This book contains a collection of ”pithies” or short sayings and aphorisms by distinguished philosophers about how to live a meaningful life. The author began collecting the sayings when he was in his early 20’s, along with a commentary on his personal interpretation of their meaning. I think that this is a very interesting thing to do, because I love collecting quotes from various thinkers myself, but perhaps it would be a good idea to begin to do this more systematically. Life itself comes with no ”how to live” manual, and this is one reason why, as an autistic person, I often feel adrift at sea, with no anchor or compass. If only I had received such a manual when I was born, life might be slightly more straightforward. Unfortunately, life is inevitably unpredictable, chaotic, and open to a multitude of different interpretations on how to live. Falling short of an exact manual, at least we can gain some insight into existence by having a look at what other people have theorised, taking and re-interpreting the philosophies that fit our own experience, and then discarding the rest as irrelevant to our subjective truths. I like this notion of a ”pick, mix, or discard” way of living life, because it means that we can decide for ourselves what is relevant to us, without believing uncritically in a statement just because, for sake of argument, ”Plato said so”.
I will now briefly pick the quotes and arguments from this book that most resonated with me, with a little commentary of my own.
”The goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body”, Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell was an advocate of what is called ”cerebral hedonism”. I will explain the ”cerebral” bit in a moment, but Hedonism is a school of philosophy which argues that the pursuit of pleasure is life’s sole purpose and aim. This argument makes intuitive sense to me because our time on earth is finite, and being alive is such an amazing, one in a trillion experience that it would be tragic not to enjoy our lives as much as is feasibly possible. Unfortunately it is the nature of existence to encounter pain and suffering, but we can and should find ways to minimise this pain and facilitate human comfort and life satisfaction. Each individual will find this pleasure in different activities or interests, and so it is important to balance a purely utilitarian approach to the running of society (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) with an awareness of individual differences. Without these checks and balances, society would either become an oppressive, conformist monstrosity, where minority groups are banished because they threaten the hegemonic idea of what happiness is; or, in the other extreme, we would have pure anarchy, where everyone pursues their own desires and interests irrespective of another person’s, which might be different to their own.
The ”cerebral” part refers to our thinking and reasoning capacities. Philosophy is one of the most cerebral disciplines, and it is possible to find great pleasure and enjoyment in our own minds, through introspection . The mind can be perceived as an endless Russian doll or cavern of wonder, because as soon as you remove one layer, you are confronted with yet more treasure. This experience of ”walking through” such an untapped universe can rouse the spirit to utter ecstasy, as has been experienced by many mystics, poets, and philosophers.
I myself have experienced some degree of ”cerebral hedonism” when I am reading a very interesting philosophical text. Because I have synaesthesia, I experience words, letters, and other linguistic representations in colour, and this intensely beautiful landscape can make me feel as though I am on a high. The immense pleasure that I experience is generally positive, although it is tinged with nervousness because too much information is racing into my brain, and it can be hard to prioritise and order all the different strands that are competing for my attention. The crystal clear awareness of a truth or the sudden linking up of an argument, can make the world feel immensely over connected and meaningful. Yet simultaneously, I am all too aware of the imminent rift that will tear asunder this perfect bubble, and so the hedonism is always bitter sweet in its ephemeral nature.
”The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite…obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are rejected…philosophy keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect”, Bertrand Russell.
This extended quote can be summed up by the maxim: Think critically, and think for yourself. Too often we are taught to believe uncritically what our elders or those in authority have told us, when there is always a different interpretation of the truth. Yet the different interpretation might threaten the established order, and so people who follow their own path are ”living dangerously” (to quote Nietzsche) because their violation of established norms and customs opens them up to potential ridicule and even abuse. The rebellious individual often has to strike a careful balancing act between being authentic and true to themselves, while ensuring that they can deal with the potentially negative ramifications of ”not following the herd”. I think that many autistic people experience this psychological conflict on a daily basis, as indeed is the case for minority groups in general. Although the conflict might never be resolved, with greater maturity and self understanding, we might be able to traverse our hidden depths and, as Nietzsche put it, discover and come to terms with our ”madman, ”immoralist” and ”buffoon”.
To revisit the above quote, it strikes me that for many autistic people, myself included, the world is never ”definite” or ”obvious”. Instead, the world is often very confusing and nonsensical. ”Common objects” often raise more questions than answers to the inquisitive, autistic mind, and the ”unfamiliar” is confronted everyday. Many autistic people therefore never outgrow a child like ”sense of wonder”, which might lead at least a few of them down the path of philosophy and ”cerebral hedonism”. This, I think, could be one of the potential positives of being autistic.
While on the subject of magical and euphoric experiences, in his book, Danel Klein argues that a heightened, altered consciousness is always relative to ”normal” consciousness. An interesting example that Klein refers to is that when tea was first introduced to Britain, tea drinkers were ”deliriously happy”. This was because drinking tea was so new and different to ordinary experience, and the collective consciousness had not yet become habituated or adapted to this particular state of being . However, we now take tea for granted, and most people do not walk around in a state of ecstasy after having a cuppa. This argument resonated with me because I can never take life for granted. To ensure some degree of predictability, I work very hard to maintain a sense of sameness and order within aspects of my existence. However, occasionally I like to break out of my routine, after a lot of planning and preparation, and get out into the wider world. Because my ”wider world consciousness” is not well developed in comparison to my ”routine consciousness”, I can experience an intense uplift or sense of being on a high. With childlike intensity of feeling, I experience an urge to run and jump and laugh. Perhaps again, this sense of wonder is a positive of being autistic, although it can also be very draining.