I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Socrates https://t.co/daFoo9yYeK

September 20, 2017

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September 20, 2017

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.”
2.9.17. 5:40/6:42, 32/40/26, 5:20. 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… 

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Colbert normalizes “truthiness”-The Shameful Embrace of Sean Spicer at the Emmys https://t.co/mDcMbubWu1

September 19, 2017

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Lenoir’s Happiness https://t.co/gg88UDMMKV

September 19, 2017

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Lenoir’s Happiness

September 19, 2017

In Happiness today we begin Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide. In case there’s any doubt, our author is quite French.

Many professional thinking persons are, unsurprisingly, convinced that a deep curiosity about the world and an unsettled awareness of our peculiar place in it are both prerequisite to living happily and well, and would agree that “it is essential to be aware of our happiness to be happy.”

Or, if they’re not convinced, they’re nonetheless vocationally committed to pursuing inquiry as if they were. As James says so well in Varieties of Religious Experience, “philosophy lives in words” – and it’s in words that philosophers must express and transact their curiosity and awareness – “but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.”

So, what’s an honest philosopher to do with the realization that happiness may be visited upon us in moments of silence, meditation, and mute appreciation?

Well, he could admit perhaps that sometimes the pleasures of thinking about nothing (if not “NOTHING”) and doing nothing may far exceed an intellectual’s preconceptions as to the conditions of happiness. As in religion, sometimes a philosopher of happiness must defend experience against philosophy. That’s one of my secular acts.

It’s hard to dispute Montaigne’s suggestion that happiness is amplified when we know and appreciate that we’re happy. Clap your hands. Again, though, E.B. White poses the Thinking Man’s perennial dilemma: savor the moment, or save the world? I vote “both,” but don’t ask me how. Knowing what you want is not the same as knowing how to get it. But we do know, don’t we, that moments unsavored are lost? And that no one of us alone can be the Savior? So my advice is, guard and enjoy every moment you can. Saving the world is a longer-term project. When planning your day, be sure to leave room for some savoring moments.

The Pleasure Principle may sound like Freudian flap-doodle to some, but if pleasure had no adaptive value it surely would have gone by the boards long ago. “The vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply,” let us hope.

Aristotle, on Lenoir’s reading, endorses a life balancing “the maximum of pleasure with the maximum of reason.” I’m uneasy about “maximum,” but for a rational animal such as we aspire to be, those surely must be the right constituent parts. The ratio of the mix might vary, animal to animal and person to person. Not all virtues are equally salient for each of us, some strike a more courageous or magnanimous or gentle note (etc.) – but do take note, there are many virtues available for our respective pursuits of excellence. With all due respect to the student who posted his view that the only real virtues involve deference to God and love for our neighbors, that’s needlessly self-limiting.

I’m not familiar with Lenoir’s “peasant-philosopher” Pierre Rahbi, but “happy sobriety” sounds Epicurean enough. “Necessary things are easy to attain,” by comparison. Food and drink and shelter, once procured, ought to make fine cooking, beautiful clothes, a fancy home (etc.) less urgent, and power and honors entirely gratuitous. If pleasure really is the key to happiness, we ought to give more thought to what pleasures most conduce to lasting happiness, and ought to be prepared to agree with Epicurus that the best things in life are practically free.

Of course, Epicurus presumably never experienced the finest craft beer.

I’m definitely prepared to agree with sourpuss Schopenhauer that 90% of happiness depends on health. I’m surprised he said that. “Keep your health, your splendid health. It’s better than all the truths in the firmament.”

Meaning, again. Viktor Frankl and Sigmund Freud might agree that most of us are “truly happy only when our lives are pleasant and also have meaning.” But is meaning an afterthought, or is it in fact the culmination of human-order pleasure?

Some questions: Do you ever wish you were less susceptible to living the examined life, a little less curious and aware and a bit more like Forrest Gump or Winnie the Pooh? Is there a danger of shrinking or crushing our happinesss, in the very process of observing and savoring (“amplifying”) it? Is it generally true, as Darwin asserted, that in our world “the vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply”? Do philosophers overrate the importance of reason and reflection in the pursuit of happiness? Do you espouse “mens sana in corpore sano”? Can you imagine surviving an ordeal like the holocaust or the Vietnam War (check out Ken Burns’ new film) with your capacity for happiness intact?

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Measuring atoms https://t.co/gH8oJ4Lnki

September 18, 2017

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Measuring atoms

September 18, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s Democritus and the Sophists.

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”?


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. http://pic.twitter.com/l7fdzsQocl

2.7.17. 5:20/6:44, 61/65/52, 5:18
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.”

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Our Constitution Wasn’t Built for This via @NYTimes https://t.co/yYzQqTHN9e

September 17, 2017

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Virtue, meaning, and a good life https://t.co/5rV1EpN2gu

September 14, 2017

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Virtue, meaning, and a good life

September 14, 2017

We finish Daniel Haybron’s very fine Very Short Intro to Happiness today.

More important than whether you’re happy, says Haybron, is your contribution and legacy. Will you be deservedly well thought-of, for having lived well? So much the better if living well makes you happy, but in the long perspective of history the personal and subjective experience of virtue will barely register. Isn’t that all the more reason to make happiness a priority? If you don’t, who will?

That’s not to endorse “acting badly” in the pursuit, but some will wonder what’s to stop any of us from doing so. What compels conscience and compassion, aside from the unpleasant prospect of being poorly thought-of? Decency and virtue might be motivation enough, and their own reward, for the noblest natures. Others rightly care about the judgment of generations to come.

But then there are the deplorables, the philistines, the jerks. They claim the right to be terrible people. Until quite recently I would have said they were marginal to our civilization and not a threat to it. Lately that’s less clear. “One should not be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness.”

“According to some studies, having kids doesn’t make us happier.” Having just graduated a couple of them, I’ve made my own study. I can’t imagine the past 20+ years of my life without them. More than that: anticipating them was a source of happiness long before their births. But I know that’s not everybody’s experience.

“Any life dedicated to worthwhile ends is meaningful,” even if the judgment of worth is uncertain or, again, awaits the verdict of history. While we live we have to make that call for ourselves, have to believe we’ve chosen worthwhile ends, if we’re to experience that sort of meaning. Of course, we may never know.

We do know, don’t we, that those gawking consumer-touroids on p.104 are draining life of meaning even if they think they’re “making memories”? Like selfish and shallow people everywhere, they look more desperate and absurd than happy.

Happiness really is an aspirational ideal, something worth chasing no matter how elusive it may turn out to be.

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it,” says Nobelist Daniel Kahneman. Hmm. As a professional thinking person that’s disconcerting. More uplifting (and poignant) is that heart-grabbing missive from the battlefield that closes Haybron’s book. “I am such a lucky person to have the life that I have.” That says it.

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