Know Thyself

I’ve posted about self-reflection before. It’s something I try to do often- with positive intent, rather than as an impulse to self-criticize. This time of year, especially, seems to bring it out. The longer nights somehow induce a whole pile of inward-turned thinking.

I tend to see the holiday season as a good opportunity to engage in some reflecting and a little bit of analysis as I check in- with friends and family, certainly- but also, and perhaps most importantly, with the person I see in the mirror every day.

This wasn’t my favourite year of all time. 2014 started with Dad in the hospital- and we lost him a few, very long, months later. I’m not sure I’ve really encompassed that loss, to be honest. It hits me at peculiar times- when I find myself picking up the phone to give him a call, for instance.

That keeps happening because there has been a fair amount of positive stuff going on, as well. And Dad was the first guy I’d call when something great was going on. I’m working at a job that, while it’s outside of my ‘regular’ wheelhouse in many ways, challenges me and makes me feel that I’m contributing something of value. Something bigger than me- and something that benefits a whole lot of people.

And my team is pretty freakin’ phenomenal- so the fact that I come to a place 5 days a week and get to hang out with people I like and respect… well, that’s a damn sight more than I was able to say this time last year.

I haven’t been nearly as prolific as I’d like to be, writing-wise, either here in the WordPressWorld or with the creative projects that I have on the go. This is partly due to serious computer issues- Abe (my heretofore trusty MacBook) has given up the ghost well-and-truly, and you couldn’t pay me enough to set foot anywhere near an Apple Store until the consumptive consumerism of the season has settled somewhat. The SO’s laptop is filling the void as best it can, but, really, I need my own tools in order to work most effectively. I’m a creature of habit- and I like the comfort of my settings and keyboard set-up.

More than the technical issues, though, the world-as-it-is continues to cause me enough existential stress that I am completely and constitutionally unable to figure out where to start. I ruminate and seek response/reply for some of the insanity I see out there, and I just cannot do it.

That a disproportionate deal of the insanity arises out of the implementation of unthinking, anti-intellectual applications of outdated and irrelevant religious ideology, is a truth that is as evident as it is hard to swallow.

The other day, this article, by John G. Messerly, showed up on one of the newsgroups I read fairly regularly. I perused it with interest, and with something like alacrity, a couple of days after Xmas. I admit that my thoughts tend in that direction all the time- but when there is in-your-face evidence of credulity at every single turn, questions of belief seem to surface even more frequently.

I don’t get it. Truly, I don’t. How seemingly-intelligent people can subscribe to blindness of belief in fairy tale figures- however wonderful the myths may be- and societal controls that are millennia-old.

I can suspend my disbelief for long enough- at this time of year, at least- to allow for some wonder and child-like innocence to show up. When I watch the original Miracle on 34th Street, or It’s a Wonderful Life or, even, Elf, I get the need to believe in the supernatural. The realities of life can be so stark and shocking in comparison that the potential presence in the world of Kris Kringle, or Clarence (or George Bailey and all the residents of Bedford Falls, for that matter), or Buddy the Elf (and his adopted Papa Elf- how do you not love Bob Newhart- and Lou Grant as Santa?) can take a bit of an edge off of the harshness of the realities of this world.

And the world can be a pretty harsh place.

Messerly notes:

” …a significant body of scientific evidence suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction. Religion may be a coping mechanism for the stress caused by the lack of a good social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States.

There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.”

The fideism about which he speaks- the idea that faith is independent of reason- isn’t an epistemological theory I can understand. In any way.

I’ve read a whole lot of William James- I’ve included him, and his theories about religious experience, in course syllabi, in fact- but I just can’t get the justification behind his ‘will to believe’. It involves such circular reasoning that even thinking about it for too long makes me nauseated with the motion sickness.

Pascal’s Wager is even more inexplicable. The inherent intellectual and rational cop-out– that it ‘costs’ nothing to believe that (a) god exists, so why not believe in that god, since it might be beneficial in the long-run (forgive the paraphrase and over-simplification for the purpose of succinctness)- makes me grind my teeth in frustration.

Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of (or, more correctly, to) faith’, an attempt at apologizing for the inherent paradoxes and contradictions in Xianity, flies in the face of everything I know about the need for rational examination and discourse among human beings.

(Okay, his concept of the personal, individual interaction with the god, and the need to translate the values espoused by religions into positive, exemplary actions– as opposed to theoretical imaginings, used in judgment but without acknowledgement of context, relativity or relevance- may have some dialectical merit, but isn’t, unfortunately, the go-to impulse of most institutionalized religions.)

The presuppositions required for such (and, really, all) apologetics don’t hold water. They can’t hold water, in my pragmatic (I do get the problem with using that word/philosophical ideology, associated as it is with the foundational theories of Mr. James, especially after taking him to task for the irrationality of his fideism. Just goes to show that he was a man of his time and context, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that he’d defend that ‘will to believe’ stuff so much, were he around today. He was, after all, a scientist.), humanistic understanding of the world.

I’ve always tried to approach my interactions with others with a ‘live-and-let-live’ sort of mindset. I’ve said before that I don’t understand militant atheist types who run down their ideological opponents with personal slurs and the very-public questioning of their mental capabilities. Even when I agree with them. Wholeheartedly.

My years spent teaching the historical, social and literary origins of many of the world’s religions led me, I thought, to a level of ‘tolerance’ for the views of others- a hope that because the basic impulse underlying the construction of all religious belief stems from a need to understand and order the world around us, that we might, as we continue to evolve, come to the awareness that we have other, less-polarizing and -polemical ways of answering these questions.

The realities of the world are causing me to challenge that particular propensity. As I witness what seems to be a rising tide of ideology-over-equity, of belief-over-justice, I’m starting to feel as if indulging any such unexamined and irrational beliefs (an indulgence that is, admittedly, a wee bit patronizing) makes me complicit in the epidemic of anti-intellectualism that is rampant the world over.

That’s one of the very personal not-so-fabulous realities I’m having difficulty comprehending, let alone, assimilating right now.

“Religion may help us in the way that whiskey helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk.”

One of the manymany generous gifts I received this holiday season was a bottle of the Irish whiskey pictured up there ^^^^. Since my travels in Scotland this autumn turned me into a Scotch drinker, my littlest sister thought it prudent to enlighten me about the wonders of the Irish Water of Life, in order to acknowledge our familial heritage and give the distilleries of the Emerald Isle their fair due. There might be a bit of an implied dig there as well- at my lack of productivity in the writing department of late, but I’m assuming best intentions all around.

In any case, the whiskey is quite lovely (my first experience of a blend) and the message on the bottle is even more poignant. It describes the ages-old remedy that Irish scribblers of all ilks have applied to break the back of that most insidious and terrifying of beasts- Writer’s Block.

I’m not prepared to hit the bottle that hard for the inspiration/clarity I seem to be lacking these days, but a dram or two of an evening certainly won’t go amiss as I try to figure out the avenues down (up?) which my thoughts and insights and reactions to the world seem to be traveling.

The ancient Greek aphorism know thyself – apparently originating with the sun god, himself – has been associated with any number of philosophers. Like other such pithy sayings/admonitions (there are Ten, specifically, I can call to mind quite readily), this best known of the maxims (there are over 100 of them) recorded on Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, is interpreted in a number of ways.

Some suggest that it is a commandment to leave the things of the gods in the hands of the gods- to avoid overreaching and seeking that which the human mind is incapable of understanding. To know one’s place, in the universal scheme of things, and not look to ascribe meaning to those things outside of human purview.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses this particular edict to explain why he has no time to think about mythology/the gods or the nature of other ‘irrelevant things’. Since he has not yet achieved the self-knowledge the Oracle demands, he thinks it ridiculous to investigate the obscure, when the obvious remains misunderstood.

My interpretation of this Platonic wisdom says that in order to even begin an approach to understanding the elusive, one must focus on first comprehending oneself and one’s immediate physical– and temporal- environment. Postulating the origins or nature of something entirely supernatural and hypothetical without any sort of demonstrable proof while ignoring/failing to understand the evidence that speaks to the natural order of things is folly– in the truest, oldest and most complete senses of the word.

(Folly: from the Old French for “madness”. Also: evil, wickedness, mental weakness, unwise conduct).

In my quest for equity and respect and ‘tolerance’ I have always maintained that belief in the next/other world- and the god(s) who rule(s) it- is fine. No skin off my nose if people want to continue playing make believe long past the point of rationality and reason. To each their own, and all that.

Until it isn’t fine. Until those beliefs creep into our political and social and educational systems and permit the deterioration of the strides we have made in understanding and defining the real world. Strides toward knowing ourselves as humans- imperfect but adaptable and evolving people with the ability to shape our own individual and communal destinies- rather than as subordinate creatures of a created creator with an unknowable ‘plan’ for our future.

As I continue my self-reflection into the New Year, this new awareness is likely to be the biggest bit o’ something with which I’ll be wrestling.

Tolerance = complicity… that’s a tough one.

While belief may the easy answer for some, elenchus and dialectic are hard for everyone.

Freakin’ Socrates.

Perhaps I’ll need more of the whiskey than first thought.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!

11 comments on “Know Thyself

  1. I know what you mean about finding it hard to write faced with all the troubles of the world. Words have failed me lately. But I’m glad to see you here, and know that you are well and enjoying your job. You’ve had a tough year, losing your dad. He sure raised a special person in you, and that is all any parent can hope for. I wish you all the best in 2015. A fresh start for all of us, eh?

  2. It’s definitely that time of year, Cole. As much as self-reflection is an ongoing process for the most part, there is something about the year’s end that makes me sad when I review its passing and reflect on the me going into the next one.
    In a chat yesterday with my sister-in-law, her husband and Frank over some cheese and wine (it’s the booze I blame, even if it was only a couple of glasses!) we got on to politics – as you do – and the perceptions of other nations to our own. BIL’s work takes him everywhere and he was commenting on the fact that a Danish colleague laughed at the notion that Britain was a democracy.
    And we agreed. Looking at the sell-off of infrastructure over the preceding years for short-term capitalist gain by the few (and/or long-term control of the many) I felt despair at the lack of feasible answers to reverse negative change and could have wept all over again at Scotland’s stupidity in not embracing the potential for positive change and self-actualization through the vehicle of Independence.
    Not a dead duck yet by any means but so aggravating that so many allowed self-determination to be passed up in favour of ongoing – I’m searching for a word – and shite is the best I can think of.
    I’m happy for people to believe what they want, but you’re right to say that belief as a process of governance and as a pervasive force in the face of reason, argument and common sense is no way to live a life, especially if it impacts on so many others and relinquishes any sense of the need for action.
    So many positive elements can come from spiritual thought (not necessarily religions, per se, evidence does speak both ways on that). I suppose I could say that spirituality, in terms of higher purpose to the alternative crap that passes for humanity sometimes, is where I mostly come from. The world is rich in many who aspire to better the lot of humanity and proceed with just cause. Evidence abounds here on WP and other forums. Unfortunately, evidence to the contrary also is rife.
    And we return to looking ahead in the face of both types. It can be so disheartening. And yet, I ‘believe’ in the goodness inherent in people, ‘believe’ the vast majority care about more than just themselves, ‘believe’ that words framed and spoken by such as your good self and others of some faith and none may recreate change.
    I like to believe that, no matter faith or none, it’s our humanity and some spiritual higher self (call it whatever!) that might yet salvage our planet and, yes, stupidity. We are such plonkers, at times. 🙂
    Anyhoo, I’m keeping the faith for political change here and elsewhere wrought, in no small part, by ongoing awareness and evolution of self, whiskey, (as required!) and continuing education through reading thought-provoking posts such as this one.
    And I do like me some Coledancing. Fourth coffee and I won’t tell you how many cigs! But a marvellous journey into new reflections and, dare I say it, a little more faith and belief than I had this time yeterday after the cheese and wine and acceptance that democracy is relative.
    Onwards into the New Year with renewal! 🙂
    Have a great Ne’erday and I’ll clink whiskey glasses from afar. We’re not really so far removed.x

    • colemining says:

      A-M- this is exactly what I’m talking about- and why I’m struggling with some of my thoughts and feelings lately. I know that there are people who sincerely hold faith in something other than the realities of this particular plane of existence that comprehend common sense and temporal reality and are able- somehow- to reconcile the two- because I have met them, or read their words. I know they are out there.

      I’ve just been seeing far too many of the other kind. Those who prefer to mutter rote doctrine- without any examination of context or rationale or origin- and who flail aimlessly, grasping for support in mythology and ‘tradition’, when challenged, and who strike out with name-calling and condemnation when their lack of substantive support is recognized.

      The separation of ‘belief’ and ‘governance’ is decreasing in TOO many places- in the States, certainly, but under our current PM, as well (much to my ever-growing dismay). The fact that these ‘leaders’ play upon the beliefs of people of faith in order to garner support for their expedient desires turns my stomach- and is, in large part, what is leading to my existential crisis of introspection.

      While we are, certainly, plonkers, I very much believe that we have it in us to salvage ourselves and our planet. As I always say- if we have the imaginations and sense of grace and wonder that permitted us to create those things of beauty that can be (and are) found in some of our religious systems, then we can work toward creating that grace, beauty and wonder here and now. In THIS world. In THIS life. The one we KNOW that we have to live. We have to stop thinking apocalyptically and concern ourselves with this demonstrable and REAL existence.

      Hard thinking during a time of celebration, but thinking that needs doing, regardless. Thank you for indulging me- reminding me that there are Voices of all backgrounds and worldviews who share my belief in the power of us people to make change happen. We just need to keep shouting so that we might convince those who have been poorly-taught otherwise, or who might just have forgotten that WE can do this.

      We’re not far removed at all. I’ll be clinking my whiskey glass back at you, tomorrow night. Thanks, as always, for your insights and perspective. Your thoughts always help to provide some clarity to my own. xo

  3. bethbyrnes says:

    The only comment I can add to this thoughtful and provocative post is that I can say with complete conviction that the lower 50 have reached the abysmal end by handing over the reins again to the plutocrats who took down the world’s economy just a few years ago and seek to further enslave minds and bodies for their own avaricious ends. It simply means those in an ideologically-induced trance at the hands of the international oligarchy have once again succumbed to myths and lies. If they weren’t so dangerous, they would be comical. As for cosmology, I take an empirical and analytical approach and eschew those who would do my thinking for me. As long as I stumble along by trial and error, I am likely to avoid being swept into the collective narcosis that permeates America now. 2015 simply has to be better than 2014, especially here…these forces could not do any worse. So I am optimistic.

    • colemining says:

      Beth- the most recent US election results are one of the many (too many) things that have me shaking me head and at a complete loss as to how I might begin to shape a response. If, as you say, there’s nowhere to go but up from that particular rock bottom, I will share your optimism and hope that the climb begins tout de suite.

      Here’s to a new beginning- which includes, we can hope, a wake-up call to all those of us who adhere to analysis and empirical evidence to shape our ways of viewing the world who remain yet un-engaged in working toward necessary change. Those who have succumbed to the lies- and who cling to the myths- are something of a lost cause. It’s hard to wake up those who haven’t the least awareness that they’re in the drug-induced sleep of willful idiocy.

      Thanks for the visit- and, again, a very happy New Year to you! xoxo

  4. […] said before that I’m a little concerned about my past inclination to just accept that others believe […]

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