Posts Tagged With: philosophy

The square root of love

The universe is expanding but are we getting any wiser?

The universe is expanding…but are we getting any wiser?

In class this week we looked at some big, existential questions: What happens when I die? Is there a God and if so, what is she/he/it like? Einstein said that if there is a God, he must be a mathematician. I suppose God would have to be quite a lot of things, besides being good at maths, in order to comprehend fully what goes on down here on planet earth. When I was a child I imagined God as a big bloke in a boiler suit, but I suppose that was just a childish fantasy. Now my imagination goes a bit further.

I Sing the Body Electric! Poetic prophet Walt Whitman

I Sing the Body Electric! Poetic prophet Walt Whitman

I still think God must be pretty massive whatever it is. I don’t think he’s overweight because I doubt he actually eats anything. I suppose he isn’t male or female, though he might be both at the same time. One day I would really like to thank him/her/it for inventing all kinds of stuff, not just maths. The sky and the ocean, for a start. Stereo and vinyl, of course. But also real ale and romantic love and avocados and poetry and jazz. I suppose if he is even slightly human he must love children and Bradford City FC and battered haddock and papaya. I expect he adores Walt Whitman and Jeanette Winterson, Thelonius Monk and Sandy Denny. His favourite subjects are probably music, philosophy and nature studies, though I’m not sure about PE.

Of course, thinking about it, there must be quite a few things that get on his nerves. I expect he hates bullies and money and drivers who push in the queue. Anybody who gets above themselves in general, really – the vain and conceited and corrupt. I expect he invented the phrase, ‘You can’t take it with you when you go!’ Exactly, I say. He is brilliant at languages, obviously, as he understands everybody who tries to send him a message. He’s probably mates with Father Christmas, too, though I guess he doesn’t like hospitals because they make him sad.

Dinner to die for - stout and battered haddock

Dinner to die for – stout and battered haddock

I sometimes wonder if he’s Swedish or Alaskan, English or Brazilian. I suppose it’s possible that he comes from Yorkshire originally, though I doubt he’s been back there for a while. In fact, he must be way too big to have any nationality; that would explain why he hates our petty earth squabbles. When I think about it, he must be sad most of the time: sad about needless violence and killing, the way so many people die tragically, though death may be beautiful after the fact, for all we know.

If I’m honest, I see God as a huge, powerful force. If you imagine the expanding universe and infinity and eternity all powered by LOVE, you may get the sense of what I mean. Neither intolerant nor judgemental, God is kindness personified – a giant, transcendental loving hug.

Mars bars and Frank Zappa? Somebody's idea of heaven...

Mars bars and Frank Zappa? Somebody’s idea of heaven…

A colleague of mine once told me about a mate of his who had found a kind of heaven here on earth. This guy’s paradise could be reached by sitting on his comfy sofa listening to a Frank Zappa LP played loud, with a novel on his lap, a cup of strong tea at hand and a Mars bar to dunk into it. I instantly identified with this image, though it wouldn’t quite work for me.

Give us a kiss! Whoever invented Romantic Love was a genius

Give us a kiss! Whoever invented Romantic Love was a genius

No, heaven for me would involve some time travel. I would wake up in my flat in Bradford in 1977 looking exactly like I did then (well, maybe a bit taller and with a few more muscles). The big difference is that I would have my 2015 brain inside my head: I would be wiser. Then everything would happen just as it used to, except that I would be kinder, more patient, more appreciative of everything around me, more alive. All those dumb decisions and stupid mistakes would be avoided. Most importantly, I suppose, I would try so much harder to give a little bit of love to those around me…in the way that I suppose God must do in his wisdom.

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Backing into the future…

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light...then you wake up!

The past meets the present and the future in a big flash of light…then you wake up!

The Greeks had enormous respect for the past. It was from the past that they learned how to live. They didn’t “look to the future” (to quote Slade in their perennial classic song Merry Christmas Everybody). I’m not sure I could “look to the future” even if I wanted to, unless I had some LSD and a very large crystal ball. No, history was the oracle for the Greeks – their guiding light. It was as if they stood staring into the past with their backs to the future. Not a bad position to be in.

Come to think of it, there is no future to look into. Neither is there any present moment, as that keeps slipping away – like trying to catch a butterfly in an imaginary net. We live on shifting sands; the ground beneath us is forever collapsing just at the moment when another floor replaces it, or tries to. Of course, the most scary thing is that the past is also nebulous. It isn’t solid or knowable. History only “exists” in the millions of versions we have of it. Stories of the past.

John Gray, former professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, takes things a step further. He claims that “progress” is a myth. The idea that the world and our lives within it are always getting better is just not tenable. For a start, capitalism isn’t a philanthropic system; it’s designed to make a profit. No progress, no future, no past: what are we left with? Surely we can at least look forward to living like an angel in heaven (if you have behaved yourself, of course)? Sorry, but no – heaven and hell are also mythical places.

OK, so if life has no meaning and we are not going anywhere what is the point? What are we supposed to do? Well, we always have our families to fall back on, don’t we? Surely a loving family counts for something? Erm, actually, the thing is, the nuclear family is a very conservative and inward-looking institution. “My family” is always more important than “your family” and my kids are always more valuable than yours. It’s another version of dog eat dog. We have lost any sense of community. We don’t get the chance to love and cherish our neighbour’s children; we can only focus on our own.

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

Life is meaningless, so you might as well flip your wig!

So what am I getting at? If everything is meaningless I might as well do what the hell I feel like, n’ est ce pas? Just have fun, throw my wig up in the air and kiss a nun! No, that won’t work because not everybody else has realised that life is absurd. People still think there is a point to life: retirement, perhaps, or the joy of telling stories to your grandchildren, tending the garden, and drinking chardonnay at lunchtime on a weekday. Actually I have some ideas of my own on how to conduct your life in a meaningless universe.

1) For crying out loud, go and tell the wife of your best friend that you have always fancied the pants off her and would give your hind teeth to have a little snog with her under the mistletoe! What have you got to lose?

2) Go and tell your boss to stick his job where the sun doesn’t shine! You have always wanted to just chuck a bag on your back and scoot off around the world, picking fruit, sleeping under the stars, living on cheese and wine and writing poems. You know you owe yourself a big adventure.

3) Become an alcoholic. Hang on a minute: the alcoholic I am advocating doesn’t drink. Yes, you heard me right. My kind of alky only behaves like someone who’s had a couple to freshen up. Always has a big smile, full of fun, gregarious, up for it. Natural effervescence.

My idea of backing into the future is surreal but incredibly life-enhancing. It goes like this: imagine you are repeating exactly the life you have already lived. You are playing the lead role in a movie of your life. You know all the moves, you’ve done them already. You made mistakes last time, so you won’t make them again. You didn’t do a lot of stuff last time because you were scared, embarrassed, cowardly. Now you don’t give a damn what people think. You have nothing to lose – nothing at all.

The inimicable Slade: "Look to the future now, it's only just begun..."

The inimitable Slade: “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun…”

So, act like a rock star, think like a poet and love like a god. Or, to put it another way, when in Rome, do as the Greeks!

Categories: Books and Writers, Great Minds, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A streak of Danish passion

Who is the most important person in the world? You, of course. But your life is like a child’s adventure through a giant forest with hundreds of different pathways. Every day you have to decide which one to take. If only you had a guide to help you, someone who could answer your doubts and fears. Sometimes you feel so alone.

One dashing young man strolling around Copenhagen nearly 200 years ago would have sympathised greatly with your existential dilemma. He would have sat you down and explained that he had the same feelings and had come to the conclusion that there were no logical answers. He would have told you to rejoice in the fact that you are a unique individual. Then he would have revealed his great passion.

Like many brilliant thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard was destined for a life in the church. His brooding father, a pious Lutheran, expected nothing less from his youngest son. But by the age of 21, Soren’s mother and five of his seven siblings were dead. His father believed it was divine punishment for his own sinful past. His son reacted by swapping his bible for nights of drinking with his university chums.

Then arrived the moment of great enlightenment. Having read, understood and refuted even the most challenging philosophical works he could lay his hands on, Kierkegaard realised the only way to be truly free in an absurd world was through passion. Not a breathless passion for your landlady or next-door neighbour, however. A very personal religious passion that is yours alone. Yes there is a divine being at the helm of the universe, but you won’t find him by crouching on your knees in church. You need a leap of faith, or, if you’ll forgive the quip, to let your karma run over your dogma.

Kierkegaard described his childhood as “insane” and found it difficult to form relationships with women (he did propose once but then spent a year in mental anguish about it). But despite his obvious emotional insecurities, he remained remarkably cheerful and his journals are laced with humour. He is one of the very few philosophers who writes like a novelist, with characters and scenarios to illustrate his ideas.

Kierkegaard’s abiding message, perhaps, is to “come down from the clouds”. The divine is not something we have to strive daily to reach or attain. It’s within ourselves; unlock it and you will set yourself free.

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Dreaming with your eyes open

“No man is an island”, wrote the 17th century English poet, John Donne, “each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. We are all one. It is a seductive idea that needs a leap of the imagination. Bodies and souls, heaven and earth, plants and planets all linked together in a universal whole that is travelling through time. One world.

One young man who had the courage to think in this way while everybody around him frowned and cursed was Benedict de Spinoza. In 1653, at the age of 20, he was thrown out of the church and vilified for his radical beliefs. But a true genius isn’t afraid of the establishment. He feels sorry for people who are trapped by their narrow doctrines and follow each other like sheep.

Spinoza had a profound vision of the universe as an abundant life-force that must be seen as a whole. He referred to this universal reality as Nature or God, but in essence it was the same thing. The young scholar upset his family and his elders by not becoming a Rabbi and instead made a living as a humble lens grinder in Amsterdam. But his passion was to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and make sense of it through his writings.

What most shocked people at the time was the idea that humans were not individuals with free will and therefore shouldn’t be judged for their actions. Spinoza described people who believed they were free as “dreaming with their eyes open”. It follows that notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ had no place in the Dutchman’s conception of the universe.

But Spinoza’s grand ethical system doesn’t necessarily mean we have no control over our destiny. The joy of being alive comes to us when we are able to rise above our day-to-day doubts and anxieties and see ourselves as a tiny part of an infinite, expanding, beneficent universe.

Spinoza’s books were burned in public during his lifetime and his most radical ideas were deemed too dangerous to publish until after his death. His story is one of bravery and enlightenment, of someone bold enough to open his mind to the vastness of space and time. He is said to have died calmly; I imagine he had a smile on his face.

Here’s another English poet – the Romantic visionary William Blake: “To see the world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour”.

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