On holding converse with myself and on taking proper care of myself

I have been holding two thoughts in mind for quite a while and I now think it’s high time to bring them together. The first thought appears in Book VI of Diogenes Laertius’s The Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius relates that “When he [one philosopher named Antisthenes] was asked what advantage had accrued to him from philosophy [i.e., from leading a philosophical life], his answer was, ‘The ability to hold converse with myself.'” I have found Antisthenes’s pithy formulation so intriguing and pregnant, such a seeming and slight understatement as to entreat further examination.

The second thought is that most of us do not take proper care of ourselves. I can think of at least a handful of conversation partners I am working with now for which this has too often been the case. What would it mean for them to take proper care of themselves?, I wonder. I think this is a very interesting and important question and I admit it is one for which I have no immediate reply.

The key to one good answer might lie in associations, might lie in the fact that when I think of the ability to hold converse with oneself I am ever reminded of the the need to care properly for oneself. Conversely, when I think of the need to take proper care of oneself, I keep hearing myself speak of the ability to hold converse with oneself. How interesting is this connection I cannot say for sure. In light of this uncertainty, I wonder what would happen if I postulated the identity of one with the other. Could sense be made of this thesis?

For suppose the thesis were to run as follows:

The ability to converse with myself just is the ability to take care of myself.

I want to find out what I mean by this and whether it is true. For if it is true and if philosophy just is the ability to converse with myself, then the surprising conclusion would be that philosophy is (also) the ability to take care of myself. (Knowing thyself is taking care of thyself? Being a philosopher just is the activity of caring for myself? How very strange this would be.)

Let’s examine this identity thesis further to see whether any sense can be made of it.

There may be a difficulty at the outset that could prove to be insurmountable. That difficulty might be found in the simple observation that conversing takes place in words while caring takes place in the world. And how could words and worlds be the same? This does sound rather absurd. For example, a starting pitcher who, after the game, ices his shoulder and elbow could be said to be “taking care of himself,” and this claim would be hard to gainsay. But it would be puzzling if instead of icing his shoulder he spoke for hours with his trainer about icing his shoulder without actually doing so. If this were the case, then it would seem that words are actually getting in the way of his performing actions we would normally associate with taking care of an inflamed shoulder and elbow. And it does seem, in our own everyday experience, that we are quite well versed in the game of speaking about something or other at the same time that we fail to do that something or other about which we are speaking. Perhaps, then, the thesis I posited above is a non-starter from the get go.

Perhaps, however, we can alleviate the apparent difficulty that speaking and acting are two very different kinds of activities by making a few related points about the use to which (some) words can be put. The philosopher of language J.L. Austin suggests rather tellingly that not all linguistic utterances are reportages on reality. There are, he observes, certain kinds of “speech acts” whose point and purpose is to bring something about in the very act of stating. To make this case, he draws our attention to such common speech acts as getting married. When I say “I do” in the appropriate context, I am not reporting on a state of affairs. Rather, I am binding myself to you in the very moment of saying “I do”: the saying just is the binding.

There seems to me no reason to confine performative speech acts to marrying and promise-keeping and to a few other activities besides. It could be that saying, e.g., “I love you,” is not a statement that accompanies the act of loving you, is not simply an expression of some (inner) mental state. Rather, in the appropriate context, the utterance could very well be saying what it does: loving words just are loving deeds. So understood, the meaning of the utterance is the sense of togetherness the words thereby enact.

Before I consider the identity thesis in earnest, I want to consider one other rather mundane case about the “magical” capacity for words to be transformative of lived reality. Lately, I have taken to saying that I am going for a “running meditation.” This compound word could be read as saying that my body is running “in parallel with” my meditating mind. It might then be that one is “traveling alongside” the other, the mind “accompanying” the body, rather like a storm cloud follows Charlie Brown wherever he goes. But I do not think this is so because I do not think mind/body dualism, the view according to which the body is one kind of substance and the mind quite another, is a correct picture of being human.I am slowly coming round to the understanding of a human being as a whole person.

In the case of “running meditation,” it seems at least plausible to insist that I qua whole person am in the midst of a single activity that can then be “expressed” fully qua running or qua meditating. It would not be the case, then, that one is miraculously taking place “in time” or “in step” with the other but rather that my way of being in the world can be “expressed” fully as running or as meditating (whichever suits the purpose of the present inquiry). Accordingly, if an observer who is especially fond of running were to ask, “Now what is Andrew doing?,” he might say, “Well, he is running, of course.” And if a Buddhist monk were to ask, “What is he doing?,” he might answer, “He is meditating, of course. What else?” And if God were to ask himself what Andrew is doing, God might say that Andrew is thinking-acting in the way a philosopher acts.

The point I am trying to make, in my references to Austin and to the spiritual exercise (ascesis) of running meditation, is that we may be better off understanding ourselves as whole beings who are involved in a particular kind of practice than as beings with dual natures for whom mental activity and corporeal activity are two different kinds of practices. If this line of thought is headed in the right direction, then the thesis that conversing well with myself just is caring properly for myself might not turn out to be so absurd or off putting after all. We will have to see.

Now let us examine what it could possibly mean to have the “capacity to hold converse with myself,” since what it means is by no means immediately self-evident. One approach, to begin with, could be to understand more fully what the thought cannot possibly mean.

It cannot possibly mean staring idly and wordlessly into the dark; the inability to talk to myself (recall: capacity to…); speaking around or over something; talking past myself, talking at myself, talking down to myself, talking through myself (in all these formulations, recall: converse with…); going round in circles; beating around the bush; being in such a hurry that the words come too quickly (recall: holding converse); hurling stern words at myself (recall: holding converse); and so on.

Undoubtedly, this list could be extended further to include other forms of talking that do not qualify as holding converse with… What is interesting already is that the list reveals, at the very minimum, the many ways that we use harmful and untruthful words, sentences, and poor reasonings throughout the course of our daily lives. (For someone who has spent much of his 33 yrs. holding regular converse with myself, I find others’ lack of facility with this more than simply saddening. In this post, I do not consider the reasons why many have not learned how to hold converse with themselves. The extent to which this lack of facility is the case with most people living today has not gone unnoticed. The problem abounds.) And so, whatever the capacity to hold converse with myself ends up being it must at least have a great deal to do with learning to talk reasonably with myself, talking and sorting things out, moving in my thinking from one (worse) place to another (a better one), doing so in the light spirit of conversation, and practicing this activity often enough for it to count as being a capacity that I can reasonably say I can exercise well.

I notice something else about this list, and this is that it seems to allude, if not to be an expression of, a number of moral defects. I can make out, e.g., meanness, stubbornness, arrogance, circumlocution, being illogical, lack of compassion, anger, hurriedness, and cruelty. Could it then be said that holding converse with myself either requires or actualizes the contrary virtues such that kindness, compassion, humility, circumspection, being logical, soft-spokenness, and so on would have to intrinsic features of holding converse?

If this is the case, then the capacity to talk reasonably with myself might also draw forth the virtues referenced above, as if to say that speaking well summons forth living well. Or perhaps it is that the virtues would be exercised or actualized entirely in and through talking well. To my mind, either of these views, both bespeaking the close knit relationships of the virtues to holding proper converse with myself, would be interesting, if provisional, conclusions.

For now, let us put off to one side the result of our interpretation of Antithenes’s statement about holding converse, and let us to turn to the other side of the equation: to the question of what it means to take proper care of oneself. To begin with, I can think of what I have heard from and observed in a number of my conversation partners. When they do not take proper care of themselves, they are sacrificing themselves for the sake of another (or others); they are courting hubris (well, I thought I would throw my dear old self into the mix!); they are beating themselves up over something, being too hard on themselves; they are flattering themselves (damn: my old self again!); they are feeling their body disintegrate or lose its basic integrity; they are acting according to the understanding that they do not matter or do not matter enough.

In all these cases, we perceive either the problem of one’s not taking enough care of oneself, the harmful results “showing forth” in many basic aspects of living (e.g., eating, health, demeanor, stance) or the problem of caring too much about oneself, with the consequence that the hubristic one is alienated from meaningful social bonds. We also see that, especially in the case of disintegration, the implicit claim that wholeness in a very broad sense must be a key ingredient in (if not the constituent of) taking care of oneself.

And to care for oneself properly–what, therefore, would this mean? In a word, sitting well, standing well, and dwelling with myself, neither fighting myself nor indulging myself but loving myself fully. To care for myself properly is, it seems, to love myself wholeheartedly.

I think we are now in a position to gather together the results from the two lines of thought. So far, I have examined the thought that philosophy is the capacity to hold converse with myself. Then, I considered the thought about the need to take proper care of myself. I now want to say that philosophy, being the capacity to talk reasonably with myself, which talking draws forth or actualizes the virtues, just is the ongoing activity of dwelling with myself, i.e., the transformative activity of loving myself wholeheartedly. Succinctly put,

To practice speaking with myself is to practice loving all myself.

A Not So Final Thought

When I began this post, I had no idea what exactly I was going to write. I had some clues but no more than a few. For this reason, it is best to read the entry as an example of holding converse with myself before others. I am thinking aloud with the idea of following a line of inquiry wherever it may take me.

Bear in mind that I loved myself enough to begin an inquiry that might have gone nowhere. (And to love myself enough to be OK with that. And to love myself enough to post an inquiry that could very well have fallen into the ditch.) I submitted myself to an inquiry in the hope that I would be able to make sense of things and not just (but also not least) for my own sake but also, and most truly, for the sake of those I care about. By the end, I felt as if I understood myself and my conversation partners better, more clearly, more fittingly. I do not mean to stop the inquiry here for good, only to rest here for now. The key, in any case, is to regard this kind of activity as being but one example of a spiritual exercise (ascesis), a moment in any good day that is filled with spiritual exercises.

Good reasoning is good caring; good reasoning, being good, feels good also.

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