From page 206 of John Fowles’ The Collector (1963):
An exchange between Darcy and Elizabeth from page 310 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
When it comes to doing work, whether it be tedious or demanding, it’s hard to get started and put ourselves in the right mental space to “get down to it.” Faced with a task we would rather not do, or one which, when we think about, seems difficult and unreasonably long, we would rather put it aside, not think about it, and procrastinate; then, the day before it is supposed to be done, we are infused with febrile adrenaline, and hastily complete it. Especially nowadays for a lot of students like me, when school is online, when accountability for work is placed solely on us, and when we have all the free time in the world, it can be difficult to jump into our work. In this blog, I want to briefly introduce two ways of conceptualizing our approach to work that I have observed, namely, prospective and inspective thinking, by way of contrast.
I’ll give two examples of homework assignments I’ve had. Last year, in Spanish class, my homework would sometimes consist of researching some topic then creating a presentation on it, and the presentation would have a bunch of requirements like (a) it must be at least 10 sentences (b) you must include five vocab from this unit (c) you must include three examples of a specific verb conjugation, etc. This year, in my AP U.S. Government class, we had to find a recent news article, write two sentences explaining its credibility and at least six sentences explaining its relevance, then ask a question to which our classmates could respond. I use these two examples because, to my and fellow students’ minds, an assignment like this, despite being summarized rather easily, can—and usually does—appear exhausting and, if we are feeling hyperbolic, impossible.
10 sentences—so a paragraph! And in Spanish?! Both my classmates and I pretty much always responded like this, and were filled with dread upon its being assigned. We might joke that we can hardly write a paragraph in English, so to have to do so but in Spanish—well, it couldn’t possibly be done! As our eyes flitted over the numerical requirements—five of these, 10 of these, and three of those—we groaned and agonized, not knowing how we would get through it, how we would even begin; it seemed a Herculean task.
However, through the years, as I’ve completed more and more assignments, combatting procrastination, overcoming feelings of futility and uselessness, what I have observed in myself, is that there are really two ways of approaching work, as I have mentioned, though I found myself, and others, primarily remaining stuck in the first. And what I have found, is that, by clarifying the two, I have found that assignments which appear long and difficult tend to not take as long or require as much effort as I thought.
So to the two modes I now turn.
When I am assigned homework, I begin by prospecting, searching and surveying, planning, taking different elements like time and effort into account. This is where I often become stuck, though. The real breakthrough comes when I begin inspecting the assignment, engaging it, working with it, recalling what I know, making progress. To further elaborate these two modes, I will view them through different categorical lenses.
Transcendence vs. Immanence
Prospective thinking is transcendent, that is, it views things from outside, from above, like a bird’s eye view, taking the thing as a whole. It represents the work to be done, creating an image of it, which is what we fret over; our mind amplifies it, enlarges it, and so it takes on an intimidating quality. Looking at my Spanish assignment, I go beyond the parts to what it is as a whole, and this yields something that thus becomes unmanageable, like a behemoth, a massive project that defies my grasp.
In contrast, inspective thinking is immanent: Instead of looking at the project from beyond, it looks at the project from within, as it actually occurs in the bounds of what is asked. One does not stand outside, observing objectively and detached, like a spectator, circling it; instead, one walks into it, feels one’s way through it, navigates it on the ground level. This means that I am not thinking about the project as a unified whole, but that I am going through each part, one by one, as something in itself.
Infinitive vs. Progressive
Another way to conceptualize prospection is in grammatical terms, through the verbal tense of the infinitive, which takes the form of “To…” For example, I say to myself, “I have to write 10 sentences in Spanish.” From this perspective, my assignment consists entirely of infinitives; this means that there is something expected of me, and these expectations have an indeterminate sense. When I say, “I have to write 10 sentences in Spanish,” there is that residual sense of incompleteness, of deferral; I have not yet written these sentences, but their completion, and the obligation which it demands of me, looms, hangs over me, beckons—I have to x, I have to y. In this way, the project becomes overbearing.
Inspection, on the other hand, is characterized by the verbal tense of the present progressive, which takes the form of “-ing.” For example, I say to myself, “I am writing one of my 10 sentences in Spanish.” Here, the difference between the two is its largest, because one of them—prospection—is anticipatory in that it awaits an action to be completed, whereas the other, inspection, consists of the action itself, the engagement with the requirement. It is one thing to think that one has to write a sentence, which can be done whenever one wants, another to realize that one is writing a sentence. Of course, before the sentence can be written, it has to be thought; and here, too, the distinction applies, for one can sit and think, “What am I to write?” while another can think the sentence improvisationally: “Cuando yo… asisto a…” and proceed from there.
In short, the infinitive, by virtue of its indeterminate incompleteness, its sense of obligation, grants a sense of infinity to its thinking to the extent that it can never be accomplished, only idly planned and thought over; whereas the progressive, because it unfolds in time, in the present, is progressive—that is, it progresses, moves forward, even if it is at but an inch at a time, continual.
Thinking About vs. Thinking Through
This is the simplest and clearest way of differentiating the two modes of cognition. In prospection, one thinks about a problem. Phrased accordingly, it sublates—combines and upholds—the previous two determinations of transcendence and infinitude. Etymologically, when we look at both prospection and inspection, we see that they derive from the Latin root specere, meaning “to see,” so they refer to how we see and conceptualize the world and our projects in it. Where they differ, is in the prefixes: Prospect has the prefix “pro-,” which can mean “forward” and “outside.” Thus, to prospect is to “look forward (to),” and this can be understood both in terms of space and time.
Thinking of my Spanish assignment, I prospect it, I look forward to it, which now means one of two things: Either I am planning for it, thinking of it in advance, oriented toward the future, which is uncertain, or I am viewing it from outside, from afar, as if through binoculars—ultimately, the two meanings reinforce each other because I am at a distance from it, I distance myself from what “needs to be done.” Therefore, in prospecting, I can never hope to do my work because it is transcendent to me, because I transcend it, and because my futural grasp of it means it is infinitely undone, awaiting my initiative—in short, I am merely thinking about my Spanish project, which does nothing; it is impotent conjecture and imagination.
Or I can inspect my Spanish homework. The prefix “in-” is self-explanatory: It means “in,” “within.” Unlike the prospector, whom one imagines to be a miner in California during the Gold Rush, searching desperately for gold, though with bad odds, the inspector is like a detective who is holding not a metal detector, but a magnifying glass, who is not looking for an object, but who, having already found the object, is examining it, probing it, analyzing it. Here, work is being done, and one is not stressed about one’s project; rather, one is immersed in the project, which, if it is not somewhat enjoyable, is at least engaging, taking up the whole of one’s focus. When I inspect an assignment, I am looking into it, exploring it like an adventurer or explorer.
Although both the explorer and the prospector are united in their search, their “Looking-for…,” there is a subtle difference between the two, with the prospector depending on his find to justify himself, extrinsically motivated, whereas the explorer is concerned with what she will actually find, intrinsically motivated. Tasked with writing a sentence in Spanish, I am confronted with these two options: I can think about the sentence I will write, or I can think through the sentence I will write. Suppose, though, that I encounter a block, and cannot think of a specific vocab term. If I think about the word, then I will rarely, if ever, find it; the word becomes a fog, vague and amorphous, drifting through my mind, eluding my grasp. Or, I can actively inspect the situation, grabbing my Spanish dictionary and flipping through it, looking at the words in order to determine which will fit best. This means I have to actually do the work.
To use yet another example, I can refer to my Physics homework, which can often be daunting. Opening up my textbook and flipping to the designated pages, I read the problem I have been assigned: Oh boy. “How will I ever solve this?!” I think to myself. It seems impossible. I’ll never get it done. In fact, now that I think about the problem even more, I realize that I’m going to have to do it in parts, and I realize that I’m going to have to use a bunch of the formulas I learned throughout the chapters. But having the formulas is not enough: I must also know which values to substitute for the algebraic symbols, then relate them to the diagram, and then x, then y, and then… It’s no use! This’ll take me an hour to do! Notice, though, how I used phrases and words like “think about,” “going to,” “have to,” “must,” “then,” all of which are temporal and obligational. In thinking prospectively, I put myself outside of the task—stand outside it, before it—and it becomes an unruly monster that must be slain, but whose magnitude prevents me from doing so; I set before myself a bunch of expectations, things “to do,” which intimidate me, prevent me from starting. Viewing it as a whole, and predicting that it will take me an hour, I think it hopeless, and will likely put it off.
Alternatively, I can decide with some willpower to begin inspecting the problem, thinking through it, rather than merely about it. Thus, I write out what variables and formulas I know, draw an image representing the scenario, and begin relating them to each other. These individual acts are all things that I first know and, second, know how to do. If I forget a formula, then I flip through the book; if a variable, then I reread the problem closely. I inspect each item. I do not get caught up with the entirety of the problem, but concern myself with what I know to do, piece by piece, building from the bottom up. It is a matter of taking a deep breath and taking the leap. It is not enough to think “about” the thing; I must get up close, I must get within it, traveling through it, as along a path, rather than flying up above from it, detached like a bird. Physics and Spanish must be done, not thought about. Prospecting leaves one in a ditch, where one becomes stuck; there is an impasse against which it is powerless. Sizing up the embankment will not get rid of it; rather one must take up a pickaxe or spade and set to work.
As with any other contrast, there must be nuance. If we were to merely think about prospection and inspection, then we would hastily conclude that inspection is superior to prospection, and that we should only inspect problems to solve them; however, if we go within the contrast, that is, if we think through these two modes of cognition, then we realize that it is a dialectical relationship: Inspection cannot exist without prospective, and vice versa. Both elements are needed in order to work. Without prospection, inspection would be blind. In order to do something, we need to know what we have to do, for example. We need the aerial view in order to chart a clear path, to see how the parts relate to the whole. Identifying the problem in the first place, then determining what it involves and what is required, is integral to problem-solving. Equally true is that prospection without inspection is like a candle without a match: It cannot light, and nothing will come of it. The real thesis, then, is not that we should do away with prospection in favor of inspection, but rather that we ought not confuse prospection for inspection or neglect the latter altogether; in other words, thinking about a problem is not the same thing as doing the problem.
From page 164, or section XI.22, of Robert Grudin’s Time and the Art of Living (1982):
Michel Henry (1922-2002) was a contemporary French philosopher who, despite not being a well-known figure like Plato, Descartes, or Kant, has nonetheless been a creative, original influence on continental philosophy in the 20th-century. He and several other French thinkers have been a part of what has been called the “Theological Turn,” which designates a movement in which philosophers sought to combine phenomenology with Christianity, Henry being one of the key contributors. Throughout his career, Henry was concerned with one question: What is life? Specifically, what is life as it is lived? Uniting phenomenology with theology, he formulated a fascinating, novel response. In this short summary of his thinking, I will leave out the Christian elements in order to focus purely on his philosophical achievements.
To get a preparatory grasp of what exactly Henry was trying to do, we can first look at what he was criticizing.
Henry was a phenomenologist. Phenomenology, to put it simply, is the investigation of conscious experience. It studies how we go about our daily lives, thinking about and engaging with different things. However, Henry was critical of classical phenomenology as devised by its founder, Edmund Husserl, because he felt that it did not go far enough, that is, it was not radical enough, if we understand “radical” to mean that which goes to the roots, or origins, of a thing. For Husserl, all experience is governed by intentionality, meaning that our conscious experience is always “of” something; we always have a relation to an object. But Henry realized that this mode of experience, consisting of the mental grasping and representation of objects, was inadequate: Intentionality is not the final reduction of experience because it cannot intend, or understand, itself.
If intentionality is like seeing something, then how, Henry asked, does intentionality see itself? It must be based on something prior to it, more original than it. Because intentionality is transcendent—it aims at things external to it—true experience has to have its source in immanence, or interiority, i.e., from within. A proper phenomenology, if it wants to get at the heart of experience, must not be of the visible, but of the invisible. Another phenomenologist, who was a student of Husserl, Martin Heidegger, made the mistake (in Henry’s eyes) of equating time with externality, since time is that dimension within which things appear. Yet Henry pointed out that this, too, is not radical enough because if things appear, then appearing itself must appear, too.
Another obstacle to Henry’s study of life was science—or, more precisely, scientism, the belief that science, and nothing else, is the only access to knowledge. Borrowing a common phenomenological theme begun by Husserl, Henry pinpointed modern science’s deficiency in Galileo’s materialist conception of the Universe. For science to be pure, Galileo thought, it had to correspond to the precision and accuracy of numbers, which meant that those qualities which are imprecise and inaccurate, namely, subjective and sensible qualities, did not actually exist objectively. In other words, he reduced and abstracted the world to such an extent that only mathematical, physical realities like geometric figures and their proportions existed whereas aspects like color and texture were not only unreal, but products of such physical configurations. Thus, the study of gravity deals not with the smooth, orange ball we play basketball with, but a spherical body whose universal validity ensures that it will be affected uniformly by mutual attraction.
How, Henry wondered, could a program like this, which reduces our very body to an impersonal, flavorless space-time causality, know what it means to live? Consequently, he declared, “[I]n biology there is no life” (I Am the Truth, p. 38). The processes that supposedly produce sensations are themselves insensible, so how could this be the case? (Compare the “hard problem of consciousness.”) And ironically, he noted, the very biologists who “study life” ignore their very existence, experimenting in an artificial lab environment, overlooking the very real phenomena of love, hunger, and pain, for example. Henry went on to borrow a theme from Heidegger when he questioned why we insist on studying various organisms, like amœbas, to figure out what life is when we ourselves are living, when we ourselves are the ones asking the question.
In short, to discover what life is, we must (1) probe beyond what is merely visible and outside of us as well as (2) avoid an absurd material reductionism, because life is a radical, unique phenomenon.
So what is life, according to Henry? “Life is nothing other than that which reveals itself” (IAT, p. 27). If we recall the problem of intentionality—that it cannot intend itself—we come up against an infinite regress, and we are forced to presuppose a second intentionality that intends the first, which would then require a third intentionality, etc.—clearly an untenable position. So upon what is the appearance of objects based? An original or, in the words of Henry, arch-, appearance, i.e., self-revelation. Before we experience things, we experience ourselves, not transcendentally, by means of intentionality, which is directed outward, but immanently, by means of affectivity, which is self-contained. This means that life is reflexive in that it is both the subject (the revealer) and the object (the revelation) so that it reveals itself constantly. In short, “‘To live’ means to undergo experiencing oneself” (Incarnation, p. 19).
But what do these mean—”reveal itself,” “undergo experiencing oneself”? They mean that life is revealed through affectivity; basically, life feels itself. Hence, Henry says life is pathetic: It is characterized by pathos, a Greek word meaning “feeling.” Additionally, we can say it is, in my own coinage, impressive, to the extent that it receives, and is passive to, sensations that press in upon it—impress upon it. Putting this all together, life is that which reveals itself in its feeling. For example, when I feel any sensation, be it pain, happiness, or nausea, I am certain that, in every case, it is my sensation; I identify with that feeling because, in a way, I am it. Happiness is revealed to me not by an external object, even though it may be what elicits the feeling, but by itself, in me, through me; I feel myself feeling happy. We can see, then, how we might derive intentionality, which is externally oriented, from our affectivity, which comes first from within. Seeing something, after all, would not be possible if it did not first see, and this seeing is experienced in us; what is seen is visible, while the seeing is invisible. Henry also believed that life is a polarity of two fundamental affections: Joy and suffering, joy because we get to exist, suffering because we have to exist—an important point for later.
But surely life, being an ongoing auto-revelation, the very process of appearing, of coming into apparition, is not accordingly some floating spirit that drifts through world… Indeed, Henry assured us that life is fundamentally embodied, or rather incarnated. This latter term, incarnation, means “to be in flesh,” and this is essential because Henry, just as he distinguished between external appearing (objects) and internal appearing (life), drew a contrast between the worldly body—studied by anatomical and physiological science, and visible to other people—and the fleshly transcendental/organic body—purely felt, and invisible to others. To say that flesh constitutes the “transcendental body” (not to be confused with transcendent) means that it is the condition for the worldly body; in other words, were it not for our felt, lived body, there would be no visible one. Therefore, to use a famous philosophical/religious formula, we are matter coupled with spirit, visible and invisible.
If we hurt somebody, then we are hurting their external body, although we can never be 100% certain if the other person “feels pain” because that—the feeling, the self-revelatory experience—is invisible; though we can assume, drawing on inference, that they are like us in possessing life, and so experiencing pain. If you, reader, are well-versed in the history of philosophy, then you might recognize a looming problem: Is this not a repetition of Descartes’ doomed mind-body dualism? And if so, how does our life, which is nonphysical, influence our body, which is physical? Does this not make Henrian life into Ryle’s “ghost in the machine”? Henry’s answer is that life and the body are linked through flesh. But did Descartes not answer similarly in pointing to the pineal gland? The difference is that, for Henry, flesh is derived phenomenologically, that is, from lived experience.
Try the following: Close your eyes, lift your right hand, and wave it in the air. Open your eyes again. How did this material thing, your hand, just raise itself and move through the air? It is due to what Henry called the “I can,” or the primal power of life. Life, through flesh, is literally powerful: It has the capacity for action. At any point, we can exercise control over a limb without exhausting this power; no matter how many times I do it, I can repeat it since that power is at my disposal. Furthermore, the sensation of freedom is sensed in the hand as we raise it. We call this, in particular, proprioception, and it is the reason we can differentiate our hands from our legs. As a result, we can see how each of our senses, which are intentional insofar as they reach outside themselves, are actually originally pathetic—they feel foremost. All this rests on the fact that this is not an ontological dualism, but a revelatory one: My physical hand exists, I can see it in front of me, yet it is also fleshly, animated by my life, invigorated by the power of life’s “I can.” Put simply, I can use my hand. This is attested to by experience.
Then, Henry introduced another idea, on which he based his ethics: Power is founded in non-power, in powerlessness. What this means, is that life derives from “absolute Life” (synonymous, for Henry, with God). I have the power and freedom to move. Why? Because I exist, because life is in me. But why is life in me, why do I exist? Because I was placed into life, because I was incarnated. Over this, I have no control. My power to do anything at all comes from the fact that I am powerless in this respect. It is like Sartre’s quote that “Man is condemned to be free”: I am condemned to life, to live, to experience myself as living. Thus, the reality of suffering: I suffer my existence, “to suffer” being synonymous with to feel and to undergo. That I find myself existing, is not in my control, but since I do exist, I find myself in control of my actions. Absolute Life is the fact of life, and my life, as well as yours, is just one particular manifestation of it (you can see the Christian parallel to our being the sons of God).
Like the Prodigal Son, we take refuge in the fact of pure life; we are secure in our existence because, even if we lose everything, even if we suffer, we get to suffer, we experience ourselves—we have the gift of life. This primordial site of life, absolute Life, is what gives us inexhaustible power, and what is self-generative, or constant, about life’s endurance. From this, it follows that we have an ethical responsibility unto others; we all share in this life, we all experience life, we feel things together, so we must be mindful of our relations to others, putting aside our selfish needs and desires if need be, that may tend to our brothers and sisters.
Why should we care about Henry’s phenomenology of life? Why does it benefit us to know that life is bestowed upon us as the invisible power to move and feel itself? On the surface, the answer is: It is not relevant. On a deeper level, though, we recognize several things: (a) we live in an increasingly material world where it is easy to lose ourselves in commodities and easy pleasures, forgetting the fact that our affectivity, the ability to feel and sense, is unique (b) when we are at our lows and highs, we can be secure in knowing that, at bottom, we are alive, that we will live to see another day no matter how hard things get, and that this is what existence is about—experiencing, feeling (c) it is easy to subscribe to the material worldview of science, neglecting the vivid experience we have within our bodies, which are not “mere bodies,” but sensing, sensual flesh (d) life, although interior, is a shared journey, lived not in isolation, but among other lives, all stumbling along, celebrating, crying, dancing, etc. Life reveals itself to us as a gift.
What about Henry’s philosophy did you find most interesting? Do you have a suggestion for whom I should write about next? Make sure to like, comment, and share if you enjoyed!
Henry, Michel. I Am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity. translated by Susan Emanuel, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 2003.
Henry, Michel. Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh. translated by Karl Hefty, Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 2015.
Seyler, Frédéric, “Michel Henry”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/michel-henry/>.
From page 42 of Michel Henry’s I Am the Truth (2002):
From pages 79-80 of Will Durant’s Fallen Leaves (2014), written until his death in 1981, where he offers the following reflections, all too timely in today’s political climate, on race in America and its importance, full of his characteristic wisdom:
During the first half of his career, before he fell into depression, the contemporary French philosopher Clément Rosset’s (1939-2018) thought, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s affirmative philosophy, was based on an absolute acceptance and celebration of life and existence, even in the face of its realities of pain, injustice, and evil. Despite, or rather because of, the mixed nature of existence, its positives and negatives, its highs and lows, Rosset urged us to be grateful for the fact of being alive and getting to experience anything at all. In one passage, he writes,
The savor of existence is that of time passing and changing… In this fluctuation, moreover, is found the best and surest ‘permanence’ of life… This goes to show that the charm of existence, far from being appreciated in proportion to a problematic participation in eternity, is measured, on the contrary, in proportion to its distance from being as it is conceived by ontologists and metaphysicians (Rosset, Joyful Cruelty, p. 13; emphasis mine).
Rosset is advocating the classic, paradoxical statement that the only constant in life is change, that the only thing that remains the same in life is difference, or what is not the same, reality being like Heraclitus’ river, which, in its flowing, in its ceaseless replacement of its contents, is still a river: It is simultaneously the same river and not the same river in the sense that it retains its identity while in flux—in fact, it is the very flux which constitutes the identity, we could say. Hence, Rosset can claim that life’s “‘permanence’” is discovered in its “fluctuation,” meaning that, even though reality is constantly changing its appearance, it nonetheless exhibits a kind of constancy or reliability, the fact that we can count on change to occur, that we can trust in the world to shift.
Watching the sun as it descends below the horizon, I can be struck with sadness knowing that it is coming to an end, but this is to deny the reality of the world since, by this very law—that of change—I know that this state, of its descent, will change, too, giving way to yet another sunset the following day. The sun’s future setting is guaranteed by its disappearance before me; I can trust that the sunset is permanent insofar as it fluctuates. This is what Rosset calls the “savor of existence”: The pleasure and comfort which accompanies the realization that existence continues to give itself, to grant itself to us endlessly. As a result, pleasure becomes reflexive: The fact that pleasure and happiness, or joy, as Rosset prefers, recur is itself something pleasurable, something which brings pleasure. I am pleased to know that I will be pleased by coming sunsets.
Next, we should note that Rosset contrasts “a problematic participation in eternity” to a “distance from being.” This is an allusion to Plato’s philosophy. For Plato, a metaphysician, a thing’s truth and reality are based on how well it measures up to its perfect form. In terms of chocolates, there a whole bunch of them, like those from Hershey, Lindt, Ghirardelli, Dove, and more, all of which differ from each other in smoothness, texture, sweetness, etc., but all of which are chocolates; however, what makes a truly good chocolate, Plato would argue, is how well it corresponds to how perfect it is, or how well it corresponds to the ultimate chocolate, if we were to imagine it in its smoothness, texture, and sweetness.
Such a demand, Rosset argues, is “problematic,” because, in our world, there is no perfect chocolate; we are forced to contend with the selection of chocolates out in the world. Instead of looking for Plato’s transcendent, otherworldly view, in which beings are elevated to annihilation—because a chocolate essence outside of space and time, as Plato envisions it, is impossible to conceive of and therefore unintelligible—we should be content with what is far away from “Being,” from eternal Forms; we should embrace what is seemingly “imperfect,” i.e., transience. Rosset says there is more charm in a chocolate that can be eaten and savored than a chocolate that, due to its perfection, is essentially inedible, just as Bradbury pointed out that a sun which sets is better than a sun which never sets. In the end, Rosset believes that happiness is right in front of us, to be found in the very nature of experience, that is, in its transience, considering joy maintains a paradoxical permanence in the face of change.
At the end of the day, we finite mortals, bound to death, with only 24 hours in a day, have to deal with the reality that life is time, and time life. Everything we do, and that we are, is bound by time, which we cannot escape. While it may be impossible to completely dispel the sadness associated with this state of affairs in favor of a sage-like serenity, we can attempt, going forward, to put into practice Bradbury’s appreciation for the singular temporariness of events; the Stoics’ and Epicureans’ disavowal of the past and future in favor of the present moment, in all its fullness; and Rosset’s optimistic embrace of the ever-changing flow of reality. This has by no means been an exhaustive account of the problem of transience or of the solutions to it, but merely an introductory glance at it. Time flies, experiences elapse, we grow older. Food is eaten, the sun sets, conversations end, buildings decay, and happiness turns into sadness. But we should remember what Gloria Patch remarks in one of Fitzgerald’s novels: “There’s no beauty without poignancy” (Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned, p. 141).
Starting roughly at the end of the 4th century B.C. and flourishing up until the 3rd century A.D., the Hellenistic schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism, carrying on the legacy of Socrates, concerned themselves with teaching their students the art of living wisely, making them—pardon the anachronism—“existentialist” in nature. Their goal was to alleviate stress and worry from everyday life and, in the process, to cultivate serenity. What is something that causes a lot of stress and worry? Time: our preoccupation with the past and future, the instability of the present, and the fact of death. For the Epicureans and Stoics, as well as for many traditions, ancient and modern, East and West, the solution is simple but difficult: Live in the present.
Pierre Hadot, an expert in Ancient philosophy, summarizes the position like this: “We must… learn how to enjoy the pleasure of the present, without letting ourselves be distracted from it. If the past is unpleasant to us, we are to avoid thinking about it, and we must not think about the future, insofar as the idea of it provokes in us fears or unbridled expectations” (Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 223). Anything that tears us apart from, which is the literal meaning of “distract,” the present, from what is happening right now, at this second, is to be avoided. If I am to eat chocolate, then the anticipation of what is to follow, viz., brushing my teeth or knowing that I have eaten, and thus gotten rid of, the chocolate, will distract me from the chocolate and, more importantly, from the experience of eating the chocolate, which is the point, after all, for it is the ingestion, the tasting of the chocolate that gives me pleasure.
To be consumed with guilt as I consume the chocolate—since I know I will be betraying my taste buds shortly, depriving them of this happiness—will take away from the chocolate, too. Similarly, after I have eaten the chocolate, if I think back to when I had it, to when I was eating it, to what it was like, to the happiness I felt, then the memory of it will bring mental pain. If I find myself desiring chocolate again, having already brushed my teeth, then discomfort will overtake me, as I do not have the chocolate that I would like to have. In sum, what brings me pain is wanting everything but the chocolate itself: If I were to focus on the present, tasting the chocolate fully, with undivided attention, and if I gave no thought to what would happen, or to my previous state, a pre-chocolate one, then I would be content, with nothing over which to stress. Thus, the solution is “to enjoy the pleasure of the present,” to turn away from everything except what is happening, engaging fully with the act, which amounts, simply, to savoring the chocolate; this means tuning out external stimuli and really tasting some food, viewing a sunset, or hanging out with friends, “turning them over,” so to speak, relishing in them.
Additionally, the Epicureans and Stoics had an interesting idea about the sufficiency of pleasure, or the idea that pleasure as such is unqualifiable. As Seneca, a Stoic writer and the tutor of Nero, wrote, “Whether you draw a larger or a smaller circle, its size affects its area, not its shape” (Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 74). Put another way, “[I]f pleasure limits itself to that which procures perfect peace of mind, it attains a summit which cannot be surpassed, and it is impossible for it to be increased by duration” (Hadot, p. 224). This idea is a confusing one to grasp, but what it is essentially saying is that pleasure—any pleasure—is absolute. A circle is a circle, regardless of size, just as pleasure is pleasure, regardless of time. In other words, if I am pleased by a sunset, then I am perfectly pleased.
We can see this, in fact, in our everyday language: “This is all I need to be happy,” “Nothing could make this better,” etc. Of course, if you want to be pedantic, then you can point out that these phrases are just idioms and not truths—even if I said nothing could make a sunset better, and meant it, I could just as well say that receiving $1,000,000 would do the job. But if we stick to reality, then what we realize through these expressions is that pleasures are self-sufficient; they fulfill us in and of themselves. Hadot, in describing pleasure as an unsurpassable “summit,” is getting at this idea that pleasure per se cannot be modified internally, only externally; that is, the only thing that would change pleasure is if we experienced pain, that is, if the pleasure itself—not the degree/intensity or duration—changed. Instead, once we attain pleasure, or once something becomes pleasurable, then it is absolutely and unqualifiedly pleasurable. Pleasure is complete in virtue of my feeling it.
A further way to enhance this experience is another universal teaching: “The secret of Epicurean joy and serenity,” Hadot tells us, “is to live each instant as if it were the last, but also as if it were the first” (225). Epicureanism holds that the Universe, being composed of the interaction of atoms, is indeterministic; it operates according to chance, meaning that every experience of ours, including the fact of life itself, is something for which to be grateful, seeing as it may not come again—only time shall tell. From the Hellenistic schools, then, we learn that happiness and pleasure belong to us as long as we do not trouble ourselves with what is outside our control, notably the past and the future, attending instead to life as it plays out currently, complete and perfect as it is.
In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Happiness Machine,” Leo Auffman engineers a device that will bring to its user whatever happiness they desire for however long they desire, believing this to be the answer to life’s problems. His wife, Lena, doubtful of the project, tries it out one afternoon and, contrary to Leo’s expectations, she exits it crying, more upset than she had been before using it. She explains to him that the pleasures of life, like seeing a sunset, are not meant to be manipulated, contrived, or created artificially, for that actually diminishes their quality. Part of their conversation goes like this:
“[L]et’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last?… Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else. People are like that, Leo… Sunsets are always liked because they only happen once and go away.”
“But Lena, that’s sad.”
“No, if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness” (Bradbury, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, “The Happiness Machine,” p. 537).
Here, Bradbury, through Lena Auffmann, advances the idea that temporality is what gives value to things, rather than what takes away value from them, contradicting how we usually think. Just because a thing is not permanent, in other words, does not mean that, for its duration, it is purposeless. A sunset that lasts a couple of minutes does its job: it pleases us, it reminds us of the beauty of nature, it ushers in the night. Its transitoriness, though, does not in any way detract from any of those purposes. This notion can only be understood properly, however, if we connect it to a second principal idea in the conversation, which is that a thing or experience derives its value not just from temporality but also from its difference, which is itself a product of temporality, its temporality.
Bradbury expresses this by invoking boredom. Simply put, if we only experienced one thing permanently, then its value would wane and ultimately become valueless. Suppose the sun never set completely, but just hung, as it were, above the horizon, and it never budged from that position. As a result, the sky would be a permanent flurry of pasty, creamy orange, pink, red, and purple—that wonderful display we all love. The thing is, after a while, that “wonderful display we all love” would soon become commonplace and even unsightly to us, and we would beg for some diversity, like a blue sky during the day or a black sky during the night every once in a while—anything but a sunset! “That,” Lena rightly states, “would be a real sadness”—not if the sunset went away, but if it never went away.
The sunset’s beauty, its uniqueness, is based on the fact that it does not happen all the time, but only when we happen to see it because chances are, nobody has seen, or rather planned to see, the sun set every day; instead, it is “on occasions” that we decide to go see one from a particular vantage point. Additionally, as Lena points out, sunsets “only happen once.” Yes, they occur once a day, but it is that “once,” that singularity, that rarity, which gives it such importance. It is this rarity that bestows a certain fragility upon sunsets; in other words, sunsets are things that can be “missed,” and it this very property, its timeliness, its being-at-a-time, which renders it meaningful, in contrast to what precedes and succeeds it. Therefore, according to Bradbury, transitoriness is the mark of happiness; life is meaningful because it lasts for a time, endowed with its own singularity.