That life is the enemy of philosophy

With a regularity which is no doubt statistically meaningful (and thus calls for an explanation, a master's thesis anyone?), conversations among the unreproduced turn to the topic of their relationship with the reproduced. Upon such occasions two things are invariably observed:

1. That the reproduced desire us to reproduce. Usually they do this nicely, telling us how nice and worthwhile is the experience, or, less nicely, how we are missing out (every PR man knows that fear of missing out is the single most powerful cattle-prod in his toolbox), but sometimes not nicely at all, as when they suggest that not reproducing is unnatural ("That's what we're here for"), or even immoral ("Why should you have it easy while we labor in childbirth and child-rearing?");


2. How their reproduction robs us: it robs us of our friends because those who have been our favorite conversation companions to-date, on topics which interested us (which is why we picked them as friends in the first place), now, suddenly prove incapable of talking of anything other than their progeny's exalted status as the ultimate blessing upon the multiverse. Which is, of course, while the progeny remains in the initial (sausage) stages (and for a very long time afterwards) both laughable and dull in the extreme.

No more Heidegger for us, or Proust, or -- anything; the quality of the progeny's evacuation preempts all topics now.


This second topic is part of a more sinister aspect of reproduction which is that, unless the parents have sufficient financial resources to

a) hire domestic help in order to insulate themselves from the duller aspects of child-rearing (i.e. nappies, school pick ups, play-dates) and thus preserve for themselves a reasonable amount of free time in which to continue being themselves as they once were; and,

b) more broadly speaking, have resources sufficient to make sure that the arrival of the offspring does not ruin them financially and chain them to the tiller till their dying day by burying them under a mountain of economic obligations (prams, school fees, babysitters, tutors, toys);

then the arrival of the progeny means the end of their life as their life. They become little more than an adjunct to the progeny's life: its foot servant, its cotton-picker, its babysitter, its driver, and its slave-tutor all in one.1

They are simply no longer their own.

Mysteriously, they don't deny it: they readily admit that their life has but one purpose now -- to assure the best possible future for their offspring -- and are mystified by our objection to this fact. Why would you not want, they seem to want to ask, to give up all you have for the sake of your children? And already the s2-word is lurking in the background.


Now, there is a sense in which the unreproduced are held by the reproduced to be pupae of a sort: that is, unfulfilled human beings, imperfect and incomplete; ones assumed to be merely waiting to reproduce; indeed, ones who have failed to reproduce; and thus objects of pity in the manner in which one might pity an athlete who collapses before reaching the finish line.

The truth is that while there are perhaps some unreproduced who are like this -- desiring to reproduce and unable to -- there are also others who are hardened career criminals: we have no intention of ever reproducing, not for five minutes, and look upon our reproduced friends, now chained to the tiller for the rest of their lives, with silent but profound pity. Silent because it would be too cruel to tell them the truth that, in our eyes, they have mocked up, messed up, and thrown away their lives. Cruel because what could possibly be the point of revealing to them their own misery in all its stark terror -- if there is nothing they can ever do about it?

So we smile benignly and pretend that the sausage-like thing in the pram is indeed the eighth wonder of the world (and its evacuation extraordinary in every measure); that we do secretly wish for one ourselves (or at least for more of the same for them); and that we are sorry that we have not attained to our reproduced friend's exalted status as kings of the universe: Mom or Dad.

Forsooth, it is out of pity for our friends that we do not tell them that the miracle that they deem to have achieved was no miracle at all; that the act is an ordinary act (one just lies back and moans for about 3 minutes): baboons can do as much and as well; and so do chickens every day of the year; or that their joy at the arrival of the munchkins is morally suspect: parents invariably talk of "their" children and are proud of their parental authority; but the children are not their children, or at least ought not to be; they will only naturally want to be their own, not their parents', which is what all parents, even the best meaning ones, always, invariably forget; while authority is something to be earned over our equals, not something to be imposed by default over defenseless little things.


I suppose one could divide all adult life into ante-reproductionis and post-reproductionis; the ante-reproductionis is characterized by many things -- free time, disposable income, higher frequency of the experience of happiness and pleasure (there are incontrovertible statistics to prove this last point but the reproduced labor incessantly to deny or distort their truth, or at least to disbelieve it); and -- by a certain sense of searching for something. This sense is mostly quite mild, or at any rate intermittent, in most; but it can be quite powerful in some, leading them variously into religious pursuits or debauchery or extreme sports; it is sometimes described as searching for answers; and by some deemed the proper concern for philosophy.

Famously, a certain popular cultural franchise proposed once that our whole species were no more than a kind of computer devised by a higher civilization to find these answers. Being young and as yet unreproduced one can easily identify with this view. And though the franchise then proposed, rather meanly (and thoughtlessly), that the questions to which the answers are to be found are themselves unknown, and thus the whole search is a kind of confused head trip3, the truth is the opposite: the question is but one, and always the same, and very clear: how should we live our lives? That is: what should I, Joe Blow, do with my forty or fifty years here? The resource -- life -- is finite and wasting. There is a desire, a natural economic instinct, to deploy it most efficiently: to make the most of it, and now, before any part of it wastes away, gone never to come back.

And there is that sense that the endless cycle of birth and death and birth and death, as a good Buddhist might put it, or a life lived earning a living and then eating it; a life amounting in the end to no more than a tombstone, or a Wikipedia entry if we're lucky (as some consider it) -- that such a life does not amount to anything; that it is some preposterous waste of unknown possibilities which must surely be greater, more meaningful, more satisfying.

(I do not wish to argue here that this thought process is in some way correct; it is enough for the sake of my argument to observe that it commonly happens with the young).

Now, this search is naturally time consuming. Let me illustrate: Angelica, when I took her for a motorcycle trip in the hills, exclaimed at the end of the day:

"My goodness, this is wonderful, so this is what I have been missing!"

And then, being the thinking girl that she is, reflected:

"It is not easy to know what one likes, or to guess what one might like, is it? And one needs so much free time to find out!"

And she was right: one does need a lot of time to find out how one can live one's life to one's own satisfaction because opportunities to try different things are not evenly spaced out, are sometimes expensive, and are always crowded out by other choices. The search is made more difficult by the fact that many seem hell-bent on diverting us in our search to their own purposes, telling us things like "Plastics!" or "Hold up the flag!" or, most commonly, "Having your own children is the most wonderful experience you can ever have."

But, for most of us, before we can make much progress in this difficult and time-consuming search, there comes, usually out of the left-field, reproduction and stops our research dead in its tracks. Suddenly turned into our children's slaves now, we no longer have the time to try different things, or the energy, or the money; and most importantly, we no longer even want to, having suddenly transformed into breathless worshipers of our progeny's magnificent poop . The question how to live our lives, the central question of philosophy (at least in the way in which the ancients saw it), becomes irrelevant; it has been answered for us by life itself; life turned us into that into which it had always intended to turn us: slaves of the species reproductive process. In accepting this role, we agree not to question it. And thus there are no more questions which need to be answered. The way we ought to live our lives is this, it turns out: we ought to reproduce. Thus philosophy ends.

Then, as our progeny grows it will in turn eventually become human (i.e. acquire a mind of its own) and almost as soon as it does it will, invariably, turn to the immortal question: how should I live my life? (Thus raising philosophy back from the dead). But it's question, too, will go unanswered, because, the progeny too, will end up reproducing before it is ready and abandoning the search incomplete as a result. Philosophy's quest is thus doomed to failure.

Which is how I have illustrated my point: that life is the enemy of philosophy4.


1 Given the direction public education is taking, less and less the last, since the public appears eager for us not to educate our progeny ourselves but to desire us instead to slave breathlessly to support a child whose mind then a total stranger -- a goobment appointed "teacher" -- will pervert without reference to our desire or opinion; this last means that, really and honestly speaking, once our children leave for school, at the tender age of five or six, we are no longer rearing it.

2 As in self-centered, egoistical, parsimonious, miserly, self-seeking, ungenerous, small-minded. You take the hint?

3 It will be apparent from what follows that the authors of this BBC series were very likely already reproduced at the time of writing its script.

4 I have suggested elsewhere that the history of philosophy -- everywhere, East and West -- could be seen to follow this pattern: that philosophy begins with the attempt to figure out how we should live our lives, from which attempt it promptly strays into meaningless drivel like debating "intentionality" or "prime matter" or "causation". The number of excuses which reproduced philosophers can think up in order to duck philosophy's fundamental question is vast and potentially unlimited.


Andrew W. said...

You might be surprised to find me agreeing with you for the most part, especially since not only have I reproduced, but I've taken on a child who is not biologically mine!

It is difficult, however, and I would agree with you that, at least for the first few years of the child's life, one is consumed mainly with simply keeping the child alive.

That being said, as they grow, one of the wonderful things is that part of their rearing is you talking to them and teaching them about the very things you had to give up.

And perhaps I'm a bad example, but since my son was born, I've been more involved and active intellectually than ever before.

I think the problem is that people use children as an excuse to become intellectually lazy instead of an opportunity to further develop their own tastes in addition to instructing their children.

Sir G said...

Well, I have always fully expected you to be different from everyone else; and I have known several other people for whom the arrival of children did not spell the end of their lives (either financially or intellectually); but i find, however, that you folks are rare exceptions.

As for teaching children -- well, I did a bit of it in one of my earlier incarnations when I tutored in Taiwan; it is a noble and rewarding work; personally, however, I am still more interested in learning than in teaching. I'd be happy to hire a tutor for myself. :)

Anonymous said...

WOW!!! well I can't wait until you are back here so that i can personally disagree with everything you've said!!! (being the thinking girl that i am) I'm holding your luggage hostage so lol - be careful what you say until then!!! love, yes much love from one gigantically nosed angelica (who has yet to discover even more of the wonderful world through your rose coloured Lisboa glasses, knowing you will, no doubt shatter more of my rather delicate wine glasses in the process!!!) xo

Sir G said...


nothing can give me greater pleasure right now than to imagine that i am sitting again with you in one of those cool, shady cafes again, within view of the blazing silver sea, and arguing all sorts of nonsense (like this) till we are both breathless and blue in the face!

thanks for dropping by!

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