Self Reliance Not Counseling- A Contemporary Perspective On Practical Philosophy And Its Relationship With The Individual
Still in 2014 we have to ask what practical philosophy is and who is the practical philosopher? There is no doubt that practical philosophy is a global enterprise that has established itself as a way of using philosophy to investigate human problems applied to the individual1 1. And on the face of it this would seem to open the door to what could be a great breadth of enterprise in the true philosophically investigative tradition. But this has not happened. Under the influence of the contemporary neoliberal culture the practical philosopher has been largely led astray by the idea that investigating human problems means following the analytic model of counselling laid down by post-Freudian/post-Jungian psychoanalysts. The result has been that under the spell of bringing rational technique to the aid of those perplexed or confused, the practical philosopher in the guise of counsellor proffers the thoughts of philosophers mostly gone by as some form of given truth; and this can so easily become aphorisms of sages for the clinically depressed—Plato not Prozac2. Plato not Prozac, a sound principle, and a revolutionary statement that injected great force into the modern movement of practical philosophy—Philosophy not Therapy, but a principle quickly hijacked by the therapeutic method to which it sought to be an alternative; the step-change in practical philosophy brought about a tendency to philosophical practice and that has not been practising a method of philosophising but instead the organisation of practitioners—philosophical therapists So, as the Sophist was reviled for selling techniques for winning arguments, so also modern practical philosophers should be condemned if they simply help plot some sort of life-coaching course for their couch bound clients.
The true path of practical philosophy should more properly be a metaphysically based system of examination and enlightenment. It is my belief that contemporary practical philosophy has invested too much time in training philosophical counsellors who it then empowers with the authority to earn money from their clients. This process gives scant or no attention to the enlightening role of metaphysics as a foundation for the individual’s route to living a good life. I contend that there is nothing of truth or virtue, and so nothing of philosophical worth, in helping someone succeed in, for example, a job interview, and any such endeavour should not be sold as anything truly philosophical.
A practical philosophy for living can be passed on, intoned, inferred, or implied by action but it cannot be abstracted from the psychological depths by some counselling technique employed by the psychoanalytically influenced listener in the quiet room, tissue box at the ready. Practical philosophy is an informing practice; it can be known and done—it is not necessarily ever a revelation of inner knowledge to the individual but more a revelation of real truth to the real self. Without some investigation into the nature of real truth no revelation can be trusted—to be is to be known. As its name implies practical philosophy is philosophical practice and only with basic knowledge can the practice can get underway. How philosophical practice affects the individual will be a matter of personal discovery, but the basis upon which those affects occur can, with the employment of fitting practical philosophy, be at least well founded, sound and appropriate. There is no meaningful description of practical philosophy that defines it as a therapeutic relationship between trained counsellor and needy client involving the exchange of money. Practical philosophy should be shared not sold.
Drawing upon metaphysical concepts practical philosophy can enable self improvement by examination of appropriate human concerns: action based upon an understanding of change and meaning can lead the individual to recognition of how life can be most valuably approached. Practical philosophy should not be seen as a method of making a living but as an involvement in a real world of self understanding and revealed truth. I have previously discussed how practical philosophy can benefit from a revealed metaphysical grounding and how such grounding is a necessary ethical foundation for anything philosophically practical.3 Here I provide a description of the areas that are most importance to the task of living, together with ideas on how they can be meaningfully tackled; I judge this approach eminently practical and properly philosophical.
1. Changing myself
If our lives are not purposeful and rewarding, then our lives are pointless. We are not, unfortunately, so readily favoured with these essential attributes. In the normal run of things, if health and inclination allow, in order to attain a purposeful and rewarding life we need to explore who we are, and expose to ourselves, and possibly to others, the features of our individuality. This is the creative engagement with the world that is exclusively ours. Purpose in our lives is contained in a sequence: change (in myself), meaning (in my life), freedom (to choose, to change, to love), action (to open up to possibilities), how we should act.4 Change in myself is the basis; we cannot approach the subsequent sequence, in any way, without this initial openness to the various directions of our lives in the future.5
It is commonly believed that oil lies beneath the ground in reservoirs—large lakes lying on the floors of vast underground caverns. Under this impression, we imagine the drill breaking through the ceiling of the cavern, descending, entering the black sea and drawing up the contents to the surface. We picture the oil running towards the light, gushing explosively into the brightness of the surface world. So too, we think of discovering our true self, or elements of it. Subconscious problems, we judge, lie within us like encapsulated reservoirs—a childhood experience, a hint of disgust, a wish unfulfilled and corrupted, or a fear embedded and disguised. Such problems, we infer, wait to be found, to be cracked open and released. We imagine that giving them freedom will open our life to a fresh brightness of knowledge, as if release itself holds the key to change and freedom. It is the same for our conscious problems. Should we act this way? Is this action in good faith? Is there a moral conflict? We convince ourselves—perhaps mirroring the consumer trading pattern of neoliberalism that currently dominates the Western world—that in exchange for the effort of bringing our problems to the surface, and by seeing them in the light, truth will be our reward. In this way, we can conveniently cure our latent ills, un- confuse our confusions, give integrity to our actions, somehow go forward better prepared, cleansed, changed, enhanced and strengthened.
Sadly, our understanding of geology, if we make the reservoir assumption, is wrong. Oil only rarely its in reservoirs. Usually it is bonded within the solid rock, impregnating seemingly boundless masses of sandstone or limestone, buried in the pressurized subterranean darkness of the earth; where it is, the earth is thick with it, making denser the already dense, filling up the pores of the deepest strata. Oil is a permeating blackness filling the already black—as Nigel Smalls says, “None Blacker”.6 It is the same with the psychopathology that stalks us, the worries that inhabit us, and the dilemmas that strain to pull us apart; such features, known and unknown, are integral to our very being—bonded into us, filling us, making more dense the already crammed. When it comes to the earth, or the complexity of our own inner darkness, we can rightly exclaim, “Lady, it’s rock all the way down!”7
Change in ourselves is not explosive, it does not gush to the surface, and although we may have moments of revelation, these are more likely pinnacles in the underlying fabric of self-knowledge. Neither do we locate, identify, and remove our problems as if we were chipping samples from barely exposed strata. Instead, if we are to become rewarded by individual purpose, we must come to understand the nature of our own geology; we must come to be acquainted with where the oil lies, come to accept what we are, and come to accept that the only thing which is important is our own sense of meaning and how this leads us to act. This does not mean that we do not examine ourselves, far from it, self-examination is crucial, but we do not look for reservoirs that we can drain. Instead, we look beyond ourselves at how we can change, not so much in ourselves but how as individuals we can go forward in our own creative world of future. We should not expect to purchase change by trading away our discovered ills. It simply is not like that. If I had a bad experience when I was four, I will always have had that bad experience when I was four. That experience has, in one way or another, contributed to what I am, and nothing can change that. Moreover, I should not want it changed. We are not a shelf upon which we can assemble only the goods we want. What I can do though, is change how I am now, change how I act from now on, change how I accommodate what I am, and change myself into the future which is mine and mine alone.
2.1 Is there any meaning at all?
Life itself may be meaningless, it may serve no purpose beyond the purposes which it finds for itself in survival and procreation—there is no way of telling. However, life almost certainly includes consciousness—we seem to know that we are conscious. Even if we hold back from Cartesian certainty of a mental existence separate from our bodies, even if we caste ourselves as little more than a Humean bundle of perceptions, we still think in some way that we are. What we seem to be conscious of may be mistaken—it may be a false impression either in part or whole—but there is a high probability that consciousness is happening and that we are part of it. Assuming it is, then we must assume it is part of the universal fabric. And any even brief period of consciousness in a universe which contains consciousness would appear to enable the realisation of other parts of the universe. Being conscious of parts of the universe in the Berkeleyan sense, causes them, if not to exist as material substance then at least to be known as conscious entities and therefore existence as being. Descent into solipsism is the only threat to this claim. If it is only consciousness which performs the role of making the universe available, then consciousness is crucial to universal existence. Such importance though, has limited individual scope even though it would make our life part of a meaningful structure. The realisation, and consequent existential impoverishment, often leads to a desire or need for the authority and security of a greater, maybe divine power. This way of thinking, however, backfires. We may suppose God exists, and God may have purpose in mind for us, but any subordination to God’s purpose further reduces our importance as an individual. Our grip on individual meaning is tenuous in any circumstance. Anything beyond our own life and certain death can only be supposed—it cannot be known. If there is any meaning to individual life it can only be found in our life as we experience it—meaning can only be meaning for me.
2.2 Ultimate meaning
Before we can think about how to conduct our life we must think about whether or not our life is worth conducting, whether or not our life is worth living, whether there are any meaningful consequences to living our life. Acting upon free choice means little unless we attribute some qualitative value to our life. If there is no (possible) meaning in our life then no amount of action will make any difference to our experience of it—at best it will be miserable, at worst self-destructive. Misery means an existence in the absence of happiness though in the knowledge of what it might mean to be happy. Inaccessible happiness makes life a barely bearable state of misery with no future hope of change. Personal destruction means suicide and this forms a boundary beyond which personal meaninglessness cannot go—suicide is, in that respect, the ultimate act of individual meaninglessness. Suicide is the bringing on of death and once dead we can no longer access the sensations of life— we have no facility for personal achievement, purpose, or meaning. Even if death is, as Nozick points out, “a part of that life, continuing its narrative story in some significant way”,8 for the individual, there is no post-mortem occurrence, no way of experiencing that “continuing narrative”. Nothing of death has any part or meaning for the one who has died. Camus recognised that the existence of this boundary provides a justification for philosophising about meaning. Camus, in some respects, believes suicide the “only truly serious philosophical problem” and by implication, because it marks out the place beyond which meaningfulness ends, it forces us, if we are to preserve our existence, to look at the meaning of life as “the most urgent of questions”.9 And this seems undeniable. Faced with our own death, faced with our own ability to extinguish our life and what this would entail (absolute meaninglessness), and confronted by the apparent absurdity of the meaninglessness of life anyway, any search for meaning looks unlikely to be rewarded. But meaning is our only salvation from death. As individuals, this quandary compels us to discover what meaning means, in both a general and individual sense—to understand the nature of the meaning of our life as well as whether life in itself has meaning. Only with some concept of meaning in both these ways will we be able to attribute meaning of some sort to our life and then find sufficient purpose to move forward into the future, using action to drive our freedom to choose.
When people ask what the meaning of life is, they tend first of all to think of an ultimate meaning, something outside themselves, something beyond—God’s purpose, a divine will, 42. In the modern Western world, caught between the ever- tightening pincher-grip of, on the one hand science and on the other the withdrawal of religion in the face of neoliberalism, this can be a fruitless undertaking. Any positive proposal can seem at best barely credible, at worst perfunctory. Science does not authenticate anything divine as it pulls us unerringly away from our intuitive humanity. In its glare, morality is exposed as superstition and social convention as trivial. In the modern world, we are, as Frankl says, at risk of forsaking traditions that tell us what we ought to do, while being “civilised” away from instincts that tell us what we have to do.10 And there seems no escape from the neurosis bred by this existential vacuum. Postmodern man seems doomed to languish without purpose—burdened by the realisation that science alone is responsible for interpreting the world and filled with anxiety by the realisation that such a world cannot support God. On Camus’ account, this situation would lead us unerringly to suicide and in its absence to misery. That the catastrophe of suicide is not so prevalent, and humanity is not burdened by unbearable misery, means that either something is happening which is saving us from the realisation of meaninglessness and absurdity or Camus is wrong.
The barrier that holds back suicidal despair is constructed from what Lane Craig refers to as the “Noble lie”11—the necessary self-deceit of belief in something meaningful and purposeful even in the face of an obviously meaningless and purposeless world.12 When I say it is good to be kind, or right to be honest, or that there is a point in doing x, y or z, or that although I may not know it there is some meaning in my action, I am not drawing upon some divine example or divine purpose which it makes sense to follow, I am giving myself purpose by using a Noble lie—I am intentionally deceiving myself.
The Noble lie is a variant of self-deception condemned by Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre as existential bad faith. Sartre calls bad faith “a lie to oneself within the unity of a single consciousness”.13 But the intention to act against what one knows is right is absent in the Noble lie which is preferred self-deceit—a way of feeling easier. Pretending that there is some purpose in life, that there is something about right that makes it better than wrong, is just a way of plugging gaps in knowledge and making it easier to exist in a world with others. The Noble lie is ultimately a tool for social conformity. Perhaps the fact that the Noble lie makes life easier is justification in itself, but this sort of pragmatic support does nothing to isolate anything that may be true. At the same time, the Noble lie is not bad faith. In its employment, there is no intention to act against some better version of right; indeed it is the only way of acting right in the absence of any known true right. “Lying to oneself” as Sartre, describes it, is something with which we can all identify; even if we work hard to be in good faith, the test of the possible self-lie is a common experience. Yet it is hard to understand why the idea of lying to oneself carries any weight for us in a world empty of absolute values. For Freud, a mechanism of repression (the super-ego) deceives the conscious self (the ego) and utilizes the unconscious self (the id) as a repository for the deception. The ego sometimes cannot cope with some of the more disturbing drives of the id and so the super-ego represses these disturbing drives which then remain buried in the unconscious id.14 In this way, self-deceit need not be tested against some outside quality of deceitedness in order to make it felt. Sartre, on the other hand, would condemn this view as simply perpetuating one’s evasion of responsibility, as he says, “I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived”.15
Still we strain for meaning as the world of meaning shrinks irrevocably in the ever-tightening grip of science, for no matter how noble the lie, it is still a lie. In the Sartrean sense, we cannot truly deceive ourselves when we know the basis for our belief is a lie—it is the trap of conscious existence to know when we act in bad faith. If we believe that objective meaning is necessary for happiness, if happiness as eudaimonia is as Aristotle tells us the ultimate end, then no amount of self-deceit will convince us it is there if we believe it is not.16 As Russell says “self- deception cannot lead to any solid happiness. In the back of your mind you will know the facts are otherwise”.17 We do not, therefore, naturally deceive ourselves— we are essentially undeceivable. Certainly, we can be deceived by the will of others who may use lies as a political tool, and by those who believe they have some connection with divine power in order to control our behaviour,18 we cannot, though, be truly deceived by ourselves.
This inner contradiction of forces and knowledge is an implicit aspect of the subjective/objective self; it is a natural part of our being and knowledge of it is no remedy to its existence. We continually ask ourselves questions, as if there is one who can ask and one who can respond. “Which way shall I turn?” is an unusual question for a creature to ask itself when the response can only ever come from the questioner. In doing this, we are continually asking for an answer from the one who finds it necessary to ask the question of the other. This process may of course be merely a pause for explanation or for rational or moral input, but it exposes the innately duplicitous potential of our condition. Self-discovery is commonly a self- analysis, and is as commonly not an analysis capable of discovering anything not already in place. We cannot find something not already there to be found; we can reveal things hidden to our conscious self, but it is like finding something in your pocket—it was still always in your pocket.
Nagel’s interpretation of this other self seeing our self from nowhere, reveals no moral imperative.19 And the outcome of such scrutiny in the form of say the Delphic Oracle’s rhetorical advice, “know thyself”,20 contains no guidance about what truthful knowledge is. Indeed, the perpetuating adage that knowing yourself somehow brings about a useful state of knowledge is a vacuous sentiment. For example, the requirement to know oneself is fulfilled knowing that one is in self- deceit—“I know I am deceiving myself”. What one is deceiving oneself about is therefore not a matter of useful self-discovery but is a practical problem which demands practical remedies. However, if I know I hold a false belief, I certainly know something about myself, and it is unclear whether I would gain in any way of I rid myself of that false belief. Certainly it would be a bad idea to strip away false beliefs and reduce happiness in order to bring about fuller self-understanding. If self-examination leads to a less fulfilling but less self-deceived life, and we prefer self-examination, it would seem that self-examination is the most valued quality. But self-understanding in itself may have no qualitative worth to the individual. In a postmodern world where intellectual and moral relativism offer no hope of bringing together morality and cosmology (as scientifically based faux metaphysics), postmodern man seems out on a limb in seeking self-knowledge when there is nothing that knowledge can be truly about. The pressure on the individual seems unavoidable: live only by self-made rules and go insane in a world bereft of social cohesion and responsibility, or deceive yourself with the only thing on offer to transcend the absurdity of all-consuming self-interest—the Noble lie.
That we believe moral values are indeed real qualities might mean we are already in self-deceit. For the theist, of course, moral values must come from somewhere in order for us to hold them; self-deceiving or not, they must somehow exist—humans cannot invent qualities not already there to be invented. For the postmodern relativist, the universe simply does not contain real moral values, they have instead been devised by humans to suit their psychological, religious, social, and political needs. Moral values may be useful as human tools but, if removed, the universe would have no place either for their existence or, in their absence, their creation. The dilemma is unavoidable and, at root, stark; we can choose only between scientifically validated futility and a (pseudo) theistic Noble lie. On the one hand, choosing meaninglessness and purposelessness in an absurd world where our lives are brief and transitory, on the other, and with a measure of acknowledged self-deceit, choosing a life that can be fulfilling, meaningful and imbued with purpose. One root leads us to informed enlightenment and misery, the other to blind faith and happiness.
The theistic choice has the added benefit that it is perhaps regulated by God’s principles, and incorporates the potential offer of individual salvation in a life of eternal bliss. According to Pascal the choice about whether to take this route is easy as one is clearly the better bet. His gambler’s argument proposes two different bets that give four possible outcomes. We can bet that God exists. If we win (God does exist), then we win eternal life, if we lose (God does not exist) then we have not lost too much, perhaps we have missed some pleasures that we could otherwise have had but compared to the possibility of eternal life such losses are negligible. We can bet that God does not exist. If we win (God does not exist), then our worldly life will be free of illusion and we can indulge in any pleasures we think fit without fear of eternal damnation, if we lose (God does exist), then we face the possibility of eternal damnation. Accordingly, the best bet is that God exists; little to lose, infinity to gain—live a Noble lie on the chance that it might be right wins out over following our sceptical intuition, acting in good faith, and so running the risk of missing out on the beneficial opportunity of a clearly non-rational belief. 21 But how can non-rational faith have any appeal? If faith cannot come from rational thought, which is what defines it inasmuch as where rationality ends faith begins, then whatever we find appealing in it cannot be convincing on rational standards. We must, like Tolstoy, be content with conjuring up faith from the abyss—light out of dark, form out of void.22 But this is an unconvincing basis, even for a Noble lie. Tolstoy’s golden age appeal to the intuitive good sense of the happy peasant has only romantic appeal. Indeed, petitioning for a reliable natural faith resident in the feudally repressed poor is a dangerous naturalism, the sort that finds increasing truth in increasing simplicity—a reductionist unified theory gone mad.
The individual, of course, is often saved from this because the individual is not always seeking such spiritual salvation. Enlightened misery may well take many pleasurable, non-spiritual forms, and the threat of eternal damnation means little to postmodern man. But the principle is still applied in the everyday world— utilise moral values that we suspect are fictitious in order to live in an ordered world, or lead amoral lives in a society bereft of any agreed rules of conduct; not a difficult choice for most. And the lack of any ultimate or absolute meaning beyond that utility should not concern us. Unless we have a desire for faith or a desire to feel unhappy without it, there is no reason to get intellectually involved with the cosmically imponderable—the ultimate meaning of it all. If there is no meaning, it does not matter, if there is meaning, it will be revealed in due course.
2.3 Individual meaning
We all die. That fact alone seems to strip meaning from our existence. How can anything have meaning unless it is permanent? Transience seems to undermine the essence of meaning—that there is implied or explicit significance, or that there is an important or worthwhile quality or purpose, seem to demand support beyond the ability of the merely passing to provide. How, for example, can any achievement have true worth if we cannot hold it permanently in a place where all things of true worth reside? This may be, of course, a cultural leftover of Platonism. Or we may be deluded simply by an impression formed under the false appearance of eternity— the idea that because our lives are short-lived, we are somehow anachronistic parts of something entirely without end. If we think this, then we run a great risk of being in the wrong; for all we know, life maybe the measure of all things, and so too the consequent sense of suffering that goes with it. Homer’s heroes, ever in the face of the eternal gods must accept “the sad state of humans to live in futility, unable to rise above the dismal fate of hardship”23 and so should we. And there is nothing individual which can transcend this. Yet it is in death, and our knowledge of it, that the sweetness of life is borne—we can only treasure that which can be lost, and will treasure the more that which we know will be lost. Death is, as Schopenhauer tells us, my entire end, even though my individual life may be only a small part of my “true inner nature as I am part of the world”,24 the meaning of this for us is remote.
In truth, nothing is permanent—even the universe seems to have no future; all avenues seem closed: our faith in subsequent outcomes is damned by Humean inductive scepticism, Popperean demands for the unfalsifiable truth beyond empiricism, or by the proclaimed onslaught of scientific authority. Eventually, the universe will become cold, there will be no possibility of life emerging again, and its structures will collapse. If it does not disappear from whence it came, it will become frozen, desolate, and inactive.25
However, the presumed fact that the universe will end does not destroy meaning for my life. It is not the meaning of life with which I should be concerned, it is the meaning of my life—how I conduct it and how I relate to the world and others—which should monopolise my attention. The meaning of my life is, as Schopenhauer thought, in its existence. Camus says you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life—“don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day”,26 and if the universe has no meaning, we would never find that out, and it would not matter. Whether or not Achilles will claim an immortal existence in some mortally inaccessible world beyond life is not what causes us to identify with him; it is the human problems which have led him to refuse to fight, and the reasons for his ultimate decision to take action, which sums him up as a man. It is these qualities which cause us to think of our own fallibility, our own inability to choose to act, which lead us to find importance in the story of Achilles. Our true meaning is in being human not in imagining what being might be like beyond the scope of mortality. It is our achievements in the face of human frailty that mark out our meaning, not whether some omnipotent being has designed some purpose for us beyond that which we presently are. What meaning is can only be found in what we mean in respect of what we are.
But looking to how we conduct our lives does not automatically reveal the answer to the question of meaning. Meaning may indeed be found only in our lives, but that does not mean that it is apparent, or that we can readily recognise it. We are compromised by the lot of the circumstances in which we find ourselves—our nature, our talents, our era, can all conspire to mask us from ourselves. We are faced continually with the absurdity of life—rivalry, political allegiance, the search for power, envy, false need—that undermines our belief in, and grasp of, the true value of being. Added to which, it is hard to resist taking life seriously and this darkens our view of the essential cheerfulness needed to be open to our own meaning. We inhabit a framework of meaninglessness which is difficult to transcend.
However, looking at these concerns objectively, from a detached, subjective viewpoint, can lead us to think that what we see initially as compromising circumstances do not truly matter in either an absolute or an individual context. But this carries with it a sting in the tail, for now we must ask “how can the unimportance of my life from that (detached subjective) point of view have any importance for me?”27 In other words our subjective detachment from self (the point of view from which we refer to ourselves when we ask such questions as, “Shall I do this or that?”) while confirming the meaninglessness of influences on the objective life also means the subject has no meaning. And as they are one and the same, the questioner has no meaning if the questioned has no meaning. Pursuing the idea of objective meaning is fruitless. We have to assume that, in truth, it has no application to living our life. The only meaning to living our life is living it. Nagel says, “... given that this person exists, there is little he can do but to keep going until he dies, and try to accomplish something by the standards internal to his form of life.”28
It does not matter whether we do or do not achieve our goals. Indeed, it does not matter whether we do or do not exist. One of the puzzles of my life is after all how it came to be mine. In other words, why am I not someone else? But, given that we do exist, and that we can imagine goals for ourselves as we continue to exist, and that I seem to be me, then there is indeed meaning. We are alive, and being alive is itself the ultimate end of living—each action is an end in itself. Being alive is our meaning—meaning for us is in our being. Being alive, is not simply our glimpse of the world, it is our contribution to bringing the world into being. Without consciousness of the world, the world loses its being. When we are, we are not just, as Descartes thought, invoking our own persona as a separate entity (cogito ergo sum), we are as Berkeley proposed, bringing everything into existence as things now perceived (esse est percipi). That we are conscious makes the world knowable; it is our conscious existence that brings light to the darkness—the meaning of life is the act of living.
.4 A meaningful life
A meaningful life is found in its being—it is immediate, free, active, and rightly done. It accommodates change and is not dogmatic. A meaningful life is unhindered by anxiety. It reflects on what is simple and essential for pleasure or happiness. A meaningful life is cheerful and reflective but not consumed by concerns about things far beyond the individual. It bears pain and suffering not in a Stoic way, but because the individual has a rational framework which underlies individual actions. The meaningful life is largely an Epicurean life: it recognises that what is good is easy to get, that what is bad is easy to endure, that we should not worry about anything beyond our own lives, and that death is not to be feared. This modern Epicurean should: understand the impermanence of human achievement, understand his or her place in the universe, realise the absurdity of life, realise that humour is a natural reaction to absurdity, and rid his or her self of religion, superstition, borrowed social values and morality. A meaningful individual life needs to understand that cooperative moral and religious values are created for social not necessarily individual reasons, and that these created forces tap into simple, natural intuitive faith and consequent belief in a corrupting way. A meaningful life must resist these forces. A meaningful life must connect with some value in a non-trivial and substantial way. The link itself is valuable, and the closer it is made the more meaningful it is.29 The linkage of love with another, for example, is a close link that has value in itself as well as meaning because of this value. My linkage with a movement to save a particular piece of threatened landscape somewhere in the world would fall short on both these counts.
.5 Meaning and the fear of death
We move ever into the future, and nothing in life ends; living is eternal, sub specie aeternitas, and although death succeeds it, death does not succeed life in life. Dying is different in this sense than people think—we are lucky to die because life is never tainted by death, death never inhabits life in any way other than in our reflections on the fact that it will happen. If we fear death we are foolish, life contains only life. As Spinoza says, “a free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation, not on death, but on life”.30 Reflection on death is pointless. Death is nothing we can usefully consider in any worthwhile way, and any such reflection only reduces our freedom to live. The only quality of death is not having sensation and, if we think rightly, we take that in our stride. Who has ever had a bit of death in their life? There is no such thing. Death is a foreign land to which we will never travel and which is too distant for us even to see. We may imagine the horror of non-being—the abyss of non-existence—but this is a living reflection on death; life is our country, and its shores we will never tread beyond. Socrates thought death, at worst, a dreamless sleep, and at best, as a place populated by all the dead—for him the best version of heaven imaginable.31 Epicurus says that anxious thoughts of death are as pointless as anxious thoughts of existence before we were born.32 There is nothing at all bad about death, as Walt Whitman says, “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier”.33 Indeed it can be seen as a positive good, as Sophocles has the chorus say at the end of the story of Oedipus, “...let no mortal be called happy until the final fated day when he has crossed life’s border without enduring pain.”34 For Whitman, as for Socrates, each death heralds the onset of more life, more nature and that is satisfying; and although this can in a sense be seen as apologetic it remains true to the principle that the true goodness of death is the Epicurean view that death simply is not part of life. The goodness of death, of the abyss of non-existence, is that it can never be part of life. It would be foolish to worry about anything that is not part of our life, and there is nothing less a part of being alive than death.
3. Freedom to choose
Our lives can often seem worthless or pointless, or threatened by worthlessness or pointlessness; anxieties may beset even the strong, even the wise—being alive can be a difficult task. Time and again, our desire for cheerfulness shivers in the face of the harsh wind of daunting reality. We are in life, it seems, like Ovid’s storm-tossed sailors for whom “a separate death seemed to be rushing upon them with each oncoming wave”35 or like Hardy’s Michael Henchard36 and Sisyphus alike, for whom it is only the brief moments of respite that break the continual suffering of existence. If we cannot find meaning in our lives and if we believe there is no ultimate meaning to life anyway, living can seem bleak indeed; and this is not acceptable—we know it. We know that our lives are not worsened by happiness, that our sense of well-being increases when we feel the pleasures of contentment, satisfaction, laughter, or lovingness. Our direction is fixed in time and our psychological preference is immutably from pain to pleasure. We need, therefore, to remedy pointlessness with a point and worthlessness with a sense of worth, and our remedy must convince us in truth—it must be more than a Noble lie. Fixing on pleasure as the object, however, is insufficient. Indeed, if we do this there is nothing to purchase on, nothing to lever us away from suffering. The one thing that life provides in abundance—suffering—is the unlikely candidate which can provide the anchor point and worth of living. Suffering, far from something to avoid is in fact the main ingredient of the recipe for human meaning.37
On the face of it, this seems unlikely; suffering is after all something to be reduced in order to increase happiness; and this has become a culturally ingrained utilitarian rule. Suffering is, we think, best avoided. But, in order to reach a happy state, the first thing we must do is realise the pointlessness of life in an absolute sense, and of our own life in the sense that everything we do will for us be annihilated by our own death. We must, like Frankl’s description of the internee of a concentration camp, force ourselves to the brutal realisation that we have nothing except our own life.38 This existential insight concentrates our understanding of the absurdity of life in our consciousness. From this point there are strictly only two choices: forward into the next future moment, or suicide. But if life contains no apparent value, suicide is pointless for there is no point in wiping out something pointless. We may feel apathetic, or dulled by the bleakness of this realisation, but this point of (suicidal) surrender opens us to the possibility of the surest route to happiness we have. From this point can grow the revelation that love, a blissful state of happiness, can be experienced irrespective of our own circumstances and irrespective of the mortal existence of our beloved.39 Anchored by love we can experience the relative pleasure of the lesser suffering, what Frankl (inappropriately) calls “negative happiness” 40 and Schopenhauer (appropriately) calls “freedom from suffering...a gleam of silver that suddenly appears from the purifying flame of suffering”.41 From this point of accepting our fate (at the highest level this would be a saintly acceptance), our lives can begin to grow afresh. From this point on we can act freely, we can choose our attitude (what Frankl calls our “own way”42) and move into our future with a true sense of meaning.
This is a spiritual freedom which belongs to the individual, which cannot be taken away, and it is a freedom which need not be affected by the individual’s circumstances. Accepting fate in this way—meeting our suffering—allows us the opportunity to choose how we suffer. This mental grip on life enables us to rationalise our self-worth. As Spinoza says, “an emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it”.43 Just as we can say that in the absence of faith belief is unacceptable unless arrived at by rational means, so we can say that any problems associated with suffering are extinguished when we rationalise them.
We must always be future-looking, we must always have a future-focus. This entails not being concerned with the meaning of life, but in our response to life—“in right action and in right conduct”.44 We must be careful, though, about how we form our purposefulness; goal-setting can lead to disappointment, we can fail to meet our targets, or with our eyes fixed too closely on them, lose track of what lies between us and the object of our desire. As Frankl points out, those in the concentration camp who focused on what would follow release were doomed to disillusionment.45 45 More meaningful is identifying our own uniqueness in creativity (for example, finishing so far unfinished opportunities), or in realisation of our individual and special place in the world (for example, our irreplaceability as a beloved). Like George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,46 46 we should witness our uniqueness in light of its absence, or like Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,47 we should see our morality in light of the world being another way. In Nietzschean terms we need only to understand this why in order to understand whatever how we have to face. This will to meaning is life’s primary motivation—and meaning does not need a completing goal.
Having created some point to our lives, and convinced ourselves rationally that an outward-looking rule system makes for a credible sense of meaning, the next thing to do is act. But action brings its own problems. Action, based on choice, is the living aspect of the more abstract discovery of intellectual freedom, but such action still must take place within the context of a life which we know will end. Can what has brought us to the edge of action actually convince us it is worth taking the next step and actually doing something?
It is a common to believe that being rock-like is an admirable personal trait. Being rock-like invokes ideas of standing firm, having a stiff upper lip, being brave, facing our destiny, making sacrifices, maybe even sacrificing ourselves. Rock-like qualities are deemed admirable by Western twenty first century society, but rocks cannot change (in shorter than geological terms), have meaning (other than have meaning for someone or for something), be free, or act. Being rock-like will not serve our prime imperative for change. Our life therefore is best served rolling rocks rather than being them. Being rock-like put us in the position of being able to desire achievement, to consider realising it, to reflect on it, to take pride in our attaining it, but it is only rolling the rock that can make these things happen—that can bring about change. This deliberative activity of change overshadows the meaning of the rock-like rock that, although containing potential for action represents the object of inaction and resistance to change. Rolling the rock, and so our involvement in change, offers us a perspective on time passing in what McTaggart calls the B series—the relation of before and after—which is crucial to our experience of time and change.48 Understanding our fulcral nowness in B-relations enables us to create a worldview of potential that can occur later than now, that is, in the future. As Nietzsche shows us, any act of willing is directed wholly towards the future.49 Our experience of the change-making movement from the present-now into the next future-now is what our experience of life consists. Our specious present—the present of our experience— includes the sense of pastness from memory and place, the sense of future that is to be, and the sense of movement formed in time in a changing now. The movement to the next now is our only facility for change. Without this movement—without change—we can no longer be.
The greatest rock-roller of them all is Sisyphus. Angered by his betrayal of their divine secrets, the gods condemn him eternally to roll a rock to the top of a mountain only to have it fall to the base from where it must be rolled again to the top. On the face of it, there seems no worse fate—an eternity of pointless labour. But to take this view would be to miss the point. The myth of Sisyphus can represent the very essence of meaning in our life. It is recurring action, not reflection in endless boredom upon some complete and necessarily imperfect achievement, that brings value to life. “What counts is that one should be able to begin a new task... because it is there to be done.”50 For such an endeavour Sisyphus is perfectly placed, and except that our eternity is the eternity of our lived lives, so are we.
But what are we to make of such a life that has no ultimate purpose, a life that contains within its purposelessness a sense of meaning derived from trivial, meaningless doing? Can we believe that doing still remains a worthwhile purpose within an overall framework of purposelessness, or must we abandon any concept of purpose and look to doing as a thing in itself quite irrespective of its value? Is Sisyphus really setting the example as a foundation for meaning in action with which we can be satisfied, or is his doing too physical an interpretation—too brutish to be a satisfactory analogue for a human life?
It maybe that doing needs to be an intellectual activity—a mental act—if it is to have philosophical appeal. If we are to identify with Sisyphus, we must be able to identify a freely chosen task in our own life with a Sisyphean task. Sisyphus, even though he did make choices which set in train the events leading to his ultimate situation has not, after all, chosen the task he labours with. He does, however, choose how he performs his task and this is more important than why he performs his task. We do not choose to be alive, we do not choose the reason why we are here at all, but like Sisyphus we can choose how we live the lives we have. Sisyphus chooses how he rolls his rock and by so doing provides himself with, what Frankl calls “Noögenic” meaning.51 Why, or for what reason he rolls it is lost in his past and any reflection on that would for Sisyphus be numbingly pointless. Why we do anything is part of our philosophical reflection, but why we are here undertaking the task is unlikely to become part of any worthwhile or trusted knowledge. Action in life is about how not why.
Camus feels that consciousness of our absurd plight is sufficient as a life aim—there is no need to act—“being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”52 But simply being aware gets us nowhere on the road from change to rightful action. If we take the view that simple consciousness is a sufficient aim, then practical philosophy is worthless. Indeed, practical living is worthless—we would be doomed to stare into our reflective glass wondering like Wittgenstein if “the solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”53
Action is crucial to a meaningful existence, but we need to remind ourselves that we should not be misled into thinking that action implies a goal; no achievement is worth anything as a countable item beyond our finite existence, or as an achieved goal within our life. We are directed to act by the impetus of meaning, but we should not act with the idea that the end result of our action should have been itself the reason to act. We should wish to act rightly, to act in order to change, to act out of passion or love, to act out of desire to be at one with life’s absurdity; we should not act in order to gain satisfaction from an achievement which is a final outcome to our action. But how, we must ask, is acting to change ourselves different from acting with a result in mind; change is surely as much a result as being satisfied by, for example, achieving a powerful position in society or acquiring some desired object?
The human condition— isolated existence with the knowledge of future annihilation—is the “price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”54 We might, with Camus, judge Sisyphus (like Sophocles’ Oedipus55 or Dostoevsky’s Kirolov56) maximised in his task,57 but it is the period—the pause—when Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the mountain to begin his task again, which is crucial and of most interest. This is after all the moment of philosophising, of self-examination; this hour of contemplating the continued suffering is the “hour of consciousness”.58 It is this consciousness, this awareness of the tragedy of his situation, which ennobles the suffering Sisyphus. It is this interlude in his tragedy which allows him to reflect on his predicament. It is this break in the process of unrelenting activity which allows him time to know that continuing his suffering makes him triumphant—“the lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.”59
This is the example that Sisyphus sets us and it is an example that applies to every part of the human condition. Following his example, we can during this time of consciousness experience the realisation of victory over the absurdity of our situation. At this point of contemplative pause, we are faced with two possibilities: utter dejection, and a realisation that life is pointless; or a claim on the absurdity of it by understanding that the task in hand, the task of life, is a joyous occupation worthy of pursuing. Electing for the latter allows us to realise that our action need not lead to some glorious, objective yet vacuous accomplishment, but instead to a state of self-knowledge that makes every aspect in itself a triumphant absurdity. By following Sisyphus, and reflecting on our situation, we can capture it, bring it down and absorb it not as a threat or a shadow, but as an elemental part of our being.
5. How we should act
5.1 A ‘code of right’
According to Kant, morality can only act if we conceive ourselves as rational beings able to understand our sense of duty to categorical ethical rules—we act therefore as rationally coherent beings under the guidance of moral integrity based upon some sort of code of right.60 Action with purpose, with the support of dogma, faith or affinity to socio-political or economic beliefs is common. Such systems of support buoy up the individual in what otherwise seems the lost cause of an absurd life. The Noble lie features prominently in such spheres. However, the self-made rules of postmodern man, existing in a religious or socio-political dogmatic vacuum, is not such a bleak idea as it at first seems. It is possible to adopt a rational view of our situation and formulate a personal rule system that relies not only on the essential aspects of self but continually checks with the world beyond. In this way lived life can be a self-sustaining system of action for the individual which accommodates: our absurd condition, the importance to us of the world in which we exist, our own essential good faith, and our need for change.
In order to be convinced that what we do is right we need a code of right—a set of rules. These are discovered by the employment of rationality to understand our approach to life and are formulated and kept up to date by looking continually beyond our self. Spinoza provides us with a sanction for personal change that allows us both a sense of freedom from dogma and a sense of belief in honest action. Spinoza accepts that we do not have a complete or perfect understanding of our mental state; consequently, we do not have a complete grasp of our moral integrity. Because of this, we have to construct the best set of moral guidelines we can and be sure that we know them. Thus armed, we can continually apply this remembered code in all circumstance in which we find ourselves. Spinoza suggests that practical application of moral guidelines in different circumstances entails reflection on examples of how these moral guidelines could be (or have been) applied in the world and what might be (or has been) the results of their application. This inner reflection of outcomes beyond the self is a valuable aspect of self understanding in respect of a world that is naturally beyond the self. Reflection, particularly on bad outcomes, is well remembered and has great personal impact and we should keenly test our ideas for action against such circumstances.61 Instead of looking for the best possible outcome, we should look to the avoidance of the worst. If we start from the position of realising what could be the worst outcome, then any outcome other than the worst will be an improvement. Nothing of our self will realise any level of self- deceit when acting for change from a worst possible state of affairs—our actions will always be true and honest manifestations of change.
.2 Acting in our own best interests—an Epicurean framework
In order to deploy this method of sanctioning personal change without sacrificing good faith, a framework for how we should act morally is needed. It seems reasonable that we should act in such a way that our own best interest is served. It also seems reasonable that we should act in such a way that our own best interest is served without acting against the interest of others.62 How we should act therefore has two distinct parts: what we should do in order to serve our own best interests; what moral criteria we should apply to our actions. Our own best interest is to live well and to know we act with self-honesty. Our moral imperatives should be those directed towards living well and knowing we act with self-honesty. Our ethical imperatives will be found in translating our honest action into our behaviour, not only with our other internal self but also with any relevant other with whom we contact.
An Epicurean skeleton helps support the fleshing out of the solutions to these conjoined issues.63 Epicurus’ teaching shows us that we are in a world with no strings attached; we are not puppets—we are constrained only by our own nature. Realisation of this shows us that life is good, that happiness is possible, and that we can act truly in ways appropriate to that nature which is ours. Epicurus says anxiety is the fundamental obstacle to happiness. Reduction of anxiety will allow us to be cheerful. Cheerfulness unavoidably leads to pleasure and thus happiness. Epicurus highlights four areas of human concern that spawn anxiety: the good, the bad, superior powers, and death.
.2.1 What is good is easy to get
Shelter, safety, food, and simple needs are all our bodies demand. If our bodies get these things then we feel confidently safe and therefore cheerful. If we are cheerful, then nothing can stop us from being happy. Wanting more than we need only feeds dissatisfaction, increases anxiety, and makes a cheerful life less likely. There is no harm in luxuries as things in themselves, but any dependence we have on such luxuries or any wishing for unnecessary things increases our anxiety. For example, acquisitions increase our responsibility to those acquisitions and this process absorbs us in an anxiety-creating cycle.
It is hard to know where the appropriate level of having only what we need lies. In the modern consumer world we are faced with a wide choice of things which can in one way or another service our lives. Some things we have come to think of as, if not essential, very important, for example, the washing machine, electricity, a choice of clothing. Because we live in the world in which we find ourselves, it is hard to know sometimes how to discriminate between basic needs and expectations which draw us into wishing for the non-essential or superfluous. But in order to free ourselves from anxiety we must free ourselves from unnecessary desires and the anxiety they bring—it is a problem that cannot be set aside. Making a list of Epicurean needs would be foolish, yet at the same time it is clear that open-ended desire for things would not bring us much happiness. Having only what we can afford is not a good method of deciding on which things we need as we can easily get drawn into creating more money by for example, labour, indebtedness or theft. And everyone seems to strike a different level of needs and what they think are needs necessary to service a simple, secure life. Epicurus formed a commune, the Garden. In this environment, his methods were evident to his followers—his justifications for some things and his condemnation of others were always available as inspiration or for scrutiny. And Epicurus’ life took place in a world not filled with an ever-expanding list of consumer goods, or pressure from capitalist producers to purchase their product—it was a simpler world.
A simple life consists in not beholding to others or the state, not being fearful of homelessness, not being fearful of the cold, starvation, social exclusion or crime; beyond that, a few luxuries, perhaps books or a new garment, or a chance to travel, but nothing much more. There is a point found fairly low down on the possession tree beyond which the obligation to work, to debt, to time, to moral compromise become so great that anxieties cannot be kept out.
Being free from anxiety is for us, as it was to Epicurus and his followers, a discipline. Requirements, either in the form of things, or power, or influence, need to be seen for what they are worth—for what we gain from them. If we are to experience what Epicurus called the “limit of good things”64—a cheerful life necessarily filled with pleasure—we must learn to deny ourselves many of the all too apparent yet distracting pleasures offered by the world.
5.2.2 What is bad is easy to endure
As we must recognise the limits of our needs for things and safety, so too we must recognise the limits of what our body or mind is both likely and able to endure. Physical pain is invariably either short-lived or chronic and either intense or mild; it is rarely chronic and intense. Under most circumstances, therefore, pain should be tolerable. This can be easier to appreciate (though not necessarily bear) in later age but remains a difficult test of anxiety reduction. Epicurus himself died in intense pain, his cheerfulness enduring as he reminded himself of the times and conversations he had known with his friends during his life. Mental pain may be eliminated by acceptance of the Epicurean way as its product is to reduce anxiety and foster cheerfulness.
5.2.3 We should not worry about any power beyond our own lives
Epicurus thought the gods, imagining them existing in a perpetual state of bliss, unconcerned about the lives of humans. Indeed, as such, they were good examples of happiness. Their disinterest, however, meant that appealing to them, or paying them homage, was pointless. Likewise, any signs we think are signs from the gods are not, they are simply parts of the natural world we do not understand or for which we have no explanation. According to Epicurus, the world is composed of atoms which act in accordance with governing natural laws. Indeed, he may even have thought that the gods were no more than projections of human ideas.
In the modern Western world, we are not so prone to the reverence of gods, and particularly not to the pantheistic view of the ancient Greek sort. But religion abounds, and it focuses on gods who can usually both destroy and save. But there is no room for such other-worldly creatures in a life of meaning and change. If such entities exist, they are not an active part of our lives and should be ignored. Anxiety about living up to standards set by religious organisations on behalf of the proclaimed intention of a god is pointless. There is no such interested god, and nothing we can do can arouse any interest.
But we do create our own, earth-bound gods; political leaders, human icons, power itself, wealth, nationality, race, influence and social impact can all be sources of reverence or envy and consequently sources of anxiety. Such divinities should have no more an important part in our lives than did Zeus for Epicurus, or indeed Zeus for us.
5.2.4 Death is not to be feared
For some, the greatest fear is fear of death; more than pain, the failure to satisfy our needs, or the terrors wrought on us by others, the yawning jaws of the abyss of death are filled with incomprehensible horror. Either we fear approaching an afterlife and the arbitrating hand of the divine power, or we fear the idea of non- existence—the thought of annihilation. Yet this fear is ridiculous. Death is not part of life. No one who lives has to deal with death. No one who is dead is in a position to deal with death. Concern about death is pointless, “...death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.”65
There are no circumstances in which death can harm us. Neither Epicurus nor modern science believes a god exists who can harm us after death. Even if there were such a being, post-mortem our identity would be lost and we could therefore come to no harm at his hand—either our dualistic soul (which is not capable of substantial perception without a body anyway) would disappear when separated from our body, or any harm would be meaningless to us as persisting individuals as our bodily continuity, and therefore our selfhood, is broken by death. To worry about non-existence is also pointless; we have already been in that condition before we were born and as no apparent harm came of it then it is unlikely to again.
Eliminating the anxiety associated with the fearful idea of death dramatically increases our ability for cheer, consequent pleasure and therefore happiness. It is an affront to the meaning of our lives, to our rational self-interest, to dwell on something not part of those lives. We should also apply this to those we love that die; no harm can come to them in death, and our parting from them should instead cause us more to concentrate on the benefits of our having known them in life.
And we should not be angry about the span of our lives or the lives of others. The sweetness of life is in its limitation. We should not be greedy, for as with any pleasurable thing, satiation leads to discomfort.
This Epicurean view of freedom from anxiety operates best within the society’s moral constraints, not because those constraints are intrinsically right but because the most anxiety-free life is found by living within them. Standing against the tide is a sure course for increased worry. We all need protection and society’s prime aim as a “mutual protection association” is meant to achieve this.66 However, a friend67 is more likely to respond meaningfully to a call for help than an unknown member of the society, even a society formed for mutual protection. Friendship and philosophy, according to Epicurus, are our greatest resources against the anxiety of insecurity. Friendship can be found via philosophy, mutual need or affection, or mutual interest. It should be self-satisfying and selfless, utilizing what is needed by the other to engender sufficient concern to give to the other selflessly. This Epicurean demand was easier to meet for Epicurus than it might be for us in the everyday world. Many of Epicurus’ friends were followers, living with him in the Garden, sharing their beliefs and aims (not their money—Epicurus felt that having to give personal wealth to a communal purse only showed distrust). Each depended on the other for fellowship and for philosophical companionship; and they lived withdrawn from the mainstream of society immunised from many of its problems by their inward looking mutual compact. Outside this type of environment, friendship is usually the sharing of time, of information, of confidences. Friendship is hard to find and commonly tales off into acquaintance where the demands for sharing are less but the need for knowing another is retained. Knowing another is important but falls short of the satisfaction of friendship. Humans have traditionally formed pair bonds that readily satisfy the criteria for friendship. Outside of traditional partnerships, close companionship as loving relationship is rarer.68 This sort of friendship contrasts with Epicurean cultism in allowing the individual to change and freely act according to their own self-interests. Epicurean friendship, on the other hand, is formed around the seed of mutually shared belief not necessarily generated by the individual’s need to express their own personal meaning through action.
For Epicurus, friendship is superior to sex and sexual love which he considers harmful as it draws us easily into a cycle of lust, infatuation, jealousy and disenchantment.69 Again, this reflects more concerns over individuals sticking to the dogmatic line and not being distracted by personal interest. Such sobriety towards sex (also an important feature of Christian thinking) has no place within a framework of genuine mutual engagement. Not all friend-partnerships involve sex—it is not a pre-requisite, though sex involves the couple in intimate and engaging ways which do not apply without it.
.3 Possession, envy and jealousy
The terms jealousy and envy are often used synonymously. They are, however, distinct human emotional conditions. Envy takes place in a two-group and consists in one wishing for unfortunate results to befall the other who has attributes or acquisitions not had by the first. Aristotle says in envy we do not wish to have what we envy or acquire for ourselves, instead, what we hope for is that the present possessor loses it.70 Jealousy, on the other hand, never operates in a two-group although sometimes the third or additional members are fantasised. Jealousy does not involve attributes or acquisitions, but instead involves an emotional attachment to something or someone the retention of which is passionately defended.
Both envy and jealousy are about possession—envy begrudges it, jealousy covets it. And both are about destruction—envy desires it directly, jealousy will surely bring it about. A free life with meaning cannot involve itself in desire for possession. Such desire increases anxiety—it leads us beyond our true needs, it involves us in unfaithful complicity with ourselves for we are at the same time conspiring with our self to see something as desirable as we wish no one to desire it. And our bad faith is exposed in our jealousy that allows, as it runs in parallel, a desire to keep for oneself something we also reject.
6. Philosophical companionship
Philosophical companionship is not simply thinking about what philosophical companionship is, or what philosophy is, or what the philosophical life is, or how the philosophical life may be attained; none of these pursuits are necessarily companionable nor would they necessarily benefit from having of a companion in their undertaking. It may be pleasant and indeed fruitful to work with someone in order to find a solution to these or similar questions but they do not have to be a companion in order to fulfil this role.
Philosophical companionship involves at least two people acting as companions one to another. It is a loving relationship. It is a committing relationship. It is an intimate and engaging relationship. It involves actually being with and being concerned for, the other. It necessitates assisting the other and wishing for their persistence, both as an individual and within the companionship framework. Like love, it is a seeing relationship – a relationship based upon real contact. Philosophical companions act companionably. They act with love towards their companion—taking part in each other’s lives, wishing the best for their companion. It is an activity which can be seen primarily as companionable and secondarily philosophical. It is a relationship based upon companionability.71 Asking, “what is the philosophical life?” is not philosophical companionship. It is not even necessarily practical philosophy. If it takes place between at least two people it is merely a joint enterprise in trying to answer a philosophical question with practical implications. Philosophical companionship is something different than a pooling of philosophical resources in order to reach a conclusion at present unknown. Philosophical companionship is about the activity of loving, the activity of being with another, and it is a mistake to confuse this philosophical activity with theoretical problem solving. Although practical philosophy may include practical theorists like this, philosophical companionship occupies an entirely different space.
How do we do philosophical companionship? We commit to another, to seeing them, to talking with them, to walking with them, befriending them, inquiring about their lives, offering them something of our own life. And we place this within a reflective philosophical environment—an attitude of mind that prizes inquiry and reaches always for increased knowledge, an environment that aspires to more than what is currently available, an environment which develops what is and opens up that which is presently in the shadows.
Philosophical companionship is not the world of the practical theorist. It does not set as its target seeking some particular answer; if a target arises then it is derived always from the process of companionship. There are gardeners who grow only to exhibit their vegetables, and there are gardeners who grow produce to eat. Philosophical companionship is sustaining; practical theorising is there for show. Exhibitors may stand around their exhibits congratulating each other on their efforts, but their fruit is fibrous and inedible; their produce has none of the succulence, none of the freshness, none of the edibility of the first-picked, the new, the tasty, or that which comes with the spring.
The philosophical companion retreat not from the world but to the world; it is in the clatter of the world that the true practical philosopher as philosophical companion hears the voice of knowledge. It is in the clutter of the world that the true practical philosopher finds the space to move into. The world is not a place away from which we should resort – the world is the resort. In life, we cannot escape the world, and should not seek to.
Inner silence is not the aim. The noise of the world is the aim. Though an increase in knowledge will gain from metaphysical understanding living a philosophical life means exposure to the world; it is not enhanced by the sound of silence, or retreat, or inner quiet. If we are moles that burrow and busy underground, and are equipped for the subterranean life, would we break our lives for a week or so above ground—for the silence, the light, the difference? Moles must first and foremost accept they are moles. They may aim for more change, and action, but the mole should primarily aim to be more of a mole; the mole should not aim to be not a mole or something which is incommensurable with moleness—to do so would be to chase phantoms.
7. Self-reliance and the need for company
Being motivated by the knowledge that there are relevant others is often false and causes us to live under a false impression. We alone are the measure of all things in our life. We may decide to act in such a way that takes others into account, in other words, for others, but we should never act in such a way that means our actions are set in motion by the existence of others, in other words, because of others. Someone, as part of a crowd, acting noisily in the street may not, if alone, act in the same way—this individual’s action is because of others. A radio disk-jockey talks to his audience and works to entertain them. He is working like this because his audience is listening and expect entertainment. Acting like this, however, is acting against the rational self-interest and good faith of the individual. The person in the crowd cannot have his or her own self-interest highest—it is the interests of the crowd which dictate the individual’s behaviour. And this cannot be in good faith—the contest between the known rightful action of the individual and its contrast with the crowd-led action will invariably be felt in the individual. The disc-jockey is trying to please a crowd that may not even exist—there may be no one listening—and so the foolishness of measuring our conduct against the conduct of others is exposed.
8. Doing it
Practical philosophy is like a diet sheet—work out what is best for you, sort it out so that it is manageable, carry it out, stick to it, stand back and watch the pounds fall away as the new clothes fit at last and the sense of well-being and confidence increase. As time goes on, the new way of acting becomes part of the individual; in the best possible ways it becomes a habit of living.
Doing philosophy means thinking, being rational, asking questions, challenging actions, reflecting on past conduct, being critical of proposed conduct. Doing philosophy means regard for the self—change, meaning, freedom to choose, action, and how we should act. Doing philosophy means enjoying life fully, expressing ourselves creatively, not being fearful of or beholding to others, not being afraid of what we are or are not. Doing philosophy is a matter of working out what we have to accept.72 And if we are lucky, we may even in some way become a little wiser, even in certain spheres, wise. And wisdom, combined with a cheerful approach and a continual expression of the love which is both within and around us, will lead us to the most meaningful experience that is possible—living a life; and for that we do not need to pay for philosophical therapy.
This new habit—born of self-reliance and wisdom and distilled from the breadth of our psychological and ethical world—concentrates us only on those things of true importance; the ephemeral, the noble lie and bad faith have no place in this way of life. As Epicurus focused on the problem of anxiety and came up with simple solutions to eliminate it, so we can achieve the same life-changing result in the same simple way. Our singular responsibility to this new habit of life is similarly clear—it is simply doing it; doing philosophy in the true sense, reflecting on our lives to the practical benefit of our lives. Empowered by self-realisation to act freely on rationally based psychological well being, our metaphysically grounded and ethically informed choices lead us to a self-reliant, companionable, good humoured and un-envious life that faces up to personal mortality and both the meaninglessness and meaningfulness of life. Change is in our hands; it is our choice to create for ourselves this free, active and rightly done life. Freedom from bad faith and the noble lie and acting according to moral principles that lead us to act both rightly and in our own best interests does not require analysis, guidance or repair from another. Crossing the bridge is uncomplicated and there is only one imperative for reaching the other side—doing it.
1 The International Conferences on Philosophical Practice (ICPP) is the largest organised event for philosophical practitioners. The 13th conference is planned for 15–18 August 2014 in Belgrade, Serbia.
2 Plato not Prozac sets out the stall for this type of approach that has in part led to a proliferation in the training and approval of practitioners. L. Marinoff, Plato not Prozac, New York, Harper Collins, 1999.
3 G. Rochelle, “Practical Metaphysics: dealing with the lie of modern Practical Philosophy”, HASER, 2 (2011), pp.95-114.
4 What I call Non-Utilitarian (NU-) philosophical counselling, the thinking act of practical philosophy with another, can usefully utilize these elements and the sequence of which they form part. NU- philosophical counselling is my term for philosophical counselling that rejects much of the neoliberal trade basis of conventional professional/client relationships. It is thinking companionship involving another in the clarity gained from the act of doing purposeful thinking. In this way, it is a union, an act of love, a gift, and its accomplishment a testament to our humanity. The activity of NU-philosophical counselling provides a moment or two of being, a glimpse or two of reality
5 G. Rochelle, “‘Dare to be Wise’: ‘Exchanging the Word’—a new philosophical practice”, Practical Philosophy, 9:2 (2008), pp.21-44.
6 Nigel Smalls in R. Reiner, This is Spinal Tap, Spinal Tap Productions, 1984.
7 J. Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 4th edn, London, Routledge, 1997, p.59
8 R. Nozick, The Examined Life, New York, Touchstone, 1990, p.23.
9 A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. J. O’Brien (1955), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2000, p.i.
10 V. E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York, Simon & Schuster (Pocket Books), 1985, p.128.
11 This expression was coined by L. D. Rue in “The Saving Grace of Noble Lies”, address to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, February 1991.
12 W. Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life Without God”, in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp.40-56.
13 J-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen, 1969, p.629.
14 S. Freud, The Ego and the Id in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, New York, Norton, 1961.
15 Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p.49.
16 Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea (Nicomachean Ethics) in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. R.P. McKeon, New York, Random House, 1941. pp. 927-1126.
17 B. Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1930, p.124.
18 Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life Without God”, p.53.
19 T. Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.
20 The statement delivered by Pythia at the Delphic Oracle.
21 B. Pascal, Pensées, trans. H.F. Stewart, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950.
22 L. Tolstoy, My Confession, trans. L. Wierner, London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1905.
24 A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 2, trans. E.F.J. Payne. New York, Dover, 1969, p.491.
25 H. Reichenbach, The Philosophy of Space and Time, trans. M. Reichenbach and J. Freund, New York, Dover, 1958.
26 A. Camus, The Fall, trans. J. O’Brien (1957), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963, p.82.
27 Nagel, The View from Nowhere, p.216.
28 Nagel, The View from Nowhere, p.216.
29 Nozick, The Examined Life, p.168.
30 B. Spinoza, Ethics, trans. A. Boyle, revised by G.H.R. Parkinson, London, J.M. Dent, 1989, p.186.
31 Plato, Apology in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Bollingen Series, LXXI, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp.3-26, 40d-e.
32 Epicurus, The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings, Text 6, section 60) in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonial, trans. and ed. B. Inwood and L.P. Gerson, Indianapolis, IN., Hackett, 1994.
33 W. Whitman, Song of Myself, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1995, p.9.
34 Sophocles, Oedipus the King in Sophocles, Antigone, Oedipus the King and Electra, trans. H.D.F. Kitto, ed. E Hall, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, fn.99, p.171.
35 Ovid, Metamorphosis, trans. M.M. Innes, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1955, p.260.
36 Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.
37 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
38 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.33.
39 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.57.
40 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.67.
41 A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, trans. E.F.J. Payne, New York, Dover, pp.392-3.
42 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.86.
43 Spinoza, Ethics, p.202.
44 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.98.
45 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp.77-84.
46 F. Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, Liberty Films (II), 1946.
47 C. Dickens, A Christmas Carol, London, Chapman and Hall, 1843.
48 J. McT. E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, vol.2, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1927. According to McTaggart, we exist within what appears a constant movement from before to after which, although appearing in time, is in fact a series of non-temporal perceptions of other perceiving selves via love. See also: G. Rochelle, The life and philosophy of J. McT. E. McTaggart, 1866-1925, Lampeter, Edwin Mellen, 1991; G. Rochelle, (1998). Behind time: the incoherence of time and McTaggart’s atemporal replacement, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1998; G. Rochelle, “Killing time without injuring eternity: McTaggart’s C series”, Idealistic Studies, 28 (3 Fall), 1998, pp.159-169.
49 F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961.
50 R. Taylor, “The Meaning of Life” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp.167-75, p.175.
51 According to Frankl, frustration of existential aims can be driven by “noögenic neuroses” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp.123-6). Noögenic neuroses do not derive from conflicts between drives and instincts. Indeed, some conflicts are not neurotic and healthy conflict should not be discouraged or treated for other than what it is. Suffering may well be an achievement, particularly if it derives from existential frustration—existential distress is not mental disease. Working through existential distress can lead to human growth. The logotherapist assists his or her patient in the discovery of potential meaning to his or her existence and does not (as psychoanalysis) try to make the patient “aware of what he actually longs for in the depths of his being” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.125). Logootherapy is not oncerned with the conflicts brought about by drives and instincts, the id, the ego and superego, or to adjustment to society and environment. Inner tension is a requisite for mental health, and the knowledge that there is meaning to one’s life is crucial to survival. The tension may well take the form of past and future accomplishments or progress as a person. The tension is “the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p.127). Noö-dynamics is set in train by the tension between the meaning to be fulfilled and the individual who has to fulfil it. Frankl commends an accent on this tension to help the neurotic.
52 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.61.
53 L. Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, 6.521, p.187.
54 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.108.
55 Sophocles, Oedipus the King, pp.47-99.
56 F. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, The Russian Messenger (Series), 1866.
57 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.111.
58 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.109.
59 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.109.
60 I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, eds. M. Gregor and J Timmermann, trans. C.M. Korsgaard, Cambridge, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, 2012.
61 Spinoza, Ethics, p.206.
62 Interesting discussion on this is found in A. Macaro, Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy, London, John Wiley, 2006, Ch. 4.
63 Epicurus influence and interpretation of Aristotle have been far reaching. His egalitarian ideas have found their way into the thinking of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Brief outlines of Epicurus’ life can be found in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonial, pp.vii-xv; and trans. E O’Connor, The Essential Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments, New York, Prometheus Books, 1993, pp.9- 15.
64 Epicurus, Letter to Menoecus in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, Text 4, section 133, p.31.
65 Epicurus, Letter to Menoecus, in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, Text 4, section 125, p.29.
66 R. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford, Blackwell, 1980, pp.12-15.
67 Aristotle discusses friendship, philia, at length and much of our understanding of it rests with him. Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, pp.927-1126, Books VIII-IX, pp.1058-1093.
68 NU-philosophical counselling is a good example of a union of friendship outside the traditional methods but still fulfilling the essential demands.
69 Diogenes Laertius, “Report of Epicurus’ Ethical Views”, in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonial, X, p.118.
70 Aristotle, Rhetoric (Rhetoric) in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. R.P. McKeon, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, New York, Random House, 1941, 1387b, line 22-1387a, line 29, pp.1317-1451.
71 The line of this thinking was originally explored with Ran Lahav whose contribution to the field of contemporary practical philosophy has been considerable.
72 G. Rochelle, Doing Philosophy, Edinburgh, Dunedin Academic Press, 2012.
Gérald Rochelle a travaillé en tant que professeur invité aux écoles de l'Institut royal de la philosophie. Il a été rédacteur de la revue de Philosophie Pratique et ancien président de la Société de philosophie pratique. Il a organisé des ateliers sur la philosophie pratique en Europe et aux États-Unis. Il a rédigé un ouvrage fondamental sur la philosophie pratique: Doing Philosophy.