Philosophical Mommy Blog?

This entry is likely to look a bit different from my previous ones. I’m typing it, one-handed, on my phone. My other arm is wrapped around my daughter. So, there may be some spelling mistakes, and it may take me weeks to finish these thoughts. But I still think its valuable and important to think them, and try to write them down.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sense of self and personal identity again, as I spend a year on maternity leave taking care of my new family member. Normally, when one talks about the issue of personhood with infants, one immediately jumps to talking about abortion. Infants are legal persons. So, often the abortion debate in public discourse centers on the question of when, exactly, the status of personhood should be conferred on the fetus/newborn/infant, and why precisely at that point. But that isn’t why I’ve been thinking about selfhood and personhood lately. The legal definition of a person is black and white. Laws allow little room for shades of grey. And I am not convinced that  personhood should carry the weight it does in the abortion debate. As my undergraduate meta-ethics teacher Dr. John Baker argued: some persons can rightfully be killed, and some non-persons deserve our protection. In other words, personhood doesn’t settle the question of the ethics of abortion at all. And it isn’t where my interest lies, anyway.

I’m curious about what to think, metaphysically, about the self. Not about ramifications of a baby being a person or not, but of what we can learn about personhood by thinking about infants. Daniel Dennett argued in his book “Consciousness Explained” that selves are an illusion. He claims that we create selves the way a spider weaves a web, or a beaver builds a dam. Of course one might think that this raises the question of who or what is doing the creating. Dennett’s point in referring to the spider and the beaver is that no one has to consciously being doing the creating. Spiders don’t have to be cognisant of what they are doing to create a web. Likewise, no one has to be cognisant of creating a self. Spiders spin webs. We spin selves. No agency or personhood required.

But, I think it’s just as important to note that webs and dams are not illusions. . . at least not in any traditional sense of the word. Webs, dams, money, jobs, titles, buildings, roads and culture illustrate powerfully that things that are created (whether consciously or not) have the power to shape reality. Ideas are real, and they really matter. The idea of the self, of personhood, does shape reality, even if it’s created.

But there is something distinct about ideas and the reality they shape. Ian Hacking argues in several places, but most clearly in his book “The Social Construction of What?” that reality can helpfully be understood by dividing it into two categories: indifferent kinds of things, and interactive kinds of things. Rocks are an example of the former. Hacking argues that a rock doesn’t know or care what you call it. But people do know, and likely will care. Take the whole category of being a person. To be a person is to have rights and responsibilities. Being labelled as a person may well change one’s opportunities, attitude, and whole perspective. And being denied such a label also has an effect. The Persons Case in Canada illustrates this well. And it also illustrates how it is that interactive kinds interact. The categories change us, and we change them. This is not simply legal, (though, in the Persons Case it was legal) it’s metaphysical. Categories organise our reality. Changing categories has the power to reshape our very selves, as Hacking argues in his book “Rewriting the Soul.”

Recognising interactive kinds, or recognising the self as a category we created rather than a given we found, allows us to see that it can be recreated, or perhaps even discarded entirely. And this idea of the disappearing discrete self is what I’ve been thinking about as I watch my daughter grow. Hindu philosophy, like Dennett (though with different aims and implications) argues that the self is an illusion. Really, atman (the self) is Brahman (reality). Really, there is no separation between me and you. The separation, our unique personhood, is the illusion. This is “tat tvam asi,” or ‘you are that’.

This Hindu idea is not an easy one to grasp, and is particularly hard for western philosophers to accept. (Indeed, in Eastern philosophy there are differing opinions on exactly what tat tvam asi means. See here for a short discussion of two different interpretations of the idea.) There are quantifiable and qualitative differences between me, you, and my daughter (to say nothing of the rest of reality). Leibniz’s Identity of Indescernibles is demonstrably not met. We are not indiscernible from, and so cannot be identical with, reality.

And yet. . . and yet my child and I are one being. Or, rather, we were. She grew inside me. She was a part of me–not a discrete self at all. As much my flesh and blood as any other part of my body. After birth I was fortunate enough to find breastfeeding relatively easy, and so every part of her growing body came from mine. In a very literal sense there was no separation. Every molecule of her being had once been a part of my own physical existence. Continuous. Connected.

And yet. . . and yet we are not one and the same. We have manifestly different goals and desires (a fact made all too apparent at 3am, or even now as I pick this out one-handed on my phone while my baby sleeps in my other arm). And the human condition lies between us. I don’t know what she is thinking, or feeling a lot of the time. I don’t know what the world looks like to her. And it is hard to think of this separation as an illusion when it results in sleepless nights and frustrated afternoons. It feels all too real.

And therein lie my current thoughts. When I think of the path that has led me to where I am now, with an arm wrapped around a little living breathing being who was once a part of me and is still continuous with me, I can believe that the self is an illusion. I can believe that there is no meaningful difference between myself and her, that there is no discrete self at all. But, when I wonder at what on earth is making her giggle, or cry, or wrinkle her nose, the idea of personhood seems all too real.

Maybe the answer is that personhood is best understood as a sort of grey and fuzzy indistinct demarcation. The difference between me and her is a bit murky, like the difference between the ocean and the shore. There is a difference, and at times it is easy to see, but where exactly the ocean starts and the shoreline stops is a continuous negotiation. My daughter and I meet, and part, overlap and separate. And I suppose this negotiation will continue for the rest of my life, as she and I discover what kind of person she will be. And since she is neither entirely separate from myself, or the rest of humanity, nor entirely identical to us, it matters how we think about her self. If the self is, in part, a category we create that affects us rather than a pre-existing demarcation we discover, then we collectively are shaping each other as we recreate and reinterpret what personhood means, who counts as a person (and why), who does not (and why not) and how such decisions are made.

Since none of us is entirely separate from, nor entirely identical with, each other, it matters whether we think of personal identity as a sharp dividing line between me and you, or a grey and murky negotiation.

In my own culture, there seems to be an emphasis on discrete separation from birth (or earlier, in the case of some pro-life arguments) to death (and generally beyond). We are individuals, and we preserve that individuality to the grave. We don’t want our molecules to mix with the rest of reality. We are sealed off, encased in concrete vaults, buried in caskets, and marked neatly with headstones. Filed away. Individuals. We deny the origin of our molecules and do not allow them to return to the earth.

But we know this is a fiction. This is the way we are creating the self now. This is the story of personhood we are telling. It is the web we are spinning. And if Hacking is right, we are affecting ourselves with this story. We are reshaping our reality into one that sees the ocean and the shore as two distinct things, and denies the murky messiness of it all.

Here, in the throws of new motherhood, it is hard to deny the messiness of it all. And it’s hard not to ponder what the benefits, and even more urgently what the costs are, of spinning this web of personhood in which I refuse to acknowledge the truth staring me in the face.

She is her own person. And she is a mystery to me.

And yet. . . and yet. . .

She is me. I am that.






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Aesthetic Injustice?

Miranda Fricker’s 2007 book Epistemic Injustice is usually credited with starting a long overdue conversation about a new form of injustice that women and members of marginalized groups face. In addition to facing political and ethical injustices, Fricker argued that marginalized persons also face testimonial injustice (having their knowledge-claims dismissed or largely ignored, when they should not be) and hermeneutic injustice (when marginalized groups lack the right tools to make sense of and testify to their own experiences). Both kinds of injustice are, according to Fricker, importantly epistemic. In delivering this argument, Fricker expanded upon work in feminist epistemology already carried out by philosophers like Sandra Harding, and Lorraine Code. But she added a new dimension, arguing that in the case of testimonial injustice at least, the injustice was evaluative. One person’s opinion is wrongly evaluated as being incompetent, or as having less value than another’s (even when both are saying the same thing!).

Today, I happened upon an article in the ezine Quartz that reminded me of Fricker’s work. The article is a report of a new field of aesthetics, studying the aesthetics of cuteness (read more here).

In the article, philosophers Sianne Ngai and Daniel Harris share their thoughts regarding what the essence of cuteness is, and how cuteness functions. Ngai argues that cuteness results from malleability. That is, things that we feel like handling, holding, and shaping are perceived to be more cute. She says cuteness also calls forth “special affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.” This made me pause. If Ngai is correct, then it seems that cute things are also things that might make us feel compassion. But, then again, they might not. Helplessness might call forth a feeling of empathy, but it also might encourage us to exploit the helpless. Pitifulness might call for sorrow or–as is often the reaction to the picture below–laughter. That is, as Ngai notes, calling something cute is not necessarily a positive evaluation.

So, cuteness seems to generate a mixed bag of affective responses. And, indeed, Ngai goes on in the article to point out that cuteness can just as easily be associated with a “sadistic desire for mastery and control.” After all, what else can explain the pathological need to dress up one’s cat, despite the fact that, more often than not, one will be bleeding from multiple wounds by the time the costume is on, and the cat will be plotting one’s death? Clearly this is not an activity that either party ultimately enjoys, but if cuteness calls forth a sadistic desire for mastery and control, and cats are cute, then this seemingly bizarre behaviour makes some sense.

More worryingly, Ngai also argues in this article that things apparently get cuter when they are “perceived as injured or disabled.”

While both teddy bears are cute (because both are malleable) the image on the left is thought by many to be more cute, and we are actively encouraged by advertising to find it more cute. Hence, coupled with an ability to play off of our desire for mastery and control, Ngai argues that cuteness is an essential ingredient in the rise of consumer culture. To some extent,  we are more interested in buying things that a cute because those things are perceived as weak and pitiful, and this makes us feel strong and in control.

This led me to wonder about whether the structure of Fricker’s arguments regarding epistemic injustice could be helpfully translated over to aesthetics. That is, there seems to me to be a type of hermeneutic aesthetic injustice being practiced here against those who are labelled ‘cute’. To be cute is to be perceived by others as weak, and malleable. In other words, cuteness carries with it connotations of being non-threatening and in general of needing help. But, further, it calls forth a desire for mastery and control by those doing the perceiving. Thus, those who are perceived as cute may be at best coddled, and at worst manipulated, instead of being given access to the tools they need to become masters of their own fates. This is because the perceivers of cuteness do not want those perceived of as cute to be in control. Cuteness calls forth, then, a need to block the agency of the one perceived of as cute. Thus, it bothers me that we find, and are encouraged by consumer culture to find, injured or disabled teddy bears as cute. To find them cute, is already to find them weak. It is to find them to be objects suitable for laughter, or pity. It is not to find them as subjects who are agents in their own lives. I wonder how this translates over to disability studies. It seems evident that an association of cuteness with disability will further damage struggles for agency in the disability community.

Harris commented in this article that “an object is made cute when it is disempowered”. But I think its quite evident that the opposite is also true. That is, an object is disempowered when it is labelled and thus ‘made’ cute. After all, many of us know how frustrating it can be to have our ideas or arguments called ‘cute’. Calling something cute robs it of agency. Calling something cute renders it malleable, helpless, and an object at which it is acceptable to laugh. More disturbingly, if Ngai is correct, calling something cute may also call forth a desire for mastery and control over that thing. Thus, cuteness may also be linked to testimonial injustice in an epistemic sense. To find something or someone aesthetically cute may well be disempower them epistemically, as well as in other ways.

However, as I noted above, the affective nature of cuteness on the perceiver seems to vary. It may not always be negative, thus it may not always be correctly labelled as injustice. I’m not an aesthetician, and I don’t know exactly how a theory of aesthetic injustice would proceed. But this article definitely got me interested in pursuing such a line of thought. First step, I need to track down both Ngai’s and Harris’s books.

Second step, I need to stop dressing my cat in silly outfits for my own amusement!

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Narratives and Ignorance

Prior to the decision that no charges would be brought against Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, there were a lot of narratives on offer. Some tried to label Brown as a thug, criminal, or someone seeking suicide by police. Others represented Brown as a good kid, who was on his way to college. There has been a lot written on this already by people who know more about the case than I do, and by people whose lived experiences give them a more accurate perspective on the events than mine. So I know that what I say here may miss the mark, and likely will not add anything to the discussion. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about this case lately, and I find writing often aids in my thoughts. So I want to focus on one narrative regarding who Michael Brown was: he was an 18 year old . That’s the part that is resonating with me. He was 18.

I see comments under the news articles reporting on this case that argue that this has nothing to do with race. Darren Wilson claims that the encounter would have gone exactly the same way if Brown had been a white man. But that ignores the way in which concepts affect our perceptions. In a book chapter called “White Ignorance,” Philosopher Charles Mills argues that we do not perceive the world around us free from interpretation. We attach concepts to perceptions without even noticing we are doing it. Mills and other critical race theorists have drawn our attention to the way in which black bodies are conceptualized as objects, as dehumanized, and as threatening (especially male black bodies). If Mills is correct, it is impossible for Wilson to know that the encounter would have gone differently had Brown been a white 18-year old. Without even realizing it, Wilson–like all of us–was attaching concepts to his perception of Brown. Brown may well have been perceived as more threatening because white culture has a long history of telling narratives in which male black bodies are threats.

Those of us who were not there may never know the whole story of what happened that night. We have several eye-witness accounts but we know that eye-witness testimony is notoriously flawed, and the accounts we have do not all corroborate each other. Wilson says that Brown was aggressive, punched him in the face, and charged at him.  Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, another eye-witness to the event, says that Brown was protesting that he didn’t have a gun at the time he was shot. However, both cases agree that Wilson found both Johnson and Brown walking down the middle of the road and directed them towards the sidewalk. Whether this direction was polite or forceful is unclear, but that it was delivered is agreed upon. As is the reply that Johnson offered that they were almost home and that’s why they were walking in the middle of the road.

This exchange is what started the whole process that ended in Brown’s death at Wilson’s hands. And it is an exchange that I was surprised to find I was oddly familiar with. I was also once 18. I also once was stopped by a police officer asking me what I and some friends were doing in the middle of the street. I hadn’t robbed a bank, but I did have an open can of beer in my hand.  When the officer arrived and asked me what I was doing out in the street at 3:00am, I replied that I lived around here, and that’s why I was in the street. To which the officer replied “and that gives you the right?!”

It was then that I realized I’d misunderstood what was going on. I thought the officer was asking me why I was there looking for an explanation. But his question was actually rhetorical. And, just like that, I was showing disrespect to a police officer. I was pulled into the vehicle and my identification was taken. I was issued a ticket for the open liquor and taken home.

Fortunately, I am white, female and of small stature. Bodies of my type have not historically been tied to narratives of threat. And, fortunately, I live in Canada which does not have the same problems with gun laws as the USA. My encounter ended fairly quickly, and no one was killed.

But as I read the accounts of what had happened between Wilson and Brown, I saw echoes of this encounter in that one. Brown was 18. He had likely made some mistakes (both accounts agree that he had stolen some cigarettes). He may or may not have been disrespectful to a police officer when asked to move onto the side walk. And, if he was disrespectful (Johnson maintains that he did not swear at Wilson) he may or may not have been aware of how Wilson would react to his statements or actions.

What I mean is that Brown was just a kid. We keep hearing about him as a black man, and a large black man at that. But he was 18. And 18-year-olds make mistakes. They make errors in judgement. But no one deserves to die because of a mistake. It doesn’t matter if Brown was a good kid or not. And it doesn’t matter if he was going to college or not. Frankly, It doesn’t matter if he swore at Wilson or not. None of that justifies what happened after.

But what happened to Brown will keep happening as long as narratives are told that connect black bodies to threats of violence. And those narratives will continue to be told as long as people deny that events like Brown’s have anything to do with race. “White Ignorance” as Mills identifies it, is an ignorance that is ignorant of its own ignorance. This contrasts with known ignorance. I am aware of my ignorance of rocket science. It is a known ignorance. But white ignorance operates differently. It is not known. Not only are whites ignorant, we don’t even know we are ignorant. So we keep spreading the narratives that encourage us to conceive of black bodies as dangerous and threatening. And we do this without knowing we are doing it.

Mills urges that we need to be aware of this ignorance (since an ignorance you don’t know about is not one you can address). We need to consider whether the perception of threat that Wilson reports having can be accepted in a culture in which black bodies are conceived of as dangerous.

These narratives matter. It’s past time white culture consider carefully the narratives being told. Stories have the power to end lives. I must believe they also have the power to save them.

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Meeting Myths

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)


This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.

On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.

Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.

If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will.  If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.

So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.

Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.

Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.

All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.

Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.


For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see:

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Too Much Leisure?

It’s been several months since I last updated this blog. What can I say? I was too busy. Aren’t we all?

It turns out this phenomenon of busyness is one that would have been puzzling to some economic theorists of my grandparents’ generation: most notably John Meynard Keynes. This is something I learned just this past week when a friend of mine linked an article by Elisabeth Kolbert from the New Yorker discussing Keynes’ predictions of what the world economy would be like in 2028. Now, growing up, Keynes was a household name in my family. My father was a Keynesian. He was also one of those people with a penchant for reading out loud, wanting to immediately share the gems of wisdom he found in Keynes’s work with my mother, brother and myself. As such, many an afternoon playtime was intruded upon by my dad, grinning with excitement, rushing into the living room brandishing a book or article and exclaiming “listen to this!” Often this was met with groans from me and my brother, for whom whatever he was about to share would miss our heads by a mile, flying right over. Still, the interest in Keynes must have stuck, if little of his actual economic theory sunk in.  Seeing the link on facebook, I read the article immediately. Read it, and was stunned by the things Keynes’ got right, and more importantly, by the things Kolbert claimed he got catastrophically wrong.

Keynes predicted that by 2028 (a mere 14 years from now) the world economy would have increased seven-fold from where it stood, on the brink of the Great Depression in 1928. Revising his short article, Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren in 1931, he argued that, though the depression was well under way, this was simply a temporary economic slump, and the world economy would rebound, and experience unprecedented growth. Much of this growth, Keynes thought, would be fueled by technology. The rapid expansion of technological growth in his own lifetime left Keynes convinced that, with technology we would increasingly be able to do more and more in less and less time.

The predictions thus-far have been born out. We now have a world-economy that is nearly as large as Keynes predicted it would be by 2028. The marvels that technology brings, and the feats it allows us to accomplish, have well exceeded Keynes’ expectations.



This brought Keynes to a shocking conclusion. As Kolbert puts it, people of 2028

Keynes reckoned, would work about three hours a day, and even this reduced schedule would represent more labor than was actually necessary.

The rapid expansion of the economy, fueled by technological innovation that makes our daily tasks quicker and easier, would eventually lead to more leisure. We would would be overproducing, producing more than we could possibly ever need. Our daily desires would be met, and this would usher in an unprecedented time of leisure, with everyone knocking off work around noon.

And yet. . . everyone I know, and apparently everyone Kolbert knows, is not in fact enjoying an unprecedented time of leisure. Nope. We are busy. We are all crazy busy. We are so busy, that academic researchers are setting out to study this phenomenon and try to figure out why we are busy and what is keeping us so busy (which, of course, results in the researchers also being crazy busy). The eight-hour work day and forty-hour work week is far from a reality for many people. Just a few weeks ago I was frantically exchanging emails with some colleagues of mine at midnight in an effort to finish some work that had to be done the next morning. As I recall, the work had to be done right then. At midnight. Work-life balance and sleep be damned. So, how could Keynes be on the one hand impressively accurate and on the other hand apparently so depressingly inaccurate?


Kolbert explores the many ways in which people seek to explain why Keynes was so apparently wrong.

She notes that some people think that the problem is that Keynes never counted on the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us (indeed, if my dim childhood memories of my father’s readings are accurate, Keynesian economic theory would mitigate or preclude this from happening). Thus, many of us would not be in a position where, in just 3 hours a day, we could earn enough to meet our needs. But, she observes that researchers find it is often the richest among us who are the most busy, so the gap in income distribution cannot account for our busyness.

She tells us that some researchers posit that busyness could be a status-symbol.

The busier you are the more important you seem; thus, people compete to be—or, at least, to appear to be—harried.

Other researchers argue that Keynes missed out on an important facet of human nature: we never run out of wants.

Instead of quitting early, [people] find new things to need. Many of the new things they’ve found weren’t even around when Keynes was writing—laptops, microwaves, Xboxes, smartphones, smart watches, smart refrigerators, Prada totes, True Religion jeans, battery-powered meat thermometers, those gizmos you stick in the freezer and then into your beer to keep it cold as you drink it.

So, we have to work more and more in order to afford the plethora of stuff innovations in technology offer us. In fact, I didn’t even know there were freezer-gizmos that I could stick in my beer to keep it cold. But now that I know about it, I absolutely must have one. I wonder how much they cost, and how much work I’ll have to do to afford them.

In effect, all this research suggests that being overwhelmed and busy are badges of honor in North America. They signal to others that we are important, and that we can afford beer-cooling freezer-gizmos. They give our lives, if only on the material level, purpose. This is what the researchers that Kolbert surveys posit Keynes didn’t count on. He didn’t consider our expanding wants, and the sense of meaning or purpose that working (and by extension, being able to own things) gives us.

But I think that might be too quick of a conclusion to draw. Kolbert notes that, in the age of leisure, Keynes thought humanity would face its greatest challenge.

To Keynes, the coming age of abundance, while welcome, would pose a new and in some ways even bigger challenge. With so little need for labor, people would have to figure out what to do with themselves: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.”

Keynes feared that this age of leisure might well be a dangerous and difficult time for humanity precisely because lesiure time had always been scarce in the past. Humanity may not know how to ‘occupy the leisure’. That is, when we don’t have to work every waking minute to satisfy our basic needs, what do we do with ourselves? How do we make meaningful lives when we are not wholly engaged in the business of ensuring that we live?

As a greater and greater proportion of the population found themselves liberated from work, Keynes worried that society might suffer from a sort of generalized “nervous breakdown.” It was those who could appreciate “the art of life itself,” he wrote, who would “be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”

In effect, we would have to determine how to fill our time. This, in itself, might well be quite terrifying. But why? Here, my philosopher’s brain kicked into high gear. When we are struggling to survive, often all we can see is what is required in order to survive. But, in leisure, the mind is free to follow speculations. We start asking things like “what’s the meaning of all of this?” or “what’s the purpose of my life?” In effect, if we are busy, we literally have no time for existential angst. In leisure, we do.

This made me think of the philosopher Blaise Pascal who posited in his Penses that humanity was trapped between diversion and despair.

Diversion.—When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.

We are driven to diversion because we cannot sit quietly at home. We cannot ‘occupy the leisure’ as Keynes put it. In effect, we are driven to fill our lives with diversion in order to actively avoid leisure. According to Pascal, we freely and willingly cause pain and suffering to ourselves and to others, in order to divert ourselves from sitting quietly at home.We do not know how to be happy, or still, or content. When we sit quietly at home, the existential questions that we don’t know how to answer are not easily ignored. We need excitement, adventure, change, and possibly pain. Only under these conditions can we effectively silence the mind, and block out the questions that bring us to despair.

What I suggest is that maybe Keynes did not make a mistake in his reasoning. Instead, he warned us that the increasing possibility of leisure would be a dangerous one for humanity to face. He told us that we would need to be able to be comfortable with living itself in order to avail ourselves of the opportunities opened by leisure without suffering a nervous break down. But if Pascal is right, this comfort is exactly what humanity lacks. If Pascal is right, and we do not know how to stay with pleasure, then it is possible that we have taken this possibility of leisure and obsessively filled it with activity in order to avoid despair.

Busyness does give us the illusion of importance, meaning, and purpose. If I am always on the run, then I must be important and valued. But, and perhaps of equal importance, if I am always on the run, my mind racing from one to-do list to another, then my mind will never quiet down enough to raise these uncomfortable fundamental questions of life. So, I will never have to face them. The risk is that, in a culture of busyness, we have simply swapped existential angst for a nervous breakdown of another flavour. After all, being chronically busy is hardly good for one’s health.

But no time to worry about that. I gotta go. Got a million things to do today!!

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Silence and Speech

This week, I’d like to talk about a chant–a little ear-worm, if you will–that has been embedded in my mind for decades. It’s an unpleasant puzzle why, when I’ve forgotten other arguably more useful and less damaging things, somehow I still vividly remember this chant. It’s stuck in my head. It is a part of my history. And so, it is also a part of myself.

We were studying North American history in Elementary School Social Studies. I think it was grade 5 or so. And one of my classmates took it upon themselves to extend one of the teaching-tool chants from this unit: “The Columbus Chant”.

Here it is, in case you are unfamiliar:

In 1492,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

It’s pithy, has a good beat, and has probably helped millions of students remember the date come test day. But my classmate thought there was more to be said. And, against all odds, the extension of the chant that a classmate of mine came up with is still, possibly forever, in my mind.

In 1492,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue,

He found an island and staked a claim

And now to give his new land a name

West Indies he said, he called it so

‘America’ he failed to know.

There might have been more, but that’s all I can recall. I remember my teacher enthusiastically endorsing this student’s initiative, and all of us singing this together while clapping our hands. I don’t remember if there were children from the Tsuu t’ina nation in that class, but there might have been. A fair number of them went to my Southern Alberta school. But I don’t remember if there were any present that day and I remember no discomfort while singing about Columbus ‘staking a claim’ to land that was already claimed by indigenous groups. If anything, I remember the whole lesson as being rather fun. That, in itself, is upsetting.

Don’t get me wrong. My teacher was a good teacher. In fact, she was one of my favorite teachers precisely because she encouraged us to be creative and to take an active role in our own education; which was exactly the thing my classmate had done by extending the ‘Columbus chant’. This teacher’s embracing of our creativity and her willingness to be playful with our education are still things I remember fondly. So I don’t write this to condemn either my school or my teacher. And I certainly don’t write it to condemn my classmate, who was, after all, ten years old. The fact that this chant was chanted by otherwise kind and well-meaning people is, actually, the whole point. It’s why I’m writing this blog post this week.

I write it because, while reading Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past this week, I was recalled to this classroom in a visceral and uncomfortable way. And I was reminded of the way in which speech can be a tool for silence. And for inaction. And I remember, as uncomfortable as that memory is, that I have unwittingly participated in this silencing. My own speech has been used to silence others. And this was done without malice, without forethought and without even an awareness that I was doing it. I was, of course, not the instigator of this silencing, as anyone who has read Trouillot’s book knows. But I was participating in it. My chant, in elementary school, was ensuring the enshrinement of history. Trouillot tells us, when speaking of Columbus, that the celebration of Columbus day on October 12th is significant. That the United States has reduced Europe’s bloody and prolonged encounter with America to one “single moment thus creates a historical ‘fact’.”(Pg. 114) This fact becomes an anchor from which to understand our present selves. And it becomes transparent. Obvious. Beyond question. Eventually, beyond thought. So easily assumed that my elementary school class could make a nursery rhyme of it, stripping it of all the horror of the original event. (Nursery rhymes do this stripping effectively, after all. Just look at “Ring around the rosie”!)

Whether I knew it or not, I was participating in the creation of history, which means I was also participating in the silencing of what happened. I was participating in the constant “narrativization of history, the transformation of what happened into that which is said to have happened.” (Pg. 113) By repeating the old chant, and by extending it, my class was reaffirming what many elementary school classes had done before. We were reasserting this narrative as historical ‘fact’ and simultaneously denying any possible counter-narrative. No, it was more than denying a counter-narrative. We weren’t acknowledging the possibility of the existence of the counter-narrative. To deny something is, if only tacitly, to acknowledge it. After all, what’s the point of denying something that isn’t there? Through our speech, we prevented the possibility of the counter-narrative from even arising. Our repetition of a chant that had been repeated over and over made it mindless. Self-evident. No denial was needed because no conceptual space for a counter-narrative was given.

We’ve examined the ways in which speech can be used for action, communication, and power in this class. But we haven’t directly looked at the ways in which speech can be used in the service of silence, maybe because it seems paradoxical. The society I live in is one that seems to shy away from silence. My bus ride to work is filled with individuals who, like me, have ear buds on, blocking out the silence with the noise of a podcast, music, or an audio book. We are all encouraged or coerced into participating in ‘small talk’ whose use is mainly to put others at ease by filling up the silence between us with noise. I’ve heard it said, more than once, that my society is one that doesn’t like silence. Silence must be eradicated at all costs. And we have a multitude of tools at our disposal to shatter silence wherever and whenever it arises. The easiest one, and the oldest one, is speech.

But this dichotomy between speech and silence is a false one. Speech doesn’t just eradicate silence. Often, too often, it perpetuates it. And, more frightening still, it can perpetuate this silence effortlessly and unconsciously. Perhaps the question I am left with here, then, is how does one shatter speech? How do I uncover what has happened, when what is said to have happened is comfortably ensconced in my mind?How do I squish my ear-worm?

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“Hold out for enthusiasm!”

I’ve hesitated to write a post about the recent sexual assaults on campus at UBC and the concern about rape culture on campus mostly because I have been slow to formulate my own thoughts. I know what I want to say, but not exactly how to say it (a feeling I’m sure is familiar to every single one of our Arts One students who are currently writing essays on Doctor Faustus). But, one of the best ways to try to clarify what one wants to say is to go ahead and say it, and revise as necessary. So, here I go.

This is distressing, to say the least. The incidents themselves are unacceptable. We should be able to provide a safe environment for students, staff and faculty, and it is disturbing that we cannot. It may also seem dissatisfying, as one Arts One student, Ola, noted in her blog, the message being sent is largely being directed at students, asking them to walk in groups, be aware of their surroundings, and use the UBC SafeWalk feature. In short, students are being directed to prevent themselves from becoming victims. I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting that these are not good things to do. I absolutely urge everyone (men, women, students, staff and faculty) to take every measure to try to ensure their safety. However, that being said, I also want to urge everyone to work towards creating a campus environment where we do not have to be as fearful and suspicious of each other. Because the truth is, no one can fully guarantee that they won’t be victims. Falling victim to an attack is not one’s choice, and one does not have control. There are measures one can take to try to protect oneself, but that is no guarantee of safety. So, while I support the message being sent to everyone on campus to take measures to ensure their safety, I don’t think it’s the only message we should consider sending.

Ola asks why another message– ‘don’t rape’– isn’t being sent to the student body, in addition to the message to protect oneself (insofar as one can) from being raped? This is a good question, and one well worth exploring. It is also one that extends beyond our own campus, and gets at the heart of some of the most pernicious problems of rape culture, as does another Arts One student’s response to Ola’s questions. Seamus, while being supportive of Ola’s overall message, adds this point for discussion:

“As a man i get quite insulted with the idea of teaching the men “Don’t rape” not all men are rapist and I am finding more and more as I walk around UBC I am getting judged for being a large, tall white man.”

I think the importance of consent should still be taught and emphasized, and not just to men. However, I am still struck by this exchange between Seamus and Ola, because this exchange points to a troubling problem with our ideas about rape on campus and in a larger social context.

Frankly, I think Seamus should be insulted. I think all men should be insulted by the idea that it is natural, normal, or inevitable for men to rape and that they must be coerced into not raping. I would like to see more men be insulted. But, currently, the idea that men are naturally predisposed to rape is pervasive in our culture. We can see it in the rape chant from the Sauder school of business Frosh Week. We can see it in studies that posit the existence of a rape gene. And we can see it in the recent hashtag “#rapeface”. We live in a society that normalizes rape and normalizes the idea of men as rapists. And I think too many of us are not insulted by this.

Well, men, I want you to get insulted. In fact, I want us all to get insulted. Ladies, these are our boyfriends, brothers, fathers and husbands we are talking about. It should be insulting. The fact that–for many of us–it isn’t insulting, is part of the problem. We should find it unacceptable that we are socializing masculinity in such a way that men are considered, by default, a threat to women. And that this is, somehow, normal. I worry about what sort of message this sends men who are trying to understand their identity as men. So I don’t just want to send the message to men ‘do not rape’. That message isn’t good enough. That message suggests that men have to restrain themselves to avoid raping women. Instead, I want to send this message to every student, but especially to men who are struggling to understand masculinity:

I believe you are not a rapist. I believe that you respect the autonomy of your fellow human beings and deserve the same respect in return. And it is because you are respectful, and deserving of respect yourself, that I believe you will always wait for consent before engaging in sexual activity.

In fact, consent is too low a bar to set. You deserve more. As one UK mother recently put it: ‘Hold out for enthusiasm!’


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Faustus, Freedom, Knowledge and Distraction

Continuing with my theme of alliterative titles, today I want to explore one of the tensions between the 1604 and 1616 editions of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The introduction to our text tells us that there are two broad versions of the text, the A text and the B text. The A text was written in 1604. The B text appeared later in 1616. It is noteworthy that both texts, then, appear after the death of Marlowe, and neither can be said with assurance to represent his definitive vision for the play. But that’s not what interests me here (though the issue of authorship and whether the play has a definitive vision are interesting). What interests me here are the changes that are made between the A and the B versions. Most specifically, the A version seems to assume that Faustus is not free to repent. While the good angel may entreat him to repent, and the demons may fear that he will repent, the A text gives an “insistent suggestion that his despairing inability to will his own salvation is due to the withholding of divine grace.” (Pg. 55)The B text, by contrast, tends to remove much of this suggestion.

How does this suggestion, its presence or its absence, change our reading of this text? If he is unable to repent on his own, because true salvation requires divine intervention, and that intervention is being withheld, then I’m curious why the good angel begs him to repent, saying ‘Faustus, repent yet, God will pity thee.” (Pg. 117)  And why Mephastophilis seems to fear that he will repent and keep distracting him with things like the seven deadly sins, or Helen of Troy as his wife. In short, if his fate was sealed from the moment he signed his soul away, why don’t the angels just give up, and why do the demons show fear?

Perhaps it is because they don’t know that his fate is sealed. There is, here, a gap between what is believed to be the case and what actually is the case. Neither Faustus, nor Mephastophilis nor the good angel seem to realize that Faustus cannot be saved through any act of his own. Not realizing the futility of their acts, they throw themselves behind their goals in earnest, trying to get what they want. In some ways, this makes the role of the good angel doubly tragic. Not only is he fighting a losing battle, in fact he is fighting a lost battle. The battle was lost before he even began to fight, and the tragedy is that he just doesn’t know it. Much as Antigone is already dead before the play Antigone opens, Faustus is already lost before the good angel ever appears and urges him to repent.

But presumably God must know. The introduction of this play tells us that in the A version, Faustus is not saved because he is refused divine grace. This raises an interesting issue of causation for me. Is it that Faustus is refused divine grace, or merely that God knows Faustus is already lost? One might say that divine grace is not properly refused because God cannot refuse you something that it is impossible to give. So, divine grace is not refused, rather it is simply not possible. Of course, God is supposed to be omnipotent, so presumably He could save someone even if they were already lost. Thus, knowledge and causation meet in God. For God, all things are possible, and this should, presumably, extend to the ability to save someone who has damned himself. Or should it?

There is a long debate in medieval philosophy about whether God can really enact all things, or whether He must also obey fundamental laws of logic and physics. If He must obey fundamental laws, then perhaps he cannot save someone who has damned themselves. But this is a pretty bleak world. Not only is Faustus damned in a way in which he cannot save himself, but he is also damned in such a way that God also cannot save him. God cannot undo Faustus’s fate once his fate is sealed. This is pretty freaky stuff. Not only does Faustus lack free will here, so does God!

Curiously, the evil angel also seems to know that Faustus is beyond saving, even going so far as to say he is no longer human, and no longer has the free will to save himself. “Thou art a spirit, God cannot pity thee.” (Pg. 118) So, while the predestination of Faustus’s damnation is not known to the good angel, nor to Mephastophilis, the evil angel and God seem to have this knowledge. Or, perhaps the evil angel doesn’t know, but wants Faustus to believe that he does. The interaction between claims of knowledge and action is definitely worth considering in this play.

To complicate matters, there was a B version of the text written that largely erased this suggestion made in the A text. In the B version, Faustus has only himself to blame for his damnation. In the B version, the need of Lucifer and Mephastophilis to shower Faustus with gifts is fully intelligible. It isn’t just that they don’t know his fate is sealed but, rather, that his fate really isn’t sealed. He might, at any moment, choose to repent. And should that moment arrive, God will, of course, grant him divine grace. God is omnibenevolent, after all. Divine grace is part of the package.

In the B reading, then, Faustus and God are both beings of free will. Faustus freely damns himself. And whenever he seems to be questioning this choice, a demon with a shiny new toy appears to distract him from exercising his free will. But the demons don’t remove his free will, they just distract and pacify him. The B text, in other words, makes Faustus a freer and much less sympathetic character.

But, while our editor notes the places that mark the changes between the A and B text in our reading, it was surprising to me how little effect they had on the overall action of the play. And this seems to me to be because, free or not, neither Faustus nor most of the other members of the cast knows that Faustus is free (or not). Thus, they assume that he is free and act as though he is free.

This makes the evil angel all the more interesting. I am left wondering whether he really did know that Faustus was a spirit, or whether he only wanted Faustus to believe he was. If the former, this makes this otherwise unremarkable character the only one who stands on the same level as God in terms of knowledge. If the latter, then this makes the evil angel the only demon who openly deceives Faustus. Lucifer and Mephastophilis seem to deal quite openly with Faustus. They do not lie or deceive. So the evil angel becomes quite a puzzle to me.

Upon further contemplation, I think the evil angel must truly not know. In a later encounter with the good and evil angels, the evil angel does not seem so certain that Faustus cannot repent. Upon hearing the good angel urging Faustus to repent, the evil angel replies “If thou repent, devils shall tear thee to pieces.” (Pg. 123) But why threaten Faustus if he truly cannot repent? Clearly the evil angel must no longer be certain that Faustus can repent.Perhaps he never was certain.

I think that, perhaps, life is also like this. Free will debates in philosophy have certainly not gone away. And in different eras we sway towards believing in free will, or towards endorsing determinism. But we don’t know (yet). Yet–and this has been commented on a few times–most people, including philosophers who believe in determinism, act as though they were free (at least outside of the classroom). That is, even though we don’t know, we tend to assume that we are in control. We assume we are free to choose, even as we question this freedom. I wonder sometimes if it is at all possible to live without assuming free will. What would an entirely fatalistic life look like? Would one feel responsible for one’s own actions? Would one feel compelled to give advice to friends and family if one thought what they were doing was unwise? Or would one be able to resign oneself to fate, and claim everything was meant to be?

This is all getting a bit weighty and metaphysical. maybe it’s time for a distraction.


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Perspectives, Path and Peril

“We two have come one path,

one man watching the way for both.” (Pg. 59)

As I read Antigone I wonder whether the outcome could have been different in any way. Kreon saw the world one way, and Antigone saw it another. Kreon claimed that the needs of the family must be subordinate to the needs of the state, and Antigone claimed that the ties between herself and her brother were stronger than any law handed down by the state. In effect, both claimed that the laws by which their actions were governed superseded the laws of the other. Which is correct? State or family? Or perhaps the question is better put as State or gods. One might be tempted to say that both were correct. But this is a case where ‘live and let live’ seemed impossible.

It was impossible for Kreon to allow Antigone’s actions to stand. It was as though, by allowing Antigone to get away with burying her brother, after Kreon explicitly forbade it, he would allow her world-view to supersede his own. If he did not discipline her, his way of life, his political support, his very identity as a man would be lost. Kreon proclaims that

“I’m no man-

She is the man, she is the king-

if she gets away with this.” (Pg. 40)

This led me to wonder about the feasibility of differing perspectives existing easily simultaneously. We often say ‘live and let live,’ but in this story, such acceptance is not possible. Antigone’s perspective threatens Kreon’s masculinity. His own perspective threatens her life. To quote another famous text “neither can live while the other survives!” (J.K. Rowling)

So I wonder about the sudden appearance of Tiresias on page 59. Tiresias, blind prophet, is led on stage by another. And he comments on this; that two are able to walk one path only when they share one perspective, or when one sees the way for both. But it is curious to me how the two are able to share the one path. They do so not by sharing a perspective, but by the dominance of one perspective over another. Is there no other way for Antigone and Kreon to find common ground than by one of them submitting to the perspective of the other, or dying? And if so, what message are we to talk away from this in terms of current conflicts of perspectives?

But then I consider the passage from Tiresias again, and I think it is important to note that, while Tiresias is led, he seems to have been led to the place he wished to go, or perhaps a place he was fated to go. The boy who leads him is perhaps not properly described as dominating him, but rather as aiding him. The boy can see what Tiresias cannot, and uses this sight to help Tiresias get where he need to be. By contrast, neither Kreon nor Antigone seem able to work towards the goal of the other. I suppose, at the end of this play I am left curious about this: Under what conditions is it possible for two perspectives to share one path? And when it is not possible, what is to be done? Sophocles will not provide answers here. But maybe seminar this week will.

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Pleasure and The Good Life

In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles and Socrates have a debate over where the good life consists. Socrates offers the following example:

“Suppose there are two men, each of whom has many jars. The jars belonging to one of them are sound and full, one with wine, another with honey, a third with milk, and many others with lots of other things. And suppose that the sources of each of these things are scarce and difficult to come by, procurable only with much toil and trouble. Now one man, having filled up his jars, doesn’t pour anything more into them and gives them no further thought. He can relax over them. As for the other one, he to has resources that can be procured, though with difficulty, but his containers are leaky and rotten. He’s forced to keep on filling them, day and night, or else he suffers extreme pain.” (Pg. 67)

Socrates gives this example in an effort to persuade Callicles that the orderly and disciplined life is better than the life spent chasing after pleasure. But Callicles remains unconvinced. He replies that:

“The man who has filed himself up has no pleasure any more, and when he’s been filled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone, as I was saying just now. Rather, living pleasantly consists in this: having as much pleasure flow in.” (Pg. 67)

Of course, to have an endless supply of pleasure flowing in requires, in this analogy, holes in the jars. Pleasure must flow out of the jars in order for there to be space for more pleasure to flow in. That is, pleasure slips through one’s fingers. One never has one’s life full of pleasure. One can never put the lids on the jars and just rest.  Callicles argues that this endless flow is a good thing, bringing new experiences and giving new purpose to each moment of our lives, as we continually seek pleasure. By contrast, Socrates argues that the good life is not found in an endless stream of pleasure. Instead, it is found in order and harmony. In this way, one can, as he says, relax.

Socrates goes on to illustrate the ways in which pleasure is distinct from goodness (he argues that there can be pleasure with pain, but there can never be good with evil and that there can be evil pleasures). But what interests me is the discussion of pleasure itself here. The analogy with the jars suggests that if one follows reason, takes care of one’s soul, and doesn’t just chase pleasure, one will be able to rest and relax, with a full and pleasant life. Whereas, if one chases pleasure, then one will never be able to relax, because one will continually need to top-up one’s pleasure-jars.

I think there’s something right, and something wrong with this Socratic analogy. I’m going to try to discuss both aspects. First, what’s right. Well, it strikes me that in our western culture of compulsive happiness, the pressure to be happy doesn’t really allow for any relaxing. We are told to be happy. And if we aren’t happy, well, we’d better do something about that. Usually retail therapy.

The idea seems to be that a lot of us live our lives in search of the next big thing that will bring us pleasure. But life doesn’t supply constant pleasure. So, eventually, something will cause us pain, and we will become unhappy again. Here is where I think Socrates is correct. If you place the value of your life on happiness (understood in terms of pleasure) you will spend the rest of your life in futility, because you can’t always be in a pleasant state. Sometimes life just sucks.

However, this brings me to where I think Socrates is incorrect. He suggests that if you spend your life cultivating your soul by seeking goodness (as opposed to pleasure) at some point you can just relax. On the one hand, I suspect that cultivating one’s soul (or, more secularly, caring for one’s self) is a life-long project. Much like chasing after pleasure, I think that caring for one’s self is something one will have to do continuously for the rest of one’s life. It’s never going to be done. Life not only sometimes sucks, but you yourself will sometimes slip back into old habits, or find the temptations from your desires to be too much to resist. Or you will find yourself thrust into new situations, where you aren’t sure how to best handle morally and socially grey areas. So, caring for yourself doesn’t stop, in the same way the seeking pleasure doesn’t stop. Aiming for the good life is a continual process.

Furthermore, I think Callicles has got something right here, and something that challenges Socrates’ idea of relaxing when understood in terms of resting. I think Callicles is right that once those jars are full (be they pleasure-jars or good-life jars) our lives lose direction. It isn’t so much as case of resting as a case of boredom and listlessness. We will simply drift, with no new goal. So, whether we seek after pleasure or cultivate the self, I think Callicles point is an important one to recognize. We need to recognize the value in endless tasks. If the work will never be done, then you always have something to do that makes your life feel worthwhile. (Incidentally, this is why I tend to seek out really long novels for my vacations. I can’t stand the thought of finishing the book. What will I do with myself if I can’t read?!!)

In essence, I think Callicles is right (and Socrates is wrong to dismiss him so quickly) when he points out the benefits of a task that is never completed. Relaxing may be all well and good, but we don’t want to do it forever. But, if cultivating goodness, like seeking pleasure, is an endless task (and I hope it is), then why does Socrates think its a better goal than seeking as much pleasure as possible? Here’s one suggestion: If you cultivate your soul, or care for yourself, rather than chasing after the latest smart phone (okay, but the newest one I saw is water proof! How will that not make me happy?) then you won’t be as susceptible to the occasional suckiness of life. Yes, life will still suck. Yes, sometimes you will be in pain, or will be unhappy. But, when this happens, you won’t have decided that all the value of your life is caught up in pleasure. So it won’t be a blow to your life’s value when the pleasure inevitably slips through your fingers.

By contrast, when you give into desires, or slip back into old habits and have to begin again to care for yourself, this will give your life value. Yes, you failed to live up to the ideal of a cultivated soul, but there is another opportunity tomorrow to try again.

I think the main point being made here is one that’s been made again and again. If you look outside yourself for happiness, you are at the whim of the world. So, look within.

Not within a smartphone store. Within yourself.

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