In Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a rock up a hill and watching it fall back down, and then rolling it back up and then watching it fall back down—for all eternity. What more futile task! According to Camus, Sisyphus’ fate resembles our own. In the myth, he has no promise of a reward for his toils. There is no “beyond” that would redeem his task, just as, from Camus’ atheistic perspective, there is nothing redemptive that awaits us beyond death. Nonetheless, Camus is optimistic about Sisyphus: “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.” His optimism stems from the idea that Sisyphus is conscious of his fate and has the power to accept it. Indeed, Camus concludes that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Beside the parallel between Sisyphus’ lot and the absence of redemption for us, Camus adds the cyclicality of workers’ lives resembles that of Sisyphus’ labors. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and repeat. And, beyond the workweek, we experience less obvious cycles. There are cycles of craving and satisfaction. There’s a new car on the market. Work and work to get it. Enjoy it for a month. Then work for the next bright and shiny commodity. Furthermore, there are cycles of work and achievement. Become educated, get a job. Get a job, get a better one, and so on. Or so our culture demands. Schopenhauer, ever the pessimist, declares: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.” Doesn’t one become nauseated at some point? How many repetitions can one go through without eventually losing one’s appetite—for life?
I have sought a way out of my worries about repetition by holding on to the belief that life never repeats itself exactly. Although I taught the same courses, Existentialism and Introduction to Philosophy, last year as I did in 2016, I had a new set of students before me. The students this year seem especially enthusiastic about my unit on mortality, where I teach Heidegger’s chapter on death in Being and Time. I suspect it’s because I am more keenly aware of my desire to make something of myself since my two recent health scares. Brought face to face with the prospect that my life might be shorter than I had expected, I questioned whether I was living well. I have become more deeply attuned to Heidegger’s insight that we can live well only when we authentically reckon with our mortality. In the wake of these experiences, I communicated his ideas to my students more passionately than I had before, and I saw this passion reflected in their responses to my lectures.
I doubt that our lives are as thoroughly repetitive as they may appear. But even if this were so, I believe that the key to bearing repetition lies in our mindset. As Camus suggests, in any situation we have the capacity to choose how we view the world. Likewise, Victor Frankl, the famous psychotherapist who survived three years in concentration camps, states: “Everything can be taken from man but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” In the inhumane conditions of the concentration camps, Frankl chose courage and steadfastness. He achieved this by remembering his wife or imagining himself lecturing about the psychology of concentration camps if he were liberated. To apply Frankl’s point to something far, far more mundane—namely, the boredom that stems from ordinary repetitions—we can regard our situations as irremediably boring, or we can search for what is meaningful in them.
Marcus Aurelius says, “Dig inside yourself. Inside there is a spring of goodness ready to gush at any moment, if you keep digging.” So I would tell anyone plagued by a sense of ennui: keep digging!
A few months ago, I struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me at the bar of a TGIF at Miami International Airport. I never learned his name, and he never learned mine. Still, we enjoyed nearly an hour-long conversation: we discussed his son’s recalcitrance to pursue a degree in the humanities, despite his obvious aptitude for writing and his dismal performance in computer science courses; the man sought my advice as a philosophy professor about how to persuade his son to switch paths.
I will probably never see this man again. Yet there was something touching to the ephemerality of our encounter. I don’t long to meet him again, but simply enjoy the memory of the pleasurable moment I had with him.
This conversation also reminds of a night I spent partying with a few women after the 2010 Dyke March in San Francisco. I have never seen them since then. I don’t remember their faces or names. But we had fun, hopping from place to place in the city, and enjoying music and drinks. The fleetingness of that evening is what made it so beautiful.
I wonder if such moments might help us cope with our own ephemerality. Can the same beauty and poignancy be applicable to a person’s life as a whole? Is there something to life’s brevity that is worth admiring rather than lamenting?
In an earlier post, I discussed the urgency that facing death can lend to our lives. Although I spoke of this urgency as something valuable, this way of thinking about death has a negative valence. We must avoid sinking into unconsciousness and treating our earthly lives as infinite in span. The face-to-face with death is a source of angst, existentialist thinkers will add. By contrast, treasuring the beauty of ephemerality brings a positive spin to this idea. We must cherish each moment in its evanescence. This attitude introduces the mood of love to the awareness of death.
As much as we treasure the beauty of those things that perdure—age-old churches and buildings, statues and paintings that have survived disasters and pillages, relics, antique books, and the like—we also—less noticeably perhaps—admire what will inevitably disappear. In fact, our love of flowers speaks to our appreciation of the ephemeral. Even the most realistic of fake flowers fails to conjure our delight in the delicacy of real flowers—and the
fragility that comes with it.
If we bring this love of evanescence to our own lives, then we might also value our transience in a less angst-ridden fashion. At first, such love reminded me of the “unshakeable joy” that is paired with anxiety in Heidegger’s idea of authentically facing death. Yet, joy and love are different. Joy buoys us. In Spinoza’s Ethics, joy signifies an increase in our power to act, while love is the pleasure we find in the objects that positively affect our power to act. With love comes connection—whether it be to persons, nature, or even the divine.
So, what does it mean to enjoy our ephemerality? Rather than motivating us to take our futures in hand, as “angsty joy” is supposed to do, loving our ourselves in our mortality compels us to attend to what (actually) enlivens us. I don’t think that either orientation—toward the present or future—is superior to the other. We need both in our lives.
As a testament to the beauty of ephemerality, let me close with Tennessee Williams’s “We Have Not Long to Love”:
We have not long to love.
Light does not stay.
The tender things are those
we fold away.
Coarse fabrics are the ones
for common wear.
In silence I have watched you
comb your hair.
Intimate the silence,
dim and warm.
I could but did not, reach
to touch your arm.
I could, but do not, break
that which is still.
(Almost the faintest whisper
would be shrill.)
So moments pass as though
they wished to stay.
We have not long to love.
A night. A day....
I contributed a guest post to Notre Dame's blog on philosophy as a way of life.
"Take a view from above - look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book IX. 28)
Imagine you are looking out onto the Earth from the International Space Station. Our planet—blue and green and brown—shrouded by clouds in some places. No humans visible—just the Earth in all its splendor. The Earth from afar.
Yesterday you were complaining about the line at Starbucks, your teenager’s behavior, or your boss’s failure to acknowledge your contributions. From here you cannot see that tiny Starbucks, or your child or your boss. If you let yourself contemplate our planet for long enough and let yourself be absorbed by its beauty, you might forget—at least momentarily—your everyday concerns.
Perhaps at some point your mind will wander back to the Earth’s inhabitants: its 7 billion humans, its roughly 9 million species of fauna and flora. You might wonder what everyone is doing down there. The human comedy has been going on for roughly a hundred thousand years and it will likely come to an end in the future. Other life forms live alongside these humans; some species have existed before us and there might be others after ours goes extinct.
In the space station, you are out of the picture—just as you were before your birth and just as you will be after your death. Ponder this for a moment.
Imagining earthly events from above puts our lives in perspective. Although he had no concept of a space station, this exercise helped the Stoic Marcus Aurelius focus on the things that matter (the social good, for him) and the things that don’t (fame, for instance).
If I were peering down at the Earth from a space station, I hope that I would forget the little things that irritate me and would admire our planet. I have had the scaled down version of this experience beholding spans of snowy caps at sunset in the Alps with no one in sight. The silence that reigned stilled my mind. I felt the vastness of the Earth. I didn’t think of myself or others.
In A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore quotes the astronaut Edgar Mitchell on his experience on the Apollo 14 mission: “The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big.” Moore characterizes Mitchell’s feeling of deep connection to the universe as a mystical experience.
Mitchell’s words, in fact, relate to the Stoic philosophy Marcus Aurelius embraced. Stoics consider God to permeate every part of the universe. For them, God, or eternal reason, orders every part of the world—from the burgeoning of flowers this spring to my hand movements as I type this essay. The idea that a divine reason resides in everything implies that we must learn to accept the unfolding of the universe even when we want it to be otherwise. For example, death is part of this unfolding and is something we ought to accept.
The view from above—whether imagined or experienced in the flesh—teaches us not only to let go of what is petty and worthless, but also to feel our oneness with the universe. It invites us to revere what is divine in it—and in us.
At the end of the NEH Summer Institute "Reviving Philosophy as a Way of Life,” a fellow participant, James Ambury, observed that reviving philosophy as a way of life simply amounts to reviving philosophy. This remark struck a chord. If more than twenty-five teachers from universities, colleges, and a non-profit from across the country decided to dedicate two weeks of their busy schedules to reviving philosophy as a way of life, it must not have been out of a nerdy obsession with a niche field within the discipline, but out of global concern for philosophy.
The idea that philosophy was a “way of life” in antiquity has become a familiar theme in recent years. For instance, writing from the 1980s through the 2000s, the French philosopher Pierre Hadot advanced the idea that for ancient philosophers, philosophy was a way of life, or an art of living—rather than theories that do not make demands on how we live our lives. More specifically, the different ancient philosophical schools formulated what Hadot called “spiritual exercises” as a way of learning how to lead a good life. Spiritual exercises, for him, were practices that are engaged in to develop specific attitudes and behaviors that empower a person to understand and manage life events as best as possible, rather than to be overwhelmed by them. A great example of a spiritual practice is the Stoic exercise of describing the negative events that might befall oneself in order to better anticipate misfortunes. But my favorite is the exercise of “physical description,” according to which the philosopher is to describe a thing or process with as much objectivity as possible. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius uses this exercise to describe sex as “friction with a spurt of mucus ejected.” However amused we may be by this description, it is supposed to help us to perceive things for what they are and not become too attached to them.
The conception of philosophy as a way of life first caught my attention in 2007, during my senior year of college, when I first encountered Hadot’s work. My education up to that point was primarily theoretical. My teachers did not explicitly describe philosophy as a discipline that could constitute an art of living. It was only by accident that I came across the idea of philosophy as a way of life: as the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Review of Philosophy, I was responsible for leading a discussion group on the topic: “What is philosophy?” A fellow member of the Review suggested that we read an excerpt from Hadot’s What Is Ancient Philosophy? This reading made me reconsider what I was doing as a philosopher and encouraged me to conceive of philosophy as a discipline that could not only theorize about reality, but also shape one’s life. Reading Hadot was fortuitous, for I had become weary of a purely theoretical understanding of philosophy and I worried that I had done little more than “rehash” the arguments of influential philosophers during my studies. I was so passionate about the possibility that philosophy could be a way of life that I was inspired to go to graduate school.
The institute was my first opportunity to meet likeminded teachers who share my passion for reviving philosophy as a way of life. We spent hours discussing philosophies that styled themselves as ways of life: Confucianism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism, Kantianism, and Existentialism. But in the spirit of philosophy as a way of life, we did not stop there: while we delved into theories of the good life, we also debated how to teach these schools in a way that would capture the minds and hearts of those new to the field. In fact, the bulk of our discussions—I’d estimate two thirds of our time—concerned philosophical pedagogy. I was deeply impressed by the innovative ideas so many of my peers had already embraced: I learned about everything from complex reenactments of important historical debates (for example, the birth of Athenian democracy) to immersive writing exercises that require students to journal about living like a Stoic or an Epicurean—not to mention creative assignments, such as rewriting existentialist literature from new perspectives (think Kamel Daoud’s rewriting of Camus’ The Stranger from the point of view of the dead Arab’s brother).
If some of us feel compelled to revive philosophy as a way of life, it must be that we sense that something is lacking in the discipline today. For the most part, we teach theories, but we do not practice them. This is neither interesting for us, nor exciting for our students (as I learned from the primarily theoretical instruction I received as an undergraduate). As Thoreau quipped, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” Yet, if I have learned anything from this institute, it is that there is a growing minority of teachers who will not limit themselves to discussing the problems of philosophy. Even if they might shy from admitting this, they aspire to become more than professors of philosophy.
In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima describes love as the child of poverty and resource. We who strive to revive philosophy as a way of life do so out a deep love of the discipline: we behold how impoverished philosophy has become and we are resourceful at bringing rich ideas for its future to the table.
This weekend I finished Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. The premise of the book is that many of us in affluent countries can do much more than we do now to alleviate suffering and to save lives. I first encountered Singer’s argument for giving when I taught “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” as a teaching assistant and as a grader at Harvard. Roughly, Singer’s argument in that essay is that we ought to give to prevent suffering (e.g., famine) so long as we do not sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance. Many of us in affluent nations spend money on things that we could easily do without (e.g., a pair of nice shoes or a night out on the town), things that do not have the same moral importance as a human life. Given this state of affairs, many of us should be giving much more than we do now. I was moved by this argument and vowed at the time to give more. But perhaps I was not moved enough. Several years have passed and my giving has not lived up to the ideals I formed when I first read “Famine, Affluence, and Morality."
The Life You Can Save extends the argument of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality," with a special focus on rebutting arguments against giving (e.g., that aid largely breeds dependence on charities or that it only has short-term effects). In addition, Singer reflects on moderate proposals for giving for those who might balk at the stringent standard that “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” defends. Perhaps this tactic is the right one, for having finished The Life You Can Save, I have decided to take the pledge that Singer proposes. The pledge is to donate a certain percentage of one’s income on a sliding scale. Details can be found here. Donating according to their scale would require that I donate $1920 yearly. I’ve pledged to do this.
While some readers of this post might disagree with utilitarianism, which is the ethical theory that inspires Singer’s moral philosophy, arguments for giving can be found on other philosophical grounds and in religious traditions. Other readers might disagree on how much aid is required. For my part, I think that Singer’s moderate proposal is something that I can meet and that would stretch my giving beyond the here-and-there donations I have made in the past. I say this because meeting the pledge would mean sacrificing many of the frivolities that Singer targets (a nice meal out, the new clothing), but nothing of moral significance.
What have I given? This weekend I donated to Earth Justice, a charity that funds legal defense in environmental causes, and today I donated to Village Enterprise, a charity that supports entrepreneurship and development in rural Africa. The meetup for philosophy that I created in the fall did not take off and I have decided to close it. I want to take the time that I would have devoted to it to connect with volunteer organizations here in State College.
I hope that those of you who read this will be moved to have a look at Singer’s argument and to consider pledging time and money to charitable causes if you are in a position to do so.
Last month, I learned that a dear friend of mine and philosopher died—by suicide. (If you were also a friend and knew him, please only share your comments by e-mail. I want to keep this private.) While I don’t know what thoughts were on his mind when he took his life, his suicide prompted some personal reflections on philosophy and death.
Many, though not all, of us come to philosophy with existential questions. In fact, one of the most enduringly popular undergraduate courses in the discipline must be “Existentialism.” Courses on existentialism bring us face to face with two major philosophical questions: Is life worth living? And: What makes a life worth living? I know from taking and teaching existentialism that these questions are hard to deal with.
The two texts that have most touched me in grappling with these questions are: Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), of which I read the chapter on death in a course on Existentialism in my senior year of college, and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), which I only discovered as a graduate student teacher for a course on the meaning of life. I have also taught both texts as a professor of philosophy in a course on existentialism.
Heidegger and Tolstoy direct us to the connection between a life well lived and death. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy portrays the anxiety Ivan Ilych experiences as he copes with his terminal illness and reflects on whether he has lived well, together with the “joy” he has in his final hours, after he reaches a point of resolution about the life he led. One of the most memorable passages from the novella deals with the seeming foreignness of death:
The syllogism [Ivan Ilych] had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of?
In my own unthinking moments, I subscribe to Ivan Ilych’s faulty logic: death happens to others—not me. At other times, I have awoken to the “possibility of the absolute impossibility” of my own being, to borrow Heidegger’s expression. (In fact, Heidegger footnotes The Death of Ivan Ilych in Being and Time.)
Anxiety and joy are moods that also come up in relation to death in Being and Time. Heidegger leads into the discussion of anxiety by speaking of the “tranquilizing” effect our everyday talk about death has on us. We say, “one dies,” as though death were “somewhere or other,” and not yet a “threat.” By contrast, anxiety permeates an authentic relation to death, a relation that requires the recognition of death as something that belongs to each one of us. Not only that, but an authentic relation to death means that we anticipate this possibility. In so doing, we can begin to exist authentically, that is, we free ourselves from unthinking, automatic, average ways of living. In short, the anxious anticipation of death brings one face to face with the possibility of “being oneself.” At the same time, Heidegger speaks of an “unshakeable joy” that we can also experience when we live resolutely in the face of death. So, while anxiety dominates Heidegger’s discussion of death, there is also room for a different mood, the mood of joy, which differs from the numbness inherent in our everyday ways of living. In this regard, the account of death in Being and Time dovetails with the portrait of Ivan Ilych’s anxiety and joy at the end of his life.
When I last taught The Death of Ivan Ilych, I brought up the question of whether an immortal life is desirable. (In connection with this conversation, I mentioned Bernard Williams’s “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” (1973).) It was one of the best discussions I have led as a teacher: my students were fired up, and the classroom was roughly divided between supporters of dying and supporters of immortality. I don’t remember if I admitted it to my students, but I side with the supporters of death. However attractive the opportunities (e.g., for education and relationships) immortality might afford, I think that we would miss out on some of the anxiety and the joy that come with facing death.
Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking (Marcher, une philosophie), first published in France in 2009, has had much success—certainly more than most books of philosophy targeted at a general audience these days. It was a bestseller in France. It would go on to be translated into English in 2014 and to earn a review in The New York Times. As an avid walker and philosopher, I was eager to read it. And I enjoyed it very much, especially since I encountered many of the authors celebrated during my youth in France: the walking habits of Rousseau, Rimbaud, Nerval are fêted as are those of other Western figures, such as Kant, Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Hölderlin. Yet, Gros’s glaring omission of women writers and philosophers irked me. In my view, Simone de Beauvoir, the twentieth-century French philosopher and writer, would have provided a perfect case study for him.
I’ve long wanted to sketch a Beauvoirian philosophy of walking, not merely as a rejoinder to Gros, but to reflect on a particular way of being open to the world through the senses, a way that, I believe, can offer a valuable contribution to our wellbeing. At the outset, though, I should be clear that I am not prescribing walking as a way towards cultivating this way of being. Walking was Beauvoir’s thing—that’s all.
Beauvoir began hiking in 1931, when she received a position as a philosophy teacher in a high school in Marseille. The Prime of Life, the second volume of her memoirs, describes the excitement she experienced as she hiked long hours on her days off. She relished the feeling of physical exertion at the end of the day. Beauvoir says, “I had never practiced any sport, and therefore took all the more pleasure in driving my body the very limit of its endurance.” She also fell in love with the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes she discovered. Of her hikes around Marseille, she writes: “I followed all the coast guard’s tracks, too. Here, at the base of the cliffs…in the morning splendor [the Mediterranean] surged fiercely in the headlands, dazzling white, and I felt that if I plunged my hand in it it would be chopped off.” And a few lines later: [T]here came a day in spring, on the Valensole plateau, when I found almond trees in blossom for the first time. I walked along red-and-ocher lanes in the flat country, and recognized many of Cézanne’s canvases.”
Two elements of Beauvoir’s walking habits emerge from this picture. First, she became deeply attuned to her body—from the inside. She took pleasure in the bodily sensations she experienced during and after walking: soreness, fatigue. Second, she was open through her senses to her environment; she wasn’t caught up in developing outlines for her novels or ruminating over her teaching. The Prime of Life gives the impression that Beauvoir wasn’t “in her head,” but “in her body” (and “in the world”!).
As I see them, Beauvoir’s journeys through the Mediterranean Alps belong to a process of self-discovery and of self-affirmation. Self-discovery in the sense that Beauvoir was discovering a new part of herself—her body. Self-affirmation in the sense that she was developing a practice that fostered her growing independence from the customs into which she was born. In the first volume of her memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Beauvoir recounts how awkward she felt about her body during her childhood and puberty. In a gymnastics session, she bemoans her inability to perform various exercises, and envies the agility of other children. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter reads as a tale of the emergence of an independent intellectual woman. The contrast between Memoirs and The Prime of Life, then, is striking.
Beauvoir’s approach to walking is echoed in her philosophical writings. Those readers familiar with her name might have heard it in connection with existentialism in philosophy. Beauvoir’s own version of existentialism centers on the notion of ambiguity. The starting point of her 1947 work The Ethics of Ambiguity is the recognition that we humans are ambiguous beings. Our ambiguity is multifaceted: it includes the fact we are born and die, that we are in some ways alone in the world, but in other aspects are part of communities. It also includes the fact that we straddle the divide between subject and object. On the one hand, being a subject means being free and capable of acting on the world. On the other hand, being an object means being perceivable by and open to the judgment of others. Beauvoir further notes that we are often tempted to deny one facet of our ambiguity. For instance, we either deny our existence as objects and think of ourselves as purely free, or, on the flip side, we conceive of ourselves only as objects Two years later, in The Second Sex, her landmark in feminist theory, Beauvoir observes that women are tempted, more often than not, to flee their ambiguity by turning themselves into sexual objects. In fact, in her chapter on narcissism, she describes how girls are first lured into identifying with objects such as dolls and, then, how they learn to see themselves through the eyes of men.
What is troubling about the narcissism that Beauvoir identified and that is still prevalent in our culture today is that it makes us to live our bodies from the outside. Many of us relate to our bodies through the image in the mirror, and the way we “read” this image is informed by the images we see in the media or the comments others have made about our appearance. We’re living not in our bodies, but in the “headspace” of our culture. This, I think, lies in the way of taking pleasure in our bodies.
What I find exciting about “Beauvoirian walking” is that it can offer an antidote to this pervasive alienation. Her inner awareness of her body, to its sensations, and her external awareness of her surroundings, to the sights and sounds around her, can inspire us to focus on our experience of our bodies from the inside, rather than on our appearance, and to shift our external awareness to the world outside of us. I try, as best I can, to cultivate this way of being when I walk. Beauvoir’s approach to walking is not exclusive to walking, though, and can be practiced through other means, such as meditation. In fact, I see an interesting convergence between her walking and certain descriptions of meditation. Stay tuned for the second part of “Out of Our Heads and Into Our Bodies,” which will be about meditation!
This academic year I am stationed in State College, PA, which unlike any of the other cities I have lived in (New York, Paris, Boston, and Miami) affords a nice view of the stars at night. Because I have lived in cities whose lighting prevented me from appreciating the stars, I am so unaccustomed to stargazing that I often forget to look up at the sky before going to bed. But when I do, I am filled with the “awe and admiration” that the philosopher Immanuel Kant so eloquently captures in his Critique of Practical Reason:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
I have loved this quotation ever since I encountered it in a course on Kant’s ethics, but it has become more personally significant to me of late. I won’t elaborate here on what Kant meant; instead, I want to depict the place that looking up at “the starry heavens” holds in my life.
Many of us—either through a personal brush with death or by witnessing someone else’s, or simply by becoming more aware of aging, come to worry about the meaning of our lives and the real significance of everyday concerns. (Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession best describes the kind of crisis that arises from such mid-life meditations.) For me, that’s where looking up at the night sky comes in.
First, at an intellectual level, I reflect on how vast the universe is and how long it has taken for light of these stars to reach me (the stars in the Orion Nebula have taken 1,344 years!). When I do this, I realize how tiny a speck of dust I am on the scale of space and of time. And this allows me to put into perspective all the petty little things (the slow-moving line at Starbucks, the dropped Internet connection) that irritate me daily. But it also puts my very existence into perspective. I have been here but a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the time of the universe, and whether I die in my 30s or 80s, there is little difference on a cosmic scale. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, expresses this idea better than I can:
What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allotted to each of us - and this is soon vanished in eternity; what a tiny part of the universal substance and the universal soul; how tiny in the whole earth the mere clod on which you creep. Reflecting on all this, think nothing important other than active pursuit where your own nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature bring. (Meditations Book XII.32)
Like Marcus, I believe that the smallness of our lives—far from being a cause of despair—gives us reason to live with greater purpose. According to him, happiness meant living in accordance with one’s rational nature and being indifferent to things out of one’s control (like the line at Starbucks!). Although I don’t share all the principles behind his conception of happiness, at my best, I try not to waste a second since any one may be my last.
Second, in moments of fantasy, I personify the stars and imagine how they’d laugh at the little things that aggravate me. The stars of the majestic Orion Nebula (pictured here) don’t give a damn about my Internet connection. At most, they chuckle and shake their heads when they see me grumbling about my Wi-Fi. This is something like “the view from above” advocated by Marcus (now you know who one of my favorite philosophers is!):
Take a view from above - look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of. (Meditations Book IX. 28)
In this exercise, Marcus imagined himself seeing all the events taking place on earth at that moment and put them in the perspective of all the generations that preceded him and of those that would follow him. This exercise helped him focus on the things that matter (the social good, for him) and the things that don’t (fame, for instance). Placing myself in the perspective of the stars makes the exercise of viewing the earth from above even more powerful.
Third, returning to Kant, looking up at the night sky fills me with a mood of admiration that floods over and washes my anxieties away. Just as the sun is said to “chase the clouds away,” so too, the night sky dispels my earthly ennui. Letting myself experience this mood is as stirring as any intellectual or imaginative exercise. This mood is different from the feeling I experience looking down at a valley from the height of a mountain or viewing the sun setting over the sea. It’s more somber and more poignant.
One of the lessons I take from looking up at the starry heavens is this: to live more deliberately than I would otherwise, to not waste any time.
This is all pretty basic. But if you’re like me and forget to put things into perspective, then step outside and have a look at the stars at night. Or feel their presence beyond the blue sky during the day. Let them fill you with awe and admiration.
The movement to promote public philosophy in the United States has gained momentum recently, especially amongst academic philosophers responding to Trump’s election. Groups such as the New England Public Philosophers have formed. Awards recognizing excellence in public philosophy have attracted an increasing number of contributors (Marc Sanders Public Philosophy Award and Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest). And the American Philosophical Association has expressed its commitment to public philosophy (APA Statement on Public Philosophy).
This movement, to me, marks a positive change. Public philosophy contributes to making philosophy relevant to present-day concerns and promises to reach larger audiences than academic circles and undergraduates enrolled in philosophy courses. Yet, I worry about a certain tendency to highlight and reward public philosophy that is done in writing more than other forms of public philosophizing. Who is the “public” that reads the pieces published in op-eds? I’d venture that the readers of The New York Times’s “Stone” column are already disposed to take the writings of academics seriously and to be open to learning from them. But what of a wider public?
This post contains my musings on the many ways in which academic philosophers are making philosophy public outside of written interventions.
In my eyes, one of the main ways for reaching a broader audience is through our undergraduate teaching. And by this, I mean not only attracting and teaching a diverse undergraduate student body in the philosophy classroom, but also encouraging students to practice philosophy outside of the classroom. I have been heartened to learn that some of my students have discussed class material with their parents and friends. This is one reason why it’s so important to teach topics in ways that are accessible and exciting to college students! I also know from having spoken with (other) formers members of The Harvard Review of Philosophy that undergraduate philosophy clubs promote lifelong learning in philosophy. So, for those of us teaching at colleges, I would encourage you to support your undergraduate philosophy clubs and to ensure that they are inclusive of a diverse range of students. On a similar, but perhaps more critical note, I would like to (personally) rethink the way in which I teach writing in philosophy, so that students learn to write essays whose style will fit in more naturally with non-academic writing than the traditional undergraduate philosophy paper does. (Stay tuned!) Last, but not least, I think that we should keep an open mind to teaching philosophy to online students, since we can reach a wider audience than we might in traditional face-to-face classrooms.
Related to undergraduate teaching are other venues for formal instruction in philosophy, such as teaching philosophy pre-college (here is a link to some APA resources on teaching philosophy pre-college) and teaching philosophy in prisons (here is a link to a piece on Daily Nous about teaching philosophy in prison). I have not had first-hand experience with these, but I have corresponded with a subscriber to The Harvard Review of Philosophy who was in prison and whose reading of the Review contributed a great deal to his self-education in philosophy. So, I hope that we will continue reaching students beyond the college classroom.
And beyond formal instruction in philosophy, here are four other ways of making philosophy public.
First, I believe that we can make a meaningful impact in our local communities by forming philosophy groups or connecting with existing ones. In Boston, I participated in and briefly led a meetup.com group devoted to Stoicism. We discussed some recent books that have popularized Stoicism, but more often we just bounced around Stoic ideas about how to live better lives. Because of my positive experience with the Stoic meetup, I have just founded a meetup.com group called “The Philosophy Collective” in State College, where I am based this year. With this group, I am not looking to lead a philosophical conversation as I would in a formal seminar, but to philosophize collectively. Meetup.com is a great place to create or connect with local philosophical groups. Other community-based ways of philosophizing include “Ask a Philosopher” stands, such as those held at farmer’s markets in NYC by the Brooklyn Public Philosophers, or conventions led by philosophers, such as Stoicon.
Second, those of us who are creative and philosophical in our art (whether in fiction, music, visual art, or other forms) should make their work known. Please send me links to the work of philosopher/artists to include here!
Third, let’s continue speaking on the radio and on TV, and let’s be sure to advertise our public interventions widely. Here is one of my favorite podcasts in philosophy: The Unmute Podcast with Myisha Cherry.
Fourth, if you are contributing to public philosophy online, make it known on social media—beyond your personal Facebook page. I’ll try to keep up with public philosophy on Twitter, so follow me!
In the United States, where there isn’t as robust a tradition of public philosophy as in other countries, making philosophy (more) public is an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be won!