Saturday, January 21, 2012

Old Philosophies Are Sometimes Best

Once, while mindlessly surfing the internet, I came across a website that would predict your death.  After inputing information such as age, sex, location, and certain lifestyle habits, the website would then use some formula to give you your date of death.  There was nothing meaningful about the date of course, but I got the creeps regardless.  That's because accompanying my date of death was a clock which was counting down my remaining time.  I knew that the day predicted and therefore the clock was almost certainly incorrect but there was absolutely nothing incorrect about the seconds that I saw ticking away.  Whether I live to be a hundred or die tomorrow, each second counted down was definitely one second closer to my demise.

Death doesn't scare me but for the fact that I'm not ready to die.  I've always assumed that I'll do something worthwhile with my life, but I'm also a horrible procrastinator.  One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to spend my first and last waking moments of each day reflecting on the gift that each day is and to pray for an appropriate spirit of thankfulness.  Not only is ingratitude an abhorrent trait, I was hoping that reflecting upon what sort of amazing gift another day of life is would help propel me to do more things of worth.  It's easy enough for me to spend hours playing video games, unless I'm conscious of the fact that those hours are gone forever.  It's an easy way to spend time, but the fact of the matter is that there are, when I think about it, any number of things I'd far rather be doing, and things of far greater value.  The only appeal of the video games, or mindless surfing the internet,  is that they're easy and immediately rewarding.  

I've recently been reading Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.  He espouses a teleological view.  Coming from the Greek word telos for end, it is a theory for figuring out how to judge things.  An example is a knife.  What makes a good knife?  Well first you figure out the telos of a knife.  Once that is determined it is possible to figure out the arete, or virtues of a good knife.  Obviously it's to cut things.  So a good knife is one that is sharp, keeps its edge well, and has a handle and blade length optimal for holding and  cutting.  That's easy to figure out, but the trickier question is what is the telos for humans?  What is their arete?

Aristotle, somewhat unsurprisingly, thought that the telos of humans was to think rationally so the arete of humans is thus to be a philosopher.  That's debatable, but the philosophy is one that I've been interested in considering for the past while.  What is my telos?  What is my purpose?  If I can figure that out, then I can also easily figure out what qualities I should embody and tasks I should undertake in order to fulfill my purpose.  It's an excellent question to figure out because not only can it provide my life with focus, but I feel that having a purpose is a necessary characteristic for a healthy person.  Why else was it torturous when the Nazi's made jewish prisoners repeatedly dig and then fill in holes?

Another interesting, and appealing philosophy concerns sleeping and resting.  I've been using an old copy of the Anglican Church's Book of Prayer and it contains prayers for morning and for evening.  Of of the morning prayers contains the line "Put away from us worry... that... we may, now that night cometh, receive as from thee thy priceless gift of sleep..."   I like the idea that sleep is a gift.  I've gotten into the habit of reading before bed and then when the time comes for bed it's a blessing.  I can put aside my worries and cares and sleep.  When I was a kid sleeping was a chore, it got in the way of playing.  Now however, assuming I've accomplished the tasks of the day, it's a blessing.

Another gem from Aristotle is the argument that we do not labour that we might rest, but rest that we might labour.  Whatever the telos of our life is, rest is an essential part of it.  I don't have to feel guilty if I play video games, so long as it's for the purpose of refreshing and recharging me to carry on the important tasks of my life.  It's unhealthy and possibly impossible to be continuously committed to one's true purpose so periods of rest and relaxation are necessary.  It's one of the Ten Commandments that we take a day off work.  Jesus later states that this isn't for God's sake but our own.  Suddenly there is so much freedom in a day off after a week of work or a holiday after several months of labour.  It's not an indulgent treat, but a necessary part of continuing on in the labour to which we are to do.  

I hope to reach the stage where I can have a full understanding of what my purpose in life is so I can spend each day working on the tasks and virtues necessary to fulfill my purpose.  Then I can also spend each night and Sabbath resting comfortably in the knowledge that by doing nothing I'm furthering my efficacy.  That to me, seems like a recipe for a successful life.