Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Finding Meaning Through Love

At the end of Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought or Learning to Live: A User's Manual (same thing), he suggests that we can get salvation and transcendence outside any religious belief system by being elevated through a singular love.  The rest of the book is a chronology of philosophy epochs, and I might think more on that later, but I'm mainly interested in his own ideas about love saving the day.

Luc Ferry was the Minister of Education in France for a few years, and I looked him up to see how that went.  A philosopher in government - how Platonic!  I tried to find out what policies he implemented or proposed, but could only find scandals about him working at a university but never teaching and then refusing to refund his salary when they asked.  Apparently his response to this was to sue accusers for libel.  And then, to make his case about the importance of privacy, he told TV reporters about a former minister who sexually abused some children, and he refused to tell the public his name because personal privacy is that important (or maybe because libel laws are so strong suggesting they're a bad thing, but then why would he sue for libel himself?).  Something like that.

I don't think personal privacy trumps the safety of children.  Just sayin'.  But from all the reports, I don't entirely understand his full intentions when he threw that out there on national television.


I found one policy he proposed during his term: a law on secularism, including no beards in the classroom if they have any religious significance. Nothing of any religious affiliation can be worn in any school.  I had heard about this passing years ago, but I didn't realize that was this guy!  Living in Canada where everyone can wear pretty much anything, it's hard to fathom this type of legislation.  It's equality through conformity which doesn't really promote tolerance of difference (as he suggests), but sameness.

So, he's had to make some ethical choices, and I'm not sure they were the best ones, but he wrote an readable book nevertheless.  Let's look at what he says.

An article in Philosophy Now quotes him:
I’ve recently discovered love for children. I have a little girl who just turned five. I’ve developed feelings that I would have never imagined before! All parents who love their children know these feelings – they are very unique. As Hans Jonas says, it’s a ‘non-reciprocal responsibility’ and one that, as a type of love, literally calls forth feelings the existence of which one hasn’t had even an inkling, whatever may have been the nature of one’s love life before having children. Now, this love for children, because it is non-reciprocal from the start, has, contrary to what some have said, an immense potential as a source for universal compassion.
After I had kids, it was curious to me that so little has been written about that kind of love.  I understand that in most centuries of writing, philosophers who had fathered children had little to do with them, and mothers didn't write.  But you'd think the more recent essay compilations on love would have a few pieces devoted to that unique grizzly bear devotion provoked by the mere smile on your little one's face.  If I found out my child was a murderer, I would still love him baffled as I may be by his actions.  It's unconditional and deeply rooted.  

So I get it.  But, if we're all going to extend love and compassion universally to all people, should we start by making sure they're not wearing any religious symbols at school?  It seems to me allowing people to be who they are, accepting people complete with their belief systems on display, is what unconditional love is all about.  It's easy to love people when we can't see how different they are from us.  It's more challenging and more necessary to accept people who are strange to us.  But then, I'm not being very accepting of his little policy, am I.

And can I accept this restriction even though I disagree with it, and can I love him unconditionally like I would my child even though I disagree with some of his ethics?  Nope.  Not even a little bit.  I can't love someone if I don't respect their ethical choice, except if s/he's a child of mine.  That type of love is the exception, and I don't think we can make it a rule or hope for it to become universal.  And I'm not sure we should either.

At the finale of his book, he proposes we find a "'wisdom of love', a vision which allows us to understand fully the reasons why it alone...gives meaning to our lives" (252).   He claims that between the realm of the particular and the universal sits the singular, the individual, which is the only "object of our loves and the bearer of meaning" (254).  Love is what gives meaning to "'enlargement' which can and should guide human experience" (256). To be happy and virtuous is to see the big picture, to embrace all of humanity. "And we need to grasp that singularity alone, which transcends equally the particular and the universal, can be the proper object of love" (259).   So, if I understand him correctly, love of the individual within the context of 'enlarged thought' leads to salvation through a love of all, or just Love.

Plato said much of that in The Symposium, and it's curious that piece isn't discussed here.  Maybe it would ruin his time-line.

Ferry goes on about why it's all about loving the singular, not the particular. It seems he just means loving the essence of a person, not their specifics (and this has nothing to do with the philosophical concept of singularity),
"What makes an individual lovable, what creates the conviction that we could continue loving them even if their looks are ravaged by illness, is not reducible to an external attribute, a quality; however important it may be.  What we love in the beloved...is neither pure particularity nor abstract universal attributes, but the singularity which distinguishes and renders he or she unlike any other."
Then he tacks on Montaigne's famous line about why he loves his friend, "because he was he, because I was I [sic]" (260), (which should read, "because it was he, because it was I").

I don't think he's saying anything unique or extraordinary here.  Love is a draw that goes beyond looks and status.  Anyone who's been hit by it, knows that.  Teenagers can be obsessed with their looks hoping to attract a mate, but soon they recognize that's not what it's about, and they grow out of that.  And we might feel badly for the adults we know who haven't gotten there yet, who still obsess over their looks to reel in a catch, or obsess over a lover's looks or status and end up with an empty match.   

This is all ad hominem stuff, but Ferry dated Carla Bruni before Sarkozy swept her off her feet, and his current wife is almost 25 years his junior.  Not that there's anything wrong with dating beautiful young women, but, after reading how forcefully he proposes that love of the singular is superior to love of the particular as if it's novel, it makes one wonder if maybe he's still working on this one.

When we're in love, we're in the 'eternal instant' (260) - we're immersed in the present moment, so we no longer regret the past or fear the future. Ferry thinks this is key to living well.  But he then argues against Buddhism after reducing it to,
"a fundamental principle:  do not become attached...if we allow ourselves to be trapped by the net of attachments in which love invariably entangles, we are without doubt preparing the worst of sufferings for ourselves: because life is a state of flux and impermanence, and human beings are perishable" (261).
As far as I understand Buddhism, in the romantic love sense, the principle of non-attachment is a directive not to cling.  We can love and be loved, but not obsess or crave the other.  We need to love without expectation.  But another sense of non-attachment is based not on avoiding the inevitable pain of your loved-one dying, but in understanding that none of us are separate from each other to begin with.  It's linked to the concept of no-self.  If we aren't separate selves, then we're not incomplete beings that have any need to attach to another for completion.  Non-attachment isn't just about people and things, but ideas too.  It's not so much about not loving or believing things as about not loving insecurely or believing dogmatically.

In exploring to how to cope with the death of a loved one as the primary means to living well, he rejects his misunderstood notion of Buddhism as well as the Christian notion of an afterlife, and instead suggests we develop, "on one's own account, without any illusions, something resembling a 'wisdom of love'" (263), which involves a conviction to reconcile with our parents before they die and to avoid lying to children about important things.  And that's pretty much the end.

WTF?

He almost suggests an existential journey for the individual, but then can't get any deeper than particulars.  It feels like he was close, but then totally copped out.  He admits he doesn't know what this wisdom of love is, but he doesn't even have the first step towards getting there or even a notion of the necessary and sufficient conditions of the term.  And I wonder about his starting point of coping with the death of a loved one.  I think exploring concerns over our own death could bring richer results.

If developing a wisdom of love is, as he says earlier, a means to understand why love alone gives meaning to our lives, then we have to first go back and ensure that love really is the only thing that gives meaning to our live - the love of the singular that is.  He doesn't significantly explore and dismiss other possibilities.  Freud has me convinced that work gives our lives a whole lot of pleasure and meaning.  Maybe more than love even.  Why love gives meaning to our lives at all, though, he's already touched on: it takes us out of ourselves, yet is larger than ourselves.  I question to what extent there are individual journeys through to the end of this narrow field.  I'd be more inclined to agree that we have to find what gives meaning to ourselves individually, but that's a very different task from figuring out, as individuals, why love is the only thing that universally give us all meaning.  I hope I'm just totally misunderstanding his point.  

If we go way back to the beginning, this book was an exercise to create an overview of philosophy for adults and children alike because "there is nothing comparable in print." Off the top of my head, Sophie's World does a good job of explaining many major philosophers (although there are a few errors) in a way that's very accessible for kids because it's presented as a story.  And the For Dummies series is pretty solid too.  Gombrich's A Little History of the World could be an excellent template for a children's book on philosophy, and I can attest to loving it as an adult as well.  I can't imagine many teenagers willingly wading through Ferry's one epoch after another as this text is presented.  He explanation of each philosophy is nicely done, clearly and concisely, but it's a shame he didn't include all the many good stories involving most of these guys - their quirks and personal idiosyncrasies to really make them come alive.  If children are to be enticed to read this book, it requires more interesting characters.  We don't get to know them here, only a handful of their ideas from a selection of writers divided into Greeks, Christians, Humanists, Postmodernists, and Contemporary Philosophers.

 I loved the bit on Heidegger though, and maybe it's just disappointing that, back to back, Ferry's theories don't measure up.  He raises huge problems with technology and the environment, "For the real problem is not that history is in the covert hands of figures of 'authority', but on the contrary that it now eludes all of us, authorities included" (218), or, in other words, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." And then Ferry attempts to solve it all by provoking us to love each other more in a transcendent way, but, god forbid, not in a Christian way.  I don't entirely disagree with his conclusion, but I'm not convinced by his argument either.  

2 comments:

  1. It is a standard U.S. press cliché to interview the mother of the perp, and there are almost no circumstances under which Mom will disown her child. "Deeply rooted"? Absolutely.

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  2. Yes, but I think if we tried to love everyone like that - were that even possible - we'd could potentially start allowing for atrocities as we accept one another's faults with less incentive to punish as we hope to gently guide them towards the right decisions. It reminds me of an ancient culture that would trade their teenagers for a few years with the neighbouring village because the kids needed the type of guidance that could only be given by people with less of a vested interest in their feelings. We have teachers for that now, I suppose.

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