Category Archives: Philosophy

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

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The Birth of Kratocracy

Some words die in the course of their usage; others before they ever really get a chance to experience life.  It can be presumed how at least a small fraction of these aborted etyma possess within them the potential to contribute to the greater understanding and advancement of human expression.

Of course, this sentiment certainly does not possess universal application across all fields of study.  As, for instance, when it comes to fields like politics; where words are very much meaningless to begin with.  Add an -ism; concoct a series of phonetic abbreviations; maybe combine some neutral sounding words to disguise egregious breaches of national and international law as passable acts of justice (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques“, “Due process and judicial process are not one and the same“).  The notion of allowing concrete definitions of terms or phrases into their diction would be toxic to political agents, as it would force them to speak and obey the same language as the rest of society.  A move counterproductive to their career interests, since it might serve to give the impression of accountability for one’s words, and the subsequent actions they bring about; a cruel demand on a group of people whose professional existence consists of purposefully rendering words unintelligible.  Among such personnel the only Gospel is “Babel”; the walls of which shan’t ever cometh tumblin’ down, for they stand too high for those from-out to look in, and for those from-in to look out.  In this context, it’s foolish to expect people who don’t occupy the same stratosphere to hear one another’s voice, yet we still insist on debating endlessly why there exists this loss in understanding between man and statesman?

And what is there to understand, really?  Why must there always be either some deeper meaning to a system, or an ominous conspiracy?  Why isn’t it enough to simply acknowledge that people who reside in the same atmosphere will have their perspective shaped by similar interests?  And in such a situation, what need is there for anyone to conspire about anything when everyone who reaches the same elevation already understands the nature of things just by virtue of having climbed the path?

In a kratocracy, where governance (both political and its financed-proxy) rests with those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning, the primary order of business that is expected of every person is to understand who it is you stand under, and follow rank accordingly.  In a kratocratic system, words must remain elastic in their meaning, so that–whenever convenient–the word of law can serve as a mere compilation of semantic loopholes (at least, when applied to the kratocratic lawmakers and financiers themselves).  Anyone who actually makes it up the ranks in this system will understand all of this by fiat; conspiracies and secretive motives are pointlessly redundant in a political order where sabotage and manipulation are not corruptions of the system (hence calls for reform carry little pressure), but inherent attributes of it that get openly rewarded with wealth and power.

Consider the following:  Everyone says they hate the smear ads put out by politicians against their opponents, just like everyone says they “hate” the obscene tabloids that litter the magazine racks of every store.  In other words, the majority of the people who say they detest gossip and mudslinging are obvious liars, on account that if such underhanded antics were truly as universally despised as people claim them to be, this sort of behavior would have fallen into disuse long ago.  But it hasn’t, and it won’t.  Because sabotage and manipulation, as long as they are not pointed out as such, are perfectly decent kratocratic virtues.  Virtues that only become indecent at a lower atmosphere, where the oxygen is too dense to support them.  Up on higher elevation, however, where the gravity of things like ethics and moral conduct don’t appear to weigh a person down as heavily, a different mode of reasoning applies.  None of this is devious or deceptive, as we all passively sanction this disparity for those who occupy seats of authority (both political and by its financed-proxy).  Partly because (as mentioned) we know our rank and don’t really bother to inquire too deeply into the matter, and partly because Babel is much too high up for any of us to strain our necks far enough to really care about what’s going on up there anyway.

The true cunning that sustains a kratocracy is the relatively little effort it takes to sustain it.  Simply draw a few lines in the sand, throw out a few provocative token issues around and behind said lines, and–voila!–watch people preoccupy themselves with these “life or death” topics, and whatever narrative is needed to keep the engine running smoothly will pretty much assemble itself (with the occasional minor tuneup here and there).  Again, no conspiracy needed, since even the people who get caught up in the small-scale politics of the whole thing notice that there is something more important operating around them.  But they don’t care, because as long as they focus on the pet-issues they have adopted as their personal identity, they can say how they’ve done something.  Whether or not its something relevant to challenging and eradicating the source of their cause’s woes is anybody’s guess, because what really matters is the comforting feeling of taking action it gives them.  Thereby, the beauty about a kratocracy is that it allows a person to feel both powerless and powerful at the same time–creating inner dichotomies is the mainstay of cunning authorities.

The Dichotomy of the Martyr and the Satyr:

It’s easy to be oppressed.  In fact, to a growing number of people, this appears to be their primary goal in life.  Observe a group of individuals some time, and watch how–sooner than later–the conversation will descend into a pity-fest of grief and sorrow.  It starts with one person retelling a great trauma in her/his life, and how s/he overcame it.  Which, of course, will cause another person to quickly improvise her/his own tale of painful woe.  Then a third will jump in to match both of the previous life stories with her/his own dose of personal despair.  And around, and around, the self-deprecation goes [where it stops nobody knows–if it ever stops at all, that is].

The assumed purpose in conveying one’s trauma to an audience of equally pitiful (in the sense of being full of pity) onlookers, is to humble oneself by demonstrating the extent of one’s suffering before the cruelty of life, and voice one’s opposition against the systemic source of one’s miseries.  The actual purpose is to elevate one’s sense of self-importance not through any positive accomplishments achieved, but through the sympathies and pities of one’s failures and setbacks.  And if that is not the intent, why go out of your way to rehash matters that are causing you so much apparent pain?  Why would you wish to publicly place yourself (even if just mentally) back in such a situation, unless you gain some–perhaps subconscious–satisfaction out of doing so?  Why would you want to aggrieve others through your anguish, when they cannot feasibly remove your distress for you?  Then again, is removing the trauma really the goal in this mindset?

I may be out of the loop here, but as a general rule oppressed people don’t have the luxury to freely voice grievances about their oppression.  (If they did, how oppressed could they possibly claim to be?)  If they speak of it at all, they do so with the intent to reform, or revolt against, their oppressors, and possibly replace its authority with something more desirable.  People who merely speak (freely and without any evident restraints) about their supposed oppression as a means of gaining acknowledgement for it, are not in the business of either challenging or changing any wrongs in society; what they seek is to attain recognition through metaphorical martyrdom.

Naturally, this martyr complex cannot go wholly unchallenged among the greater public.  And the most biting reaction it will bring about is–what I would call–the Satyr effect.  People who use their past grievances as a means to promote a self-righteous indignation about their person will emit two leading responses: 1. Pity (the desired reaction by the would-be martyr), and 2. Ridicule (i.e. the Satyr effect).  The Satyr sees her/himself as a counterbalance against the overblown austere tone of the martyr.  So, s/he mocks, and ridicules, and uses sharp wit to get the message across that the martyr’s concerns are due little more than a jolly laugh or two.  For her/his part, the Satyr sees her/himself as a hero who speaks the hard truth to the world, and puts a humorous check on the antics of both the authorities and the martyrs of society.

In reality, the Satyr serves the greater purpose of empowering both, by giving them a tangible source to validate their dubious claims of oppression (in the case of the martyr) and benignity (in the case of the authority; who else but a benevolent power allows itself to be mocked mercilessly?–is the popular adage here).  The Satyr can’t admit this, as it would be an acknowledgement of the fact that s/he is simply a byproduct, who exists strictly in reactive form.  And reactions by definition only respond to the products that create them, they do not operate independent of them.  Thus, the Satyr’s image as a hero for truth, and voice for real change or reform, is as unfounded the the martyr’s claim of oppression; and just as self-aggrandizing.

The dichotomy of the martyr and the Satyr are linked together by default.  Where the first appears, the second will follow, and with the advent of the internet age, the rate at which these mindsets spread increases tenfold.  In recent time, they have also become the desired responses by which the modern generation has decided to combat the ills and injustices of the world; unaware of just how helpful this is to the very authorities they claim to be challenging.  This is why, together, the martyr complex and the Satyr effect will ensure that the 21st Century goes down in history as one serious joke.

Reenter kratocracy:

In a kratocracy, you are not oppressed–not really.  If you are among those who fit the personality type, you will be made to feel the wholly illusory role of the oppressed martyr.  Not for the purpose of inflicting any unnecessary pain (or any real pain, for that matter), but to keep you content and docile by giving you the exact dose of self-righteous persecution you crave in order to make your person feel important enough to be faux-oppressed by a “greater” power.  Having tied your self-worth to the “oppressive” system you whinge about, removing this system will be unthinkable as your martyr identity (which is your whole identity) is dependent on its continued existence.  Additionally, you will be too preoccupied with your own unresolvable issues to bother caring too deeply about anything else going on around you.

In a kratocracy, the Satyr–the cynic, the comedian, the witty social commentator–is neither combating nor undermining the governing system by ridiculing its unjust, hierarchical structure.  As the Satyr, you’re actually having the (unbeknownst to you) effect of desensitizing people to the wrongs of the power structure you’re working so hard to mock.  Humor breeds comfort, and comfort breeds content.  It is true that, in feudal days of yonder, it was the Jester who could only speak the brutal truth to the ruler.  Yet, can anyone name a single jester who has ever overthrown a single ruler by virtue of possessing this great privilege of critical commentary?  No, and no jester ever will, because–no matter how much the Satyrs of the world wish it to be otherwise–jokes, even intricately insightful ones, do not have an iota of influence on an authority structure’s hold on power.  (Disagree?–Name one Bush joke in the previous decade that actually had the effect of countering the man’s unwise policies.  Or, for that matter, a single insightful jab at Trump’s lack of qualifications for high office in slowing down his presidential election.  Can’t think of one?  Exactly.)

Kratocracy:  governance by those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning.  What could be more cunning than a system where even a presumed defiance can be utilized and converted back into the service of the authority being defied?  Now, at least, it has an identifiable name; a most acidic move against an entity that depends on the elasticity of words and definitions to survive and operate.

Hypotheses non fingo, hypothesis non egeo

“A god without dominion providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature.”[1]

Much of the 18th Century Enlightenment can be explained by the approach framed by one man, Sir Isaac Newton, whose emphasis on analysis and observation served as a model for future scientific generations that sought to follow in his footsteps.  But unlike many of the minds that would succeed him, Newton was a devout believer in divine authority, and saw no reason to dissever the word of the Almighty from the laws of Nature—ultimately deducing them to be one and the same.  Although Newton saw no contradictions in appealing to the supernatural as a valid explanation to matters of scientific inquiry, the empiricism of 18th Century France began to direct science further away towards the realm of strict materialist rationalism.  In the late 18th and early 19th Century, mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, admiringly called the Newton of France by contemporaries, was the embodiment of the latter sentiment; working relentlessly to understand and solve the minute details Newton had either overlooked or deemed divinely guided.

Laplace’s work was an ambitious attempt to account for how the solar system works; hence appealing to agents beyond the scope of man’s intellect (meaning his intellect) was not just unsatisfactory, but downright unacceptable.  This naturalistic mindset is best illustrated by the oft repeated exchange he had with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802: the story goes how upon receiving one of Laplace’s latest manuscripts aiming to systematically account for the functions of the universe, Napoleon turned to the mathematician and asked Laplace why it is that he had written an entire book about the intricate details of the universe with no mention of God in it, to which Laplace answered bluntly, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”[2]  This exchange reveals much about Laplace’s personal weltanschauung concerning the utility of accepting metaphysical analyses.  Ironically, it also further imitates Newton’s legacy by setting a precedent; a standard of doing science that influenced the subsequent generation of European thinkers to come.  Except in the model set by Pierre Simon Laplace, theology and deities could have no role in scientific reality.

In Laplace’s quest to decipher the mathematical properties of the universe, he committed himself wholeheartedly to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation as proposed by the English natural philosopher in his Principia Mathematica.  To Laplace, if there existed a concept that could bring all the functions known to science at the time together it was gravity as described by Newton, and it is of importance to note that when it comes to his mathematical calculations, Laplace is a strict Newtonian.  And the system he deduced to be at work from all this was self-operating, and firmly set, rendering appeals to the supernatural redundant in the highest degree.  Thus, Laplace must have been baffled to know that Newton himself was not as strict a Newtonian as Laplace was, because despite laying out a mechanical approach to understanding the cosmos, he still left room for a supernatural agent—i.e. God—to not just set the mechanism in motion, but also tinker with it as the he saw necessary.[3]

One particular case that Newton noted as evidence of occasional divine intervention in the solar system concerned the gravitational interactions of Saturn and Jupiter, whose strange pattern of accelerating and decelerating as they revolved on their orbits produced certain mathematical irregularities that suggested that the planetary system would become unstable over time.[4]  And it is in this sort of an apparently scientific anomaly that Newton asserted that the hand of God is required to sustain and stabilize the system into order.  Laplace could not accept Newton’s conclusion on this problem, and would spent a significant amount of his professional career providing mathematical evidence as to why Newton was wrong to presuppose divine assistance when his own work points to quite the opposite.

Laplace’s earliest attempt to answer the dilemma posed by the Jupiter/Saturn problem, presented in 1773, resulted in his conclusion that the gravitational attraction mutually exerted by planets was negligible, even nil.[5]  However, he did not find this answer satisfactory, and presented another—what he considered more thorough—explanation a decade later to the French Academy of Sciences, in his famous 1785 paper, Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et satellites.  Here, Laplace approached the Jupiter/Saturn problem by stating that the discrepancies observed in regard to planetary orbits, and how their motions affected the relative stability of the solar system, can be accounted for mathematically because they do in fact regularly reverse themselves when one maps out their motions on a long-term basis, proving the system to be stable after all.[6]  Though we know today that Laplace’s calculations exaggerated the stability of the solar system (there exists quite a bit of irregularity in the cosmos), his unyielding pursuit of a naturalistic explanation to the problem gives a lot of insight into his staunch determinism, where every event is caused by a verifiably preceding event and will result in a predictable consequent, excluding supernaturalism from its framework.  It is the principle around which Laplace would strive to orient his scientific career, and establish his personal ideals under.

By 1802, the year of his famous encounter with the First Consul of France, Laplace was 53 years old and highly regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians in France.  He had survived the turmoil of the French Revolution that had taken the lives of so many of his colleagues by always maneuvering himself in the right political circles, but never associating himself to any one group closely enough to suffer their eventual downfalls.  Throughout the mid-late 1790s, Laplace began to have an increasing presence within political circles, starting with a string of leading positions in the founding of the Bureau des Longitudes (created in 1795 for the advancement of astronomy in the French Republic) and the Institute National des Sciences et des Arts (serving as a successor to the defunct Academy of Sciences, organized for the purpose of utilizing science for the benefit of the new Republic).  Laplace’s role as a leading figure in France’s scientific community made his inclusion in these activities a necessity for the state, and brought him closer into the spotlight of the national scene, meaning closer to the man who was accumulating more power within France, Napoleon Bonaparte—the recipient of Laplace’s blunt statement about God’s absence in the workings of the universe.

A lot of Laplace’s influence in the early 19th Century can be attributed to his personal relationship with General Bonaparte, who upon seizing power in 1799 appointed the mathematician as his minister of the interior. This gave Laplace his first taste of true political power (even though Napoleon soon regretted the decision, as the ministerial post proved to be a poor match for the meticulous scientists).  Later in life, Laplace would comment how when it comes to politically ambitious individuals, “rather than crave their lot, I am more likely to pity them.”[7]  Though he relieved Laplace as minister of the interior soon after appointing him, Napoleon ensured Laplace’s position in a more politically ceremonial role in the newly forged Senate in late 1799, naming him secretary of the Senate in 1800, and eventually chancellor of the Senate in 1803.  Laplace used his sway in politics to benefit science and its practitioners, and indeed it appears as if his primary actions involved the advancement of scientific institutes,[8] earning him much praise from the rest of the academic world.[9]  This is very much in contrast to his idol Newton, who mostly shied away from the public eye all through his life.  Also unlike Newton, Laplace did not care to allow potential successors to arbitrarily follow in his footsteps, but sought to carefully select the best and the brightest to be included in his scientific projects; founding an elite social club for budding scientists called the Societe d’Arcueil in 1806 to promote what is referred to today as the Laplacian program.  The Laplacian program of precise experimentation and consistent mathematical theory set-up by the Societe would influence the direction of French scientific learning for nearly two decades, only fading out close to Laplace’s death in the 1820s as the group virtually imploded in its overreaching quest to account for everything in existence.

The standard by which Laplace was eager to frame and promote the study of science was a clear reflection of his own ambitious attempt to explain the nature of the various components, and how they operate to make up all the matter surrounding life and the universe.[10]  Thus, the only logically consistent position this sort of mindset could lead to for someone like Laplace is that as far as he is concerned the laws of nature are static, leaving no room for miracles of any sort, chiding past and contemporary scientists for straying away from what he thought ought to have been their better judgment and slipping into the realm of unfounded superstition.[11]

Laplace clearly idolized Newton, and was thoroughly committed to Newton’s theory of gravity as a universal truth that gives a sufficient account of how the solar system functions.  But he never shared Newton’s strong religious convictions, and never understood how a mind so great as to practically invent physics, did not reach the same metaphysical conclusions Laplace himself had done through his own work on calculating the cosmos.[12]  Whereas Newton asserted that the observation of peculiar patterns in the motion of planets and other celestial bodies was a sign for the occasional suspension of natural laws to validate the necessity of a Supreme Being’s oversight in the ultimate structure of the universe, Laplace saw these same peculiarities as natural consequences of these very same laws Newton was willing to suspend, seeing no function for God to play in what he considered to be a wholly deterministic system.

Laplace was a young man he was dubbed the “Newton of France,” but, unfortunately, Newton had not left a lot of unexplored domains for his intellectual heir to discover, leaving the ambitious Frenchman to be content with exploring the areas where his forbearer had been negligent: working out the minuscule details that combine to make up the grand picture.  To a devout believer such as Isaac Newton, the presence of God within our reality is the grandest of all explanations; to a man like Pierre-Simon Laplace, focusing on the minute workings of the larger framework, the concept of God can never reach more than a hypothesis.  A hypothesis that might be satisfactory to the philosophically inclined, but to Laplace, the empiricist, the scientist, it is a hypothesis for which there is no need.

[1] Newton, Isaac.  1687.  Principia Mathematica. “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy, Rule IV”.

[2] Hahn, Roger. The Analytic Spirit, ed. Harry Wolf. “Laplace and the Vanishing Role of God in the Physical Universe” (Ithaca, 1981), p. 85.

[3] Newton, Isaac. 1776.  Principia. General Scholium.

[4] Gillispie, Charles Couston.  Pierre-Simon Laplace: A Life in Exact Science (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1997, p. 47.

[5] Hahn, Roger.  Pierre Simon Laplace: A Determined Scientist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 2005, p. 78.

[6] Laplace, Pierre Simon.  1785.  “Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et des satellites.”  A detailed account that helps to clarify some of the technical jargon of Laplace’s conclusions can be found in Chapter 16 of Gillispie’s book, titled “Planetary Astronomy”, p. 124-145.

[7] Hahn 2005, p. 130.

[8] Hahn 2005, p. 133-134.

[9] Monatliche Corrospondenz zur Beforderung der Erd-und Himmels-Kunde 6, 1802, p. 272-278

[10] Laplace, Pierre-Simon. 1801. Mecanique Celeste, p. 121-122.   

[11] Moniteur Universal. 28 January 1795, p. 530.

[12] Hahn 2005, p. 201.

The Death of Philosophy

1704, is the year that Isaac Newton published his revolutionary work Opticks; this is also the date that Philosophy, as a means of evaluating the world, conclusively died.  The work looked at the phenomenon of light, not through introspection propositions, but through strenuous experimentation and analyses.  Newton went so far as to stick a bodkin under his eye to see the effect it would have on his ability to see and register light.  No matter how many logical premises a philosopher erects, s/he will never be able to come close to providing this sort of insight about reality.

On the same note, there is no solely philosophical argument that can be made to conclusively demonstrates that two objects dropped from the same height, but of different mass, will hit the ground at the same time.  Nor that the earth orbits the sun.  (In fact, based on observations, a logically philosophical argument could be made to argue against the heliocentric model.)  For any of these things empirical data must be gathered.  When it comes to actually proving the soundness of its premises, philosophical studies today, have to always yield authority to the results of other academic disciplines.

Apologists will insist that my definition of philosophy is a strawman; that I’m stretching its definition in such a way, so I can then turn around and denounce the entire thing when it naturally fails to live up to my faux-interpretation.  I don’t consider this as much of a refutation, but more of an attempt to sidestep the conversation.

Philosophy was once a necessity in academic thought, because it was the pith of academia.  There was once a time when one individual’s musings would have been sufficient to overturn whole paradigms worth of our relations with reality.  However, for the last three centuries, the center of knowledge has gone through a transitional period; that is to say, the worthy functions of philosophy have evolved to more systematic and critical disciplines of thought, and what remains is a thrown away shell of sophistry.

It is no longer enough to ponder about ideas, and be satisfied by a speculation simply because it sounds philosophically plausible.  No!–there must be a convergence on ideas, and these convergences must be verified with broader (and narrower) ideas still, backed by a plethora of tangible empirical evidence.  Otherwise no reliable account of reality has been given, and to continue to build possibly false premises on top of an unverified structure is the antithesis of loving wisdom; it is a desecration of wisdom.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say.  I am fully aware that a great deal of our species intellectual development of the last few centuries–even millennia–has been spearheaded by philosophers, and philosophical intrigue.  And at the most fundamental level, it can be argued that all people of functioning mental facilities use philosophy to evaluate the world around them.  What I mean when I say philosophy, is strictly confined to philosophical scholarship.

Indeed, Philosophy, as a viable academic discipline, is dead.  But knowing the nature of man, its shadow is bound to haunt the lecture halls for generations to come.

The Rationality of Suicide

[Disclaimer:  Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I feel it necessary to mention that the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone to commit suicide, nor is it meant to trivialize the seriousness of suicide as a psychiatric issue.  On the contrary, I see this as a very serious matter, and encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts to seek immediate help from trained professionals, and/or turn to trusted friends and family in their lives to manage through their personal distress.]

For the sake of brevity, allow me to list what forms of suicide I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of saving another life.  Generally, people think quite highly of these sort of acts, and view them as very dissimilar to what most of us commonly refer to when we speak of suicide (a point I won’t be arguing against, because I agree that the two are in fact not the same).  Likewise, most people can imagine themselves empathizing with persons who are experiencing such agonizing physical suffering that it would be cruel to deny them their wish to be free of their pain permanently; even going so far as to accept the moral necessity to assist such individuals in their final act.  I would argue that when it comes to the topic of suicide most people see the above scenarios as exceptions to the norm, and therefore wouldn’t hesitate to call for a moment’s worth of pause, sympathy, and contemplation over the circumstantial details surrounding each situation.  However, the sort of suicide I wish to discuss here isn’t warrant for such nuanced introspection in most people’s eyes.  What I’m talking about is the act of a physically healthy, seemingly autonomous individual deciding to take his/her life for no greater reason other than simply not wanting to live any longer.

From what I’ve gathered in the public discourse on this type of suicide (i.e. the definition most people picture when they think of suicide) the topic inspires an almost universal revulsion, condescension, and condemnation of the very idea of it (and, often, the person who committed the act).  At best, the response garners a pitying tsk-tsk from onlookers, before they opine how cowardly and selfish the person is for taking his/her life.  There is an intense knee-jerk hostility in the tone directed towards those who kill themselves, where it almost sounds as if the person who chose to end his/her life has committed some great offense against all our collective sensibilities.  Additionally, there is very much a “How dare you?” subtext that seems to linger between the lines of the reasons people give for their disgust with the act (and, as mentioned before, the individual who has committed it).

“How dare you?  Don’t you know that life is sacred?”

Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, no matter what the objective merit of life may be, this is not much of a retort against the individuals who commit suicide for the mere fact that these individuals might very well agree that life, in general, is sacred and valuable, but they simply don’t extend this moral axiom to themselves as individuals.  This is actually not a contradiction in reasoning, as it’s undeniable that generalized precepts always break down at the level of the individual.  For instance, take the statement that all societies have developed some sort of moral code of behavior for their communities.  This is true, and usually gets internalized by the individuals within the society who follow the moral norms of their community–except for the individuals who don’t.  The existence of individuals who don’t follow societal morals does not invalidate the value of said morals.  Similarly, a person can be within the bounds of reasonable thought to deduce how although life as a whole is important/sacred/valuable/etc., his/her life as an individual plays too negligible of a factor in the greater scheme on which this moral precept operates to matter one way or another.

And there is a dose of rationality behind this, in that as far as society is concerned individuals are largely interchangeable, and even dispensable.  Your life has as much meaning as you can attribute to it on a personal level.  Thus, if an individual person ceases to be able to attribute any worthwhile meaning to his/her life, insisting otherwise isn’t going to instill a different perspective into his/her mind.  This in itself is not a justification for committing suicide, but it is a retort to the insistence that those who commit suicide are committing a crime against the “sanctity” of life as a whole.

“How dare you?  You’re going to die one day anyway, so you might as well appreciate the gift of life you’ve been given no matter how bad you might think it is.”

The problem with this line of logic is that a suicidal person can easily turn it around and ask why, since s/he is going to die one day anyway, it matters whether it’s now or 80 years from now?  In all fairness, I know that the point this reactions is driving at is the notion that no matter how dire one’s circumstances may be, the very fact that you have the opportunity to experience these circumstances, and experience life itself, is something worth preserving for as long as possible; precisely because there will come a time in which you will no longer have the ability to choose between life over death (neither its desirable or less desirable components).  Yet, as poetically appealing as this is, the truth is that this reaction commits the same error in reasoning that the previous one does.  Namely, it conflates the notion of Life (writ large) and generalizes the connotations and values ascribed to it with the values of any individual life.  Yes, life is a rare and fleeting phenomenon that those of us who have had the chance to be born and experience should consider ourselves lucky to have done so.  But this is a meaningless statement to the individual suicidal person who does not feel this way about his/her individual life.

To continuously hark this person about how life itself is grand and a blessing, in all these general terms does not give an iota of a reason why such qualifiers need necessarily be extended to said person’s individual life.  It is a fallacy to take the general attributes ascribed to a group and apply them to the random individual in said group (it’s called the ecological fallacy, to be precise).  Not to mention it is very likely that one motivating factor that drives suicidal persons to kill themselves is the realization that relative to the grand lives they observe all those around them, their individual existence falls short of any such splendor.  Hence, if the argument against suicide rests on the premise that one shouldn’t do it because life is too awesome, and the individual is painfully aware that in contrast his/her individual life is not at all awesome, what exactly is the rationale to continue on (from the perspective of the individual)?

“How dare you?  Suicide is an act of cowardice.  You should face your problems instead of running from them.”

This is where the condescension comes into play.  The demand to face one’s problems becomes a bit of an absurd statement to the individual who views life itself as his/her primary problem.  This person has no choice but to face “their problem” on a daily basis, which is…well…sort of the major part of their problem.  What the statement is really trying to say is that you should face the things in life that are causing you grief and deal with them.  But what if you honestly cannot resolve the issues in life that are causing you to contemplate ending it?  What if you have tried and tried, and searched for decades to find some means to overcome your grief, but have found no remedy, and have concluded that no remedy exists?  Have you failed to “deal” with your problems at this point?  Other than a few catchy, bumper-sticker worthy, feel-good slogans, what actual practical advice can be said to an individual in this situation?  Because to tell someone that they need to “face their problems” is a very, very easy thing to do on anyone’s part, but unless this statement is accompanied with a feasibly attainable set of solutions the distressed individual can utilize to overcome their distress, your profound insights are more likely to just make him/her feel even more hopeless about life.

Suicide is undoubtedly a taboo in most of Western society (in modern times and antiquity), for if it were not we would not have bothered to make it an unpardonable sin both in religious doctrines and secular philosophies.  We, as collective members of what we like to think of is a relatively stable and well-functioning community (and, generally speaking, it is), do tend to empathize strongly with fellow travelers in this land who are suffering and seek out help (though unfortunately we often find ourselves making exceptions this instinctive reaction, too, all for varying reasons and interests).  Yet, when it comes to those who took it upon themselves to permanently withdraw from the anguish they felt in life, we respond with a sense of defensiveness and betrayal.  And I would argue it’s not really because of the individual who committed suicide itself, because unless we knew the individual personally our reactions to the act can only dwell within the realm abstract idealism.  I think it has more to with the fact that we spend a great deal of energy convincing ourselves that whatever pain, whatever setback, whatever dilemma or trauma we have to endure, life itself–that is life for the sake of life–must still be worth pursuing, if for no other reason than that it is the only grand experience of which we can be certain.  Thus, we will always reason that, more often than not, even a painfully tormented life is better than no life at all.  And we will emotively dismiss any suggestion that the act of suicide can be the result of a valid and sound line of reasoning on the part of the individuals who take the dire step.  Because, to be honest, we would rather tolerate for a person to continue living in mental distress, as long as it means we get to preserve our ideals about the greater value of our lives.  Which is what it all ultimately boils down to.

Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

In 1784, German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared the motto of enlightenment as, “Have courage to use your own reason!”  He goes further to indict laziness and cowardice as the reasons why much of mankind repeatedly fails to uphold this motto, and instead prefers to remain under lifelong tutelage of external influences:

If I have a book which understands me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself.  I need not think, if I can only pay–others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The theme of self-determination (both politically and as a matter of personal principle) runs deep in the writings that came to define the Enlightenment tradition.  However, emerging within a culture of authoritarianism, to promote the values of individual reason and expression as the primary moral principles in life were inseparable from outright heresy.  But it is exactly this so-called heretical mindset that Kant urges the masses to embrace, precisely because it will free them from those who have appointed themselves as guardians of their thoughts:

After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are confined, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.

Naturally, Kant considers the implied danger to be a farce concocted by these self-appointed guardians to preserve their own authority, and the deception largely persists because the ordinary man “has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.”  And that is the primary intent of Kant’s appeal on behalf of reason; simply for the public to be given the opportunity to be guardians of their own mental faculties–i.e. their own enlightenment.  Kant believes that an enlightened public is not only a desirable goal, but an obviously possible one, because “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”

However, Kant still remains realistic in his own idealism for an enlightened public.  He understands that many prejudices have been ingrained in the public’s psyche that are outright counter to enlightenment thinking, and that therefore “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.”  He reasons that while tyrannical regimes can be toppled by speedy revolutions, they do not remove said prejudices and predispositions that prevent the public from embracing enlightenment, and that different measures are necessary to reform the ways by which people think (or, rather, refuse to think).

Freedom, of course, is the primary component needed in Kant’s view for an enlightened society.  Namely the freedom to think, and  “make public use of one’s reason at every point.”  Unfortunately, though a simple proposition, there exists much standing in the way of achieving this level of public awareness:

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!”  The officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

The prince Kant is talking about is Frederick II of Prussia, whose civil reforms the philosopher sees as necessary preconditions for creating an enlightened society.  (Reaffirming this point later on in the essay, when he declares, “Do we now live an enlightened age? The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment / or the century of Frederick.”)

Despite his call for complete freedom for a citizen to use his reason, Kant does differentiate between a person’s right to espouse his opinion freely, and the right of a state to place certain mandate’s on a person’s freedoms when it comes to exercising its right to govern over said person as a subject to its laws.  For instance:

The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as scandal.  But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of these levies.

The hallmark of modern democracy is the right we as a citizenry have to petition our government, either directly or through our elected representatives, to change and shape the laws we abide by in accordance with out collective understand of what is moral and what is just.  Hence, what Kant is proposing above seems rather uncontroversial to us in the 21st century; however, in 1784, a proposition such as this was quite radical indeed.  For to suggest to an absolutist authority, be it monarchical or clerical, that the public ought to be free to openly reason, question, and argue all matters of thinking, including the very function of the authorities that preside over them, is to a hitherto unchallenged power the first an open call for anarchy and heresy.  Kant remains unfazed by such objections, as he clearly lines out how his proposal is neither destabilizing for the state, nor damning for the public’s salvation, because enlightenment–as a product of allowing the pubic its freedom of reason–is the fundamental component in nurturing a society that, even while it remains free to voice its dissatisfaction with the authorities presiding over it, the very freedom of being granted a voice at all endears the public to the system that has set up the parameters that grant such freedoms that treat them “in accordance with their dignity.”

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is Enlightenment?” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your purported interests lie in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignities and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.