Esse

Singer Sargent, John - Atlas and the Hesperides

Singer Sargent, John – Atlas and the Hesperides

I’ve gone through quite the ordeal. It’s affected my academic studies, philosophical writing and thinking, perception of myself, attitudes towards relationships, and overall productivity. The details don’t matter so much as the consequences. This article is a mix of a few journal entries and the resulting philosophy that arose as the results of my actions. September 8th was easily the worst day of my life, the following months of dealing with the fallout have been.. difficult. As Epictetus says, “It is difficulties that show what men are.” As for what I am… I haven’t exactly shined in the last few weeks, but the act of purifying a metal doesn’t happen all at once, it’s a process.

That being said, this article is divided into three parts.

The first part, “Unfinished Thoughts,” is my reflections over the preceding month — still in the midst of the fallout of recent catastrophes. It is where I began to question myself.

The second part, “Psalm 91,” follows a few days after “Unfinished Thoughts.” This entry shows the initial fruits of my reflections and sets the stage for following weeks.

The final part, “Rebuilding,” comes near at the end of a month of living in accordance with the philosophy developing in “Psalm 91.”

Just as a heads up, these are long and rich in adolescent angst as I wasn’t intending to write these for an audience (probably full of typos too). I think it’s important, however, to see how my inner thoughts have progressed in order to get a better understanding of where my expressed thoughts originate. I haven’t written much of my own philosophy on my blog in a long time, but in the light of recent of revelations I feel I will have plenty to write on and the motivation to do so.

Unfinished Thoughts (October 4th, 2013)
I have decided that something needs to change. I’ve been relatively the same person for a while and… it hasn’t gotten me far — at least not as far as I could have gone had I been a slightly different person. I often took pride in saying that I was a very stable, steadfast person — but… something needs to change.

As an atheist, I still cling to vestiges of my Christian morality.
As a materialist, I still hold to some sort of immaterial idealism.
As a skeptic, I still believe that some truths are certain.
As a pessimist, I still remain hopeful; what for?

I maintain rigid standards pertaining to what I expect of people and from myself and, without fail, these standards are never met. I realize now that these “standards” seem to function more as limitations than as guidelines. No longer do they inspire, only impede. Perhaps the direction I seem to be advancing towards is a way of hitting rock bottom, but I see it as finding a new foundation.

I sacrificed definite pleasure for possible fulfillment and it has left me empty. I’ve maintained that love and happiness aren’t feelings, they are states of mind — ways of living, ways of thought… but I believe now that I was just deluding myself, once again, in the pursuit of unrealistic goals. Love is a feeling and the experience of happiness is nothing but another feeling constructed from many other pleasant sensations. Love, like all feelings, is fleeting. The disappointment of this realization will fade as well, either with the passage of time or of myself — but fade nonetheless.

The time has come for fight or flight — to become a different man or retreat into the comfort of past delusions.

Who am I and who am I to be? As a philosopher, I’ve held “Know thyself” as the one immutable and ineffable maxim by which all other insights can be revealed — but this strangely existential axiom is seen very differently through the lenses of different philosophies — materialism, idealism, rationalism, nihilism, etc.

Perhaps there is a sort of irony that the man who is best known for discussing knowledge of one’s self is the same man who claimed to be wise only because he knew nothing. Does anyone truly know themself? Better question: Can anyone?

In an attempt to discover myself, I have forged myself a new name, new friendships, severed old aspects of myself and ties to people in my past — my entire image and personality is a construct, which is to say, it is artificial.

The first question becomes: How does one find who they actually, naturally are? Simply by virtue of being human it would seem that anything we touch becomes invention. There seems to be nothing that is naturally us, except for those feelings which are ever fleeting — coming to us and leaving us just as quickly.

Anything beyond sensation — consideration, reflection, self-control — is artificial. And is that bad?

The second question becomes: Does it matter?

If we are thinking creaures, then it seems only natural that we think. If feelings would conflict with our reason, then it becomes a choice over which side will fold; to give in to desire, cravings, and sensation or to go in the direction of thought and reason — or perhaps it is a balancing act.

This spattering of thoughts, this shotgun blast of ideas, has been ricocheting through my head without letting me fully grasp anything. Every idea feels unfinished. I feel like I’m currently afloat, waiting for the hint of land, with nothing but more ocean in sight. Without a god, it would seem, that there is no hope of a dove returning to me with an olive branch during this deluge. And yet.. I have no faith. How can I believe?

I would give up eternity for just one moment. I would give everything away for just one thing.

One moment of certainty, just one absolute truth, is all I want. When even the most seemingly certain things can be dissolved under sufficient scrutiny — what can keep us grounded?

I have had my problems with trust in the past, especially in relationships, and once again I have learned this hard lesson. If I ever trust someone with all of myself ever again, if I ever let down my walls and defenses to trust anyone with all of my heart and mind (dare I say with all of my soul?), it will only be due to my own fallibility, weakness, and inability to stay true to reason.

Psalm 91 (October 8th, 2013)
I can see the incoming collision.

I have the ability to move out of the way, but I see it coming, and I welcome it. I see the pain it will cause, the people who will morn the loss of the boy they loved, the coming tragedy to those who could honestly say they cared and… I welcome it. I see the regret, the remorse, the mess it will make and, grudgingly, I welcome it.

I never wanted this — but I can’t bear it being any other way.

I can see the incoming collision; the collision of my morality and the rocks.

I was promised angels. He said He would command His angels to guard me that they would lift me up in their hands, so that I would not even dash my foot against a stone.

But.. I don’t see any angels here. In fact, I see nothing but the incoming rocks.

If man is truly the measure of all things, as the sophists said, then I have nothing to fear.
If there is nothing but matter and void, as the materialists said, I have nothing to fear.

I have always been fairly conservative, not in my political values, but in my morality. I’ve never been one for drinking, drugs, promiscuity, partying, self-destruction of any sort…

But, when I hit rock bottom, the parties will rock.

Rebuilding (November 6th, 2013)
O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.
–Socrates

That which makes the man no worse than he was makes his life no worse: it has no power to harm, without or within.
–Marcus Aurelius

I have let the actions of other people wound me and, ultimately, I have changed because of it — but I have a choice. Nothing has changed me, I have changed because I was weak — but even this weakness is a choice. I can choose to be scathed or I can choose to express apatheia. It is the choice not to falter in the face of hardship that defines virtue and lately I have been a very unvirtuous person. I’ve compromised my deepest principles and I’ve dishonored myself and others. I attempted suicide, but not physically; I attempted to kill what made me who I am.

I see myself as artificial; I am a construct. Each choice I make is another brick in the structure that is my self. What I’ve started to construct lately is ugly throughout and it needs to change.

Put simply, we are the sum of our decisions. It’s not who we are on the inside that defines us, but the actions we choose to express.

I have made the mistake of denying reason by living for a god and I have made the mistake of denying myself by living for another person and in response to the failure of the two I began to live for a sensation, for pleasure — but I’ve realized that the only worthy thing I have to live for is myself. Likewise, any other person should live for his or her own self. It’s only by first knowing yourself that you can know another; it is only by first loving yourself that you can truly love another. I’m not advocating selfishness here, but the cultivation of the self so one can flourish with others.

First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
–Jesus

I recently confessed my transgressions to someone and it seems the thing I was most ashamed of was that I had begun heeding Ayn Rand — but now I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. One thing she wrote in particular struck me and, over the past few months I’ve contemplated it, I’ve decided that it is a better foundation than any for where to begin repairing the wreckage I’ve made of my self: I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

If I could do it now, I would brand myself with those words, this oath. I will never let another person wound me as I’ve been so wounded. I will never live for another or by another again.

To be the man I want to be, the man I should be — nothing seems more natural, more authentic, or more virtuous than this.

6 comments on “Esse

  1. Benjamin says:

    You have found it impossible to live for others, and so have decided to live for your ideal self? I’ve considered that option before, it sounds safe, in a certain way, but I could never see how to answer the problem I see with it: How will you choose who to be, then? How will that ground your life? If you are looking for something to build on, then that last question certainly needs an answer.
    If it is something else, then I can only see a negative principle (don’t let yourself care what others think), from which it seems difficult to build any particular life.

    Besides the problem with it as a foundation, this seem unsatisfying as a foundation. It seems to deny something which is basic to human life, i.e., our communal nature. Simply on a naturalistic view, I would suspect this to be an issue in need of explaining.

    If it is simply a desire for autonomy, then I do not see how cutting yourself off from others totally makes you less dependent on them than splicing yourself onto them entirely. Is there no mean between these extremes (to bring Aristotle into the picture)?

    I speak as one who has a sympathy for stoicism, but has found it to be overly reductionist (or, perhaps worse, eliminativist) with respect to human nature and our social tendencies. We do feel in certain ways, and I want to affirm that there is something about those which is good.

    • Justin Grey says:

      Thank you very much for the feedback! I hope my response satisfies you, if not, feel free to question, comment, and criticize further.

      “How will you choose who to be, then? How will that ground your life? If you are looking for something to build on, then that last question certainly needs an answer.”
      Choosing who to be is a difficult question, but I believe we’ve argued about this before. The answer is simply: Choose who you -should- be. Ethics is the philosophical field that deals with these “should” questions. We could argue about what constitutes an adequate ethical framework, but I believe the simple answer to your question would be: We should choose to be the person who is most consistent with our ethical and moral values. If what I said in my article, “we are the sum of our decisions…actions we choose to express,” then our identity is determined by our actions and our actions are grounded upon our morals.

      I haven’t attempted to systematically outline an ethical framework here — as I said, these were actually just journals I’d written for the purposes of introspection and reflection — but I can understand how the lack of an explicit framework might make much of it seem somewhat groundless. I suppose that one of the messages I was trying to convey was that living for any other reason than the self has had bad consequences for me — as some breed of consequentialist I would say that this was clearly the wrong, even immoral, way to live. I’m hesitant to say that this would hold true for -everyone- but it has surely been true for me.

      “It seems to deny something which is basic to human life, i.e., our communal nature.”
      I view an individualist ethic as being conducive to our communal nature as expressed in the same paragraph where I said, “I’m not advocating selfishness here, but the cultivation of the self so one can flourish with others.” I wouldn’t for an instant say we shouldn’t “let [ourselves] care what others think” — because in order to empathize or sympathize with others we -must- care about what they are thinking. Caring about what others think is very different than grounding your identity and morality in other people.

      As I’ve stated it, I don’t think that I implied that “cutting yourself off from others” is something that should be done. I’m not advocating social alienation. There’s a difference between individualism and atomism, and I believe that atomism is the extreme and individualism lies some ways away from it even if it’s closer in proximity to atomism than a total Borg mentality. Even Aristotle says, “sometimes we must lean to the side of excess and sometimes to that of deficiency, for this is the easiest way of hitting the mean and of doing well.” From what I understand, absolute centrality isn’t always golden.

      “I speak as one who has a sympathy for stoicism, but has found it to be overly reductionist (or, perhaps worse, eliminativist) with respect to human nature and our social tendencies.”
      That’s an opinion that I know many people to hold, I am not among them. In my view, stoicism amplifies what’s best in man while directing him away from from what is worst.

      • Benjamin says:

        “We should choose to be the person who is most consistent with our ethical and moral values.” This seems consistent with your position, and is why I asked how it was supposed to ground any kind of ethical system. It looks rather like a form of ethical subjectivism, which seems like something which would make talking about what others should do pointless. Perhaps this would be clarified if you could explain how you support caring about the pleasures and pains of others, as utilitarianism seems to me to rely on that.

        Your argument against living for others from utilitarianism looks like it holds up. I suppose my question might be: why live for yourself, then? It seems to me that most forms of utilitarianism argue for living for the greater good of all entities which can experience pleasure and pain. So, why is there no inconsistency here? (It would make sense to me if you want to develop your ethical theory further in a blog post first, rather than directly here).

      • Justin Grey says:

        This does seem like a criticism worthy of a lengthy blog post, if not an entire book, but I want to at least address it in part here.

        As Mill puts it, “The utilitarian standard . . . is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether, and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character.”

        I’m under the impression that the cultivation of nobleness of character can’t be achieved while one person is merely subject to another, attempting to honor their whims, wishes, or desires. In order to cultivate this character, the individual must be virtuous (i.e. strong, noble, etc.) and this cultivation leads to a greater good for a greater number – after all, society is made up of individuals. In short, I don’t see Mill’s Eudaimonist utilitarianism as being contrary to an individualist ethic. In this way I also don’t see how my view could be supportive of the atomism of ethical subjectivity. I’m not entirely sure how to defend against that criticism except to say that it is an approach to ethics that I don’t agree with.

        (Feel free to continue this discussion here if you’d like, I don’t believe I’ll be free to make a lengthy blog post concerning this soon because I have a few others in the works as well as school work that’s piling up. When I get the chance I certainly will.)

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