The perils of freedom

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.

Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

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:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. 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.

Choose

It’s hard to face the fact that the time we exist on earth will not enable us to do all the things that we may want to do. For some of us, perhaps this is the case, but for most of us, there are many various things which we would like to do with our lives yet do not have time for, or we just aren’t able to do them because of the packed and full lives we already lead. This is not easy accept, yet it is a reality which must be faced. Life is not short, it is long compared to a lot of animals, and we do have time to dedicate ourselves to certain vocations. It just depends on what those things are. Recognising that we will not be able to do everything we would have hoped to will allow us to realistically and rationally decide what it is that we are going to do with our life. Decide what it is you want to do, then, if you can, do what it takes to get where you want. If we all wanted something bad enough, we could get there and attain our goal. It’s not really about the brevity of time, it’s about the use of that time. If there’s something out there which you have consciously and determinedly decided to pursue, all that’s left to do is to pursue it. If you believe that pursuit is truly worthwhile, very little will stop you. If you can’t do it because of little things such as wanting more sleep or watching more TV, then you don’t really want it. First and foremost, people get where they are because that is they wanted. It all depends on what you want, and how much you want it.

Thoughts of Epicurus: The Good Life

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived in the third century B.C., and was a massive influence on the Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius. Epicurus was an atomist, who believed everything, including the mind, was corporeal. One of the greatest questions Epicurus asked was ‘how do we live a good life?’ For Epicurus, living a good life also meant becoming happy, yet what was it that Epicurus believed consisted in the good life?

One of the crucial acts in the art of happiness is, according to Epicurean philosophy, the renunciation of the gods and no fear of death. It is fear of death and fear of the gods that keeps us from becoming happy. Epicurus wrote that because death is without sensation, it is nothing to him, simply because it is without sensation and so cannot truly mean anything to him-the fear of death is irrational.

Pleasure is the absence of pain. The limits of pleasure go as far as pain can be removed, both mental and bodily and so this is a negative view of pleasure. Moreover, Epicurus believed that bodily pain is not continuous, and bodily pain is not usually greater than bodily pleasure, and if it is, it is uncommon and does not generally last for more than a few days. No pleasure is bad in itself, yet pleasure may at times cause disturbances much worse than the pleasure itself, so we must be careful.

To live pleasantly, we must be sensible, noble and just. Likewise, to be sensible, noble and just we must be living pleasantly-they are dependent on each other.

 

Ludwig Feuerbach: The Essence of Religion Pt.3

Feuerbach counters the argument that the preservation of the world and of mankind is some act of God which accords with his will. He says that nature has little care for single individuals-‘thousands of them are sacrificed without hesitation or repentance in the plenty of Nature’. This argument calls upon the existence of evil, especially natural evil, to present Nature’s merciless nature. Furthermore, since Nature does not care for us, and does not provide for us as we would like, Feuerbach says that at this point people turn to God ‘whose eye shines upon me just where Nature’s light is extinguished.’ When things are not going our way and nature can provide no help, it is then that we turn to God. Feuerbach also claims that God owes his existence to two things: fear and hope. It is these two feelings that rule our imagination of the future, and so we may find ourselves believing in God because of our fear and hope of the future since it is these two that sway most of our decisions.

Feuerbach argues that the existence of God stems from man’s desire to be like God: unlimited, self-sufficient, always good, immortal. God and humanity have the same rules of life, only that God has no exceptions or limitations, which is what we desire to have, and if we worship him, then we can be like that too-‘the Deity is the destruction of the deficiencies and weaknesses in man which are the very causes of the exceptions’.

In the final part, Pt.4, the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Religion will be concluded.

Mill and education

In On Liberty, Mill writes about education, stating its importance, saying that the purpose of universities is not to produce good lawyers, teachers and politicians, but ‘cultivated and capable human beings.’ Mill was more concerned with person we become and who we are, rather than our status, power or wealth. Mill criticises the education system, saying that all education is for is so that we can learn what is easy and interesting, so that when we have to go out of our comfort zones and do something that is not easy or interesting and may not be enjoyable, which we all will inevitably have to do, we become disheartened and frustrated.

Mill would, I think, despise today’s education system, and it is not difficult to see why. Rather than focusing on what is right and wrong when being taught, the emphasis is on what will bring oneself the most pleasure and the least pain, a key utilitarian idea, which Peter Vardy calls the transactional-utilitarian model. Moreover, the education system is strongly individualistic, not really bothered about the concept of community, but only the success and enhancement of pleasure of individuals. This culture of immediate pleasure, and not really thinking about who we become appears to thrive in consumerist cultures, for consumerism advertises and encourages individual success so that one can, through consumption, achieve happiness. Mill would say, however, that we have lost any real concept of happiness, and that consumerism and individualist society does not make us happy.

Both Mill and Nietzsche had different ideas of what it meant to be happy and to be a ‘fulfilled’ human being. Mill concluded that, rather than seeking one’s own happiness, we should first seek the happiness of others, and this concept of a strong community may have been influenced by Aristotle. If we want to be happy, we must first want to make others happy. Nietzsche had a different view of fulfilment, and it was one where suffering and discomfort is prominent, things which the current education discourage and avoid. Nietzsche held the view that only through genuine sacrifice and effort will we achieve anything worthwhile, and that it is only through this that fulfilment can be achieved. Furthermore, the attitude we receive from our 18 years or so of education may influence the way in which we view our whole lives, and so our relationships may be deeply affected by the way we view them. Do we focus on what is right and wrong, or what brings us the most pleasure and the least pain? If we want to become fulfilled, which seems to becoming more and more difficult as consumerist culture takes a greater hold of us, Nietzsche and Mill would both agree that it is the education system that needs to change if we want our lives to change. Nevertheless, it is possible to detach ourselves from what society encourages, and to seek our own fulfilment and happiness, and, perhaps, this may start with community and sacrifice.

At your funeral

Picture your funeral. What is the scene? Who is there? The chances are, you won’t exist anymore, in any form whatsoever. So, you are dead. Your life is over, forever. The question is this: what will you have wanted to achieve before this somewhat haunting event? Some people go the grave having created magnificent works of art, some have changed the lives of others, some have made the world a better place. But, for all the achievements, other things enter the graves with people, and those things are unfulfilled potential, achievements that were easily attainable if only a little more effort was put in, actions that could have been just, or calm, or rational, yet turned out to be unjust, angry, and impulsive. We should, it seems, at times ask ourselves, ‘What do I want to enter the grave with?’ Do you want to die knowing that you have squeezed every drop out of your one life, or do you want to die regretting that you didn’t put in that extra effort, that kind word, that tiny fragment of concentration? We must keep the end of our life in mind when acting now, otherwise what will we be using as our motive for choosing what we do with our lives? Perhaps if we recall to ourselves daily that one day, perhaps much sooner than we think, our funeral will occur, where we will not be present, and that people will be there who will remember us for who we were and what we did, then maybe we can act in accordance with what we truly desire, yet this, again, requires us to know ourselves, and this takes reflection, questioning, and time. We can, if we so desire, form what people will remember us for. What is it that you want to be remembered for, and what is it that you want to achieve before you die?

Change

Change is inevitable. It happens to everyone and to everything, whether we like it not. We cannot not change, yet we can influence the inevitability of such change to our benefit. If we so decide, we can either change for the better, or we can change for the worse. It is generally up to us how we influence the time passing. The things which we want to remove from our lives, such as bad habits like smoking, will only be removed if we make a full, conscious, passionate and determined to decision to become someone different. For most things that are bad for us, or that we want to remove, we can choose to remove them, as long as we have a strong enough will to do so. Moreover, things that we want to remove are more easily removed if replaced with something different, something better.

As for the majority of the things that we sometimes wish we could remove yet cannot, it is generally a matter of perspective. Changing one’s perspective may change a boring job into an interesting one, a frustrating parent into a loving one, a dull routine into a means to a long-term achievement. If one is to change one’s life, or to change one’s perspective, it is necessary, first, to reflect regularly in order to focus one’s mind on what it is that is desired, and what needs to be done to achieve that goal.

We cannot help time passing, and it will do so until we die, yet it is possible to use the time, the precious, limited time, as best we can, and to live the life that is, to ourselves, the fullest life.

What is social media for?

Social media has never been just good or just bad. It probably never will be. Nevertheless, it seems that it is becoming more detrimental both to ourselves and to those around us. The bad of social media seems to heavily outweigh the good. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that social media may in fact be a contradiction in terms. How social is social media?

Social media is, no doubt, good and useful in some respects. It enables us to keep in touch with each other, to catch up, and to let other people know how we are doing, even if we are on the other side of the world. We can meet new people through social media, and it enables us to organise meetings and group events. Moreover, opinions, ideas, and stories can be shared, discussed, and reflected upon. Useful? Of course. Worthwhile? Definitely. But this is not all. There is another side to social media.

In a society like ours, where the good is proclaimed and heralded and the bad is repressed, it is easy to tell ourselves, and each other, how great social media is. Also, given that there are so many people on it, how could it be anything but good? It is a commonly held view that to be on social media is to be connected, is to be social, and that if you are not on it, then you are missing out.

Social media is addictive. Period. Society looks down upon addiction, yet the majority of it is active in a kind of global addiction. Why is it so addictive? It may be that social media makes us feel connected, and that feeling of being part of something may provide us with some kind of high, albeit a strange one, and so we become hooked, unable to leave our phones alone for more than a few minutes.

Social media is not real. This may be another component which hooks us so easily. Social media provides us with the opportunity to create somebody different from ourselves, who is portrayed as identical with ourselves, and to attribute desirable traits to them. Social media has become a tool to alter our image and how people view us. We are enabled to flaunt the beautiful while hiding the ugly, to reveal the interesting while ignoring the boring, and to portray perfection while repressing innate imperfection. Instagram and Snapchat in particular give us the opportunity to portray our lives in the best possible light to others. But why would we ever want to do such a thing? It may be, perhaps, because we disdain imperfection, because we want to make ourselves feel better about our own lives, and maybe even to make others feel worse about theirs. In almost every photo and post there is an implicit voice which says, ‘Beat this. Yes, this is my life, and it is more interesting than yours.’ It then becomes a constant battle, a constant conflict. It is a fight for the most likes, the most follows, the best picture, the most popular video, and the nicest comments. Surely all this conflict can only lead to anxiety, fear of missing out, and grief.

The amount of time that we now spend on social media is damaging. Not just to ourselves, as we have seen, but to those around us. The more deeply we become connected in social media, the less deeply we become connected with those around us. We prefer to spend our time in a virtual world as a virtual personality surrounded by other, virtual people, rather than spending time with real people. That is the contradiction-that we are supposed to become connected, but over time we become only alienated. For the most part, the majority of people on social media don’t care what you think, have been doing, or are up to now. There will be some, of course, but not many. The people, the real people around us, however, they care. Moreover, it is no doubt true that the deepest friendships and relationships are grounded in real life, not on social media in a virtual world.

Social media indicates a desire for power, for recognition. A large part of it is just people screaming, through the means of photos and other such things, ‘look at me! Look at how great my life is!’ We may be gradually losing the ability to keep quiet, about anything. Anything that we think may be even slightly interesting, if it is only to ourselves, we shout about to others, telling each other how good it is. Must we post about our breakfast? Our day out? Our parties? Why must we, though? Fundamentally, it may be due to ourselves. It is our sense of inadequacy, and our alienation with other people. We therefore feel that we need some kind of recognition that tells us we are worth something and that we are liked. The problem, though, is that most likes are just taps of a button, and nothing deeper. Moreover, we do not feel able to have a relationship with somebody in real life, perhaps due to our own feelings of inadequacy, and so we use social media to have a relationship with that person, even if it is as shallow as the breaths you take at night, because social media allows us to hide the flaws. But, the more we do this, the more we become out of touch with our emotions, and the more we become alienated from who we really are. All of our complex and mixed, tangled emotions boil down to an emoji face. If that is not shallow, then what is? Furthermore, the time we spend on our phones results in less time with other people, and soon enough, our closest relationship is with a robot who neither cares for, nor really knows us. It is a sad situation, but not an inescapable one.

There are parts of social media which are useful and worthwhile, but as a whole, it is hard to see how social media is genuinely social.

It seems that using social media less and less would be an ideal situation. This would enable us to become truly connected with the people whom we care about and who care about us, it may allow us to become more in touch with ourselves, with who we are, what we truly desire, and what we really feel, and it may help us to realise what really matters-real relationships, with real people.

 

Lucretius and becoming happy

 

Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99BC, and died in 55BC. He was a Roman philosopher and poet, who influenced the likes of Virgil and Cicero.

Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is most famous for his work de rerum natura (On the nature of things). In this poetic work, Lucretius defends the Epicurean philosophy, and argues in favour of many topics such as atomism, no life-after-death, why the gods (or God) do not care for us, and the concept of ataraxia (freedom from fear, or serenity). It is on this last point, ataraxia, that I will focus on.

The term ataraxia (ἀταραξία) was defined by Sextus Empiricus as ‘an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.’ For Epicurus, and consequentially Lucretius, this state was a state of happiness. How, then, could one reach such a state? Firstly, the satisfaction of basic desires, such as hunger and thirst must be fulfilled. Lucretius was adamant, though, that one must not overeat or overdrink, since this will lead to addiction and a dissatisfaction. We must, Lucretius maintains, only eat what we need. As Cicero said, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat.’ Two other crucial things that Lucretius says that we should avoid are religion and romantic love. Religion involves fear of the gods, and we may be constantly irritated by the fact that the gods are watching carefully and judging our every move. Moreover, by thinking that the gods can influence our lives, we may spend unnecessary time exerting ourselves in order to gain help from the gods. This just isn’t the case, Lucretius says, and it’s nonsense. Once we realise that the gods do not care for us, we can get on with our lives. Secondly, romantic love should be avoided. This is not all love, just the specific kind of love which again, like religion, may irritate us and bug us constantly. We become attached to someone in such a way that a glance to another person may make us jealous, or we may think that our lover doesn’t really like us so we buy them unnecessary gifts and try to impress them with all kinds of effort. This again prevents us from attaining ataraxia.

Fear of death is perhaps the main reason ataraxia is so hard to attain, but Lucretius is adamant that fear of death is unreasonable and should be avoided. Once we accept death can we be free of the fear that comes from it, and from this can we become calm. Ataraxia is the absence of pain, and though this sounds so simple, it is in fact most difficult to reach, especially in today’s frantic world.

So how, then, in today’s society, could one attain ataraxia?

Perhaps you would have to move, with a group of friends, to the country, like Epicurus himself did, and detach yourself from the worldly life, living virtually off your own back and surrounding yourself with friendship, goodwill, and virtue. But this isn’t really at all possible for the majority. Maybe we will never be able to reach ataraxia in its fullest, if such a thing is even possible, but we may be able to at least have glimpses of it. Late at night, we ponder on the world and our life, and think about how sub specie aeternatis, we are quite insignificant, and that the majority of our troubles of our everyday life are in fact quite comical. We may, at times, find ourselves accepting death, and thinking that even though we will die at one point, we still have time now, which we can use to build the relationships with the people around us, and to seize the day. We may come to believe that the gods (or God) do not care about us, and that we are left to our own devices. We don’t have to despair about this. Rather, we can recognise the immense responsibility that we have, and that we can only rely on ourselves to influence the change we wish to see.  

If Epicurus and Lucretius were right, and that ataraxia is indeed happiness, then although we may never be able to fully attain such a state, perhaps due to the way society has developed over the centuries, we may, at least, achieve glimpses of such a state, and, after some time, come to realise that a glimpse is all we really need.