Tag Archives: Descartes

On meeting anger

Being out of the country in May, I missed the depressing news about yet another senseless shooting, this time in Hyvinkää; a teenage boy opening fire on a crowd of people, in what appeared to be a random act, leaving two dead and seven injured.

I learned about it from two other aliens I was chatting with after the Finnish Language Café at Pasila Library. Wondering why these incidents are sadly becoming all too frequent in Finland, one of them speculated that it has something to do with the Finnish male’s inability to talk about his feelings. Unable to express feelings of anger or hatred,  it comes out in senseless acts of violence.

I’m not sure I quite buy that. First of all, I question whether there’s anything specially problematic about Finns. After all, you can go into any English provinicial town centre on a Saturday night and experience testosterone-fuelled explosions of anger. It just so happens that gun ownership is considerably lower in the UK than in Finland.

There is a long history to what might be called a hydraulic theory of the emotions: that somehow keeping them bottled up means that they must explode at a later date, or as Freud suggested, find expression in our neuroses.

The English poet William Blake, seems to be thinking along these lines in The Poison Tree:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul proposed a theory as to why, as he saw it, people who anger “makes flush” and even cry, are less dangerous than those “it makes turn pale”.Descartes' physiognomy of anger

In the first group, those who are only able to avenge themselves by looks and words employ all their strength and fervour as soon as they are moved.

On the other hand, others who plan to delay their vengeance are saddened by thinking of themselves as “bound to do so by the action that angers them” as well as being afraid of the consequences that their vengeance will have. This makes them “pale, cold and trembling.” Then when they have their revenge, “they warm up all the more for having been cooler at first, just as we see that fevers that begin with chills are usually the most severe.”

However, I feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that we simply have to act out our anger, or even necessarily talk about it. Often it seems that  rehearsing the case for the prosecution – telling ourselves or a friend just how much we’ve been wronged –  just seems to feed the anger. And if we go the whole hog and let loose the full force of our rage against the wrongdoer, this often leads to unpleasant and unpredictable consequences, including quite often, further personal humiliation.
As so often, perhaps there is a middle way between the seeming polarities of pent or vent. One alternative might be to learn to understand that the anger is part of ourselves and not something in the person or people we feel angry with.  The next step is to familiarise ourselves with it in order to learn how to manage it.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a walking meditation using six sentences:

Breathing in, I know that anger is here.
Breathing out, I know that the anger is me.
Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant.
Breathing out, I know this feeling will pass.
Breathing in, I am calm.
Breathing out, I am strong enough to take care of this anger.

What I like about this exercise is that it is rounded off by a statement that embodies our ability and intention to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. In relation to the confused and angry adolescent, it’s like the development from teenage frustration to quiet, confident adulthood, the child being father to the man.

The vital ingredient for maturity in anger is self-knowledge. As Descartes puts it, wisdom “teaches us to render ourselves such masters of [the passions], and to manage them with such ingenuity, that the evils they cause can be easily borne, and we even derive Joy from them all.”

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Medicina Mentis

A visit from the Groke (original  name Mårran in Swedish or in Finnish,  Mörkö) over the past couple of days has driven me in search of some medicine for the mind. With little give and take on terminology,  I’m warming to Monsieur Descartes‘ latest book, The Passions of the Soul, published in 1649. Much of it comes out of the correspondence he had with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, herself a sufferer from melancholia who hoped to find a remedy for her disease in the study of philosophy.

He seems to capture something essential about the physical, embodied nature of emotions, the phenomenological nature of their arriving in the soul/self from or via the body, rather than originating in thought.

If I understand him correctly, this would be in opposition to the modern cognitive approach to understanding emotions and their more persistent cousins moods. But I somehow doubt that this reading is correct, and so I’ll continue to wrestle – and I’ll let you know who wins.

Meanwhile, to be getting on with, here is Descartes’ definition of sadness (article 92):

Sadness is an unpleasant languor, wherein consists the distress which the soul receives from the evil or defect which the impressions of the brain represent to it as belonging to it. And there is also an intellectual Sadness, which is not the passion but which hardly ever fails to be accompanied by it.

Moomintroll encounters the Groke


René Descartes — an apology

Recent posts on this blog may have given the unwary reader the impression that Monsieur Descartes was an outdated Platonist with pagan ideas of a  free-floating soul taking up a short-term tenancy in the body during its current incarnation. We may have seemed to imply that Descartes’ dualism means that mind and body are distinct to the extent that their co-occurrence in a single person was little more than a happy coincidence and that as disembodied minds, we are free to desert our bodies at will.

A more careful reading of the Sixth Meditation has now been brought to our attention the following passage:

Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and , as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were no so, I , who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken (AT VII 81).

Clearly, this embodied Descartes not merely accepts but asserts the orthodox view (endorsed by the sainted Aquinas) that the body is more than just a vehicle for the soul – this latter view erroneously held by Plato. We can only apologise and lay the blame squarely at the feet of the notorious Cartesian Duellists (sic), a shady terror network that has as its sole aim sowing the seeds of discord and disharmony in a despicable attempt to divide minds from bodies everywhere.

And if further proof were needed that Descartes is not a dualist (in this sense), here is a diagram drawn by Descartes himself, illustrating the connection between perception and action.

Descartes' diagram

Descartes' very non-Cartesian image of the union of mind and body


Language but no words

A short visit to Helsinki leaves me with more questions than answers. Does sisu still exist in Finland and if so, where could I buy some? Why did Descartes vacillate between there being a multitude of extended substances and just one? What do ice-breaker crews do in the summer? But no question is more strange than the one that is the subject of today’s post and it concerns non-ambulant spiritual beings and child labour.

On Friday night we went to see/hear the Finnish National Opera’s production of Gounod’s Faustpacts with the devil, lust, witches sabbats, deception, eternal damnation…you know the kind of thing.  Some point in the third act, during Magueritte’s nightmare something happened that for any but an educated Finnish audience would have seemed bizarre and surreal.

Two child actors walk across the stage, slowly from right to left, one in front of the other. They carry between them a kind of stretcher or rather a primitive sedan chair on which is seated the unmistakable form of an angel. Identifiable as a member of the celestial classes by her feathered wings, the angel is also blindfolded.

The respectful hush was broken as a knowing whisper went around the auditorium. What I and most the audience recognised in this seemingly incongruous sequence was an allusion to a painting by the Finnish artist, Hugo Simberg. This strange and melancholy painting has the title of the Wounded Angel (Haavoittunut enkeli in Finnish). Simberg  painted it in 1903 after recovering from meningitis for which he was treated in the Helsingin Diakonissalaitos hospital. Today it hangs in the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki and Simberg also created another version as a mural for Tampere Catheadral. No doubt many PhD students have spent there days contriving detailed theories to explain the symbolism. Why is the angel wounded? What do her bare feet signify? Why does the boy on the right look so sullen? Grove’s Art Online suggests that the work refers to the expulsion from paradise. In fact the landscape depicted is that of Eläintarha park in Helsinki.

So far as I can discover, Simberg was laudably silent about the symbolism of the painting, preferring the audience to draw their own conclusions . Verbosity is an ailment that is rare among the Finns.

There’s a way to understand a painting that’s rather gone out of fashion in these days of audioguides and accompanying texts taking up more wall space than the paintings themselves.  That is, to look at it. And then look at it some more.

Now what was the question again?


Soul searching

I am having trouble getting finished my essay on Plato’s tripartite soul — the idea that the soul is a trio of reason, spirit and appetite. Is it because my reasoning part is being overpowered by my appetitive part that would much rather drink wine, snack, blog, surf the web or (evil of evils) go on facebook? I also find that it’s much more appetising to read a paper by that witty, American philosopher, David Lewis than another detailed interpretation of The Republic, debating what a particular pronoun in some particular sentence refers to.

In fact this wouldn’t faze Plato who according to A.W. Price would allow that  non-physiological appetites could arise from that very part of the soul characterised as encompassing our  paradigmatic bodily desires like thirst, hunger and sexual desire. But there’s a vital difference between this kind of casual flirting with philosophy and the  more serious commitment that is the prerogative of reason. Price comments:

A love of philosophy will count as an appetite if it is pursued just for fun, and not (which is harder work) out of a passion for truth. This seems a complication to be welcomed. (Mental Conflict,p. 63, italics mine)

So now the third part of my soul, spirit, chimes in, rebuking myself for my indolence, “What do you think you are doing, playing around, committing your ill-formed ideas to a blog when you should be pouring over the Phaedrus, preferably in the original Greek?.” But being the seat of not only shame but indignation, spirit confusingly does an about face and leaps to my defence, “How could Truth be hiding in dry textual commentaries, splitting hairs over correct interpretations? Sod this, I’m off to read Julian Baggini on Dan Dennett. But not before I pour myself another glass of  Kendermanns Organic 2007. Wait a minute. Who let appetite in here?”

And so it goes on and it’s no wonder that I get so little done when everything has to be agreed upon by a committee of three and at least one, if not two of them are liable to sub-divide yet further.

I bet Descartes never had this problem. For René the mind was a unity, “utterly indivisible”, “single and complete”. In the Sixth Meditation he tells us that

the faculties of willing, of understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these cannot be termed parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, and understands and has sensory perceptions.

Bodies on the other hand can easily be divided into parts. You can even lop bits of them off. So, Descartes reasons, the mind is completely different from the body.

But wait a minute, now we’ve got another, albeit different division,  a spirit which can be willing only to be frustrated because the flesh is weak. Whatever way you look at it, unity of purpose is really rather elusive. A bit like knowledge really.


Walk away René

Encouraged by the number of visitors searching for “Rene Descartes” I plan to write something philosophical in my next post (suggestions and questions welcome). But I really have to get some essays out of the way first so, to whet you’re appetite, and so you don’t feel that your journey here was entirely wasted, here’s my favourite Cartesian joke.

René goes to get his haircut. The barber says, “The usual sir?”

“I think not,” replies Descartes, and disappears.


Finnish words that don’t translate 2: löyly

Having the pleasure of showing a friend from North Wales the joys of Helsinki, I knew that I had to take him to a sauna. I also wanted to try out the wood sauna on the second floor at Yrjönkatu Swimming Baths which I had heard was a particularly pleasant place to hang out.  We were not disappointed. The place itself is a a delight, well cared for with a lovely twenties classicism interior. The impressive stove (or kiuas) in the sauna gave off a subtle aroma

René Descartes would almost certainly have reappraised his philosophy had he experienced löyly.

of wood-smoke and also, when someone threw water through a letter-box slot near the top, good löyly .

OK, so what does löyly mean? Well some people say that it’s just the word for the steam that comes off the stones. But my Finnish Language teacher explained that löyly is something that happens not in the physical world at all but in your head. There is a moment a few seconds after the steam rises (so long as it doesn’t drive you to dive for a lower shelf or out of the door) when you experience a sublime sensation of heat so overpowering that every worry or thought in your mind is banished by it. For me, it is a hit that surpasses anything else – a moment of shock and overpowering of the senses that, so long as you surrender to it, turns to state of complete relaxation, calm and contentment.

So perhaps löyly is a phenomena that confounds the both the dualist and the physicalist. It is something which is neither mental nor physical but both — a transitory place,  an event where the distinction between mind and body dissolves.