Male rage and gun violence: a reflection

Hidden under the covers of today’s society, albeit something that many women are aware of, is a deep current of male rageImage, especially among the youngest men. Older men often seem to have made peace with the difficulties of being a man and of relating to women, but younger men often have not. Having spent many years now involved in the “men’s movement”, for lack of a better term, I have witnessed a move from serenity to rage as the people I hang out with get younger and younger. Many young men get together on bulletin boards across the Web to share thoughts about how “if you want to have lots of women in your life, you have to become COLD: don’t let those b*tches touch your soul, be ICE and you’ll be a mack daddy”. Or words to that effect. Dating sites like OkCupid are chock full of men who say that they are “nice guys” Imagebut then boil over with vitriol against the “sl*ts” and “wh*res” that refuse to date them (but are presumably dating other men). There was even a tumblr called “Nice Guys of OkCupid” dedicated to exposing these men. And then there are “men’s sites” like Return of Kings, which organizes “fattie-hating weeks” dedicated to finding and shaming overweight women on Facebook. And the list goes on.

Where does it come from? The roots of this male rage, which is growing at a frightening rate, are in a way rather simple, just as for most of our lives and in most of our contexts we think simple things. “I deserve a woman, and I don’t have one. Ergo, women are evil for rejecting me”. Part of this is normal… these men really do see themselves as “nice”, and probably they are,Image most of the time. I remember this well… as a teenager, I spent my time trying to be pleasant and nice at all times, only to be mocked and rejected by many of my peers, sometimes with physical violence. As a reaction, I became a very angry punk rocker, and that anger poisoned my soul for years. So, what is the difference between young men today and young men of all ages who have sought to be nice to the people around them? Why does being nice in Mulberry work, whereas it doesn’t work today, for so many of these men?

Well, the first part of the answer is that being nice does often work, just not with what these men want, namely dating women (although the answer, perhaps oddly, doesn’t involve doing the opposite of nice, namely being an *sshole, it just means being interesting, fun and powerful). So, the male rage plague, in one aspect of its vitriol (though not the only one) stems strongly from a simple lack of skill: young men simply do not know how to relate to women successfully, where successful means having a girlfriend. This has a deep cause: male and female roles and economic/power balance have all changed radically in the last century, and as Imagea result new rules and new roles and new terrain have all now become the norm, without anyone really knowing how to navigate this bizarre new reality. The rules that worked for Andy Griffith don’t work for me or for any other of the young men I run across in my daily life and on the net.

The Tootsie paradox. What’s more, women have a very difficult time articulating what they want: it’s the Tootsie paradox all over again. Dustin Hoffman’s character dressed up as a woman to find out what the one woman he wanted wanted herself. And she couldn’t articulate it… she told “Tootsie” (Hoffman in disguise) that she wanted a man to tell her, straight out and in the open, that he wanted to ravage her sexually. Then, taking this as his cue, Hoffman’s character actually tells her this and gets slapped. So, what did she really want?

There is a funny phrase that women will use with their girlfriends, but that men don’t understand: “He gets it” or “He doesn’t Imageget it”. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll be friendzoned, but if he does “get it”, he has a chance to be a boyfriend or lover. But just ask a woman to translate “getting it” into words, and she can’t… she knows it but doesn’t know it. This is as normal a phenomenon in human life as baseball… ask Reggie Jackson how he bats so well, and he’ll say “you have to swing right and connect hard”. Huh? Thanks for the advice, Reg! So, women and men are faced with a situation where men want something (namely women) that women want to give them but can’t actually tell them how to get. And given the intensity of the male urge to reproduction, you can bet that this dynamic will soon spill out into deep rage rooted in a feeling of impotence, which I believe we are now seeing in many manifestations.

The “rage” culture. I don’t have any sociological data to back this up, although I am keeping my eye out all the time, but I believe that male rage is seeping out into society in a whole range of ways that are not obviously connected with this male/female dynamic. “Rage in the Cage” is the name of a popular mixed-martial art competition, and its extreme violence is Imagequite rageful, and it’s pretty much all men who are doing it (though there is a minority of extremely tough women who also participate). There are the “Bad Boy Club” bumper stickers with the angry guy giving you the rageful eye. There is the Tea Party and the impotent rage of a whole generation of citizens on the right, whose hatred of Obama goes way beyond the rational and into the wacko. And then, finally, there are school shootings.

These shootings do not have anything to do, on the surface, with women. In fact, in rape in America has gone down to 0.2% of women having been raped in 2010, as compared with 0.5% in 1995.[1] But school shootings have gone up! I think this is no coincidence… our society has made it very, very uncomfortable for men who rape… nowadays if a man is known to be a rapist he will find no shelter anywhere, and especially not in prison, where fellow inmates will rape them in revenge for an imagined crime against their own girlfriends or wives. So where does this male rage go, then? I think that school shootings are one place. The historical data on school shooting fatalities shows them to have gone up in approximately the same proportion as rape statistics have gone down over the same time period.[2] And, if I am not mistaken, pretty much all of the shooter have been of the male gender, yes indeed.

What is to be done? All of this suggests a way of dealing with school violence that seems, at first glance, to be totally inane: treat the root cause, treat the powerful feelings of male impotence and humiliation. One way to do this will be to dramatically increase the mutual knowledge of men and women about how to form genuine, happy and fulfilling relationship that last, Imageand that provide all of the benefits that both partners want: sex and recognition of their worth for men, security, fun, increased freedom and mental health and, yes, sex for women. This is a big thing to ask, and some say it’s impossible (no man can ever understand a woman, they say). But both men and women are wanting it so much, that some progress has to be able to be made, if only because both parties are willing to go to great lengths to make it happen.


[1]: Rape Statistics (Wikipedia):

[2]: A Chart of the 137 Fatal School Shootings in the U.S. Since 1980 (Slate):

The Human Meaning of Identity

Filippo di ser Brunellesco, known to posterity as Brunelleschi, was a man with a mean streak. In 1409, with the collaboration of a group of friends from his hometown of Florence, he played a practical joke on another friend of his, Manetto Ammannatini, a master inlay worker also known as “Grasso” (the Fat man) for his impressive thickness. Brunelleschi managed, with the help of his and Grasso’s friends to make the latter believe he was actually not himself, but someone else named “Matteo”, a man who had the habit of gambling himself into debt and making others pay to get him out of trouble. After a night in jail, courtesy of a creditor who claimed Grasso owed him money, along with other tribulations, the inlay worker was so shaken by his experience of being “not himself” that he left his native Florence for Hungary, where he became a rich man. Returning to Florence in later years, Grasso apparently forgave Brunelleschi for the practical joke, but never returned to live in the city of his birth.

It is a curious fact of history that Brunelleschi was also an incredibly innovative architect, who laid down for the first time the principle of the absolute primacy of perspective in architecture, at once returning to the Greco-Roman canon of architecture and inaugurating an entirely new epoch in the art of architectonic design. For in taking advantage of late Medieval advances in geometry and optics, and in particular the new science of optical perspective, Brunelleschi developed a way of building that permeated his designs with something hitherto never seen, namely mathematically exact perspective that built the resulting building around the viewpoint of a single viewer, who, in a certain sense, retained a mastery over the resulting building and its “identity”. The later development of the Western sense of “self” has much to do with this radical Renaissance development, because perspective introduced the necessary existence of the subject into the world, the single point that in a very real sense “creates” the world that he or she experiences. No longer could it be naively said that Truth was “adaequatio rei et intellectus” (conformity of mind to the world), because the fact could no longer avoided that the perceiving subject played a critical role in the construction of phenomenological “reality”.

All this talk of “subjects” and “perspective” and “construction” might seem impossibly abstract, but in fact it has everything to do with one of the biggest struggles that every one of us faces over the course of our lives: the construction of a self, of a “me”, of a unique identity that marks us as independent and, to a certain degree, free beings in a world of other such selves. Any parent who has had an adolescent knows of the travails of the teenage years, where rebellion, insouciance, disobedience and apparently inexplicable anger can become the order of the day in the family household, while the maturing person fights to define him or herself as “other”, a “not my mother” and “not my father”. For some, this struggle ends at age 15, with the acquisition of a certain sense of self that likely partakes heavily of random cultural influences, some coming from the teenager’s peers, others from television and advertising and political rhetoric, with some perhaps deriving from the young man or woman’s own readings and thoughts. Parents are almost universally disconcerted by this process, but invariably the young person takes a path that is somehow abhorrent to the parent… for conservative parents, it is their daughter’s determination to break every sexual taboo that they themselves spent years developing and inculcating, for their son perhaps it is a descent into surliness, violence and drugs that ends with trips to the police station and long sessions with social workers. For liberal parents, their children will of course choose some intensely conservative or irrational religious sect, or will become a fierce young Republican militant, coming home every day to assure his or her mother and father that in some way they are destined to hell for their wrongheadedness.

This “identity” that we spent so much time and effort developing (both in adolescence and in later years) is an odd thing. For philosophers who have critically studied these issues, oftentimes they come to the conclusion that there is actually no such thing as “self”, and hence nothing that we could call our “identity”. Objections to the self are legion: we are different at every moment, and hence no unique, self-identical being can be said to exist over time; whatever it is that we think that we are, it can be easily destroyed or changed by modifications to the brain; if identity has anything to do with our physical being, then our “identity” could be presumably be transferred, via an atom-by-atom copy to another being, a clone of ourselves with the exact same brain state as we have at time t. Or, as the Buddha puts it, a close examination of the “self” shows that it simply reduces to a loose collection of mental “factors” that have no real unity whatsoever. But nonetheless “identity” persists, as does the notion of self. It can hardly be an accident that every  language in the history of the world has a word for “I”… being able to navigate the world successfully appears to absolutely require some concept of “this thing that is me”, even if we generally fail to develop any convincing definition for what this thing might be.

Yet for all its oddness, “identity” is a crucially important factor in our lives. Being a “self” with an “identity” is sufficiently important as to imply a dramatic breakdown of human functioning when it is brought into question or destroyed. Knowing that “I am this and not that” has been a necessity in every culture we know of, straight back to prehistory: in every narrative we have retained from ancient times, the great, heroic figures they speak of, or the gods they chronicle, have names, and act according to a definite character that they do not share with anyone or anything else. Whether it be Gilgamesh or Genji or Freya or Abraham, these figures act in the world knowing, in a mysterious way, who they are, and in their struggles or even battles, with gods and men, their great achievement is precisely in preserving that selfhood, that identity, intact despite the real danger of failure. And it is not only human individuals that need an identity: almost any community that we participate in, whether it be a “band of brothers” or a vast nation straddling a continent, spends major time and effort in developing intricate symbolism and myths that brand it as “itself” and nothing else. For anyone who has been witness to the obsessive urgency of high school sports, it is clear that despite one set of high school students not being fundamentally different from any other, there is in each school a fierce loyalty to “their” team, its mascot (silly or not), its colors, motto and perhaps even its song, not to mention its specific cheers (and sometimes insults). Losing our identity, be it communitarian/collective or individual/self, is a disaster that can leave us unable to function properly in the world.

In a recent visit to Mexico, I was struck by the continuing debate about who “we” are as Mexicans. Despite the massive presence of Hispanic (read, inherited from Spain) culture in every corner of the Republic, some Mexicans have been taught, and will insist with vigor and sometimes anger, that they are “really” Aztecs, despite the fact that this particular indigenous people was largely massacred by Cortés and his band of adventurers, with the complicity of numerous other Indian tribes that loathed their Aztec masters more than the bearded, white riders of horses that came from the East. It is surely the case that Mexico is profoundly “pre-Columbian” in many ways, as their incomparable cuisine (owing nearly nothing to what was brought from Spain) or the many Nahuatl words in their dialect of Spanish, both witness, together with the persistence of numerous native cultures and customs at the “bottom” of the Mexican societal pyramid. For a Mexican to say what he or she is is no simple matter, because if he says “I am Aztec”, he is saying these words in “Castellano”, a language deriving from the arid plains of northern Spain and descended ultimately from Latin, that quintessential language of the European West. But if, against all social and political pressure, the Mexican insists on honoring his/her Spanish roots, there remains the stubborn question of where the fundamental Mexican character comes from, which is decisively itself, not having any “twin” on the Iberian peninsula, and clearly differing in major ways from the Neo-Hispanic “criollo” cultures of the colonial era. From the outside, it is easy to wonder why Mexicans would worry… they obviously are themselves, not having clones in any other part of the world, and having traits that are sometimes immensely attractive and at others tremendously infuriating to non-Mexicans, but which are theirs in an undeniable way. But even after more than two centuries of independence, the issue still is one that is questioned and debated, in restaurants, cantinas, the Mexico City metro and taxicabs without number. So it would seem that we cannot live without at least attempting to know our own identities, even if pinning them down is a Sisyphean endeavor.

On the other hand, our dramatic need to know who we are can lead to dangerous results. Some time ago I dated a woman who, because of frightening health issues and the loss of her parents, fell into a deep depression. Having gone through a serious depression myself, I attempted to communicate some of the “wisdom” that I had accumulated during my journey through this terrifying mental condition. To my deep amazement, however, she insisted furiously on preserving precisely those aspects of her “self” or identity that were most damaging to her future likelihood of escaping depression: her desire to “bathe” in sorrow, darkness and evil, letting herself experience in a way that felt to her as “true” the intensities of an encounter with the worst the world has to offer. My attempts to tell her that evil is just a worthless “parasite” of goodness, in good Augustinian fashion, fell on deaf ears. Losing her taste for despair and suffering would have meant, for her, no longer being her, a consequence that for her was worse than the suicide that can easily be the final stop on that particular train.

Since this is a blog on philosophy for the 20th century, I want to wrap this essay up with a reflection on what precisely philosophy, in the form of the multi-millenial Western tradition, can offer us when we encounter the need to discover, define or even unmake and recreate who we are. There are many responses to this question within the Occidental family of philosophies, but one of the most intriguing has to be that of Socrates. With his famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” he cast down a gauntlet that following generations have been unable able to resist picking up. While his particular methodology was somewhat odd to our tastes, consisting especially in the brutal elimination of all inconsistent opinion within himself in the search for the true and real definitions of the highest things, his method of introspection and radical self-renewal marked a turning point in Western history. While in earlier Greek society character was what it was, arete was either given or it wasn’t, and Achilles was the tragic figure that he was precisely because he was unable to overcome his wrath despite the excellent reasons given him by his companions in war, after Socrates character, selfness and identity became a choice, and the forging of one’s character on the basis of obedience to whatever truth we are able to discern became an obligation that no thinking person worth his salt can now avoid.

So my suggestion is this: confronted as we are by forces that would seek to define our identities for us, whether they be political ideologies or mercenary marketing, the prejudices of the small-minded people that surround us, or the often violent urges of our chaotic biological natures, we can nonetheless look within and make choices about what kind of persons we are going to be. We have the bizarre but undeniable freedom to not obey these irrational forces that buffet us, at least at the level of saying “I will never agree” when we find ourselves too weak to resist the power of environment, genetics and economics. And furthermore, although we never, ever can come to a perfect resolution of the problem of identity, we can orient our choices towards following the promptings of our conscience and the demands of truth, and can steer the stubborn ships of our souls towards being really, truly what we choose to be, and not what the random forces of our world would have us be. In the end, I believe, when death comes to meet us, all of us, whether we be atheists or believers, will find that it is our conviction that we have done our best to align ourselves with truth, whether it be about the world or about our moral choices, that will console us and give us courage to let thanatos take us into her grasp.

Picasso, Gesualdo and the Project of Human Unity

In 1907, Pablo Picasso gave to the world what is widely considered to be the first Cubist painting, Les demoiselles d’Avignon. This picture, which generated widespread outrage in the art world, was groundbreaking for a number of reasons, not first because it dealt withImage prostitutes, but also because it mixed in influences of Iberian and African art, which both Picasso and George Braque, the other “founder” of Cubism, had studied. However, the most radical shift that Les demoiselles ushered in was the abandonment of perspective, the crowning achievement of the Renaissance in its victory over medieval art, and the dominant rendering paradigm in Western art for centuries. The vision that one sees on contemplating Les demoiselles is one that one could never have seen in the brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó in Barcelona, because the figures of the five prostitutes that it features are built out of interlocking plane figures that break out of the unity that a single-person perspective imposes on them, with the painting’s viewer thus seeing the women from “sides” that would not be available to someone viewing them in real life. The wholeness of their human figures thus appear to be broken down violently, pulled apart like cadavers under the autopsy knife. Moreover, the admixture of African styles in the representation of the women’s faces blasts the viewer with Imagea strong whiff of animality, with the woman at top right, for instance, having a face that reminds one of nothing so much as a baboon. The delicate balance and symmetry that for Classical and Renaissance painters so characterized the human figure is thrown out, replaced by uneven lines, broken geometrical figures and a flatness that seems to make a mockery of the three-dimensionality that seems so characteristic of the human being.

But there is another way to view the message of this proto-Cubist painting: complexity and disorder as the human condition. Since the beginning of written human testimony, there has been a quest for human integrity and unity that allows the human being to go beyond the Imagelimitations of his nature and achieve what the Mycenaean Greeks called arete or virtue, witnessed to by the ability of the heroic individual to maintain himself single-minded and free of the degradation of fear in one of the worst of situations destructive of the human being: hand-to-hand battle. Achilles, even without the supposed bath in the Styx at his birth, was able to maintain his physical integrity despite the worst that human weapons could do, facing down the entire army of Trojans and defeating their great hero, Hector, in a one-to-one battle that ended with the Trojan being dragged ignominiously around the walls of the besieged city. Later, philosophers paid tribute to the nobility of arete by transmuting it into the lifelong search for virtue, in particular the Socratic virtue of internal consistency that leads to justified and correct action in all aspects of one’s life.

One of the clearest distinctions between ancient and modern thought is the strong strain of irrationality that runs through the latter. While we often think of modern thought as fImageollowing the Enlightenment model of universal reason, other thinkers, especially beginning in the 19th century, have set themselves to the task of unmaking our pretensions to a rationally unified human nature. Certainly Nietzsche, with his “genealogy” of morals, was among the first, but Darwin certainly did his part, reducing the nobility of a God-given, unified human nature to a collage of parts brought together by the aeon-long process of natural selection (he was followed in this labor by other important thinkers, such as Freud, with his reduction of the self to the interworking of Imageobscure forces in the unconscious). This is part of what Picasso is doing when he “deconstructs” the human figure (although Cubism involves much more than this). In Les Demoiselles the women are stripped of the dignity of their integrity, and are reduced to basic geometry and faces that reveal a raw, primitive gaze and desire. Even more, by breaking down the unity that perspective gives to a painting, he breaks us down as well, since we, the onlookers, are precisely the ones who attempt to capture reality within the structure of a single perspective.

But this “undignified” position is precisely where we find ourselves. Many people over the centuries, not least the great thinkers of the Church, have meditated on the many ways in which our “body” struggles, violently at times, against the “spirit”—beginning with St. Paul and the “thorn in his side” that Christ never deigned to take away. The lists of capital and mortal sins are no mere invention, they reflect real ways in which our nature wars against our desire to act in an integral fashion according to our consciences. And the picture that appears when we reflect on this “war” is much like that of the prostitutes of Les demoiselles: dis-integrated, ir-rational, broken, bestial and strange to ourselves. Even more… this internal chaos affects us mortally: none of us are able to escape it, not even those who we hold to be the best among us.[1] One of the eternal pleasures of Imageyellow journalism and “revisionist” historians is to expose the feet of clay of those who we had hitherto idolized as morally superhuman. One need only think of how the young Gandhi beat his wife,[2] or how JFK loaded himself up on painkilling drugs and slept around with apparently numberless women,[3] or the similarly womanizing Martin Luther King.[4]

It is not surprising, then, that theologians would come up with a doctrine like that of the “total depravity” of human nature, a doctrine characteristic of Calvinist churches, but which also affected other churches, including the Catholic, via its Jansenist “heresy”. Nevertheless, philosophers and religious thinkers across the ages have refused to take the data about human disunity as the last word. The persistent Greek optimism about the possibilities of human nature has never been forgotten, nor the Hebrew insistence that people, despite their many defects, are nonetheless capable of following the Law.  Similarly,Image in the Chinese Confucian tradition, Meng Tzu (孟子) is said to have sustained the doctrine of the fundamental goodness of human nature, and our ability to satisfactorily fulfill the demands of ritual propriety (li 禮) and achieve the status of sages through dedicated study.

And indeed, even though our heroes have feet of clay, we need not cease to admire them, in all their imperfection, for even though they were unable to conquer every height and peak of virtue, through their own intensive efforts they nonetheless achieved much. No one need pretend that MLK was perfect in order to admire what he did manage to achieve, or to absolve JFK of his wayward ways in order to recognize that the vision he presented for America, and which he attempted to make concrete and real through his policies, was genuinely inspiring to multitudes, paving the way for much social progress in the decades to come. And Gandhi, over the course of his life, dramatically changed his treatment of his wife, coming to love her in an unselfish and gentle way. And so it is that the Socratic ideal of perfect integration of the soul and the achievement of total virtue serves perhaps as a sort of asymptotic goal that we will never, ever reach in this life, but which nevertheless is highly worthy of being pursued and its conquest attempted. For even as imperfect, disunited beings we can nonetheless achieve great things, calming to some degree the war within us, attaining to some degree of virtue and doing good despite strong currents to the contrary.

Picasso appears to never have attempted to provide a “solution” to the dis-integration of the human person, with late paintings like “Femme nue au collier” giving a vision of complexity, broken lines, unbalance and deathlike color. However, there is, in this painting, a suggestion of depth that goes beyond brokenness, as indicated by the woman’s strikingly friendly eyes.  In this light, it is worth reflecting on the achievement of another artist who, like Picasso, represented vividly and painfully the dis-integration of the human person. Carlo Gesualdo, a ImageRenaissance prince from the region of Naples, was a violent, tortured man who nonetheless composed numerous “madrigals”, a cappella pieces with strong and complex use of counterpoint, or distinct “melodies” that intertwine around each other producing striking, and sometimes shocking, chords. These songs, which each focus on a particular highly emotionally charged experience, ranging (according to his most prominent interpreters) from sadness to joy to sexual release, and their complex, atraditional “harmonies” have been influential among avant-garde composers in the 20th century, including Stravinsky and Sciarinno. Their vision of human complexity and disintegration has been noted by modern critics, and Aldous Huxley wrote that Gesualdo, as he reveals himself through his compositions, is “all in bits”.[5] But as these critics have also noted, there is a higher unity that prevails despite the centripetal force of the clashing lines of song, and a tremendous beauty makes itself powerfully present. And this, perhaps, is the lesson we can take from Gesualdo and others like him, who have presented the strident complexity, even internal warfare, of human experience, while transcending it, transcending even their own defective and incomplete selves, to create monuments to beauty that have lasted the centuries.

And this is, perhaps, our own calling as well… to struggle towards unity, beauty and goodness in our own lives, despite the heavy weight of our own fragmented, disordered natures, and despite the knowledge that the perfect happiness of total integration is decisively out of our reach, finding instead the finite but satisfying pleasure of the journey.

[1] I leave to the side the question of whether certain outstanding individuals have achieved “complete integration”, such as the Buddha or Jesus, since we have only the testimony of their disciples. In any case such individuals form an extraordinarily tiny percentage of the human population. For most of us, “partial” integration is the most that can be hoped for.
[2] Gandhi, M. (1929) An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, chap. 87.
[3] Hersh, S. (1997) The Dark Side of Camelot.
[4] article on Martin Luther King. URL: See in particular item 4), at the end of the article.
[5] Huxley, A. (1963) The Doors of Perception.

The Path to Self-Knowledge

In his Metaphysics, echoing a theme already present in the writings of his master Plato, AristotleAristotle remarks on the difficulty of attaining real knowledge of the things that, by their nature, in a certain sense “ought” to be fully knowable: “it is our task to start from what is more intelligible to oneself and make what is by nature intelligible intelligible to oneself” (Metaphysics 1029b 01-13). He was there referring to pure essence or being (or, perhaps, to the Aristotelian “God”, the purely immaterial being that eternally thinks itself totally), but we encounter this same phenomenon in our own lives wherever we turn.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in our knowledge of ourselves. Because of our intellectual nature, which permits us a self-awareness that is, so far as we know, denied to any other animal on earth, we can “see” our own inner selves directly. Philosophers today call this “first person access”, and while some deny it, it seems enough of an irreducible element of our experience as to totally resist elimination. But as Hegel would say, the goal of perfect self-knowledge is equally undeniably a “mediated” goal: we must attain it via a delphilong process of struggle. For despite the special access we have to our own thoughts and beliefs and sensations and emotions, we remain as profound mysteries to ourselves until we take on the arduous and lengthy task of attaining self-knowledge. “γνῶθι σεαυτόν”, as the Delphic oracle stated: “know thyself”.

There are numerous reasons for the difficulty we encounter in attaining this self-comprehension: our own desires, emotions, urges and appetites seemingly come out of nowhere, sometimes driving us powerfully to act against our own best judgment. Our own flaws continually (and unpleasantly) surprise us, and remain stubbornly impenetrable to the arguments of reason. Furthermore, it is a universal human experience to be surprised by our own capacity to love: perhaps it is a first love for a beautiful man or woman, perhaps it arises in an unstoppable flood on the birth of our first child; perhaps we discover an unexplainable passion for a particular intellectual pursuit or a style of art or literature. And we can equally discover our own surprising capacity for tremendous virtue and equally tremendous vice.

This lack of understanding of our own selves is a key factor in our lack of understanding of others. There are few things more difficult than truly understanding another person. Working one’s way through Heidegger or Wittgenstein may strain our minds to the limit, but if we have the mental agility then the project is, to a certain extend, amenable to our own natures and abilities. But genuinely putting oneself in another’s shoes, genuinely grasping the warp and weft of another person’s experience, motivations and character, goes deeply against our own grain in fundamental ways. In particular, we are irremediably four elementslinked to our own materiality, our own “materia signata”, as Aquinas put it, those particular quantities of air, fire, earth and water than make us up, to use the ancient metaphor for the fundamental elements of the material world. Our material composition means that the phenomena of our minds are powerfully rooted in our own physicality: our habits, patterns of thought and emotionality are anchored in the neural makeup of our brains, and we cannot simply “cast it off” and take on a different matter, with its own peculiar structure and character. As a result, adopting the point of view of another person, in all its richness and complexity, ends up being a tremendously challenging endeavor, one that most people simply never attempt to master.

Shakespeare, in his great tragedy Othello, touches upon multiple facets of this very human situation. Of all the characters in the play, only the ferocious and vengeful Iago has any othellocomprehension of the delicate web of passions, beliefs and vices that go to make up human character, and he uses this knowledge to further his devious ends, attaining his goals masterfully without the other characters having any idea about what is going on until it is all too late. But despite his dramatic knowledge of human nature, Iago too suffers from a blindness that ends up being fatal for him as well: he has no inkling whatsoever of the value of the powerful capacity of the human person to live genuine virtue and love profoundly, purely and selflessly. Where others see beauty, goodness and love, the vicious “ensign” can only rage about the sexual corruption he sees seething beneath of the surface of every human face. And all too often, Iago’s blindness is our own.

Given this situation of seemingly connatural blindness, where can we turn in order to be able to escape from ourselves and enter into the world of the other? Surprisingly for many, philosophy turns out to have much to say, for human nature is a topic that has fascinated philosophers for millennia. Indeed, it is a realm where nearly everyone who has written with seriousness on the issue has something important to contribute. This strangely harmonious cacophony of partially disagreeing voices bears witness to the tremendous complexity and depth of our shared human nature. And in turn the knowledge of human nature that we can gain through a careful and sympathetic reading of the great thinkers of our tradition provides us with a valuable bridge into the souls of others.

A classic example of a profound discussion of one aspect of human nature over the centuries is that of the relationship between what we might term as “intellect” and “will”. Philosophers from many traditions have recognized that there are two aspects of the soul, two powers, corresponding approximately to a truth-seeing and a good-desiring part. The platoclassical position, exemplified by the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, does not recognize precisely what we would call “will”, postulating instead such faculties as appetite and passion (“thumos”) in Plato, or desire (“orexis”) in Aristotle. In either case, these two Greek thinkers, and their later followers, clearly privileged the truth-seeking aspect of our soul over the good-desiring part. Later thinkers in the medieval Christian hegeltradition postulated “will” as a faculty of similar or even greater stature in our inner life than intellect. Later thinkers extended the reach of this faculty to the point that they subordinate reason and intellect totally to the will, as we see in thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

However one sees the outcome of this age-old debate, we do not need to adopt either of the more “pure” positions in order to become aware of the profound importance of both of these aspects of human experience and conduct. In particular, we can recognize in ourselves, and consequently in everyone else, the intense and constant battle one must fight in order to tame the “blind will” and harness it to become a useful tool for the advancement of our own lives and adam smiththose of others. And indeed, this is a struggle we cannot avoid, if we are going to live successfully within society, as Adam Smith (following Epicurus) points out (cf. A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.ii.2.1). It may be a battle that is never fully won, but any progress attained is worthwhile, according to the universal experience of those who have advanced far along this path.

Hence, when we are in wonderment before the seemingly incomprehensible motives of other human beings, we can recognize the operation of these two facets of human nature, intellect and will. And we can furthermore recognize the universal human desire, albeit often hidden and squashed by the pure force of habit, environment and biology, to rationalize one’s life and learn to live more intelligently and consistently. In continually recognizing this universal characteristic of the human spirit, we can return to ourselves wiser and stronger, enriched by lessons about the struggle and the possibility of victories along the way. We see more deeply into ourselves, illuminating what before seemed impenetrably dark, and we recognize our own capacities, even if they be largely dormant, for the development of inner freedom.

The Wisdom of Freedom

In this article I give a short presentation about how philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, can even today provide its assiduous practitioners with genuine inner freedom. I explore the human desire for a freedom that goes beyond externalities, followed by a discussion of the different kinds of freedom that philosophy can offer. I conclude with some words on the most important of those freedoms: the attainment of mastery over oneself, and the role the love of wisdom plays in this.

In 1575, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, future author of Don Quixote, was captured by Barbary pirates on the way home from his participation in the historic battle against the Turks at Lepanto. He was to spend five years in the notorious baños [1], or prisons of Algiers, awaiting his redemption. The sufferings he endured marked him deeply, but were unable to quench his thirst for freedom: over those five years of captivity he made four escape attempts, despite the miserable odds against his success and the punishment he knew he faced upon recapture. At a deeper level, however, he maintained an inner, creative freedom that allowed him, it is said, to develop that rich vision of Spain and of the human person that was to characterize his works upon his return to his homeland, above all the Quixote. Similar tales abound, both historical and fictional, about other men and women who have suffered similar experiences in prison. For Nelson_Mandelathese inspiring people, a single powerful lesson has stood out: prison bonds may shackle the limbs, but the spirit always retains a spark that can be kindled into a deep, unshakable inner freedom. As Invictus, the poem that sustained Nelson Mandela during his long years on Robben Island, proclaims in a ringing voice: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll. / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul”.

Shouldn’t we, who have the good fortune to enjoy so much exterior freedom, have the ability to attain to the inner liberty that these great men, and others like them, have achieved? The question is no trivial one, for our real life experience is often one of a great constriction in our lives, an ‘unfreedom’ that haunts us, though we find it hard to discern its precise outlines. The society which we live in, and which exerts such a powerful influence on us, is in many ways an instrument of oppression, and often designedly so, whether subtly or not. An oppressive media culture feeds off of our habit of seeking to escape the grimness of our lives, dominated by a working schedule that has invaded every moment of our waking hours, and ‘smart’ devices that rob our attention wherever we go. Advertising and propaganda deliberately seek to take away our ability to maintain genuine attention, whose need Jaime Nubiola has described so well in his previous article. And a rigorous separation from tradition, in the sense of the collective experience of the best who have lived among us, is imposed by the insistent superficiality of our cultural landscape and by our schools, which ever more frequently simply refuse to teach this rich inheritance of thought. Driven by a voice from our conscience that refuses to be silenced, we blunder about in search of some vestige of inner freedom, bereft of guides or maps that might lead us truly, relying instead on a cheap diet of new age spirituality and self-help manuals. We know, much to our dismay, that the freedom that is the birthright of the human spirit is lost to us, and we often become cynical about the very possibility of finding it again.

Philosophy, which we might describe as the lifelong practice of careful, keen exploration of the rational structure of reality, including man and his capacity for attaining truth, has been engaged with this question since its very beginnings. Philosophers, perhaps paradoxically, have written throughout the ages of the power of the ‘mother of the sciences’ to liberate the human spirit. I say paradoxically, because philosophy is often accused of muddying the waters around the issue of human freedom in the world. We’ve all heard of the ancient debates regarding ‘freedom of the will’, or the many arguments that sustain the ‘ontological determination’ of the universe. Despite these unresolvable discussions, or perhaps because of them, even thinkers who uphold a universal determinism, Spinozasuch as Spinoza, praise the philosophical endeavor as profoundly liberating. Perhaps the most vivid such vision is Plato’s parable of the cave, which most of us encountered in first-year philosophy or Western Civ. It’s an unforgettable image, beginning with the stifling darkness of the cave, the flickers of the firelight and the toted sculptures that cast lurid images on the walls; then the ascent, forced and difficult, that leads to the true light, which blinds the eyes like our Sun does to any who dares to look on it directly. The argument which both the Jewish philosopher and the Greek make is that, once one has looked upon the raw truth of things, then the mere things of the world, its passions and politics, cherished delusions and half-baked verities, can no longer excite the heart or turn the eye. Freedom of spirit is thus, according to some of the greatest minds in history, philosophy’s first gift.

For many who have dabbled in philosophy, however, there is a clear lesson that they have taken from their studies: philosophers are unable to agree upon anything of importance. This is hardly a new observation; the very word ‘skepticism’ is a Greek one, dating back to the ancient skeptic schools of the Hellenistic era. The ‘sophomore’, that latter day Carneades, has studied little but knows much, and is frequently impressed by the fact that one can argue both for and against ‘justice’, or pretty much any idea, using the arguments of the great men and women of the philosophical tradition. Yet those who are willing to go deeper are quickly astonished by the capacity of the human mind to penetrate the real, and many are seduced by the allurements of Sophia, lady Wisdom, becoming committed to a disciplined search for that truth that hides beyond appearances. The exultant feeling of discovering the existence of new dimensions of reality that shine forth for the astutely probing mind is powerfully captivating, as is the piecing together of these discoveries into a system that unites these many dimensions into an ever more coherent whole. The temptation of the philosopher is to fall in love with this brainchild, and to dismiss all those who dare to question his creation to the nether dungeons of the unenlightened. 800px-Mandelbrot_set_with_coloured_environmentThe Principle of Non-Contradiction, that eternal bugaboo of those who would defend an easy compatibility between positions clearly at odds with each other, guarantees that there is, at the deepest level, only one truth about reality. That truth, nonetheless, clearly goes far beyond the capacity of any one human mind to comprehend. Vast like the ocean, it manifests the unfathomable complexity of the Mandelbrot set: we may fix on any part we like, and know it truly, but we cannot trap it in our grasp, for  greater depth is always available to one who would probe further.

For the philosophers in combat over an idea, each is resolutely certain of having the final truth on the matter: there can be no quarter nor truce given. An impartial observer, however, may see truth on both sides; here, all depends on the respect in which the two truths are considered. One may agree with Kant that all human experience is radically shaped by the ‘form of appearances’ in the ‘manifold of appearance’ and its ‘categorization’ by the reason, while not holding that this is any more than a reflection of extramental reality as built into our brains, rather than a pure construction of the reason Saint_Thomas_Aquinasonly loosely linked to the unknowable thing-in-itself. Thomas Aquinas, the towering medieval mind whose philosophy and theology have marked Catholic thought indelibly, is the unchallenged master of this kind of deep synthesis. And the success of his method, admired even today, is a testament to the ability of philosophy to guide us to a genuine encounter with the real. If we are wise, we will also be humble, and never claim that we have exhausted what truth there is to be found. Still, our partial grasping of the truth that has revealed itself to our minds nonetheless provides a foundation for our understanding of the world, and especially of ourselves, the only creatures in the cosmos whose minds are adequate to the task of receiving this self-unfolding of the real. If we mature sufficiently in this path, it will provide us with a perspective on the world, and how we must act in it, that is of incalculable value, and which can never be provided by the cacophony of voices competing for our attention in our society. And in this there is great freedom.

If one listens to the voice of wisdom, however, it will quickly become apparent that it is not merely there to instruct us in the hidden things of the world. Rather, both by virtue of our mind’s discovery of the truth about ourselves as human beings, and the quiet but insistent voice of our conscience, we are moved to better ourselves and to develop an inner freedom that is based upon, but not limited to, the freedom of the intellect I have discussed above. In this sense, philosophy can truly become a βίου κυβερνήτης, a guide of life. It is certainly not the case that virtue is the private domain of the philosophers; all of us, if we keep our eyes open, encounter outstanding examples of virtue among people who are not professional philosophers. This virtue is the upwelling and expression of our human nature, and hence is something we see in all cultures and at all times. But our experience tells us too that human vice is also an expression of this nature, if only as its perversion. While from a deep investigation of human capacities and desires we can come to the conclusion that freedom is, in some sense, the ‘natural’ condition of man, the winning of this freedom is the fruit of a rationally ordered development of many virtues, both cognitive and practical.

The key virtue, however, for attaining this freedom, and one which many philosophers across the ages agree upon, is that of self-mastery, conceived of as the dominion of the intellect, in some sense, over the will. There are certainly those who disagree, in a long chain of inheritance stretching from Callicles to Nietzsche, and who hold that Nietzsche187athe will ought to be unfettered and encouraged to pursue its object of pure pleasure and power. One might call this the ‘virtue’ of psychopaths: it pleases its possessors, but hoodwinks them, for they remain at the bidding of a ‘raging and savage beast of a master’ [2] whose urgings obey no reason nor brook any hindrance. It is for this reason that so many philosophers have recoiled in horror at such a life, for nothing can be so undignified and unworthy of man as to live as a slave to unreason. Self-mastery, then, involves the triumph, in some sense, of reason over the irrational forces within us that seek to toss us around like rag dolls. And philosophy comes to our aid in this endeavor, teaching us to recognize our true end and to act in consequence, building those virtues whose conquest results in a great strength to order our own lives, bringing us deep peace and the joy of knowing that we have lived according to the truth. This inner liberty, then, is the greatest gift of philosophy.

[1] María Antonia Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), p. 11.
[2] Plato, Republic, Book I, 329c []

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