Category Archives: Philosophy
I have been having a little difficulty getting back to my book discussions after the sudden death of my son five weeks ago. I have continued reading, probably more and faster than before, but my focus has changed dramatically. I began the summer with a mission to read and study as many books of philosophy as I could, especially political philosophy. I will probably get back to The Wealth of Nations one of these days, but at the moment I do not much care about political philosophy.
My current thought on political philosophy boils down to this: The political and financial power systems of this world are so riddled with corruption that they are cracking at the seams and will soon collapse under the pressure of their own disease. Maybe the systems will hold together for another century or so. Maybe not that long. For the sake of all the innocents and semi-innocents who will suffer when the world system finally crumbles, I hope it holds out for as long as possible. I see the Hillary Clinton campaign as a metaphor for the world system: very sick but desperately being propped up by all the power and money the world can supply. If you are of another political opinion, I don’t mean to offend. You are welcome to think of a metaphor for the world system using the Donald Trump campaign. The disease in the system goes far beyond a couple of piddly American political parties but they are both displaying some serious symptoms.
My focus is now on that other world, the one where my son is not dead, the eternal reality where I and the rest of us will also be long before the century has passed. So the books I am reading are books that focus on that world. I want to read about the things that will survive: love, peace, service to others, sources of real joy, and the sustainer of all that is true, God. I have been writing a lot on my blog about Jesse, his life and the loss of his life on earth and it’s impact: the aftermath, the memories, and sources of comfort.
Once I begin writing about books again – and I feel like it will be soon – I will write about The Princess and Curdie and other writings of George MacDonald, as well as some of the many other books that have been giving me spiritual support. Books have always been a source of spiritual support for me, but now more than ever.
I wrote the following review about a year ago. The book kind of rocked my world at the time and influenced the way I interpret certain other books which I will be reviewing soon. I wrote quite a lot about this book – I was thinking of doing a study guide and I may still do that. You can see my articles on many of the chapters by clicking on Notes on Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” in the menu above.
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What I Believe is Leo Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession in which he describes his profound existential crisis. In A Confession Tolstoy describes how, at age 50, when he was at the height of his worldly success, he became so depressed that he wanted to commit suicide. In desperation he turned to the Orthodox church of his childhood and discovered that when he could believe in God, even if only for a moment, for that moment he felt the life. The moment he stopped believing, he felt the oppression of death.
Reading A Confession led me to read his final novel Resurrection, which in which an aristocrat has a spiritual awakening of his own and discovers the far-reaching dysfunctions of the Russian justice system and the evils of bureaucracy. I had read Tolstoy’s two great classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, in the past. His post spiritual crisis writing are just as great but different in content, tone, and purpose. What I Believe turned my world upside down as did The Kingdom of God is Within You, a book considered so radical it was banned in Russia for many years.
Tolstoy begins What I Believe by explaining how he began to feel uncomfortable with the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was attracted to Christ’s teachings about love, forgiveness, and the brotherhood of man, but he found the Church, while never denying Christ’s doctrine of love, put a tremendously disproportionate emphasis on ritual and ceremony and devoted scant attention to how Christians should behave toward other people in their daily lives.
Also he was disturbed that the Church supported such things as persecution of certain populations, serfdom, capital punishment, and war. Tolstoy read the gospels over and over, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5 through 7. Then, reading through all the church’s commentaries on the gospels, he found that the church seemed to ignore or distort the clear teachings of Jesus whenever they conflicted with the established systems of civilization. It was as if the world’s system were the default, and the teachings of Jesus, who they claimed to believe is God, had to be made to fit into that mold.
By the end of the book Tolstoy comes reluctantly to the conclusion that for centuries the Church has been teaching a form of Christianity far different from what Jesus intended. Jesus was teaching the eternal law that leads to life: real life on earth, the only kind of life that continues after death. Jesus also teaches how this law based on love is utterly incompatible with the world’s law, which is based on fear and competition and is merely a sophisticated version the predatory law of the beasts. Tolstoy saw that Jesus’ primary message was that to be truly human, that is to rise to a level higher than a talking animal and to be born into the new life of the spirit, we have to stop living according to the law of the world and embrace the higher law of love. This is the only way to break the cycle of violence. When you start embracing the higher law, the world will probably not like you and may even hurt or kill you, but you will be truly alive, and will actually be happier, both before and after your physical death.
The part of the book I found most fascinating is Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ, all of which are clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount. For each one he explains the research he did into the original texts and how he reached each conclusion. The key commandment for Tolstoy, the one that really opened the floodgates of light, is that followers of Christ are not to return evil for evil. That means no violence to anyone, including enemies, and not just personal enemies, but also those populations that your government calls enemies. When Tolstoy realized that Christ did not mean this statement as an unreachable ideal but as a practical lifestyle, all the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. Here are the five commandments of Christ as interpreted by Tolstoy:
1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48
Tolstoy believes that these commandments are not intended to be impossible ideals but are in fact Christ’s specific instructions for how his followers ought to live. If we would only try them, we’d find they really do result in a happier life. In Chapter 10 he identifies the ingredients of a truly happy life: being in touch with the natural world, family, peaceful and unrestricted fellowship with all classes of people, and surprisingly, labor: working to supply our own needs and enjoying the fruits of our labor. A life lived according to Jesus’ commandments would produce to all of these ingredients.
Jesus said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The law of love that Jesus taught, according to Tolstoy, is more in accord with our real nature than the world’s law which tells us we are obligated to kill total strangers if the State tells us to take up arms and go to war. I am not so sure about it being more in accord with human nature. The law of love appeals to me but I am a peaceful person who does not find the least pleasure in killing living things. However I know plenty of people who say they sincerely enjoy killing animals, watching ultra-violent films, and even claim to relish the thought of killing certain people. And some of these people are Christians.
I understand none of us made this world and most of us feel stuck in its tangled web of systems. We are born into a world where we don’t have access to enough earth to grow our own food and are dependent from birth on government and complicated economic systems to obtain food and water. So I don’t know that God would hold us accountable for the situation we find ourselves in, and I am glad that one of the rules is that no one gets to judge anyone else. Maybe we could just not assume that the way the world is necessarily the way it has to be. Human systems are not set in stone. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask ourselves why we do the things we do every day: are we acting out of fear or out of love? Or have we somehow mixed the two concepts in our minds – as in I go to a job I hate because I love my children and am afraid I won’t be able to feed them. It’s more complicated than you think, Mr. Tolstoy, when you are not a world-renowned Russian nobleman. Also I am puzzled about how this doctrine of non-violence relates to crazed terrorists and keeping child predators and psychopaths off the streets. However, that said, I think Tolstoy is onto something here, namely the truth. It changed his life and it may yet change mine.
You can read What I Believe online and download it in various formats free of charge at Wikisource. It is also available in various editions on Kindle and in print at Amazon.com.
These past few days I have been retrieving five years worth of blog posts and book reviews from an old blog that goes offline forever as of tomorrow, July 25th. In doing so I have found tons of pieces I had forgotten about, some of which fit neatly into my summer political philosophy theme. In my last post I shared my review of Tolstoy’s philosophical novel Resurrection, and today I am re-posting this review….
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If only we could all enjoy so calm and pleasant a dialog about the limits of government infringement on individual lives as John Stuart Mills gives us in On Liberty. The issues discussed here are certainly more relevant and more essential than ever, no matter how tired some of us are of talking about them.
On Liberty is an in-depth exploration of the relationship between the individual and authority. Authority in this book refers not only to that imposed by government but also all kinds of societal checks on individual freedom of behavior, speech, and thought, with particular attention to the kind of pressure inherent in most organized religion. Mills begins by stating:
“The Subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”
Published in 1859, On Liberty was extremely well received and has been in print ever since. Interestingly, Mills began writing the work in 1854 in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor. Originally intended as an essay, it kept expanding in scope until it became a full-fledged book published shortly after Harriet’s death. I enjoyed the clarity of thought Mills brings to topic which can be a muddy one with many shades of gray.
When is an individual’s action of concern only to him or herself and when does it affect others enough for society to step in and regulate it? How much tolerance should society have for aberrant behavior, unpopular lifestyle choices, and the spouting of opinions deemed pernicious?
According to Mill and Harriet, a healthy society tolerates a wide berth of eccentricity and welcomes diversity of opinion, primarily because it is only by being challenged that we can truly be strong in our beliefs about what is true. Society is justified in interfering with individual liberty only when the individual’s actions cause harm to others. The problems emerge mostly in how we define “harm.”
Mills seems quite reasonable to me and certainly not an extremist. I think he would have been a libertarian when it comes to restrictions on what substances people choose to indulge in and would be in favor of zero restrictions on expressions of faith in the public square and in the workplace as long as these expressions do not physically harm to anyone else. He is most definitive in his support freedom of speech and the press.
He is a bit less libertarian when it comes to public education. In fact, as you get toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that the keys to his vision of a society that allows for maximum individual liberty are universal education as well as responsible procreation. If people just did not create children that they are not prepared to feed, shelter, and educate then everything would be just fine. To the extent that this state of affairs is not fully realized, Mill believes, the state is justified in educating children whose parents do not or cannot fulfill their most sacred duty. According to Mills, all education sponsored by the state should stick to the basics such a language usage and scientific facts. There must be no requirement that students subscribe to any particular creed or political opinion in order to obtain a certificate of completion.
So there are some “if onlies” and a bit of utopian thought here, but all in all this is a great read for anyone who wants to explore the complex many-sided issue of the individual liberty versus interests of society. If this was a complicated issue in 1859 it is more so now as our civilization has become exponentially more interconnected. Since we live in a world where individual liberty is diminishing as the interests of society become increasingly dominant, this great book of social philosophy is a great way to understand how we got where we are and to help us decide if we think it is worth resisting the general trend.
I am still working my way through Leviathan and still have a stack if philosophy books to read during my Summer of Philosophy. In the meantime I will share a review I originally wrote a couple years ago. If there is any novel that has had a profound influence on my personal philosophy, it is this one….
Resurrection fits into the literary category of “philosophic novel” along with the novels of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and C.S. Lewis. Some would categorize Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a philosophical novel. I have a special fondness for a philosophic novel. I love philosophy because it helps me make sense of this confusing world, so I will, on occasion, make the effort to read a philosophy book. But straight philosophy books are too often about as exciting as dryer lint. So if I can read a novel that makes philosophy come alive within the context of a story and achieve a better grasp of it in an entertaining way, why not?
Although Resurrection is philosophical to the bone, it is also strong in plot and its characters are emotionally complex and beautifully portrayed. The story centers on the spiritual awakening of one Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a rich young nobleman. Nekhludoff slowly comes to the same conclusions about society and truth that Tolstoy believed, but the character is not the author. Tolstoy was 50 years old when he came to the realizations that changed the course of his life. Resurrection begins with a freakish coincidence that triggers a spiritual awakening for Nekhludoff, who is about 30. He shows up at court for jury duty one day, only to find out that the defendant is the girl he impregnated and abandoned ten years ago when she was a maid in the home of his two aunts.
When he sees Katerina Maslova, now a prostitute, on trial for poisoning one of her clients, Nekhludoff is driven to confront his past and come to terms with the fact that his actions toward this girl set her on the path that led her to the current state of affairs. Although most of the jury members as well as the judge believe that Maslova has been framed for the crime and is in fact innocent, she is convicted due to a technicality in the wording of the verdict and sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia.
Nekhludoff, who is considering marriage to the daughter of a wealthy family, knows he could walk away and not look back, but he feels compelled to do whatever is in his power to help Maslova. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy he is able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the prisoner. However the reunion does go quite as he imagined. Maslova is no longer the sweet vibrant girl he knew. Her life has made her hard and cynical and she does not wish to be reminded by his presence of either the innocent girl she once was or the intense pain she experienced when he left her. However, she does ask Nekhludoff to see if he can help some of her fellow prisoners.
This sets him on a journey of discovery about the Russian prison system with its corruption, injustices, maddening inconsistencies, miserable victims, and callous beneficiaries – the government officials and lawyers who profit from its legal churnings. These discoveries, mixed with a painful examination of his own life, slowly unfold into horrifying vision of the world humans have created. He begins to see that a favored few live in callous luxury on the suffering backs of millions.
Resurrection, with it cast of thousands, is sweeping in scope and yet as intimate as one man’s breaking heart and troubled mind. Although the novel is about the evils of a predatory system and its victims, it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of evil villains versus innocent victims. To be sure, there are evil villains as well as innocent victims, but these are only the two ends of fully realized spectrum of morality. Nearly all the characters are presented with some sympathy as real human beings doing what they must to live and feed their families within the world as they find it.
Most people, rich, poor, or in between, do whatever is easiest, least risky, and most beneficial for themselves. We meet sympathetic prison wardens, bureaucrats willing to bend the rules for money, favors, or out of sheer good will, brutal prison guards who later regret their actions, and men with lofty morals slowly corrupted by the demands of their profession. Among the prisoners there are the purest of saints and the vilest of sinners and every type of in between.
Tolstoy was internationally famous when this book was published. It was eagerly anticipated, quickly translated into several languages, and was an instant international bestseller. However, it seems that enthusiasm soon waned. Resurrection is now the least known of his three long novels. It is not hard to see why. The novel is challenging – about as challenging as the philosophy presented in Matthew 5, the sermon on the mount. It challenges the very foundations on which our civilization is built. If you are willing to be open to that prospect, you will love this book. I get the idea that some people are a bit put off by it. In any case, the challenge of this book is not in how it is written – it is written with clarity, beauty, and depth – but in what is says. Even I was a quite shaken up by the time I got to the end.
My Summer of Philosophy continues with The Lily Of The Field And The Bird Of The Air, by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Bird and Lily is a slim volume of 90 pages. It consists of three discourses, all reflections on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount:
I. “LOOK AT THE BIRDS OF THE AIR; CONSIDER THE LILY OF THE FIELD”
II. “NO ONE CAN SERVE TWO MASTERS, FOR HE MUST EITHER HATE THE ONE AND LOVE THE OTHER, OR HOLD FAST TO ONE AND DESPISE THE OTHER.”
III. “LOOK AT THE BIRDS OF THE AIR; THEY NEITHER SOW NOR REAP NOR GATHER INTO BARNS”––UNCONCERNED ABOUT TOMORROW. “CONSIDER THE GRASS OF THE FIELD –– WHICH TODAY IS.”
In my copy the titles of the discourses are capitalized and include italics so I have tried to reproduce them here as printed. They are also, of course, quotations taken from the scripture. This is a brand new translation by Bruce H. Kirmmse, just published in 2016.
Kierkegaard was specific in calling these writings discourses, and distinguished them from his more scholarly philosophical writings. So it might not hurt to get a little more clear on what, in the literary world, a discourse is. A later philosopher, Michel Foucault, defines discourse as: “Systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, and courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.” Well that is pretty technical, but it comes close to capturing the kind of writing we find in Bird and Lily. However I think Kierkegaard would take issue with the idea that he is constructing either the subject or the world he is writing about. He would probably say he is employing the imperfect tool of language to get at something that not only pre-exists language but will exist long after human language has passed from use.
In fact the first discourse has a lot to say about how human language is an obstacle to experiencing the unvarnished truth, the kind of truth the lily and the bird are in touch with every moment of their short lives. This discourse reflects on the value of silence before God, one of the lessons we learn from the lily and the bird. “Let us now look more closely a the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore, the bird waits, but knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour and the day; therefore it keeps silent.”
It is amazing how much Kierkegaard can write on the subject of silence. And yet the book somehow doesn’t seem boring or even annoyingly repetitive; rather it is lulling, peaceful, and meditative. As I read the words I received their messages not once and for all, but once and then gradually on a successively deeper level. I wish I had an audio version because I think this book would work well as a guided meditation. I’d love to hear someone with a rich sonorous voice read it to me as I lay with my eyes closed in a dim room. Candles would work too.
In the second discourse, we get into some deep water indeed: the issue of choosing to be with God or without God. Here, the lesson of the lily and the bird is that in reality there is no in–between state: either God or no God. It is easy for humans with our rationalizations, distractions, busyness, and most of all speech, to believe we can sort of have God but also go about our lives as though God did not exist. “Thus: either/or. Either God, and as the Gospel explains it, either love God or hate him…..But indeed, as a body falls with infinite speed when placed in a vacuum, so also does the silence out there with the lily and bird, the solemn silence before God, cause these two opposites to touch and repel one another at exactly the same instant––either to love or to hate.”
The second discourse also includes an interesting analysis of the Lord’s prayer, in which Kierkegaard shows that the prayer is entirely consistent with the message about learning the unconditional obedience of lily and bird. In part Kierkegaard writes that from the lily and bird “…you have learned to serve only one master, to love him alone, and to hold fast to him unconditionally in everything. Then, the prayer (which, it is true, will be fulfilled in any case) would be fulfilled by you when you pray to God: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is heaven,’ for in unconditional obedience, his will is done through you on earth as it is in Heaven.”
The third discourse is the shortest and the one I enjoyed the most. It is about learning to be fully present in the joy of moment, not worrying about what will happen tomorrow. Kierkegaard writes that the joy of the lily and the bird is not because they are free of suffering. They do suffer. All of nature withers and perishes. They simply live in the eternal moment fully experiencing the gift of existence, casting their sorrow upon God.
“Marvelous dexterity! To be able to take hold of all one’s sorrow at once, and then to be able to cast it away from oneself so dexterous lay and hit the mark with such certainly! Yet this is what the lily and the bird do, and therefore they are unconditionally joyful at that very instant. And of course this entirely in order, for God the Almighty bears the whole world all the world’s sorrow––including the lily and the bird’s––with infinite lightness.”
I am only starting my study of Kierkegaard, so I am no expert. With The Lily of the Field and the Bird Of The Air, I know I have only dipped my index finger into the vast and deep sea of Kierkegaard. I see that he writes about the things that most interest me in the universe, so I am very excited about continuing my study. What I understand, from this book and my background research, is that Kierkegaard explores the nature of human existence––what human beings really are in body, mind, and soul in the larger scheme of the universe. Considered the first existentialist philosopher, he wrote in first half to middle years of the great 19th century and was influenced by the Romantic movement. I get the impression he was one of those lone meteoric philosophers who do not fit neatly into the going school or cultural movement.
Kierkegaard wrote both “aesthetic” or scholarly philosophy, often using pseudonyms, as well as more overtly religious “discourses” such as Bird and Lily. He liked to write both types of books as companion pieces, looking at the same subject from different perspectives. In the introduction of this book Bruce H. Kirmmse explains that Kierkegaard liked to say he offered his aesthetic writing with his left hand and his religious discourses with his right. The aesthetic companion to Bird and Lily is the second edition of Either/Or. So Either/Or is the next Kierkegaard on my list.
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*Matthew 6:24-35 (NKJV):
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
As I gather my philosophy notes, I am re-publishing this review, written in August of 2104. The Republic is the granddaddy of the political philosophy tradition.
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Before I get into the details of The Republic by Plato I need to stop and marvel at a couple of things. First, it is stunning to think that this work has been kicking around in the minds of the humans for thousands of years. Plato wrote it around 380 BC so it would have been classic literature for Paul of Tarsus. I am pretty sure I detected foreshadowings of the words Paul wrote in his New Testament letters. Perhaps someone has done a comparative analysis between Plato and Paul.
I am also amazed that it has taken me until middle age to finally get around to reading it. As I was finishing up the book, I saw my 18-year-old son in the kitchen and urged him to read the book as soon as possible. I’m sure that between his organic food activism and rock group photography he can fit in a little Plato. As with many classics, this is better read when one is young. Still, as with all classics, better late than never.
The translation I read was by Benjamin Jowett and published by Coyote Canyon Press. I would love to read it in the original Greek but unfortunately my ancient Greek studies are in the rudimentary stage – one more reason I really need to have an eternal life. But I found the translation to be clear, cogent, and pleasant to read. C.S. Lewis says, “The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” (From his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”.) How true. I am the simplest of students and I found this dialogue to be perfectly comprehensible.
In this dialogue Plato, in the persona of the philosopher Socrates, conducts an inquiry into the nature of justice, asking questions about whether justice or injustice makes a person happier and why, and the nature and development of the ideal state, defined as the kind of state that would facilitate the happiness of the greatest number of its citizens.This is some high-quality reasoning with step-by-step arguments that are easy to follow. However, I do not like some of Plato’s conclusions – for example the idea that children should be raised and educated by the state rather than by their individual parents. Although I am not Plato’s equal in intelligence, I do have the advantage of looking back on 2394 more years of civilization, religious and political upheavals, and social experimentation than Plato had the opportunity to observe.*
The things that man was able to work out with only the power of his highly educated power of reason are astounding! You can easily recognize the foundations of various schools of thinking and theory throughout the ages. I will summarize just a few of the compelling ideas discussed in The Republic:
– The soul is an entity separate from the body. As disease is to the body, evil is to the soul. However, while disease eventually kills the body, evil, while it affects the character of the soul, does not kill it. This is because the soul is eternal. You can chop up the body but the soul will not be affected in the least because the soul is a different thing.
– Not all minds/souls are equal. A few are capable of apprehending pure truth while most are only capable of attaining the middle or grey level – the level at which all variations, derivative expressions of the ideal truth exist. Plato calls those persons bestowed with the character and mind to know pure truth philosophers.
– There are different levels of relationship a human mind might have to the truth. there is practical knowledge (it is true because it works), there is understanding (the ability to reason enough to see why an idea might be true), and then there is pure knowledge (the ability to encounter truth directly). This could be the basis of our ideas about occupational training vs. classical education, although our modern universities currently mix these concepts to the point of absurdity.
– Although Plato refers to the “gods” he reasons that there must be a God behind the gods, an origin of all things including the diverse nature gods. He also reasons that the Homeric stories of the gods scheming, forming factions, and warring with each other are mythological because a real God must be both unchangeable and good. Monotheism was already long-established among the Hebrews (Exodus is thought to have been written in the 6th century BC) but Plato reached this conclusion by reasoning while the Hebrews reached it by revelation.
– The arts including theater, painting, and especially poetry, are corrosive to young minds and do not contribute to the wellbeing of the State. The reason is that not only is art not truth, it is a copy of a copy. The things it portrays, whether beds or bodies, are only copies of their ideal form which exists in heaven or perhaps in the mind of God. And if that isn’t bad enough, the arts tend to cater to the changing sensual tastes of the masses and not to reason. This is one of Plato’s conclusions that doesn’t sit well with me. Toward the end of the dialogue, however, he partially relents and allows poetry back into the State, but with conditions. She must present a poem defending her value.
– Plato describes the good and bad characteristics of five types of states: aristocracy, timocracy (only property owners can participate in government), oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He does not include socialism in his types but interestingly, his conception of democracy seems very like our modern concept of socialism – equality for all – and his democracy leads to tyranny very like Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) says our socialism leads to totalitarianism. I think Plato’s analysis of the types of government is quite brilliant. Since all of these forms carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, Plato’s ideal state would emphasize the need to identify and raise pure and wise leaders from early childhood and instill safeguard to ensure that its leaders come only from this class.
– The ideal leader is pure in character and has that rare ability to see pure truth. He is a true philosopher and not one of those false imitative pretending Sophists. Nor is he the popular wise guru whose wisdom consists in his observations in what works – what actions or methods are most likely to result in wealth and happiness for his particular class. This type may know what works but he neither knows nor cares why it works. He has observed the variables but has not seen the truth behind the variables, and is therefore subject to the winds of change and not worthy to lead the ideal Republic.
I found that the dialogue style presentation of this material made these and all the other ideas enjoyable to read and absorb. The tone is one of pleasant, friendly conversation with the implied freedom to agree or disagree, a tone that in our current politically hyper-charged climate of colliding ideologies I found to be delightfully refreshing. If you, like me, are an “idea” person you will find the The Republic to be a mental feast. And the best thing is, there are plenty of other dialogues by Plato that I can now look forward to feasting on.
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*I have recently read an article somewhere suggesting that perhaps Plato’s Socrates is simply being facetious: He is not prescribing a way to achieve a perfect city, but suggesting that if you are so foolish as to think you can create a perfect human society, here is how you need to go about it. I will look for that article so I can properly cite it.
As I embark on my latest philosophy excursion, I am gathering some of the pieces I have written in the past. I am casting my philosophy net wide; I will include any book that has bearing on how humans should live, what is true, and/or the meaning of life. I read The Prince about a year ago and posted the following review on my previous blog…..
All my adult life I have been running across this term “Machiavellian” and somehow, through context and osmosis, I understood that the term refers to the idea that the ends justify the means. A week or so ago my reading path led me down a dark side path right into to clutches of Machiavelli and I realized I could no longer avoid reading the source of that shady reference: The Prince.
Here’s how it happened. I had finished this philosophical novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and that got me interested in the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin. But when I looked at Isaiah Berlin’s collection of essays The Proper Study of Mankind I saw that one of his essays is about Machiavelli so I decided it would be better to read The Prince first. The time had come to find out what this Niccolò Machiavelli really said that has caused so much literary and political uproar these past five centuries. He wrote The Prince in 1513 and distributed some written copies but it wasn’t officially printed until 1532.
Was Machiavelli really a literal or literary devil, as some have called him, or has he been misrepresented? My rapid research indicates that he has had his supporters and apologists over the years, but few deny that he presents the human race in a cynical light. After reading The Prince I find that the book fully deserves its reputation, but I wondered if it were not some sort of satire, a sort of 16th version of The Onion. But I think not. It is too true to the facts. The book deals with the true state of human affairs – just on a level we usually do not usually acknowledge openly.
Although Machiavelli is often categorized as a philosopher, I suspect that is not the perspective he was going for. He is not trying to figure out the meaning of life or understand the nature of truth. Within the scope of his subject matter, he already knows the meaning life (acquiring and keeping power) and the book simply describes what a prince (or head of state) needs do if he wants to be successful and avoid losing his state. It is a straightforward operating manual that uses examples from current events (circa early 1500s) as well as from history, particularly that of the Roman Empire, but also draws from the Old Testament.
The Prince seems to me a very practical book that deals with the world as it is rather than with ideals or the way it should be. It’s just that in the arena of acquiring and keeping state power, the plain truth is often brutal. In many ways throughout the book, Machiavelli makes the point that “…it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”
Whatever goes on behind the scenes, the prince must maintain a public image that complies with the current standards of morality and virtue, cultivating a reputation as an upstanding man of both courage and mercy: “A prince is highly esteemed who conveys this impression of himself and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against; for, provided it is well known that he is an excellent man and revered by his people, he can only be attacked with difficulty.”
Nowhere in the book does Machiavelli suggest that any prince ought to be virtuous for the sake of true morality, God, or decency. Goodness, or at least the appearance of goodness, is a useful and necessary tool for maintaining one’s power. The only thing that is good in itself is power. Power is the goal and therefore a prince’s real virtue, wisdom, and strength lie wholly in his ability to do whatever it takes to sustain it.
However no prince can afford to have the people hate him. The hatred of the people will be his downfall because any enemy can come along and leverage the power of that hatred against him. And yet, as a wise prince, you don’t want the people to exactly love you either – you just want them to not hate you. Machiavelli tells you why this is so and how to obtain this balanced relationship with your subjects:
“…for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”
Of course behind the strong yet virtuous façade, the prince must be willing, able, and ready to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power. This includes killing his enemies, anyone who threatens to become an enemy, anyone who might give courage to an enemy, anyone who undermines him with the people, and most importantly, anyone liable to become more powerful than the prince himself.
There are many ways to control or destroy one’s enemies and just as many ways to secure the loyalty of one’s friends. A successful price is always on the lookout for potential threats, and even in peace, is always securing the foundations of his political and military strength. Affection and love are good as far as they go but a prudent prince will want to take out insurance policies on his friends by making sure they stand to lose something important, such as life or property, should he experience loss of power.
Some of the topics covered in this amazing little treatise include:
- The various paths to becoming a prince and the risks and benefits of each: inheritance, conquering a principality by your own arms and ability, good fortune (you benefit from the arms of others), wickedness (you kill the prince and usurp the kingdom), civil means through the favor of the people or the nobles, or ecclesiastical appointment.
- Managing your soldiers and the dangers of using mercenaries
- The utmost importance of studying war.
- The pros and cons of liberality (generosity) toward for friends and subjects and meanness (frugality).
- The proper balance of cruelty and clemency.
- To what extent do you keep promises and when deceit becomes necessary or prudent.
- Why you should arm the people.
- How to gain renown (using King Ferdinand of Spain as an example: the one married to Queen Isabella who gave Christopher Columbus the ships in 1492.
- How to choose secretaries and assistants (how to know who to trust).
- What to do about flatterers.
- Why princes lose their states.
- How to prep for bad fortune.
The Prince is an enlightening little book that is dense in ideas, advice, names of historical figures, and case histories. I found the ideas easy to follow but the names – lots of Italian names of now obscure people – and the complex military events were a bit overwhelming. One thing the book showed me is that the politics and constant power struggles of the Italian principalities at that time were complex and extremely brutal.
Now I have known for a long time that the standards of this world and the way of higher, or eternal, truth are two entirely different things. That is part of the point of Christ’s crucifixion story. He became a threat to the powers of this world. But I am always fascinated to learn more about the ways of the world we live in and I found The Prince be quite educational. The equally educational TV series “House of Cards” would fit well as an appendix: a modern update of sorts. As would pretty much any edition of the daily political US and world news.
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NOTE: I read the edition of The Prince published by Dover Publications for Kindle and translated by W.K. Marriott.
I promised my readers juicy details about how Thomas More’s Utopia achieves it’s happy state of affairs, so here goes:
- The country of Utopia was once part of the mainland but is now an island this is because the conquerer/founder of the country, Utopus, forced both the natives and the slaves to dig a channel to separate it from the mainland. Of course, the happiness of this place depends on homogeneity of belief and a universal understanding of its rules and expectations, so physical separation from contamination from the outside world is kind of necessary.
- The island of Utopia has 54 cities all built on an identical plan as far as their individual geographies will allow. The townspeople people live in rows of houses each with a large garden. They love gardening and have friendly competitions for the best garden. Every few years the families switch houses.
- Travel from city to city requires permission from the city official and a passport. But these are easily obtained. The home city even provides an ox-drawn wagon and a slave for the trip. Travelers find everyone friendly along the road and are always abundantly fed and comfortably lodged. However if you try to travel without a passport punishment is severe. You become a slave.
- There are rules about the age men and women can marry and the number of children allowed per family. If parents exceed the number of children allowed, extra children are given to families who are in need of more children. However, families are generally quite large. Utopians subscribe to the “it takes a village” approach to raising children.
- Private use of gold and silver is limited to making chamber pots and chains for the slaves. They also use these metals to make degrading decorations for the slaves such as special earrings symbolizing special dishonor or mock crowns for their heads. In this way the people are taught to hold these metals in contempt. Iron, however, is highly valued for its usefulness.
- Each city is surrounded by countryside where small farms produce food and other agricultural products such as wool and linen. All Utopians are taught agriculture as part of their basic education. The people rotate to farm labor periodically so that no one class is stuck supporting the rest of the population. Those who find they truly love the agricultural life may ask permission for a longer or even permanent stay on the farm.
- Utopia has no private property and no private money. Gold and silver for emergency community use, such as defense or recovery from a natural disaster, is stored in warehouses and is acquired by selling excess excess agricultural goods neighboring countries. The Utopians are very productive and therefore always have plenty of goods available for export.
- Clothing is simple, comfortable, and always the natural color of the material used to create it. No need for dyes or decoration. Everyone dresses the same, even to the national and city leaders.
- In fact all the worst jobs, the jobs considered degrading to the soul, are done by slaves. Undesirable work includes butchering animals, cleaning up messes, and refuge disposal.
- Eight hours of each 24-hour day are devoted to sleep and the remainder of the time is for personal pleasure and self-improvement. The most universal free-time activity is reading. The people also like community activities. They have various games including a card game called Virtues and Vices; but if you really enjoy your work and want to do more of it, you are free to do so.
- Each city is run by an official selected from a specialized class of people singled out for education in literature, philosophy, and scholarship. Reading books and philosophical discussion are highly valued among the entire population but only a select few are excused from regular utilitarian labor to devote themselves entirely to scholarship. Those young scholars who fail to live up to expectations are sent back to the regular labor force.
- Diamonds, pearls, and gems are used as playthings of young children. In this way older children and adolescents learn to associate jewels with immaturity.
- Being in the labor force is no great punishment. Every citizen, male and female, has a trade suited to his or her disposition and ability. Women generally work in textile-based trades while men work in trades such as carpentry and ironwork. The work day is six hours: three hours before the midday meal and three hours after.
- Meals are communal and take place a large hall. The men sit together on one side of the room and women on the other. There is a room set up for taking care of small children and it also accommodates pregnant women who need to take a break. Old and young people are mixed together in the seating plan so that the young can learn from the old in a natural casual setting. Women decorate and set up tables and may do some lighter serving, but the hard messy labor of cooking and cleanup is done by slaves.
- The Utopians have precise and disciplined methods for handling war and international relations. Since they are not interested in expanding their territory, increasing their wealth, or evangelizing their way of life, the need to go to war is exceedingly rare. However, should they need to defend themselves, they are prepared.
- Utopians have a religion that includes an afterlife in which they believe virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. They believe the purpose of life is to attain happiness. Utopians think it mad to pursue virtue by renouncing pleasure as virtue and proper pleasure go hand-in-hand. Proper virtues are good and honest and do not degrade either oneself or anyone else. Drinking alcohol, gambling, and sex outside of marriage are not considered either pleasurable or virtuous. There are no taverns or gambling establishments and most certainly no brothels.
- In fact committing adultery is a serious crime. Do it once and you may apply for forgiveness. Do it twice and you are sent into slavery. If your spouse still wants to be with you, she or he may accompany you. If the community decides you are sufficiently reformed there is a chance you may be restored to freedom.
******Does that sound like a place you’d like to live? If you are happy to live according to the rules and if you are not a slave, I suppose it sounds like a nice-enough life. Personally I would avoid Utopia like the plague. I can’t help wonder what happens to the first teenage girl who discovers you can color fabric with plants and wants to weave colored threads through her natural colored clothing. Or the boy who wants to sneak outside the city walls at night and explore the world all by himself. People being what we are, any Utopia has to efficiently eliminate the impure elements to keep things operating according to plan. This invariably means coercion, slavery, and death for the non-compliant.
Maybe Thomas More knew this and that’s why this book is not a serious call to action. In the end Thomas More personally experienced the fatal consequences of non-compliance with the state.
Utopia by Thomas More starts out as a true account of a diplomatic mission to Flanders. At the time More was serving as a Councillor to King Henry VIII. During some free time in Antwerp, More befriends a prominent young printer named Peter Giles (a real historical person with his own Wikipedia page). But the story soon enters the realm of fiction when Peter introduces More to a wise old sea traveler with philosophical bent by the name of Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday translates as “peddler of nonsense.”
Raphael has traveled widely, accompanying Amerigo Vespucci on three voyages to the new world. It was during one of these explorations that Raphael observed and studied the laws, customs, and population of a perfect society in a place called Utopia. Says More, “We asked him many questions concerning all these things, to which he answered very willingly; we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”
The book is not a sincere attempt to offer a serious model for European society to imitate. There is some controversy around More’s real purpose for writing the book, but it was certainly not to sow seeds of revolution. It seems to me mostly a veiled criticism of the corrupt political system of his time. More is not an early version on Karl Marx laying the foundation for a new society, even though his Utopia is basically a communist arrangement. There’s just no serious implied proposal that Europe ought to abolish money, monarchies, and power politics and be like Utopia. My sense is that Utopia is a sharp satire of More’s own society disguised as an anthropological study of a bizarre culture in a faraway land.
Another thing you should know about Thomas More’s Utopia, is that this perfect society as described by Raphael includes slavery. In 2016 Ameria, that fact is enough for many people to trash the whole book at the outset. But because my policy is not to impose my era’s morality on literature of the past, I gave the book a chance. It is fascinating to observe that, in 1516, a society which included slavery could be considered ideal without so much as the raising of an eyebrow. It is just taken for granted as the way things are done, like eating animals or cultivating the earth.
You’d think that in a book that is all about visualizing an alternative way to run a society, someone would question the whole notion of owning other people. But no one does. It seems like up until a certain point in history, perhaps the 18th century, slavery as well as various forms of semi-permanent low-paid servitude were simply accepted as a necessary part of human life, as if for civilization to exist at all it was assumed there had to be slaves.
The fictional location of Utopia is somewhere in South America, just far enough north of the equator for the climate to be pleasant. It was originally attached to the mainland, but its founder had a channel cut to make it an island. The Greek words for Utopia mean something like “no place.” Here is a neatly phrased explanation from the British Library website: “In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote the first ‘Utopia’. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?”
Even though this book was written nearly a century before Shakespeare, I found the English surprisingly modern. This is because More originally wrote the book in Latin and I read a 1901 edition of a 17th-century translation by Gilbert Burnet. I have not been able to find out the exact date of this translation, but since Burnet lived from 1643 to 1715 I am guessing he published it the latter part of that century. You can get free from the Gutenberg Project.
Coming soon: The juicy details of how the Utopians achieve the best possible human society for its citizens: peace, security, plentiful food, shelter, and clothing, maximum health, meaningful work, and wholesome entertainment.
After several months of lavishly gorging myself on Victorian fiction, I am in the process of changing my reading focus for a while to something entirely different: philosophy. I think it will be just as fun. I have dreams of writing my own philosophy one of these days, but first I need to study up. Some philosophers in the immediate pipeline include Thomas More, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, David Hume, and a 20th century philosopher named Susanne Langer. I know I am all over the map but I have my own logic here. I will eventually add more to the philosophy list, including some classical thinkers. Suggestions are welcome. I am primarily interested in what the greatest thinkers have to say about the source and reason for human existence. Hope that’s not too narrow an area for anyone.
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I am currently reading a sweet little book called The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air by Søren Keirkegaard (translated and with an introduction by Bruce H. Kirmmse). I’ve been longing to get to Kierkegaard for a long time and the other day checked at Barnes & Noble to see it they had a copy of Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s works, although published in the first half of the 19th century, are for some reason not in the public domain. They are not any less expensive on Kindle so I figured I might as well buy the real book at a real book store.
B & N didn’t have Either/Or but they had this one. The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air is sort of a contemplative commentary on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. So far it’s about the wisdom that silence can lead to, a listening kind of silence that you can learn from birds and flowers. Most of my lessons of this sort come from dogs, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Kierkegaard says that we must first seek the kingdom of God and the way to seek it is through prayer, not babbling prayer but the kind of prayer in which you realize you are in the presence of God and fall silent at the realization because there is simply no other way to respond to the presence of God. For several years of my life I used to repeat that verse to myself all the time: “Seek first the kingdom of God” – and in my scattershot disorganized way I tried to do that. But like the disciple Thomas I did not know the way.
In response to the disciple’s question, Jesus said he is the Way, so I tried to follow him, but never did it very well. I needed to give more to the poor, I needed to have more love and less judgment in my heart, I needed to be less self-indulgent and give in less to desires for instant gratification. I fall short in so many ways it’s surprising I can get up off the floor and keep living every day. But I do keep living. Based solely on his promises, his mercy, and my own hope, I believe I can keep living today and will in fact live forever. I’m keenly aware that I probably do not deserve to live forever, but deserve it or not, I am pretty sure I will.
There is a lot of fun to be had in doing in doing the impossible and getting away with what you don’t deserve. I have a theory that existence itself is as near to impossible as it is possible to be and still happen. Existence is wrought in the point of friction between “is” and “is not”, yes and no. Existence defies the powerful suck of the abyss and chooses to be. All of us have all cleared that formidable hurdle. We have gotten a seat on the plane with the rarest tickets. We have won the ultimate lottery. And yet we question, some of us, why we exist at all and agonize all day over the meaning of it all and whether we have a purpose. Some people actually kill themselves over things like losing a job. A job. After all that stupendous luck in becoming an existing being.
Look at a dog. No one really cares about the existence or non-existence of a single puppy unless: a) you have formed a personal emotional attachment to the mutt or b) the dog has enabled you to develop an interest in himself by becoming a celebrity. There is an ongoing saga in a city near where I live about the trials and tribulations of a certain labradoodle who is shaved to looked like a lion. The local newspaper has run several stories on his brushes with the law. People love reading about the dog, whose name is Charles the Monarch. He sells papers. But if you see a dog dead on the road you may feel a pang, be sorry for the dog’s suffering and and experience a split second of empathy for the grief and loss of the people who owned (regrettable word) the dog. In two minutes you will have forgotten all about it.
I love that most dogs in our culture are useless in a utilitarian sense. Some dogs are used for hunting or service to the disabled or police work, but the vast majority are “merely” pets. They number in enough millions to support PetSmart, Petco, Pet Mountain, Petstore.com, and numerous other retailers as well as multitudes of grooming and boarding services, veterinarians, and even a few periodicals. And yet they do nothing but live in your house and keep you company.
Obviously dogs fill some important human needs. They can be social agents: getting you outdoors and giving you something easy to talk to people about. They can be status enhancers for those to like to acquire status-enhancing breeds. They can be atmosphere fresheners and stress reducers. You have trouble at work? Someone is drunk again? Your teenager has issues? You have anxiety about where the world is headed? Well there is Cocoa or Fluffy or Max, lying placidly on the rug, utterly unconcerned. Or he is wagging his tale and licking your face, caring about nothing but his doggy comforts and your happiness. The atmosphere becomes balanced, the stress is reduced, perspective is restored. You can laugh again.
I seem to have gotten off point, thinking about a dog’s purpose from my human point of view and all. My point is that the dog himself does not care one iota whether he has a purpose or not. To the dog, his existence is his purpose and he has already fulfilled it. He is full to the jowls with a specific kind of doggy essence. Dogs are just one reason I have to doubt the “we are all one thing” kind of philosophies that say forms are illusions and we are all destined to be re-absorbed into the eternal oneness. I believe we must all come from one source, but I am not so sure that once a form is created it ever gets absorbed back into the oneness. Sure, the material body turns to dust, but what of the idea, the essence, that something that makes your dog so individually doggy? I am not convinced that any being once created can be absorbed back into the source, any more than a word spoken can ever be unspoken.
God must love forms; and that which is loved by God cannot be erased. Love is the engine of creation. If forms and ideas could go away as if they had never been, then it would mean love, the source of all things, could go away. Because I exist, am the result of the nearly impossible miracle, I must believe that love exists and that which created me will always exist. Besides God/the source created what we call time but does not live as part of of time. If once God exists at all God always exists in an eternal present. The negation of love would be the negation of thought and all that is. We who exist cannot conceive of such an occurrence without annihilation. If this doesn’t make sense bear with me. I am still working it all out.