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Sunday, 12 February 2012
Wednesday, 16 November 2011
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
This is called the Golden Rule of ethics and has been stated by many people in many places at many times, and so no one religion or philosophy can lay claim to it. This maxim deserves the top spot on any philosophical one-liner list because it so neatly sums up a system of ethics by which many people live their lives. The statement is a challenge as well as an instruction – we must try to empathize with others to understand how we ourselves would wish to be treated if in the other person’s place. There may be exceptions to the rule and it may not be sufficient to a complete moral doctrine, but as a simple rule for daily life it is hard to think of something which would so improve everyone’s lives if put universally into effect.
Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.
William of Ockham was a noted English logician of the 14th century. Ockham’s razor is often quoted simply as ‘the simplest explanation is usually the right one.’ This is a gross simplification of a powerful logical tool. A better stating of it would be something like ‘All things being equal, the simplest explanation is more often correct.’ We live in a complex world where the answer to any question is often very complex. All things being equal, with no more evidence for one solution than another, we should not posit the existence of an agent we do not need to explain a phenomenon. When thinking about a subject, we should use the simplest reasoning possible unless the evidence compels us to include an extra agency.
There has been a recent innovation in the world of philosophy which claims to put Ockham’s razor to rest. Scientists are notoriously sniffy of philosophy, and so Mike Alder has created an improvement of Ockham’s razor – Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword. Simply put, this new philosophical tool states ‘That which cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating.’ The Flaming Laser Sword certainly simplifies things; one thinks Ockham may have approved of it.
I think therefore I am.
Je pense donc je suis. Cogito ergo sum. These are the words which Descartes used to slay total nihilism. Nihilism is the philosophical denial of existence, either of anything at all or more specific portions of existence. Everyone, at some point in their philosophical musings, wonders whether anything at all exists. Descartes was clever enough to see that pondering, doubting, existence was sufficient to prove that at least one thing exists; the thinker. This has given philosophy something to build on as we can now be certain that one thing exists. There have been criticisms of Descartes argument as a tautology (I think therefore I am) but the basic principle stands as a buttress against the void of nihilism.
The writer Milan Kundera has joked “‘I think, therefore I am’ is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches.”
The unexamined life is not worth living.
For me this statement of Socrates’, as told by Plato, is sufficient to explain the necessity of studying philosophy. Everyone is pitched into the world blindly and makes do as best they can with the things they are given. For many, this muddling through is hard enough, and examining their motives and the rightness of their actions is just an added, and superfluous, difficulty. However, if we do not examine our lives and use the wisdom we gain from it to plan the future, we are no better than animals following instinct to survive. To take control of your life you must engage your mind. This is not to say that everyone must become a new Socrates, or study academic philosophy, but to paraphrase Voltaire ‘we must all cultivate our own wisdom.’
A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to any other purpose.
Kant is one of the giants of Western philosophy. Someone once said that philosophers who came before Kant had the enormous benefit of never having to study Kant. It is true that Kant’s philosophy can be heavy going to read and understand, but his theory of the categorical imperative is one deserving study. A categorical imperative would be something like ‘It is never right to lie.’ The test of the categorical imperative is whether it should be universally used. So, if lying became universal then trust would be abolished, therefore lying is wrong in all cases. Whether you agree with categorical imperatives or not, and situational ethics is the flavor of the modern age, we must all consider why things may or may not be good.
Man is the measure of all things.
This is the most famous saying of Protagoras, though it is in fact, only the first portion of his statement. The full line runs ‘Man is the measure of all things; of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.’ Protagoras’ relativism is one of the most extreme ever argued. This means that truth is relative and for each individual truth is different. This can be true with things like temperature – you might find the evening chilly, but for me it is warm. However, we can all agree on the absolute temperature in degrees. Protagoras would disagree and would say that all of our knowledge is sense based and therefore unique to each individual. The problem with relativism is that it makes philosophical discussion impossible; what you think you say and what I hear might be completely different, if we are unable to agree on objective truth.
Death need not concern us because when we exist death does not, and when death exists we do not.
Epicurus and Epicureanism, has suffered for many years from a misapprehension about what his philosophy teaches. Epicureanism is a hedonistic philosophy in that it teaches that pleasure is to be sought, but only to the extent that pleasure is the freedom from pain and fear. Epicurus also taught on the gods and death. Epicurus is famous today for his questions regarding the problem of evil existing if there are gods and for this statement about death. Because death, being dead rather than dying, involves no pain, for Epicurus the state of death is a good thing (or at least not to be feared). Epicurus is well beloved of atheists and humanists today because of his rational outlook. In the Roman period, tombs of Epicureans would have this carved on their tombs- I was not. I was. I am not. I do not care.
You cannot step in the same river twice.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, also known as the Weeping Philosopher and Heraclitus the Obscure, has left us only a few philosophical sentences. Due to this lack of original writing, Heraclitus’ philosophy remains hard to characterize. His belief seems to have been that the universe is in a constant state of flux, as this famous quote indicates. By the time that you attempt to step into the river a second time, the waters of the river will have moved on and so, the river will not be the same one you stepped into the first time. The sentence also has a second meaning; you cannot step into the same river again because you are no longer the same as the person who took the first step. The question of how identity is preserved over time is one which still animates philosophers today.
This is the most sinister of all the addiction-caterers, in that you’re not even safe from your own doctor. Most every doctor will find a way to peddle a pharmaceutical drug to a person with some kind of condition, real or imaginary; it makes their job easier, and feeds the business (i.e. the healthcare industry) that cuts them a check to be a drug-dealer in disguise. Most prescription drugs, after all, are just synthetic alternatives to what unrefined, impure substances flow through the streets without requiring an RX slip. (Oxycontin is, content-wise, no different from heroine, and consequently is just as addictive and abused as the poppy-based original.) And with new disorders, diseases and conditions fabricated on a daily basis, there will always be a demand to meet the raid-proof supply.
Unarguably a direct contributor to a smorgasbord of death options, the government has done nothing to do away with this consumable poison; while there may be myriad agencies dedicated to the public safety of any other ingestible product, there is nothing deterring a cylinder of carcinogens from entering countless lungs each day, each hour. The only dissembling action the government has taken is to drive up the tax on the the stuff to levels that should prevent affordability for most consumers. Of course, any addict will find a way to acquire the goods, even scrape together every coin from beneath the couch cushions. In actuality smokers will just be perpetually bitter about the continually rising prices, doing little about it besides lighting up a butt. A perfect circle of death and taxes.
Legal steadily since the twenties, when the government had the crazy idea to ban this braincell-shedding national pastime and deny itself unruly profits, booze is as potentially dangerous as it is ubiquitous. At any public setting (even Starbucks is getting in on the racket), alcohol is usually available for purchase, and without much restraint so long as the register keeps chiming (and as long as a designated vehicular man-saver is selected). While it seems unfair that its proven hazards outweigh those of marijuana, and still maintains the legal status the plant does not, we won’t soon have a profitable poison at quite the summit which liquor has found itself. Budweiser will be forever both the king of beers and the king of the drug hill.
It’s lurid. It’s tasteless. And it’s a goldmine. Just ask Hugh Hefner or Larry Flynt or any infinite-aire that shovels gold from the sex industry. Nothing sells like sex, which is why it is so often introduced, if subliminally, to any cheap-shooting marketing campaign. Directly though, sex in a bottle always finds a customer-base. Nothing breeds desire like nature. Porn is available at the click of a mouse, and on a special shelf (in opaque packaging) at most magazine venders. That’s not to mention seedy stores with conspicuous names like “Adult Mart” or “Pleasure Island”, which make like X-rated Wal-Marts. No Christian activist stands a chance at taking down this invincible Goliath.
Be it at a casino in a tolerant state, or an Indian reservation or behind the counter of any convenience store sales counter in scratch form, risking all your earnings for a poor chance at modest luck is a great way to grease up a business’ fat gut. Many seeking a magical and immediate escape from an under-educated life of manual labor and alcohol poisoning flock to pick up their daily lotto ticket or place their “lucky” numbers, as if a million to one isn’t so far-fetched. And no business should be trusted that purposefully eschews visible windows and clocks in order to hide the passage of time. Lo and behold, any state with loose casino laws automatically resembles the inside of Donald Trump’s gentleman’s drawer.
Greasy, fattening food is cheap and ubiquitous. Literally, it can be acquired 24/7 and at every intersection, and purchased by the bucket for less than whats in your typical consumer’s belly button. Obesity is easy; in fact, it’s hard to avoid when healthy food costs more than the average consumer can afford with his weekly paycheck. Fast food is made cheap (often with artificial substitutes), hence it can be sold cheap and is a sad sap’s last option. When it tastes so much better than it benefits, it is, again, a huge draw. McDonald’s brags right on its golden arches how many billion burgers it’s sold, but it is not by any pure means: for one, McDonald’s loads their food with chemicals that simulate happiness, their hamburger buns with sugar, which is another petty alternative to just making good food alone. Only recently have the chicken nuggets started to be made with the frighteningly white meat of actual chicken, a step up from sickly colored ostrich meat. So, as many struggle, and fail, to convert to a healthier diet, they “put a smile on” only because the milkshakes are loaded with too many chemicals to do otherwise.
Because people care (i.e. obsess) about the lives of the beautiful and famous; tabloids, TMZ and trashcan journalism exists. For some, enough to make a handsome profit, it’s not enough to watch a movie and leave the stars onscreen. No, they need to see these people hunted down and in intimate, compromising settings that would be grounds for an assault charge in any other circumstance – an invasion of privacy that nobody deserves. Sure, reality stars present a kind of voyeurism in their professions that makes privacy invasion a given, but for any artist who creates their work in isolated, public arenas and seek not to take their work home with them, there becomes a fine line between celebrity reporter and peeping tom.
How can a game consisting of orcs, wizards and other medieval cliches consume so many souls and hours of sunlight? Unfathomable as it sounds, millions maintain a subscription to a network-based video game, and treat it as a second life, one in which they clock in more hours than in the actual world. Eat, sleep, energy drink, game: that is the complete life of many who’ve yet to leave their parents’ basement, or pursue a real life of work that doesn’t involve trading furs or blacksmithing. And about the addictive nature of games like World of Warcraft, just see the video on Youtube of the kid that has a veritable stigmata over his mom taking away his WOW account. Scary stuff.
Visual stimulation can be just as addictive as any other kind. Cut off a shut-in’s cable subscription and watch how quickly a sweet, slightly-sedated old lady can become a common junkie, suffering from violent withdrawal symptoms and uncontrollable behavior. Television is an endless stream of unilateral entertainment, that simulates a fulfilling life one may be missing out on due to being terminally wheelchair-confined, or else just cut off from a greater society. Just pay the monthly bill, and the loneliness can be neatly stuffed into a little old coin purse.
Compulsive shopping is a disorder, and one that can keep the economy churning, if the afflicted member is a responsible credit card owner. More often than not, however, a frequent credit card swiper will live in bottomless debt, with nothing but a household of canoes and flatscreen T.V.’s to show for it. Of course, the government would encourage spending at inadvisable times if it means economic stimulation (and, of course, sales tax revenue), but the compulsive shopper needs more counseling than trips to the mall to right this wrong.
Wilde’s is probably the most famous tomb in Père Lachaise. Wilde died in France after leaving England to avoid the shame of his conviction for ‘gross indecency.’ His legendary wit is said to have extended to his death bed, where he is supposed to have quipped – ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go.’ (Though this is probably apocryphal.) Wilde’s tomb, with an angel displaying its genitalia, was defaced soon after its erection. Today the monument stands covered in lipstick where women kiss the stone, proving the grave’s popularity. Engraved on the tomb is a verse from the Ballad of Reading Gaol by Wilde:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
The story of the love between Abelard and Heloise was one of the best known romances of the middle ages. Abelard was one of the great French philosophers and logicians of his day. Being one of the great teachers of the time, he was hired to teach Heloise, a rich young noble woman. Heloise and Abelard started an affair which led to an illegitimate child and a secret marriage. When Heloise’s uncle found out about the affair, he had Heloise placed in a nunnery and Abelard was castrated. The letters the two sent to each other over the course of the rest of their lives are – justly – famous. The bones of the two lovers were buried together under a grand tomb in 1817. A tradition of modern lovers leaving letters at the tomb of these two great, though doomed, lovers has arisen.
Victor Noir is more famous for his death and his grave than for his life. Noir was born Yvan Salmon, but adopted a pen name when he moved to Paris to take up journalism. When a cousin of the Emperor challenged the owner of the newspaper for which Noir worked to a duel, Noir was sent, as one of the seconds, to arrange the details of the duel. When the Prince referred to Noir and a companion as ‘menials’, a slap was exchanged, with either Noir striking the Prince or being struck by him, and the Prince then shot Noir dead. To mark Noir’s grave, a bronze statue of the man lying supine as if just shot, his hat lying beside him, was erected. This statue has since become something of a fertility symbol. Due to the naturalistic style of the sculpture there is a rather prominent fold in Noir’s trousers which make him appear to be aroused. It is said that by rubbing this area and leaving a flower in Noir’s hat, a woman is guaranteed a husband within the year. While the rest of the statue is covered with verdigris, Noir’s crotch gleams, proving the popularity of this particular myth.
Géricault lived for only thirty-two years, but he left behind a body of famous paintings which influenced the Romantic Movement. His ‘Raft of the Medusa’ is one of the most visited paintings in the Louvre. I included Géricault in a previous list for his somewhat chilling painting of severed heads. His tomb in Père Lachaise is a masterpiece all of its own. The monument is topped by a reclining bronze of Géricault with his paint brush and palette. The statue shows Géricault as vital and alive, and not the thin specter that the TB which killed him had turned him into. On the side of the tomb there is a bronze version of The Raft of the Medusa, so that everyone passing may see his genius.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, was one of the greatest comic playwrights of all time. Like Felix Faure, many people who have not seen a Molière play know the story of his death. Molière suffered for many years from TB. Despite his illness, Molière insisted on performing in his play Le Malade Imaginaire (Also known as The Hypochondriac). In this play a man suffers terribly from illnesses he does not have. Molière, on the other hand, was suffering terribly from a real illness. While playing the part of the hypochondriac, he succumbed to a coughing fit, and died later at home. Since Molière was an actor, he was not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, and only the intervention of the king allowed him burial amongst the unbaptized infants. His remains were transferred in 1817 to this tomb in Père Lachaise.
Georges Rodenbach, Belgian writer and poet of the 19th century, is perhaps most famous today for his novel Bruges-la-Morte. This work was later turned into the opera Die Tote Stadt. When I visited Père Lachaise I had never heard of Rodenbach, but his tomb inspired me to find out about this man. His tomb shows a bronze figure breaking out of the grave. If death cannot stop him, I thought, perhaps he deserves some attention. I confess it is still his tomb I think of when I read the name Rodenbach.
Félix Faure was president of France from 1895 until his death in 1899. His presidency is famous for the Franco-Russian alliance and the Dreyfus affair. It is his death, however, that has spread Faure’s name outside of France. Faure died after suffering an apoplectic episode whilst in bed with his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, with rumors surfacing that he died while receiving oral sex from her. While the actual event is, of course, shrouded in gloom, it has become an infamous example of political scandal. His tomb shows him draped in cloth (the flag?), though some have seen it as him reclining in his death bed. George Clemenceau gave Faure the epitaph ‘Il voulait être Céwar, il ne fut sue Pompée.’ You can translate that as either ‘He wanted to be Caesar, he ended being Pompey’ or ‘He wanted to be Caesar, he ended being pumped.’
In January 2009, the eye-patch-wearing guitar player for the rock band Kansas, Rich Williams, was reported to have died. Williams’ obituary ran in a number of newspapers in the New England area and briefly appeared at the online obituary reference site – Legacy. But the real Rich Williams was still alive and rocking. The person who had died, Eric de Boer of Kingston, New Hampshire, had been impersonating Rich Williams (apparently convincingly so) for several years. Not only did de Boer claim he was Williams, he claimed he played for the band Kansas, and even that he wrote their hit song “Carry on My Wayward Son” (which was written by real Kansas member Kerry Livgren). De Boer also claimed that he joined Kansas after he returned from Vietnam where he was held as a POW. The fact that de Boer was impersonating him was known by Williams for several years. But Williams did not pursue it out of respect for de Boer’s service in Vietnam, and because he had forgotten about it. In fact, it was later determined that de Boer probably never served in Vietnam.
On April 26, 2006, a van load of students from Taylor University collided with a tractor trailer. Five of the students were killed and four others seriously injured including one who was left in a coma. Whitney Cerak was one of the five who were killed and over one thousand people attended her funeral. Meanwhile, one of the four survivors, Laura VanRyn, heavily bandaged and in a coma, was clinging to life in a hospital. Over the coming days, VanRyn would start to improve to the point where she was talking. Her boyfriend seemed to notice something odd about the way she was talking, as did her roommate. Her father became alarmed when she referred to him using a pet name he did not recognize. When she was finally able to write down her name, the name she wrote was not Laura VanRyn. It was Whitney Cerak. Only then did the parents of these two young people realize that the identities of the two girls had been accidentally mixed up. Both shared similar facial features, hair color and texture, and were of similar physical size and build. The body of Laura VanRyn had been buried in a grave with the tombstone of Whitney Cerak. Whitney Cerak fully recovered and graduated from college in 2009.
The Everest climbing season of 2006 was one of the deadliest on record. When it was over, eleven climbers were dead. The most controversial of all was that of David Sharp. Sharp arrived at Everest in 2006, and by many accounts he had the bare minimum of support and equipment necessary to make the climb. He was not attached to any large organized climbing party as are most Everest climbers. He had no climbing partners, he had no Sherpas, he didn’t even have a camera. His climbing gear was old, but adequate. He was determined to make it to the top of Everest this time even, as he told another climber, if he had to “lose more fingers and toes to do it”.;
It’s believed that Sharp reached the summit on the afternoon of May 14th, but he was too exhausted from the effort to make it down the mountain. Too weak to go further, still near the summit, he would crawl into a small cave under a rock ledge. A Sherpa stopped to see if he was alive, and he was. The Sherpa asked his name and he said: “My names is David Sharp. I am with Asia Trekking and I just want to sleep.” Though still alive, as many as forty climbers walked right past Sharp as they went for the summit, letting him sleep. By May 16th, he was dead. This outraged the climbing community and the world, leading none other than Sir Edmund Hillary to say: “The whole attitude toward climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” and “A human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”
Ten days after Price lost his life on Everest, an Australian climber by the name of Lincoln Hall was fighting for his. Hall was an experienced climber and climbing as part of a group of climbers, one of whom, German climber Thomas Weber, was already dead. Now it appeared the climbing team was about to lose Lincoln Hall as well. Though Hall had made the summit, on the way down he became weak and disoriented and suffered high altitude cerebral edema. For hours Sherpas attempted to help Hall down the mountain and to revive him. Eventually Hall began to hallucinate and the Sherpas were ordered to descend and leave Hall, or die themselves. Reluctantly, the Sherpas did as they were told, and left Hall alone in the “death zone” of Mount Everest, believing him to be dead. Mr. Hall’s death was announced by radio and then over the Internet from the Everest base camp. Eventually Hall’s wife was informed, as was the world, Lincoln Hall was dead. Another climber killed on Mount Everest.
The next day, at above 28,000 feet, climber Dan Mazur and others were astonished when a man appeared before them as they ascended the mountain. Sitting in the snow wearing no gloves, no hat, with no oxygen, his suit unzipped and his arms out and only two feet from the edge of a shear 8,000 foot precipice, the man said: “I imagine you are surprised to see me here.” They were surprised. Surprised to see a dead man. It was Lincoln Hall and he was alive. Hall had spent an entire night alone and exposed above 28,000 feet in the death zone, something no man was supposed to have been able to survive, especially a man who had been left for dead and declared as such. It took eleven Sherpas to bring him down but Hall survived.
While it is not known if there was ever an actual obituary written for Luca Barbareschi, his story and that of the film Cannibal Holocaust is so weird I decided to include it in this list, because for a time, many actually believed Luca Barbareschi was dead.
The late 1970s and early 1980s was a great time for horror films. An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and so many more great horror films came out during this time period. But in 1980, one film came out that was so horrific, officials investigated to determine if the graphic gore in the film was a little too graphic. In fact, they wanted to know – was it real?
Well before The Blair Witch Project, Italian director Ruggero Deodato made Cannibal Holocaust. Cannibal Holocaust was supposed to be actual “recovered documentary footage.” In the film, supposed documentary film makers enter the Amazon jungle to film indigenous tribes, and go missing. Two months later, another crew find the “lost footage” which shows, among other things, people being impaled on stakes and lots of other super gory film action.
Ten days after it was released, director Deodato was arrested by police and charged with obscenity, and the film was banned in Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries. Even more startling, due to the rumors that the actors had actually been killed in the making of the film, Deodato was held on charges of murder. In 1981, a French magazine published an article questioning whether Cannibal Holocaust was a snuff film, or if the actors themselves had actually been murdered during the making of the film. While this may have been exactly what Deodato wanted in the way of press coverage for his film, he didn’t think people would actually believe he killed his actors. But they did. Deodato did not help matters because in order to give the public the impression that the main actors had been killed, he had the actors sign contracts ensuring they would not appear in TV, commercials, or films, for one year after the film’s release, in order to promote the idea that the film was truly the recovered footage of missing documentarians.
Luca Barbareschi was one of four actors whom the Italian police believed had been murdered while making the film. Deodato was eventually able to reach Barbareschi and the other actors, and voided the contracts so they would appear. He had all of them come onto an Italian television show to convince the authorities that they were, in fact, alive.
However, the authorities were not yet finished with Deodato. Although Deodato was exonerated for murder, the courts cited him for real animal cruelty law violations (multiple animals had been harmed and killed during the filming of Cannibal Holocaust). Deodato, the producers, screenwriter, and the studio representative each received a four-month suspended sentence after they were convicted of obscenity and violence. Deodato would fight in the courts for three additional years to get his film unbanned.
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