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Philosophy

The Four Seasons and Human Passions

How they affect us, the four seasons–if we live in a place and culture in which we experience them as such. I am not talking just about their measure by astronomical events, beginning and ending with a solstice or an equinox. Rather, I’m referring to how they are perceived by our senses, and how the sense-experience they entail affect us; for, though the astronomical metric does mark with great precision the amount of light our eyes receive, of greater influence on our passions is our experience of cold or heat, wet or dry. And though the astronomical metric of the seasons reflects a general feeling of increase or decline, this same burgeoning and decline is more intensely felt by our observations of the plant world around us. So when I am speaking of spring, I think more of the abundance of blossoming, the ubiquity of polen, the brushstrokes of green painted again on the trees– rather than the increasing hours of sunlight–and more of the gradual fading of winter’s chill, which might let us leave our coats at home, if we’re lucky.

Spring

It’s in spring in which the flowers do most of their “crazy blooming,” to paraphrase a brilliant line by our modern bard, Bob Dylan, a line I write about in another post. And so, who could be surprised that, spring is the season in which humans are most susceptible to Eros. This is, I’ll mention it again, the most bodily and fleeting form of love. We hear the phrase “spring fling,”–maybe in a “Women’s Magazine,” vague association. We might be lucky and fling ourselves into a new lover’s arms, maybe a stranger we meet at a bar or club. And we hope that both parties, can soon fling their new lover away without any misgivings. We hope that neither wishes to cling rather than fling.

But here, in the violence of that word, is a hint that the end to such affairs are not always happy, and their absence may be resented. Eros isn’t interested in anything but sensual pleasure, the beauty we witness, the bodies we feel. It has none of the depths, the mutual care and respect, the hoping for mutual thriving, found in the other concepts of love. How strange that this force is what causes, traditionally, sexual reproduction–though our institutions, like marriage, and technologies, like birth control–may allow us to save reproduction for fuller relationships of mutual caring. But April remains the cruelest month; those who find lovers will leave them, children may suffer from their Father’s absence, and those who feel left out of the burgeoning may regret having to witness it all around them.

But before poor T. S. Eliot commits suicide–or better, J. Alfred Prufrock–because of romantic frustration and the feeling that his sexual prime has passed–summer comes along and saves the day.

Summer

It is in summer when we are most independent. One of our basic needs, shelter, seems less necessary. We might live happily in a tent, and clothing becomes optional–except, of course, for its role in protecting our skin from ultraviolet rays. And at night we can wander without a chill, while the daylight hours go on and on, nourishing our feeling of self-sufficiency; for now, if we have no electric light, we find an abundance, sometimes over-abundance of the stuff. Food and water and air: these suffice now.

And in this feeling of independence, self-sufficiency, autonomy, our erotic passions, singing hot a few months back, have become only warm. And this allows us to enjoy them, but saves us from the folly of making them the central end of our lives. We are all at our most confident now, and in this state of relative thriving, we feel the need to engage others on a deeper level. It’s the relationship of independence and mutual respect which now engages us: if spring is all about passion, summer prefers friendship. There’s no flinging, or clinging involved in this, when it’s healthy. Mutual respect, feelings of equality, the ability to let our friend go about his or her own interests even if this means years or decades apart. We might be friends forever, and if we have a falling-out, because one of us has succumbed to some vice or another–because one begins to cling, the other to fling–such a loss, though still grave, doesn’t burn as intensely as the loss of a lover.

For our summer reading–phrase which shows how close the seasons are to our intellectual lives–we might choose Lucretius’ great book and feel a great wisdom in the Epicureans’ focus on moderate enjoyment, of food, moderate drink, conversation with our friends. And even sex, but of a kind which is less selfish than the purely erotic. We may enjoy it with a life partner, for example; but this is not necessary. The person must be someone we care for, that’s all. We can’t “love them and leave them.” If a child comes to life through such activities, we welcome that child with open arms. We will make sure he or she enjoys the care and guidance of a Father and a Mother, or of a whole town, a number of role models providing care. No flinging here, not in summer!

Autumn

But then comes fall, also known as autumn. Fall mirrors spring, not as its opposite, but as its sister: the mild temperatures, and the temperate length of days match. But fall inverts spring’s slope: we are moving towards the dearth of winter, with its near lifelessness. The days become shorter, the temperatures sink, and the flowers vanish.

And yet, witnessing the plant-world, we enjoy the sight of the autumn leaves. Ironically, they are more beautiful than the verdure of which came before it. I italicize ironically because: Who could attribute to nature such a subtlety of meaning? This phenomenon, along with the rainbow–called a sign of the covenant, in a holy or supposedly-holy text, both make me question my previously steadfast conviction that nature cannot have meaning. They both seem too clear in message to me, too clear to not risk becoming a believer when you see them. So, if I were you, my advice would be: if you fear believing in something you currently disbelieve in: close your eyes whenever you see a rainbow, or autumn leaves.

If in summer we have enjoyed responsible, moderate sexuality, and in spring, immoderate bacchanalia, in fall we feel the forces of both. Winter’s threat encourages us not only to seek sexual pleasure, but also the first beginnings of a real relationship, one which combines sexuality which mutual esteem, one which fits the modern notion of love. The weather soon, will make it too cold to glean much enjoyment in outdoor life. We want to share bodily warmth with another in our bed. And it’s not mere lust: we seek conversation, shared goals, something spiritual in the oncoming cold and dark, a negative emotion strong enough that lust doesn’t suffice to outdo it. This is not to say that Eros has abandoned autumn: rather, our lust seems almost as intense as in spring, just combined with the deeper loves we associate with family relations.

There are those who will, under winter’s threat, go into total denial. They will seek out the same orgies they had survived in spring. Bacchus, after-all, must be most alive in the time at which grapes are harvested, the end of summer, or early fall.

And yet, these wild parties, are more likely than those in spring to end in sorrow. The stakes have become too high because you seek satisfaction in love and pleasure both. So those who fail may become mad. In the classical tradition, the orgy-lost-control ends in ritual dismemberment, gore beyond ends. But we may fail, at such parties, in a more subtle fashion. Did you treat your potential lover like an equal subject? Was your talk or touch unwanted, and harmful? If such a mishap occurs, you may regret the happening for years on end… here in our modern world, where such slights receive–at least in some circles–their due disdain.

But beyond a time for romance, fall is a time for work. Work may substitute sexual reproduction–as is the case in the myth of Pygmalion, his statue come to life, I believe, in fall. Or, it may accompany it. In any case, I think it’s likely–though have no support for such claim in facts–that the greatest achievements in the arts and sciences most often occurred in autumn. The masterwork of a song, painting, sculpture, play–and so on–the revolutionary scientific discovery: I feel that, most likely, these usually occurred, or planted their seeds, in autumn. The work to find out if something is actually supported by facts is quite difficult, and no task I’m up to at the moment.

In terms of life-philosophies, of classical ethics, the stoics fit best in fall. In summer we were epicurean, believing that the slower, milder pleasures suffice in life. In autumn, we feel the pain of future illness and death, and which to find some solace from it. Because the winter remains mere conjecture, we say: “as a master of reason, I am stronger than any possible emotion which might befall me, any death of mother or child which I might face when winter comes.” And the same stoic might be engaged in the typical loves of autumn, the ones which begin new families, which cause wanted pregnancies. And such adherents to a school of thought must enjoy the company of existing family, too.

Winter

And then winter comes, with all its dread. No leaves, no sign of eminent rebirth, perhaps no hope.

In winter, both the epicureans and the stoics lose their respective faiths. The epicureans because, their “static pleasures” become few and far between, and can’t measure up to their opposite, the real sorrow in what has happened. And the stoics, thinking that they had become wise enough to overcome all negative emotions, feel “irrational” sorrow, because of what has happened. And what has happened: a loved-one died, a parent or a child. The grieving for either of these deaths reaches such intensity that these philosophies both stagger and fall. Their poor student, must accept the fault of his previous beliefs. or repress this acceptance. They both fail on the same terms: as naturalist systems of ethics.

So, because of the death of a loved one, or maybe–having not saved up enough of the bounty of autumn’s harvest–we seek something deeper than the naturalistic systems.

There are many of alternatives. Any of the modern religions, I believe, will do. And if we narrow our gaze to look on only ancient philosophies, Platonism does fine. In Platonism, we believe in the immortality of the soul, and it’s constant quest for world of forms, just one possible absolute. This world of forms, of course, is the sibling of the Christian heaven, such a haven for our distress. We must believe in some form of the beyond, because nothing else but such belief will suffice.

And maybe we can’t make the leap away from naturalistic philosophies, though we accept that they don’t work either. Such is the common reading of Philip Larkin. His Aubade expression the insurmountability of timor mortis, the fear of death. The epicureans find it easily surmountable, in a spurious vision of solace in the universality of the fleeting. The stoics have already lost, because they deny the insurmountablity of the emotion which this poem proclaims. And yet: there is some glimmer of hope. The title word, Aubade, refers to a poem or song appropriate to the dawn, the most hopeful hour on the clock. But, because this hope is hidden in the title– relatively rare vocable–we are wounded by its dimness.

And now, I conjecture: it can be no chance the the birth of Jeus occurred at the winter solstice, a religious event even in pagan times. Having lost all hope, there is still a glimmer of dawn after-all.

Epilogue

My life as a reader centers on a geographical region in the moderate north. The novels and poems written in Germany, Great Britain, France, Greece, Italy, and Spain make up the brunt of what I’ve read. And I live my life, in Berlin, witnessing the four classical seasons, though these lie under constant threat by global climate change. Of course, our passions must also be affected in regions where the seasons are fewer than four, or offer different dangers and allures: what about regions where there are only two, the wet and the dry one? And what about those surrounded by evergreen rather than deciduous trees? Or where summer cannot be said to foster personal autonomy, because its intensity proves terribly threatening to survival. I hope that I may have enough time to read about such experiences, or that someone else, from a foreign culture, may guide me in understanding them.

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