Tag Archives: philosophy

Wrestling with Bento

In an essay by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, I find this passage, quoted from Ghandi:

What I want to achieve–what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years–is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha (Liberation). I live and move and have my being in pursuit of that goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.

I am certainly no Ghandi. Far too little of my living, moving and being is in the pursuit of anything much more than maintenance and distraction. But I often sense something of that deep longing for a kind of union with that which is eternal and infinite, a bonding that paradoxically promises true freedom. If, like Spinoza, we conceive Natura Naturans as that very substance, on which we depend and in which we participate, then as Næss proposes, we see that Self-realization comes when we identify with the whole of nature as a “wide and deep ecological self”. And just as nature itself is limitless, this identification is necessarily without limit, and by virtue of this we come to realise that genuine or intellectual self-love is nothing less than God’s love for Himself.

As I struggle with forming a clear and distinct idea of Spinoza’s God, I sometimes feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:24-32). The battle with the mysterious adversary continues through the hours of darkness and there is no victor–only the breaking of the day. In the undimming of the light, I am exposed: I can only, weakly, profess my individuality, my identity, only to be told that it is not my true name at all. And when I try to balance the books, demanding, like St Augustine (self-)definition from the Other, He only interrogates my question, “Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?”

The questioning of the question is itself puzzling. But maybe the reward, the blessing, the revelation which we are insufficiently attentive to hear, is that which we could receive every waking moment, but in fear we avert our eyes. Like R.S. Thomas’ bright field, we have to be prepared to give all that we have, indeed give up all that we hold true, to possess it. In that instant of letting go, we glimpse God’s face, and as with Jacob our life is preserved.

It sometimes seems to me that every attempt to pin down (another wrestling term) Spinoza’s God by equating it with a tidy, contemporary concept is a form of misrepresentation, as much a deception (or selfdeception) as Jacob’s fooling of Isaac: “I am Esau thy first-born.”

Maybe I should not demand a resolution for the vexed questions of the relationship of substance and mode; whether Spinoza’s God should be understood as the God of the Philosophers or at least derivative of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as the laws of physics or the Lawmaker; as the totality of things or the single essence expressed by the infinite attributes. Rather, could I just learn to live with the blessing of this ancient dance, an eternal striving with God?

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On meeting anger from the outside

??????????????????????????????Some years ago I went on a brilliant course with the not very catchy title of “Dealing with Difficult Behaviour in the Library.” At the time, I was working in a community library on one of South London’s least lovely estates, where we fought running battles with gangs of teenagers.

One of the things I learned on the course was some simple phrases that I’ve found useful in dealing with all sorts of difficult situations. One of these was for use with a person who was irate, even aggressive. What she warned us never to say (unless we wanted to get hit) was, “Calm down!” Instead she recommended the simple sentence, “I can see you’re very angry.”

Recently I wrote about Descartes’ view on anger, and the post was orientated towards how we can own, manage and transform the anger within ourselves. But lately, circumstances have made me consider how to meet the anger of other people, especially those close to us. Of course, if we encounter a violent or aggressive stranger, the sensible thing may be to avoid them. But so often it’s our closest friends, lovers, work colleagues whose anger vented against us leaves us hurt, confused or angry ourselves.

In  Marshall Rosenburg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication, anger, like other feelings, is understood as a message that expresses a need. On one level this seems a trivial claim: we get angry when service is slow in a restaurant, for example, because we’re hungry and need to eat.  But  there are other, higher needs, in particular the need to be respected, to be recognised and accepted.

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe,  in her manual on depression Breaking the Bonds, also holds that anger has a meaning, and that meaning is, “I am here, and I have the right to be here, and I will survive.” So this sense implies that the person experiencing anger feels that these three aspects of our existence are threatened or denied.

Aristotle  saw anger as a revenge-seeking reaction against disrespect or belittling:

Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by distress, for apparent retaliation because of an apparent slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one.

According to Aristotle, when one person belittles another, they actualise an opinion that the person is worthless. Belittling can come in three forms: contempt, spite and insult.

So how might this help us cope better with our angry friend, our angry child or our angry lover? If we are not going to add insult to injury, we could first show that we acknowledge what they are feeling. That’s why just saying “I can see that you are angry” can begin to alleviate a tense situation, while saying “calm down” just makes things worst. But if we are to go further, and help our angry friend to see past their overwhelming sense of being squished, we have be with them, feel with them as they themselves look within to ask “what does she really need right now?”

It’s undoubtedly a tall order. Some people are  so bound up in their own needs that they’re hard to cope with. Often their anger, even when not vented at us directly, elicits  our own, born of our very human instinct for self-defence which goes into gear in frightening situations. But maybe we can learn to take the other’s anger a little less personally, to open up just a crack to seeing it as a poorly articulated request for recognition, for support,  to be heard – to be loved even.

This doesn’t mean I have to be the angry person’s punchbag. We can also express how it feels for us to be shouted at or insulted. We can also draw boundaries, insisting that there are behaviours we will not tolerate.

But – and I’m still experimenting with this myself – it seems that when we try to give compassionate  attention to our friend and their anger, just as with our own, this light causes it to soften, and open communication returns.

Sometimes we have to listen to be heard.


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


A Dutchman enters the debate

Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1677) preferred reason to prejudice.

Mr. B. Spinoza of The Hague, Holland writes:

But if the greatest secret of monarchic rule, and its main interest, is to keep men deceived and to disguise in the false name of Religion the fear by which they must be held back, so that they will fight for slavery as much as they  would for freedom, and  think that it is not shameful, but a very honourable achievement, to give their life and blood so that one man may have a basis for boasting, nevertheless, in a free republic nothing more miserable can be imagined or attempted. For, it is completely against common freedom to fill the free judgement of each man with prejudices, or to enchain it in any way.

Not sure what he’s on about but, great quote anyway. Maybe the point Mr Spinoza is making is that if any one person or institution is held to be beyond criticism, and when rational argument is shouted down, then the outcome is tyranny.


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


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.