Philosophy

The Length of a Life Well Lived

10/02/2017

by Karina Anastasia Roché

It is not the length of life that matters, but whether or not we live purposefully, honestly, and devote ourselves to love.

 

On July 13th, 1819, the impossible had happened: John Keats was madly in love, and suddenly the length of his life seemed insignificant.

The medical student-turned poet had proudly declared to friends and family that he would spend his life happily married to poetry–and had no need for the partial heaven offered by devotion to one individual human being. Only the previous autumn he had declared:

“The roaring of the wind is my wife, and the stars through the window-pane are my children. The mighty abstract Idea of Beauty stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness.”

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Young Mr. Keats–only 23 in 1818–had discovered the joy of the solitude so often necessary for the cultivation of one’s unique, unadulterated creativity and genius. Life is a distraction from the dedication necessary to write about it–and “domestic happiness” even more so. When one enters marriage, one makes a contract with life: one can no longer be a nomad of what it means to be human, flitting from one experience to another in an attempt to sample every morsel available. Domestic life demands that one devote him or herself to a single cause; many doors are closed; there is knowledge of the world which will be forever withheld. For the poet, particularly one as philosophical as Keats, one cause seemed a waste of his energy. Why settle for experiencing only one aspect of life when the greater world was waiting to be discovered and transformed into poetry, its eternal form?

Within a few months, this conviction had evaporated. The young lady next door–the spirited and intelligent Fanny Brawne–had enchanted Keats, and he himself remarked that his letters to her must have sounded like those of a madman. His poetic nature, and his ability to express it with the perfect words, only intensified his love. After all, Keats was the one who wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,– that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Despite his earlier renunciation of marriage, Keats’s personality was ideal for the definitive statements and vows required of it.

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But what Keats had discovered when captured by love is that there is not one, but two aims which make life worth living. The first is the purpose which he had already embraced when quitting a promising medical profession to live off of a small inheritance so that he could write: the call of the soul, that sense of some greater spiritual need, which, in his case, manifested itself in the choice of his career. For Keats, blessed by poetic talent, the need to grasp “truth” and “beauty” through poetry was the fire in his soul, that which gave him the conviction to live throughout a series of family tragedies.

The second is the ability to love another.

One morning in July, sitting by a window overlooking the sea, Keats wrote to Fanny,

“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”

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The experience of love immerses one in life, unveiling truth with a sudden stroke in a way that reason and words never can. Love makes us fully human, rendering meaningless the false fears, divisions, and borders constructed in lonelier periods of our lives. Keats had believed that poetry was the summit of his life–but so too was love, so that even during his short courtship with Fanny, he felt that he had arrived at the purpose he had been seeking. Three days of a life lived in true love was enough. Anything more felt almost excessive, overstaying one’s earned arrival at the summit.

However, if fate has an ear, his wish to live three days did not go unheard. In 1821, he died in Rome of tuberculosis, the same illness that took his brother–leaving his fiance to grieve, and future readers to wonder what else he would have contributed to the canon of English literature. At 26, he had already written works that earned him recognition as a genius akin to that of Shakespeare. But he would not know it in his lifetime, believing he was “one whose name was writ in water.”

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It would be naive to say that Keats left this world as peacefully and cheerfully as Socrates taking his cup of hemlock. No, the sick Keats was not a good sport, and did not want to go–until his prolonged, agonizing illness made him resent those who kept him alive. I do not hold that against Keats, nor do I think it tarnishes the message that became prevalent in his poems: a celebration of life and its beauty in the face of its horrors.

The miracle of the life of Keats is that his life and poetry endures despite the fact that he seemingly failed at every endeavor he set for himself. Keats and Fanny never married. He would never see his poetry bring him the fame and recognition he deserved. The love of his life–and that which made him love life–were storylines tragically unfinished.

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And yet, Keats defied death–because he chose to live sincerely and without fear. His dedication to his poetry left behind texts studied in every high school and college English class, poems that have inspired other great poets, from Mathew Arnold to T.S. Eliot.

What he wrote made him immortal–and the woman he loved made him feel that immortality was unnecessary, for he had captured it in the present. It is a sentiment echoed by poets, philosophers, and thinkers throughout time. It is not the length of life that matters, but whether or not we live purposefully, honestly, and devote ourselves to love.

To conclude with a quote by the philosopher Wittgenstein,

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

 

How to Clean the House like a Philosopher

09/07/2017

by Karina Anastasia Roché

There are few tasks as mundane, dull, and infuriatingly time-consuming as having to do household chores: to collect and wash socks covered in dust bunnies, (attempt) to scrub the mold living between shower tiles, or peel some ancient fruit off the floor behind the couch. Messes are endlessly creative in the ways in which they present themselves, forcing us to wonder if we–or the people we live with–are still children. And there seems to be no avoiding them. Procrastinating only makes them worse, and it would seem that there is no way to enjoy cleaning up after ourselves, so we should get it over with as soon as possible.

I am not going to suggest that a high school janitor’s job is a delight—but I would like to suggest that housecleaning, with the right approach, becomes an art, an expression of love, and a form of gift-giving.

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First, put aside “getting it over with.” Assign yourself a few hours, or even a day, to clean whatever part of the house you have decided to tackle. Perhaps start with a room that you use often—let’s say it’s the bedroom. Be generous and realistic with the time you give it, and put off all other chores or tasks until after it is done. Setting a timeframe, and forcing yourself to focus on one task, is quite liberating in a world buzzing with distractions.

Then, indulge yourself. Put on your favorite music, or play the audio for that online course you’ve been wanting to listen to. Give your mind something to contemplate while your hands work. Get yourself a cup of something nice to drink, wear your comfortable clothes, and get started.

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Try not to think of cleaning this particular room as trying to eliminate a mess. Imagine you are discovering the home within the room—you are creating a space in which you want to live. Toss trash and things you don’t need, donate the under-the-bed shoes you never wear. As you carve through the clutter or dust bunnies, the space begins to breathe and open up, and the cleanliness is inspiring. Try not to get consumed by every spot and stain; perfection is not the point. Let your mind wander as you work, allow yourself to give attention to and become absorbed in your solitary thoughts. The product of your work is cleanliness, but it is acquired through a meditation of sorts, not unlike the way monks weave prayer ropes to access a state of deep concentration and thought. A practical end is achieved through personal and therapeutic means.

A home is a place where you belong. It is a space that knows you and welcomes you back. As you finish vacuuming and begin to organize the clutter, arrange your belongings and perhaps even furniture in a way that makes the space comfortable to maneuver. Organizing doesn’t mean placing everything in one box in a corner or banishing things you use often on a high shelf. Don’t place a sharp-cornered desk by the door. Do keep the tissue box or your glasses case on the bedside table. Even if you have a very small bedroom, make room for open spaces—they make the room feel larger, less cluttered, and create a sense of serenity. Outside the home is a world of chaos and loneliness. Within, calm and belonging.

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If you live with others, you will likely know their habits and how to best create a home for them as well. This, I believe, is how housekeeping transforms into a form of gift-giving or an expression of love. Your intimate awareness of the needs and ways of those close to you allows you to tailor the space to them, to make a room or house that embraces them. You know where he likes the plug extension because his laptop charges on the left side, but also how he’s always tugging at it to get it closer to the desk. You know how she never puts the guitar back in the case because she uses it so often, and would rather hang it on the wall. You are uniquely positioned to organize and adjust the space to these habits, to make the simple, every day motions of your loved ones easier.

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It is extremely satisfying to use a room you have just cleaned and organized. It is even more wonderful to come home to a room already neat and ready to be enjoyed, with all your favorite things in their best possible place. A homey room is sometimes the most needed gift of all, to yourself or those you love.

But, because this is an art, don’t forget the finishing touches. You can rearrange the photos on the wall, illuminate a lonely corner with the lamp that was gathering dust, or brighten the bathroom with a houseplant. Or write a nice quote and stick it to the corkboard above the desk. Then, at last, your masterpiece complete, sit back and admire. Take a bath, read a book, and allow yourself well deserved pleasure and satisfaction.

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I recommend we all try this “philosophical house cleaning” sometime. Obviously, often one just has to take out the trash and not philosophize over it. But on a day when you have time off, and the house needs to be cleaned, challenge yourself to attempt it. Living as a philosopher does not always mean cloistering oneself in a study or classroom to study the greats–sometimes it means finding ways to transform the ordinary into the meaningful. You might be surprised how delightful cleaning the house can become.

 

 

Philosophy – the  science incubator through the ages?

01/29/2016

by Karina Anastasia and EM

 

Philosophy asks questions about the world with the intention of answering them through reason, logic, or empiricism. Conversely, religion or mythology answers questions with responses that must be taken upon faith. The logically and empirically inclined nature of philosophy therefore gives birth to a multitude of scientific fields as philosophers become scientists in attempt to answer their questions about our world and the universe. Astronomy, medicine, and psychology were all once speculative and semi-empirical subsets of philosophy. With enough curiosity-driven research, enough objective data was accumulated for each of these fields for them to branch off and become independent disciplines. This trend still applies to philosophy, with philosophy daring to delve into topics still unchartered in present human society. Philosophy is the incubator of the sciences–but the philosophical puzzles of today may very well be the science of the future.

Our expectations for philosophy’s output has changed over the centuries. For Plato in the 4th century B.C.E., philosophy encompassed all core sciences and social and political theory. Today, philosophy often seems limited to speculation about abstract concepts of the mind, truth, and ethical dilemmas. It is fascinating to note that all derivatives of philosophy that we understand so well today were abstract topics of speculation in the past. However, the scientific revolution gave humans a tool to objectively solve several puzzles that were abstract in their time. Philosophy has engendered fields that would carry the baton for certain areas of research, while simultaneously intensifying exploration into age-old mysteries and finding itself tasked with solving the riddles of a changing human landscape.

As we continue to probe the world with philosophy, new sciences will emerge, producing new explanations, facts, and in turn new goals towards which further research will be directed, and new philosophical questions emerge. With changes in the way we perceive our surroundings, we attain higher levels of experience and as a species see more in the world than did our ancestors. On the cognitive level, philosophy is consciousness striving to expand it’s own horizons.

 

 

 

How Ought We to Live?

01/06/2016

by Karina Anastasia

As a whole, philosophy right now is in a state of crisis. Philosophy—etymologically speaking, “the love of wisdom”—is given the task, among many others, of answering perhaps the most important question:

“How ought we to live?”

This is the concern not only of ethics, but philosophy in general, which has always sought to understand the nature of our world, how we relate to it, and how we should live in it. For much of history, philosophy remained safely locked up within the bounds of religion, and these questions were mostly of a theological nature. God was the simple response to any question of consequence, and the priests were ready with a book that smoothed out the wrinkles and laid down the law. But the cultural effects of the Scientific Revolution, compounded with those of globalization, has mostly shattered that answer and once stable foundation. Religion is told by science that it cannot provide answers that a rational being can whole-heartedly accept—and it is also forced to confront other faiths that proclaim with just as much conviction that their faith and their god is the One and True. All in all, there is too much doubt, distrust, and skepticism surrounding religion to make the leap of faith required to benefit from its many wonderful qualities.

Nietzsche’s madman’s terror in proclaiming that “God is dead” is, therefore, justified, and, I believe, keenly felt throughout Western society at present. The simple answer provided by religion is beautiful in its efficiency and benefits. Unfortunately, it does not work in Modern society as it did before the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions—as mentioned, the evidence that fosters the current doubt and disbelief has eclipsed the joys of living in faith. But the alternative is a philosophy of chaos, because there is now, in short, no one philosophy within a society (as before there was usually one governing religion), and the dominating ideologies that do exist tend to evolve and change within a generation or two. These ideologies can be philosophies (for example, humanism), but most often, they are economic or authoritarian ideologies (and often these are combined). In post-Christian Soviet Russia, the Communist Party stated and enforced the nation’s ideology. In the United States, the leading ideology is capitalism. Point to a city’s tallest buildings and you will identify the ideology around which that society is built: New York is nothing but skyscrapers, temples for business and capitalism.

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Without religion, the responsibility of answering “how out we to live?” falls squarely and heavily on each of our shoulders. Here are some options:

  1. Subscribe faithfully to a religion of your choice, cognizant of its archaic concepts and approaches but appreciative of the consequences of belief and strictly following a set of moral laws: peace of mind, assured rights and wrongs, the comfort of an overseeing god or possible afterlife, and granted meaning and purpose.
  2. Seek a philosophy that produces the desired effects—whether it is guidance, a set of moral laws, consolation against death, etc.—and accept that this philosophy, like all others, is a fiction and product of the human mind, as fallible, but as necessary, as many others. Literature and art, too, can be put in this category. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold believed that art could replace England’s dying religion.
  3. Use science as a guideline for human behavior. Social Darwinism comes to mind, but this is only one conclusion drawn from one scientific theory. The knowledge that “we are all made of star stuff” can be as inspiring and comforting as a passage from the Book of Psalms.
  4. Accept the rules, guides and comforts of your surrounding culture, whether it is propagated by the government or by an economic system. This may sound bland, but many people do, in fact, live this way. In many capitalistic countries, the good deeds are working hard and making money; work and business dinners are attended to more regularly than church; clocks, alarms, and calendars made to increase efficiency in business rule our lives more strictly than fasting and saints’ feast days; and the “afterlife” is to become “successful” and wealthy due to our hard work. The media, too, plays a similarly powerful role in how it shapes our desires and concepts of meaning and happiness.

However, in applying similar options to my own life, and experimenting to an extent with each, I came up against an enormous wall: and that was how I was to judge each ideology and determine which I should consider more seriously, and which to discard. Even the most open-minded Prius driver with the “Coexist” bumper sticker, I guarantee you, has a fairly set foundation for how he lives. Choosing to embrace all religions is an ideology in itself; and where ideologies are irreconcilable, one must cherry pick or stay home all day and never walk out the door. Walking out the door, too, is a decision and has its consequences. The Jain monks self-flagellate themselves for doing so, knowing they have inadvertently killed innocent worms and spiders when walking through the village. We are always governed by an ideology or philosophy, whether we are conscious of it or not.

But where are we to start from in consciously choosing our ideologies?

First (and in acknowledging that there is a myriad of conscious and unconscious ideas that have guided my thoughts and decisions on this topic), I would like to establish that every individual has the ability to engage in philosophy, make judgments, and come to conclusions. If this seems redundant, please see Descartes’ epistemology in the first of his Meditations. However, this is an important point; it establishes the individual’s mind as the source of understanding–rather than any outside source, such as a legal or religious document.

Second, I assume that for most, except, perhaps, professional philosophers, answering “how ought we to live?” lies in more than just wanting a simple answer. We want to know that we are good people; we want to be happy; we want to live knowing that our lives have some meaning. So let me reframe the question:

“How ought we to live so as to have happy, meaningful lives, and be good people?”

A caveat: reading others’ answers can result in some satisfaction, but one will often still make a mental note that more research needs to be done. In the end, this answer must be not only known, but understood and personally felt, by each individual doing the asking. Even believers of the same faith have different concepts of that faith and their god. We have unique minds, and until each comes to his own understanding, all ideas are merely borrowed on faith and applied for its benefits—in essence, it is the same mental process as accepting a religion.

But I can suggest a starting point. Good ideas, whether religious, philosophical, political, social, or economic, should be based on the intersection between love, logic, and empiricism. By love I mean compassion for other human beings and the recognition of their immense value and preciousness; by logic, I mean a rational, logical, open-minded mode of thought; and by empiricism, I mean being attentive to examples and consequences of a given idea or similar ones in the world, as opposed to as in theory (one might also call this one wisdom).

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For example: it is one of the great tragedies of history that many Germans in the 1930s and 40s believed that eugenics was a great good for the world. The horrors of its implementation were either ignored or unseen, and eugenics supporters (and this ideology was not by any means limited to Germany) applauded themselves for participating in the attempt to improve humanity.

This idea is supported by logic and empiricism, but it fails the test of love. Here is how I would break it down, beginning with this statement:

We ought to increase human happiness and success by eliminating flawed members from the gene pool.

This is a logical statement because, indeed, healthier offspring will probably be happier in life. Even selection of children for aesthetic qualities, such as hair or eye color, or facial or physical features, is logical, because beautiful people also experience an extra layer of satisfaction in life.  And a society of healthy, beautiful, happy people is not only successful culturally (and therefore also on the political level), but also economically. A healthy factory worker can do more work than a disabled one, and beautiful people are often hired more than unattractive ones.

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(Above: This supposedly “perfect Aryan” baby was used for Nazi propaganda; years later, it was discovered that the baby was actually a Jew.)

This statement also passes the empiricism test: in nature, we have seen how natural selection has streamlined certain species to succeed in certain tasks (the cheetah became incredibly fast through years and years of selection) and it even produced us. So it is logical to conclude that selecting human beings for qualities needed for prosperous societies is a solid idea.

However, if you are left feeling empty inside, it is because the third category has not been satisfied. And in terms of fulfilling the love requirement, eugenics fails miserably. The means necessary to make eugenics’ ideal a reality is too barbaric to accept. Sterilizing “undesirable” men and women, or even killing them, is a sickening prospect. Even labeling certain members of society as undesirable goes against love: they may be undesirable to the economy, or to someone’s convenience, but as human beings, they, like every one of us, is deserving of compassion and the recognition of their uniqueness, value, and preciousness. Often a good tester for if an idea complies with love is if you could look that person in the eyes and do or say the intentions of the idea; or, if you could do the same to a loved one, or yourself. After World War II was won, the allies forced the German people to visit the death camps, so that they would see what an idea had wrought—and many were scarred for life by what and who they saw.

I end with a note on the difficulty of truly knowing the answer to “how ought we to live?”, and why acknowledging this difficulty is crucial to living compassionately. Even highly educated, rational people may come to different conclusions, and knowing who is right is, again, a puzzle of philosophy. Acknowledging the difficulty of knowing how to live is the first step in sympathizing for those with whom you disagree. When you realize that your neighbor is struggling to live in the best way he can, just as you are, it becomes much harder to judge, and easier to be compassionate.

 

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