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I was sorting through old, college books in preparation for yet another book donation as I thin out my shelves of the books I read and will likely never reread – or bought and never did or will read. A philosophy class book on Benedict de (AKA Baruch) Spinoza fits into the former category.

I flipped through the pages and saw some of my of notes and marginalia. It is hard to believe I read this and perhaps even understood it at one time.

“everything in the universe is made of a single substance”
“the universe is subject to natural laws”
“soul and body are not separate – 2 parts of same thing”

In a section that I apparently found very interesting and heavily annotated, I noted:

“God does not stand outside the universe”
“the universe IS God”

This was heavy stuff for a college freshman. Now, I don’t recall enough about Spinoza’s philosophy to even fake a decent book report, but that last margin note about God is where I seem to have arrived philosophically at this late stage of my life.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition. The family took refuge in Amsterdam, where there was a vibrant community of Jewish merchants and intellectuals. Spinoza fit in but was excommunicated from the Jewish community for questioning the existence of miracles.

He supported himself making lenses, and in his spare time studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology.

He wrote and published three books in his lifetime, but only his first book, Principles of the Philosophy of Rene Descartes, actually carried his name because he was afraid that if he published his ideas, he would be branded a heretic by both Jews and Christians.

spinoza

“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind,
a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” -B. Spinoza

 

 

Camus

I noted on a blustery November 7th that it was the birthday of French writer Albert Camus.  I think a lot of people think of him as an existentialist based on his books, but he said that did not describe him. Actually, in an interview, he rejected any ideological associations.

I find Camus more optimistic than some people. I like a few quotes of his in that spirit.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

His novels include L’étranger (1942, The Stranger), La Peste (1947, The Plague), and La Chute (1956, The Fall). All of them have their grim moments.  When I read Camus, I was only in my teens and I think the sadness in his writing played into some Romantic notions I foolishly had then about being depressed.

In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus did deal with a big topic of existentialism – suicide. Camus wrote that “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

In Camus’ view, suicide was a natural solution to the absurdity of life. But in The Myth of Sisyphus, he also tries to identify the kinds of life that could be worth living.

This weekend while I am away from the early winter of Paradelle in summerish weather, I’m thinking a lot about how season and location affect our attitude and mood. Though I have been rereading some Camus this past week, I am not feeling the inherent meaninglessness that seemed to overcome him at times.

In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. On January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash.

“I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t,
than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.”

 

Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”

I never thought of myself as a stoic, but I might be wrong. If you have heard of Stoicism, it might be because you learned about it briefly in some high school or college course. It is philosophy. You might say that Stoics are calm and almost without  emotion. They don’t show what they are feeling. Stoics can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. They accept what is happening.

But all that isn’t really accurate to the origin of Stoicism. For example, another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics made references to the gods in their writing, this was a philosophical, rather than religious, doctrine.

The Stoics were a group of philosophers who first began teaching their ideas in the Hellenistic period. Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno, who lived from 335-263 BC.

Stoics were not opposed to emotions entirely. They were opposed to negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.

I don’t think many people today would label themselves as stoic, but some of the principles of Stoicism can probably make you happier and a better person.

Zeno put death in the forefront of things to consider. But what that means is that you should cherish each day of life. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy that encourages living in the present. (Buddhism is another.) It seems quite modern to be “mindful” of the present moment and to make that a practice. That might involve meditation, or solo walks in nature.

It also means you are more conscious of being thankful for things that we do have. Zeno wouldn’t have kept a gratitude journal as some people do these days, but he would probably approve of the practice. This little act of mindfulness does have value, like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet so that you consciously spend some time considering what is happening to you.

In writing about what Stoicism is not, William Irvine says:

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

Stoicism was modified by the Romans, most prominently Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and you can still read their words, even on an e-reader.

Stoicism has evolved and a kind of modern stoicism exists. How would the Stoics of old cope in our times? Seneca said, “Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” People are still finding reasons Stoicism matters today.

Maybe more of us are Stoics than we thought.

 

Mr. g is God, but small g god. Probably not the one you were taught about. He is the protagonist of a novel carrying his name written by Alan Lightman.

Right off, I’ll say that Mr. g, the book, worked for me because he is the god I have come to believe exists. If I had to explain him to you or hang a label on this god, I would say look up “Deism.”

Deism is something I have so far only touched lightly on here in the past. It is the belief in a supreme being,  a creator, who could but chooses not to intervene in the universe.

It is not a new belief. It was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that took in a number of the founding fathers of the United States. They accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.

This “fictional God” (we could have a discussion about that term) exists in a Void before any creation along with his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva. I cannot explain who they represent or even why they exist. I understand why the Creator couldn’t have creator parents but…

Mr g is omnipotent but not omniscient. He creates universes. He put creatures into one. And then he lets it go on its own. (I was going to say he lets it evolve but that is a troublesome word.) It is trial and error. Though he has created rules/laws for these universes, he is surprised by what occurs.

There is also Belhor and his toadies living in the Void. Is B the Devil or just a way to question and challenge him and allow him to explain things.

The book actually avoids outright talk of religion, though the idea of a soul or something that lives on beyond the mortal life is brought up by Uncle Deva. But, like Deism, if a religion, it is one whose followers believe in a God who “created the universe, established its rules of behavior, set it going, left, and
hasn’t been seen since.”

I depart from that description in that I believe that his God can and may occasionally interfere with the course of human events, as Mr. g does once in the book.

A creator God as all-powerful but not all-knowing is probably not a comfortable fit for most readers.

Lightman also wrote Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of stories that are dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as he ponders in his waking life time, relativity and physics.

Each dream/story explores another possibility. In one dream, time is circular and we are fated to repeat the good and bad over and over. But in another one, time stands still and people cling desperately to what they have in fear of it going away.

Lightman teaches in the humanities at MIT and his books span science, theology, and philosophy. Sometimes, as with Mr. g,  he both ignores and observes the questions that arise when those three things cross paths.

Albert Einstein once said “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

http://www.deism.com/

http://www.religioustolerance.org/deism.htm

https://cmsw.mit.edu/alan-lightman/

 

“All grown-ups were once children — although few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This past week was the birthday of French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was born in Lyon, France in 1900. Saint-Exupéry was a renowned pilot, but is best known now for his classic “children’s” novella, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) published in 1943.

Though it is usually labeled as children’s literature, many adults cherish this little book too. I had not read the book until I was an adult. My wife as a teacher of French used the book in her classes.

I took out her copy of the book and paged through it with my cup of matcha tea this morning.

The Little Prince is about a little boy, a prince, who lives on a planet so small he can watch the sun set 44 times a day. He falls to Earth and befriends a stranded pilot.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry grew up being fascinated by airplanes. He was conscripted at 21 into the French air force and qualified as military pilot a year later.

By 1926, he’d helped establish airmail routes over Northwest Africa, the South Atlantic, and South America, which made him a pioneer in postal aviation.

In 1935, while trying to win a competition by breaking the speed record in an air race from Paris to Saigon, he and his mechanic crashed in the Sahara desert.

They wandered for four days with little food or water. A Bedouin found them and administered a native remedy to rehydrate them. Saint-Exupéry used some of this experience when writing The Little Prince.

The Little Prince is considered a classic of literature. It is about loneliness, friendship, and philosophy.

In 1944, Saint-Exupéry flew a reconnaissance mission over France and never returned. It was assumed his plane had crashed in the Alps, but more than 60 years later, the wreckage was recovered from the Mediterranean seabed, not far from Provence.

When he was asked how he would like to die, Saint-Exupéry chose water. He said: “You don’t feel yourself dying. You simply feel as if you’re falling asleep and beginning to dream.”

The Little Prince was published after his death and has been translated into over 250 languages and dialects, including Braille, and sells 2 million copies annually.

The artwork in the book is Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors.  He wrote two other books about flying, the non-fiction Wind, Sand and Stars and a novel, Night Flight.

There is a live-action film and an animated film version of the story. There is a museum for the Little Prince in Japan.

But the book is the thing.  As the sun was setting today – it only happens once a day on our home planet, which makes it more precious – I looked back into the book again and had another cup of tea.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

www.thelittleprince.com

Musé du petit prince, Hakone, Japan (Wikimedia)

 

 

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