Peripatesis: Suffering And The Self, Hannibal v. Longus In Northern Italy.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Harris, S. Waking Up, p. 1-118:

Sam Harris opens his book on secular spirituality by discussing his early experiments in contemplative practice, and sets the context for the discussion by clearing away some troublesome underbrush.

It’s become fashionable to view all religions as variations on an underlying theme, and the intellectual edifices of the worlds religions do look the same, in the sense that forests look the same when viewed at high altitudes from the passenger seat of a supersonic jet. If one parachutes out of the jet, however, the requirements for survival vary greatly depending on whether the forest they land in is of the deciduous, evergreen, or tropical rainforest variety.

But there is a sense in which the experiences people have in the context of religious practice really are universal. Better still, when lifted from the philosophical ruins in which they’re normally found, these experiences can be viewed as the empirical, verifiable outcome of certain ways of paying attention.

Mindfulness is probably the most widely known attention-based practice here in the West. It doesn’t require the adoption of any religious beliefs, it only requires that you learn to experience each moment simply and directly, without being lost in a never-ending cascade of discursive thought. This is a deceptively simple set of instructions. Harris claims, however, that if one learns to do so, one can find a kind of happiness that is available regardless of what direction one’s life is going. This is the point of spirituality.

But spiritual practices also furnish an indispensable set of tools for studying consciousness. No one can rule out the possibility that we’ll some day develop information-theoretic or neuroscientific concepts that allow us to speak of mind and matter as one thing, but that day is not today. We are stuck simply poking brains and asking subjects what is happening between their ears, and those with the ability to make fine-grained introspective distinctions will be able to provide better first-person data.

In chapter 2 Harris discusses a fascinating implication of the split-brain phenomenon that hadn’t occurred to me before: it’s possible that a functionally normal human brain harbors multiple centers of consciousness. It’s already known that when a person is put to sleep to have their corpus callosum cut, (at least) two people wake up. Further, there is reason to believe that an intact corpus callosum is insufficient to integrate all the information occurring in both hemispheres.  This raises the possibility that each of us is walking around with a first-person point of view, and one or more silent intelligences inhabiting the circuitry of our brain.

Harris gets down to what is really his primary philosophical objective in chapter 3: painting a bull’s eye on the sense of self.

As a matter of subjective experience most people feel like they are a ghostly presence hovering behind their eyes, in possession of a body but not identical to it, watching a stream of consciousness but distinct from it. Harris believes this to not only be incorrect, but to be one of the largest tributaries of human suffering.

If I understand Harris’s arguments, he is claiming that the illusion of the self persists because most of us spend so much of our lives buffeted by hurricanes of discursive thinking, inner monologues, memories, speculation, and emotion that we never stop to inspect it. Once one develops the contemplative tools necessary to actually begin looking for the self, it disappears in much the same way many optical illusions do when examined closely.

With this disappearance comes recognition of the impermanence of the states of mind through which we cartwheel from one moment to the next, and it then becomes possible to glimpse an ego-less consciousness prior to and between the arrival of thoughts. Navigating to this space is profoundly restful because one can cease, however briefly, to be a slave to the chatter of their minds.

Goldstein, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 173-181.

Caught unawares by the appearance of Hannibal in northern Italy after he executed his famous crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, the Roman senate ordered the return of one of the consuls, Sempronius Longus, who joined forces with Scipio just a few miles from Hannibal’s camp. Hannibal, suspicious that the Gallic tribes in the area might be courting the Romans, sent parties to loot and plunder the Galls, who then did request Roman help. Roman velites engaged Hannibal’s raiding parties, and the ensuing skirmish would have erupted into a full-scale conflict but for Hannibal’s brilliant leadership and unwillingness to fight unprepared.

Both Longus and Hannibal had good reasons for wanting to force an engagement, but it was Hannibal who emerged victorious when the leaders finally squared off at the battle of Trebia, this despite the fact that a large chunk of Roman legionnaires managed to punch through the Carthagenian lines late into the day.


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