Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Life Is About Priorities and Choices

Some days -- many days -- I can feel the lethargy and entropy dominating my body and stopping me from going to my computer. Health is obviously critical. It can be the difference between wanting to do something productive and idealistic -- vs. not. My dad has always said that idealism generally requires the full-blooded energy of youth. Obviously I cannot speak for everyone -- maybe I am mainly speaking about myself -- but by the time you hit 50, hopefully you are reasonably financially secure, or at least stable, idealism may have lost some or a lot of its edge, disappearing in life trauma, negative experiences, skepticism, cynicism, and/or just fitting into a comfortable groove, doing your thing, and hanging on. Energy for 'idealistic projects' comes and goes. As the cliche goes, wouldn't it be nice to combine the energy of youth with the wisdom of later life.

In my 20s, I hated and avoided politics. Looking back at that time now, I would say that I was an 'Epicurean' -- in that I avoided politics while otherwise pursuing what I thought would give me a happy life. Mistakes were made to be sure. First, you go too far this way; then too far that way -- struggling towards that 'ideal' balance in the middle. Indeed, I would say that I am still an Epicurean today, except that at different times I try to face up to politics and get my idealistic two cents in.

What is Epicurean philosophy? I like using Wikipedia as my first introduction to a philosopher and/or philosophy so let us see what Wikipedia has to say about Epicurus and Epicureanism. (I became more interested in it the other day when I was reading through some Thomas Jefferson quotes and found that he threw his full validation and support behind it.) That made it worth reading up again for me.

Epicurus (Greek Ἐπίκουρος) (341 BC, Samos – 270 BC, Athens) was an ancient Greek philosopher, the founder of Epicureanism, one of the most popular schools of thought in Hellenistic Philosophy. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and bad, that death is the end of existence and not to be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.

This sounds at least partly like a very secular, humanistic philosophy to me. Unfortunately, over the years its has often been confused with, and/or distorted into extremist 'hedonism' which it is not. Epicureanism is not a philosophy that believes in the 'wallowing in pleasure' but rather is a philosophy that believes in pursuing the achievement of 'equilibrium' (or 'balance'). (reference: Richard Osborne, Philosophy for Beginners, 1992, Writers and Readers Publishing, Incorporated, New York, New York). Now achieving equilibrium or balance can be like walking a (Nietzschean) tightrope wire -- the minute you think you are in control of things you may be one minute or one second away from toppling over the edge of the 'abyss' (or 'gap'). Balance does not come easy and at best it is generally a very tenuous and fleeting state of being. Invariably, there will be some 'punch' thrown at us by life that will throw us into imbalance again -- as we precariously fight for balance on life's highwire act. But that is life -- and not to bravely step back on the tightrope wire again is not to live with passion and intensity. (We have here a little mixture of Epicureanism with Nietzscheism.)

So life is also partly -- or mainly -- about choices and priorities. 'To be or not to be.' (Now we introduce a little Shakespeare through Hamlet.)
Where am I today and where are my priorities? How important a project is finishing this philosophical work? Some days the energy is here; some days it's not. Everything is relative. I'm sure my dad would love to be 52 years old again. I look through the history of philosophy and see that Kierkegaard was dead before my age (42), and Nietzsche had gone insane, for the last 11 years of his life (that would be around 45 years old), dying at 56. These are two magnificent philosophers in the history of Western philosophy and evolution with all of their brilliant works behind them before the age of 50.

Life is about choice and priorities. Where is the drive, the motivation, the discipline (or non-discipline)? As Alfred Adler would say, where is the 'direction of movement'?

Some of the great philosophers philosophized in wealth and luxury, or comfortably through an inheritence, a university teaching position, and/or through wealthy benefactors. Hegel and Schopenhauer come to mind. I'm sure with a minimum of easy checking -- if you are a researcher you have to love the instant convenience and previously undreamed of wealth of information on the internet! -- I could list you off many more 'wealthy' philosophers, men who had lots of free time on their hands. Conversely, you had Karl Marx who wrote thousands of pages of astounding philosophy from a state of poverty. Where there is a will, there is a way!

I don't know of many philosophers who were happily married men! A few perhaps. Most seemed to be either 'anal retentive hermits' (Kant and Kierkegaard come to mind) or 'had multiple lovers' (Rousseau, Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung...) which is not to say that you can't be an anal retentive hermit and still be happy and healthy, or have multiple lovers and still be happy. But generally, I think, many philosophers were philosophizing from 'pain' -- they were perhaps attempting to compensate for a life of pain, torment, and/or internal 'demons'. (Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche come most prominantly to mind -- largely unsuccessful in love, promiscuous in the cases of Schopenhauer and perhaps Nietzsche, weighed down by heavy 'religious and/or internal father issues' in many cases, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche coming to mind here again, with Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's dads both dying at an early age, Schopenhauer's from suicide.) These men were all carrying heavy issues and heavy pain inside their heads -- that they needed to 'self-therapeutically compensate' for. These are generalizations to be sure, and for every generalization there is always an exception -- Kant was perhaps the most anal-retentive of all philosophers, so predictable in the time of his walks, that people could know what time it was -- and yet Kant did not really seem 'demonized' by his seemingly totally 'Apollonian' existence, indeed, he seemed very ethical, organized, caring, deeply just have to wonder how much fun he had in his life...Did he every have sex with a woman? Did he every fall in love with a woman? Or was that blasphemy -- and/or out of reach -- in his life?

So here I sit, perhaps partly at a crossroads in my life at 52. For the most part, I have eked* out a reasonably comfortable middle class existence for myself although even a reasonably good income seems barely enough these days. (Again the internet is amazing. I looked up the word 'eked' to make sure it was a proper word and that I was using it correctly. Again, the internet did not fail me.

*eke 1(k)
tr.v. eked, ek·ing, ekes
1. To supplement with great effort. Used with out: eked out an income by working two jobs.
2. To get with great effort or strain. Used with out: eke a bare existence from farming in an arid area.


I have a pretty amazing girlfriend who I have been going out with for about 8 or 9 years now, although to be sure, we have had our moments of intense conflict, differences of opinion on issues of priority and choice of lifestyle...

My father and I have for the most part made our peace although, to be sure, there may still be things we disagree on. In some ways he reminds me of Kant -- some of his 'anal retentiveness' and orthodox ways -- but my dad at 78 has the most amazing woman to spend his time with each and every day and night, i.e, my mother, which unless I am sadly and totally wrong, Kant could never say...You look up 'Kant' on the internet and it is hard to find more than a few words on his personal life, presumably because, aside from the conversations he had with his friends, he essentially had no personal life, it was all about his scholarship...there were no soap operas, no huge drama, in this man's life...


The critical turn

At the age of 46, Kant was an established scholar and an increasingly influential philosopher. Much was expected of him. In response to a letter from his student, Markus Herz, Kant came to recognize that in the Inaugural Dissertation, he had failed to account for the relation and connection between our sensible and intellectual faculties. He also credited David Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumber" (circa 1770). Kant would not publish another work in philosophy for the next eleven years.

Kant spent his silent decade working on a solution to the problems posed. Though fond of company and conversation with others, Kant isolated himself, despite friends' attempts to bring him out of his isolation. In 1778, in response to one of these offers by a former pupil, Kant wrote "Any change makes me apprehensive, even if it offers the greatest promise of improving my condition, and I am persuaded by this natural instinct of mine that I must take heed if I wish that the threads which the Fates spin so thin and weak in my case to be spun to any length. My great thanks, to my well-wishers and friends, who think so kindly of me as to undertake my welfare, but at the same time a most humble request to protect me in my current condition from any disturbance." [3]

When Kant emerged from his silence in 1781, the result was the Critique of Pure Reason. Although now uniformly recognized as one of the greatest works in the history of philosophy, this Critique was largely ignored upon its initial publication. The book was long, over 800 pages in the original German edition, and written in a dry, scholastic style. It received few reviews, and these failed to recognize the Critique's revolutionary nature. Its density made it, as Johann Gottfried Herder put it in a letter to Johann Georg Hamann, a "tough nut to crack", obscured by "...all this heavy gossamer."[4] This is in stark contrast, however, with the praise Kant received for earlier works such as the aforementioned "Prize Essay" and other shorter works that precede the first Critique. These well-received and readable tracts include one on the earthquake in Lisbon which was so popular that it was sold by the page.[5]

My most appreciative thanks to Wikipedia for this and many other internet outtakes and references...


I will probably never read The Critique of Pure Reason although I have several times held it in my hand at Chapters, and one day I may buyd it for my personal library so that I at least have access to it. That being said, I find it tough enough to read through an 'Introduction to Kant', and all else being equal, I would sooner read Nietzsche or just about any other philosopher I come upon. I recognize Kant's greatness, admire his extreme dedication and self-discipline, would like much more of it oftentimes for myself, but in the end, I would sooner be working on my fantasy basketball or baseball team, or spending time with my girlfriend, or just doing what spontaneously seems most appealing to me than spending any significant length of time reading Kant...or for that matter doing anything out of 'self-discipline and obligation' rather than heart felt interest. Obviously, that may have something to do with where I am today and where I am not. A huge amount of self-discipline and sacrifice is probably a very good reason why Kant has his very esteemed place in philosophical history, and unless I come on with a strong late flourish and rush of brilliance -- not to mention again the dreaded word 'self-discipline' -- will retain my rank as an 'amateur philosopher'. But then again, I think I like my own lifestyle better than I like Kant's. The point here is: life is all about choices and priorities -- and degree of focus and self-discipline relative to seriously going after and achieving one's most important life desires and goals. And somehow I think this essay which came partly out of nowhere after about a month or two of non-writing, was and is about psyching myself up, i.e., motivating myself, towards writing a series of essays on epistemology which takes us at least partly into Kant's territory or what I will call 'Kant's Room'. Meet me there if you are interested in reading, writing, and debating, on the subject of epistemology. I will try my best to make a usually 'dry' subject area as interesting and entertaining as possible.

db, originally written April 7, 2007, modified and updated May 24th, 2007.

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