Sunday, April 3, 2011

Philosophy and the Solace of Self

Nowhere is there a more idyllic spot, a vacation home more private and peaceful, than in one's own mind, especially when it is furnished in such a way that the merest inward glance induces ease. . .
–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. IV.3

To what might one owe peace of mind? To a hard day's work or the satisfaction of a job well done? To feats and victories, heroism and valor? To the forbearance of suffering and endurance throughout the languish of pain? To piety and devotion? As the Epicureans said, might it simply be the avoidance of all such pains and extremes?

Though Aristotle's advice might seem the most obvious it is in fact the most difficult: to do the right thing, in the right measure, at the right time, always. And that one's happiness is ever the balance of pleasure derived from one's present task, received from past deeds, and expected  from future ones. Surely anyone who has read what Aristotle expected from a man might see such a task as positively Herculean. To do so one would have to be responsible for ever moment of his life, to have lived each moment at least as best as he was able. Or at least to have redeemed one moment's failure with another's success.

One must of course possess a relentlessly introspective nature. It is not enough merely to do, but one must assess. Worse still, one must do and assess in moderation, not ever yielding to passive torpidity or unguided exuberance.

This virtue of moderation so praised by long gone cultures, cultures who praised the man both musician and astronomer, who tilled the earth and tweaked poetry, is not so much valued today as specialization. Yet how would the main whose intellectual facilities are developed at great disproportion to his mastery of his self react to the temptations of the body, the rights of the condemned, or the uncertainties of philosophy? One need not look far to find brilliant scientists with eggshell philosophy, or  lofty, ivory-tower intellectuals who could not arbitrate the case of a lost dog without caucus and a dissertation on metaphysics.

It follows then that one must have a moral code against which to judge one's actions but this guarantees little peace of mind. No one is born with a fully formed moral system and whose does not change, at least a little, over time? Thus at the end of one's life one is bound to see some misdeeds, yet those same misdeeds may have spurred the creation of the new moral view. There is no escaping the function of time on happiness.

At many points in his life a man will find himself at a crossroads considering the man he has become and the man he hopes himself one day to be. At those points he will have much to consider. First and foremost he will be limited by his intellectual ability and desire for self-criticism. Perhaps most integrally of all, should he lack either of these I scarcely imagine he would realize it. Such a man, philosophy's exile, deserves the pity of all other men. Who is deaf to Plato's timeless call to, "γνῶθι σεαυτόν" and the endless questions and conundrums unleashed by Plato's prompt holds never the world in a grain of sand but ever is held within the limits of his myopia.

What might the balance of these innumerable variables look like? Aristotle and Marcus point the way, though not nearly so precisely as we would hope. What is expected of man is nothing less than the reconciliation of past, present, and future. To relish in the contradiction of man's inescapable indignity and his supernal potential. To form in the self the eclectic communion of the dignitaries of humanity and the peerless spark of the individual. To make the man neither rationalistic automaton nor gross id. To relish every grasp of the flesh and every glimpse of the divine. To say to oneself, "far have I come, far must I go, but gladly." To relish the journey, the destination, and the contradiction. To look back on every grace as undeserved and service as unrequired. To be steward, supplicant, and king; brother, friend, son, father, and foe. To be creature of Prometheus and child of God.

Yet finding solace in the self is not simply an act of moderation between the extremes of opposing philosophical schools. Rather it is the act of moderation between self and other. What is most obviously the great challenge of political life, the balance of individuality and community, is less often seen in the context of developing a character, a character neither ex nihilo nor pastiche, neither alien to other men nor subsumed into group-think. To have knowledge not encyclopedic for the sake of knowing, but catholic for the sake of understanding and living. To make of one's mind not a computer calculating conditionals but a retreat fashioned with the furniture of a lifetime of learning–furniture new and old, sometimes shuffled around, maybe re-finished, and maybe built yourself if you're lucky. To be eclectic not as affectation but as the expression of a curious and uncommon character. What's in your room? Does it clamor with the croaking frogs of Aristophanes and the eternal laughter of Mozart?

Yet happiness is not just being able to close your eyes and watch Achilles fight the Scamander or sit with Bertram Wooster in the garden, but to be content with one's deeds. Not just with heroic feats and discoveries, but in what you have shared with others, with family, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. Retreat to a room quirky and quiet, but not empty. Retreat, but only to live. Retreat to a mind, as Marcus says, neither "lavish nor crude," neither preoccupied with the machinations of thought nor swept up in the urgencies of whim.

Craft this self not obsessively or relentlessly but with prudence and patience. Craft a self that knows self and other, that is in time and timeless. It's beginning will be its end, so from one philosopher and time to another, know thyself. Remember the rose garden. Through time time conquer, and betwixt past and future, dance. This mind, this presencing self, this world weaving through worlds and time. . .
Nowhere is there a more idyllic spot, a vacation home more private and peaceful. . .
–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. IV.3

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