A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Examined Life

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Okay, fine. It took only two weeks to fall off the theme-day thing. As two tribe members noted, Thursday Theme Day flew in the face of the spontaneity that defines “…the house…” Regardless, in short order it became a chore, self-imposed at that, and there is little reason to accept such discipline.

With that bit of housekeeping completed, let’s talk about the death of Socrates and the examined life. The examined life is a frequent theme  here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. It occurs to me that perhaps you are not aware of the tradition behind this ancient saying. Please allow me to tell you the story (a bit editorialized, thank you very much.) (And in that spirit, this is a long post. I understand if you aren’t interested in spending the time on it. Frankly, if I were you, I doubt I would spend that much time with me. If that’s the case, I invite you to scroll to the bottom for a brief summary, as well as some reading recommendations.)

__________________________

Ruins of the Agora

Ruins of the Agora

Socrates held truth a thing to be pursued, not discovered, an idea that takes it off the mount and puts it in the streets. (Oliver Wendall Holmes, a pragmatist, echoed the notion when he remarked to a friend, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”) And that is where he spent his time, in the streets, talking to anyone who would listen. Xenophon wrote that he “was always on public view.” He continues, “Socrates used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.” * His student, Plato, recorded him referring to himself, fittingly, as a gadfly. (It is important to know that Socrates left no written record. Most of what we know of him was recorded by his student and younger friend, Plato. Plato, by the way, was the teacher of Aristotle, who, in case you are not aware, was the teacher of Alexander the Great, Alex making a cameo here at “…the house…” just a couple of weeks ago.)

He was well known in Athens for years prior to his trial. Aristophanes mentions him in his comedy The Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portraying Socrates as a sophist. There is no historical evidence that Socrates was associated with the sophists, His recorded sayings do not support this account. The sophists had a dicey reputation in Athens at the time. The historian G.B. Kerferd described the sophists of this period as : “…a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”

The climate at the time was tense. The year was 399 B.C. The city (Athens) guardians were being pressed for reform and the youth were restless. So it came to be that Socrates, a pain in the backside to those holding to the status quo, was arrested on charges of “corruption of youth” and “impiety.” Specifically, the impious acts were: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”  (“Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all?” asks Nietzsche. “And did he deserve his hemlock?”)

He was brought to trial. The law in Athens dictated that such cases not exceed a day’s length and the old philosopher knew that he could not make his case in just a day. Instead he began to challenge the jurors.

“Some will say: Yes, Socrates, but you cannot you hold your tongue….Now, I have great difficulty in making you understand my

Socrates on trial.

Socrates on trial.

answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true….”

In essence, he claimed that the jurors (citizens of Athens selected by lottery) could hardly be expected to be sympathetic, as they had little appreciation for philosophy. His tone, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia, was reprimanding and unapologetic. If Plato and Xenophon are to be believed, Socrates sought not to persuade, but to lecture and provoke.

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give account of your lives But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring lives your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.”

The law held that the guilty party had to kill himself, hence the hemlock. It was expected, and suggested by his followers, that he would flee.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Most hold that he did not flee on moral grounds, that seeing the sentence through to completion was his moral obligation. And so it was, indeed.

* Fittingly, my first trip abroad, over thirty years ago, found me in Athens. Surprisingly, my travel journal from that trip has survived the years. The young man (me) wrote: “The Agora left little impression upon me; it once housed such great thoughts as those proclaimed by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, yet one feels no inclination to think more profoundly because of common ground crossed.”  (I was painfully ponderous even then.)

___________________________

Editorial Manifesto:

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. I disagree with the fundamental premiss, the notion of a life not worth living; but that’s not the point. Inverted to the positive, Socrates’s admonition might be understood to read: The examined life is (more) worth(y of) living. He did not say, What is the meaning of life?; rather he made a value statement on existence. He did not suggest developing a flow chart, or creating a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. No Powerpoint. No life coach. He exhorted, in my shorthand, simply: Examine. Accept nothing less than an adequate accounting. It is an open and expansive thought. Conversely, drilled into us from childhood: seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

___________________________

Although I’ve not read it, I understand that I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, is an excellent read if you’re interested in the history.

9781250002327If you are curious to read the thoughts of a working philosopher on the matter of living fully the examined life, I suggest the late Robert Nozick‘s (1938-2002),  The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations. Along similar lines, but more historical, you might enjoy James Miller’s Examined Lives, From Socrates to Nietzsche. It was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book and is imminently readable.  Lastly, if you wish to urlwade deep into these waters, consider Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, specifically the last chapter, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.”

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting.

d

Lies We Tell Ourselves

In Philosophy on February 12, 2013 at 6:00 am
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Under the heading: “Lies we tell ourselves” –this quote:

“Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards.”

That’s Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. He’s a super smart guy, so we chuckle in that superior and satisfied way  (as I type on my Apple Air Notebook). I came across this quote recently, did a bit of research and believe he really said it. (“The problem with internet quotes is you don’t know if they’re true.” ~ Abraham Lincoln) I can’t find an attribution date, but will give Big Steve the benefit of the doubt and assume he made this observation when Google was still a nascent upstart, not the monolithic giant we now recognize. But still, Big Steve should, I think, know better what is lurking in the shrubs, waiting to steal his Power Rangers lunch pail.

So, what lies are we telling ourselves? In business we might, à la Steve Ballmer, proclaim some notion of invincibility–and believe it to be so. That didn’t work out so well for Steve. The same might apply to any and all aspects of life. I don’t want to belabor this notion, but the quote brought me up short.

What, I wonder, have I told myself and “believe” that will, at some future date, prove to be ridiculously wrongheaded? Do you ever ask yourself this question? You should–I’m just say’n. I’ve tried to divest myself of cherished notions and beliefs, attempt to take everything at face value as much as possible, try not to infuse experience with notions preconceived. But in a twisted way, even these exemplary motives seem qualified as “lies I tell myself.”

I cannot escape the recursiveness of such thinking. “I am lying.” That is one of the word-games philosophers sometime play. If I say I am lying, then am I lying in saying I am lying, which would mean I am telling the truth? But I said I was lying. Get it?

Word games. So painfully frustrating. But words are all we have. Really? “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Wittgenstein.

Okay, time to move on. I’ve always wished to be an old philosopher and sometimes I can’t help myself. At least I’ve accomplished one out of two.

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.

Sunday Repost: Woof, Woof. Bark.

In Death, Dogs, Faith, Philosophy, Writing on February 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself,

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting

Lucy: ragamuffin.

Lucy: ragamuffin.

herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.

We are the Tribe.

In Creativity, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 30, 2013 at 6:00 am
Diogenes and members of the tribe.

Diogenes and members of the tribe.

We are the tribe of Diogenes. Through the village darkness he leads, lamp held high, peering into the blackness of night. We seek not the one to deliver us from darkness, that is not our quest. Rather, we seek companions to walk with us toward the dawn.

We push through the slumbering village herd. We hear their night talk, their groans, smell the stench of the herd. At dawn they will rise and charge off in search of food and water. They eat as the herd, shit as the herd, procreate as the herd. The herd is monolithic in ignorance. The herd is to be avoided. Danger lurks within. An individual becomes lost amongst them, or worse, witless and crushed by the stampede. The herd will always stampede. Press on.

We collect other pilgrams. You make the camp. You build the fire. You collect water. Together we rest. At nightfall we tell stories, and as some of us slumber, others stand watch. The master’s lamp is never extinguished. The journey never ends.

______________________________

According to Plutarch (ca.45 – 120 C.E.), it was in Cornith that the meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes took place. They exchanged only a few words: while Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight in the morning, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. To which Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”  Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”

"Stand back, Fancy Pants. You're blocking my light."

“Stand back, Fancy Pants. You’re blocking my light.”

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art

and

“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.

_________________

I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western Thought….It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading