Three philosophies for hard times ahead

John Michael Greer, author of several books about the consequences of peaking of world oil supplies, thinks progress is a consoling illusion.  He does not believe there is anything about the nature of things that guarantees that this generation will be better off than the previous one, or that future generations will be better off than this one.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

He writes a weekly web log, The Archdruid Report, which is one of the Blogs I Like.  In a recent post, he points to better and more enduring philosophies.

There is the Epicurean philosophy, which teaches you to be grateful for life’s blessings and not to wish for more than you have.  Epicurus did not teach the Playboy Philosophy.  He was a laborer who worked hard to support his aged parents, and who only enjoyed leisure late in life when his followers bought him a house and garden.

There is the Stoic philosophy, which doesn’t bother about happiness at all, but only acting constructively and with integrity no matter what the circumstances.   A Stoic would agree with one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Stoicism provides a grim satisfaction that comes from not having expectations and from not basing happiness or self-respect on anything that someone else can take away from him.

The third philosophy, to which Greer adheres, is the Platonist philosophy, which is that our world is a a shadow of a divine order, which, when glimpsed and understood, makes everything make sense.

I am more of an Epicurean than a Stoic, and not a Platonist at all.  That is not to say I deny the truth of Platonism and other religious philosophies.  It is that I have not had the religious and spiritual experiences that I read about, and that people I know tell me about, and I cannot say anything one way or the other.

§§§

Click on The Gray Light of Morning to read Greer’s whole post, or read highlights below.

The first of the three approaches I have in mind starts with the realization that for most of us, all things considered, being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative.

While life contains plenty of sources of misery, it also contains no shortage of delights, even when today’s absurdly complex techno-structure isn’t there to provide them; furthermore, the mind that pays close attention to its own experiences will soon notice that a fairly large percentage of its miseries are self-inflicted, born of pointless worrying about future troubles or vain brooding over past regrets.

Unlearn those habits, stop insisting that life is horrible because it isn’t perfect, and it’s generally not too hard to learn to enjoy the very real pleasures that life has to offer and to tolerate its less pleasant features with reasonable grace.

epicurus-quotes-2That’s the approach taught by Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy in ancient Greece.

It’s also the foundation of what William James called the healthy-minded way of thinking, the sort of calm realism you so often see in people who’ve been through hard times and come out the other side in one piece.

Just now, it’s a very difficult philosophy for many people in the world’s industrial nations to take up, precisely because most of us haven’t been through hard times; we’ve been through an age of extravagance and excess, and like most people in that position, we’re finding the letdown at the party’s end far more difficult to deal with than any actual suffering we might be facing.

Get past that common reaction, and the Epicurean way has much to offer.

If it has a weakness, it’s that attending to the good things in life can be very hard work when those good things are in short supply. That’s when the second approach comes into its own.

It starts from the realization that whether life is good or not, here we are, and we each have to choose how we’re going to respond to that stark fact.

The same unlearning that shows the Epicurean to avoid self-inflicted misery is a first step, a clearing of the decks that makes room for the decisions that matter, but once this is taken care of, the next step is to face up to the fact that there are plenty of things in the world that could and should be changed, if only someone were willing to get up off the sofa and make the effort required.

The second approach thus becomes a philosophy of action, and when action requires risking one’s life—and in really hard times, it very often does—those who embrace the second approach very often find themselves saying, “Well, what of it? I’m going to die sooner or later anyway.”

zeno.sku-GT295That’s the approach taught by Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy in ancient Greece.

It’s among the most common ways of thought in dark ages, sometimes worked out as a philosophy, sometimes expressed in pure action: the ethos of the Spartans and the samurai.

That way of thinking about life is taken to its logical extreme in the literature of the pagan Teutonic peoples: you will die, says the Elder Edda, the world will die, even the gods will die, and none of that matters.

All that matters is doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing, and because you’ve learned to embrace the certainty of your death and so don’t have to worry about anything but doing the right thing.  [snip]

The third option starts with the sense that the world as we normally perceive it is not quite real—not illusory, strictly speaking, but derivative.

It depends on something else, something that stands outside the world of our ordinary experience and differs from that world not just in detail but in kind.

Since this “something else” is apart from the things we normally use language to describe, it’s remarkably difficult to define or describe in any straightforward way, though something of its nature can be shared with other people through the more roundabout means of metaphor and symbol.

Elusive as it is, it can’t simply be ignored, because it shapes the world of our ordinary experience, not according to some human agenda but according to a pattern of its own.I’d encourage my readers to notice with some care what’s not being said here.

The reality that stands behind the world of our ordinary experience is not subject to human manipulation; it isn’t answerable to our fantasies or to our fears.

The viewpoint I’m suggesting is just about as far as you can get from the fashionable notion that human beings create their own reality—which, by the way, is just one more way our overdeveloped sense of entitlement shapes our habits of thinking.

As objects of our own and others’ perceptions, we belong to the world of the not quite real.

Under certain circumstances, though, human beings can move into modes of non-ordinary perception in which the presence of the underlying reality stops being a theory and becomes an experience, and when this happens a great many of the puzzles and perplexities of human existence suddenly start making sense.  [snip]

plato-quotes-3The Platonist answer isn’t limited to Platonism, of course, any more than the Stoic or Epicurean answer is found only in those two Greek philosophical schools.

Implicitly or explicitly, it’s present in most religious traditions that grapple with philosophical issues and manage not to fall prey to the easy answers of apocalyptic fantasy.

In the language of mainstream Western religion, we can say that there’s a divine reality, and then there’s a created world and created beings—for example, the author and readers of this blog—which depend for their existence on the divine reality, however this is described.

via The Archdruid Report.

 

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One Response to “Three philosophies for hard times ahead”

  1. Alex Jones Says:

    I personally find Heraclitus to be a useful philosopher for explaining and surviving in hard times because it is based in nature, and living in nature is hard.

    Like

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