Where does the heretic belong? Notes on Philosophical friendship

People want to go out on a branch, but they don’t want to go out on a limb.

Belief systems are always based in an appeal to authority. There is always a heretical founder and a canonical set of teachings (usually written) that are imbued with the founder’s authority as an everlasting proxy.

No one wants to be a heretic. The risk is to great. Ever since the Protestant Reformation made it possible for us to think of ourselves as members of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ (a concept that I believe Martin Luther came upon while sitting on the toilet) we have assumed an active role in building the world views we live in.

The theme is not ours. It is too lonely to write our own. We belong by embracing a common song, and assert our individuality through variation.

People buy ready-made ideas. They are sold everywhere, and even given away; but the ones that come free of charge prove to be even more expensive, and people are already beginning to realize that. The result is to benefit none and the same old disorder. […] It’s even worse for one who decides to study and to understand things on their own, and still worse for one who makes a sincere declaration of his intention.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Diary

It is for this reason that the QAnon conspiracy captivated so many. All are bound together by a common set of texts, the meanings of which are so obscure that any number of interpretations might fit. All are welcome to participate and to contribute their interpretations, but only one or a few might be chosen to be correct by the collective. The power of QAnon comes from the power to combine the pleasure we get through imagination, the belonging we feel in a shared set of beliefs, and the thrill we receive at the prospect of being ‘chosen.’

Of course, this is not unique to QAnon. These are attributes shared by all modern communities. It’s how religion works. And it’s how Academia functions.

It’s how the world of the internet and of social media work. Gardens protected by walls built by dogmatic belief. ‘Stoics’ on Twitter, for example, retweet quotes from the ancients and genuflect before popularizers like Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, and Mark Manson (even though Mark himself claims to be more aligned to Buddhism and Existentialism). Each of these authors are smart and, I believe, authentic in their individual efforts to make sense of their world. But they leave dogmatists in their wake. And they are not members of the clubs that their writing inspires.

There are times when I lament my seeming inability to find and join a large group of like-minded people. Part of me misses the collective experience of the Church (or feels obligated to have that experience). But, then again, I also know that my greatest joy comes from the conversations I have with small groups of trusted friends who, despite differences in belief, nonetheless share a common set of sensibilities. They share a sense of openness and playfulness at the same time as they share an intensity and an urgency. They are dilettantes and bricoleurs in how they navigate the world of ideas, but they nonetheless navigate that world in order to solve real problems.

In short, belonging doesn’t mean you need to belong to an immense community. It doesn’t mean an embrace of dogmatism. It doesn’t mean finding a ‘Church.’

Through an embrace of friendship and intimate connection defined by honesty, kindness, generosity, and a genuine commitment to make sense of the world here and now, it becomes possible to be a heretic and to belong at the same time.

Metaphysics and happiness: What you think you know can hurt you and others

In his On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says (paraphrasing) that the root of all evil is not money or anything else. The root of all evil is simply desiring after things over which you have no control.

Augustine was obviously influenced by Stoicism.

Of course, he ends up arguing that true happiness can only be found through faith in the eternal and unchanging, which is God.

But a more consistent avoidance of things over which you don’t have any control would include freedom from the desire to know things that are beyond our grasp — things like the nature/existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of free will (to pull a list from Kant).

What is appealing to me about Pyrrhonian Skepticism (the best articulation of which is probably found in Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism) is that it represents a more consistent version of Stoicism. If happiness is to be found in the avoidance of desire for things over which we have no control, and certainty is a form of control, then we should refrain from believing in things about which we are uncertain.

The reason that strongly affirming claims about the nature of reality is that you expose yourself to sources of doubt. For any claim (the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, for example), it is possible to make an equally compelling case both for and against. Given the impossibility of certainty, choosing to believe either that there is a God, or that there is not a God means exposing your believe to constant threat. It also results in all manner of pernicious behaviors as you strive to continually affirm your belief to yourself and others despite the fact that you could quite easily be wrong.

Think about the damage caused most recently by believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

For the ancient Skeptics, the goal was ataraxia, or freedom from mental disturbance. The greatest tool for them was reason, which makes it possible to rigorously evaluate any and all truth claims. If a claim was found certain (i.e. irrational to believe otherwise), then believe would be affirmed. Inevitably, however, the result is a suspension of belief because it would be impossible to be certain either about a particular claim or it’s opposite.

With belief suspended, the Skeptics could return to ‘common life’ (borrowing an expression from Hume) of family, friends, institutions, etc in a way that could be fully enjoyed and appreciated without the burden of metaphysical commitments and the toxic relationships that clinging to uncertain sets of belief would otherwise have.

You don’t deserve to be happy

I feel like the language of deserving is fraught.

To deserve something implies that you have earned that thing, and that the thing that has been earned is still not yours.

It’s kind of like viewing the world as a series of IOUs, except there is no contract or agreement to document what is owed, and under what conditions.

When you deserve something, you feel like you are owed, but the one who owes (a person, an organization, the universe) is unaware of that fact.

The one who deserves is one who desires. Which means they don’t have the thing they want. They also don’t have any control over the thing they desire. By claiming to deserve a thing, there is a sense in which you are making a case, but that the ultimate decision about whether you receive the thing is not up to you. But when someone says they ‘deserve’ something, they are preparing a case that is never made. No judge ever receives their appeal.

Deserving is often just another word for resentment.

I hear a lot of people say they ‘deserve to be happy.’ But when we think carefully about the language of deserving, the idea of deserving happiness quickly stops making any sense.

Is happiness a thing that you can lack? Is it our responsibility to make a case to someone and pray that they agree with us?

No. Happiness is not a thing that one has. Happiness is a thing that one IS. You don’t deserve to be happy because there is no one to whom you can make an appeal. No one is holding out on you. As a state, whether you are happy or not is something that is entirely within your control.

To say you deserve to be happy is to say that the decision isn’t ultimately up to you. It puts you at the mercy of the universe.

To say that you deserve to be happy is simply to refuse responsibility for yourself. You don’t deserve to be happy, because it’s a choice — to be or not to be — that only you can make.

To find yourself, you need to stop looking

As long as I can remember, I have felt anxiety about my self. I know that I’m not alone.

That cliché about ‘searching for the meaning of life’ is one that I feel deeply. I was raised to think that I was special, and that I had some kind of higher purpose that was out there for me to discover.

But with no clear understanding of how I was special, or of what my purpose is, the result has been a life of ceaseless striving. The sociologist Max Weber described the Protestant work ethic as something that came about because Christians needed affirmation of God’s love. In the same way, I have sought recognition from others in a number of fields as affirmation that I am special.

At the same time, I refuse to accept affirmation because I feel like an imposter. Like I am pretending to be special rather than being special in myself. This pernicious cycle has turned me into a dilettante, cultivating just enough expertise in any given area to receive both (1) praise, and (2) an awareness that expertise in that area is not enough to provide me with that profound sense of purpose that I am looking for.

The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the self. On the one hand, I’ve been searching for something essential about who I am, as if discovering my essence would give me clarity about the kind of meaningful work I should be doing in the world to fulfill my potential. On the other hand, amidst feelings of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and dread I have worried that these feelings are ultimately all that I am. The thought of being ‘freed’ from these hungry ghosts has been more terrifying than what I suffer from living with them.

What if I give up my fears and discover that there’s nothing left? (Sounds like a codependent relationship)

Learning about Buddhism recently has helped me to flip this problem on its head. The emptiness at the center of who we are is not something to be feared, but is rather something to be embraced.

I am not a thing that needs to be discovered. And I don’t have to worry that my happiness hinges on understanding some elusive meaning to my life.

Instead, I am at the ability to observe my mental states and ideas as experiences, and to welcome my hungry ghosts, not as parts of myself, but simply as friends along with all of the other experiences in my life. The ability to acknowledge that you are simply the ability to take yourself as another frees you to abstract yourself from negative thoughts, unproductive habits, and attachment to things over which you have no control. And it empowers you to accept responsibility for any actions you take in response, because every action now becomes intentioned.

I don’t have control over the thoughts and impulses that spring to my mind involuntarily. I do have control over how I choose to understand them, and how I choose to act in response.

What I take from Buddhism is that the ‘meaning of life’ consists in wisdom and compassion. For yourself, wisdom involves (1) understanding the nature of self as existential (something that acts and becomes) rather than essential (something that is in a way that is independent of experience), and (2) an awareness that anxiety comes as a result of attachment to things over which you have no control. In relationship with others, it involves compassion because we all share a longing for happiness as well as the ignorance, fear, and pernicious cycles that get in the way.

I’m not a Buddhist, but I do think that Buddhism (especially when considered philosophically rather than religiously) is a helpful lens for opening up new and helpful perspectives on the world and in one’s relationship to it. It is also extraordinary to observe how deeply it’s basic ideas about personal identity and the nature of the soul resonate with the Western history of philosophy, from the Stoics and the Skeptics, to the Italian Humanists, to Spinoza, Hume and Hegel, through Existentialism and Phenomenology.

The part of me that wants to think of itself as a unique snowflake with original thoughts resents the similarity in all of these thinkers and traditions. And that petulant child inside of me wants to reject these ideas simply because they are both unoriginal and increasingly popular.

But a bigger part of me takes comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my own struggle with meaning. And I am grateful to have these guides (and those I have yet to meet) seated with me as friends at the same table, along with all of my hungry ghosts.

NOTE: I am only at the beginning of my journey to understand Buddhism, just like I am at the beginning of my journey to understand anything. If you are more knowledgeable and see errors or opportunities for my thinking to be clarified or extended, please leave a comment and let me know.