Meditation on Hope

We sit and pretend we are terminally ill. We breathe calmly. What is hope? What do we make of the bonmot that ‘hope dies last’ if we are lost in a desert without the prospect of water? And isn’t the human condition hopeless ‘in the end’, if we presuppose a rough understanding of hope as the desire that something that we identify as pleasurable will be the case in the future? Doesn’t the ultimate nihilism, if we buy into it, undermine all discourse of the temporary affair that is our hoping?

Without hope life would be maddening. We would lose our orientation and ambition, and society would fall apart. So from a pragmatic point of view there can be no doubt about the value of hope. What about the theoretical operation that discounts all hope because there is no ultimate hope, in much the same way as fanatical relativists discount all truths because they think there is no ultimate truth? I don’t think it is legitimate. In the beginning of this meditation we pretended we were terminally ill, but we did not lose hope.

What can we hope for? Comfort, status, security? What does it mean to hope something while you are fully aware that it is insignificant in the light of eternity? Doesn’t such hope require the courage of a madman? Doesn’t humanity, once it acquired a penchant for staring into its own abyss – require the courage of a madman?

Or would not even the most outspoken and acerbic atheists among us ultimately find solace in the idea that our ‘having been there’ is in some form the expression of a principle that will last for all eternity? That our lives (and, more depressingly, those of our children) have been ‘for nothing’, but that at least they share a celestial common ancestor with an unknown something, some sort of cosmic anthropic principle as established by the physicist David Deutsch?

We breathe slowly and listen to the buzzing of the fly of futility on our back. We smile at each other because we have once again realized that we need each other to swat the flies on our backs.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Hope was originally published on Meandering home


Meditation on Equality

We breathe the same air. That statement is already beginning to be problematic if you live in one of China’s heavily polluted cities and you can’t afford to escape to the relatively unspoilt countryside. You can’t afford to buy Canadian air in a bottle, shipped to you by a special company. Let’s breathe some air before we continue. Equality is a wonderfully artificial concept, but it is often understood in a rather idiosyncratic way.

Some right-wing populists distinguish equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. They argue that left-wing policies cancel out the differences caused by the hard work and perseverance of some, rather than the differences caused by the lack of opportunities or disability. More principally, they would argue that equality is not something that can be enforced.

For the religious right, equality is an abstract, absolute and ‘untouchable’ value. At life’s edges, this is turned into an intuitive moral argument by pro-life activists or people who oppose euthanasia. Perhaps precisely because equality is such a sacred and abstract value for them, they don’t feel good about ethical debates about redistribution that seem to quantify people’s value. If equality is something that can be manufactured, as the liberal mind believes, it becomes a mundane and fragile balance, rather than the equality ‘under god’ (who is the ultimate guarantor of justice, at Judgment Day).

We breathe and wonder once more about the complexity of this concept. We see it translated and dismissed as ‘sameness’, or embraced as the rationale of solidarity. We all agree that people should be treated the same by the law, more precisely, that the law should have already spelled out any differences before a trial, and further that such differences don’t pertain to things like race or sex, but could pertain to things like wealth or mental health (for example to determine the degree of punishment).

We feel compelled to come up with a technical, legalistic definition. We want to spell out our intuition of equality, but might lose sight of the actual practice of equality. We can for example write mathematically about representative democracy and ‘one person one vote’ while forgetting the messiness of the influences of moneyed interests on politics.

Equality, we should perhaps admit, doesn’t exist. It is an important article of secular faith. It is a transcendental condition of rational debate that prima facie, the value of your opinion is the same as the value of mine. I will need to give a reason to show the superiority of my opinion, authority won’t do. Perhaps rational debate is the best we have to celebrate the value of equality.

Meditation on Equality was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Cover on Goodreads

Status anxiety is “the price we pay for acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccesful life.” In this book, de Botton explores our social lives from the perspective of status, and arrives at a remarkably comprehensive account of human society, that is erudite as it is entertaining. Essentially, the book is a story of our love affair with society: “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first—the story of our quest for sexual love—is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale.”

The book points out how important status is for our balloon-like ego that suffers from every ‘pinprick of neglect’. In our current meritocracy, failure is not attributed to bad luck, but it is our own fault. Falling short of our expectations results in a culture of anxiety penetrating all aspects of life, from the economy to politics to art and religion. De Botton discusses these themes systematically in this essay, that reminds me of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The first five chapters discuss the causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence) whereas the second half offers solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia). De Botton’s erudition is enjoyable, albeit – oh sweet irony – anxiety-inducing for writers who have similar ambitions.

Our postmodern age has produced a modest literature criticizing mindless consumerism, and De Botton’s book is a welcome addition to it. As somebody who strongly dislikes conspicuous consumption, I enjoyed the reference to the broader idea of ‘bohemia’ and Thoreau (“man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without”).

This is a dense book, that I would recommend a second read.

Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Time

Let’s take some five second breaths to begin. Maybe even a ten second breath. We will breathe a finite number of breaths in our lifetime and it is less than one billion. Being aware of this fact is supposed to make us value every single one. We understand the present moment as the nexus of past and future, time as a linear system of coordinates, a rather boring line that we experience as straight and endless, even if general relativity tells us it can bend in exotic ways if stretched.

We are all alive at the same time. We share this extraordinary intimacy without much wonder. Geographically, we are almost never together, yet temporally, our paths always coincide. We are ‘Zeitgenossen’ (contemporaries), but that never seems to generate the kind of solidarity we feel for people who live in (were born in, whose grandparents were born in…) the same country as we do. The reason is that there is nobody around who is not a contemporary.

This might be a compelling reason to read history books. The temporal distance to the Greek, the Romans, the Ming, the Aztecs, could make us feel united in our own historical place, ‘against’ the older peoples. It turns the coordinate system of time into something meaningful, a way to distinguish ourselves, a way to become aware of our unique moment.

Solidarity between contemporaries doesn’t seem to bear an intimate relation with the concept of time itself. Breathe calmly. This solidarity is the celebration of simultaneousness. We wonder why an infinite number of events can happen at the same time and be visible for each other. We think of a sort of spiritual gratitude for the fact that we are thrown together in the same moment. It is a relatively simple exercise for a human mind to find such gratitude. When reflecting on time, we want to reach this idea of gratitude. Breathe out calmly, we have the same seconds.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Time was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Happiness

We begin with music. It is our intention to influence our own happiness. Breathe calmly. Imagine you have full control over your hormonal levels and neurotransmitters, especially oxytocin and dopamine. Would you keep them at a constant, optimal level so you can experience the most happiness that is physiologically possible. A standard response to that is that our physiology doesn’t work that way. We can’t engineer our happiness like that, we would become like heroin addicts.

We keep listening to the music and become aware how it does influence our neuronal response. It’s as good as it gets. Happiness is an experience, so it has a duration, a beginning and an end. We know there is an important difference between evaluated happiness (after the fact) and the experience of happiness as it happens. Reflecting on happiness makes us aware of its fleeting quality, it humbles us with respect to what we strive for. What can we hope? How ambitious can we get when it comes to happiness?

We breathe. It somehow doesn’t sound right to call happiness an ambition. In our culture, it is supposed to be a by-product of something else, some achievement. This social side of happiness requires that we don’t consume it like apathetic junkies. When we talk about happiness, we mean respectful happiness, or socially accepted happiness. Essentially, this is the happiness that can serve as an example for other people. The public image of happiness plays an important rule in the social bonding of large groups.

In our complex world, we can register other people’s happiness, even when they are far outside of our social environment. We envy them sometimes, and we get anxious. The key to sustained happiness might be a relatively small but meaningful community of people who can understand each other’s happiness. Rather than jealousy, we would feel pride if our neighbor is a little happier than we are. Rather than feeling miserable, we feel invigorated and motivated. Such is my intuition of a happy coexistence of human beings. We are still listening to the music, and we are sharing a breath to end this meditation.

Meditation on Happiness was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Art

We want to breathe the art of wit when we sit for our meditations. Art, from the Art of Altamira to the the Art of the Deal, is, we don’t shun this bold statement, first and foremost a celebration. We imagine anthropological researchers digging up objects with no evident usefulness. What to do with them? There are many younger accounts (we are still talking about the first hominids, not about the Neolithic revolution) that establish the connection between them and superstitions. But older than our need to understand the world and fill in our perceived gaps in the fabric of causality with the supernatural, is our need to celebrate.

Celebration is play organized around a common purpose, and fosters a strong bond in tribes. Since this is a meditation, we are allowed to think this here without providing footnotes or references. Celebration is as old as tribal cooperation itself, we submit. Let’s not forget to breathe.

So, art began as act and celebration. Dance and music were the first art forms (they leave no fossil traces so that’s not a falsifiable hypothesis). This communal dancing and singing wasn’t always the most efficient way to bond, especially in times of hardships. As our symbolical minds became more powerful, we began to create artefacts. A visual artwork is the shadow of a celebration.

We breathe calmly and feel the rest of our body. We now define an artwork as a human-made object that celebrates its own existence. We quickly check if this is true from daguerrotypes to Duchamp to David. Of course, an object cannot celebrate anything. That is ‘just’ our interpretation. We are always allowed to rephrase this within Kantian “apostrophes”: an artwork is a human-made object that its observer is able to see as celebrating its own existence. I like this definition that feels Nietzschean.

Yes, there is a nature of the artwork. We can trace it back through archeology of the mind, following our proclivity to celebrate.

Meditation on Art was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on the sacred

May we think about the sacred without informing ourselves as thoroughly as possible about our species’ rich religious traditions? Isn’t our meditation predestined to be a desecration, a profanity, no matter what we might arrive at? Philosophical contemplation of the sacred seems to be implicitly critical of the religious authority that decrees what is sacred and what not (or: whatnot). We take a breath and smile.

We confront authority if we must. But first we remember the concept of homo sacer, taken from Roman Law and brought to our attention by Giorgio Agamben’s 1998 eponymous book. The political category of the sacred or the ‘bare life’ means those we can be killed without punishment, but cannot be sacrificed in a religious ritual. His idea was that this is becoming paradigmatic in our era. The definition of the sovereign is that which produces the bare life. Think about refugees. We breathe again, somewhat heavily.

The sacred is not simply the supernatural. It is that which not belongs in our narrative, that which would stain our rituals, so it is to be ignored at all cost. This idea of endangering the narrative we can generalize. Perhaps we should explore how the sacred emerged in human tribes, when they were in the verge of mastering language as ‘that which cannot be mentioned without negating it’. This is a vague description of an alleged human instinct that co-evolved with the language instinct. Can we think of some examples? Tacit agreements based on mutual respect and goodwill cannot be spelled out without negating their voluntary and friendly character. A gentleman’s agreement is a promise, not a formal contract. Keeping a promise can be experienced as a sacred obligation.

I wildly claim that the instinct that allows us to make arrangements for sex on a second date without ever mentioning the word, lies at the heart of the religious experience as well. When more literate peoples emerged in the greater Levant area, this had to be made explicit. God began his evolution as ‘He who cannot be named’. We imagine sex and God as experiences that go beyond language, and hence beyond the community (while still in the service of community). The dimension of the sacred is the imagination of the unspeakable. We want to think about this more, but for now we take a few breaths and consider them sacred.

Meditation on the sacred was originally published on Meandering home