Archive for February 2nd, 2017

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.
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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.”

5:30/6:43, 39/47/29, 5:12

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