Friday, July 13, 2012

Philosophy Made Simple

Title: Philosophy Made Simple
Author: Robert Hellenga
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0-316-05826-2
Pages: 277

Spoiler Alert – This book does not have a happy ending. I like happy endings. I think there is too much sad news in the world, that when I read a book of my own choosing, I would like it to have a neat, tidy, happy ending. I like to escape from the real world of drought, tornadoes, child pornography, cancer etc. I guess I expected this book to include painful examinations of life, since it does have philosophy in the title, but as I was carried away with the story, it seemed like it was building to a happy resolution, but on the “inauspicious day” of the main character's daughter's wedding – everything fell apart, and I was sad.

This is one of the Off the Shelf Challenge books that I've been meaning to read. Several years ago, when it seemed like I had more “free” time because I was only working one job and going to school full-time, I started listening to undergrad course online. One class that I especially enjoyed was PHI 110: Introduction to Philosophy by Missouri State University on iTunes. It was a nice review of the foundations of philosophy that I was supposed to get as an undergrad, but never did. Around that time, I stumbled on Hellenga's book at the University Bookstore and thought it might show how someone “really” thought about philosophy in everyday life. So, I ordered it from Paperback Swap and it has sat on my shelf since.

I really related to the introduction of the book. Everything had changed for Rudy – his wife died, his three daughters moved away to live their lives, and he was left alone with the dogs in the family house in Chicago. The girls and grandkids would visit, but it was no longer their home. Since my parents are about that same age, it made me think about how they must be feeling with us kids out of the house, living our lives and only visiting briefly. I too am nostalgic about the family memories we created in the house – the Christmases, birthday, confirmations, graduations and other paties but also the little things like letting the rabbits run around the living room while the cat watched uninterested, eating pizza on Sunday nights and watching the Wonderful World of Disney, turning off the lights during a thunderstorm to watch the lightning out the picture window and eventually sharing our home with Grandma during the last years of her life. These memories are a part of me – but are they a part of the house?

Rudy decides to sell the house and become an avocado farmer in Texas. At first the girls are supportive, but as reality sets in - they dread the loss of their family home and seem to be afraid of recognizing that their father is a person in his own right with hopes, regrets and a life. What accompanies Rudy through all the changes is a college textbook Philosophy Made Simple. His wife has been an art history professor and he acquired a lot of her knowledge, but not all of her tastes for art, history and philosophy. With a new space and open time, Rudy begins contemplating the big questions of life – What is beauty? What is happiness? What is the meaning of life? How do I know?

Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) are his touchstones throughout his philosophical meanderings in the midst of living life. He builds a life in Texas, farms avocados, plans and hosts his daughter's Indian wedding, and makes peace with the affair his wife had in Italy a few years before she died of cancer. Along the way, he tries out his philosophical understandings on his Mexican foreman, a Mexican paramour, the author of the textbook (who is a charismatic uncle of his new son-in-law), and a Russian and his artistic elephant Norma Jean that paints and is eventually abandoned to Rudy's care.

One of the interesting conversation in the book was about happiness – not just what it was, but when are we the happiest, or what was our happiest moment. “The pandit was quick to disagree: “Trying to reach happiness by fulfilling your desires is like trying to reach the horizon by running toward it. True happiness is to found not in the fulfillment of desire, but escape from desire.” (p. 212). Rudy counters with the idea “I think people are the happiest when they're standing on the threshold of a new life . . . “ His daughter continues with the illustration of the urn in Keat's poem Ode to a Grecian Urn, “It is not the kiss, but the moment just before the kiss that's the moment of real happiness” (p. 213). As soon as we get what we desire, we begin to desire something else. It is the absence of desire – the contentment of what we have, and being grateful for it.

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