Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Philosophical Temperament

When I was 14 my mother died. By this point I was rather a bookish child, and so my instinct was to turn to some text and find solace therein. My faith made the choice of text obvious, but, still, the Bible is a big book containing many literary mansions; what to read therein? What I ended up settling on was the Book of Job --  I read and reread this text, and for some time could quote lengthy passages from the Authorised Version off by heart. No stranger to teenage melodrama, I found myself really identifying with Job's dignified resolve in the face of a fundamentally unfair and (to him) inexplicable cruelty. It brought me comfort to think that I might hope in my own way to exemplify the same sort of courage, to squarely face tragedy as tragedy, yet never give in to the temptation to simply curse God and die. However, some years later when somebody else I knew was faced with their own loss, I recommended reading Job to them - but they found this perverse, utterly unhelpful, if anything it made it worse for them.

This grim little anecdote came to mind because I have recently been reflecting on philosophical approaches to tragedy - death of those we love, fears for one's own health or mortality, oppression, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, etc. It struck me that while many philosophers and philosophies do emphasise the importance of a kind of attitude they hope to instill, a properly philosophical temperament, there are a number of considerably different approaches to tragedy adopted by different traditions and thinkers. This blog post is going to do nothing more than just sketch my loose impression of what they are at a high level of abstraction, with no claim to completeness or originality in these observation. 

The four styles of approach to tragedy I have identified are as follows:

1. Socialise -  here the idea is to emphasise that it is admirably human, even refined and civilised, to indeed feel deeply the pangs of sorrow, anger, and grief, at loss or tragedy - and to try and provide social structures and valorised practices that will allow the individual to come to terms where that is appropriate, and make changes to avoid future instances of the loss where that is appropriate. An outlet for the expression and full feeling of sorrow is provided, and in this way it is hoped that the suitably refined person can `work through' the feelings in some productive way, and eventually reenter (a perhaps changed) society once this process is carried out. I am primarily thinking of Confucianism as the exemplar of this, but I think a lot of folk mourning practices have something like this underlying rationale, and I detect this attitude underlying the Epic of Gilgamesh so perhaps the author(s) had this ideal.

2. Dissipate - here the idea is that there is something we could teach people, which if fully and properly internalised (perhaps accompanied by appropriate changes in attitude), will allow people to see apparent tragedies as no-real-tragedy at all. Perhaps, for instance, I can be made to see that the real cause of suffering is not intrinsic to the actual or feared event, but really in my own attitude to this event, and this latter is under my control and can be modified to eliminate or much reduce the unpleasant sensation. Some forms of Buddhism and Stoicism, and more recently the work of Derek Parfitt in analytic philosophy, all seem like clear examples.

3. Compensate - here the idea is that we recognise that the tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but can be convinced that it shall be compensated by (indeed may actively help bring about) some great good in the long run, and we overcome our loss by focusing instead on that great good. We shall be reunited with those we love in a better place, the meek shall inherit the earth whereas the rich shall find it easier to pass through the eye of the needle than join those they once oppressed in this paradise,  and out of the latest ``defeat'' the workers have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. For me the clearest examples of this sort of tendency come from Christianity and Marxism and the thinking of Condorcet, but if I were less (shamefully!) ignorant of Islamic philosophy I'd be willing to bet this is a common tendency therein too.

4. Heroise - here the idea is that our tragedies are, or at least can be, indeed gratuitous and utterly unjustified, shall not be compensated (and even if it were this could never really be enough), but counsels that there is none the less dignity in the struggle against this inevitability. Stark as this can be, it at least lends grandeur to our shared condition, and that in itself can be its own comfort. This is what the young me saw in Job (and in conversation about these ideas, Jewish friends tell me it is a note they frequently hear struck in their own tradition), I think it is also found in the existentialist idea of imagining Sisyphus happy, and one also sees it in the African American tradition of validating the struggle as itself an impressive cultural tradition even where it has not led to the promised land. 

There is something to all of these, I think. There is a kind of bracing honesty to (4), a valuable resilience taught by those in schools that preach (2), traditions of type (3) can lend hope and the motivating light of faith even in the face of utter defeat, and (1) is both a humane and productive attitude to acknowledging grief and turning it to the good. 

That makes it tempting to try and combine all of them in a grand synthesis. I would be fascinated to read attempts at just that, if anybody knows of some. But I suspect this would be hard to do - when one looks to the specifics of the various theories instantiating these options they pull in different directions, and often it is precisely those elements wherein they differ that allow them to promote the philosophical temperament they seek to valorise. Perhaps, as I suspect was going on in my opening anecdote, they each speak to different characters or life experiences. In that case, humanity is collectively better for having traditions of all sorts be developed and available to those in need of consolation, as we each shall surely find ourselves at some time or another.