Sunday, October 7

Tulip festival - Southern Highlands of NSW 

 
We recently holidayed in the area and enjoyed Tulip Time, one of Australia's oldest and best loved floral festivals continues to grow as the region's largest event.
Corbett Gardens, the centrepiece of the Festival is mass-planted with over 75,000 tulips, 15,000 annuals and an additional 40,000 tulips planted across the Shire.
 

Wednesday, September 12

Existential Christian parallels with Buddhism

Both Buddha and Christ preached peaceful co–existence; the amelioration of suffering by application of an expanded world view for compassion- to present similarities from markedly different cultures. Christ’s Jewish heritage was rooted in the Messianic expectation for the end of the world which leads to his eschatological message, whilst Buddha’s concern was over indifference to suffering within a caste based societal system. There remain fundamental differences of substance between the two but personally, on a purely subjective note, I seek to demonstrate Christ’s sayings have a Buddhist flavour to them.
There is already evidence of a history in contemplative Catholicism which has similarities in meditative practices, but I also think there is a tentative link to the way both respond to suffering. This applies in Christianity which acknowledges a Creator GOD, just as it does in the case of Buddhism, where no such assertions apply.
Where this is evident is in the expanded compassionate response to suffering. Christ’s ‘sermon on the mount’ was to establish a pacifist society, to end the eye for eye justification and to strive for a universal forgiveness by an active expanded role for compassion. In the Buddhist tradition the release from suffering through Nirvana – by ceasing to will, is the recognizable path to enlightenment. In Christ’s account the release from suffering can best be understood by way of eschatology- to establish the spiritual kingdom for righteousness and expanded compassion. That love preached by Jesus was to be universal and to include all people, sufferers, oppressed, those sick, murderers, those found guilty or even your worst enemy. On the other hand Buddha brought to all sentient creatures that same kindness, friendliness and sympathy but without a personal involvement of heart banded to earthly things.

However, just as the “historical Jesus” scarcely exists outside of the Biblical references – except for the few fleeting historical reference - so the Buddha also is historically obscure or at least what is attributed to him remains a topic for debate by scholars. That one may have influenced the other over such a lengthy period before oral traditions were finally evidenced in writing seems a reasonable assumption.
Hence, we are limited to speculation which points to the possibility Jesus spent years of monastic contemplation- (Christ may have been a member of the Essenes) prior to a public ministry which attracted disciples and has subsequently spread throughout the world. Their first records and accounts were eventually written down by the disciples and followers, with the earliest of the synoptic gospels by way of Mark, thought to be penned about 70 years AD or about 40 + years after Christ’s death. Similarity many Buddhist traditions were orally maintained for over 400 years before any formalization took place. Buddhism may be considered a philosophy or a religion, but more so a religion in my view given what are considered to be specific sacred scriptures and doctrines.
In China philosophical Taoism has influenced Buddhism, but religious Taoism has also been transformed by Buddhism; to include rebirth/ with systems of heavens and hells. (Ching Julia – from Kung Hans, Christianity and Chinese religions. SCM Press, London 1989)
Hans Kung also talks about a kind of Taoist church with priests, monks, cults, feasts, holy water, confession, penance, fasting, legends of saints and even a Taoist Pope. Importantly for both Taoist and Christian thought the innermost essence of Tao and God remains hidden from human beings. (Kung Hans and Ching Julia. Christianity and Chinese religions. SCM Press, London 1989)
Whilst a lot is made of the idea that Buddhism does not believe in a creator GOD one can also regard Buddhism as a matter of agnosticism, such as was the case when confronted with such a question, the Buddha responded to say what we believe is unimportant, because we cannot know such things, to conclude wisely such beliefs do not lead to any form of enlightenment. Given the number of divergence of views that has plagued
monotheistic religions, inclusive of Christianity, one tends to have some empathy with the Buddha’s answer.
For example although the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree on just one GOD there is significant diversity on what this means to the individual. Amongst believers we see some as regarding their GOD as all-controlling, others want to limit those powers, whilst for many, as in an existential basis,  assume GOD does not interfere or intervene in day to day living. In a similar vein some will believe GOD has infallible knowledge of all there is and all that will occur just as there are different ideas tied up with the nature of an after – life and so the list goes on. All this tends to suggest that such questions, whilst seemingly important to some believers, are not particularly helpful in telling one how to live.      
But even on the question on the belief in GOD mystics such as Meister Eckhart, specifically reference “a nothing” to that which is indescribable. In other words where language reaches a temporary ceiling and so for Eckhart, “nothing” was one way of indicating the “Godhead”.   
Christian negative theologians and mystics, most notably Meister Eckhart, at times make use of the notion of “the nothing” to refer to that which transcends all concepts and all oppositions. For Eckhart, “nothing” (niht) was one way of indicating the “Godhead” (gōtheit) beyond “God” delimited as a personal being (see Eckehart 1963, 328). Niht here is an expression, at the limits of language, which attempts to indicate “the nothingness of indistinct fullness from which flow … all oppositions and relations” (Schürmann 1978, 168). Eckhart speaks of a breakthrough, not only beyond the ego, but also beyond God Himself, a breakthrough, that is, to an abyssal Godhead understood as “the silent desert into which no distinction ever gazed, of Father, Son, or Holy Ghost” (Eckehart 1963, 316). Analogously, Nishida writes that “when we truly enter thoroughly into the consciousness of absolute nothingness, there is neither I nor God” (NKZ V, 182; see Nishida 1958, 137). Davis, Bret W., "The Kyoto School", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/kyoto-school/>.
Hence Buddhism is being rediscovered in the west and gaining popularity as an alternative to secular materialism in philosophy or fundamentalism in religion or for those whose spirituality sits uncomfortably with the various strands of Christianity. Such an interest might seem surprising given for the most part western rationalism which is unaccustomed to discussing such subjects as emptiness, karma, release from suffering through Nirvana – by ceasing to will, illusions of the mind and the idea of death simply taking on a different form of rebirth.
But, I think one of the reasons Buddhism has gained some popularity is it seems less authoritarian and, while its rationality may be debated it does suggest a rational pathway with the stated steps to enlightenment.
However, when one examines the mystical bent of all religions and traditional ritual, richness in religious art and the vast body of canonized scripture held by both wisdom streams, I think we all read from the same hymn sheet; to listen to tunes set from fundamentally different cultures but who aspire to the same more positive existential outcomes.
 

Thursday, August 23

Malcolm Turnbull lost his grip as Prime Minister in just 48 hours


Click here to read How Malcolm Turnbull lost his grip as Prime Minister in just 48 hours.
I think part of the problem of everyday existence and politics today is their underlying “ideologies" whether conservative, liberal, or socialist, is they lack coherency. These dogmas ate argued on the basis ‘we are right, you are wrong' tag, about things that are indefinable.  In general I don’t think free-thinking individuals always fit into any system of thought. That could be the equivalent of putting on a straight-jacket.
 
Given today’s revelations we gain new insight into how the so called liberalism was at odds to conservative values and how quickly liberalism fractures on so many issues.
A more sensible approach might be tied to a social justice theme to argue policies identified with this thematic rather than being beholden to any particular ideology. In a sense an ongoing work in progress.
Another example is what sort of policy you have on power or energy must always revert back to some basic party style philosophy.
That determines who owns what and the underlying principles to regulation. Only once you have sorted that out you can then make sensible decisions on emission targets and draft an industry policy. What happened is we adopted a target bereft of an industry policy.           
 
Having such conflicting ideas in the liberal party it is a recipe for disaster. It can only work if you have a nimble leader who convinces both sides they are wrong and leads the troops to a third way, which is to be receptive to the mood of their electorate, not to be swayed by external powerful influencers. Such a tortuous position survived in the past but I’m not sure it can continue on indefinitely.

Hence I think the days of the liberal party surviving as a broad church (John Howard’s idea) to become more sympathetic to a conservative agenda is unlikely to survive unless they ditch the very idea of liberalism. Or they redefine what it means to be a liberal human being. Can anyone tell me what you think it means. Individualism seems to me to be a nonsensical idea that contradicts our history to identify with a culture that shapes and helps explain that shared existence.  
Whilst I don’t agree with conservatism as such at least they can define just a little better what they believe in as opposed to the liberals who can’t. Although we might not like it much.      
 

Thursday, August 16

Is there such a thing as a true self

Reading an article from the conversation I was struck by the last line: Deep thinkers will question whether the idea of an authentic true self passes philosophical muster. But even if it is an illusion, it may be a useful one.
That reminded me of the determinism versus free will debate. At the end of the day it makes sense to live your life as you have free will as otherwise you can’t make sense of it. But mostly I believe in determinism, but even so that rarely comes into play in my thinking or living except for the rather obvious mortality issue.
So let us say that the authentic self is illusory but even so explore the possibility it is a kind of work in progress as a human construct.   
So it’s going to vary throughout your lifelong experience and also according to what’s in one’s mind at the time.  So no absolutes are possible as it properly must be regarded as transient according to the circumstances.  
But from a personal viewpoint I find the idea of having a set of values that I might loosely associate with I think is my authentic self ( regardless of whether that is illusory ) is very useful and none more so than one is under a lot of pressure. Without wanting to give the impression from an egotistical point of view  I am a paradigm of virtue, that principle has served me well when getting rid of fraud in corporate situations when it came down to showing a bit of courage and suffering at a personal level as a consequence. Not such a big deal some might say but in a large group none the less you may finish up being the lone one willing to stand up so to speak. It happened on a number of occasions and each time it involved introspection. As best as I can think of it that means you arrive at a conclusion about yourself and what staying true to yourself really means. In other words staying true to your authentic self at the time. I think the idea of relating to one’s authentic self is very helpful. Not just for me but others, in similar positions in life, have all said the same thing.
A help to self- examination throughout life, but I hasten to add It cannot be pretentious as in publically pretending to be authentic.         

Sunday, August 12

In search of self and freedom


In this paper I want to talk more about the modern era of existentialism to expand on the work of Sartre, his long life partner Simone de Bouvier and Camus.
For Sartre, my reference is to what is considered his most important works, ‘Being and Nothingness’.   
Although influenced by Heidegger, Sartre was highly skeptical of his conclusions, but retained some elements evident in Being and Nothingness.
Being and Nothingness.  

Sartre, in his final ontology sums up what there really is; on the one hand ‘before itself’, is the conscious source of our meaning whilst on the other hand  ‘what it is’ so to speak, having no characteristics and which he calls ‘in itself”.
Therefore a world can only be meaningful as ‘before itself’ gives meaning to the ‘in itself’, similar to the Kierkegaardian idea.  

But the before itself represents pure nothingness to incorporate the Heidegger influence.  The way to describe this is just a nothingness or nullity if you will or that it has no essence. However what Sartre also posits is the ‘before itself’ by necessity, must have some kind of content and identity to live as in itself for itself. This contradiction of us constantly having to cope with the dizzy idea of nothingness, yet at the same time creating a meaning for ourselves out of this void is what Sartre illustrates starkly in the strange and dizzy images from Nausea.

But what is meant here is made much more clear.  In fact the only difference to the father of existentialism, namely Kierkegaard, is that  Sartre asserts you can’t get a defining commitment. His position is that whatever we are, is so free that we constantly redefining whatever we are. No commitment could ever be for eternity ( with GOD) or from that perspective it is necessary for us because of that nullity. But to reiterate Sartre realises we must have some kind of content and identity to live as ‘in itself’ ‘for itself’. 

The way Sartre gets around this idea of a nullity and self is in the employment of a feudal passion. So he acknowledges the self needs to have an identity, so he proposes it is this passion that fills the void (before itself) or nullity if you will, to engage in his so called life projects. So, for Sartre, we are in a constant state of commitment as per each life project, Sartre acknowledges, as does Kierkegaard, we need to get together this sense of self as otherwise we will be in state of despair.      

So that according to Sartre there is always a real risk of continually reverting to bad faith as we are covering up this frightening reality of a nullity by wanting to have some form of external influencer as in a ‘other’ to give comfort and clarity to our existence. He suggests this bad faith arises every time we place reliance on some other convention or form of authority. In other words to allow others to make choices for us based on how you ought to live. He doesn’t accept there is a narrative to our life or that to find meaning to our life we need to go back to our roots. All of that kind of thinking for Sartre is in effect bad faith.

This is a somewhat bleak assessment in keeping with his atheistic perspective. However I don’t think it is a very good argument for atheism inn existentialist philosophy. One could still adopt a theistic or agonistic perspective so long as you accepted that a cause (GOD) did not interfere or influence our freedom or to make decisions embodied in the concept of free will. Bearing that in mind his philosophy might be described as the secularised version of Kierkegaard.
However, this does not mean we escape any form or responsibility. On the contrary he posits we have that responsibility for the whole of humanity at the same time. But the question to ask is how would you determine this?

How can you acutely assess, how your decisions you are free to make impact on the rest of the world, so that their freedom is not compromised?
His solution to this ethical question was to use imagination, so that such a freedom to make choices involved a prior responsibility to imagine the effect on humanity that should not curtail the freedom of that ‘other’.

Albert Camus       
Albert Camus followed a similar idea to posit that not only does our life lack meaning, but it is absurd. Hence he introduced the philosophical question of suicide. But in answering such a question he affirmed a positive life response. Rather than contemplating suicide, his response was that the acceptance of the existential reality of absurdity one is then totally free to create our own meaning, free from any preconceived notions or idol worship. In other words to rebel passionately against that absurdity so we are free to create our own meaning and to passionately embrace each moment of life free from any preconceived notions.    

There can be no notion of values, only that of more quantity as may be gained from the more passionate experiences.  Camus does not present any substantive philosophical foundation to support his position other than to point out no firm conclusions have ever been presented on metaphysics previously.

In his book ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ is the depiction of one condemned for all eternity to pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll continually roll back to where it was before and so on. This was to emphasize the futility and pointlessness of his task. But Sisyphus is willingly to continue on in eternity happily engaged in what seems a pointless task. 

One might consider the purpose of Camus in his novel was to express the idea that confronted with the grim reality of identifying a life without meaning, we rebel against that, but can be happy in the continuing task of living, even though it must end in death.

Simmone de Beauvoir.
I will turn now to her work to talk about existentialist ethics in the context of individual freedoms and the tensions that involves with wider societal freedoms.  This tension must inevitably lead to a responsibility, which in turn leads to an ambiguity as one seeks to incorporate the notions of values to freedoms within existentialist philosophy.
Pyrrhus ET Cinemas
Although a lifelong partner to Sartre, she approached the philosophical question of ethical responsibility long before Sartre gave it more serious consideration. Her first work was Pyrrhus ET Cinemas in 1944.  
The story begins between Pyrrhus, who is an ancient king of Epirus, and his trusted advisor Cinemas. But on every occasion Pyrrhus makes known his intention to conquer many lands.   Cinemas asks him what he intends to do afterwards. Pyrrhus says that he will rest once he has achieved all of his plans. Cinemas retorts, "Why not rest right away"?

The philosophy was written in consultation with Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’. It was in accord with his idea of freedom in an objective world in relation to the conflict between being-for-itself and being-in-itself. But notice in Beauvoir's analysis we have the implied ethical consideration of other free subjects in the world.

Hence, she poses the question the external world can be seen as a destructive reality, so it is up to individuals to establish an ethical link which manifests itself via ethical action. That human bond aims to mutually express the freedom of the individual, but at the same time to encourage the freedom of fellow human beings.
However, she also asserts it may not always be passive because to remain a pacifist in every respect, regardless of the impingement on the freedom of others, is in effect bad faith.
The Ethics of Ambiguity
The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) is a continuum of the theme expressed in Pyrrhus.  Although Beauvoir adopts mostly Sartrean philosophical ideas, such as there is no predetermined human essence or value, she presents the idea our human freedom is in a parallel with the need for that freedom of others for it to be properly actualized.

In the end she suggests in order for us to live ethically we are to assume the ambiguity as a given, to accept the paradox, and that it involves the proposition as ‘bad faith’. In agonizing over different perspectives she gets around the contradiction by concluding all we can do to live authentically at the crossroads of freedom and facticity.

Further reading is recommended to anyone interested in her work but I think this is enough to get the general gist of where her work is going; that is there are no clear cut answers and that the existentialists, like all philosophy and philosophers, has inherent weaknesses. All we can do is to take responsibility for our decisions in the light of information known and in exercising our freedom in parallel to the freedom of others, which are not to be compromised.     

Wednesday, August 1

Congarinni and Patrick Byrnes



Congarinni is a small village at Nambucca, and one of its pioneers was my great, great, grandfather, Patrick Byrnes who farmed 295 acres in 1864, to later operate a general store and pub, to take advantage of stopovers to the Bellinger River.
Here is a short poem I composed about his life.
Patrick Byrnes

Before the dock, his life ending?   
The Judge his rule, was pending
In clemency to the colonies I’m sending.    
The Captain Cook sailing to a far off land,
Let go the dark and filthy holds, just dream,   
Of a new land to make your home.
 
Upon the shore, a pardon came,
To the crooked river set sail,  
To build an Inn, to farm the land, to raise a family,
Along the crooked river there was no better man.
 
For Bullock trains, a favourite spot,  
Witty tales, tasty ales, not your only lot,   
Gentlemen seeking tweeds, a quality none better,     
Along the crooked river there was no better man.
 
To the cedar kings of high country where rivers just a speck,   
To the river’s mouth a graveyard for all the dreaded wrecks,  
He was the grand innkeeper, the one where all would stay.

The story of an Irish lad, who just stole for bread and butter.  
A pioneer whose fortune was told along the crooked river.
 

Thursday, July 19

Another look at Artificial Intelligence


Of course defining artificial intelligence is important and my references in this article assume we are talking about the performance of tasks  previously only associated with human beings. Such things as visual perception, speech recognition, and complex decision-making which involves inter machine communication dependent on the adoption of a universal language.  

The more sinister view, until fairly recently confined to the realm of science fiction, is that futuristic idea artificial intelligence may exceed human intelligence. This was Hawking’s fear, which no doubt for most would be dismissed as fanciful. After all a machine can’t know itself can it?  

I’m not that pessimistic about AI yet,  nor do I necessarily subscribe to the more dire predictions. But I do think it makes for some interesting discussions.

Principally the existential dangers it poses might be summarised as follows: That is, the outcome of smarter and smarter machines to ultimately reach superhuman level of intelligence. So that, for most, except for a tiny elite few, we risk becoming entrenched in our existential mud pool due to the limited mentation of the masses. They (the superhuman machines) become the rulers and the slaves represent the masses unable to fathom their depths or compete with these super machines. Hence we surrender our existential control. What could in effect be the surrender of our freedom?  

In the 21st century in my opinion it not so much just the weapons of mass destruction (of which we are reminded) we need to fear, but more so that of likes of knowledge-enabling destructions in cyberspace. The wars that will be fought in the internet as in virtual reality. I think we underestimate the potential attacks on our democracy and the freedoms that could be held hostage under this onslaught. So the  philosophical question is, is this the existential crisis point in human existence as Hawking suggested?  Heidegger talks about being in the world and what being is as in self- reflection. But this kind of inner awareness as suggested by Heidegger could be a programmable search within a specialised language based digitised version of say trillions of downloaded thoughts. A form of computational machine consciousness might ensue. How would that work. ? So, we might direct a question in the form of a requirement or desired end result which then searches the vast data storages to come up with automated results which impact our lives. The way we operate becomes subservient to the computations of the machine whose outcomes are automatically applied throughout society. 
But based on what ethics?
Is this then the cusp of a new era of the perfection of yet another more assiduous form of evil?

Still in its infancy the early signs (confined more to do with machine learning) are not that encouraging, with some of the largest tech firms involved in stealing new technologies and unauthorised selling of private data on a large scale. This inhibits start-ups and is anti-competitive to reduce equitable outcomes. There is a litany of deceptive and unfair business practices enhanced by their flat business structures. Of course we need to separate fact from fiction and ensure accountability of tech giants. That is, in my view, already an existential problem of some magnitude or at least has the capacity to be one in the future. 

People of course, don’t want to think about it. I daresay raising such questions would be met by most seeking to dismiss it as yet another lecture from the elites. But I can’t help but think people also didn’t want to talk about existentialists warnings to society so long ago and which were largely ignored to our detriment.   
But as philosophers we also need to talk about the joys involved. The other side of the argument with some wonderful outcomes for humanity. Such is the nature of our continued existence

Wednesday, July 11

A Philosophers Guide to The Crying Game


Synopsis
IRA member Fergus bonds with Jody, who is a British soldier in their   custody, despite the warnings of cohorts Jude and Maguire. Jody makes Fergus promise, should he be executed, he'll visit his girlfriend, Dil in London. When Fergus flees to the city, he seeks her out. Hounded by threats of retribution by former IRA colleagues, he finds himself now in love with her, only to be shattered by the truth. The violent ending is reminiscent of the fabled ending to the frog and the scorpion; a lack of regard to the nature of things and in revealing that truth.   
 
The Crying Game story and its themes.
The Crying Game is a meditation on issues facing society and has layered levels of existential themes ripe for discussions. An action packed beginning portrays the betrayal of a local soldier Jordan, seduced by the IRA member Jude, who is then scurried away, to be held captive to be exchanged for the release of one of their members held in custody. Fergus is the far less militant member, and has the task of standing guard over the hooded prisoner Jordan in their hideout. He is totally different to cohorts Jude and Maguire. There are limits to how far he will go to achieve the revolutionary aims which are played out in the film.
Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion.
Jordan introduces the story of the frog and the scorpion to Fergus. The scorpion hitches a ride on the back of the frog to cross the flooded stream on the basis the scorpion tells him he will not sting the frog as both will then drown and perish.
But the scorpion cannot help himself, so he stings the frog halfway across and the frog asks the scorpion why he has stung him as both will now perish. The scorpion replies it is in his nature.  He cannot help it.
One might say the frog is to blame because it was known it is in the nature of a scorpion to always sting those in close quarters. But what of the Scorpion ?, The answer to the fable is the Scorpion says it is in its nature to sting, so that one might think it is not his fault. But as the scorpion said it is in his nature to sting and he cannot help himself, surely he also was at fault because he was untruthful in saying he would not sting the Frog. Even so the disaster was not because he did not tell the truth, but rather the frog relying on the scorpion when he knew it was in his nature to sting. This is one of the underlying themes to the film.
An unlikely Bond.
Jordan convinces Fergus to take off his hood, complaining he cannot breathe, to which Fergus agrees, after conferring with the other terrorists.  Already we see the essential essence of Fergus, who feels for his prisoner’s discomfort, to ignore the consequences of possibly being identified later.
A deep relationship is then established between the two who talk about common interests in life, cricket and the like, whose images then recur throughout the film. Fergus agrees (taking Jordon’s photo) to tell his sweetheart Dil, he is thinking about her in this dark moment in time, if he was to subsequently loose his life.
The is in stark contrast to the other members of the group who become worried Fergus may lose his commitment to the IRA cause, for in the morning he will probably have to execute Jordan. They shield themselves from the emotional impact of what they are doing with the hooded face and by treating the personage of Jordan as a disposable object subservient to their unlimited commitment to the IRA clause.
However Jude is well aware of the nature of Fergus. But where Jude goes off course is in thinking she will be able to sway Fergus into adopting her way of thinking where there are no limits to her commitment to the cause.  
In the morning Fergus takes Jordan out to be executed, but he runs ahead knowing that it is not in Fergus’s nature to shoot him in the back. The ensuing result is Jordan is killed as he runs in front of an oncoming army vehicle and the two central IRA members escape as their hideout is discovered and bombed. 
 
Relationship with Dil
Fergus flees the scene and in due course makes contact with Dil  to whom he finds himself both romantically inclined and at another level her protector. So, just as Jordan was, so now he feels that responsibility and his feelings are reinforced by the prior shared images that flash before his eyes. But the love he feels is subject to a dramatic end in an explosion of shock and horror when he realises Jill is in fact a man. This raises all sorts of questions about love and how we relate to that from an existential basis. At the very least it provides ample room for discussion on both the physical and mental aspects of both and how it plays out in societal attitudes. 
Fergus finds an uneasy way through the relationship just as his two cohorts from the IRA  again make contact and force him to agree to execute a judge as otherwise they will seek retribution.
Fergus has told Dil about his past association and she becomes aware of the plan and ties him to his bed. In the closing scenes Maguire guns down the judge, but is killed in the cross fire with police. Jude, on returning to the flat is killed by Dil but Fergus takes the wrap and is sentenced to prison. The film closes with Dil visiting Fergus in prison.
Conclusion
This evocative film shows the Satrean idea that our lives (essence) are the product of our life choices, and, during this time there are endless transformational possibilities.
The different layers to this complex film take one into a brief foray of racial issues to the political (IRA versus English) to pose many existential questions. There is ample opportunity to discuss these existential themes outside of the usual black and white categories, the physical and mental aspects to love and the fable of the frog and the scorpion.  

Saturday, July 7

A phlosophers guide to 'It’s a Wonderful life'


Frank Capra’s film has become a warm favourite firmly ensconced in western pop culture. But on further analysis one finds any number of implicit philosophical existential themes.
 
Synopsis     
We are introduced to the likable protagonist, George Bailey, who as young boy rescues a younger brother from drowning. George outlines his future dreams which are thwarted by a series of obstacles which see him opting to make choices always in the best interest of the citizens of Bedford Falls. His choices prevent the ruthless slum landlord and hard nosed banker, Potter, from gaining control of the local Building and Loan firm. George has to give up his grand plans to see the world to run the firm, after his father has a stroke, to wrestle control away from the acquisitive desires of Potter. So that the condition of the board to back George is contingent on George staying on to run the firm.  Subsequently he faces a series of hurdles that culminate in the climax to the film as George experiences deep feelings of despair. Contemplating jumping from a bridge to end his life, Clarence, an angelic figure, yet to earn his wings, appears on the scene. He knows if he jumps into the water George’s good nature will prompt him to follow and attempt to save him. So the two end up in the water and Clarence later listens to George as he despairingly says he wishes he never would have been born. Clarence grants him his wish and shows him all that would happen in what has become of his renamed town now called Portersville in his absence. George realises the shocking results in his absence. That contrasts with all of the positive effects his choices have made and finally shouts in jubilation. I am alive. I want to live! I want to live! as the film ends on this high note     
Analysis of existential themes
George’s future aspirations
 I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know . . . and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long . . .
 
But Georg’s plans are thwarted as he rushes in to prevent a proposal by Potter to take over the firm following his father’s stroke which will end the more generous policies to the folk at Bedford falls.
Although George wins out it is conditional on George staying on and to run the firm. With a heavy heart George reluctantly agrees and gives the money he has saved for college, to his brother Harry.
Here we have an example of what Jean Paul Satre meant when he talked about experiencing anguish. George feels compelled to be true to himself and the citizens of Bedford Falls, so he must accept that responsibility. We can also draw a parallel to the story of Abraham referenced by Satre and Soren Kierkegaard. Both conclude Abraham must choose on the basis Abraham is the law maker for both himself but also for all of his people, to whom he feels a deep responsibility.
 
Subsequently, in the film there is a run on the firm just as George is about to set off on a honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary. Potter offers 50 cents in the dollar to shareholders of the firm to take it over.  George uses the $2000 saved for his honeymoon to partly satisfy some clients and quell the fears of the angry mob.  
You’re thinking about this place all wrong, as if I have the money back in the safe. The money’s not here. Well, your money’s in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours. And the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Maitlin’s house, and a hundred others. You’re lending them the money to build, and then they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can…. Now, listen to me, I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets a hold of this Building and Loan Company , there will never be another decent house built in this town…. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten, what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed, remember last year, when things weren’t going so well, you couldn’t make your payments? Well, you didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would’ve let you keep it? Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Potter isn’t selling, he’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not…. Now, we can get through this thing all right; we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
Whilst George is again successful in turning the tide against Potter he nevertheless laments the decision. He realises Mary has left and their honeymoon money is gone. He also would have liked to have given all of the money owed to the people of Bedford Falls but that is outside of his control. This illustrates Sartre’s point about our freedom and the angst that comes with it in the decisions we are free to make. For this is not something human beings relish as we prefer stability, and only seek out that freedom when we feel it is comfortable to do so. So Satre talks about how people search for strategies that avoid the inevitable anguish of freedom experienced by George deciding to remain true to his authentic self and to continue to have a deep responsibility to the citizens of Bedford Falls.
A further scene occurs on Christmas Eve which gives rise to a feeling of despair. This is the films climax as citizens welcome home George’s brother. Harry was a heroic fighter pilot who saved a troop transport by gunning down a Bomber. But meanwhile a crisis is looming since Uncle Billy absentmindedly mislays $8000 to be banked.
George, in desperation, asks Potter for a loan, but he refuses.
But Potter discovers George has a life insurance policy.
“Why, George, you’re worth more dead than alive!”
The chilling moment of despair is depicted in the scene on the bridge as George thinks about jumping into the raging water below.
At that very moment, guardian angel Clarence Odd body appears and jumps into the river knowing George’s good nature means he will try to rescue him.
George carries out the rescue and learns Clarence is really a second class wingless angel sent to help him and in the process also earns his wings.
Then George tells Clarence he is wasting his time since he wishes he’d never been born.
This inspires Clarence to grant George his wish. George then gets a guided tour of Pottersville (what Bedford Falls has become) in his absence and sees all of the shocking outcomes first hand.     
George then begs Clarence to give him back his life and in the emotive scenes that follow he jubilantly returns prepared to embrace life, good or bad, with a new sense of gusto. On returning home he is astonished to find the townsfolk have raised the money he needed. The film depicts George as finally believing he has indeed a wonderful life.
 
In these later scenes we can see how George struggles for life affirmation as in Nietzsche’s questioning of the state of the spirit.
Rather obviously George in his statement that he wishes he was never having been born is lacking in spirit. But the intervention by Clarence, convinces George he should return from whence he wished to exit. So that George wants to return to life and accept the good with the bad. This is in accord with Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ so that we return to the same state that preceded all of our life experiences. In a life to be lived to the fullest, in life affirmation that gives us that zest for life. ‘Whatever cannot kill me can only make me stronger.’     
  
So this the film is not just very popular western pop culture but rather one that gives graphic support to the ideas of those existential philosophers we seek to understand.

Wednesday, June 27

An introduction to the existentialists

What is Existentialism?
Existentialism is a philosophical movement of like-minded philosophers, principally of the modern era. It arose from early fundamental roots in the 19th century and its s popularity peaked after World War 2 to a worn torn audience searching for existential meaning.  The philosophical underpinnings are based on the idea we must face the brutal reality we are all trapped to some degree in a meaningless world of which we can only create our own personal meaning from the decisions we take and the subsequent actions undertaken

Although it influenced contemporary philosophy its impact was more pronounced in culture and in the arts. Its exponent, Jean Paul Sartre, for instance, summed the position in his novel entitled ‘Nausea’; to face that bleak existential position but relish the freedom to undertake the choices before us. 

Early Roots 
Soren Kierkegaard (1813- 18550 was a theologian and philosopher who rallied against rationality in religion and philosophy. He categorized the types of life decisions we face as religious, aesthetical and ethical. He posited each required different responses. and suggested a form of desired enlightenment, when knowledge was lacking. He held the view the single individual is higher than the universal.

This was a radical departure from the accepted orthodoxy and state based church dogma at the time. 

He talks about the paradox of Abraham, as Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard contends this was not a command that he could obey, but nor can one lay down the law to others as to how to act in complex matters that involve difficult choices where there is a lack of knowledge. Rather one can only individually have a desire to make an enlightened choice in faith. This involves a leap in faith that is necessary in an irrational world to figure out what to do and to face the consequences of such decisions.

Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900), followed on from Kierkegaard ideas to warn against the dangers of entrapment to revert to abstract values which risked descent into nihilism. 

Nietzsche rejected much of the orthodoxy at the time and is best known for coining the term ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche did not mean this in a literal sense, but rather pointed to a world he regarded as over reliant on religion as a moral compass and as a source of meaning. Nietzsche sought to find a way to live life to the fullest and in the process saw fit to take away the idea of divine sanction which he believed was life denying and could, in effect, lead ultimately to nihilism.

Nietzsche’s view, at that time, was that state power and money underlined a state of stupidity, so that he saw himself as a man in the mold of Goethe, having the courage to suffer for the sake of the truth as he perceived it. He did not suggest a political point of view but rather believed his philosophy underpinned noble leadership, so that became sufficient in itself to ensure a happier and superior moral system of governance.

He was not against organized Religion, maintaining it could be of comfort for the masses. His concern was for its application as bad faith, predicated on false notions that bad health arose from sin. He also thought religion tied its followers to a slave mentality, to enslave the followers to mediocrity and meekness, which ultimately could lead to nihilism. In other words the abstract values of a perceived GOD, born of jealously or envy, confirmed in meekness and in mediocrity, were in essence simply the shadows of a poet’s imagery which could lead (if taken literally) to unintended bad consequences. 

Culture to Nietzsche was the means of aspiring to the higher self, which is a spiritual dimension quite separate to the instinctive forces, but arises from self-enlightenment in the service of the will, to give rise to the new metaphors of life. This is not, however, as most people view "spirituality”, Nietzsche relates spirituality more as a self-realization, as in a ‘’love of fate‘’ to live for the moment, to grasping life with gusto as in life affirmation, regardless of one’s physical condition. However I think Nietzsche’s idea of a love of fate may go against the later existentialist’s views on freedom.

Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche summarized these ideas or insights in a systematic way, but nevertheless remain firmly ensconced in most philosophical papers as the principal precursors to the 20th century existentialists

The 20th century existentialists
The philosophers of the likes of Heidegger Satre and Camus were humanistic and who wanted to engage meaningfully with the contemporary issues that confronted society.

It has to be noted however Heidegger‘s works are not readily associated with existentialism, but rather some of his thinking might be loosely associated with the movement.
Its principal exponent Paul Satre had served in the French Resistance and after the war he was immensely popular and formed a key contributor to the movement. He was the first use of the term and posited that we come into this world, without any consent and it is up to the individual to create one’s meaningful life. Sartre also championed the idea, ‘existence precedes essence’.  He explained this idea by confirming it is only objects where essence precedes existence. An example is by way of a chair.  Now we know one decides to build a chair to a certain specification so that the idea of the chair is in effect the prior essence before it is built. Rather obviously it comes into existence once it is constructed whereas our essence (humanity if you will) is the product of our existence dependent on the choices we make.   

Others such as Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus followed on to present a humanistic and socialistic approach to a world thirsty for answers. They jettisoned the prior ideas of specialization inclusive of even philosophical categorization itself.  Those war ravaged audiences relished the opportunity to consider radical alternative, to a way of thinking that had them despairing of a vile past bathed in the recent blood of war. It is hardly surprising such fresh new ideas of freedom, would be taken up with gusto to the extent they attracted a cult following amongst a substantial section the European youth and intelligencer.     

But the far greater appeal however was to come from their Novels and plays which give insights to the existential way of thinking.

Although Sartre was an avid atheist the idea of Existentialism does not mean the movement was confined to humanism. For instance Gabriel Marcel, posited from the Christian perspective matters of doctrine were to be derived from human experience and not from an abstract eternal essence. 
As the existentialists work became known its ideas were adopted in art by painters such as Jackson Pollock and filmmakers Ingmar Bergman who linked their work to existential themes. By the 1970s such existential themes were also adopted in the numerous books and films by Woody Allen