Archive for October, 2015

The Neuroses of Normalcy

October 21, 2015


Ernest Becker’s “Heroism” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Bad Faith” functioning in concert reveal an unsettling truth: Everything about human character is a symptom of neurotic repression that is too often undiscussed and not reflected upon. Looking at these two authors together, their arguments indicate how human character is fundamentally inauthentic, a result of symbolic cultural cues all aimed at immortality. A lot of Becker and Sartre’s analyses focus on how individuals grapple with the paradox between their narcissism and subjection to other people, and thus fashion “identities” that provide a foundation of meaning/significance to their lives: Becker calls this Heroism. Since everyone does this, no one notices it. The problem is that people tend to use this foundation of identity, not as a springboard for freedom, but as a shield from their radical freedom as human beings: Becker calls this the Jonah Syndrome. They fall into cultural roles that prescribe the parameters of what acceptable behavior and identity is; they don’t properly take freedom on board: Sartre calls this Bad Faith. Both authors point to the fact that humans are paralyzed–both by the prospect of their own death’s imminence, and their simultaneous, existential condemnment to freedom. Through these lenses, it becomes clear that both the drives to heroism, and bad faith, are neurotic. Both authors offer us some solutions and escape routes from these neuroses. Here arises our question: Are these authors, in fact, providing viable alternatives to human neuroses?

Drawing on William James, Becker describes the whole world–society–as a “theatre” for heroism, a stage to perform our cultural roles. From an early age, society dictates an array of cultural cues that function symbolically and, thus, an individual’s sense of worth begins to be constituted symbolically as well. But human consciousness is ontologically always “for-itself,” to use Sartre’s vocabulary. That is, the very condition of human experience is an explicit awareness of itself. This self-awareness is what Becker describes as “cosmic specialness” or, in a word, “narcissism.” The heroic narrative is a product of the narcissistic urge in humans, to stand out, be recognized, and seek validation. But, at the same time, individuals have to reconcile their narcissism with their dependence on society to feed them their very sense of worth. This is what Sartre calls “mitsein,” or being-with-others. Thus, we begin to see the tension between one’s hopeless absorption with oneself and the fundamental need for external endorsement by others. In order for these urges to harmoniously coexist, the individual takes society’s symbolic cues and fashions an “identity”. This identity is what Becker wants to call “heroism.” Heroism provides individuals with significance in their lives by “carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value;” they have something to aim at with their efforts. Sartre builds on this with a discussion of chronology: “But if the chronological order is continuous, it could not “symbolize” with the order of identity, for the continuous is not compatible with the identical.” In other words, buying into heroism, as Becker argues, requires this continuous participation in cultural projects such that one “can be fed limitlessly in the domain of symbols and so into immortality.” The heroic narrative quickly becomes problematic, however, for when faced with one’s own future death, this leads to repression. Every cultural project, according to Becker, reinforces Sartre’s “for-itself” quality of human consciousness, and further buries the immanence of their personal impending mortality. Sartre would seem to reply that everyone is operating through repression and, because of that, no one notices: “To be sure, [repression] appears to cut the bond which unites the reflected-on to the reflective…But this is only in order to recover subsequently the affirmation of identity and to affirm concerning this in-itself that ‘I am it.’” In other words, identities flounder to reassert one’s control over oneself and the world. Again, returning to Becker, the world is a “theatre”; this implies performance, or falseness. No aspect of human character, seen through these lenses, approaches authenticity.

Exploring this inauthenticity further might help appreciate the severity of the problem Becker and Sartre are driving at. Becker introduces the concept of the “Jonah Syndrome,” which is, succinctly, “an evasion of the full intensity of life.” In other words, the Jonah Syndrome is the path of least resistance, or a tendency towards familiarity and safety. The combination of Heroism and the Jonah Syndrome produces, what Sartre calls, “Bad Faith,” which is “a lie to oneself” that “explicitly exercises a regulatory control over all attitudes” (48). Bad Faith is, in essence, a state of living that deprives an agent of their freedom. There is a strong tendency among individuals to regress to the mean, or, in other words, to defer to their culturally dictated, self-assigned identities as a script for future action and possibility. For Sartre, identity is continuous; it is always in the process. Regarding Bad Faith, we can see Becker’s Jonah Syndrome in individual “defenses against grandiosity,” but also in a “fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by [an] experience.” Sartre argues that this self-limiting takes place in all realms of human lives; one apprehends one’s role in society and acts accordingly so as not to risk their Heroism, the very thing the Jonah Syndrome attempts to preserve. One projects the consequences of an action onto one’s future self, and judges whether or not that future is something desirable, something one can handle. Becker might respond that heroic identities and the Jonah Syndrome are at the root of Bad Faith. Heroism, to use Sartrean terms, confuses one’s “facticity” and one’s “transcendence.” In other words, Heroism is a way of making concrete qualities that one ascribes to oneself. The consequence of solidifying the heroic narrative is that, in doing so, one simultaneously denies one’s ability to transcend those qualities. For example, a self-ascribed quality of “shyness” governs one’s behavior in situations where one might not otherwise be shy. Here, we return to the problem of Bad Faith. Sartre’s problem with Bad Faith is that it “asserts two mutually contradictory principles, that one is free and that one is not free.” Returning to our example, the self-ascribed shy person confines their freedom, which is to be seen in contradiction with their very nature as a human being. There is no innate “shyness” to any individual, only the renewed affirmation of, and commitment to, that shy quality. The ubiquity of Heroism in society produces individuals who are unreflective of their internal contradictions. They unthinkingly truncate their own future possibilities, which is a result of being with others: Culture, above all, prescribes. But this prescription is largely illusory, Becker and Sartre both argue. As we’ve seen, all cultural projects are aimed at immortality which, as all human history reveals, is impossible.

We see, through Sartre, that people don’t properly take their freedom on board; they confine themselves to cultural roles which place a false limit on their possibilities. Through Becker, we see how people tend to use their identity as shield from their freedom, not as a way to capitalize on their freedom; their identities–and, thus, their perspectives for possibilities–are predicated on falsehoods and illusions. Between Becker’s “Jonah Syndrome” and Sartre’s “Bad Faith,” the existential dilemma they are diagnosing is beginning to take shape. The question for us then emerges: How aware are we of this? It is likely that Sartre & Becker would share the response: We are not at all aware of this. If individuals understood, to the core of their being, the kind of inauthenticity which colors their everyday lives, then they would abandon their cultural projects and heroic identities.

There is evidently some connection Becker and Sartre are making between our attitudes of repression, both for our death anxiety and fear of freedom. The common quality between Bad Faith, Heroism, and the Jonah Syndrome is that they are neurotic. Becker writes that the neurotic “hides the full ambiguity of one’s life.” This is definitively reflective of Sartre’s Bad Faith.

Bad Faith is “essentially irrational” in that it lies about the conditions of one’s life situation and the fact that one is able to, at any time, change one’s life projects, identity, and values. It is a neurotic function because one wants to be bereft of freedom, one wants to “protect [oneself] from this freedom so limitless [which] threatens the very bounds of personality.” Drawing on Freud, Becker writes that “Character-traits are, so to speak, secret psychoses.” The real problem arises, however, in that without character traits, a “full and open psychosis” emerges. This obviously implies that these “secret psychoses” are a necessary lie. Sartre writes that Bad Faith, understood as a neurosis, is what allows for the very “normal aspect of life for a very great number of people.” We seem to have reached a bind. Becker adds more nuance to the problem: To enjoy one’s “full humanness” means a fundamental, primary “mis-adjustment to the world.” In other words, if one is to approach authenticity, then it seems one will never be at home in the world. Authenticity seems to be an admirable quality, a virtue, even. Becker writes that, to escape this neurosis of inauthenticity, one would be freeing oneself of something “restricting and illusory…only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair.” Thus, one would be miserable if one were to tear off the blindfold of the universal human neurosis. It seems humanity is condemned to Bad Faith and Heroism. The very fabric of our society is dependent upon the perpetuation of this, seemingly necessary, illusion. Becker writes that character has been fashioned for “the precise purpose of putting it between [oneself] and the facts of life,” which “allows [one] to ignore incongruities, to nourish [oneself] on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness.” Sartre clarifies the problem further, “Our embarrassment then appears extreme since we can neither reject nor comprehend Bad Faith. To escape from these difficulties people gladly have recourse to the unconscious.” In other words, as soon as individuals rid themselves of Bad Faith, they face the full and terrifying extent of their freedom and, as Becker might add, the inexorability of the very thing they are repressing: Death. This makes it compellingly tempting to return home to one’s heroic narrative, to one’s identity, where things are familiar and safe; one has welcomed back the Jonah Syndrome. To face this ambiguity–one’s radical freedom and death anxiety–is something most people never have the courage to attempt. Humanity is constantly, to borrow Sartre’s words, “in surveillance” of themselves. But those who dare to approach that cognitive boundary of ambiguity seem to be doing something admirable. Yet, Becker seems to predict that these individuals will replace the “socially-agreed” neurosis with their own “private obsessional ritual.” Humanity, then, seems entropically bound to their own, natural, neuroses.

But all is not yet lost, for Becker and Sartre offer a few ways out of this aporia we have arrived at. Notably, Becker credits the rising normalcy of neuroses to the disappearance of religious life in modern, secular society. The illusions and heroic narratives of religion have been undermined, he writes, and thus individuals are condemned to fashion new illusions, ones built of science and reason and secular values. But these are entirely insufficient for quelling humanity’s existential dread. That is, the human condition is worse off without heroism. There have been two primary reactions society has had to religious decline, according to Becker: The Romantic Solution, and the Creative Solution. The former is a “transference beatification” upon the romantic partner, or lover; the individual finds “moral vindication in the other” where they once projected their yearnings and insecurities onto God. Hence, the ubiquity of romantically driven plots and pop songs in modern America. In short, Becker calls the conditions of romance and love in modern society a “religious problem.” Thus, no significant or lasting strides have been taken towards existential progress. The lover has now become one’s own immortality project–a “groping for the meaning of one’s life.” So, in terms of authenticity, it seems that individuals have merely redirected the existential problem onto a person–another transference object–instead of a God. Perhaps this problem is better understood in Sartrean terms: “bad faith is possible by virtue of a simple project…it is because so far as my being is concerned, there is no difference between being and non-being if I am cut off from my project.” Sartre’s analysis capitalizes on the faults of Becker’s Romantic Solution, for as soon as one dies, one’s immortality project ceases –it evaporates. By redirecting anxieties from the metaphysical, divine realm, they have been projected onto something even more ephemeral: Human beings. Not only are humans ephemeral, but they often fail to live up to the expectations set upon them by others. Their failings two fold: (1) Human beings are too complex to be objects to another’s wishes, and (2) all relationships end. The Romantic Solution can’t be what we’re looking for here.

Becker’s Creative Solution maybe can salvage the situation in a way that the Romantic Solution failed to do. The creative solution is a way of making personal sense out of one’s own problems by channeling one’s anxiety in a creative, solution-aimed way. This certainly seems healthier than the religious or romantic solutions, but let’s look at it closer. One must fashion one’s own creative solution; there is no collective body to take direction from or pay deference to. The creative project–whether a career, a work of art, or even a college degree–becomes one’s own “private religion.” Again, this project is aimed at personal immortality; it has become, yet again, a religious problem. Sartre might reframe this problem in terms of Bad Faith: “Bad faith is possible only because sincerity is conscious of missing its goal inevitably, due to its very nature.” That is, at every step in the creative endeavour, there is an attempt to sincerely convey one’s own objects of consciousness. But there is a simultaneous consciousness of the fact that this goal will not solve one’s problems. Again, there is a mere redirection of existential anxiety. The neurosis has been cut down, only to sprout up somewhere else. The difference between the religious and romantic solutions on one hand, and the creative solution on the other, is that this work of art seeks to justify heroism objectively, in a concrete way. By fashioning something physical and demonstrable, one see one’s own frustrations in a different way. Yet, in Becker’s words, the problem with this is that “Your very work accuses you; it makes you feel inferior.” The creative endeavour births guilt that one’s work is bad, or even potentially meaningless. It feels inauthentic. Sartre’s might respond that this is because insincerity is always to be found in introspection. This creative endeavour was aimed at justifying oneself from outside oneself, but one is rapidly “trapped by [one’s] own fabrications. Again, this echoes Sartre’s testimony to the root of Bad Faith: A limiting of possibilities. The artist, in other words, has fashioned a fixed object to create meaning out of one’s problematic existence. But, in doing so, one has reduced the complexities of one’s life to their facticity. To understand this better, we might take Sartre’s view of introspection into account: “In introspection I try to determine exactly what I am, to make up my mind to be my true self without delay-even though it means consequently to set about searching for ways to change myself. Substitute the word “change” for “fashion”, here, and this is, in essence, the very aim of Becker’s creative solution. The creative solution aims to figure oneself out, to fix things in place, to deny one’s own possibility for transcendence. Neither “solution”, then, appears to really solve anything.

Sartre and Becker provide some optimistic conclusions about the human condition. We’ve seen the two “solutions” individuals have come up with in order to redirect existential anxiety, but Becker offers his own solution. He still seems to hold that Heroism is inescapable, but provides a consolation for this condemnment. Human beings, if they are to be sincere, have only one viable path in life: “to fashion something–an object or ourselves–and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.” This is a lukewarm “solution”, given the severity of the aporia Sartre and Becker seem to have illustrated. It feels disingenuous in the face of all the implications human neuroses have on everyday life. But it attempts to put to bed the concerns about disingenuity, as well as the blind deferential neurosis most people live their lives under the illusion of. This “solution” doesn’t solve anything, but it prescribes a more genuine, human-oriented approach to the existential aporia he and Sartre have been outlining.

Sartre also thinks that sincerity is possible, but only when taken at its most severe level. The conditions for this can only be elucidated, and fully appreciated, by borrowing from Being and Nothingness at length:

“I can become sincere; this is what my duty and my effort to achieve sincerity imply. But we definitely establish that the original structure of “not being what one is” renders impossible in advance all movement toward being-in-itself or “being what one is.” And this impossibility is not hidden from consciousness; on the contrary, it is the very stuff of consciousness; it is the embarrassing constraint which we constantly experience; it is our very incapacity to recognize ourselves, to constitute ourselves as being what we are. It is this necessity which means that, as soon as we posit ourselves as a certain being, by a legitimate judgment, based on inner experience or correctly deduced from a priori or empirical premises, then by that very positing we surpass this being and that not toward another being but toward emptiness, toward nothing.”

In English, this simply means that Heroism, the Jonah Syndrome, and Bad Faith all share the same problem: They fix into place human nature and human consciousness. These three neuroses suffer from the tendency of the mind to latch onto objects; individuals want to fix on the objects of the mind and, thus, these three neuroses arise. A way out, for Sartre, is to keep in mind the one constant of the Universe: Change. To hell with the inflexibility of identity, Sartre insists, the only way to exercise full freedom is to understand that one is not bound to one’s past. An individual is not living fully and truly when they think they can’t stop smoking cigarettes, for example. Of course they can, Sartre wants to say. The more we’re inclined away from habituation of Heroism, the more we avoid our magnetism to the Jonah Syndrome and, thus, the pitfalls of Bad Faith. Sartre has successfully complemented Becker’s call to forging one’s own identity constantly and continually.

Thus, we arrive at some considerations: Do these authors successfully avoid the pitfalls of the very human characteristics they so emphatically criticize? How do we know which cultural illusion is best? Furthermore, have we fully put to bed the paralysis between freedom and death anxiety? Or, have we simply redirected these energies into mere physical objects? To answer these questions would require incessant inquiry and a continual study of human projects. But these authors have done a magnificent job of exploring the boundaries of the human psychological and existential conditions. Whether their proposed solutions are viable solutions remains to be seen.


Phenomenology of Poetry

October 21, 2015

Poetry is more than mere description, it is an expression of feelings and ideas. Poetry stitches together the self and the world. For example, in Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, he seems to suggest that poetry is a “confusion” between reality and subjectivity. Arthur Rimbaud also returns to his assertion that to be a poet, one must become a “seer.” True poetry, then, both invents and clarifies ways of looking at the world. There must be, for Rimbaud, a “derangement of the senses” if a poet is to produce anything of worth. Given these views on poetry, is poetry in fact a confusion, distortion, and/or derangement of the senses? Furthermore, what is the relationship between poetry and reality?

Arthur Rimbaud’s Letter of the Seer contains humbling insights into the relationship between poetry and reality which complement Baudelaire’s own perspicacity on the matter. Rimbaud first boldly declares “subjective poetry” to be “horribly insipid” (1). On the face, this might appear to be a categorical condemnation of poetry’s lifelessness. But Rimbaud follows up his criticism by offering us an alternative: “objective poetry” which sees things “sincerely” (1). We now have a clear distinction of subjective and objective poetry. Rimbaud has identified the division: Subjective poetry is insincere and bland, while objective poetry is sincere and lively. Rimbaud gives us a clue as to what this objective poetry would look like when he writes, “It is a questioning of reaching the unknown by a derangement of all the senses.” (1). Objective poetry, then, interrupts the coloring of one’s intuitions, impressions, and interpretations; it gets to the heart of things without the self’s intervention. A true poet, for Rimbaud, has “knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it.” (3). Though it might seem self-evident, Rimbaud is advocating an unorthodox breed of poetry that is more scientific in nature.

So, the ideal poet for Rimbaud is an objective and sincere one. He argues that any true poet is a “seer” which necessitates a “long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.” (3). Again, the word “rational” ascribes a scientific quality to this derangement. This poet embraces “All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences.” (3). In other words, Rimbaud is describing a poet who does not flinch at the fluctuating fullness of reality. He writes that the ideal poet is “truly the thief of fire,” which suggests a willingness to travel to Hell in order to birth a new poetic creation. The ideal poet is exemplary precisely because “he reaches the unknown!”, he is “responsible for humanity” (3). The “unknown” is something to be invented or discovered. Poetry, then, has to produce something new, something humanity hasn’t already encountered. The paragon of poetry, for Rimbaud, is a “march toward Progress!” (3). Yet again, this is severely scientific. This poetic science is searching for, what Rimbaud calls, a “universal language” or a language “of the soul for the soul, containing everything” (3). This universal language is an invention, then, which calls out to the innermost recesses of the human heart. In this light, Rimbaud pays deference to Baudelaire, who he calls the “king of poets, a real god!” (4). Baudelaire has massively contributed to the poetic project of the human spirit, according to Rimbaud. It is prudent, then, to pry into Baudelaire’s writings on poetry to get clear on his understanding of the poetic relationship between reality and subjectivity.

In his Poem of Hashish, Baudelaire proposes how, under the influence, “you forget your existence, until you confuse the objects of your senses with the objects of the real world. You stare at a tree that harmoniously rocks in the breeze; in a few seconds what would for a poet be a natural comparison becomes a reality to you.” (51). There is an imbricated understanding here–an explicit overlap–between one’s subjectivity and reality. Through intoxication, one’s “conscious nature has disappeared” and “objectivity…follows a course of abnormal development.” (51). Intoxication, then, fulfills Rimbaud’s charge to “derange” the senses. Yet, Baudelaire clarifies how one will “forget” one’s existence, until one will “confuse” the senses with “the real world.” (51). This confusion compares objects external to oneself with one’s own objects of consciousness. Baudelaire’s description indicates how this, almost hallucinatory, effect is contingent upon his intoxicated, poetic musing. He writes that “what would for a poet be a natural comparison becomes a reality” for one experiencing this distortion between one’s symbolic understanding of reality, and reality itself (51). This indicates some kind of cognitive projection onto the surrounding landscape, a passionate and desirous longing to feel unity with the external world.

We can find support for this longing for unity in Baudelaire’s description of a nearby tree, where he writes how one under the influence of hashish will “endow” this tree with one’s “passions and desires” such that its “capriciously swaying limbs” become one’s own (51). This unity found in the tree metaphorically suggests that our own “passions and desires” are also capricious. We take up images and blur them to fit our own cares and concerns. When the boundaries between reality and subjectivity are blurred, true poetic creation is birthed; without incertitude, nothing new is tempting to be discovered. Returning to Rimbaud, discovery on the frontier is the paragon of poetics.

It’s easy to write off Baudelaire’s examination of the tree as a product of his intoxication at the time. But there’s more going on here, namely, how natural all this would seem to the poet. It took hashish for Baudelaire to realize the connections between himself and the tree, but for the poet it would be second nature. Perhaps this is how poetry can, itself, act as an incarnation of intoxication. Understanding how intoxication distorts the world, we can see that if poetry is an intoxicant, then it, too, distorts the world. It misrepresents and misshapes one’s understanding of the world independent of oneself. This is not a negative evaluation of poetry, however. In fact, if we described things as they are, we’d never have novelty or take interest in the fundamentals of our world.


Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publ. Group, 1996. Print.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Letter of the Seer. Lunberry printing press, English Dpt. 2015. Print. 🙂

In Vino Veritas

October 21, 2015


If you’ve ever been just a little too honest with a friend after a few alcoholic drinks, then you’ll find truth in the phrase “most men are disguised by sobriety.” (de Quincey, 46). There is evidently a deep-seated connection between intoxication and the inner self. When our inhibitions are down, we confess the “disguised” machinations of our everyday minds. But, rightly, we often associate intoxication with a loss of faculties and a general feeling that the intoxicated person “isn’t himself” in a drunken stupor. Our question then arises: Does intoxication, in fact, bring about truth?

In his Artificial Paradises, Baudelaire snidely remarked that “A man who drinks only water has a secret to keep from his peers.” (9). We now have reason to become skeptical of the sober self. A secret being held in sobriety suggests an open falsehood is normally at play. The implication of Baudelaire’s quip about water is that wine would procure this secret, and would unmask the otherwise hidden truth. In fact, this intuition was so strong that Baudelaire took care to give wine its own personality. Wine, as characterized by Baudelaire, acknowledges this connection between truth and intoxication: “I would sooner dwell in the stomach of an honest man, a cheerful grave where I enthusiastically fulfill my destiny” (7). This reads as though wine’s singular, preordained destiny is to seek or bring about truth. Additionally, the word “grave” here further underscores truth as the teleological thrust that wine provides. Thus, we have reached coterminous with the perennial Latin aphorism, in vino veritas, or “in wine there is truth.”

In addition to his remarks about men being “disguised by sobriety”, Thomas de Quincey detailed an account of the ways in which sobriety is inauthentic: “So thick a curtain of manners is drawn over the features and expression of men’s natures, that to the ordinary observer, the two extremities [“goodness” and “vileness”], and the infinite field of varieties which lie between them, are all confounded” (32). Human nature, understood by de Quincey, is predominantly socially mediated. There is a “curtain” of manners and social norms between our authentic selves and the selves we operate through in everyday life. We can now see how just about everything about the sober self is calculated. That is, unlike the intoxicated self, the sober self always predicates its actions on a social outcome. In sobriety, we will deliberate to withhold information about ourselves that might obfuscate the outcome we are trying to bring about. These “manners” de Quincey is critiquing are the means we employ to achieve our anticipated social ends. In sobriety, it seems that we are simply manipulating others by acting disingenuously towards them. Intoxication, in some ways, remediates this inauthentic behavior towards others. But de Quincey has only palliated the sober condition; intoxication, here, might be a panacea.

Further evidence for intoxication as an antidote to the inauthenticity and falseness of sobriety is to be found in the writings of Theophile Gautier. In recounting his experiences on Hashish, he wrote, “I was so absent, so free from myself (that detestable witness ever dogging one’s footsteps)” (58). In the action of becoming “free” from himself, evidently, he has had a revelation that he wasn’t free before. The curious manner in which Gautier subsequently extends this revelation is that, in freeing him of his “self,” he is at last emancipated from “that detestable witness ever dogging one’s footsteps”. Gautier’s diction suggests how the self shadows one’s actual participation in the world; it follows one’s own “footsteps,” so to speak. One’s very sense of self as primary, then, is called into question. Not only is the self “detestable,” here, it is clearly an afterthought, it is secondary. Intoxication, it seems, restores primacy to one’s core being; it sheds the cloak of “self” and identity. This, I would argue, is intoxication attaining truth of a kind.

Thus, we have warrant to scrutinize the consequences of sobriety in the human condition. Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” provides additional insight into this affinity between intoxication and the self. In the third stanza, the speaker calls the reader to “Ascend beyond the sickly atmosphere / to a higher plane, and purify yourself / by drinking as if it were ambrosia” (20). This passage clearly validates the unmitigated connection between truth and intoxication. Here, the speaker is speaking to us frankly, as though anyone in the world could pick this poem up and feel as though this advice applies to them. The speaker invokes the claim that our default “atmosphere” is “sickly”–a rather undesirable place to be–but it also invites the reader to traverse the path of purification and exaltation “by drinking as if it were ambrosia”. If our normal state is impure, then intoxication seems to be the way to bring about purity. We can find further evidence of this in Gautier’s writings: “The thirst of the Ideal is so strong in man that he must strive, as far as lies in his power, to relax the bonds that fetter the soul to the body…A little red liquor, a puff of smoke, a teaspoonful of greenish paste and that impalpable essence, the soul, is transformed on the instant” (56). Here, Gautier does not presume to discriminate amongst one’s method of intoxication. It seems that all kinds of intoxication are aimed at achieving an “Ideal” within oneself. This loudly echoes Baudelaire’s poem; intoxication is aimed at a “higher plane” to “purify” oneself. Both authors seem in harmony on this subject.

We’ve seen how wine procures secrets, how hashish conjures authenticity, and how our normal state of being is impure. The pivotal insight here is that intoxication is a tool to restore one’s sense of truth. Intoxication momentarily reacquaints us with truth, and enables us to accordingly act. It’s crucial to note, however, that intoxication is temporary. If we are to spend our lives chasing after truth, then it would seem to follow that we’d live as alcoholics. But the real implication of reading these authors in sync allows for a more positive perspective on the effects occasional intoxication can have: A renewal of truth, authenticity, and purity.


Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publ. Group, 1996. Print.

Baudelaire, Charles, and Laurence Lerner. Baudelaire. Phoenix ed. London: Phoenix Poetry,
2003. Print.

Gautier, Theophile, and Charles Baudelaire. Hashish, Wine, Opium. London: Calder and Boyars,
1972. Print.

Quincey, Thomas, and Alethea Hayter. Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Harmondsworth [England: Penguin, 1971. Print.


An Admirable Education

October 2, 2015

When it comes to the purpose of education, I find myself gravitating to an education which would produce the attributes of Aristotle’s “good life”: Virtue, Wisdom, and Fulfillment. It is my view that traditional education does far too little in regards to these three aims. I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau got it right when he wrote, “Life is the business I would have [the child] learn.” In bringing this about, I think education should consist in an array of courses, with lessons grounded in experience, and a range of assessments. The value of any discipline or subject in education should directly reflect upon its ability to foster communication, critical thought, and an eagerness to seek knowledge. An admirable education is one that, above all, teaches one how to live well.

There are three aspects I would aim to refine, through education, in the child: The life of the politician (virtue), the life of the philosopher (wisdom), and the life of pleasure (fulfillment). These three attributes seem necessary and sufficient conditions to produce well-rounded individuals. I agree with John Stuart Mill in that “a liberal education does not train individuals for their trades but is intended to enable persons to be reflective members of their society…with intelligence and broad perspective.” First and foremost, we should cultivate virtue. Our educational system should produce thoughtful, morally sensitive individuals who are actively involved with the communities around them. Enveloped in this is an understanding of the world, its history, and ideas about our values in it. This is Aristotle’s “Life of the Politician.” John Dewey argued that, in order to cultivate virtue, “school must itself be a community.” Social life and, more importantly, ethical behavior should be encouraged in any admirable school. Returning to Mill, we should teach students to “love virtue, and feel it an object in itself, and not a tax paid.” In other words, education should render virtue as pleasurable for its own sake. In addition to virtue, we should add wisdom. This is Aristotle’s “Life of the Philosopher.” Our educational system should promote a healthy skepticism and a broad association between varying contents and subjects. For this, I agree with Bertrand Russell’s stressed importance of cultivating a “fundamental open-mindedness” but not so open that our brain falls out. Students should be readily able to grasp new situations and content. But we should not dictate subjects as fixed, finite, in-and-of themselves. Again, I think Russell was right in saying that “education ought to foster the wish for the truth, not the conviction that some particular creed is the truth.” We should prompt students to follow down the paths they find, with nudges from the teacher. Finally, school should promote happy citizens. This is Aristotle’s “Life of Pleasure.” This entails students being able to identify their own problems with solutions in mind and who, upon graduation, are able to flourish in many realms, not just vocationally. By encouraging students to pursue their own interests, we foster that quality beyond schooling. Returning to Dewey, “an individual is happy and society well organized when each individual engages in those activities for which [they have] a natural equipment.” The more equipped a student is in engaging the world, I believe, the happier they will be. Above all else, these three goals should be on the mind of any philosopher of education.

We have identified our purposes for education, but we should now turn to the methods to bring them about. In terms of academics, I would provide a “menu” of courses, ground lessons in experiences, and assess learning mastery through, again, a “menu” of projects. A menu of courses is, essentially, the way the University is structured, only I would employ this model in earlier education. Choice in education is a huge motivator for students: It produces, in Rousseau’s terms, “well regulated liberty.” They can choose, from a list of pre-approved courses, what they want to learn. A massive motivator for students is their present interest which, drawing on Rousseau, is “the great motive impulse, the only one that leads sure and far.” Of course, it is necessary to expose them to things they aren’t already interested in or familiar with, so there should be requirements for students to fulfill categories of knowledge. This makes learning more intimate, and students more enthusiastic about their courses. Most importantly, this breeds autonomy in the future.

The structure of schooling should always be mindful to ground lessons in experiences. This means treating lessons as ends, not as means. Dewey had it right when he wrote that “education is literally and all the time its own reward,” which reveals that “no alleged study or discipline is educative unless it’s worthwhile in its own immediate having.” (249). So, every course should have an immediate value, not just an instrumental value. When material “has to be made interesting,” to borrow again from Dewey, we are doing something profoundly wrong (248). If a class discussion is necessary, let it be in a socratic circle, where every student can see each other’s faces–make it an experience–and have an equal degree of participation. This puts the instructor in the circle with the students, on their level. Let instructors not be authority figures so much as learning companions and facilitators. In addition, field trips are far underutilized as a pedagogical tool in traditional schooling; the engagement of kids in fresh environments is obviously superior to their engagement in the familiar classroom. Returning to Rousseau, “When I see young people confined to the speculative studies at the most active time of life and then cast suddenly into the world of affairs without the least experience, I find it as contrary to reason as to nature and am not at all surprised that so few people manage their lives well.” If the purpose of education is to teach how to live well, then we should provide concrete lessons through experience. Dewey wrote that “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.” Field trips, then, should be regular and broad. Teach botany, for example, by a lesson planting food that the students return to harvest later. Teach animal rights through a trip to the zoo, etc. Nothing is less effective than a lesson divorced from the child’s own life.

Assessment should be a menu of projects. This can take the form of essays, portfolios, short films, etc. Students express their feelings and understandings of things in varying ways, and we should not be so insensitive that we limit the way they can demonstrate their learning. In other words, assessment should be seen as an opportunity to explore. Mill wrote that “Those who know how to employ opportunities will often find that they can create them: and what we achieve depends less on the amount of time we possess, than on the use we make of our time.” The more we narrow down opportunities for expression, the more we confine the child’s autonomy in the future. And this broadening of assessment immediately benefits instructors as well as students. Imagine having to read the same essay thirty times; that sounds monotonous and dreadful. Traditionally, we are extremely magnetized towards standardized testing. This is easily the most efficient method of assessment. But Dewey has convincingly argued that “efficiency” results in “distortion of emotional life.” We want anything but that. Projects, as tools of assessment, should be presentations of sorts. I think this ensures that assessments don’t provoke fear and anxiety at the thought of failure or incorrectness. In the words of A.S. Neill, “The [most] important fact is that they try again.”  We have succeeded as educators when a student has taken genuine interest in producing their project for assessment.

The kinds of things an admirable school would teach–the learning outcomes–would be an array of subjects all aimed at the cultivation of broad, fearless knowledge: Curiosity. Russell succinctly sums up my thoughts on the matter: “With the death of curiosity we may reckon that active intelligence, also, has died.” The three aims for learning outcomes, then, would be communication (Literature, Art, and Poetry), critical thought (Philosophy), and an eagerness to seek answers (Science). First, education should equip students with an ability to relate well with others, to speak clearly, and to listen effectively. Dewey argued quite persistently that “All communication is educative.” This is what I consider communication to be, the passing and receiving of new information. Communication and, perhaps more importantly, empathy, are cultivated best through symbolic expression: Literature, Art, and Poetry. Dewey would seem to agree with my sentiment that “much which has to be learned is stored in symbols.” Our society functions, for all intents and purposes, symbolically. Let the child be equipped to deal with that reality. Secondly, I would cultivate critical thought through philosophy. Education should bolster critical thought through lessons in reasoning, ethics, investigations into the philosophy of X, etc. This doesn’t confine the course menu only to philosophy courses, however. Many subjects can be philosophical in application, not necessarily in content alone. Critical thought means a disciplined mind, which, according to Mill, “makes our opinions consistent with themselves and with one another, and forces us to think clearly, even when it cannot make us think correctly.” We have succeeded when a student polices themselves intellectually. Finally, I would cultivate an eagerness to seek answers through science. The scientific method and its applications should be near the center of any admirable education. In Dewey’s words, “Science is the experience of becoming rational.” The sciences are the bumpers in the bowling lane of reasoning; they keep our ideas from rolling into the gutter. Russell also thought that “without science, democracy is impossible.” But we need to get clear on what we mean by science, here. Students should first learn about a scientist—their life and what they contributed—and then go about experimenting, reasoning about the ins and outs of the theory, how it has changed the world in various ways. Any effective science that will be taught, according to Russell, “requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.” Place science in the context of a narrative; tell us the story of the sciences. Above all, we, as educators, should understand that knowledge is fluid. Students should be led to realize this through their learning. And that should not dampen their persistence to get to the heart of the matter. These three learning outcomes would produce, what Russell considers, components of the “ideal character:” Vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence.

Too often is education politicized by agendas which have nothing to do with the flourishing of children. It is vital that we respect the rights of children. We should not be exclusively concerned with worldly success as the purpose of education; I think worldly success is a byproduct of teaching students how to live well. In the words of Patricia Heidenry, “Our children’s lives–not their reading scores–should be our primary concern.”