Archive for February, 2017

Aristotle

February 16, 2017

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.

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. Which side are you on?

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Socrates & Plato in love

February 14, 2017

In CoPhi today it’s another 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.

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 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?
Plato was ” 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.

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Socrates

February 9, 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?

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Measuring atoms

February 7, 2017

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. http://pic.twitter.com/l7fdzsQocl

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Love & strife

February 2, 2017

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.


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.

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.

One more point of praise, from my perspective, for the old naturalist. 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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