Myson the Misanthrope, And Other Sages

Diogenes Laertius recounts that one day Myson of Chenae (fl. 6th c. B.C.), one of the early Greek philosophers, “was seen laughing to himself in a lonely spot; and when someone suddenly appeared and asked him why he laughed when no one was near, he replied, ‘That is just the reason.’” Considered one of the “Seven Sages” of antiquity, this contemplative farmer turned grumpy philosopher left only a handful of sayings to posterity; among them the adage: “We should not investigate facts by the light of arguments, but arguments by the light of facts.”

Another of the sages, Anacharsis (fl. 6th c. B.C.) was half Scythian, and thus a barbarian in the eyes of his contemporaries. When a Greek reproached him for his background, he replied, “Well, granted that my country is a disgrace to me, you are a disgrace to your country.” To the question, “What among men is both good and bad?” his answer was “The tongue.” He also said, “It is better to have one friend of great worth than many friends worth nothing at all.”

Cleobuline was the daughter of Cleobulus (c. 600 B.C.). She was unusual for the time in that she was philosophically instructed and known for writing riddles and poetry. A play, by the Athenian poet Cratinus, was named after her. On this account Cleobulus would make the rather daring assertion: “We ought to give our daughters to husbands maidens in years but women in wisdom.” According to Diogenes, this meant “that girls should be educated as well as boys.”

Solon (c. 630 – c. 560 B.C.), the famous Athenian lawgiver, offered the following maxims: “Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath. Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Be led by reason. Shun evil company.” He also said “Do not be rash to make friends and, once they are made, do not drop them.” Yet when he advises that in giving advice we should “seek to help, not to please” our friends, one wonders if this would inadvertently result in dropping some of our acquaintances. Solon opposed the tyrant Pisistratus and chided his fellow Athenians in a letter:

If you have suffered sadly through your own wickedness, lay not the blame for this upon the gods. For it is you yourselves who gave pledges to your foes and made them great; this is why you bear the brand of slavery…. You look to the speech of a flatterer, paying no regard to any practical result.

The preceding anecdotes are taken from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (available in an online edition and the original Loeb hardback volume). See my previous comments on Thales of Miletus.

Posted in History, Philosophy

Studying Nature with Thales

While admiring the autumnal beauty of a cool clear day I was struck by a sudden perspective: a group of birch trees framed by their larger neighbors. The contrast of pale golden leaves and the smooth light bark was an ideal artist’s vignette. Behind me was a small brook—meandering gently amid ancient, deep cut banks—now at rest. Leaves dappled its surface while yet more lay suspended in the dark translucent water beneath, as if frozen in a moment in time.

Since bibliophiles are doomed to think in terms of the books they are reading, the scenery seemed a counterpart to some passages by Thales of Miletus: “Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated” and “The most beautiful [thing] is the universe, for it is God’s workmanship.” Thales was one of the earliest thinkers of whom we have record. The Miletian sage was famous for his naturalistic investigations of the world which challenged the mythological or superstitious traditions of his contemporaries. Yet this by no means ruled out a spiritual perspective.

I reflected that one can view the world in terms of the God of the Greeks and the God of the Jews. Nor does one exclude the other. Their ultimate compatibility was maintained by the Jewish Platonist Philo and the early Christian scholar, Justin Martyr. In moments of aesthetic or intellectual delight, it is often the philosophical aspect that predominates. Yet this mood is not absent in the Old Testament, as we see in the Wisdom Books. For example

See how the skies proclaim God’s glory, how the vault of heaven betrays his craftsmanship! Each day echoes its secret to the next, each night passes on to the next its revelation of knowledge…. (Ps. 18:2-3, Ronald Knox transl.)

To return to Thales, as described in one of my favorite works, Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius:

Being asked what is difficult, he replied: “To know oneself.” What is easy? “To give advice to another.”  And when asked how to live well, “By refraining from doing what we blame in others.”

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Our Directing Mind

Marcus Aurelius’ spiritual diary, which has come down to us in fragmentary form, is sometimes obscure, often terse, and occasionally repetitious. But it contains enough astute observations on the human condition to ensure its enduring popularity. Recently I jotted down some insights from The Meditations.

“It is human to love even those who falter, and you will do so if you reflect that people are akin, that they do wrong through ignorance and unwillingly, that you will both be dead in a little while, and, above all, that he has done you no injury, for he did not make your directing mind worse than it was before” (VII.22).

I find myself examining this passage on many levels. There is its humility and charity which, while not absent in the pre-Christian West, was nevertheless something of a rarity. Socrates was one of the first Greek thinkers to espouse something like “turn the other cheek” and the idea that it is better to suffer evil than to inflict it on another. While I think any good moralist would advise prudence, since certain evils must be resisted, yet most of us are quicker to take offense than to overlook someone’s lesser faults.

Marcus Aurelius is right to place petty annoyances within a larger context. People are more often guilty of thoughtlessness than outright malevolence. And of course it is true, both from the Stoic and Christian perspective, that even great evils cannot harm our “directing mind” (or soul) if we remain committed to our beliefs. Along these same lines is another psychological insight: “An excessively angry look is contrary to nature, and, if it is frequent, grace of feature dies out or is extinguished in the end so that it cannot be rekindled at all” (VII.24).

He also warns us against the dangers of the undisciplined mind. It would seem that our disappointments are often self-inflicted, being the result of false expectations. “Do not daydream that you possess what you do not; but take thought for the most fortunate things which are yours, and call to mind on their account how they would be missed if you did not have them. Be also careful, however, that your joy in them does not lead you to overestimate them and to be perturbed by their occasional absence” (VII.27).

Yet again, “Erase imaginings. Still the puppet-strings of passion. Circumscribe the present” (VII.29). Finally, reiterating the lesson of passage VII. 22 (above) he says, “leave the wrong done by another at the place where it was done.” This mirrors some excellent advice from Epicurus who warned that we increase the pain of another person’s offense by dwelling on it rather than magnanimously and patiently moving beyond the misdeed.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

Man Being a Creature Who Compares

Suffering from insomnia and looking for a hefty tome that I can studiously devote myself to (and distract myself from sublunary realities), I came across Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. The first chapter begins with this observation:

It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgment on the things which come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.

I was reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s phrase about “man being a creature who compares” in his study in cultural contrasts between modern Britain and the English society of his youth. When not reading Dalyrmple’s columns in back issues of City Journal and New Criterion (passed on to me by my father during a recent trip to Texas), I have been glancing at Pascal’s Pensees. It’s an acquaintance long overdue. While many of the passages are abrupt and sketchy, there are some gems that invite further reflection:

Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical (381).

It’s the sort of remark that would serve as a witty preface to an essay on intellectual life. I may return to that theme at some point. For now random commentary must suffice. And needless to say, one could devote an entire book to Pascal’s paradox about atheism: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true” (187).

Posted in Cardinal Newman, Literature, Philosophy, Theodore Dalrymple

Sunbeams from Cucumbers? An Epicurean Experiment

It is interesting to find philosophical parallels between widely different sources. Some comparisons are more successful than others. (Attempts to elicit traditional insights, other than negative ones, from entertainment like Game of Thrones or Fleabag remain for me fairly unconvincing.) Although, in Thomistic terms, there is some degree of good to be found in everything, people often miss the importance of proportion. I am reminded of the quack scientists of the Island of Balnibarbi, from Gulliver’s Travels, who unsuccessfully try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. Whether it’s philosophy or fiction, you have to ask: what is the return on your investment?

Earlier this year I commented on the refined hedonism of Epicurus. I am studying him again as part of a course on Aristotelian and Hellenistic philosophy. The point is not that one can reconcile Epicurus’ views on ethical fundamentals with the outlook of Plato, Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. But, like the Stoic Seneca, one does sense a healthy challenge by the Epicureans on practical methods of achieving nobler outcomes.

Epicureanism presents itself as a “therapeutic” philosophy. It claims to promote ataraxia (serenity) and prevent chronic emotional distress. Since “what is good is easy to obtain” it follows that much of our disappointment in life is due to unrealistic expectations. Although we can rightfully enjoy exceptional pleasures (i.e., the weekend beach house), we should not assume we will always have them.

We set realistic expectations by separating natural desires (e.g. eating food) from acquired desires (e.g. eating Shawarma). Epicurus even takes it a step further by allowing us to endure deprivation or pain, seeing them in the context of what we have enjoyed overall in life, weighing more important pleasures (like friendship) against lesser inconveniences. Finally, he encourages a sense of gratitude and warns us to forget past evils. This permits us to look at things in a far more positive light.

Without stretching the point too much there are occasional points of overlap between the materialist philosopher and someone like Thomas à Kempis. At any rate, I like to tell myself that if the worldly adages of Epicurus are, with a little effort, within our grasp, then perhaps in time we can advance to loftier goals.

But, you may say, [people] enjoy many pleasures, and follow their own desires; in this way they make light of any troubles. Yet, even if they enjoy whatever they desire, how long will this last? (The Imitation of Christ, III.12).

Posted in Philosophy

Villains, Victorians, and Westerns

In a recent essay for The New Criterion, Henrik Bering refers to his youthful initiation into nineteenth century English literature: “I was all set to become the perfect Victorian, ready to take on the duties of [British] empire, were it not for two minor obstacles: I was born in the wrong country and in the wrong century. One might laugh at all this today, but my reading did produce a certain robust outlook on the world and a sense of right and wrong. I did not always abide by it but at least I had a compass.” He appropriately references Oliver Twist and other Dickens novels.

My upbringing was less bookish than Bering’s (literature came later for me), but these cultural assumptions were mirrored in the world of pre-cable television that I was just old enough to experience. The same “Victorian” morality held good whether it was an adaption of Dickens or a classic western. It is no coincidence that legendary cowboy heroics developed around the same time that Conan Doyle and Kipling were writing. These values carried over into mid-20th century story telling, like the novels of Louis L’Amour.

One of L’Amour’s stories, Dark Canyon, is instructive. A particularly villainous figure has ignoble designs on a female character. The point repeatedly made in the story is that whatever violence a gunslinger might commit against other armed men, any violation of a woman was beyond the pale, even in the harsh but essentially chivalrous code of the frontier. It is perhaps a romanticized view of the West, though one that I’ve come across many times. The point is not that society may fall short of its own standards, but that it has standards at all.

Posted in Art and Culture, Fiction, Literature

The Rosenberg Distraction: A Lesson in Ideology

I first perused Ian Kershaw’s classic study The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich about thirty year ago and decided to reacquaint myself with the volume on a recent trip. It is a remarkably facile read for a sociological study. Of the many insights into party dictatorship – strangely relevant today – one item stands out: the opposition, more apparent than real, between the charismatic leader (Adolf Hitler) and the theoretical ideologue (Alfred Rosenberg).

Rosenberg was a Nazi intellectual and author of a turgid racialist metanarrative called The Myth of the Twentieth Century. As it turns out, few Nazi leaders ever read the work and Hitler distanced himself from its overt anti-Christian theorizing. That said, Rosenberg  oversaw Nazi Party education. More importantly, the presence of someone “more radical” than Hitler served as a useful distraction. Germans who might object to heavy-handed Nazi intrusions into church life could juxtapose Hitler’s superficially sympathetic, and purely opportunistic, religious sentiments with Rosenberg’s more virulent diatribes.

The underlying pattern that Kershaw highlights is how ideological radicals are allowed to push the envelope a bit farther than may be practically desirable. More popular leaders are able to establish a subtle but definitive moral shift to the “new normal.” Things considered abhorrent only a few years prior gain permanency and acceptance. The tragic irony was that when compared to Rosenberg or other more transparent fanatics, Hitler could portray himself as the moderate.

Posted in History, Politics

Time Out with Plotinus

Plotinus (204-270 A.D.) is considered the founder of neo-Platonism, or the “high” Platonism of the late Roman Empire. Born in Hellenistic Egypt, he studied philosophy, took part in an ill-fated expedition to Persia under Emperor Gordion III and eventually settled in Rome, where he founded a school which attracted a number of prominent students. His notes and lectures, known as the Enneads, were posthumously compiled by Porphyry. A concise and accessible selection of this imposing opus, The Essential Plotinus, (ed. Elmer O’Brien, S.J.) is available from Hackett Publishing.

Recently Plotinus has become my preferred reading at the end of day. He offers more than learned discourses. The philosopher was also something of a mystic, devoted to the moral and ascetic, as well intellectual, way of life. It is not surprising that many later Christian thinkers found his ideas amenable to their own.

In the first treatise in O’Brien’s volume, that on aesthetics, Plotinus explains that all sensible beauty is a reflection of a higher, immaterial, beauty found in The Intelligence (his understanding of divinity). He says that this realm of understanding is attained as a kind of vision acquired through stages of reflection and purification. Elsewhere he says that this spiritual discipline cleanses “our being, our desires, and all our other affections, our griefs, and the like.” Further, “likeness to God is likeness to the model [of wisdom] itself.”

“Like anyone just awakened,” he explains, “the soul cannot look at bright objects. It must be persuaded to look first at beautiful habits,” namely “the virtue of men known for their goodness….. So ascending, the soul will come first to The Intelligence and will survey all the beautiful Ideas therein and will avow their beauty….” Again: “Only the mind’s eye can contemplate this mighty beauty. But if it comes to contemplation purblind with vice, impure, weak, without the strength to look upon brilliant objects, it then sees nothing even if it is placed in the presence of an object that can be seen.” This says a lot about human psychology and how we must become attuned to interior beauty and goodness to appreciate their external manifestations as well.

Reading Plotinus has inspired me to resume some formal philosophical studies online, and so I will be taking a break from blogging during the coming weeks.

Posted in Philosophy

Shades of Right and Wrong

“Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.”—Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

At the tail-end of the summer doldrums I picked up my copy of Oliver Twist. Though displaying the usual Dickensian sentimentality, it is a psychologically shrewd and gritty story beneath the nineteenth-century euphemisms. The reader is struck by the sordidness of the London slums; most of all, there is the outrage the author conjures up against injustice and cruelty, especially toward children.

One of the subplots that stands out to me is the plight of Nancy, a member of Fagin’s gang. Abandoned by her parents, her thieving colleagues are the only family she knows. She turns to the vicious Bill Sikes as a father/husband figure. In this respect the novel was an early exploration of the motivations behind abusive relationships. But if Nancy’s situation belies that of the stereotypical heroine, neither is it completely ambiguous. In the end she decides to do the right thing by Oliver even at the risk of her own life.

The same cannot be said of Sikes. His fate is pathetic, though deserved. Dickens conjures up further ethical complexities in the closing scenes as the mob trails the murderer to his hideout along the Thames. It is clear that some of these people enjoy the chase as a form of brutal entertainment like cock-fighting or public executions more than they appreciate the moral drama. It should give us pause. Yet the “real hues,” as Dickens calls them, are never blurred into meaningless greys.

Dickens prefers justice, even in a highly imperfect world, to a complete lack of accountability. I found this same outlook vindicated in the Louis L’Amour western, The Quick and the Dead. Duncan, the greenhorn homesteader, is a refined and educated man. He regrets the violent death of an outlaw. His wife Susanna does not relish the prospect either, but replies: “When a man takes a gun in his hand against other men he must expect to be killed. He becomes the enemy of all men when he breaks the laws of society.” Were that tough but equitable creed absent in Dickens’ universe, Oliver Twist would never have escaped the villainy of Bumble, Sikes, Monks and Fagin.

Posted in Charles Dickens, Fiction, Literature

Assessing Marx’s Culpability

Referring to the obsessive personality of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Albert Camus points out that he “would kill everybody on earth in order to posses Cathy, but it would never occur to him to say that murder is reasonable or theoretically defensible.” That, it seems, is the task of certain forms of political idealism. Or as Camus put it, “philosophy… can be used for any purpose—even for transforming murderers into judges.”

In a similar vein Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that “Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him…. The imagination and the spiritual strength of  Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”

Yet this is a point that French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel seemed unwilling to concede. Though for much of his life he wrote extensively on behalf of classical liberalism, he was more focused on the mechanics of totalitarian power than the ideas which seek to justify and inspire it. It is understandable insofar as many apparatchiks of tyranny are sheer opportunists. Even the “true believers” can be ruthlessly pragmatic when their aims are threatened. But in the words of biographer Daniel Mahoney, “Jouvenel’s discussion of political violence is marred by a failure to adequately account for the interaction of utopian ideologies with the perverted aesthetic sensibility that made violence attractive to many thinkers and actors in the first place.”

Later in life, as Mahoney explains—whether out of vanity or polemical fatigue—Jouvenel reverted to the leftist aspirations of his youth. One of his final books was on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Though not an entirely uncritical appraisal, its conclusions were ambivalent. It is clear that Jouvenel retained an affection for Marx the idealist even if he distanced himself from the Communist regimes that claimed him as their founder. He wrote that Marx’s “thought opens the road to despotic regimes, involuntarily but logically.” Would Marx have embraced or repudiated Stalin? It is hard to say. Intellectuals and visionaries are by no means immune to murderous fantasies.

Toward the end of his life Eric Hobsbawm infamously stated that the murder of fifteen or twenty million people would be justified if it resulted in a Communist paradise. In reviewing a recent laudatory biography of the Marxist scholar, David Pryce-Jones (an acquaintance of Hobsbawm) arrives at the following conclusion: “The man who puts a bullet into the back of his victim’s head is just a mindless thug who knows no better.” Yet one can easily imagine Hobsbawm as “the commissar ordering the crimes the mindless thugs are committing. It was their good fortune that the British did not have to discover whether or not he would sign their death warrants.”

Related commentary: Idealism and Exploitation

Posted in Philosophy, Politics