There are those, I am told, who simply give up and allow the course of events to wash over them as if there is no future, no past, and most certainly no present. They remove themselves, both as a person who should answer for actions and beliefs and as a member of society, from all that is happening as if, by ignoring it, they will remain as they were unaffected, unsullied, pure. These are the sort of people who demand that others do not consider events to define them, who wish to portray a character and facade which has simply skipped over events. They forget, in their pleas, that everything we do defines us in some way: each experience, each step we take, each action and thought is a part of us, who we are, how we are seen by other people. And then there are those who say: this is me, take me for what I am and accept that I make mistakes just the same as everyone else, and that I am following the path brought on by those mistakes exactly as if the path was created by my successes. Lucretius wrote:
A pause has come in life’s experience, when movement wandered, unperceived by sense.
Life continues all around us, but we have removed ourselves from it, unable to accept the turn it has taken, the direction we are being forced to turn in, the results of actions and events we have been involved in. Quite literally, we shut ourselves off, close down our senses of what is happening, and almost fantasise that this is not real, and everything will be better, will vanish when we awake.
Then there are those, who I come into contact with through my letter writing much more often, who see what has happened, accept that fate takes twists and turns we do not always agree with, cannot always predict or prevent – whether we have been involved in the actions or not – and begin to look for the best way to come to terms with the facts of new life, with our situation, with our future. I do not doubt for one moment that if you look around you, at any time of the day or night, you will see these two forms of people in close proximity to you – as I do – or know of them.
Man can be only what he is, and imagine only within his reach
claims Michel de Montaigne, and this is the fallacy so many people fall into when life takes a turn they did not see coming, did not anticipate, were not prepared for. As you can undoubtedly tell, I disagree with de Montaigne and also with those who switch off from life because it is not the way they imagined it. I remember days when I was completely ignorant, when my imagination allowed nothing through to my mind to keep it active, and when I reached out by one means or another to grasp at whatever was there, be it information, knowledge or opportunity, no matter whether I fully understood what it was or not, and immersed myself in it until the knowledge was there, until I could move on to the next stage.
What I’ve written so far, and it is only the first page of what could be many over many years, would scare the average person away: I do not doubt that some would throw their hands up in the air, the pages of this letter scattering in the wind to the four corners of the earth, and run, screaming, for cover in their safe zones. To understand it does not require an advanced degree in social science, or a deep grounding in philosophy, just an ordinary understanding of the human being and its character, and a willingness to stop, to look, to think. It strikes me that this last, the very idea of thinking about anything for any longer period of time, is what scares most people off. We have, I am told, better things to do today than think; write letters; read books; raise our heads and look about us. I’m not too sure what those better things are, but they must be there somewhere, otherwise a whole mess of people are wasting the few years they have on this small planet, and I doubt very much any of us will be getting a second chance. This is it: make the most of it, now.
The thing is, Lucretius is wrong, in my opinion, when he claims that there is a pause in life’s experience. He may well have been writing about a different society, a different level of understanding, but the idea behind his words can be related to all times: no matter what we do, we are going to be experiencing something, and we should put those experiences, those events, the information and knowledge we gather to good use. Or, at the very least, to the best possible use we can. We all start out the same, a screaming mass of flesh which has just been delivered into the world, unprepared, shocked, blind and lost, but what we make of life after that is what makes the difference. And that applies to every single episode in our lives, no matter where we are: on the highest point, in the deepest depth. What we make of it all is what makes us what we are as much as how we react when things go wrong, when everything seems to be slipping off and into the dark abyss, beyond our control.
We experience things when we are asleep just as when we are awake, and by that I don’t just mean the dreams we have, the working through of our experiences, the hopes our mind still has within it for something else. The noises of the night, subtle changes in the air, many things come through to us as we sleep and add to our generally feeling, to our responses to the next waking day. More comes to us if we are prepared to raise our eyes, as well as our minds, and take a look about us. No matter how hard anyone tries, finding that fifty dollar bill on the sidewalk is less likely to happen than seeing something worth more than money when we raise our vision from the gutters and take life in as it happens. And by that I don’t mean literally raising your eyes, although that is something the younger generations today might well do rather than staring into their smart phones all day and hoping life will run to them through a text, but, to quote the London Times a few days ago:
Art and music won’t turn criminals into saints, but it can teach life skills and divert festering resentments and pent-up energies into positive self-expression.
This, I hasten to add, applies not just to those incarcerated in a prison or correctional system, but equally to every single person who has allowed themselves to become caught up, chained, to a certain way of life which impedes them in some way, be it work, marriage or anything else. And I would expand art and music into the Humane Arts, into literature, history, philosophy, discussion and debate, as well as the physical and creative arts.
What use is all of this, though, if you cannot share it with others, if you cannot learn from a range of people who experience life and all its erratic turns elsewhere? What use is the ability to talk, when you have no one to talk to; to write when there is no one to read your words? What use, when we come right down to it, has our life been if we have not benefitted from it, if we have not left some benefit, something of ourselves, for coming generations? And when you look around you, how many of those there see the world as you do: a chance to make the best of it all, no matter where you may be? How many of them are content with their lives?
Contentment is, of course, a very subjective thing. There are those who will never be happy with anything, and those who are happy with whatever happens and don’t spare anything a second thought. And then there are those who find their own contentment by being active, by looking, by experiencing, by learning and through communication. Everything from reading a book to holding a conversation. So many individuals, I often wonder how it is that anyone, be it a philosopher or a politician, can claim to know what society – The People – want, let alone attempt a representation of their thoughts. Philosophy, though, is one of those strange things which defy explanation: on the one hand we believe we know what it is and can explain it; we believe we can live a philosophically worthwhile life; we believe we can follow – and understand – the teachings of past philosophers. And then we look at the other side, and we see that this is practically impossible, merely because we are so individual, because there are so many differences between each and every one of us.
Which avenue of philosophy do you prefer to follow? The choice is manifold: we could sit our entire lives, surrounded by books from the great and the unknown, and never get to the bottom of what is right, what is worthwhile, which path we should be following. I suspect this is because there is no one path, there is no one philosophical movement which is right, which is all-knowing, which has gathered all possible knowledge to give it the wisdom of all ages. Each philosopher has worked predominantly for his or her own contentment, for his or her own personal satisfaction with their place in life, on this planet. In the end, there can be no other way, since we are all, and will remain all, so different one from another. Perhaps, then, the best philosophical statement we should be taking to heart is that of Heraclitus, who wrote:
Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within.
Contentment can only come from inside, with acceptance of who and what we are, and acceptance that only we can work on ourselves, with the influences of others, to better our position, ease our minds, become more attuned to ourselves and accepting of our environment. And, of course, it was Heraclitus who also mentioned the point I made earlier in this letter, about sleep and dreams:
Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work, and helps make something of the world.
Hardly surprising that Heraclitus, who sadly only comes down to us through the centuries as fragmented memories of his wisdom, is considered the true father of philosophy, no matter which school a student may happen to follow.
My own school is rather more complicated, as I take great pleasure in reading all the ancient and some of the modern philosophers whenever chance arises, as well as delving into the mists of time and history through social works such as published letters and journals. A combination of all these gives me something of a character, I suppose, although there is no one, least of all myself, who can break this character down, after so many decades, and give this or that source, claim one or another inspiration as being the main pillar upon which my thoughts rest. Can you do that for yourself?
I sometimes wonder whether we would be able to really find peace of mind, philosophically and physically, if we were able to go right back to the root of our thoughts, dispel all our fears, and come into acceptance of ourselves. On the one side, of course, because we are not alone on this planet, there are many other people here and they all, no matter how far away they might appear to be, influence us in some way or another. Regardless of which, philosophy, ancient history and especially art are subjects which are so manifold in their depths, a person could discuss them for years without ever feeling the need for repetition, and still not come to the core or be bored. Perhaps this is what the ancient philosophers, following after Heraclitus, did with their time on our small planet; perhaps it is something which we, now, are destined to do by any means possible in order to further our own knowledge. The choice is our own, the challenge is how we face this choice and whether, as letter writers separated across the globe, we dive in and seek, through discussion and debate, answers.