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Handling Life’s Difficulties

“In any age,” Jacques Barzun observed, “life confronts all but the most obtuse with a set of impossible demands: it is an action to be performed without rehearsal or respite; it is a confused spectacle to be sorted out and charted; it is a mystery, not indeed to be solved, but to be restated according to some vision, however imperfect. These demands bear down with redoubled force in times of decay and deconstruction, because guiding customs and conventions are in disarray.” For Barzun, the way out consisted of “a resolve to fight the mechanical.”

Einstein’s Spiritual Insight

The most important function of art and science, Einstein once claimed, is to awaken “cosmic religious feeling” in the young. This feeling, he said, is difficult to elucidate to those without it. It does not correspond to any anthropomorphic conception of God, and no church can be found whose central teachings are based on it. Those who experience it “feel the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought.”

A Few Thoughts On Human Malice

Why do people do reprehensible things? What accounts for the sort of malice one reads about in the news every day – not only homicides and extreme violence, but acts of deviousness, vengeance, and treachery? Why do the alarm bells of conscience go off in some heads but not in others? Across the last sixty years philosophers and psychotherapists have offered insights into the subject. Here is a sampling of them.

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Reference Section

Bon Mot Archive

Bon Mot

The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition...always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.

– Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. This is an error of the intellect as inevitable as that error of the eye which lets us fancy that on the horizon heaven and earth meet. This explains many things, and among them the fact that everyone measures us with his own standard -- generally about as long as a tailor’s tape, and we have to put up with it: as also that no one will allow us to be taller than himself -- a supposition which is once for all taken for granted.

– Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

Prior to Kant, the line between theological and philosophical discourse is fluid. Both these extravagantly human enterprises have the same root. Human beings are persuaded that the totality of sensory-empirical data such as observation, the sciences and rational analysis which can assemble and order them, is not the whole story. Or, in Wittgenstein's aphorism: that the facts of the world are not, will never be, “the end of the matter.”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

Ours is a life not of brotherliness, happiness, contentment but of spiritual chaos and bewilderment dangerously close to a state of madness -- not the hysterical kind of madness which existed in the Middle Ages but a madness akin to schizophrenia in which the contact with inner reality is lost and thought is split from affect.

Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

One man thinks pretty much what the man next to him thinks: the human porridge of the traffic accident, weeks ago, or years.

– Thomas Bernhard, Frost


Nietzsche On The Need To Be Alone

“A traveler who had seen many countries and peoples and several continents was asked what human traits he had found everywhere; and he answered: men are inclined to laziness. Some will feel that he might have said with greater justice: they are all timorous. They hide behind customs and opinions. At bottom, every human being knows very well that he is in this world just once, as something unique, and that no accident, however strange, will throw together a second time into a unity such a curious and diffuse plurality: he knows it, but hides it like a bad conscience -- why?”

A Free Man’s Worship

“A strange mystery it is,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother.”

Philosophy And Depression

Contrary to what is often supposed, depression may not be some “disease” that needs to be extirpated from the mind; it might instead be a natural reaction to one's social surroundings and situation – the healthy suspicion that the life people have actually created, the “structure of society,” is not one worth participating in. The aim then would be not to kill this suspicion but to tame it and work with it.

The Limits Of Language

“The holy man, the initiate, withdraws not only from the temptations of worldly action; he withdraws from speech,” George Steiner writes in Language and Silence. “His retreat into the mountain cave or monastic cell is the outward gesture of his silence. Even those who are only novices on this arduous road are taught to distrust the veil of language, to break through it to the more real...Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence."



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The Responsibility Of Intellectuals

By Tim Ruggiero

To whom or to what, if to anything at all, should intellectuals be responsible? Here “intellectuals” is used broadly to refer to anyone interested in ideas and abstract thought, in cerebration, in theorizing.

The longstanding view of Noam Chomsky is that intellectuals are obliged to tell the truth and to expose the lies of those in positions of authority. His view is grounded in the belief that the facts about social life are accessible to anybody interested in them. They can be found in documents and case studies, in the alternative press, in policy journals, in the reports of human-rights organizations, the testimony of witnesses to power abroad. The issue for Chomsky is not whether the truth is ascertainable; it is whether somebody is honest and courageous enough to follow the truth wherever it may lead. In modern societies there are powerful incentives to get along and go along with those who wield influence, not the least being the promise of a comfortable and privileged existence. In any society the dissenter, the resister, can expect to be ridiculed and marginalized, slandered or ignored. This is no less true in the United States than it is in Russia, China, or Britain.

Chomsky does not deny that there are impediments to the discovery of truth. He has written at length, in fact, about the use of propaganda to manipulate and control the masses. He freely admits that much popular discourse obscures rather than reveals the truth, that discourse often serves the purposes of the governing class. It is his conviction, nevertheless, that with some effort a person can come to understand the workings of power in the world.

A quite different perspective is found in the work of Jean Baudrillard. On a range of issues, from globalization to the Iraq war to the arrogance of western power, Baudrillard’s thinking is consonant with Chomsky’s. And like Chomsky, Baudrillard believes lucidity to be the aspiration of thought. But on the question of truth he dissents. For Baudrillard, the world is not some tree off of which the fruit of facts is readily picked; the world today, rather, is governed by appearances and simulacra. In his work America he has this to say:

Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity. They do not know that facts are factitious, as their name suggests. It is in this belief in facts, in the total credibility of what is done or seen, in this pragmatic evidence of things and an accompanying contempt for what may be called appearances or the play of appearances – a face does not deceive, behavior does not deceive, a scientific process does not deceive, nothing deceives, nothing is ambivalent (and at bottom this is true: nothing deceives, there are no lies, there is only simulation, which is precisely the facticity of facts) – that the Americans are a true utopian society, in their religion of the fait accompli, in the naivety of their deductions, in their ignorance of the evil genius of things. You have to be utopian to think that in a human order, of whatever nature, things can be as plain and straightforward as that. All other societies contain within them some heresy or other, some dissidence, some kind of suspicion of reality, the superstitious belief in a force of evil and the possible control of that force by magic, a belief in the power of appearances. Here, there is no dissidence, no suspicion. The emperor has no clothes; the facts are there before us.

The difference between the two thinkers is not so much political as ontological. Chomsky believes, contra McLuhan, that technology is neutral: the intrusion into social life of television and computer screens, the omnipresence of imagery and advertising, the sequestering effect of cellular phones, the collapse of what historically was an agora into strip malls and super malls, the transition from what Neil Postman called a print-based culture to an image-based one – none of these things has inspired Chomsky to reassess his basically empiricist, pragmatist methodology. For Baudrillard these developments mark a fundamental change in the social ecology of humans. They have dramatically altered the relationship between referents and signs (the former have gone missing, the latter continue to proliferate). A decade before the advent of the web Baudrillard wrote, “There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality.”

For Chomsky there is still, in spite of the wild permutations of technology, a reality today susceptible of rational analysis. For Baudrillard there is only the desert of the real, simulacra pouring out of hegemonic networks, and a deep, irrevocable feeling of absence, of a life that is no more. Which of these perspectives, the Chomskyan or the Baudrillardian, is the more convincing today? Or is there a tertium quid?

The Necessity For The Name “God”

By John A.T. Robinson

The necessity for the name “God” lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize. And the nemesis which has overtaken naturalism in our day has revealed the peril of trying to suppress them. As Tillich puts it,

Our period has decided for a secular world. That was a great and much-needed decision…It gave consecration and holiness to our daily life and work. Yet it excluded those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion. These things cannot be excluded. If we try to expel them in their divine images, they re-emerge in daemonic images. Now, in the old age of our secular world, we have seen the most horrible manifestations of these daemonic images; we have looked more deeply into the mystery of evil than most generations before us; we have seen the unconditional devotion of millions to a satanic image; we feel our period’s sickness unto death.

There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgements of the holy and the sacred, awarenesses of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic, which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else. There is the “Thus saith the Lord” heard by prophet, apostle and martyr for which naturalism cannot account. But neither can it discount it merely by pointing to the fact that “the Lord” is portrayed in the Bible in highly mythological terms, as one who “inhabits eternity” or “walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.” The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of “what you take seriously without any reservation,” of what for you is ultimate reality. [Emphasis in original.]

Jung’s Observation About People

In Man And His Symbols (1964, pp.48-49), Carl Jung offers this observation about the many people he had either known or counseled over the course of his life:

"I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. I was also surprised to find many intelligent and wide-awake people who lived (as far as one could make out) as if they had never learned to use their sense organs: They did not see the things before their eyes, hear the words sounding in their ears, or notice the things they touched or tasted. Some lived without being aware of the state of their own bodies.

"There are others who seemed to live in a most curious condition of consciousness, as if the state they had arrived at today were final, with no possibility of change, or as if the world and the psyche were static and would remain so forever. They seemed devoid of all imagination, and they entirely and exclusively depended upon their sense-perception. Chances and possibilities did not exist in their world, and in 'today' there was no real 'tomorrow'. The future was just the repetition of the past."

The Revolution Betrayed

By Terry Eagleton

Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it's hard to think of a historical movement which has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins [than Christianity]. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. The liberal establishment really has nothing whatsoever to fear from it and everything to gain. For the most part, it's become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the rifraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out. The suburbanite response to the anawim, a term which can be roughly translated into American English as 'loser,' is for the most part to flush them off the streets.

This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of the female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image -- a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessed God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and just north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the tractless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burnt offerings stink in his nostrils...Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neo-cons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right...

The Christian church has tortured and disemboweled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, santimonious, brutally oppressive, and vilely bigoted. Morality for this brand of belief is a matter of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. It supports murderous dictatorships in the name of God, views both criticism and pessimism as unpatriotic, and imagines that being a Christian means maintaining a glazed grin, a substantial bank balance, and a mouthful of pious platitudes. It denounces terrorism, but excludes from its strictures such kidnapping, torturing, murdering outfits as the CIA...

This brand of faith fails to see that the only cure for terrorism is justice. It also fails to grasp to what extent the hideous, disfigured thing clamoring at its gates is its own monstrous creation. It is unable to acknowledge this thing of darkness as in part its own, unable to find its own reflection in its distorted visage...It is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion.

I am talking, then, about the distinction between what seems to me a scriptural and an ideological kind of Christian faith -- a distinction which can never simply be assumed but must be interminably argued. One name for this thankless exercise is what Nietzsche, who held that churches were the tombs and sepulchres of God, called in Kierkegaardian phrase saving Christianity from Christendom. Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless. It is not a project which at present holds out much promise of success.

Darkening Of The World

The following is an excerpt from Marjorie Grene's essay "Martin Heidegger" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ms. Grene passed away in March 2009; she wrote some two dozen books, among which are works on Sartre and Heidegger.

The "darkening of the world" is Heidegger's constant theme. So, for example, in Holzwege ("Woodpaths," 1950), he tells us that we live in the age of research, of the planned, systematic coordination of intellectual tasks. And what sort of tasks can be planned and coordinated? Neat, limited, manageable tasks -- tasks, primarily, that demand inventiveness rather than understanding, tasks for engineering know-how rather than theoretical insight. Heidegger draws no line between pure and applied science. Science for him is research, and research is a procedure for solving well-packaged problems. Such problems are, in general, those of manufacture, of inventing new and better gadgets. According to Heidegger, das Herstellbare, the collection of gadgets, is what we are after; that is what specialization, the rigid departmental structure of expertise in our society, amounts to. And all this vast proliferation of technical skills nevertheless has its inner unity -- that is, its historical and metaphysical unity. It had to happen this way. It had to happen this way because we are fallen out of Being. We are more concerned with beings, from genes to space ships, than with our true calling, which is to be shepherds and watchers of Being. So it is that we are lost, and Being itself has become a haze and an error -- nothing.

(See more from Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Excerpts & Passages: Einstein on God and the Good Life; Rilke’s Imaginary Life Journey; Adorno on Modern Human Relations.)

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