What are you trying to prove?

Dtcwee wondered in response to my previous post:

If proving something to others is unnecessary, I wonder what the blog post is for then.

To be honest, the question struck me as a non sequitur.  There are plenty of reasons to write blog posts besides trying to prove something to others. Wanting to communicate something to an audience is not the same as trying to prove something.

In the previous piece I had written:

I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others

And I went on to provide the context of “theoretical certitude”.

If you replace “prove” with “show to be theoretically certain” in my statement, the meaning will become clearer. Yet if we do the same with dtcwee’s comment, his argument presents an obvious problem.

We could formulate it as follows:

1 Zac says he needs to advance by what he knows to be true not by what he can prove to others.

2 But writing a blog post implies trying to prove something to others.

3 Therefore, Zac either wants to prove something to others and is contradicting himself,

4 or writing a blog post is not always about proving something to others.

It’s tempting to read dtcwee’s comment in the context of the vernacular “prove something to somebody”, meaning:

to substantiate a claim about something to someone; to make someone believe or accept a statement about something.

By this interpretation, one could argue that everyone who publishes online is trying to prove something to somebody, though it may not always be conscious or obvious.

I might be trying to prove to people that I am a deep and thoughtful person, and strive to do so by writing cryptic or convoluted posts. I might, right now, be seeking to prove to people that I can be analytical and logical.

Nonetheless, this is not the interpretation of “prove” that I was using, as illustrated by my use of “theoretical certitude” in the original post. If we factor my meaning into the 4-point formulation above, we quickly spot the error at point 2:

2 But writing a blog post implies trying to show that something is theoretically certain to others.

It should be clear that theoretical certitude is a degree of proof far removed from idiomatic uses like “what are you trying to prove?”.

This kind of misinterpretation is known as equivocation, with wikipedia offering the following example:

A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

It’s a common problem in argument or debate, and that is why philosophy requires us to define our terms at the outset.  Dtcwee took my use of the word ‘prove’ and treated it according to a different definition.

But that’s not the end of it. Quite apart from the equivocation, I’m curious as to why dtcwee implicitly believes that publishing a blog post denotes trying to prove something to somebody.

I suspect the answer lies (conveniently) in one of my favourite topics: temperament.

The four temperaments see the world differently, have different values, motivations, and perspectives. And this may be as good a time as any to introduce a slightly different take on the four temperaments – the Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

I won’t go into the background and details, but what the American psychologist David Keirsey has done is to group the famous Myers-Briggs personality types into four groups which correspond to the traditional temperaments.

keirsey

Here we can see that the main difference in MBTI terms between the Rationalist (Choleric) and the Idealist (Melancholic) is their Thinking and Feeling functions respectively.  The Rationalist makes decisions based on “objective observations and factual analysis in any given situation”.  Strategic and goal-oriented thinking comes naturally to them.  As such, a Rationalist is predisposed to look for the strategies and goals underlying the behaviour of others.

By contrast an Idealist makes decisions on the basis of his feeling, which is just as obscure as it sounds. An Idealist is not precluded from making objective observations and factual analysis, but at the end of it all, he will make a decision based on how he feels. It is hard to describe, but just as thoughts may be true or false, so things can feel right or wrong. Things that feel right usually point toward meaning, purpose, identity, authenticity, and other ideals.

When I write, I almost always do so for the sake of ideals. I write to uncover meaning, I write with a goal of authenticity, and I write to establish and clarify my own identity for myself. These are all fairly self-absorbed purposes for which an audience is nonetheless important firstly because it imposes a discipline and a rigor that might otherwise wane, and secondly because ideals shared and communicated are thereby strengthened and clarified.

At least, that’s the ideal.

What my blog posts are for is primarily to discover something for myself through the creative and expressive effort. Half-formed ideas can expand, or collapse under their own weight. Intuitions can be tested. Ideals can be explored. If it’s of benefit to anyone else, that is a wonderful side-effect. But if I tried to think strategically about it, my motivation would shrivel up and die.

The Keirsey system offers a different perspective on the temperaments by aligning them with the Myers-Briggs functions. However, in so doing it brings forward other more refined possibilities. 16 types are more particular than four temperaments, and there’s a risk of getting lost in the minor details of the MBTI.

One of the reasons I like the temperament theory so much is that it is imprecise. It’s rough around the edges and barely doctrinaire, in a way that perfectly suits our imprecise nature. So I don’t take Keirsey dogmatically.

That said, there are interesting questions to consider and explore in detail: such as the shared intuitive function of Cholerics and Melancholics that makes them in many ways so similar.

Or the ‘slowness’ of both the Melancholic and the Phlegmatic perhaps arising from very different causes: the obscure strangeness of feeling in the one, and the introverted sensing in the other.

Likewise the excitability of Cholerics and Sanguines is, in Keirsey’s arrangement, most likely due to the powerful thinking function of the former, and the extroverted sensing of the latter.

Going further, you could explore some of the nuances of interaction between the different temperaments, such as why Cholerics often make Melancholics uneasy. I suspect it’s because despite sharing the same or similar intuitive function, Cholerics are quick to think in directions that don’t feel right to the Melancholic. Likewise, Cholerics may get frustrated with Melancholics whose rambling observations and insights never get to the damn point….

 

MBTI and the melancholic

Utilising Keirsey’s temperament sorter, we can associate the four temperaments with four groupings of the Myers-Briggs 16 types. This leaves us with four variants of the melancholic temperant, the ‘NF’ types, which for the uninitiated means types who perceive intuitively (N) and arrive at judgements based on feeling (F).

Melancholics are therefore Keirsey’s Idealist types. Idealism is key to the melancholic temperament hence my use of the term melancholic idealist.  In MBTI terms the melancholic idealist is characterised by his dependence on intuition and feeling, with variations according to which function is extroverted, and whether the individual himself is introverted or extroverted.

For example, for NFP types the perceiving function (intuition) is extroverted – directed to the external world. For NFJ types the judging function (feeling) is extroverted. But even so an NFP or an NFJ may be Extroverted or Introverted, which is to say that they will be more closely attuned to their Extroverted or Introverted functions respectively.

What does this look like?

An ENFP and an INFP have the same arrangement of functions – introverted feeling (written as Fi) and extroverted intuition (Ne). But because the ENFP is overall an extrovert, their Ne plays the dominant role in their type. As introverts INFP types are dominated by their Fi.

As an INFP I find some benefit in the description of these functions and this type. For example, it is true that my life is dominated by Feeling. Not other people’s feelings, but my own, hence the ‘i’ for introversion. Having introverted Feeling as one’s dominant function is a bit like living in a house with no roof where you can’t help but be forever conscious of the weather, of which way the wind is blowing.

Extroverted intuition is like having odd or unusual patterns, resemblances, and associations constantly springing into one’s mind.  It’s partly reflected in my love of analogies, though the analogies can become stretched and strained beyond their use.

But as an INFP I can only take this kind of Myers-Briggs talk in small doses. MBTI is, after all, a very Te way of looking at things, that is, an extroverted Thinking approach, cutting up all of humanity into 16 interchangeable boxes.

Extroverted Thinking does not come naturally to me, though I can use it when motivated, when it serves some higher aim, and in fact have become so good at it that on tests my Thinking and Feeling scores vary by only a few points.

But beyond the narrow limits of extreme utility, I find Te tedious, boring, soul-destroying even; and hence I soon grow tired of reading Myers-Briggs material.

In addition, for some reason the MBTI or Keirsey’s interpretation give the impression that the melancholic idealist might find answers, understanding, and hence fulfillment. Perhaps this is implicit in its systematic Te design?

Whatever the reason, reading MBTI stuff leaves me Feeling like I’m on the verge of a discovery: if I just try a little bit harder I’ll surely break through and get the answers I so desire.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the dynamic that so dogs and distresses the melancholic idealist, and we should be wary of things that feed our idealism by offering the appearance of final answers.

This is what I love so much about the four temperaments theory and its depiction of the melancholic. As Conrad Hock writes, the melancholic must learn to love suffering, because the reality will always fall short of his ideals. Or to put it another way, we long for a perfection and a finality that cannot be met in this world.

I think this is especially harmful for the INFP whose judging function and overall orientation are so introverted and subjective. The INFP is especially prone to a kind of idealistic inflation where ideas of perfection can become ever more tantalising yet ever more elusive at the same time.

The melancholic benefits from understanding that idealism will never be wholly satisfied in this life, and a certain degree of suffering or dissatisfaction will always accompany us.

The paradox is that if we accept suffering and indeed learn to love it, we may find ourselves far happier than if we embrace an ideal devoid of suffering. I think this is why spiritual principles of inversion are especially suited to the melancholic: He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Or the Daoist passages I’ve often quoted:

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;
Yet its use is unimpaired.
What is most full seems empty;
Yet its use will never fail.
What is most straight seems crooked;
The greatest skill seems like clumsiness,
The greatest eloquence like stuttering.
Movement overcomes cold;
But staying still overcomes heat.
So he by his limpid calm
Puts right everything under heaven.

Thus the melancholic description – unlike the MBTI – describes the plight of the melancholic idealist in its entirety and offers a solution, perhaps the only real solution, which is to make the melancholic entirely aware of his own plight and to transcend it. The melancholic can thus idealise the non-ideal and find a kind of peace in a humble perfection.

This is not what some people might call “being realistic” or accepting imperfections, or being pragmatic. It does not drag the idealist “into the real world” but draws the real world up into the rarefied atmosphere of the ideal.  It reconciles “heaven” and “earth” but like the cross, what seems like the destruction of the former turns out to be the sanctification of the latter.

The ideal approach

Melancholics are idealists, and in any venture or activity we seek out and adhere to the ideal.

This can be both an advantage and an obstacle. For example, I mentioned in a previous post that I always thought the ideal approach to exercise would be to incorporate it into everyday life, avoiding ‘exercise for its own sake’.

What I neglected in this approach is that such an ideal may not be attainable given the circumstances of a contemporary lifestyle, but also that people do in fact ‘exercise’ for fun and enjoyment. People run, ride, walk and play sports because it is enjoyable. But if you presume at the outset that exercise is onerous and pointless exercise is adding insult to injury, then this insight will evade you.

Growing up with numerous vague and confounding frailties of posture, coordination, physical tension, fatigue and other interrelated yet undiscovered obstacles may have contributed to this blind-spot toward exercise. On my better days it is obvious that exercise is enjoyable. But most days merely remaining upright is enough of an effort to make exercise seem implausibly demanding.

Nonetheless, since I started jogging regularly I’ve noticed a number of minor improvements, but more pertinent to this post, I found myself once again inclining toward the ideal – idealising the difficulty and purity of running or jogging as a simple and complete form of exercise.

What this shows is that ideals can be mistaken, ideals can be incomplete, but ideals can also be useful.

Perhaps it is best to consider ideals in this context: not so much as eternal and objective truths to be discovered but as a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding, communicating, teaching, and learning.

For example, I’ve been learning a particular martial art for about 16 years now, and for nearly half that time I was preoccupied – perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word – with finding a definitive copy of the names of the various moves in Chinese. My teacher’s generation were more focused on actually learning the art, and admittedly it seems a bit strange to feel that the name of a movement is in any way key to understanding or performing the movement. A fist by any other name will smack you just as hard around the head.

It’s only taken eight years for my enthusiasm to dim; hopefully in part as a result of improving at the art itself. But on reflection I can see that what I hoped to find in the names was not so much a better technical understanding of the movements, but a way of idealising them, of getting to their essence and encapsulating them.

It’s true that techniques are not definitive; they can be adapted, changed, put to multiple uses. But the mere fact that a technique has a name means that someone saw fit to name it in a particular way and denote from their own perspective what made this technique specific or unique.

In the 2005 doctoral dissertation of Jude Chua Soo Meng the author analyses the correlative theory of naming in the neo-Daoist philosopher wang Bi:

clearly for Wang, the names do in fact correlate to a certain actuality, a certain reality, and is not something which is random or frivolous. In his Laozi Zhilue, he presents explicitly the correlative theory of naming:

“All names arise from forms [phenomenal manifestations, (xing)]; never has a form arisen from a name. Therefore if there is this name, there must be this form, and, if there is this form, there must be its separation [fen] [from all other forms]. If “benevolence” [ren] cannot be called “sagehood” [sheng] or “intelligence” [zhi] called “benevolence,” each must have its own actuality.”

This passage clearly indicates that for Wang Bi names are not conventionally determined, but are determined depending on the shi [actuality/essence] of things, on which basis he can say that one cannot trade a name for another, since names have to accord with their actualities, and are determined by depending on these actualities, and not according to the fancy of the person. Again, names arise from xing, not the other way around, for “the name arises from how it appears to us” So in effect for Wang Bi the shi is manifested through the xing, and the names are determined according to the xing. Thus names ultimately are dependent on the shi through the xing, and the names are dependent immediately on the xing. Hence he can say that if there is this name, there must be this form (xing), since the form is the source of the name. Names come from somewhere objective, and this somewhere is the form.

What this describes is the creative process inherent in naming a thing. We look to the form, the form in turn is a reflection of the actuality or essence of the thing. Hence the name, deemed appropriate to the form yet also being mindful of the essence behind the form, is always in relation with the reality. No one names things arbitrarily, or rather, an arbitrary name is not a true name.

Chua addresses the allocation of arbitrary names in the context of conventions, drawing on Wang’s comments on ‘designation’ as opposed to true naming:

To accommodate this latter class of words which are conventional in order to distinguish it from the determination of names which follow from phenomenal manifestations (xing), Wang Bi calls it “designation” cheng:

“To name [ming] is to determine [ding] objects [bi]. To designate [cheng] is to follow what objects are conventionally called. A name arises from the object, but a designation issues from the subjective [wo].”

Now the designation is said to be subjective because when I designate something, I simply follow a convention and not the objective xing. Compared to naming, it appears that it is up to me (wo) that the designation is what it is; I am not immediately constrained by the objective form in the thing itself, as I would be in naming. After all, in choosing to adopt a conventional designation, I have implicitly chosen to follow convention even if the words fail to name or correspond to the phenomenal xing, if there is one.

In the context of martial arts, as someone who can’t speak Cantonese and doesn’t know the name of a technique, I am instead ‘designating’ a technique through the convention that has evolved in our practice. I can say to a newcomer “We call this move ‘jong’ or ‘kwan’,” but I can’t go beyond that to say that these are the techniques’ names or to explain their meaning in the context of a technique’s form (xing) or actuality (shi).

But the subjectivity of designations cannot be overstated. Subjectivity is not arbitrariness. We should be clear that designation is subjective comparatively, not absolutely. For despite its (comparative) subjectivity, designation for Wang is not divorced from objective reality simpliciter. It is only divorced from the objective reality qua form or shape. Thus he writes, “…designations do not arise without cause.”

Indeed, the designations used in our art are derived from oral repetition and aural impression of the actual names. The designations are far from arbitrary.

Nonetheless, to the original point: I realise now that my fascination with names is a function of idealism more generally. To know the name given to a technique by someone grounded in their practice and study is to have an insight into both the form (xing) and essence (shi) of the technique. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic way of making sense of the art, consolidating and encapsulating it, and translating it into the realm of ideas.

I can do things without an idealist approach, but idealism is my greatest strength, the way that makes most sense to me. While other temperaments are inspired by different aspects of life, the melancholic thrives in a world populated by ideals, and a life lived through them.

Auto-Immunity: stop hitting thyself?

An auto-immune disease is, as far as I can tell, the disease equivalent of accidentally biting off a chunk of your own tongue.

My particular auto-immune disease causes inflammation in various key joints, resulting in mild-to-excruciating levels of pain that erupt seemingly at random throughout the course of the year.

Each doctor I’ve spoken to has been more or less firm about the association between stress or negative affect and flare-ups of the disease; firmly against any such association, I mean. There is no evidence to suggest that the progression of diseases like mine is in any way linked to psychological factors, though there is good evidence that the experience of pain can be moderated by psychological factors.

Needless to say, I’m not content with this and rest somewhat assuredly on the dictum “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, taking some confidence in what I know to be the limitations of evidential standards and processes, such that if I find a personal or subjective association, I’m not going to dismiss it on the basis of insufficient peer-reviewed studies.

At the same time, it’s somewhat dismaying to see people dismiss actual studies from a position of willful ignorance and wishful thinking. I’ve seen plenty of people embrace conspiracy theories or other combative attitudes towards established medical and scientific practices and institutions. It’s not a pretty sight. Ideally we should know and understand the things we criticise, and be aware of the limitations of our own knowledge, n’est-ce pa?

As such, I’m not going to tell people that their auto-immune condition is the result of stress and negative affect. What I can tell them is that I’ve noticed in myself that my bouts of inflammation seem to correspond with periods of self-imposed stress or pressure.

It seems I am of a temperament which is inclined to say to itself: “Now you know what you ought to be doing, so do it; do it without ceasing. Do nothing else. Nothing matters but that you do this, and do it diligently forever and ever, Amen.”

For example, I had a flare-up some time after deciding that I ought to pursue my writing more seriously. ‘More seriously’ as in, unceasingly and compulsively without any concept of an end point. On the positive side, that helped me produce an unprecedented number of articles – if I remember correctly: 12 published articles in a one month period.

But as my productivity began to decrease, the conviction that “I must write” slowly devolved from a genuine motivation into a mere sense of grinding necessity. Grinding is perhaps the operative word, as my joints inflamed and it became painful to move.

I’ve noticed since that the pain seems to coincide with these bouts of grueling yet unproductive urgency, the sense that I must get something done without excursion or delay.

Yesterday I noticed a growing sense of urgency relating to ‘getting things done’ with respect to domestic production. I’ve been meaning to make some cheese, but have struggled to find a good local source of necessary ingredients. The delay and the awful heat (42 degrees C yesterday) left me feeling unproductive, and this morning I woke up with the telltale stiffness and pain in my lower back.

As tentative as I am to try to dictate the cause of my illness to others, I’m equally cautious in extolling a particular treatment. I’m not trying to sell anything.

However, I have found it personally beneficial to treat the pain as a symptom of the underlying urgency, and therefore to treat the urgency directly. I do this by making a conscious effort to defuse this compulsive state of mind. I reflect on the fact that it doesn’t actually matter if I make a cheese today/write an article tomorrow, or if I do these things next month, or in all honesty if I never do them ever again.

By ‘reflect’ I mean it’s not enough to simply tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I have to really feel that it doesn’t matter, because feeling it means I can let go of the stress, tension, and urgency. Feeling that it doesn’t matter reveals how truly tense and stressed I have become – winding myself up into a state of impossible and unnecessary tension. I can feel the tension now through my whole body, yet I was oblivious to it until I started to focus on ‘letting go’.

Does ‘letting go’ fix the problem? Objective analysis would be nearly impossible. The factors at play are highly subjective, and would be very difficult to study or isolate under experimental conditions. But like Pascal’s wager, if I’m wrong about the connexion I’ve nonetheless benefited from becoming aware of my stress and tension and reducing them to more salubrious levels.

Feeling more relaxed, happier, and healthier is a pretty benign form of treatment. There’s not really anything to lose.

Does the pain go away? As strange as it might sound: I hadn’t really noticed. In hindsight, it must go away because I notice its subsequent return. But I’m usually so caught up in the great sense of relief and relaxation, the sheer pleasure of ‘letting go’ all the stress, strain, and slowly mounting pressures of life, that the pain, the stiffness and the sense of disease seem to just dissolve away.

The merits of mysticism

temple

A tiny temple on the side of a mountain in Fuzhou. Every hill or mountain we went to seemed to have some kind of temple installed.

For a melancholic the appeal of mysticism is obvious: just a glimmer of transcendence is enough to inspire our idealist inclinations to follow what one old mystic, the Benedictine/Swami Bede Griffiths called ‘the golden string’.

For a melancholic it makes perfect sense to put ‘ultimate reality’ ahead of the mundane one, to sell everything for the sake of the pearl of great price. But from a more worldly perspective it makes no sense to be uselessly sitting quietly, seemingly inert, inactive, and unproductive.

In fact, while mysticism is a struggle in its own right, from the very beginning the path is entirely opposed to most of the things that are supposed to make ordinary life enjoyable and meaningful. The heart of mysticism is, after all, to recollect and redirect your many and varied desires for worldly things back to the one thing that supersedes the world.

We are, from a worldly perspective, supposed to spend our free time playing with our mobile phones, buying apps and viewing ads. From this point of view mysticism is worse than useless. It can’t be shared, it can’t be bought or sold, and in a strange inversion it even rebukes us silently for the time and energy we waste on truly meaningless vanities.

The paradox of mysticism is that it is useless from a worldly perspective, yet reveals in turn the vanity of the world. Despite the difficulty of the path, it reveals from an early stage that our cares and worries and preoccupations are nothing but dust and straw. Many have compared it to waking from a dream, or seeing clearly for the first time.

Its merits are hard to fathom because we are so used to judging merit by worldly standards. Even climbing a mountain and enjoying the view can be packaged as an ‘experience’, bought and sold, shared and bragged about, measured in mundane terms. What cannot be measured, assessed, described or shared is the emptiness of mysticism, its silence and humility.

As the Dao De Jing puts it (Lau translation):

When the best student hears about the way
He practises it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way
It seems to him there one moment and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh
It would be unworthy of being the way.

Hence the Chien yen has it:
The way that is bright seems dull;
The way that is forward seems to lead backward;
The way that is even seems rough.
The highest virtue is like the valley;
The sheerest whiteness seems sullied;
Ample virtue seems defective;
Vigorous virtue seems indolent;
Plain virtue seems soiled;
The great square has no corners.
The great vessel takes long to complete;
The great note is rarefied in sound;
The great image has no shape.

The way conceals itself in being nameless.
It is the way alone that excels in bestowing and in accomplishing.

What this means is that one can fulfill the ideal of human life while doing ‘nothing’ by worldly standards. It means that the endless struggle, striving, craving and distraction of human life is not the final word. To know the finality, the telos, of one’s existence is far beyond being useful, valuable, or meritorious; instead it recasts and reshapes the entire landscape of use, value, and merit. Thus a practice which the world has cast aside nonetheless stands in rebuke of worldliness and prevails.

The gift of satire

Sometimes it seems as though satire is the only reasonable response to frustrating levels of idiocy that are otherwise impervious to exposition. “Let me explain to you why you’re wrong” is unlikely to succeed when dealing with people whose degree of wrongness requires dramatic, interventive exposition in the first place.

Of course, satire is only funny when you agree with the perspective that informs it. I’ve never read satire I didn’t agree with…or maybe I did and didn’t realise it was satire? We’re all someone’s idiot after all.

Throwcase has put up another nice piece of satire, which is probably a little more poignant than usual because I think I might be a good teacher. I’ve been told by everyone who’s ever taught that I would slowly collapse in upon myself, crushed by the triple-burdens of pointless administrative tasks, corrosive children, and bellicose, bigoted parents. I hated school as a child – loathed it to the very depths of my being. That’s probably not a good sign.

There were one or two stand-out teachers, but looking back I suspect their good qualities were more a symptom of their own maladaptive tendencies than a sign of the school system at its best.

“I can’t wait to start my new class, which I call The History of the Individual,” he said. “It’s a 20-week course covering many iconoclastic figures of history who railed against the prevailing group-think of their time. My students will hopefully be inspired by the ones we all agree with now.”

http://throwcase.com/2014/12/15/man-thinks-he-wants-to-believe-in-independent-thinking/

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.

 

The melancholic exercise compromise

I’ve always hated the idea of exercise for its own sake.  The thought of running somewhere, turning around, and running back just for the sake of burning some calories and increasing fitness seemed pointless, unsustainable, and ultimately futile – not to mention extremely tiring.

Melancholics are idealists, and the ideal for exercise is to get it by accident – in the pursuit of some other goal or purpose.  If Australian cities weren’t so spread out, we’d be walking or riding everywhere for convenience and getting exercise in the process.  If our occupations didn’t tie us to desks but required some degree of manual labour we wouldn’t need to lift weights in our spare time.  If our whole lives weren’t laid out for our total convenience we might actually benefit from stretching and pushing ourselves to overcome everyday obstacles.

The best I could do to achieve the ‘exercise by accident’ ideal was to learn a martial art, and to some extent it worked – the focus on learning and refining a skill turned the actual hard work of exercise into a by-product.

But martial arts were never designed with pure fitness in mind, and eventually I had to admit that the ‘exercise by accident’ ideal was unachievable in practice.  In resignation I decided to run.

For various reasons I’ve never been a runner.  Poor coordination, poor posture, dodgy proprioception made the pain of running even less bearable.  I avoided running as much as possible.  In my mind running was the worst possible form of exercise for its own sake.

So when I took it up a few months back in the evenings after work, I was surprised to find that it was even worse than I could have imagined.

It turns out that running really is the worst kind of exercise I’ve ever experienced.  But there’s no way I’m going to remain fit and healthy without embracing the pain and exhaustion of exercise for its own sake.  And when I finally did embrace it, I discovered that my idealism could still function, still turn the pain and exhaustion into something meaningful.

Instead of the ideal of ‘exercise by accident’, I discovered a new ideal of running as the most pure, basic, and demanding way of moving; the simple yet challenging goal of moving my body under its own power through space at speed.

It doesn’t really get easier, and I forget each time just how difficult and unpleasant it is.  But the new ideal of the absolute challenge of running keeps me motivated, and shows that the melancholic capacity for idealism is more powerful than I thought.

It’s not simply a matter of needing to act in accordance with one’s ideals, but of having the ability to locate the ideals within any meaningful activity – to see the world through idealist eyes.  It’s also a reminder that if we aren’t careful, the melancholic’s lack of courage can obscure the full potential of this idealist perspective, letting a ‘settled’ ideal keep us conveniently avoiding the hard work of a more direct and honest path to our goals.

 

Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.

 

Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.