Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Power of Appearance (Skeptics on the Broken Man)

Today, I will discuss the skeptics, and their claims about what makes it difficult for us to develop happiness in this life (I will discuss Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus today, leaving Academic skepticism for future topics).  Unlike Aristotle, however, whom I discussed yesterday, the skeptics had something like a craft of living, or, at the very least, a technique of living that would be applicable to each person.  In order to understand this technique of living, though, one must first understand what it is that is wrong with our lives and what it is that the technique is designed to overcome.  What the skeptics do agree with Aristotle about, though, is that there are some large challenges to becoming happy.

According to the skeptics, what makes us miserable are our convictions or "dogmata" of various kinds.  Platonists believe that they know that there are forms.  Aristotle believes he knows that virtue is a kind of disposition.  Epicureans believe they know that happiness is pleasure.  Even if they are only somehow tentatively Epicurean, they have still assented to the various claims of Epicureanism.  In modern terms, we may have assented to the belief that God exists, or that democracy is the best form of government, or that capital punishment is unjust.

These convictions disrupt our lives, according to the skeptics.  First, we find ourselves in the position of constantly trying to prove ourselves right.  As we are attached to these positions, we find the need to defend them in the fact of any challenges that arise, which upsets us and others in converstation.  Second, even on matters where we don't know, if we think we might eventually know, that hope of knowledge will drive us with a desire for understanding that disrupts us psychologically.  Finally, we find ourselves miserable if what we think we know is best does not come to pass.  If our political candidate is defeated, or a family member dies, we can be devastated, because we have assented to the belief that certain outcomes are better than others.

Part of this is a flaw in our reason itself.  Our reason can tend to be "goal-oriented" or "truth-oriented".  It looks for and hopes for truth, leaving us dissatisfied when it has not found that truth.  Worse, it has a tendency to simply seize onto a given pattern, story or argument unproven, so that it can have the illusion of having the truth when it has not yet found it.  Reason, and its search for truth or even just pretty patterns it can call truth, makes a truly skeptical approach very difficult.

The second part of the problem is the power of appearances.  The world appears to us in certain ways.  This includes things like colour, but more than this, things like attacking bears or even certain kinds of enjoyment.  However, rather than simply see these as appearances whose truth we have no reason to assert or deny, we instead have a tendency to think of these appearances as being reality.  We come to believe the world really is the way it appears and even call it something like "common sense".  They claimed the Stoics were especially guilty of this, in so far as they believed that some of our sensations were so clear that we grasp reality with them (they were "kataleptic").  However, these beliefs lead to unhappiness, as we come to base our happiness on whether or not certain states of the world come to be.

Human beings, therefore, are in an almost constant state of disturbance because of their beliefs.  Beliefs about the world, desire to know, and approval or disapproval of states of affairs disturb our soul, destroying our happiness.  The skeptical solution was designed to correct these problems, and bring us to a state of tranquility ("ataraxia").

Painting: "Narcissus" by Michelangelo Caravaggio


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