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Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission. This issue he calls in the hippes [cavalry, man].
A fellow columnist asked me a question in a recent issue, so I think it’s my turn to ask one. Anyway, I’m feeling lazy today, and you seem to be just the man for a lazy day. I hope I’m not interrupting yours with this abrupt epistle from the future. But what I’m wondering is this: Can I really justify taking a break?
Of course some people believe that you and I are always on vacation in the vocation we have been called to: philosopher. And there is no question that leisure is a prerequisite of reflection and dialogue. However, I am also drawn to an adage of Zen which says, “No work, no food.” In other words, we should not expect anybody else to take care of us by the sweat of their brow; each must provide for him- or herself. Furthermore, after we have secured our minimal needs, we ought to devote the rest of our labors to helping others. Can I look myself in the face if I’m not exerting every effort to improve the world I live in? It’s such a mess, don’t you agree?
Somebody I’ve met in my new incarnation told me this story:
A fellow who died awoke in heaven. [This story presumes the afterworld of the people of my new surroundings, not Hades.] He was ushered before God for an interview. God asked him if he had any questions or comments. “Well, there is one thing that puzzled me, and indeed distressed me all my days. I saw so much suffering, and so much corruption, and so much incompetence, everywhere I looked. Although no-one can escape pain and loss, my own life was fairly fortunate and I have no complaints on my own behalf. But how could You have allowed so many others to go through all that misery? Why didn’t You do something?” Whereupon God, stroking his long white beard and raising a wry eyebrow, replied, “But I did, my friend: I sent you down there.”
What have you to say, then, Epicurus? Is repose – not to mention, a lifetime of repose – really possible for a philosopher?
I doubt it, and who would want it? Life is best and most pleasantly lived in some kind of balance. Yet part of a balanced life is rest and repose. Isn't it true that in the Abrahamic civilization you now inhabit there is a tradition called the Sabbath day, when once a week relaxation, pleasure, harmony and contemplation are supposed to reign supreme? I think that might be a good practice, and one worth your attention.Â
You seem overtaken with how much evil and trouble there is in the world, and how much needs to be done to rectify it. It would take every moment of a hundred thousand lifetimes to make a dent in it all; or at least that is the impression you leave with your query. How can a person take a day off, or even a minute, in the face of such a task?
But, in truth, Socrates, is the world in such awfulÂ straits, or is that not also a function of how you view it? You sound so distressed and anxious, to the point where even a second of peace would leave you feeling guilty.Â The good person will do his part to make the world a better place. But to continually rail against evil and focus on suffering and to feel oppressed by them doesn't do the world much good, and certainly must diminish your own life in it.Â Â
It is much better, I believe, to lead a balanced and satisfying existence that contains both the sweat of work and the sweet repose of rest. Try to understand nature and your own nature, and if you do you will see thatÂ this is true. By your own light, be a good friend to others and be a decent human being. But realize that it is also permissible to enjoy yourself and the simple pleasures that life offers. Friendship, sensation, and the beauty and wonder of nature are available to everyone.Â Every moment does not have to be purpose-driven, or indeed, driven at all. Some of life can be like aimless wanderings through a garden purely for its own sake.
In a profound way, if you can find peace, ease, and pleasure in your own life, I think you will be that much more able to bring these things into this troubled world to share them with others.Â
Your friend in repose,