Sunday, October 18, 2015

Paperback Philosopher

Intrigued at a young age by the subject of philosophy in Catholic schools, I remember taking an introductory class in college. Though fascinated by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, I lacked the ability to digest more recent heavyweights such as Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. I needed more time to develop, to acquire wisdom by living life.

The word itself -- philosophy -- translates from Greek into “lover of wisdom.” Still a teenager that first year of college, I could argue eloquently, usually with my parents, on the collective wisdom of teenagers. In hindsight, it was a rather pathetic joke. Wisdom can come from study, but there's nothing like real life experience.

Indeed, the Greeks excelled at the study of philosophy, and inquiries into the nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language. In addition to the “Big Three” of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (above), many other Greek philosophers added to the collective wisdom of humankind. All had something to say of value.

For starters, let us consider the founder of Western philosophy, Socrates (above): “Wisdom begins in wonder.” “He is rich who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” And, finally, “be as you wish to seem.”

Next up, Plato: “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” “Courage is knowing what not to fear.”  And, of course, my personal favorite: “He was a wise man who invented beer.”

Lastly, Aristotle: “Quality is not an act, it’s a habit.” “Happiness depends on ourselves.” “Wit is educated insolence.” “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.” And, of course, “love is composed a single soul in two bodies.”

Words of wisdom that resonate, to be sure. But the Greek philosophers were a bit easier for me to grasp as a college freshman than later philosophers who would expound on subjects like metaphysics, logic, epistemology and ethics. Frankly, it’s pretty easy to lose your way in the world of Machiavelli, Pascal and Descartes.

For added perspective and insight into the subject of philosophy, I read a number of paperbacks this past summer: Travels With Epicurus by Daniel Klein, Plato And A Platypus Walk Into A Bar… by Klein and David Cathcart, and two by Alain de Botton: The Art Of Travel and The Consolations Of Philosophy. All were enlightening.

The authors provide a lively and entertaining take on philosophy, and are all well-versed on the subject. Their narrative makes complicated tenets of academic philosophy accessible to even the likes of me. All four books were thoroughly thought-provoking, witty, intelligent and, most importantly, simply written.

Particularly enjoyed the perspectives of Greek philosopher Epicurus, who said it’s “not what we have, but what we enjoy (that) constitutes our abundance.” A primary focus of Epicurus was on companionship: “of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s life in happiness, the greatest is by far the possession of friendship.”

Contrary to public opinion, Epicurus (above) was not necessarily the epitome of hedonism as we know it from popular lore -- that is, the champion of wine, women and song. On the contrary, Epicurus would tell you that choosing your dinner companion is much more important than what might be on tonight's menu.

In Travels With Epicurus, Klein notes that in 21st century business and industry, the service of a goal has little or nothing to do with genuine friendship. Bosses give instructions because they want results, and employees follow these instructions for the same reason, one of those desired results being a paycheck and other compensation.

Yet, no matter how many policies and procedure manuals proposing treating employees and colleagues as genuine individuals that management will ceremoniously unveil, the sad truth remains that a commercial situation is always inherently political. Freed from the bonds of commerce and politics, one can be oneself with another.

Viewing an individual as an end rather than means is as much a treat for us as the person to whom we are relating. No need to manipulate, exploit or maneuver in attempt to make someone do something. With friends, it’s simply about conversation, laughter, a game of ping-pong, and perhaps most importantly, to share the silence of a sunset.

In The Art Of Travel, de Botton provides broad perspective on the philosophy of travel, and specifically addresses the anticipation of travel and its (at times, unfortunate) reality. If our lives -- and our travels -- are indeed pursuits of happiness, then perhaps few activities illustrate the passion and paradox of these quests.

Reading this book was timely while traveling to Europe. The passion? An afternoon in Portofino (above). The paradox? Traveling 27 hours straight by air, sea and land for the privilege: a physical, emotional and psychological challenge for such exotic pleasure. As Steve Miller would opine: "You gotta go through hell before you get to heaven."

De Botton noted as much, citing the protagonist in A Rebours by J.K. Huysmans: “As the train approached, des Esseintes was abruptly overcome with lassitude: how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, stand in lines, endure an unfamiliar bed.” At least des Esseintes didn’t have to deal with TSA.

Ironically, while we are inundated with advice on where to travel, we rarely hear about why or how we should go, even though the art of travel includes questions neither so simple nor trivial. He provides perspective on what Greek philosophers termed eudainonia, or “human flourishing.” In other words, a true vacation.

Cathcart and Klein use humor while simultaneously providing a crash course in philosophy in Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar. “The notion of infinity has been confounding metaphysicians for, well, an eternity. Non-metaphysicians, however, have been less impressed.” They illustrate with the old saw about two cows in a pasture.

“One turns to the other and says, ‘Although pi is usually abbreviated to five numbers, it actually goes on into infinity.’ The second cow turns to the first and says ‘moo.’” I’m much like the second cow. The concept of infinity is too immense for my little spot of gray matter to absorb. But the concept of Zeno’s Paradox is easier to understand.

“A paradox is a seemingly sound piece of reasoning based on seemingly true assumptions that leads to a contradiction or another obviously false conclusion.” The authors then use a comedy routine worthy of I Love Lucy. “Salesman: ‘Ma’am, this vacuum cleaner will cut your work in half.’ Woman: ‘Terrific! Give me two of them.’”

In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton discusses the philosophy of such miseries as unpopularity, a lack of money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulties. Concerning the lack of fiscal resources, he reminds us to not forget about our real treasures: friendship, freedom, thought. He cites our old friend, Epicurus.

“Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analyzed life, we will never truly be happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.” Truly inspired words, no?

Two other tomes I would recommend for their ability to explain concepts of philosophy in clearly relatable and enjoyable prose: Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato, both by Robert Rowland Smith. I’m ready for more. Next up: Heidigger And A Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates by Daniel Klein.