There is one specific idea which I have found to be incredibly useful when confronting and accepting various forms of pain, specifically the pains and anxieties of everyday life: the concept of sub specie aeternatis. This is the idea of viewing humanity, and more specifically your very own life, in the time period of all history and of the future as well. The span of our own lives is utterly negligible if we look at the big picture-that the universe has existed for millions and millions of years, and will probably continue to do so for a long time. Looking at life like this, all the pettiness is removed. When we are reminded of our own insignificance and the perhaps completely meaningless nature of our troubles, w may be able to detach ourselves from our own trouble, thereby gaining power and control over them, rather than the other way around. It is a matter of recognising how arbitrary everything can seem, merely by looking at the bigger picture. It may seem simple, but its effect may be astounding.
Immanuel Kant was born in Honisberg in 1724, and was brought up in a Pietistic family. His earliest influences were Newtonian physics and his philosophy professor, Professor Knutzen. He is know to have first formulated the nebular hypothesis (that the universe was at one time a primitive cloud), but it is debated that it was in fact Emanuel Swedenborg who first proposed this. Kant was a believer in the natural law, an idea he took from Aristotle, and used the idea that humans are logical and rational by nature in his philosophy. To the questions he thought were out of reach and unanswerable, he called this the use of ‘speculative’ reason, a part of our reason which desires to know that which is not knowable, so speculates about answers without any real rational argument to support them. Kant described his Critique of Pure Reason as the ‘Copernican Revolution’, since he set out to show that the mind is like a solar system.
Kant rested upon the assumption that truth is stable, and that logic is perfect and complete. He took the Platonic idea that concepts are greater than what is physical and built on it. A lot of his work rests on the concept S is P. S is the subject, and P is the predicate or quality (e.g. the sky is blue). This will be developed later.
Kant rejected empiricism, a philosophy made famous by David Hume, which proposed that causality does not exist, and that it is our own subjective minds which make the mistake of assuming cause and effect: aRb where R is psychological and subjective, and represents the idea of causality. Kant rejected this, as well as Locke’s idea of a ‘tabula rasa’, arguing that logic and rationality are imprinted into us before we are born. This too will be developed later.
Kant is perhaps most famous for his development on Hume’s ‘relations of ideas and matters of fact’. Kant formulated the idea of analytic and synthetic judgements. Analytic judgements don’t tell us anything new (e.g. a bachelor is an unmarried man)-they are true but uninformative. All analytic judgements are a priori. Synthetic judgements are informative and can be either a priori (universal, necessary, and before experience-7+5=12) or a posteriori (after examination-sky is blue). Kant’s idea of S is P is resurrected here. S=intuitions, and are experienced through the faculty of sensibility. P=concepts, and the faculty of understanding is responsible for concepts.
Life has never been straightforward. In some ways life has become easier, yet it feels as if we, humanity, as a species, are coming to a standstill. Yes, we are still developing economically, technologically and scientifically, but it seems to be, for the most part, that society is not really going anywhere. We’re advancing, yes, but achieving? Questionable. It has come to a point where it is extremely difficult to determine where society is headed next. Obsessions with social media, gender complications, and popular culture do not appear to be enhancing the human race. The increase in smart-phones, televisions and technology that ultimately dulls the mind and is binge-consumed passively does not seem to be supporting any evolutionary progress. Perhaps we have made things too easy for ourselves that we have become so idle and lazy that little genuine progress in subjects such as philosophy, music and literature. Our societies seem to be founded on repetition, but is all this repetition good for progress that requires intense creativity? Maybe. Maybe not. Is our world hindering creativity?
We are programmed to find comfort. It’s natural. We seek pleasure and avoid pain because that’s what our brain is trained to do, through years and years of evolution. Putting ourselves through exhaustive or exertive circumstances is a fight against ourselves. Everything our brain has been programmed to search for savagely is at hand-food, water and (potentially) sex. It’s easy to sink into a state of doing nothing, since all our needs, says our brain, are fulfilled, and so we don’t need to do anything else. Our brains are right, but they’re also wrong. All our survival needs are met, but that does not mean we, as people, are satisfied. The things which we want to achieve are usually hard work to attain, and this involves a battle between your will and what your brain wants. Your brain wants comfort and pleasure, but you want to push yourself, to experience hardship now for the sake of gain later. This is what you must do then-fight yourself. Battle against your brain’s instincts and if your will is strong enough, you will win.
The opinion of others is something that is usually heralded as crucially important to any sane person, and what others think about us has become the reason for acting in certain ways-for getting that job, for posting that photo on Instagram, for buying that car, or for keeping quiet when we should speak up. We value others’ opinions highly, and what other people will think about us influences our decisions heavily. It’s not that other people’s opinions do not matter (they do), but it may be the case that we value what other people think too highly. It is a problem when we do not act in the way we should or the way we truly want because we fear what other people will think. It is a problem when we act solely so that people will think good of us, regardless of what we genuinely want to do. We make the mistake that if people have a good opinion of us, our power will increase, as will our satisfaction. This kind of deluded thinking has the opposite effect, since relying on the external for power and satisfaction usually means the opposite occurs, since most people do not care what you think or do. With this kind of thinking, whether we are satisfied is up to other people-we are completely powerless. Acting how you think you should, and realising true power comes only from within will result in more control, and, most likely, more satisfaction. We need to stop caring about what other people think. It makes us powerless and weak, stopping us from speaking when we should, doing what we truly want, and being the person we want to be. Ceasing to care what others think will result in liberation-liberation from anxiety, as well as liberation from the mask that we all wear around each other, a mask that prevents us from being ourselves. Take off the mask, and be free.
Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, the teacher of Alexander the Great, and he wrote extensively on many various subjects, including logic, biology, music and rhetoric. Aristotle’s work on logic was a great foundation for human logic, and the work he recorded was the work used by philosophers who lived thousands of years on, such as Immanuel Kant. Aristotle’s logic is based on the syllogism, which is, at its simplest, one conclusion from two premises:
P1 All men are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Socrates is mortal.
This is deductive logic, and if one accepts both the premises, then one must accept the conclusion that follows. To therefore attack the conclusion, one must attack the premises. There is so much that one could potentially say about Aristotle, so I will mention only a couple of his key ideas.
Aristotle believed that everything has a nature and a ‘telos‘ (end or goal) to fulfil. His idea was that ‘essence precedes existence’-something’s nature is defined before it exists. He argued that, like all other beings, humans also have a nature and a telos. For Aristotle this was eudaimonia, or flourishing, and this is attained by using all one’s talents and becoming balanced through the golden mean, avoiding excess and deficiency. To attain this, we should enhance our practical reasoning as well as our intellect. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Aristotle asked himself, to which he answered, ‘To do good and serve others.’
Aristotle had a certain idea of excellence, and it was that it is attained through training and habituation. Like all virtues, Aristotle believed that to become excellent took time, and required consistency and balance-we cannot hope to be something if we only act in that way rarely. Rather, we should act that way as much as we can, and through this repetition we will train ourselves to become what that virtue is.
The influence of Aristotle is magnanimous. He influenced many, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant. To the foundations of logic and to the influential ethical and political theory we owe Aristotle a great deal.
Everybody says they want to be free. In the west, freedom is a value which is viciously fought for and supported, yet the freedom we talk of so highly is, in practice, not so sought after as it may at first seem. All around us are things which tells us what to think in the form of advertising, telling us that this is what makes you happy, this is what makes you feel free. The feeds of social media are also places of a certain slavery, in which we are told what to think, who to follow and how to think. The television, our phones, our shopping centres, all of these are places proclaiming and heralding false freedom. These are mediums which tell us-‘look here, if you do this, buy this, watch this, you’ll be free and you’ll be happy’. We consequently believe them and gradually we become hooked on these actions, and what we once thought would make us free now holds us down as a slave caught in an addiction. We say we want freedom, but the way we act suggests we desire quite the opposite. Another form of this rejection of freedom seems to be religion, an organization which likewise says that following the religion will lead to some form of happiness and freedom, be it redemption, salvation or satisfaction. The problem with both of these is that they are things outside of ourselves-they are external to us. We make the fundamental mistake of thinking that freedom will come from something out in the world, when in fact genuine freedom comes from the internal-within yourself. It may come in the form of detachment or the recognition of what is in your control and what is not or the way in which you prepare for and deal with loss and suffering, because once we find a fool proof way of dealing with suffering, then true satisfaction can come, and the only way that works effectively at all is in your own mind. I can’t just tell you this. The only way is to discover this for yourself. And why is it that we fear freedom so much? Because of the responsibility it brings, the unknowns it will show, and the fear of becoming lost. Yet, if we prepare ourselves, we can find freedom, within ourselves, and from there recognise that we will not become lost but we will rather find something worthwhile and good.
We always ask ourselves how we should live, how we should act and what we should do with our time. Rarely, if ever, do we find a right answer. It’s one of those questions which we can’t just look up online or find in a book. Yes, other people can tell us how to live, but that doesn’t mean that’s how we should live. Is there, then, any way of finding a right answer?
Many things can be used as examples which tell us how to live: advertising, the Bible, various philosophies of life. Yet are they correct? In some places we may find right answers, but not the right answer. The external may be able to help us recognise the truth about how to treat others and act in certain situations, but the fundamental thing is that each recognition comes from within you. It has to be you who accepts what you read or watch, and as soon as you do, it has become part of your way of life. It is part of your theory of ‘how to live’. As we constantly go through life from one second to the next, we are not only living but also simultaneously acting out how we believe we should live. The answers do not come from the external, they come from the internal, and from the reflection of our own life as we have lived it so far. Sartre is right in the sense that one cannot say to another ‘this is how to live’, yet I believe that how we should live has been figured out, by ourselves, for ourselves and for ourselves only. Only you yourself can truly figure out how you should live. Christopher Hitchens used the example of Socrates’ inner daemon– a guiding, internal voice. Perhaps the only way we can ever know we should live is to listen to this daemon, and to review how we act in certain situations. How we act in a certain situation reflects our thoughts on what we should have done in that certain situation. There are no variables here, and what we do is what we think we should do at that moment, even if in retrospect we realise we should have done something different. To figure out how to live, first, we must live. It is up to yourself, nobody else. There is no right answer, only right answers, and as long as we truly listen to ourselves, to our inner voice, we will know how to live.
Time is constant, or at least the human sense of time is. Time, for ourselves, is also limited. There is only so much designated time left for us before we die. There are X many minutes left before you no longer exist, Y many hours, and Z many days. However much is left, it is limited, and soon enough it will be gone and the sand in your timer of life will run out. In the perspective of the universe, the time we as individuals have is minute, just a blip of life in the great line of existence. For us, life can, at times, feel long and drawn out, while at others it can feel painfully short, and we are left wondering where the time went. Moreover, time won’t hang around for us. Rain or shine, time continues. Time is indifferent to our problems, just like the universe. Time inevitably causes change. In fact, one could perhaps define time as change. Nevertheless, change is unpreventable. What life boils down to, then, is how we use our time, and how we change. We can use the time well and change for the better, or we can use it badly and change for the worse.
Everything passes. Your life has come, and soon it will go. Reminding ourselves of the temporality of our situation can help us enormously, since we realize that if the times are good, we should savour them and experience them as best we can while they are still around. As for the bad, it will pass. Constantly reminding ourselves of the temporal nature of ourselves is key to influencing the change we want to see, be it in the world or in ourselves. Further, time tells us we are mortal, that we don’t have long before we can’t change anything simply because we won’t be anymore.
Life is about using your time as best you can. You must use the time left to create the change you want to see, but remember, time will never wait around for you. If you’re doing what you really want, why are you doing it? Or is it that you secretly want to ‘waste’ your time? If you want to write a book, you’ve got to start now. If you want to start a business, you’ve got to plan now. The simple reason is that the only time is the time of now. The present is the only thing that will help you change anything, so use it, while you still can.
What are you waiting for?
The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?
Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.
How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:
- Self acceptance
- Personal growth
- Purpose in life
- Environmental mastery
- Positive relations with others
Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.