Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

A fascinating reflection on skepticism, both as the Hellenistic theory of life and thought and as a way of living today.

Philosophy for change

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce…

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Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

Continue reading “Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk”

Being single, day one

I haven’t been single since my sophomore year of high school. I’m currently a junior in college.

Eight months, three years, five months, five months; each one a separate relationship.

So when my (now ex) boyfriend called last night and said, “I just can’t do this anymore,” I breathed a sigh of relief, smiled and agreed with him. I had been thinking the same thing.

We started out strong and had a fun summer together, but my return to school really changed things. I noticed how different he and I are and how we don’t have much in common. We tried to build something substantial around a simple, mutual attraction. It didn’t work.

I could tell our relationship had been failing, but I decided to cling onto the hope that things would return to how they were in the beginning. It was effortless then. I was absolutely crazy about him and knew he felt the same way about me. But it slowly deflated. And instead of owning up to this and breaking it off myself, I waited for him to do it.

Why? Because I’m scared of being alone. 

There. I said it.

I’m scared.

“You’re 19, Em,” my mom says, “you’re fine.

I know I am. So why do I feel this intense pressure to meet someone, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after?

One word: Disney. And all the other happy-go-lucky movies I watched as a child.

It’s their fault I grew up and babbled about my eventual wedding and practically have the whole damn thing already planned.

A text from my brother.
A text from my brother.

I need to change some things.

I don’t just want to be alone, I want to be okay with being alone.

I don’t want to see my ex with his girlfriend and feel sorry for myself. I want to continue the laughter I had a few weeks ago when he returned to the dining hall with his and her dishes to put in the dish rack. He thinks he’s being a gentleman, but he’s really just stripping her of her independence. (She can do it herself, ya dummy!)

I don’t want to walk around campus looking for my next beau. I want to focus on me and my work. And if something should happen along the way, cool. It shouldn’t be It’s not a priority.

I don’t want to panic anymore. I want to feel secure in my own skin. I owe that much to myself after being a shapeshifter in these relationships over the past five years.

Jane Eyre said, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” 

No net currently ensnares me. Watch me fly away.

 

 

Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

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What’s a Stoic to do? Emotions and Reason

We all have those moments when we say or do something foolish because our emotions “made us.” You decide to wait for the last minute to finish your work because you’d rather watch Breaking Bad, resulting in a last-minute panic. Or you lean in to kiss a friend because it “felt right,” only to be pushed away.frowny-face

If anything, emotions make life interesting.

But for the most part, we like to think that we’re rational decision makers. To make choices, we consider our options and chose the one that makes the most sense. We’re not willy-nilly about such things. And those foolish, emotion-based decisions are a rarity, not the norm. As Samuel Johnson once said, “We may take Fancy for our companion, but must follow reason as our guide.”

Moreover, Most of our public discourse assumes that we are rational. Our economy’s dominant theory is “rational market theory” and the framers designed our political system according to Enlightenment ideals of rational government. 

Philosophy, in particular has tended to focus on logic and reason. The Stoics are one famous example, but Socrates also prided logic over emotion, even to the point of death. Some exceptions exist, like Nietzsche and Rousseau, but they are precisely that: exceptions. 

Indeed, most of us like to think that we control our destiny with rational choice–whether its in buying a car or choosing a profession–but research shows we may not be as rational as we think.

Continue reading “What’s a Stoic to do? Emotions and Reason”