Friday, July 8, 2011

Life is a gamble

We have been trying to learn Spanish and to this end our profesora sometimes has us read bits of Spanish poetry or pithy sayings to keep things interesting. We’ve warmed up to the Spanish philosophers of the anti-scholastic tradition, who seem to have some absurd elements in their worldview.

They resisted the urge of their northern neighbors to rationalize and explain everything. They tended to view the world as chaotic, unpredictable and unreliable. As author Deborah Bennett put it:

“Their position runs roughly as follows: Nature and we humans conspired in creating a difficult and largely intractable environment. Spanish philosophy has tended to keep reason in its place. It inclines to see reality, or at any rate that part of it that constitute the setting for human life, as chaotic, incoherent, pervaded by disorder. Life is precarious…. In all our doings and undertakings, we humans give hostages to fortune.”

They advised that people be flexible and prepared to play many roles. In fact, Spanish literature offers up the model of el picaro, a sort of chameleon, “a person who manages to attune himself to the requirements of moment.”

Versatility, adaptability and an inclination to eschew grand plans…. These were parcels of the Spanish anti-scholastics. And we find they ring true with the absurd man and inspire absurd thoughts.

Of course, these Spaniards weren’t really absurd, because they had all kinds of maxims about what’s important and what isn’t and essentially were moralists of a certain stripe. (See Balthazar Gracian, for instance). But they had a good premise.

This desire to check reason and keep it in its place is particularly practical. Often we find people (including ourselves) trying to rationalize different actions and things. Why do I like this and not that? Why did I do that and not this?

We’ve found it helpful to check such thinking. This compulsion to constantly explain oneself is something that we find anti-absurd. First, it reinforces the ideas that you are important, which you are not. (Nor is anybody else!) Second, it reinforces the illusion of a unique self that is seemingly in control of what’s going on, which it isn’t. And third, who cares! Really, life is absurd, to be lived in the moment, with no regrets, accepting what card comes from the deck with equanimity.

In fact, Gracian favored comparing life to card games, where chance played a big role. He said, “In this life, fate mixes the cards as she likes, without consulting our wishes in the matter. And we have no choice but to play the hand she deals to us.”

True. But we can choose to play the hand in an absurd manner – with adaptability, flexibility and indifference as to the outcome of the bets!


  1. A new post?!?!?! Absurd.

  2. Nice. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on ration, particularly the current role it's playing in arguing non-existence is preferable to conscious existence. I've got a feeling ration is combining with the western deference to the ego to justify consciousness-hating sentiments but I'm not in a position to flush it out.

  3. Why be adaptable and flexible if you're indifferent to the outcome of the bets?

    Card games are inherently teleological. Even if I'm not in control of what hand is dealt, I can still play poker with the intention of winning chips. The game and results might be absurd, but the framework for making rational decisions is real.

    People falsely, self-assuringly, rationalize their behavior (see: losing poker players). Does that mean I should diminish, if not abandon, the use of reason (ration?) in attuning myself "to the requirements of the moment"?

  4. pete v--

    They'll respond to your query after they post their next entry, probably sometime in late October.