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Philosophy as Consolation

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy was required reading for intellectuals of the Middle Ages. In that book, written in the 6th century AD during a one year imprisonment, Boethius gives instructions for the life of the thinker.

At the moment of his greatest misfortune, betrayed and imprisoned, falling out of favor at the court of King Theodoric awaiting for his trial and execution (Socrates comes to mind here, although Socrates never wrote anything), Lady Philosophy appears to him to converse with him and console him by reminding him that as a philosopher he ought not to despair about the loss of worldly goods. She reminds him that he is a spiritual being destined for higher things; for the ultimate superiority of the things of the mind; that happiness comes from within and virtue is the one true good which is enduring and not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune and temporal power. Also, throughout the book Boethius reflects on how evil can exist in a universe governed by God.

It is worth mentioning here that the book is not strictly speaking religious. No references are made to Jesus Christ and Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. He merely engages questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men prosper and good men fall into ruin, human nature, virtue, justice; speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism, then he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between prosecutor and criminal. Although the questions appear to be religious, the reliance throughout the book is not so much or religious Christian doctrine but on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition. Like Aquinas later on, he saw a correspondence, even an harmony, between faith and reason. The book in fact contains nothing distinctly Christian, but neither does it contain anything distinctly pagan. It can be read by anyone, no matter his beliefs. The work, in fact, is that of a Platonist who just happens to be a Christian. As such, it can be profitably read by anybody with or without faith.

Keeping the above preface in mind as regards the consolations of philosophy, let us now ask this question: how would a modern practitioner of philosophy, say a college professor of philosophy, interpret such work nowadays? Would it literally be a consolation for her/him? A consolation for something that is missing? What is missing?

The picture above of a professor of philosophy teaching his class may be helpful in supplying an answer to the question. Notice his attire. It does not convey the image we might have had of a philosophy professor only a couple of generations ago (the 50s and the 60s), suit, shirt, and tie being a sine qua non. Things must have changed in materialistic Marxist terms, and indeed they have. But then again, universities have existed in post-Greco-Roman times since the 11th century. The word academy actually goes back to the school established by Plato in ancient Greece. What was Plato’s attire then? Did he receive a salary? How well did he pay his faculty? Were the salaries commensurate to that of middle-class worker, or was it much higher befitting the intelligentsia of the times? The questions as applied to Plato look impertinent and ludicrous and yet they need to be asked if we are to interpret correctly Boethius’ work.

Viewing both teachers and pupils’ attire in the above renditions one can safely state that at the very least the professor was enjoying middle class wages. But it would be a mistake to assume that this was always the case. If we take the long view, that has rarely been the case.

For example, in colonial America when colleges such as Harvard and Yale were established, most faculty members worked as adjuncts and more often than not held second jobs. Meaning that their salary was sub-standard, less than that of a worker. Teaching was considered a vocation or a noble calling of sort. Even in the 19th century, when the modern research university was born, things didn’t change much. The rewards of the profession were not materialistic but remained spiritual and intellectual. Now, one may consider such a state of affairs an ideal rarely attained, but in fact it was the reality for most of the history of academia since Plato. Being poor and being paid sub-standard wages has for the most part remained part of the spiritual-ethical tradition of academia. So one consoles oneself with the exalted title of “Professor,” and with Boethius’ consolations of philosophy, of course.

The only exception so far might have come about in the 50s and 60, now considered the golden age of the American academy, when newly minted Ph.D.s were practically guaranteed employment and tenure in a university and professors suddenly found themselves propelled to the top of the social hierarchy. Naturally good salaries also guaranteed increase prestige to the profession as a whole. But that did not last very long. By the late sixties the relationship between government grants generously dispersed and academia soured over the protests to the Vietnam war. Public funds for higher education were slashed and so we have slowly but surely returned to the previous normal conditions of almost forced poverty accruing to being a college professor. The teaching attire of the current college professor above is now more the norm than the exception.

So what is one left with? Well, one may not be getting rich but one still expects that one engaged in imparting higher education ought to be getting wiser and nobler as one continues to instruct new generations of students of philosophy. The newly arrived capitalist entrepreneur professor in his fifties who has amassed in the bank his consolation millions and now plays at being “professor,” is not exactly the norm nor the most inspiring model of the classical college professor. Ordinarily, what prevails is that one is left with the consolations of philosophy and the consciousness of the nobility of one’s calling. One could do worse than that. One could be a veteran standing at a street corner with a poster hung on his neck which declares “imagine what it is to be homeless.” One could, on the other hand, be amassing capital and enriching oneself by exploitation of the workers and evasion of taxes within a savagely capitalistic materialistic world depositing the ill acquired wealth in the Caiman Islands banks created for that very purpose. Which is to say, Boethius’s book could be interpreted as an allegory for the current social status of professors: respected but not well remunerated, except for the consolations of philosophy. It’s a sort of cruel job, no doubt, but demanding more may mean jeopardizing the very nobility of the call. Playing professor may be fun and enhance one’s ego but it is not exactly what is needed nowadays as inspiration for the new millennial generations. Marx may not fully agree here, but I think Socrates would.

P.S. This essay, which has been slightly revised, has already recently appeared in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Finally diagnosed with Bipolar and understanding God’s purpose for my life

Abigail George

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I’ve outlasted a lot of things. I’m over 35. I am nearing 40 years of age. I’ve made mistakes and lived with regret but I don’t anymore. And I’m finally able to make peace with the mistakes I’ve made in my past.

I can forgive someone who brought me pain. The suicidal thoughts that I’ve manages to overcome. I think of our happy my parents were in my childhood. I think of every childhood experience as happy except the memories brought back to me of apartheid. I don’t have to tell myself anymore, you can make it. By the grace and mercy of God, I’ve survived. And it is God that has outlasted my storms.

So for the millions of people out there who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or have a loved one living with a mental illness, be brave. You are going to get through this storm. You’re a fighter.

You’re going to make it and when you come out on the other side, talk about it, or write about your survival, tell someone about it, become a storyteller, or give your testimony. You might save a life in the same way yours was saved.

As I write this I think of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and being fake-happy. Pretending to love being alone and not being the proper example of a good daughter. You want someone to love you until the end of time. I want someone to love until the end of time. I want people to love me. To remember me. In some way I want to belong to the world. I grew up with a narcissistic mother who passed this trait to her only son and middle daughter. That and beauty. That and arrogance.

But beauty fades like fast cars. It’s just tears I tell myself.

Tomorrow I’d have forgotten about them. Anticipating waves or the vibrations of depression does nothing for the way you look on the outside. It is all for you. I do it, I write it for you. I don’t know who you are. I just know that you accept me for who I am. I’m growing older and in the blue-dark I can’t see that I am growing older. All I do, the poetry, the writing is for you. I’m selfish that way, I guess.

I don’t want happiness. I just want a brave personality. That and the writing is what gets me through the hours, the day, the night. And sometimes I try very hard through the tears not to even think of going there. Of letting go. Sometimes I think I love this world too much. I love you, the Reader. I do love you. Perhaps in the end you’re the only thing that’s keeping the chemicals from balancing me the right way up. It’s all for you the Reader. Everything that I’ve ever written. You’re the assignment. Perhaps you’re the mission.

I was finally diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder after Tara. I spent

6 months in a mental institution in Johannesburg. Mental illness stamped on my forehead for all to see, alongside a stigma, a family (and paternal and maternal family) that saw to it that I quickly became an outcast, felt like an interloper when spoken to. I was ignored, and sat quietly by myself at family functions. It was as if I was in high school again. I never cried about it, but I don’t think that made me brave.

I was half-mute like Princess Diana, and Maya Angelou as a child.

Something had happened to me. Somehow I had been transformed intrinsically in childhood (it was because of my mother’s mental, verbal, and emotional abuse), but was it the environment that changed, no, no. It was human nature. All the humans around me. Bright children, no matter how bright they might seem even if adult words come out of their mouths, all children are still innocent. And all children want is the mother-love, and I felt the lack of mother-love acutely with an acumen and focus beyond my years.

I was called insubordinate by a male teacher once. Years later when we met at a prayer meeting, he spontaneously embraced me. In that moment, I forgave him. For the corporal punishment he had meted out to me for letting someone else, a popular girl, copy out my answers in a test. I thought I would be liked. But I wasn’t. I was still a goody two shoes.

I still sometimes would spend break in a bathroom stall.

As a moony-moody teenager I would read. I was mostly withdrawn, serious, never smiling (I never smiled once at Collegiate, it hurt too much to smile, my mother would go on rampages then, hurling mental abuse at me in the morning for breakfast, afternoon tea, and supper which my sister made for us. My mother was depressed too in a sinister and deceptive way). Now let me get back to never smiling, and never playing team sports.

Let me talk about the (good) old days. Collegiate High School for Girls in Port Elizabeth (a Model C school). That year, 1995, I was of course a perfectionist. A bipolar perfectionist who only ever understood the world of achievement, achievement. It had nothing and everything to do with having a Khoi-ego, Khoi-identity, Khoi-personality. But I would only understand the knowledge of Khoi-anything later on.

In those days I relaxed my hair. My hair was so straight it made no curls or waves, and I wore it in a ballerina bun. I was skinny, not voluptuous or buxom like the other girls. Late to bloom, as the saying goes. At 17 years old, or 16, I forget, all I could think of was my shame. My shame that I was not White. The shame of not having straight hair. The mortifying shame of not being athletic, not being able to play sports, not being able to be singled out first for a game during P.E. period I did not play hockey, or tennis (my mother got her Transvaal colours for tennis in high school).

I did not have blonde hair, and freckles on my face, forehead, knees, and the rest of my body. I did not have freckles in secret places.

But I learned quick, and I also learned very slowly that people don’t easily forgive, and forget if you live with a mental illness. This made me withdraw even more into my mute-self. For most of my life I lived like this with a mute voice inside of me until one day I began to write. I was 8 years old.

In later years cousins on both sides of the family despised me (because I was mentally ill). I could see it there in there eyes, as they did not meet my gaze whenever I spoke. Family despised me (because I was mentally ill). I was not invited to weddings, or kitchen teas. Women-fold women-folk kind of things. They despise you (this I told myself) because society despises lunatics, and for a long time I was happy encompassing whatever this word meant. Lunatic. It was me who was more in touch with reality than the ones who thought I was mad, I have come to accept this now. I have other much more important, and significant things on my mind, and I am about to begin to write my first novel. This is what moves me to write this for other people suffering in silence, people who are being told to pull their socks up (or that they ‘re beginning to be too big for their britches). Don’t live a half-life. Don’t live a half-lie.

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New Social Compact

Thoughts after reading Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss”

Abigail George

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You will experience happiness, I was the one who told myself this. No one else. The museum has invited me again to one of their lectures, but I never go. They will stop inviting, like they my father, one of these fine days, and then where will that leave me, and the fine museum built with my father’s hands. The South End Museum in Port Elizabeth, at the cusp of the Eastern Cape where in 1820 the English arrived. Sir Rufane Donkin who was to be the governor of the Cape (did he plunder, steal, rape, colonialise I thought to myself or was it kismet, fate, destiny written in the stars. Sir Donkin came with a mad wife in tow. Was she a Mrs Rochester, like me, like me, like me.

Bipolar, mosaic, atlas that it is, well for me it did the impossible with its overpowering (aplomb), uplifting gift that it gave me.

Sometimes the day itself is perfumed with good thoughts of T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Nabokov, the Russian writers, the Russian poets, the Russian masters, Isobel Dixon, Ingrid Jonker, Plath and Sexton. To me the women had superpowers, and the men, intelligence seeping through their every pore, I wanted them to talk to me, pull me into their arms and hug all my sadness, grief, loss, loneliness, frustration away from the secret chasms of my heart. I wanted them to lull and pull the self-pity that looped itself like cobwebs about my self-worth. Beautiful people, the beautiful women, that beautiful lady that was my mother that smelled just like Yves Saint Laurent’s Algeria, the beautiful men, seemed on the surface tension of things to get everything. They were rewarded. I was not.

I have this imperfect list of thoughts when I was reading Kiran Desai.

Oh, how I hope to be a respected and wonderful writer as she and Anuradha Roy is. Arundhati Roy, the writer of “The God of Small Things”. Sometimes I feel like a guardian, or rather a guardian angel when I write. I am hidden subtly, but also at the same time beyond opinion, and I also find that I am beyond caring for the approval of others. And by that of course I mean my sly and beautiful mother. Hair attractive as it falls about her face, hairpins/hair scarf/hair band loosened by her movements during the day and I try not to think of her telling me to make up my bed, or how they laugh at me, and look at me with this infuriating smile on their faces as if they know better.

Sometimes I think to myself who is the enemy now. Is it me, is it me who has to every year be put away for a week for my own good, to recover from ill health

I was sixteen years old when my mother dragged me to the Indian-looking psychiatrist who had studied in Vienna. And as I think back to that year I think of my identity coined now. That “term” on the inhale, and exhale of every breath that I take. That of a Khoi-female identity. Khoi-writer of prose, and poetry.

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Young women learn government fundamentals in nationwide leadership program

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This July, two teenage girls from every state in the country met in Washington, D.C., for the 73rd annual American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation. This one-week government-in-action leadership development program is designed to educate future leaders on U.S. government fundamentals and the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizens.

The girls selected to go to ALA Girls Nation are chosen from week-long ALA Girls State programs in each state. The young women become “senators” for a week and participate in mock political campaigns and debates, visit historical sites, and meet their real-life counterparts on Capitol Hill. For a number of the participants, the program’s impact extends beyond the weeklong event: Many go on to serve in the military and credit ALA Girls Nation as their source of inspiration.

New ALA member and U.S. Army Capt. Virginia Clark, stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, is an ALA Girls Nation alumna. Though she says she has always been patriotic, her experiences at ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation helped her realize she wanted to serve her country. “Being around really motivated people made me realize I wanted to be around people who were spending their time doing things rather than looking for the next great party,” Clark said.

Reflecting on where she has been and where she is going, Clark says she owes it all to the American Legion Auxiliary. “I wouldn’t have gotten into West Point without ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation … I 100 percent owe, I think, my current life and my career — I met my husband at West Point — to the fact that I went to ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation.”

For some girls, the Washington, D.C., leadership program is their first opportunity to connect with peers with common interests. For others, it is the first time they encounter students whose perspective differs from their own. For all, it is a moment in time where similarities and differences come together to symbolize strength, democracy and freedom.

Former ALA Girls State and ALA Girls Nation attendee Allyson Snelling, who is attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, chose a career in the military because she “loves everything it represents.” She adds, “The values and lessons I’ve learned during my short time at West Point have made me a better person and leader.” Snelling said the program taught her the power of one voice and the importance of communicating with others. “Being able to communicate with someone you may completely disagree with is becoming a lost art,” she said. “ALA Girls Nation taught me that it doesn’t matter if you agree; it matters that you understand.”

ALA Girls Nation alumnae have gone on to hold leadership roles in industries spanning government, media, education and law, and many have become high-ranking members of the military.

Notable alumnae include Jane Pauley, national media personality; Susan Bysiewicz, lieutenant governor of Connecticut; retired Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, former superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy and former Air Force aide to the President; Ann Richards, former governor of Texas; and Susan Porter-Rose, former chief of staff to First Lady Barbara Bush, among many others. ALA Girls Nation is proud to be a foundation of support to the future strong women of this great nation.

The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) is a nonpartisan organization committed to advocating for veterans’ issues, mentoring America’s youth and promoting patriotism. They advance the mission of The American Legion, incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization founded on four pillars: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism and Children & Youth.

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