After following the political conventions these past days (recaps being the extent of my capacity to stomach the partisan drivel) it has occurred to me, once again, that our deep philosophical divisiveness has morphed into alternate realities. The spin has turned into, at least in some cases, ‘alternative facts’. The information we receive has become not simply differing versions or interpretations of events but actual counter-facts, egregious distortions that the fact checkers, who I tend to trust, have, I suspect, been working overtime to decipher truth from fiction. There are no excuses for those who deliberately misinform to suit their own agendas but I suspect many of us simply experience differently, which has me thinking about what exactly Truth is.
Even life versus death will have nuanced meaning for some I suppose (at least those of a spiritual bent), and like the half empty/ half full glass of water interpretation must be accounted for. As I sit here writing this, I can’t know the truth, when I finish, of where exactly I will be physically, the world turning as it is. I peer out the window at a beautiful blue sky and realize there are those whose truth upon viewing same will be something other.
So, I guess it’s only fair to assume that what I know to be truly the case will not necessarily be truth for others. I guess we’ll all just have to learn to co-exist in our alternative realities..
A few years ago, I made a hike into the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. The site contains fossils of pre-Cambrian life forms, many of which barely saw the light of day before fading into extinction. The most unusual of these early animals were asymmetrical, having three and sometimes five appendages, which, I suppose, might explain why these animals didn’t make it to the Cambrian era and beyond. It seems unlikely they’d have been able to compete well in a gravitational environment and it appears they were naturally de-selected in favor of the mobile superiority of bi- and quadrupedal life. I guess it will always be the case that some life forms will be naturally de-selected for an inability to adapt in a hostile and competitive world.
Given our difficulties dealing with our current dilemmas (i.e. dreaded virus, nuclear arms proliferation, political alienation, et. al.) I’m just wondering how close humanity may be getting to the top of the de-selection list.
While on a bike ride the other day, I got to thinking about an unpleasant event that occurred a couple of years ago while riding the same circuit I was currently on. The past event involved hitting a dog that bounded out of a ditch, crashing, getting back on my bike and proceeding along. The bump on my helmeted head was disorienting enough for me to forget where exactly I was going.
As I continued along what I then perceived to be my current ride I got to wondering whether, in fact, I didn’t make it home at all after the crash years ago: that everything I have supposedly experienced since the dire event is imagined, the product of my active brain within my comatose body. Suppose I then thought, that, in fact, I’m lying in a hospital bed intubated, attached to a feeding tube, my loved ones by my side debating when to pull the plug.
After I supposedly got home and supposedly took a shower, wondering how I could know for certain the nature of my existence, truth revealed itself. My imagination, I realized, is insufficient to conjure the occurrences reported in the nightly news.
I’ve learned from the ancient Stoics that one must pick one’s battles: there are certain things that will occur in one’s life that one simply has to accept and live with. I get the idea, you know, that screaming and hitting one’s head against a wall in impotent exasperation is never a useful procedure.
But now I read that Friedrich Nietzsche not only advocated the acceptance of one’s fate, but he said it should be embraced, loved even. Granted, F. was a bit crazy toward the end of his life and not particularly upbeat before that, still, the idea deserves contemplation, I suppose. As I wait around to see what happens next, what fate has in store for me, embedded as I am in the real world, I’m not sure all conceivable possibilities will necessarily be loveable. In fact, there are several scenarios I can imagine so dire, that, if they were to happen, may lead me to the precipice, threaten my very sanity, be so totally incapacitating as to render me catatonic and irretrievably mentally lost.
Such a realized occurrence may, I guess, have been what happened to F.
Upon reflection it’s become apparent to me that the idea of fear can be thought about in different ways: there’s practical fear related to immediate concerns for family, friends and personal survival and then there’s the existential fear of one’s life ending, the inevitable extinction we all face. Well, at least those of us not expecting the heavenly reward of immortality. For those whose strong beliefs and strong faith lead them to the second scenario I guess there’s not much to think about other than to stay on the straight and narrow. Even these folks, I suspect, have an occasional doubt in between Sunday reassurances.
The question, then, becomes, for pretty much all of us, how best to deal with the inevitable end to our earthly existence. The fear, of course, isn’t death itself since once dead fear isn’t an issue. The fear is the anticipation, the preliminaries; potential debilitating illness, loss of control over your life, possibly the inability to be of support any longer to those who depend on you. All one can hope to do, I guess, as one nears death is to realize the inevitability of such events and approach them with dignity and the knowledge that a good life has been led (which hopefully is within the realm of reasonable truth).
Anyway, I haven’t time to dwell on it all: I’ve got people to see, errands to run and projects to complete. I have a life to live in the eternity of now.
The ancient Stoics were of the opinion that in order to maintain a stable and strong essence a man has to prepare a bit by voluntarily practicing austerity, depriving himself (or herself, women too, of course) of certain basic human needs for a time in order to strengthen him/herself to face the inevitable difficulties life will most certainly offer at some point, probably in the not too distant future. This means, I guess, one should suffer a bit in order to steel oneself to better face future personal disasters, which could mean turning off the phone and laptop but could be a real challenge like spending time with the homeless for a while.
This idea got me thinking about Diogenes the Cynic, who for very different and less personal reasons, voluntarily lived the life of a social outcast dressed in rags, living in a wine cask and existing on handouts. But, living the meanest of existences he feared no loss which enabled him to live with absolute integrity.
He exhibited great strength of character unaffected as he was by the cultural trappings of the day, unintimidated by the power players of the time. Even Alexander the Great addressed him respectfully. (Bob Dylan’s admonition ‘you have to serve somebody’ doesn’t apply to Diogenes).
Well, as much as I admire Diogenes commitment, I’m not about to give up all my creature comforts, but I can see the value in modest deprivation, you know, as a way to prepare for the inevitable ill winds.
Maybe I’ll go camping for a while.
I’ve been reading, lately, about the conflicts that developed between the ancient Romans and early Christians. The Romans were polytheistic, their many gods acquired for the most part from the Greeks were represented by magnificent marble sculptures housed in elaborate temples that played significantly in their daily rituals. Through sacrificial offerings the gods were appeased whereby good fortune reigned upon the Romans (well, the monied ones anyway).
The monotheistic early Christians were reluctant, to say the least, to recognize the Roman gods much to the displeasure of the Romans, and, so, suffered some pretty nasty earthly ends for their defiance, that is, until the visionary emperor Constantine converted, tossing the ball into the Christians court. The game changed big time; churches were built, idols and temples destroyed.
Over the centuries to follow the Christians, through draconian laws and inquisitions singled out the heretics, finding ever more creative tortures to convince the pagan Romans of the truth of the Cross. Tit for tat, I guess.
Other than who or what was worshipped the rub seemed to be primarily about the right way to live. The Romans ate, drank and were, more or less, happy in their licentious debauchery, recognizing as they did, the shortness of life while the Christians lived in severe austerity forgoing anything they saw as sinful in nature, suffering this life for the rewards of the next.
Notions of how best to live one’s life have been somewhat softened these days but the dichotomy persists. I guess we’re pretty evenly divided as to which path is the best one to take. A good case could be made, I think, for pursuing a middle way.
I suppose there must be an inclination for the thoughtful mind to balance opposites. During the 18th century the scientistic logic of the Enlightenment generated the philosophical counterpoint of Romanticism, a view of nature as transcendent ‘beauty as truth, truth beauty’. The thinking was, I guess, that Nature was the source of all knowledge, the way to deep understanding, so communing with nature, engaging in contemplation of the natural world was the way one might proceed to fully find the secrets our world holds.
I wonder if the adolescent ideas of ‘romance’ get in the way sometimes of an understanding of the significance of this early philosophy. Certainly the aspects of the romantic displayed in media dramatics: maudlin emotionalism, heroic fantasy and the like are a far cry from the philosophical significance of 18th century Romanticism.
I think that the attention to our nurturing natural world that the Romantics found so significant mustn’t be forgotten. The contemplative mind will embrace those ideas and work to philosophically assimilate them. Hopefully the true’ Romantic spirit’ won’t be lost amidst the superficiality of our popular culture.
I’ve been reading lately the musings of a young philosopher who has spent considerable time trying to make sense of his life (worth living, he wonders) through investigation of the profound offerings of the great thinkers of the past. He tells us of a less than ideal childhood, of searching for answers in his readings as a student, of a confused sense of need for someone to share his life with while at the same time desiring solitary un-interrupted contemplation, finally settling on the belief that the ultimate motivation of all men is self-interest.
Caught up as he was in the existentialist thinkers (who, given the history of the times had good reason for their pessimistic assessments of humanity, I suppose) our hero (and how can we think of him otherwise pursuing truth as he was) descended into the dark realm from which no man escapes unscathed, placing upon himself the burden of humanities failings and facing the inevitable disaster which will inevitably follow. Kind of like living under a dark cloud, I guess.
Anyway, in the end our young philosopher does appear to re-enter life to some degree, remarrying and having a child, decisions which carry along with them sufficient anxieties to over shadow the thoughts of the existentialists. One would think.
I’ve been wondering, lately, if anyone thinks about the ancients anymore. I’ve been reading about the polarizing political intrigues that engulfed Plato in the later years of his life. He found his integrity compromised despite his best intentions to teach the young ruler Dionysius philosophy, geometry and the path to a deeper understanding of the ultimate realities.
I guess the idea that absolute power, which is what these early Greek tyrants had, corrupts absolutely holds most of the time. Diogenes the Cynic certainly understood this. In protest to the perverse values of the time he cast off all social conventions (along with most of his clothes) and wandered the streets of Athens seeking an honest man while living hand to mouth, without material possessions of any sort, in a castoff wine barrel.
Some things never change I guess. It’s pretty evident today that the inclination to wield power trumps thoughtful contemplation, reasoned pursuit of the good and the just and true pretty much every time.