Terry and Arthur

Terry EagletonOn this day in 1732, the first US president George Washington was born. The less said about him, the better.

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788. He is probably my favorite philosopher. Not surprisingly, he was a proponent of philosophical pessimism, which is “a worldview or ethic that seeks to face up to the distasteful realities of the world and eliminate irrational hopes and expectations.” I think that puts rather too rosy a gloss on what Schopenhauer wrote. I don’t actually accept his idea in The World as Will and Representation, but I nonetheless think he is onto something profound. The will is what keeps us living even though life is nothing so much as a sequence of painful events. As Wikipedia describes the will as it applies to ontology, “Schopenhauer presents a pessimistic picture on which unfulfilled desires are painful, and pleasure is merely the sensation experienced at the instant one such pain is removed. However, most desires are never fulfilled, and those that are fulfilled are instantly replaced by more unfulfilled ones.” On the other hand, if you look at those photos of him as an old man, I think you can tell that he saw humor in the absurdities of life. Ultimately, I think that is our only hope. Because life does not make sense and continuing through all of this pain makes no sense. If it gets better, it will only be temporary.

The tallest man in human history, Robert Wadlow was born in 1918. He was 8 feet 11 inches tall—three feet taller than his father. When I was a kid, I thought he was amazing. Now I look at him and I am filled with sadness. How can people look at him and think that there is a loving god. The man lived in pain most of his life and if he had lived longer, he certainly would have reached the point where he couldn’t walk. What a mess.

Other birthdays: the great Romantic period composer Frederic Chopin (1810); poet James Russell Lowell (1819); astronomer Pierre Janssen (1824); physicists Heinrich Hertz (1857); the great chess writer Savielly Tartakower (1887); the great film director Luis Bunuel (1900); actor John Mills (1908); announcer Don Pardo (96); film director David Greene (1921); actor Paul Dooley (86); statesman Ted Kennedy (1932); film director Jonathan Demme (70); actor Julie Walters (64); actor Kyle MacLachlan (55); and actor Drew Barrymore (39).

The day, however, belongs to the great Shakespearean scholar Terry Eagleton who is 71 today. But the truth is that I don’t know much about his work. I have one of his books, William Shakespeare. It was my first exposure to him where he wrote, “To any unprejudiced reader—which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics—it is surely clear that positive vlue in Macbeth lies with the three witches.” He goes on to discuss how the witches are democratic whereas the Scots are hierarchical and so on. How can you not love a man who would write such a thing?

Since then, I have read a number of Eagleton’s book. He writes these very insightful short books on philosophy such as Reason, Faith, and Revolution and On Evil. I especially like him because intellectually he is an outsider. Just as I am an atheist who offends all other atheists, he is a Christian who offends all other Christians. This is pretty much because my form of atheism is the same as his form of Christianity. Regardless, he is always worth reading because he always has something interesting to say, unlike most intellectuals.

Happy birthday Terry Eagleton!

0 thoughts on “Terry and Arthur

  1. I am woefully deficient in my philosophy knowledge, so apologies in advance.

    But, for those of us in rich countries, does life really suck all that hard? I honestly don’t think so. We have innumerable frustrations — personal, professional, caused largely by the very fixable, not-being-fixed flaws in our societies. And there are really horrible things that come from our living in these flawed societies as well — improper medical care that leads to unnecessary disability/death, the monstrous damage being in war zones does to soldiers, those sorts of problems.

    But does much of what modern philosophy describes as suffering or anomie or angst really deserve notice? I hate the things I need to do to earn my keep. Most of us do. We aren’t picking through garbage piles in Mumbai. It could be, and for most of human history has certainly been, much worse.

    Not to defend American society/culture, which is a fucktastic mistake and could use innumerable improvements. I’m not saying that the stressors in our lives are insignificant. Just that, as someone in the poorest 40%, I find my life to have fairly equal measures of good and bad. Landlords and supervisors and insurance companies; bad. Friends; largely good. In the end, life is probably more pain than joy, because of sickness/diminishment, but up until that point we do have aspirin and library books. Yes, most of us have our talents wasted by the barry society we live in. And that’s a source of psychic pain. It could, however, be — and for much of the world is — much worse. Schadenfreude!

  2. @JMF – Schopenhauer deals exactly with this question. It mostly comes down to expectations. But he would say the nature of the will is such that as soon as our desires are fulfilled, we develop new desires to make us unhappy. So it really has nothing to do with what we lack. It is in our nature to be unhappy.

    As he put it, life consists of "momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, [i]bellum omnium[/i], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in [i]saecula saeculorum[/i] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks." Can’t you see why I love him?!

  3. Hmm . . . autocorrect turned "batshit society" into "barry society." It usually just makes "bats hit" into "bats hit." I’ll have to watch out for that "barry." Because I love using the word "batshit."

    I like the bummed-out authors, myself, but one has to be wary. All too often depressed people find Jesus, legal pharmaceuticals, or support groups. Which is fine; I’m all in favor of whatever makes them happier. The trouble is, generally they get so high on the thing which makes them happier that they insist we all do it as well. And that’s a mistake.

    Just so long as you never trade in Schopenhauer for Kant!

  4. @JMF – I thought you meant to write "very." It still made sense.

    Now what is wrong with Kant? I greatly admire him. The problem is he is so dry. The thing about Schopenhauer is that I find him fun. But both men are better read secondhand. It’s hard to read the originals.

  5. Wasn’t Kant the moral absolutes guy (again, my philosophy knowledge is slim and largely forgotten, it was so many years ago)? I think I remember a bit by him where he stated that certain things are always wrong. The example had to do with lying, and if someone came to your house looking to murder a friend you were hiding. According to Kant, it would be wrong to lie to the murderous-minded guy, because lying=wrong.

    Now this is preposterous. In that example, lying to the murderous guy "nope, he’s not in here" definitely benefits your friend, and probably benefits the murderous guy as well. And in less extreme examples, lying is very often beneficial. If some poor kid says "I want to be an astronaut" we don’t say, "it’s almost impossible even if you went to a good school and the school you’re attending sucks." Even though that may in fact be true. It’s also rarely a good idea to say, "why yes, you do look fat."

    And just about any "immoral" action can be the right thing to do in certain circumstances. Think of Chomsky’s example of grabbing a kid who’s running in front of a car, and breaking the kid’s arm. Yes, the obligation is on the person doing the immoral thing to justify it; you better have a damn good reason for breaking the kid’s arm. But saving the kid from getting run over is a good reason.

    I like the idea of moral absolutes (for example, I tell myself that I would never do something I believe to be wrong for financial gain — which has yet to be a very strong temptation, so I’m not exactly noble on that score.) It seems to me though that moral absolutes can easily become an excuse for avoiding moral responsibility. This of course is a huge problem with religious "morality." If V, X, and Z are strictly forbidden, one can consider oneself a moral person even if one engages in scummy actions W & Y. (Hence, the American Republican party, which permits every scummy action in the alphabet except the harmless GLBT S&M!)

    I do need to bone up on my philosophy, though, it’s been too long, and my education stopped with the Greeks more-or-less. It’s just as I get older, there are too many damn things I want to read . . .

  6. @JMF – First, thanks for the link. That was probably the basis for [i]Reason, Faith, and Revolution[/i], which is quite good.

    What you’ve written doesn’t sound like the Kant I know. But it often seems to me that everyone sees their own Kant. For example, Ayn Rand thought that he was a relativist. I think that he is kind of a neo-Platonist. He seems to think that there is an absolute reality that we subjectively access. But what you are talking about is moral philosophy, and I don’t really know where he comes down there. I think when it came to practical matters, he was a much more shaky thinker.

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