Tag Archives: can we think for ourselves

THE MEAN

As I make my way through the journey of obtaining an MFA in creative writing, it’s strange that philosophers (especially Aristotle) continue to invade my life (you know, because I have that undergraduate in philosophy–though it makes me no expert by any means, no pun intended). Despite the fact that I recently had an awakening, if you will, about how much philosophy and creative thinking (i.e. art) go hand-in-hand (Practical Art), it still surprises me. The surprise is a good one because it further validates that I am on the right path.

At any rate, after having been recently subjected to an Aristotelian quote through one of my MFA courses, I went through one of my old term papers about The Mean. It is equally strange and interesting to go back through old writings because I wonder how I ever managed to persuade an A out of my professor.

As I reread, I don’t remember exactly which book that particular theory came from and now realize that I did a poor job of summarizing the content for someone who has never read the material. Clearly the paper was to one particular audience–the professor. And, because he is well-versed in the subject matter, his brain probably just filled in all the holes from a summary standpoint.

Regardless, The Mean is about obtaining an appropriate level of virtue and that one must be raised the right way in order to achieve that goal. The link below is an attempt to explain the elements Aristotle requires to be virtuous, the anomaly I believe I saw in his argument and the reason I believe it would not allow for people to think for themselves.

THE MEAN-Aristotle

Sleep tight for me, I’m gone.

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THAT SMARTS

If you know me, and/Poltergeist TVor as you get to know me better, chances are you will find that something intriguing said to me is not often forgotten. It could be weeks, months or even years, but that one thing will sit in my brain and tumble around until one day it randomly pops back to the forefront with a new understanding, perspective or retort.

That being said, a few months ago, while working on one of his class assignments, my husband posed a question that suggested people were getting smarter from watching television because its programing has become more intelligent over the years. I disagreed by stating (a) there are still mindless and dumb shows out there that couldn’t possibly be making us any smarter (Sponge Bob Square Pants is a fine specimen) and (b) that perhaps, in consideration of shows that are actually better and “smarter,” people are just wittier in general than in the past and the writers are now writing more intelligent pieces for their more intellectual audiences (regardless of complexity).

After considerable contemplation (unconscious or subconscious—whatever floats your boat), I now wonder if perhaps he should have asked a different question: does life, in fact, imitate art? I’ve pondered that question a lot more just lately because it seems as though society follows similar patterns and trends in thinking and behavior. There have been studies (of which I, unfortunately, do not know specifically or enough about in order to point you to them) that have shown various pieces of advertising or propaganda to have influenced this type of change in humans. Those particular pieces are all different forms of art—think Rosie the Riveter (just one example).

So, perhaps, in a roundabout way, maybe his idea was on the correct path in that if life does actually imitate art and that art is in the form of an intelligent television show, it stands to reason that it could influence others to go out and get an education to be like or do what they had seen portrayed in a show or shows that intellectually inspired them (my artist aunt has always said that art wouldn’t be art if it didn’t evoke some sort of emotion or reaction). By doing so they become smarter and in an indirect way television made them smarter—or at the very least, challenged them to think more often, differently, or more analytically about other complex ideas, which potentially could be argued as a possible gain in intellectual capacity. Maybe.

Or, better yet, maybe he should ask: is pop culture proof that life imitates art? Unfortunately, there are still more variables to pick out and evaluate far beyond what I’m capable of or willing to contemplate tonight in order to determine the truth in the answer—if there is one. With that, I bid you adieu. Sleep tight!

Image credit: Google Images


Part IV–Paradoxical Irony

So-cratesWhile I am somewhat leaping from the original progression I had planned for this particular blog category or “part,” it still plays on the matter of thinking for ourselves in terms of what we know or don’t know and so I figured now was as good a time as any. I don’t know how much you or anyone else may know about Socrates, because I will never really know what you know or don’t know and perhaps, to some, he’s just that So-crates guy Bill and Ted brought into the future for their final project, but I’ll give you a brief overview anyway.

Despite debate about whether or not Socrates really existed or was merely a character Plato created, Socrates was considered a wise man by some and an extremely annoying smartass by others. Those who held disdain for him felt as though he mocked their intelligence by performing Socratic irony (plainly, it’s essentially asking questions you already know the answer to just to bait an argument and make the other look stupid).

In addition to infuriating most of society, Socrates taught Athenian youth to think for themselves and to seek out what they did not understand—to essentially examine life. Unfortunately, most Athenians did not care for his lessons or their children questioning authority; thus, he was accused of, put on trial for, and ultimately put to death by Hemlock for, amongst other things, corrupting their youth.

Now, if corrupting the young is teaching them to question authority and think for themselves, then I would have to say Socrates was guilty as charged—he did teach Athenian youth to think for themselves. This is not to say I think he ought to have been executed, or that he should have been tried or punished. Whether the charge of wrongdoing for this particular “offense” was just or unjust is something I won’t delve into; however, I do think that thinking for self (if we truly can as often as we think we can) and questioning certain authority is a wise thing to do (though it certainly can and often will land you in a lot of trouble, such as the case with Socrates).

With that being said, I’ve laid some background for where I will lead you now. That is, into the unexamined life and a paradoxical irony. I am posting a revised version of a paper I wrote on this subject. Unfortunately, it is a lengthy summary and analysis to get to my ultimate conclusion. Because, technically, to do the subject any justice one must walk through a forest of long-windedness to see where the path has led them. Good luck. If you make it all the way through, sleep tight for me—I’m gone.

 THE UNEXAMINED LIFE

Crito, an old friend and student, believed Socrates was unjustly convicted by the Athenian jury because they merely wanted to remove an annoying old man whom they felt insulted their intelligence. Because he did not believe Socrates was guilty of the charges against him, Crito visited him in his cell to convince him to escape, offering him a place to stay with his friends at Thessaly—essentially in exile. Crito, among other supporters, paid off the guards to grant his escape. Knowing Socrates was an ethical man who would resist, Crito appealed to him to save his life by being more just than the jury and by not subjecting his sons to the loss of their father by remaining alive so he could raise and educate them properly. Socrates agreed to entertain a debate to determine if escape was indeed the right thing for him to do and if so he would go with Crito as he asked, but if not he would remain and face his death.

Socrates held that a good life is most important and to have a good life is to have “the good life, the beautiful life, and the just life.” (Plato, Crito, 2002), pg. 51. To live a just life one must not commit a wrong in response to a wrong committed against them (i.e. two wrongs do not make a right); thus, despite the Athenian court having unjustly convicted him (the wrong) it is unjust for Socrates to escape from prison (commit a wrong against the wrongdoers). Furthermore, if Socrates escaped from prison he would have to live somewhere outside of Athens so as not to get rearrested and new charges brought against him (an end to a beautiful life).

Near the end of Socrates’ defense in the Apology he discusses the various alternative remedies of punishment, one of them being exile. Exile does not seem like a reasonable remedy because history would surely repeat itself wherever he went. Socrates claimed others would say he should just stop his inquiries so as not to annoy others in whatever city he lives out in exile; however, he also claimed he could not keep quiet because “the unexamined life is not worth living for men.” (Plato, Apology, 2002), pg. 41, para 38. In other words, the unexamined life is a life without beauty and justness required for a “good life.” If he cannot examine life to live the good, just and beautiful life, then what’s the point?

To ask Socrates to cease his inquires would be to ask him to be someone else, to be more ignorant than he already thought, to be useless to a city and country he loves, and to disobey the Gods; thus it would be no different than death itself and if he disobeyed the Gods he would suffer a worse fate in Hades than death by the hands of men who “can’t handle the truth.” (A Few Good Men).

Living an unexamined life would be a life performing certain duties without truly understanding the meaning of what we do “…it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not,” whereas a person who lives an examined life would be able to admit that they do not know something when they, in fact, do not know, “…when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” (Plato, Apology, 2002), pg. 26, para. (d).

Furthermore, if one lives an unexamined life they would not have the power to reason whether some action is just or unjust—escaping from prison, for example. And so, he would not understand that, while he may feel wrongfully convicted he would ultimately be “destroying” a city upon escape by unknowingly proving that the City’s laws have no authority to keep him held in: “Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” Nor would they understand that by disobeying the city in his escape attempt he would be allowing others to think that if he is capable of shattering the city’s legal system and power he would most certainly be capable of the charges he thought unjustly made against him in the first place: “…for anyone who destroys the laws could easily be thought to corrupt the young and the ignorant?” (Plato, Crito, 2002), pg. 56, para. (c). In order to systematically annihilate a city’s laws, whether by escaping from prison or committing some other wrong, one would have no choice but to live in exile and by doing so would have to “avoid cities that are well governed and men who are civilized” which would also be a life not worth living if it is without good governments and civilization—otherwise you live a solitary life or one amongst chaos and perhaps brutality far worse than death for a very old man, at least in his case.

Argument

If one lives an unexamined life they would be considered, by Socrates, as ignorant. However, “ignorance is bliss,” to the extent that you do not know what you do not know and cannot therefore know that there is something greater, more or better for you to either do or know.

Ignorance can also be, in certain cases, deemed as “innocence,” as in the case of a child. For example, a small child will freely run around stark naked with zero inhibitions, no feelings of guilt or shame over their nakedness or others seeing them in such a state. They are just this way, and we call it “innocence” because they have not yet learned the lessons from their adult caretakers and/or society that their nakedness is something that should be hidden. In this case the “ignorance” is bliss because they are free from the chains of shame over something that is completely natural.

An unexamined life could also potentially be bliss in the sense that one would not know how much “evil” is in this world and committed by man himself. Without this knowledge they could potentially live a more peaceful life in that they would not question why. They would not be constantly bombarded with seeking answers to endless questions that just open doors to more questions and the realization that despite how wise you may be you may never really know anything at all. And, if you can’t ever truly know anything at all, then what is the point of bothering with an examined life?

Of course, the downside to the above is that if you never question anything due to ignorance in the matter, then you could potentially enable unjustness in the world by not realizing the “evil” being done. Furthermore, Socrates would explain that with an examined life one would at least be able to determine right from wrong and therefore live a good, just and beautiful life—these qualities being of the utmost importance to him; however, if we life an examined life then we ought to know that we know nothing of anything and therefore can’t possibly really know what it is to live a good/virtuous life.

Conclusion

Either way we look at it we are screwed. If we are ignorant we know nothing and don’t know it; if we examine life we still know nothing, the difference is that we should then realize that we know nothing and if we realize we know nothing we are still, by technicality, ignorant. However, we can’t possibly know what we do not know and so, we cannot fully realize how little we know. And, if we cannot realize that we know nothing, or at least far less than we think we do, then we are right back at the beginning—ignorant and don’t know it. This is the ironic paradox in the unexamined life.


PART III—CAN WE REALLY THINK FOR OURSELVES?

The ThinkerAs with my previous musing, I have been thinking about this next thought for quite some time and for anyone in my inner circle it is nothing more than a written version of the word vomit they were initially subjected to. That being said, considering how easily we can be persuaded and/or manipulated by associative advertising I often wonder, can we really think for ourselves? I mean really think for ourselves? With all sincerity, I would love to believe we can but I also have to wonder if even the strongest of wills or minds amongst us are as independent in thought as we’d like to think we are.

Case in point: for as long as I can remember, families have had an informal gathering in the backyard with a charcoal or gas grill where the male head of household typically puts flame to slabs of protein. It’s just what we do, as people, as Americans; however, this ritual is merely the product of a very successful ad campaign. Excuse me? Yes, that’s right, an ad campaign. But, I don’t think most of us question this ritual or even consider its origins. I certainly never did—until a few years ago when seeking remodeling ideas for my 1955 rambler.

In the Post World War II housing boom, builders scrambled to get homes built for returning soldiers and their families. The depression was done and it was a new era—the general public no longer had to tighten the purse strings, the 40 hour work week was born, which allowed more time for leisurely activities on weekends, and union contracts provided paid vacations. (A Remodeling Handbook for Post World War II Houses, pg. 5).

The ideal homes being built were ramblers, designed to enhance the pleasure of this new-found leisure time by providing modern electrical appliances, large backyards and often had a sliding glass door that lead out to a patio which had a grill, of course.

Because American’s apparently just didn’t know how to relax and have a good time, they had to be taught and so, here in the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis Tribune published a magazine article every Sunday entitled “How to Have Fun in your Backyard.” (1952). It is from this we have the concept that Dad, or at least the male head, should be cooking steaks outside on the grill—because it’s “manly.” This idea, along with the modern appliances, were used to sell homes as “Futuristic” and “Very Different.” It was later defined as the epitome of the “American Dream” (A Remodeling Handbook for Post World War II Houses, pg. 5).

Sixty-four years later, we still participate in what is now a custom (with or without the rambler-style home). I am NOT saying this is a bad thing. Hell, I quite enjoy firing up the grill, hanging out on a nice summer or fall day (preferably when the mosquitos aren’t rampant), and letting the kids play in the comforts and convenience of my own space. What I am saying, however, is that this idea, as wonderful as it is, was not our own as individuals. It was an idea developed in a very smart advertising campaign designed for the sole purpose of selling homes. It was a way to get people to associate a relaxed way of life with that style of home and large yard. This movement was so successful it is the reason the Twin Cities suburbs grew as they did.

Just when you thought you were smart enough to avoid being manipulated by the advertisers (is the sarcasm, in Jaw’s-like fashion, dripping of the page yet?), you realize you’ve been living an ad campaign your entire life. Perhaps the question isn’t so much about whether we can physically think independently, but more about whether or not we can escape manipulation or influence from outside sources long enough to truly think independently.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that we can. Perhaps this is where my “disappointed idealist” turned cynic comes into play. Because I certainly used to think I was smart enough not to be fooled—turns out I have been—on a number of occasions and to various degrees. And, I’m not the only one (so, this fact doesn’t mean I’m not nearly as smart as I thought—or maybe it does).

For as many times as we claim we can see through the barrage of advertisements and claim that if, and only if, we are truly interested shall seek further information to make an “informed” choice, there are plenty more things we have bought into because we were persuaded in some way to do exactly what they wanted us to do. There are many products we use in everyday life (e.g. deodorant, teeth whiteners, certain prescription drugs, cosmetics and/or astringents) only because the need was manufactured. And somewhere, along the line from that 1950’s new-leisure era, we became consumers who bought the fabricated “American Dream” they sold and we practice it religiously.

Or, perhaps this is just the midnight rambling of a mind who, much like Jerry McGuire’s ill-gotten mission statement, was up too late and/or ate bad pizza. Tonight, this is as good as it’s going to get. “Sleep tight for me, I’m gone.”

Source:http://www.ci.coon-rapids.mn.us/planning/pdf/PlanningCape_Cod_RamblerPlanbook.pdf