Category: FS Bar

Influence, Gender, and Defying Social Conventions with Friedrich Nietzsche and Jane Austen

In the third installment of our FS Bar series, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and writer Jane Austen sit down for a drink and discuss each other’s work, gender, philosophy, and try to find common ground. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.

***

We are back at the FS bar. Kit is going through the stock to prepare an order. The door opens and Friedrich Nietzsche lurches in and settles himself at the bar. Kit puts down her paperwork and moves a few bottles to the side.

Kit: Good afternoon. What can I get you?

Nietzsche: Beer. (He casts his eye over the taps.) It seems that no one has yet determined how to elevate the craft of brewing. I see even the French make some.

Kit: I’m pretty good at matching preferences to types. What are your must-haves in a beer?

Nietzsche: Strong. Illuminating. And thick enough to hold up a spoon.

Kit: (grins) I love a challenge.

Nietzsche: Hmph.

(As Kit is getting Nietzsche’s beer ready, Jane Austen walks in. Elegantly, if somewhat tentatively, she takes a seat at the bar. Kit puts Nietzsche’s beer down in front of him before turning to Austen.)

Kit: Hi, what can I get you this afternoon?

Austen: Port please.

Kit: Sure thing.

(There is a pause that stretches and becomes slightly awkward.)

Nietzsche: (starts speaking to Austen) I’ve read some of your stories you know. The ones with the alliteration. Sense and Sensibility sounded promising until I realized none of the characters had either.

(Austen takes a sip of the port that Kit has just set down.)

Nietzsche: Really, what was the use of all that sentimental drivel? Man should be required to confront his stupidity, not hide behind it moaning about useless nonsense. In my last book I didn’t waste time trying to comfort those who cower behind the lies they have come to worship. A mirror or a strong knock on the head is what’s required. Not giving ignorance legitimacy.

Austen: Well, I did desire to make some money, and thus did not have the luxury of completely pissing my readers off. You understand why I had to be a fair bit more subtle in my take-down of social convention.

Nietzsche: (his eyes light up) I must have missed that. I was obviously confused by the happy endings. How, despite all the absurdity, it all works out okay in the end. That seems to imply that social convention works.

Austen: Giving readers a happy ending helps them digest the rest. If you tear everything apart and then have your characters die in misery, there is no hope for the reader. If you want them to change their thinking you must give them hope there is still time and a reason to make that change.

Nietzsche: People who need to be coddled like that are beyond benefiting from reading.

Austen: I think it is worth the effort, to try to reel them in before I cut their legs from under them. The more someone enjoys a story, the more they will see it through to the end.

Nietzsche: What people will pay for.

Austen: What they won’t.

Nietzsche: Lots of people read my work-

Austen: Out of sheer morbid curiosity. Dying to know who you will next assault. But you and I aren’t so different. What they come for isn’t what they leave with.

Nietzsche: (regards her for a moment) I doubt it. Most people are too invested in the status quo and too ashamed of their ignorance to think for themselves.

Austen: And yet here we are. Having managed to think ourselves out of the primitive struggle for daily survival. To create language and steam engines and leisure time. So, surely, the odd human occasionally manages to think for themselves, dragging the rest of us along.

Nietzsche: Not without considerable difficulty.

Austen: Yes. But we are up to the challenge, you and I, are we not? (pause) I read Twilight of the Idols in its entirety you know, despite it having no description of twilight or anyone to idolize.

Nietzsche: (takes a sip of his beer, trying to hide a smile) And you think I should have been kinder. Thrown in a puppy or some of that romantic nonsense that has taken over society like a cancer.

Austen: Not at all. I do think you missed a great opportunity to further decimate the social systems that lead to the kind of thinking you seem to abhor.

Nietzsche: Really? And where was that?

Austen: In your book you talk about the progress of an idea, how it grows more refined, more enticing, more incomprehensible. You say it becomes more like a woman. By doing this, by effectively reducing women to be simply what they appear to men, you take away their humanity. And when you do that, you place women outside of the changes you are arguing for.

Nietzsche: Explain yourself.

Austen: Christianity has also reduced women to objects solely to be used by men. By being aligned with the church’s thinking you reinforce the same power structure you are trying to take down.

Nietzsche: (stares at her for a moment) I should have put woman on an equal footing with man?

Austen: If only to anger all those priests and vicars.

Nietzsche: (pauses) That isn’t why I write you know, to provoke outrage. I’m trying to show people how weak they are. And how much more they could be.

Austen: There is greater potential everywhere. Women are both subject to the same institutions and have the same potential for overthrowing them as men.

Nietzsche: Hm. This from the woman who wrote “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Austen: Oh Mr. Nietzsche, you are smart enough to see the humor in that. Something that is true and absolutely shouldn’t be.

Nietzsche: Yes. People laugh. And then they keep doing it anyway.

Austen: And maybe one day they’ll realize it makes them chuckle because it’s absurd. And then they will stop throwing their daughters in the path of every man with an excellent income and a large property. And maybe the daughters will start to do something else when they aren’t saddled with these expectations.

Nietzsche: I agree with you on this. Women have much more to offer outside the confines of marriage.

Austen: I’m aware of your history, so I will take that comment in the spirit it is intended, with my tongue in cheek.

Nietzsche: And has it made a difference then, your writing?

Austen: (sighs a little) Possibly only to me.

Nietzsche: So here we are then, both of us wasted talents who sought to change the world and who failed entirely.

Austen: You don’t believe that.

Nietzsche: No. It is depressing how little happens in one’s lifetime, but there it is. The Greeks didn’t become interesting until a thousand years after their heyday. Perhaps you and I will both be on a stamp or a bank note one day.

Austen: A girl can dream.

Nietzsche: (Raises his glass in Austen’s direction) Well, Ms. Austen, it hasn’t been as much of a waste of time as I anticipated.

Austen: (smiles) Same to you Mr. Nietzsche, same to you.

Sex on the Beach with Montaigne and Descartes

In the second installment of our FS Bar series (see here for the first), philosophers Montaigne and Descartes discuss the utility of experience, what kind of knowledge we should seek, and sex on the beach. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.

The door to the FS Bar opens and Montaigne enters. He takes a seat at the bar as Kit finishes slicing a bucketful of limes. As Kit will tell us later, never, ever eat bar limes because no one ever washes them.

Montaigne: (Taking a seat) What a lovely evening.

Kit: That it is. I walked in today, and it was so great. What can I get you?

Montaigne: May I see a menu please?

(Kit hands him one)

Montaigne: It is truly amazing, the variety of drinks one can make. (After a bit of flipping) What do you recommend?

Kit: What do you like?

Montaigne: Something I’ve never had before. Something surprising.

Kit: (Smiles) How about a Sex on the Beach?

Montaigne: (Chuckles) If it’s anything like the real thing, then it’s likely a lot better in theory than in practice.

Kit: Aren’t most things? I make mine with blackcurrant liqueur. It’s gorgeous.

Montaigne: Let’s give it a whirl then.

(Pause while Kit begins to prepare the drink. Just as she’s placing it in front of Montaigne, the door opens and Descartes walks in. As he reaches the bar he notices Montaigne and quickly turns his head, hoping not to be noticed.)

Montaigne: Ah Rene, my old friend. What brings you out on this beautiful spring evening? Don’t tell me you felt the urge to enjoy the weather?

Descartes: (Resigning himself to sitting with Montaigne) Just taking a break. My brain needs a rest.

Kit: Evening. What can I get you to drink?

Descartes : A glass of red wine. A Merlot or a Syrah, please. Old vines. No tannins.

Montaigne: You should have what I’m having. It’s sublime.

Descartes: It’s lurid. How many colors are in that glass?

Montaigne: It’s sex on the beach.

Descartes: (Raises a brow) It’s not my thing.

Montaigne: Of course not. I imagine it would be quite difficult to ignore the sensations produced by all those grains of sand.

Descartes: (Rolls his eyes) You always deliberately misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with experience, I just don’t pretend that my life should stand for the life.

Montaigne: I was just pointing out that the physical experience of sex on a beach might produce some knowledge. Certainly you would learn if there is any relation between one’s propensity to be amorous and the perceived comfort of the execution. Some grain of truth as it were. (Chuckles to himself)

Descartes: Truth only for me. Who am I to say what other people would enjoy? I have seen enough in my travels to think that there is little in sexual encounters that one could consider to be absolutely standard. At least I wouldn’t leave to posterity my ramblings about how my passions were affected by the rhythm of the waves or some such nonsense.

Montaigne: Ah, this is always where you and I disagree. Human experiences need not be universal to teach us something worth knowing.

Descartes: To give us ideas, maybe. But in terms of knowledge we can rely on, experiences are essentially useless.

(There is a pause. Descartes gulps down about a third of his wine while Montaigne continues to sip his drink.)

Montaigne: (To Kit) My friend here is quite famous. Have you ever heard “I think therefore I am?”

Kit: (Looks at Descartes) You said that?

Descartes: (A touch uncomfortable) Yes. I mean, it has a specific context. It was the one thing I could think that proved I existed. The only thing I could not doubt was that I could doubt.

Montaigne: Unfortunately he doubted away everything else, including his body. (Shakes his head)

Descartes: Which you think is ridiculous.

Montaigne: Which I think is nonsensical. You could be a brain in a vat, but to what end? It doesn’t stop you from feeling sadness, or make your farts smell any less.

Descartes: And is that really the point of philosophical inquiry? To validate the functions of the body?

Montaigne: No. It’s to make sense of ourselves, and through that to try to understand what we are a part of. But things don’t have to be unchanging in order to be true.

Descartes: (Looking more than a little wistful) All I wanted was to find the foundation. The things we know so that the rest could stand on something secure. What good is claiming knowledge if it can be easily torn down by logic or the next scientific discovery?

Montaigne: So if you can’t know everything you might as well know nothing?

Descartes: No. But the subjective distracts us. We can’t hope to know anything if we don’t put some objective rigour around it. (Pause) Didn’t you notice, when you were in school, that eventually everything seemed to contradict something else you’d learned? Look at all those ridiculous aphorisms people are always throwing out there. One day they’ll tell you that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ then the next it’s ‘the early bird gets the worm’. It’s empty, situation-specific nonsense. And people fall for it. Every damn day. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a few bits of knowledge that, no matter who you were or what situation you were faced with, you could always count on to be true?

Montaigne: (Sighs) Maybe Socrates is the only one who got it right when he hinted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.

Descartes: (Shakes his head) I don’t accept that. We come into this world vulnerable and ignorant, dependent on the needs of our bodies and the teachings of those around us. But at some point, surely we can turn our brains to filtering what we have taken in, being honest about the junk, and letting go of needing anything other than knowledge.

Montaigne: Ah my friend, this I’m not sure we can do. We are not only shaped by our experiences, we are our experiences. We contemplate love through the lenses of our hurts, and life through the lenses of our losses.

Kit: It’s an amazing idea though. To be able to understand life the same way as math. To know that one plus one will always equal two.

Descartes: (Running his finger around the rim of his glass) That is the goal.

Montaigne: Well, you proved your own existence. That is something.

Kit: So, if we know we’re alive, at least we know we’re all going through it together.

Descartes: (Looks miserable) Actually, I only know that I exist. You could be a robot.

Kit: But if you know you exist, can’t I use the same logic to know that I exist?

Descartes: Yes. But we can only know this about ourselves. Not those around us.

Kit: It sounds lonely.

Montaigne: And no way to live. Imagine that your lover, your best friend, your children, are robots. When I do I feel only a profound isolation—and seriously question the point of living.

Descartes: Like I said, the goal was to get on a foundation that couldn’t be shaken. No matter what.

Montaigne: But what good is a foundation if you can’t build anything on it?

Descartes: (Looking like he doesn’t really want to get into it) Why don’t you enlighten us with one of your pithy observations? You can tell our lovely bartender here your theory about the effects of reducing drunkenness.

Montaigne: It is a good theory. (He turns to Kit) We drink less, which according to health professionals and moral arbitrators, is a social victory. But the effect of this is more sex. We obviously can’t get by without any vices, so the less we drink the more we lust.

Kit: (Looking a little surprised) I’ve never thought of it that way.

Montaigne: (Shrugs) We seek pleasure. There is nothing surprising about that. And as far as pleasures go, good sex is infinitely preferable to good wine. Drunkenness, really, is not so great. In extreme, you lose knowledge and control of yourself.

Descartes: Sex doesn’t exactly lead to clarity of mind. As Shakespeare said of lust, “enjoyed no sooner but despised straight.” Getting it doesn’t stop the wanting.

Montaigne: Which is why it’s so important to be just as careful in choosing your vices as anything else. But although they are equally vices, they are not equal vices [i].

Descartes: And you think I’m nuts for wanting some knowledge that I can count on every day.

Montaigne: (Raises his glass) Cheers then, to trying to figure it out. Regardless of the outcome, it is certainly something worth striving for.

(Descartes smiles and accepts the salute. Fade out.)

[i] Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics). M. A. Screech, tr. London: Penguin UK, 2004.

So Two Stoics Walk Into a Bar…

The first thing he ordered was OJ with a splash of vodka. When people come to the FS bar the first thing they did was order a drink so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But looking closely … this was no ordinary man.

Why was Seneca ordering a drink at the FS Bar? And who was that next to him? Is that Epictetus? It’s clear this was going to be no ordinary night at the FS bar.

It’s time to get to work.

***

(What follows is our imagined dialogue between Epictetus and Seneca, two essential contributors to Stoic thought, at the FS bar, presided over by an intellectually curious bartender, Kit.

Imagine: There is a slight breeze as the door opens. In walk Seneca and Epictetus. They are both dressed decently, but plainly. After taking a moment to adjust to the light, they each take a seat at the FS bar.)

***

Kit: Evening Gentlemen. What can I get you?

Epictetus: I’ll have an orange juice with a little vodka. Get my friend here a hemlock tea.

Seneca: Very humorous. I’ll have the same, please.

Kit: No problem. (She begins to mix the drinks)

Seneca turns to Epictetus, obviously continuing a conversation they had started earlier.

Seneca: I’m not sure I agree with you. Relationships don’t automatically interfere with our ability to be content. If you find someone who has the same approach to life as you, then it’s possible to share your life with them.

Epictetus: Ah, that makes me nervous. Other people, their decisions, their actions, are outside of our control. If we can’t walk away from relationships then we’re relying on things that we have no control over. And it’s impossible to be content like that.

Seneca: But surely a life without emotional attachment is not the kind of life that will provide contentment?

Epictetus: Why not?

(Seneca pauses to think about this.)

Seneca: It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life. Every individual can make himself happy. That implies that feeling something positive is the goal.

Epictetus: Yes, but happiness comes when you can generate it yourself. Like you said, everyone is born with the tools to make himself happy. You don’t need anything else in this world to achieve it. Money, stuff, or relationships.

Seneca: I guess the question then, is can you have something without needing it? Can you enjoy something without relying on it?

(pause while they both consider this)

Kit: And how are the screwdrivers Gentlemen?

Seneca: Exactly as they should be. Thank you.

Epictetus: You probably think our conversation isn’t very appropriate for a bar.

Kit: (smiles) Everything is appropriate for a bar. It’s a good place to work out your thoughts.

Seneca: What do you think? About my friend’s point that we should form no real attachments to anyone. Spouses. Children. Because we can never be truly content relying on anything outside of our control.

Kit: It sounds pretty impossible. If you didn’t care about anyone, why would you even bother getting married or having kids? What would be the point?

Seneca: Exactly! I think that relationships can play a crucial role in being content with your life. The goal is not to avoid feeling because it can cause pain, but accept that pain will inevitably come, and learn to deal with it with equanimity. And if you have a close relationship with someone who’s similar, you can find contentment with each other. It’s about enjoying relationships without becoming attached to them.

Epictetus: No, no. Denial is better than moderation. Wanting nothing means no one has power over you. As soon as you want a spouse, you compromise your ability to control your life.

Seneca: As soon as you desire anything, you compromise. But what if it’s not about wanting a spouse. Or children. What if it’s just about doing it if the opportunity presents itself, and then it becomes about loving the ones you have.

Kit: (who has continued to listen to their conversation due to a lack of other patrons) I think it would be really hard to not want your children to grow up and have great lives.

Epictetus: It’s not ‘wanting’ or ‘not wanting’. It’s not feeling anything at all beyond what you can control.

Kit: Is that even possible?

Epictetus: (shrugs) It’s something to work towards. (Sees Kit’s skeptical expression) Look, if you go buy a chocolate bar, it costs you a dollar. If you don’t buy it, you don’t have the chocolate bar, but you still have the dollar. You can’t both get something and not pay for it. It’s the same with relationships. You can’t derive benefit from them without it costing you to some degree. And if you don’t invest yourself in them, you’ll still have that effort available for yourself.

Seneca: I disagree. I think it is possible to love. You just can’t let yourself be controlled by it. It is desires that blind us to the truth. The wanting, not the being. You can and should love your children. But you must also be mindful of the precariousness of life, and not be amazed or devastated by the things that happen to them. A lot of bad shit happens in life, to us and the ones we love. The problem is that we are always surprised by it.

Epictetus: Ah, so when a little wine is stolen, don’t get upset. It’s the price you pay for tranquility.

Seneca: Right.

Kit: So, you just have to accept that your husband will leave you, and your children will die, that way when it happens you will just be like ‘oh, okay’?

Seneca: (shakes his head) Not quite. It’s more knowing that they could. See, it might not ever happen, but then again, it might. And if you start off accepting that fortune, or fate, or however you understand the world, brings both good and bad, then you will be able to still find contentment no matter what life throws at you.

Kit: Hmm. And does it work for you?

Seneca: (laughs) Sometimes.

Epictetus: I think it’s about trying to be one step removed from what’s happening. If you can recognize, for instance, that it’s not people who are irritating, but your judgment about their behavior that is irritating, then you create a space where you can change how you feel without needing anyone else to change.

Seneca: Yes. The more understanding and acceptance you have of the reality of living, the less you are impacted when circumstances knock you down.

Kit: Well, that I can get behind. Another drink?