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.
But here’s the danger. Without realizing it we turn these things into a kind of Platonic form of our lives. That is, these are the only way our lives can be and still be our lives, just as the only way for something to be beautiful is to partake in the Platonic form of the beautiful. And this Platonic form, the self-conception, informs all of our expectations about how our lives should go. In some way we might say that the Platonic form of our lives, its outline, is partially constituted by the various ways we habituate ourselves, the various routines we make for ourselves, such that when they are interrupted, we are at a loss—the reality of our lives no longer fits the form of our lives.
I think this is potentially a fruitful way of thinking about what happens when we are unexpectedly ill or sick, either acutely but prolonged or chronically. If we become too attached, or if we are already too attached, to the self-conceived, Platonic form of our lives, this can make such an illness too much: “No! I am thus and so, and if I cannot be, then I shouldn’t be.” We think things have to be a certain way, but they no longer are. So either we are unable to participate in the form of our lives which we take to be necessary to make it our life, and thereby we suffer miserably, or we recognize that there is no Platonic form that must be participated in in order to be ourselves.
This is all another way to try to approach the idea we find in Buddhism that there is no self, i.e., there is no fixed, unchanging, independently existing “thing” that constitutes who I am. What I am, as what the world is, is not fixed, but fluid and subject to changing causes and conditions (not to mention in an important sense co-extensive with those causes and conditions).
Interestingly, we are also warned away from the temptations of the Platonic self by figures such as Nietzsche and Sartre (and of course many others, I’m sure). In Nietzsche, for example, there is a call to continual self-overcoming, where one the primary ways that we express our power is by bettering our former selves by becoming ever stronger and more creative, evermore able to take on responsibility and suffering. In Sartre, one lives in what he calls “bad faith” when one identifies oneself as something fixed and unchanging: for example, one’s role or job. You say to yourself, I am a professor; a professor is who I am—thus my actions must be thus and so, thus my options are limited. And therein one feels some level of security in the face of the openness and under-determination of the future. “This is what I have to do today, tomorrow, and the next.” But while such bad faith may relieve the existential anxiety that Sartre thinks otherwise threatens, it also promotes the danger outlined above in conceptualizing ourselves in a Platonic fashion.
We see this Platonic sort of self-conception happening in a variety of ways that are perhaps not so obvious. For example, you will hear some people say as they get older, as they are out in public and look at those who are in their teens and 20s, that the world has passed them by. The world has changed on them, becoming unfamiliar and thereby anxiety producing. And here they are making a kind of double “Platonic” error. There is a subtle implication that the world should not have changed; it should have remained as it was known to them when they were younger—it should have had a Platonic form itself. Moreover, they are taking the Platonic form of their lives to be the life of their younger self, which more or less fit the world that it inhabited.
This idea of conceiving things as though they have fixed, Platonic forms is not, of course, limited to thinking about our lives as a whole. We can, and often do, do the same thing when it comes to conceptualizing something as short as a meal, a date, a conference, a vacation, etc. A Platonic form in this sense is simply the conception of things as having only one legitimate, satisfactory form, such that if reality does not match it, then it can’t be worthwhile but must instead be suffered.
One of the most unnoticed Platonic forms that infects our expectations is the form of the the “normal life.” Even if we do not think everyone ought to be a writer, we tend to think that a normal life has features x, y, and z. For example, a person may think that a normal life is one where you live to be at least 80, you have at least 2 kids, a satisfying career, lots of traveling, being a homeowner, etc. Everyone’s conception of the normal life may differ to a greater or lesser extent, but what gives it its force is not a similitude of specifics, but the role it plays as a Platonic form, a fixed norm that applies to all cases. Where’s the justification for the assumption that if one lives to be 40 instead of 80 that one’s life is not normal (can statistics answer this question?)? And, moreover, where’s the justification for the assumption that its being a normal life is a necessary condition for its being a good life?
Again, we see the truth of Buddhism, namely, that we suffer when we deny the nature of reality. As it is wonderfully expressed at the very end of the Diamond Sutra:
“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”
“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
Thus spoke Buddha.
And here we can see that Nietzsche was right to criticize Plato’s philosophy as life denying—holding to Platonic forms of anything is to distance yourself from the world we all inhabit, a world free of fixed forms.