In Greece: Sunshine, Blue Skies and Somber Thoughts
In Athens Greece, my days were bright and sunny, but at the Acropolis Museum, my thoughts were of a darker hue.
There I saw, among many fascinating items, two ancient artifacts, recovered from the Acropolis’ archaeological sites: ‘The Pensive Athena’ and 'The Dead Meeting Philosophers'.
The former shows Athena, Greece’s Goddess of Wisdom, in a somber pose, hence the title ‘Pensive Athena’ or ‘Mourning Athena.’ See link.
The other is a fragment of funerary table-the slab where they put a dead body-retrieved from the ruins of a house and teaching studio occupied by Proclus, a Neo-Platonic Philosopher, discovered near the Acropolis. See this link.
As these artifacts suggest, the price of wisdom may be a somber, pensive cast of mind. Or is it? Perhaps philosophy can help us find a richer type of happiness that will take us beyond both grief and the pursuit of sensual pleasure? If so what is that type of ‘happiness’? Or should we have another goal besides ‘happiness’? Alternatively, perhaps we should just stoically accept the role of the ‘unhappy thinker’ as the inevitable plight of a serious philosopher?
Sidebar on “Happiness” and “Pleasure”
In this discussion, we will discuss these terms and concepts:
Hedonism: Pursuit of happiness through large quantities of physical pleasure.
Composure and Moderation: Finding happiness through moderating our pleasures (“Nothing in excess”). Emphasis on quality not quantity.
Sublime: Finding a kind of ‘scary’ pleasure through ‘awe,’ an emotion that arises from experiencing mysteries and the formless (strange, vast, without limits).
Resignation and apatheia: Finding equilibrium (a balanced mind) by controlling our extreme emotions in response to, for example, death or changes in personal fortunes.
Philosophical Pessimism: Philosophical inquiry is necessarily linked to extreme emotions rather than directed to expunging or moderating them.
Philosophical Optimism: Philosophical inquiry can lead to moderation and equilibrium.
The Happy Yet Discontented Paradox: It is better to find the happiness and dignity flowing from the use of our higher faculties, despite resulting discontents, than finding satisfaction though baser pleasures.
In considering whether the pursuit of wisdom will inevitably lead to somber pessimism, Nietzsche challenges us to face some brutal questions. He says:
Is pessimism necessarily the sign of collapse, destruction, of disaster, of the exhausted and enfeebled instincts… Is there pessimism of strength? An intellectual inclination for what in existence is hard, dreadful, evil, and problematic; emerging from what is healthy, from overflowing well being, from living existence to the full? Is there perhaps a way of suffering from the very fullness of life? A tempting courage of the keenest sight which demands what is terrible as the enemy, the worthy enemy, against which it can test its power, from which it wants to learn what “to fear” means?
In contrast, Nietzsche says that Socrates, and science, as well as other philosophers, who try to find tranquility through their thinking, such as Epicurus, represent an optimism that is actually “a sign of collapse, exhaustion, sickness, the anarchic dissolution of the instinct.” The serenity of the ‘theoretical man’ –this so-called “Socratism”- is not a strength but a sign of weakness, a “red sunset’ (Nietzsche). In other words, the decline and fall-‘decadence’ is presaged by a peaceful mind. This gives new meaning to ‘our twilight years.’
Philosophical Optimism: The ‘Power of Positive Thinking’
In the dialogue Crito, Socrates is shown as on the eve of his execution. His philosophical journey has brought him to the end of his life, resulting from the Athenian prosecution of him for atheism that has culminated in a death sentence.
Crito, his friend, comes to visit Socrates in the early morning, and remarks on how peacefully (“sweetly”) Socrates is sleeping. In fact, Crito is quite amazed how happy Socrates is considering the fate he is confronting. Often before, Crito has considered Socrates a happy man “but far more so in the present calamity, seeing how easily and meekly you [Socrates] bear it.”
However, Socrates is “thinking positive” as we say today. He is getting on in years [Socrates was reputedly 70 at the time] so he is not distressed or pessimistic. Socrates says:
Crito, it would be disconsonant [that is, inconstant] for a man at my time of life to repine because he must needs die.
Socrates is facing (in the words of Nietzsche) the “hard, dreadful, evil, and problematic”, yet he has found composure.
The passage above from Crito contains the seeds of the Roman philosophical school of Stoicism. We confront our misfortunes by finding composure through philosophical reflection. Understanding the meaning of reality through reason is the key to finding happiness.
For the Stoic, the goal of philosophy is to create Equanimity- a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.
Once we understand that we only have control of our own minds and will, that nature and reality are providential, and hence beyond our power to direct, then we are in a position to be free from external influences, including personal losses and the will of others.
The true Stoic faces death itself with composure as death is part of providential nature.
The Stoics sought freedom from all passions (apatheia). It meant eradicating the tendency to react emotionally or egotistically to external events – the things we cannot control.
For the Stoics, it was the optimum rational response to the world, for we cannot control things that are caused by the will of others or by Nature; we can only control our own will.
Another similar philosophical school is Epicureanism that emphasized moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships. This world-view is also an exercise in philosophical optimism, one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural, and can teach us how to find happiness in almost any situation. Epicureanism is a kind of moderated hedonism-Hedonism –Lite- that also believes in ‘nothing in excess.’
This optimistic view that philosophy can lead to moderation and equilibrium is what Nietzsche considers a sign of decline and sickness.
“Better Socrates Dissatisfied Than a Fool Satisfied”
However, perhaps the conflict between the pessimistic and optimistic philosopher is a false dichotomy.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill famously said:
"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question."
Mill asserts that there is a higher happiness that they derive from the use of our higher rational faculties. People, Mill argues, who employ higher faculties actually can be dissatisfied and discontented. However, their pleasure is of a higher character than that of an animal or a foolish person. (For an example of such a “fool” see below). The happiness they find is a richer happiness.
This sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire.
The person who indulges in the hedonistic pursuit of baser pleasures quickly becomes frustrated with the fleeting nature of the satisfactions arising from his pursuits. For example, in the film Shame http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1723811/ the protagonist-surely a great example of the “fool” to which Mill referred- suffers from unquenchable sexual desires; he is never finds any peace but is always searching for a new sexual ‘high.’ Pleasure for him lies in quantity. He is the classic hedonist who eventually loses his dignity.
In contrast, the person who philosophizes (so goes the argument) may find less personal contentment because though they also discover limitations they also achieve a higher quality of pleasure though the exercise of their higher faculties.
In other words, is one doomed to be unhappy in one sense, but not in another?
Is Philosophy emotionally like a Scary Story or Movie-or Great Party with Good Wine and Conversation?
How then are we to reconcile these mixed messages- or better mixed feelings?
Philosophy being a restless search and desire for the truth may make us unsatisfied with everyday life. Our old pleasures and satisfactions do not seem enjoyable anymore. They seem stale, puny and trifling.
Yet the restless Socratic pursuit does not necessarily seem to give contentment. It leads us to see limitations in our arguments, as well as in other people. Even worse, when we philosophize we think a lot about death, the ultimate limitation. This can make us uncomfortable and discontented. Where is the pleasure in this-if any?
So what unique pleasures does philosophy give?
• Does philosophy give us the same pleasure that a scary movie or story gives?
Scary stories and films give us discomfort yet they also give us a kind of pleasure.Think about the feelings that Halloween invoke: a sense of revulsion mixed with awe and a weird kind of pleasure when we think about death and its mysteries.
A philosopher Immanuel Kant once called this sense of awe invoked by the vast and formless the sublime.
Perhaps this is the kind of pleasure that philosophy gives? We mull over the meaning of death, as well as the vast mysteries of life and its meanings. We try to understand yet at times it seems to overwhelm us. However, we find a strange kind of pleasure and happiness in confronting a reality that suddenly appears strange whereas (before we took up philosophy) it once appeared ordinary and ‘commonsensical’.
The “Dead Meeting the Philosophers” artifact seems to invoke this sense of strangeness. It has a feeling of the weird and supernatural.
However, maybe philosophical feelings can instead be joined to hedonistic and physical pleasures?
• Instead, perhaps the pleasures invoked by philosophy are similar to those invoked by a great party with good companionship and plenty of wine and food?
In the great Platonic work, The Symposium a philosophical discussion, given in a form of various speeches, occurs at a banquet. In the course of the evening, there are explicit references to sexual matters, including sex between men and boys.
Philosophical investigations about the meaning of love, expressed through speech, are linked to an event where hedonistic desires are freely expressed. As one of the characters at the banquet, Alcibiades (Socrates’ would-be lover) says “wine is -with or without boys- truthful.”
Philosophical investigations in other words have an erotic charge that is not unlike the frenzy that arises from the pursuit of pleasure, wine and sex. A restless search for the truth is a sensual experience.
Your thoughts on the emotional impact of philosophy
I am interested in your thoughts on this. What other types are there-and do they impede or advance the Socratic/philosophical inquiry?
For example, Martin Luther, the notable theologian and founder of the Reformation, denounced philosophy as the “devil’s whore.” Clearly the emotion behind this statement is emotional disgust and revulsion. This does not bode well for the Socratic/philosophical inquiry.