I have discussed this question several times before. Here is my short answer. By all means, go to graduate school in philosophy, but only if you satisfy all of the following conditions.
1. Philosophy is your passion, the one thing you think most worth living for.
2. People in the know have advised you that you have philosophical aptitude.
3. Your way is paid in toto via fellowship including tuition remission or else you are independently wealthy. No student loans!
4. You are willing to live for 10-12 years, minimum, before relaxing with tenure. (I began grad school in '73 and received tenure in '84 = 11 years.) You will be under a fairly high degree of pressure during that decade or so, including such stressors as: living on a meager income as a grad student, writing a dissertation, earning the doctorate, landing a tenure-track position at a school where there is a real chance of getting tenure, surviving the tenure review.
5. You are willing to chance jumping though all the hoops, and then not get tenure, in which case you are no longer young somewhat damaged goods who may have to re-tool career-wise, or accept a lesser position. I know a philosopher who failed to get tenure at the University of Hawaii and had to take a job in Toledo, Ohio. It was a full-time philosophy position, but Toledo ain't Honolulu. It is easy to go up, hard to go down.
6. You understand that, if you do get tenure at Cleveland State, say, then you are stuck there for the rest of your career unless you are unusually talented. Tenure is a boon and a shackle, 'golden handcuffs' if you will. The security is purchased in the coin of a reduction of mobility.
In sum: if philosophy is your passion, you are good at it, have an opportunity to pursue it for free at a good school, and would not consider the years spent in grad school wasted if no job materializes -- then go for it! Live your dreams! Don't squander your self for pelf!
Within limits we have the power to control our minds, our moods, our responses to people and things, and in consequence our happiness. Happiness is in some measure made or unmade in the mind. We all know people who make themselves miserable by their refusal to practice very elementary mental hygiene. Just as I can let myself be annoyed by someone's remark or behavior, I can refuse to let myself be annoyed or affected. The trouble, however, is that this power of detachment is limited. What's more, it must be developed by protracted thought and practice, a fact that requires that one be well-endowed and well-placed -- facts not in one's control. I am in control of my responses to the world's bad actors and unfavorable circumstances, but not in control of the circumstances in which alone I can develop the Stoic's self-therapeutic armamentarium. I have the leisure, inclination, and aptitude to pursue Stoic and other spiritual exercises. But how many do? I can't see that a solution that leaves most out in the cold is much of a solution.
The Stoic wisdom may not take us far, but where it takes us is a worthwhile destination. In the end, however, Augustine is right: it is no final solution. Wretchedness partially and temporarily alleviated, and by some only, is no satisfactory answer to the wretchedness inscribed in our nature. Of course, it doesn't follow from this that there is a satisfactory answer.
Mutatis mutandis, the above applies to Buddhist self-therapeutics as well.
Everyone gets abused verbally in this world and one had better learn how to take it. There are bigots everywhere -- liberals are among the most vile, their tendency to project psychologically rendering their bigotry invisible to them -- and sooner or later you will encounter your fair share of abusers and bigots. A fellow graduate student called your humble correspondent a 'guinea' in the 1970s. This was in Boston. But I didn't break his nose and do the ground and pound on him. Was it cowardice or good sense? Call it self-control. If Trayvon Martin had control of his emotions on that fateful night, he would probably be alive today. The downside, of course, is that then we wouldn't be having this delightful 'conversation' about race.
My impression is that there is more anti-Italian prejudice -- not that it is any big deal -- in the East than in the West where I come from. (And without a doubt, Jim Morrison had it right when he opined that the West is the best, in at least two senses.) I didn't encounter any anti-Italian prejudice until I headed East. I had a Lithuanian girl friend in Boston whose mother used to warn her: "Never bring an Italian home." I never did get to meet Darci's mom. Imagine a Lithuanian feeling superior to an Italian!
But I want to talk about blacks, to add just a bit more to this wonderful 'conversation' about race we are having.
Blacks need to learn from Jews, Italians, the Irish, and others who have faced abuse and discrimination. Don't whine, don't complain, don't seek a government program. Don't try to cash in on your 'victim' status, when the truth is that you are a 'victim' of liberal victimology. Don't waste your energy blaming others for your own failures.
Don't wallow in your real or imagined grievances, especially vicarious grievances. That's the mark of a loser. Winners live and act in the present where alone they can influence the future.
If you want me to judge you as an individual, by the content of your character and not by the color of your skin, then behave like an individual: don't try to secure advantages from membership in a group.
Abandon tribal self-identification. Did you vote for Obama because he is black? Then you have no business in a voting booth.
Bear in mind that the world runs on appearances, and that if you appear to be a thug -- from your saggy pants, your 'hoodie,' your sullen and disrespectful attitude -- then people will suspect you of being a thug.
Take a leaf out of Condi Rice's book. She's black, she's female, and she became Secretary of State. And her predecessor in the job was a black man, Colin Powell. It sure is a racist society we have here in the USA. And that Justice Thomas on the Supreme Court -- isn't he a black dude? And not a mulatto like Obama, but one seriously black man.
Lose the basketball. Get the needle out of your arm, and that soul-killing rap noise out of your ears. Listen to the late Beethoven piano sonatas. May I recommend Opus #s 109, 110, and 111? Mozart is also supposed to be good for improving your mental capacity. We honkies want you to be successful. If you are successful, we won't have to support you. And if you are successful you will be happy. Happy people don't cause trouble.
And we don't give a flying enchilada what color you are. It's not about color anyway. It's about behavior. Work hard, practice the ancient virtues, and be successful. If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere. Don't let Brother Jesse or Brother Al tell you otherwise. Those so-called 'reverends' are nothing but race-hustlers who make money from the grievance industry.
Liberals are not your friends either. They want you to stay on the plantation. They think you are too stupid to take care of yourselves.
If you learn to control your emotions, defer gratification, study hard and practice the old-time virtues, will you be 'acting white'? Yes, in a sense. High culture is universal and available to all who want to assimilate it. What makes our culture superior to yours is not that it is white but that it is superior.
Don't get mad, be like Rudy Giuliani. Can you imagine him making a big deal about being called a greaseball, dago, goombah, wop, guinea . . . ? Do you see him protesting Soprano-style depictions of Italian-Americans as mafiosi?
"No man speaketh safely but he that is glad to hold his peace. " (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter XX.)
Excellent advice for Christian and non-Christian alike. Much misery and misfortune can be avoided by simply keeping one's mouth shut. That playful banter with your female student that you could not resist indulging in -- she construed it as sexual harrassment. You were sitting on top of the world, but now you are in a world of trouble. In this Age of Political Correctness examples are legion. To be on the safe side, a good rule of thumb is: If your speech can be misconstrued, it will be. Did you really need to make that comment, or fire off that e-mail, or send that picture of your marvellous nether endowment to a woman not your wife?
Part of the problem is Political Correctness, but another part is that people are not brought up to exercise self-control in thought, word, and deed. Both problems can be plausibly blamed on liberals. Paradoxically enough, the contemporary liberal promotes speech codes and taboos while at the same time promoting an absurd tolerance of every sort of bad behavior. The liberal 'educator' dare not tell the black kid to pull his pants up lest he be accused of a racist 'dissing' of the punk's 'culture.'
You need to give your children moral lessons and send them to schools where they will receive them. My mind drifts back to the fourth or fifth grade and the time a nun planted an image in my mind that remains. She likened the tongue to a sword capable of great damage, positioned behind two 'gates,' the teeth and the lips. Those gates are there for a reason, she explained, and the sword should come out only when it can be well deployed.
The good nun did not extend the image to the sword of flesh hanging between a man's legs. But I will. Keep your 'sword' behind the 'gates' of your pants and your undershorts until such time as it can be brought out for a good purpose.
There is so much to learn from the Trayvon Martin affair. One 'take-away' is the importance of self-control. If Martin had been taught, or rather had learned, to control himself he would most likely be alive today. But he didn't. He blew his cool when questioned about his trespassing in a gated community on a rainy night. He punched a man in the face and broke his nose, then jumped on him, pinned him down, and told him that he was going to die that night. So, naturally, the man defended himself against the deadly attack with deadly force. What Zimmerman did was both morally and legally permissible. If some strapping youth is pounding your head into the pavement, you are about to suffer "grave bodily harm" if not death. What we have here is clearly a case of self-defense.
Does race enter into this? In one way it does. Blacks as a group have a rather more emotional nature than whites as a group. (If you deny this, you have never lived in a black neighborhood or worked with blacks, as I have.) So, while self-control is important for all, the early inculcation of self-control is even more important for blacks.
Hard looks, hateful looks, suspicious looks -- we all get them from time to time, but they are not justifications for launching a physical assault on the looker. The same goes for harsh words.
If you want to be successful you must learn to control yourself. You must learn to control your thoughts, your words, and your behavior. You must learn to keep a tight rein on your feelings. Unfortunately, liberals in positions of authority have abdicated when it comes to moral education. For example, they refuse to enforce discipline in classrooms. So liberals, as usual, are part of the problem.
But that is to put it too mildly. There is no decency on the Left, no wisdom, and, increasingly, no sanity. For example, the crazy comparison of Trayvon Martin with Emmet Till. But perhaps I should put the point disjunctively: you are either crazy if you make that comparison, or moral scum.
Having retired after decades as an academician in various capacities, both administrative and professorial, at a small college in Massachusetts, I am dedicating the next three decades or so of my life to the fullest exploration possible of all that philosophy has to offer.
Bravo! Wise move. A human life should not be wasted on useless administrivia and teaching the unteachable in an age when so-called universities have forgotten their classical mission and have degenerated into leftist seminaries.
I get mail from people who are in a position to retire but hesitate out of fear of not having enough money. My advice to them is that since death can come without warning, "like a thief in the night," they ought to take the plunge. James Gandolfini died young at 51. When he woke up on the last morning of his life did he think it was to be his last?
The question to ask yourself is this: In what state will death find me? Grubbing for more loot? Or living the best life I can live pursuing the highest ends I am able to pursue?
"The trouble is, you think you have time." (attributed to Buddha)
These maxims work for me; they may work for you. Experiment. The art of living can only learned by living and trying and failing.
0. Make it a goal of your life to be as happy as circumstances permit. Think of it as a moral obligation: a duty to oneself and to others.
1. Avoid unhappy people. Most of them live in hells of their own devising; you cannot help them, but they can harm you.
2. Avoid negativity. Squelch negative and useless thoughts as they arise. Your mind is your domain and you have (limited) control over it. Don't dwell on the limits; push against them and expand them. Refuse entry to all unwanted guests. With practice, the power of the mind to control itself can be developed. There is no happiness without mind control. Don't dwell on the evil and sordid sides of life. Study them unflinchingly to learn the truths of the human predicament, but know how to look away when study time is over.
3. Set aside one hour per morning for formal meditation and the ruminative reading of high-grade self-help literature, e.g., the Stoics, but not just them. Go ahead, read Seligman, but read Seneca first.
4. Cultivate realistic expectations concerning the world and the people in it. This may require adjusting expectations downward. But this must be done without rancour, resentment, cynicism, or misanthropy. If you are shocked at the low level of your fellow human beings, blame yourself for having failed to cultivate reality-grounded expectations.
Negative people typically feel well-justified in their negative assessments of the world and its denizens. Therein lies a snare and a delusion. Justified or not, they poison themselves with their negativity and dig their whole deeper. Not wise.
Know and accept your own limitations. Curtail ambition, especially as the years roll on. Don't overreach. Enjoy what you have here and now. Don't let hankering after a nonexistent future poison the solely existent present.
5. Blame yourself as far as possible for everything bad that happens to you. This is one of the attitudinal differences between a conservative and a liberal. When a conservative gets up in the morning, he looks into the mirror and says, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul. What happens to me today is up to me and in my control." He thereby exaggerates, but in a life-enhancing way. The liberal, by contrast, starts his day with the blame game: "I was bullied, people were mean to me, blah, blah, people suck, I'm a victim, I need a government program to stop me from mainlining heroin, blah, blah, et cetera ad nauseam. A caricature? Of course. But it lays bare some important home truths like all good caricatures do.
Perhaps we could say that the right-thinking person begins with a defeasible presumption in favor of his ability to rely on himself, to cope, to negotiate life's twists and turns, to get his head together, to be happy, to flourish. He thus places the burden of proof on the people and things outside him to defeat the presumption. Sometimes life defeats our presumption of well-being; but if we start with the presumption of ill-being, then we defeat ourselves.
We should presume ourselves to be successful in our pursuit of happiness until proven wrong.
6. Rely on yourself for your well-being as far as possible. Don't look to others. You have no right to happiness and others have no obligation to provide it for you. Your right is to the pursuit of happiness. Learn to cultivate the soil of solitude. Happy solitude is the sole beatitude. O beata solitudo, sola beatitudo. An exaggeration to be sure, but justifed by the truth it contains. In the end, the individual is responsible for his happiness.
7. Practice mental self-control as difficult as it is. Master desire and aversion.
9. Limit comparisons with others. Comparisons often breed envy. The envious do not achieve well-being. Be yourself.
10. Fight the good fight against ignorance, evil, thoughtlessness, and tyranny, but don't sacrifice your happiness on the altar of activism. We are not here to improve the world so much as to be improved by it. It cannot be changed in any truly ameliorative and fundamental ways by our own efforts whether individual or collective. If you fancy it can be, then go ahead and learn the hard way, assuming you don't make things worse.
11. Hope beyond this life. One cannot live well in this life without hope. Life is enhanced if you can bring yourself to believe beyond it as well. No one knows whether we have a higher destiny. If you are so inclined, investigate the matter. But better than inquiry into the immortality of the soul is living in such a way as to deserve it.
I'm curious as to when you eat breakfast in relation to when you do your early morning studying, meditating, hiking, or running. I know you've mentioned a few times that you've done these activities before meeting folks for breakfast, so I am curious to know if eating affects your mental and/or spiritual clarity.
Eating definitely affects mental and spiritual clarity, and usually adversely, although it depends on the quantity and quality of what is eaten and drunk. My rule is: Nothing but coffee until after meditation. And no electronics until after meditation. A typical day goes like this. Up at 2 AM, reading and journal writing and coffee drinking til 4, then meditation 4-5, then more coffee and some toast smeared with almond butter (great stuff!). Then I turn on the modem (which I keep off at night), fire up the computer, answer e-mail and blog comments, work on a blog post, then around 5:30 or later depending on the season head out for 2-3 hours of exercise either a local hike/run or a combination of weight-lifting, swimming, and riding the mountain bike. For hydration I drink copious amount of water and OJ.
Only after physical exercise do I have a proper breakfast, around 7:30 or 8:30. But a little something before exercise is a good idea to fuel your exertions.
Don't imitate Jim Morrison, that distinguished member of the 27 Club, Roadhouse Blues: "I woke up this morning and I had myself a beer. The future's uncertain and death is always near." Yes it is if beer's your breakfast.
The long views of philosophy are not to everyone's taste. If not bored, many are depressed by the contemplation of death and pain, God and the soul, the meaning or meaninglessness of our lives. They prefer not to think of such things and consider it best to take short views. If as Thomas Nagel maintains, the contemplation sub specie aeternitatis of one's daily doings drains them of seriousness, one is under no obligation to take the view from nowhere.
Is it best to take short views? Sometimes it is. When the going gets tough, it is best to pull in one’s horns, hunker down, and just try to get through the next week, the next day, the next hour. One can always meet the challenge of the next hour. Be here now and deal with what is on your plate at the moment. Most likely you will find a way forward.
But, speaking for myself, a life without long views would not be worth living. I thrill at the passage in Plato’s Republic, Book Six (486a), where the philosopher is described as a "spectator of all time and existence." And then there is this beautiful formulation by William James:
The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man. (Pragmatism, Harvard UP, 1975, p. 56)
I wrote above, "speaking for myself." The expression was not used redundantly inasmuch as it conveys that my philosopher’s preference for the long view is not one that I would want to or try to urge on anyone else. In my experience, one cannot argue with another man’s sensibility. And much of life comes down to precisely that -- sensibility. If people share a sensibility, then argument is useful for its articulation and refinement. But I am none too sanguine about the possibility of arguing someone into, or out of, a sensibility.
How argue the atheist out of his abiding sense that the universe is godless, or the radical out of his conviction of human perfectibility? If the passages I cited from Plato and James leave you cold, how could I change your mind? If you sneer at my being thrilled, what then? Argument comes too late. Or if you prefer, sensibility comes too early.
One might also speak of a person’s sense of life, view of what is important, or ‘feel for the real.’ James’ phrase, "feel seriously," is apt. To the superior mind, ultimate questions "feel real," whereas to the shallow mind they appear pointless, unimportant, silly. It is equally true that the superior mind is made such by its wrestling with these questions.
Maximae res, cum parvis quaeruntur, magnos eos solent efficere.
Matters of the greatest importance, when they are investigated by little men, tend to make those men great. (Augustine, Contra Academicos 1. 2. 6.)
Of course, with his talk of the superior and the shallow, James is making a value judgment. I myself have no problem making value judgments, and in particular this one. Evaluate we must.
Although prospects are dim for arguing the other out of his sensibility, civil discussion is not pointless. One comes to understand one’s own view by contrast with another. One learns to respect the sources and resources of the other’s view. This may lead to toleration, which is good within limits. For someone with a theoretical bent, the sheer diversity of approaches to life is fascinating and provides endless grist for the theoretical mill. If the theoretician is a blogger, he has blog-fodder for a lifetime.
As for the problem of how to get along with people with wildly different views, I recommend voluntary segregation.
"But how could I fail to be?" By not minding your being here now. The rocks on the trail are here now but they cannot attend to their being here now. They can't appreciate or appropriate or affirm their being here now.
As the existentialists rightly pointed out, to be for a human being is to be in a special mode: to be minding, if you will. In Heideggerian jargon, to be for a human being is to be the Da of Sein; it is to be the Lichtung in which the rest of what is is gelichtet and made manifest.
Appreciate what you have while you have it. An actual shack is better than a remembered or merely imagined or expected or merely possible palace. Do not allow the present and actual good to suffer diminution by comparison to the modally and temporally and spatially elsewhere.
This is it. This is your life. Right here and right now. If it is good, appreciate it. If it needs improving, act right here and right now to improve it, but without failing to appreciate the good that is here and now yours.
You have enough world success if it enables you to advance the project of self-realization on the important fronts including the moral, the intellectual, and the spiritual. The vita contemplativa cannot be well lived by the grindingly poor, the sick, the politically and socially oppressed, the sorely afflicted and tormented. Boethius wrote his Consolations of Philosophy in prison, but you are not Boethius.
You have too much worldly success when it becomes a snare and a burden and a distraction.
We need some social acceptance and human contact, but fame is worse than obscurity. Reflect for a moment on the character of those who enjoy fame and the character of those whose fickle regard confers it.
We need a modicum of worldly wherewithal to live well, but more is not better. Only the terminally deluded could believe, as the saying goes, that "You can't be too thin or too rich." You could be anorexic or like unto the New Testament camel who couldn't pass through the eye of a needle.
We need health but not hypertrophy.
We need power, but not the power over others that corrupts but the power over oneself that does not.
John Blofeld, Beyond the Gods: Buddhist and Taoist Mysticism (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974), p. 153:
For the sake of wealth, people already well above the poverty line slave all their lives, not realising that withdrawal from the rat-race would immediately increase rather than diminish their wealth. Obviously anyone who finds the full satisfaction of all his material desires well within his means can be said to be wealthy; it follows that, except by the truly poor, wealth can be achieved overnight by a change of mental attitude that will set bounds to desires. As Laotzu put it, "He who is contented always has enough."
We should look past useless memories to present realities in the way we look past the floaters in our visual field. To concentrate on the detritus of memory is only to enliven what ought to be left to slumber.
A panacea that cures all your earthly ills in a manner most definitive.
Life in the fast lane often leads to a quick exit from life's freeway. You may recall Terry Kath, guitarist for the band Chicago. In 1978, while drunk, he shot himself in the head with a 'unloaded' gun. At first he had been fooling with a .38 revolver. Then he picked up a semi-automatic 9 mm pistol, removed the magazine, pointed it at his head, spoke his last words, "Don't worry, it isn't loaded," and pulled the trigger. Unfortunately for his head, there was a round in the chamber. Or that is one way the story goes.
Such inadvertent exits are easily avoided by exceptionless observation of three rules: Never point a gun at something you do not want to destroy. Treat every gun as if loaded, whether loaded or not. Never mix alcohol and gunpowder.
Perhaps I should add a fourth: Never mix dummy rounds with live rounds. Variant: Dummies should stay clear of guns, loaded or unloaded, and ammo, live or dummy.
I thank long-time blogger buddy Bill Keezer for pointing out something that should have been obvious. To read an online article at a money-grubbing site such as NRO, a site awash with advertising, moving images, noise, and what all else, click on the 'print' icon. The article should appear without the junk. But you knew that already.
I may not have the prettiest 'skin' in the 'sphere, but at my site you will find no advertising, begging, moving images, noise . . . just solid content day after day, year after year.
As one of my aphorisms has it, a blog is to be judged, not by the color of its 'skin' but by the character of its content.
I thank you for your patronage. Rare is the day when traffic dips below 1000 pageviews. In recent days spikes have been in the 3000-4000 range. 2012 was a banner year.
UPDATE: The ever-helpful Dave Lull e-mails:
Usually I prefer using the free Readability browser add-on (the page formatted for printing is often too wide for me to read comfortably and is sometimes not an option):
Just over the transom an e-mail from someone who wants me to review Nassim Taleb's latest book. So I asked Mr. Google to tell me who this Taleb fellow is and he referred me to Nassim Taleb's Super-Simple Argument for Banning Semi-Automatic Weapons. After reading this incoherent Facebook posting of his, I decided that time spent reading anything further by Taleb would probably be wasted.
Beware of wasting time on the latest stuff. What is hot now will be forgotten tomorrow. Here is some good advice from Leo Strauss on reading and writing.
UPDATE (1/2): This parody further dissuades me from reading Taleb. There is a strong temptation to want to be be up on all the latest stuff. But isn't it foolish to succumb to this temptation if there are great books you have never cracked? Life is short. Spend it well.
Suppose you value an old friend, a neighbor, a family member, a hiking companion, but differ with him or her on one or more points of ideology. As a general rule, one admitting of exceptions, I recommend assiduously avoiding the points of difference and cleaving to the uncontroversial. Do not multiply enemies beyond necessity! It is a sound conservative principle. We conservatives have no illusions about human nature or its improvability. People are what they are, and they do not and will not change. You cannot improve their thinking or their morals, not by much leastways, but you can make things worse by adding unnecessarily to the hostility in the world, hostility that can come back to bite you.
I once had a chess and hiking partner name of 'Bill.' We were two miles into the 9.1 mile Black Mesa Loop in the western Superstitions when he came out with a remark of such incomparable moral and intellectual obtuseness that my Italian blood began to boil. He said that a prenatal human being is "just tissue."
As someone who has thought deeply and rigorously about this topic (see Abortion category), I had at my command a full arsenal of responses. But I knew I would be wasting my time on the fellow. Only a very few are teachable. You can't make a piston out of ice.
So I said, "Bill, we have a long way to go in this unforgiving wilderness. In the interests of a pleasant hike, I suggest we not talk about this topic."
Since the past is no longer, to let go of the past is to let go of thoughts of the past. But these thoughts, like all thoughts, are in the present. So we are brought back again to the importance of cultivating the ability to let go of thoughts here and now. Mind control in the present automatically takes care of the two nonpresent temporal modes.
Does someone want to do something for you? Buy you lunch? Give you a gift? Bring something to the dinner?
Be gracious. Don't say, "You don't have to buy me lunch," or "Let me buy you lunch," or "You didn't have to bring that." Humbly accept and grant the donor the pleasure of being a donor.
Lack of graciousness often bespeaks an excess of ego.
We were re-hydrating at a bar in Tortilla Flat, Arizona, after an ankle-busting hike up a stream bed. I offered to buy Alex a drink. Instead of graciously accepting my hospitality, he had the chutzpah to ask me to lend him money so that he could buy me a drink!
Another type of ungraciousness is replying 'Thank you' to 'Thank you.' If I thank you for something, say 'You're welcome,' not 'Thank You.' Graciously acquiesce in the fact that I have done you a favor. Don't try to get the upper hand by thanking me.
I grant that there are situations in which mutual thanking is appropriate.
Some people feel that they must 'reciprocate.' Why exactly? I gave you a little Christmas present because I felt like it. And now you feel you must give me one in return? Is this a tit for tat game?
Suppose I compliment you sincerely. Will you throw the compliment back in my face by denigrating that which I complimented you for, thereby impugning my judgment?
1. Care about truth. 2. Care about grammar. 3. Care about eloquence in speaking.
4. Develop refined tastes in everything you can. 5. Develop a masterful BS detector. 6. Speak truths that no one else will, but which need to be heard. 7. Never flatter. 8. Don't sell character for success. 9. Be skeptical of whatever "the herd" likes. 10. Do not watch TV. In fact, turn them off whenever possible. 11. Lament stupidity, inanity, and insanity. They are everywhere.
We need spiritual exercises just as we need physical, mental, and moral exercises. A good spiritual exercise, and easy to boot, is daily recollection of just how good one has it, just how rich and full one's life is, just how much is going right despite annoyances and setbacks which for the most part are so petty as not to merit consideration.
Start with the physical side of your life. You slept well, and a beautiful new day is dawning. Your breath comes easy, your intestines are in order. Your mind is clear, and so are your eyes. Move every moving part of your body and note how wonderfully it works, without any pain to speak of.
Brew up some java and enjoy its rich taste, all the while rejoicing over the regularity of nature that allows the water to boil one more time, at the same temperature, and the caffeine to be absorbed once more by those greedy intercranial receptors that activate the adrenalin that makes you eager to grab a notebook and jot down all the new ideas that are beginning to percolate up from who knows where.
Finished with your body, move to your mind and its wonderful workings. Then to the house and its appliances including your trusty old computer that reliably, day after day, connects you to the sphere of Nous, the noosphere, to hijack a term of Teilhard de Chardin. And don't forget the country that allows you to live your own kind of life in your own kind of way and say and write whatever you think in peace and safety.
A quotidian enactment of something like the foregoing meditation should do wonders for you.
Epicurus (circa 341-271 B.C.) wrote the following to a disciple:
I understand from you that your natural disposition is too much inclined toward sexual passion. Follow your inclinations as you will provided only that you neither violate the laws, disturb well-established customs, harm any
one of your neighbors, injure your own body, nor waste your possessions. That you be not checked by some one of these provisos is impossible; for a man never gets any good from sexual passion, and he is fortunate if he does not receive harm. (Italics added, Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, trans. R. M. Geer, Macmillan, 1987, pp. 69-70)
Had Bill Clinton heeded this advice, kept his penis in harness, and his paws off the overweight intern, he might have left office with an impressive legacy indeed. But instead he will schlep down the centuries tied to Monica like Abelard to Heloise -- except for the fact that he got off a lot easier than poor Abelard.
Closer to home is the case of Robert Blake whose lust led him into a tender trap that turned deadly. He was very lucky to be acquitted of the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakeley. Then there was the case of the dentist whose extramural activities provoked his dentist wife to run him down with the family Mercedes. The Bard had it right: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
More recently, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has secured himself a place in the annals of libertinage while wrecking his career. Ah, those sophisticated Frenchmen.
And let's not forget Eliot Spitzer and now Generals Petraeus and Allen.
This litany of career-ending, family-destroying woe can be lengthened ad libitum. My motive is not Schadenfreude, but a humble desire to learn from the mistakes of others. Better that they rather than I should pay my tuition in the school of Hard Knocks.
Heed me, muchachos, there is no more delusive power on the face of the earth than sex. Or as a Turkish proverb has it, Erkegin sheytani kadindir, "Man's devil is woman."
I've followed your blog for a few months now. I feel compelled to say thank you for the content of your posts. They are usually trenchant, always interesting, and occasionally they lead me to delve into topics and categories that I have never explored previously.
Some background: I'm an Arabic linguist for the Navy. I currently live in Georgia, but was born and reared in Florida. I pretty much agree with everything you've said on political topics.
A question for you: I didn't study philosophy, but am extremely well read in history and politics (particularly ancient history). You obviously were a academician, but if I wanted to get grounded in the current state of philosophy, where do I start? The field is so vast, so opaque and confusing. Am I better off just reading Plato and perhaps William James?
Again, thank you for a wonderful blog. I always try to learn something new every day, and your writing makes it easier for me to accomplish that task.
I of course appreciate the kind words, and the regular arrival of letters like this in my mail box is emolument aplenty for my pro bono efforts.
First of all, I wouldn't worry too much about the current state of philosophy because much that is current is ephemeral and even foolish. I would concern myself more with an introduction to the perennial problems of philosophy. To understand the sometimes strange things that philosophers say one must first understand the questions that perplexed them and the problems they were trying to solve. With that in mind I recommend two short well-written books, the first from 1912 and the second from 1987: Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy; Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? I commend the following advice to you from p. 4 of Nagel's book:
The center of philosophy lies in certain questions which the reflective human mind finds naturally puzzling, and the best way to begin the study of philosophy is to think about them directly. Once you've done that, you are in a better position to apprecdiate the work of others who have tried to solve the same problems.
Sage advice. There is no point in studying philosophy unless there are some questions that 'bug' you and to which you want and need answers. Think about them directly, and try to answer them for yourself. Then test your answers against the answers more experienced thinkers have proposed.
For example, suppose you are interested in the question of the freedom of the will. Formulated as a problem, it is the problem of reconciling the freedom of the will presupposed by ascriptions of moral responsibility with the apparent determinism of the natural world of which the agent is a part. So you think about it. You don't get very far on your own, so you seek help. You turn to Schopenhauer's magisterial On the Freedom of the Will for orientation. You get that and more: data, distinctions, the history of the problem and the various solutions, and Schopenhauer's own solution. And so it goes.
The ComBox is open in case anyone wants to suggest titles for my reader.
It was 42 years ago today that I first began keeping a regular journal. Before that, as a teenager, I kept some irregular journals. Why maintain a journal? When I was 16 years old, my thought was that I didn't want time to pass with nothing to show for it. That is still my thought. The unrecorded life is not worth living. For we have it on good authority that the unexamined life is not worth living, and how examined could an undocumented life be?
The maintenance of a journal aids mightily in the project of self-individuation. Like that prodigious journal writer Søren Kierkegaard, I believe we are here to become actually the individuals we are potentially. Our individuation is not ready-made or given, but a task to be accomplished. The world is a vale of soul-making; we are not here to improve it, but to be improved by it.
Henry David Thoreau, another of the world's great journal writers, said in Walden that "Most men live lives of quiet desperation." I would only add that without a journal, one's life is one of quiet dissipation. One's life dribbles away, day by day, unreflected on, unexamined, unrecorded, and thus fundamentally unlived. Living, for us, is not just a biological process; it is fundamentally a spiritual unfolding. To mean anything it has to add up to something, and that something cannot be expressed with a dollar sign.
I have always had a horror of an unfocused existence. In my early twenties, I spoke of the supreme desideratum of a focused existence. What bothered me about the people around me, fellow students in particular, was the mere aestheticism of their existence: their aimless drifting hither and yon, their lack of commitment, their unseriousness, their refusal to engage the arduous task of self-definition and self-individuation, their willingness to be guided and mis-guided by social suggestions. In one's journal one collects and re-collects oneself; one makes war against the lower self and the forces of dispersion.
Another advantage to a journal and its regular maintenance is that one thereby learns how to write, and how to think. An unwritten thought is still a half-baked thought: proper concretion is achieved only by expressing thoughts in writing and developing them. Always write as well as you can, in complete sentences free of grammatical and spelling errors. Develop the sentences into paragraphs, and if the Muse is with you those paragraphs may one day issue in essays, articles, and chapters of books.
Finally, there is the pleasure of re-reading from a substantial temporal distance. Two years ago I began re-reading my journal in order, month by month, at a 40 year distance. So of course now I am up to October 1972. 40 Years from now I will be at the present, or dead. One.
Life is for living. And risks are for taking. But Henry David Thoreau says it best: "A man sits as many risks as he runs." The other side of the coin is that the risks must be proportional to the rewards.
No living well without risks. No living long without circumspection.
I just heard Dennis Prager say on his nationally syndicated radio show that travelling together is a good test for marital compatibility. Sage advice.
Long before I had heard of Prager I subjected my bride-to-be to such a test. I got the idea from the delightful 1982 movie The Diner. One of the guys who hung out at the diner tested for marital suitability by administering a football quiz to his fiance. That gave me the idea of taking my future wife on a cross-country trip from Cleveland, Ohio to Los Angeles, California in my Volkswagen bus. This was not a camper bus, but a stripped-down model, so the amenities were meager-to-nonexistent. I threw a mattress in the back, made some curtains, and hit the road. That was in the summer of '82. The soundtrack from The Diner was one of the tapes we listened to on the way. I recall reading the Stephen King novel Cujo about the dog from hell when my inamorata drove.
We slept mainly at rest stops. I had an old .38 Special with me for protection, which fortunately proved unnecessary. What did we do for showers? I don't think we took any. We cleaned up at the rest stop facilities like true vagabundos and moved on.
One dark and starry night I pulled off Interstate 10 in some desolate stretch of the Mojave desert. Wifey-to-be was scared but it was a memorable moonless star-studded night. We made it to L. A., saw family and friends, then headed up old U. S. 395 along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada to Bishop, Cal, where we visited some more of my people, then north to Reno, Nevada where we hooked up with I-80 and pointed the old bus East.
Dear one took the rigors of that trip 30 years ago like a trouper, and passed the test with flying colors. We got married the following summer and remain happily married 29 summers later.
When I told the story to a feminazi some years back she gave me a hard and disapproving look. She didn't like that I imposed a marital compatibility test upon my lady love. Bitch! So here's another bit of free and friendly advice. Marry an angel, never a bitch. Life's enough of a bitch. You don't need to marry one. Does your belllicosity need an outlet? Fight outside the home. Home should be an oasis of peace and tranquillity.
So once again I agree with Prager. Check her or him out on the road before heading for the altar.
I would quibble with parts of this piece by Dennis Prager, but it is worth reading. Excerpt:
Young people believe that when the government gives more money and benefits to more people it helps them. This is naïve. As you get older and wiser you realize that when people are given anything without having to earn it (unless they are physically or mentally utterly incapable of earning anything), they become ungrateful and lazy. They also become less happy. Every study shows that people who earn money are far happier than people who win many millions of dollars in a lottery. Happiness is earned, not given.
Here’s another: Young people are far more likely to believe that world peace is achieved when nations lay down their arms and talk through their differences. But this has never been the case. Of course, good nations stay peaceful when they talk to other good nations. Bad nations — that is, nations ruled by evil men — are never dissuaded from making war by talk. They are dissuaded only by good nations having more arms than they do. That is why the Marine Corps has done so much more for world peace than the Peace Corps.
If you want to vote Democrat, don’t do so because that is the party that cares more for the poor and the hungry. We older conservatives (and young ones, too) care just as much for the poor. But after living a life of seeing the naïve only make things worse for the poor, we are no longer seduced by caring rhetoric. We are seduced by policies based on the awesome American value of individual initiative combined with liberty to create and retain wealth. It’s now called “conservatism.”
And, finally, you should know this: The “idealists” that many of you find appealing are the ones leaving you with a national debt that will render it very difficult for you to attain the material quality of life that these people have had.
Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, pointed out that being widely-read does not mean one is well-read. I've enjoyed reading some of your old posts about reading and studying, so I wanted to know your opinion on this matter.
Should I aim to read a lot of books? Or is it better to read and reread a few good books? I know some people say one should read widely but read good books deeply. But I've found that a hard balance to maintain. For example, deeply reading an 800-page selection of Aquinas's writings several times would consume almost all of my reading for the next 1-2 months. Also, it's hard for me to switch gears, you might say. If I'm accustomed to reading most of my books through quickly without pausing much to think, then I easily fall into that mode of reading when I'm trying to read deeply.
I imagine you would have some interesting thoughts on this topic, since you have a few decades of reading behind you. Which type of reading benefited you the most?If you could go back and change what you read and how you read during your decades of scholarship, what would you change?
Although desultory reading is enjoyable, it is best to have a plan. Pick one or a small number of topics that strike you as interesting and important and focus on them. I distinguish between bed reading and desk reading. Such lighter reading as biography and history can be done in bed, but hard-core materials require a desk and such other accessories as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks, a cup of coffee, a fine cigar . . . .
If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game. This won't occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it. Here is where blogging can be useful. Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.
To the foregoing, I would add, first of all, the magnificent observation of Schopenhauer: "Forever reading, never read." If you want to be read, then you must write. And even if you don't want to be read, you must write -- for the reason supplied in the preceding paragraph.
Now on to your questions.
Widely-read or well-read? You can be both. And you should be both. Switching gears can be difficult, but it can be done.
As for time that could have been better spent, I do not regret reading vast quantities of Continental philosophy, but some of the time spent on the more extreme representatives of that tradition, such as Derrida, was time wasted.
Re-reading these remarks, I realize they are rather trite. But they may be of some use nonetheless.
We do not like to be praised if (a) the praiser is beneath us; (b) what is praised is something insignificant or common; (c) the praise is insincere, perhaps by having an ulterior motive; (d) the praise is mistaken in that we lack the excellence attributed to us.
Particularly annoying is to be praised for something insignificant while one's actual virtues go unappreciated. So be careful in your bestowal of praise: take care that you do not offend the one you hope to flatter.
Horace advises that we seize the day. "Life ebbs as I speak: so seize each day, and grant the next no credit." The trouble with this advice is that what we are told to grab is so deficient in entity as to be barely seizable. The admonition comes almost to this: seize the unseizable, fix the flux, stay the surge, catch the wind.
I do indeed try to seize the day, and its offerings, day by day, moment by moment. Walking along the trail I stab my staff into the ground saying "This is it, this is your life, right here, right now, and it is good." Living in tune with this mantram, without wanting to be elsewhere or elsewhen, is obviously better than standing on tiptoes trying to make out the future or looking through memory's rear-view mirror.
There is no full living without presence to the present, without mindfulness to the moment. But mindfulness is ultimately no solution since what one is minding is ultimately empty.
The passing moment is more real than the past and the future, but it is precisely passing and so, ultimately, unreal. The problem is not that our time is short, but that we are in time at all. The alternative, however, is present to us only as this blank sense of time's deficiency.
So, with unseeing eyes, we stand on tiptoes after all.
My opinion of Maureen Dodd went up a notch when I read this NYT column in which she quotes a Catholic priest. He proffers good advice about marriage one piece of which is:
Don't marry a problem character thinking you will change him. Excellent advice, Schopenhauerian advice. You will remember his riff on the unalterability of character. It is true as a general rule: people do not change. What you are characterologically at twenty you are for life. If you catch your inamorata lying to you or engaging in any sort of duplicity, know that you have been vouchsafed an insight into an underlying mendacity that will manifest itself time and time again. If one time she racks up a credit card bill that she cannot pay in full at the end of the month, she will do it a thousand times. And so on down the line. Enter into matrimony with such a person if you must, but do it with eyes open and thoughts clear.
My wife has a wide range of virtues and no vices to speak of. But in point of punctuality, she falls down. I am by contrast punctual to a fault. So 29 years ago I tried to change her, to make her punctual like me, but soon realized my folly and changed myself instead. I simply gave up making precise dates with her, rather than courting vexation at her nonshowing at appointed exact times. Instead of: Meet me at the corner of Fifth and Vermouth at the stroke of high noon, this: I'll be at the Sufficient Grounds coffee house from 2 PM on writing and playing chess; fall by when you get a chance.
I also realized that part of her being such a sweet and agreeable person is her not being hung up on precision. And I furthermore bore in mind Plato's point in the Symposium, namely, and to put it in my own way, that a partner should be a complement, not a copy.
As a rule of thumb: You can't change others, but you can change yourself. And you should. A bit more precisely: character is largely invariant but attitude admits of adjustment.
Louis Lavelle (1883-1951), The Dilemma of Narcissus, tr. W. T. Gairdner (New York: Humanities Press, 1973), p. 153:
Life breaks the surface of reality and emerges at the present moment; we must not hold our gaze fixed on a future which, when it comes, will be merely another present. The unhappy man is he who is forever thinking back into the past or forward into the future; the happy man does not try to escape from the present, but rather to penetrate within it and take possession of it. Almost always we ask of the future to bring us a happiness which, if it came, we would have to enjoy in another present; but this is to see the problem the wrong way round. For it is out of the present which we have already, and from the way we make use of it, without turning our eyes to right or to left, that will emerge the only happy future we will ever have.