Sunday, 8 April 2018

Poverty of Existence: Suffering, Asceticism and Irrationality

There's so much I find intriguing and consonant with in E. M. Cioran, (8 April 1911 – 20 June 1995) a Romanian philosopher, who struggles for years with insomnia and spends long nights walking around his quiet city thinking about his despair.

His lyrical essays revolve around themes of suffering, failures, decay and nihilism.

Even as a young man, he thought of suicide.
What prevented him was this lucid insight that “Only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists. The others, having no reason to live, why would they have any to die?”

“The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live --moreover, the only one.”

And writing was his way to tame his ferocious despair.
“A book is a suicide postponed,” he says.

He sees futility everywhere and so distances himself from society and keeps only a few friends.
“I don’t understand why we must do things in this world, why we must have friends and aspirations, hopes and dreams. Wouldn’t it be better to retreat to a faraway corner of the world, where all its noise and complications would be heard no more?"

He continues, "Then we could renounce culture and ambitions; we would lose everything and gain nothing; for what is there to be gained from this world?”
“As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man."

His response to meaninglessness is to clearly accept that all of life is pointless.

"What should I do?
Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable?
Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and esthetic ideals?
It’s all too little.

I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone.
But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything?” (On the Heights of Despair)

What is the source of man's despair?
Man is cursed with his ability to think deep.

"True thinking resembles a demon who muddies the spring of life or a sickness which corrupts its roots. To think all the time, to raise questions, to doubt your own destiny, to feel the weariness of living, to be worn out to the point of exhaustion by thoughts and life,.. all this means you are so unhappy that reflection and thinking appear as a curse causing a violent revulsion in you.”

Cioran believes thinking lucidly is incompatible with life.
He says, "That kind of thinking, that understanding that pushes too far, is is only bearable because one does not go to the end (of thinking); doing something is only possible when one has particular illusions...for everything."

To be happy, don't think!
Just vegetate with illusions.
Eat, drink, be merry.
Contra Socrates, the unexamined life is a happy life.

“Only those are happy who never think or, rather, who only think about life's bare necessities, and to think about such things means not to think at all," observes Cioran.

In an interview, he insightfully remarks in conclusion and with total resignation,

"I am ... fed up with cursing at the world, at God;
the whole thing is simply not worth it."

His best-known works are "On the Heights of Despair" (1934) and "The Trouble with Being Born" (1973).

His first French book, "A Short History of Decay", was awarded the prestigious Rivarol Prize in 1950.

Wakefulness and Obsession An Interview

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Religious Opium

Smoking Religious Opium on a Hazy Sunday

Much has been written about the dangers of illicit drugs. Indeed they can be addictive and destructive. 

However, few have spoken about another drug that has subtly taken root in our society. Many have been unknowingly numbed by it.

It's time to awake from our slumber induced by religious opium.

It's religious opium when religions have been divorced from realities and have become irrelevant, when we are asked to ignore oppressions, when religions tolerate injustices and stifle natural instincts. 

A counterfeit, false gospel offers care for souls, a place in paradise, and neglects present struggles in this life.

Soothing words, tumbling from lips of well-fed, pale looking preachers, is the opiate that Marx wrote about.

Karl Marx in 1843 wrote his famous indictment, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". 

He wasn't alone.

Before Marx, Novalis wrote: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium  of the people".  

Even Charles Kingsley, a professor and canon of the Church of England, observed, 

"We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable's hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order."

A fuller exposition of Marx's analogy was written by Lenin in 1905:

"Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man."

I should say I'm not interested in advocating Communism. 

What I'm interested in is to bring religion back to earth, back to our bodies. Only when we do this, The Holy Other will return.

Let those who have ears, listen well.


Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Hermeneutics, Life, Conflicts and Change

There are many possible interpretations for a text or a discourse. Much like improvisations of a song, there's no only one correct performance of a song. Is the original more true than the improvisations? Isn't the so-called original song just another interpretation?

--- Ontology of Interpretations

Existence is Interpretation, which is formed by the following elements.

1. Human finitude: we are 'things' in nature like stones, wood and iron. Also, we are situated in a time and place, where we are now in our environment colors as well as limit our perceptions. Egs: Hindu caste > Hindu , Malay > Muslim, Thailand > Buddhist

Also, inertia > stability of beliefs and culture. General Stability is desired for human existence.

2. Boundless imagination or creative spirit: meaning and significance arise from a mind. Occasionally stability gets disrupted by an unusual event. Unusual or abnormal events arise from humanity's boundless creativity. Creativity reacts to accepted patterns of life and its understandings. Hence we witness conflicts.

Conflicts are inevitable when the old regime, to preserve its past and maintain present orthodoxy, confronts rebellions. Conflicts are discordant, unsettling and threatening, yet necessary for giving birth to new vitality.

For change, we need strained tension. Otherwise, inert nature will refuse to move.

3. Existence precedes essence: no pre-existing meaning for any event until we give it significance. A stone exists before it becomes precious. Raw iron exists before it is shaped into instruments.

We are born a biological matter before we consciously become a person, who belongs to a race within a society and culture. Our society and culture are shaped by the forces of history and extant politics.

--- Implications for historical understanding, theology, life's meaning

Our interpretive existence shapes historical understanding, religions and our sense of life's meaning.

1. History is nothing but selective perceptions of past events. We explain our past according to how we 'see' it. Employing current understanding and presently dominant values, we shape the past into an understandable tradition.

2. Theology is a historically situated discourse by religious persons. It is also embedded in a web of power relations. Power installs the 'right' theologians in the universities, seminaries and pastorates. Today we witness a conflict of liberal and conservative theologies as a sign of a shift in power. Theology, like all interpretations, is a communal understanding. Communities are formed by powerful forces inherent in its life.

Prior to the Reformation in the age of kings, salvation was dependent on the pronouncements of the Pope and the church's various rites. With reformation and its accompanying rise of democratic politics, individuals gained more independence and freedom from church's powers. Reformers don't need to submit to a centralized church authority for approval of their revolutionary theologies. Independent churches sprouted across the land, each teaching their own version of salvation. This revolution continues to grow more diverse even till our present days.

The power wielded by today's religion is expressed in its numerical growth and a symbiotic alignment with a dominant political party.

3. A search for only one ultimate meaning of life is psychologically futile. A religious person finds meaning in piety. Another secular person finds meaning in compassionate living. If we adopt a psychological description of life-fulfillment, then there are various possible versions. However, if we are seeking a universal statement that's outside variable human perspectives, we will not find this nonhuman perspective.

As Asma observes in his experience as a Jazz musician: "Improvising, in music, is the act of composing and performing simultaneously, and it is difficult to master. But it is also universal, and despite the powerful human impulse to plan and program, integral to nearly every aspect of our lives. No matter who you are — a welder, philosopher, a guitarist or a president — you are in some sense simultaneously making the map of your life and following it. It is not an exaggeration to say life itself is one long improvisation."

--- Relativism and conflicts of interpretation

Does hermeneutics lead to relativism? Yes and No.
Yes. Interpretative existence invariably leads to different ways of understanding. Each is 'true' to its adherents.
No. Some interpretations are more compatible with extant values and traditions. Some more conducive to human flourishing. Others get marginalized and rejected.

Can we escape relativistic interpretations? As Kant says we can never know the noumena, we only know the phenomena, which is already infinitely difficult things to get at.

Should we despair we can't attain pure Objectivity? Why not, instead, rejoice in diversity?

Improvise and live.

Inspired by

Contradictory Lives


We live a life of contradictions.

“All men of the modern world exist in a state of continual and flagrant antagonism between their conscience and their way of life.

This antagonism is apparent in economic as well as political life.

But most striking of all is the contradiction between the Christian law of the brotherhood of men existing in the conscience and the necessity under which all men are placed by compulsory military service of being prepared for hatred and murder – of being at the same time a Christian and a gladiator.”

Tolstoy highlighted three contradictions.

1. Social and Economic Inequalities Perpetuated by Greed

All men are brothers under God. Yet we oppress them through unfair economic practices.

“We are all brothers – and yet every morning a brother or a sister must empty the bedroom slops for me.

We are all brothers, but every morning I must have a cigar, a sweetmeat, an ice, which my brothers and sisters have been wasting their health in manufacturing...

We are all brothers, yet I live by working in a bank, or mercantile house, or shop at making all goods dearer for my brothers.

We are all brothers, but I live on a salary paid me for prosecuting... the thief or the prostitute whose existence the whole tenor of my life tends to bring about,..

We are all brothers, but I will not give the poor the benefit of my educational, medical, or literary labors except for money.

The whole life of the upper classes is a constant inconsistency.

The more delicate a man’s conscience is, the more painful this contradiction is to him."

2. Unjust laws Enforced by Powers

There’s no one universal law for all nations, which means laws are artificial.

“We know and cannot help knowing that the law of our country is not the one eternal law; that it is only one of the many laws of different countries, which are equally imperfect, often obviously wrong and unjust,..”

And we obey these man-made laws out of fear of punishment.

“A man must suffer when his whole life is defined beforehand for him by laws, which he must obey under threat of punishment, though he does not believe in their wisdom or justice, and often clearly perceives their injustice, cruelty, and artificiality.”

3. War and Compassion

We teach our young to be kind and loving. Yet we expect them to kill another human for their country.

“I am surprised at the way religion is carried on in this country,” said Sir Wilfrid Lawson at the same congress. “You send a boy to Sunday school, and you tell him, ‘Dear boy, you must love your enemies. If another boy strikes you, you mustn’t hit him back,..’ Well. The boy stays in the Sunday school until he is fourteen or fifteen, and then his friends send him into the army. What has he to do in the army? He certainly won’t love his enemy; quite the contrary, if he can only get at him, he will run him through with his bayonet. I do not think that that is a very good way of carrying out the precepts of religion. I think if it is a good thing for a boy to love his enemy, it is good for a grown-up man.”

“G. D. Bartlett said among other things, “If I understand the Scriptures, I say that men are only playing with Christianity so long as they ignore the question of war.

What! All of us, Christians, not only profess to love one another, but do actually live one common life; we whose social existence beats with one common pulse – we aid one another, learn from one another, draw ever closer to one another to our mutual happiness, and find in this closeness the whole meaning of life!

And tomorrow some crazy ruler will say something stupid, and another will answer in the same spirit, and then I must go expose myself to being murdered, and murder men – who have done me no harm...

And this is not a remote contingency, but the very thing we are all preparing for, which is not only probable, but also an inevitable certainty.”

The Joy of Walking: A Philosophy

It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.
— Nietzsche

“The joy of walking transcends setting; it engages the mind as well as the spirit.” -- Lauren Elkin.

In an interesting book, Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros explores the connection between philosophy and walking.

“Think while walking,” Gros writes “walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.”

Here are my thoughts on walking.

- History of Walking and Philosophers
Socrates walked about the Athenian marketplace, questioning people as they go about their business.

Aristotle taught as he walked along the corridors of the Lyceum. His followers were known as the Peripatetic school. (The literal meaning of Greek word περιπατητικός peripatêtikos, is "of walking" or "given to walking about".)

Thoreau spent much time walking and extolled the value of walking in his essay “On Walking”. He writes, “I found my account in climbing a tree once. It was a tall white pine, on the top of a hill;.. I was well paid for it, for I discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before—so much more of the earth and the heavens. I might have walked about the foot of the tree for threescore years and ten, and yet I certainly should never have seen them.”

Even social revolutions start with walks. The non-violent marches of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are good examples.
“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back,” King promised in his speech, ‘I Have A Dream’.

Often, religious pilgrimages involve walking up steep, unending mountainous paths or long street processions as acts of faithfulness.

Poets, such as Wordsworth and Frost, had also found inspiration during their walks in nature.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” – William Wordsworth

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference” – Robert Frost

- The Meaning of Walking
Walking is an active, embodied action. We walk as one united Being, inseparable in body and mind.

During walks, the body interacts with the environment and the mind. We are stimulated, receive random thoughts and feel various sensations all at once.

Walking is always a walking away from something and moving towards a horizon. Walking away is an escape, but also an act of defiance. Walking brings us from inauthentic life to authenticity.

Walking, hence, is “searching-for” an alternative life, an aspiring act of faith in future possibilities. Walking is making connections with a new life. Heed Thoreau’s advice, “If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life.”

Walking is an act of freedom. You can walk wherever as you want to. There’s a sense of randomness and surprises in walking.

Trekking, hiking, exploring new places are various forms of walking that can de-stress, stimulate creativity and add new meaning to our lives.

Unplanned surprises that meet us during such activities force us out of our comfort zone.Challenge us with new ways of living.

As Thoreau says, ““Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.”

Walking also is good exercise and keeps us actively engaged in life.


Importance of Slow Reading

Have we fallen out of love with bookshops?

“Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.” -- Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies.

"...we will get the books and bookshops we deserve."-- Nathan Hollier.

Haven't visited any local bookshops for a very long time. In the past I frequented bookshops such as Scripture Union, Times, MPH, Kinokuniya and Borders. But I stopped.

For two reasons: price and quality. Books became too expensive and fewer interesting titles (as for me).

Many non-readers also lack time and interest.

Nathan Hollier, author of the article cited below, correctly observes, "What remains most important, when thinking about the health of the book industry here, is that no matter how cheap we make these products, there won’t be effective demand for them unless people have the time and desire to read."

Also, today's culture of efficiency encourages speed and no waste. Reading, in contrast, is a slow and wasteful process.

Books can only be read one page at a time. And when we read thoughtfully, we meander in and out of the page. One word, or a phrase, leads to a thought which leads to another and so on. Very soon we find ourselves thinking about something quite beyond the text.

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you," explains Mortimer J. Adler.

A dreamy reader drifting reflectively is not necessary bad. The page of a book becomes a springboard to unsuspected horizons of meanings.

As Dr. Seuss in 'I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!' says, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”

My reflections here is an example. I like to add myself into the text I read.

"“Isn't it odd how much fatter a book gets when you've read it several times?" ..."As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells...and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower...both strange and familiar.” -- Cornelia Funke, Inkspell.

So. How to nurture a desire for slow reading?

Nathan Hollier believes, "This desire, ... rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society."

A mindless society, an insipid culture, that doesn't read is dying. It's stuck in a once tried mode of existence. But is now as obsolete as a faded rose.

As they say, “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Before I end, a word from experience. Read to be challenged. This will keep up your interest in reading slowly.

In Kafka's words, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? .... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Build a personal, multifaceted library that suits your curiosities.

Read every day.

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” -- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

Recommended reads.
- Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind.
- Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit. (In response to current education, she argues that we must resist efforts to reduce education to a tool of the gross national product order to give students the capacity to be true democratic citizens of their countries and the world.)