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)”

Relevance of philosophy

Hey all, I have a longer post I wrote today, but I want to edit it and post it tomorrow or later in the week. It’s about the relevance of philosophy, so I figured that this engaging video would be a nice primer.

The video is a roundtable discussion and lecture about the relevance of philosophy. It takes place at The New School in New York, with some leading thinkers in the field of philosophy and otherwise. Some of the conversation is quite interesting and well-worth the watch if you, too, wonder what the point of philosophy is.

Have a nice Sunday.

What does it mean to be happy?

Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.happiness

“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.

Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.

Continue reading “What does it mean to be happy?”

Some brief thoughts on “bad faith”

A quick post for today. I’ve been working on a longer one, but I wanted to do some edits, and I have to run some errands this morning. Expect it later in the week. I hope the holidays have been good to everyone and that the new year is shaping up as it nears.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Existentialism, researching for a paper I hope to write examining the existential elements in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, especially as they connect to Jean-Paul Sartre’s unique brand of it.

One particular tension that has always struck me, which Sartre stresses, is the limited nature of “facticity” and the perceived limitless horizon of the “transcendent.” Facticity captures the “in-itself” nature of something, and is connected with objects. So a particular table could be wooden in itself, three feet tall, made by Stickley Furniture, etc. These are largely fixed properties and therefore limiting.

Transcendence covers the “for-itself” nature of the subjective: the comprehensive range of possibilities, hopes, plans, dreams, and perceptions individual people have. These do change. Constantly. They push and prod us into action, then shift as the action shapes us.

Sartre always stressed the tension between these two ideas as “bad faith.” Sometimes people try to be objects, limiting their transcendence. Sartre gives the example of the waiter who wants to be known only as a waiter, but he has a whole life beyond this. Other times we try to escape our facticity–like our past actions. These are fixed qualities that affect who we are and how others see us. I am a white male.

To me, this tension is a really interesting thing to puzzle over. How am I limited? How am I limiting myself?

Cheers.

Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

Continue reading “Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk”

Update

Hey all,

I’ve been on the road for most of this weekend, so I haven’t had a chance to update the blog. I apologize. In the meantime, here’s a video. It’s a two-part video on Kierkegaard from a BBC documentary called Sea of Faith that covers a number of modern philosophers, including Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and how they approached faith in the modern era.

Enjoy: