Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

When every day many of us wake up to read about fresh horrors on our fresh horrors device, we might find ourselves contemplating the question as to whether, as Albert Camus supposedly put it, one should kill oneself or have a cup of coffee. If there is any philosopher who is famous for contemplating suicide, it’s Camus who, in a more serious tone, proposed that, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

The existentialists and Stoics are notorious for being at loggerheads on many issues. Yet Simone de Beauvoir, who was much less famous for her views on suicide than Camus, gives an example that shows the existential answer isn’t so far removed from the Stoic one – a fascinating case of philosophical convergence, two millennia apart.

In 1954, Beauvoir was awarded France’s most prestigious literary prize for her book The Mandarins, in which the main character Anne contemplates suicide. When once she saw the world as vast and inexhaustible, she now looks at it with indifference: “The earth is frozen over; nothingness has reclaimed it.” Her great love affair has collapsed, her daughter has grown up and no longer needs her, and she finds her profession unfulfilling. It’s not only that she feels her life no longer counts, but also existing is torturous and her memories are agony. Suicide seems like an escape from the pain. Clutching the brown vial of poison, Anne hears her daughter’s voice outside and it jars her into considering the effect of her death on other people. “My death does not belong to me,” she concludes, because “it’s the others who would live my death.”

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what makes a life worth living is being useful to others, trying to make the world a better place, our relationships with people we love, and our freedom as moral agents. So long as we have those things, even in limited measure, we stay. And the very fact that there is an open door is a guarantee of freedom for the Stoics. It’s the reassuring knowledge that, if things are really unbearable, you can walk out. As Seneca put it, liberty is as close as your wrists.

No one knows when our time is up. But precisely because we don’t know when life is going to end, the Stoics say that we should live every moment to the fullest, engaging our life in the here and now. If we do things that we don’t enjoy, or are not important, we are wasting the only resource for which people cannot possibly pay us back: time. As Seneca puts it: “Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, agrees: “A limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.”

So the answer to Camus’ question is the one given by Epictetus: no, you shouldn’t commit suicide so long as you are up to do what Marcus called the job of a human being. Grab a cup of joe, and focus on appreciating and creating meaningful relationships, projects to pursue, useful things to contribute to others, and things to learn for yourself


Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? The Stoics and Existentialists agree on the answer


Quote of the Day





Thursday, November 16, 2017

Quote of the Day

Our own worst enemy cannot harm us as much as our unwise thoughts. No one can help us as much as our own compassionate thoughts.

- Buddha

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Quote of the Day

We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the mind of others, and for this purpose we endeavour to shine. We labour unceasingly to adorn and preserve this imaginary existence, and neglect the real. And if we possess calmness, or generosity, or truthfulness, we are eager to make it known, so as to attach these virtues to that imaginary existence. We would rather separate them from ourselves to join them to it; and we would willingly be cowards in order to acquire the reputation of being brave. A great proof of the nothingness of our being, not to be satisfied with the one without the other, and to renounce the one for the other! For he would be infamous who would not die to preserve his honour.

- Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Quote of the Day

It is now becoming clear why, in spite our lip service to the dialectic, we find it so hard to acknowledge that contradictory processes might actually be at work in society. It is not just a question of difficulty of perception, but one of considerable psychological resistance and reluctance: to accept that thedoux-commerce and the self-destruction theses (or the feudal-shackles or feudal-blessings theses) might both be right makes it much more difficult for the social observer, critic, or “scientist” to impress the general public by proclaiming some inevitable outcome of current processes. But after so many failed prophecies, is it not in the interest of social science to embrace complexity, be it at some sacrifice of its claim to predictive power?

- Albert O. Hirschman

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Quote of the Day

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

- Edward O. Wilson

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

The conventional story of human development, he shows, is based on faulty chronology. It turns out that cultivating grain—long thought to be the crucial step from roaming to civilization—does not naturally lead people to stay put in large settlements. New archaeological evidence suggests that people planted and harvested grain as part of a mix of food sources for many centuries, perhaps millennia, without settling into cities. And there were, in fact, places where people did settle down and build towns without farming grain: ecologically rich places, often wetlands bordering the migration routes of birds and animals, where foraging, fishing, and hunting made for a good life in all seasons. There is nothing about grain that fastens humanity’s foot to the earth, as President John Quincy Adams put it in one of the innumerable retellings of the standard story.

Grain is special, but for a different reason. It is easy to standardize—to plant in rows or paddies, and store and record in units such as bushels. This makes grain an ideal target for taxation. Unlike underground tubers or legumes, grain grows tall and needs harvesting all at once, so officials can easily estimate annual yields. And unlike fugitive wild foods, grain creates a relatively consistent surplus, allowing a ruling class to skim off peasant laborers’ production through a tax regime of manageable complexity. Grain, in Scott’s lexicon, is the kind of thing a state can see. On this account, the first cities were not so much a great leap forward for humanity as a new mode of exploitation that enabled the world’s first leisured ruling class to live on the sweat of the world’s first peasant-serfs. As for writing, that great gateway to history, Scott reports that its earliest uses suggest it was basically a grain-counting technology. Literary culture and shared memory existed in abundance both before and after the first pictographs and alphabets—consider Homer’s epics, the products of a nonliterate Greek “dark age” before the Classical period. Writing contributed a ledger of exploitation.

Scott’s retelling, however, goes deeper than scrambling the chronology and emphasizing the dark side of early institutions. Life in cities, he argues, was probably worse than foraging or herding. City dwellers were vulnerable to epidemics. Their diets were less varied than those of people on the outside. Unless they were in the small ruling class, they had less leisure, because they had to produce food not just for their own survival, but also to support their rulers. Their labor might be called on to build fortresses, monuments, and those ever-looming walls. Outside the walls, by contrast, a fortunate savage or barbarian might be a hunter in the morning, a herder or fisherman in the afternoon, and a bard singing tales around the fire in the evening. To enter the city meant joining the world’s first proletariat.


What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization?

Quote of the Day

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

- Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History