Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Philosopher's Life

There will always be people who can run faster than is necessary to survive, who can lift weights heavier than what daily life requires, who are prodigies, who are geniuses, who possess a skill or a feature far beyond what existence demands.

Dexterity or skill in a particular domain does not, in general, lead to harmful consequences.  However, I claim that a vastly superior intellectual capacity poses risks of existential crises which a normal intellect does not.

As Peter Zapffe wrote in his iconic essay "The Last Messiah"
But as he stands before imminent death, he grasps its nature also, and the cosmic import of the step to come. His creative imagination constructs new, fearful prospects behind the curtain of death, and he sees that even there is no sanctuary found. And now he can discern the outline of his biologicocosmic terms: He is the universe’s helpless captive, kept to fall into nameless possibilities.
From this moment on, he is in a state of relentless panic.
Such a ‘feeling of cosmic panic’ is pivotal to every human mind. Indeed, the race appears destined to perish in so far as any effective preservation and continuation of life is ruled out when all of the individual’s attention and energy goes to endure, or relay, the catastrophic high tension within.
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by overevolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.
In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
As soon as the human mind develops the capacity to think beyond a few years - and that capacity has been there in humanity for many thousands of years now, if not more - the mind needs a narrative to endure the daily ennui, tedium and tension. This narrative must win over the mind for it to be effective. It shouldn't just be a belief, or even a passion. It has to go much deeper, and become a part of one's being. It must be the very air one breathes, the very marrow of one's bone, the very core of one's gut.

Narratives of family, of honor, of tribe, of religion, of tradition, of serving, of patriotism, were enough at a time when exposure to counter-narratives was limited. The narratives were easy to imbibe because there was little in the environment to thwart or question them.  And there was little leisure to indulge in idle intellection anyway.

Not any more.

Today, any individual with an above-average intellect will not find it overly hard to laugh at these narratives. It is easy, fashionable, and quite correct, to see religion or nationalism or chivalry as of appeal only to conservative, limited, ignorant minds. The world has moved on, we say, and we ridicule those who persist in living in the past.

But if the ignorant and their faith are ridiculed, the laughter of the wise is not devoid of its own kind of punishment. Cynicism and self-absorption, which increasingly are the default positions of a modern intellectual, may offer sarcastic and witty entertainment at a gathering, but offers no nourishment to one's being.

The modern intellectual is an individual starved from the inside. He has the ability to impress, but his inner hollowness scares him more than he would care to admit.

Because the intellectual can think farther than a mere brute or a village idiot, he therefore needs a stronger narrative to sustain his being. But where are those narratives? If he is to create his own narrative, that only lasts so long. He will inevitably deconstruct and shred his own beliefs and senses of meaning. He cannot help but analyze. And given enough leisure and access to counter viewpoints, nothing survives the glare.

The intellectual understands that ignorance is bliss, but he lives a false life if he remains content with ignorance. His being yearns for intellection, cannot live without it, and can thereby be called ... suicidal.

A true philosopher, like Sisyphus, must grapple with life and suicide every day.

Philosophers must of necessity be depressed. Otherwise, they are still believers.

It is not impossible to live a depressed life till one dies of natural causes, but the sooner a philosopher understands the implications of his chosen vocation, the easier it is to endure. 

A philosopher's life offers many pleasures: one can laugh at miseries which others would find soul-shattering, one can understand the vagaries of love and longing, one can unveil mysteries of human nature that confuse lesser minds, one can refuse to be swayed and exploited by appeals to instinct or emotion, ...

But what it does not offer is immersion in a narrative. And that is something worth reflecting on.


Darshan Chande said...

Philosophers have the same qualities that ordinary people desire -- only perhaps in excess.

Living mindlessly has its costs, and not only to oneself.

Everyone wants to know the answers, be wise. Everyone does not become wise because they have limitations of mind, not because they choose to limit themselves. Could those who don't have those limitations of mind choose to limit themselves before it's too late? Even if they could, limit oneself to what, living with lies and delusions? Who chooses that?

Being philosopher is hardly a matter of choice, I think.

Can a philosopher see the positive uses he can put his capacities to? He knows fixes to a lot of problems the ordinary people grapple with with great difficulty in their day-to-day lives. Can't he spend his life making the world a better place for all? Can't that be his enduring goal, the narrative?

A philosopher can counter-balance tons of ignorance plaguing the world. I think to see only the depressing aspect of being a philosopher is not a very good view.


Selective ignorance can be a working solution. I think most happy philosophers must have adopted this way.

While I espouse selective ignorance, it's not the same as real ignorance. It's kind of a U-turn. Not knowing while having the capacity to know doesn't seem like a choice, but one can always choose to ignore some knowledge, until one is compelled by circumstances to do otherwise, that is.


Prashanth K said...

"But what it does not offer is immersion in a narrative. And that is something worth reflecting on."
Absolutely. If one is interested in a deep-dive into the vagaries of life, sure that is the only aspect. After all we live, and we have to experience living, right? For a 'realist', that is the only path to be in.
.. And, I continue to search for different paths. I would also like to see life in context of the sheer immensity that is outside of it. Will detaching from the "immersion" offer a possibility of realizing anything beyond the "immediate" life? Different people will answer it in different ways, but the truth is still out there.

Sanjay Srivastava said...

Excellent article!

BTW I do not think that everything is lost for non believers. There are values such as Love -not the undifferentiated saintly love toward humanity, but love towards ones partner, kids, friends etc. - that is deeply rooted in our biology yet is transcendent enough to provide meaning to life.