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

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:

Acknowledgements:
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. 

Summary:

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...


Acknowledgements:
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)
http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/index.html

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:
http://acropolis.org/en/nueva_acropolis_en_el_mundo.php

The Full text of ‘First Alcibiades’ can be found online at:
http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/greek/plato/alcibiades1.html
(Translated by Benjamin Jowett – page references above refer to Thomas Taylor’s Translation)