Philosophy in 7 Sentences by Douglas Groothuis

 

[3 minute read]

Final Verdict – 3/5 – Light read and decent introductory text

We are exposed to philosophy on a daily basis – a quote overheard at a cocktail party, a moving soliloquy in a movie, a friend’s insightful opinion, or simply when lying in bed and pondering on the purpose of your life.  Philosophical thinking is all around us, is unavoidable, and impacts us profoundly.  During times of strife or when confronted with a challenging issue we can either give in or search for answers using logic and reasoning.  This is philosophy at its best – helping us act in a way which hopefully betters our present situation.  The etymological origins of the word ‘philosophy’ come from Greek roots where ‘philo’ means love and ‘sophos’ means wisdom.  Philosophy is literally the love of wisdom.  Ergo, only a fool can dislike philosophy.

A more clinical definition of philosophy is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”  Wow.  That’s a pretty broad scope of study!  I would like to add some more flavourful context to this definition and take it one step further.  You see, I view philosophy as sitting at the top of the knowledge or human consciousness pyramid.  Under philosophy comes science, theology and all the other branches of knowledge.  Why?  Refer to the definition again.  Literally everything can fall under the domain of philosophy.  That’s what I love about it – we’re all philosophers in some way (whether practical or theoretical).  Anyway, that’s just my philosophy.  Get the jist?

So if philosophy is a practical and ubiquitous subject matter which is ever-present in everything we do then why bother to read about it and where does the book “Philosophy in 7 Sentences” come into play?  Well, to answer the first question – philosophical thought is by its very nature open-ended so I would argue that the journey into it is more important than the destination (which is almost always unknown).  This short, easy-to-read, introductory book contains a solid selection of quotes from well-known philosophers, their personal biographies, as well as Groothuis’ breakdown and discussion of the quotes.  Speaking of whom, Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosophy in the USA and is also a Christian – which lends an interesting (and very light) theological flavour to his discussions.

His book is essentially a great diving board into philosophy for those – such as myself – who are beginners when it comes to structured philosophical thought and don’t necessarily want to jump into a book which is ominously difficult or time-consuming.  My favourite of the seven quotes in this book is by Blaise Pascal – “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  I like it because it explains so much of the folly which we persist engaging in as fallible human beings (love, investing, big decisions in life).  Let me know which is your favourite quote and why.

Haiti is Open for Tourism!

[7 minute read]

Before continuing I want you to take note of the first thing which comes to mind when you think of Haiti.

Did images of palm-lined Caribbean beaches come to mind?  Perhaps you thought of the friendly locals of African descent who call it home?  Perchance you visualized a mysterious voodoo ceremony?  Or maybe the Creole language – part French, part African – stirred some memory?  Did you consider the tourism and business potential of this largely undeveloped yet aspirational nation?

I am willing to bet that you thought of none of that stuff.  You see, it’s only every so often that we hear about this small island nation in the news.  And it’s always when something has gone terribly wrong.  Natural disasters – earthquakes, cyclones, and floods.  Poverty.  Thousands dead.  Diseases spreading.  Cholera.  Malaria.  Displaced peoples, homeless, jobless, and hopeless.  Children without parents.  Food shortages.  No clean water.  Desperately in need of your help and donations.  We have been conditioned to view this poor nation with sympathy towards their (immense) current problems and apathy to everything else: their history, culture, language, politics, and – most importantly – tourism.  Yes, tourism.  But more on that later on.  You see, the media and international aid organisations have basically relegated the entire country to a permanent humanitarian disaster with no apparent solution in sight.  It sure makes it sound like a risky and dangerous place to visit, right?

 

Well, I won’t blame you if that’s what you thought.  Because I had the exact same worries before I just said ‘fuck it’ and decided to put Haiti on my itinerary.

 

Here I’m exploring the Citadelle Laferrière which is a stunning and unexpected sight in northern Haiti, located on top of the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque, approximately 27 km south of the city of Cap-Haïtien
My local guide, Edlin Florvil (blue top), is showing me around the bustling markets of Cap-Haïtien
Enjoying a beer with Joanie Lefebvre in one a sea-side restaurant in the southern town of Jacmel
Boiling a chopped-up Jackfruit with a local girl from an orphanage in the town of Jacmel

 

Now, some of Haiti’s early history for more context:

The Caribbean island of Hispaniola (100 km east of Cuba) was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.  The following year Spanish settlement began which notably included the introduction of sugar cane and the enslavement of the indigenous Taino peoples.  In 1496 Santo Domingo was founded (the capital city of present-day Dominican Republic) which was the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.  By 1517 it is believed that only 14,000 of the indigenous Taino peoples remained (down from approximately 750,000).  As the local labour population dwindled, African slaves were brought in to keep up the production of cane molasses and sugar.  A 1574 census counted 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves on Hispaniola.

 

It was in 1665 that French colonization of the island officially began (having unofficially begun several decades earlier by French buccaneers).  This was roughly around the time when Spain was busy reaping the bloody rewards of their successful conquests of the Americas – such as gold, silver, sugar, cocoa, and tobacco.  As such, Spain’s interests in Hispaniola were waning and so they officially ceded the western third of the island to the French in the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick.  The French part of the island was promptly named Saint-Domingue, after the Spanish side’s Santo Domingo.  Over the next century or so the French continued with the proven and highly lucrative business of importing African slaves in order to increase sugar exports to Europe.  Then, in 1791, inspired by the recent French revolution of 1789, the plantation slaves organised a resistance movement which eventually succeeded by them gaining unofficial independence from the French on January 1st, 1804.

 

As one can imagine, the French did not take this significant and embarrassing loss lightly.  In addition, Haiti’s neighbours in the USA did not look upon their emancipation favourably as it greatly threatened the status quo of their domestic slave economy.  If Haiti wanted to keep its independence it would be made to pay for it – with blood or with debt.  As it turned out, in July 1825, the president of France agreed to a treaty with Haiti which would make their independence official.  The terms of the treaty were finalised at 150 million francs – during which time Haiti was surrounded by French naval ships threatening invasion if negotiations did not go the right way.  This great debt burden as well as the alienation from neighbouring economies would keep Haiti’s own economy from developing for the next century. Despite this, what the Haitians had achieved in their freedom was unprecedented in modern history and is to be lauded.

 

End of history lesson (check out the more modern history – it’s pretty wild).

 

In June 2016 I crossed the border into Haiti by bus from the Dominican Republic side – very much against the well-intentioned but mal-informed advice given to me from locals I met in the DR.  You see, the Dominicans who were telling me I’d get mugged (or worse) had never actually stepped foot in Haiti before.  Regardless of this, I still had the prudence to keep my plans secret from my parents who would have undoubtedly worried unnecessarily.  I spent the next week exploring Haiti by first starting in Cap-Haïtien, going down to Jacmel, and finishing in the capital Port-Au-Prince.  Yes, I witnessed a lot of poverty, trash, and general listlessness but I also saw the beauty of its nature and the industriousness and generosity of its people.  And yes, I definitely experienced discomfort in the sub-par accommodations and while travelling by bus but the overall cultural experiences far outweighed those minor incidents.  There are two sides to every coin and you will never fully experience that unless you go to a place to see it for yourself.  Plain and simple.  So as it turned out the naysayers were totally wrong.  Nothing bad happened to me and in fact I had a great time.  The weather was great, the food was cheap, there were many things to see, and the culture was fascinating.

 

This beautiful natural pool called Bassin Bleu is a short 2-3 hour hike from Jacmel. It was well worth the views on the way back down to the town.
Enjoying a local Prestige beer (there is only a single brand in Haiti) with my Air bnb hosts / guides from Cap-Haïtien – Edlin and Joz
Cap-Haïtien street markets. Fresh, cheap, and delicious fruits and vegetables are on sale every day.
I was shown around Port-Au-Prince by the industrious Clemson Saint-fleur who was my Couchsurfing host and de-facto guide.

 

While there I definitely saw the potential in developing a local tourism business to cater to foreigners due to the lack of readily available services and basic information.  In fact, I see tourism as one of the best ways that locals can take matters into their own hands to combat unemployment, lack of opportunities, and the overall low standards of living.  As mentioned at the start of this article, many tourists visiting the Caribbean region (e.g. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica) have strong misconceptions about Haiti and so simply decide to exclude it from their itineraries as it appears to be too dangerous or difficult to visit.  My initial impressions were not dissimilar.  In my case I just decided to ‘wing it’ and do a self-guided tour which turned out to be awesome as you can see from the above photos.  My Couch Surfing host from Port-Au-Prince, Clemson Saint-fleur, was a great guide around his local area and is now working to boost tourism to his home country through his organisation, Nomad Ayiti.  If some of the above history or photos piqued your interest and you’re considering adding Haiti to your to-visit list in the near future then I can highly recommend that you contact Nomad Ayiti and see how they can make your stay more enriching and pleasant, catered to your needs.

Likewise, feel free to contact me with any questions you have.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

[5 minute read]

Final Verdict – 5/5 – Must read

Much has been written on the perennial question, “What is the meaning of life?”  What makes this book by Viktor Frankl such a unique and rich addition to the existing discourse are the tragic circumstances which enabled its creation.  Frankl was an accomplished Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who had a successful track record of treating patients with suicidal tendencies.  In 1937, at age 32, Frankl opened his own practice in Vienna.  As such, he would have had intimate knowledge and extensive experience with how people grappled with issues relating to (lack of) happiness and success in their troubled lives.

But first, some more background behind the events which led to the creation of this book.  In September 1942 Frankl, his wife, and parents were all transported to Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto.  In October 1944 Frankl and his wife were then transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Only a week after their arrival, Frankl was removed to the Kaufering camp where he spent five months working as a labourer.  He was then moved to the Yurkheim camp where he worked as a physician until his liberation in May 1945 by US soldiers.  Upon his release Frankl discovered that he was the only survivor.  Shortly thereafter he wrote and published Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946.

The book is split into two short, easy-to-read parts.  The first deals with Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps while the second outlines his psychiatric treatment methodology which he calls ‘logotherapy.’  I was greatly impressed by Frankl’s practical, humble, and clear writing style which conveyed his experiences in a touching and impactful manner.  I honestly couldn’t put the first part of the book down.  It is here that Frankl dispenses generous servings of wisdom on the matter of the meaning of life as seen through his real experiences of being a prisoner.  I’ve never seen such poignant observations of the human condition before.  The second part of the book is also worth mentioning.  It is here that Frankl breaks down a solutions-focused psychiatric approach to mental healing rather than the traditional problem-focused approach.  There are some fantastic and practical take-aways from this part of the book for those suffering from bad habits and seemingly hopeless frames of mind which are holding them back.

By writing Man’s Search for Meaning I believe that Frankl performed a sort of self-diagnosis of his indescribably horrific experiences – his personal way of coming to terms with what happened in Nazi Germany.  He recounts the terrors he was subjected to in a detached and surgical manner, almost as if seeing them through that mental haze which blocks consciousness from memories which are best left forgotten.  It really blew me away that even under the permanent conditions of suffering inside the concentration camps that the one freedom the prisoners had was how they chose to react to their situation.  Frankl emphasized that this freedom could never be taken away from us as individuals.

Personally, the most amazing insight this little book gifted me was that it put into words what I should have realized all along regarding happiness.  Hint: it is very true but not apparent at all.  Namely, that happiness simply ensues.  What’s more is that it can ensue even under the most unimaginably harsh and brutal living conditions as those he faced in the concentration camps.  As Frankl explained in his book, the prisoners which were consciously on the path towards greater meaning and understanding in their lives – despite and because of the tremendous suffering they were going through – were the ones who were most likely to survive the ordeal.  So don’t go about chasing happiness because you can never possibly find it.  Rather, it will find you through the meaning you have chosen to assign to your life.