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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

10 MARCH, 2014

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on What the Sahara Desert Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Life

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“Man is first animated by invisible solicitations.”

In December of 1940, a little more than two years before he created The Little Prince on American soil and four years before he disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry began writing Letter to a Hostage (public library) while waiting in Portugal for admission into the United States, having just escaped his war-torn French homeland — a poignant meditation on the atrocities the World War was inflicting at the scale of the human soul, exploring questions of identity, belonging, empathy, and the life of the spirit amidst death.

One of the most timelessly moving sections of the book, both for its stand-alone wisdom and for its evident legacy as a sandbox for the ideas the beloved author later included in The Little Prince — home, solitude, the stars, the sustenance of the spirit — is the second chapter, written while Saint-Exupéry was traveling aboard the crowded ship that took him from Lisbon to New York:

I lived three years in the Sahara. I also, like so many others, have been gripped by its spell. Anyone who has known life in the Sahara, its appearance of solitude and desolation, still mourns those years as the happiest of his life. The words “nostalgia for sand, nostalgia for solitude, nostalgia for space” are only figures of speech, and explain nothing. But for the first time, on board a ship seething with people crowded upon one another, I seemed to understand the desert.

Saint-Exupéry contemplates the psychology of boredom which, far from the creative force Susan Sontag believed it to be, takes on a wholly different meaning in the desert:

There, one perpetually bathes in the conditions for sheer boredom. And yet invisible divinities build up a net of directions, slopes and signs, a secret and living frame. No more uniformity. Everything takes up a definite position. Even one silence is unlike another silence.

Original watercolor for The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry. Click image for more.

He reflects on the Sahara’s peculiar place in the cultural history of silence:

There is a silence of peace, when the tribes are reconciled, when the evening once more brings its coolness, and it seems as if one had furled the sails and taken up moorings in a quiet harbor.

There is silence of the noon, when the sun suspends all thought and movement. There is a false silence when the north wind has dropped, and the appearance of insects, drawn away like pollen from their inner oasis, announces the eastern storm, carrier of sand. There is silence of intrigue, when one knows that a distant tribe is brooding. There is a silence of mystery, when the Arabs join up in their intricate cabals. There is a tense silence when the messenger is slow to return. A sharp silence when, at night, you hold your breath to listen. A melancholic silence when you remember those you love.

He considers how the vastness of the desert anchors one to a sense of belonging and pulls that inner wholeness apart at the same time:

Everything is polarized. Each star shows a real direction. They are all Magi’s stars. They all serve their own God. This one marks a distant well, difficult to reach. And the distance to that well weighs like a rampart. That one denotes the direction of a dried-up well. And the star itself looks dry. And the space between the star and the dried well does not lessen. The other star is a sign-post to the unknown oasis which nomads have praised in songs, but which dissent forbids you. And the sand between you and the oasis is a lawn in a fairy tale. That other one shows the direction of a white city of the South, which seems as delicious as a fruit to munch. Another points to the sea. Lastly this desert is magnetized from afar by two unreal poles: a childhood home, remaining alive in the memory. A friend we know nothing about, except that he exists.

So you feel strained and enlivened by the field of forces which attract or repel you, entreat or resist you. There you are, well-founded, well-determined, well-established in the center of cardinal directions.

And as the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert, one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations. Man is ruled by Spirit. In the desert I am worth what my divinities are worth.

What beautiful symmetry between this meditation and Saint-Exupéry’s most famous line from The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Original watercolor for The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry. Click image for more.

Saint-Exupéry, who opens the chapter by observing that “the essential is that somewhere there remains the relics of one’s existence,” returns to the complexities of home and belonging:

France … was for me neither an abstract divinity, nor a historian’s concept, but a real flesh on which I depended, a network of links governing me, a mass of poles directing the inclinations of my heart. I needed to feel those I wanted to direct me more reliable and steady than myself. To know where to return. To be able to exist.

[…]

The Sahara may be more lively than a capital, and the most crowded city is deserted if the essential poles of life lose their magnetism.

Small as it may be, Letter to a Hostage is a monumental read and the most direct surviving glimpse of Saint-Exupéry’s boundless mind and spirit. Complement it with his original watercolors for The Little Prince, which exude a great deal of the Sahara sensibility he so cherished.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2014

John Steinbeck on the Creative Spirit and the Meaning of Life

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“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.”

A decade before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) wrote East of Eden (public library), which was eventually adapted into the 1955 film of the same title starring James Dean and which Steinbeck originally addressed to his two young sons. (The elder one, Thom, later became the recipient of Steinbeck’s magnificent letter of advice on falling in love.)

The thirteenth chapter of the novel features some of the most beautiful, poignant, and timelessly transcendent prose ever written — a gorgeous meditation on the meaning of life and the essence of the creative spirit:

Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.

Writing in 1952, and writing for his two young sons, Steinbeck peers into the future, perhaps our present, with a concerned and prescient eye:

There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

He extends a poignant reminder of what anchors us to life and what makes that life worth living:

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on the preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

Complement East of Eden with Steinbeck’s six tips on writing, a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Nature of the Self: Experimental Philosopher Joshua Knobe on How We Know Who We Are

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A mind-bending new understanding of our basic existential anchor.

“The fate of the world depends on the Selves of human beings,” pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper wrote in her meditation on how poorly we understand the self. Indeed, while philosophers may argue that the self is a toxic illusion and psychologists may insist that it’s forever changing, we tend to float through life anchored by a firm conviction that the self is our sole constant companion. But when psychologist David DeSteno asks “Can the present you trust the future you?” in his fantastic exploration of the psychology of trust, the question leaves us — at least, leaves me — suddenly paralyzed with the realization that the future self is in many ways fundamentally different from the present self. Our emotions and beliefs and ideals are constantly evolving — Anaïs Nin put it perfectly: “I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles… My real self is unknown.” — and even biologically, most cells in the our bodies are completely renewed every seven years. How, then, do we know how “we” are? How do we hold the “self” with any sense of firmness?

Over the past decade, the emerging field of experimental philosophy — a discipline that pursues inquiries about the human condition traditionally from the realm of philosophy with the empirical methods of psychology — has tackled this paradox, along with its many fringe concerns spanning morality, happiness, love, and how to live. In this fascinating video from the 2013 HeadCon seminar shot by TED Talks film director Jason Wishnow, Yale University professor and experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe, editor of the anthology Experimental Philosophy (public library), takes us through some mind-bending, soul-deconstructing thought experiments that push our notions of the self to the limit and past it, into a new understanding of our basic existential anchor.

Though the full talk is remarkable in its entirety and is well worth the watch, here is what I find to be Knobe’s most poignant pause-giver:

One specific thing [has] really been exploding in the past couple of years and this is experimental philosophy work on the notion of the self. This is work on questions about what is the self, how does the self extend over time, is there a kind of essence of the self, how do we know what falls inside or outside the self?…

Philosophers have called [this] the “question of personal identity.” It’s a question in philosophy that goes back, at least, to the time of John Locke. It’s one that philosophers are still talking about up until the present day. You can get a sense for the question pretty easily just by thinking about a certain kind of initial question, and it’s this:

Imagine how the world is going to be a year from now. A year from now there are going to be all these people in this world, and one of those people is going to have a very special property. That person is going to be you. So, with any luck a year from now, there’ll be someone out there who’s you. But what is it about that person that makes that person you?

At this moment you have a certain kind of body, you have a certain kind of goals, and beliefs, and values, you have certain emotions. In the future there are going to be all these other people that are going to have certain bodies, they’re going to have certain goals, certain beliefs, certain emotions. Some of them are going to be, to varying degrees, similar and, to varying degrees, different from yours; and one of those people is going to be you. So, what makes that person you?

[…]

Imagine what things are going to be like in 30 years. In 30 years, there’s going to be a person around who you might normally think of as you — but that person is actually going to be really, really different from you in a lot of ways. Chances are, a lot of the values you have, a lot of the emotions, a lot of the beliefs, a lot of the goals are not going to be shared by that person. So, in some sense you might think that person is you, but is that person really you? That person is like you in certain respects, but … you might think that person is kind of not me anymore.

Once you start to reflect on that, you might start to have a really different feeling about that person — the person you’re going to turn into. You might even start to feel a little bit competitive with that person. Suppose you start saving money right now. You are losing money and he or she is the one gaining the money. The money is being taken away from the person who has the values, the emotions, and the goals that you really care about and going to this other person.

Be sure to watch the full talk — you’ll be glad you did — and dive deeper into this fascinating fledgling field with Knobe’s second volume of Experimental Philosophy, featuring fourteen of the most influential recent essays and articles at this illuminating intersection of philosophy and psychology.

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