The Aesthetic Life

On Rhetoric

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on December 2, 2009

I have an ethical question on my mind. What are my obligations if I learn how to effectively convince others of anything I want? After studying psychology, both in class and out of it, I’ve learned quite a few techniques of getting people to come over to my view. A strong voice, a good stature, and generally acting confident, as if you actually knew what you were talking about, will win most people over easily. I’m not great at it, but I pull on the veil of competence if I want to. Now, the cases one should absolutely not use this are easy to recognize. If you are knowingly lying, you should not try to be charismatic to fool people. Granted, there might be a few occasions when it might be acceptable to lie in general, and you can put on the charm then, but those are the exceptions and not the rule. However, what about when you are actually trying to tell the truth? People trust certain behaviors because those that are telling the truth generally have them. Intuitively, there is nothing wrong with a person acting like they know something if they actually know it. But once you know the behaviors associated with competence, you run into a problem. Are you convincing someone by your behaviors, or your actual argument? If so, are we obligated to stop those behaviors? We know from psychological studies that convincing people is mostly about that emotional appeal, but the philosopher’s ideal would be to convince by argument alone, without appeal to baser instincts and emotions, and that charm and rhetoric are always a bad thing. Does that mean, for a person to be truly honest, that he or she must write as dryly as language allows, to always speak in a monotone, to never gesture or act any differently than a mannequin?
Here’s an extension to the argument, although I’m not sure if this clarifies things, or makes them murkier. There seems to be something inherently immoral about the job of a lobbyist. Their goal is simply to wine and dine those with political power and convince them to their cause. What if the cause that the lobbyist promotes truly is a good one, one that they believe in? There still seems something wrong with charming/bribing a senator. I suspect that I may be conflating a typically bad thing with cases where someone is simply trying to inform a senator of something they truly care about.


On Peace

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on November 9, 2009

Ataraxia, serenity, nirvana, eudaimonia – all of these are goals of philosophies that we have gone over in class. While the paths to these are somewhat different, what they all have in common is that they all are a variation on the idea of internal peace. Internal peace means we have quelled our doubts, let our fears pass over us, gotten rid of anger, envy, and attachment. This is certainly a pleasant state to be in. But is it good and right?
First, is internal peace good? Like I said, it is certainly pleasant. But the people we think of as pinnacles of humanity often have troubled internal lives. The stereotypical musicians, poets, and artists are often racked with both internal and external insecurity. The best activists have a thorn in their mind that drives them to forsake normal lives for the chance to make a difference. The pride and drive required to do difficult things, from being a surgeon to working on string theory, is almost antithetical to internal peace. The feeling of always wanting to be better drives some people to superhuman feats, and it is these people who carve new social orders, derive new theories, and craft new technologies that drive humanity as a whole forward. Is all the pain and frustration they suffer worth the ability to leave a mark on the world? I don’t know. There are some counter examples, and some interesting qualifications on internal peace that some people make to maintain a productive but peaceful life, but there still seems to be a dichotomy here.
Second, is internal peace right? We as humans, with few exceptions, have an empathic bond with other humans. Most would agree that it bothers them to see another suffer, and beyond that, it ought to bother them. As long as genocide slavery, wars, famine, etc. exist in this world of plenty, is it right to be at peace simply because those that suffer it are far from us? This is a hard question to answer. Again, some practitioners of peace take interesting steps to maintain both peace and productivity, but it requires fracturing the mind into separate feeling and perceiving pieces – something that requires intense discipline, and might be a type of self deception. Of course, righteous anger has quite possibly been the most destructive force in history and every side claims it. Self deception might be a better alternative.
This is not to say that peace is bad – I’m at peace in almost all my life, but the grass occasionally looks greener on the other side.

On Death

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on October 20, 2009

Death is not a good thing. What is obvious to a child is considered naive to many philosophers or theologians. Death makes our time here precious, says the erudite. It makes life meaningful. Just as black cannot exist without white, life cannot exist without death. Many excuses have been made for death, and to me, and they are designed to console us for what has been an unchangeable fact throughout the history of mankind.
Evolution, contrary to popular belief, does not work towards perfect solutions (if a perfect solution can be said to exist at all), but merely good enough solutions. For most animals, it is good enough to have there bodies last until shortly after they reach the age of reproduction. Many die while reproducing, the little and big death happening at the same time. Social animals tend to last a little longer. There is some evolutionary benefit in helping the group for a while after breeding, passing knowledge to grand children that helps them survive to become grandparents. Humans, the most social of all animals, are some of the longest lived. The average mammal’s heart beats a billion times in their lives. A human’s beats closer to two billion times before finally halting. The evolutionary process has seen fit, or rather, we have been fit enough to double our life spans. But we are still built for death from the ground up, and until recently, there was nothing that we could do about it other than cope emotionally with it. We have gotten quite good at it, with every religion and almost every philosophy coming up with innumerable reasons as to why death is actually good, but not quite good enough that killing ourselves is a good idea.
I like to run this thought experiment when I talk to people about this cultural phenomena. Imagine a world where, on every Saturday, you get hit with a baseball bat. This happens to everyone, and there is nothing that you can do about it. This has happened for as long as culture can remember. Is it difficult to imagine that similar justifications as those made for death would inevitably arise? For example: pain builds character, pleasure can’t exist without pain and thus this allows us to feel more pleasure, our moments without being hit are made sweeter by the blows, etc. And it is easy to imagine the massive uproar from the philosophers/theologians were a technique developed to lessen or stop the blow of the baseball bat, just as we see on life extension techniques now.

A World Without Work

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 30, 2009

Over the course of the last century and a half, living standards have risen dramatically, time worked per week has dropped, and the average person has access to items that not even the richest kings could obtain. Technology, both material and logistical, has been the driving force behind this change. And technology is only getting better. One can imagine a world where every person has access to machines that can construct whatever they can imagine from the base materials that surround them. Supposing such a world were to exist, where everyone can have all of their worldly desires satisfied, what would you do with your life?

I think we already see examples of this in the modern world. Many people in first world societies don’t have to work at all, and most work very little compared to their counterparts in history. What we have is an unprecedented amount of leisure time, and the only way to even attempt to answer the question above is to explore what it is we do “for fun”. I think how we entertain ourselves can be separated into doing nothing and hobbies.

Doing nothing is actually the harder of the two to define, but I think it involves a sort of destruction of the self. Zoning out, sleeping, and drug/alcohol use for the purpose of simply not being conscious are all examples. This isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. We often use these techniques to recuperate from a long day of work, a tough exam, or a bad break up. Recuperation is the key word here though. If we have no work to do, what is the point of recuperation? Doing nothing on summer break is awesome for the first week or month, depending on how bad your exams were, but it gets dull quickly. Retirees often look forward to retirement, but find that they miss having things to do relatively quickly. Those that simply stay at home and mindlessly watch TV have been shown to die much quicker than those that engage the world. I think that we actually need to do something mindful to live well, although moments of respite are not innately bad.

When leisure is plentiful, hobbies are necessary for a good life. Humans seem to have a need for something to overcome. A hobby is a self created struggle. There often is no logical reason for a person to pursue a hobby. For example, I practiced Tae Kwon Do for a dozen years, but have never gotten into a fight. In terms of utility, it has been a complete failure. Yet I still (attempt to) practice martial arts for the pleasure it gives me. Another example is a home beer brewer – it is not economical to make beer on your own, and specialty shops can sell you whatever weird flavor you hanker for. Still, people brew simply for the joy of having a hobby.

Hobbies tend to have the convenient quality of never being quite solvable. A martial artist can never have perfect form. A home brewer can never make the perfect beer. Some hobbies are about collecting experiences. Film buffs and wine tasters are always on the hunt for something new and good – there is never an end for this pursuit.

Let me make an observation about video games, something that has taken up much of the leisure time of my generation. They are challenging. It is trivial to make an easy video game, one where there is no obstacles between Mario and the Princess. In the extreme case, we could simply have a “You Win” flashing on the screen, but this doesn’t satisfy people. There needs to be a struggle to make that “You Win” worth something. Games are an artificial construction of rules – anything is possible, yet we choose to limit ourselves to gain satisfaction from the overcoming. As technology progresses and gives us more and more control over the world, I think we will simply choose where to limit ourselves rather than having nature imposing her limits on us.

Side note: In a conversation with a friend who read the paper, I used another analogy to explain the last sentence that she like a lot better. Imagine two poets – one is a traditionalist, creating poems based on rules about meter and stresses (e.g. Haiku, Sonnets). The other is an avant-garde poet, who rejects all restrictions and doesn’t limit himself with any of these trifling things. Which poet is going to have a more beautiful set of works? Who is going to have a more beautiful life – those who limit themselves or those that have no rhyme or reason?

My Hero is Dead

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug is dead. I find myself holding back tears, hoping in vain to write a eulogy that he deserves. You have not heard of him, but he was the greatest human being to ever walk this Earth. Through his work, he directly saved at least a billion lives. That’s not a typo. Billion. With a B.  What did he do?

Norman Borlaug was a scientist, a biologist to be exact. The man was the father of the Green Revolution. He was one of the first to apply modern science to agriculture. He bred high yield disease resistance crops and brought those, along with better farming techniques, to every country in the world. His crops produced 4 times as much food on the same amount of land. Not only did he feed people, but his creations saved an estimated billion hectares of land from agricultural development. Again, billion. With a B. To put that in perspective, that’s larger than Canada. That’s 6.7% of the land area in the world, or about 20% of currently forested, arable land. Imagine the innumerable species that Borlaug has saved.

And he did this for free.  He worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, and rather than sell the seeds to these wonder crops at what would be considerable profit, he gave them away. Borlaug worked in third world countries all his life, in the field, and sometimes even under fire. During the Indian/Pakistani civil war, he planted seeds close enough to a battlefield to see artillery flashes.

It is difficult to imagine the state of a world without Borlaug. Before his improvements in crops, a Malthusian catastrophe was thought to be inevitable. There simply would not have been enough food for all the people in the world. Indirectly, I am certain he has stopped wars, famines, plagues, and countless deaths. He faced down the four horsemen, and won.

What does this have to do with the art of living? This was a beautiful life.

The Epicureans

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 8, 2009

So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.

– Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

According to Epicurus, a good life is one of pleasure, where one followed a form of rational self interest. To get around the typical problems of egoism, he developed a complex set of ideas on what true pleasure was. He defined pleasure as the absence of pain. To achieve this, Epicurus advised a moderate life of seeking wisdom and having no attachments. Wisdom is knowing that all things are temporary, and to lament their loss is foolish.

Epicureans yearn for freedom. Freedom cannot be found in trying to control the external world. Trying to change anything other than our reaction to it is futile. Thus, the only freedom we can have is control of our own actions and thoughts. We are made slaves by our desires and by our fears. Virtue is learning to control those, as that is the way to attain true pleasure.

Controlling our desires is necessary to achieve a pleasant life. They can be separated into three categories. The first is natural desires, which can be further subdivided into the necessary and unnecessary. Necessary desires, like food, water, and shelter, are easy to attain. Unnecessary desires, like sex, are usually only pleasant for a while, and in the end yields more pain than pleasure. The last category of pleasures are the unnatural. These are groundless desires, and should be ignored. If one only attempts to satisfy the natural and necessary desires, then life will be easy and pleasant. Everything else is in vain.

Our fears can also control us. Wisdom is knowing that there is truly nothing to be afraid of. Wisdom can even make us fearless of death. In death, the cessation of thinking, we will perceive nothing and care not that we are dead. Thus, fearing death is illogical. Fearing loss is also illogical. No longer having what we did not once have will simply be a return to normality. Everything is temporary. Thus, expecting anything else is foolish.


Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on August 26, 2009

This is my first attempt at a blog. To bring possible readers up to speed, I am currently enrolled in a class about The Art of Living. Part of this class is to make a blog. And this is it.

I suppose I should tell a little about myself. I’m a triple major (kind of an accident) at UNCW in physics, psychology, and philosophy. I currently reside in the Honors Hall as the only male RA. I have an optimistic temperament usually, and of course I like long walks on the beach.

I chose the name of the blog as a pun on the ascetic life, something I did for a while, but am trying to break myself out of. They are not necessarily exclusive, but I think the goal of the aesthetic (one who pursues a beautiful life) and the ascetic are very different.

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Hello world!

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on August 26, 2009

Welcome to This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!