Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Fullness of Time: A Review of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder (Philosophy Homework)



Our story begins with an empty house, an Ipod, a home entertainment center with a quality sound system, a headphone to A/V jack, a young Goth born to tech-saavy generation Y, and a complete audiobook version of Sophie's World: A Novel About The History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder downloaded from the Itunes Music Store. The Goth, of course, was me, and I had been given temporary dominion over the house of some of my good friends by their mother, provided I tended to the garden and every beast of the premises (i.e. the household pets). I had in fact carried out this same task the summer before, which happened to have been the same time I downloaded Sophie's World in the first place. I was first introduced to Sophie's World by my instructor during a previous philosophy course some two years ago in which I learned a good many important things, but never earned the grade I deserved because I was much too bogged down with personal and existential issues to get much of the work done. Now I had returned to set things to rights, and the final task before me was the arrangement of one grand party. Where some young men and women my age would use the conditions outlined at the beginning to throw a big secret party with their friends, this party would have in attendance the greatest philosophers of two and a half millenia in attendance. Naturally, as cool as a dead philosopher's party filled with the ghosts of great philosophers would be (although it would be difficult to explain to my friends' mother that the broken furniture was a result of Sartre getting into a fist-fight with Plato over whether existence proceeded essence, or vice versa), due to personal limitations this party would have to occur entirely in my head with the aid of Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, a book more addictive and enchanting than pixie dust.

As one may have guessed from the subtitle, Sophie's World is "a novel about the history of philosophy". But unlike one's cliche history textbook, which makes itself dreadfully boring by telling the human story from a detached "fly on the wall" perspective, this book takes the reader on a journey through the history of philosophy as a human embarking on an epic journey through time and space in search of an answer to life's great riddles as expounded by history's greatest philosophers. Sophie's World was written with young men and women in mind, Gaarder's prose does an excellent joy of explaining complex ideas in simple terms without dumbing them down, making it an excellent starting point for beginning philosophical inquiry. Truth be told, I haven't been this impressed by a simply written popular-level work since New Testament historian and theologian N.T. Wright's brilliant For Everyone series of New Testament commentaries (but that's a story for another day). One very interesting byproduct of the way Sophie's World arranging material related to the history of men who contemplated the meaning and nature of existence is that the work as a whole becomes a fascinating applied study in the teleology of history. Gaarder himself appears to be quite aware of this fact, and aptly quotes a line from Goethe's Faust in the epigraph that says: "He who cannot draw from three thousand years is living from hand to mouth."

Where things really begin to break down, however, is the existential nausea of the 20th century, which in this work marks the culmination of three thousand years of philosophy in Jean-Paul Sartre and his description of man's sense of angst and despair in a meaningless and godless world left at the brink of cosmic ruin. As one's prospects in the the concrete requiem become more bleak and desperate, it is natural that people would seek out the hidden springs of spirituality to weather the storm. As N.T. Wright explains, "'The hidden spring' of spirituality is the second feature of human life which, I suggest, functions as the echo of a voice; as a sign-post pointing away from the bleak landscape of modern secularism and toward the possibility that we humans are made for more than this. There are many signs that, just as people in eastern Europe are rediscovering freedom and democracy, people in western Europe are rediscovering spirituality-even if some of the experiments in getting back on track are random, haphazard, or even downright dangerous." (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense p. 20)

Symptomatic of this social climate in Sophie's World, then, is the way the book describes the explosion of New Age spirituality in the wake of the historical phenomenon of the death of God. As a theist, this is not to say that I believe that God does not exist, merely that it is no longer common for people in our society to base their values on God, causing new values to be created in the moral vacuum of Nihilism. It is understandable, in such a climate, that people would become desperate for spiritual waters from any source, no matter how muddy or polluted with industrial chemicals and byproducts. To this end, we learn Hilde, one of the main protagonists, has been dabbling in the New Age books to escape the crushing mundanity of everyday existence. Like a wise and benevolent father, Albert Knag (no doubt representative of Gaarder himself) has sent young Hilde his final chapter on Sartre as a specially designed "present" designed to explode in her face and leave her in existential despair just in time for her fifteenth birthday. This rather neatly corresponds to the torments he inflicts upon the book's main protagonist, Sophie, who is also subject by Hilde's father to existential angst in an absurd world of a much different order upon her fifteenth birthday.

In this respect, it is good that through the agency of Alberto Knox, Hilde's father disputes the veracity of many New Age claims, going so far as to call their literature a form of pornography. It is not good, however, that Knag-through-Knox casts in his final lot with the secular humanists to squelch her quest for transcendence. If, as suggested in the chapter on Freud, it is wrong for a parent to be heavy-handed in repressing their child's natural sexual drive because it may lead to something dangerous and self-destructive, why is it right for Hilde's father to be heavy-handed in repressing Hilde's natural spiritual drive because it may lead to something dangerous and self-destructive? Simply swatting away the whole strand of spiritually invigorated philosophy from Heraclitus to Kierkegaard with the help of Hume's enlightened straw man factory leaves much to be desired.

Fortunately for the reader, however, Sophie's World is chiefly a book designed to enable the reader to decide things for themselves. In this respect, Gaarder's greatest strength as a writer is his ability to explain ideas in a fashion that is clear, simple, accurate, in context, and appealing all at the same time. This applies even to the deeply spiritual philosophers, who are explained with an even-handed clarity the present author wished would have remained preserved to the very end. The chapter on Jesus was particularly well-done, with Gaarder taking rightful note of the eschatological proclamation of the kingdom of God taking center-stage in his life and thought. It is unfortunate, however, that Gaarder thoughtlessly reduces his resurrection to mere rumor and carelessly denies it in tangent when he insists at various points that dead bodies have no future, for as Paul reasons: "if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised." (1 Corinthians 15:13) In other words, if there is no such category of such a thing even in the mind of God as part of his purposes for the world, then it becomes self-evident that such a thing has not in fact happened to Jesus either. But as Gaarder himself quotes: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." (1 Corinthians 15:14) Fortunately, when Gaarder is actually paying attention to the fact that he is dealing directly with a Christian thinker or philosopher, he is very fair and accurate. Only with St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas does he allow Sophie's backtalk to become much too vociferous and dense.

The only other annoying quirk that comes to mind is the way Gaarder insists upon following extreme feminist theologians in their demands that God have a sex change so that the cosmic order can itself be conceived of as matriarchal. While it is true that women have greatly suffered under patriarchal institutions, projecting its polar opposite into the cosmic order is merely as short-sighted as the cultural forces it is reacting to. In the ancient near east, gender was defined by what social roles one played in society, and so the gender of a deity was defined by what role they played within the cosmic order. True enough to this rule, if a deity took on a role more consistent with the opposite gender, the gender language in referring to that deity would reverse. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always insisted that God is not a being of immortal flesh like the pagan gods, but the one true eternal Spirit for whom gender language literally understood would not be appropriate. Nevertheless, because God's relation to Israel and then the world was itself a covenantal relationship resembling that of a regent making a covenant with his subjects, kingly and masculine metaphors became preferred for God to distinguish him and his actions from the local fertility goddesses of the region. It would, after all, be a shame to lose sight of God's eternal grace and steadfast love just so our crops and children can grow better (as important though that is).

In this respect, Gaarder is correct in referring to the ancient Jewish Wisdom tradition that begins as early as the book of Proverbs to justify his assertion that "God also had a female side", he is inaccurate in interpreting that tradition in terms of "mother nature" or Joseph Campbell's "the sacred feminine" (which takes us back to mere fertility goddesses). In Proverbs 8, Wisdom describes herself as the wise and just handmaiden of creation through whom the cosmic order is actually established, and who goes on to ensure that the balance of the cosmic order is maintained and that all who seek Wisdom will find her. She lends her riches and counsel to commoners and kings that they may live lives of wisdom and justice, and acts as the agent of the divine covenant so that humanity can receive its blessing. In short, Wisdom is the eternally existing hypostasis in the mind of God who carries out God's will within time, space, and history so that the holy and transcendent God can see to it that history is guided according to his purpose of redemption. As noted earlier, in the ancient near east, if a deity acted in the capacity characteristic of opposite gender, the gender language of that deity would reverse. And because through Wisdom, God acts as the housekeeper of the universe, for Wisdom the feminine pronoun becomes appropriate, although Wisdom too is Spirit. If anyone thinks this is merely a thinly disguised effort to keep women in their place and doing their chores, it would be more accurate to say that through the lense of Wisdom, women have been empowered with the very microcosm of God's redemptive power to set the world to rights, and that as wise agents of the covenant, they too should see to it that the world is ordered according to justice and wisdom.

It is worth noting that Hellenistic Jews like Philo of Alexandria could easily link the Jewish Wisdom (Hokmah) tradition with the Greek traditions of Wisdom (Sophia) and Word (Logos). Indeed, by the time of John's Gospel, the author can cue up the Wisdom traditions for Jewish readers and the Logos meditations for spiritual seekers in the Hellenized world with the simple words: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) For John, of course, the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The end result is that if one wishes to know about the true nature of God, the meaning of life, and what it means to be human, one simply has to look to Jesus, and they will see it embodied in him. If one wishes to gain deeper insight into how much these words would mean to its ancient readers, or to modern readers living in an existential vacuum for that matter, I can think of no better place to start than embarking on a wonderful journey with Sophie and her friends. Paul once remarked of Jesus that "In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son." (Galatians 4:3-4) By this, I think Paul means that at precisely the right moment in history, God sent Jesus to change the course of history and bring people hope. Can it merely be coincidence that, as Sophie's World informs us, the golden age of philosophy and the birth of Christianity coincide with the moment in history when the Hellenistic world was characterized by globalization (so to speak) and a bleak outlook that, like Nietzsche, finds "the world has grown old." What does it mean today that the world we are living in more closely resembles the world in which philosophy and ancient Christianity flourished than any other age before it?

Immanuel Kant once said the three main questions of philosophy are "What can I know?", "What ought I to do?", and "What may I hope?" For those to whom such matters are burning questions they would like to explore, Sophie's World makes an excellent introduction to philosophy. For all its various shortcomings, which are in fact a very small part of the overall work, Sophie's World is the best work of its kind, and will be very difficult for any other writer to surpass. For this reason, then, the author would strongly recommend Sophie's World to anyone, and would encourage my professor to keep using it for future philosophy classes. And when we've finished embarking with Sophie on her magical journey, we quickly find that we are ready to embark on a wonderful journey of our own. What on earth are we waiting for?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Can a Christian Be a Goth? (English Composition Final)

The mystery surrounding the minister's black veil had cast a darkened shroud over the Puritan town where the good parson served. The shadowy crape veil concealed the face of Mr. Hooper, giving his countenance a frightfully ghostlike aspect. By all accounts, Mr. Hooper was a kind and gentle man who was, at worse, prone to loneliness and melancholy. Nevertheless, rumors persisted that the minister's black veil concealed some terrible secret sin only God knew about that led him to forever hide his face from humanity.

Still, the sign of the veil proved an effective aid to Mr. Hooper's clerical duties, as the slightest mention of any sort of sin made the whole congregation feel as if the minister had found out their festering horde of treasured evils. It proved difficult for anyone in the congregation to escape the impression that before Mr. Hooper helped bring them into the light, they too live with him behind the black veil. But if the townspeople revered Mr. Hooper, they also feared and shunned him, driving him deeper into loneliness and solitude. Only his beloved betrothed Elizabeth was fearful not of him, but for him. When she inquired as to the meaning of the veil, Mr. Hooper remained ambivalent, preferring to let everyone decide its meaning themselves. Still, he said that the veil was a sign and symbol for all that shields men's eyes from divine glory, and typified the tragedy of the human condition. Whether he suffered under the weight of grief in this sad veil of tears or even really did harbor some terrible secret, it is still only a mortal veil that he will finally part with at death, but never before then.

The story just recounted is, of course, The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an important work of 19th century Gothic fiction. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Bram Stoker, and later Mary Shelley, Hawthorne wrote many harrowing tales as part of the 19th century dark romantic movement as a critique of both the dark and dehumanizing side of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and the naive super-optimism of other romantic authors who whistled in the dark and denied the existence of evil. In this story, Hawthorne leaves it up to the reader to decide for themselves why Mr. Hooper wears the black veil, and whether he was right in doing so. Much like the controversy surrounding Mr. Hooper, Christian enthusiasts of the Gothic subculture remain controversial both within the Church and within the subculture itself. Is not being both a Christian and a Goth a contradiction in terms? Granted, many churches are very welcoming toward Goths, and we seem to be accumulating a small shroud of them at my own church. Other Christians, however, fearing perhaps what they think the subculture embodies, censure all Goths in the most unflattering terms. It seems likely that past experience of such treatment plays a significant role in forming the opinions of those Goths who say it is impossible to be a Christian and a Goth at the same time. Most Christians, however, lie somewhere between these two poles of complete acceptance and complete dismissal. This writing will argue for the argue for the acceptance of Christian Goths within the Church and the subculture.

In addressing this question of identity, it is important that we define the terms being discussed so that we can really understand the issue. A Christian is an adherent of an ancient spirituality who believes God sent his his Son as the Christ to accomplish the saving work of redeeming humanity. Basic tenants of Christianity are outlined in the Apostolic and Nicene creeds. A Goth, meanwhile, is a fan of Gothic music, a style of dark music inspired by the Glam, Punk, and New Wave genres that contain lyrical themes inspired by 19th century Gothic literature and 20th century horror cinema. Most Goths have an aesthetic taste for dark clothing and art with an element of tragic beauty.

On the surface of it, the present author can conceive of a couple of different reactions to these two definitions when embodied within the same person. The first will wonder what exactly the problem is when the first definition addresses human and cosmic destiny while the second addresses aesthetic tastes. It becomes like a question of whether the Christian can paint their house bright colors and hang Picasso paintings on the wall. This approach, while useful in many cases, fails to understand that aesthetics themselves have meanings, and so does not entirely address this question. The second reaction will point out that that the whole tenor of Christianity concerns itself with light, redemption, and revelation while the aesthetics of the Gothic subculture concern themselves with darkness, tragedy, and mystery, and hence are incompatible with each other. To this, the author argues that the fundamental starting point of all religion and spirituality, including Christianity, is the diagnosis of the human condition and where it all went wrong. After all, before we can understand why it is necessary and desirable to be saved, we must first understand what is wrong with the status quo and the ordinary mode of being. In this respect, the author concedes that the Christian would be best not identifying with any work that advocates utter and hopeless despair, but works that contrast tragedy and hope (as many Gothic works do) are themselves helpful to the spiritual life for precisely these reasons. The author is here reminded of Rembrandt's dark but intensely luminous paintings of the life of Jesus, which here serve as a useful example and guide.

Whatever one's aesthetic tastes, it is important to realize that it is in grave error to assume any tribe, culture, or subculture is exempt from participating in the fruits of Jesus' message simply by way of affiliating with that culture. Over and over, the New Testament tells us, that Jesus came for a salvation of not this or that kind of person, but for all of humanity. One of the most striking visions of this reality occurs in the Book of Revelation, where we read: "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Revelation 7:9-11 ESV) This vision of ultimate peace (note the palm branches), which stands in intended contrast to the imperialistic arrogance of the Beast (i.e. the personification of brutal empire, cf. ch. 13 and Daniel 7), is not one that is given to or for just one people, but all peoples, and the final result is described at the end of the book in the vision of the consummation of history: "Then the angel showed me the river of life... on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22:1-2 ESV) And who would be more in desire and need for the healing of the nations than people like the Goths, for whom the tragic state of the world already leads to bitter weeping? For all the theological controversy over how Christianity relates to various cultures and counter-cultures, its important not to lose sight of the big picture. We can't let ourselves become so biased by our own cultural perspectives and prejudices that we remain blind to the work of God because it doesn't fit in with our agendas. Indeed, this is one of the most recurring cautions Jesus ever gave, and we would do well to remember it.

So, to turn our glasses around and look from the outside inwards, can a Christian be a Goth from the point of view of the subculture itself? This author believes one can. First and foremost, the Gothic subculture plays host to members and performers hailing from a rich variety of spiritual backgrounds and perspectives. To date, the present author has encountered among various Goths a number of Christians, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Taoists, Buddhists, Sikhs, and a close friend whose life is apparently stalked by an mysterious force called the Tempest, who are responsible for all manner of eerie Twilight Zone business like lost socks and half-drank beers when one is ever so sure they poured a full glass. This diverse involvement should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the subculture. Where most secular cultures and subcultures from the Enlightenment onward are content to simply buzz about as if religion and spirituality never happened, the Gothic subculture exists as a place where the imagery and symbolism of religion are not simply tired relics of a forgotten past, but wholly relevant and important to the present. As Goth writer Voltaire informs us: "Goths are usually very accepting of all... creeds, faiths... and lifestyles as long as they get a fair amount of reciprocity." (Voltaire, What Is Goth? p. 79)

In other words, as applies to this particular subject, the Christian can become accepted by the subculture as long as they behave respectfully, and not with an arrogant and pushy manner unbecoming of a person of faith. Indeed, to hear and read the opinions of those Goths that believe one cannot be a Christian and a Goth, it becomes clear that they are projecting the expectation from past experience of arrogant and pushy behavior among Christians onto the whole faith. Inevitably, the diverse and sometimes rocky ground of the Gothic subculture proves to be fertile soil for some and the uprooting of others, but that of itself should not stop one from getting involved. It really shouldn't be a problem if one has reached a sufficient level of maturity both as a person and as a Christian. Likewise, the present author can testify from personal experience that the art and symbolism of the subculture, as well as the cultural and literary traditions it draws upon, provide the mature Christian with plenty of things of substance to chew upon. Indeed, its influence has imbued my theology with a gloriously cathartic beauty that can face up to the most terrible aspects of life and death and say yes to God and to life.

It has been shown, therefore, that it is indeed possible to be a Christian and a Goth without any particular logical inconsistency. More than simply showing the Gothic subculture is not inconsistent with Christianity, we have shown that its influence may be very beneficial to the mature Christian. With this in mind, the Church should cultivate a more accepting attitude toward Goths knowing that their influence can be more of a help than a hurt to other Christians. Likewise, those Goths who have had painful past experiences with certain Christians and project their disappointments onto the whole body of faith are encouraged to reconsider in favor of a more realistic view of the faith. Whatever our affiliations, above all we should remember that how we choose to react to other people will in turn dictate the terms in which they react to us.

Would It Be Desirable to Win the Lottery? (Philosophy Homework)

Question: "Would it be desirable to win the lottery?" (Your winnings: $2.5 Million after taxes.) Explain why or why not with sound, reasoned arguments.

Answer: In addressing this question of whether or not it would truly be desirable to win the lottery, I am reminded of Soren Kierkegaard's wry remarks on the subject of money in The Present Age, in which he censures the complacent inactivity of his generation. Kierkegaard writes: "In the end, therefore, money will be the one thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money. Give me money, he will say, and I am saved. But the young man will not run riot, he will not deserve what repentance repays. He would die with nothing to reproach himself with, and under the impression that if only he had had the money he might really have lived and might even have achieved something great." (Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age p. 40-41) If such was a symptom of the sickness of Kierkegaard's age, then a sign of the degenerating condition of our own age is the way social "success" is defined not in terms of spiritual fulfillment, moral excellence, aesthetic mastery, and relational quality, but the degree to which a person possesses raw capital and consumer products. To this end, it would appear that winning the lottery seems to be every American's dream (so to speak), a magic ticket to actually attain the economic advancement to the top strata of society and all those big shiny toys the economy perpetually dangles in front of the average consumer like cheese in a hamster wheel, each of which remain as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But as horror film historian David J. Skal observes in opening a chapter explaining the rise of Stephen King, as well as other relevant phenomena like the surprise success of American Psycho:

The freedoms of democratic society have a threatening shadow-side rarely addressed in an open manner. Expectations of boundless opportunity and upward mobility, of acceptance and inclusion in a supposedly classless society, the potential for sudden economic transformation and the nirvana of endless consumption - all are familiar components of the American dream. Although there is little evidence that Americans are more likely than other people to transcend the castes into which they are born, the dream, like a long-running television game show, dies hard.

One place the dream is permitted to perish, with noisy, convulsive death rattles, is in horror entertainment. The American nightmare, as refracted in film and fiction, is about disenfranchisement, exclusion, downward mobility, a struggle-to-the-death world of winners and losers. Familiar, civic-minded signposts are all reversed: the family is a sick joke, its house more likely to offer siege instead of shelter. (David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror p. 353-354)

If modern horror has provided a place for the American dream to go to die, then the lottery has functioned as the best-selling government-operated game show to keep that dream alive, and, more importantly, to expand its coffers. But assuming we avoid getting struck by lightning and rescue the winning ticket from Pennywise's dark carnival (or perhaps simply purchase it from the underpaid wage-slave at the local 7-11), would it really be desirable to win the lottery? I really don't think so. Like the American dream itself, the lottery conceals a dark underbelly of human suffering, though in this case for the "winners" rather than the losers. Hidden behind the projected image of happiness lies a long train of ruined lives and misery. Truth be told, most lottery winners do not go on to live lives of affluence, but spend their winnings and even go into serious debt in a mere span of a few years. A fair warning to those about to win the lottery: you'd better lock your doors, bar your windows, and keep a watchful eye on your family, friends, and neighbors as if you were living inside of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, because that isn't a far cry from the truth. With the sudden influx of income, you become a bigger target for hungry consumers than a band of post-apocalyptic zombie-plague survivors shacking up inside of a shopping mall. Even your most trusted relationships will place enormous pressures on you and probably even betray you in the service of the green-eyed monster. But if Fate or Fortune lends you a winning lottery ticket, your best bet is to either give it all away to charity or invest in any sector of Nosferatu's rat-race you think you can make a killing in while remaining more or less secure.

So, if anyone out there in the Blogosphere is disappointed because they always buy lottery tickets in the hopes of living the good life: cheer up! Epicurus said that the greatest pleasures and the good life can be afforded by anyone (with the unfortunate exception of those living in extreme poverty), and this is true. While eternal life and the boundless riches of God's glory come at a higher price than even the wealthiest and most noble man could ever afford, Jesus himself already paid that price, and offers all comers the eternally satisfying bread and water of life without price. Whatever one makes of an unbeatable offer like that (no capitalist could ever beat it), everyone can be happier by living lives that are more just and ethical, because by helping other people to be happier, you make yourself happier too. And if you're reading this on a computer hooked up to the Internet, you already have access to the greatest cultural and aesthetic achievements of humanity, usually without the slightest cost on your part.

While it can be tempting for those who have seen both the enormous possibilities of the Internet and the bleak prospects and boring mundanity of American life to grown more and more withdrawn from society, both Jesus and Epicurus are agreed on the importance of relationships with other people for true happiness. Good friends, families, and lovers are there to help each other in mutual upbuilding and sustainment, and their presence can't be beat by anything on earth. Making friends can be as easy and inexpensive as inviting people to the local cafe for a drink and a chat. So whether one remains a person of humble means, or whether one becomes a person of great magnitude and influence in spite of, or perhaps even because of the death of the American dream (as it was with Stephen King, who attained the American dream by mercilessly slaughtering it), seek out the people who will stay with you through thick and thin. Likewise, when you have friends like that, they will stand by one's side both when one makes their millions by their own labor-power and when one plunges through their darkest hour, as indeed happened to Stephen King. And whenever one finds themselves sitting down and having a drink and a conversation with people of that caliber, suddenly they will find that winning the lottery doesn't seem to be nearly as important as it used to be.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Lydia Meets Epictetus: A Stoic Dialogue Concerning Frustration Inspired by Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (Philosophy Homework)

The waiting room of the afterlife was dimly illuminated by a pale shade of green, which proved to be a shallow courtesy to the spirits who awaited their turn for a hearing there in the murky underworld. On earth, men sometimes dreaded the swift divine judgment awaiting them beyond the grave. But here, the only dread was the nauseatingly boring hours, days, months, and years spent waiting for a simple hearing by the great cosmic bureaucracy that governs things. Once the wait was over, of course, whichever case manager was assigned to address one's concerns may or may not, for a variety of reasons, choose to intervene on one's behalf. No one was entirely sure of the degree to which the system suffered mismanagement. Dealing with the needs of all the people that had ever lived and died proved to be a very daunting task, and the people running it were, after all, only human. If anyone waited there long enough, they might hear one of the spirits clamor for the torments of hell, if only that the damn thing be resolved quickly and decisively. Still, most sat and waited with resignation and a certain muffled sense of anxiety and frustration.

The most frustrating thing about the afterlife, however, was that everything and everyone was exactly the same. Most people were spared the horror of the dreaded waiting room living in the comfort of their own homes, which were exactly as they had left them. Of course, any number of difficulties could arise in the period following one's demise, not least the troubling hauntings of the living, who would typically just take over like they owned the place. A young woman named Lydia Deetz was, herself, and in more ways then one, the product of such hauntings. Born to the Deetz family in the chaos and sprawl New York City, Lydia's frustrations compounded in high school when her father divorced her mother and married a pushy and pretentious "artist". High school proved as irritating and difficult as ever as all of her peers all kept their distance from her in between jeers. Lydia found some solace in the aesthetics and trappings of the Gothic subculture, as well as the cathartic release of horror movies, but her deepest desire was simply to know someone that would love and understand her to abate her loneliness.

Well, apparently Lydia's father was undergoing many frustrations of his own, as soon his shot nerves sent him from the fast-lane of contracting and real estate to the unwelcome pit stop of a forced vacation. Attempting to rest as quickly as possible, Lydia's dad decided to flee the loud and sprawling city for the peace and quiet of their newly purchased New England home. Trouble remained close at hand, however, as her annoying mother insisted upon mercilessly redecorating the place and bossing everybody around. Worse still, the house was haunted by ghosts! Lydia first spotted them in the attic from down below on the front lawn. Quickly investigating their presence more or less fearlessly, Lydia quickly came face to face with the ghosts in their lame efforts to haunt the house in her mom's old sheets. Well, it turned out the ghosts were really nice people, and they quickly became fast friends. They were the Maitlands, a young married couple who still lived in their old house, and were trying to get her family out of the house. What they didn't know was that her dad never walks away from equity, and her mom is much too mean to be scared. Most people never saw ghosts even when they were standing right in front of them, but she was different. It said in the Handbook for the Recently Deceased that most people ignore the strange and unusual, but Lydia was herself strange and unusual.

And so the relationship between Lydia and the Maitlands grew and grew until they became a second family to her. Things became tense in the next few months, however, when the two families began to vicariously feud over who the house belonged to. But eventually, due in no small part to Lydia's influence, the Deetzes and the Maitlands were reconciled, and lived together in harmony (they could even see each other!).The strength and support of two families really helped Lydia get through high school, but before she knew it, it was time to head off to college. College, alas, proved to be much more lonely for Lydia. Friends were hard to come by, and she spent a lot of time alone in her dorm room. The student antics around the dorm rooms were remarkably frustrating for their mindless stupidity. Why hadn't anyone told her she had signed up for the big party school? Now and then some of the students in the dorm room died of drug and alcohol overdoses, but no one really seemed to care. It reminded Lydia of some old lines by The Cure:

No one lifts their hands
No one lifts their eyes
Justified with empty words
"The party just gets better and better"

For Lydia, however, things would get much worse before they got better. As it so happens, Lydia arrived just in time for hazing season, and some of the local frat boys thought it would be a great idea to gas out the new Goth girl's dorm with some chemicals they stole from the science lab. What they didn't count upon, however, was that the only one laughing at their gag would be death himself. The gas they filled her room with was a deadly nerve toxin, and before she knew what had hit her, she collapsed onto the floor futilely struggling to make it to the door. It was a really crappy way to die, but at least she left behind a pretty corpse for her ghost to model its form after. At any rate, like we mentioned earlier, the great cosmic bureaucracy governing the afterlife likes to send people back home when they die. Defining "home" as the client's most recently occupied residence, the afterlife bureaucracy sent Lydia back to the dorm rooms to live there indefinitely. For all their careful planning and systematic reasoning, what their system failed to understand is that home is not defined by the places we live in, but by the relationships we live with. For Lydia, home was back in Connecticut with the Deetzes and the Maitlands.

Still, Lydia knew the great cosmic bureaucracy were very difficult people to deal with, and that she should try to make the most of things the way they were. Returning to college the second time proved very difficult for Lydia, however, particularly because she was completely invisible to them. Her only company were the dead stoners and drunken party girls who had died in the dorm rooms before her, but they soon proved to be insufferably boring. The girls all gossiped about how the college administration had covered up the true nature of her death to protect the reputation of the local fraternity. Apparently, they had bribed the county coroner, and were going to send a letter home to her parents explaining that they were very sorry to inform them that Lydia had died of a drug overdose. That was the last straw! She could endure loneliness and frustration, but she could not endure any more lies and barriers that kept her from her family. Lydia resolved that she would set up an appointment with the great cosmic bureaucracy and request a change of residence, even if it took months or years to pull through.

And so Lydia found herself sitting in their waiting room, and waiting... Days and weeks went by as the clock on the wall clicked and clacked ever so slowly. Time itself seemed to have become meaningless as every moment grinded and and did not flow. Lydia soon learned it was wise not to count days and not to watch the clock, or the wait just became worse and worse with the passing of time. As waiting rooms are filled with anxiety and boredom even in the best of times, Lydia soon found that her sense of loneliness and frustration was becoming more and more amplified as she realized how little control she really had. But all this anger and frustration only made the days go longer and the daily grind harder. Realizing she was on the verge of her breaking point, Lydia quickly cast her eyes about the room in desperation looking for someone who could help her. It was at that moment she noticed an old bearded man with Greek complexion calmly sitting in the corner. Everyone else in the room fidgeted a lot to cope with the boredom and anxiety, but the man's motions were all calm and collected. Lydia, realizing she hadn't had a conversation in weeks, slowly went up to talk to him.

Umm... hi. My name's Lydia.

Lydia? That's such a lovely name. It reminds me of home. My name is Epictetus.

Epictetus? Reminds me of an old Greek philosopher they made us learn about in Miss Shannon's All-Girl Prep School.

One in the same.

So you're like that Stoic philosopher that got kicked out of Rome for pissing off the emperor?

Well, emperor Domitian had a cruel and suspicious temperament. He was the kind of ruler that fears treason is hiding under every rock, and so banishes all rocks from his kingdom and orders all that lies underneath executed. His early reign was exemplary for its justice and good temperance, but soon afterwards he became cruel with paranoia and fear. He executed anybody on even the vaguest suspicions of disloyalty. Well, as a Stoic philosopher, I knew it was my duty to denounce his cruelty, even if it cost me my life. When the emperor summoned me before him and threatened me with a grisly execution, I told him that if it is his duty to kill me, then he should do so, but that I must also do my duty as a philosopher.

Wow, you really play hardball! So what happened?

Realizing he had nothing more to threaten me with, Domitian reluctantly let me go. But all the while, he was growing more and more suspicious of philosophy and philosophers in general. The last straw on the camel's back came when my contemporary Junius Rusticus published two glowing eulogies for Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus, two exemplary Stoic philosophers executed by the emperors Nero and Vespasian respectively. Confusing temperance for treason, Domitian banished all the philosophers from Italy, including myself.

Wow, that's harsh! But you seem really calm and collected about it now. I know that if that happened to me, I'd probably still be really mad about it. So what brings you here?

My most recent place of residence was a small inner-city public library in New York. They called it "the haunted library" because of me, although I mostly kept quiet and let people study in peace. They sent me there because it had a larger selection of what you now call "classical literature" (By the gods, I still remember when this stuff was first being written!) than most other libraries. But the city had a budget cut, and decided they had better uses for the money than continuing to run the library, and so they demolished the building, sending me back here to wait for a new relocation.

Oh my God! That's terrible!

Is it? The city acted as they did because they knew it was their duty to wisely manage whatever money they had to ensure the needs of the people were met. If they did not demolish the library, what other people would have suffered because of the city spreading itself too thinly?

But I loved that library.... I think I even saw you there one time (oh man, that was so cool!), but I thought I was going crazy. And look at what they've done to you! They sent you back to this stupid waiting room to wait for God-only-knows how long for some stupid bureaucracy to even notice your existence just so they can save some money they'll probably waste on something really stupid anyway!

My dear Lydia, you make the mistake of assuming that we are troubled by things, and not by our interpretations of them. In life, and it appears, after life, there are things that we have control over, and there are things we do not have control over. What we have control over is ourselves and our own attitudes. What we do not have control over is the world and people around us. It is irrational to allow ourselves to become angry or frustrated because of our own interpretations of difficult circumstances because we only allow our minds to be held hostage to them. So I must wait in this waiting room for an extended period of time. At least I wait in modest comfort and good company as I contemplate my centuries of philosophical inquiry. Why should I allow such things to bother me when I know I can handle it?

You mean to tell me you're alright with all this? Just how long have you been waiting here?

If by "alright with this" you are asking if I can handle it with an attitude of calm serenity, then yes, I can handle it. To answer your second question, I've been waiting here for three years, which never really bothered me. When the proper relocation is found, I will go there. Until then, I accept that it is my duty to wait here in patient serenity.

You waited here for three years??? I'm sorry I asked! Oh well, at least I won't have to deal with stupid frat kids and my annoying stepmother.

Only a half-hour and already a novice Stoic philosopher? You'll be a Stoic master before you leave this room, mark my words! But, like any novice, you still have much to learn. First of all, it is not in the nature of Stoic philosophy to console ourselves for what we have suffered with what we did not suffer. Rather, we must learn to accept suffering with serenity, for only then do we have control over our own lives. Now, as relates to your stepmother, you are taking things by the wrong handle.

The wrong handle? I don't understand...

Well, think of it like this. For every person, much like a pot or vase, there are two handles, one is purely decorative, while the other one for you to hold it by. Life is like a play. Every actor is given their roles and their lines by the director, and it is their duty to perform their roles to the best of their ability. But if an actor does not adequately fulfill their role, forgetting their lines or upstaging the other actors, it is still the duty of the other actors to play their roles to the best of their ability so that show can still go on and progress smoothly. Your stepmother was assigned the role of mother, while you were assigned the role of daughter. If your stepmother sometimes fails in her role as mother, you must still play your role as daughter to the best of your ability according to the script. This is why I said you were taking things by the wrong handle.

Wow, I never thought of that! That should really help me if I ever get back home! You talk of scripts and directors. Do you mean, like, God and the meaning of life?

Yes.

But like, can we still believe in God and meaning when we all end up in a place like this?

Well, you have to understand that all my life, I looked for meaning and direction from the Logos, the universal force of rationality that imbues all things with their order and meaning. When I finally arrived at this bureaucracy, however, I quickly discovered that my search had only just begun. I confess that I do not yet have a clear answer for you.

...

...

Hey, you seem pretty cool! Would you like to live at my place? We could use a good philosopher around the house to keep everyone from getting out of hand.

It seems that Fate has smiled upon me again. Yes, I would be happy to live with you and your family, Lydia.

But in the meantime, what should we do? Oh, I know, are there any pizza places in the afterlife? Since we'll be here a while, I see no reason why we can't order a pizza.

Yes, that would be just fine. I developed quite a taste for pizza when the library would place orders for children's events from the finest pizza places in New York city.

Oh my God! Tell me about it! New York has the best pizza in the world!

(And so Lydia and Epictetus ordered the first of many pizzas as they discussed philosophy and waited together for the verdict of an uncertain future in the midst of an apparently boring present.)