The Consolation of Adversity’s Sweet Milk, Philosophy

Unknown.pngWe all have our bad days. Life is going well, and everything falls into place neatly and conveniently. Then, in the blink of an eye, life flips upside down, becomes inverted, seems foreign, and your whole outlook changes. A small change in fortune can have monumental consequences, many of which are outside of our control. Nobody is exempt from misfortune; we all endure it from time to time because we have to—our cards are dealt that way, whom or what by, we do not know. The idea that some kind of external force controls our life, whether it be fate or fortune, destiny or chance, has captured our attention for as long as we can remember, from mythology to science. But some also believe in man’s autonomy, his free will, and his ability to use that will, in contrast to said outside forces. These problems have been addressed by literature ever since signs and symbols were invented. One man who discussed this problem, hailed as one of the greatest English writers, lived during the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: William Shakespeare, in whose famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet he writes about the problem of fate and misfortune. Yet another comes a millennium before Shakespeare, a Roman Neoplatonist scholar named Boëthius (c. 477-524). He wrote an enduring book that was well received during the Middle Ages called The Consolation of Philosophy in which he describes how he came to cope with his misfortune. Together, Shakespeare and Boëthius, a playwright and a philosopher, explain how, when faced with struggles and suffering, we can all benefit from, and be consoled by adversity’s sweet milk— philosophy.


Romeo-Montague-1968-romeo-montague-1968-26656721-1152-1008.jpgOur consolation begins with Romeo. Young, romantic, and honorable, Romeo is a citizen of Verona and a member of House Montague. He has cool friends with whom he hangs, and he lives a safe and privileged life. Another thing he has going for him is his love for Juliet, a member of House Capulet. Although they are of different families who hate each other, their love transcends these boundaries. They end up getting married. It would appear, then, that Romeo has everything for which he could ever wish, and life could not be any better. Similarly, Boëthius was a well-to-do politician and scholar. He had the good fortune to be adopted by a good man named Symmachus, and Boëthius would marry a wife and have kids who were obedient, and who would go onto serve both as consuls. Well-known throughout Rome and rich, Boëthius was in his prime. Both men had reached the apex of life: They had good families, a solid fiscal situation, and success in their public and private lives. Nothing could get in their way. Then, one afternoon, Romeo’s life flashes before his eyes. Upon marrying his true love, he encounters her cousin Tybalt, with whom he gets into an altercation, and whom he kills out of anger. The prince of Verona promptly banishes Romeo from Verona, and worse, from his love. In just a few hours, he loses his family, his Unknown.jpeghonors, and his North Star, his raison d’ětre—Juliet. Compare this to Boëthius, who defended a friend of his in court, only to be betrayed by a few corrupt politicians. He ended up being thrown in jail (in Verona, coincidentally) by the very king he was loyal to, forced to rot in prison, without any hope, his possessions and titles stripped, his life essentially over. Eventually, he was executed while in jail. From the highest point of his life, Boëthius had the carpet pulled out from beneath his feet, so he was made to fall to the very bottom, to the bottom-most depths of human tragedy. In each case, the two men suffered a reversal of fortune, a tragic fall, much like those found in the Ancient Greek tragedies. Hence, Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and the life story of Boëthius could have been called The Tragedy of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius.


While weeping in grief after the prince’s pronouncement, Romeo is offered solace by the man who married him to Juliet, Friar Laurence: “‘I’ll give thee armor to keep off that image-20150727-7653-s9wpej.jpgword [banishment], / Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy, / To comfort thee, though thou art banished’” (3.3.54-56). Why does Friar Laurence call philosophy “adversity’s sweet milk”? The answer, I believe, is twofold: First, milk is a product, something produced, as when we milk a cow, meaning that philosophy is the product of adversity, that which we get when we “milk adversity,” so to speak, or endure difficulties; second, milk is good for its nutrients and especially for its calcium, which is necessary for growth, both for the calf and the human baby, strengthening the bones and the skeleton, providing strength—when we speak of nurturing, we think of feeding milk, so philosophy is what nurtures us. If we synthesize these two interpretations, then we get that philosophy is that which allows us to learn from and grow after enduring difficulties, helps us to recover, nourishes us, for it is like milk in that it strengthens us. When we undergo adversity, we end up learning from it; we get stronger from it, like a muscle after exercise. Friar Laurence introduces philosophy by calling it “armor,” because when armed with it, Romeo can protect himself from the inevitable scarring and suffering of adversity. Philosophy is a shield, an ægis that provides cover from him and that deflects the pain of memory.


Boëthius went through almost the same exact thing. In The Consolation of Philosophy, he imagines a conversation between him and a personification of philosophy, whom he Unknown-1.pngenvisions as a beautiful woman there to comfort him in his grieving. She, like the friar, tells him not to cry, saying, “'[I]t is time for medicine rather than complaint…. Are you not he who once was nourished by my milk and brought up on my food; who emerged from weakness to the strength of virile soul?’”[1] Notice how Philosophy uses the metaphor of “milk” for her teachings, just like Friar Laurence did. Both people take on the role of the mentor offering advice, and they both talk of philosophy, comparing it to the nutritious, nourishing drink we all love—milk. Again, the usage of “milk” in this quote suggests and further supports my claim from earlier: Philosophy is a salutary drink, a drink which we know is good for us, but which we are hesitant to take, a drink that can cure us of our problems and sorrows, a drink that we literally thrive upon, that strengthens us and makes us grow, not physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. When I read “and brought up on my food,” I thought of ambrosia, the food of the gods, for some reason; and if we take that as what she is saying, then that means philosophy is on the level of the divine, and it is equivalent to the drink of the gods, nectar, whose definition includes “sweetness,” from which we can see the connection in “sweet milk” used by Friar Laurence. In Roman times, a popular metaphor was the images.pngphilosopher as doctor. Hence, Philosophy tells Boëthius that, instead of crying, he should take his “medicine”; i.e., philosophy. Philosophy thus takes on the role of healer, a medical professional in whose best interest it is to heal Boëthius’ mental wounds. Boëthius used to be a strong, healthy man, but tragedy made him weak and servile, as he no longer practiced what he preached. Philosophy questions him, asking why it is that, despite studying her wisdom, he does not heed any of it while in prison. The doctor is in, and having diagnosed her patient with ignorance and self-pity, she prescribes him adversity’s sweet milk—philosophy.


Part of Philosophy’s diagnosis is the fact that Boëthius does not know how the universe is governed. While he concedes that God (for the remainder of the essay, feel free to substitute God for whatever you believe [or don’t] in!)  is the rational creator of the universe, he does not acknowledge the role played by the goddess Fortune. According to Philosophy, Fortune is fickle. Like Janus, the god of passages, Fortune is two-headed and bestows either good or bad fortune indiscriminately. And much like a coin, she can show either of her faces upon a single toss. Fortune balances out goodness with badness, misleading many who attribute constancy to her. This is a foolish error, Philosophy Unknown-1.jpegargues, because to think that one has “good fortune” just because a series of good things has happened, does not guarantee that, in the next moment, something good will happen again; it is Fortune’s nature to change rashly and unexpectedly. It is as though there is a cosmic equilibrium. Fortune is a little bit like Karma, except that it is not caused by free will, but by fortuity; by this, it is to be understood that, whereas in Karma a good action is followed by a good consequence and vice versa such that it equals out in the end, Fortune grants good fortune and elevates so long as she feels like it and then can level her victim with bad fortune at the flick of a hand. Whatever she does, whether it be good-good-bad-bad or good-bad-good-bad—it will always end at 0. Therefore, everyone will reach their high point, be able to enjoy it for a time, then reach their low point, wallow in it, and repeat. Sometimes we have bragging rights, others we have pity rights. What remains constant is this: None of us is responsible for our fortune, good or bad. This is what causes so much unhappiness. Many of us blame ourselves or others for our bad fortune, when really, it is outside of our control. Or, we’ll praise ourselves for our good fortune, when, in reality, it was dispensed external to us.


In order to deal with this inevitable fact, Philosophy gives Boëthius two choices: Accept Fortune, or ignore her. The first choice is amor fortuna—love of one’s fortune (my spin-off of Nietzsche’s amor fati—love of one’s fate). With this choice, we realize that we cannot change our Fortune, but that Fortune changes of her own will, so we might as Unknown-2.jpegwell go along with it. Because we cannot expect anything from Fortune, there is no purpose in reasoning with her. Unlike the other gods and goddesses, Fortune does not listen to our prayers, for she acts independently. Consequently, we cannot blame Fortune, per se; instead, we should be grateful for the good fortune we are bestowed. This, or we can go with the second choice and ignore Fortune entirely. If we are to ignore Fortune, then we are to not blame her for anything. Romeo shouts in despair after killing Tybalt, “‘Oh, I am Fortune’s fool!’” (3.1.98). Of all the people he could have killed, it had to be Tybalt, the cousin of his wife. A series of events transpired that led to his killing Tybalt, a series that was greater than he, that was outside his control, and that he could not foresee. Realizing his misfortune, he cries out against the goddess Fortune, condemning his role as a puppet, a mere thing to be flung around for her amusement. Philosophy ties it all up by arguing that, although misfortune is inevitable, it is endurable. Primarily, present suffering is temporary; it will not last forever. Secondarily, misfortune, we have said, is but a small cog in the Wheel of Fortune. Present misfortune is succeeded by unforeseen good fortune, and so on. It is just that, at the moment, we are so transfixed by our suffering, we fail to see clearly what lies ahead.


But all of this does not explain the Problem of Evil, objects Boëthius. If God is indeed the creator of this world, and He governs it with His perfect, beneficent reason, then why does He not only let evil men succeed, but permit Evil itself to exist? It seems as though everywhere we look, injustice prevails and justice shrinks away. Good men stay in the shadows while evil men run amok in the streets. Boëthius points out that he was a virtuous politician who acted morally, yet he was arrested and belittled by vicious, corrupt politicians. Where was the justice in that? And Romeo was banished because he avenged his friend Mercutio’s unfair death. Tybalt provoked Romeo, but the latter did not give in, so his friend fought instead, only to suffer a wound that killed him. Romeo, like a good friend, wanted to avenge his friend, because to do otherwise would be to let a murderer go free. As a result, he went after Tybalt and slew him. While it was not the most rational thing to do, surely there was justice in avenging his friend. Did good prosper, or did evil? Either way, two men died. These two good men—Boëthius and Romeo—had good things going for them and long lives ahead, but in one moment, all fortune became misfortune, and good succumbed to evil.


Unknown-3.jpegIn response, Philosophy claims that bad fortune is actually better than good fortune, contrary to popular opinion. This is because good fortune is deceptive. Whenever something good happens, we expect more good things to happen, and we become excessively prideful and optimistic. Of course, it is a good thing to be optimistic, but to be Panglossian, to see too much good—this can cloud our judgment, leading to poor expectations. We are led to believe that we are having good luck for a reason. However, such is not the case. Bad luck, on the other hand, is realistic—harsh, but realistic. It teaches us the realities of life. Not everything is happiness, smiles, and rainbows. Misfortune lets us have reasonable expectations. From bad experiences, we learn lessons. If we do something stupid, then we learn what not to do in future scenarios. Often, we judge others, and others judge us based on chance and random circumstances, but not on our character. Philosophy assures Boëthius that the good are powerful and that the evil are weak; it is just that we do not see it that way. Only the good can in theory be happy because they can get what the want, whereas evil men are always frustrated due to their ignorance. Thus, when we see evil men succeed, we must remember that it is but a single chance event, and that, deep down, they can never get what they desire.


What is happiness? Boëthius does not give an exact definition, although he states in agreeance with Aristotle that it is the highest good, the summum bonum, which all men seek. Happiness is not equivalent to fame, possessions, glory, power, or pleasure; happiness is a synergy of the aforementioned traits. Stated in another way, one can have Frans_Francken_(II)_-_Mankind's_Eternal_Dilemma_–_The_Choice_Between_Virtue_and_Vice.jpgfame, things, glory, power, and pleasure and still not have happiness, but someone who has happiness necessarily has fame, things, glory, power, and pleasure. Happiness transcends these individual traits. Drawing from Plato and Socrates, Boëthius says that everyone, even those who are evil, seeks Good (happiness), but many of us do not know how to obtain it because we are ignorant. In this light, Evil is viewed as stemming from ignorance; it is the classic Scholastic view that Evil is the absence of Good. Because we do not know the true nature of the Good, we are misguided in our efforts, so we end up seeking the wrong things, resulting in vices instead of virtues. An evil person, without knowing it, desires happiness, but they mistakenly equate it with, say, power, so they focus only on getting power. This focus on a single aspect spirals into a narrow-minded pursuit that ends up turning into vice, then corrupting into Evil. Another may be distracted and focus only on possessions, working to acquire as much wealth as they possibly can; but little do they know that this will not get them true happiness, but more problems. Good men, contrarily, learned, knowing what happiness is, will take a balanced approach, not focusing on one aspect more than the others, but pursuing them all equally through virtuous action, which is good in itself. Everyone, even with good fortune, is never 100% happy at any given time. Circumstances cloud our judgments constantly so that we may miss out on opportunities. Ultimately, happiness contains all lesser goods, so if you have happiness, then you have glory, power, fame, possessions, and pleasure.


OrderedUniverseimageWEB.jpgEverything is controlled by God, contends Boëthius. He asks Philosophy if there is such a thing as “chance,” defined as an uncaused event, to which she replies no, since God is the maker of everything, and nothing is uncaused therefor. The only thing not controlled by God is man, as he has free will. This explains why man is allowed to stray from his virtuous path and toward vice, even though it is against his better nature. Boëthius is content with having free will, yet he is afraid that it is made impossible by the fact that everything is predetermined by God. There is a logical inconsistency: If God can see all things in the future, then how can man make his own decisions? God, responds Philosophy, acts through Providence and Fate. To put it simply, Providence is God’s plan, the bigger picture, and Fate is the specific events, happenings, and occurrences which make Providence possible. Providence is what happens, Fate what makes it happen. Providence is to a blueprint what Fate is to a builder. Philosophy, addressing the problem of predestination, says, “For even though … events are foreseen because they will happen, they do not happen because they are foreseen.”[2] What does this mean? Philosophy is saying that God can certainly see what we humans will do, but his knowing what we will do is not what causes us to do it. An important concept to understand comes a bit earlier, when Philosophy asserts that God is eternal, by which she means that God lives eternally in the present. In other words, there is no past, present, and future, but only a continuous present for God. For sake of understanding, picture God watching over you while you make a decision: When deciding to get a drink of water, He is constantly keeping watch over you, staying with you in the present, and when you decide to get a drink of water out of free will, He presently watches as you make this decision, and therefore foresees it happening in His present. Just because God knows you will get water, does not mean it is He who caused you to: You acted out of free will—He merely observed you making it. Hereby, Boëthius manages to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human freedom.


220px-Romeo_and_juliet_brown.jpgRomeo is awaiting his punishment when Friar Laurence comes in and tells him, “‘Not body’s death, but body’s banishment’” (3.3.12). To Romeo, banishment is equal to, if not worse than, death, because “‘There is no world without Verona walls’” (3.3.18). The friar reprimands Romeo because he ought to be grateful for his situation: He is still alive, and he still has possibilities and things for which he is fortunate. Friar Laurence suggests as a remedy philosophy, but Romeo dismisses it, “‘Unless philosophy can make a Juliet, / Displant a town, reverse a prince’s doom’” (3.3.61-63). Because philosophy is wise and Friar Laurence is trying to help, he likens Romeo to a madman who will not listen to reason. He asks to reason with Romeo regarding his condition. Linking this to the story of Boëthius, Philosophy compares the philosopher to a city-dweller: He who lives in a city sets up his home there, and thence he cannot be exiled, unless by force, in which case it is of his own volition. Even if he were forced to leave the city, it is he on whose legs he leaves—no one else’s. As soon as he settles down, he is never in exile unless he wants to be, unless he tires of it. There is safety within these walls. The mind is one’s city. Philosophy then makes the case that philosophy need not be practiced exclusively in the library or in books; no, philosophy is practiced exclusively through mental and spiritual actions. Happiness does not come from outside, happiness comes from inside, from the self. The mind is our citadel, a fortress into which we can retreat, safe from the outside. It is true that Boëthius was a smart man studied aright in philosophy; however, Philosophy argues that his books could teach him only so much, that true philosophy is put into practice. In reading all his philosophy, Boëthius should have the wisdom to brave out his exile, because therein lies his contentment—in himself.


Unknown-4.jpegBoëthius was influenced by the Stoics, and he can be best described as a Stoic-Neoplatonist. Interestingly though, early in The Consolation of Philosophy, he criticizes the school alongside Epicureanism for not living up to the Socratic ideal. Notwithstanding, his thinking clearly borrows from Epictetus. Speaking of the great Stoic sage, he knew of a man similar in mind to Romeo. In his Discourses, he recounts of Thrasea, who said he would rather die that day than be banished the next, for which he was reproved by his master, Musonius Rufus, because neither punishment was in his control; thus, he ought to have settled with either willingly. Another, Agrippinus, awaited calmly his trial, going through his daily routines, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. When he got the news that he was banished, he asked when, was told the next day, and replied, “Let’s have dinner,” because he was in no rush, and it was just a regular day.[3] This is the attitude we should adopt toward all circumstances, Epictetus and Boëthius believed. Like Thrasea, Romeo preferred death to banishment, and Friar Laurence, in the role of Rufus, lectured him for his foolishness. Romeo, evidently, has many wrong beliefs, which are the true causes of his sorrow, not his situation. First, Romeo is not dead, which is good for several reasons. One, he is not dead. That is pretty good in itself. To be alive is a good thing. This means that Romeo has possibilities, seeing as Heidegger defined death as the end of all possibilities. Since he managed to escape with his life, Romeo is able to explore the world, do all the things he has ever wanted to do without constraints. Even if he were to die, it would not be bad from a Neoplatonist perspective, which would be taken by Boëthius, but which has little bearing today, considering death was viewed as good: It meant the pure soul would reunite with the One, or God. Second, Romeo mistakenly believes that there is nothing good beyond Verona. Having grown up in his hometown of Verona, Romeo has not seen anything beyond his home. Imagine all the sights he could have see in Mantua! But he Verona.jpgneed not have been constricted just to Italy, either; he could have explored Europe by himself! Banishment means creating a new life, which is difficult, but also liberating. There all kinds of opportunities in creating a new life while still young and in love. Cicero was exiled several times in his life. The first time, he was scared and hated it. He thought of exile negatively, just as Romeo did. Over time, he got used to it and actually learned to enjoy it. He viewed exile as an opportunity to get out of Rome, write, and be productive. Exile for Cicero was about rebirth rather than death. While Romeo is right that philosophy cannot undo what had happened, he is wrong that philosophy has no use: He could have used it to cope with his situation, to move on with his life, to make sense of what was going on and what had happened. Despite being banished from his home, he still had the possibility of being with Juliet, had he sticked around long enough. If he had the patience or wisdom borne from philosophy, he could have been with his beloved Juliet. In a sense, philosophy could have made him Juliet, could have displanted a town, and could have reversed a prince’s doom—if only he had the reason to heed Friar Laurence and drink from adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.


Unknown-5.jpegFrom a Renaissance dramatist and a Medieval philosopher we have learned some important lessons. In spite of their abstractness, difficulty, and age, they have ideas that in this day and age should be studied, read, and lived. Both writers explored the human condition, and internal struggles faced by us on a daily basis, and they showed how free will and responsibility can coexist with a universe governed by unflinching, uncaring chance and fate. While there are things that happen outside of our control, there are things we can control—a Stoical doctrine. Sometimes things do not go our way, but we must be on the lookout for better days, of which there are plenty coming our way, each and every one of us. And when we do have a bad day, it is important that we look back at what we have had the good fortune of having, because misfortune is fleeting. Happiness is not a singular pursuit, remember that. One ought to be well-rounded in their virtues and avoid Unknown-6.jpegvice at all costs. These are all great lessons to use in our lives, but greater still is the appeal of philosophy. Philosophy has been looked down upon for years, though it has been getting a small resurgence lately. Even Shakespeare, renowned mostly for his contribution to literature, was a philosopher at heart, an explorer of ideas and of the inner terrain of man. The lot of us have missed out on the beauty and wonder that is philosophical inquiry. Many today know not the consolation of philosophy. Many today know not adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.


[1] Boëthius, The Consolation of Philosophy, p. 6
[2] Id., pp. 105-6
[3] Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1

For further reading: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (2011)
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boëthius (1962)

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Burton on Self-Acceptance

Burton on Self-acceptance.png

From self alone expect applause

 

Marion LeRoy Burton (1874-1925), president of Smith College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Michigan.

A Phenomenology of Sprinting: 1 – Introduction

My favorite description of what it means to be a sprinter comes from John L. Parker, Jr.’s novel Once a Runner when the narrator starts by commenting on long distance runners and throwers:

images.jpegThere was great unspoken respect between the weight men and the distance runners that was understood but never examined closely. They all dealt in one way or another with the absolute limits of the human body and spirit, but the runners and weight men seemed to somehow share a special understanding, and there were good friendships among them.

The sprinters and jumpers were quite another story. Their art revolved around a single explosive instant during which all was gained or lost. They were, perhaps, the spiritual descendants of the assault troops who leaped trenches and scaled barricades to lead the attack. They were nervous, high-strung, either giddy with success or mired in swamp funk. They were the manic-depressives of the track world. They constantly puffed themselves up with braggadocio, either to bolster their own flagging courage or to intimidate their opponents. The intensity of their competition was ferocious, even cruel…. A sprinter’s race takes only ten seconds…. Cassidy pitied them the intensity of their contests, but at the same time was envious (Parker, Once a Runner, pp. 17-18)

As a sprinter, whenever I read this passage, I can always relate and get a laugh out of it. It so clearly delves into the mind of the sprinter, I cannot think of a better way to write it. From the emotional to the temporal aspect, the writing covers the sprinter’s world.


A question I have always had is: How can I combine two things I love—sprinting and philosophy—two things so seemingly unrelated and incommensurable, and put them into a third thing I love—writing? Is there a way that I can take the experience of running, philosophize it, then write about it? I like to say there is a philosophy behind everything, but I could never find a way to encounter “philosophy of sprinting,” until I realized that the experience of sprinting itself, the happening of sprinting, is itself philosophy. Mid-run, one is in the midst of philosophy, yet it is hard to explicate. images-1.jpegPhenomenology, simply put, is the study of phenomena, or experience. If I were to ask you, “What is an experience? What is an experience like? What is it like to experience something?” how would you respond? Such is the objective of phenomenology, whose goal it is to analyze and explain the nature of experience, no matter what of. Experience itself. But immediately there is a problem: Sprinting is such a short, intense activity—how can one possibly study the experience of it? I am crouching in the blocks, hands spread on the track, head down, when a loud Crack! echoes, and I find myself flying out of the blocks, only to cross the finish line in what feels like the snap of a finger. But did I retain anything? How could I in so short a burst of time? It is like being put in front of a screen that flashes images in microseconds, then having someone quiz you on what appeared. It seems difficult to imagine that the brain can keep up with a short, action-packed instant. Fortunately, the brain, although limited in its power, can retain a lot, if not some, of these fragments. Also to my advantage is the fact that there are hundreds of sprinters in the world, all of whom can attest to similar experiences, thus forming a phenomenological study.


Therefore, in the future posts, drawing on personal experience and experience gathered from other sprinters on my track team, I will be discussing a phenomenology of sprinting. This has long been an ambition of mine—combining sprinting with philosophy—and I am finally setting out to do it. Track and field is an interesting sport in its own right, and perhaps avid fans might be wondering what it is like to run from the sprinter’s perspective. For the next several posts, we will be exploring the inner world of the sprinter—the philosophy of the sprinter.

 

Heidegger and Mindfulness

Unknown.pngIn the last post, we learned what it means to think, or rather, what It is that calls upon us to think It. As such, the “thinking” Heidegger describes is not thinking in the traditional sense, as in logical and rational problem-solving, which we in our everyday lives employ; on the contrary, he states thinking is the hardest thing for us rational animals to do, despite its being a natural endowment of ours, an ability with which we are gifted—for the precise reason that it is the easiest thing to do. But, as was concluded previously, the nature of this thinking still remains elusive. What, exactly, is thinking as Heidegger conceived it? Is it just another obscure theory of his, shrouded in obtuse language and opaque rambling, or is it actually a practical activity, one which will benefit us and deliver us from an approaching void as he advertised it? Does Heidegger’s thinking stand up to history as new, original, and groundbreaking, or does it resemblant of other modes of thinking? These are all important questions to ask when reading What is Called Thinking? In this post, which is the second of three installments, I will propose that, despite the seemingly impenetrable and impractical nature of thinking, what Heidegger calls thinking is really an accessible, highly practical, and much-needed mode of living similar to mindfulness. Thinking is being mindful. Because it is the simplest task, it is also the hardest task; and with it, we can learn to value and appreciate life for what it is in this high-speed world of ours.


flowering_tree.jpgTo best illustrate what is meant by “thinking,” Heidegger asks us to imagine a tree in a meadow. According to our normal notion of thinking, to think is to create ideas, to ideate. When you or I think, when we create ideas, we usually see them as immaterial mental images that are superimposed over our vision, as if they are “out there.” If you close your eyes and think of a table, then it as though the thought of the table is projected forth from your mind, in front of you. This theory is known as idealism. It states that reality is a creation of the mind, that all substances are really products of the mind. Because the mind is internal, it means the ideas, too, are internal, meaning, then, that our representations of the world are experienced internally. All experience of the world is essentially private and internal. Everything exists within ourselves, and nothing exists independent of us. Hence, when I look at the tree in the meadow, the tree is not truly there, nor is the meadow; rather, they are ideas in my mind—I think them—and so are within me. This is a Berkelian way of looking at things: Esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. But in reality, what is really happening—is the tree out there in the meadow, or are both in my head? If the tree is on the meadow, and if the meadow is in my head, then neither is real. Heidegger proceeds to ask whether it is we who meet the tree, or the tree that meets us. We say we encounter the tree, by which we mean we come face-to-face with it, in which case it is a two-way experience, not just a one-way experience.


Even science, which likes to clarify problems, cannot lend help to the problem at hand. If anything, it worsens the problem, Heidegger asserts, because “science does not think.” In saying this, Heidegger points to the fact that science deals with objective facts, and in its pursuits, it becomes stuck in its ways, stubborn and unwieldy, unable to accept any other viewpoints, set in its ways, confident in its validity. Eventually, this leads to scientism, the belief that science is the only source of knowledge and that science can solve every single problem presented to man. What eye_xsection_01.jpghas science to say regarding our encounter with the tree? The unquestioned verdict of science is that our encounter with the tree is quite simple: It is reducible to certain mechanisms that go on in our brain, causing a complex series of neurons to fire, finally producing the image of the tree before us. What this means is that the tree, the meadow, the sky—everything is illusory. The tree is not really a tree since it is a construction in our minds. In fact, the brown bark and green leaves are neither of those things, because the light reflecting from them is everything but those colors, and the image of the tree itself is heavily diluted and reversed and edited by the retinal system so that it is everything but what it is. The tree becomes anything but a tree. We are not content with this, though. As a result, science reduces the tree further, breaking it down into mere atoms, which are about 99% empty, and which are divisible into quarks that zip around emptiness. At the quantum level, neither the tree nor I exist. If anything is experienced, Unknown.jpegthen it is at most an illusory construction in the mind. Not only is the tree reduced, but I, too, am reduced to a measurable quantity. My brain waves, behavior, and physical composition can be analyzed and reduced to nothing. Heidegger rejects this representationalism. He thinks it unrealistic to view things idealistically or representationally. For him, percipi est esse, to be perceived is to be. In other words, for something to be seen, it must in the first place be there. It must exist, foremost. Before science can analyze a tree, a tree must be there to be analyzed. By analyzing the tree, scientists are effectively looking past it. They are missing the tree. They are neglecting the tree for what it is—a tree. Therefore, Heidegger can be said to be defending common sense. I see a tree in a meadow, and that is what I see. This kind of perceiving is pre-scientific, even pre-conceptual; in a word, it is naïve, in that is both unsuspecting and natural. To look at a tree as such is to look at it without judgment, without second thoughts, without trying to peel it away, as if to reveal a second, deeper layer beneath. I behold the tree and just look at it. In Buddhist psychology, I could be said to be perceiving rather than conceiving. Instead of labeling, categorizing, and analyzing the tree, I see, acknowledge, and accept it. It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, a face-to-face encounter. It is just the self and the tree in the meadow. The self, perceiving the tree, “grounds” itself literally because the self finds itself planted firmly on the earth in the world, and figuratively because the self is established in relation to the tree and finds itself oriented thereto. Thus grounded, the observer is present. The observer is said to “awaken to reality.” They are aware of the tree, and they do not just regard it as a passive, lifeless presence-at-hand. There is a connection. As Heidegger puts it,

When we think through what this is, that a tree in bloom presents itself to us so that we can come and stand face-to-face with it, the thing that matters first and foremost, and finally, is not to drop the tree in bloom, but for once [to] let it stand where it stands. Why do we say ‘finally’? Because to this day, thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.[1]

Importantly, Heidegger writes that the tree “presents itself to us.” He does not just mean that the tree is there for us to see; he is also implying that the tree, of its own, shows itself to us, reveals itself for us to see it, makes itself manifest. Heidegger’s word for this is the Greek Aletheia (αλἠθεια), which means “unconcealment.” The tree, previously concealed, images.jpegis unveiled. Usually, though, we “drop the tree in bloom,” meaning we do not see the tree for what it truly is but for its mode as an object. Just like how we wake up every morning and neglect our bed because we are so used to it, so we regard the tree as “just another object,” and so pay no attention to it. After all, what makes this tree so significant? It is just there. Heidegger is saying that we do not really see the tree as a tree-in-bloom. As a default, we live in a mode of everydayness, in which life seems to drag on, and everything in it unravels itself before us. We lazily make our way through life without giving heed to anything in the background. Things are mere objects. We ignore them, never acknowledging them, but just pass by inconsequentially. We have not the time for such trifles as a tree-in-bloom. Now, compare Heidegger’s example to that of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s:

When reality is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection, an almond tree that may be in your front yard may reveal its nature in perfect wholeness. The almond tree is itself truth, reality, your own self. Of all the people who have passed by your yard, how many have really seen the almond tree? … If your heart is not clouded by false views, you will be able to enter into a natural communion with the tree. The almond tree will be ready to reveal itself to you in complete wholeness. To see the almond tree is to see the way. One Zen Master, when asked to explain the wonder of reality, pointed to a cypress tree and said, “Look at the cypress tree over there.”[2]

Unknown.jpegIn this passage, Nhat Hanh mentions the tree “reveal[ing] its nature in perfect wholeness.” It is easy to relate this to Heidegger’s concept of unconcealment. For both thinkers, the tree is a very real entity, one which is capable of being shown to us. So real is the tree, that it is wholly independent of us, because it is unconcealed “in perfect wholeness”; in other words, the tree is presented to us because of its being a substantial tree. The tree reveals itself in “wholeness” considering it is complete in itself. The tree as a tree is ready to be seen by us. It is readily unconcealed. In Greek, the word for nature is phusis (φύσις). Heidegger translates the word from its origins to mean “self-emergence.” For this reason, to say the tree “is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection” is to say that the tree emerges forth from within itself. The tree is perfectly whole as a tree, and so it presents itself. Nhat Hanh goes on to ask how many people “have really seen the almond tree?” referring to everydayness. Imagine you have said almond tree in your front yard. You have been living in this house for 10 years, and every morning, when you drive to work, you walk out the door, stroll past the tree, get in your car, drive to work, drive back, walk past the tree, go to bed, and then repeat. Even after a month, you most likely will have gotten used to the tree, to the point where you are even tired of it. The brain, adapting to the repeated stimulus, decides to block it out and simply stop processing it. As such, every morning, you ignore the almond tree for the simple reason that you are so familiar with it. But familiarity breeds contempt. Consequently, you do not give it the time it deserves. And think about a jogger who passes by and sees the tree, or someone driving through the neighborhood who notes the almond tree in your yard—although they see it, can you say that they really saw the almond tree? How many people, in the middle of b17338ee1086cbc142c1d070ba6a77af.jpgtheir days, stop what they are doing to simply look at a tree, think, “That is a tree,” and silently, thoughtfully, admire it for its natural beauty? Sadly, the number will not be high, if at all a number. The point of this illustration is to show what everydayness looks like in contrast to mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exact opposite. Being mindful allows one to enter into “a natural communion with the tree,” as Nhat Hanh writes. The mindful observer is not filled with “false views”—internal ideas, concepts, scientific prejudices, representations—but readily sets the tree up for an encounter. Whereas the average, everyday observer is inattentive, distracted, and remiss, the practitioner of mindfulness opens themselves up to “the wonder of reality.” And what is “the wonder of reality,” you ask? Nhat Hanh cites the Zen parable of the teacher pointing to a tree and saying, “That is a tree.” Upon a first reading, the reader will find this story silly and anticlimactic. However, given this background, we know that this a much deeper truth. The Zen teacher is not just pointing to the tree, but the tree is revealing itself to the Zen master, so they enter into a “natural communion” “in perfect wholeness.” This wonder, this astonishment, is the key to being attentive. Wonder plays a big role in Heidegger’s later philosophy. To wonder at reality is to be overcome by the bare fact of existence; to wonder is to be mindful of Being.


Parmenides in forest.pngHow does one think, or how does one be mindful according to Heidegger? The answer, we found, lies in the following sentence translated (heavily) from Parmenides: Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι, or “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too, the presence of what is present.” What this means, we shall examine phrase by phrase. Λέγειν, or legein, means “to say,” or “to lay out,” in the way of explaining something. Therefore, legein is to let-lie-before insomuch that we take something before us, and we leave it as such. An example Heidegger uses is of a mountain range: After taking a long yet beautiful hike, we stop at a plateau, and we look out at the mountains across from us. During our admiration of the mountains, we notice that they “stand out,” so to speak, in that they emerge in the midst of the background, where we let them lie, arranged in the way that they are arranged. Our stopping to look at the mountains is an act of letting-lie-before. We leave the mountains to themselves where they stand, simply watch from a distance, letting them be, without interference. Literally, we are letting them lie before us. It is not as though the mountains are asking, Unknown.jpeg“Can we lie before you?” and we say, “We let you,” however, as though we are the ones “letting” them. What the “letting” refers to is our passive, unintentional attitude toward the mountains. Simply put, we are enjoying the view of the mountains in nature. This is a basic orientation of mindfulness: To let-lie-before. If you can, then take a moment right now, wherever you are—just a minute—and be mindful by using this technique. Sit, stand, or lie down, and take into view all your surroundings. Breathe in and out, counting the breath, looking around impartially, letting things lie before you as they are. The chair you are sitting on, the ground you are lying or standing on—as they support your weight, you are simultaneously letting them lie beneath you. Notice, then, that which grounds you. Being mindful involves attending to things with full attention and allowing them to exist.


Unknown.jpegNext, Heidegger talks of “taking-to-heart” from νοεῖν, or noein. Noein comes from nous (νους), mind. Insofar as nous means mind, it brings connotations of the logical, the rational. Despite this connection, Heidegger actually takes noein to mean “to perceive” rather than “to think.” This move should bring to mind the distinction between perception and conception. Whereas the mind is usually rational, Heidegger sees it as the emotional in a way, to the extent that it is a passive process. To perceive is to grasp something, to literally take it into view. If you think about it, Heidegger explains, then perceiving is a kind of passive reception. The tree in front of us presents itself, and we perceive its unconcealedness—we receive the tree’s emergence. It would be wrong to think that perception in this sense is wholly passive; Heidegger does not want to take this approach, but rather contends that perception is both active and passive: To perceive is to both receive something passively while at the same time caring for it actively. Elsewhere, Heidegger writes, “Apprehension [perception] … denotes a process of letting things come to oneself in which one does not simply take things in, but rather takes up a position to receive what shows itself.”[3] Here, he explains the twofold nature of perceiving. Because perceive comes from capere, meaning to take, Heidegger plays on the word “take,” taking (sorry, I had to) it to be both passive and active, as a “taking-in” and a “taking-up-of.” Purposefully, he says perception is “a process of letting” in which we “take things in.” In viewing something, we “take it in” or receive it. We say we “take in” a puppy when it is lost; we receive it. In another strain, we “take up” a disposition, or, as Heidegger puts it, a position. During discussions, we “take up a position,” by which we mean we adopt it and adhere to it faithfully. From this, we get that noein means “taking-to-heart.” A matter is Unknown-2.jpeg“taken-to-heart” because it is important to us, so we hold it close. We receive something while protecting it. In terms of mindfulness, this is being appreciative of things. Practicing mindfulness has a big component of appreciating the moment. Going for a walk is a great form of mindfulness meditation. Walking, we get to see nature all around us, and we get to perceive it unendingly. In perceiving it, we are receiving it. By receiving it and noticing it, we slowly learn to appreciate it and take it to heart. We want to care for nature. But caring does not necessarily mean you have to go out and join some kind of activist group; caring can be as much as simply enjoying nature and spending more time with it. Spending more time with something shows that you care about it. When you care about something, when you love it deep down, you feel it in your heart. Spending time in the present disposes us to taking-to-heart.


Now, taken together, we have “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too.” Legein and noein are co-dependent. One cannot occur without the other. With regard to the almond tree, we let it lie before us by becoming aware of it. And once we are aware of it, we receive it and take-to-heart. Conversely, Heidegger says that when we care for something and take it to heart, we are implicitly letting-it-lie. We do not go about

leaving something where it lies while we pass by indifferently…. By taking to heart and mind, we gather and focus ourselves on what lies before us, and gather what we have taken to heart. Whence do we gather it? Where else but to itself, so that it may become manifest such as it of itself lies before us.[4]

Alright, so what does that mean? Let us be mindful of the tree: The tree is still there, no matter what happens, even if we do not pay attention to it. But if we stop, take a second to really look at it for what it is, then we will let it lie there while gathering thought about it. Here is another way of paraphrasing Heidegger: Passing a tree, attending to it, setting our gaze upon it, we do not “leave” it “indifferently,” regarding it as just another object, but we notice it as being in our line of sight, whereupon we gather, or attend to, thought, although not just any thought, but thought directed only toward the tree as it stands before us. I could pass by an orchard and not see a single tree. The problem, Heidegger Unknown-1.jpegthinks, is the opposite of the classic phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees.” For him and practitioners of mindfulness, it should really be “can’t see the trees for the forest.” Going to and from work every day, the average person will not care to give his time to a tree. He will continue on his way, with no time for silly distractions. Many of us, even when we want to give time to things, do not give them our full attention. We confuse the whole with its parts. We refuse to acknowledge the tree in its full presence. We do not see the tree for itself. Something we need to do, understandably, is to stand before a tree and think about it—think about it not in terms of representations, but in terms of mindful thinking. Thinking about the tree, we “gather” it, as Heidegger says. We gather our attention to the present and regard the tree solely.


Finally, what are we to make of “the presence of what is present,” the ἐὸν ἔμμεναι, of Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι? The presence of what is present is the closest thing to a synonym Heidegger’s “Being of beings” has. It is what makes present things present. But what does it mean to be present? What are we letting-lie and taking-to-heart? In class, the teacher asks a name, and the student replies “present,” meaning “here,” “not absent,” “existent.” Presence is derived from praeesse, meaning “being before” (prae/pre = before, esse = to exist). The “before” is not temporal but spatial; it is not saying the thing exists before we do; it exists right here and now, be-fore us, in front of us, instant, immediate, accessible. Presence pre-sents itself to us; it lies before us. Phenomena, experienced things, are revealed and made manifest from unconcealment in the midst of unconcealment. This description does not really help. If anything, it only muddies the waters more. Presence, as with many of Heidegger’s terms, can best be explained Unknown-3.jpegthrough illustrations. Gestalt psychology argued that humans perceive things in terms of wholes and parts. Perception then involves a figure and a ground. The ground is the background, or what gives context, the scene, and the figure is what occupies our attention—it is the main attraction, the distinct thing in front of us. In many paintings, for example, there is something in the center to which our eye is quickly attracted, while the rest of the painting fades into the background. Imagine a bowl of fruit—this is the figure, while the table upon which it rests is the background. The thing is, the figure and ground can be switched. We can look at the table, thus obscuring the bowl of fruit, making it the background, and the table the figure. Presence presents itself in what is present, and unconcealment unconceals itself in what is already-unconcealed. Take a mountainscape: The mountain range is within our field of vision, meaning it is unconcealed, considering it is seen by us and not hidden, but it is only so within the context of the whole scenery, from the sky to the ground, i.e., what is already there, behind the mountains. Heidegger says the mountain range’s Unknown-4.jpeg“presence is the rising entry into what is unconcealed within unconcealment, even and especially when the mountain range keeps standing as it is, extending and jutting.”[5] To paraphrase, the mountain range “rises” up from the ground, where we see it must clearly and distinctly, in the background of the environment. Before we can see the mountain, we must be able to see the context in which it presents itself. Accordingly, the mountain must reveal itself after everything else has already been revealed. The figure—the mountain—and the ground—the sky, ground, trees, etc.—are dependent upon one another. Heidegger states that the mountain most naturally “keeps standing as it is, extending and jutting.” A mountainscape is thus most widely recognized. Indeed, when we look at any mountain, whether it be in Yosemite or the Himalayas, we can certainly confirm that, in the context of a ground and sky, the mountain, in being a mountain, shows its strength in its awesome magnitude as it extends and juts.


Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 12.49.06 PM.pngLooking out at the mountainscape, we automatically perceive the mountain (rise) and become aware of it (entry), but we do not notice this subtle perceptual shift itself as it happens, but let it stand there. It lies there, present, so long as we look at it, and it keeps being a mountain in our view (continuance). But as it stays in our view, in the forefront of our attention, it can at any moment fall risk to becoming a part of the background, thereby concealing itself, as when we look somewhere else, and it vanishes (coming and going away). As it appears to us, presents itself to us, it is what it is (radiance) in its manifestness, in its simply existing, and remains so, temporally enduring as a mountain (duration), where it is thought about and acknowledged as laying (gathering). These traits, Heidegger says, are the traits of presence. It consists in “unconcealedness, the rising from unconcealedness, the entry into unconcealedness, the coming and going away, the duration, the gathering, the radiance, the rest, the hidden suddenness of possible absenting.”[6] Mindfulness practice can apply this to the present moment, to what Unknown-1.jpegis present, in meditation. Notice, when you look around, that everything sort of just appears, or presents itself, while in the midst of a melange of other items all scattered about, although none vies for our attention, since we must direct it ourselves, giving us the power to choose what we want to focus on, what we want to present itself in presence, as it radiates before us in its sway, and how, when we are tired of concentrating on one thing, we can leave it, concealing it, and turn our focus on something else, whereat it is unconcealed in its own. Meditation enables us to engage our senses in order to receive a greater experience of what is present. The Ancient Greeks, thought Heidegger, were mindful of their surroundings and wondered about Being. They asked about presence and found the above traits, but nothing of the traits themselves, seeing as presence is what is presented through them.


“Thinking is not so much non-philosophy as post-philosophy,” writes Lee Braver, an interpreter of Heidegger.[7] This is an important concept to understand. Heidegger’s mission is to disassemble Western metaphysics, a tradition which involves a lot of rationalism, conceptualism, and objectification, all of which he deems dangerous. Thinking, then, is not some kind of antithesis to philosophy, but a revolt, or, more fittingly, a revision. Heidegger is trying to reform philosophy by returning it to its original form. The Presocratics did not care about whether reality was objective or not, whether they could analyze language—all they cared about was why we existed and what reality was. Thus, Heidegger wants us to examine these questions once more. He wants us to think about existence, about Being, about what it means to be. It is a Unknown-5.jpegdivergence from the normal route of philosophy, and its goal is to attain “grateful wonder towards presencing rather than explaining and controlling present entities.”[8] Grateful wonder is a form of curiosity and amazement at the world. Thinking about existence fills one with gratefulness for existing and a wondrous awe for all that exists. Importantly, it is about gratefulness, rather than explanation and control, as he says. Science, we have noted, does not think, because it tries to objectify beings and impose quantitative calculations on them, thereby controlling them, subjecting them to countless experiments, seeking to explain its whences and wherefores. What science does not try to do, is wonder at beings and be grateful for them. A scientist may proclaim to be grateful for a tree’s existence so that he may study it, but then it is degraded at his hands as soon as he begins to analyze and dissect it. Technological exploitation and manipulation, prevalent in the modern age, only further this agenda. Again, Heidegger’s mindful thinking must be distinguished from regular thinking as we take it: “[T]hought in the sense of rational-logical representations turns out to be a reduction of the word that beggars the imagination.”[9] Re-presentation means putting a semblance, a false reality, an imitation, in place of what something really is. We take what is present, and we re-present it, thereby changing its form, making it into something it is not originally. This form of thinking removes magic and in so doing systematizes and imitates, like Plato’s idea of art in The Republic. When we represent beings, we “drop the tree in bloom.” Reality is left bland, and we are ungrateful toward it.


In the previous post, I wrote about the connection Heidegger makes between “thinking” and “thanking.” Even in English, the words show a very close similarity, both visually and phonically. As it turns out, they come from the same roots. Somewhere along the etymological tree, there was a split, resulting in thencan and thencian, which became, respectively, thanc and thonc, then finally thank and think as we now know them. A thought consists in giving thanks. I used the spirit of Thanksgiving to best show the relation: On the holiday, we give thought to those we love, by which we give thanks to Unknown-6.jpegthem. It is a meaningful consideration. Thinking is having grateful thoughts. This function is related to sorge, care, which is what constitutes man’s existence in Heidegger’s other work Being and Time. We humans are always concerned with something, be it a person, relation, or duty. As such, thinking is a form of care, in which we give with intention and intentionality. When we think, we heed the gift given to us to think. The gathering of thought is memory. Back in the day, memory meant “mindful.” To have in memory meant to meditate upon and keep in one’s mind. When we retain the past and present, we are said to re-call thoughts, to re-collect them, to bring them back into the mind, where we can gather them and focus on them. “As we give thought to what is most thought-provoking, we give thanks,” writes Heidegger.[10] The most thought-provoking thing is existence, or Being. When we think about Being, we thank it. We give thanks for a being’s Being, but since beings are everywhere being, we are giving thanks to Being itself. To think Being is to thank Being—to thank Being for what?—for being what it is, for being what is, for being qua Being, for being Being. You see, in order to thank Being, we must be, or exist, in the first place, which would not be possible were it not for the fact of Being, wherefore we must give thanks to it.


Heidegger gives us more hints: “The human will to explain just does not reach to the simpleness of the simple onefold of worlding…. The first step toward such vigilance is the step back from the thinking that merely represents—that is, explains—to the thinking that responds and recalls.”[11] This quote reinforces the conception of thinking forwarded by Braver earlier. Both speak of the perils of explanation. Braver said that we should aim at grateful wonder instead of controlling and explaining, lest we lose the opportunity to appreciate Being, and Heidegger says that explanation not only misses images.jpegsimplicity, but it also represents. Representation is closely related to explanation, Heidegger reports. By saying “the thinking that…,” Heidegger furthers the dichotomy between rational thinking and mindful thinking. The one is negative, the other positive. The one is explanatory, the other grateful. This only serves to widen the rift. Scientific representational thinking gets in the way of the simplicity of Being, therefore. In order to counteract this modern technological attitude, we must, as Heidegger instructs us, first “step back from” ideational thought and “step toward … vigilance.” Vigilance is careful watch. A vigilant person takes care of and nurtures whatever they are watching over. In this case, similar to taking-to-heart, we humans, mortals, must take up our place as the shepherds of Being—we must take Being to heart and nurture it. Mindfulness asks that we not explain, just experience. On an afternoon walk, we need not analyze everything we see. The path beneath our feet need not be studied, only felt; the birds in the trees need not be photographed, only heard; the clouds in the sky need not be categorized, only observed. We must take-to-heart what lies-before-us nonjudgmentally, with appreciation and gratefulness, whither we attend thought. Of the images-1.jpegpresent, we must be vigilant, always keeping a watchful eye on presence, lest it escape our view, or lest we end up objectifying it. Living in the moment prescribes thinking. Heidegger says true, mindful—that is, gathering—thought “responds and recalls.” The dirt path, the singing birds, the wispy clouds—we are not here to box them in, but to set them free in their own way. All of them are to be revealed in unconcealedness. Their radiance is supposed to be brought forth from us so that they can endure in their gathering, rising into view, entering into perception, prompting our reception of them into our hearts, when we can give grateful thoughts to them, thank them for existing, thank Being for being, dwell on the fact of their being, and direct wonder at them.


Being calls to us to think it, and we answer the call through ourselves. Singing their songs, the birds invite us to answer them, and we do when we heed them, when we listen to their songs raptly and with intention, when we attend to the birds with focus. The clouds, high in the sky, wave to us from above, and we respond to them by passing underfoot. Beneath us, the dirt path opens itself up to us for an embrace, and we recall it by thanking it. Gathered in our hearts is thought. We are not in the past or future, but the present. When we are present, things present themselves as present. Held before us is time in a continuum—it hangs there before us, the present, beckoning us forth, into the presence of what is present, where all things arise. The present isolates us, suspends us between two extremes, between what-is-no-longer and what-is-not-yet. In the present, we can enjoy the presence of presence. Justin Richards on Medium put it eloquently in a well-thought-out essay

Standing in this now we withdraw from our ordinary experience of time, and as soon as the thinking activity is at an end we find ourselves back in the coming and going of past and future, and the now moment withdraws from us again. The Thinking that gathers what is in the inmost heart of one’s being in a saying that lays it before oneself as it is establishes a person’s orientation towards Being; towards the presence of what is present, towards the unique temporal experience of a genuine Now. Infinity before us, infinity after us, and standing here, now, the tree in bloom, a being in Being.


Unknown-8.jpegThe German philosopher and Eastern philosophy have close connections, connections that are oft overlooked, but which deserve careful study and devotion. Combining phenomenology with spiritual practices, Heidegger manages to devise a remedy to today’s accelerating civilization, when all is Now, when values are being lost, and nihilism looms. Discarding modern scientific-technological objectification, Heidegger moves to a more primitive, accepting, and simple philosophy, or way of life, in which we can respond to the call of Being, of existence itself, through wonder and curiosity. If we can take the time to stay in silence without moving, then we can grasp but a glimmer of what it means to truly be, to be in the presence of Being. By not judging, by perceiving not conceiving, by being grateful, by acknowledging, by not dropping beings, by not representing, by letting things be, by being vigilant, by taking-to-heart—we can be mindful of ourselves, others, and life. A mindful moment is all it takes. Psychologists have found that writing down a list of things for which we are grateful every day increases our well-being and happiness. On the top of that list should be “Being,” first and foremost. Consider this: You are alive. You exist. You are. Period. When you wake up, re-call—bring back to mind—the fact that you Unknown-5.jpegare, that you exist, and be grateful therefor. What better gift is there than to be alive? Paraphrasing Thoreau, it is a shame to die only to discover you had never lived. Heidegger asks us to pause and live in the moment and give thanks so that we do not miss out on the magical experience of life. In the next blog, I will discuss in further detail the Eastern connection in Heidegger—but that is in the future. Until then, we are in the present, and we ought to continue living that way mindfully.

 


[1] Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, p. 44 (Henceforth abbreviated WCT
[2] Nhat Hanh, The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Almond Tree in Your Front Yard,” p. 58
[3] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 147
[4] Heidegger, WTC, pp. 208-9
[5] Id., p. 236
[6] Id., p. 237
[7] Braver, Heidegger’s Later Writings, p. 118
[8] Id., p. 124
[9] Heidegger, WCT, p. 139
[10] Id., p. 146
[11] Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, “The Thing,” pp. 180-1

 

For further reading: What is Called Thinking? by Martin Heidegger (1968)
The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh by Thich Nhat Hanh (2000)

4 Strategies To Stay Motivated

Unknown.jpegEvery Thursday, we dread coming to class. Slowly, nervously, we walked into the gym, not knowing into what we were walking or what to expect. He calmly sauntered ahead of us, set down his clipboard and music box, opened the door for the girls, and stood there, arms crossed, as if plotting his latest machination—of which we, the students, were the victims. We got in our lines, got through our warm-ups, then stood there dumbly, looking amongst ourselves with frightened eyes, shrugging, asking with our eyes, “What is it today?” with desperation, with full knowledge that none of us would walk out of there alive. Suddenly, after clearing his throat, our P.E. teacher announced, “Alright, get behind the sideline and listen up.” We got behind the sideline. He turned to face us. He gestured. “Today, for your fitness test, you will sprint from here to the sideline and back, followed by a burpee. You will repeat this, each time adding one burpee on, until you get to 10 burpees. When you are done, shout ‘Time!’ and go get some water.” So that’s what our fitness test would be that day. It sounded terrible. In total, we would be doing 20 sprints and… oh god… 55 burpees. I looked at my friend who was next to me. How are we gonna survive? Are we going to die today? These questions would be answered shortly. Until then, it was just I and the present moment—just I and the workout. And the key to it all: Keeping the right mindset to stay motivated and get through it.


images.jpegMotivation, we all know, is a complicated and fickle thing, a thing that usually comes and goes without our willing it, as though a fairy sprinkles her magic dust on us, and we become motivated, only for it to vanish into thin air when we are done, leaving us unmotivated and lazy, incapable of doing anything more. There are no real shortcuts to becoming motivated. Most of the time, it just has to happen. When I say, “I am motivated,” with “motivated” being in adjective form, I say it as such because it is done to me. Really, I am implying that there is something actively motiv-ating me. As such, I am passive. I am the recipient of motivation, whereupon I am motivated to do something. Whether it is doing a fitness test like I have to do every Thursday in P.E. or going to go a job that one hates, the only way to get through it, the only way to survive—is to be motivated. In tough moments, when we are pushed to our limits, when our arms feel like they are gonna fall off, when the stacks of paper that have to be read are piled to the roof, when all seems unbearable, when all hope seems lost—it is at these moments that we need motivation the most. To get through them, we must stick with them and try to stay motivated.


As it turns out, I did not, in fact, die that Thursday after completing my 20 sprints and 55 burpees, although it almost felt as if I died. I got through it, though, by keeping the right mindset. Today, I will be sharing my 4-step method of staying motivated, from which you can hopefully benefit, too! This can be used during exercises, work, or anything else, if you make it work. I have yet to give it a catchy name, but for now, it is the MMAA method:


  1. Macro. The first tactic I used was thinking at the macro, or large, scale. In the back of my mind, I always had an idea of how far I was in the workout. For example, I would remind myself, “I have ‘x’ sprints left and ‘y’ burpees left.” This way, by Unknown-1.jpegthinking about it in terms of the absolute, the ultimate, the whole, I was able to keep track of my progress. Taking inventory of where one is and where one has to go, allows for clearer thinking and planning. The macro aspect is the long-term. It takes into account the beginning and the end, the start and the finish, but not the middle in between, because then one gets caught up in the details; on the contrary, one must keep their eyes set on the whole, the bigger picture, in relation to which the smaller parts stand. Thinking macro is absolute and always directed toward the bigger sets, the bigger picture overall. 

  2. Micro. Second is thinking on the micro, or small, scale. During the workout, once I had established where I was in terms of the macro, I could then break it down into smaller units, into sets, and from there, into individual repetitions. This way, a larger workload became a series of smaller, more manageable ones. The macro makes way for the micro. To use an example: If I had to do nine burpees, then having to do nine burpees would be the macro approach, but the micro approach would be doing three sets of three. The bigger picture—nine burpees—was broken into the smaller pictures—manageable sets, three sets of three—which could easily be completed. The two work together. Illustrating further, if I were still sticking with the 3×3 burpees, and I was completing the first three, then the next 2×3 would then be the macro, and the current three the micro: This is because the micro is oriented, or Mosaic-Magic-840x400.jpggrounded, rather, in the present, in the relative and relational. Micro thinking is always a part of the whole, as opposed to macro thinking, which is the whole itself. The macro makes a mental map, and the micro draws the pathways connecting the landmarks. If one only thought macro, then they would be overwhelmed; if one only thought micro, then they would be lost. As such, the two mutually coexist and are dependent upon each other. Another idea that I touched on is that of the present. Because the macro takes into account the future, the micro takes into account only the present—not what I will do, in the future, what is still left, but what I am doing, right now, at this moment. While the macro image of three sets of three burpees exists in my mind, projected into the future, the micro conception of  “I am doing one burpee at the moment, out of three” is being done at the moment. What this means is that the micro, unlike the macro, is twofold: It simultaneously breaks down the macro and enacts it. In summary, the macro is a long-term projection of the bigger picture and what needs to be done, and the micro is the short-term breaking down of the macro into smaller parts that can be completed realistically.


  3. Action. Next is action. The name does not say anything important, nor does it seem groundbreaking. To be motivated requires that some action be done, does it not? Is not action redundant, then? Only to an extent, insofar as it is never considered in itself. Going back to the fitness test, I would find myself in the second half of the workout frequently asking how I would get through it. On the macro level, I had 10 burpees to do, and on the micro level, I had two sets of five to do. However, as I Unknown-3.jpegjumped, squatted, then pushed myself to the ground, I struggled, both physically and mentally. Already I had done 45 burpees, so my arms and legs were tired, and I was out of breath. Oh, if the workout could just end already! I thought. But this got me on a train of thought: Time is that through which things unfold, and unfolding is an action, meaning the only way to pass time is to act; and what this meant was, the sooner and quicker I acted, the sooner the workout would be over. Let me put it another way: Just sitting there on the gym floor hoping for the workout to end, acknowledging the pain and fatigue I was feeling, thinking both macro and micro—none of these would make the workout end quicker unless I actually did them. So while I knew I was tired, and while I knew I had to push out these last reps, the longer I dwelled on these things, the longer it would take me to finish, meaning the longer I would dwell, the longer I would hurt. Ultimately, thinking too much causes delay. Another way of thinking about action: Overall, the macro plan is to do my final 10 burpees and two sprints, yet having this plan is but what sets me on my way to doing them. Having this big picture in my mind does not change anything, per se. All it does is linger as a thought. It has no potent effect. I could sit on the sideline the entire day repeating to myself, “You have 10 burpees and two sprints,” but those numbers will not go down until I start on them. Until then, the numbers remain the same. Until then, nothing will change. So, in those moments when I found it nearly impossible to finish my reps, and when I asked, “How will I do the last four burpees?” the answer was, “By doing the last four burpees.”


  4. Absurdism. No matter what task it is we are doing, we at one point or another ask ourselves, “Why are we even doing this? Why should I even be doing it? What consequences are there if I do not do them?” That Thursday, in the midst of the fitness test, these questions came up many times in many forms. For comfort, I like to think back to Existentialist Albert Camus’ response to the problem of suicide. In Unknown-2.jpeghis essay, Camus references Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who has been punished by the gods to indefinitely push a boulder up a hill, who, having pushed the boulder to the top, watches it roll down to the bottom, forced to start all over again, ad infinitum. What does this have to do with anything? Well, Camus said that, although this is not the best of circumstances, we must bear it the best we can. Applying this reasoning, we can all find solace and wisdom in our goals: While a hard, laborious, and tedious task may be imposed upon us, and we do not want to do it, we might as well do it happily and do it to the best of our ability. If you think about it, there really is no reason to do it, no overarching purpose. But if we are doing it already, and if it is expected of us, why not jump in and make something of it? Sweating in the school gym, feeling like spaghetti, I knew that I could at any minute stop doing whatever I was doing, give up, forfeit, throw in the towel, call it quits—I could surrender to meaninglessness, to the absurd—or I could overcome the absurd, triumph over it. I could take the meaningless and make it meaningful. I could fight against the pain and turn it from suffering into vanquishing. It is a process of strengthening. There was no universal law that I had to do a fitness test, and by all means, I did not have to do it; but I decided that, despite its purposelessness in the long run, I might as well push through it and prove myself in spite of the void it presented to me and my classmates.


images-1.jpegIn conclusion, motivation is not a singular, simple thing—yet then again, we already knew that. I had conceived of this blog during a nap, and I had planned out a perfect image of it in my head; but as soon as I started writing out the strategies, I found that it did not correspond with the image in my head, and I felt like it had been a waste; I wanted to rewrite the whole thing—but I lacked, of all things, the motivation to do so! Somehow, out of sheer willpower, I managed to jump back and rewrite it; hence, what you are now reading. The MMAA method, albeit widely applicable, is certainly not the approach for everyone, and it may not work for every single task. Howbeit, the four steps need not be taken together as a package, no; rather, you are free to do whatsoever you like with any of the methods, be it adapting them to your own strategy, or taking one or two and starting from there. Ultimately, it is subjective, considering that is the very nature of motivation—it differs for everyone. The main takeaways, in summarizing the four strategies are:


  1. Have a clear idea of the bigger picture, including reference points, and a clearly defined beginning and end.

  2. Think about the bigger picture in small terms, in terms that are doable, that can be done mindfully.
  3. Plan, but do not plan such that it gets in the way of enacting that plan. Reflecting too much on the plan prevents it from coming into play.
    And finally:
  4. There may not be an immediate meaning behind your work, and you have to be fine with that: Make your own meaning, and embrace it. Maybe it is not the best thing to be doing, and yes, maybe you have better things to do, but for now, you might as well have fun doing it!

And yes, many of the ideas expressed herein are not new, and perhaps you have read something similar before; but hopefully, you have gleaned at least something of value that you can apply to your life!


Stay motivated, readers! Keep reading!

We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already

Merely to say the identical thing twice—language is language—how is that supposed to get us anywhere? But we do not want to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already.


For context, Heidegger is here trying to get at the nature of language. As usual, he employs a hermeneutic circle, starting with a definition, then dissecting it from every conceivable angle, until he gets back to where he started, only to leave his readers dazed and confused, wondering from where they departed.


Unknown.pngNormally, when we read an essay titled, for example, “What is language?”  we expect to at the end find something along these lines: “In conclusion, language is a set of normative signs and symbols used to communicate,” or whatever. We always expect there to be closure; we always want the final answer. Never do we go through a whole analysis just to get little in return—not so with Heidegger. Heidegger flips the whole script on us, except that, through his dazzling commentary, we end up the same place as we started, but feeling like we have gained something more.


Unknown.jpegWe always have a goal. Nobody wakes up one day and says to themselves, “I’m going to sit here,” no; rather, we move through our day, from one thing to the next, heading frantically to and fro, absorbed in one matter, then immersed in another, proceeding infinitely through time along the x-axis of praxis. If you were stopped in the middle of the day and someone asked you where you were going or what you were doing, you would most likely answer, “I am going to do this,” or “I am heading there.” In other words, we always have to get somewhere. We despise idleness. We must always be moving. Lest we succumb to FOMO, we must hop on the bandwagon, wheresoever it is headed. When we buy our pass on the bandwagon, we do not bother to look at the destination; we jump on blindly with the pure intent of being on it. We do not care where it is going, as long as we are on it. This, of course, is no good thing. Why must we always be moving? Must we constantly be heading somewhere, anywhere? Are we that distracted? We are always moving away from here, and toward there. We have always focused away, never near. In so doing, everything becomes distant. The present, the now, the here, the this—it is all rendered meaningless. Since the Ancients, sages have been advising us to be in the present, to pay attention to the now, to appreciate what is given to us, to love this—Life. Let us not play our lives on 2x speed; let us press pause.


Unknown-1.jpegHeidegger, by playing against our instincts, by holding out bait on the end of the stick, by promising us something he may or not be able to give, by leading us on, by defining things contrary to how they usually are—he has grasped something many of us have not, something many of us wish we had, but do not strive for, since we do not know what it is to begin with:

Merely to say the identical thing twice—language is language.

How is that supposed to get us anywhere?

But we do not want to get anywhere.

We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already are.

Reading Heidegger is like dunking one’s head in a bucket of cold water: It shocks us, makes us alert, feels refreshing.


In this distracted day and age, we must all heed this truth: That we do not want to get anywhere, we would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already.


Source: Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, “Language,” p. 190

Plato and Plotinus on Love and Beauty

Unknown.pngWhat makes something beautiful? What is love (Baby don’t hurt me)? These are questions that we ask in our lives because we experience them both every day. They make up a large part of our experience, and without them, we know not what life would be like, nor whether it would be worth living. For this reason, these questions have been asked by philosophers, who, thinking about æsthetics, the philosophy of beauty and art, have also questioned these fundamental aspects of reality and the human condition. One of the most enduring contributions is from Plato. In today’s misguided world, many people, without having even read Plato’s principle work The Symposium, talk about “Platonic love,” throwing it about in conversations with friends and family, thinking, mistakenly, that it refers exclusively to a non-sexual relationship between two people. People like to claim that they and their coworker have a “Platonic relationship” without knowing what they are really saying, or without bothering to see what the great Greek philosopher himself had Unknown.jpegto say regarding love; for while the non-sexual aspect is important, this understanding is commonly used, but it does not capture the whole picture. Little do they know Plato originally referred to pederasty—relationships between older men and young boys, a common practice in Ancient Greece! A spiritual interpreter of Plato, Roman philosopher Plotinus continued Plato’s work in his Enneads. Together, Plato and Plotinus represent the ancient views on both beauty and love in their transcendental nature, whose ideas have shaped our understanding for ages to come.


symposium-vase.jpgThe Symposium is one of the more fun dialogues by Plato. In it, Plato, Socrates, and Aristophanes—a famous comic playwright—join a symposium, or drinking party, in which they go around the table sharing speeches, engaging in intellectual discussion on the subject of love, each of them drunk. Pausanias’ turn comes up, and he begins his speech by identifying two types of love. According to him, the other speakers had been mistaken in not defining what kind of love they were praising. So Pausanias corrects them by asserting that there actually two kinds, aligning with the two goddesses representative of them: The Common Aphrodite and the Heavenly Aphrodite. Beginning with the Common Aphrodite, Pausanias says that this kind of love, which is purely erotic—that is to say, inspired by Eros (Έρως)—is a shallow kind of love, insofar as it is a love of the body. Of the two kinds, this is the “wrong” love. Common love is temporary; because it is of the body, and because the body is temporal, subject to change with time, impermanent, it means the love, too, will be temporary. This Common love is very common these days; we see it all the time when we hear people saying, “This person is so hot” or “They are so beautiful.” This is not to say that it is wrong to call someone beautiful; rather, the problem lies in the intent. Are you attracted to this person purely for their looks, or is that an added benefit? There is nothing wrong with saying someone is beautiful—in fact, if you think that, then you should tell them. However, the problem with loving someone for their looks, Pausanias argues, is that their body will inevitably age and deteriorate. Interestingly, in the Buddhist tradition, if you are infatuated with someone, then you are instructed to meditate upon their decaying body as a reminder that their body is not images.jpegpermanent, but will wither with time, turning your mind off of their physical beauty, and onto their spiritual beauty, which is permanent. This same line of reasoning will be used by Pausanias. So what happens when someone, loving another for their looks, years later, does not look at this person the same, but decides they love them no more since they have changed? Well, because their love was attached to something temporary, their love is temporary, and so, Pausanias continues, the lover will flee. They were just in it for the beauty, yet when the beauty is gone, so are they. Similarly, he warns against loving someone for their possessions, namely their status or wealth. As with beauty, one’s reputation and financial situation are not always going to remain the same. If you love someone, and they lose all their money one day by chance because money is unreliable and everything can change in a moment, then you will love them no longer; the attachment was to a temporary thing. One’s money is not a part of them; it is external to them. Likewise, the regards of many are fickle. Who knows if someone will retain their reputation? Love must be directed toward the right object. Such material objects are just that, and they lack significant value. A Common lover is immature. He is not emotionally prepared for a committed relationship. He is full of energy, but empty in compassion. He wants passionate, sexual love. But once he wants it no more, he will leave. He is interested in one-night stands, not a devoted romantic relationship. Common love is short-lived.


Next, he explicates Heavenly love. This kind of love, as opposed to the Common, is of the soul and, therefore, righteous. Unlike Common love, Heavenly love is not shallow, but deep, in that it is spiritual and mutual: It is spiritual because it is literally of the spirit, the breath, the soul, and it is mutual because it is reciprocated—both lovers are Unknown-1.jpegin it for the sake of the other. It is also mutual in the sense Aristotle thought it mutual, namely that the lovers, in entering a romantic pact, agree thenceforth to help perfect each other; that is, they serve both themselves and the other, each aiding the other. Say one lover is trying to form a habit, the other to break a habit. In this situation, the lovers will love each other while at the same time mutually helping and perfecting themselves. It is two-way. Heavenly love is between two lovers, two subjects, not a lover and a beloved, a subject and an object. Heavenly love is profound, and reaches to the lowest depths. Temporary and lowly is Common love; permanent and transcendent is Heavenly love. The latter is permanent because it is not of the body, but of character. One’s looks can change very easily, and while one’s character is not exempt from changes, it is much slower and intentional than the body. Psychologists (and even Socrates will eventually say the same thing) argue that character is not a permanent thing, changing with age much as looks do. For the most part, however, character is a pretty stable, consistent thing, and it takes a lot to change it dramatically. Is it really worth loving someone who is physically attractive if they have a combative, unfriendly personality? In 40 years, will they still look the same as when you first loved them? No. In 40 years, will they still be combative and unfriendly? Yes. As such, a person’s body is not righteous, whereas character, one’s soul, is. Heavenly love is also transcendent. It is transcendent because it steps over the appearance of a person, the outer boundaries, the external face, the artificial construction, and it pierces through them, gives insight, sees not outer beauty, but inner beauty. Transcendental love loves a person for who they are inside, not outside. It is a love of their essence. And in contrast to the immature Common lover, the Heavenly lover is mature, prepared, and ready. This is a devoted, long-term relationship.


To evaluate Pausanias’ position, let us look at whether his views make sense. Just as he distinguishes between two kinds of love, one short and exciting, one long and content, so psychologist Elaine Hatfield distinguishes between two types of romantic love: Unknown-2.jpegPassionate and companionate. The first, passionate, is sexual and full of intense energy, although it only lasts for a short time. This is the kind of love teens have, when they are full of idealism and optimism, expecting great things from a partner; they are excited and will jump too quickly into things in the heat of the moment. This is embodied by Common Aphrodite. The second, companionate, is calm and full of compassion. Think not of teens in love, but a couple who has been married for 20 years. Here, you will see two people deeply in love with each other, neither of whom would leave the other at the drop of the hat, but who are, at their core, devoted to each Unknown-3.jpegother, devoted to perfecting each other. They have arguments, but they resolve them. They love, and will continue to love, each other. This is embodied by Heavenly Aphrodite. It seems Pausanias was spot on! Most often, this is the paradigm that is titled “Platonic love.” Plato gets a lot of backlash for his views these days. To “love someone for their personality” has become a universal joke. This is often said facetiously, with a smile on one’s face, meant to be ironic or sarcastic. And regarding those who actually mean it—they are met with derision. Consequently, almost nobody really means it when they say it. Yet then again, this is only a fraction of what “Platonic love” truly is.


The next speaker, Aristophanes, is the favorite of many, for his speech is the most remembered, the most entertaining, and, perhaps, the most influential even today. His is the speech on soulmates. Back in the day, relates Aristophanes, man and woman walked alongside a third sex, which was a combination of the two: A half-man, half-woman. It was a single organism, with two of every body part, seeing as it was two people put Unknown-4.jpegtogether, in a perfect, rolling circle, a symbol of perfection and completion, as Nussbaum points out [1]. These humans, composed of two people, were thus twice as powerful, and twice as ambitious. They decided, like the Giants, to attack the gods, which was a bad idea; Zeus promptly split up these dual humanoids. As a result, the two halves went about looking for their other half desperately, hoping to be reunited. Filled with longing and Eros, they wandered sadly, bereaved, dejected, almost to the point of depression. The halves could not function on their own; they needed each other. Since they spent all their time moping, busying themselves with finding their other halves, they were unable to make sacrifices for the gods. Zeus took pity on them and moved their sexual organs to the front to make mating easier. When two soulmates find each other, they immediately embrace, pressing their bodies together in an attempt to become one again, to press themselves into each other. They hug and kiss, holding themselves close, wrapping their arms around the other, then pulling tightly. Yet no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard they embrace each other, they cannot put themselves together again.

It is such reunions as these that impel [lovers] to spend their lives together, although they may be hard put to it to say what they really want with one another, and indeed, the purely sexual pleasures of their friendship could hardly account for the huge delight they take in one another’s company. The fact is that both their souls are longing for a something else—a something to which they can neither of them put a name, and which they can only give an inkling of in cryptic sayings and prophetic riddles (The Symposium, 192c-d).

So what is love? As Aristophanes reports, when lovers are asked this very question, they cannot answer. If you were to ask a teacher what teaching is, then you would expect them to know—it is their business. By nature, then, should not lovers, who are held tightly in the grip of love, know in what state they are? Surely, they should. On the contrary, love is such a powerful, binding force, such an irresistible pull, such an enigmatic drive—who could possibly define it while in its throes? Well, to answer the question of that at which love aims, Aristophanes proposes the following: Say Hephæstus were to ask the two halves if they wanted to be welded together so as to be inseparable for the rest of their lives, not even “until death do they part” (as they would remain together in the Underworld), a single entity forever. No one would refuse such an offer, for they want, deep down, to be “merged … into an utter oneness with the beloved” (The Symposium, 192e). The idea of soulmates is still popular till this day. Many of us believe we are just walking through life without an aim, a sinking feeling of incompleteness pervading our being, as though there is something more to life, something, someone, out there waiting for us, our other half, who is perfect, who is everything we want them to images.jpegbe, who will make us happy, who will be the missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle we call life, the summum bonum, the most absolutely beautiful person—and it is just a matter of finding them; but until then, we remain incomplete and, therefore, unhappy. This mythological story is at once humorous and enchanting. I really like the idea of hugging as an attempt to bring the other person to oneself, to make oneself complete; it is a creative, thoughtful moral that is poetic in its presentation, and I think it is very powerful. Whether or not this story is true, many of us still believe it, and it is yet another part of “Platonic love.”


Unknown-2.jpegThen comes Socrates’ turn. It is his speech which is left out of the everyday conception of “Platonic love,” despite Socrates’ being Plato’s mentor. In the dialogue, Socrates speaks on behalf of Diotima, a woman he met who taught him about the nature of love. What is love, exactly? Love is a desire, and a desire is for something, and if one already has what one desires, then it is not a desire any longer; therefore, love is a longing for something one does not have. What is this something? Is it Aristophanes’ other half? No. Love, says Socrates, is a desire for the Good, with a capital “G,” meaning the highest good, the ultimate good, that from which good things derive their goodness. Hence, what is beautiful is what is good and noble. Everyone wants goodness to an extent. This requires qualification. First, all objects of our desire, be it a living thing or a goal, are good. For example, if I want to write a blog, if my desire is to write a blog, then I am aiming at something which, if I investigate further, is essentially good since it is of benefit to me. Second, everyone, regardless of their disposition, wants the good, whether they know it or not. A doctor and a murderer both seek the good, although we say the latter is errant in his ways, or is ignorant thereof. In other words, even if we do not have an idea of what the Good is, we still want it anyway. It is natural. It is human. Nobody intentionally desires what is bad for them. But what separates desiring from loving is immortality, states Diotima. Whereas if my goal is to exercise more often, then I am seeking the Good, if I love someone, then I am seeking the Good in them, and, from what I gain therefrom: Longevity. It is a strange idea to read. However, what Socrates is saying is that we want the Good forever. We always want to have in our possession the Good—not today, not tomorrow, but for time immemorial. When we love someone, we tend to analyze them, parse them into traits, which we then classify as positive or negative. We look at people’s love-1.jpgpro’s and con’s. As is our nature, we like good traits and dislike bad traits in people. I like a person for her altruism but dislike her for her stubbornness. So when I say I like “her,” I really mean: I like the Good in her. This is similar to something Pascal wrote 2,000 years after Plato, that we love people not for themselves, but for their qualities. The reason we like good qualities in people is that they are reminiscent of the Good, and what is Good is good for us; a person’s good personality helps us to flourish. Using the previous instance, the altruism of a girl will help me, but her stubbornness will not. Furthermore, because we are mortal and fated die, and because we are terrified of death, we try to find ways to achieve immortality, at least artificially. We do this by creating something by which we will be remembered. We want a lasting name for ourselves. Some people do this by two means: Having children, so as to carry on the line, to bear one’s name, and creating art (art, here, is to be interpreted broadly as any kind of creation), so as to have a creation which manifests one’s ideas. Before continuing we can summarize Love in three points: First, love is of the Good and Beautiful (the two are synonymous); second, love is the same object for every desire and goal; third, love is for creation, be it through children or art, with the goal of longevity.


If the Beautiful is behind all things, and if we desire it so much, then how do we encounter it? What is the true purpose of love? Diotima introduces Socrates to a ladder, or ascent, of love, which leads up to Beauty. The ladder starts at the bottom and ends at Unknown.jpegthe top, rising from particulars to universals, concrete to abstract. Starting with a single, individual body we consider beautiful, we meditate upon it, find everything there is that is beautiful in it. In modern terms, we look at someone we love and find desirable traits, traits valued by our culture, traits that make someone beautiful. Having done this, we can then realize that the body of one person is just as beautiful as the body of another. There is a good message here: Everyone is beautiful in their own way. Each has their own unique beauty. While this person is beautiful for x reasons, this person is beautiful for y reasons, although they are both beautiful in the end. Once we grow accustomed to this, we can grasp that the mind and soul are more noble than the body. We move away from Commonly love and toward Heavenly love. Beauty is seen as permanent and virtuous. Next, we ascend to ideas, laws, customs, institutions. We learn to see knowledge as beautiful. Finally, once we have seen the Beautiful in all earthly and intellectual things, we can perceive Beauty as such, Beauty itself. The journey upward can be summarized thus:

And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (The Symposium, 211c-d).

In the ascent, in other words, we abandon the individual for the absolute. Love is no longer person-centered but idea-centered. The intellect takes over for the eye. Senses are devalued to thought. Instead of the material and lower, we see the Beautiful in the higher and spiritual. Once we have loved the Good, Beauty as such, we can find Beauty in all things. In short, there is no more favoritism. What this means is: No longer do I see Unknown-1.jpegbeautiful and ugly people, but I only see the Beauty in them. There is no one more beautiful than another, since we all share in the same Beauty. A true lover of Beauty does not discriminate, but rather sees Beauty everywhere, from people to animals to nature. Beauty is no longer temporary but permanent. The lover need not depend on a specific person or artwork to see Beauty, for it is everywhere. Suppose I derive a great pleasure in van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but in no other piece. This is an undeveloped love. However, after I have attained a vision of the Good, I soon find that every artwork is beautiful, not just “Starry Night”; for this reason, I am not dependent on a single beautiful thing to know Beauty. Universal love can be found anywhere once envisioned. And unlike the body, subject to change, Universal Beauty is changeless. Love is the guide up the ladder; it draws us toward the Beautiful through Eros, the daimon of Love. Plato compared “the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true” to “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy” (The Phædrus, 249a). The philosopher, or lover of wisdom, is the same in purity as the lover of Beauty; for in wisdom, there is Beauty. What is the beautiful like? In this quote, Plato describes Unknown-2.jpegwhat the famous Realm of Forms is like: “There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul” (The Phædrus, 247c). From this we can gather that the Form of the Good or Beautiful is permanent and unchanging. It remains the same eternally. The Beautiful is absolute, not relative. Things are not “more beautiful” but are either beautiful or not-beautiful. Beauty, lastly, is the same to all things. A statue has as much beauty as does a shoe. It achieves this through instantiation: The partaking of instances. Explained in another way, beauty instantiates itself, by which it is meant that, a particular instance of beauty, for example Michelangelo’s “David,” is beautiful precisely because Beauty is inside of it. Love is a form of madness, Plato famously wrote. In a very poetic (and long) passage, Plato illustrates what it is like to be in love:

But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any one having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god; then while he gazes on him there is a sort of reaction, and the shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration; for, as he receives the effluence of beauty through the eyes, the wing moistens and he warms. And as he warms, the parts out of which the wing grew, and which had been hitherto closed and rigid, and had prevented the wing love-on-a-swing-Cropped.jpgfrom shooting forth, are melted, and as nourishment streams upon him, the lower end of the wing begins to swell and grow from the root upwards; and the growth extends under the whole soul—for once the whole was winged. During this process the whole soul is all in a state of ebullition and effervescence,—which may be compared to the irritation and uneasiness in the gums at the time of cutting teeth,—bubbles up, and has a feeling of uneasiness and tickling; but when in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion, and is refreshed and warmed by them, and then she ceases from her pain with joy. But when she is parted from her beloved and her moisture fails, then the orifices of the passage out of which the wing shoots dry up and close, and intercept the germ of the wing; which, being shut up with the emotion, throbbing as with the pulsations of an artery, pricks the aperture which is long-distance-relationship-advice.jpgnearest, until at length the entire soul is pierced and maddened and pained, and at the recollection of beauty is again delighted. And from both of them together the soul is oppressed at the strangeness of her condition, and is in a great strait and excitement, and in her madness can neither sleep by night nor abide in her place by day. And wherever she thinks that she will behold the beautiful one, thither in her desire she runs. And when she has seen him, and bathed herself in the waters of beauty, her constraint is loosened, and she is refreshed, and has no more pangs and pains; and this is the sweetest of all pleasures at the time, and is the reason why the soul of the lover will never forsake his beautiful one, whom he esteems above all (The Phædrus, 251-2)

Anyone who has ever been in love—in other words, all of us—can appreciate the beauty with which Plato speaks here. “If … man’s life is ever worth living,” Diotima confides to Socrates, “it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty” (The Symposium, 211d).


What are we to make, then, of Platonic love? Despite all its transcendent glory, the ideal of Platonic love has its flaws. A professor of the Classics, Martha Nussbaum criticizes Plato’s account of love on three grounds: Compassion, reciprocity, and individuality.

  1. Unknown-1.jpegCompassion: According to Nussbaum, Platonic love lacks compassion. The practices for which he calls require that one look down upon “worldly” things as beneath oneself. Bodies, for example, are to be dismissed as gross presentations, renounced instead for mental pleasure. This kind of attitude instills an egotistical superiority. One thinks oneself superior to others, who are reduced to objects of desire; and these people are then devalued. The lover takes precedence. Also, suffering, which is a temporary condition, is frowned upon, demanding that the lover take on a Stoical indifference to pain, which is unnecessary. Homeless people, for example, are objectified as suffering for no reason, instead of contemplating the Forms.
  2. Unknown.jpegReciprocity: Platonic love is one-sided. To engage in this kind of love is to be egocentric. Only the self exists, and the opinions and emotions of others are not gauged, but ignored. It does not matter how the other person feels, as long as the lover, gets what they want: The Good. It is not like you love someone, and they love you back; rather, it is just you loving someone. In this sense, the beloved is not an end-in-themselves, but a means-to-an-end. You love someone not for their sake, but in order to reach the Good. The agency and autonomy of the beloved are ignored. They cannot act for themselves.  
  3. images.jpegIndividuality: Lastly, in pursuing Platonic love, the individual, the beloved, is dropped. When we say we love someone, do we ever consciously think, “I love x because in them is instantiated the Good”? No. We say we love them for who they are. The person with whom we are in love is considered unimportant in the long run, used as a stepping stone to the Good, a step ladder that will be discarded, cast away once it has been climbed. By treating the beloved as a sacrifice to reach the Good, we are, in effect, denying their faults, the things that make them different; i.e., we are denying their uniqueness, their individuality. As Nussbaum jokingly puts it, “‘I’ll love you only to the extent that you exemplify properties that I otherwise cherish.’”[2]

In short, Nussbaum argues that Platonic love is just far too objective, idealistic, and detached to be applicable. This is just one side, though. Others, like Paul Friedländer, cite that Platonic love actually does incorporate the individual beloved, and awards them a higher place. From personal experience, I agree that Platonic love tends to dismiss the beloved; but I do think the idea of Beauty manifest in individuals is quite real. Tell me your experiences in the comments, and whether or not you agree with Plato!


220px-Plotinus.jpgFrom hence we move to Plotinus, the Egyptian-Roman founder of Neoplatonism, whose spiritual ideas were based on Plato’s theories, and who influenced a nascent Christianity. Although we have covered the argument that Plato’s conception of love is idealistic, looking at Plotinus’ views makes Plato sound like a common-sense realist. Plotinus is even more spiritual than Plato, and even more contemptuous of the physical world, which he viewed as a hindrance. It is recorded that Plotinus constantly remarked that his body was ugly and that he looked forward to being released from it. In one anecdote, his student Porphyry wrote that an artist came to Plotinus’ school because he wanted to make a portrait of Plotinus; but Plotinus turned him away, ashamed to be seen in his body—how ghastly it would be to have a representation of such a hideous thing! Love for Plotinus is a unio mystica, a mystical union, drawing upon similar imagery to that of Aristophanes, but with God, whom he calls “the One.” Beauty lies in symmetry, in wholeness. When it comes to a certain instance of beauty, the whole is both greater than and equal to the sum of its parts—but this does not make a whole lot of sense. The whole is greater because it partakes in the Beautiful. It is equal because it must be constituted by only what is Beautiful. His reasoning is that all parts must be beautiful in order to be Beautiful. Beauty + beauty = Beauty, but beauty + ugly ≠ Beautiful. Therefore, a Beautiful Unknown.pngthing must be greater than its parts, but must also be composed of all-Beautiful parts. Put together, they all form a harmony in union. Evidently, Plotinus borrows Plato’s theory of instantiation: “[T]he material thing becomes beautiful—by communicating in the thought (Reason, Logos) that flows from the Divine” (The Enneads, I.VI.2). Put another way, a beautiful thing is beautiful because Beauty is in it. If there is no Beauty in it, then it is not beautiful. The things which make up the art are not beautiful in themselves; it depends on their symmetry in an arrangement. The Idea of Beauty is thus imposed on Matter itself. Imagine a blank canvas. It is not beautiful. Then, a bucket of different colors of paint is thrown onto the canvas. In this image, the canvas is matter, and the paint is Beauty. It is only when the canvas is so arranged that the paint can make it beautiful that it becomes Beautiful. Plotinus also references Plato’s ascent up the ladder, with a little change:

It [the Realm of Ideas] is to be reached by those who, born with the nature of the lover, are also authentically philosophic by inherent temper; in pain of love towards beauty but not held by material loveliness, taking refuge from that in things whose beauty is of the soul- such things as virtue, knowledge, institutions, law and custom- and thence, rising still a step, reach to the source of this loveliness of the Soul, thence to whatever be above that again, until the uttermost is reached. The First, the Principle whose beauty is self-springing: this attained, there is an end to the pain inassuageable before (The Enneads, V.IX.2).

istock-653098388-b874e6221d237c909723bbf13f388fadaa20e281-s900-c85.jpgJust like Plato, Plotinus believes the philosopher is most inclined toward love of the Beautiful. Also, the two agree that love ascends from the soul to virtue to knowledge to customs to Beauty itself. The difference lies in the starting point. For Plato, the lover begins with a person with whom they are in love; for Plotinus, the lover begins by shunning the person, by turning away from all things physical and material, jumping straight to the soul. Why does one jump immediately to the soul? Because the soul, Plotinus claims, is itself beautiful. There is a metaphor of “falling” in Plato and Plotinus, which mirrors that of Adam and Eve’s fall in The Bible, in which the immortal souls of men lived in the Realm of Forms, only to succumb to temptation, thereby causing it to fall into the material world of change and impermanence. This means that, just as Adam and Eve received Wisdom right before the Fall and retained some of it, so the souls of men received a vision of the Beautiful right before the Fall and retained some of it. By falling into the physical world, the soul became impure, ugly. As Plotinus puts it, “[A] soul becomes ugly … by a fall, a descent into the body, into Matter” (The Enneads, I.VI.5). The religious metaphors here are obvious. The soul thus becomes “ugly,” associated with grime and dirt. In my blog about Orphism and its influence on Pythagoreanism, we see the same kind of thinking: The body (σωμα) as a tomb (σημα), the pure trapped in the impure, seeking release, yearning for reunion with the World-soul, or, in this case, the self-love.jpeg.pngOne. Despite being a radical purist, Plotinus is a very wise guy with a lot of good things to say, and we should heed him. The following is a much-celebrated excerpt of Plotinus, one read and admired by many who find in it a beautiful and inspiring message, written with much the same elegance as Plato, considered the best of his writing. In it, he tells us all to look inside ourselves and realize that, deep down, beneath our appearances, we all have an inner beauty. Sometimes, we just need some self-love, and Plotinus reminds us to give ourselves this much-needed assurance. Read it for yourself:

Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, his other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine (The Enneads, I.VI.9).


Unknown-1.pngWhat have we learned today? Well, what we have not learned for certain is what love and beauty are. Despite the brilliance of these thinkers, they are no closer to the truth than we are. As to what love and beauty are—my guess is as good as yours, and that is not a bad thing; I think it is rather a good thing, really, and perhaps it should stay that way. We should all ask ourselves what love and beauty are, because they are essential to a well-lived life. To ask what love and beauty are, and to experience them fully and intimately—this is a part of the examined images.pnglife. Plato and Plotinus’ ideas have survived for ages and shall continue to influence us in the future. Yet their wisdom is not perfect, and their theories are not flawless either. It has been shown that their views, debatably, are impractical. From soulmates to the Ancient Christians with their agape to the modern philosophers like Pascal to contemporary man seeking love in an unloving world, we are all asking the same question as Haddaway: What is love? A most mysterious emotion it is, one we barely beginning to understand. What is life without love? Without beauty? As soon as we start asking these questions, we are on the way to wisdom. To actively pursue the answers to these questions requires that we all be philosophers. If we want to know beauty and love, we must be lovers of wisdom, philo-sophers.  

 

 


[1] Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, p. 483
[2] Id., p. 499

 

For further reading: The Greek Thinkers Vol. 2 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum (2001)
Plato: An Introduction by Paul Friedländer (1958)
On Plotinus by C. Wayne Mayhall (2004)
The Enneads by Plotinus (1991)
The Symposium by Plato (1973)
The Phædrus by Plato (1973) 

Why Are Owls Wise?

Unknown-1.jpegWhat is more symbolic of wisdom than the owl? When asked to think of an animal that is smart, mysterious, or nocturnal, we automatically think of the owl, who alights upon the trees of the forest in the night, its big, piercing eyes glowing in the dark, its haunting call—Hoo, hoo—like a wistful calling for someone who is gone, its panoramic view taking into account the entire landscape, watching patiently at twilight. Some people like to think of the owl as their “spirit animal,” an animal that represents their inner nature, their personality, that symbolizes who they are. But from where do we get these associations? Why is it that we associate owls with wisdom? Were owls always wise, or did they mean something else at another time? I myself am quite fond of owls and am in possession of a collection of owl stuffed animals, so this question appealed to me. Reaching back over 2,000 years, we find yet another enduring contribution from the Ancient Greeks, from whom we get our archetypal “wise owl.”


owl-dark-birds.jpgIt is important to note that, as with many symbols, meanings can change. While we nowadays impute owls with wisdom, they were once regarded as evil. Cloaking themselves in the darkness, stalking silently and surreptitiously, owls represented solitude. They hid in the shadows, unseen, and so were viewed negatively, in some cultures as the bringer of death, or at least the messenger thereof. Like the raven, the owl became an image of death and the afterlife, thought to be the animal that guided the spirits from this life to the next. Ancient civilizations in Mexico, the Middle East, and especially China created horrible myths around the owl, making it the pet of Hell or the punisher of those who have done wrong. Its loud, longing screech was unsettling, and because of its ability to see in the dark, the owl could see into the future, but it also meant, in the Christian and Judaic traditions, blindness, or an inability to pierce through the darkness, ultimately preventing spiritual insight. As such, early people saw the owl as a negative force, rather than a positive one.


Unknown.jpegHowever, this was not true for all the world, for other cultures, like the Native Americans and Greeks, designed elaborate mythologies that lionized, not demonized, the owl. What the eagle was to the sun, the owl was to the moon. Whereas other cultures linked the owl’s nocturnal nature with depravity, the Greeks linked its night vision with a special sight, a clairvoyance. Fortune tellers, seers, soothsayers, and augurs, all of whom specialized in predicting the future, had as their symbol the owl. It seems plausible, too, that owls’ nocturnal vision suggests a kind of sight that, by lighting up the dark, is revelatory, or which is diametrically opposed to darkness, a kind of clearing therein, or, as some Unknown-2.jpegscholars say, an ability to see through the shroud of obscurity. In the dark, things appear faint, in mere outlines, unable to made out; but the owl is wholly perceptive and has clear vision. The owl stands for rational, inner knowledge because it, like a mirror, reflects the light of the moon. This lunar reflection leads to the owl’s being described as pensive, as deeply thoughtful, and, consequently, as reflective. Quiet, reserved, yet vigilant, the owl kept watch, observant, cautious, curious. Owls tilt their heads to the sides, much as we do when we are confused or puzzled, as though they are mimicking our curiosity—their way of scratching their heads. Thus, it is no surprise why the Greeks related learning and studying to owls. The aloofness of the owl also lends itself to the idea of “bookishness” or “studiousness,” an image closely related to the scholar who stays up at night, working by lamplight (lucubration), disengaged from the rest of the world. It is from this comparison that we call people “owlish,” referring to the silent, intellectual type, who resembles the owl, both behaviorally and physically, in that they stereotypically wear big glasses, which look like an owl’s blank, penetrating stare. Owls seem to stay where they are and rarely move. They are some of the most patient birds we know. It is as if they are waiting for something, as if owls are awaiting images.jpegsomething. Perhaps it is their prophetic wisdom at work. Owls seem to know something we do not. They are symbols of inner-knowledge, of looking-inward. They are serious and lack humor. They are constantly engaged in thought. Being able to fly, to soar high above us, and to see in the dark, where everything appears concealed, owls have a perspective much more inclusive than ours: Owls have a bird’s eye view, an ability to look down upon us, to ponder and perceive the insignificance of our actions. Maybe when they are sitting in their trees, or hiding in their little nooks, they are, like a knowing parent, shaking their heads, wondering if we humans will ever learn; and therein lies the owl’s wisdom—to be patient and consider things from a grand point of view, with matters brought forth from the dark into the light, wide-eyed, all-knowing, and waiting until we are ready to receive their wisdom. But this does not yet answer the question: Why are owls wise?


little-owl.jpgAllow me to introduce to you the little owl, known also as the Athene noctua, from the family Strigidæ. Only 8.5 inches, or 22cm, long, it dawns a wide, low, and small forehead, putting it in a scowl, and it lives in wide, open spaces, like fields. What is so special about this small bird? The little owl is the very owl that rests on the Greek goddess Athena’s shoulder! Yes, that is right: The famous Owl of Athena, or Owl of Minerva in the Roman tradition, is a real owl—the little owl. The little owl became Athena’s symbol because they could be found everywhere in Athens. As Matt Sewell writes in his charming little book Owls, “The Acropolis [a fort in a Greek city-state, or polis] was once full of Little Owls, living amongst the pillars and rocks, looking down upon a great civilization.”[1] Again the imagery of “looking down upon” is supposed to connote protection and vigilance and insight. There is an idiom—”bringing an owl to Athens”—that refers to the abundance of owls in Greece; to bring an owl to Athens would be completely unnecessary, given the large numbers that already frequented it. Athens was one of the most famous Greek poleis, and after it was named the goddess Unknown-4.jpegAthena, who happened to be the goddess of wisdom. The logic goes: Because the goddess protected the city, she was named after the city, and because little owls could be found within the said city, they were to be associated with the goddess. Hence, little owls came to be Athena’s symbol. Later, at about the first quarter of the 5th century (c. 420 B.C.), Athens adopted its silver coinage with the owl of Athena printed on one side. There are many versions of Athena, including Pallas Athena and Athena Pronoia. Pronoia (πρόνοια) means “Providence,” or “foresight,” in Greek, from which came the idea that owls could see into the future.


G.W.F. Hegel in The Philosophy of Right wrote in his preface, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”[2]. In other words, what Hegel is saying is: True insight, or wisdom, can come only in retrospect. Dusk is the latest part of the day, the end of the night, and so, metaphorically, the owl of Minerva, representing foresight, reveals the lessons of life only after they have happened; it is then that they are taught to us, and that we can apply them.


So what can we take from the majestic owl? From the owl, we can all learn to be patient, attentive, humble, introspective, thoughtful, and reflective. Then, and only then, can we hope to achieve wisdom.

happy_owl_by_henrieke.jpg

 


[1] Sewell, Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, p. 19
[2] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, p. 7 

 

For further reading: Owls: Our Most Charming Birds by Matt Sewell (2014)
The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder (2004)
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (1992)
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier (1994)
Birds of the World by Colin Harrison (1993)

Bradbury, Martians, and the Threat of Technology

Future-London-Futuristic-City-Future-Architecture-Simon-Kennedy-Factory-Fifteen-01.jpgPicture what you think the future will be like in 50 years: Will there be flying cars, intergalactic space travel to other planets, space colonies, and smart houses that will be able to do anything you want them to, with everything perfected to function automatically, so that no one has to do any work? While this is a dream for many, it is a nightmare for author Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction book The Martian Chronicles details the dangers of a technologically dominated future. Written in the middle of the 20th-century, the collection of short stories is designed to showcase the many threats posed by technology against its very creators. He warned in his book how a reliance on technology is not to our benefit. Bradbury’s predictions about technology have in today’s world become evident. Just as he predicted, we humans have become so dependent upon our technology that, when we risk losing both our control and humanity, our abuses thereof can ultimately threaten and endanger us.


Technology is used every day for tasks, yet this reliance can be carried to extremes, such that we are no longer independent, replaced by technology in even the simplest of tasks. In “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a fully-automated house is left isolated after a nuclear fallout. The owners were vaporized in the blast, leaving the house to continue functioning on its own. Describing its system, Bradbury writes, “The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly” (168). By depicting the house with religious metaphors, he creates a sense of sacredness smart-home-2769210_1920.jpgsurrounding the technology. Specifically, the word “altar” refers to a table used for religious rites, a center for worship. For this reason, the house can be construed as a holy place, one frequented by something supernatural. When he says “the gods had gone away,” Bradbury is referring to us humans, who are considered deities to the house in a double sense: We are both the owners of the house, whom it serves, and the significant creators of the technology, such that, as their creators, we are worshiped as gods. As such, we humans take refuge in a temple, a place of importance. Later, it is explained that the house is equipped with mice that clean the house, and an intercom system is in control of every homely option, which is suggested by the fact that the house has “ten thousand attendants,” showing that the technology is overwhelmingly unnecessary; it replaces the humanness of the house due to its excessiveness. Because the humans have left, because the house remains a place of worship, the technology is deified. This swap of human-technological worship is representative of today, as Bradbury guessed, because no longer does technology serve man, but man serves technology. The image of the house surviving the blast while the humans died supplies readers with the idea of technology’s immortality and power over the natural world. Since the humans are gone from Bradbury’s world, it means everything is dependent on machinery; technology has replaced the need for humans because we grew too dependent upon them. Even though the owners are gone, the “rituals”—by which Bradbury means the everyday chores done by the house—“continued senselessly, uselessly.” Later in the story, when the house Unknown-1.jpegmakes breakfast, but there is no one to eat it, it still keeps making the breakfast, showing that the sacredness imputed to humans has become obsolete. Everyday tasks have, with their relegated monotony, have lost their meaning in the human realm. But the future Bradbury imagined is not so far from reality, because today robots are replacing humans in society. In “The Big Robot Questions,” writer Patrick Lin states, “[B]ecoming overly reliant on technology for basic work … seems to cause society to be more fragile” (Lin). Nowadays, there is a device for everything, and the “basic work” of which Lin speaks consists of things like making food, washing clothing, or waking up. It is basic since it is fundamental and simple—any human can do it. However, the absence of such basic work leads to “fragil[ity],” or a state of being prone to breaking. If society is fragile, then it means it is not secure, that, at any moment, it can fall apart, like a dropped antique vase. Taken together, both Bradbury and Lin foresee a world where technology reduces humanity to mere idols, lazy, otiose. Where Lin talks about “basic work” being taken over by machines, Bradbury mentions the “ritual[s]” of machines that will become regular. Automation can be a good thing, as it eliminates effort, yet the two authors believe that an overdependence on technology will remove meaning from human life, of which a large component is work, from which we derive meaning. With work eliminated, Bradbury fears the boring longevity of technology, whereas Lin fears the weakening of society. Through these examples, it can be concluded that technology, if it is used too much, can render life a senseless worshiping of idleness.


Technology is capable of both imaginative creation and unimaginable destruction if it falls out of our control, in which case it is liable to backfire and threaten both human and environmental safety. The short story “The Million-Year Picnic” follows a family who is supposedly visiting Mars for a fishing trip. After destroying their rocket, the dad drives Unknown-2.jpegthem across the planet, where they claim a city as their own. The dad explains to his kids why he took them there: “[P]eople got lost in a mechanical wilderness, … emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed the Earth” (180). Here, the imagery of humanity “lost in a mechanical wilderness” represents the confusion and directionless created by technology. The metaphor of technology as a “mechanical wilderness” shows that technology is a wide, pervasive, and dense network, a great big expanse of land into which it is easy to lose one’s way. When a person is “lost in the wilderness,” it means they are stuck because they do not know which way to go, how to get out, as they have no compass, no guide. “Wilderness” itself brings up connotations of danger and unpredictability, a feeling of being disoriented or out of place. Accordingly, Bradbury is saying that, when it comes to technology, humans do not have a moral compass, a device with which to navigate the dense thickets of technology, where we are left stranded. He talks about the difference between “machines” and “how to run the machines”; developing technology is dependent upon using that technology, although the latter is neglected, Bradbury thinks. The importance of the phrase “how to” lies in its indicating control. To ask how something is done is to ask the method by which it is done, so to emphasize “how to run 400px-Bonsack_machine.pngthe machines” is to emphasize the purpose, or utility, of technology. There is also another interpretation of “how to”—namely the avoidance of improper use. In the case of technology, Bradbury is predicting that we will become blind to the proper use of technology, resulting in its going awry, malfunctioning—functioning badly, not in its desired way. Asking “how to” is also asking “how not to,” implicitly, because it distinguishes between the correct and the incorrect utilization. These views are not unfounded, for even now machines are not functioning correctly. Patrick Lin, in the same article, recounts how, in 2007, an automatic aircraft cannon failed to work properly, killing nine, injuring 14 (Lin). This incident reveals the shortcomings of technology, specifically its ability to malfunction. As a result of this malfunction, many people either lost—or came close to losing—their lives; consequently, technology, when it is not understood, when it is not under precise control, can harm us humans. Imagine if a nuke were to malfunction: Any flaw in its system would be devastating. Bradbury and Lin are noticing that technology is something not to be tampered with, a thing which can change on a whim, if we are not careful. The dad in “The Million-Year Picnic” talks about the devastation of the Earth and how wars got people killed, while Lin mentions an incident where a weapon went off and killed several people. Despite their differences, one being bigger than the other, they both express the same fear: Technology is Unknown-3.jpegdangerous. Bradbury’s vision is much more extreme than Lin’s; however, the potential is implied by Lin, who cites the increasing use of militarized technology. Both authors, then, are in agreeance that if we move too fast, if we do not look where we are going, then we will lose sight of what we are doing, with terrible consequences. In Bradbury, the machines are not used aright, and so contribute to the devastation of the Earth, and in Lin, a machine does not work, and so contributes to the death and injuring of a group of people. A common theme is the imperfection of technology, its proneness to mistakes, because they are flawed. As imperfect creators, our creations are imperfect, too.


Unknown.jpegOriginally designed to connect us across long distances and to help us at home, technology has begun to extend its range to the world at large; however, its effect on the environment is less than beneficial. “The Locusts” is a story centered on the arrival of hundreds of rockets on Mars, which has been deemed safe for living. Tens of thousands of people move to the new planet to set up their homes, in the process destroying the environment with their technology. Tersely, bluntly, Bradbury narrates, “In six months a dozen small towns had been laid down upon the naked planet, filled with sizzling neon tubes and yellow electric bulbs” (78). Bradbury calls the planet “naked,” symbolizing bareness and vulnerability. To be naked is to be without cover, and so to be uncovered, meaning to be without protection. Because Mars is unprotected, it is open; however, this natural openness, this simple innocence, also means it is able to be attacked, since it is without armor. In contrast, Bradbury says that the humans’ technology consists of “sizzling neon tubes.” “Sizzling” refers to burning in a hot or excited way, as in a sizzling fire, which is dangerous because of its easily flammable tendencies. As such, a naked Mars is scorched by sizzling technology. Furthermore, the “neon tubes” create images of bright, disruptive, blinding light. Colors that disorient us are called “loud,” so it can be said that Unknown-2.jpegBradbury is depicting technology as loud and obtrusive, and, it follows, unnatural. In short, technology is characterized as having a negative effect on the environment due to its ability to intrude upon nature. This conception of technology is similar to that of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s. In his work “The Question Concerning Technology,” written in 1954, around the time of Bradbury himself, he observes, “Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve” (Heidegger). Although this passage is not clear at first, what he means is similar to Bradbury. “Enframing” is putting the world into a preconfigured framework, as in, “to put in a frame,” and the “setting-upon” to which he refers is likened to a seizure, or confrontation with something, often an object. Man, Heidegger expressed, is “challenged forth,” or provoked, made to compete, “to reveal the real,” or show nature, “in the mode of ordering,” or in the mode of commanding into a certain arrangement. What this means is that man is called on to make nature into a specific orientation for his self-interest. This specific orientation with which he “reveal[s] the real” as “ordering” is what Heidegger calls “standing-reserve,” which is basically what it sounds like: Nature is turned into a commodity, something reserved, and, as such, is a resource awaiting its use. Nature is made to be on standby until it becomes useful. In this sense, technology, or enframing, is the process of converting nature into something of use. To summarize, technology for Heidegger is a worldview in which man seizes nature and commands it to reveal itself as a resource to be used up—and nothing more. Bradbury’s idea of technology as a threat to the environment is based on its ability to disrupt the natural Unknown.jpegstate of the world, to change it completely, whereas Heidegger’s idea of technology is based on its ability not to disrupt nature, but to reinterpret it, to change its form so as to be something manipulable, exploitable. In “The Locusts,” the humans’ homes are “laid down upon” Mars, and in Heidegger, technology “sets upon” nature; yet in both cases, this idea of a verb plus the preposition “upon” means a violation, an act of invading and attacking, hostile and unfriendly. When the two sources are looked at together, they both express a common concern regarding technology’s ability to ruin the natural beauty of the world. By replacing the natural with the unnatural, by seizing nature and commandeering it, technology, the two authors assert, does the environment bad. Technology as enframing enframes the world as something to be used for our own instrumental purposes.


https-cdn.evbuc_.com-images-34858522-90081055097-1-original.pngAs Bradbury envisioned, our age is a technological one, one where we have become indebted to machines, where our lives have become dominated by them, where we are on the verge of losing our autonomy, and where our blindness to this predicament will be rewarded only with idleness and meaninglessness. By making technology an indispensable part of our lives, we have to them become ourselves dispensable, as Bradbury foretold. It is important in this technological era to retain and keep safe what it means to be human, what it means to engage in meaningful work, what it means to be a safe people, when we are not threatened by the specter of nuclear war or technological revolutions. Technology is expanding and evolving faster and more efficiently with each year; and with each new iteration, we are more inclined to entrench ourselves in it, to bind ourselves to it. So what will the future be like in 50 years? With hope, we will be attentive enough—and still alive—to experience it, because appearances are often deceiving, and technology is a master of deception.