Mildly distracting notes on distraction
“Throw away your books; no longer distract yourself; it is not allowed…” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II: 2
It’s a bit of a relief to find that distraction is such a constant problem in philosophy; so it’s just we moderns that suffer from the constant barrage of one damned distraction after another! People sometimes like to point out that Socrates also launched some arrows at written texts as a way of showing the supposed absurdity of criticizing new communications technologies; he’s made out to be an old mossback on the order of the apocryphal parents who flipped out upon seeing Elvis Presley on television. The jury might be out on the effects of written texts on the West. Besides, the point isn’t what one does, but the work that one so avoids doing. Remember that Socrates also excluded the sort of epic poetry that he loved from his Republic. A culture creates itself, after all, partly by excluding. So does an individual. Aurelius excludes book culture as corrosive of inwardness.* A bit later:
“Failure to observe what is in the mind of another has seldom made a man unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.” – II:8
The question is not to read or not to read (Aurelius earlier praises an elder for giving him the ability to read deeply in a book); it’s what exactly is keeping us from the work of philosophy: that is, thinking one’s way through a life. Reading a book (observing what is in the mind of another) is something he can do without, as an old man dedicating himself to the work of philosophy. For us, the distractions seem more stultifying: television, cell phones, the Internet-addiction we all suffer from now. But the stakes are about the same: that inwardness that is the precondition of a life worth thinking one’s way through. When states deny us inwardness, we call them totalitarian; when we do it to ourselves, it’s a bit more like neurosis. But one suspects that the “greater jihad”, that spiritual jihad, is much the same as the work of philosophy: simply thinking calmly and at length through life. I can’t say if it makes one happy, although we can easily note the unhappiness of the constantly distracted.
Now, am I recording here the movements of my mind, or observing the movements of Marcus’s?
(Note: This post is meant to be a trifle.)
* “Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig.”- Meditations, VII: 59