Category: Philosophy

Finding Epicurus in a Time of Immense Woe and Suffering

How will I deal with Michigan shutting down the bars on Black Wednesday?

Well, the Fuhrer has shut down Michigan bars for three weeks.

It kills my glorious Black Wednesday streak, which reaches back 33 years.

Oh, the (lack of) memories!

Oh, the hangovers!

I think Black Wedneseday was the last annual night of decadence on my calendar.

In my early twenties, I had no fewer than eight annual occasions that called for a long bout of drinking, ribaldry, and music. They slowly dwindled down to one.

And now it’s gone. I’ll be resigned to drinking at home, shooting pool with fewer than 11 people from two households, and listening to the garage rock playlist I’ve been assembling from The Vault’s 165-hour Spotify collection.

I think I’ll be able to bear it. I suppose someone could argue that maybe, just maybe, there are bigger crosses to bear.

I am, of course, being ironic. Everything will be fine. Although I loathe the ruthless exercise of raw governmental power like this, there’s nothing I can do.

I’ll just have to face it with Stoic resolve.

Or maybe, given the nature of my anticipated response (a night of drinking), Epicurean embrace.

Epicurus and the Stoics

Epicureanism and Stoicism were rivals, but they had a lot in common. Stoicism didn’t reject pleasure and Epicureanism didn’t advocate excessive indulgence. Seneca quoted “the enemy” Epicurus fairly often; Marcus Aurelius did at least once. (Epictetus, on the other hand, shunned him as a “preacher of effeminacy” . . . good man, that cripple Epictetus).

The main difference between them was that Stoicism’s goal was virtue and Epicureanism’s was pleasure.

Both, like every philosopher and person, pursued happiness.

Epicurus’ disciple Philodemus put together the tetrapharmakos (four remedies) from fragments of his master’s teachings:

  1. Don’t fear God.
  2. Don’t
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Is the Netflix Documentary a Paean to Catholic Convert and Daily Communicant Marshall McLuhan?

The Social Dilemma uses the intellectual framework built by McLuhan, but the similarities stop there

The Social Dilemma documentary has broken records. According to its main star, Tristan Harris, 38 million households in the first 28 days saw it on Netflix.

That’s incredible.

What’s even more incredible?

The whole documentary is a salute to Marshall McLuhan.

Well, it’s a tribute to Neil Postman, who was a loyal McLuhan disciple.

Harris, who is largely responsible for sounding the alarm bell about what the social media industry is up to, appeared on “The Joe Rogan Experience” last week. He concluded the interview with these glowing words about Postman’s classic work, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

It literally predicts everything that is going on now. I frankly think that I’m adding nothing . . . Neil Postman called it all in 1982.

I appreciate it when contemporaries admit that they are standing on the shoulders of giants—and McLuhan/Postman were giants—but I think Harris’ comment is a little too generous.

The theme of the documentary

The Social Dilemma addresses the attention economy. The social media companies’ entire business model is to capture attention. They do this through algorithms that engage us by giving us what we want . . . without us asking for it.

And even without us knowing we want it.

The social media companies gather our information—what we’ve viewed, what we’ve purchased—and feed it into an algorithm with billions of other pieces of information to determine what we want to see, then feed it to us so we don’t leave their network.

At one point in the interview, Harris says you can practically feel the algorithms pulling on you.

It’s compelling stuff.

The Social Dilemma and McLuhan/Postman

But it’s dealing with issues and a media force that I’m pretty sure neither … Read the rest

Optimism for Me and Other Slow Learners

The Good, the True, and Beautiful Unfold Slowly for Some of Us, but They Do Unfold

I’m not looking to join the old Tropic Thunder velitation, but about 20 years ago I volunteered to sell Tootsie Rolls to help people with mental disabilities. I figured it was an easy way to do some good, so I stood on the steps of my Catholic church as people came out of Mass and enthused, “Help the retards! Buy a Tootsie Roll. Only a buck. Help the retards!”

The next day, I thought about the funny look on parishioners’ faces. I asked my law partner: “Your sister has Down’s Syndrome. Is it offensive to refer to such people as ‘retards’? Because I was at church yesterday . . .”.

He stared (okay, glared) at me and said, yes, it was highly offensive and that I’d probably cost the firm a dozen clients. He also said something to imply that I was a slow learner.

It’s not the first time I felt like a slow learner. I’d been at politically-correct institutions of higher learning for five years before I learned that off-color and politically-incorrect comedic music isn’t proper casual listening with people you’ve just met.

There’s also a litany of weightier things that I haven’t penetrated facilely. I read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom at age 16, but am still learning its lessons. I started reading Chesterton at age 20 and even edited Gilbert Magazine for a short spell, but I’m still a bit cloudy on the whole distributism thing. At age 24, I remember sitting down on a stairwell bench at Notre Dame Law School to ponder the idea that actual sin hinders spiritual development (something not emphasized in my Lutheran upbringing—Luther said my soul is snow-covered dung—but still one that I should’ve … Read the rest

Ben Franklin and the Mouse

How I finally accepted multi-tasking

It had been there for years, but I had never noticed it.

Until one morning when I found myself with a telephone receiver tucked under my neck while I talked with an acquaintance, a computer mouse in my hand while I surfed the Internet, and a pile of snail mail in front of me that I scanned between web page downloads.

My power of attention had suffered a serious blow and I didn’t even see it coming. I suddenly realized: The much-vaunted act of multi-tasking had settled in me. It unnerved me a bit, so I watched myself for a few weeks and discovered that I could hardly do anything without wanting to do something else at the same time.

Sure, there were exceptions. Sex, for instance, could still keep my attention. I’m guessing an armed robber with a psychotic laugh and an AK47 could, too. I could also stay focused when checking my investments.

So sex, fear, and money. Those things could demand single-task attention.

But in nearly all other activities, the urge to be doing another thing at the same time was there.

Why do we multi-task?

I don’t know when it started. I think I’ve had the multi-tasking disposition for years. Even back in college, when leisure was life, I kinda liked doing laundry because I could study at the same time.

I’m guessing multi-tasking was stamped on my upbringing.

It isn’t surprising. I’m an American, and I was raised with conventional American ideas of good living, like a penny saved is a penny earned, God helps them that help themselves, and never leave until tomorrow that which you can do today.

Those, of course, are Franklinisms. Ben also wrote, “Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all … Read the rest

I Don’t Love the Nightlife and I Don’t Got to Boogie

But I miss the bars

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” Samuel Johnson

Like Samuel Johnson and Alicia Bridges (see title), I like a good bar.

Heck, I like many bars. I love a good bar.

COVID, of course, has crippled the bar scene, which has hit me pretty hard.

You see, I’m a religious guy. I like to worship.

I’m pantheistic in my approach. God, for me, isn’t found only in the brick-and-mortar church sanctuary. God is everywhere.

Oh yeah, to be sure, he’s found in some places better than others. I believe He is present in every church. I also think He’s present in other people and acutely present in the poor.

I also believe he’s present in quiet places. It’s a belief that goes back almost 3,000 years, to the time of Elijah:

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound,” a “still and small” breeze, and then the Lord spoke, “Elijah, why are you here?”

I’m a silence monger. I seek it wherever I can find it. On the worst winter days, you’ll often find me outside, taking in the silence born from forcing the world indoors.

On a weekday afternoon, you might find me in a bar, taking advantage of the dead period — that time from, say, 1:30 to 4:00 — when the bar has virtually no customers. The lunch crowd … Read the rest

Ten Totally Impractical Observations about Life that You Need to Hear

Shortly before he was martyred with others in 203 AD, St. Saturus related a vision he had of heaven. He said he and the other martyrs were carried eastward to a garden, where a handful of angels started exclaiming, “Here they are! Here they are!

The martyrs were taken to a group of elders and an aged man with a youthful face. The martyrs kissed the aged man, and he touched their faces with his hand. Then the elders told them, “Go and play.”

Fr. James Schall understood why the martyrs were told to go and play.

In his book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, Schall explored the unseriousness of serious human affairs and the seriousness of unserious human affairs.

Yes, it is a paradoxical book, but that’s only to be expected from Schall—he was a devoted fan of G.K. Chesterton, the master of paradox.

The book is basically a series of loosely-connected essays that revolve around a very basic question: How ought we to live our lives?

The book never offers an answer to the question, but it provides guidance in an array of areas, as evidenced by the book’s subtitle: “Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing.”

To these I would add Writing and Receiving Letters, Watching Sporting Events, and Spending Time With Friends.

It’s a book lightly-written, laced with references to Charlie Brown and other cartoons, but deceptively heavy. I found myself inclined—almost forced—to pause after every section and think about Schall’s words. He never belabored a point and often made statements without going forward and offering additional conclusions, but rather pointed to the truth and invited the reader to think about implications.

Consider Schall’s observation about wasting time.

Amusement, Schall said, might be the great and ultimate end of mankind. Amusement, after all, … Read the rest

Misshapen Creatures that Live in the Earth Can Give Us Sage Advice?

Well, no. But: Don’t Fear the Gnome

man people art tree
Photo by omid mostafavi on

The first philosophical event in the Greek world, the selection of their seven sages, gives the first distinctive and unforgettable characteristic of Greek civilization. Other people have saints, while the Greeks have philosophers. They are right when some state that a people is not defined by its great men it has but by the way it recognizes and honors them.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When you hear “gnome,” you probably think of a scary little creature.

That’s because of the Rosicrucians, a 17th-century mystical movement in Europe that said gnomes are little misshapen creatures that live in the bowels of the earth.

But well before the Rosicrucians, the word “gnome” meant something different. It meant a short statement that expresses a general truth, like a proverb or maxim.

There were seven men in ancient Greece who were well-known for the particularly-insightful gnomes attributed to them. These men were called “The Gnomics.” Today, we refer to them as the “Seven Sages of Ancient Greece.” They were philosophers, poets, rulers, statesmen and lawmakers who were renowned for their wisdom.

Actually, there were a lot more than seven.

One ancient writer (Hermippus) said there were 17 of them. That’s probably because ancient Greece was an amalgamation of city-states and different city-states had different lists.

But all the Greeks agreed that wisdom is a great thing. The ancient Greeks’ veneration of the Gnomics was, in the words of Nietzsche quoted above, the “first philosophical event in the Greek world.”

In any event, although there were various lists of Gnomics, the following seven were most often agreed upon: Thales, Solon, Bias, Pittacus of Mytilene, Periander of Corinth, Chilon of Sparta, and Cleobolus of Lindus. The following is a short summary of each Gnomic, along … Read the rest

How Many Beers Does It Take to Find the Tao?

C.S. Lewis would’ve said “zero.” It’s the Tao that helps you find the beer.

It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

That’s C.S. Lewis writing about the Tao in his famous book, The Abolition of Man. Since the book’s publication in 1947, Lewis’s name has been associated with the Tao because of his love and respect for the natural law it embodies.

But I associate Lewis with the Tao for a different reason: his beer drinking.

You see, Lewis spent many Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child public house drinking beer with J.R.R. Tolkien and other friends.

It’s vintage Lewis. Although he was at times melancholy, Lewis could find enjoyment almost anywhere doing almost anything: attending church, taking long country walks, living at his humble Kilns, tutoring students, writing theology or children’s fiction, teaching.

The difference between enjoying and enjoying the enjoying

Lewis’s capacity for enjoyment stemmed at least partly from the early influence of a little-known Australian philosopher named Samuel Alexander.

Alexander pointed out the distinction between enjoying something and being aware of the enjoying. Here’s how Lewis put it:

“Enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment. Of course, the two activities can and do alternate with great rapidity, but they are distinct and incompatible. . . The surest way of spoiling a pleasure [is] to start examining your satisfaction. . . [N]early everything that was going on a moment

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