About This Blog

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

This blog is the place where I write in a more personal way on various areas of philosophical interest. Please be careful when I say 'philosophical' because this does not often mean about purely academic or abstract subjects and ideas; but rather like much of the philosophy of Socrates, it means an investigation of some fundamental things that have a very important baring on the way we live our lives as individuals and as communities.

I have a separate blog where I share my enthusiasm for the specific philosophical tradition and ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle Plutarch and others at: Socrates 4 Today However, this blog James' Philosophical Agora expresses mostly personal viewpoints and so I prefer to have two separate blogs.

Please feel free to comment on any of the blog posts, or add some thoughts of your own to the subjects discussed. You can also contact me personally if you would like to discuss any particular items further at: jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Socratic Jig Saw Puzzle We All Must Do.....

The Socratic Jig Saw Puzzle That All Real Spiritual Searchers and Philosophers Must Do….

People start to search for spiritual paths for all sorts of reasons – and this also applies to people who become interested in philosophy; they all have their own unique reasons and special areas of interest and concern. So at times it must be very frustrating if people attend a lecture or presentation in the hope of getting some practical guidance on how best to live the good philosophical life on a personal basis – and then the person giving the presentation starts talking about the how the universe may have been formed, what place in it the sun, soul and human being plays and all manner of “meta-physical” matters – when what the person was looking for was just some good old fashioned political science or personal good living advice. 

Well please bear with me for just a few paragraphs while I explain why I believe you cannot just give down to earth practical living tips without some regard to where we as human being fit into the bigger picture – and indeed what type of beings we truly are. For without knowing truly who or importantly what we are – how can we really give any serious advice to  people – or rather expect them to understand the advice being given if they do not possess a rough idea of where we as human beings fit into the overall scheme of things.

Socratic and Platonic philosophy really covers three main areas of discussion – that of how to live the good and happy life personally, how to live the good and happy life as communities and states, and finally the metaphysical areas of the universe such as the existence and nature of the divine and the soul. I think that Socrates and other philosophers in this tradition feel that it is impossible to separate these three areas to any great extent and that the three areas overlap in many important ways. Of course a one hour lecture of presentation will often focus more on one of these areas than another – but they are very closely connected.  This is why the person I first mentioned above who attends a talk and thinks that the nature of the universe and the divine is not relevant to their current main area of interest of practical living is mistaken in my view.  Let me try and explain why……

Studying philosophy is like doing a fairly complicated jig saw puzzle. It’s not impossible at all  – but it just requires a little effort and a few very basic techniques to get going. Now what are the techniques to doing any jig saw puzzle? Well first it helps to find the four corner pieces and put them to one side.  Another good idea is to try and find the bits with a straight edge and put them to one side. After that it’s pretty complicated, very long winded and usually gets very tedious unless we do one other thing. Well it helps a great deal if we can take a quick look at the top of the box the puzzle came in – just to get an overall idea of what the picture is all about. Actually, we do not need a long detailed study of the picture on the box – just a quick glimpse will do – or even a description by someone else who has seen the top of the box will be a great help if we cannot take a peek at the picture ourselves at that time.

For example – if one way or another – looking ourselves or being told – we know that the above mentioned picture is of a man or woman sitting at a little brown table on a wide yellow sandy beach – with the calm dark blue sea in the background – all under a light blue cloudless sky – then that’s going to be a great help with our jig saw puzzle. We can take those bits with the straight edge – and make a guess whether they go at the bottom or top – or maybe the sides. I believe once you do that it only takes a short while to a try a piece or two here and there and at least get the frame and edges of the picture done so at least you have some boundaries  and guidelines with the overall picture you are trying to create.

Next if you separate the yellow sandy coloured bits, the dark blue bits and the light blue bits you – you can place them in one area of the slowly emerging picture. Now there may be some awkward bits left over - but if when you glimpsed the picture you remember that the person at the table is in the middle of the picture and is wearing black jeans – a white straw hat – red shoes – and a green shirt – then you can kind lay out those awkward bits down in the right sort of area before you try and fit them all together. And remember those awkward bits left over at the end which needed placing in the picture in the right place were the bits which made up the very man or woman that was the subject of the picture and what it was really about in the first place.  But without knowing that there is a person on the beach under a blue sky with the sea in the background – I think it would be a very difficult or possibly impossible job to try and put that person together in the fore ground of the picture….. from the hundreds of bits piled up in front of us on our desks.

And that is the reason ladies and gentleman – that there is a kind of Socratic jig saw puzzle all searches and philosophers must do. We must at first try to get a sense of the overall scheme of things and where we fit into the bigger picture – either by glimpsing it ourselves or by listening to others who have a sense of that picture to share with us. That way we get a sense of the edges and boundaries around things – we get a sense of roughly where things fit into the overall scheme of things – and then only after that can we start to place the awkward little bits left over – that is place ourselves – in that picture sitting at that table on the beach.

Towards A Theory of Ideas or Forms - Pt. B

Rather A Question of Different Layers of Reality.....

Last night in bed I tried to look down the “Delphic” or spiritual tunnel a little..... and reminded myself that if we are to be philosophers ourselves in Plato’s truest sense of the word – then we must have our own opinions and ideas about things – based on what seems most probable. It is not enough for us just to know the opinions of others – even if those others include great names like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

With the above in mind I would like to suggest how to improve / add to / or modernise Plato's vision of reality with his unseen and superior world of ideas or forms is. I would suggest that it is more correct to say now that it is not a question of there being another reality at the end of the tunnel to the cave let's say.... and that our reality – that which we perceive with our senses is false and inferior. After all, those prisoners really do see images on the wall of the cave – and there situation would be real to them. It seems to me that it is more a question of there being "additional" realities to the one we currently live and exist in and are familiar with. There are it seems different layers of reality...... which includes our own familiar one; although there are other realities as yet to be scientifically discovered or otherwise fully explained.

I am not sure this following example helps to understand my point – so let’s see. I was thinking about some goats quietly grazing on the gentle grassy slopes of Delphi. The goats all know there is a kind shepherd who takes them for a nice walk in the sunshine each morning – and makes sure they all get home safely as night. The shepherd – a pacifist let’s say – enjoys his work and takes good care of his goats which he has all given individual names for and treats kindly. Clearly, the goats do not realise at all that the shepherd is actually feeding them up for slaughter. The shepherd does not like to think about the slaughter too much and just gets on with his peaceful work. Now it just so happens that after the slaughter of the goats – the meat is sold in market – and goes via one agent and then another to feed “coalition” UN soldiers in Afghanistan who are targeting drones to drop missiles on terrorists. Obviously, neither goat or shepherd – or probably chap at the local meat market know anything about this bigger reality. The point is – we can all think up quick examples where the reality of something is a rather bigger picture than what seems apparent to us the viewer or listener with a limited view on things.

Man has traditionally seen himself as a very important part of the universe, indeed very often the most important part. He has therefore traditionally given himself a central place in that universe. In this universe all the stars went around planet earth where the human being dominated and ruled the world. We can only guess at the impact and uneasy mind shift created when Galileo said the planets all go around the sun - and that our sun was just one of thousands of similar stars in the galaxy and universe.

Although we "know" differently now, we still like to act sometimes in the old way. When that first flag was planted on the North Pole, the South Pole, the top of Everest, and even on the Moon, was there not a feeling of "this is now ours" to own and exploit as we wish..... I guess that although science is telling us differently - we still like to give ourselves central importance and rulers of the universe status. Perhaps most of us tend to do this sub-consciously unless we are careful not too. It is after all – a very comforting and secure view of the universe even if we know it just is not so.

I talked just now about an 'additional' reality or layers of reality rather than simply a different reality to the one we regard as "true" as Plato suggests. This view is actually being supported by science some people may find uncomfortable to hear. This view of layers of reality does not ignore the ideas of science and logic and what we already know to be true. Top scientists from cosmology already know that what we see is only a small minority part of what there is out there in the universe. And when we use the word see - what we really mean is see and therefore can comprehend..... because for the most part still..... unless people can actually see something with their own eyes then they find it difficult to believe in its existence..... or more accurately are unable to comprehend its existence.....

Scientists vary in opinion on what the proportion of this so called dark (unseen – not comprehended) matter might be. I am going to use the term "unknown universe" for the not comprehended and unseen universe of which dark matter forms only a part..... and I will tell you why I prefer this term and way of thinking in a moment. Optimistic scientists - that is those who think we know a lot about what is going on in the universe say that the dark matter (part of my unknown universe) is only 65% of reality and we can see and understand the other 35%. The general view of the scientific community though is that it may be 80% of unknown universe to 20% that we do know - and remember the tendency is to think or say that we know a bit more than we do...... So what happens if the pessimistic scientists are right and what we see or know is not 20% but 2% or 0.002%  If this is the case then how much will we really know for sure...  And readers know this, that from a few years from before Galileo when we thought we saw (and therefore assumed we knew 100%) we have steadily been realising – in spite of great technical advances and scientific discoveries - that we know less and less about what's out there..... or rather what the whole of our reality actually is. Like I say.... the current general consensus is that we know 15-20% or so of what is there..... but that figure is falling not rising as one would expect.

Now - seeing is believing - or so our consciousness’s are mostly limited to believing. And modern technology has given us new abilities to view the very big - that is the universe; and the very small - that is the mysteries of the quantum world of particle physics. Let's stick to the very big for the purposes of the rest of this short blog. We have fantastic telescopes these days compared to Galileo; the Hubble for example is out there in orbit staring into space - and this is becoming out of date fast. We have radio telescopes, infrared telescopes, and a whole range of telescopes "looking" at things in a way our eyes alone could never do using different light and energy wavelengths that our eyes (and ears) could never pick up by themselves. Actually, our equipment today covers the whole spectrum of light - and yet we are still not seeing - even by optimistic scientific predictions - this 85% of the universe.

What is the above telling us? Well, firstly it could be telling us quite simply that this extra "stuff" is not there and does not exist – and that simply – is why we cannot see it. This is more important than it sounds - since it would mean that all the calculations that predicted the existence of dark matter are flawed (to put it politely) and that we really have no idea what's going on at all. Alternatively, and I think more likely, it is telling us that all this other stuff - let's say 80+ % just cannot be seen in the usual way we see things - and that it most likely never will. But; it is still there as the mathematical calculations support. The scientists tell us it is there after all; they 'expect' us to believe that 80+ % of the universe is there although it cannot be seen - with any light wavelength viewing equipment – which means that we are never likely to see it in the way we normally think of as “seeing” things.
We as philosophers are therefore now obliged to propose, summarise, or guess what that 85% of the unknown universe is - and suggest why it is that way..... and also suggest ways that might help us understand it - even if we must now accept that even with all these telescopes - we will NEVER actually see it. Yet, the scientists and calculations tell us to believe it.....

For philosophers, or those true philosophers according to Plato, this is where the mind comes into play..... or rather our consciousness..... or for spiritual people like me perhaps where the soul comes into play.

If not additional layers of reality - then what do you propose instead?

Towards A Theory of Ideas or Forms for our Time - 01

It is my intention as I hope the few regular readers of this blog realise to take some of the central ideas of Socrates and Plato and make them more “simple” to grasp and understand rather than harder. Also, I hope readers realise that I am a great “enthusiast” of Socrates and Plato rather than their greatest critic. I feel it is necessary to mention this latter point since several of my recent posts to the Socrates 4 Today blog may seem very critical – accusing parts of Plato’s writing of being dry, tedious, unnecessarily complicated, and on occasions simply out of date when it comes to matters of science and various other subjects. Let me confirm to readers – that while still an enthusiast – I stand by the comments I have made on some of the Plato’s texts. For example, we cannot simply read Timaeus’ scientific account of planet earth or its place in the cosmos without accepting that medicine, cosmology and most other branches of scientific thinking have moved on enormously in the last two millenia and rendered many of his ideas and explanations simply out of date and inaccurate. However, I still recommend reading or perusing this text Timaeus and others of this type in order to see the scope of the work and for the questions and ideas it stimulates its readers to ask themselves and consider. One of the many beauties in Plato’s writing is that these questions and ideas will be different in all sorts of ways depending on the individual that is reading any given text – according to their talents, experiences, and particular areas of interest. 

Having lulled you my friends and readers with a comfortable beginning to my short piece, let me now try and provoke in you some ideas and questions of my own using some more recent examples. Firstly, Socrates suggests that ideas exist by themselves in some other world or place or form – as well as there being “particular” examples of those ideas in this world - and I suppose most readers here understand this to mean that as well as examples of say ‘justice’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘circle’ here in our world – perfect examples of these concepts exist in the other world. (I mention here that in the dialogue Parmenides, a young Socrates is unsure whether this theory of perfect ideas or forms also applies to inelegant and insignificant things like hair, mud etc.)

Let us now take some up to date example like mobile telephones and all those communication satellites that circle the earth today. Do perfect examples of these ideas also exist in another world – or only particular examples like the old Nokia I have in my jacket pocket in this world? Well, although it may seem that I am talking perhaps light heatedly  I am perfectly serious when I say that I am completely open minded to the notion that in some way the ideas for mobile phones and satellites – once they have come in to existence – then exist for ever more in some way or another. This of course, for Socratic- Platonic philosophers like ourselves, begs the question of whether the ideas for mobile phones and satellites has existed for thousands of years already – and only now in recent decades has been discovered or “recollected” by us. My purpose in this short piece is not to persuade readers one way or another – but rather provoke them to contemplate such concepts to some degree themselves. That clarified, I would just like to add one further query at this point – and that is if some mild kind of meteor shower completely destroyed all those communication satellites does the idea of the satellite still exist. At first glance it appears so since of course we still have our knowledge and ideas about them and our need for them – and this would no doubt prompt those of us responsible for such things – to dig out the old plans, diagrams and blue prints so that new “particular” examples of those satellites could be made to replace the old ones. No great problem with that. However, a bigger question is that were that meteor shower to be much more extreme so that humankind were wiped out completely along with all those satellites (and let’s say mobile phones as well for the point of this argument) – would not the ideas for mobile phones and satellites still exist “out there” in one way or another – just waiting to be tapped into again or recollected by a species like our own with the ability to take advantage of those ideas – in a similar way as perhaps early humans may of done with the ideas for the wheel or stone arrow head?

A related matter I think worth considering to some degree is the notion of a “species or individual member of that species” with the ability to tap into – or recollect – or apply those ideas. Apples, coconuts, bananas and all manner of fruits and other objects have fallen on people’s heads since the very beginning of time and no doubt will continue to do so. There was nothing very special about that “particular” apple that dropped on Sir Isaac Newton’s head – but Newton jumped up and realised something very special so the storey goes – and came up with his ideas of mechanics and gravity which have been the corner stone of physics for centuries.

Had Pasteur died the day before he discovered penicillin and the cleaners gone in to tidy his laboratory – they might have clicked their tongues at the recently deceased professor for not washing up his petri dishes properly – and then ‘tragically’ washed that little bit of mould down the sink that has since saved tens of millions of lives and incalculable suffering. Thankfully Pasteur lived long enough to discover penicillin.

How many of us still exclaim “Eureka” when sliding into an over full bath of hot soapy water at the end of a busy day – and indeed how many people enjoyed a warm bath before Archimedes jumped out of that one particular overflowing bath realising that this was going to be a great way of finding the volume of odd shaped objects.
So even if the ideas do exist “out there” in some way – just waiting to be discovered or recollected - clearly it is not everyone who is going to be able to access all and every idea; although as one relaxes in that deep bath it may be an attractive idea……..

As mentioned above, quite frequently in Plato’s writings we come across suggestions and explanations which have clearly become out of date, and sometimes other arguments which may be rather dry and detailed in the way they are explained. However, what we need to do if we are to become “real” philosophers ourselves – is not merely be critical of other people’s ideas and explanations on various topics, but to begin to have our own ideas and explanations for things.

What Do You Think? Has the idea of mobile phones already existed for thousands of years? Would it still exist after the human race were extinct? If as the latter philosopher Proclus suggests – as individual human beings we are microcosms of the complete universe with the potentials of the whole universe within us – has the idea for the latest mobile phone been within us - or some people at least - since birth? 

Socrates on Suicide

A young friend wrote to me some time ago who seemed to be contemplating suicide. He had somehow justified this action “ethically – morally” to his own way of thinking by the argument that if the body ‘corrupts’ the soul (as per many religious doctrines) – then surely it is better to separate body and soul as soon as possible. He asked me what I thought with this “ethical argument” for suicide. Below is my reply to him which includes some input from Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust:     “Socrates on Suicide”.

Dear W.V.

…… I will try and answer the points you raise in a  “general” way first - talking about whether "one" should do or not do this or that (free the soul from the body - commit suicide in this case); and then see if we can reach some kind of general (not personal) opinion and agreement on the matter. This general opinion would then by deduction also apply to you if indeed it is suicide you are really talking about in your letter.
I know that in your letter you say that you are not just wanting to conform to any religious doctrine in this matter; but to some extent you do use "religious" words and phrases throughout your letter to explain your ideas, and the ideas you discuss do crop up in many - or indeed most - religious theologies. As we know, some one billion Hindus think that their theology is the correct or best one, some hundreds of millions of Jews think theirs is; the Christian fundamentalists of course think that there is only one way to God - being through the the Christian church - or rather their small branch of it. On this point I must refer you to one of my face book favourite quotes by General Xenophon (a friend and contemporary of Socrates) who said:
'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.' (Xenophon)'

Now I mention this quote of Xenophon because if my answer below also quotes a little Socrates and Plato - it is in no way to suggest to you that following the Olympic Gods is best or anything like that; it is just that these Greek philosophers did speak about some of the points you raised about the soul in your letter to me last week - and therefore their views are relevant whether we choose to agree or disagree with them. So if – for example - you believe in one male God and Plato refers to "the Gods don't like it if" - then do not reject what Plato suggests just because there is an "s" on the end of the word God. It does not matter for the point of this argument on the morality of suicide. However, it is also interesting to note that Plato did believe in one supra natural creator force above the Gods as it were - and so demonstrates a certain monotheism in his outlook during what was a pagan polytheist era in Greece and many other parts of the known world. (My own view is that "if" there is a creator of the universe - then it is certainly above merely human considerations like one or many, male or female, Jewish or Christian or Hindu, colour etc - and such discussions reflect a true lack of understanding and perspective on these matters...)

So, Socrates tells us in Phaedo that he does not fear death at all - since either the soul does not go on when we die and there is "nothing" after death and nothing to worry about; or; the soul does go on in some way - and for people who "try" at least to live a good and decent life there should also have nothing to fear if the soul does go on after death. So clearly when discussing your letter we are assuming the second consideration – that the soul does go on in some way after the death of our physical bodies.

Now, your letter to me if I am correct asks the essential point that if the body can in some way effect badly a good and pure soul - then is it not better to try and separate soul and body as soon as practically possible - and preferably with great anguish and pain and distress, in order to protect and purify somehow the soul ? Now if this is NOT what you are asking then let me know as soon as possible so we can follow a different line of thought.

Well, let’s mention what some well established thinkers say on this question before I tell you my own personal opinion below ....
     ... The traditional Christian outlook as you know is 110% against what they would view as a  form of suicide – and they (rightly or wrongly) would certainly view the course of action you are proposing as a form of suicide. The Christians would view it "traditionally" as a cardinal sin - and were you a Catholic - they would excommunicate you from God and the Church and refuse to bury you in one of their Christian Catholic cemeteries. The Anglican Church while still sharing this traditional view because of the bible text –  might show a more sympathetic side - but I am not sure whether they would bury you in an Anglican cemetery – I think not. What the Greek Orthodox view would be I am not sure. Knowing the Greeks I would expect they would take a very sympathetic view to something like the suicide of a young person.

Now when I say the bible above - I mean the Old Testament - and this suggests to me that the traditional Jewish view on suicide will be similar. Sorry - I cannot tell you which chapter and verse it’s in - but it is there for sure. You can ask any local clergyman and they will tell you where. So in the Jewish and Christian faiths (which you draw threads and ideas from in your letter to me) - they would advise you very strongly and very clearly against the course of action you are suggesting – even if to you your way of thinking it is not about suicide – but in some way a sensible course of action to protect your soul from defilement by the body.

Let's tell you now what Socrates might say; and then I will conclude by telling you what my own views on the matter are. I am sorry that I have not studied Hinduism or Buddhism - you can ask people experienced here what their traditional view is. However, I do remind you what Xenophon said above; and that implies who knows who is correct on these matters - whether James knows best or not, or The Hindus or Christians or whatever. It is very hard indeed to be certain on these things for obvious reasons. However, we need to be cautious of thinking that say because we like the nice guy down at the local Buddhist cafe and he talks well about his faith - that he is necessarily correct – or correct all the time - rather than say the inarticulate Christian, philosopher, Aborigine or Kalasha - who we might like less on a personal basis - but might be more correct than the person we like.....

Well I wanted to tell you what Socrates says on Suicide and wrote on your behalf to ask a friend of mine, Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust,  who is a respected writer of books and speaker on all things Socratic and Platonic. He kindly replied to me as follows:

Dear James
Socrates on Suicide
‘In the Phaedo Socrates gives two reasons why one should not commit suicide: the first is what he calls esoteric and is touched on lightly: in the myth of Dionysus, the suggestion is that our mundane body is made from the ashes of the Titans who had eaten Dionysus - and that therefore the body is not ours to do as we wish with, but is merely on loan from the divinity of the mundane world.  In just the same way - the earth itself is not humankind's own to do as it sees fit with, but rather is on loan from nature to us, to be held in trust, so to speak.
The second reason perhaps bears more clearly on anyone considering a course of action that could be taken or viewed to be form of suicide. Socrates says that we are placed in our present embodied condition not by accident but by command of divine justice and for a reason (even if we cannot understand fully that divine reason) – and he uses the image of a prison cell in which one is placed until the authorities release us.  It is unclear whether we are the prisoners who have to serve a sentence, or members of the prison guards each given an allotted duty; but which ever interpretation one takes, we are not free to abandon our position until our proper time is up.

The body, at least according to the Platonic tradition is not poison - in fact, says Proclus in his treatise on Evil, it is really only the soul which can produce or chooses evil, and by no means the body, which by itself does not choose anything, and unless misdirected by the soul, lives a natural and pure life.  The body, of course, being a temporal thing, will eventually decay and meet its death: but this is not evil in any real sense, since death and decay serve a greater end - allowing the beauties of the eternal world to fill the material world with an ever-changing drama in which one thing gives way to another.
The soul is not freed by death alone - at least not in a physical death.  Here is what Porphyry says about this in his “Auxiliaries to the Perception of the Intelligible”:

            "The soul is bound to the body by a conversion to the corporeal passions; and again liberated by becoming impassive to the body (i.e. bodily desires under control - not extinguished.).   That which nature binds, nature also dissolves: and that which the soul binds, the soul likewise dissolves.  Nature, indeed, bound the body to the soul; but the soul binds herself to the body.  Nature, therefore, liberates the body from the soul; but the soul liberates herself from the body.
            Hence there is a twofold death; the one, indeed, universally known, in which the body is liberated from the soul; but the other peculiar to philosophers (and artists etc), in which the soul is liberated from the body.  Nor does the one entirely follow the other."

What can we learn from this?  That if one relies on the natural death to release the soul from body, then this is accomplished, but if to release it from its failures (sins, karma, passions, call them what you will), then this itself will be a further failure, since a soul which has not unfolded its interior qualities by living a good and just life in full, will undoubtedly be attached to body until it is able to do so - if not one particular body, then another.  True penance is the making good of whatever life divinity has seen fit to give us - not the rejection of it.

Personally, (Tim Addey writes), I don't believe the soul-life consists in fighting the body and its desires - rather it should be a calm direction of all things to their proper end in moderation, so that the body becomes the instrument of the soul, and making its contribution to the manifestation of “the Good” which is beyond all duality.  If your young friend is currently in suffering - or plans to suffer physical pains in the future, or has emotional pains from his past - will his physical death heal these pains? or add remorse and regret etc  to the emotional and spiritual pains the soul might well endure after separation with the body. In addition, as to whether such an action is in someway "helping" other people, it is more probable that it will further increase other peoples' pain, if they are close to him.

To use the old saying, it is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.

With best wishes, Tim Addey.

Well my young friend, I would like to add one last short Platonic couple of sentences to this equation before my short personal conclusion and opinion below:

            "The re-ascent to "divine likeness" is for the soul through intellect - but just as the metaphysics of Platonism is not dualistic, so neither is its ethics: the pursuit of true Platonic dialectic arrives not a separated out intellectualism, but at unity, for as the main speaker in the Sophist says, "For, O excellent young man, to endeavor to separate every thing from every thing, is both inelegant, and the province of one rude and destitute of philosophy."      


1) As Xenephon says - no-one is completely sure on the nature of the spiritual world, the after-life, the Creator, etc - although some people and religions discuss this and we can read for interest what they have to say - to agree or disagree with - and in some way to help build up our own personal opinions and views on these matters. However, we should be cautious of believing more what someone we like says over someone we do not like (e.g. the nice Buddhist at the cafe).
2) There could be "nothing" after death as Socrates says; but he and I (and many billions of other people) believe there might be “something” and it is because of this that we are having this conversation. If we knew there was nothing at all - then this discussion (your letter and my response) would make no sense at all.
3) Of course I do not believe the bit above about the Titans etc; BUT I do believe that life and good health are truly a divine gift - and that we are given those gifts for a reason - and to make the best possible use of. The possible reasons (i.e. God’s plans or reasons) are beyond our understanding (or certainly my understanding) – and we can only speculate about them. 
4) I do understand that life can present many difficulties and challenges along the way....... and we are forced to ask ourselves on occasions “Lord – Does It Have to be This Hard?” – but it seems to me that as soon as one asks this question – one somehow also knows “immediately” that YES -  it was all "absolutely" necessary and there was no other way for us to be at the place we are right now.
5) So I do believe that we have a responsibility to look after the earthly bodies we have been given so that we can use them to serve the light for as long as possible - and be ready to do stuff for the light (the creator – the one – or whatever) as and when it tells us to do something. We also can use our earthly bodies to benefit our own souls if we choose wisely – not harm them. (….. and as my friend suggests in his letter – there is no guarantee that a soul which has left the body cannot be harmed afterwards – since our souls though perhaps immortal – are not eternal (i.e. do not remain completely the same.)  Hence, every now and again I start going to the gym to get fit again - for both me  "and" the light / the creator who may need me to be able to walk 5 miles fairly quickly when I am 75 years old. J
6) I am no Christian - and do not believe in original sin, burning in hell, eating fish on Friday, or self induced pain and suffering as the way to salvation;  after all – life can be pretty damn challenging all by itself as I indicate above without making life difficult just for the sake of it. (Some primary school kids came in the  library this morning and sang some Christmas carols for the few old folks who had turned up to listen. Original sin....  no way!
In spite of all this; I still feel a "natural" sense of moral/religious wrongness about committing suicide .
7) Not a new point – but just to emphasise the point made in a little yellow book that I made many copies of – The Myth of the Charioteer – that the soul is somehow in 3 parts – and that we (the self) is the pilot of the soul – similar to the Charioteer driving a chariot (the body) pulled by two horses – one good and one bad. As my friend Tim Addey says above – and I agree – it is the soul that chooses and effects what the body does – and not the other way around as you suggest. 

This response is probably not the response you were looking for; but it mentions various other people’s views on the matter and that of some established theological institutions like the Christian Church.

Finally, perhaps we just need to remember that:

The Life of a Charioteer (philosopher, artist etc) is not an easy one…..

Love James.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On Love - 02 - Regarding The Longevity of True Love

Dear George,

You asked my opinion on the longevity of true love.........

.... and I first thought to write an eloquent and maybe witty reply drawing on references from Socrates or the bible - but I will let the UK department of National Statistics speak for itself on this one.

When I left university 30 years ago and started teaching maths in Surrey, UK one third of all the children in my class (white middle class) came from homes where parents were divorced. This rate has crept up and up over the years since then - over the 50% mark - and now stands close to two thirds (66%). That is, 2 out of every 3 schoolchildren comes from homes where the parents are divorced - and these figures are nothing to do with racial or economic background. The kid with the white accountant father is just as likely to have divorced parents as the kid with a black bus driver as a father.

Incredibly - four fifths (yes; 80%) of those divorced fathers have no contact "at all" with the children after two years - despite having the best intentions at the time of the divorce. The other one fifth covers a spectrum of good regular contact to very little and occassional contact. George - that means that 80% of the 66 % of men who get divorced don't see their kids at all after 2 years - as they start to get more and more involved with their new families and/or partners. This means that when you stand as a teacher in front of a class in today's schools more than 50% have no contact whatsoever with their fathers...... [David Cameron talks in sound-bytes about fixing broken Britain ... food for thought..... ]

I guess all of the 66% of the marriages mentioned above (well a big majority of them anyway) started with happy photos of wedding days - white dresses - champagne - happy friends and relations all "caught" un-charitably it seems now smiling innocently on the camera - as a sad reminder of better times.

So mate..... that's the down side - in the UK at least. Perhaps its not the answer you wanted from your philosopher friend - and so I will now try to account for this sad set of statistics just a little.

Socrates (you know it had to come :) says in Symposium - which I recommend you read again this week - that we love that which we cannot have. True love is in fact an idea - a fantasy - which we do not actually live out - since we do not possess the object of our love. (He does not quite say that - but he does consider first as usual what we actually mean by love - and offer some organised thoughts as usual for us to then agree or disagree with..... )

There was a good article about true love recently - unusually I think on yahoo. It mentioned that movie Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart (Bogie) where he says: "Of all the bars in the world - you had to walk into this one".  Well its a war time movie, and he has this intense short romance with this woman who already is with this nice sensible guy - but falls in love for 6 months with charming Humphrey Bogart - the risky owner of a bar in Casablanca of all places. The final scene takes place on a small airport strip. Will Bogie get in the plane and fly away by himself - or will he stay with the girl - get married - settle down and have kids - and tell the nice steady boyfriend to bugger off :) We are not sure what he will do to the very last moment George - Hollywood at its best :)
..... Well -  against the pleas of this woman he loves very much to stay, old Bogie gets in the plane - and flies off into the sunset on his own. He loves the girl very much indeed you see - but knows the other guy will make a much better and more reliable husband to her than he will in the lon term. Their intense love affair can only go one way (down hill) if he stays - as soon as they get into the domestic routine of supermarket runs and discussions about which greens to buy - and the normal DIY nags that men usually get from their partners. Bogart was just not that sort of guy - so he flies off into the sunset  and keeps the "idea" of them being in love pure and untainted - as it has been for the 6 months of their short war time romance. He will often think of that woman he left behind in Casablanca - and often wish maybe he had stayed - and perhaps daydream fondly a little on what might have been - even many years later. But .... if he had stayed with her ....then maybe they would be divorced by now - and in fact "probably" would be if we consider the 66% statistic above. As it is - their romance will remain untainted and ideal and pure for ever. As I mention below; Socrates says: '....they will never forget the sacred bonds they once made together.....'.

Leonardo de Caprio has made a movie on a similar theme. The problems and restrictions of married life in sur-burban USA - or anywhere else for that matter. (Incidently, I have always enjoyed de Caprio movies - right from his first - where he plays that autistic 14 year old :)

Guess you were hoping for something a little more "empowering", optimistic, inspiring or supportive from me my old friend. But I guess that's it - except to encourage you to read what Socrates said in the Symposium about the matter - about 8-10 pages I guess if you ignore the other speakers. As usual, you do not have to agree with Socrates - just think about what he says and work up a few reasons of your own to disagree with him. He starts with a short discussion of what (who) love is, and then he suggests that we start our romantic lives by chasing a pretty face and then another - and after a while we realise that all pretty faces have something in common and are much the same. He says we then start to "love" the sciences and arts etc. and then finnish up by realising that only one thing can hold our love in later life and that is "the truth" - i.e. Socrates says our "love" changes and evolves as we get older. This doesn't make things easier for us necessarily - but it's a very good thing to at least understand the feelings and emotions we might be experiencing at different times in our life - and our partners might also be having. The simple truth is a man (and women I guess)  - as we get older - we start to appreciate other things in life; well according to Socrates at least - and we may of course choose not to agree with his rather clinical assessment of this particular matter.

Mind you - my old mum and Dad had 60 years of happy marriage.... as many people of their generation did...... What has changed since their generation. That's what David Cameron will have to consider if he is serious about fixing broken Britain. But such an action requires a long term vision and plan - and modern democracies seem only capable of delivering short term political adgendas with the sole priority of winning the next election.)

So take you pick....... :)

Love James.

(funny word love isn't it - especially in English when its used for so many different things.) 

My friend George then asked:
So would you say that this holds 100% true statistically or are there exceptions? Lets say, for instance, that you find your twin soul mate
but only realise it 20 years down the line when its too late because they are somewhere else now. Would you still end up wearing down the
novelty and intensity if you saw them again - only to get caught up ultimately in a supermarket discussing about which greens to buy ?

James replied:
Well George, This is a tricky question - although I'll admit its an interesting one.You ask whether that this always holds 100% true, statistically? Should Humphrey Bogart not of got on that plane because there was a good chance (about 33% according to the good old department of National Statistics) that everyone would have lived happily ever after if he had stayed. Or; can he 25 years later - perhaps now a little podgy and bald - go back to the woman and say he made a big mistake - leave your husband and 3 kids and come back to Casablanca with me and it will be just like old times........???    I guess you do not want to hear the statistics on this one George.   Lets just say, for instance, that you find your twin soul mate but realise it 20 years down the line when its too late because they are somewhere else now ... would you still end up wearing down the passion and love - if you saw them again and got involved, only to get caught up ultimately in the supermarket's web? As Bogie says in the movie - is it a good idea to: 'play it again Sam'.

A Couple of quick thoughts:

1) Oh yes George - there are exceptions to every rule - and certainly to the trend I suggested to you in my email (above) on marriage and love. If two thirds of kid's parents are divorced - it still means that 10 sets of parents out of a class of 30 kids (say 15 year olds) have been at it (marriage that is) for a good 15 years or so. Like I say - many people like my parents had a happy 60 years of marriage. (60 happy years with someone else !!!) Happy marriages include the ups and downs - for betters and worses - for richer and poorers - along the way. Long marriage or any relationship is not necessarily a walk in the park on a spring morning every day of the year for anyone.
2) ...... interestingly this alterring (confusing) of gender roles in the name of political correctness this last 20 - 30 years has done nothing to help the divorce rates - far from it actually. My mother and father (and most of their generation) knew who wore the trousers - and who cooked the meal and did the ironing.  Life was more simple - people knew what was expected of them and took great satisfaction from "doing their bit" well - a nice clean step and line of washing on a Monday morning as it were.
3) Happiness can of course also be found in simple things when you are with someone you care about - so I am not knocking a discussion of which vegetables to buy per se with a loved one :) It can even be great when you've sneaked away to the little cottage for a few days - and pop into Waitrose hoping no-one will recognise you. But after 20 years maybe the supermarket run can wear a little thin ? (Perhaps this is just my personal aversion to supermarkets and shopping generally :)
4) Exceptions can also be "many" of course - e.g. when George Bush stood for re-election in the USA, a record turn out of 55 million voted him in for a second term ..... BUT also a record 51 million voted for the other guy who lost - whose name of course no-one remembers.
5) However, we must also unfortunately admit that of the 33% who do stay married for say 15 or more years - that its not because of "true love" in every case. I know several couples who make the best of it "for the kids", or in fear of lonliness, the joint mortgage and house implications, and a number of other reasons. It would be interesting to know for sure how many of that 33% list "true love" as their main reason for staying together in their own private thoughts.... 

But more specifically in answer to your question: "If you find your twin soul mate but realise it 20 years down the line - when its too late because they are somewhere else now ... would you still end up wearing down the passion, intensity, and maybe novelty?" Well the answer to this one George is a definite YES and NO. The truth is George - it's not "always" too late as you suggest - although I guess it often is. One can pick up the pieces of a friendship / relationships after 20 years (sometimes) and give it a try.... and I would say that there is a 50:50 chance of it working out OK. And 50:50 is a bloody good chance actually - and well worth giving a go in my view.

.... but lets take an 'impersonal' example or two. Humphrey Bogart flies off in 1945 at the end of the second world war (aged say 30 - slim, vibrant, with hair) from his one true love; and then suddenly bumps into her after say seeing a movie at the end of the late 1960's now aged 45-50. They exchange phone numbers quickly - say they must do lunch or something for old times sake - and since he has thought about this woman regularly for 25+ years - he calls her. She's had 3 nice kids and 2 little horrors, and 2 divorces - BUT - she is not with anyone just at the moment. So Humphrey - plus 25 years, an extra 12 kilos, minus hair, goes to meet her. They chat - they get on....... they reminisce .... maybe they give it a try ..... maybe it works out...... 50:50 at best.....  I would say mate - but that would be good enough odds for me to give it a chance if it was true love  - soul mates etc.

Soul mates..... well there is a interesting term.... and I am sure one that Socrates would approve of .... and who would also say like I wrote before: .... "they will never forget the sacred bonds they once made together..... " so its a definite "maybe" from Socrates that it might work out OK.

On the down side.... one is usually only remembering the good bits maybe from a relationship 20 years ago. (Selective memories and all that) People say: "If only I'd stayed with X things would be much better now......... ". But would they really ? BUT then if one gives it a try and it does not work out what has one lost - nothing :)


NB: In short - and after writing perhaps rather cautiously above - I will confess that I still believe in the longevity of true love and always will :)

Monday, June 10, 2013

On Love - 01 - Love Has Many Guises

Back in 2012 several people gave their views on love in the Guardian Newspaper. The psychotherapist Philippa Perry wrote: 'Love has many guises'.

.....'Unlike us, the ancients did not lump all the various emotions that we label "love" under the one word. They had several variations, including:

Philia which they saw as a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle. Ludus describes a more playful affection found in fooling around or flirting.

Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding.

Agape is a more generalised love, it's not about exclusivity but about love for all of humanity.

Philautia is self love, which isn't as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself.

Eros  Although last, and probably least even though it causes the most trouble, eros is about sexual passion and desire. Unless it morphs into philia and/or pragma, eros will burn itself out.

Love is all of the above. But is it possibly unrealistic to expect to experience all six types with only one person. This is why family and community are important.

(Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and author of Couch Fiction.) [http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/13/what-is-love-five-theories]

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How Algorithms Shape Our World

Well we all have kinda heard of "algorithms" (something to do with maths or is it computers?) and we all kinda think that they are being used by clever people to sort stuff out in the world "for us"... Think again. This interesting talk on TED about algoriths and what can happen when the maths gets out of control is well worth 15 minutes of anyone's life..... :

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Thoughts 4 Today – Arete – and Living with Virtue and Excellence

Part 1.

Dear George,

I hope you are keeping well old friend. 

Well, I did say that I wanted to write to you about that matter we discussed on Skype last week – that of using spare leisure time more productively – as advised by Aristotle – if we wish to be as happy as possible and live “the good or best kind of life possible”. Now there is a chap call A E Taylor, who is a respected academic who has written this very interesting little book called simply ‘ARISTOTLE’ – and he gives an easily read summary for enthusiastic but slightly lazy people like me on Aristotle's main areas of influence. One of these areas is “practical philosophy” – that of making either ourselves and/or our communities better in some way.

Aristotle believes that the two are closely connected – communities only being the sum of the parts i.e. individuals like us. We cannot improve our communities until we improve ourselves in other words – well at least according to Aristotle anyway.

One of the points of Aristotle I mention in my regular “practical philosophy” talk is: Leisure time as the best use of life –and not work for works sake…. I also quote from Taylor’s book as follows:

[According to Aristotle…] ‘… leisure time calls into play the very highest of our own capacities as intelligent beings, and for that very reason the active living of it is attended with the purest of all pleasures. In it, moreover, we enter at intervals and for a little while, so far as the conditions of our mundane existence allow, into the life which God enjoys through an unbroken eternity. Thus we reach the curious paradox that while the life of contemplation is said to be that of our truest self, it is also maintained that this highest and happiest life is one which we live, not in respect of being human, but in respect of having a divine something in us.

     When we ask what this life of contemplation includes, we see from references in the Politics that it includes the genuinely aesthetic appreciation of good literature and music and pictorial and plastic art, but there can be no doubt that what bulks most largely in Aristotle's mind is the active pursuit of science for its own sake, particularly of such studies as First Philosophy and Physics, which deal with the fundamental structure of the universe. Aristotle thus definitely ends by placing the life of the scholar and the student on the very summit of happiness…...’

Of course George, it does not have to be scientific studies that give us the most pleasure – as Taylor believes is what pleases Aristotle most; it can be all manner of artistic, musical, or practical things; some people love gardening, fishing, walking, reading, acting or whatever George . The point is – it’s no good having lots of leisure time if we are not going to enjoy that time – and feel fed up and bored all the time - and wish we had something to do.

Looking forward to our next Skype.


Part 2

Hi George,

I just wanted to add 3 or 4 short paragraphs to that previous note I sent you on Aristotle and using leisure time better – hopefully without repeating myself too much. Be sure George – that while it may appear that I am giving you advice here – it is much more accurate to say that by articulating these important “essences” of philosophers like Aristotle to you – it is helping me to clarify them myself and then keep them fresh in my own mind as well.

Well this ancient Greek idea of ARETE – is basically about developing VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE in various aspects of our life – and in particular during that aspect of life over which we have most control LEISURE; which as mentioned above is what Aristotle sees as the most important part of life. We should work to live he believes – and not live to work. I wonder what Angela Merkel would have to say about that :) 

However, if we are not going to waste our leisure time – and use it productively and indeed wisely – and in time use it with virtue and excellence – then we need a way of measuring it and assessing how we are doing in the process. Now to review how we are doing in “specific” areas of our leisure and spare time (as opposed to that part of the week/month we obliged to earn a living) it is helpful to have a “doable” measurable list of 'specific' items you would like to achieve by say a certain date – e.g. “within the next 3 or 6 or 12 months”. 

A very practical and easy example might be the moderate fun marathon runner who wants to knock 20 minutes off his time; or old James going to the gym who wants to lose 6 kilos in 3 months and wants to up the weights by 10% in the same time frame. All are easily “doable” with just a little routine and minimum extra effort – providing we can up the self-discipline a bit. I have chosen physical examples – but I can add intellectual activities to my list as well – e.g. read a minimum of 6 books a year – try to write a short blog post every month to each of my two blogs, attend four good lectures in a year, see one good play and a concert every 6 months.

Now the important thing about my example “TARGETS” above – is that they all reflect MILD IMPROVEMENT (i.e. are all very doable) – and I can accurately assess my targets – since they are clear, specific and measurable.

The tiny extra bit of self-discipline required might be more easily improved if I see the whole process as a “sacred” or at least “spiritual and philosophical” endeavour.

Socrates advises us to KNOW THYSELF – and after we get some way towards this we must then try of course to BE OURSELF – or the person we at least think we are or ought to be. This is often not easy at all at first – especially with the outside pressures of the modern consumerist world requiring our time and physical plus mental energies . We most likely will get things wrong for some periods of time. But after a while we will start to get better at it – this excellent way of living which gives us ARETE and feelings of happiness and well being. (Greek: Eudaimonia) We begin to see the results of our efforts. 

Then comes the last challenge in this area - of keeping it all going – which is made easier with sensible and moderate targets in the first place. (e.g. How many people loose 10 kilos at the gym one year - simply to put it all back on again the following year.... )   Aristotle says we want to achieve a “settled” condition of character and soul – where we are not “trying” too hard after a while – it all becomes natural and just the way we are. That is; we will actually start to be our self on a sustained and effortless basis – which is all part of living with virtue and excellence.

In short we have to stop faffing about at things and wasting time – and especially leisure time. We need to get on with what we have to do for a few hours a day – or days per week – and then stop worrying about them and do something we enjoy doing – and then try to do it well - or a little bit better.

I guess that this is basically the “essence” of what Aristotle is on about when it comes to ARETE and living with VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE. I will take a more formal look at the four virtues of Aristotle another time – but it is the “essence” of the matter that is the most important think to grasp…..


For a more formal look at Virtue and Excellence and how this plays on the psyche and soul in Socratic and Platonic philosophy see the post on my other blog at:

The Three Powers of the Psyche (Soul) and their Virtue

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Life Is An Opportunity

Whether we are spiritual and religious kinds of people or not, I hope that we can agree at least that as far as most people in the developed world are concerned; ‘life is an opportunity’. By this statement I mean that most people have the opportunity to live in various ways according to the choices they make. I limit for the most part this simple phrase to people in the “developed” world since they are for the most part given the opportunity of basic education, basic needs like shelter and food, and the important political and religious freedoms to make the choices they want.

As is only too apparent, basic opportunities like education and religious freedom (including the right not to believe) are still not universal throughout the planet where for many people just finding clean drinking water and enough food to eat still takes up most of each day. I suggest that in these and similar cases life is much less an opportunity and simply a struggle for survival. However, if you are reading this – either at home, in the office, or in the coffee shop – then this basic survival lifestyle does not apply to you, and your life really is an opportunity……

So within the boundaries above that I have put on this phrase: ‘life is an opportunity’ – I would like to explore with those interested what I mean by “opportunity” and I should say at the outset that this means an opportunity to fulfil certain potentials we all have as human beings or not; and that I am also mainly referring to spiritual and intellectual opportunities which we can all benefit from if we only choose to do so.