Your Ataraxia is Disquieting3

Even amongst aretic thinkers as divergent as the Stoics and Epicureans, the linchpin to their philosophies is the pursuit of happiness. Where they differ is what happiness is, and hence the phronetic comportment to its achievement. Each in turn will speak to the virtues of the good life and their appropriation. Not at all unlike Nietzsche! Surprised? Well don’t get too excited before we knock down some artefacts of uncongenial thinking. Virtues are those of strength not humility, or weakness and the like, and the means of their appropriation are devised through a delicate but painful process of deconstruction, forcefully destructive, and aims not at happiness as any of these Greek philosophers imagined it. Instead the “happy life” is not one of “good sense”, but valorized, heroic conduct amidst all that is impenetrably unattainable. Wretched is that seductress ‘causality’ that would feign the life of happiness as one aimed to nullify externalities of no consequent or beyond our hailing hand. Such is it to confuse the cause with the effect, Nietzsche poignantly pointed out. It is not that a life, a good life, cannot withstand such annotations, but rather that having already been impoverished by the mechanization of life via nay sayers and the corruptors of life, that the virtues of humility and the like are adopted. The “original sin of reason” which is a case of the error of cause and effect is put to work to explain this phenomenon. Though this is the stranglehold of religious and moral paradigms, it is illustrated concisely in the example of Cornaro’s diet. Nietzsche says:

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It is not the diet, as assumed by Readership of Cornaro’s illustration, that is the cause of good health, but rather an underlying condition that caused or, otherwise, gave rise to the success of this diet, and hence the longevity of this man. The parallel to morality runs the usual aretic formula to the ground, whereby tis not the virtues that are understood to lead (cause) to the good life, but rather a degenerate state of being  – weak, compromised – that has caused, given rise to, the propagation of these virtues and hence the good life. Virtue is not the consequence of happiness, but ‘happiness’ the consequent of virtue. In his own words: “Instead, virtue [as it came to be construed] is itself that slowing down of the metabolism which among other things also brings a long life, numerous progeny, in short Cornarism in its wake.—The church and morality say: ‘a race, a people is destroyed by vice and extravagance.’ My restored reason says: if a people is destroyed, if it physiologically degenerates, then this is followed by vice and extravagance (i.e. the need for ever stronger and more frequent stimuli, familiar to every exhausted type). This young man grows prematurely pale and listless. His friends say: such and such an illness is to blame. I say: the fact that he fell ill, the fact that he could not withstand the illness, was already the consequence of an impoverished life, of hereditary exhaustion.” (Twilight of the Idols, The Four Great Errors – my italics).

In his Genealogy Nietzsche traces the origin of morality not in an attempt to get behind the contextual framework that is constitutive of all human understanding, but rather to identify those frameworks that have come to be constitutive of that very framework but which sneaked in, and were thereby ordained as the bestowers of life itself. They came to have a life of their own, not of the doing of humankind, but of some Omnipotent Power that deifies these; humankind is thereby tussled from her thrown and the Lord’s drones follow in her stead. It is now Goodness itself, or the verse of Nature herself, that define aspirations worthy of any man deserving of happiness.

Specifically, Nietzsche says of the Stoics, in Beyond Good and Evil:

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Taking a hammer to this paradigm of thinking, Nietzsche identifies the basic tenet of Stoicism in a longing to cement the good life in living according to Nature, as if there is a determined way and reliable manner in which to ascertain that way. Nietzsche rejects both the naturalism and the rationalism of the Stoics, as I have sketched above. He calls them ‘self-deluders” because they read their philosophy into an understanding of nature allowing themselves to be tyrannized through the oppression of the otherwise natural proclivity for power, by tailoring the passions for a life free of anything “unnecessarily” disquieting. Of course, the general accusation applies to all moralized paradigms which, he says, ‘as soon as ever a philosophy comes to believe in itself, it always creates the world in its own image’. Allowing oneself to rest content with any perspective of the world involves, in some shape or form, the deification or the objectification or ossification of that perspective as if it were to speak now and for always for all things! And yet, this is only to delude oneself that the world is how it has been shaped by the mind; and though everything is interpretation (beware those who sit in smug assurances of their perspective! 🙂 ) and hence there is no getting behind or before it, one can adopt an attitude of the diagnostician (for some reason “House” comes to mind both in his method and demeanour – “everybody lies” mostly, delusionally to themselves – looking at all perspectives, from multiple angles – psychological, symptomatic/physiological, social) who looks unnervingly, and unrelentingly from multiple perspectives searching for motives that huddle over pre-conceived perspectives, hammering away at assumptions, presuppositions, and everything that might cunningly conceal these from view (language, habits, fears, desires). The process is itself a state of unrest, of ataraxia, that requires courage for ‘in all desire for knowledge there is a drop of cruelty’.

So you say, “unhinge me”, Pirocacos! Stoics might retort that I have misconstrued and misrepresented the philosophy of their forefathers in that living a eudaimonic life free from unnecessary and irrational preoccupations does not speak to indifference, a rather inhumane attitude to invest in after all. It is rather in acknowledging the causal workings of the universe through attentive rational scrutiny that one is well positioned to deal with unrealized goals, negotiate misfortunes, and endure ensuing suffering. The point is that there is a rational order to the unfolding of Nature that one is well advised to address when engaged in the practice of living life. After all we do live in this natural world and it is constitutive of laws of nature (you wouldn’t cajole someone to jump from the 6th floor because it is the fastest route to the College cafe because you know that he’d meet with his death!) and causal forces that one can with varying degree of probability determine in order to better secure the ends. Of course, as I hope I have in outline already made clear, this is to miss the point.

So though the process of deconstruction may appear neurotic and outwardly in disarray, in fact, it is only so perceived by the ill-tempered with a mind to what is apprehended by ageless paradigms and/or those that one holds dear to their heart!

Your Ataraxia is Disquieting2

So here I am already 4 days late attending to Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols. Strangely I find solace in both these authors despite the contrariety of their underlying philosophies. Happiness, said Socrates, is the end of all human activity; no one would, as it were, ever pursue her own unhappiness. Indeed, this is what set him on his track to that all-too-unfortunate qua Nietzsche triadic arrangement: virtue=knowledge=happiness. For if Socrates is astute in this aforementioned assertion, then engaging in actions, and/or adopting beliefs, that run the pursuit of happiness aground cannot be performed in full cognizance. Knowing that causing harm to others inadvertently harms oneself and hence jeopardizes one’s own happiness, one would not betray, deceive, humiliate, rob, demoralize, exploit others. So members of the 30 Tyrants must assuredly have acted from ignorance, or at the very least involuntarily. A life of happiness would then be a life epistemically charged. Everything is riding on acquiring knowledge. But knowledge of what exactly? Well, knowledge of what it is to live a virtuous life dummie! 😉 Stoic philosophy would have no qualms embracing this general position. But in my estimation it is here that they part ways, for Socraticism (dare I call it that!) makes good use of the role of reason but to my knowledge this rests not in any attribution to the workings of the world or the natural order of things. Indeed, despite Nietzsche’s ad hominem attack on the man in The Problem of Socrates, his ambivalence, noted as early as Walter Kaufman’s 1974 seminal work Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press 1974), suggests at least the possibility of other features at work in this text. (FYI: In my book The Pedagogic Mission: An Engagement With Ancient Greek Philosophical Practices, much is said to distance Socrates from that monochromatic view of rational deliberative inquiry. Link here: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739126530/The-Pedagogic-Mission-An-Engagement-with-Ancient-Greek-Philosophical-Practices) I would submit that Nietzsche acknowledges in Socrates the spirit of the overman, albeit trapped by an unfortunate state of circumstance that would have him riding in on his white horse flagging reason as the great emancipator from the elusive hegemonic trail of false idols.

Socrates ennobilzed reason and thereby made a tyrant of her. She stepped in as if to nullify the power of the instincts that threaten to unhinge everything at its joints! What chaos! What disorder! What disharmony! What vicious self-annihilating force is this?! For once unleashed there is no limit to what the human spirit might discover!! Decadence everywhere! HA! Did the Socrateses and Platos think that they could just trot in and deliver humankind from herself and not thereby lose humanity in the process?!

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“Happiness equals instinct”!? And yet everything we seem to now “know” of the Greeks – from Socrates to Plato, Plato to Aristotle, Aristotle to the Stoics – aims to expunge the instincts, and with reason as our guide, arrive at a proper understanding of “things” and a will unhampered by the seductiveness of the passions to frame that eudaimonic life we all aspire to!

Nietzsche, the agitator of reason, was not also unreasonable, nor irrational as such. He resented Socrates, or perhaps this ill-framed variety of Socraticism (which he too in part is responsible for popularizing), for exaggeration. For Nietzsche defamed Socrates not only for his aesthetic profanity (so ugly was he, that he was an insult to the good taste of the gods! :)) but for levelling humankind in the service of that counter-tyrant, reason. He says of Socrates:

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My Twitter handle is no accident – gignolatry – and hence my opposition to ontolatry is real ( 😉 ). In Reason in Philosophy, Nietzsche is emphatic and decorative in his descriptors of ontolatries. He says:

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‘Being is that empty fiction’, which even Heraclitus, knew too well was the imposition of the mind on what was evinced rawly by the senses. The fable of the essentialists comes in four basic propositions. Now I won’t be able to elaborate these here, for each requires special attention to distinct parts of his philosophy, but enough can be said to counter the Epictetean position with which I began. So what are these propositions? Here they are from the man himself:

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Plato with utmost clarity (well maybe not that clear!) has distinguished the Sensible World from the Intelligible World, and though numerous arguments are offered, a couple are well known and clearly on Nietzsche’s mind. The sensible world is one with which we are acquainted through our senses, and since the objects of this world are changing and ephemeral, it stands to reason ( 😉 ) that these appearances cannot tell us how it is to truly be a chair, or doorknob or anything else. After all, the colour, distinct markings, spatial-temporal locale, are particular to a “thing” but not to its kind. Hence, it follows, that these items do not speak to how things themselves are, but only to accidental occurrences or contingencies. But it is equally true that sensory perception is prone to run wildly off course given the attachment of the ear, of the eyes, of touch to circumstance, to the particular, itself also unshielded from common error (e.g. an item seen from afar looks small until seen up close). So what happens to the world of things upon exit? Plato (and others) would contend evaporation! Poof, they disappear! Quite literally, the “characteristics that have been given to the true Being of things are of non-Being”. Namely, these characteristics don’t exist, are not to be found anywhere, and hence essentially ( 😉 ) are concocted from the imagination of man! A fable worth telling again and again for care of human endeavors that might cash in on aspiring to live for a world uninhibited by ephemeral preoccupations and fleeting (HA!) objects of hedonic value.

A world concocted is a world that simply does not exist, and tis a fable told to suppress and contain the human spirit unadulterated by confusions interspersed by impositions of the mind. And yet, Nietzsche, often misunderstood, does not address the instincts as wildly out of control, drawn indiscriminately in any direction as a dog is to a bitch in heat! NO! Nietzsche speaks to how one might “spiritualize, beautify, deify a desire”. Though this is a complex notion, it is at least clear that Nietzsche equates the castration of the passions with nay-sayers of life, and the beatification of the passions with the affirmation of life. For Nietzsche says:

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Nietzsche does not take sides with crude displays of affection, or aggression (as he is often criticized for), but favours the beautification of the passions! This comes not from the objects themselves, of course. Recall, there are no facts, things out there to be apprehended in themselves! It is rather in the delicate nurturing, inter-personalized engagement with, and invested concern for the passions that beauty is brought forth so that in screams of contained rapture one can appreciate, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in silent discourse.

So what is his meaning and how does this set the record straight with Epictetus? Another timeout for Pirocacos as she gets her unhinged self together….to be continued…I promise!

*Alas I am convinced that philosophy, the variety I engage (for there are many forms), is an art form, itself best transcribed literarily, musically, poetically!

Your ataraxia is disquieting!

So my friend and I took to talking philosophy, as we regularly do, till the wee hours of the morning. Last night we were especially transfixed on Stoicism, and dare I say, meditation, which is right up his alley since this is what he does for a living. Knowing my rather contoured figure which has made allies with existential thought, he’s offered patient counsel that I might benefit from inserting meditative practices into my daily routine. Of course, Stoicism is no stranger to what I take to be the basic meditative tenet – a process of defragmentation where the toils, distractions, inhibitions, fetishisms, and labours of everyday life recede to the oblivion and a deep state of peace is gathered (I’ll admit to being infected by a Parmenidean view of this which is referred to as incubation, a common practice amongst the Phoceans). And just as we begin our assent ( 😉 ) into the much contested debate over ataraxia, his voice is interrupted by the sound of incoming mail. A disquieting email left me quite ill-at heart and my friend expressly annoyed! Timely you say!? HA! So did we!!! “Breathe Elly,” he told me, and I watched as he took slow, deliberate breaths. My heart rate slowed, the irritability past, and pangs of despair levelled off.  “Okay so this is meditation!!!”, he announced gleefully. “You did it!” And just like that trance over! The implicit cognitive dissonance pervading his thought was unsettling and I took to addressing the problem (well it was a problem to me, damn it!!! Screw composure and quietude, my mind is overturning, and rightly so! 🙂 )

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See though I have a great deal of respect for ancient Greek thought, and a special appreciation for all aretic works, I don’t agree with the underlying metaphysics of Stoicism. Now some might say that that really doesn’t matter. That indeed the allure of Stoicism is its implicit cosmopolitanism. So whether you take a more religious or secular stance on the rational order of the universe and our unique and natural propensity for rational thought, it’s of no consequent. But you do still have to endorse the premise that the world – Nature – is made up a network of causal relations which is why they can argue that the good life is a life that is lived in agreement with nature, itself uncovered via rational deliberation. There is quite a bit of wiggle room to interpret the precise meaning of nature but there is no question that the world is understood to be a rational order and that we can live a eudaimonic life when we appeal to “how things are” “objectively” (though not absolute in reasoned assessment). Now this may be hard for some of you to understand – you may not relate – but the good life for the Stoic is understood in terms of ataraxia or the absence of pretty much anything that unhinges you, and I am all for what unhinges me! 

sequel shall follow tomorrow…I promise!

 

 

Eunoia

Take away from an old time client about life & love. So much talk about learning to accept what you cannot change; or to live according to the rational laws of the universe; or still to design a life of quietude – seek not then anything that may potentially cause ataraxia. However one wishes to construct the backdrop to these narratives, the point that persists is that things, circumstance, people are all incidentals. That ultimately it is a matter for the mind to fashion a life of happiness, and so nothing falls apart unless the seams of mental perception are to give way. So we go to the narrative, spilt hairs over the conscripted concepts, renegotiate these so as to realign, and restructure the manner in which the factical sometimes sneaks in to disrupt and destroy one’s peace of mind.

Though there is great favour to be found with such strategies, my client, despite his longing to free himself from the anguish of love lost, felt slighted, perturbed; robbed, I think was the term he used.  I think he felt gypped, emotionally, existentially, I mean. He spoke to me of poetry, of song, of art and asked me where the haunting, annihilating, consuming yearning for life had gone? And it came to me that meraki, a Greek word, meaning “to do something with soul creativity or love”, speaks to his orientation in life. (FYI I have employed this term in numerous blog posts) I don’t know that the existential undertow (in my mind) can easily rehabilitate one to mental stability, but I do know that something gets lost in translation when everything is thought to neatly, cooly, with composure and calm, fit and make sense. Perhaps my client wasn’t looking to move on, but only to love heartily in absentia. And no, maybe it doesn’t make sense, but then what heroic gestures calling from oceanic depths of spirit ever really do? So onwards and upwards my dear “friend”. Eunoia: a beautiful way of thinking.

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Unsettle, disrupt, disturb, interrupt, disenchant, deconstruct, disjoint. These were the words spoken in my head when suddenly at University and 6th I came tumbling down; CRASH! All I could think as I literally bounced back horizontal was: How appropriate! Suddenly I was transported to the last time I fell. Escorting me was my son who with the amusement befitting a 5-year old boy was accosted by laughter quite out of his control which lasted a good half hour. No exaggeration. Making my way to Bobst Library (okay so I’m really at Starbuck’s across from the library!) I laughed as if Louis C.K were reciting one of his memorable skits only I was privy to the grossly hilarious image of myself seen through the eyes of my son! What fun to be a boy of 5!

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My dad!

As we age it becomes an ever more palpable realization that few, very few people, in this world will touch our life, and be an enduring bond of love, support and abiding faith. My mind literally floods with memories of my father. He’d be the one to put me to bed each night as a little girl. He’d created his own storyline with Little Boy Boop, Bad Finger, and Elephant Joe! His stories were always animate involving Little Boy Boop often running across my belly with great force, and Elephant Joe pounding his way to rescue him from some terrible trouble he’d managed to bring on himself! Younger still dad would tirelessly (and he worked long hours) feed me math problems he’d encourage me to solve (I have no idea what happened to those math skills!!! Yikes!). And every Sunday he was the one to take me to advance ballet (yes, I was actually a successful ballerina! HA!) , which was always followed up by a Laura Secord ice-cream at Fairview. During the week dad was always sure to be home to take us to my brother’s practices (soccer, football, rugby…though I remember football the most!), and weekends we’d never miss a game. He was always there! For as long as I can remember come midnight on New Year’s Eve we’d have a father-daughter dance to Jose Feliciano’s Light My Fire. Dad also escorted me to London and Canterbury when I was first accepted for post-graduate studies. My Lord did we walk!!!! He’s also the one that was there to pick up the pieces when my marriage ended. And though he is not perfect (who is?!), and upheavals are part of any home-life, he was right about one thing: we always knew we were loved! Maybe you don’t think that’s such a notable life lesson, but it has marked my life in the most remarkable way, for it is dad that taught me to love. It is dad that taught me the unconditionality of loving. Through all adversity, destitute of circumstance, emotional exhaustion, and despair my father has always been there and I know he always will. He has taught me this: the unconditionality of love is oblivious to the factical. This gift has not always found a safe-haven of reciprocity, but it is a life-compass that I pray my own children will cherish and look back upon our shared life with the tenderness that I now do.

I love you dad!

A Leap of Faith

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Constant retrieval and upheaval. Landmines are everywhere. Why must they be invisible, though? Sometimes it’s as if immobilized standing before this incredulous land field of death; other times it’s as if I’m surrounded crouched small in the middle of it all. As I survey the spot adjacent to me I pivot looking to uncover, as if by some miracle, the least invasive terrain. Nothing stands out for attention and so I pivot on the axis of my being hoping I might just launch myself into the stratosphere without ever setting foot on the ground. If you’re looking for clearness stick to Descartes in servitude to that ailing cogito, but it shall be with a chuckle from the universe! I’ve made my bed with Faith, and though seemingly unkind, her existential nobility allows for streams of light to penetrate the darkness which gives her voice.

Disheveled Peace

 

*Photo from ArtofAmerica site by Angie Bechanan

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