Category Archives: philosophy

Everything is interesting.

marcus Aurelius.jpg“What education should be about is endless curiosity about the nature of the world. I’d make Philosophy and Human Behaviour a compulsory subject. I wouldn’t bother to teach History; I think it’s pointless. History is just the record of human crime. It’s battles and murders and pogroms, but there’s a secret history and that’s the record of human goodness. The little acts of kindness aren’t recorded anywhere. Little deeds of altruism: The lady in the baker’s shop who runs after you saying, ‘Here you left a fiver on the counter.’ That sort of thing is never recorded, but that’s what actually keeps the world going.”  John Lloyd  ( writer of Q.I fame)

Fact : John Lloyd has more baftas than Judi Dench  !!!!!!!!!

Now I will let you know that I don’t agree with him about the pointlessness of History simply because it creates so much enquiry in me, but about everything else I have read about this man, I have a new hero.  A colleague John Mitchinson  on Q.I wrote “He has a proper philosophy, and he thinks about things in an astonishing amount of depth.’

And his philosophy? – a self confessed Stoic ( another reason to adore the man) he has summed up the necessities of life in three phrases, the first being ‘Be Kind’ , the second being, ‘Be Kind’ and the third being ‘ Be Kind’. Got to love that man.

And this is not a man who has not known unhappiness, hard work, or depression. Much like the rest of us. But this is a man who has worked tirelessly at the BBC to bring us laughter to lighten the load, and worked through his own demons by using his brain to stay curious. That was his way out of depression if I am reading it right.

“I feel really sorry for people who have no working philosophy. People don’t know what to do when they get depressed, or unhappy, when they feel they are belittled at work, when they feel their life is pointless. Where do they go? Unless you’re a happyclappy Alpha course person . . . That’s why it’s so easy to get mullah’ed into fundamentalism: because of the certainty.”

And if you want some more reasons to consider Mr Lloyds brilliant take on life – to remain as curious a creature as it is possible to be, then I recommend you fly across to this link which tells you more about the man than I can, inasmuch as it is a testament to his philosophy, his intelligence, his humour and his humanity. And I don’t even know the man.

Just brilliant stuff

Learn even more about him via a great article in the New Statesman by Helen Lewis, Article on John Lloyd by Helen Lewis

And finally – in the spirit of John LLoyd and with a nod to the illustration here is a thought from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that is worth a moment or two of reflection in a busy day, a busy world.

One type of person, whenever he does someone else a good turn, is quick in calculating the favour done to him. Another is not so quick to do this; but in himself he thinks about the other person as owing him something and is conscious of what he has done. A third is in a sense not even conscious of what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing more once it has produced its own fruit, like a horse which has run a race, a dog which has followed the scent, or a bee which has made its honey. A person who has done something good does not make a big fuss about it, but goes on to the next action, as a vine goes on to produce grapes again in season. So you should be one of those who do this without in a sense being aware of doing so. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.6)

 

Meaning What Exactly?

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I am re reading this from 5 years ago, and it resonates still, and as it didn’t get much of an airing then, I am recycling it for another go!  I came to it after reading an interesting article that made comparisons between some of the things written by Shakespeare with some of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It fascinates me that today we are still turning to the wisdom of some human beings long gone, who lived very different lives , with very similar experience of being human.

I woke up this morning late, again, after another disturbed night.  I woke up perturbed by a question I know is unanswerable, that thinkers far more erudite than I have asked themselves since time began and woefully have failed to satisfy themselves.  What for?  Why do we live the life we do?  A few weeks ago my eldest shared with me one of his thoughts that bothered him, about how he understood we were on a continuum of development with the animal world in terms of consciousness, but how he was grappling with the idea that that continuum of consciousness could be shared with robots in the future. He wanted to know what separated us not from the animal world, as had bothered our predecessors, but what made us special and distinct from the new explosion of robot intelligence that is at its genesis. Naturally I don’t have any answers at my fingertips, but his speculation mirrors my own curiosity about our place in the universe.  I had read enough about Leo Tolstoy to recognise his deep angst over a related query – what are we?  Tolstoy is well known and revered for his literary novels, and the breadth of human experience he brings to them.  He was dismissive of my hero Shakespeare , which upset me a little. Tolstoy was well educated, lived a comfortable life, had worldly success in his lifetime, married successfully, had children he loved , in short he had everything most people could aspire to.  Then he had a crisis.  Possibly we would call it a breakdown now, in a world that patholigises everything. In his  ‘Confessions’  he relates his life story and how he continued to seek meaning from his existence, and how he could not find it. This is from a celebrated thinker who had people hanging onto his words,

“I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.” Chapter iii…..

………..“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.”  Chapter iv

In an attempt to master his demons, he investigates the contemporary  worlds of science, philosophy, eastern wisdom and his fellow ‘men of letters’, but is unable to find any answers meaningful to him.  In an attempt to survive he has to abandon his rational scepticism and disgust for the superstitions that enveloped the orthodox Russian Christianity and find some sort of peace in the convictions of the ordinary citizens who practised their faith .  He recognises that he still has doubt, but accepts the living truth of ordinary men and women toiling throughout their lives and carrying with them the hope that faith offers.

“That there is truth in the teaching is to me indubitable, but it is also certain that there is falsehood in it, and I must find what is true and what is false, and must disentangle the one from the other. I am setting to work upon this task. What of falsehood I have found in the teaching and what I have found of truth, and to what conclusions I came, will form the following parts of this work, which if it be worth it and if anyone wants it, will probably some day be printed somewhere.”

 

Tolstoy was an old man when he died, and he chose to die away from his home after deciding that it was his duty to live among the citizens and away from his comforts of home and family.  When he chose to find meaning within the boundaries of Russian Christianity , it led to a schism with his old way of life, he renounced his claim on his ancestral estate and broke off his relationships with the family. His main supporter during these final years was Vladimir Chertkov, a wealthy army officer whom the family called ‘The Devil’. Chertkov was with Tolstoy  on his final journey, and as Tolstoy was dying of pneumonia he ‘’ remembered Tolstoy’s conception of human life, namely, that man is a manifestation of the spirit of God temporarily imprisoned within the confines of his individual existence and seeking to break out and merge with the souls of others and with God. And I felt with especial force that life, understood in this way, was a blessing, that was absolutely inviolate. In short, death was no more.’  

Tolstoy is a fascinating man, containing paradoxes that emphasize his humanity.  He never shrugged off the deep anxiety that he was not worthy enough, and this drive to improve his understanding of himself and the world propelled him to become great in the eyes of many of his fellow Russians and beyond that, befriending and influencing Mahatma Gandhi, impressed by Tolstoys stance on non-violent resistance.

That Tolstoy renounced his rational side to reclaim his understanding of the meaning in life, and to embrace the idea of a God, a universal spirit manifested in man raises the possibility in myself that I am ignoring perhaps the central concern. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place for meaning, and like Tolstoy need to explore the avenues of mysticism to find meaning.  The rational part of me shouts so loud, but I know too there is a voice somewhere deep inside that recognises mystery and the unknowable.

‘The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket.In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticisn has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism-the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.’

 G. K Chesterton

What really provoked me into researching Tolstoy was this mornings unease on waking.  I was thinking about how ordinary men live, in contrast to some extraordinary men. Is it easier to live with extraordinary talent or wealth or status ? Or more likely to derive a meaningful life from living an ordinary experience? It appears that wealth and status are no more likely to fulfil than being a baker, or a taxman, or a thief even. Alexander the Great had conquered half the Hellenistic world when he was in his twenties. Still died in a brawl with a mate. It’s all strange. I am going to leave you with this thought from an interview with Irvin D Yalom, the psychotherapist and novelist. Don’t know why, but it makes sense to me.

I find the idea of dying, of not existing for the next 5 billion years and beyond, chilling. It takes my breath away. Can you offer any comfort?

Well, did the last 5 billion years bother you? I mean, it seems to me that what happens after we die is not really the problem. It is a kind of peace. The challenge for us is how we live

between now and then, whether we have the courage to stop denying it and use our anxieties to live more authentic, meaning-filled and purposeful lives.  – Irvine Yalom

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. I really isn’t.  The paradox we live with every day of our lives is that we probably know how we can improve our own lives, but choose to perform duties and responsibilities in ways that are in conflict with that desire. We really don’t have infinite time to work out how we want to live our own lives. We have to make those choices today. Just saying.

People usually think that progress consists in the increase of knowledge, in the improvement of life, but that isn’t so

 Progress consists only in the greater clarification of answers to the basic questions of life. The truth is always accessible to a man. It can’t be otherwise, because a man’s soul is a divine spark, the truth itself. It’s only a matter of removing from this divine spark (the truth) everything that obscures it. Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.

  • Tolstoy’s Diaries (1985) edited and translated by R. F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, Vol 2, p. 512.

References

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/  Biography.

http://www.linguadex.com/tolstoy/       The last days of Tolstoy

http://www.yalom.com/

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Confession     The full work online.

Notes to Self

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The guy who wrote the original did so in Greek, but was actually an intellectual Roman who was to govern Rome after succeeding the Emperor Antoninus Pius, spending a couple of decades trying to placate the Senate and put down minor rebellions. It was some time ago.

Marcus Aurelius lives long in the mind – this is a book that belongs in the bookshelves of the great and the good throughout history – it has shaped the thinking of men. And yet it was not written for publication – it was written as an ongoing discourse with himself as to how to live a life, how to wrestle with the challenges that being human brings , a ‘design for living’. He is setting  out his set of rules, quite unaware that it would become a key text in later attempting to understand the Roman Stoic philosophy.

 

I am fascinated how threads of understanding weave themselves through history – occurring separately to thinkers from disparate cultures and times – and how those threads resonate generations later, making a fascinating complexity of human thought spinning itself through time and place.

I am reminded of these words,

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken

by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots

with the everythingness of everything else.       Carl Sagan  ‘Diffraction’

and from Edgar Allen Poe

 “that space and duration are one”

Who dreams in Latin?

know thyself

Me apparently.  Now I understand there is going to be a minority of educated peeps who regularly visit their night time muse and discourse via that ancient language.  Because they can.  I am not of them.  I detested taking Latin in school and confounded attempts to make me regular or irregular with verbage, refused to consort with Hannibal and Hasdrubal despite the allure of elephants, and exited the class only with the ability to ‘tu, te, tui, tibi, te’ to  rhythm courtesy of my doctors eccentric wife who brought a whole new dimension of dance into the conjugation theme. Saying that I do know that ‘Julia puella parva est’ tells me what anyone with eyes could determine – Julia is a small girl. Latin as a discipline was forced onto my curriculum by my mother, who had been denied the opportunity and believed it to be necessary in any right thinking girls armoury, which may have been the case in Montaigne’s time, whose father denied his son the use of any other language as he grew up. But times change. Move on – the thrust of my enquiry is why would I be dreaming Latin phrases?  I awoke recently with the clear message of ‘Nosce te ipsum’ plastered all over my consciousness in the style of a Banksy’s graffiti.  I knew I knew what it meant, but couldn’t recall – I had to resort to the husband, who resorted to the Google machine.  Of course – Nosce te ipsum is ‘Know Thyself’  – now the nub of the real enquiry is why is my subconscious sending me this command?  Is it thrust at me dagger like, suggesting I lack self awareness and something very dark and looming is about to reveal itself in my personality?  Or is it somewhat self congratulatory , extolling the virtues of introspection and reflection which anyone who knows me will confirm I expound.  I like neither scenario – self congratulation is about as welcome as self flagellation in my eyes, with less soreness. And I have lived a whole life like Henny Penny who clucked around her friends asking whether the sky was falling .

Despite the anxiety around whether my subconscious is alerting me to something I ought to know, I welcome this intrusion .  ‘Know thyself’ seems a good mantra to me.  Look at your virtues and examine your faults – try every moment you can to be the best version of yourself – this is what I take from the message.  I fail, I pick myself up and I fail again, but in the attempt to understand my errors, my poor decisions, I end up making better ones. Everyone’s a winner. I have never regretted saying sorry. Sometimes I have not said it, or not soon enough and I have regretted that. I suppose saying sorry makes you vulnerable, shows a side that is less than perfect.  I like that. I like that when I create something and something goes wrong, I always end up with creating something better in it’s stead. Always.  And when someone says sorry to me, I tend to cut them some slack. That’s the way it works.

Nosce te ipsum.

St Augustine quotation Anne Corr

We are the music while the music lasts with Alan Watts

Don’t forget to dance.

‘To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.’

I was walking alongside the overgrown paddock this morning, which has developed into a sea of buttercups, grasses and purple clover.  It is a thing of beauty. Each buttercup is a miracle in itself – a dizzyingly shiny yellow miracle, and yet , when it is no longer shining brightly alone, but hid amongst a host of fellow buttercups, it still retains its wonder.  And when my eye wanders along that wave of brilliant primary and is distracted by the long grasses swaying sensuously in the wind, the host of buttercups is not diminished in its loveliness. It’s loveliness is enhanced with the collision from the purple of the clover, augmented by the movement of the grasses within. The whole is wholly  magnificent in its diversity and in the spectacle of the collusion from its individual parts.

Lucky us, to be here.

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Where the spirit meets the bone

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Today I heard Clive James, the well known and loved writer and presenter talk about his imminent death and what he was thinking about while still in the here and now.  His regret centred on not feeling that he had been kind enough, that he had not paid enough attention to generosity of spirit, nor to being a good enough husband .  I expect many of us feel regrets  – some more than others and some without facing death as a close encounter – there must be time for reflection in all of us.  Kindness seems to be an underrated virtue, one almost meeting scorn and mockery in our cynical age.  There’s a tide that may be turning – in the words of Plato – ‘Be Kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle’.

It may be no coincidence that Clive James is also a poet – it behoves a poet to be reflective, and one of poetry’s great gifts is that it often takes us down a path that leads us to some introverted consideration that questions our behaviours and attitudes.  A good poem is like a shortcut to something we need to know about ourselves, a spotlight that focuses our attention and drives us to exploration.  Poetry is a signpost that can direct us to to where we want to be, to who we want to be.

Richard Porty wrote  in an essay “Pragmatism and Romanticism”;

‘Shortly after finishing “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Some months after I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation. I had no quarrel with Epicurus’s argument that it is irrational to fear death, nor with Heidegger’s suggestion that ontotheology originates in an attempt to evade our mortality. But neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point.

 

“Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.” “Which poems?” he asked. I quoted two old chestnuts that I had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by, the most quoted lines of Swinburne’s “Garden of  Proserpine”:

 

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives for ever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.

 

and Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday”:

 

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;

I warmed both hands before the fire of life,

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.’

 

It doesn’t seem melancholy to me to begin to consider the brevity of our lives – it seems sanguine to work out while we still have life how best to use the minutes and seconds.  Life is busy, demanding, inconsiderate in it’s relentless drive to succeed, to impress. I like the impressions of poets and philosophers – they help me get to where I want to be.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was an American philosopher best known for revitalizing the school of American pragmatism. He served as a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Stanford and was the author of several books -http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/richard-rorty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Men of the Porch

Sadly I cannot make this event  http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2014/10/20/stoic-week-2014-everything-you-need-to-know/ but we live in a virtual world for which I am grateful.  Nevertheless, it may be worth consideration if you are in London this week.  If not there is always the possibility of downloading the book free until the end of this week, just go to the site with the link above.

book3dcover

I have been drawn to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca amongst other classical authors and they have informed my life since I was a teenager.  The interest in Stoicism will be timeless, and the blog is an interesting read.  I am not sure how faithfully I would follow any formal approach to practice as I have been averse to that mode of instruction since forever. I am more likely to dip into a broad spectrum of source material and reflect as and when my mind thinks fit. But I would have been a frequent visitor to the porch in the central market of Athens when Zeno was hanging around.

If you click on the image below, there are a few treasures worth collecting.

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