Karl Marx first articulated the concept of historical materialism, the methodological approach to the study of human progress. Historical materialism purports to locate the forces that drive progress within the material conditions of society.
For example, consider the following material conditions:
Thomas and I lived in a technologically developed society in which we had access to: (1) a system of education that ensured our literacy; (2) laptops; (3) the internet; and (4) Facebook accounts.
It was because of these pre-existing material conditions that Thomas was able to ask me out over Facebook on that bitter winter’s day.
Now, if I’d been able to speak to Karl Marx directly, he might have said something to the effect of: “You’re overthinking things. The laws that guide human progress have nothing to do with your love life.”
But alas, in lieu of what I’m sure would have been a colourful conversation, I’m left to postulate that Marx would argue that the material conditions of our society lead to both the formation and eventual dissolution of the relationship between myself and Thomas.
Can there be freedom, in the absence of control?
On a colourless winter’s day, I met Thomas at an art museum for our first date. He was wearing a navy suit, and I marveled at the clean lines of his silhouette. He looked too thin and too well-manicured to be real.
We stepped outside. It was snowing, and I could barely make out the bustling traffic of downtown. All I could see was him. With his dark eyes and crooked smile, I thought he might be the most handsome man I’d ever seen.
He offered me a filterless Lucky Strike, and I accepted. He lit my cigarette. I choked on a bit of loose tobacco.
“I have something for you,” he said, leaning towards me and overwhelming me with his cologne. His cheek was slick with melting ice as it brushed mine, but when I shivered it wasn’t from the cold. “It’s a Christmas present. Come by my place. I’ll give it to you.”
“All right,” I replied.
He grabbed my arm.
“Walk on the inside of the sidewalk,” he said, “It’s safer.”
Have I ever acted at all freely?
Because if I have, then I could have acted differently from the way that I did.
I could have said no. I could have gone home. I could have watched a movie in bed. I could have read.
But if all of my behaviour was completely determined by prior causes, I could not have behaved differently from the way that I did.
So, if I have ever acted at all freely, then not all of my behaviour was completely determined by prior causes, but, if my behaviour was completely determined by prior causes, I have not acted at all freely.
What is responsibility, in the absence of control?
Thomas lived in a decaying frat house on the edge of his university’s campus with seven or eight of his “brothers.” They liked to dress up in tuxedos, read each other poetry, and talk about how they were a “literary society,” not a frat.
Their house was grand once, but years of neglect had left the place with broken windows patched up with cardboard, walls stained yellow from tobacco smoke, and faded red carpeting that reeked of beer.
The wooden floor of Thomas’ room was painted the same shade of white as the walls. Flecks of paint splintered into my stockinged feet as I entered.
A pile of books consumed the corner, a towering stack of existential French novels covered in a thin layer of dust. There was a large cobweb above his cracked window, an intricate pattern of lines drifting gently with a breeze. A threadbare grey blanket covered the double bed.
He sat behind his immense tanker desk and mixed me a drink: club soda, sweet Vermouth, and Campari.
It tasted like an air freshener.
He handed me a small box. I opened it to find an engraved silver cigarette case.
“Thank you,” I said with a sharp intake of breath.
“Where does your boyfriend think you are?” he asked.
“We’re not together anymore,” I replied.
“He’s useless. You deserve better.”
“God, you have a perfect smile,” he said, “Your lips pull back and I can see your gums. On most girls it would be a flaw, but on you it’s exquisite.”
I covered my mouth and looked away.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked.
He stood up from behind the desk, bent down and kissed me. He bit my lip, and I recoiled. My chair tipped backwards and I landed on the floor.
He got on top of me and kept kissing me. He bit my lip again, softly at first, and then harder, until I tasted blood.
Friedrich Engels argued that free will in itself does not constitute freedom. Rather, he suggested freedom lies in the ability to control the outcome of events in order to achieve your ends.
According to Engels, to wield this control one must first understand and locate the causal laws that drive progress. In the absence of these laws, “free will” is simply the ability to perpetuate a series of random events.
In which case, what was the causal law that kept me from saying “no”?
On a hushed Sunday morning, Thomas and I lay in his bed smoking cigarettes. I was wearing Saturday night’s navy shirtdress and black tights.
My bar outfits often doubled as dressing gowns.
The tights pinched and I worried they would cut off my circulation. I wiggled my toes and tried to ignore the tingles that were turning into stabs.
Thomas was wearing red American Apparel briefs. I admired the light brown hue of his skin, and the way his ribs and hips poked out, framing his navel. His skin was so smooth when he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into an embrace.
“Everything hurts,” I groaned, relaxing the back of my head on his chest.
“Poor little girl,” he replied, kissing my cheek and pulling me closer to him.
I looked up at his ceiling and spotted another cobweb growing in the corner. My body ached. My temples throbbed.
Thomas started kissing my neck. I just stared up at the white wispy stuff, searching for a splotch of black that would give away the location of its maker.
When he started fumbling at my crotch, I pushed him away.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I said.
“You’re beautiful, you know.”
I rolled my eyes.
He smoothed down my hair, sprinkling my dress with bits of ash.
“Do you remember talking to Philippe yesterday?” He asked. His voice was just above a whisper. “Do you wish you’d woken up in his bed?” His warm hands slipped down to either side of my neck.
“Jesus, Thomas. Of course not.”
He stared at me, his hands resting on either side of my throat. My brain felt too large for my skull.
“Don’t worry,” he said, after awhile, “I trust you.”
He released his grip and my skin felt hot.
He started kissing me again. I let him. He started biting my neck. I let him. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t feel anything, anymore.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued that the mind does not only structure reality, it constitutes reality.
That is to say, Hegel postulated that the mind does not interpret perceptual input; instead, all of “reality” is simply the mind, or Geist, in German.
I see a yellow banana.
According to Hegel, I’m not “seeing” an external reality in which a yellow banana exists; I’m becoming aware of something already inside of the Geist.
Immanuel Kant would argue that all minds are structurally identical, therefore you and I can see the same yellow banana.
Hegel, on the other hand, argued that the mind does not have a static, universal structure. Instead, the mind evolves in response to time and circumstance.
Then, I saw my lover.
Now, I see my rapist.
In The Republic, Plato responds to the so-called philosopher’s paradox:
One cannot see philosophical arguments as compelling unless one is already a philosopher, but one cannot become a philosopher unless one already sees philosophical arguments as compelling. Therefore, one can never become a philosopher.
Plato works around the paradox using seduction, coaxing the reader to engage in dialogue, and subsequently, philosophical argument.
On a Tuesday, I wore a green dress to dinner. Thomas refused to speak to me and stormed out of the restaurant, leaving me alone with two plates of pasta.
On a Thursday, I wore a blue dress to dinner. Thomas told me that I was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. We stayed for dessert.
On a Friday, he told me that he’d been angry with me on the Tuesday, because I hadn’t been wearing a bra and my breasts were only for him to see. But I hadn’t been wearing a bra on Thursday, either.
“Why did my lack of bra offend you?” I asked Thomas.
Socrates begins the dialogue by requesting a general definition.
“It’s sluttish and crude.”
A definition is offered. (Generally, the first definition is derived from a pre-reflected place, say, from common sense, or a collective belief.)
“I have small breasts, and it’s more comfortable for me not to wear a bra. It’s not an invitation to potential lovers. Perhaps you were jealous of another man’s gaze?”
The definition fails. A counterexample is offered.
“You looked like a slut.”
An improved definition is offered.
“Are all people who do not wear bras sluts? Are you a slut?”
Socrates considers the conceptual relations between Token and Type.
“You are ridiculous. It’s impossible to talk to you.”
Repeat to whittle down definition to logical truth.
I worry that Thomas will never become a philosopher.
I met my philosophy T.A., Philippe, at the library. We sat cross-legged on overstuffed couches and flipped through a pile of dusty books.
“Are you ok?” he asked, “You seem a little jumpy.”
“Fine,” I said, “Just excited to talk philosophy.”
“That’s the spirit.”
We talked about Epicureanism, the ancient school of philosophy founded in Athens.
I jotted down notes as I listened to him speak. Black ink smudged my fingers and smeared across my skin.
Philippe spoke of ataraxia, an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul. In order to reach ataraxia, one must rid oneself of the desire for the superfluous and focus only on keeping oneself safe and healthy and alive. The Epicurean has no use for things like power or love or fear.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a state of tranquility or peace.
The door to the library opened. I jumped and bit my tongue so hard I could barely speak.
In The Republic, Plato told the story of Leontius.
Leontius was a Byzantine emperor. He was travelling through Piraeus when he came upon an executioner. A pile of corpses lay at the executioner’s feet.
Leontius closed his eyes in disgust, but a part of him wanted to look, wanted to see. He struggled with himself. He turned away. He covered his face.
Overpowered by desire, Leontius opened his eyes and turned. He rushed towards the corpses.
“Look for yourselves, you evil wretches,” he yelled, “Take your fill of the beautiful sight.”
Every surface of the café was crowded with vintage knick-knacks. Our server took our order, her glasses balanced on the tip of her nose. Her chest was decorated with a glittering dragonfly brooch and a nametag that spelled out “KAREN” in block letters.
“So you and Thomas are like done done, right? Am I finally allowed to tell you I hate that guy?” Lizzy looked at me expectantly.
“I don’t know, Lizzy. It’s not that simple,” I replied.
Karen set down our coffee. Lizzy’s spoon clattered against the mug as she stirred in cream and sugar. I winced.
“He hits you.”
“He doesn’t hit me,” I spat.
“What happened to your arms?”
I rubbed my temples, “Jesus, Liz, it’s too early for this.”
“It’s 2:00 pm, sweetie.”
She grabbed my hand, “I’m just worried about you. We all are.”
It felt like someone was hammering a nail into my skull.
“Christ, you patronizing naïve baby,” I pulled my hand out of her grasp, “Could you just, for once, deal with your own pathetic fucking life instead of obsessing over mine?”
She went silent.
“Fuck, Liz, I—“
Her eyes were hard, “I think you should leave.”
“Fine, stay. I’m leaving,” she threw some cash on the table and stood, “Call me when you’re my friend again and not some alcoholic she-demon possessed by a douche bag in a bowtie.”
She left. I banged my throbbing head down on the tablecloth and kept it there for a long time. Karen filled up my coffee and brought me the bill.
“Look for yourselves, you evil wretches. Take your fill of the beautiful sight.”
An argument is a set of claims that support one another. For example:
Premise 1: If Thomas drinks, then he will hurt me.
Premise 2: Thomas is drinking.
Conclusion: Thomas will hurt me.
An argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for all of its premises to be true and yet its conclusion false. This speaks to the structure, not the content, of the argument. For example:
Premise 1: If Thomas hurts me, then I must leave him.
Premise 2: He hurt me.
Conclusion: I must leave him.
Plato asserted that the story of Leontius demonstrated that the soul is tripartite, made up of three distinct parts: logistikon, theymoeides, and epithymetikon; or rather, Reason, Will, and Desire.
In the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato described the soul as a chariot, pulled by two winged horses: one of noble breed, the other deformed and troublesome.
In the driver’s seat of the soul, the charioteer uses his intellect to drive the steeds, though they pull in opposite directions. The charioteer may know his destination, but if the noble steed cannot overpower the deformed beast, the charioteer will never arrive.
For an argument to be sound it must be valid in structure, and all of its premises must be true. To assess an argument’s validity or soundness, you must first identify its premises and its conclusion.
For example, last night Thomas told me: “I will make you love me. I will fuck you until you love me.” This is a conditional argument.
Premise 1: If he fucks me, then I will love him.
Premise 2: He fucked me.
Conclusion: I love him.
In The Republic, Plato states:
It is clear that the same thing will never do or undergo opposite things in the same part of it and towards the same thing at the same time; so if we find this happening, we shall know it was not one thing but more than one.
A part of me loved Thomas, a part of me hated him, a part of me pitied him, and a part of me feared him.
I am not one thing, but more than one.
A fallacy is an instance of false reasoning often seen in an invalid argument or in the use of unwarranted or unjustified premises in an argument. There are many different kinds of fallacies.
Ad Hominem is the fallacy of levying your criticism of an argument on the person, not their argument.
“You hurt me,” I said.
“You’re a slut,” Thomas replied.
In Plato’s philosophy, the term akrasia refers to weakness of Will. To know right, that is to say, is not to do right.
At least, not for me. Not with Thomas.
Akrasia is derived from the Greek word for power, kratos, and the prefix a-, meaning without.
Power without. Without power.
Straw Man is the fallacy of attributing to the opponent a fictitious or distorted view so as to make it an easier argument to refute.
“I am leaving because you hurt me,” I said.
“You’re leaving me for him,” Thomas replied.
As you can see, Thomas' argument is neither valid, nor sound.
“If things were so bad, why’d you stay?” Philippe asked.
The bar was dark and sticky in the summer’s heat. Shadows clung to his cheeks and slipped down his neck.
The crowd was salty, mainly old men with bits of food in their beards and prematurely-aged women with tobacco-stained fingers. I watched Philippe’s Adam’s apple bob as he took a sip of beer.
“I think I wanted to believe he was Jean Paul Sartre,” I said, “Because at least that would have made me Simone de Beauvoir. At least then all of the fucking bullshit would have been worth it, or at least would have been worth . . . something.”
Philippe barked out a laugh.
“I guess every woman adores a fascist,” he said with a shit-eating grin.
“Fuck you,” I replied.
Some names and identifying details have been changed for the safety and protection of the author.
"A Year for Ectoplasm" won the Honourable Mention in Room's 2017 Creative Non-Fiction Contest, judged by Carmen Aguirre.
Emily Kellogg is a Toronto-based writer and amateur tap dancer. Find her writing in (parenthetical), She Does the City, The Wall Street Journal, Shameless Magazine, and The Huffington Post. Emily also writes a weekly newsletter, Coping Mechanisms. Subscribe for weekly words of encouragement and cute animal photos.