About This Blog

Welcome to James' Philosophical Agora - James' Meeting Place On-Line. (Updated June 2017)

James' Philosophical Agora’ is an on-line archive for various pieces of personal writing on mostly fairly serious subjects; yet hopefully with a few amusing or curious items and anecdotes along the way as well. Many pieces were primarily written to share with individual friends, but are made available here for any others who might find the points discussed interesting or helpful, or who are 'treading the same path' and may wish to comment or add to them.

I have a separate blog where I share my enthusiasm for the specific philosophical tradition of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle at: Socrates 4 Today

As well as leaving comments on any of the blog posts, you can also contact me personally if you would like to discuss any particular items further: jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Monday, May 23, 2011

Companions for that Long Voyage - Know Thyself

(Reviewed May 2011)
A Letter to My Friend George:

02- The Boats and the Choice of Companions for the Voyage.
(First Written Spring 2004)

‘But this much it’s fair to keep in mind, friends: if a soul is immortal, then it needs care, not only for the sake of this time in which what we call “life” lasts, but for the whole of time; and if anyone is going to neglect it, now the risk would seem fearful'. (Socrates / Phaedo)

Now George, I should first tell you that what I have previously described to you in ‘The Library of Life’ (see blog post) with regard to the boats at Piraeus is not exactly true. When I say this, what I mean is that I have left out many details of the allotment of the places in the boats and indeed the nature of the voyage we take after death itself – well so many people believe including me. So it is not quite the case that I have lied to you George, but merely for the sake of brevity and relevance, I left out many details in my previous letter to you.

I should now therefore like to fill you in on some of the gaps I intentionally left, but warn you that it is not possible for any mortal man to tell you the exact details of what happens to our souls when at death they leave the body. It is only possible to tell you ‘some of the storey’ as it were, and again it is necessary to do this by way of allegory because once more only a God could tell you exactly what happens. Mere mortals such as I - or anyone else for that matter - can only tell you what it resembles and is like – or rather what they believe it resembles; or at least so says Socrates in the Phaedo. Indeed, Socrates' philosopher friend General Xenophon even goes as far as to say: 'Concerning the gods and whatever I say about anything, no one has any certainty, nor ever will; and if someone should happen to utter the absolute truth, how would he know it? Seeming is present in everything.'

As I have said to you, in many ways it does not matter what book of life we choose to follow or what religion we finally decided to adopt, or even if we chose not to follow a well recognized religion at all. When it comes to the crunch and we turn our toes up to this life on earth – I believe it really depends on what sort of person you are deep down inside that counts. Now this is quite a good opportunity to give a little advice as I explain the process and this is most easily done by asking the occasional question as we go. So for the moment let me ask you: “What sort of person are you deep down inside?” And here immediately we have the crux of the problem for most people dear George. They really cannot look you in the eye and answer you sincerely on this question - because in truth they have no idea themselves - since they have never given the question any great thought or indeed any thought at all. So the first thing we must do sometime in our 30’s the latest I should say is to: ‘Know Thyself’ –or if you prefer – begin to truly know ourselves. Once we do that George, we are in a position to comment a little on whom and what we actually are. Well, let’s not delay the journey too long or we will both still be standing on the quayside in Piraeus waiting for those glorious sailing boats before I finish this letter to you.

Well, like I have said to you in the past, the voyage we take on death or rather our souls takes on death when it leaves our body can be likened a bit to a sailing trip around the Greek islands. This may seem a strange way to look at it George – but hear me out and I think you will agree that what I am saying is largely true.

Sometimes as we both know well, the going on a sailing trip is easy and the winds are favorable, and sometimes it is not easy at all to say the least. As you know the winds and sea conditions can change very quickly around the Islands of Greece. In other words, we cannot just sit on the deck of the boat with a glass of ouzo or wine and a cigarette on death - and then expect somehow to finish up in heaven just because we were basically decent enough people in what we call “life on earth”, the state where our souls are attached to our mortal bodies. Unfortunately, that just isn’t going to be the case; well not all the time that is for sure.

Another point to remember is that the crew of a sailing boat is a team - and one lives in very close proximity to that team - and at times one must rely on one’s fellow crew members to do their part on the trip depending on the skills, natural talents, opportunities, and experiences they have all had.  So the situation with the boats we go on after death is not so unlike booking a Greek Island sailing holiday and reserving a place with other people you have never met before. Probably like me you have already done this before; or at least been in similar situations which give you the idea of what I am trying to describe.  You know even before you go on the holiday that there will be some people who you will take to and get on with immediately; some people who grow on you after a few days when you get to know them a little better; others who you can’t stand after a few days, and others again who you know you cannot stand from the moment you meet them – even standing on the quayside before either of you has stepped onto the sailing boat.

Now as to the skipper (the captain) that is another matter entirely. It’s his or her boat and you are stuck with them anyway whether you get on with them or not. Of course one hopes and prays for a pleasant, competent end experienced skipper on these occasions, but for many people this won’t be the case. Their skipper will be harsh and thoughtless, and mean spirited to say the very least.

From a personal point of view, it doesn’t matter to me if some of the crew of my boat are Hindu, Christian, Muslim or whatever, or in fact whether they are religious at all, as long as they are decent enough people and show me the same courtesy and respect as I hope I show to them.

Now an experienced, kind, and considerate skipper when choosing his crew will be very conscious about these very important matter of “group dynamics” as people call it – this matter of will these people get on with those people OK. It’s the same thing when you are giving a small party – you hope everyone will get on OK together. Anyway, when the experienced shipper chooses people for his or her boat, I think they are well within their rights to ask people a few questions before they choose who will make up the crew. It would only be sensible and responsible for a good skipper to do so. Now there is a legend I heard from an old Greek friend, a sailor in fact from Crete, that one of the first questions these skippers ask people is actually: “What sort of person are you deep down inside?” And like I said above – here is the problem for many people – ‘They really cannot look you in the eye and answer you sincerely on this question - because in truth they have no idea themselves - since they have never given the question any great thought or indeed any thought at all.’  Hence my earlier advice to you George to: ‘Know Thyself’ and the answer to this seemingly simple question.

Now you can believe this legend the old Cretian sailor told me or not as you like; but it’s a pretty straight forward question I think for any competent skipper to ask, and one that we should all know the answer to anyway at the end of our days, and particularly on that day that it is our turn to walk the quayside at the Port of Piraeus near Athens and find a place on those wonderful brightly colored boats which will take us on that most mysterious, important, challenging, wonderful  and inevitable of voyages.

The skipper is also rumored to ask some more questions about the kind of life you have lead and that kind of thing, since the last thing anyone wants is a person on board who complains all the time. You know the sort of person George: ‘I’m hungry’, ‘the beds are too hard’, ‘I washed up yesterday’, ‘why do we have to do this again’ and all manner of similar moans which can be damn irritating on a sailing trip as everyone knows. Personally, I just think the skipper is after easy going people who can take the rough with the smooth without complaining too much when times get a little hard, or showing hubris and showing off when times are easier.

In a way I can quite believe that that old Greek sailor friend I mentioned who says that the first question – or the most important one anyway – is what kind of person are you deep down inside. In questioning people on the quayside the skipper is simply looking for people who in their lives on earth have shown: ‘Moderation in All Things’; and indeed some basic concern and consideration for those few people around them. While we are on the subject George, and again only in my view, I think we should consider those types of people which we might group together under the broad heading of: ‘a pain in the neck for a sailing trip’ although of course everyone will have their own opinion on this. These people would include in my opinion:

-         Greedy people who are happy sitting in the galley (kitchen) all day.
-         Lazy people, or people who think they are too important to wash up after a meal and always leave these small things for other people.
-         People who talk too loudly or too much, or those who won’t say anything at all.
-         People who are a damn nuisance sexually. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are gay or straight, just people who won’t take no for an answer or who keep staring at people in an inappropriate way.
-         Smelly people who won’t take a shower when the opportunity comes up on the trip or wash their clothes out when they get a chance. (Bloody murder in a cramped sailing boat cabin as we both know!)
-         Unreliable and irresponsible people who fall asleep on the job, don’t turn up on time and keep the rest of us waiting, or otherwise let you down.
-         Show offs or ‘Nelly know it alls’
-         Arrogant people who will probably rent a boat by themselves anyway, foolishly thinking they can sail the Greek islands by themselves without any real previous experience of the waters that lie ahead. I’d sooner let a blind man navigate the voyage than get in a boat with one of those foolish and arrogant people.

This list is in no way definitive of course George, it’s just a few things that spring to mind personally at this time about the sort of people you do and do not want to go on a sailing trip with.  I am sure you get the idea though. ……

The skipper will I think in his little chat on the quayside with prospective new crew members be trying to avoid people like I have just mentioned above and quite understandably so. Well, the skipper of the nicer and well run sailing boats do anyway and it is done for good reason, to ensure the smooth running and more pleasant voyage for everyone aboard.

There is just one thing George that I think I should mention to you or rather warn you about. You see, as with holiday sailing boats for the Greek Islands, the number of better boats with friendly and able skippers is a bit limited, and others are less so by degree. Some boats are OK - but a bit crowded and have fewer facilities on them. Some boats are awful and it’s impossible to enjoy the voyage on these. Indeed, some people have suggested that the worse boats are better not even to talk or think about…..  but the idea as I am sure you agree is to get on board a nice boat, with a friendly and capable skipper, so that the voyage can be enjoyed rather than endured. So it really is in one’s advantage, and I can’t over emphasize this, to find a decent skipper, with a decent enough boat, who will take the care to choose decent enough people to be your companions on the trip. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a man and his wife or girlfriend, a couple of friends, someone by them self or whatever.

Finally then we are all ready to set out on the voyage and if you’re in the right boat with a good skipper you can relax a bit knowing that it will largely be a great adventure, and that you’ll make the trip safely although there might be difficult challenges along the way. As we both already know George, in some ways it’s the more challenging bits that are the bits you have a grin about when the day is over and one relaxes and talks together with the other crew members around the dinner table under the moonlight.

Happy sailing to you dear George when your time comes.

Love James.

Note: There is a rumor or some legends put about by some people that some of the boats are very bad indeed – and the skippers very cruel and unkind. I don't know whether that is true or not – and who can say for certain – no mortal man that’s for sure as I said at the start of my letter. You will have to make your own mind up about that.  All I can say to you with any sense of integrity is that quite a few people get to sail on the lovely sailing boats with the bright colored sails and bright shining decks. What happens to those people left behind on the quayside, or who choose to take one of the worse boats I do not know or even want to know anything about if there is any truth in those legends.

The Library of Life

(Reviewed May 2011)

A Letter to my friend George.

01 - The Library of Life.
(First Written Spring 2004)

Dear George,

As I have already said, I thank you indeed for asking the question “how to” live the good life at this time! It seems that I am always telling how “how not to” live the bad life, and always seem to avoid giving you a positive opinion on these matters. As I have told you many times over the years; I try only to give opinions rather than advice from which people of free and good mind should be able to make their own decisions. 

You are right; it is high time that I consolidated a number of my ‘ positive’ thoughts over the last few years into something I can actually articulate to you and others about what one should do – and not simply confine myself to what one should not do. So here follows my opinion to you as succinctly as possible on that difficult question: “… how do I begin to lead a good life?” You question ‘how’ has forced me to grab the nettle on this one and that is why I thank you for asking it. The only qualification I will make to cover myself in all of this George is that this is James’ answer to “how” – and that if you were to ask other people you would get different answers.  However, one must inevitably make the ‘choice’ to accept James’ answer (at least in part) – or that of another – or preferably come to ones’ own answer in time on these matters.

Many elements of my answer to you below George are not original – but are borrowed from established thinkers much wiser than I who I have either read or had the pleasure to discuss such things with over the years. I admit that I am a little shy and afraid to give you an opinion on what I know is such an important question for you at this time of your life. However, you have asked me – and so I am obliged to answer. Fortunately for me, Socrates says that the only qualification one really needs to offer such advice to a friend is actually a reluctance to do so. (The Cave/Republic/Plato).  Certainly, I have suffered from a shyness and reluctance for many years now George as you know, and so let’s try and grab that nettle together at last.

The essence of stating to lead a good life in a few sentences is:

We are obliged finally to choose ‘one’ book of ‘life’ to read. We must read all the chapters in the correct order, but can do so – and indeed are advised to do so - at our own speed.  Although we may scan a few pages from future chapters to get the gist of things to come – we must in fact read the book fully and in order to understand it properly. We cannot just jump ahead a few chapters because we find that the going is getting a little tough.

It is impossible to understand the last chapter of the book (strangely the most important) - or book as a whole - without reading all the earlier chapters, some of which as I say are difficult – and even need a second or third read to understand them fully – or adequately at least.  Some chapters are indeed longer than we might like – but we have to read them all and cannot skip any as I say.   Unfortunately, many people only read the last chapter – or odd bits here and there in the book - and then they think (or at least profess) to understand the book fully. They then proceed to repeat to others the gist of the book - mostly based on their own guesswork, limited experience or the mere opinions of others.

Nevertheless George, we may rest between the chapters if we want and this actually is not a bad thing to do from time to time. It is better to rest at the end of the chapters rather than half way through – or you will forget the gist of the thing and probably have to recap most of that chapter again. Certainly, we can pause a little during chapters if we are able, but the real rest comes only at the end of each chapter when we have read and understood it. Unfortunately the chapters are not clearly marked and we must therefore be able to realise when one chapter has finished and another is about to begin.

Also, very often we will need to prepare ourselves a bit before starting the next chapter – a bit of background reading, research or information gathering, or a little further experience is often necessary before moving forward to the next chapter. So a bit of a break between chapters is not a bad thing at all George.

In some ways it is unwise to look back to previous chapters after one has finished and moved on, since it does distract the flow of the narrative a bit. Nevertheless, many people like me cannot help doing this occasionally – perhaps to re-read a favourite passage, or re-check something that has faded from memory or whatever. But certainly the advice is this George, that at the end of the chapter once we have finished it – and recognised that we have finished it - we should (if we can) largely close that chapter and let go of it – good and bad bits – and move forwards onto the next chapter – perhaps after a bit of a rest as I say.

Choosing which ‘book of life’ to read is of course CRUCIALLY important. Actually, there are of course several good “books of life” in the “library of life” and – but many other books are flawed – and there are indeed shelves upon shelves, and rooms upon rooms, in libraries upon libraries, perhaps in universes upon universes of below standard books; which when you finally finish them might of best offered some light and temporary entertainment; but really were mostly quite pointless. Certainly they will of been a waste of time for ‘passing the short and simple examination’ you will want to pass when the book of life is finished. It is then that you will be glad that you chose your book of life wisely.

Certainly, it is not the end of the world if one chooses poorly from the books available; but it is a great shame nevertheless for the person involved to of wasted his time by choosing unwisely – and therefore not ‘qualifying’ for the necessary ticket – lets say - to enter one of the many beautiful ‘sailing boats arriving at the Piraeus of Athens at the end of their life.

In youth, we have time to take several books down from the library shelf for a look – perhaps to read a few pages passages of the first chapter and the inside cover for a summary. We can then put it back on the shelf if we feel it is not for us so that someone else can choose it if they want. Nevertheless, in due course we must finally choose a good and appropriate book of life for ourselves.  Surprisingly, as some would have us believe, choosing ‘as soon as possible’ is not the case, since we have time to browse a few books in our youth before we choose. We can even take one or two books together home from the library to read a chapter or two of each before returning them before finally choosing the book which will be our own book of life - and indeed the one we will do our short little test on. Actually, ‘test’ is too strong a word. It’s just that a few people get this boat ticket at the end of their life if they choose a wise book (from the several available), and then finish it, and broadly understand it, and are therefore are able to answer a few simple and short questions about it.  And in truth, it is no bad thing that different people choose differently yet wisely from the good books available. Yet it is a great shame that so many people choose poorly when there are so many good and wholesome books they could of chosen from, and indeed some people choose no book at all and do not even want to take the little test for the ticket to board those beautiful sailing boats waiting at the quays of the port.
As I said, a little variety in the wise books of life people that various people read is not a bad thing - and the reason is this. Those sailing boats at Piraeus are not ferry boats where one can just sit and someone else does all the work for you. These big ocean going boats are sailing boats, and therefore they need all the passengers to lend a bit of a hand as far as they are experienced able. Each boat will of course need a captain, a cook, a cleaner, hopefully a navigator, and several good spirited and willing people to pull on the ropes and all that kind of thing. Even though the trip is a mostly a pleasant one – there are of course a few things to do and challenges to be met. And when people read different yet wise books of life, they all get slightly different knowledge and skills and can contribute different things to the wellbeing of the boats on the long voyage. And a boat that even includes say a musician or a poet will make for a far more pleasant boat trip when one’s own boat leaves the quayside of Akti Miouli at the Piraeus of Athens.
It would of course be a great shame to be among the thousands of people left on the quay side at the port without a ticket for the boats when one could have had one so easily – and without a great deal of effort when one thinks about it. These people all find themselves suddenly jostling for a place on one of these gloriously appointed - but limited number of sailing boats. As the boats all leave Piraeus from time to time, the colourful sails are all full of the positive energy of the winds – their fine and well kept fittings glimmering in the bright sunshine of the morning  -  as indeed you already know they do George, you being half Greek and living in Athens much of your life.

 And actually George, even if like me, one does not consider oneself much of sailor – if one chooses a wise book to read, here and there in the pages, or in the background reading and research which is sometimes necessary before starting the next chapter, or indeed during life in general – one picks up a skill or two which might be useful for the boat, or a storey or two to entertain ones fellow crew mates on that long journey one has the opportunity to make when one comes to the end of the book of life.

Now the nature of that sailing trip is quite interesting George – but not really appropriate to this letter to you about “how to start live a good life” – and I shall leave that matter to another time to discuss if you are interested - perhaps when we meet next. I think that certainly enough of “how we begin” to live the good life George – and I hope you will accept the above as a fair and brief account of  just James’ opinion of what we need to do. In summary, that is, we simply need to choose a good book of life to read and to understand. We need to choose wisely an interesting book that ‘feels’ right for us – and read that book steadily throughout our life – even if we put it down for a break from time to time – or take a break between chapters for a rest or to do a spot more background reading or gather some new experiences before moving on.

Like I said above – there is no rush in youth to do this – as in youth a variety of ‘peeks’ at first chapters and at various books to see what they are like, and what they have to offer us personally is probably not a bad thing. Nevertheless, towards the end of youth, and preferably I suppose in the time of young manhood (in the late twenties - early thirties I guess), we need to start narrowing our choice of books right down to as few as possible. And remember, that finally we can’t actually be greedy and complete ‘correctly’ two books: and anyway it is not necessary as long as we choose one of the many wise and good books in the library of life. I would recommend that we at least slowly get on with the ‘Forward’ and ‘Introduction’ of our own book of life during our early 30’s.

It may well be as the Hindus surprisingly suggest – that it is not until we are in our 50’s that we are ready and need to spend the next ten years or so of our lives reading our chosen book more intently, studying that book, and indeed perhaps trying to put some of its wisdom’s it into practice. I take a little comfort from this George, being just 47 now and a slow reader – but nevertheless already through the notes and first few chapters of my own book of life – thus leaving myself an achievable amount to read in the years ahead providing I don’t loose the bloody thing or leave the book on a bus or in a bar!.

So firstly, and almost finally; don’t panic about all this George, because as a young man still in his early thirties all you need to worry about is “which” book to choose – in the next few years - even if you don’t start reading in earnest for a while yet. Plenty of time I think, but I do suggest strongly that you nip in the library of life a bit more regularly from now on when you have a little time on your hands, and see which books of life are on offer.

Maybe you also need to be a bit more adventurous which sections of the library you look in. I think you might be a bit like I had been previously, when I went to the library as in fact even I still do from time to time. I must admit I spent more time in the library coffee shop with the newspapers than I did sorting through those mostly old books.  Oh…. And I forgot to say – don’t worry if your book is a bit dusty and no one else seems that interested in that section of the library where you looking. I suspect all those books on gardening, D.I.Y.,  etc are not your really your scene - although quite popular these days – so don’t be at all worried that somehow it is “you” who is looking in the wrong part of the library as you sort through the books of life on offer.  The young guys are looking at the football books etc of course quite naturally, but they have a lot of time before starting something slightly more serious in earnest. You just go to one of those quite sections of the library and start looking in earnest for a book of life you will choose to read in the not to distant future – or at least try reading the  first few chapters of one or two of them to see if it is the best book for you. Eventually, you will know the best book for you – as like I say – it will somehow feel right for you.

Now George, I may of made a big mistake with all this, and you may of indeed already have chosen that book of life for yourself, in which case you must think that I have avoided yet again the answer to your original question “how to” begin to live the good and happy life, and in some ways this is true. For unless one has actually chosen a book to read - and made a start at least - it is hard to begin to explain to someone how to deal best with some of the points that come up in these books. For example, if someone asks me how to live the good and happy life of an actor, an accountant or an acupuncturist, the answer would be rather  different to each,  all the way through to zoo keeper. So ‘how’ to live the good and happy life is very much to do with the book of life we finally choose for ourselves George.

Finally George, in case it is of some help, I would just like to mention the PPP formulae that the British army use sometimes with their operations with quite some success; although we might of course well debate the wisdom of doing some of those operations in the first place!   PPP – is planning; preparation; performance. (And why not add another P for a spot of practice James believes!) But this system all depends on having a fairly clearly defined ‘objective’ in the first place, and then PPP and P can come into effect. We can only PPP and P the “how” effectively with a clear objective in mind. Indeed, we can only measure the final ‘performance’ against the objective we had in mind. That is;  did we achieve what we set out to do – or did we not ?

Even hard up Socrates, bumbling about the ancient Agora of Athens in his old clothes at the age of 70, or Jesus nailed to a cross in his mid thirties, or even my neighbour at 50 (you’ll be pleased to hear he has re-tiled the bathroom at last – and made a jolly good job of them!) were /are in their own ways successful performers according to the very clear but different objectives the 3 of them had. Of course, they had each chosen 3 very different books of life with 3 very different objectives, and so had 3 different endings. And without going into it all today George  – I believe they will all go on their own sailing boats from Piraeus when their time comes; just different boats that’s all. (My neighbour and his like minds all sat in an ancient Athenian sailing Tireme, chattering endlessly about mortgages, bathroom tiles and D.I.Y. for eternity – now there’s a scary thought indeed George!)

Well that’s it my friend. I realise that what I have written to you above risks adding more confusion to your thinking than perhaps help at this difficult time for you. But it is true that friends who love you occasionally have to be a little cruel (or rather firm) to be kind sometimes. So do hang in there on that sailing boat building and repair course George - the most useful of all skills for your future voyage on the beautiful sailing boats that leave from the Piraeus of Athens!

Love and good luck,


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Part A - "Know Thyself" - (Socrates Encourages Alcibiades)

Part A - The Importance to “Know Thyself” (and to Know What the “Self” Actually Is) – and then Part B - Tips On How To Find the Correct Spiritual Path for You.

The following two blog posts were originally written as one evening presentation - talk. I think its easier to divide this talk into two seperate blog posts - hence the occassional reference such as: 'thanks for coming this evening.... etc'.

Part A - Socrates Encourages Alcibiades to “Know Thyself”.

I think it is a well accepted phrase among spiritual people that they are somehow “following the path” – or at least that they feel they should be. But what does this mean for people who find themselves a little bit lost – and maybe bewildered or overwhelmed by the necessities and expectations of our modern Western Society.

Where can we find “the path”?
Where should we look?
Does it matter which path we choose?

These are all questions that many people ask themselves and especially people in their mid-twenties and older.

It would be a lie if I said that I thought the answers to the above and similar questions were easy or fast ….. that we could find peace of mind and lasting satisfaction by the quick read of a prescribed book, or the application of an all encompassing – one size fits all – regime of spiritual practice as offered by some traditional mainstream religious organizations. The reality perhaps is more complicated…. and perhaps the truth is that we are all unique individuals – all finding ourselves in a unique place – and after personal contemplation - all having a different ideal destination or goal for our lives. If this is the case, my belief is that these things (like finding the path) will usually take time and some effort to discover. This is perhaps a little out of “fashion” for many people in our instant material gratification – “I want it now” western society. We seem to be getting out of the habit of waiting for things or gradually working towards things. For example, we no longer save for a new car or TV we get it today – often on credit. Similarly, I saw an advert for magic mushrooms called “Old Philosopher” offering “instant enlightenment”. Although mushrooms are not my thing – instant enlightenment for 3 dollars a hit does not sound bad………. or I am afraid……. believable.

Our task of finding the spiritual path is also made harder with things like the influence of the TV and much other media – and the education system also doing its part in the pre conditioning of young people to “do well” in the modern material and excessively consumerist world. These things seem to do their very best to obscure and hide the spiritual path from people – and indeed ridicule anyone who seeks “the truth” or wishes to explore different ways of living – perhaps with slightly different goals for their lives than what the consumer led society offers us – or increasingly “requires” of us. What I am in fact suggesting is that truly finding the spiritual path and then following it is not quite as easy as some people make out.

In order to appreciate some of the key tasks necessary in finding the path perhaps we should imagine a lost tourist standing on a busy street corner in an unfamiliar big city. The tourist turns the big map one way and another trying to work out what to do and which way to go. In as sense this is a very straightforward example of someone trying to find his or her path. Imagine also that this is an inexperienced or novice tourist – in a strange city – outside of their usual familiar comfort zone – where what to do and where to go have always been easy for them – or pre-conditioned for them since an early age. As the tourist keeps turning the map one way and another they seem just to get more and more confused.

You see there are two essential pieces of information the tourist needs in order to find the path using the map. Of course they need to know where they want to go on the map. Whether they want to go back to the hotel or to the museum obviously makes a difference to the path. However, the first thing the tourist really needs to know in order to work out the right path is: “Where Am I?” This is the first question they need to ask – since if they know where they are – and secondly where they want to go – the task of finding the way in between is much easier. That is why at London underground and other metro stations around the world there are often local street maps on the walls near the exits of the metro stations – and usually in big red letters it says: “YOU ARE HERE !” 

Returning to our main theme – finding the correct spiritual path – it is my opinion that perhaps there are several possible fine philosophical or spiritual paths to follow. However, before people assume that fine philosophies must surely come from exotic lands in far away places, I would like to remind them that there is also a very fine and richly documented philosophic tradition closer to home in Europe. For simplicity I shall refer to this as the ancient Greek philosophy of Socrates and Plato. I say this for simplicity because ancient Greece has several other very influential philosophers with their own philosophies separate to the Socratic-Platonic tradition. In addition, Socrates the teacher and mentor of Plato was well aware of many other Greek and foreign philosophers who preceded him – and these were obviously an influence on him one way or another. In the same way, following on after Plato many other philosophers commentated on and developed his ideas – Plotinus and Proclus being two very notable examples. Indeed many Platonic ideas can be traced into early Christian thought.

Now I mention the Socratic-Platonic Greek tradition for an important reason; which is that they put a great deal of emphasis on that first essential question in finding our spiritual paths: “Where Am I?” For convenience, I will say that the way they dealt with this was that they emphasised the phrase “Know Thyself” – which incidentally was one of the two statements written above the entrance of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece which was the spiritual heart of Greece. The Socratic-Platonic tradition emphasises that in order to begin any spiritual or philosophical path we must first know who we are – and furthermore “WHAT” we are. As I mentioned earlier – for many of us – getting to know ourselves and who we are deep inside and what makes us tick – often takes a little time, effort and emotional pain.

So what do Socrates and Plato have to tell us to help us find our path and know ourselves? Without getting too bogged down in historical dates and details it is perhaps interesting to know that Socrates was put on trial in Athens in 399 B.C. – then aged 70 – and received the death penalty in that year for “trumped” up charges. I guess his student and friend Plato was about 28 by then. Within 12 years or so of this event Plato aged about 40 set up his “Academy” in Athens in 387 B.C. for the general advancement of education and learning – and the study of the ideas of his teacher Socrates. Plato wrote more than 20 books – usually in the form of “Dialogues” between Socrates and his various students and friends – in order to make a written record of Socrates’ ideas and conversations. Traditionally, Plato’s writing are grouped into 3 groups being early, middle, and later period writings. His earlier works are generally thought to be truer recordings of Socrates’ teachings, while middle and later writings are thought more and more to include Plato’s own ideas although he often supposedly portrayed these ideas as being spoken by Socrates in his dialogues. (You may remember that Socrates is believed to have written nothing and we only know of Socrates ideas through a few sources – by far the most important being Plato’s writings.)

In England many people understandably take pride in educational institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge which have both been around for some 500 years. Imagine then the scene in Athens during the 5th century A.D. about 1500 years ago. Plato’s Academy by say 450 A.D. is some 837 years old – an unbroken seat of learning for all this time. It has by now become primarily a place for the study of philosophy and the texts of its founder Plato. The headmaster or principal of the Academy is a philosopher called Proclus – and the school has been moved to Proclus’ modest house to avoid the unwanted attention and possible danger from the Christian authorities then in power in Athens….. Incidentely, Proclus died around 485 c.e. and one of the first exhibits you see on the way into the New Acropolis Museum is about his little house where Plato’s Academy was then based. Anyway; at Plato’s Academy by then it had become an established tradition that the first book of Plato that the new students (young men and women) studied was a book called: ‘The First Alcibiades’. This was because it encouraged and emphasised to the new students the importance of “KNOW THYSELF” and the importance of asking ourselves: “Where We Are” so that we can start our philosophical or spiritual path from a realistic place and in the correct way. At Plato’s Academy some 800 years after its foundation – it was viewed as essential to KNOW THYSELF first and indeed to contemplate and discuss what we actually are and indeed what the “self” actually is.

What then is The First Alcibiades all about and why is it (or just its message) an important part of helping us today to find our often hard to find and obscured spiritual and practical paths for life (?) Well, as mentioned the dialogue is about us first getting to know ourselves. The dialogue is a conversation between a middle aged Socrates and Alcibiades as a young man – about 20’ish we suppose. Alcibiades has taken it into his head to try and “do well” in political life. Quite possibly this notion of “doing well” included a fair bit of doing well for him or her self as with many politicians from then to now. Socrates stops Alcibiades on the very day he is heading towards the city centre to put himself forward for political office. Although Socrates and Alcibiades have known and seen each other around regularly for many years – indeed since Alcibiades’ childhood – Socrates has not spoken to Alcibiades for a year or two at any length for divinely inspired reasons as Socrates explains. There are many interesting points and ideas raised in this short dialogue of Plato but I shall try and select just those especially relevant to knowing ourselves and finding the path we seek….

Firstly, Socrates asks Alcibiades what he thinks he has to offer the people of Athens if he becomes a political statesman for them. What special skills, abilities or experience does he have to do the job he is seeking? Through his usual questioning technique Socrates uncovers and encourages Alcibiades to admit that actually he does not know anything about political matters – negotiations or the affairs of state etc. [What’s new? ]
Socrates then gives examples along the lines of whether we would let someone
fix our car unless they were trained or experienced mechanics; or whether we should let someone perform a medical operation on us unless they are trained or experienced doctors? So why – Socrates asks Alcibiades – would we want someone to run the city or country for us who did not have any training or experience in these matters. (Perhaps we would do well to ask some of our modern day would be politicians or ministers similar questions. ?)

Socrates points out to Alcibiades that unless we are aware (or have it pointed out to us) that we do not know something…. we will not try to find out about that thing and try to correct our lack of knowledge in a particular subject. He says we will fall into the trap of being “DOUBLY IGNORANT” – That is; firstly not knowing something; and secondly thinking we do know about something or have the appropriate skills – so that we do not bother to inform ourselves and correct this lack of knowledge. Simply put; this is why for example we consult lawyers and solicitors on legal matters. We know we are not experts in this area and so we consult with people who are trained and experienced experts in this area. It’s no big problem if you do not know something – providing you are aware of it and indeed admit it to yourself and others when necessary. In modern day life we consult “experts” on a whole range of subjects. (It’s why I no longer even try to repair my car. These days I know I don’t know how.)

All simple enough so far… Socrates through his questioning technique has made Alcibiades admit that he lacks knowledge and experience on a whole range of issues. But then Socrates goes further by discussing that if we are going to teach ourselves or otherwise inform ourselves wisely about things – then we better have some understanding at least of what “the self” actually is…. and that this is truly what “Knowing Thyself” is about.

So what does Socrates say “the self” is ? Well he discusses with Alcibiades that there is a difference between taking care of our shoes and taking care of our feet. He says that the shoes are merely “appurtenant to the feet. Similarly he mentions that rings are merely appurtenant to the hands and are not the hands themselves.

Socrates then points out the difference between the tools a craftsman uses – such as a shoemaker using a knife to cut the leather – being different to the craftsman them self. In the same way the musical instrument is different to the musician themself. This may seem obvious to us and perhaps unnecessary for Socrates to explain; but Socrates is creating “universals” or universal principles and truths in his young students mind.

Socrates then makes the distinction between the eyes and hands that shoemakers and musicians use compared to the shoemaker and musician themselves. He says - and in the light of the universals established Alcibiades agrees – that they are not the same thing.

Finally Socrates says (P.56 text): ‘And, does not a man use his whole body?’
Alcibiades replies: ‘most certainly’
Socrates then says: ‘A man therefore is a thing different from his body?’
Alcibiades replies: ‘It seems so’.
Socrates then asks: ‘What sort of a being then is a man?’
…. To which Alcibiades replies: ‘I know not’.

Socrates has really explained to Alcibiades that what we really are is our “souls” and that “knowing ourselves” is really about knowing that we are souls – and that to take good care of oneself (and be happy and lead the good and virtuous life etc) it is of primary importance to worry less about material possessions and celebrity etc – but to ensure that we take good care of our souls and live in a way that is good for the soul. For example, luxuries are only appurtenant to our bodies – and our bodies are in the end only appurtenant to our souls.

Well this may be all very easy to quote from Plato’s writings on Socrates – but what does it all mean to our lives today. What can we learn (either in specific details or general principles) about how to find our best unique spiritual path today….

Well let’s first ask ourselves a few practical questions and maybe discuss a few of your questions so far before I move on (part B follows… )

1. Firstly, do you believe that we human beings have a soul – and that the soul lives on after our body has died? It doe s not matter why or how you think or feel that. Now depending on what answer a person gives to this question – it will usually have a big effect on the way people live their lives….

-Now for those who “do” believe I ask this second question:
2. Do you believe that the kind of life we live or lead here on earth will somehow effect the way our souls go on after we die? ….. “Judgement” may be too strong a word maybe… I am just talking about a vague sense that “good” people who try to live “good” lives (however we then go on to define those terms) somehow benefit in some way when “we move on”.
3. Now for those who “do not” believe in a soul which goes on after death I ask this: Do you think that it is better to try and live in a “good and virtuous way” (as said – however we then go on to define that) rather than living in a greedy, selfish, non-caring way?

So whether we believe strongly in the existence of the soul – or maybe just a little – or even not at all – perhaps many of us can still agree that some ways of living are preferable to others. (Socrates was fairly modest about all his ideas after all. In another of Plato’s dialogues he says that even if he is mistaken and the soul does not go on – he still prefers to live a good and decent life than the life of a bad guy – so he has nothing to loose or fear either way.

Part B follows:

1)Thanks to Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust for many ideas gained from his talks on “Know Thyself” and all things Socratic and Platonic. (See links)

Part B - Your Own Unique Spiritual Path (and tips on how to uncover it... )

Part B - Your Own Unique Spiritual Path (and tips on how to uncover it... )

+ Summary

What practical things can we say about good “ways of living” and ideas to help us find and follow the right spiritual path ? :

Well the first part of the talk was based on the writings of Plato and the ideas of Socrates – but this final section comes from wider reading and other talks and lectures I have attended from people in all walks of life.

i) Firstly, I think that there is a good deal of truth in the notion that all long journeys start with the first step…. If we feel we want to improve our lives or take a slightly or very different path – then we need to make a start on “Knowing our self” and looking for the path.
ii) I mentioned that there were two things written above the entrance to the temple of Apollo in Delphi in ancient times. I told you that one of those things was know thyself. Well the other thing was “Nothing in Excess” – usually known as “All things in moderation”. Personally I do not think that it helps us that much or makes us happy to be destitute or living on the streets. Whilst I have suggested earlier that we should not care too much about expensive clothes and new luxury kitchens – at the same time it’s good to have a roof over our heads and the electricity bill paid. This means that most of us need to work “most of the time” but maybe we should consider a little what we do and how much we do of it We need to keep the Delphi maxim of “Nothing to Excess” in mind.
iii) Remember that our actions usually cause re-actions and that – although we are unique - there is a “inter - connectivity” in the universe. God – The Gods – seem to close doors occasionally – but then open others for us although there may be a break in between where we feel uncomfortable.
iv) 70 % of the things that happen to us are maybe out of our control, but how we re-act to those things – and how we feel about those things is certainly within our control.
v) There is an ancient Greek saying known as the “Wisdom of Athena” – which is about knowing what you can change and knowing what you cannot change (or do) and sticking to the things you can change or do. I know you have all heard this before. I simply remind you again not to overlook this. We should of course not use this as an excuse for inaction or setting our sites too low. We cannot just say: “oh that’s too difficult or impossible” and then just not even try to do something that is a little bit challenging.
vi) Remember that even a very wise and good person has bad days or weeks when everything seems to be going wrong. We should not expect to feel “euphoric happiness” all the time. Everyone gets problems along the way – but the attitude that people have to those problems of course varies from one person to another. More spiritual or positive people tend to see those problems as challenges or tests along the path rather than see themselves as victims “again”. Trying to keep a positive attitude we know is very helpful – and sometimes we actually have to discipline ourselves mentally to look at the more positive aspects of something and not just the negative aspects. I am not suggesting that this is always easy.
vii) Talking of trying to take a more positive attitude to things; sometimes it helps to look at the bigger picture and not get frustrated by the details. For example, two bricklayers are both working outside on a cold and damp day. One looks fed up but the other is getting on with his work positively and looks fairly happy with life. Now one of the men is building another damn wall – the other is building a cathedral. Which one do you think is which? .. And more importantly maybe...which one is you?
viii) So our thoughts have a big effect on how we feel and therefore it is important to take control of our own thoughts. This can become a habit with practice – but in the same way negative thinking can also become a habit. At the end of the day it’s only our “thoughts” which make us feel happy or sad.
ix) As well as good thoughts try to develop “good” actions and attitudes to things. Again these good actions will become habits after a while rather than any bad actions and habits we develop.
x) I once heard someone say that there are three main causes of inner stress and tension. These are:
a) “Perfectionism” – and always trying to do something perfectly or “optimally” in this “do well – time is so precious” modern world. Like the blog or website I hope to put up at Easter (well last Easter actually) – I can get stressed out by trying to do it “perfectly” or I can just put up the site as well as I can and then slowly improve and amend things as I go which is a lot less stress full inside than always trying to get something perfect at once or first time around.
b) Lack of self esteem – is another of these stress creators. The problem is we are often lacking self esteem as a result of comparing ourselves with people who are living the material consumerist life. It takes us time to realise that of course I don’t have a new 4by4 like the guy next door – but there are reasons for that. It takes time and practice maybe for us to deconstruct or de-condition ourselves from the expectations that other people have had for us since a young age. It also often takes time maybe to truly deconstruct and de-condition the expectations we may have had for ourselves. We still want “to do well” – but in our own way – and by our own standards – not by how much money we had in the bank when we died.
c) The 3rd cause of this inner stress or tension is a fear of rejection from those around us or those important to us. Bonding with other individuals and others in small social groups is an important part of life. Whether we want to admit it or not – we care about what our family and close friends think about us. Membership of many social groups has its unwritten rules. When you meet an old group of friends at the pub after a long absence and one of them says: “What are you up to these days – what job are you doing” – he/she is sub-consciously finding out whether you are still a member of the group – whether you can still fit in – and whether you still fulfil the groups unwritten criteria. When all the other Mums drop the kids off in 4by4s you kinda know you are not one of them as you drop the kids off on their bikes.
These three things: perfectionism, lack of self esteem, and fear of rejection can give us extra stresses and tensions as we try to live our unique lives if we are not aware of them.
xi) Remember, only fools and fanatics do not have doubts from time to time. A little indecision from time to time is natural and not a bad thing. Sometimes its good to have doubts – it’s part of us being who we are.
xii) Finally, another piece of wisdom from the ancients about Athena. A man was returning from market in ancient Athens with his grown up son. It had been very wet and on the way the cart got stuck in the muddy road. The man told his son to pray with him to Athena for help to move the cart so that they could go home. Well, Athena heard the men praying and came to them and said: “If you get out of the cart and start pushing I might give you some help to push also…. But if you just sit there together in the cart waiting for me or someone else to do all the work for you and solve all your problems for you then I am not going to help you at all. We must remember that WE have to make the first step and start pushing the cart for our selves if we want some help along the way. 


Finding a path to live our lives by – whether that path be spiritual or practical or perhaps preferably a combination of the two is not always easy to find – especially since modern media, education and society as a whole seems deliberately set up to obscure or ridicule any path that is not the mainstream path being prescribed to us. This prescribed path is the unsustainable path; the unfulfilling path of consumerism, economic growth, infinite aspirations, and instant gratification of those aspirations.

There may be several good and decent paths out there to choose from – or you may need to create your own unique path. Either way, I believe that to find an alternative path takes time; and it takes effort. We will fall down from time to time in our search – but we will pick ourselves up again as we go. There is probably no “quick fix” or instant long lasting remedy for finding the path for many of us – and maybe we should be cautious of people or organisations who offer various “one size fits all” answers to our search and passage along the path; or instant enlightenment for 3 dollars a hit......

May I remind you about what I said at the start of my talk this evening about the need to find or know ourselves first before we can really hope to make a real start on any kind of spiritual of practical path for our lives. The new students at Plato’ academy still had this emphasised to them more than 800 years after the academy first began.

In the latter part of the talk I have made a few practical points (or more likely just reminders to many of you) where we can start to get a fix on our lives and start to make some small and not so small improvements along the way.

Perhaps finding the right path is a little more complex than some individuals or organisations try to make out – albeit that most parts of the jig-saw like pieces are fairly straightforward to slowly put in place one piece at a time. None of the practical points I have made this evening is that complicated – no special techniques or skills are required. However, it does seem likely that some time and some effort will be required – and indeed finding the right path may be an ongoing learning process – with adjustments along the way - depending what stage of our own unique life’s we find ourselves at. [Like that new website I want to do – maybe it’s just better to make a start and amend, adjust, and improve it as I go. If I try to make it perfect to start with - I either won’t ever start for real – or am setting myself up for self disappointment or feelings of failure.] We must remember what the proverb about the man with his donkey and cart stuck in the mud tells us: ‘It is we ourselves who must make the first step – must get out of that cart and start to push first – before we can expect any help from other people or any divine “providence”.

Remember that confused and anxious tourist I mentioned trying to find his way with his map. Well he was a real person and I actually saw him standing on a street corner in downtown Athens as people and cars whizzed by in different directions. He turned this big map this way and that still looking confused … and as I reminded a friend of mine who was sitting with me in the nearby coffee shop watching the tourist: “That guy needs to know first where he is….” 

Our spiritual and practical day to day life paths are entwined and it is essential before we can make a wise start in any direction to: “Know Ourselves”. Only then – when we know where we are and what we like and do not like etc – can we make realistic decisions on where we would like to be in 5, 10, 20 or maybe 500 years time. But in order to “know” ourselves – Socrates says that we first have to know what we actually are – that is – what the “self” actually is. Are we just material and corporal bodies on which to hang expensive clothes – or are we really souls just making temporary use of these corporal bodies. How we answer this question will make (or should make) a fundamental difference to how we live our lives.
Only when we know two essential items: “Where we are” (part of knowing ourselves) and where we would like to be…. can we start to decide on and start to follow a good and logical path in between that is right for us as a unique individual. There may be several good paths to choose from - or we may need to create our own unique path to give ourselves the best chance; perhaps the only chance, of getting where we want to be. It will not always be easy – and it will take time. So stick at it and good luck to you on your own unique spititual paths...

1) Thanks to Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust for many ideas gained from his talks on “Know Thyself” and all things Socratic and Platonic.
2) Thanks to Sabine Leitner of the New Acropolis organisation in London for the practical philosophy ideas gained listening to her talk:‘The Art of Living’.

Useful Links:
The Prometheus Trust – An Educational Charitable Organisation encouraging “philosophy” in the Platonic Tradition. The trust has also made an impressive number of works of Greek philosophers available in English including ‘First Alcibiades’ (Translated by Thomas Taylor)

New Acropolis Organisation – An International Organisation promoting “Practical Philosophy” with some 20,000 members in 60 countries; and some 500,000 people taking part in their diverse cultural and philosophical activities each year:

The Full text of ‘First Alcibiades’ can be found online at:
(Translated by Benjamin Jowett – page references above refer to Thomas Taylor’s Translation)