11.30.2010

Thanksgiving Book Feast II -- philosophy

The first philosophical book I read over break was this one about Stoicism. It was fine as an introduction to the subject but the writing and arrangement could have been better especially in the second half which is about applying it to and living it in modern times. That half felt like it was just slowly drifting around.

One of the points the book brings up is that Stoicism is from the now-dead side of philosophy about applying philosophy to living--the practical side. That'd be an interesting question to ask someone: how do you live well? That is to say, live a good life.

The traditions of European and modern philosophy have little to say about that.* I wonder how one would live post-modernly or rationally or existentially, at least in how it relates to everyday life or even just getting out of bed. Stoicism's answer is tranquility. (Also being stoic, as in avoiding feelings, is something different from actual Stoicism.) Turns out by nature I'm already halfway there so I'll give it a go. Of course good Stoics don't make a big deal about it.

*Perhaps that's one of the effects of having such a monopolistic religious history in Europe in contrast to India and the Orient. In our civilization a single religion took over via Rome and dominated. Because it dominated its super-natural claims could also be expanded into a system of unchallenged natural ones, that is telling everyone how to live and what should make them content. That dominance extinguished the other systems that overlapped in non-supernatural aspects like stoicism. Philosophy, once it got going again centuries later, then reemerged in other, untouched areas like the meanings of things and what is real and how we interact with it. 

Contrast that to India or China where there has always been a few major religions which have considerably large and developed philosophical aspects. Either the systems have developed to use philosophy to gain a practical advantage over the competing systems or having several religions keeps each from becoming too extreme so they remain friendly and 'tame' enough with the would-be philosophers to capture them for their own advancement.

I also read the Myth of Sisyphus, another philosophical work which is an eighteen century jump ahead to WWII-era France. If you're familiar with mythology, the story is that Sisyphus was punished by having to roll a boulder up a hill, which upon finally reaching the top would roll back down to the bottom to be pushed up again for all eternity. That is, of course, an analogy for things we have to do, or going to work, or just living every day.

The author, Camus, was an abusrdist, which sounds like lots of fun--basically the eternal mismatch between humans trying to find reason and meaning in a cold, empty universe is absurd. After going working through to the ends of this, the conclusion, he says, is that 'we must take Sisyphus to be happy'.

At heart, I suppose I feel most nihilist. I like the absurd approach and it fits as far as I can tell, but it still seems in the end like trying to make lemonade from lemons. All of existentialism for that matter seems like that. What I get from it is the author is saying that as long as you choose to continue living, you're accepting the contradiction, assuming you're aware of it (which you will be after having read a book on it), so you should just be content with it.

Existentialism says that we make our own meanings and stuff like that. Absurdism is a sub-group that goes one step further to recognize that meanings are human and fundamentally conflict with the universe and that humans in their attempt to find meaning are ultimately futile, yet we persist, which is absurd if you think about it.

The trouble with philosophy is that there appears to be nothing objective and everything else that does claim something is an interpretation guided by someone's subjective personal preferences. I think this statement is valid. Nietzsche, for example, tried thinking harder and harder a century ago to come up with a way this statement isn't true and ended up going crazy instead of finding a solution.

Currently I'm a few essays into the Stoic Philosophy of Seneca which is a collection of his writings. I've had a few 'a ha!' moments but I can't seem to recall them now and that's probably why reading right before going to sleep is probably not the ideal time to read if I want to be able to recall specific points later.