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The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


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Blended Vision

2021-07-05

The other day I went to see the eye doctor, who told me I have blended vision: one of my eyes is farsighted and the other is nearsighted, but they function well together. Quite a fitting analogy for what Pierre Hadot called philosophy as the love and practice of wisdom. We tend to think of philosophy as hopelessly abstract, but if it is in part a practice then it focuses not only on what is far but also on what is near. One of the poems in my book Songs of Zarathustra tries to capture this insight:

FAR AND NEAR

The hand of those who legislate
Directs you to what's far away:
Salvation, science, riches, state,
The things that by convention pay.

Instead consider what is near
To be your weightiest concern
And focus your attention here:
Apply your powers and discern

What benefits you in the way
You interact with foe and friend,
The best division of the day,
Reflection on the time you spend

In work and leisure, art and play,
In nature and society,
In what command and what obey,
In courage and propriety.

The body has its wisdom, too:
Philosophy applies to sleep,
To what you eat, to what you do
In daily life - this too is deep

And subject to a higher code
Of individuality.
By following your natural mode,
You ground your own reality.

For related thoughts, see Nietzsche's early work Human, All Too Human, Volume II, Part II, ยงยง5-6.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Opinions vs. Truths

2021-06-18

In recent posts we've looked into holding opinions about fewer topics, holding multiple opinions about the same topic, and changing our opinions about the opinions that other people hold. But what exactly is an opinion? Let's take a closer look.

Pyrrho, a fascinating but shadowy figure reputed to be the founder of ancient Greek skepticism, held that neither opinions nor perceptions are true. Leaving aside perceptions for today, I take this to mean in part that opinions are not the kinds of things that can be true or false in the first place. Taking a cue from the etymological kinship in English between 'true' and 'tree', we can speculate that a truth (not the truth, mind you) is rooted, solid, long-lasting - whereas an opinion is flightly, airy, ephemeral. Although your opinions might change (not that you can necessarily make it happen), a truth isn't something that changes at all: 2+2=4, the inexorable pull of gravity, the inevitability of death.

Naturally there's a continuum; there always is. Yet conceptually the line is bright: vast flocks of noisy opinion-birds flap around inside your head, yet somewhere out there in reality a quiet forest of truth-trees has persisted for thousands of years. Particular truths may fall to the forest floor (say, the geocentric model of the universe), but new trees (say, germ theory) sprout from the resulting humus. These aren't necessarily Thoreau's eternities ("Read not the Times; read the Eternities"), but they're the closest we'll come.

Less poetically, these opinions are notions or sentiments or (at best) provisional judgments you just happen to believe. Often they make you feel better because they're familiar and seem bound up with your very identity, but in my experience holding fewer opinions, along with tempering the ones that remain, frees up mental space for grasping the much smaller number of real truths in human life: the centrality of love and friendship, the precious value of the present moment, the beauty of nature, the follies of boundless materialism and the corruptions of power, the joys of creation and simple awareness, the bedrock importance of personal character, the meaning and perspective granted by the practice of wisdom and reflection, and so on.

So it strikes me that you can choose either to have lots of opinions or to get hold of a few key truths - and I know which path I've chosen.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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The Number Six

2021-06-06

Everyone has their idiosyncrasies. One of mine is a particular fascination with the number six.

It might have something to do with the fact that I was born on the 6th, as was my father (today would have been his 87th birthday) and one of my sisters; my mother was born on the 30th and another of my sisters was born on the 12th (the only exception among the six members of my immediate family is my remaining sister, who was born on the 26th instead of a multiple of six).

Perhaps as a result, I've always considered 6 to be a lucky number. When I played Little League baseball as a kid, I always wanted to have a uniform with number six on the back. My favorite baseball player in my childhood was left fielder Roy White of the New York Yankees, who wore number six. My favorite work of music is Bach's Cello Suites: six suites each comprised of six movements. I'm in the midst of writing six books about my favorite thinkers. My book on Rand has 6x8 (48) chapters, on Nietzsche 6x12 (72) poems, on Thoreau 3x6 (18) chapters, on Epicurus 4x6 (24) chapters; my forthcoming book on Aristotle will have 6 chapters. After the Aristotle book (and one on Pyrrho, slated to have 12 chapters), I plan to write a book entitled "Being Human" that will have 6x6 (36) chapters and incorporate a six-step process of practical deliberation, a six-fold division of life pursuits, and six perspectives on life (re-using the six directions of ancient Greek thought: up and down, forward and backward, left and right). And so on. I suppose it's not entirely rational, but it's one way for me to order my thoughts and activities...


Holding Multiple Opinions

2021-05-31

Sometimes it's difficult to hold fewer opinions in your own mind or to engage in cognitive empathy toward others; that's when it can help to hold multiple opinions at the same time. This might sound like the mental equivalent of juggling plates, but it's a skill worth cultivating (and one with an ancient pedigree, as evidenced for example by the Letter to Pythocles by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus).

Most phenomena, especially in social affairs and human interactions, have a multitude of causes. See if you can identify them, understand them, and consider them as contributing to the outcomes you observe. It's best to start with events that happened long ago (say, the fall of Rome) or that aren't fraught with personal significance for you (to choose something at random, the decline of hat-wearing over the last hundred years). You can even make a game of it by identifying as many causes as possible. As you become more skilled, you can extend this style of thinking to the more recent past (say, the American housing bubble that ended in 2005) or older events in your own life (for instance, why you didn't get promoted at that job you quit ten years ago). Eventually you'll be able to calmly reflect on current events and hot-button issues, such as the causes of and reactions to the COVID pandemic or that disagreement you just had with a friend or colleague.

One method I've found especially powerful is to think like a historian: 50 or 100 years from now, what might scholars think about the causes of something that's front and center right now? (As Nietzsche once advised: between yourself and today lay the skin of 300 years.) Naturally, it helps to read great historians such as Thucydides, or to read multiple accounts of historical events you find fascinating (years ago I read a few dozen books about the causes of the industrial revolution). An added benefit of this method is that 50 or 100 years from now the things people are all worked up about might have been completely forgotten, which will help you realize that perhaps they weren't so important in the first place!

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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What Is a Concept Album?

2021-05-06

And now for something completely different: a rollicking discussion on the Big Yellow Praxis podcast about some underappreciated musical recordings, in which Jacob and I explore the age-old question: what exactly makes a concept album? Check it out on YouTube!


Opinions about Opinions

2021-05-04

My friend Paul sent me a few thoughts about my recent post on holding fewer opinions. He's formulated an approach that involves holding fewer opinions about other people's opinions. This seems valuable, and related to a post I wrote four years ago entitled "Why Do You Think What You Think?" My introspective conclusion then was that I can't always assign praise or blame for the contents of my thoughts; extending this to other people is a good example of what Arnold Kling calls cognitive empathy: instead of demonizing people who disagree with you, suspend judgment or at least try to understand where they might be coming from. (It's probably best to build up such a practice first in matters that aren't very consequential - and we all have our limits regarding the opinions we find acceptable!) The flip side is not deifying your own thoughts, which we could express in the following aphorism: "if you think well of your own opinions just because they're yours, then you're not thinking well."

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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