An Incurable Romantic

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.

Capitalism

I’ve been reading, how, in the 18th century the spirit of capitalism was instrumental in establishing wide spread personal freedoms and a kinder more cooperative society. The concept of free marketing meant everyone had opportunity to go into business for herself, solidifying her relationship with her fellow townsfolk and contributing to the betterment of all.

I guess it took a while before the realization there might be a downside to a materialistic prosperity to take hold. Class division, owners versus workers, made for disproportionate gains. Access to natural resources, mineral and timber rights and land ownership contentions, leading eventually to excessive exploitation of resources all spelled out a basic human fallibility: an over-blown, out-of-control self-interest. Obtaining more, often much more, didn’t necessarily translate to altruistic behaviors.

And, now, as the divide between the moneyed and the poor continues to grow, the more enlightened among us call for a moral capitalism, a conservation of the earth’s resources and a fairer distribution of wealth.

As I look about at what’s happening these days it appears we still have a way to go with that.

A Social Contract

I’ve been reading about the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who developed quite an enthusiastic following in 18th century France. The gist of his thinking had to do with the idea of subordinating individuality to participation in the ‘social welfare’ of all in the community (which he identified pretty clearly as ‘us’ not ‘them’, a xenophobe, I guess). He advocated a purer, simpler life free of the oppressive class divisions that competitive commercialism produced. The primacy of our community should always supersede personal acquisition and behaviors, he offered, which sounded to pretty much everyone at the time a virtuous direction for society to take.

Anyway, around the same time the enlightened public (the well-to-do ones anyway) were enthusiastically embracing these ideas, the king, Louis XVI was bankrupting France, allowing a lot of folks to go homeless and starving in the streets. Oblivious to the plight of the masses his Queen, Marie Antoinette, suggested that if the people were starving they should just go ahead and eat cake.

The people understandably revolted, stormed the Bastille, released political prisoners and guillotined the royal couple. The leadership vacuum was filled by the likes of an egocentric Robespierre who took to extremes the philosophical perspectives of our Rousseau such that if one wasn’t overtly sacrificing for the ‘general will’ she might likely end of guillotined or hung. Apparently, Rousseau’s ideas got a bit out of hand, applied with a bit too much zeal.

Lessons to be learned, I guess: be skeptical of leaders that attempt to isolate and demonize a perceived evil ‘other’, that find conspiracies were they don’t exist. Do we need another Napoleon?

Realizing the Unthought

I’ve been reading about the 20th Century philosopher Michel Foucault, a truly enigmatic Frenchman preoccupied with thoughts of death. Well, it wasn’t just death in general he thought about but his own demise and how he might best accomplish it that seemed to pre-occupy him.

Suicide or near-death experiences he believed would reveal the ‘unthought’, conceptions beyond imagining, not to be found even in dreams. Extreme behaviors, sadomasochistic indulgences, which carried one to the brink of insanity, had the potential in our philosopher’s view, to reveal what lay beyond the capacity of the rational human mind. Foucault thought of madness as a potentially positive occurrence, as a category of being realized by those, artists and such, stretching the envelope of societal propriety that, he believed, in the future, be accepted as a pathway to the ‘unthought’, to a deeper knowledge beyond the limitations of conventional reason.

I have to admit it all seems a bit much to me; my daily workouts are about as masochistic as I ever want to get and I have few acquaintances that inspire in me any sort of sadistic imaginings. I guess I’ll just have to leave the unthought unthought.

 

 

Wisdom

I’ve been wondering lately how exactly one achieves wisdom. After reading credible commentary on the actual lives of some of western civilization’s most notable philosophers it appears that, more often than not, the great minds of history have fallen well short of achieving the high ideals they advocate in their writings. When it came to basic living and social functioning many of our philosophical heroes struggled; were pretty inept to be perfectly honest. They often capitulated to oppositional forces out of fear of retribution from an intolerant church or tyrannical politics. They tended to fail in attempts to establish lasting relationships and they regularly came up short of the moral imperatives they so often championed.

It makes me wonder how seriously I should take Socrates admonishment that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ or the Delphic injunction to ‘know thyself’. Should I even wonder what I can know or what ultimately I ought to do? Can I hope for more than what I have reasonably before me?

The alternative, though, is daunting: proceeding without direction, acting exclusively from self-interest or pursuing survival as an end-in-itself. I guess great ideas and thoughts lift us above the mundane, offer possibility and hopefully help us maintain a healthy sense of altruistic support for our fellow man.

I guess I’ll keep reading.

The Downside of the Examined Life

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.

Saving Planet A

I’ve discovered recently the thoughts of an innovative thinker, Kim Stanley Robinson, who has some quite amazing ideas about how we might potentially nurse our threatened world back to health or at least slow its deterioration.

Could it be possible to blast particulates into the earth’s atmosphere, simulating a volcanic explosion, to filter the heat of the sun with the very positive result of lowering temperatures? How about spraying sea water onto the polar ice caps on a massive scale to recapture the melting seas? Technologically and economically challenging ideas I suppose but at what point will such extreme measures be necessary to save the world?

Then there’s the concept of ‘quantitative easing’, a method of monetary manipulation that’s already been employed to stave off financial crises by ‘producing’ large amounts of capital. Perhaps with the proper monetary incentives farmers could be induced to engage in carbon trapping technologies and to replant acreage in bio-diverse forest lands. With additional capital solar and wind farms could become a primary factor in electricity production. Everyone, given the proper incentives could move toward clean energy transportation.

Being that there’s little doubt that impending environmental disaster is imminent, perhaps innovative thinkers like Kim Stanley Robinson should be taken seriously.

 

Eternal Recurrence

I’ve been reading about the fairly difficult existence that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche endured over his life time. Given his self-imposed isolation and the debilitating health issues that he endured: fairly constant migraines and nausea, it’s small wonder many of his thoughts were less than uplifting.
But, the physical and mental infirmities led him, I suppose, to one of his most notable ideas.

Eternal recurrence, stated simply, is to “live this life again in all its aspects, every pain and every joy, every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small and great must return to all in the same succession and sequence over and over for ever and ever”, which must have been a pretty horrible idea for Nietzsche given his health and loneliness issues.

So, I’ve been thinking, maybe there’s something to be learned here, you know, make friends, go to the doctor, do good things; if life is indeed cyclical than maybe recurrence wouldn’t be so bad. There still would be periods of boredom to deal with though, I suppose.

A Frightening Proposition

Apparently Augustine of Hippo, after a mis-spent youth of carousal and debauchery, found intellectual and spiritual sustenance in various disciplines of the time (neo-platonism, etc.) until his meditative practices led him to Christianity. Then slowly, over the years, a dependency on reasonable determination gave way to faith: an all-encompassing faith in spiritual direction arrived at through prayer.

So, in fairly short order, Augustine tells us in his Confessions, he abandoned reasoned thought in the certain knowledge God would be sufficient means, a more than adequate guide, to see him through the lapses in faith that he and all who were invariably sinful-in-nature required to be worthy of salvation.

He apparently felt so strongly about this, about everyone’s essential sinfulness and inability to lead a truthful and honest life on their own, that he saw to it that the laity were subject to the whims and dictates of the church hierarchy. These innocents, were discouraged from seeking any sort of personal spiritual enlightenment through Bible study and prayer which was pretty easy to enforce since most of them couldn’t read anyway. Over the next few centuries this priestly authoritarian presence became tyrannical resulting in the establishment of inquisitors who burned heretics.

Maybe the lesson to be learned here is to beware of those who suggest to you: don’t think about it all too hard, just believe, have faith, God will provide. A pretty scary proposition, it seems to me.

 

The Ancients

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.