Monthly Archives: October 2015

Paul Ryan & Ayn Rand

paul ryan ayn rand quoteAs I was getting coffee before class at 8am this morning, I saw on the television that Paul Ryan was just elected speaker of the House.  Given that Ayn Rand is not my favorite political philosopher by any means, I am sad that many in congress continue to move farther to the right.  Those of us on the left want education and healthcare for all of our people, and Ryan is a hard opponent of this, making little distinction between degrees of socialism and hardcore communism.  I am worried that things are going to get a lot worse for many people before there is an opportunity for us to make things better.  I was discussing socialism versus capitalism in class today, and showed some of John Pilger’s War on Democracy, which is an admittedly left wing pro-socialism documentary, the sort of thing Ryan would despise along with Rand.  Here is the documentary, entirely free online:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Peng Bird & Zhuangzi

Johnathan_Livingston_SeagullMy parents had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the shelf when I was a small child, but like their copy of the Dao De Jing, I couldn’t make much out of it then.  Now that I have studied and taught Asian philosophy, I can see connections to many points made by the Daoist Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher.

As the book opens, Jonathan practices slow flying by himself for no reason other than for the love of flying.  He falters and falls, which is a disgrace for seagulls, who only fly for the purpose of food.  His parents ask him why he flies and neglects eating, and he tells them he just wants to know what he is capable of.  He learns many other skills alone, but when he returns to the flock, he is banished as an outcast.  Alone, he learns to dive deep in the sea and far inland for better food, to fly for hundreds of miles while asleep, to fly above the mist and fog that grounds most gulls, and to free himself from boredom, fear and anger.

Zhuangzi contemplates flock of birdsWhile many ancient Chinese philosophers suggested various ways one could structure the state, as Laozi does in the Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi is entirely concerned with liberating the individual mind in a chaotic and close-minded world, to seek freedom and happiness through simplicity and open-mindedness.

In the first passage of the Zhuangzi, the Peng bird is mocked by the dove and the cicada (a large grasshopper-like insect) for flying high and far in the sky. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act, as they are only interested in what they can find on the ground.  They die every winter and do not survive by migrating south, like the Peng bird.  Later in the text, Jo of the North Sea tells us:

Frog with ZhuangziYou can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog, limited by the space he lives in.  You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect, bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the Way (Dao) with a cramped scholar, shackled by his doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Way of things.

There are many other relevant passages, but it is extraordinary how similar the beginnings of both texts are.  I imagine it is not a coincidence.

Magritte’s Son of Man & Object Concealing Subject

Magritte's Son of ManIn discussing Buddhism and the subjectivity of perspective, one of my students mentioned Magritte’s Son of Man, the famous painting of an apple concealing a man’s face.  The apple, an object we desire, conceals the subject, the idea that lies behind this painting.  Reality appears to us as simply there, bare and objective, which conceals that our reality is also our own individual perspective, which we learn through investigation and reflection.  Much of human experience and the history of philosophy across the globe is concerned with either separating the objective from the subjective or describing how the two are intertwined.  One couldn’t ask for a more perfect illustration than Magritte’s painting, whose title suggests that this has been the simple problem in the faces of all the descendants of Adam and Eve ever since the apple.