Lightsail, Bitnami and SSH

This blog runs in Lightsail on WordPress with a Certified by Bitnami instance. Lately, I’ve run into the following when trying to ssh in from the Lightsail console:

This hangs forever. A couple of times, a reboot of the instance seemed to fix it but this morning, nothing changed the behavior. So I decided to try to ssh from the terminal and lo and behold, this works. You have to download your private keys from your Lightsail account and then following these instructions worked fine from the terminal. This will probably be my default going forward.

The Sovereignty of Good – Book Review

Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is perhaps her best known philosophical book. It consists of three essays focused on moral philosophy and her belief in a Platonic basis for it. I’ve had the book on my mega monopoly bookseller wishlist for quite awhile, probably when I read Mathew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft which frequently references Murdoch’s concepts of attention. My recent focus on ethical philosophy in Happiness, specifically Plato, prompted me to buy this book. It’s a short book, only 100 pages, and the three essays are straightforward to read.

The main theme of the book and essays is the concept of Good as the primary ideal of moral philosophy. The first essay, The Idea of Perfection, examines the state of moral philosophy in the mid to late 20th century from Kant to the behaviorists to the existentialists to the most recent movements in analytic philosophy. None of these schools have a rich and nuanced concept of moral philosophy. Each school drives out the self in a variety of ways: Kant via Reason, Existentialism through the removal of intrinsic meaning defined by an external source, etc. Our removal of the self and its messiness along with science’s influences on society in moving away from God means that moral philosophy is reduced to thinking goodness and morality are functions of our will and not some externally existing ‘thing’. We choose what is good based on the freedom of our will and that is that. Additionally, we move away from the idea of virtue and towards a concept of “right”. We no longer ask “What is Good?”. Instead, we ask “What is Right?” which biases us towards a materialistic, false scientism when it comes to moral philosophy.

Murdoch strongly disagrees with these concepts and instead presents a moral philosophy based on a transcendent Good that is undefinable but still clearly exists external to our will for us to focus on. This makes our materialistic, technocratic selves quite uncomfortable in an age where everything supposedly has a reason and must be measured for its efficiency. But if we examine our lived experience and lean on common sense, it seems true that the Good really does exist even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what it is. Her debt to Plato and the Allegory of the Cave is clear here.

Murdoch argues for a much richer inner life than do her contemporaries or immediate philosophical ancestors. This inner life is “hazy” as she puts it and not subject to measurements or efficiencies. Contemporary moral philosophy judges every thing on actions: we have no way to inspect the inner life Murdoch treasures and therefore can only decide whether a person is moral by his or her actions. Murdoch argues this is far too limiting to develop a rich, moral philosophy and instead that our inner life can (and DOES!) contain much more. This lines up with most people’s simple common sense beliefs about their “self”.

Murdoch’s example involves M and D, two women associated via the marriage of D to M’s son. M behaves towards D flawlessly (her external visible actions) but internally, she believes that D is simple and plain and below her son. Over time, M’s vision of D comes to change. She sees that her son loves D, that perhaps instead of simple, D is carefree and happy, etc. Her actions have never changed but her morality has in that it has grown along a continuum. Modern moral philosophy has no mechanism with which to judge this example because there are no actions that have changed. M’s actions are the same yet something has changed. This is why Murdoch argues for concepts beyond the examination of actions that behaviorism and existentialism focus on. Most people would likely agree with her that there does seem to be some rich inner life and that a moral philosophy that does not account for this life is suspect.

This also has implications for concepts like Freedom. In the existentialist/behaviorist view, Freedom is the will making its moral choices often divorced from any anchor in reality. For Murdoch and a theory of Good, Freedom is the choices made on a progressive continuum towards Perfection. It is not random free choice. In other words, M chose to look more carefully, to attend more clearly, to D’s characteristics and her son’s love for D. M had the Freedom to choose whether to do this but once she chose it, her path was set moving her forward towards an idea of Perfection, e.g. constantly improving via choice one’s understanding of something, in this case the personality of her daughter-in-law.

This idea of Perfection and constant movement on the continuum towards it is fundamental to Murdoch’s philosophy. By conceiving of a transcendent Good and then attending to it, we grow more moral over time. This is in sharp contrast to the materialistic view of existentialism where everything is based on external actions and there is no historical context, e.g. no continuum, within which to judge the morality of an agent. It’s also important to note Murdoch’s concept of attention. For her, morality comes via attention to reality, the real world (the relationship M’s son has with D for example) and then fitting ones decisions and beliefs around that. By contrast, in existentialism, the will operates independent from reality leaving one’s morality to be developed in a void. This is a slippery slope towards “things that are right for you aren’t right for me”. Only by judging moral philosophy on its connection to reality can we have standards that we once derived from the Divine.

Murdoch’s idea of Perfection requires the governance of reality as a guide for growth in a moral way. We must attend to what we experience, our relationships, our impacts on the environment, etc so that we can develop our moral philosophy towards better actions. Reality comes first, then growth towards the Good, then actions unlike the existentialists and behaviorists for whom actions are the genesis of moral philosophy. For them, actions are everything. But for Plato and Murdoch and Aquinas among others, the genesis of moral philosophy is a transcendent Good (for Aquinas, this was God as primary, for the others the Good is primary on its own) towards which we apply attention first that enables actions. The Good is contextual, it has a history to which we must attend and this is how it differs dramatically from the existentialist/behaviorist view with its isolated will.

On Happiness – Epicurus, Seneca, and Augustine

This is part of a stop and start series summarizing the writings in Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy. You can read other parts of the series starting here.

Today’s third installment is a summary of what the Stoics represented by Seneca and Augustine felt about happiness. The Stoics have in recent years returned to popularity, largely through the writings of Ryan Holiday. Stoicism was in direct competition for mind share and pupils with Epicureans during the ancient world. The writing of Seneca in this book is in response to the core Epicurean belief that pleasure is the highest good. Seneca believes Virtue is the higher good. Seneca’s main argument with Epicurean philosophy is not that it is necessarily bad but that it is far too easy to fall into a vicious cycle when pursuing happiness via pleasure.

According to Seneca, Virtue is the highest good and has the added benefit of providing some pleasure. The analogy he uses is like the field plowed for corn that then allows some flowers to bloom around its borders, Virtue allows for pleasure to bloom in small ways as well. The benefit of Virtue is that it allows man to stand up to the tribulations of life whereas pleasure does not. As someone who struggles with things like carbs and Twitter, I can attest to pleasure largely being weak and fleeting.

Interestingly, Epicurus, while having a totally materialistic metaphysical basis for his philosophy, did not advocate for the gluttony that we typically associate with his philosophy. Much of what Epicurus said was directed at developing a freedom of fear, both of the gods and of man, and directing one’s life to learning via our senses. This then allowed man to acquire pleasure though still in some moderation. As so often with philosophical leaders, it was later adherents to the philosophy who bastardized the concepts.

Seneca advocated for Virtue being the standard bearer for our direction in life and that by doing so, man would be able to both acquire pleasure (via higher goods like learning and philosophical development) and to withstand all the things that buffet and attack our happiness and equilibrium in life. Virtue allows us to be free from suffering because we know that our actions have truth. Virtue is independent of Fortune. One can lead a virtuous life filled with truth and wisdom while remaining poverty stricken but a rich man whose happiness is based on his pleasures can be stripped of them by Fortune. Virtue places man beyond the grasp of desire which means he achieves freedom via being virtuous. This is not unlike the ideas of Iris Murdoch who talks about freedom not as an independent thing in a laissez-faire will but a result of the consequences of a framework for action. In other words, by striving towards Virtue (or Perfection for Murdoch), we gain freedom from the whims and baseness of pleasure.

Seneca says “We have been born under a monarchy; to obey God is freedom.” This is a much deeper definition of freedom (and a seemingly paradoxical one to the modern mind) than one we operate in today where we are bombarded by people yelling about freedoms to not wear a mask or the freedom to develop a cryptocurrency or other “freedoms” based on an independent will that is largely nihilistic in nature. This freedom is hard to comprehend when one has been immersed in the cultural idea of individual freedom as the highest good. Our cultural idea of freedom is totally independent choice. However, Seneca believed that this led to base desires ruling man’s life and that true freedom came from a structural metaphysic based on virtue. Only in this path would we gain true freedom from those base desires like gluttony and greed. As Jerzy Gregorek has said, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” Today’s definition of freedom (and happiness) are entirely of the first time. But Seneca (and in some ways Epicurus and more so Augustine) believed freedom came from the latter.

Interestingly, something that is not regularly talked about is that Seneca believed Virtue came from God, that we had a sacred obligation to be human, e.g. not be bothered by those things which affects us because we are not divine. This relates him to Augustine in some ways who had similar thoughts. Augustine’s core moral was Wisdom which came from God. Wisdom is the opposite of want or more accurately, frees one from want much as Seneca believe Virtue freed us from the spiral of pleasure seeking. Wisdom for Augustine was the measure of the soul, that it kept the soul in equilibrium and prevented that same spiral into pleasure seeking behavior. Wisdom requires a constant seeking (which interestingly ties back to Murdoch’s ideas in The Sovereignty of Good) and therefore, we are never deemed “wise”, only that we are constantly trying to increase our wisdom.

The way to wisdom for Augustine was through moderation, that want (of pleasures or riches) pulls us away from wisdom which is defined as seeking God. Again, as with Seneca and later, Murdoch, Happiness is derived via our pursuit of something less concrete than basic pleasures and our ability to improve or increase that pursuit over time. Happiness is not derived from the acquisition of things but from the acquisition of wisdom. Things can be a means to this (I bought a guitar during the pandemic, the purchase of which provided a tiny bit of impermanent happiness) by allowing us to develop wisdom (playing the guitar and increasing my abilities provides a constant stream of happiness). But it is key for both Seneca and Augustine that it is not the materialistic thing itself, it is what it provides on the path to wisdom. If I had to sell the guitar to make rent, I could still sing as a way to improve musical abilities.

To me, Seneca and Augustine have a very similar view of Happiness and its providence. I’ve read far more Stoic philosophy than I have that of Augustine but I’m interested in branching out further into his beliefs. Next up is Thomas Aquinas who believed happiness came from the contemplation of God.