Posts Tagged ‘Democritus’

“The Swerve”

December 23, 2011

The Swerve may sound like another baseball book, like a secret hidden pitch, but in fact it’s the story of the “hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you,” namely atoms: it’s all “atoms and void and nothing else.”

But “nothing else” is very misleading. Stephen Greenblatt‘s account of how the fifteenth century rediscovery of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura modernized and humanized the world is chock full of unexpected atomic configurations. One of them is Montaigne‘s cosmic speculation about going around the wheel more than once. It’s an intriguing, demystified, naturalistic intimation of Nietzsche’s version of the ancient hypothesis of eternal recurrence:

“Since the movements of the atoms are so varied,” he wrote, “it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”

And if you can believe that, is there much you can’t believe?

But it’s far truer to the spirit of Lucretius’ hero Epicurus (and to his heroes Leucippus and Democritus) to recognize the incredible improbability of the swerves that resulted in you and me. The fundamental humanist insight is that we probably go around just this once and had better grab our gusto while we can.

I do love the way Greenblatt concludes, with Thomas Jefferson’s proud, fearless, under-sung declaration: “I am an Epicurean.”

pre-Socratics

September 14, 2010

Looking today at some of the pre-Socratics, those old reductionists (“everything is really air/water/etc.” and “change is unreal” or “only change is real”) who are so easy to snicker at… until you consider that they really were taking a bold stab at giving a rational account of things.

They were flying by the seats of their pants, without anything like a scientific method or system of peer review to guide them. But, give them a little credit. At least they weren’t just  passing along tall old tales and genuflecting. They were trying to think.

My fave (& Carl Sagan’s, see below*): the old atomist. “With Democritus (460-360 BCE) the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete…” Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was a “mere breath”… (PW)

He developed a picture of the world that is remarkably close to ours, if you fudge the definition of “atom” a bit.

He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” He looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic. But he had the last laugh, if indeed it’s true that he lived past 100. He must’ve had good atoms (the building blocks of  genes and souls, too).

Hecht really sheds fresh light, in Doubt: a history, on the naturalizing impulse of the pre-Socratic and Hellenic thinkers. For instance, Democritus (the beautiful regularity of the universe was neither created nor maintained by the guiding intelligence of a god or gods), the Cynics (Diogenes‘ advice is that we stop distracting ourselves with accomplishments, accept the meaninglessness of the universe, lie down on a park bench and get some sun while we have the chance) and Stoics (feeling a part of the community of the universe) and Epicureans (there are no ghostly grownups watching our lives and waiting to punish us… we might as well make an art of appreciating pleasure… in this beautiful moment one is alive) and Skeptics (I do not lay it down that honey is sweet but I admit that it appears to be so), with fresh slants on Socrates (among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth) and Plato (whose form of the Good has been illicitly conflated with God for two millennia).

What I like most in her section on Greek doubt: the forest metaphor:

The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest… we could stop being lost if we were to just stop trying to get out of the forest. Instead, we could pick some blueberries, sit beneath a  tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze. The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest… Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time.

As Epicurus realized, it is accepting the finality of death that makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden. This is a very different garden than the one we got kicked out of in the Eden story. This time you have to eat from the tree of knowledge to get in.

In other words: we should try to make ourselves at home in the universe, at ease with the human condition, puzzling it out piece by piece as we go. That’s what the pre-Socratics were fumbling towards, back when the woods were even deeper and darker than now.

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Hecht @home

February 4, 2010

Jennifer Hecht contributes a weekly post to “The Best American Poetry” blog, ranging over all kinds of topics including happiness and atheism. Take a look.

She noted recently, at the passing of People’s Historian Howard Zinn (who inspired both impassioned admiration and criticism), that he blurbed Doubt.

And check out her musings on “poetic atheism“: How strange to find our little thinking and blinking faces amid a universe that is for the most part not alive at all. Believers say,  “If this weirdness is true, why not believe angels,” but adding nonsense is not helpful.

Hecht is one of the breed of kinder, gentler atheists, like Rebecca Goldstein (of whom a reviewer writes: “Whether or not God exists, in moments of transcendent happiness we all feel a love beyond ourselves, beyond anything. [She] doesn’t want to shake your faith or confirm it”).

Neither shaking nor confirming? Sounds agnostic, though it may simply be “doubtful” and pluralistic. In any case, she has a rich and largely-neglected story to tell. The New Atheists stand on the shoulders of giants. Atheism is not new.

About those Greeks…

Hecht really sheds fresh light, in Doubt: a history, on the naturalizing impulse of the pre-Socratic and Hellenic thinkers. For instance, Democritus (the beautiful regularity of the universe was neither created nor maintained by the guiding intelligence of a god), the Cynics (Diogenes‘ advice is that we stop distracting ourselves with accomplishments, accept the meaninglessness of the universe, lie down on a park bench and get some sun while we have the chance) and Stoics (feeling a part of the community of the universe) and Epicureans (there are no ghostly grownups watching our lives and waiting to punish us… we might as well make an art of appreciating pleasure… in this beautiful moment one is alive) and Skeptics (I do not lay it down that honey is sweet but I admit that it appears to be so), with fresh slants on Socrates (among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth) and Plato (whose form of the Good has been illicitly conflated with God for two millennia).

What I like most in her section on Greek doubt (or as I prefer, Greek spirit): the forest metaphor, which offers the most timeless but (in an age of restless spiritual “cherry [*berry?]-picking”) also timely wisdom: The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest… we could stop being lost if we were to just stop trying to get out of the forest. Instead, we could pick some *blueberries, sit beneath a  tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze. The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest… Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time.

As Epicurus realized, it is accepting the finality of death that makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden. This is a very different garden than the one we got kicked out of in the Eden story. This time you have to eat from the tree of knowledge to get in.

That’s James and Sagan redux: at home in the universe, at ease with the human condition.

PW 2

February 1, 2010

With today’s Passion for Wisdom assignment we have another go at classical Chinese philosophers and the pre-Socratics, and Buddhists and Jains and Sophists. Then, Socrates himself (who was not “permanently pissed,” after all).

Buddhists reject the Hindu self, leaving some doubt about what it is that could possibly cycle through successive incarnations or reap the weal or woe of karma. But Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains all exalt the quest for a trance-like blissful experience, and resist what they see as western “over-intellectualization” of the sort Pooh’s friend Owl seems to exemplify.

And of course Buddhists are known for the “Noble Truths” of suffering and the “Eightfold Path” to Enlightenment which begins with seeing* (the very meaning of the Sanskrit word for philosophy) and seeks Nirvananot happiness in the western sense, but an ego-displacing perspective that looks very alluring to some western neophytes who wish they could twinkle and glow like the current Dalai Lama too.

*(Visual metaphors are big in the history of western philosophy too. See Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.)

Also very appealing to many of us is Buddhist compassion, exemplified for me (though I can’t quite explain why) in a particular photograph of the DL with a certain former heavyweight champion; and the DL’s forthright “faith in science“. There’s a strong Socratic element in Buddhism’s claim that the “illusion of understanding” blocks our way to  enlightenment… as there is in the scientific method and its ethos of fallibilism.

Less appealing to me is the concept of   “renunciation” and the judgment of the everyday world as itself a grand illusion. I like the response of the logically-minded Nyayayikas, who  “rejected the notion that the everyday world was an illusion.” Transitory yes, but unreal? No.

(Here’s the DL in London in 1997.)

One of the most striking images here clarifies the Taoist conception 0f “soul” as an impersonal part of nature. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, by contrast, one is holy insofar as one is not part of nature and is outside of time… The Christian soul is an intact bit of  eternity in everyone. The Taoist soul is more like a drop of water in a stream. Again: Taoists believe that to be wise is to realize one’s unity with nature and to live in conjunction with nature’s rhythm, the Tao… The personal self may die, but the Tao with which the sage identifies lives on.

Speaking of water… Thales of Miletus (634-546 BCE) said water was the nature, the archê, the originating principle of all reality. With his olive presses he resisted the charge of “unworldliness” so often lodged against philosophers.
Earth, air, fire, and water, hot and cold, wet and dry… Opposition is often basic to Greek philosophy, whereas the Chinese would rather talk about ‘harmony’

The ancient Greeks referred to all other peoples as barbarians (whose unintelligible speech sounded to them like “bar-bar-bar”). Herodotus: “the Greeks have been from very ancient times distinguished from the barbarians by superior sagacity and freedom from foolish simpleness.” This cultural chauvinism persists, apparently, and was delightfully exemplified by the proud Greek father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (finding uncredited Greek origins for everything, including Japanese kimonos).

But they do have plenty to be proud of, including Hippocrates’ (c.460-377 BCE) naturalism: “Men think [a disease] divine merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”

Democritus (460-370 BCE), “The Laughing Philosopher,” expanded the atomic theory of Leucippus and agreed with Pythagoras: “the Cosmos can be understood because it obeys certain laws that are the same everywhere in the universe.” This proposition is the foundation of science. Carl Sagan thought a lot of him (and Steve Gould thought a lot of Sagan).

With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete. Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was a “mere breath.” Something like this view, incidentally, led the Egyptians to mummify  their dead, and the early Christians to emphasize physical resurrection as necessary for salvation. The ancient Hebrews mostly restricted their concern to the concrete human being, not soul. Similarly, the Chinese related soul to social identity without specific metaphysical expectations. (Buddhists, again, thought soul was either an illusion or– as the Taoists said– was one with the rest of the universe, rejecting the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth.) As for the modern scientific take on soul, it looks a lot like Democritus’s… but Michael Shermer says the soul of science is substantial enough.

Protagoras (c. 490 – c. 420 BCE ) said (1) that man is the measure of all things (which is often interpreted as a sort of radical relativism) (2) that he could make the “worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger)” and (3) that one could not tell if the gods existed or not. He and his peers were sophists, and are at least partly responsible for giving it a bad name.  Sophistry, or subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation, leads to the cliche that a “good” philosopher (or lawyer) can prove anything.

But the philosophy of Protagoras does not have to be read as sophistry, mercenary argumentation offered for a fee. It might be seen as confidence in our ability to know the world because we view it in human terms– a view later associated with the German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Or, it could be viewed as a precursor to pragmatism and an attempt to render thought practical and useful.

Next up: Socrates on Wednesday. Intro students: read Alain de Botton’s chapter “Consolation for Unpopularity.”

“the philosopher walks”

January 20, 2010

That’s from my favorite line so far in Simon Critchley’s surprisingly sprightly Book of Dead Philosophers, which I’m using for the first time as a supplemental text in the Intro classes.  Concluding the introductory section on Socrates he writes:

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.

Walks on, that is, not out. This point calls Socrates’ martyrdom into question, it seems to me. We don’t know what, if anything, awaits the dead: permanent deep sleep, or unending intellectual gabfest with all the great dead spirits who’ve gone before, or who knows? Philosophizing is for the living.

Walking– literal walking– is one of my personal metaphors for living, and one of my favorite pastimes. Not only do the dead tell no tales, they pound no pavements or greenway trails either.

Being a walker gives a philosopher a pragmatic bent. For instance: when Diogenes the Cynic heard someone declare [after encountering Zeno of Elea‘s paradoxes of motion] that there was no such thing as motion, he got up and walked about. The best refutation is sometimes simply to walk.

But we need to acknowledge that our motion is not perpetual. Death is real. That’s how this book differs from the Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead, which aim to gain an “Enlightened” denial of death. Critchley’s approach is to draw us closer to the philosophers by highlighting our common humanity and mortality. In the process he tells some funny stories and brings the whole subject out into the lovely light of day. Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos, larger than we can fathom. As I was saying yesterday in A&S, Carl Sagan put it smartly: our proper loyalty (and identity) belongs to the stars. Their atoms are ours too.

Which brings us to Democritus, “the laughing philosopher” who (legend has it)  lived an incredibly long and healthy life. He might have lived longer, but– noticing in his 109th year (!)  that his mind was beginning to show its age– he “cheerfully committed suicide.”

On the other hand consider Heraclitus, “the weeping philosopher,” who wept for humanity’s irrationality. But how did he treat his own illness? With cow dung. The treatment was unsuccessful.

The lives and deaths of the philosophers are entertaining and instructive, often in unintended ways. How ironic that Heidegger, whom I mentioned in class last week as an example of a philosopher whose biography had been so neglected that his despicable politics went unremarked by generations of professors (including my own), put the feeble case for the very approach that has shielded him against sharper scrutiny:

The personality of a philosopher is of interest only to this extent: he was born at such and such a time, he worked, and died.

And if he hooked up with the Nazis in the interim? Irrelevant, says Herr Doktor Proffessor H. Since that was also the view of most of my teachers, just about every page in this book is full of biographical detail that is new to me. What emerges most clearly is that their big ideas made them no less fallible or prone to error than any of us. So go ahead, everybody, be as philosophical as you please. It’s only human.

more reality

September 30, 2009

Or less…

I gave short shrift to the pre-Socratics, but Democritus (c.460-360 BCE)  was a genuine visionary. He “developed a picture of thedemocritus world that is remarkably close to our current scientific views.” He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” (Looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic.) He had the last laugh, if it’s true that he lived past 100. He had good atoms.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete.” His “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was more like a breath than a spirit. “I would rather understand one cause,” he said, “than be King of Persia.” Carl Sagan celebrated him on Cosmos.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and
demythologize the world was complete…”
Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied,
and then was a “mere breath”…

Many of Democritus’ successors developed views remarkably inimical to current scientific wisdom.

descartes crcleRene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it useful to doubt the reality of everything; he was a mind-body dualist; and he demanded indubitable certainty as the gold-standard of scientific knowledge. All of these views have been doubted, if not flatly rejected, by most scientifically-minded moderns. His famed Meditations seem circular. (Here he is, squashed and truncated.)circular

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony

prearranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) said esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Don’t blink, God, or we’ll wink out of existence. The lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson thought he had a practical refutation of Berkeley’s idealism.  He missed the point, but made one too: your philosophy of reality really ought to make a discernible difference in your experience of life .

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said “things in themselves” (tits, as I’m afraid my undergraduate Kant professor taught me to abbreviate them) are out of reach. We deal strictly in phenomena, or appearances. But the good news for Kant is that we can be sure that appearances are not deceptive in at least one crucial respect: they appear as they must, in the light of our own categorical nature. We constitute the world through the categories our collective minds impose upon them, and thus are normally in touch with reality when we ply our minds and use our reason.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the world as a kind of universal Spirit, coming to maturity through the clash and conflicts of human history. He was the ultimate Systematic philosopher and devotee of Rationality, the antithesis of Kierkegaard (though some scholars have begun to challenge this). He made Schopenhauer crazy.

marxKarl Marx (1818-1883) “turned Hegel on his head,” seeing the world mainly in material terms. History was for him, as for Hegel, a grand unfolding process (“dialectic”) tending toward some higher “synthesis”  that would represent our apotheosis as a species. But as we know, his particular political synthesis has met with some resistance in recent decades.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)– separated at birth from Ebenezer Scrooge– was the pessimist-par excellence: life (on his view) is no good, without purpose, the clatter of pointless striving will. But he wasn’t a total scrooge: he loved little dogs, and (as we’ll see) as a young man he loved at least one or two other human beings. That’s why Alain de Botton chooses him to exemplify “consolation for a broken heart.”