Tuesday, July 13, 2010

But...but...last time I did not receive a piece of cake...

We have not posted in a while, partly because we felt the debate regarding the existence (or lack thereof) of personal meaning had grown a bit stale. Indeed, one of the interesting parts about this blog has been that, while there are seemingly endless topics that relate to the absurd, in many ways the stories are all the same. However, one interesting divide we think worth exploring is the issue of what is "real" versus the best way to live a contented life.

Now, we have argued ad nauseum that the self is an illusion, and the only way to logically believe in such an entity is to also believe in some "other" aspect to the world beyond the physical. This, to us, is not debatable. However, it is also the case that we cannot dismiss the notion of this "other" world out of hand. In fact, given that all experience is filtered through our human senses, we cannot ever know if we are simply brains in a vat (akin to The Matrix), or if "reality" is the work of a single consciousness (ie, solipsism).

So...we are not so interested in "truth," per se. Do we believe the self to be an illusion? Yes. But we cannot (now or ever) prove this to be the case, much as we can never prove God to be non-existent. Absence of evidence, as the saying goes, is not evidence of absence.

Thus, we are left with pursuing the best way to live a contented life. And it is here that we find the recent debate over personal meaning to be most revealing. As the defenders of personal meaning argue, the absence of universal meaning is irrelevant to their conception of individual meaning, in which they find joy and significance in their own lives. Family, comfort, good food and wine...these are some examples of things one can find personally meaningful, even if one accepts the futility of existence.

Well, as Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend!" We recently read David Foster Wallace's famed "cruise ship essay," and for those who have not read it we cannot recommend it highly enough. The nub of the piece is that the cruise ship industry is selling something tremendously alluring but ultimately undeliverable--the promise to satisfy all our desires. As he puts it:

"For this-the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS-is the central fantasy the [cruise ship] brochure is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn't that this promise will be kept but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie. (It might well be The Big One, come to think of it.) And of course I want to believe it; I want to believe that maybe this ultimate fantasy vacation will be enough pampering, that this time the luxury and pleasure will be so completely and faultlessly administered that my infantile part will be sated at last. But the infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification
and pampering, the insatiable-infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction."

This--the insatiability of human appetites--is the problem with personal meaning. Personal meaning, by definition, is wanting certain things over others; preferring certain states of affairs; imposing some arbitrary notion of meaning based purely on our animal instincts and prior experiences. It is the root of human unhappiness, and the source of all conflict. To want is to be unhappy; to desire is to try to control things one cannot control; to impose a hierarchical structure on things and experiences is to set oneself on a never-ending treadmill that leads only to despair.

Let us also say, to head off one obvious objection, that we of course feel such things. However, we recognize such feelings for what we believe them to be (manifestations of our physical nature), rather than seeking to imbue them with meaning. We get frustrated, angry, hungry, aroused...but we don't dwell on it. Instead, we move from moment to moment, free of the self-imposed yoke of worry and regret.

None of this is new, of course, and we close with a quote from Epictetus' 2000-year-old Enchiridion, which we also highly recommend:

"Of things some are in our power and others are not. In our power are opinion, desire (movement towards a thing), aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power); and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance. But the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others.

Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another's, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily, no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.

If then you desire (aim at) such great things, remember that you must not (attempt to) lay hold of them with small effort. You must also leave alone some things entirely, and postpone others for the present. But if you wish for these things also (great things), and power (office), and wealth, perhaps you will not gain even these very things (power and wealth) because you aim also at these former things (great things)... But certainly, you will fail in those things through which alone happiness and freedom are secured.

Straightaway then practice saying to every harsh appearance: You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be. Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say that it does not concern you"


  1. Gatorcog sayeth-
    The Hungry Ghost: Insatiable appetite with a huge stomach, but a mouth and throat too tiny to eat and swallow all that it desires. Neverending hedonism. I think this is the concept you want. You know you want it. You want it badly and here, I have given it to you but you want to take it as your own as if it originated with you. You are selfish bloggers. Now go back to vacationing, as you were, and think of the damage you have done to my ego. If you beg, I will not forgive you. If you are indifferent I may re-place you upon the alter from which you came.

  2. Rick,

    It's about time you quoted Epictetus.


  3. . . . and let's get some more Aurelius and Diogenes in the mix. The Stoics and Cynics, respectively, thank you in advance.