The Wild Palms

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I went to the LSE to see the panel discussion Coping When Life Is Hard.

The sad vacant space:

Here is an account of the event based on my notes, which are as comprehensive as I was able to scribble down. Where they were a bit scrappy I have filled out with some extra commentary or just bunched together ideas that were scattered around in different points.

Jonathan Birch started off by noting that all lives involve some hardship and we will all die in the end. Even the most privileged monarchs and trillionaires can’t avoid the end and most of them get ill at some point. We have to try to cope with this condition in the world, and also the problems of the world itself, tending to make our lives worse, such as climate change. If we in are in any way reflective about what we are doing and the lack of necessity in most of it, other than the brute force of damage and decay, we must wonder about whether it is meaningful. The meaning of “meaning” is various of course; it can denote purpose or intention (perhaps not our own), or it can be significance, and the latter shades over in to a formal sense of a thing representing or standing in as a sign or some other bearer of semantic value. The latter idea is now slipping away from being a notion that we can appreciate. Perhaps the meaning of this world is meaningless to our minds? Hilary Putnam’s book Reason, Truth And History starts with an image of an ant crawling around and coincidentally creating an outline of the face of Winston Churchill. Putnam took this idea as the start of an excursion into problems of reference and representation, but perhaps it is also a model for the grander idea of Meaning: our “random and meaningless” universe makes sense from some entirely different perspective outside of us.

Religion supplied “templates” for meaningful lives, but society is less “confident” in them – I think he is clearly referring to modern western society, since across the world there are still plenty of countries with official religions that are generally observed, and within the West there are large congregations for a variety of confessions. Walking down Old Kent Road you will pass a dozen churches who do good business every week. But never mind them, the question for today was whether philosophy can help or be a source of guidance.

The first point was about death and whether philosophy can recommend any particular attitude towards it. Is death something to fear? Is death even an event in life? Susanne Burri explained the ideas of the Stoics such as Epicurus and Epictetus. The former argued that death was neither good nor bad. Nothing happens after death and the self is not a persisting thing that can have any further pleasure or pains. Death is nothing to us, and our lives are driven solely by pleasures and pains. She said that this attitude was worth more attention, independently of the general hedonism of his philosophy. The best lines of criticism of Epicureanism are that it is not true we only have momentary pleasures, we also have longer term goals and plans. That point is a bit too quick: we can be devoted to projects whose eventual satisfaction lies so far in the future that we know we won’t see them complete (building a medieval cathedral, for example). So it can’t be that present satisfaction is our sole motivation, but also it can’t be that having long range plans is somehow at odds with assuming that our deaths are, in some sense, of no consequence to the fulfillment of the plan. Perhaps the best meaning of “death is nothing” would be to read it the same as “life is nothing” – without any details or context, the bare notion is nothing to have any attitude towards. Will we die in peace or torn apart in great agony, must we live on in great agony or constant bliss? Fear of death in itself would be fear of what lies beyond or after it, but then we have to weigh whether we have good reasons or not to suppose there is any such thing. But in the mean time, we know it is true that the Epicureans accepted the institution of slavery in this world.

Kieran Setiya said he approached the topic through thinking about grief. It’s not a mistake to grieve the deaths of others, and he is resistant to Stoic philosophy in its attitudes. He noted that there was a tendency in philosophy to assume that it could determine the rationally justified extent of emotion that could be weighed out. But that’s not an idea the philosophers invented for themselves: there are plenty of intuitive and informal examples of it in popular culture, as public displays of grief for celebrities are judged to be excessive or inauthentic, or, at the other extreme, insufficiently agonised. The performance of grief is one of the standard metrics of good character nowadays.

One idea that seemed to be alluded to in passing is that the pain driving grief is a personal sense of a damaged world, psychically damaged by losing a familiar element. My memory of my mum’s death is that the rapid final days of decline passed without feeling as it was simply an excursion from normality. The journey to the church and the crematorium was also a new thing, to be treated as a new task. The grief began at the wake, in a hall full of all her friends and finding myself looking around expecting to see her, in her natural habitat, talking to these people. Only when the world was reset to normal could I feel what was now missing.

Jonathan mentioned the death of Peter Lipton, who had been one of his philosophy teachers; he was my first philosophy teacher as well, and I wrote a dissertation for him. At the end of 2008 I was looking at the HPS faculty website to see who was working there and was puzzled that his name wasn’t listed, so I assumed he’d moved somewhere else. A Google search turned up his obituary from a year earlier, another disruption in expectations.

Luc Bovens considered ideas of eternal life, and religious views about it. There is an unexplored question about what “eternal” means here, which may not be the same as unending life in a temporal realm. He brought in the topic of hope, and its connections to expectations, desire, and imagination. He mentioned Einstein’s statement that he only had one life and that was enough. There was a reference to Bernard Williams’s view (in “The Makropulos Case”) that immortality would simply be too boring after a while – I think that was an example of Williams overplaying a literary example as though it somehow demonstrated an entailment. The better part of that paper was the examination of Epicureanism in Lucretius, and the claim that “for oneself at least, it is all the same whenever one dies, that a long life is no better than a short one”. Susanne explained that for the Epicureans, having more of a good thing didn’t make it any better. Kieran said he wasn’t so concerned about personal integrity but felt there was something greedy and excessive about wanting to live forever.

Jonathan now took us on to the question of meaning, and the fear that life may be absurd or unbearable. Kieran distinguished between the notion of the meaning of an individual life, and any putative notion of life-as-such having meaning. Not discussed was one way in which these two could come apart: a person might feel that life-as-such was not meaningless, or at least could possibly have meaning, but that their own life was meaningless, worthless, or some other lack of value. The truly impossible desire isn’t for immortality or eternity or sudden death, but for nullification: to be completely erased and never-existed. Perhaps the meaning of a life would be what would be lost to others if that change were made; it would be a difference in the world, but lie outside the individual life.

For the general question of life-as-such having meaning, he saw that lying in the possibility of collective action and working to secure the continued survival of humanity against threats such as climate change and other menaces. That would be a way of working forward, but could rather encourage Whiggish history about the past that brought us here, and overlooking mistakes and failures we ought to be grieving over. This could be the best we could do for a secular vision, but we shouldn’t be too quick in assuming that the various religions offer a single alternative. Is the life after death a universal salvation and everyone goes to paradise? Or is there a judgement assigned according to deeds not words or wishes? Is the next world just another circuit around this one, but in a different lane? Too many alternatives for us to treat “the religious life” as a single choice – but then do we need to be concerned there is no definitive single model of what the secular life should be?

Susanne took up this theme by discussing the Book Of Job and its depiction of the state of humans and God’s plan, which they must trust in but cannot grasp. At least the Setiyan secular model has some details about what we are trying to do, although he admitted it was hard to find a way to be effective as a climate activist.

Luc described the work of some medical researchers he knew who are working on long-term projects. They may not produce a Magnum Opus but perhaps their achievement will be in living a principled life and setting an example. Of course one dimension unexplored in all the talk about long-term projects is that we simply don’t know for sure what will turn out to be valuable and what won’t be. Gregor Mendel might be the most famous example of a researcher whose work seemed hopelessly irrelevant and obscure but ended up starting a completely new science. But we can also find other examples in engineering or scholarship, inventors and historians whose work was only appreciated later. Conversely there are the ideas that seem terribly important at the start, but fade in value or just flop altogether.

Kieran conceded that it’s hard to do better than the kind of inspirational messages or greeting card content, if we want a snappy uplifting life-message. What philosophy could add is the practice of reflection and the criticism of assumptions. As the topic of hope came back, it was agreed that there can be false hopes as well as good ones, and it can be a source of delusion, complacency and bad outcomes. What should we hope for? Caring about climate is ultimately caring about people.

As there is a good and bad hope, Susanne noted that there can be good and bad grief. One reflects what the lost person meant to the griever; the other is dwelling on regrets. But perhaps we need that stimulus to be better again. Grief is always caused by an event that is part of a bigger story, and it can be fused with anger and resentment at the injustice. Even a bare accidental or sudden death, “out of the blue”, poses the questions: why, why now and why them? Perhaps some systems of meaning can work better in a world with a high level of mortality accepted as simply part of nature. Once we make death unnatural, at least below old age, they cannot appeal any more as they were never intended to explain such mysteries.

There were some questions. The most interesting were about topics that had not come up so far in the discussion. One asked about suicide and what could be put as reasoning against doing it. Kieran accepted that philosophical argument simply could not move some people determined on a course of action or with a disposition to self-harm. We should not expect it to be able to make a difference in such cases. There’s an echo here of another line by Williams: his complaint that some moral philosophers seemed to believe in “a superpower model of defence” and that their job was to defend morality by making out the amoral life would be absolutely irrational, incoherent and in some way unliveable. Susanne suggested that a problem could lie in fixation on the ideal of life as constant happiness, and that liberation from a sense of failure in this way could paradoxically make the subject happier. Luc mentioned a book by an inhabitant of the Warsaw Ghetto called The Analysis Of Happiness, which included the advice that the secret of happiness was “poor memory and lack of imagination”.

The other new topic raised in the questions was whether we can find truth and meaning in fiction. This was of course the great topic dominating the life and thought of B.S.Johnson, whose novel The Unfortunates (1969) was his meditation on returning to the town where an old friend had died. Here is its last page:

Something Peter Lipton always said in advice to his undergraduate students was to not simply repeat what they had heard in lectures but to put in a line or two of their own ideas in their essays. I have no ideas, but the title The Wild Palms comes from the novel by William Faulkner. It splices together two unrelated narratives, about people escaping in what seem like journeys to freedom, but which curve slowly back around to their old captivity. The picture “The Waiting Room” by George Tooker was on the cover of the old Penguin copy I read.

One time I was very ill and I had to think that I might end up dying soon. I thought of death as a melting back in to the world – not nothing, not a loss, not a change, just a return without ever going away. But instead I continued.

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