I like to pick up the theme about about the displeasure of life due to external constraints. I do think that a lot of the contemporary problems arise from external rather than internal factors. We often times tell ourselves that we should be more motivated about the things we need to do (such as submitting assignments in time or going to graduate school etc.) rather than questioning whether the requirements that are imposed on our lives fulfill us. The former thought (accepting the system) requires no critical thinking. We just have to carry out external orders, and hope we won’t get our butts spanked. It promises a life of ongoing stress, the desire to please our superiors, but no internal struggles (no self-doubt in terms of where we are in relation to our environment, i.e. we can still have self-doubt about not achieving all of our goals in the external world). The latter thought (questioning the existing system) will also impose a significant amount of stress and external pressure. This is a fundamental condition in modern society that we simply can not escape, unless we want to live in the woods. But in addition to that, questioning the system also imposes a stressful relationship between the interior and the exterior life. The interior life is our critical thinking, and the exterior life includes our anxieties about deadlines and obligations to superiors.
Then the overarching question for those that seek to maximize their pleasure and minimize their worries is that one should choose the first path, namely to do what one is told without questioning it. One may be under stress, and running the rat race, but at least there is a degree of internal contentment. There is a harmony between the internal (mind) and the external (environment) world, if you wish. But I would still pick the second option, namely to do what one is told and at the same time question the same system in which we operate. Why would I be willing to add an additional layer of stress, beyond the one that is already externally imposed on us? The answer is that only then is my mind at peace with itself. There might be a struggle between the self and the material world, but there is peace in the mental world. Exposing and criticizing the system can allow one to gain a little bit of freedom, even though it makes life at surface more complicated. (For example, I am more likely to engage in arguments with people that are more accepting of the status quo. These are people that form the overwhelming majority.)
But then, what about those people that are content with themselves, but do not question the system? Am I accusing them of not “really” being content with themselves? On a direct level, I tend to say ‘yes’. Upon closer consideration I would reject the question. Of course, it is still possible to be content with oneself when one does not question the system. This is precisely the point I was trying to elaborate on. But we are not asking here for absolute standards of contentment vs. discontentment, but about a comparison between two ways of thinking. In comparison, questioning the system, arguing internally with its contradictions is preferable to accepting the system blindly.
However, questioning the system requires critical thinking. Critical thinking is a matter of acquiring it or not. (This does not mean that if one does not have it, one will never have it. It is possible to acquire it wherever one is as long as one is willing to learn and absorb ideas from outside.) If one does not have much critical thinking skills, i.e. being able to reflect deeply on the nature and implications of the facts of life, then the conflict between individual desire and the external environment will not become apparent or will simply be suppressed (I will not further elaborate on the Freudian implications of the last statement). On the other hand, if one has acquired critical thinking skills, it is very difficult to turn back the clock and deny the appalling contradiction between internal desires and external expectations. “How could I not have known this all along?”, the critical thinker asks.
It is like the late Martin Luther King jr. said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” He, ironically, said it the day before he was assassinated. I do not mean to suggest that I have seen the Promised Land, and am all-knowing at this point. I merely liked the metaphor of the mountaintop as a clear contrast to the pre-existing state of knowledge. In King’s context, it involved frightened and pessimistic black Americans, and ignorant and dismissive white Americans, who thought that racial justice is impossible. In my context, it means proving that critiquing the current system is better than blindly accepting it.
It is also hard for me to pass over the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, who taught us about the allegory of the cave. He argued that most of us are ignorant, because we only look at the shadows of objects reflected from the outside light, rather than leaving the cave and looking directly at the objects themselves. Francis Bacon, during the age of the experimental philosophers, loudly proclaimed, “Scientia potestas est.” Knowledge is power. I see every vindication in this statement.
My assumption in this blog is also that there is something to be questioned about the system. Some might argue that the current system is perfect (however, most belong to the category of not even having posed the question about how the system is to be evaluated). They will have every reason to pull me down from my high horse of MLK, Plato and Bacon, and instead argue that these great authorities and the truth reside with their rather than my argument. I will not comment much on the people that are consciously happy with the current system, other than to suggest that the current social, political and economic system forces us to work like obedient factory workers that should have little recourse to any alternatives that could enrich us as human beings. Here, I will admit that there exists a fundamental disagreement between me and those that consciously welcome the existing social order with all its implications. Such debate, I will be glad to engage in.