Monday, 3 April 2017

The Inner Civil War of Right and Wrong, Life and Death, and Being and Time, or: How I pine for the me who knew everything

Cypher in The Matrix: "Ignorance is bliss".
I am constantly annoyed by the pro-science Atheists who think that religion causes war. Since when was Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer, a priest? After much reading and reflection, I find myself unable to implement any philosophy of life without taking a leap of faith. Or, to use the analogy from The Matrix, now that I have taken the red pill (education) and I cannot go back, the way forward insists that I have faith in the victory of one side of my inner civil war. But which one?
An important place to begin in philosophy is this: a clear perception of one’s own ruling principle (Epictetus 1.26.15).
I have been reading in ever-decreasing circles lately that begin and end, like my days, with Stoicism. In Ryan Holiday's The Obstacle is the Way, drawing on Epictetus (Discourses 1.26.15), and later Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 12:22), how we perceive the world is the critical first step in practising philosophy.
It's all in how you perceive it. You're in control. You can disperse with misperception at will, like rounding a point (Marcus Aurelius 12:22).
In my reading, this is repeatedly referred to as "right perception". Some translations equate this with "right thinking", but thinking and perceiving are not the same. For example, I could conduct a thought experiment where I might deliberately think differently about something, whereas the only way I can "perceive" something differently is to either have a fundamental change of base character or otherwise to deceive myself in a stupid way. So "right perception" becomes key.

The trouble is that now I enter unfamiliar territory with the likes of, in reverse chronological order, Heidegger, Camus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. I could come forward (or go back) to Harold Bloom and Joseph Epstein, too, but I will leave that for another time. There are others but this is where I am at right now.

What I still find surprising is that the thoughts I have have been had by others, even two thousand years ago, and reading reveals this time and again. I think I read this from Epstein, but I cannot be sure until I find it again.

Which brings me to Camus. His first principle of philosophy was whether one should commit suicide or not. I see this mostly as a decision to live or not to live. The Stoics had a similar view of choosing to live or not. I recall when I was nineteen years old, when my repetitive job was so boring, and I thought to myself, "this cannot be all there is to life". I chose, metaphorically, to live.

Nietzsche took this further, expanding on Schopenhauer's ideas. But Nietzsche declared that God was dead, and we had killed Him. This left a great void. Where do our first principles come from if there is no God? I have grappled with this for decades, but settled my theological comprehensions deeper and deeper over time. If there is no God, then there is no point.

So, if we take our own beliefs as a starting point, then Heidegger presents a further clue: We are what we do. Not what we talk about doing. But there is more to Heidegger.

Yesterday, I read Simon Critchley's eight-part blog article on "Why Heidegger Matters". Of course, I have much reading to do to command the literature, or to master the philosophical lessons, but my thinking is leading to somewhere useful.

It struck me how much of what Heidegger wrote follows my own "perception" of the world. While the Stoics spoke of "right perception", Heidegger suggests we are "thrown" into the world. Again, the strange occurrences of things happening at the right time gives me a sense of "flow" rather than "throw". This particular topic miraculously appeared on ABC Radio National last night as soon as I had changed the radio station out of boredom with ABC Canberra. The topic was Epicurean versus Existentialist views on death.

This throws up two issues, assuming my idea of "perception" is how I perceive the world to be and derive my meaning from my life in that perceived world. First, there is "right" as in what does one mean by the "right" way to perceive something? Is there a general or universal idea of what is "right", or is this something an individual judges for themselves? I think that, should an individual make their own judgement, which is what Heidegger seems to mean by "freedom" (loosely - I think!), then "right" perception would be what I thought to be "right" for me.

If I were to encapsulate Stoicism, James Allen, Benjamin Franklin, and various religious works I can subscribe to, collectively, a sense of "right" - which I see as congruent - then my idea would be that my sense of what Heidegger was saying, in that life is finite and who I am is what I do, then I have the recipe for constructing "right" perception, with which to practise Stoicism properly, at least according to me.

But this leads me to my second problem: Can "right" change with "time", or with circumstances through "being"? What if one measured one's virtues against a preconceived notion of "right perception", only to get to one's deathbed (a Stoic measure) to find that their perception was wrong?

So, deciding upon one's idea of "right" and how to determine the idea, whether this means "right" according to a universal principle or "right" as in what is "right" for me, is a skill that ought to be a priority from a young age. This negates much of the Atheist scientists' view of the world. They annoy me with their "I know everything" pessimism and the assumption that humans, being inherently social animals who pretend to deny their instincts in the name of "science", have no answer for the two big questions (some of what follows is borrowed and paraphrased from The Daily Stoic):
What do I really want? What am I actually after here?
These are difficult questions, and mostly the answers are sought in the middle of an internal struggle. Martin Luther King Jr said:
There is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives.
So we have contradiction and inconsistent wishes that have us working against ourselves. The Stoics said this is the result of screwed up judgements or biased thoughts. The "civil war" King spoke of was a war, in each individual, between the good parts of their soul and the bad.

To quote somebody from my past who I cannot recall, but whose words have never left me, I find that the pursuit of knowledge, which is part of my day job, is admirable but incomplete. My past friend or colleague said it best:
Knowledge gets us part of the way but faith fills the gap.
And so, as I turn to James Allen as part of my daily reflection, there are echoes of two important religious teachings:
Whom Allah doth guide - he is on the right path (Qur'an 7:178) [and] The foolishness of a man twists his way while his heart frets against the Lord (Proverbs 19:3).
There is so much more for me to do. So much more to read and learn. And while it appears to be within grasping distance each day, I know that the only certain goal is death (hopefully not too soon!) and I can never know everything. Serendipitously, Allen brings it all together in a program for living:
To follow, under all circumstances, the highest promptings within you; to be always true to the divine self; to rely upon the inward Voice, the inward Light, and to pursue your purpose with a fearless and restful heart, believing that the future will yield unto you the need of every thought and effort; knowing that the laws of the universe can never fail, and that your own will come back to you with mathematical exactitude - this is faith and the living faith.
One cannot know what one doesn't know. But one can know how much one doesn't know. Regardless, the end is death. But once one has taken the red pill, there is little one can do. Sometimes I pine for the me who knew less. At least then I knew everything.

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