Morning Advice

For those of us struggling to get up this Monday, Marcus Aurelius has some good advice:

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5, paragraph 1 [Trans. from Internet Classics Archive]

Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

Continue reading “Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?”

Simplicity

I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]
Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin
“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:

Dada, anyone?

Dadaism may be one of the slipperiest and most deliberately annoying movements of modern art. It’s the sort of”art” that draws the rolled eyes, shaking heads, and remonstrating fingers of skeptics. One can see Rodin’s Gates of Hell as “Art,” but making the same case for this “sculpture” is a little difficult:

1964 Replica of Duchamp's "The Fountain" (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]
1964 Replica of Duchamp’s “The Fountain” (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]

This piece is from Marcel Duchamp, representing his Dadaist “ready-made” art. For these pieces, Duchamp simply took everyday objects, here a urinal, and slapped them with a signature or set them up as art with little to no effort.

Other pieces, like this collage by Hannah Hoch required more effort but resulted in a mishmash bricolage dissolving into irreverent chaos, not a balanced aesthetic masterpiece:

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]

As one can expect, the Dadaists challenged conventions. But why? As one can see from the dates of these pieces, 1917 and 1919, respectively, Dada was an early 20th Century movement of avant-garde, in the midst and aftermath of WWI.

This timing is no coincidence. The “War to End all Wars” created a climate of despair and anxiety for many intellectuals. High death tolls, mutual destruction on both sides, little political gain, and an economic depression that brutalized Europe–these cracked the facade of meaning and progress that had kept Europe pumping through the 19th Century.

Artists responded by doing the same with art. New pieces were deliberately anti-aesthetic, challenging and breaking rules of taste or logic. Meaning crumbled into collage. The artistic genius simply found readymade pieces or compiled cut-and-paste poetry. Irreverence, obscuration, and the subconscious–not reason –became guiding principles. The name itself, though of uncertain origins, signified this, with its playful sound and French meaning of “hobbyhorse.”

Many Dadaists, especially in Germany, were also political. Manifestos, public gatherings, and magazines, like the infamous 291 by Francis Picabia, spread the message and hoped to change the world, redrawing it in more Dadaist lines. It was a way of life for many, not just a style, and influenced many fields.

Inevitably, this leads to the “so what” question. Here, one could put it even more bluntly: Were the Dadaists a bunch of overly educated cranks or heroic geniuses?

While they proved instrumental to the avant-garde, still felt in art and philosophy today, Dadaism’s deeper relevance, I think, came from their inclusion of irreverence and counter-discourse into the public sphere. In a modern world that often tries to articulate what something is, like art, the Dadaists tried to show art that was both art and anti-art, voiding traditional categories. This matters because categories can often oppress or limit.

Here, the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu helps clarify. Bourdieu’s work often references the role of “doxa,” a term he draws from another sociologist, and  aesthetic taste. Doxa are habits that fly below our scrutiny because they seem so natural and obvious–even universal. But as Bourdieu argues, they are socially constructed.

Matters of taste, i.e. a person’s ability to discuss beauty in a seemingly disinterested manner, provides an example. People in wealthier, upper- and middle-class homes gradually acquire the correct doxa to make aesthetic claims through exposure to art, etiquette, criticism, and general conversation about elite topics. Others don’t. Then, as adults, those with the doxa can make rules about sophistication or taste–whether in language or movies–excluding those who can’t. And since such doxa remain invisible, they have no reason to doubt their perspective.

Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]
Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]

But as the Dadaists and other irreverent composers show, such rules are often transient and empty. They can be broken, sometimes to brilliant, comical effect. With this in mind, we shouldn’t try to impose matters of taste on those who “lack it,” flaunting a refined love for theater as a passport for pretentiousness. Instead, we should strive to see what’s aesthetic in the non-aesthetic. Or, as some argue, we should just see it as a form of pleasure.

Along with this, the Dadaists also vitalize humor. The role of humor, can be a key tool in moving an audience and inspiring social change. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Moreover, humor can breakdown the seriousness of a debate so an agenda stalls. At times, this is a problem, but having a plurality of discourse, including anti-discourse, can challenge power structures, keeping them from too dominant.

For example, as I noted in my post on hashtags, the #McDStories campaign suffered after irreverent composers took this readymade hashtag to mock McDonalds with stories of bad experiences. This brought to light a fuller, more truthful “story” and challenged the authority of McDonald’s, a huge company, with the irreverence of scrappy Tweeps.

Or, at the very least, the Dadaists are simply fun and fascinating to learn about, as this documentary, Europe after the Rain, shows. Just as their pieces are the dappled, awkward rebels of the art world, their own story proves colorful and oddly insightful.

Existential Comics

I’ll be going on a trip today for about a week, so I won’t be posting. In the meantime, on the lighter side, here’s a link to one of my favorite sites, “Existential Comics.” It’s always good for a laugh. This comic, though not as timely as it could have been, remains one of my favorites: World Cup Philosophy

I suppose you can read this in tandem with Monty Python’s “Philosopher Football” for the full effect of philosophy on the pitch.

Cheers.

[Image from University of Glasgow]
[Image from University of Glasgow]

Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
Continue reading “Why be better?”

Schopenhauer, a man for all seasons (especially bad ones)

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a German philosopher, and a regular in past posts on Backyard Philosophy, stands out for a few reasons–not counting his love of puddles and his obstinant rain-or-shine walking schedule.

[Image from Wikipedia]
[Image from Wikipedia]

He was one of the first major modern thinkers to actively, even aggressively, take an atheistic stance. He was also one of the first to incorporate Eastern Philosophy into his thought, particularly the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhist discourses. He influenced Wagner, Freud, Nietzsche, and Albert Swietzer, among others, and remains a favored philosopher of musicians.

Schopenhauer also coined the word “pessimism,” using the Latinate pessimismus in 1835. This is his main claim to fame, exemplified by the oft-quoted advice, which he may have never said: eat a frog each morning, so that the rest of the day won’t be as bad.

Indeed, Schopenhauer may be one of the most “pessimistic” thinkers in Eastern and Western thought, earning him the dour sobriquet “The Great Pessimist.” And this, not his love of poodles (unfortunately) has stuck.

But despite this pessimism, or maybe because of it, Schopenhauer’s writing has a certain power. While many of his thoughts are “old” and remain warped by egotism, misogyny, and indignation–particularly his spiteful essay On Women–other pieces offer a unique, applicable insight for life, even in the present day.

Continue reading “Schopenhauer, a man for all seasons (especially bad ones)”

Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

Continue reading “Five books that made me”