Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is Beauty Subjective?

My new piece "Is Beauty Subjective?" has gone up in this issue of Cafe Philosophy:

And you may get an electronic copy of the magazine here.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Going On Diet

My piece for the Pub:

Aside from fashion and cosmetic products, one way to enhance feminine beauty for women is perhaps going on diet. In this skinny era, far too many women depart from the classical ideals of feminine beauty and often find themselves complaining that their waists are too wide, legs too short, and sometimes even breasts too small. Unlike ancient times, chubbiness is no longer an indicator of physical virtue, but rather, an offensive deviation from an ideal proportion that runs contrary to the Golden Ratio.
How much determination they need to resist the temptation to salivate towards a box of Belgian chocolate; how much courage they may have to show to devour a piece of strawberry cake regardless what a scientific formula about sugar and fats may have to reveal. To fill their stomach with the tiniest amount of sugary product is to lay down the very foundation of obesity. It's almost as if a piece of candy may easily lead women to avoid the verdict of a full-length mirror and possibly deny them of the opportunity to appear on a Vogue magazine.
Yet this aesthetic assault which women have so rigorously practised is hardly the sole evidence of masochism. Humans are both independent and dependent creatures. If women are willing to suffer from this assault, it might be because men tend to be seduced by this concept of slimness as well. According to most men, physical beauty of women can be measured according to an objective standard, a view that is so influential on women that it has become their own. In order for a woman to be beautiful, the contour and the shape of a woman have to be symmetrically balanced, waists narrow, breasts not flat, bottoms slightly larger, and legs thinner so as to make them seem longer. This view seems to suggest that there is a mathematical basis of beauty, hence the faces that successfully appear on the front cover of magazines are necessarily rather than subjectively pleasing.
What's more is that the rigours of going on diet may bear a certain wisdom that comes from ancient Greek philosophy. In ancient Greece, self-control was of the utmost importance. Inscribed on thousands of vases and ceramics was the guidance on how people should maintain their diet. Socrates once said to one of his companions Epigenes, "You've got the body of someone who just isn't engaged in public matters." He then suggests, "You should care for your body no less than an Olympic athlete." Apparently, physical training was part of the duty of a Greek citizen. The ancient Greeks believed that physical self-control could eventually lead to self-control of the mind which was a necessity if one were to participate politics. Hence modern women may be said to draw wisdom from the ancient Greek philosophy not in order to participate in politics, but instead to nurture their reasoning abilities. How easily a masochistic practice may be mistaken to be self-indulgent.
However, ruminating over the schism between aesthetic perfection of femininity and culinary delight, is it really impossible to reconcile these two ideals? Are women to rely on bases, mascaras, eye liners and such which could chisel a dent from their bank accounts to meet the criterion of absolute beauty? Do they have to be committed to a self-inflicting diet in order to wear bikini and lingerie?
The fact that most women spend a great deal of fortune on cosmetic products, fashion, and diet programmes has risked inspiring an unfair neglect of their habits of eating and a misguided enthusiasm towards artificial inventions. If their appreciation of dessert and junk food is liable to rupture their physical beauty, it is not because these things are inherently harmful, but because women have never quite got the ability to savour what they eat rather than taking in too-big quantities, given the fact that we are living in a society that encourages us to get several things done within a day. The stomach needs time to register fullness, and through taking our time while eating, we may slowly reduce our overall consumption which will prevent obesity. Slower eating not only helps us to productively realise how much food we really need, but also enjoy life while we are eating. We should not forget that the best kind of food is to be enjoyed through our manner of absorption instead of the extent of our consumption.
Those who have known me long enough should testify that I'm not very far from being a skeleton. So eating slowly must work. Therefore, women should eat all they want. Only through eating what they like and enjoying it, they can become slimmer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why We Are Better Left Unhappy

Recent scientific survey suggests that happiness may be linked to our genes which come in either long or short versions. It says that people who inherit the long versions of the gene are generally happier and those with the short versions tend to be more pessimistic. Thanks to modern science, parents of the forthcoming generations may look up to a better future, whose children might finally be genetically engineered to live a fulfilled life instead of one being constantly filled with anxiety and despair . What’s more promising is that it might as well put an end to the age-old philosophical debate of how happiness may be attained. Sooner or later, we should no longer feel guilty of not having finished the works of Plato, Epicurus, and Cicero which we have bought years ago.

However, if we survey the history of philosophy, we may be tempted to discover that a range of philosophers who would disagree that happiness might not be actually worth pursuing. If happiness should not be confused as an object of desire, it is because happiness might harbour within us a sense of primordial optimism, forcing us to muddy the true schema of ourselves. Think of the self-help books in the franchise bookstores. Rather than helping us to realise our limits, self-helps books tend to fool us into thinking that we may eventually overcome all sorts of obstacles and aspire to greatness if we are willing to summon the desirable versions of ourselves through an optimistic temperament.
The problem of fierce optimism is that we may be easily invited to assume tomorrow will be much like today. It leads us to cast aside our tragic awareness of life and favour an absolute trust in science. But science can so far only offer us knowledge, not value judgements. In this age bombarded by a wide range of scientific techniques, we tend to think that roads and highways are mysteriously traffic-free and smartphones were invented to simplify our lives. But the reality, unsurprisingly, is always cruel. However fast our vehicles may become, however user-friendly our smartphones may seem, the traffic lights nevertheless provoke our anger while we are on the way to work and smartphones, on the other hand, have us suffer from a psychological assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on almost anything.
Behind the tendency to feel happy lies the danger of ignoring what life actually constitutes. Our hope to adjust our temperament to an optimistic one through genetics hints at a refusal to accept life is inherently frustrating. It easily generates in us a satisfactory feeling of what life naturally throws at us. It takes away our motivation to strive for the better, our ability to change what is, and thereby denying us of the liberty to invest our hopes in perfection.
Yet the value of pessimism is far more arresting. If pessimism is a more vital ingredient to a fulfilled life, it is because it allows us to grow wiser. Our happiness depends not on the commonly cherished things on earth: friendship, romantic love, beauty etc., but rather, things like intervals of separation and the endurance of loneliness. It is through our experience of pain and suffering we become wise of how we should live. It helps enforce moments of contemplation, pushing us to acquire a better sense of reality and placing pain in a more proper context, just like only when we stump a nail on the ground, we may have the awareness of pain, thus becoming wise to the fact that human bodies are fragile.
It’s because we are at the mercy of mortality, we may reflect on our regrets and take on a bigger to quest to compensate what we are previously reluctant to do. It’s the fact that life is short and might end at anytime we try to savour the moments we spend with our loved ones and fortify them within our souls. Pessimism grants us permanent access to certain emotional textures which could not have been arisen without loneliness, frustration, and despair.
Instead of consciously looking for solutions to cure sadness, we need to learn to be productively unhappy and let it become a seed for actual happiness. Happiness is always founded on sadness. To be sad is to be happy. So what does that say about science? It means even if we possess the technology to make ourselves happy, we should still let nature decide the fate for us. It’s better not to have full control over our destiny.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Lessons of The Bohemians

Thanks to capitalism, the bourgeois ideals have successfully forced us to arrive at an objective assessment of what success is. A life of success has been defined by what we do rather than who we are. Our inability to purchase a brand-new Mercedes suggests that we are losers in the game of life, placing us at the grass-root level in the pyramid of social hierarchy. Hence the modern idea of success necessarily aligns with economic reward. Our incapacity to bring out the best of us through material articulation is a forceful reminder of the fact that perhaps we have not worked hard enough or that we are far from being lucky to be born with God-gifted talents, because a meritocratic society is ultimately just and fair.

If meritocracy is based on an objective evaluation of who can be rewarded, we might then easily come to the conclusion that destitution of money is not merely pitiable, but also deserved. To display our sympathy towards the poor is therefore to expose our emotional vulnerability, because the poor are destined to be unsuccessful. In the early 19th century, however, there emerged a group of people called the bohemians whose traditions have been passed on down to this day. What distinguishes them from the ordinary mortals who surrender to the bourgeois system is their distaste for business and material success. They lack the usual patience to engage in meaningless conversations concerning money, deal with insincere handshakes, and bureaucracy. Rather than associating the modern idea of success, they take pride on being poor, as a unique characteristic to stand out from the flock (because being poor indicates moral goodness rather than human greed). They tend to cultivate their intellectual adequacy and emotional sensitivity. Their allegiances are to the arts and emotions.

If the bohemians don't think material success indicates the glory of a person, it is perhaps because being financially unsuccessful suggests that one has directed his energies to other activities that might prove more fruitful, cherishing values that might be undermined by the mainstream culture which actually are more vital to human civilisation. What is valuable about this part of the Bohemian philosophy lies not in preventing us from suffering financial assault, but in the ability to realise our own limits. Of course, to realise our limits is to risk hampering the potentials that might lay beneath us. But if an architect can work with the materials available to him, why, then, can't we accept our own limits and explore our potentials within them? Why can't we place focus on ourselves rather than the herd to understand who we really are? Do we really have to be like Bill Gates and Steve Job?

We need to realise where we belong to. To discard what our nature limits is to become self-indulgent (because forgetting our limits may seduce us to be overly optimistic about our own abilities). Understanding our limits not only allows us to become humble, it also allows us to discover what we are actually good at, urging us to be specific instead of being generic, hence nurturing our own potentials at their best. Therefore, we are likely to amount to failure in some aspects of life. But accepting failure also indicates the fact that we are all unique. Instead of acknowledging that we are obedient drones, the humility to accept failures affords us a better sense of reality about ourselves, providing us with a ruinous defence mechanism against illusions and arrogance, anxiety and rage, incompetence and self-contempt.

Prompted by financial necessity, too many understand the value of entertainment and neglect the value of leisure. Stretching out on the ground and letting the grass caress my bare feet would be considered one of the most unproductive activities in the modern era. If leisure offends the bourgeois values, it is perhaps because leisure is in violation of the fundamental law of what anchors to capitalism, seeking to destroy the inevitable contract between economy and productivity. Therefore, merits not measured in money are regarded as useless.

If only financial merits may be considered useful, could we then easily conclude that what the Bohemians do proves unimportant in the modern era? Can we not say that their pursuit of the arts is useless merely because writing poetry and understanding Shakespeare are unable to afford them a decent condo? If the Bohemian lifestyle is to be established on unshakable grounds, perhaps a philosophy which dated back to the sixth century B.C. emerged on a different continent might offer a better understanding of the Bohemian lifestyle.

The philosophy is Daoism. The founder of Daoism, Laozi, might be regarded as one of the first prototypes of the bohemians. In his celebrated work "Dao De Ching", he dedicated several chapters in defence of uselessness or idleness and articulated its value in a rather obscure language:

“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.

We pierce doors and windows to make a house; And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.

Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not.”

These were not haphazard and reckless articulations of what is valuable about uselessness. This verse in Dao De Ching laid a well-developed philosophy, an arresting claim that risks ascribing a more proper value to what is useless and undermining a misguided enthusiasm of what is useful. It invited us to reconsider the notion of usefulness that inherently contained in things which may on the surface seem useless. Though taking a leisurely stroll in the park deprives us of the chance to invest in the stock market, it actually allows a contemplative habit of mind to flourish and nurtures deep friendship. Though reading poetry may spare us of the opportunity to acquire an eminent position in the business world, it fosters a family of life-cultivating emotions which are of supreme importance to friendship and romantic love.

Hence Daoism recovers a sense of justification for the Bohemian lifestyle. It paradoxically gives weight to what seems useless, forcing us to readjust the values we commonly regard as unproductive. Though the Bohemian lifestyle is unable to allow us to grow richer in cash, but it allows us to grow richer in intellectual adequacy and emotional sensitivity.

The Bohemians suggest an alternative way of living which deviates itself away from the bourgeois mainstream. Their role lies in opening our eyes, in sensitising our awareness of what is around us, and in inculcating in us an appreciation of objects whose qualities are previously neglected. Moreover, we tend to be more productive during leisure. It's not just because it makes allowance for periods of contemplation about life, it's also because we are able to escape from the monotonous everyday rituals enforced by the bourgeois society.

A life dedicated to the Bohemian lifestyle gives us something new, something refreshing. It restores in us a better mental functioning to which deep, sophisticated thoughts are anchored. The lessons? We have devoted too much time in doing "something" rather than nothing. And only after we submit our thinking to the bourgeois philosophy, we amount to ultimate failure.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Pornography

My piece from the Pub:

It must be admitted that watching pornography is time-consuming business for men. One can easily locate a liar within a flock of men when he confidently remarks that pornography has failed to inspire glimpses and enlarge his sexual imagination during his teenage. In the age of liberalism, a restriction on pornography not only offends our sexual interests, but it also hints at a refusal to enrich our sexual lives by doing away our erotic fantasies. But whatever pornographic interests we may have, does liberalism necessarily suggest our erotic imaginations should flow freely within the fabric of our consciousness and intentionally leave the unconscious ones unguarded? What might be the limits and consequences when we liberate them to their maximum potential?

If pornography not only suffices as a visual medium to unleash our suppressed sexual desires, it is perhaps because pornography is as well a contemporary incarnation of Kama Sutra, where it infinitely extends the pages of the age-old "science" of love and fills up the empty pages of positions and foreplays that might have been neglected or undiscovered centuries ago. Many romantically deluded teens look to pornography not just for masturbation, but also for sexual guidance, for it makes up for the lack of dynamics and drama in the uncreative moves that are only allowed to perform in their beds. How easy we might enrich our sexual lives by streaming a few pornographic films online.

Perhaps this is it. For many teens, physical intimacy might be the very reason why they embark on a romantic journey in the first place. How complicated and time-consuming when we realise that there is much money and sense of humour involved just to woo someone into bed; how life would be much easier if we could monitor the dating process on a screen where we can push the fast forward button and skip the foreplay whenever we please and push the play button at the precise sequence to render our latent desires visible. Yet if there is something interrupting this Eden, it is because pornography has risked harbouring an illusion so strong that we might be fooled into thinking that we are actually in love, because we are already having sex. The act of sexual intercourse forcefully and immediately suggests psychological intimacy that binds us with another person.

Hence, if we follow strictly the teenage logic, we only need sex instead of appeasing our romantic yearnings. Love is something that needs to be chipped off its edges, polished, and distilled to reveal its essence. It is only a by-product of sex. It clouds us with a romantic illusion that lure us into believing that there is someone we should actually caress for and die for. There comes the time when sex should become a sport, merely for pleasure and health, just like one is working out in a gym to assure one has a robust buildup and a better immune system.
However, sex is not merely done merely for the sake of pleasure. If there is something neglected during the act of intercourse, it is because we are still at heart obsessed with the age-old distinction of the body and mind which we unfairly consign love to the mind and sex to the body. Behind the act of intercourse lies a psychological aspect longing to be satisfied. While love doesn't necessarily go with sex, sex, however, always goes with love, for love grants us permanent access to certain emotional textures which may seem forbidden during intercourse. With love, we have sex not for pleasure, but for intimacy. Our partners are not merely at our service, but to be loved.

Sex is founded on our longing for intimacy. Love, unlike sex, is not merely a desire, instead of being a means to possession, it allows us to escape from loneliness to which our greatest unhappiness is anchored. Hence physical intimacy suggests a material articulation of what is affectionate. However, if sex is stripped of its association with the desire of bonding, while it may offer physiological delight, it hardly deepens our sense of intimacy, for psychological intimacy requires communication and understanding whilst physical intimacy is rooted in the art of seduction which is founded on the display of our finest qualities. Therefore, psychological intimacy aspires to the witness of one blowing his nose aggressively without a handkerchief whilst its physical counterpart stems from a rather superficial appreciation of the perfect contour of female body and her skin texture. Only through the language of love, sex can harbour a psychological fulfilment to the instinct.

Thought might be antithetical to pornography, for sexually arousing mediums are meant to be intuitive, spontaneous and unreflective. To meditate on the role of pornography is to mitigate the depth of our sexual satisfaction may aspire to. But this is precisely where the danger of pornography lies. It pays too much attention to positions and styles and is entirely lacking the psychological flavour of sex. Greek philosophers had contemplated much on the topic which Plato, in "The Symposium" remarked that desires should be directed to the right end at the right place, at the right time, and at a right degree. Rather than liberating our sexual desire to its maximum potential, we should instead cultivate it. Not only we need to keep an open-mind on sex itself, but also we need to learn the art of watching pornography to ensure we are actually having sex properly. Because pornography is risky.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Should We Read?

Edited version of the Pub:

How seriously should we take books? Though many teenagers are reluctant to read nowadays, reading is still generally regarded as a way to cultivate our intelligence. Rather than manifesting our awareness of the dangers of books, defenders of reading assure us that reading must necessarily cultivate our intellectual and emotional demands and instead urge us to adopt a fetishistically reverent attitude to their literary merits. Prompted by this literary fervour, we are therefore obliged to surrender to the reading lists carefully formulated by school teachers so we may obtain a wider vision of the world to accomplish a range of intellectual endeavours.
For many devoted readers, the benefits of reading cannot be more obvious. In the face of financial assault, political disgrace, and romantic pessimism, our wretched souls are likely to assume a melancholy air and contemplate the inherent frustrating experience of life. Disconsolate, books invite us to abstract all our surroundings and take refuge in a more agreeable world, tempering our anxieties that are caused by the reality. The other benefit of reading, and a more crucial one, is that it makes allowance for our critical analysis, and thereby makes way for us to develop our intellectual faculties of what we feel, even when it means other writers help us to do so. Instead of taking whom we admire as oracle, we should consider these writers milestones of our own thoughts, through distilling their wisdom, remedy and refine the significant parts of ourselves.
But books often cause their readers a few problems. Not only we often mistakenly regard our favourite writers as being lucid on almost all topics, but it's also because they might silence us. If good writers might influence us in a negative way, it is because their writings contain bits and pieces that we don't yet know how to articulate. A survey of Shakespeare's works, through the insights into human nature that are beautifully suggested in the balanced phrases, may strike us with awe, but it's maddening in the way we are unable to command our minds with fluidity to articulate our pens across a blank sheet of paper to state precisely what we feel. The works of a fine prose stylist detonates a too great potential to rival against even the most insatiable desire to write.
Another problem is idolisation. When we encounter a beautifully written work, it is perhaps not the case that we might idolise the writer, but, rather, the objects the writer so skilfully describes. Upon reading Gombrich's "The Story of Art", though one may learn how to appreciate certain works of art more properly, behind its forceful description of works of art lies the implicit tendency to savour what Gombrich aligns with artistic merits, harbouring within us an appreciation of what is depicted in the pictures rather than the artistic quality of the pictures. We are forced to reconcile an intended artistic reverence with a neglect of what constitutes the essence of the works of art, hence liable to suffer the rigid inability to appreciate what is ignored by Gombrich.
To read too much is therefore to paralyse our intellectual temper with literary idolatry and deny us our right to individuality to voice out what we value. It forgoes a family of life-enhancing ideas which can only arise through the rigours of critical analysis and invites a sense of authoritarianism to which we consistently surrender. It discolours the flexibility and complexity of the human mind to which our imaginative vision is anchored. Moreover, reading is a response to anxiety and unhappiness. To encourage the habit of reading is to further acknowledge one is in a state of unhappiness, frustrated at our inability to translate and adapt ourselves to the realistic incarnation of what is desirable.
For those who think reading is necessarily a good thing, I should strongly argue for the opposite, that reading too much, or even reading itself, may actually close our minds to what is intelligent. Not only parents should stop encouraging their children to read, we should also acknowledge that a place that is devoid of passionate readers is the best place to live in, because most people scarcely have the need to read.