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)


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)

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) 

Do Babies Exist?

My friends and I were sitting on the deck one Summer afternoon sipping cokes by the pool while discussing different philosophical matters. It was a hot day, and I was introducing Descartes’ philosophy to them—as any normal person in an everyday conversation does—and explaining why it was important and what it meant for us. I set Unknownit up like this: He asked if his whole life were an illusion, a dream, and if there were an Evil Demon that was deceiving him, causing his senses to be misleading. It is impossible, I explained, to distinguish between waking reality and a dream, according to Descartes. However, searching for a first principle, a single starting point of knowledge from which to start, he realized he had been thinking this whole time. The process of questioning whether he was in a dream presupposed that there was a questioner who was doing it. This led him to remark, “Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” By doubting all his senses, he was led to the conviction that he could not doubt that he was doubting in the first place; for otherwise, he would not be able to doubt: He would have to exist first before he could be deluded.

UnknownAfter hearing this, my friends seemed pretty convinced, and pondered it a bit. Out of nowhere, one of them said, “Well, babies aren’t self-conscious.” A pause. “So do babies exist?” Taken aback, unprepared for such a response, I readily dismissed the notion, called it absurd, and tried to think of an answer. We began debating whether or not babies knew they existed, or whether they could even think about thinking. Of course, the question itself—do babies exist since they are not self-conscious?—is actually grounded in a misunderstanding: Descartes was not trying to prove his existence; rather, he was trying to prove he had certainty, something undoubtedly true. But for the sake of argument, we entertained the idea. Common face shouts till it is red in the face, “Obviously, yes, babies exist! Only a madman would doubt their existence. I mean, we see them right in front of us—they’re right there, they exist!”[1]

This prompts the question: If we are conscious of a baby existing, yet they themselves are not conscious of themselves existing, do they exist? Babies are fascinating creatures. They are copies of us, miniature humans who must learn to cope with and understand the world in which they are living through trial-and-error. Seeing as they are capable of such amazing cognitive feats like cause-and-effect and language acquisition, investigating their conscious abilities sounded intriguing. A delve into developmental psychology, the study of how humans develop through life, yields interesting insights into this psycho-philosophical problem.

Unknown-1.jpegJean Piaget was a developmental psychologist who studied the development of children throughout the 20th-century. Today, his influence is still felt in psychological literature and continues to impact thought regarding childhood development. For years he observed, tested, and took notes on infants, from birth to early adulthood, using the data to devise his famous theory of cognitive development, which takes place in four stages: Sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. The first stage, sensorimotor, takes place starting at birth and ending at the age of two. During this period, the baby’s life is geared toward adjusting to the world. Babies are “thrown” into this world, to use a Heideggerian term. They are born immediately into life amidst chaos, with all kinds of new stimuli to which to react. Confused, unable to make sense of things, exposed to strange sights and sounds, the baby cries and thrashes about, trying to find some sense of security. It is bombarded all at once by sensations and experiences. It is disoriented. This is a brave new world, and it is full of data that needs to be interpreted and sorted out in the baby’s mind. In order to navigate through the world, the newborn uses its motor skills and physical senses to experience things. The baby interacts with its environment, including people, grabbing with its hands, sucking with its mouth, hearing with its ears, and smelling with its nose. Imagine being in a cave for years, devoid of all sensory information, when, one day, you are let out and, having forgotten what it was like to experience the world, you are overcome by the magnitude of the environment, so you try to relearn as much as possible, greedily taking in everything that you can—well, being in the womb is kind of like being in a cave for the baby, meaning it is doing the same thing: It is getting a grasp of reality by engaging its senses in any way that it Unknown-3.jpegpossibly can. The baby is an empiricist who delights in its senses as though life were a buffet. Oh, there is something I can touch! Ah, that smells nice, let me smell it! While it cannot yet register these sensations, the infant uses its senses to obtain a primitive understanding. They are actively mapping out the world according to their perceptions, simple though they are. According to Piaget, babies eventually learn to pair coordination, knowledge of their body and its movement, with determination. Once they are able to effectively use their body parts in a way that is conducive to their survival, they develop their sense of where these limbs are in relation to each other, called proprioception. This allows them to use determination in regard to this newly acquired coordination. Babies can now direct themselves with autonomy and do something. However, this is a simple form of determination; it is not like the baby has free will and can decide or choose to do this or that. Whereas the baby can move toward a particular object, it cannot decide mentally, “I am going to crawl over to that thing”; it just does it out of pure, unthinking volition.

At three months, a baby can sense emotions and, amazingly, recreate them. Seeing their parents sad, an infant can react to this with a fitting response, as in being sad themselves. By being able to tell what someone is feeling, the baby can imitate them, showing that the baby has at least a simple recognition of empathy. Around this time also, the baby actively listens to their social scene, picking up on spoken language. It is incredible (in both senses of the word) because it is now that the infant unobtrusively Unknown-4.jpegand quietly internalizes and processes everything it hears like a sponge, learning speech cues, such as when to talk and when to pause; the rhythms of speech, including cadence; vocabulary; and nonverbal communication, which makes up the majority of social interaction. Here is a tiny little human just crawling around the house on all fours who cries and eats and goes to the bathroom, all the while they are actually learning how to speak—who could possibly fathom what is going on in that small, undeveloped mind! A little earlier, around two months usually, the baby already shows signs of early speech when it babbles. Nonsense sounds are uttered by the baby, who is trying to imitate speech, but who is not complex enough to reproduce it entirely. Four to five months into development, the baby can understand itself as a self-to-Others, or a self-as-viewed-by-Others. I have my own image of myself, but I understand that I am perceived by other people, who form their own images of me. One study shows that, from four to nine months, the infant has changing patterns of involvement in play. In the earliest stage, the baby will, if it is approached by the parent, play peekaboo. Because they have not yet learned that things exist independent of them in time, babies think that the parent disappears when they are covered, and is surprised to find they are still there. A few months later, nine months, the baby is able to take on the role of the initiator who wants to play peekaboo, instead of the responder who will play peekaboo if asked. This proves that babies learn to combine determination with intention (Bruner, 1983).

Just three months later, when the infant is officially one year old, it achieves a self-image. Looking in the a mirror, it can recognize itself and form an early identity. Like chimps, babies can now respond to themselves as an actual self in the mirror, noticing, for example, a mark on their forehead, and realizing that it is not on the mirror, but on themselves. During 14-18 months, an infant is able to differentiate an Other’s intentions from their own (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997). Children like to think in terms of their own desires. If a kid wants a cookie, they act on their desire. Thus, when they are 14-18 months old, they can distinguish Others’ desires as different from their Unknown-5.jpegown. Within this period, the baby can also know that it is being imitated by someone else. If a parent mimics something the infant is doing, the infant knows their own behavior is being shown to them. Finally, the 18-month marker designates when the baby begins to start its sentences with the first-person “I.” With a sense of self, the infant is able to roleplay, in which it takes on new identities, or roles, and is able to play “as them.” Second-order emotions, also known as self-conscious emotions, like shame and embarrassment, arise in the child at this time, too. Children possess some semblance of self-consciousness.

After the sensorimotor stage is what Piaget called the preoperational stage, which takes place between the ages of two and seven. It is at this stage that the infant constructs their own world. Through the process of assimilation, the toddler creates mental schemas, mini blueprints conceived in their minds, frameworks by which reality is processed then Unknown.pngmade sense off, allowing them to structure reality in a way that is useful to them. When a new experience is undergone, it is made to fit the pre-existing schema. Because these schemas are very simple and basic, they are obviously inaccurate, although that is not point of them; they are not supposed to be innate categories of the mind, as Kant would have thought of them, but early hypotheses made from the little experienced gathered by a child. One time, my cousins came over to play video games; we were playing a level in Lego Indiana Jones where we had to drive around on a motorcycle chasing cars. My cousin’s little brother pointed excitedly at the cars zooming down the streets, exclaiming, “Doo-doo!” I hopped on a motorcycle and chased after them, only for him to look at the motorcycle and, again, shout, “Doo-doo!” My cousin and I tried to tell him that a car and a motorcycle were two separate things. In his mind, he saw a moving vehicle with wheels, so he created a mental schema. Anything that fit under that description—a moving vehicle with wheels—would be considered by him to be a “Doo-doo”—in this case, both the car and the motorcycle, despite their being different things. This illustrates that schemas are not always accurate; they are for classifying and categorizing things. Of course, this leads to a new process observed by Piaget: Accommodation. We come to an age where we discover that our schemas are inadequate because they do not fully represent reality. As such, we have a kind of “schematic crisis,” as we are met with an anomaly, something which sticks out, something which does not fit with our prevailing theory. Hence, we must remodel our thinking. Consequently, we are forced to find a way to reconcile the already-existing category with this new piece of data, either by broadening the schema, or by creating a new one altogether. Babies thus learn to make more accurate classifications as they learn new things and create new schemas with which to interpret Unknown-6.jpegreality. Once these schemas are built up, the infant is able to engage in organization, through which they order their schemas. Some are judged to be more inclusive or exclusive than others, and so are co-ordinated based thereon. In the case of my cousin’s little brother, he would have to organize his schemas like this: Broadly, there are vehicles, under which we might find cars and motorcycles as types, which can themselves be expanded upon, for each comes in different kinds. This way, reality is structured in levels, or hierarchies, not necessarily in importance, but in generality and specificity. Organization is a synthesis of assimilation and accommodation. All this schematizing segues into the next point, namely that in making sense of the world, we give sense to it.

The preoperational period is characterized by symbolic representation in toddlers. In philosophy, the study of meaning and symbolism is called semiotics, and it is closely related to what babies do, interestingly. Life is separated into two concepts: Signs and symbols. Signs are fixed things—concrete objects. Symbols are relative meanings—abstract values—usually assigned to signs. While every car I see is always a car, its meaning is not always the same and is liable to change. For some, it can represent, can be symbolic of, freedom, if you are a teen just getting your license; transportation, if it is how you get around; dread, if you hate road trips or have to wait hours during commute. The point is, everyone sees the same sign, but for everyone the symbol has different meanings. Preoperational toddlers are able, then, to understand objects not just in their literal, concrete sense, but as standing for something, as abstract and meaningful. Babies are not passive, as I have said, but on the contrary, very much, if not entirely, active. By interacting with the world around them, they experiment, learn, and conceptualize. Around three years, the baby is fully capable of speaking, feeling, having motives, and knowing the relation of cause-and-effect.

Unknown-2.pngOne of the consequences of Descartes’ Cogito is its resulting solipsism: The thinker, the Cogito, is only able to prove his own existence, whereas Others’ existences are uncertain. Is this a requisite for existence? Is self-certainty a necessity? If so, the case is a difficult one for babies. Controversially, Piaget proposed that babies are egocentric; his theory is widely contested today in psychological circles. The meaning of egocentrism can be guessed by looking carefully at the word’s roots: It means self-centered; however, it is not self-centeredness in the sense of being prideful, selfish, and concerned with oneself, no—it is more closely related to anthropocentric, in the sense that the self is the central point from which all others points are judged or perceived. For this reason, Piaget suggested that infants can only see things through their own perspectives, not through Others’. You may be wondering why I sometimes have been capitalizing “Other.” Philosophically, the problem of egocentrism is closely related to solipsism, resulting in what is called “the problem of Other Minds,” which is the attempt to prove the existence of selves outside of our own, of whose existence we are uncertain, so they are called “Others,” giving them a kind of external, foreign connotation. I digress. Babies, so thought Piaget, are unable to take Others’ perspectives, so the must rely on their own perspectives. To do this, they reason from self to Other. Infants’ egocentric tendencies, when combined with their inability to acknowledge objects as existing permanently outside of them, lead to a subject-object dualism, a subjective idealism, in which the self is distinguished and utterly separated cup-faces.jpgfrom the physical world. It becomes “my” viewpoint, or “your” viewpoint, subjective, relative. As long as I look at an object, a toddler thinks, it exists. And yet, the toddler also has a social self, which it develops through its interactions with other children. Many psychologists have claimed that, by playing, children are able to acknowledge the existence of not just Others, but Others’ emotions. It is evident in roleplaying, where the children pretend they are someone they are not, and act accordingly, placing themselves within a new self, which they adopt as their own, and interact with the other children, whom they see as someone else, whom they acknowledge and actively engage with, responding to how they are treated, and sensing emotions.

A dominant, popular theory that attempts to refute Piaget’s egocentrism is “Theory of Mind” ([ToM] Wellman, 1990). Wellman found that babies develop an awareness of Others at the age of three, when they operate on belief-desire reasoning. Motivation for kids consists of a belief, what they know, and a desire, what they want. A child might be motivated to have a cookie because they know where the cookie jar is, and they are hungry for one. Using this kind of reasoning, the kid attributes their own intentions to another. Looking at his playmate, the toddler assumes, “Well, I want a cookie, and I know where they are, so this kid, like me, because he has the same beliefs and desires as I, must want a cookie, too.” Is it faulty and inaccurate? Wildly. Does it make sense, realistically? Yes. The Theory of Mind is a primitive form of empathy, a kind of empathetic stepping stone. It is simple and selfish, because it assumes that images.pngchildren have the same beliefs and desires. One often sees this in children trying to console one another: An infant sees another crying, and, because he takes comfort in eating ice cream, believes the other will take comfort in it, too. Critics like Vasudevi Reddy criticize Theory of Mind because it is too detached from actual interaction and ends up actually attributing one’s own self-certitude to another, resulting in what she calls a “Neo-Cartesianism” of sorts. It promotes solipsistic thinking by denying the existence of an independent thinker with emotions, instead attributing to them own’s own ideas, thereby increasing a toddler’s dualistic thinking.

Unknown-8.jpegAccording to Reddy, a baby’s communication with Others’ already presupposed intersubjectivity, or being involved with people on a personal level. Babies are self-aware to an extent at birth because, the argument goes, the baby is able to distinguish itself from the world around it. To act, is to know both the self and the object. It is similar to Fichte’s philosophy in that the Ego becomes aware of itself by recognizing everything that is not the Ego, creating the Non-ego; in other words, it is through the Non-ego—the world—that the Ego knows itself. The world, or Non-ego, is created purely with the intent of being a moral playground for the Ego. Following from this is the idea that the baby, coming into contact with the world, immediately knows it as not-itself, and so uses it as its playground, activating all its senses to learn about reality. If we could not tell the environment apart from ourselves, and we thought ourselves a part of it, how could we act independently of it, with our senses? This is an argument against Freud and Piaget, who both said newborns cannot tell themselves from the world. As a solution to egocentrism, psychologists found that parents play an important role early on. Parents should teach their children early on to differentiate self from Other. Too much similarity between the baby and parent means more egocentrism in life, which is harder to unlearn. Reddy’s RquLcsxM.jpgsolution is to avoid Cartesianism and Theory of Mind and instead pursue a second-person perspective, one between I-and-Thou, You-and-I. This way, there is direct access to another’s intentions. Babies, through play, function on this second-person level by directly interacting with their peers. For Piaget, babies achieve consciousness when symbolism and schematism come together as one to create meaningful representations. An understanding of how things fit together and how they function is what Piaget considers consciousness. On the other hand, metacognition, the ability to think about thinking, does not arise until the age of 11, Piaget’s formal operational stage.

The following are milestones in the evolution of a baby’s cognitive abilities, summarized in eight chronological key events:

  1. Coordination
  2. Self vs. non-self
  3. Know special/loved people
  4. Know + respond to name
  5. Self-image
  6. Pointing to objects (symbol)
  7. Use “I” in sentences
  8. Know Other Minds

Unknown-9.jpegSo, to answer my friend: The question of whether or not babies exist is actually not so straightforward as one might think. It could be argued that babies exist when they are one, when they establish their self-image for the first time, and thus are, in one way or another, conscious of themselves. Or it may be that babies exist once they turn 18 months, and they can use “I,” roleplay, and experience reflexive emotions. Here, babies are aware of themselves as actors, are willing to play with others and take new perspectives, and are able to perceive how they are themselves perceived by others. Yet then again, it is possible that it is only when metacognition is possible, when we are able to doubt that we are doubting, when we are able to posit a hypothetical Evil Demon trying to deceive us all, that we exist—in which case… babies do not exist at all! Do only children and preadolescents and onwards exist? Maybe when we are born, we do not exist, we are in a state of utter nonexistence and non-being, and it is only when we reach 11 that—POOF!—we magically pop into existence.


[1] This is obviously a satirical question. Babies do exist. It is more of a thought-experiment, or armchair philosopher problem. I find the comment to be so outrageous that it is funny, and I thought it made for a perfect reason to research if babies are conscious. 


For further reading: How Infants Know Minds by Vasudevi Reddy (2008)
Developmental Psychology 8th ed. by David R. Shaffer (2010)
The Secret Language of the Mind 
by David Cohen (1996)
The Science of the Mind
by Owen J. Flanagan, Jr. (1984)

Philosopher Clerihews

Invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the clerihew is a poem form composed of two rhyming couplets with the scheme AABB, wherein a famous person is mentioned in the first line, and the last three complete an accomplishment, failure, biography, anecdote, rumor, or joke about them. Contrived, silly, and fun to read, these humorous poems can actually be quite educational while still being entertaining. I was inspired after reading some of Jacques Barzun’s clerihews on philosophers to write my own. Following are 16 clerihews on different philosophers. I have tried my best to make them concise summaries of their philosophies!






Henry David Thoreau
Was a very thorough
Observer of nature
Who used botanical nomenclature


Martin Heidegger
Conceived upon his ledger,
That what was once concealed
Would in a new beginning be revealed


Michel Henry
Did French phenomenology
And he into life inquired
Whence he from interiority acquired


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Tried to preach the
Death of God, and of the slave morality
Favoring instead: Übermensch mentality


Arthur Schopenhauer
Believed in the instinctive power
Of the blind Will-to-Life,
So his pessimism was rife


Had to accede this:
Some things are outside our control
So with the punches we must roll


Edmund Husserl
Made unfurl
In his phenomenological prolegomena
The bracketing of experienced phenomena


Plato, or Aristocles,
Had found the keys
To the fundamental reality,
Which was actually ideality


Did not like Apologies
So he rushed out of the cave
And made dialectic all the rave


John Stuart Mill
Had had his fill
Of individual liberty:
He used it as a Utility


Thomas Kuhn—
Why’d you have to ruin
All of scientific history
By reducing it to anomalistic mystery?


Søren Kierkegaard
Was the first of Existential regard
Whose melancholy made him weep
And whose faith made him take a Leap


Thomas Hobbes
Was moved to sobs
When he found life was short
And served the Leviathan’s royal court


Blaise Pascal
Was a real ras-cal
Who liked to gamble
In his theological preamble


John Locke
Pictured a rock
And said it was qualities, primarily
Conceived on a blank slate, summarily


George Berkeley
Said, “Esse est percipi,”
Meaning he couldn’t find
Anything outside his mind

Should I write more philosophical clerihews? Maybe in other subjects as well, like history, literature, and psychology? Make sure to leave your own in the comments, and I’ll be sure to read them!


A Very Short History of the Dream Argument

Unknown.jpegDreaming is an integral part of our lives, occurring every night when we are asleep. While the body relaxes, the brain stays active, creating a stream of thought, a stream that comes from the unconscious. Recent research into a method called “lucid dreaming” allows people to control their dreams, to place themselves within their illusory world, letting them make their dreams a reality; however, lucid dreaming, as cool as it is, presents a troubling problem, one that has intrigued humans for millennia: How do we know for certain we are not lucid dreaming right now? How do we distinguish our consciousness, our awareness, from the unconscious, the unaware? Are we actually asleep at this moment, life but a mere string of thoughts and sensations?

Defining dreaming and consciousness will help, as both concepts, simple though they may seem, are highly complex, each with their own requirements, psychologically and philosophically. Consciousness refers to “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”; in other words, consciousness refers to the realization or Unknown-1.jpegacknowledgement of the mind and its inner workings.[1] If you acknowledge that you are reading right now, you are conscious of yourself as reading, so consciousness is always consciousness of something, be it an activity or a mental state. American psychologist William James thought consciousness was not an existent thing, relating it to a stream, a series of experiences, one after the other, every one distinct from the other. Neurological studies later linked consciousness, the awareness of the brain, as a process within the brain itself, located in the thalamus. Dreams, on the other hand, are defined as “a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep.”[2] Dreams are specific from person to person, which makes it difficult, then, to “remember” a dream, considering it cannot be proven true or false. Therefore, it is difficult to differentiate the waking state from the dream state, so far as both are collections of experiences.

Apps-Lucid-Dreaming-Header.jpgMany philosophers, dating from the 5th century B.C. to the modern day, have attempted to tackle the “Dream Argument,” trying to prove that we are in fact living consciously. For example, Plato mentions it in a dialogue: “How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in waking state?”[3] Socrates was interested in finding out if our senses were reliable, if what we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell is real or a figment of our active minds. Perhaps when we fall asleep, when our brains switch to R.E.M., when we dream, there is a dreamer dreaming this dream. Another philosopher, René Descartes of the 17th century, in refuting the Dream Argument, famously proposed, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes thought that his whole life was an illusion, a trick played on him by a divine being, that he was misled into believing reality. He started to doubt everything, including his senses; but one thing he could not possibly doubt was his existence, his self, because in order for him to doubt, there had to be a him to doubt in the first place!

Even though some of the greatest thinkers could not deny the Dream Argument irrefutably, at least we know from science that we exist, that dreams are just processes happening in the brain, and that reality is as real as it gets, dreams being a product of our imagination… unless we actually are dreaming, just waiting to be woken.



[1] “Consciousness.” (January 19th, 2017)
[2] “Dreaming.” (January 19th, 2017)
[3] Plato, Theætetus, 158d


If you have a lot of free time:

The Breath and Mindfulness

Benefits-Deep-Breathing-Featured1.pngHow many times have you gone for a run, and, a mile in, you reach your prime, and you feel unstoppable, your legs like automatic machines pumping, arms swinging by your sides, only to feel a pain in your chest, a heavy feeling in your lungs, sharp, managing just short breaths? Or what about getting ready to present in front of an audience, all their eyes on you, expectations hanging above you like the sword of Damocles, your reputation on the line, and you find yourself pacing nervously, breathing in and out shallowly? Or when you try to hold your breath for as long as you can underwater, cheeks puffed out, pressure building up, rising, inside your mouth and lungs, till it is enough to make you burst so that you pop up to the surface fighting for air, gasping, thankful for each time you get to swallow? In each of the common and everyday above instances, there runs a common theme: The importance of the breath. Just as these occasions are average, so breathing is something we do daily, although we never give attention to it. Constant, unchanging, it remains with us throughout the day, even if we do not heed it, dependable, vital. Despite being something we do around 20,000 times a day, breathing is, for the most part, subconscious, an effort produced by the brain because it has to be done, rather than because we will it. It is only after a workout, for example, when we push ourselves, that we find we have power over it, and really feel a need for it. However, the breath is much Unknown.jpegmore important than we believe. For thousands of years, the breath has remained an essential part of our cultures, West and East, ranging from Vedic writings from India to Ancient Greek philosophy to modern day Buddhism and mindfulness practices, which have tried to bring back an ancient appreciation of the breath. In this blog, I will discuss the physiology of breathing, its philosophical and meditative significance, and how it can help in daily life.

Beginning with the physiology is essential because sometimes, one appreciates something more when they know how it works; and also because, once one understands how something operates, they are more aware of how to improve it. The process of breathing, although covered it in school, is not always covered in detail. Respiration, or ventilation, is the act of inhaling fresh air and exhaling stale air. It is an exchange. The purpose of respiration is to exchange carbon dioxide (CO2) for oxygen (O2), the former being poisonous, the latter good for us, hence the need to get rid of CO2 and get more O2 in the body. While you can go weeks without food and days without water or sleep, you cannot go a single day, let alone a minute, without air—that is how vital it is. Beneath the diaphragmatic-breathing-illustration.jpgsurface, the process of inhalation goes like this: Together, the diaphragm, located between the abdomen and thorax, or chest, and the intercostals, which are muscles between the ribs on either side of the lungs, contract, allowing the lungs to expand. A dome-shaped muscle, the diaphragm flattens out, and the intercostals move up and outward, expanding the total area in the chest. Near the neck and shoulders, the sternocleidomastoid (a real mouthful!) moves the clavicle—the collarbone—and sternum, in harmony with the scalenes, all of which contract upward, opening up the chest farther. Put together, both actions make room for the lungs to expand. The chest, increases, as do the lungs, whose inner pressure is exceeded by external pressure, causing a suction effect so that air is sucked in. Exhalation is the opposite: The diaphragm relaxes, and the interior intercostals go down and in with the abdominals and obliques, shrinking and thereby increasing the volume of the lungs, causing a reverse suction, where the higher concentration of air within the lungs is diffused outside, to the lower concentration. Like a rubber band, the lungs remain passive purify-lungs.jpgthroughout respiration. Instead of thinking of the lungs as actively sucking in air, it is better to think of them as passive bands that are either stretched or released. Lungs are big pink sponges, colored so because they are full of blood vessels, inflated so because full of pneumatic branches ending in alveoli, where air is stored. Extending from the collarbone to the diaphragm, they are both divided into lobes. The right has three lobes, the left only two since it leaves room for the heart. Pleural membranes surround the exterior of the lungs, coating them with a fluid to help them contract effortlessly and smoothly, accounting for friction during inhalation and exhalation. How does the air get from your mouth and nose to your lungs? Air passes from the nasal cavity and mouth to the pharynx, which is pretty much the throat, whereupon it goes down the larynx, better known as the voicebox—where your voice is produced—before moving down the trachea. Here, it comes to a fork, two bronchi, left and right, each extending into Unknown-1.jpegsecondary bronchi, then tertiary bronchi, and finally into bronchioles, at the ends of which are small sacs called alveoli. This section takes place in the lungs, and because they physically branch downward, resembling an upside-down tree, it is referred to as the “bronchial tree.” A flap of cartilage lies between the pharynx and larynx. It is the epiglottis, and when relaxed, it lies up against the throat, opening up the passage of air; however, when it contracts, such as when swallowing, it acts like a drawbridge, moving down over the larynx, blocking anything unwanted. The job of the epiglottis is to let only air pass. All of these muscles are involved in subconscious breathing. More muscles are activated during exercise, as Respiratory center 1.jpgextra help is needed to speed up the process. At the bottom of the brain, the respiratory center stimulates the diaphragm and intercostals based on CO2, O2, and muscle stretch receptors. Chemoreceptors in the brain test blood in the body, and if there is a lack of blood, they alert the medulla oblongata, which will tell the body to produce oxygen faster. As we know, much of breathing is subconsciously controlled, its rate and depth preset by the brain, and altered when necessary, but we also have voluntary control over it. At rest, we breathe about 12-15 times per minute, and twice or more that amount during exercise. About 17 fl. oz. (0.5L) of air are displaced by the diaphragm; when forced, 70 fl. oz. (2L), totaling 150 fl. oz. (4.5L) added up. The air we breathe is 78.6% Unknown-2.jpegnitrogen, 20.9% oxygen, 0.4% water, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and 0.06% other elements. Accordingly, a lot of nitrogen is taken in, more than is needed, yet a lot of it is safe for us, only posing a threat when we are underwater, because then it remains in bubble form, at which time it can get into our blood. Luckily, our system is made to take in the right amount of oxygen we need. Of our total lung capacity, only 10% is used subconsciously. We always have at least 35 fl. oz. (0.1L) of air leftover despite having a total capacity of 204 fl. oz. (5.8L), meaning we never exhale all the air in our lungs, even if we try our hardest. The average flow air in the breath is 18fl. oz. (0.5L), but we have a reserved capacity of extra air in case we need it.

Meditation and running are a great combination because the two complement each other. Both value the breath and call for relaxation, which in turn strengthens oneself. To practice the two together, it is advised that you run at “conversational pace,” which is a pace at which you can comfortably sustain a conversation with someone else and not feel out of breath. When breathing during this, you should breathe from the bottom up, not the top down as we instinctively do, for there are no alveoli in the upper lungs. Shallow breaths from the chest deprive you of oxygen since there is not sufficient gas TobiasMacpheeRunThroughGrass.jpgexchange involved. Slow breaths from the diaphragm, at the bottom of the chest, near the stomach, will help you stay energized, prevent cramps, and focus you. Another important tip is to make your exhale longer than your inhale. Inhalation leaves residue oxygen in the lungs, mind you, such that, every now and then, the leftover oxygen will interfere with your respiratory system, resulting in a cramp because the oxygen got in. This way, by exhaling longer than you inhale, you not only reduce the chance of getting a cramp, but you also get a deeper, rhythmic breathing cycle. In the traditional philosophy of Yoga—not modern day Yoga, with the stretches—the regulation of breath is called prāna vritti. Central to its teachings is prānāyāma, or expansion of the vital force, prāna being Sanskrit for breath or vital force, āyama vertical or horizontal pranayama-breathing-lessons-nadhi-shodhana.jpgexpansion. Yoga training in prānāyāma requires that you first master āsana, posture, before moving onto breathing, to the extent that proper breathing is only enacted after achieving proper posture. Āsana involves straightening the spine so you are erect, a straight line able to be drawn from head to hips; opening up the chest, allowing the lungs to expand naturally; pulling the shoulders back between the scapula, or shoulder blades, thus enlarging the chest activity; and relaxing the whole body, releasing all tension from the muscles. The spine represents Earth, the empty space in the torso Ether, respiration Air, and Water and Fire, being diametrically opposed, represent life force (prāna). Therefore, all of nature is manifest in the body as a sacred unity, a gathering of the Elements. Once āsana is practiced sufficiently, one can move onto prānāyāma, where one is instructed to apply attention to the breath. Sahita prānāyāma is one specific technique that involves inhaling (pūruka), retaining (kumbhaka), then exhaling (recaka), each of which is equally prolonged. As such, each stage should last as long as the others, usually held for a few seconds, lengthening by a second. You should sit either on a chair or on the ground in a comfortable position, get Unknown.jpeginto āsana, properly aligned, erect, and breathe in a few seconds, retain it for the same length, then exhale for the same time, and repeat. It is similar to “box breathing,” a technique used by Navy Seals, who inhale for four seconds, hold it for four, exhale for four, and wait before inhaling for four—perhaps it was based on the ancient practice of sahita prānāyāma. By thus controlling the breath, you give it a regular rhythm. According to Yogic texts, there are five breaths: 1.) Prāna, which extends from the toe to the heart to the nose 2.) Apāna, which extends from the throat to the ribs 3.) Samāna, which extends from the digestion system to the joints to the navel 4.) Udāna, which is in the skull and eyebrows and 5.) Vyāna, which occupies the circulation of the breath, distributing the life force throughout the body. The aim hereof is to slow the breath as though you are asleep, when your mind goes adrift, wavering, and you can see into the absolute state of consciousness, “continued consciousness.” Just as we instinctively, subconsciously take shallow breaths as a habit, so we must learn to turn controlled, rhythmic breathing into a subconscious, instinctive habit. Through our days, we should be able to notice that we are breathing deeply and steadily by habit and therefore by instinct, rather than as we normally do it, subconsciously.

Other traditions, too, outside of Indian philosophy, practice extension of the breath. The Chinese philosophy of Taoism, in T’ai Chi, has a practice called “embryonic respiration,” whereby the breath is sustained for the goal of a longer life, ch’ang shen. It was thought that the breath gave the power of the immortality; if one could hold one’s breath for 1,000 seconds, they would become immortal. Obviously, the breath was taken very seriously, and it was trained rigorously. Other benefits of the breath were believed to be the ability to walk on fire, to not drown, and to cure sickness by expelling bad humors and airs. Islam and Hesychasm in the East also have breathing practices. Sufis say Dhikr, a kind of devotional prayer that is immensely private and isolated, always involving the Unknown-1.jpegbreath. Ancient Greek philosophy held air to be vital as well. One of the first philosophers, the pre-Socratic Anaximenes, held that the arche (αρχἠ) of the world, the single element from which the Cosmos and everything in it was made, was Air. A monist, he like Thales and Anaximander believed a single element was the basis of reality. Air, he taught, was concentrated in the breath, which functioned as man’s psyche (ψυχἠ), or soul/spirit, whence came “psychology.” Although its origin is widely debated, the saying of “Bless you” has been proposed to have come from an Anaximenes-influenced Ancient Greece: A sneeze was thought to expel the breath, which was synonymous with the soul, so people would say “Bless you” to keep the soul inside the body. A couple centuries later, the Stoics posited the existence of two principles in Nature, one passive, the other active. Pneuma (πνεῦμα), translated as breath, was conceived to be the active principle, a sort of fiery air immixed in the breath that pervaded reality. From it, we get words like “pneumatic” and “pneumonia,” all relating to the breath.

Unknown-2.jpegToday, the breath is becoming the center of attention again in modern mindfulness practices. It is well known that oxygenation has tons of health benefits, such as lowering stress, improving one’s clarity and moods, removing negative thoughts, and grounding oneself in the present.[1] Buddhist writers often identify the breath as an “anchor,” something to which to return when distracted, to shift to in order to be present, to consult when invaded by thoughts. Some of the thinking is: If you can notice, appreciate, and love something so small, precious, and minute as the breath, then you can surely extend that attention and love to everything else in life, big or small. In other words, if you can appreciate the simplicity of the breath, then you can also appreciate, for example, the simplicity of a tree, or the smell of the coffee you make every morning, adding a depth to everyday life, an added layer of meaning. Both Buddhists’ and Zen Buddhists’ central teaching regarding the breath is to notice. You just have to acknowledge at any moment, “I am breathing”—nothing else. To stop in the middle of the day, halting whatever you are doing, and notice the breath, to just know and be conscious of the breath is to appreciate it, considering we move through our days like automatons without ever giving notice to our unsung breaths, without which we could not live. During mindfulness meditation, the goal is to feel the breath, passively, observantly, unobtrusively. The feeling of the breath as you inhale and exhale, as it comes in through your nose, down your throat, down the bronchial tree, and out the mouth—this is to what we must pay attention. A particular Zen practice calls for beginning practitioners to count the breath, by counting breath5.jpgthe in’s and out’s, only the in’s, or only the out’s. Whichever you choose, it is advised that you count up to a number like 10 before restarting; and eventually, once the count is ingrained enough, having been trained multiple times, you will not have to say it out loud or mentally voice it—your breath will naturally fall into rhythm. Conclusively, what can be said is this: That while both Yoga and Buddhism attribute great importance to the breath, they differ in their approaches to it, Yoga’s being to control the breath, to apply rhythm, to attune the breath voluntarily; Buddhism’s being to notice the breath, to watch Unknown-4.jpegit, to fully and intentionally be present with it; one is active, the other passive in its method. Nature is the perfect place to be mindful of the breath. Simply stand, the sun shining down on you, leaves blowing around, and be mindful of the fact that as you exchange CO2 and O2, you are actively engaging with the trees around in a mutual exchange, symbiotic, one giving life to the other, perpetuating, giving existence to one another. You, the trees, and the animals and wildlife are all interconnected, sharing the eternal breath.

Personally, when I do mindfulness meditation, despite having read about the importance of the breath, I never feel anything special, never get what they mean by “appreciating the breath,” no matter how much I try, always trying to “feel” the breath as I inhale, then losing it as it moves past the nasal cavity, wondering where it went, then exhaling through my mouth, monotonous, uninteresting, without any specific feeling. Hence, I usually focus on using my senses rather than focusing on the breath. However, recently I discovered that an appreciation of the breath through mindfulness can be achieved in another way, one more suited to my subjective tastes, when I can truly be alone with it and feel its benefits:

Unknown-5.jpegIt was 78ºF on a Saturday morning, unbearably hot for a weekend in January, and I was with my fellow runners at track practice. We were all exhausted. We had only just warmed up, yet we were already sweating, all of us taking off our jackets and sweats and putting them on the turf. Our coach gathered us, back to the sun, and announced fatalistically, “You will be doing 5×300’s, Varsity at a 48-second pace. This is going to be the hardest workout all season, and they will only get easier after this.” As soon as he said 5×300’s, my heart sank, my eyes widened, and my jaw nearly dropped, and I could feel my teammates collectively doing the same. Anyone who is a short-distance sprinter specializing in the 100m will know how dreadful 300’s are—how they strike fear into your soul, unforgiving, excruciating, unfeeling, merciless. Only 100 meters less than the 400m and 100 meters more than the 200m, they are a terrible, formidable middle state, a Purgatory between two Hells. This said, the senior and freshman runners alike were mortally terrified. Having no choice in the matter, though, we approached the track, with heads down and a shuffling gait, unwilling—or was it unable?—to face the track, to look it head on. We were divided into groups of about six to 10 runners, and I was placed in the first heat, with the seniors and juniors, who had to run them at a 48 second pace, which cheered me up a bit seeing as it was the time one got on a regular 400m, but it also meant I had to run 48 seconds, too. Staggering on the track, we got into our lines, bent our legs, got low, surveyed the track, taking in the great distance we had to traverse, contemplated the suffering we would endure, and hoped for the best, forcing out a final breath of repose. Coach said “Go,” stopwatch in hand, and we were off. I followed closely behind the Unknown.pngjuniors, like a dog does its owner, careful not to lose them, not to fall back with the others who were behind, as I wanted to push myself. The sun was beating down on us, and my body was pushing to keep up with them as we turned the bend, straightening out, until it was me and three other runners leading the pack, behind us a few others. When we finished our first rep, I was relieved. It was not too bad; we were running at a pace I likened to a fast jog, the kind of pace at which you go for a casual mile, but with more haste. Those who came up the rear were breathing hard. That morning, before coming to practice, I had completed a 20-minute meditation in which I tried to focus on my breath and my breath alone. As I confessed, it did not work so well, and I could not for the life of me stay with my breath. There and then, though, standing arms akimbo on the grass, sweat across my forehead, legs heavy, I found solace in my breath. In contrast to the rapid, shallow breathing of my teammates, I walked around calmly, breathing slowly and intentionally, in and out, not from the top of my lungs, but the bottom, from the diaphragm, which made all the difference. Because of this, there was a noticeable difference. I was much more collected. With this in mind, I headed over to the starting line again, ready for rep two, eager to try a new strategy: When I ran, I would focus only on the breath, like I was supposed to during meditation. This next ran, I told myself, was not a run at all, but another meditation session, a practice of mindfulness—mindful sprinting. My thinking instilled within me a kind of vitalization, a readiness for pain, whereas the other runners came up sluggishly, not looking forward to this next rep. Instead of viewing the track as a stumbling block, I viewed it as a hurdle (no pun intended), something to overcome, over which to jump, and thus from which to grow. The sprint was an opportunity, not a punishment. We lined up again after the last heat finished. Once more staggered, we heard “Go,” and we went. Familiar with the pacing, I set myself behind the juniors and kept close to them, careful not to speed up at the bend, but to relax. I breathed as though I were not running, but sitting still, meditating, still Unknown.jpegbreathing from the diaphragm and exhaling through my mouth. The first 100m was not hard, nor was the second. It was always the third which was hardest. My friend, who had up until then been running at my hip, had fallen behind on the second leg, his legs too tired, his breath too short, to keep up. This was the final straightaway. Lactic acid had built up in my legs, making them heavy, so that just raising my leg took most of my effort. I thought of what my Coach had told me, namely that I needed to keep my knees high, especially at the end; so I turned my attention to my breath. Unlike pain, unlike tiredness, the breath is not transitory, but is permanent, constant, unchanging, eternal, a dependable cycle of air, of vitality, which coursed through my body, an unending cycle, infinite, and it entered into the foreground, while the rest of my attention faded into the background, even the track, even my periphery, even the pain I felt in my legs, even the pressure in my chest, even the sweat dripping as I ran—it all went away, impermanent, mere sensations, perceptions, which could easily have been illusory, as opposed to the breath, whereof I was most certain at that time—Respiro, ergo sum—the only certainty, the only object of which I was conscious, to which I was willing to devote my attention, and so it felt as if my mind and breath were alone, two objects painted into an empty wind_breath.jpgcanvas, my thoughts and my breath, both transcendent and immortal, real, unlike pain, which felt unreal at the time, and the track was the dependent variable, my breath the independent variable, the distance equal to the pace and the infinite Now, the passing away of time into seconds as my legs carried me forward, knees high, arms pumping cheek-to-cheek, my breath still constant, till I was nearing the end, feeling great, triumphant, and suddenly all the sensations dawned on me, but they did not matter, not the pain, not the feeling in my lungs as I watched my running shadow on the track, so I did not feel alone with my breath, whereupon I saw the finish line, and, pushing one last time, made it to the finish line. As I peeled off to the side to make room for the others, I interlaced my fingers and put my arms over my head, opening my chest to make my breathing easier, more controlled, while the others were out of breath.  

[1] A simple search will bear hundreds of results if you want to read more. Here are two: 18 Benefits and 21 Benefits


For further reading: 
Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham (2012)
Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar (1996)
Mindfulness & the Natural World 
by Claire Thompson (2013)
Encyclopedia of the Human Body 
by Richard Walker (2002)
Wherever You Go, There You
Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
by Mircea Eliade (1958)
The Complete Human Body 
by Dr. Alice Roberts (2010)
The Greek Thinkers 
Vol. 1 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
Philosophies of India 
by Heinrich Zimmer (1951)
Coming to Our Senses
 by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
The Human Body Book 
by Steve Parker (2007)
by Joseph Goldstein (2016)

Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida (1985)
Chi Running by Danny Dreyer (2004)



The Media, Democracy, and the Public Sphere [2 of 2]

Unknown.jpegClick here to read part 1 if you have not already (and makes sure to leave a like)!

Today’s technology-driven world is also system-dominated. A system is any division of labor paired with productive forces and knowledge, thinks Habermas. Systems operate through instrumental reason, or ends-means rationality. The ends justify the means. Organization and the state, accordingly, can manipulate the public with publicity, diverting their attention. The government tends to focus on technical problems, replacing democracy with bureaucracy, resulting in a democratic deficit, where principles of equality and consent of the governed lose their importance to Habermas’ “technocratic consciousness,” a state of mind brought forth by increasing specialization handled by authorities, experts, and professionals, each of whom spreads propaganda under technical jargon, claiming to be “fixing” some new problem. These technical problems are those to which social, pragmatic, pressing, and vital problems are subordinated. Technological ideology is not delusionalper se, as other ideologies are, such that their believers are under an illusion, misguided and mislead, although it is ubiquitous, as other ideologies are, infectious, spreading like wildfire. As such, the technical dominates the practical, removing thereby personal ethics. When a decision is made, its ethical dimensions are not considered; it is an ends-means instrumentality. Simply put, technology is self-determinative in terms of its values, which makes it a threat to democracy (in excess, of course, as technology is not intrinsically bad).

Unknown.pngThe commercialization of the press has led to the death of intellectual journalism. Drama takes precedence over detail, personality over policy. During the election, the press notably focused less on the actual and real issues and more on the candidates themselves. Rational discussion was thereby taken from the people, from whence they were distracted. Back in the 18th century, the bourgeois educated middle class read the newspaper daily, then went to the salon to discuss it with their peers. Now, the newspaper is still read daily, although not to the same extent. Consumers watch TV for hours every day, without ever exchanging discourse. Listening to the radio, watching TV, we cannot “disagree” with the media, in a sense, because it “takes away distance,” to use one of Habermas’ phrase, by which he means that we are so close to the media, that we cannot engage with it, we cannot talk face-to-face with the television or the interviewer or host who is speaking, but are forced to sit there, inactive, passive, taking it in, unable to respond critically. “The public Unknown-1.jpegsphere,” notes Habermas, “becomes the sphere for the publicizing of private biographies.”[1] News, publicity, focuses on celebrities, scandals, and politicians. It dramatizes everything they do, reporting it as news, using names to attract and tempt us, making a story out of anything they can get, in order to profit off of it. Rather than examine the policies and character of a person, the news analyzes their personal life. Habermas reflects ironically on the fact that, in the 19th century, ads in the press were considered dishonest, so they took up only 1/20 (0.05%) of the page. —How things have changed!— Take a look at any newspaper, even a respectable one, and behold how the whole page is practically take over by ads! Editorials are advertised and lose their meaning.  Advertisement gives a sales pitch, clear as day, but PR is more dangerous than advertisement because it exploits the public with attention-grabbing publicity, taking cover beneath the protection of the press.

Moreover, newspapers are dumbed-down. Publishers play around with type and font, adding flashy images and illustrations that distract from it, Habermas points out. The supervisors, just figureheads for their representative companies, get to control which topics are covered, scrapping any of which they disapprove. They “serv[e] up the material as ready-made convenience, patterned and predigested. Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; Unknown-1.pngcritical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning selection and presentation of the material.”[2] Debate, once a byproduct of the press, is itself commodified, restricted by formalities, aired to be watched without intervention or follow-up discussion. For this reason, debates are reduced to mere “personal incompatibilities,” trifles, minor disagreements, surrendering itself to the rampant relativism of the 21st century. In newspapers, “delayed-reward news,” valuable and informative, is vanishing, in its place “immediate-reward news,” which is tainted with too many clichés, touched up with drama, and made to sparkle with hyperbole, such that “the rigorous distinction between fact and fiction is ever more frequently abandoned.”[3]

By commercializing the press, the rich manage to hold onto power. They use propaganda to limit democracy. Playing the victim card, they complain that the wealthy minority are under attack from the powerless, uneducated minority. To combat the democratic instinct, they push for the “indoctrination of the youth,” a phrase actually used in official documents, emphasized by American philosopher Noam Chomsky (1928-) in his A images.jpegRequiem for the American Dream (2016) to critique the abuses of the media. Institutions like schools were told to be more strict in their requirements, to create criteria for education to brainwash children. The term “brainwashing” probably conjures up connotations of conspiracy; the fact is, brainwashing is very real, and very common, a technique mastered to influence people. Institutions try to limit free-thought, in hopes of making everyone conform to a single cutout. To cite an example, Chomsky refers to the Trilateral Commissions, an organization which, responding to the 1960’s, attempted to develop a “proper” society. There was purportedly “too much democracy,” so they needed to keep the masses in check, making people conform, passive, unquestioning. In post-Cambodia U.S. in the ‘70’s, local common spaces like the library and debate hall were closed off in universities to discourage critical discussion. In other words, the government attempted to shut down the public sphere, to prevent any criticisms of the state. Anyone who critiques the government, usually the educated minority of intellectuals, who impugns the media, is denounced as “anti-American,” a term which Chomsky traces to totalitarian regimes. To reduce criticisms of “concentrated power” (the state + corporations), the government discourages critical talk, alienating them, calling them traitors to the state, much as the Soviet Union did. Journalism was stifled. The public sphere cannot engage critically or rationally.

Famously, Chomsky said, “Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism.”[4] PR, then, is a method of cracking down on dissent, be it violent or nonviolent—a means of silencing and enforcing strict rules. Propaganda is more dangerous than censorship, he argues, because it, like PR, parades around as the public sphere, but is actually deceptive and misleading. Propaganda is brainwashing. This Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 6.35.01 PM.pngdevelopment of PR and of propaganda stems from Edward Bernays, who coined the phrase “engineering consent,” a concept studied in depth by both Chomsky and Habermas. Bernays created what one official called “consent without consent,” because with the work of Bernays, PR was able to make decisions for people. As Chomsky relates from David Hume, power lies in the hands of the people; but if the people are made to think they have none, they will be powerless, and the government powerful. So the government exploits this. Fabricated consumption, a Veblen-esque term used by Chomsky, refers to the consumer culture of today, a culture in which we are told we need things, rather than want them. The media everywhere shouts, “Look at me!” “Buy this product!” Consumption is both uninformed and irrational, when it is supposed to be informed and rational! Evidently, all this has played a role in the 2016 Election. Rather presciently, Habermas writes that, with the decline of the critical public, those who do not ordinarily vote are swayed “by the staged or manipulatively manufactured public sphere of the election campaign”—notice the use of the word “manufactured.”[5] The presidential candidates were portrayed in a certain manner on purpose, because the corporations who owned them leaned in a certain direction. Unknown.pngBecause the media was biased and commercially influenced, it created a terrible environment, where discussion could not be grown, but rather created a desert, where no plants could grow, since there was no water, so they perished. Discussion was neither informed nor rational. Even if there were rational discussions, they were not factual, for the media reported no facts upon which to base them. This kind of political climate is poisonous, and offers no room for critical debate. “[A]n acclimation-prone mood comes to predominate, an opinion climate instead of public opinion,” declares Habermas; i.e., there is no talk about policy or the positions of the candidates; all there was was empty declarations like, “I’m voting for blah blah,” and “I’m pro so and so,” utterly devoid of thoughtfulness or decision.[6]

The decline of the public sphere and the commercialization of the media is no new concept, even here in the U.S. In the year 1934, the first Communications Act was passed, which formally established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This Unknown-1.pngorganization was created to handle media concerns, its service to the public interest. Then, in 1949, the controversial Fairness Doctrine was passed, a policy that required all media focus on pertinent, controversial topics and give equal airtime to opposing viewpoints, so as to allow for fair, balanced reporting based on facts, promoting discussions between parties, not just parochial, sectarian biases that supported one side, saying bad things about the other. In instating this, the FCC wanted to foster rational discussions, where both sides could be heard, and then citizens could make up their minds, instead of just listening to one and forming their decision without a second thought. With the Fairness Doctrine, the pros and cons could be heard and rationalized, challenged and defended. There would be less party polarization as a result—a problem we face very much today. The problem of the policy’s constitutionality arose, and it was challenged for impinging on First Amendment rights, so it was repealed in 1987, and formally eliminated in 2011. In 1975, the Cross-ownership Rules were passed by the FCC to “[set] limits on the number of broadcast stations — radio and TV — an entity can own, as well as limits on the common Unknown.jpegownership of broadcast stations and newspapers.”[7] These rules stipulated that a company could not own multiple mediums. Regulation of ownership was first defined thus. Giving equal voice to all media, the FCC made these rules to reduce and prevent media consolidation—the process in which big companies, or conglomerates, buy out other media companies, and thus hold legal and economic ownership of them. Like Chomsky, the FCC wanted to stop concentration of power. This set of rules appears to be a victory for the public sphere; unfortunately, it did not last long, and tragedy struck when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was made active. Suddenly, the FCC repealed ownership regulations—hence, they deregulated the media—allowing for more companies to merge together and consolidate. From 2003-7, slowly but surely, the media was increasingly deregulated. Eventually, the Cross-ownership Rules of 1975 were null. Private concentration opened up. One of the terms stated that “whether a channel actually contains news is no longer considered in counting the percentage of a medium owned by one owner.” Companies could now hold 45% of the media market, as opposed 2Mp7dD3HM1Q7Q4QSc5zTjUym.jpegto the previous 25% in 1985.[8] This, the rise of oligopoly. By 1985, 50 companies controlled the media. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, over a course of several years, the number dropped infamously to five (or six, depending on the source) companies: Comcast, The Walt Disney Company, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, and CBS/Viacom. Most recently, many an American has prophesied the “death of the Internet” as a result of a decision that took place on December 24, 2017: The FCC, after a long fight, repealed Net Neutrality. Why is it regarded as the death of a free Internet?—Because big corporations, such as Comcast, can now control data as they please. It used to be that data carriers equally distributed connection, but now, with it repealed, just like the Cross-ownership Rules, oligopoly can now thrive, meaning big companies control the market, stamping out smaller competitors, all in the name of money.

Unknown-1.jpegAnd what of fake news? What is it, and what implications has it for democracy and the public sphere? Fake news is defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”[9] Put another way, fake news is erroneous, nonfactual information based on getting attention, often with the use of shock to attract people. It conceals its falsehood under the “guise,” or cover, of “news reporting”; it uses the authority of the media to pull of its stunts. This is an existential threat to democracy for several reasons. First, it deceives the public. The public relies on the media to get information, but the press supplies them with none—or rather, it does, but it misinforms them, about everything, seeing as it is fake. Second, it besmirches the reputation of the media. Each time we read fake news and catch it, we lose more and more trust in the media, because we know we cannot believe a word it says. Considering there are good, factual, respectable presses out there, this is disadvantageous because it means that the preponderance of fake news seems to overcompensate for the good news out there, meaning media in general loses its credible character. Third, fake news does not make for critical discussion. If it is fake, then it is not factual, and if it has no facts, no logic, then it cannot be rational in any capacity.  Fourth, it signals the collapse of the public sphere and the recrudescence of feudalism, devoid of any criticism.

Unknown-2.pngIn a study done by Media Matters, Facebook was found to be one of the leading sources behind fake news circulation. Due to its algorithms, Facebook works like this: The more likes or views an article gets, the more it circulates, the more it spreads. The circulation of news is an active engagement; the more we interact with it, the more it interacts with us. Like a hot agent, the more it spreads, the more hosts it enters, which, in turn, spread it more, multiplying exponentially. Just clicking on the article, just coming into contact with it—this tells the system to send it to more people. The code says, “Oh! this must be popular, seeing as many people are clicking it; I’m sure everyone else will like it…,” and so sends it to more and more people, who then send it further. Worst of all is the fact that fake news is not ideological but commercial. Fake news is not necessarily for promoting a party, supporting one candidate intrinsically; rather, it is all for money, not surprisingly. One might find this fact hard to believe, as there were countless pro-Trump or pro-Hillary (and vice versa, anti-) articles. But the fact is, these fake articles that spread rumors or intentionally provocative comments are advertised not to gain support for either candidate, but to pander to their supporters, and so to make money. Yes, the advertisements were sent to respective supporters, but it was not to help them grow, but to, by the very essence of the article, make them click on it, thus making them money. It is not unknown that Facebook sells private information about its users. Millions of private accounts have their information sold to companies for large sums of money. Once the companies have our private information, they can manipulate us; they can manufacture our consent. If I were to put on my account that I supported a particular candidate, and if my information, which is kept private, concealed from public view, were to be sold to a company, then they could look at my profile, see who it is I support, and send me advertisements and articles supporting that candidate, or denouncing the other candidate, and I would not be able to resist: After all, we love to engage our subconscious biases. Any contrary information strengthens our resistance. Large companies, then, do us a disservice, pandering to us, selling us what we already like and  know, entrenching us in our beliefs, leading to confirmation bias, ultimately making 72li89phdx1y.pngthem lots and lots of money. Facebook has ads absolutely everywhere. Hence, they make money off of us. Going back to the threat of fake news, the biggest problem is its evolution. Originally, fake news used to be intentionally false, provocative, and contentious, designed to make its readers drawn to it, interested in finding out about the latest scandals, even if they were believable or not, obviously fake, with the purpose of entertaining. An example would be some kind of conspiracy, like “Hitler still alive in secret bunker in Africa.” This is “sensational” news. Fake news is now a disguised predator, a sheep in wolf’s clothing, preying on us gullible readers, presenting itself as real, authentic news. See, whereas sensational news was meant to be explicitly entertaining and false, fake news is more believable than it used to, meant to mimic real news, to pull us in with facts; it looks real, but is deceptive, too good to be true. Taking up the mask of real, credible news sources—which, notwithstanding, are fake—these sites adopt media names, like “San Francisco Chronicle Gazette” or “Denver Guardian.” The president of Media Matters, Angelo Carusone, remarks, “These sites actually capitalize on people’s inherent trust in the news media.”[10]

We pride ourselves on our democratic freedoms of speech and press, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Today is the age wherein left becomes right, up down, and right wrong, when everything we have come to know is flipped upside down, every fact we have accepted needing to be checked, then re-checked, just to make sure it is not images.jpeg“fake.” Such is the time we occupy. We cannot trust our media. There is a fundamental lack of discussion. Silent, powerless yet powerful, we have the power to make a change, if we want to. I am sure none of us would like to live in a country where the media purposefully obscures the news, covering up the government’s actions, adding glitter to it, to keep it from appearing as it is. And yet, we live in one. It is not so distant from a totalitarian state as we might think. Chomsky thought Orwell would be impressed, impressed beyond horror, at the extent to which we as a civilization have abandoned truth and honesty in our coverage of the government. The public sphere as we have come to know it, has faltered, trampled beneath our feet, like a clerk on Black Friday, as we insatiable consumers burst through the doors, indiscriminate, hungry, willing to feast on whatever is presented before us on a fancy platter. Bibs fastened around our necks, knives and forks tight in our fists, we voluntarily feast on the shiny and tasty-looking desserts placed in front of us, instead of eating our vegetables, salutary, good for us, though not as inviting. We have failed the public sphere. Rational discourse has been abandoned. But if we take the time to talk with one another, engage in discussion, and do our research, reading up on the latest news, attentive, then we can bring back honest, intellectual journalism. We must make our communication authentic.


[1] Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 171
[2] Id., p. 169
[3] Id., p. 170
[4] Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, “The Manufacture of Consent (1984),” p. 136
[5] Habermas, op. cit., p. 214
[6] Id., p. 217
[9] (9m10s)
[10] Id., (9m18s)

For further information:
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jürgen Habermas (1991)
Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas by David Held (1980)
The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory 
by David Macey (2000)

Chomsky on Democracy & Education by Noam Chomsky (2003)
A Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky (2017)
Dictionary of Sociology by Nicholas Abercrombie (2006)
The Chomsky Reader
by Noam Chomsky (1987)

Social Imaginaries by Charles Taylor (2005)
Media Cross-ownership
Consolidation of Media

Facebook and Fake News