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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What does it mean to be alive?

As silly this question may seem, that serious and deep it is to the modern Philosophers. Childish questions are considered as Pre-Philosophical questions. The childish wandering of why he can’t have what others have has the most basic question about the socio-economical system of a society in which the child live. In fact, Philosophy begins with an ordinary question and ends with profound conclusions or leaves us with more complex questions. The question that, “what does it mean to be alive?” has brought by to public domain by Philosophical-Science fiction movie series, “Matrix” and then recently  by Science fiction movie, “Avatar”. Before, I go to questions posed by these movies, I like to quote Cornel Ronald West, a Professor of Philosophy at the Princeton University, “…..Every pleasure has its place, …social pleasure has its place, TV pleasure has its place….there are certain pleasure of the mind that cannot be denied. It is true that you are socially isolated because you are in library or in home and so on but you are intensely alive. In fact you are much alive than these folks walking on the streets of New York in crowd with no intellectual interrogation or questioning going on. If you read John Ruskin or Mark Twain or Herman Melville, you are almost to throw the book against the wall because you are so intensely alive that you need a break…….there are certain things that make us too alive, something like being too intensely in love that (one) can’t do anything….hard to back into everyday life, do you know what I mean?......”
OK, after learning, what professor means now come back to our movies, there is one thing common in both movies and that is the digital reality or living out of Physical reality once you are plugged into the digital reality. It poses a very serious question, what does really living means? Is a very engaging mental process like reading an interesting book as Professor said is being too intensely alive that one needs break? Or being plugged in a digital reality is more lively than bodily living that have a more disperse stimuli and most of the times routine or boring tasks?
Well, answering this question is not so easy because Philosophers like societies have been divided on this issue since known recorded history of humankind. You may have heard of Sybarites. In literature, Sybarites are synonymous with wealth and luxury. Sybaris was an early Greek colony of Italy  and by some luck and good policies like having good cultivable land and by giving citizenship to foreign settlers, it grew so much in wealth and refine luxuries that Sybarites become synonymous with wealth, refined luxury and pleasure seeking. On the other hand, there was another Greek colony in Italy by name of Croton and her people were quite opposite of Sybarites, liking to live very simple life of sobriety. Their people were famous for the Physical strength and in fact, they had a lot of victors at then Olympic games. What has added to the credit of Croton is the establishment of Pythagorean School here. Pythagoras, himself remained the governor of the Croton for a short period of time. Pythagoras had adapted an ascetic life style after visiting India and had a crowd following him and his way of life. These two colonies of Greeks were at odd with each other over different life styles which resulted in destruction of Sybaris by Croton Army in 510 BCE.
Though these two Greek colonies are now part of history but their rivalries are still alive among cultures, intellectuals and among ordinary people.  For thousands of years, the Philosophical notion was that “self” is something apart from body and life was mostly tied to the self. The body is what “self” was owned and it is what evident in our everyday usage of language like “My body”, My leg, my arm, my eyes and similarly my car, my phone, my shirt, my shoes and so on. This notion might be still intellectually very alive but some rival voices can be heard like those of Dr. Kimerer Lamothe, a Harvard Professor and the author of “What a Body Knows; finding wisdom in desire” that is using the term, “Bodily- self” to counter the traditional concept of “self”. Kimerer believes that to be more alive, one needs not to focus on the external stimuli but to listen to the wisdom of body. Though this is not as intense as those of Sybarites but it represents the majority of American concept of life, “Fun-centered life style”. It would not a wrong analogy if we consider, USA as modern representative of Sybarites. On other hand we need an analogy for Croton and I think Iranians, though are not a perfect one but is a good analogy of ancient Croton (Of course, Iranian do not have modern equivalent military strength of Croton but they are a good analogy in terms of life style). So somewhat we can say that the rivalry of Sybaris and Croton over life styles is still alive.
Coming back to our question, what does it mean to be alive? Imagine that someone is in coma ( his all senses are alive but the brain is unconscious), do you think, he will feel more alive, if we take him out to the soft spring breeze, to singing of birds, to voice of flowing water, to colors of butterflies dancing over flowers? Now look to other side of coin, consider a person with physical impairment like being deaf, dumb, blind or any other senses that have lost functionality, would he be more alive if we take him out?
Let’s take another example, Say, you are entering a restaurant with exotic foods that you have never tried before, wouldn’t you feel the aroma, tastes and texture or look with intensity? It is what break, means to senses. The same is true for mental activity. Wouldn’t you need some time to digest if you have an engaging dream? What about an engaging movie, music or story? I read with full excitement the “Alchemist” of Coelho Paulo that it was hard me to allow myself to go to bed without finishing it though my eyes were badly burning. The same is true about the Korean Dramas like those of “Jumong”, “Jewel in the Palace” and so on that sometimes, I miss, not watching like Korean dramas.
What is the conclusion of all these discussion? My conclusion, though it is still an open ending one is that being alive means living in duality of “self” and “bodily-self” with the knowledge that “bodily-self” has a serious finitudes and “self” has infinite dimensions. But at the same time realizing that infinity of “self” depends on “finitudes” of “bodily-self” and it is why we see the instability of digital reality or plugged in life in both movies, “Matrix” and “Avatar”. We can’t ignore our bodies and at the same time we can’t afford missing the freedom and infinity of the mental life. We have to keep them fresh by regular breaks :) ……..

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