The two interesting philosophical questions for our time

Another excursus…

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to understand what I have been calling our ‘modern moral metaphysic.’ So far, I have examined arguments 4 and 3 (in that order). This worldview is comprised of all or most of the following:

1.) Because the world is lost and fallen, it needs to be changed or ultimately saved.

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

3.) Constituted by problems, the world requires solutions.

4.) In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

Standing back to look at 1) – 5), one notices that they are attempts at saying that the modern world has not reached universal equality. I would deduce, then, that the point of departure is one of the two interesting philosophical questions for our time.

Call it ‘Question I.’

  • What is human equality, and how can it be realized as far as this is possible? 

This question stretches from the Enlightenment through Marx and ends in Thomas Picketty. Let’s rename Question I ‘The Marx/Picketty Question.’

Here is Question II:

  • How can one make oneself into an extraordinary human being? 

The figures who spend their life seeking to answer this question are sadhus, sages, holy men, and exemplary persons. Rename this ‘The Nietzsche/Sloterdijk Question.’ Understood rightly, this question is not about my wanting my life to change, however that happens, but rather about my wanting to change my life. And not simply changed in any old fashion but rather to achieve ‘greatness of soul.’

As I write, I believe two things are the case. One is that The Marx/Picketty Question’ has occupied much of our ethical and political attention to the exclusion of The Nietzsche/Sloterdijk Question. The modern moral metaphysic certainly ‘tips the scales’ in favor of asking and seeking to answer Question I. The other is that, so far as I can tell, one can only spend one’s life on one question or the other and not on both.

To be sure, Question I is philosophically interesting, yet it is not the only question of keen interest. What is more, I do not think that Question II can be properly heard, let alone taken seriously, so long as Question I is the only genuine question being asked. For this reason, after I investigate arguments 1), 2), and 5) above and show that they lead us astray, I believe the ground for hearing Question II will be cleared for its disclosure.

A secular version of the Parable of the Talents

Our time on earth is finite; we know that we shall perish. How are we to best spend our days? How to use our gifts?

On the one hand, we could believe that all our words and deeds do not amount to much since these will be erased with the passing of time. Hence, we could spend our time doing nothing. Yet if we do nothing, then we have squandered our gifts.

On the other hand, we could believe that all possible deeds we could perform must be performed so that nothing is left unperformed. Hence, we would be bound to do everything within our power. Yet if we seek to do everything within our power, then we will become arrogant, our aims self-defeating, never fully realized. We will have exhausted ourselves existentially.

My philosophical friend who posed this dilemma solved it thusly: ‘By doing just enough each day of what matters with the proper care and in the proper way.’ Parsing:

1.) Cognition: The thing said or done must matter.

2.) Justice: The thing is said or done in proper measure.

3.) Concentration: The thing is given proper care, i.e., the right kind of attention.

4.) Kalon: The thing is to be undertaken in an excellent, beautiful way.

Therefore, we do not do everything (the epic hero) or nothing (the wastrel). We do enough of the right things and we do each of them well. This is called abundance.

The salamander and the black-and-white bird

Up to me came a  salamander to be warmed by the sun. The wind was cool and I felt chilled, so I sat down and began to climb. When I returned to be warmed by the sun, along came a little black-and-white bird hopping closer and closer to me. He was hopping along the low-lying branches in the sweetly smelling chayote bush. How curious, I thought, how close he is, this black and white little bird. One more hop carries him to the ground and then the sound of pecking. He pecks and flips a something about like scratches in the sand. That something is–was–the salamander. Now, I hear in the chayote bush more pecking and pecking. On the ground, I see a tail twitching every five seconds while the pecking continues in the bush.

Hurry up: A parable

Two men spend exactly two minutes looking at the cross section of a cutdown tree. Both men have the same sensory equipment (eyes, ears, tongues, etc.). Both have the same cognitive equipment (capacity for concentrating, attending,  inferring, etc.). Both are walking at the same rate and that rate is such as not to prove laborious for either man. Neither is out of breath or in a state of turmoil.

Yet one distinction makes all the difference: the first is in a hurry while the second takes his time. The second man has never heard of such word combinations as ‘hurry up,’ ‘hurry along,’ and ‘hurry away’ that the first man frequently employs, and thus only the second man’s life can be luxurious.


Photo credit: Alexandra Marcella Lauro

The magical coat room

You hand the man your ticket but either the ticket, which looks pretty ratty, coincides with some other performance, or else its matching partner to this performance is nowhere to be found. Either way, your coat is gone and the coat check man has no recollection of having seen the coat you describe. Try as you might, he shakes his head. You resign yourself to its absence.

Still, you’re perturbed by this recent turn of events. You reckon you could leave without a coat, but you realize that it’s very cold outside, one of the coldest days on record. For an instant, you imagine yourself living the rest of your life in the coat room–this place where others come and go, drop off and return for their wearables. You then imagine tricking yourself into believing that your coat never existed. Or perhaps you steal another’s and are better off (or worse off) in the bargain. Or, no, you’ll dash off into the winter night and, since you’re hardier than the common lot, beat the cold at its own game.

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