Delight Springs

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Epicureans & Stoics

It's Epicurus and the Stoics today in CoPhi, and (I think) more walking philosophy reports, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. "Stuff your eyes with wonder," and don't "hide your ignorance... you'll never learn." Well, the un-bookish oafs currently running the show in Washington haven't concealed their ignorance, but will they ever learn? Will we ever learn to stop electing un-bookish oafs?

Epicurus and his friends retired from public life, having lost all patience with the unhappy society of their peers whose fear of death they diagnosed as a waste of time and a violation of logic. Better to live simply and bravely with your pals, they thought, pursuing (but not wallowing in) pleasure and avoiding the gratuitous mental pain of the material rat race. Like Aristotle they wanted to live well and flourish, with a bit more emphasis on fun and happiness. Also like Aristotle, they deeply valued friendship. Their commune inspired Marx's dissertation.

Contrary to scurrilous popular rumor they weren't lascivious hedonists or self-indulgent esthetes, preferring a plentiful pot of cheap stew to share over good conversation. Bread, cheese, and olives were staples - their version of pizza. The most valuable commodity of all, they thought, was the precious gift of time. As their admirer Henry Thoreau would eventually say, they considered  that"the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." In the long run we're all safely dead, he and they figured, so we'd better make the best of the time we have.

"Epicurean" is another of those adjectives that's drifted far from its progenitor's intent. Check out the latest issue of Epicure magazine, promoting the "gourmet lifestyle" and designed for globetrotting "bon vivants" and "well-travelled foodies." Epicurus and friends would rather have just hung out in the Garden and chatted over their modest but filling fare. "If you start drinking expensive wine, then you'll very soon end up wanting to drink even more expensive wine, and get caught in the trap of longing for things that you can't have" - not without abandoning your friends and slaving your time away to pay for your refined and expensive taste in vino. I'll stick with the Bay Bridge Sauvignon they sell at Kroger for $2.99, and the sale-priced IPA.

Be calm and carry on, as we say. "Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist."

True to his doctrine, Epicurus died painfully but without fear or complaint. He "suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack."

And "in a final letter to Hermarchus, Epicurus writes, 'On the happiest, and the last, day of my life. I am suffering from diseases of the bladder and intestines, which are of the utmost possible severity.' But he goes on, amazingly, 'Yet all my sufferings are counterbalanced by the contentment of soul which I derive from remembering our reasonings and discoveries.'" Critchley

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an epicurean, in his day. "Death is not an event in life." Well, that sentiment's a bit self-centered but it's literally true, with respect to one's own demise. "I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind." But what of the pain of losing friends and loved ones? We must turn to the Stoics to deal with the loss of precious others, and may then find them coming up somewhat short of heart and soul.

Ataraxia, calm, tranquility, serenity, equanimity... that's the big stoic aim, based on the idea that we can't control external events but can control our inner attitudes and responses. Can we? Shouldn't we try, in any case? We should control our emotions, say stoics like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.

Marcus Aurelius asks, 'Why do you hunger for length of days?' The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. "Pass on your way then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go." 

Epictetus: "Men are disturbed not by things [pragmata], but by the opinions [dogmata] which they have of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But
the terror consists in our opinion of death, that it is terrible."
Cicero thought we shouldn't worry about dying, but not for Epicurus's reasons. Live now, Seneca said, life's long enough for those who make the right choices about how they spend the hours of their days. Annie Dillard and Maria Popova agree, "how we spend our days is how we spend our lives." But did Seneca make the right choice complying with crazy Nero, in his final hour? Not his finest, I'd say.

"The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance." They'd have been pleased to ponder all those game-changing "new" exoplanets, and (unlike some religions, says David Weintraub) to welcome ET. Winston Churchill too: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Some questions: Are you afraid of death, of dying, or of any other aspect of human mortality? Why or why not? What's the best way to counter such fear? Are you epicurean in any sense of the word? Have you experienced the death of someone close to you? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the possibility of a punitive and painful afterlife? Do you care about the lives of those who will survive you? Which do you consider more important? Why? Do you consider Epicurus's disbelief in immortal souls a solution to the problem of dying, or an evasion of it? Do you find the thought of ultimate mortality consoling or mortifying?

And one more: Can Epicureans and Stoics help us break our addiction to the spectacle of Drumpf "...as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all." Can we afford the luxury of ignoring him? Can we sustain our sanity if we don't? What do you say, Emperor?

  • “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 
  • “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 
  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” 
  • “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” 
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
The slave said something very similar. “Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it.” 

Don't you wish the emperor and the slave had been on the ballot in November?
==
Happy 384th birthday to master diarist Sam Pepys, who expressed an epicurean attitude when he observed "how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” He was more the hedonist, though. “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.” Gather ye rosebuds...

5:30/6:26, 55/76, 5:34

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Aristotle redux

More Aristotle today in CoPhi, and more reports-on Hip Hop, walking, Game of Thrones. I know what he and his peripatetic pals would say about the middle report, not so sure about the others. But the "research institute" he called the Lyceum was into everything from anatomy to zoology, so they'd have said something.

Our Philosopher is the star, by the way, of a new musical tour de force based on his Poetics and Rhetoric, "addressing language’s power to influence others, for good or evil" and wondering “How can we persuade if the subject is complex and, as is so often the case, our listeners incapable of following a long chain of reasoning?” And, if they don't really value the truth as much as he does?

Aristotle, dubbed by Dante "master of those who know," loved Plato but he loved truth more. "All men by nature desire to know." I don't know about that. In our time we're seeing strong confirmation for the proposition that all desire to assert what they believe as if they knew it, or as if knowledge just meant firm conviction and not justified true belief. If we all had a natural instinct for truth we'd have a lot less talk about alt-facts. The reality-based community would feel a lot more secure and facts would change our minds. Summarizing the latest literature on confirmation ("myside") bias and irrationality Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding”... And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Drumpf Administration.
...Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science...
“The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.
 Aristotle may have been naive about all this, but knowing that we're prone to "knowing" things that just ain't so should reassure us that real knowledge is still a reasonable aspiration worth fighting for.

"Aristotle was much too down to earth" to go in for eternal Forms or absolute Anythings. "The Cave was not so bad once you turned the lights on" - did Dumbledore say that? Look in all the dark corners, "for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful." 

Aristotle's latter-day critics point to his un-Darwinian emphasis on teleology in nature, but in fact he was "stumbling along the right track." Lions have sharp teeth because sharp teeth help lions survive and multiply, not because a cosmic design ruled out toothless lions.* It's important to distinguish "how come" questions from "what for" questions, as Professor Dennett said at the Googleplex, and to admit the possibility of design without a designer.

He's also concerned about our current rash of unreason, telling an interviewer "the real danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages." Ironic. The middle ages distorted and perverted Aristotle's respect for truth and facts. Is the postmodern age about to sin against his philosophy again?

Aristotle is generally very good at distinguishing different kinds of question, with respect to causes. They are material, formal, final, and efficient, respectively concerning what things are made of, how they're formed, what purposes they serve, and what precipitated and changed them). Change is a big reality for Aristotle, always involving somthing that changes in both its before- and after-modalities, revealing potentiality and actuality. "No logical mystery there."

God might be a mystery, though it mystifies some that Aristotle's God thinks so much about Himself. "The idea that there was a being who one morning conjured up the universe out of nothing and then busied himself handing out rewards and punishments to its measly inhabitants" did not mystify The Philosopher, it annoyed him.

The fundamental type of existence for Aristotle is not to be found in Plato's self-subsisting world of eternal Ideas or Forms, it's just ordinary things - trees, rocks, plants, animals. The former "puts the cart before the horse" and tempts me to trot out that bad old Descartes pun too soon. Instead I'll just put a few questions in the spirit of the great founding empiricist. Would you rather attend Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum? Have you ever sharply disagreed with a teacher whom you nonetheless deeply admired? Is art really a "cave within a cave", or a source of light and truth?
==
Speaking of *lions... "Most of the ideas that went into The Communist Manifesto [published on this date in 1848] were brainstormed over the course of a week and a half in a room above an English pub — a pub called the Red Lion, located in the Soho district of London." And it's the birthday of the brilliant but troubled David Foster Wallace, who diagnosed part of our problem when he said “postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving." WA ("This Is Water")

5:30/6:28, 56/68, 5:32

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Aristotle

Today in CoPhi it's our first pass at Aristotle. "One swallow doesn't make a summer" (or a spring-were the Greeks really so vague about the seasons as these alternative translations suggest?) was his most poetic observation by far.
 If then the work of Man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason, or at least not independently of reason... and we assume the work of Man to be life of a certain kind, that is to say a working of the soul, and actions with reason, and of a good man to do these things well and nobly, and in fact everything is finished off well in the way of the excellence which peculiarly belongs to it: if all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be "a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence," or, if Excellence admits of degrees, in the way of the best and most perfect Excellence.
And we must add, in a complete life; for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.
Happiness is far more than the sum of its parts, it's a quality of soul steeped in a lifetime of habitual virtue. Or so we say, when interchanging "happiness" with "eudaimonia." Flourishing or well-being are better substitutes. By whatever name, though, Aristotle's saying the good life takes time, possibly more time than a lifetime affords. If your child suffers a tragic and premature end, even after you've gone, your life has suffered diminution. In some non-trivial sense your well-being has taken a hit, your flourishing has foundered.

From 335 B.C. to 323 B.C. (in which latter year Alexander died), Aristotle lived at Athens. It was during these twelve years that he founded his school and wrote most of his books. At the death of Alexander, the Athenians rebelled, and turned on his friends, including Aristotle, who was indicted for impiety, but, unlike Socrates, fled to avoid punishment. In the next year ( 322) he died. Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm. 
Russell didn't much like Aristotle's perennial quest for the "mean" between extremes, particularly when applied to truth and other intellectual virtues. But splitting the difference between excess and deficiency is often the right strategy in life.
...with respect to acting in the face of danger, courage {Gk. ανδρεια [andreia]} is a mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice; with respect to the enjoyment of pleasures, temperance {Gk. σωφρσυνη [sophrosúnê]} is a mean between the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility; with respect to spending money, generosity is a mean between the excess of wastefulness and the deficiency of stinginess; with respect to relations with strangers, being friendly is a mean between the excess of being ingratiating and the deficiency of being surly; and with respect to self-esteem, magnanimity {Gk. μεγαλοψυχι&alpha [megalopsychia]} is a mean between the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity.
So many of the circumstances of life are beyond our control, on either side of the grave. Can we increase our chance of eudaimonia, or must we just learn to accept our fate and let happiness happen or not? Aristotle says we can take steps to develop our character, form strong habits, and live the good life. This is only partly subject to our control, since much depends on the quality of our early nurture. Some overcome adverse beginnings, others are derailed. Life and luck are unfair.

And that's why Aristotle was so concerned to create a just society, a polis capable of nurturing and supporting all its citizens (except slaves and women-in this regard Plato scores over his pupil). "We live together, and need to find our happiness by interacting well with those around us in a well-ordered state." If you choose to go it alone, you may or may not be pleased with your life but you definitely won't flourish in Aristotle's terms. 

The middle ages enshrined Aristotle as The Philosopher, the great authority not to be challenged. He would have hated that, inimical as it is to the spirit of free and open debate governed by reason alone.

Only hedonists conflate pleasure and happiness, but that doesn't mean the relation between them is easy to pin down. Wouldn't Aristotle admit that it might be possible to indulge the right pleasures at the right time for the right reasons etc., thus acknowledging that the time and place for pleasure is always a matter of judicious discretion? Bertrand Russell seemed to think he would not, and for that reason found the Nichomachean Ethics less than wholly appealing.  "The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seveteenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive." Repulsive!

I would have said tepid, not repulsive, but Russell has a bit of a point. I'll still line up on Aristotle's side of the School of Athens, though. Which side are you on?
==
It's the birthday of historian Henry Adams and novelist Richard Ford. Adams once complained to William James about entropy, the laws of thermodynamics, and the ultimate futility of living. James replied that there's nothing in the laws of physics ruling out the possibility of human happiness. "The last expiring pulsation of the universe's life might be, "I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer." On another occasion James wrote: "What an awful trade that of professor is, paid to talk, talk, talk! . . . It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words." Richard Ford's character Frank Bascombe expanded on the same theme: "Real mystery, the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book, was [to some pedantic scholars] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away-live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can't do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble."

5:30/6:34, 29/59, 5:27

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Socrates & Plato in love

In CoPhi today it's another (simpler) look at Socrates, Plato, and reports on Peter Singer's altruism, Homer Simpson's pursuit of happiness, and George Orwell's ideological dystopia in which “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Before all that, though, a new John Lachs podcast interview reveals the heart and mind of "a wise old wizard" forever seeking the true pivot point between stoic acceptance of limits and a pragmatic "can do" spirit of intelligence and reason brought to bear on the boundless challenges of living. Living is hard, and Lachs loves to stir things up by saying the thing you least expect to hear. Here, for instance, he declares compassion and guilt useless emotions, and activism too often a misspent passion. In fact he's one of the most compassionate and caring people I've ever known, and one of the most committed agents of constructive change. He's a tireless proponent of liberty, hence a foe of "meddling". He says we all need to stop telling others how to be happy, and let them seek their own good in their own ways. He's a paragon of the purpose-driven life.

Another new podcast features my Vandy friends Aikin and Talisse, delivering 15 minute bursts of unscripted philosophizing. So many good words, so little time!

We would be remiss, on this holiday of love, not to take just a bit of time and spend a few good words on the subject. In Socrates in Love one of our contemporaries says "I'm worried my beloved America is becoming as loveless as ancient Athens in its days of decline.” There's a lot not to love, lately and always, but also the reverse. The same speaker says Socrates "epitomized the fact that you're meant to stay open to all views, to all human experiences, because that's how you deepen your love for people and of wisdom." All views, in this Age of Deplorables? No. But the spirit of the remark is true.

Is there any figurative truth to the old Greek myth that humans originally had four arms, four legs and a head with two faces, before Zeus split us into two separate parts so we'd have to search for our better halves? Is that any part of the story and glory of love? Or is it a formula for frustration and self-inflicted solitude?

In Plato's Symposium, Socrates say Diotima taught him all about amor. "She was my instructress in the art of love," which she declares an intermediate "spirit" between mortals and the divine. It begins "from the beauties of earth and mount(s) upwards for the sake of that other beauty, the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is... beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he [the true philosopher of love] will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities..."

Sounds good, I guess, but these realities of a higher love sound a bit thin and wordy. Academic, even. On Valentines Day, and most days really, don't we want something a little more substantial?
Romantic love is deemed to be of a higher metaphysical and ethical status than sexual or physical attractiveness alone. The idea of romantic love initially stems from the Platonic tradition that love is a desire for beauty-a value that transcends the particularities of the physical body. For Plato, the love of beauty culminates in the love of philosophy, the subject that pursues the highest capacity of thinking. The romantic love of knights and damsels emerged in the early medieval ages (11thCentury France, fine amour) a philosophical echo of both Platonic and Aristotelian love and literally a derivative of the Roman poet, Ovid and his Ars Amatoria. Romantic love theoretically was not to be consummated, for such love was transcendentally motivated by a deep respect for the lady; however, it was to be actively pursued in chivalric deeds rather than contemplated-which is in contrast to Ovid's persistent sensual pursuit of conquests!
Modern romantic love returns to Aristotle's version of the special love two people find in each other's virtues-one soul and two bodies, as he poetically puts it. It is deemed to be of a higher status, ethically, aesthetically, and even metaphysically than the love that behaviorists or physicalists describe. IEP
That's a step in the right direction, back down the ladder. Count on Aristotle to move away from the Academy and keep us grounded. But it was bachelor Nietzsche, of all people, who knew “it is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

If you can believe the crowd that sources goodreads, Marilyn Monroe was the great authority on love. "You'll never find that half who makes you whole and that goes for everything... [but] Keep trying... keep smiling, because life's a beautiful thing and there's so much to smile about.”

Plato was rightly (if insufficiently) "nagged by a doubt about the Academic way of life: 'I feared to see myself at last altogether nothing but words, so to speak-a man who would never willingly lay hand to any concrete task." That's a reasonable concern. If you're holding out for "absolute beauty" you may be spending a few holidays alone. Better to climb the ladder of love in both directions. Remember what Heraclitus said about the way up and the way down? Don't kick that ladder away. The cave can be a very cozy place, with the right company, and your "better half" may not be a needle in a haystack after all.
==
Happy Valentine's Day, when "more than a billion letters of affection are sent and 60 million pounds of chocolate are purchased"... 36 questions lead to love... On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. It expressed his philosophy that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." I wish I'd said that, Oscar. Since it's my birthday, today I will.

5:30/6:37, 42/49/40, 5:25

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Socrates

It's Socrates and the Socratics (including that dog Diogenes) today in CoPhi. Socrates, they say, was firmly devoted to argumentative reason as a better method than revelation or hope. Should we call his devotion "faith"? Not if that means an unwavering refusal to seek and ponder all evidence, to entertain challenging questions, even to welcome those that question the utility of argumentative reason itself. His fabled humility, his ignorant form of wisdom, officially invites every challenge.

But unofficially, Socrates was definitely betting on reason against superstition and tradition for their own sake. His trust in reason was firm, his delight in philosophical argument was inextinguishable. He drew his dying breath in the middle of an argument his successors have continued to this day, as to the meaning and practical value of a life committed to virtue, curious inquiry, and intellectual integrity. He died in contempt of what he considered the misplaced presumption of fearing death more than vice, "which runs faster than death."

That's how we've come to see him, as a pedestal-mounted figure larger than life, gazing across the centuries in reproach of small-mindedness and irrational fear. We downplay his personal shabbiness and eccentricity, forgetting the actual figure he must have cut as the ancient Athenian equivalent of a street person. How did such a vagabond manage to ingratiate himself with the upper crust elites of his city? It was his spellbinding gift of gab, tiresome to many but entrancing ("bewitching," said the smitten Alcibiades) to many more. People looked beyond the pug nose and the ugly-ass mouth ("more ugly even than an ass's") to the beauty within.

His conversation was compelling but it was not personally revealing. His version of dialectic withheld affirmative assertion, instead soliciting others' definitions and demonstrations in order to trip them over their own inconsistencies and send them (and us, peering over their shoulders) back to the philosophical drawing board.

Athenian democracy had just been overthrown by the Spartans and decimated by their Thirty Tyrants, as Socrates went to trial. His own anti-democratic leanings were well-known. 
If you were heading out on a journey by sea, Socrates asks Adeimantus in Plato's Republic, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.  Why Socrates Hated Democracy, SoL
But did he really hate democracy? Gottlieb says no, he was in fact too democratic for his time and place. He was an ultra-democrat, committed to the examined life for all. This may have sounded to some like an endorsement of "exaggerated individualism" but for Socrates the examined life is also the collaborative conversational life. "Philosophy is an intimate and collaborative activity: it is a matter for discussions among small groups of people who argue together in order that each might find the truth for himself. The spirit of such a pastime cannot accurately be captured in a lecture or a treatise." It's best captured in talk, preferably while walking. Hence Plato's dialogues, and ours.

Not even the Delphic Oracle's authoritative declaration of Socrates' wisdom could stifle the gadfly's appetite for rational argument and inquiry, provoking him to "check the truth of it" for himself. Can we possibly take literally, then, his claim to philosophize at the behests of God or his daimon? No. He just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. 

He also thought it best not to weep and wail for our finitude, even at death's door. "No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing..." Maybe he'll get to meet his "heroes of the old days." Or maybe he'll just have a nice long sleep. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him to worry about an unpleasant or hellish alternative. He was ahead of his time, and Epicurus's, in this regard.

Socrates and Plato were both "unworldly" but in different ways, the former in his shambling indifference to social status, hygiene,and finery, the latter in regarding carnal existence as a form of incarceration in the shadow of eternal essences and Ideas. Socrates kept a sharper focus on the duties and blessings of this world, "not simply a preparation for something else." And he thought we could all do that. "For Plato, philosophy was the ladder to this elevated world of the Forms, but not everyone could climb it." For Socrates, "anybody could examine his own life and ideas and thus lead a worthwhile existence."

The paradigmatic Socratic question: Is something good because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it's good? The Socratic answer: it can't be the former, that's arbitrary. Real gods don't play darts with the universe. Hypothetical gods shouldn't, either.

What would he say about people who achieve wealth and success by behaving badly? Or about the state of our democracy? Would he agree with William James regarding "our national disease"? Would you?

We know how it ended for Socrates. They told him to shut up. He persisted (like Elizabeth Warren, and like Paul Kalinithi), until the hemlock shut him down. It's up to the rest of us, now, to persist when we're told to "shut up about the bad stuff."
==
Happy Birthday  to Alice Walker, who said “no person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow”... and to Irish rebel Brendan Behan, who said "Never throw stones at your mother,You'll be sorry for it when she's dead, Never throw stones at your mother, Throw bricks at your father instead." On this day in 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time... 

5:40/6:42, 32/40/26, 5:20

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Measuring atoms

Today in CoPhi it's Democritus and the Sophists. But first, how about that Super Bowl? Less than a week, now, 'til Spring Training!

Democritus, the "laughing philosopher" (did we note that Heraclitus was the "weeping philosopher"?) doesn't really sound like such a barrel of laughs. He urged repentance, preferred a "well-ordered demeanor" and, Gottlieb tells us, was broadly contemptuous of human folly. Was he laughing with us or at us? But you could ask the same of Mark Twain, who damned us, and Kurt Vonnegut (impatient, as previously noted, with our species' penchant for unkindness). Is it misanthropic to deplore misanthropy? It's not unfunny.

Democritus may not been a side-splitter, and he may have been wrong about atoms being unsplittable, but his general outlook was astonishingly ahead of the game even if "he simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right." He was a lucky guy indeed, living to an astonishing 109 and then "cheerfully" (according to Simon Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers) pulling his own plug. Before that, legend has it, he extended his life by inhaling the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

Some early Christians opposed atomism on the grounds that its explanatory hypothesis displaced divine fiat and jettisoned a personal afterlife (with persons and souls dissolved and remixed). That's still the kicker behind lots of present-day science denialism, isn't it?

Leucippus first influenced Democritus with the atoms-and-void idea. Later it was taken up by Epicurus, then Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, "the way things are":
  • “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.” 
  • O minds of mortals, blighted by your blindness! Amid what deep darkness and daunting dangers life’s little day is passed! To think that you should fail to see that nature importantly demands only that the body may be rid of pain, and that the mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment!” 
  • Don't think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with... All such argument, all such interpretation is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use.
  • “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” 
  • “The atoms in it must be used over and over again; thus the death of one thing becomes necessary for the birth of another.”
  • The main obstacles to the goal of tranquillity of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die: as Epicurus neatly and logically puts it: “Death…is nothing to us: when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist.

Atomism grew up "when chemists and physicists developed sophisticated ways to measure material phenomena," to lift them out of the murky realm of subjective and deniable opinion, and lower them down from the transcendent and resplendent but entirely invisible realm of eternal objects and indestructible objects. And then we learned to blow them up. Growing up is not necessarily the same as maturing. We'll have done that when all our leaders learn to stop speaking flippantly about "nuclear options" that are nothing but MAD.

We mentioned Richard Dawkins' rainbow the other day, today we're invited to consider his related views on meaning and design (see Lucretius above). "Is there a meaning to life? What are we for?" We can answer those questions without reverting to superstition, thanks to what we've learned about atoms and the void ever since we stopped proposing fantastic answers to such questions and started charting the world's actual (not alternative) facts. 

The great legacy of Periclean Athens is the value they and we (some of us) place on the ability to speak and debate persuasively, civilly, and sometimes disinterestedly. The old Greek sophistes, Sophists, the likes of Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, et al, shared that value to a much greater extent than is commonly conceded. They taught grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, literary criticism, music, law, religion, human and social origins, math, and natural science. Big History, some now call such a broad portfolio of academic interest. 

Their undeserved bad name seems to have come from the reigning animus people had to those early teachers for presuming to seek remuneration. Fortunately we no longer expect our teachers to live hand-to-mouth, not entirely anyway. Their deserved bad name, and the bad name of contemporary sophists, is not that they get paid but that they don't themselves invest in truth for its own sake. They "could not care less about truth," peddled "ruses," sought to portray a mere "semblance of wisdom without the reality." There are some academics and philosophers who fit that description, but you're more likely to encounter them in law and politics.

In addition, Plato resented the bad Sophists for getting Socrates in trouble. Really he resented Athens and its too-clever satirists (like Aristophanes) for not discerning the difference between a bad Sophist, denizen of the "logic factory," and a good Socrates.

Protagoras is the most interesting Sophist. What does "Man is the measure of all things" mean, if it means to embrace and applaud subjectivity? Does it have to mean an extreme personal relativism? Or cultural relativism? Or maybe something more innocuous like the view my old mentor Lachs calls "relationalism" - all things must be measured by standards and yardsticks actual humans can wield.  

"Protagoras apparently drowned in a shipwreck after he had been tried and banished (or in some stories condemned to death) for his agnostic religious views. He also wrote a treatise on wrestling." (Critchley)

Some questions: If everything is composed of atoms, does it follow that there is no life after death? Does atomism in fact "liberate [us] from superstition, fear of death, and the tyranny of priests"? If thought consists in the motion of mind-atoms, can we freely think our own thoughts? Or are we passive spectators of "our" minds? What difference does it make, if particles are inseparable from forces and fields and bundles of energy and thus cannot be proved to be "unsplittable" (as the ancient atomists said)? Is it "reasonable to suppose that every sort of world crop[s] up somewhere"?

==
Happy birthday to Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, Main Street, and the eerily prophetic It Can't Happen Here, about a 1930s populist fascistic American demagogue who rises to power on a wave of popular discontent. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman... Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

Brian Greene (@bgreene)
The observable universe extends for about 92 billion light-years. No human has ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light-seconds. pic.twitter.com/l7fdzsQocl

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Love & strife

Today in CoPhi it's Empedocles and Anaxagoras.

And it's Groundhog Day, "a legend that traverses centuries" and an American tradition since 1887. Will Bill Murray's Phil Conners see his shadow? Do gods (or bodhisattvas) even cast shadows? Did you know the film's "a profound work of contemporary metaphysics"?

The little film about Empedocles from the 3-minute guy is quite unprofound, and you'll probably be happy not (like Groundhog Day) to repeat it over and over. But it usefully summarizes the Sicilian's metaphysical view that our four basic terrestrial elements are constantly bestirred by a never-ending battle between Love and Strife. He, like Phil Conners, thought himself a god too (though not the God). In fact he said we all spring from divine stuff and a golden age of universal harmony,  before we were cast into our "alien garment of flesh." He believed in reincarnation, and claimed in past lives to have been a girl, a fish, a bush (!), and  a bird. A loon, perhaps.

But Phil's story has a sunnier, less "Faustian" outcome than Empedocles' legend avers. (I discount the magical theory that Phil actually died in Punxsutawney on February 1 and was thence stuck in purgatory, preferring the Buddhist interpretation of his release from samsara.) Still, in these calamitous times we all ought to give thought to where we're gonna go when the volcano blows. I just wouldn't count on coming back after the eruption, in any sensate form.

Love and strife clearly apply in many instances of sexual attraction, and sound a lot sexier than gravity and electromagnetism. They're useful categories for analyzing the interpersonal dynamics of social life, but do they really mirror the Big Bang and Big Crunch of astrophysical cosmology? Seems to me the value and relevance of such emotive terms, in mapping our psycho-sociological terrain, lies precisely  in their intimacy - not in the scope, scale, and ultimate impersonality of universal laws. Stephen Hawking and Barbara Cartland aren't well matched after all.

On the other hand, Empedocles' prescience about biology and evolution are impressive. Darwin himself said he found his theory of natural selection "shadowed forth" by the  Maybe Professor Dawkins would be a better match for Ms. Cartland? He does wax eloquent on the romance of science, in Unweaving the Rainbow and elsewhere. “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.” And so, “isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?”

Or if not Dawkins, then maybe we could hook her up with a popularizer of medical science like Lewis Thomas, Sherwin Nuland, Atul Gawande, or Siddhartha Mukherjee? The latter writes: “The art of medicine is long, Hippocrates tells us, "and life is short; opportunity fleeting; the experiment perilous; judgment flawed.” Gottlieb tells us that medicine ("or at least crude physiology") was Empedocles' favorite science.

Empedocles is said to have said:
  • God is a circle whose center is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere.
  • No mortal thing has a beginning, nor does it end in death and obliteration; there is only a mixing and then separating of what was mixed, but by mortal men these processes are named "beginnings.” 
  • The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. 
  • Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace.
  •  Strife is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.
  • Many fires burn below the surface.
Anaxagoras was hugely important in our tradition for bringing naturalism and anti-superstition to Athens. In retrospect that might seem like coals to Newcastle, but in his day (c.460 BCE) Socrates was still an impressionable lad and the Greeks were still to discover the beauty of a rationally ordered nous. “Mind is god and god is Mind.”

Anaxagoras, it might be supposed, first seduced Socrates into a life of impiety (for denying godhood to the sun and moon). But Socrates ultimately thought him too far above superstition, paying "too much attention to the mechanical causes of things and not enough to their meanings and purposes." Wouldn't it be interesting to convene a reading club discussion of Unweaving the Rainbow with Anaxagoras and Socrates?

Anaxagoras thought "the senses provide us with blurred outlines of the world, which reason then brings into focus." Or tries to. That sounds right, so long as reason constantly checks its focus by returning, repeatedly, to the world of sense. A blurred outline is better than a blind speculation.

Was Anaxagoras an atheist? There is nothing anachronistic about this question. In the late 430s, he was put on trial for “impiety,” on the grounds that he denied the divinity of the heavenly bodies (which he undoubtedly did). This may have been the first time in history that an individual was prosecuted for heretical religious beliefs.”

"Set up about 438 BCE, the law against Anaxagoras’s atheism held that society must “denounce those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky.”

“Men would live exceedingly quiet if these two words, mine and thine, were taken away.” George Harrison went to India for that, he could have found it closer to home.

Here's why students should love Anaxagoras: “In exile in Lampsacus, Anaxagoras made his final benefaction to humanity: the invention of the school holiday.”

According to Matt Ridley, “Anaxagoras’ belief that lying on the right side during sex would produce a boy was so influential that centuries later some French aristocrats had their left testicles amputated.”

So, he was a semi-emasculating philosopher. No dualist, he thought one would do. That brings us to one more point of praise for the old naturalist, from my perspective: he "thought of mind as a special form of matter, not as something completely different." 

Finally, though, Anaxagoras was the worst sort of Stoic, far ahead of his time. Told of his sons' premature deaths, he said "I knew that my children were born to die." Knowledge is not always a consolation.
==
It's James Joyce's birthday. He who worried that people would look for a moral in Ulysses "or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.” Serious or not, there are some good lines: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.... To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.... “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past... Can't bring back time. Like holding water in your hand... I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short time of space.”

He did take himself a bit seriously. When he met the venerated poet W.B. Yeats, he famously said, “We met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me.” And Yeats famously responded, “Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it.”

Yeats, by the way, is usually credited with the bench wisdom attributed in our walnut grove to old Plutarch: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Image result for mtsu walnut grove bench

My favorite Yeats quote, which sounds a lot like Emerson: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”


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