Michel De Montaigne

‘I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.’

Free books can be the best books. This morning my train station stop provided “Michel De Montaigne | The Essays: A collection”. I knew his name once, in undergrad, most likely in a creative writing course or possibly a history course.

Now I’ll move beyond knowing nothing but his name!

Naturally I skipped to his section titled “To philosophize is to learn how to die”. My attraction to philosophy is undying, pun intended, so there I was, my melancholy self attracted to another melancholy self.

“Cicero says that philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That is because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying.”

I can’t say I agree with his conclusion, but his initial thoughts are brand new to my mind. Abstract thought is a form of death. Tell that to your professors! I love it. I really love it. There is truth to this thought. I’ve viewed abstract thought for a while as quite problematic. Aren’t there other kinds of truth? A friend of mine, a philosophy professor, tells me that rationality is only one way of knowing the world. I appreciate that thought. It helps right the ship of my own thoughts which tends to lean heavily towards abstract thought, analysis, “charting”, basically the form in which modern western man thinks. Data, graphs, that which can be empirically verified, ultimately that which is simple, reducible, because that’s all our minds can handle.

If/when I read more of Montaigne, I will post it here.

I found a thought on politics, which I’ll record, since that’s taken much of my thought recently: “The most desirable laws are those which are fewest, simplest and most general.” Perhaps why I’ll be voting for Gary Johnson? But that’s a post for another day.

Puritans and Prigs

I can take no credit for the catchiness of that title. It’s the name of a chapter in “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought“. It’s written by  Marilynne Robinson published in 1998, and I enjoyed it immensely, at least this chapter (as that’s all I’ve read). This is no post on the things I’ve learned but instead a list of words this author employed that I had to look up. She has quite a vocabulary! (Although I can’t say I’m always a fan of the at least semi-academic style of writing she uses. Any writing that feels academic feels that way because it’s poorly written. And I promise I don’t have strong opinions.)

  1. hypertrophy – 1) abnormal enlargement of a part or organ; excessive growth. 2) excessive growth or accumulation of any kind.
  2. ersatz – (of a product) made or used as a substitute, typically an inferior one, for something else; not real or genuine.
  3. inveigle – persuade (someone) to do something by means of deception or flattery.
  4. palmy – 1) (especially of a previous period of time) flourishing or successful. 2) covered with palms.
  5. lapidary – (of language) engraved on or suitable for engraving on stone and therefore elegant and concise.
  6. solipsism – the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.
  7. steppe – a large area of flat unforested grassland in southeastern Europe or Siberia.
  8. anomie – lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group.
  9. frisson – a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear; a thrill.

I can’t imagine how long this list would be if I actually read her whole book, as opposed to one chapter. I hope to read more about her/by her – she felt delightfully curmudgeonly.

The Unexamined Life

If you Google “blog” the first result (other than ads and Wordress) is “Seth’s Blog”. Impressive. The most successful blog in the world currently. Who is “Seth”? I looked around. It was hard to tell. I went to one of his other sites and it read “author, marketer, speaker, etc” – he speaks on “everything” – but in reading all this I realized one thing: he is a philosopher. A modern-day philosopher. We don’t have much bearing in modern society, in the sense of, we don’t really know why we’re alive or what to do with our time. I got this idea more clearly as I walked San Francisco this week, thousands of tourists brushing me by. What in the world do you do with your time? If society has already removed enough illnesses that you’re going to get past age two, and then well past age ten, and it has also created such a peaceful world that the immediate pressure of war does not give you an identity and a cause, and the urgency of finding food and protection is gone since we have done such a damn good job at, well, everything (compared to previous civilizations), then we are left with one big glaring and simultaneously unbelievable question: why am I alive? Surely it’s the question we should have always been asking, but if you’re busy just staying alive with no time to think, this is inevitable. Would Socrates be proud of us, the author of the phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living”?

Seth, in his own modern way, answers this. I say “modern” to point out the fact that he doesn’t really answer this. Instead, he addresses tactics, you know, he talks about living day to day, makes 10,000 assumptions, and doesn’t go into such messy territory as, uhm, religion. I suppose now that God is dead, and you can meet just about every need however you want, and all you really have to do is make enough money to stay alive the requisite amount of time, a transcendent emptiness descends.

I should clarify that I speak out of the Christian worldview. I have been doused in the idea that this world is not all there is, and I have been secondarily doused in the idea that most people think this world is all there is. The gap between physicalists and dualists/spiritualists is large. I don’t feel a pressure to make this world perfect. In fact, I operate under the premise that it can not be. It is the afterlife that I have sure belief in. Which makes absolutely no sense from a perspective. The “afterlife” is the thing for which I have the least proof (none to be exact) and yet I am banking on it more than anything. And second, the faith that teaches me this thought (Christianity) at one time had no knowledge of this thought. Weird, isn’t it? The Jewish worldview (from which sprang the Christian worldview) had no believe in life after death. Then along came Jesus, Paul, the pharisees, and I believe Greek thinking, and that changed.

So enough of that history lesson (mostly because my knowledge has now been depleted, not because it is no longer interesting or relevant). We are, as they say, technologically rich but spiritually poor. We do what we do very well, but no one really knows if it’s worth doing. That’s certainly getting the cart before the horse. Albert Camus once said the primary question of philosophy is whether to commit suicide. While I feel at this point the need to apologize for introducing such darkness into these thoughts, I am also absolutely compelled to say: he’s right.

Kids have to think life is about looking better (better clothes, better looking boyfriends, better iPhones, etc), feeling better (happiness, great sex, validation), and pleasure in general. This is so good (up to a point), and from my Christian worldview, so unbelievably empty. I guess I too can go running around looking for more Pokemans. But this “smallness of your world” which is created by thinking that “the value of my life is determined by whatever I want it to be determined by” has got to raise its ugly face over time. I can’t be the only one to see it. In my own life, when I pleasure-seek too much, the pleasure turns on itself, the whole thing becomes counterproductive and sick, and I go “oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, I know exactly what’s going on, there actually is more to the world than what meets the eye”, and I am comforted. (It’s one of my favorite truths about the universe which can be summed up in one of my favorite metaphors: donuts. While two donuts is better than one, and three is likely better than two, four will not better than three, and five will be worse than zero. Could depend on your usual intake of donuts…)

Donut philosophy aside, I am sad for those with no richness in their life, and there will be no richness if you truly, deeply believe that all value in your life sources itself directly in you and probably also in your friends and society. Has not humanity failed itself enough to prove what a dead end this is? A very genuine friend of mine, a coworker, told me once – in the midst of his sincerity and somewhat Eeoyre-looking facial expression – that most people were depressed, most of the time. I’ve undergone enough pain in recent years to believe this, but always there was something very real, larger, and more valuable than I at play: a transcendent truth. When you remove the transcendent, what do you have? It only looks like emptiness to me.

Experience and Navigating the Abstract

If experience is the only true knowledge, then of course we have extreme difficulty and ultimately failure in the world of the abstract, because “abstract” by definition is not experience.

So if the only things we know are sensory, and these slowly get translated into knowledge and later words, but we feel like all the answers are in the abstract (i.e. philosophy and theology) then failure should feel natural. I literally don’t have the tools. Or we could say that of course a great/grand explanation of the universe will come to me only through a veil and, I must safely conclude, will be wrong along a great many points.