Cutting Through Bullshit—The (Possible) Advantages of Chronic Illness and Disability

Some years ago, I was reading Nietzsche and it occurred to me to make a note in my journal. Something along the lines of needing to regularly come back to Nietzsche, as he provides a wonderful sort of intellectual conscience. Is this a surprising thing to think about Nietzsche? What I have in mind are such passages as, “[Philosophers] all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…. while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesman for the prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’…” (Beyond Good and Evil. “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” §5). That is powerful stuff and bites to the marrow. And so I am cautious, in my better moments, to try to avoid succumbing to such temptations, which include being tempted to hold true that which makes us feel better. Along these lines, I take it that part of what it means to have truth as a goal inquiry is that the standards for whether or not one’s inquiry is going well are not ultimately relative to one’s subjectivity.

With all this in mind, I’d like to explore some reasons for thinking about the advantages of being disadvantaged, at least in terms of chronic illness and disability (I’m not including the disadvantages of poverty and racism, for example). I will try to avoid belaboring it, but here is my background. Continue reading

Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens meet with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

Goethe and Ryōkan as Exemplars of How to Live

Writing on compassion in early Buddhism, Anālayo notes that the primary form of compassion was teaching the Dharma, i.e., the Buddhist teachings on the cessation of suffering. But as Anālayo also notes, verbal instruction is not the only way to teach: teaching, “…can also take place through teaching by example” (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, 16). Indeed, teaching and learning by example are extremely important, and often unconscious. We don’t always realize that others, especially children, learn by our example, nor that we learn from others’ example. One important question, of course, is who do we take as our exemplars of a well lived life? For the kind of person we choose as our life-well-lived-exemplar implies a choice about the kind of life we wish to lead.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the life of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), who was an important German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. —A person much praised by Nietzsche, as we will see. And I want to compare Goethe with the Japanese Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, and recluse, Ryōkan (1758 to 1831).

There are a number of things that make these two figures particularly interesting to me. First, they are both writers and poets. Second, though they have been influential in very different ways, both their lives and works have inspired many. Third, since they are both writers and poets, they both belong to that category of being, so to speak, that Nietzsche seems to hold in the highest esteem, namely, the artist, the creator. As Nietzsche writes in his Zarathustra: Continue reading

Suffering, Creativity, and Genius

What would Nietzsche make of us? What would Nietzsche make of the T-shirt you can find on Facebook that is a spoof of a beer label. It reads, “Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Superior Quality/It’s Beyond Good/Zarathustra & CO. Distillery/Consume Responsibly.” If there were a God who gave him a soul, would Nietzsche turn in his grave? What would he think about the fact that over the years I have viewed his writings as a kind of self-help? That is, and perhaps ironically, if I have not sought comfort in Buddhism, I have sought comfort in Nietzsche’s writings. I have often been inspired by his call to greatness, his call to take on profound suffering in the name of creation, in the name of genius. And I realized long ago that it was inspirational because it appealed to my ego, as I’m sure it does to the egos of other, predominantly white boys/men. The inspiration works like this: “Don’t you want to think of yourself as a creative genius, then quit your bitching about your suffering and embrace it!” The implication supposedly: if I’m reading Nietzsche, and I’m embracing my suffering, then I, too, am a higher type. On top of Nietzsche’s writings in some sense inviting this sort of poor reasoning, there is the danger that goes along with dedicating your life to reading the works of geniuses: One, of course, would very much like to be a peer of the authors one is reading. It is difficult, particularly if you’re introverted and spend much time in isolation with the work of geniuses, not to long for some measure of equality.

However, neither suffering nor our embracing of it are sufficient for creative genius. So much is obvious. Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to think about the connection between genius and suffering and/or madness. In today’s essay, I want to explore in a loose way a number of issues concerning creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy.

Consider Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” which provides an interesting way into these issues. As his title indicates, Berry is concerned to challenge what he sees in 1974 as the specialization of poetry. Briefly, Berry contrasts the poet specialist with the “ordinary person” who happens write poetry in addition to doing other work. He considers, for example, William Carlos Williams who is both a poet and a community engaged doctor. For Berry, the poet specialist runs the risk of making their poetry divorced from more communal, public concerns, choosing to focus instead on interiority, in particular on their suffering. Among other things this is marked by the reader’s interest in the poet’s life itself, her views on all manner of things, instead of simply the poetry itself. In addition to the poet’s turning inward and away from shared experience and public concerns, Berry notes a concomitant turn to the art of words. The words themselves, not what they say, takes precedence over engagement with experience and tradition. But Berry’s main problem seems to be that with a focus on suffering there is a focus on people as sufferers (victims) and not actors responsible for their fate. Hence, there is a contrast between the passive poet responding to her suffering and the activist poet who takes responsibility for themselves and what is happening in society. Further, Berry thinks that the poet’s focus on interiority goes along with an absence of narrative in contemporary poetry and the lack of narrative goes with the lack of communal engagement. While we won’t be engaging all or many of these issues, I want to give the reader the context of Berry’s discussion. Continue reading

Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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The Nietzschean Bodhisattva: Part I

One of the tasks that Joan Stambaugh pursues in her chapter on “Creativity and Decadence,” is to explain what it means to say that “Nietzsche sees art as fundamental to life, as the ‘truly metaphysical activity of man’” (The Other Nietzsche, 21). Nietzsche, Stambaugh says, sees art as not, “a sphere of culture, not as a highly specialized, privileged area for the few, but as that activity of man that is most crucial to his life” (ibid.). Stambaugh finds such a claim rather strange, for aren’t other things crucial to life before art? She sees the resolution of the strangeness in her interpretation of Nietzsche on truth. She writes:

For Nietzsche, there is no truth in the traditional sense of that word. The world of the will to power is in constant flux, not the undefined, undetermined flux of Heraclitus, but the flux of shifting centers of power that increase and decrease, but never remain the same. True knowledge of this world is impossible, in fact, it is incommensurate with the very nature of the world. “Knowing” is simply a pragmatic falsification of the world for the purpose of dealing with it more effectively. Therefore, instead of despairing over the fact that there is no static, finished world to be known, the meaningful activity in this world of flux and the will to power becomes art, shaping this world, giving it meaning and values. The previous institutions and endeavors of man are forms of decadence, they distort the world. “Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The counter movement: art” (The Will to Power, No. 794). “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585). (22-23)

This denial of truth is very much in line with Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the death of God, which signals the death of the power of the idea of a fixed transcendent world giving meaning to this world. The world is not finished, with its meanings and values already determined. Instead, the world is in a very important sense continually underdetermined as a result of both there being no transcendent, fixed meaning giver, while at the same time that the world we inhabit is in constant flux. So, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is the denial of a kind of Platonic conception of truth/meaning/value. Continue reading

Pain vs. Pleasure: An Incongruity of Sympathies

If you are reading this, then I am guessing that you are not suffering too badly, nor are you having the time of your life—although I guess it would be rather flattering if either of those things were happening and you were that determined to read this. But assuming you’re not, let me ask you to imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are suffering greatly. There are people who are being burned alive unable to escape their homes on fire, who have just lost their spouse, children who are gasping their last breath from starvation, and on and on. It is hard, but imagine them. ——However, and thankfully, there are other people having other experiences, as well. Now, if I may, let me ask you to clear your mind for a moment, and imagine the most nondescript, boring thing you can. Hold that in your imagination for a few moments. ——And now, if I may be a demanding author one more time, let me ask you to once again imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are having a wonderful time. There are people who after years of trying are right now finally giving birth to their first child, people who have just settled onto the beach for the first day of their long-awaited honeymoon, people who overcame great obstacles, years of discrimination, and they have just found out that they were admitted into the University of their dreams on a full scholarship, and on and on.

Yesterday while writing a short piece on consciousness, it occurred to me that there may well be an interesting, if not also troubling, incongruity between our empathetic reactions to different kinds of events. My hypothesis is that the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel some sort of empathetic pain on behalf of those they were imagining suffering; however, the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel little or no empathetic joy on behalf of those they were imagining ecstatic or joyful. To be clear, I think this is an empirical question, not one that can be argued a priori. Perhaps it reveals something of myself; perhaps I am projecting my own responses onto others.

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Midlife Crisis: Or First Draft of a Book Preface

It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.

I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect. Continue reading

Facing Profound Suffering: Part I

I recently saw on Facebook something like, “It’s not the opinions you post, but what you do that matters.” While I think I certainly understand the point, I think such a line misses that words and deeds are often the same. Consider, what are you to do if you want to help others but you have limited resources and come into contact with few people in your day-to-day life? Well, one thing to do is to post your opinion, i.e., write something that may prove useful to others. Is this not doing something? Let us hope so.

Speaking as an American, our culture is expert at eliding the ubiquity of pain, suffering, and death. If you ever have occasion to talk to others about their suffering or the suffering of their friends and family, you will soon discover nearly everyone has a story to tell. But we often (usually?) are unaware of this common thread that runs through all of our lives. It Is much like the parable in which a distraught, grieving mother who has recently lost her child goes to the Buddha for solace. He tells her he’ll help her after she goes around to each household in town and collects a mustard seed from those homes that have not suffered a similar loss. She returns to the Buddha empty handed and wiser.

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Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?” What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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