Somehow I did some rethinking of happiness and freedom— all that utilitarian stuff. I thought, what if happiness is just a mirage, or at best a transitory feeling; and the only real peace of mind comes from nirvana, or just letting go of mundane desires? I always thought that Buddhism made good sense. The logic of it is very sound and watertight except, is the experience of life really suffering? The Sanskrit word is “dukkha.” This is the starting premise of the religion, and a condition that requires alleviation, like a sickness, and Buddhism is the cure.
More generally, and more personally, I was thinking about Jeff my brother and his relentless chase after material and carnal pleasures. He has no sense for spiritual things, so, the only kind of limbo for him is being close to nature: hiking, fishing, photography, and watching wildlife used to give him the greatest peace. There’s probably a better word for it than “limbo.” It’s a sublime space that people enter, like the experience of music in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The constant grind of everyday life, the endless pursuit of desires, wears us down so that we need a respite, a reprieve, like an oasis in a desert. Anyway, I wish my brother could find his peace. I think his best bet is to go with his naturalist feeling and to get away from civilization as much as possible.
Thanks for reading what I just put down above. And returning to Buddhism, it’s an interesting religion. I have a few books on it and I might go review the information. I also mentioned Schopenhauer, whose chief work in philosophy I still haven’t read, though it’s a very powerful system of thought and worth knowing. In addition, I think it’s very timely for the kind of society we live in today, where the focus is entirely on greed and material gain.
In some ways, my brother is a microcosm of a larger societal problem, though to a ridiculous extreme.
I spent an hour and a half reading from my book of Sextus Empiricus, and it really fills some gaps for me about Western philosophy, often just by giving definitions. So now I know what is meant by words like posit, positive, and positivism, also the original sense of dogmatism, and other things. All of them pertain to knowledge, especially the theory of knowledge. I think that to “posit” is to affirm a thing as true or false, whereas the sceptic suspends judgment either way. It’s an interesting approach to looking at reality, distrusting sense perception and also human reason and saying nothing can be known for sure; also taking into account how everyone sees things differently. This is what we call appearance or opinion. The mistake I made for a long time was assuming that my perceptions were absolutes, and everyone saw things the same. But is that a reason to despair of the availability of objective truth? According to the sceptic, the suspense of judgment leads to a feeling of calm and quietude. Again, it’s kind of weird. I’m not sure how I got directed into this philosophy but I’m learning new words and concepts that round out my education a bit.
Eight thirty five.
The sun is out this morning. Although it says it’s freezing, the roads are wet and not icy. Yesterday I did a lot of caffeine, and during the night I read back my journal notes since a month ago. A pattern emerged in my writing, basically a theme of skepticism that started with reading Montaigne’s “Apology for Raimond Sebond” from a sourcebook in philosophy edited by Richard Popkin. It kind of messed with my mind to call my knowledge of reality into question. Skepticism is like making notes with an eraser, rubbing out what is known rather than affirming it positively. Thus, I’m probably getting in over my head with the philosophical stuff, almost like being on drugs or something. Instead of unveiling the truth, philosophy adds obscurity to the endeavor.
I got a call from my sister, so we rambled for quite a while. But now I’m rather glad the conversation is done and I can be myself again… So what’s the point in doing philosophy if it’s that impractical? Somehow it makes me feel good to indulge in abstractions, but I have to admit that philosophy leads you nowhere except to more philosophy. A person does better to believe in common sense realism than to lose herself in pointless epistemology.
I remember feeling like a useless human being 35 years ago when I led a rock trio that met for practice in Harrisburg. I was only good for music and academics, especially literature and philosophy, and had no aptitude for practical things at all. My head was in the clouds at all times. Something about today brings it all back to me, and it’s sort of uncomfortable.
I think I spend too much time alone…
I went too long without eating anything, so the caffeine went right to my head and knocked out my logic. When Gloria left for the day, I had lunch immediately. It’s been stormy and sunny by turns today, like a temperamental old man in charge of the weather. Now I feel kind of tired and a little disappointed about the rest of my day. Maybe I’ll stroll over to the market again. Or pick a book to read and learn something new. I’m curious about skepticism, this whole thing of doubting the hard work of logicians and other organizers of knowledge. Did the skeptics have an agenda? What was the conclusion of their arguments?
Quarter of eleven.
The aim of skepticism, from my understanding of Sextus Empiricus, was liberation from mental disturbance as a result of suspending judgment of the truth of anything. Thus, skepticism is more like a religious practice than a philosophical endeavor to discover truth. In its original form, Epicureanism was rather similar: the goal was to minimize pain by eliminating fear of death and the gods. Also by keeping life simple. As one translator put it, Hellenistic philosophy was a discipline of the heart instead of the head.
But I still need to learn how Montaigne might have distorted skepticism to a despair of the facts and a regression to primitive faith.
In my opinion, life without the light of reason is not worth living. My motive for saying this is my personal experience with madness, which is like mental blindness. Do we really want to stumble through life blindfolded?
Monday afternoon I passed my neighbor C— on the street as he was walking his dog L—. He told me he needed a nap and hurried to get rid of me. But later I thought maybe he doesn’t like me very much over something political. I’ve heard him say he’s a flat earther and a cheese mooner, so then I made a connection with election deniers and the thing with fake news and the kinds of fraud that Trump keeps putting out there. C— has more in common with my other neighbor across the street than with me. Meanwhile, it rang a bell for me when I read an essay by Montaigne inspired by Pyrrhonian scepticism, and in turn I was led to a few books of Sextus Empiricus, the Hellenistic philosopher. I wonder why Hellenism has been so influential with us the past five years, especially stoicism and now scepticism. At some point we must’ve gone through an epicurean phase as well. Is it just a coincidence, or is someone actually reading this stuff and pushing it through the tubes?
I just ordered a small volume of Sextus Empiricus, the Greek skeptic, from Amazon. I’d read that Montaigne was influenced by his writings. M’s own motto was “what do I know” over a pair of scales. There’s probably something I can scrap from his skeptical discourses, about the vanity of human knowledge, even if he resolves on Christian faith. And even this might be okay with me, as long as my mind is open.
It strikes me as odd, though. Maybe it’s too easy to dismiss evidence to the senses. To just throw up your hands and say I know nothing. And then to hand it all over to a phantom that you imagine is omniscient and beneficent. I think that Americans have dwelt with this mentality for a very long time. It’s similar to Jamesian pragmatism, where the validity of a belief is judged by its consequences. The factual accuracy of this belief is negligible. What counts is whether it works or not.
What is it with the de emphasis on facts in this country?
I feel good today for a couple of reasons. The first is that Gloria is coming to work this morning and I’ll have some company. The second is my birthday tomorrow, which I hadn’t really thought about until now. Usually around my birthday I consider the zodiac and my identity according to this old structure. But this time may be different somehow. Perhaps my birthday is not so significant, except for the fact that it’s when I came into existence. Another thing is the idea of willing your own existence as opposed to being born from your mother. The memories of my mother keep fading with the passing of time, so I feel that much more independent and like a free agent in the world. Thus the zodiac is one more piece of clutter to discard and be rid of: one more determining factor I don’t need in my life. I’d much rather be the one to determine my essence than be passively assigned my qualities by the planets and their corresponding myths. This will be a philosophical year for me, and I don’t care if philosophy is unpopular or misunderstood. It might be the year that I leave WordPress and find something new to do with my time. The only fate is what proceeds from my choices from moment to moment. Everything is up to me.
Thanks for feeding back on what I wrote yesterday. I think it was the influence of Coca-Cola! But today I had two Snapples and afterwards I felt pretty lousy, so I took a gabapentin and went to bed for a few hours. The old proverb is true that you are what you eat— simply because the brain is a physical thing and every thought proceeds from brain activity. This is what I believe, anyway; there are some who will deny it, saying the mind is unrelated to the body, arguing for a sort of dualism of spirit and flesh. I think their position would be very difficult to prove. It’s a throwback to Cartesian thinking four hundred years ago. Descartes identified the pineal gland as the location where the soul interacts with the body— since proven false.
I’m thinking specifically of Pastor. He is quite paranoid about the facts of biological psychology, the physiology of the nervous system. Perhaps his belief system could fall if my point about materialism were proved to him. So it’s best not to discuss it with him. In biblical language, the personality is carnal and spiritual, but what I’m saying is the whole thing is carnal and the spirit likely doesn’t exist.
Culturally, people generally accept the soul or spirit. In ancient Japanese history, people would drive a hole in the skulls of their dead before burial to let the soul escape. I guess to most people the phenomenon of consciousness is a divine mystery, something imponderable and sacred for the reason that they don’t understand it. A lot of philosophy has been written about it. Sartre actually turned perception around to make the mind logically prior to what it perceives, in the same vein as “I think therefore I am.”
Mind over matter and matter over mind. Idealistic philosophers often eliminate the existence of matter totally, so only the mind is real. Maybe I’m getting a little tired of philosophy. The evidence points to nothing but the physical state of existence, and this is realistic and probably the truth. Philosophy is the most useful when it approximates science, in my opinion.
But then again, you wonder about the ramifications of materialism for freedom of the will…
I had a very brief dream that I had a book in my hands, open to a chapter titled in big bold letters, “FREEDOM.” Somewhere I might have seen this in reality.
Outside, the wind is howling like crazy. I’ve just awoken from a lot of wild dreams, though my conscious thoughts are on David Hume and the logic of Aristotle, about which my knowledge is rather sketchy. In my journal I wrote a few notes on the definition of “reason.” I figured that it’s not so much an ideal entity as a mental activity; a function rather than a form. Some thinkers wax mystical on reason, as if it were an essence, a spiritual thing or object of thought. I guess I can’t prove that it’s not an ideal, a transcendent thing. To meditate on it tends to elevate your mind to higher levels of thought, almost like intoxication or a religious experience. The speakers in Plato’s Symposium get tanked on wine after they get dinner out of the way and then expound the nature of love. But this isn’t very sober. For me, sobriety is still an experiment, and even the definition of sobriety is quite uncertain. All the while, the wind keeps gusting like fury outside my house. Is this to say that philosophy is hot air? I knew a counselor who said so. But she didn’t acknowledge that psychology had its origins in philosophy.
Nine twenty five.
A gentle wave of nostalgia. Music from 1987, a long long time ago, though it feels like right now. I’ve got sparrows at my back door, same species, different individuals every year, like the swans in the Yeats poem. I should call my sister pretty soon because time is slipping away. Both of my siblings are over seventy now.
When I was young, I strongly wanted to believe that humans are divine and free rather than animal and determined. I started taking a class in physical anthropology but wound up dropping out of the term totally. I still have the textbook we used. One of the first lessons was the Voyage of the Beagle and Darwin’s revelation of natural selection. A year later, I took psychology and came to be able to accept science, though it was very difficult for me because I still had the gnawing desire for freedom.
Is there any way that the ideal and the real can coexist and intersect? Descartes struggled with this problem, but there’s no philosophical hocus pocus that can permanently solve it. Sartre was the last thinker who tried to save freedom. Who’ll be the next?