on the side of most readers.

But of course. I might frame this as a mere statement to myself, but that's a farce (objective contradiction implies subjective communication?). Communication does not occur to oneself. Communication is a projection out into the invisible world of the other. Etc. What about journals? Well, I think most journalists (in this sense) would not be able to maintain a journal were they not communicating TO someone. If the journal is merely a pragmatic memory device, they might not be communicating at all, but merely relieving themselves of thoughts and reinforcing memories. Perhaps they write to the foreigner that is my future self. Perhaps they write to an invisible friend, or to a friend visible yet absent.


So, in short, this piece is nothing but the brief moment of thought before the guillotine blade meets the back of the neck. It will inevitably prove itself to be a joke, a lie, a stupidity. It is a communication to no one, and therefore not a communication at all. Perhaps it is merely an empty gesture. Or perhaps not empty. A gesture, then. One that comes as the self-expression of an idea, which serves as its own demonstration, namely:

Beginnings are impossible. There are only confused travel logs, and sputtering moments of empty expression between the masses of empty, silent time. To try for a beginning is to delude oneself and allow others to delude themselves. It is difficult for what begins in a lie (for all beginnings in this sense are lies) to rectify itself before the end. And there is always an end.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lester and Rudolph talk about Freedom

[Lester and Rudolph (again, *ahem* wholly fictitious persons) had a conversation about freedom earlier today in an imaginary gchat window. Here's part of it.]

Lester: oh ok
  well whatever
  I ended up talking about free will
 Rudolph: k
 Lester: and enlightenment libertarianism
12:51 PM and I realized "woah, during the enlightenment the whole notion of free will was obscured and messed up"
  so yeah that's that
  then I thought "I understand free will."
 Rudolph: explain plz
 Lester: oh free will?
12:52 PM Rudolph: and how it was obscured
 Lester: haha
  so, things have natures, natures are directed toward ends, things naturally pursue their ends
12:53 PM Rudolph: yes
 Lester: great
  consider a squirrel
 Rudolph: hehe
12:54 PM Lester: a squirrel is an animal, so it has the ability to sense things and react to them, and a kind of cogitative power by which its able to respond to particulars present in its sense experience. A squirrel sees a car approach. It recognizes the threat. It retreats to a tree.
12:55 PM Rudolph: yeah
 Lester: Squirrels don't know what a car is, though. They can't tell you what makes something to be a car. They can't think about cars. They can just respond to them when they're present in experience.
12:56 PM This means that a squirrel's activity is going to be pretty solidly governed by what happens in its surroundings
  ergo, behaviorism
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: people are not squirrels, otherkin aside
 Rudolph: lulz
12:57 PM Lester: People can think about cars, can know what it is to be a car, and can make all sorts of abstract judgments about cars. So let's apply this to the idea of a natural end.
  The squirrel moves toward its natural end by the direct promptings of its experience and sense appetites
12:58 PM Rudolph: mhm
 Lester: Whatever comes along in appearance or appetite is going to move the squirrel accordingly
  pretty much infallibly
12:59 PM Rudolph: what about herzog's penguin?
1:00 PM Lester: Herzog's penguin probably had some mental defect
 Rudolph: probsly
 Lester: Sigh.
1:01 PM Anyway. Humans have this weird faculty that squirrels don't have. It's called the will. And just like a sense appetite is moved by a good present in the imagination or the senses, the will is moved by a good present in the intellect, in abstract.
 Rudolph: ah ok
1:02 PM Lester: But the intellect is capable of considering everything under multiple aspects. It can consider this glass of water as a tool for splashing someone, or a weapon, or a means of quenching thirst, or a bowling pin, etc.
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: and that's just a thing. It can consider goods under multiple aspects too
1:03 PM splashing someone is good because it would be funny, but bad because it would be hurtful and humiliating, and bad because it would make a mess, and violates social protocol, etc.
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: ok
  so humans have a natural end, which they don't choose freely, and that's happiness. That's what they do everything for the sake of.
1:04 PM Rudolph: ok
 Lester: If a human were to see true happiness immediately in its full and utter perfection, they would be unable to find any defect in it, and thus couldn't help but embrace it.
  (This is the beatific vision.)
 Rudolph: right
1:05 PM Lester: But short of that, it's possible to consider any finite, imperfect good as deficient in some way, and reject it.
 Rudolph: ah
 Lester: This life of fame and fortune lacks simplicity and grace.
1:06 PM This wife and these children inhibit my free expression as a person
  This hour of prayer is empty and tedious.
1:07 PM You can reject pretty much anything, as long as you're capable of seeing it as bad in some way.
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: You just have to focus on that, or turn your back on the thing altogether and think about some other good instead.
  That's the ground of free will
  well, that is free will
1:08 PM You should notice how in our account the formal and final causes are the main ones used, and they undergird the efficient cause of the action.
 Rudolph: uh... can you point them out?
1:09 PM Lester: Sure
  So, the final cause is the end desired as good
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: The formal cause is the nature of the thing choosing, which explains why it desires these things and not other things, why these aspects can be said to be "good" and not others.
1:10 PM Rudolph: aaah ok
 Lester: The formal cause is also in the nature of the things pursued: it makes them what they are.
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: The efficient cause is the mover the propels the agent forward. In this case, the will.
1:11 PM Rudolph: ah
 Lester: Although it's wrong to see the will as a kind of motor inside the man, becuause the action of the will is determined by the nature of the thing moving, so that really in the person what you have is one thing
1:12 PM One thing moving itself
  Not a motor in a car, or a pilot in a ship.
 Rudolph: right
 Lester: Make sense?
 Rudolph: yeah
 Lester: Ok, next let's see how this falls apart.
1:13 PM Rudolph: k!
 Lester: Suppose we try and reduce everything to efficient causation.
1:15 PM Then what we have to say is this: There is an agent in the person, the will, that moves the person. The will is either moved by something else or it is unmoved. If it's moved by something else, then it is moved by the body, responding to sensory stimuli, in which case we have to say that the will is determined, because the stimuli (or at least their memory preserved in the body) are the sufficient and necessary condition for the will's movement.
1:16 PM But suppose we say that the will isn't moved by anything else, that it's radically unmoved. Then we have to ask, why does the will move?
  Apparently there's no answer.
  But if there's no answer to that question, then there can't be an answer to the question "Why did you do that?"
  This makes nonsense of pretty much all human action.
1:17 PM Rudolph: heh, right
 Lester: So it seems like it's necessary, both in order to maintain a coherent picture of man as a being in the natural world, and in order to make human action intelligible at all, to say that it's mechanically determined by context and history. Therefore there is no such thing as free will.
1:18 PM Rudolph: right
 Lester: Ok. That's the story.
1:19 PM Rudolph: huh. and where exactly is the error in this story?
 Lester: The error is in reducing all the causes to the efficient cause
1:21 PM It's also in separating the mind and the body so that they're different entities. Or in reducing the soul to something material, because you have an insufficient grasp of what intellectual activity is.
1:22 PM See it's essential to free will to say that the intellect is capable of knowing things in abstract and considering them under multiple aspects.
 Rudolph: that seems obvious, but how does the operation of the intellect work?
1:23 PM unfortunately, I have to go to section now...