19.4.11

bookpost: The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley

I've read three books without posts, so I'll try to catch up in the next few days.



I can't remember why I had this book -- I think it was a gift from a colleague or student. I would never had bought it on my own. By the cover it looks like an Old Crank book, where someone complains about how crappy the world is with its new-fangled whatnots, and so on. And in some ways, it is.

But it is more of an Alain de Botton -style review of philosophy, looking at how thinkers have prescribed a path to happiness and how modern western culture, with its emphasis on consumerism and entitlement, makes it hard to apply those prescriptions:
Here are the concepts that keep turning up in philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience: personal responsibility, autonomy, detatchment, understanding, mindfulness, transcendence, acceptance of difficulty, ceaseless striving and constant awareness of mortality. (68)

Foley promotes a lifestyle of contemplation and personal responsibility, at once radical and reactionary, where we turn away from society and embrace silence but at the same time avoid self-absorption or alienation, supported though scientific research and philosophers from Buddha to Nietzsche.While I didn't always agree with him, I found his central argument compelling (as I am a bit of a crank myself), and it did invite me to examine my own life. For example, the chapter 'The Absurdity of Work' made me laugh out loud, but also made me think about my career and how I can achieve autonomy and detachment and still be effective. He had some imminently practical advice:
[S]urrender to the task but not to the taskmaster, become absorbed in the work itself but never absorb the work ethos. (177)

I also loved this:
It is shocking and profoundly regrettable, but, apparently, sales of oranges are falling steadily because people can no longer be bothered to peel them. As soon as I read this I began buying oranges more frequently and eating them with greater pleasure. Now I peel an orange very slowly, deliberately, voluptuously, above all defiantly, as a riposte to an age that demands war without casualties, public services without taxes, rights without obligations, celebrity without achievement, sex without relationship, running shoes without running, coursework without work and sweet grapes without seeds. (112)

As a teacher, I want to offer my students the opportunity to dig into this rich life of contemplation and struggle, to sacrifice the shortcut and the quick answer for transcendence and understanding. We advocate too much for giving the student what they want, not challenging them to learn beyond their own passions, stroking their ids to the extent that they don't move beyond immediate desires. Students want freedom to do what they want, but the greatest happiness comes from discipline and difficulty. As Foley says, 'Freedom is thin' (137). We need more, and this book gives some direction to where we might find it.

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