Sunday, February 20, 2005

Just a thought ...

“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared, “is not worth living.” How would he have known? It’s hard to imagine Socrates ever leading an unexamined life. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that anyone does, given that we are, by nature, reflective creatures. But even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that there are people who go through life just experiencing things and not reflecting on them at all, what’s the big deal? A good meal is still a tasty repast whether we reflect upon its flavors or not. A gorgeous sunset is no less beautiful if we simply watch it fade gloriously away. The value of such things derives from the things themselves, not from our examination of them. Reflection upon our experiences may enrich our lives, but an absence of such reflection hardly impoverishes them.

10 comments:

  1. I like to think that what Socrates meant was to observe our lives. Experience the events of our lives from a place that is free of our conditioned cognitive self. He challanged us to be purely objective observers of ourselves. In this objective observation we develop a new quality of life. It's the ultimate manifestation of freedom.

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  2. I like to think that what Socrates meant was to observe our lives. Experience the events of our lives from a place that is free of our conditioned cognitive self. He challanged us to be purely objective observers of ourselves. In this objective observation we develop a new quality of life. It's the ultimate manifestation of freedom.

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  3. If we don't watch the sunset and don't reflect to ourselves, "Wow, this is glorious," but rather continue driving -- I mean inching -- along the freeway that is jammed up with traffic, staring straight ahead at the rear bumper of the car in front of us, then how are we to know the sunset is glorious? In fact if I ask one of my colleagues, "Was the sunset yesterday evening glorious or not?" - would they even know? Likely they would say, "I didn't see the sunset." However, I drove home staring up at the sky in awe.

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  4. Both interesting points. Which is why I raised the question. So let's pursue it a bit further. Does the act of observation necessarily include an act of reflection? Can one simply be aware of an experience and enjoy it without having to reflect upon it?
    I'm an incurable observer myself. But one of the values observation has for me is that it distances me from the event ever so much and keeps me from being overwhelmed by it. A few years ago I was in the hospital with major complications after minor surgery. I was completely unprepared for it psychologically, having never before been seriously unwell. Observing the details of my predicament helped me to cope with it. So: Can reflection place a sort of scrim between oneself and one's experiences

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  5. An intelligent man observes from within his intellect. Though the intellect may be a vast universe of knowledge and understanding, it is somewhat weighted by past experience and personal bias. A wise man's observation is from a place that is free from but aware of the intellect. From this place of pure observation he can experience the truth, beauty and greatness of the world.

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  6. Actually, I suppose that we should trust in the ideas of Aristotle on this matter. In Chapter 10 of Ethics he states that contemplation is an activity that is not dependent on an outside force. A prosecutor or a legislator might be interested in issues of equity and justice but these matters are linked to social interaction and involvement with others. Contemplation in intellectual activities, however, is linked to no one. As this was not dependent on the vicissitudes of a changing world and mutable creatures but an inside source that can gain pleasure alone Aristotle saw this as the highest attribute--higher even than virtue (the legislator and the prosecutor would be attempting virtuous acts). He also stated that God was a being whose actions were that of contemplation and the more contemplative we become the happier we will be, as God is. He did recognize that we were social creatures and no one can gain happiness in a cloistered existence. Regarding Socrates, most of what we know of him comes from Plato and his imaginative version of Socrates. I imagine that we see more of Plato in those lines than we do Socrates. In the Symposium Plato has Socrates lost in his own train of thought and standing for long periods in the yards of various neighbors before finally stumbling into the home of the dinner and party guests. Both Aristotle and Plato believed that the philosophical and contemplative attribute was the first degree of the soul--the most essential part of man. We may be reflective creatures but few are reflective to this degree

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  7. What is it to observe?

    1) To take that step back-- or go up a level and look down -- much depends on it:
    Humour, for a start!
    Also, abstraction, making the specific general.

    2) Introspection -- that has such a boring ring if any ring at all -- still, examining your life could be that.

    3) As I think Felicia is saying, and the most delightful observing is simply the famous point made by W. H. Davies:

    Leisure

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare?—

    No time to stand beneath the boughs,
    And stare as long as sheep and cows:

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

    No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance:

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began?

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    W.H. Davies
    ----

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  8. I see that the contemplation that Poetinasia makes reference to, the observation that I spoke of and the awareness that Frank refers to are all the same experience. This place from which we observe; this experience is what connects us all. It transcends the limitations of our intellect. What makes Aristotle, Plato or anyone great is their connection to and awareness of this place and its subsequent manifestation in everyday life.

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  9. I think Jason has hit on what is a key distinction: between what I'll call cogitation, on the one hand, and contemplation on the other. Awareness of what we are experiencing seems essential to a fully human appreciation of it. But an intellectual analysis is not (nothing wrong with analysis; it's just not always necessary or pertinent). I confess to my Thomistic influences: I think that to be is to act; even contemplation is an act, though an interior one. The appeal of Zen, I think, has to do with the spontaneous fusion of awareness and act. I think also that that is what Poetinasia and Aisha and Felicia are getting at as well.
    Aquinas believed that the intellect is an active faculty that grasps the form of the thing known and makes it a part of the knower. In fact, he says somewhere that the knower and the known are one. This bears a striking resemblance to the Vedantist notion of tat tvam asi.

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  10. Yes, "tat tvam asi." Or I am that! in Sanskrit. The contemplation, the joy, does not occur outside oneself, even though the stimulus may come from there. When one sees a dear old friend again and embraces, where does one feel the joy? In the other? No, inside themselves, the source of all joy is there. As above, so below. Macrocosm and microcosm. So it is important to observe, to reflect, to think, to sense, but the effect of this endeavor bears fruit in our individual souls.

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