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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Taking a pass on wisdom?

Bernini's Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni,
(cc) Kars Alfrink (Kaeru),
Many wise philosophers have counseled us on how best to live, how to achieve 'the good life'. But can it be that their advice is too perfect? Can it be that we don't want a perfect life?

There is a stream of wisdom which can be found in both East and West, but which is perhaps more well known in the East today. I'll call this the 'detachment' approach. As both Stoics and Buddhists will tell us, attachment is the source of our suffering. The central strategy for having a life of contentment and happiness is in making certain that we base our contentment only on that which we can control. And, ultimately, we control very little, save for our inner dispositions, values, and choices. By actively disconnecting externals (those things outside our control) from our core source of happiness - by practicing non-attachment - we ensure that no one has power over our happiness but ourselves. As for our decisions, when we mindfully make the best ones we can, motivated by virtue and compassion, then we are certain that no matter how things turn out, we can rest easy in the knowledge we did the best we could.

While I know of no one who can maintain this practice with perfection at all times, myself included, even the slightest dose of this wisdom has proven to me that it is genuinely powerful at giving a person a steady and continuous joy, happiness, contentment, and inner peace - all within their control and independent of the tumultuous ups and downs of their circumstances. Practices to make this approach easier and more automatic to our nature over time only increase the effect, giving the practitioner a near immunity to despair and what I call True Suffering (deeper than mere pain; a corollary to True Happiness, which is deeper than mere pleasure).


Although I have extolled the value of these important practices and philosophies, in some matters of friendship and love, it is conceivable that some people may decide they do not wish to have complete control over their happiness. They may find it more satisfactory to hand over some degree of control over their happiness to another. This is risky to be sure, since the other may fail us. But in doing so, the person taking the risk ventures into the realm of delight (a more enrapturing form of pleasure than the Stoically approved Joy). Here, the person allows themselves to be attached to an external (the other person). But while they may experience greater elation of experience, they also open themselves up to greater levels of despair should they lose that person, or be let down or even betrayed by them.

In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Hero Worship", a young boy named Timothy loses his parents in an accident. He befriends the emotionless android, Data, and begins to behave like him. The two meet and have ice cream. Data can describe the textures and even name the ingredients detected in the ice cream, but he does not experience the feeling of pleasure from tasting it. The boy, who had been very bottled up about his feelings, later tells Data he wishes he could be like him and not feel anything. Data responded that he would gladly risk feeling bad at times if it meant he could taste his desert. In classic Star Trek form, the writers were using the science fiction elements of the story as a metaphor to make a deeper statement about what it means to be human.

Before we go flying off into unbridled romanticism; two words of caution:

First, we should note that it is a misconception about Stoicism and sometimes detachment in Buddhism, that we are called on to be emotionless like Mr. Spock or Commander Data. Neither philosophy advises bottling up emotions as Timothy had done. Further, both philosophies allow for a deep joy in living, made possible by our non-attachment and attention to living rightly.

Secondly, I do not mean to imply that loving someone, and being in a fulfilling relationship with that person, requires us to hand over that control. The Buddhists have very specific descriptions of a kind of loving kindness and compassion that is beyond mere selfish attachments, and Stoics describe a sense of brotherhood by which we identify the needs of others with ourselves.

Having said that, it may be the case that - for some - veering off from the path toward eudaimonia (the flourishing life) just slightly, may give a certain excitement, despite its risks and the inevitability of experiencing not only the ups, but the downs. Indeed, even the devout Stoic, simply through the fact of their human imperfection in the practice, will experience some of this. But the question is, can the wise philosopher give permission to the practitioner for a judicious bit of this folly at times?

Philosophy is truly a medicine for the soul. Philosophical wisdom is designed to enlighten us, guide us, and help make us happier beings. As such, different philosophical prescriptions may be needed for different people, based on their particular natures and ailments.

If this is true, then we might note the differences in individuals. Some people are naturally stoic in nature, and/or have relatively stable lives and people around them. Others may be more emotionally volatile, and/or be in more volatile situations meaning attachment has greater costs. In these cases, non-attachment philosophies may be especially crucial to their well-being. For the latter individual, taking a break from wisdom may lead to a great deal of suffering while the former individual may be able to handle a loser adherence to the practices at times without undue suffering on average (though there is always risk in this). Of course, the opposite may also apply. The naturally stoic person may find it difficult to get in touch with their feelings and really know themselves, and perhaps a more romantic approach to life might be their proper prescription.

While I could never advocate such a thing, especially in light of our excessively attachment-based culture - the key here, is that philosophy is not like religious faith. It's not about finding the "One Truth". Rather, there are multiple streams of thought regarding 'good life practices' and many of them are applicable under different circumstances for different people at different times, even if they may seem contradictory. One can safely say that behaving unethical or out of vice is always a prescription for harm, but when it comes to how much contentment we are willing to give up in exchange for well-motivated unpredictability, there may be some argument to be had that complete perfection of practice may not necessarily be advisable in every case.

Thanks to Michel for inspiring this article.

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