A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.


“Follow your blisters”

There’s an apocryphal account that Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and mythology and originator of the ‘follow your bliss’ saying, was unhappy with the hedonistic misinterpretation of his theme, and exclaimed:

I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.’

The original quote was apparently a reference to the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda: the threefold attributes of Brahman as ‘being’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘bliss’; not, it seems, an injunction to pursue freelance writing, or become a professional baker of cupcakes because that’s where you feel happiest.

Nonetheless, that’s how most people seem to understand it: do what makes you happiest and the path will open, and there are plenty of stories of successful people who took a chance based on doing what they loved.

But Campbell’s follow-up is equally apposite, because the whole point about doing what you love is that you are able to throw yourself into it more fully, to derive meaning from it, and therefore stand a better chance of excelling at it.

Take writing, for example: I’ve put more effort into two months of writing than I did in six to nine months of regular paid employment. It’s not that I shirked my responsibilities, just that initiative was not encouraged, and the work we were given was rather tedious and mediocre.

But because I love writing, I can put in comparatively huge amounts of effort and it feels like nothing. The effort still takes a physical and mental toll, but love of the work leaves me strangely oblivious to it, until I start wondering why I can no longer form sentences and my eyes feel like they’re filled with fine sawdust.

The fact is that Campbell’s transcendent Upanishadic triad of ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ and the more mundane idea of doing what you love do converge. In doing what you love, practising your art and your skill, pursuing something of the utmost meaning, you do in fact approach an experience of transcendence that accelerates and deepens your efforts. You love it all the more because it takes you beyond yourself, and brings you back with an even greater determination to transform this mundane reality, ordinary life, into something far more special, blisters and all.