A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Word of the Day: Akrasia

Akrasia (literally, "bad mixture") is the state of acting against one's better judgment; i.e., weakness of the will. This concept is fundamentally illogical. One might argue--as Socrates did, via Plato's Protagoras--that if a person understands fully the impact of his actions, the course he ends up choosing will be the "right" course, q.e.d.

The subject of will, free or otherwise, is such a can of worms I don't even know why I'm discussing it here. I've been struggling with the issue of hard vs. soft determinism since I was eighteen, and it gives me a headache even to think about thinking about it. So I'm not going to start talking about Aristotle's critique of the Socratic position, or Nietzsche's, or Spinoza's, or anyone else's. I'm quite sure, in any case, that some utilitarian or pragmatist will be unable to resist weighing in with his position, effectively doing my job for me.

I think the concept can best be approached by a consideration of long-term vs. short-term gains. Lots of competing desires have to get factored into the making of even the simplest decision, and at any given point one or another may be dominant for a variety of reasons. For example, I know that, in the long run, eating a healthy diet is the "best" course of action. A pint of Haagen-Dazs, on the other hand, will satisfy me in the short run. Short-term goals are in my face; they clamor for attention.

Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite favorite authors, personifies akrasia brilliantly as "the imp of the perverse." It's this imp that causes us, while looking over a precipice, to contemplate jumping off, or while handling a sharp knife, to contemplate stabbing ourselves or another. Who hasn't had these frightening, unbidden thoughts at some point? He also describes vividly my personal bête noire, procrastination. Why am I playing freecell when I have a deadline fast approaching? A deadline on an article so well-paid that it will take care of my mortgage and almost everything else for the month, and which is not even a difficult assignment? Why, in fact, am I posting to my blog at this moment instead of working??

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