Damn, Roman Emperors were as scared as us!
Once i was reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, diary of a roman emperor who was a stoic philosopher by night. It is full of reassurances, rebukes and reassessments — like any teenage girl diary we encounter in rom-com movies. Each entry, few lines or paragraphs long, is a reflection on some part of his daily life that was unsettling him and is a treasure trove of bite-sized solutions to these daily problems. Ranging from personal to political — as naive as a friend saying shit to his back and how should he treat that friend to musings considering nature of diplomacy with kings you don’t agree with philosophically.
Reading all these experience from mundane, outdated to timeless, like how he really picks himself from his bed in winters was a great learning experience. This was the first time i encountered a philosophy that dealt with day to day life and i was excited to hear a learned man’s solution to problems similar to my very own. Then a sudden realisation hit me!
The problems that bothered a Roman Emperor two millennia ago are the same that make me anxious at night.
Therein lies the reason that this book is one of my favorites book, a constant bedside companion, helping me cope with numerous sleepless nights. It reconciles to me that my doubts are universal, my sorrows are not mine alone and each anxiety is just a re-interpretation of older already encountered ones. I am not alone in this. It is something all humans have wrestled against, a residual feeling of incompleteness and a loneliness in this vast world. If someone who is so distanced from me in time and space and context felt so- this has to be universal among all humans! This universality is a solace, for we are now all slaves together to a common dreadful fate. This fate could be death or could be just a feeling of incompleteness, i cannot articulate that well. But it is there and i need respite from it, which Aurelius provides me with.
Some blame the social media while the others feel that the current social order is to blame. They are right in delineating the symptoms and means of execution of these anxieties but ignore the basic source. Something that is inherent in our being ensuring that each generation before us have felt these emotions and each epoch hence will have different manifestations of an angsty behaviour.
Paradoxical alienation of a comfortable life
This brings us to a question about our own lives, as when we try to uncover our anxieties and its sources, we chance upon a pandora’s box of doubts and here people take two paths. Either they see the box, and ignore it for their sanity or for lack of time it will take to look into the box or, they get eager to see inside it for the solutions they are seeking above. Thus we set upon a path of examining our lives and how we matter to the world. And this examination sparks something like this within us and our living.(inevitable xkcd reference). or this which i will call alienation.
We feel the dread of an unsure future where either we don’t exist because we are dead and or we exist but still don’t matter to anyone. We feel like aware sheeps, who have cracked the consciousness of monotony of existence somehow and this alienates us from the other sheeps even in your family. No one understands you really, and you are tired of pretending. All the dates till now, you become aware, were some form of theatre where you try to badly enact lines you were rehearsed all your lives. How are you? Oh.. how interesting … really .. i did not know … how exciting!
You also become conscious of the “Schedule”, like that of farm animals carefully reared for some purpose. Sheeps are herded , sent to grazing lands, return to their stables, made to mate with other sheeps and then sent to sleep.
You go to work, come back, eat, watch tv, sleep — rinse and repeat. The cycle which was so fulfilling few days ago now repugnantes you and makes you feel to quit your job. Not because you hate your job but because you hate the routine such an existence entails.
These feeling are paradoxical in itself when you are living so comfortable lives. You almost feel bad about feeling such ingratitudes towards your condition while reading about the earthquake in haiti or the violence in some village. But still, no matter how much you coax yourself, you cannot escape this feeling.
I am not being pretentious while writing all this. It’s not an armchair problem arising out of too much time at hand. Well there is an important connection between boredom and human thinking, but that we leave for another day. In general, i have asked all my friends who are doing their jobs for few years now about how they feel, especially given the fact they were so excited to start working. And All of them echo this “hamster running in a wheel” feeling, that work that seemed exciting at far, seems trivial and unfulfilling up close. We reach our dreams and then roam endless, questioning ourselves on what to do? It is not a testament to modern industrial society but a universal problem being tackled from philosophers from thousand of years.(The school of thought, stoicism, followed by Marcus Aurelius originated around 3rd century BC and tries to solve many of such problems.)
Myth of Sisyphus
Albert Camus was a famous existentialist philosopher(though he rejected the technical definition being attributed to his name), who worked on many essays, plays and novels that tackle the problem of human condition. He said that the world is “absurd”, as in something our bounded minds can never make sense of and this conflict of a puny mind with a vast universe creates a hollow feeling among all humans. To allegories this he re-interprets the Myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was a punk ass dude who was so intelligent that he tricked the God of death and chained him so that he can never die. Seeing his brazen attitude, the gods decided to punish him. He was given the task to push a heavy boulder up a hill, such that it took him one whole day of strenuous effort to reach the top of the hill. But the tragedy was that as soon as he reached the top, the boulder would slip back off to the bottom of the hill and he will have to climb down at night, to start pushing back again tomorrow. This mind numbing cruel task needs to be carried out by him till eternity(gods are cruel).
Camus interpreted the human condition in this fable — equating the humdrum of daily existence to pushing boulder daily up a hill. He considers all human endeavours to be as meaningless as pushing the boulder was for Sisyphus, and humans like sisyphus are condemned to such an existence by their very being. He makes an important distinction that in itself this existence is not tragic. It is the consciousness of Sisyphus, as an intelligent human, of the futility of the task that made his existence tragic. If he was a gorilla then we won’t judge his existence to be tragic or sad, but rather mundane. It is the act of realisation, though human cognition that makes it melancholic.
Similarly only once we realise the banality of existence we bring the tragedy to us, that is, an examined life can only be tragically absurd. It’s not that unexamined life is not. It is more like a life of a gorilla. Philosophers call such an unexamined life to be one of bad faith or inauthentic, which in itself is a bigger tragedy. If we live in bad faith, then we become too attached to our lives and the ignorance of the inherent absurd nature of life will make us incapable of countering the ups and downs of life that come throughout. The precipice of such inchoate apprehensive feeling is reached when such a person has to face the question of death, his own or his beloved ones. Extroverts without rich internal lives are susceptible to such misgivings and introverts when living in bad faith can spiral down into manic depression.
Solidarity with Sisyphus
After hearing this tragic tale, one cannot help but feel a solidarity with Sisyphus. Yes, we are this tragic hero, bound to our destinies and slaves to our being. Aren’t our jobs, love lives etc. filled with such cycles of meaninglessness . All bosses and bahus are alike and so are all employees and saas. Getting a promotion is useless. We are like cows, in their stables, sitting in our cubicles and working so we can benefit some abstract corporation. We can at most get promoted to a enclosure of its own(glass cabin) or get the award for the Most Milk-giving cow of the year.
Well, one can argue that being the star cow, you are useful to the world. I agree and so is the cow giving milk. But i implore you to consider the question: Do you consider the live of the cow meaningful? Without any abstract thought, we will reach a feeling that it is not so and there should be something extra in our lives that makes us human. Also, why be the star cow- won’t giving half the milk mean the same to the world, when there are so many cows in the world. So why work hard or even work in such a world. One can argue that the meaning through our impact on the world is the only meaning we have and we will return to this argument in a later stage(holding Camus’s hand).
Parables from the Modern World
The modern age man is bent on having a planned life. We plan our careers, our love lives and our retirement. This is an attempt to ensure a minimum quality of life at all stages of life. And if one is able to live such a planned life, it makes onlookers like us envious, as such a life looks stable and happy. Is it really so?
An absurd inquiry into this results multiple alternative inferences about this quality of lives. We do not treat ambitious lives great in themselves just because a person is goal oriented and evaluation of the nature of the goal also factors into the inference. A person who strives to have a happy marriage and a stable job is considered successful in some circles(like our parents generations), while we may consider a wanderlust afflicted Ranbir Kapoor as having the time of his life. But if we go a level deeper, why these goals are better than any other? I am not going to argue relativistic arguments and would talk in general about any given context, what goal is considered a valuable one?
This is done through a “n-level Why” debunking. Why do you want to travel? Why do you want to meet diverse people? Why do you want to learn different cultures and languages? Why do you want to become a learned man? Why does satiating your wanderlust make you happy?
And this way we will hit a bottleneck where the answer would be on the lines of — “just because it makes me happy”. The case is sealed here as this starting point is completely arbitrary and can change any day. Moreover if we reflect on this point of commencement, we will find that we have just arbitrarily made our mind on this, partly due to the influence of peers, media and society(Ranbir Kapoor looks hell cool while clicking those pics.). It is not some fraud conscious attempt by your brain but is an involuntary response to the vacuum of meaning felt in your being by your sub-conscious. We can trace cultural context and other features too, but the main source is this vacuum of meaning. We may want to be in a relationship because we see all our peers being so happy in relationships. That is why, these relations turn so ugly later on, when our inner arbitrary source of motivation feels that this too, which it earlier felt was the answer to the vacuum, is not a solution and starts looking for other adventures like cheating or other more moral sources.
We also plan our lives so that we can create an impact, through our work and our undertakings with different people. We join the army, become scientists and continually work on getting more and more skills. But does it really matter? What is a nation anyways, who are you willing to give your life for? Even if you give your life in a war, that won’t change the human propensity for war(or may rather increase the blood lust: Haider style vengeance) and such wars will continue. Moreover you are an insignificant dust speck in this vast universe and the society does not get affected by your actions, let alone the vast eternity.
Since all humans including yourself are going to die, the finitude of all endeavours mean that any product of your labour would be transitory and hence meaningless. No matter how many problems you solve, death will dissolve them all. And anyways, no matter how many ambitions you harbor you know you are lazy enough not to see them to it ideal completion as you imagine it in your head. Most probably it will remain in your head only.
We still live lives, enacting each of these parts acting like a good son , husband and father — always doing work in order to reach a better stage in life. But what are we waiting for. Godot never comes and examination yields that much to us. Then why still we should go on living, repeating our ordeals and ignoring the facts laid bare by opening the pandora’s box. True happiness will always at the next intersection, never achievable and you can never be content.
We are thrown into the world, randomly into some circumstance and then are expected to make the most of it. The facts of our life, are determined by the random chance of where we are born. These dictate our whole nature of being and i hate giving destiny so much power over me. This facticity of life becomes apparent when we think about most of our troubles. Very simply first world problems and third world problems are very disparate. Apart from the surficial unfairness, there is an intrinsic absurdity inherent in this. We become so much of a product of our thrown starting point that we are not really sure if any of our thoughts are really our own or are they product of this random throw of dice. God really likes to play dice when it comes to human lives if not physics.
Let’s commit Suicide then?
If we consider all the above random musings and really try to recreate these anxieties for yourself, you may feel a depression, a need for withdrawal setting in and may result in a discomforting vacuum within us. We may feel that life is meaningless or any meaning is artificially created and our lives rest upon pretensions. But is there any escape from this misery. Should we have kept the box closed and lived in a blissful ignorance.
Lets find out what philosophy has in it for us! When there is any trouble we turn to our most important part of our body and see if it has some solutions. Rational thought, please save us.
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