Who am I?
What am I?
Saint Augustine of Hippo was the first to pose these two anthropological questions in philosophy. Only the first question can be answered in the mortal realm (the second being a question of man’s nature, and so may only be posed in the presence of the demiurge). The accepted philosophical answer is simply that “I am a man”, and in conformance with today’s norm, I identify with the pronouns he/him. But what sort of man? That is: What motivates me? What common ground do we share? What are you likely to learn from me? These questions, I believe, seem to be of greater importance when you meet and interact with a person. The only way to answer those questions is to tell you what I believe in. Beliefs are interconnected with each other and inextricably linked to neurological function. Simply put, my beliefs dictate my thoughts and actions, and my actions and thoughts furnish my writing. They are things that I intuitively feel. These core beliefs inform my writing. More precisely, these are the things I believe in.
I take the existentialist’s view of life and archetypal psychology’s view on fate—that my life is not the admixture of my genetic makeup, childhood experiences, past traumas and mistakes, parental attentions or lack thereof. Instead, we need to actively transcend those “facts” of life by pursuing self-chosen goals instead of coveting the next pimpstick. Competing, in its benign form or the more destructive force of war, does not elevate some to gods and condone the vanquished as mere men. And although most of mankind’s greatest achievements, scientific, or artistic, have come from individuals, it is also true that those achievements are the product of a vast human inheritance, the contribution of various “bit players” largely unaccounted, for it is in man’s nature to claim as his own that which comes as an end (if there is ever any doubt about the ephemeral nature thought, try backtracking from a fleeting notion or thought, stepping through its antecedents, and you will likely stall within a thought or two of its progenitor). Social scientists and some self-styled philosophers would have us believe that the only people of any consequence are great leaders, great classes of people, and great ideas. From their elevated perch, they scan the landscape of humanity, believing that they, as part of the aristoi stand apart from the crowd, and can hence pass judgement upon what they deem mediocre. “To them, the individual is a pawn and a somewhat insignificant instrument in the general development of mankind.” And they urge their acolytes to rise above the fold. For it is certainly true, as Karl Popper pointed out that to “tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them that they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them.” So as far as particularism goes, I take Fowles’s (revised) view that “the dividing line between the Few and the Many must run through each individual, not between individuals. In short, none of us are wholly perfect; and none of us are wholly imperfect.”
Rather than engage in one upmanship to differentiate ourselves from our fellow man, let us instead reach within ourselves to give to the world something more meaningful; something that is more than the product of the baser drives. As Richard Dawkins says: “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth… (like) cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature… We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
Freedom and free will
In antiquity, no one who was a slave to the necessities of life was deemed to be free. In other words, the salves were all who exchanged their labour for a wage, commission, or any other means of “earning a living”. Living a truly free way of life (bioi) meant to create what one wanted and thus to accord something permanent to this world by producing a “human artefact” in the form of literature or art or the immortal ideas of the philosopher. This notion of freedom is still valid today—we create things of value when we work spontaneously to produce true representations of ourselves, which is only possible when we are free to operate authentically. Freedom is entirely an internal progression, from consuming to making. It is forever fluctuating and continually elusive.
Descartes said that the freedom of man in infinite, but his power is limited. We all want the freedom to get the things we want and we want to be the agents of our own expectations and desires. Through projects and deeds, we use our actions to actualise these desires. Freedom for us is acquiring the ends we seek. We want to achieve something and, even at our most altruistic, we are trying to get to something; be it health, wealth, or divine transcendence. Our time is short, and we do not want to waste the hour or the day. But this wanting is the paradoxical obstruction to the getting. Put another way, it is the very control that we seek so that our world is filled with variety, certainty, sustenance, and satisfaction, that is in discordance with the workings of a naturally fluid and spontaneous universe. The upshot of working within such universal laws is that we are all free insofar as we let our goals determine their own ends and approach our desires without laziness, capriciousness, cowardice, or impatience. The will to reach our destination is cultivated over time, it is the wisdom to understand that our power is limited and that we must seek the avenues when the main roads to our destination are blocked. Therein lies the freedom of will at our disposal. As compos mentis adult human beings, we always have and have had free will.
There is no art, subtle or otherwise, to not giving a f*ck. As Hannah Arendt rightly pointed out, it is the mixture of self-deception and free will that allows us to do evil, believing it to be good. We are led to believe that morality is acting in the best interests of the group; or the tribe; or the state, but if history has taught us but one thing, it is that we must question the actions when they involve issues of morality. In debating matters of great consequence such as the mores of a good society, the limitations of the human condition, and the meaning of life itself, we should not leave the thinking to the “specialists”—the philosophers, sociologists, and scientists.
Socrates believed that a lack of knowledge is responsible for all moral mistakes. Western society has lost a vital construct of knowledge by jettisoning the fundamental stories and myths of its ancestors. Since the modern age, truth was disconnected from objectivity and thought and action freed from ethical constraints. Any thoughts and actions were permitted as long as they were rational and achieved certain ends. Even in adopting the spiritual practices of eastern cultures in a secular way, the West has ignored the natural morality of those traditional societies.
I believe that we need to revive and restore the fundamental social metaphors that in turn will restore the sense of proportion and responsibility embedded in the stories and myths themselves. Naive and simple as our highly evolved minds may deem them to be, the traditional practices served a purpose by maintaining a balance between our desires and our moral duties.
It is through silent contemplation that we learn to think for ourselves. It is the brain’s capacity for an unfettered revelry in the latent possibilities of past experience. Contemplation or meditation is the deliberate slowing down of the rate at which the world is perceived. Apathy, confusion, and even stupidity are the words that could be associated with this state. It is claimed that contemplation would take some religious practitioners into transcendent realms of mystical experience where eternity discloses itself to mortal eyes. For the Ancient Greeks, contemplation (theōria) was freedom from the necessities of life and from compulsion from others. These days, it is freedom from “needs” and “threats” that is the imperative.
The scientific explanation of its efficacy goes something like this: Prohibited experiences such as irrational anger, guilt, loneliness, and fear threaten the image we have of ourselves (the self system).We can’t get rid of anger and fear because they are hardwired into the ancient limbic part of the brain, but we can suppress or anaesthetise the tendency to react to anger and fear. Furthermore, slowing down the train of thought through contemplative practices gives the inhibitory system a chance to suppress the feeling of distress before we even become conscious of it. In the long-term, such contemplation permanently changes the structure of those parts of the brain by shaping our sensory perceptions of the world into a more peaceful, socially aware, and compassionate mould.
There, in a nutshell, is everything I believe and hope to write about. I don’t always get things right, and I have certainly made many mistakes along the way. I learn as I go along and my writing evolves as I encounter new vistas of understanding. Thanks for reading.