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,