The Most Valuable Philosophical Lesson Of All

I’m often asked–by non-academics, natch–if anything in my philosophical education has been of value to me in the conduct of my lived life. I have found this question hard to answer in the terms my interlocutors demand, largely because is because posed to me in what I call ‘lock-key’ form: is there a lock you have been able to open with a philosophical key? The locks and keys of our lives and education do not quite match up in the way that is imagined here.

Still, if pressed, I will say that one philosophical lesson whose value and import seems to me to be considerable, and one which I have with only limited success tried to integrate in my daily conduct is quite simple. Its basic form can be found in the following lines often attributed to the Stoic, Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
This simple ‘ancient’ wisdom is not to be found in Epictetus–or the Stoics–alone; the Buddha’s sermons include many variants of it, it arguably forms the heart of existentialist philosophy, and further afield, in poetry, Cavafy’s ‘City’ and Milton’s Paradise Lost point to it as well. (You can even find it in Buckaroo Banzai: ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’) It’s lesson is not easy to internalize for the radical agency it grants us is simultaneously empowering and frightening: we make of this life what we will.
Still, having found over the years that I would come across it again and again, its import was undeniable, and I have sought to integrate it into my daily living. This has been a non-trivial task, but I can at least say that I have succeeded to the extent that I can feel its presence acting as a constraint on my inner and outer reactions on the most important of occasions: those times when I am tempted and ready to curse and rail against circumstance or misfortune or another person for having denied me material or psychological comfort and  happiness. It is then that I often find myself pulling up short, and putting a brake on my tongue and mind: is there blame to be assigned here to an externality, or is there rather, an opportunity for me to think and do things differently?
As I noted above, this is not an easy lesson to take to heed. Certainly, many who know me–friends and family–will not think that I have been very successful in my efforts thus far. I remain, like most humans, all too easily inclined to imagine my happiness, my psychological and affective state of being, is at the mercy of the world ‘outside’–events, material objects, people’s actions. But in my more lucid ‘philosophical’ moments, I see through this misapprehension. And I resolve again, to keep that vision close by, at hand, ready to be summoned up when I am tempted again. I think we can ask no more of our philosophy–that it worm its way into our hearts and minds, reminding us again and again, of its relevance for our life.

Milton’s Satan, Heaven and Hell, And The Mind

A few posts ago, in writing about the detritus that can be found on professor’s office doors, I had recounted a little self-indulgent story about first finding Cavafy’s The City. Today, I want to point you to another ‘found’ poem–more accurately, a fragment–located, not on an office door but rather, in a budding poet’s workspace. My discovery and reading of the fragment were notable because a) to date, it remains my central point of contact with its larger whole; b) because I ascribed a meaning to the fragment without reading the poem itself, and c) because my imagined narrator turned out to be very different from the one who actually speaks the line.

Circa 1995, as I slogged through my coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center, I found myself drawn, through a variety of circumstances, into a circle of ‘friends’–the quotemarks are an attempt to indicate the ambiguity of the relationship–that included a young graduate of a writing program at Emerson College, who lived, as befitted those New Yorkers that aspired to a Bohemian life, in a shared loft space in Brooklyn. I think it was Williamsburg, but it might well have been Bushwick. My memory fails me and not just because it was a long time ago: I was almost always inebriated when I visited that ‘space.’

One night, while stumbling around our poet’s loft in the midst of yet another episode of beer-drinking, I noticed a line from John Milton‘s Paradise Lost, printed out on a piece of paper and stuck above a desk. It read–as I remembered it, and quoted it for years:

What Matter Heaven or Hell, If I Remain the Same?

That line as I read it, and cited it, had a simple moralizing function. I used it to argue against escapism, and for the need for self-reconfiguration in psychological crisis; it made subjectivity central to any project of change, whether external or internal. I had not read Paradise Lost (confession: I have still not read it in its entirety), and knew little of this line’s location in its narrative and thus, remained oblivious of the identity of its narrator.

The actual line is a little different:

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

And these lines, of course, are spoken by the ‘fallen Archangel,’ Satan himself. And for him, they become part of the defenses he erects to protect himself against the Fall and the loss of Heaven: the displacement is permanent, but so long as his spirit and his consciousness are as ever before, all is not lost. They are an assertion of what persists, endures, survives, and is the key to flourishing in the midst of such terrible loss. I had used the line to indicate the locus of desired change; Milton has Satan employ it to indicate his resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity.

In doing so, in making Satan proclaim his ability to traverse Heaven and Hell with equal facility, to employ his mind to transcend the particularity of both, Milton made Satan almost heroic.

Things You Could Find On A Professor’s Office Door: Cavafy’s City

Professors put the darndest things on their office doors: I’ll-be-back-in-five-minutes notices, announcements of conferences, descriptions of new classes, suitably anonymized student grades, political posters, stickers. And then it gets wierd: vacation photos, children’s drawings, cartoons (a perennial faculty favorite in New York appears to be New Yorker cartoons), and of course, jokes culled from the ‘Net.

I’ve been looking at faculty doors for too long now: first as graduate student, then as post-doc, and now, as faculty member myself. My door in my new office in the Philosophy department is relatively pristine compared to the messy, overworked shambles of my last office door, which included everything detailed on the list above other than vacation photos. My new office door showcases two pieces of self-promotion: a flyer for my 2007 book Decoding Liberation, and a flyer for a book-release event for A Legal Theory of Autonomous Artificial Agents. (Note how mention of self-promotion works as a piece of self-promotion itself; it is only the rare talent that can artfully exploit modesty for aggrandizement).

The occasional gem that turns up on an office door can make this sort of stand-outside-someone’s-office voyeurism worthwhile. For me, that moment came some fifteen years ago, when I was embroiled in coursework for my doctorate, and found myself taking classes at New York University (through the New York City Consortium; my doctorate was based at the CUNY Graduate Center). I spent most of my time at the Bobst and Courant Institute Libraries, cut off from my cohort at CUNY, and afflicted by those most common of graduate student afflictions: loneliness, boredom, disenchantment, and anxiety. Being stuck in a rut seemed like a rather mild description of my waking hours.

One rather aimless, if typical, night, I wandered through the corridors of the Courant Institute, seeking distraction and relief. By reading the billboards of office doors, of course; in the days before a full-blown ‘Net provide instantaneous escape, reading was quite a common method of procastination. On one door, I spotted the following:

The City

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;
and my heart is — like a corpse — buried.
How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted.”

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land — do not hope —
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1910)

I don’t think anything I’ve ever put up on my office door (yet) has been as instructive as that poem was for that graduate student that night (it was the first I had heard of Cavafy). But it is something to aspire to when I find myself standing in front of the blank canvas of my office door, seeking something that will simultaneously entertain and edify. (And occasionally self-aggrandize.)