‘Knowing enough to stop when one does not know is perfection’

Chuang Tsu observes, ‘Knowing enough to stop when one does not know is perfection.’ I welcome Chuang Tsu’s thoughts, his humor and his lightness. His measure and delight. Kant and Locke wrote of knowing one’s limits, but Kant said nothing of stopping and would have been shocked by Chuang Tsu’s epigrammatic ending: that stopping when one doesn’t know is perfection. Shocked rather than surprised, Kant would have said that it bespeaks human finitude, man’s imperfection, and he would have pressed on. The Christian believes that we are fallible and Montaigne seconds this thought; the Daoist Sage believes that we are a part of the ten thousand things. Observing this and gently smiling while stopping, we are perfection. Perfection? The wind moves the spring leaves, feeling its strength, then stops. Breathing, holding, releasing, then stopping. Death is stopping and the true man feels no elation at birth, no sorrow at death. Sometimes he laughs. Like Chuang Tsu’s line about perfection, the true man takes every event as a surprise. To be surprised is perfection.

Arguing is useless

In Chapter 2 of the Inner Chapters, Chuang Tsu says, ‘Words that argue miss the point.’ Arguing is useless, since there is no sense in wanting to be right and no change of heart in being proven wrong. Arguing makes a mockery of dispassion: niceties turned into traps in order to be sprung upon unprepared opponents. But all the world is an opponent, unprepared or at the ready, as are all words. Your folly is not a fine one: no one is ever convinced by the force of your arguments. He is merely brought to submission, or oftener he deems it not worth his time to go to the trouble of piping in. And whatever aggression is wrought upon the antagonist by this means is wrought and heaped ten-fold upon the self. How pointless a life spent arguing is illustrated in the coiled lips, the hurried steps. the bad faith of the consoling words that, ‘After all, I really made a difference.’

Learning from Zen: Withdrawing from a way of thinking

‘Brushing off thoughts which arise is like washing off blood with blood. We remain impure because of being washed in blood….’

–Bankei, Diaho Shogen Kokushi Hogo, quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

‘The new DSM would have everything right were it to forget such words as ‘diagnose’ and ‘treat’.’

–Zen Master

One learns from a certain practice of Zen that one must confront one’s way of thinking in general. And then, after the despair that comes from actively, persistently seeking to overcome this way of thinking, one acknowledges that the only way out is to withdraw. So that once one perceives that one has grown up in Shame Culture, one would acknowledge all the ways in which one has collided with and sought to overcome this way of thinking, only to be numbed by the impossibility of doing so of one’s own accord. After one is exhausted and completely relaxed, one might, in the form of a blessing, receive a new way of thinking. It would be as if Shame and its framework–secrecy, powerlessness, holding back, estrangement, solitariness, shame-releasing ritual, etc.–were to vanish for good. So that–to take another example–if one were to grow up with a set of diagnoses from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the newly published volume is DSM-5, out on May 22) one would finally let oneself withdraw from the categories of ‘mental illness,’ ‘diagnose,’ and ‘treat.’ The withdrawal, the unnaming, the forgetfulness would, after all these years, occasion a day-long belly laugh. And the subsequent belly ache would be well worth it.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, Chapter 2. ‘Confusion,’ The Art of Inquiry

On not owning a couch

The best thing that fairly well-to-do parents can do today would be to refuse the temptation to buy their children their first couch. A few recent tweets tell something of the story about the American precariat:

‘Student Debt Slows Growth as Young Spend Less’ http://nyti.ms/10xd0uG  (More news about status of American #precariat)

‘The Idled Young Americans’: on the precariat. http://nyti.ms/11Hwf5V  ‘26.2 percent of Americans between ages 25 & 34 were not working.’

‘Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.’ http://nyti.ms/132PIRn 

Prudent 20- and 30-somethings will need to learn to live without beds when sleeping bags will do just fine. Places one might live should be already furnished; rent is to be avoided at all costs; leases are conceptual mistakes. Parents should buy their children a decent laptop and a good backpack and then let them be.

Unlike their parents, young adults will need to regard the unforeseen as a surprise, not as a sign of terror. They will have to cultivate courage and patience, openness and attention. They will have to replace ‘knowing’ with ‘not knowing, thus going and finding out for themselves.’ Most of all, they will have to pare down their inventory of items to only the basic essentials.

Early on, they might find in The Daodejing an excellent example of traveling through the world like a sparrow undistracted. They will have to settle down or settle in, of course, but settling for them will look like a very different thing. They will have to figure out how to be at home in a new world, one yet to be revealed.

Benedict or Cicero? Field philosophy or the monastic?

Day 1. A philosopher is neither a teller nor an adviser.

Day 2. What Dancy’s Late Late Show appearance has to say about the philosopher’s disappearance

Day 3. ‘Living’ philosophy: Field philosophy

Scholars of Aristotle have long been divided over the answer Aristotle gives to the question of how best to live. Much of the Nicomachean Ethics points in the direction of the active life. The best life, apparently, is the life of moral virtue, which is cultivated among one’s citizens. In Book 10, however, Aristotle suggests that pure contemplative activity may be best, and it is here that the Unmoved Mover is introduced. In the Ethics, it remains unclear, perhaps undecidable, whether one conception is best, the other second best; whether one conception is to be combined with the other; and, if the two are to be so combined, then how to combine them in working order.

This problem of scholarship needn’t detain us here, yet the subject may throw some light on a much larger problem concerning the figure of the philosopher. What I have in mind is what seems to me a ‘decision’ for anyone who wishes to become a philosopher today.

Is he to become a St. Benedict or a Cicero?

Continue reading “Benedict or Cicero? Field philosophy or the monastic?”