Thursday, December 19, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "'Only the Present is our Happiness': The Value of the Present Instant in Goethe and in Ancient Philosophy"

As I do often at work and at home and in many aspects of my life, let me start by stating the problem that needs to be solved.  The problem is stated in the last paragraph of the essay.
  • There is a "tragic lack of balance which has come about in the modern world between 'power' and 'wisdom.'"
  • "Modern man ... [is] hypnotized ... by language, images, information, and the myth of the future [which] seemed to us to provide one of the best means of access to this wisdom."
  • We, in post-modern society have not taken care for the self, in terms of wisdom and sound thinking.  And as such, we have allowed "all human institutions" the power of preventing us "from feeling [our] life, by means of the constant dispersion of [our] thoughts." (p. 235)
While the sentiment expressed above was written several decades ago, it rings true more than ever before, in the year 2019.  The thoughts of the majority - despite being ever so connected with the world - are constantly being dispersed (distributed and spread over a wide area).  Few focus on the weightier matters of wisdom and the love of it (philosophia).

The proposal of the essay, and one which, if carried out, might begin to tip the balance toward 'wisdom' and away from 'power,' is for the individual to "enjoy the present moment" and to "will it intensely" as a duty (p. 230).

While Hadot focuses a lot on Goethe and Epicureanism, I will limit my commentary to the Stoic aspects of the essay.

The practicing Stoic, in an attempt to keep his equanimity, will limit his focus to things in his control.  Out of his control are the past and the future.  Only the present remains in his control.  If he chooses to rehash the past, causing anxiety and consternation, he will not keep his equanimity.  If he fears the future or stews over it, he will not keep his equanimity.  But if he is mindful of the present, and keeps his judgements, actions and inner attitude in balance with nature, then he will retain his equanimity.

Marcus wrote to himself, and so too we should heed the advice:
These will suffice: the present certainty of judgement, the present social action, the present disposition well content with any effect of an external cause (Meditations 9.6)
In another passage, he repeated and expanded on the same idea of focusing on the present:
All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now - if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to reverence and justice. To reverence, so that you come to love your given lot: it was Nature that brought it to you and you to it. To justice, so that you are open and direct in word and action, speaking the truth, observing law and proportion in all you do. You should let nothing stand in your way - not the iniquity of others, not what anyone else thinks or says, still less any sensation of this poor flesh that has accreted round you: the afflicted part must see to its own concern. 
If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth. You will no longer be a stranger in your own country, no longer meet the day's events as if bemused by the unexpected, no longer hang on this or that. (Meditations 12.1)
What a beautiful passage which describes a life full of equanimity and how to achieve it.

Hadot said, "there are two reason why the present is sufficient for our happiness: in the first place, Stoic happiness is complete at every instant and does not increase over time.  The second reason is that we already possess the whole of reality within the present instant, and even infinite duration could not give us more than what we have right now" (p. 228).

Only the Present is our Happiness

If you strive, right now, to always have objective assents and judgements, and if your actions are moral actions, right now, and if you understand that the whole history of events and circumstances have brought you to this point and that they belong to you and you love your fate, now, then you will always retain your equanimity.  It could then be said, that you lack nothing - that you are content.  And like a circle, your equanimity is whole and complete, regardless of the size - it is a perfect circle.

Therefore if you can spend a few brief moments, now, in perfect harmony (i.e. a perfect circle), then the duration does not matter; only the quality of it matters.  "Happiness is nothing more nor less than that instant in which man is wholly in accord with nature" (p. 228)

Hadot quotes Chrysippus: "If a person has wisdom for one instant, he is no less happy than he who possesses it for an eternity" (p. 228).

And since all the ingredients that are needed to go into this instant of happiness are within our control, the only variable that needs to be determined is your desire for it (or not).  Happiness, therefore, is a choice that you can make in the present moment.

"What is needed is the immediate transformation of our way of thinking, acting, and accepting events.  We must think in accordance with truth, act in accordance with justice, and lovingly accept what comes to pass.  In the words of Marcus Aurelius: 'How easy it is to find oneself, right away, in a state of perfect peace of mind.'  In other words, it is enough to just want it" (p. 229).

To give a sense of urgency of the importance of our "transformation" we must always realize that death may come to us at any moment (memento mori).  "We must live each day with a consciousness so acute, and an attention so intense, that we can say to ourselves each evening: 'I have lived; I have actualized my life.' ... In the words of Seneca: 'He has peace of mind who has lived his entire life every day.'" (p. 229)

Existence is a Duty and should be Intensely Willed

I think many people lack context and awareness of their position in the universe.  Personally, I believe we are parts of a cosmos, which is one whole.  As Marcus has said before, there is divinity within each of us; and collectively, we represent the consciousness of the cosmos.  Accepting this, we must grant that other people have divinity within them and we must cooperate with them, not unlike a hand which would cooperate with a foot in playing a basketball game.

Furthermore, our interface with the cosmos is the present time and space.  All the events that have preceded me and have brought me to this point, represent the sum total of my fate.  It is uniquely mine and I ought to love it.  Hadot says, "The instant is our only point of contact with reality, yet it offers us the whole of reality; precisely because it is a passage and metamorphosis, it allows us to participate in the overall movement of the event of the world, and the reality of the world's coming-to-be" (p. 229).

Our duty, in this moment in time and space "is the harmonization of the reason within us with the reason which guides the cosmos, and produces the chain of causes and effect which makes up fate.  At each moment, we must harmonize our judgement, action, and desires with universal reason" (p. 229).

This is why Marcus said, "He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same" (Meditations 6.37).

And later on he added, "Whatever happens to you was being prepared for you from everlasting, and the mesh of causes was ever spinning from eternity both your own existence and the incidence of this particular happening" (Meditations 10.5).

Hadot continues, "At each moment and every instant, we must say 'yes' to the universe; that is, to the will of universal reason.  We must want that which universal reason wants" (p. 230).  Hence Marcus cries out:
Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you. The poet says, 'Dear city of Cecrops': will you not say, 'Dear city of Zeus'? (Meditations 4.23)
And for Seneca, he notes that the Stoic sage "plunges himself into the whole of the universe (toti se inserens mundo)" (p. 230).

This mindset helps produce, within the individual, an attitude of "giving your all" and being fully engaged with life.  It leaves behind the victim mentality and empowers the individual to carpe diem and confront the events of life.  And the more this mindset becomes entrenched in an individual, the more the individual begins to want events to happen exactly as they do.  There is no more cowering or disengagement or cordoning of "safe zones."  Rather, there is active participation in life and the whole world and cosmos becomes your home.

To finish, let me quote two passages from the essay that encapsulate what has been discussed.

"The ultimate meaning of Goethe's attitude toward the present is thus, as it was for ancient philosophy, the happiness and the duty of existing in the cosmos.  It is a profound feeling of participation in and identification with a reality which transcends the limits of the individual."

Hadot, quotes Nietzsche again in this essay (p. 235).
Let us assume we say "Yes!" to one single, unique moment: we have thus said yes, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is isolated, neither in ourselves nor in things.  And if, even once, our soul has vibrated and resounded like a string with happiness, all eternity was necessary to created the conditions for this one event; and all eternity has been approved, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

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