Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘The Examined Life’

Existential Origins

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on August 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Socrates famously declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Twenty-five hundred years later Albert Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with the assertion that, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Cynically, one might ask if Socrates, by drinking the hemlock–the death sentence imposed by the state, rather than arguing for clemency–presaged Camus’s existential challenge? Might he have failed in the examined life he sought? We know the factors leading up to his sentence. And we recognize the virtue–as he defined it, arete, an informed moral knowledge that sees with clarity–motivating the course he took. Yet, they are curious bookend observations.

I am again reminded of Camus’s notebook fragment: “…That wild longing for clarity.”

What do I know?

In Books, Family, Life, Literature, Memoir, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on May 21, 2010 at 5:45 am

I am not a philosopher, not a historian, nor properly trained intellectual. I am a middle-aged man who has read widely, traveled widely, raised a family, started, ran and sold a business, sustained a three decades-long-and-counting marriage, escaped major illness and loss, loved dogs, privacy and leisure. I have no special training, no unique abilities. I have struggled through life like everyone else who has inherited no family wealth, no special calling, no unique talent. I have a good head on my shoulders and I have endeavored to make it better. A constant goal has been to find the world more interesting than I fear it truly is. This requires an approach that is at once creative without fancy, pragmatic without rigidity, fun without folly. In the main, I have struggled to mold a life that, at any time, should it end abruptly, I could in those waning moments of consciousness, reflect that it–my life–has indeed been full and well-lived. Life has not always been an engaging endeavor, but even when it wasn’t, even when its veneer was found dull and common, I believed that in some fashion, if I searched thoroughly enough, dug sufficiently deep, I would realize it to be more than it appeared at first blush. This motive for a life of substance has not been a random nor cursory adventure. It has been orchestrated. I drew it, as best I was able, specific to the canvas of my life, idiosyncratic and tailor-made.  As Montaigne asked, What do I know? I have attempted to know myself. That was the admonition of the Greeks and it still retains a profound timeliness. I have taken it to heart. Ultimately, it is all I have.

The Limit of Anything is not a Natural Place

In Books, Reading, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I’m told the key to writing a good blog is to know a subject and stick to it. A blog should be focused and appeal to an audience interested in the subject. Well, that’s two strikes against me.

What am I doing here–here being the blog (although “here” being life is also under consideration)–and why am I doing it? I’ve been toying with these questions. It’s my way of sorting things out, toying with them. I go to other blogs and they are about something. Politics, culture, travel, finance, and so on. I have nothing so sexy going for me as all that. This blog is about me writing about me. That is, recursively–it’s about writing (not the explicit discussion of, but the practice), and the reading behind the writing. Secondly, and thoroughly intertwined, it’s about a life, my life. Together they make something of which I am unsure. I am the student of that something, trying to be more sure.

On the writing side of the quest–and it is a quest–I have been enamored with the idea of writing fiction, the novel specifically, all my life. Being enamored of a thing does not make it so. Despite attempting to train for the long haul, as Hemingway admonished, I have no endurance. If a gene for genre exists, mine would be inherited from Montaigne, albeit in such a diluted form as hardly perceptible. I am an essayist. And to make matters worse, in this day and age of the navel-gazing memoirist, I, if pushed for a confession, am most guilty of committing the crime of the personal essay. There, I said it and feel better for it.

The reading behind the writing is found throughout the postings here. I’ve said it elsewhere, I am–and have been–a lot of things over the years. The one thing that remains, and steadily so, is me the reader.

If this were simple math, the denominator in this quest fraction, is my life. Can I understand it better? How? Here’s the framework I like to use: Socrates’s admonition: The unexamined life is not worth living. He did not  say, Answer the question of life; rather question it, examine it. He didn’t say, Develop a flow chart,  or create a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. He exhorted, simply: Examine life. Accept nothing less than an adequate account. It is an open and expansive thought. Contrariwise, it is drilled into us from childhood, seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

Often, for me, to examine is simply to be awake to life. If nature instills a sense of wonder, it is a function of examination to be aware of wonderment. Just as often, the notion of the examined life is less effortless and more grinding, a struggle to be more authentic. Authenticity is, in my math, the result of life multiplied by examination. Authenticity is the anthesis of complexity, I think, and is, as Sartre, said, at the limits of language. That is the grind. The limit of anything is not a natural place.

So, back to where I started, the nature of this blog. To summarize, it–the blog, “…the house…“–is the notebook in which I work out my quest to examine a life wishing to be authentic. My tools are ancient and simple: the words I cobble together.

What now?

“What I really wanted was every kind of life…”

In Life, Literature, Photography, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writing on April 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Susan Sontag first thought she was going to be something other than what she became. When she was about six she read a biography of Madame Curie, written by her daughter Eve Curie. “…at first I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then for a long time, most of my childhood, I wanted to be a physician. But literature swamped me. What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.”

I find this interesting, particularly in light of a book I’m reading, Wisdom, Philosophy to Neuroscience, by Stephen Hall. I’ll save my thoughts about the book for later, but want to pass along one idea specifically. In a chapter titled, Dealing with uncertainty, Hall writes of a scientific paper, which in essence, he says, is “about balance.” He continues: “It describes how people neurologically weigh the relative merit of sticking with a behavioral strategy or changing” in a non-stationary environment. It all boils down simply to this: “At a party, in a marriage, at a job, in a stock fund, the question is always the same: Should I stay or should I go?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. It is a simple idea: A theory of decision-making which asks, Do I stay or do I go? (It’s tied deeply to the evolutionary notion of fight or flee, obviously.) Sontag understood early to move on, answering the question do I go? (In her case go from scientist to writer.) For most of us, however, Should I stay or should I go, is never so obvious or so amplified. That makes it all the trickier.

I keep getting drawn back to this question of how to live a life. I can’t think of an example of a decision which cannot be answered by asking Should I stay or should I go? I’m sure it’s out there, but I can’t put my finger on one right this minute. The point is, this challenge–stay or go?–is a road map. And living a life, I think, should have one–a road map, that is. Funny thing, though, there is no one pointing out the destination. What good is a map if you don’t know where you’re headed? (“Parts unknown,” to nod in Twain’s direction, is even a destination, no?)

I’ve had some help with this business recently, the road map destination thing. My friend Thatcher Cook, whom I’ve mentioned previously, is a strong advocate of the credo, in his case the credo of a photographer. He put me onto this notion and it set me off in a number of directions I did not anticipate.  “Include footnotes,” he admonished. In other words, be serious, dig deep, follow the thread wherever it takes you. (Press on and demand of yourself some answers, for god’s sake. This is important stuff.) Though Thatcher’s credo, a working document, is oriented to his discipline of photography, the concept is broadening. (Its a credo, not a manifesto, so it’s private, sort of…)

If you have a destination, you can answer the question, Should I go or should I stay?  If you don’t you can’t. Simple. (Montaigne: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”) If you can’t answer you cannot make a decision. Simple again. Sontag was “swamped by literature.” Most of us will never be swamped by anything. We may get drenched, or even rained on, but swamped, whereby the destination is clear, is a very rare thing. It appeals to me to seek the rare thing, yearn for the difficult. The common is just that, common.