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  • Writer's pictureDamon Young

Thug life

I've an essay in the latest The New Philosopher: "Thug Life".

It's about the unruly and seemingly unreasonable character of existence: how life itself is a bit thuggish.

In Phaedo and elsewhere, [Plato] argued that the body was a danger. The soul has wings, to use his metaphor, but the heavy flesh pulls it down. He was very worried about lust, and recommended celibacy for ‘self-mastery and inward peace’. But he was more generally concerned about our meat sacks, which threaten to leave our souls ‘tainted and impure’.

This is perhaps the most philosophical of conceits: the mind is clear and pure, and physicality is what muddles or muddies it. An “I” is a transparent gaze upon the world. The apex of this was René Descartes, who believed that the only certainty was his res cogitans: his thinking thing. All else might be doubted, but not the mind doubting. The impression is of a wholly see-through self, burdened with the opaque idiocy of skin and bone.

The chief problem with this idea is not that we are thinking things. The problem is that the thing part is not taken seriously. As Simone de Beauvoir notes in The Ethics of Ambiguity, we are beings of ambiguity. We perceive, feel and think, but we are also stuff: objects alongside other objects. I am a free being, I also find myself ‘a thing crushed,’ she wrote, ‘by the dark weight of other things.’

This ambiguity continues within the psyche. The great dream of Plato was that, once the body was removed or revised, the mind would be emancipated. But the mind arises from the body, and it is shot through with fleshiness. Witness our philosophical metaphors: up, down, forward, backward, lightness, heaviness. Both Plato and Descartes used these to make sense of the world. As Lakoff and Johnson argue in Metaphors We Live By, we understand these tropes because our thinking is carnal.

This is to say nothing of minds full stop, which require physicality to exist. ‘Behind your thoughts and feelings… there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage,’ Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body.’ A clear mind is not one in which the body has been silenced or chastened. It is a body, thinking.

Put another way, to exist is not merely to be an “I”, ethereal and transcendent. As living things, each of us is also—an “it”.

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