Patanjali in a lab coat

That modern science is somehow “catching up” with Eastern philosophy (logos uniting with mythos, as it were) is an old idea.

At least 25 years old, if you date it to Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, a good book then which could be even better if written now.

In my mind, this convergence redounds to, rather than detracts from, both science and Eastern philosophy. (It does, however, make the “Western”, ie monotheistic, religions look ever more outdated.)

I will state the premise thus:

The millennia-old traditions of India and China express in metaphorical language concepts that we are today corroborating in scientific language.

Definitions:

  • By “Indian” traditions I mean Vedantic philosophy and all its offshoots, from Yoga and Ayurveda to Buddhism.
  • By “Chinese” tradition, I mean Taoism and Chinese medicine.

(Zen, for example is thus included, for it is basically the Japanese form of the Chinese version of the Indian tradition of Buddhism.)

This premise yields a rich genre of research and inquiry. Here are three examples:

  1. one from within our bodies,
  2. one from the workings of our minds, and
  3. one from the entire cosmos.

1) In search of qi

A dear friend of mine is a successful Western doctor who is now also certified in Chinese medicine. In our conversations, we spend lots of our time “translating” Eastern concepts such as qi (prana in Sanskrit) into “Western” medical vocabulary.

Usually the medical vocabulary is less beautiful and less elegant but also less threatening to people in the Western mainstream, and hence useful. Qi, for example, is simply the (measurable) bioelectric energy in our bodies.

Once translated, seemingly occult claims by Eastern medicine offer themselves much more readily to scientific experimentation. The needles in acupuncture, for instance, are nothing but tiny antennas, which can receive, re-transmit and amplify electro-magnetic vibrations — in other words, qi. We should be able to measure this.

Ditto for the chakras. I’ve written before about how the chakras correspond to Western psychological concepts such as those of Abe Maslow. But in essence, they are simply the swirls of bioelectric energy you get in the ganglia along our spine where many nerves (ie, many little antennas) converge. Again, we should be able to measure and observe them.

2) The monkey mind of misery

You might recall that I awarded the prize of “greatest thinker” in world history to Patanjali, a contemporary of the Buddha in India and the author of the Yoga Sutras. His insight was that happiness, balance and unity (= yoga, loosely) are products of only one thing:

A still mind.

The rest of the Yoga Sutras are, in effect, an analysis of how things go wrong when our minds wander, and a manual of how to return the mind to stillness. (That’s all Yoga is, really.)

Buddhism and Zen aim to do the exact same thing. Our slightly modish concept of “flow” is also the exact same thing. Total absorption into any one thing = stillness of mind.

The opposite of a still mind is often depicted as a monkey mind in Eastern tradition. It makes us miserable.

Now two boffins at Harvard — Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert — have developed an ingenious experiment using (what else?) an iPhone app.

(Thank you to Mr Crotchety for forwarding their article in Science Magazine.)

The app, at random moments, asks people questions such as:

  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What are you doing right now?
  • Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?
  • If yes, something pleasant, neutral; or unpleasant?

The huge sample of data shows, as Killingsworth and Gilbert put it, that

A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Specifically, our minds (ie, the minds beings sampled) wandered about half the time (46.9%). And it did not matter what people were doing at the time! If they were doing pleasant things, their minds wandered just as much, and not necessarily to pleasant thoughts.

Furthermore, people were less happy whenever their minds wandered, even when they were thinking pleasant thoughts. (Obviously, unpleasant thoughts made them even more miserable than pleasant thoughts, but the point is that any mind-wandering discomforted them.)

And Patanjali said all that in the second sentence. ;)

(However, there is a fascinating twist — a benefit of mind-wandering — that touches on a subject dear to my heart: creativity. I’ll save that for a separate post.)

3) The cosmic parade of ants

In Indian tradition, there was not just one Big Bang. There have been infinitely many. That’s because the universe is born, expands, collapses and is reborn in an eternal cycle.

In metaphorical language,

  • each creation (or Big Bang) is the work of Brahma,
  • each expansion that of Vishnu, and
  • each collapse that of Shiva.

But these three are all part of the same underlying reality (Brahman). Metaphorically, Brahman is inhaling and exhaling, and each breath is its own spacetime, as Einstein might put it.

Because this is hard to grasp, even gods need reminding of it. Hence, for instance, the story of Indra and the Parade of Ants.

Indra

Indra was haughty and summoned a great architect to build a splendid palace. He kept adding requirements so that the architect was never done. Brahma (ie, also Vishnu and Shiva) decided to teach Indra a little lesson and appeared to him as a boy.

Boy: Will you ever complete this palace? After all no Indra has ever completed it before.

Indra: What do you mean, “no Indra”? There were other Indras?

Boy: Oh yes. When twenty-eight Indras have come and gone, only one day and night of Brahma has passed.

And just then, an endless parade of ants filed in and through the palace. Each one, said the boy, was once an Indra.

Our science currently tells us that our universe started (in earth time) 14 billion years ago. But now I read that Roger Penrose, a famous British mathematician, and V. G. Gurzadyan, a physicist, have found patterns in the microwave radiation generated by the Big Bang which suggest that

our universe may “be but one aeon in a (perhaps unending) succession of such aeons.” What we think of as our “universe” may simply be one link in a chain of universes, each beginning with a big bang and ending in a way that sends detectable gravitational waves into the next universe.

Somewhere between Apollo & Dionysus

Apollo

Friedrich Nietzsche not only loved Greek art and culture per se but he was also, as we discussed the other day, always searching for timeless lessons from the Greeks to help us understand modernity and ourselves.

He found one such lesson in an apparent duality that ran through all of Greek art: the tension between two gods who were also two archetypes and half-brothers: Apollo and Dionysus.

Think of them as a Greek Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of the sun and wisdom, as well as poetry and music, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yang (ie, the bright, masculine sun).

Dionysus, the god of wine, intoxication, ecstasy, passion and instinct, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yin (ie, the dark, feminine moon).

Obviously, I am stretching that analogy, so don’t get too wound up about it. If you prefer, you can think of them in our contemporary pop-psychology terms of left brain (Apollo) and right brain (Dionysus).

Dionysus

So why should this duality be so interesting, for the Greeks or for us?

From Homer to John Wayne: The Apollonian

Nietzsche saw in these two archetypes two approaches to art, and indeed life.

Homer, for example, followed his Apollonian instinct in writing the Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. How so? Because he glorified the war against Troy and the subsequent nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus. He made these stories beautiful, as Apollo was. He gave the Greeks and us role models.

He made the Greeks proud to be Greeks, proud to descend from whichever hero in the long catalogue of ships they traced their lineage to. He made them aware of their individuality, of the structures of society, of its fundamental order to which, after intervening episodes of wrath (see: Achilles), everything must return.

Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche compares this to, for example, our Westerns (the ones with John Wayne more than those with Clint Eastwood). There, too, you see people dying, but they die in a stylized, Homeric way: The bullet hits and they tumble from their horses, looking good as they do so. They are our heroes, beyond the sordidness of reality.

Young gives another modern example: women’s magazines. Those are full of celebrities (our goddesses?) with their tales of disease, divorce, death and drugs. The subtext is ugly, and yet it is presented to us as glamour.

Nietzsche calls this being “superficial out of profundity.” Apollonian art does not censor facts (such as death) but perspectives. It involves a certain amount of self-deception, but it is uplifting. It deifies everything human, whether good or bad. And so it is, yes, religion.

From Sophocles to the rock concert: The Dionysian

By contrast, Aeschylus and Sophocles (but not Euripides, see below) followed their Dionysian instincts in the tragedies they created the fifth century BCE. This might have been expected: Those tragedies were, after all, performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus.

Dionysian art is about the abandonment of order, or ecstasy (ex-stasis = standing out of everyday consciousness). It transcends words or concepts. This is why it tends to involve visuals and music.

Music was in fact an important part of Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies (we just don’t know how it sounded, what a pity!). Apparently, the audience sang along with the chorus and became one with it.

The individuals there would have become hypnotized by the sound (rather as yogis feel a certain ‘vibe’ when chanting Om with others). In fact, they would have, as one says, lost themselves in the crowd. They would have stopped feeling separate and individual, Athenian or Greek. They would have had (Freud’s) oceanic feeling.

Credit: Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Young compares this to our rock concerts or raves, to our football and soccer stadiums. Dionysian art is a trance and a trip, usually good, sometimes bad.

It is, in contrast to some Apollonian art, apolitical and devoid of any message. The Athenians participating in Sophocles’ tragedies stopped caring about worldly affairs. They became almost apathetic.

This was the only way they could bear to see their heroes — those same Apollonian heroes — torn down and devastated, knowing that they themselves might meet the same fate, understanding that reality was sordid, that it was primal and dark, and that it demanded to be accepted in that way. And they found a beauty in that feeling, too. So it, too, was a form of religion.

From Socrates to Princess Diana: What Nietzsche decried

Nietzsche loved both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, understanding that, like yin and yang, neither can ever be denied.

What he did not like, however, might surprise you: Socrates.

Why? Because Socrates represented, to Nietzsche, the religion of reason — not Apollonian wisdom but cold, methodical logic. In that sense, Nietzsche believed that Socrates “killed” Attic tragedy and Homeric poetry, and the playwright who represented that trend (to Nietzsche) was Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians.

Our own age, Nietzsche might say, is “Socratic” in the sense of scientific and myth-less, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. Because we can’t act out these two instincts, we instead cobble together what Young calls “myth fragments”. We don’t release urges, as the Greeks did, but instead look for thrills, for sex and drugs and trips. We sky- and scuba-dive, we get a new app.

We worship neither Dionysus or Apollo but idols like Princess Diana. How appropriate, since Diana was the Roman Artemis, sister of Apollo.

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Competitive Christians on poles

Constantine

The Roman emperor Constantine (above) caused a counterintuitive problem for early Christians.

By converting to Christianity and making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in about 313 AD, Constantine made it impossible for early Christians to be either confessors or martyrs.

  1. To be a confessor meant to acknowledge openly to the Roman bureaucracy that you were a Christian. This carried the risk of martyrdom.
  2. To be a martyr then meant actually going through with the process and dying for your faith.

Why was this a problem?

Because these were the two main ways in which early Christians competed for religious kudos — and those Christians were (are?) a competitive bunch. Both confessing and martyrdom constituted a sort of second baptism and suggested spiritual excellence.

Being martyred, in particular, was surprisingly difficult, since the Romans (with rare exceptions, as under Diocletian) did not actually want to kill anybody because of religion. Historians have recovered trial transcripts that show how eager the Roman administrators were to accommodate Christians. The administrator might ask the confessor whether he might, please, consider a small sacrifice — not to any pagan gods but merely to the Emperor. No? OK, how about a pinch of incense just to acknowledge the Emperor? No? OK, how about….

But when the Roman Empire officially became Christian, this form of Christian achievement came to a complete and screeching halt.

Christians had to find some other way to excel….

(What follows is based on Lecture 5 of Philip Daileader’s excellent course on the Early Middle Ages.)

The first monk

In perhaps the strangest psychological twist in human history, the most competitive Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries AD responded by, in effect, martyring themselves (ie, attacking their own bodies).

Perhaps the most famous to do so was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. Early in his career, when it was still possible, he tried and failed to get himself martyred in Alexandria. When that didn’t work, he went far into the desert to live as a hermit.

He was, in Greek, a Monakhos, a lonely one (as in mono, one; and of course monk).

He ate nothing, slept little, did everything to punish the human senses. (No sex ever, it goes without saying.) When that made him delirious, he imagined that demons and Satan himself attacked him, but he despatched them heroically. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of that cheerful anecdote:

Word of Anthony’s self-torture got out, and other Christians traveled to the desert to see him. Anthony, of course, wanted to be a Monakhos, so he moved further into the desert to lose his groupies. Eventually, he gave up and accepted that his followers were going to live together in the desert near him, in a sort of … monastery (not that lonely anymore, obviously).

Anthony’s fame soon spread west and throughout the Roman Empire. The reason was that a man named Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a publisher with a sense of Zeitgeist, wrote a book called Life of Saint Anthony, describing what Anthony got up to in the desert.

From the book’s title, you notice that Anthony is now a “saint”. And thus a new genre is born: the hagiography. (Greek hagio = saint, as in Hagia Sophia; graphe = writing.)

To put this in contemporary perspective, Life of Saint Anthony was the Eat, Pray, Love of the late Roman Empire. Everybody suddenly wanted to try it out…

Grazers, fools and stylites

The result was a competitive free-for-all, as Christians tried to one-up each other in search of spiritual kudos.

  • The Grazers, for example, ate only grass and shoots and chained themselves up as barnyard animals.
  • The Holy Fools behaved as though they were insane, or tried to be insane. The most famous of them once paraded into the women’s bathhouse and disrobed, at which point the women, suspecting that he might be less foolish than he pretended, beat and ejected him.
  • The Stylites lived on top of pillars (Greek stylos) or poles.

The most famous Stylite, named Simeon (above) and also sainted before long, lived on top of his pole for some 40 years. (He reminds me of some tree sitters in Berkeley that I wrote about in The Economist once.) People sent food up to him via ladders and pulleys and presumably received and disposed of Simeon’s detritus by the same method.

Simeon became a tourist spectacle. Crowds watched from below as he performed painful exercises. He once touched his feet with his head 1,244 times in succession.

Exegesis

Let’s sit back for a moment, perhaps with a glass of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon and a cavalier mindset, and reflect.

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know that I have a recurring Diogenes fantasy. Diogenes was the guy in classical Greece who lived in a barrel like a dog (the first “cynic”).

But Diogenes did that to be free, not to compete with other barrel-dwellers. He was an eccentric.

You may also recall that I admire Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha. Many yogis and Buddhists also (then as now) practice asceticism.

But, like Diogenes, they also do so in search of freedom. (The Sanskrit word for this kind of freedom is moksha, which is achieved at the highest stage of yoga, which is called kaivalya or detachment.)

For them, asceticism is a way to reclaim our peace of mind from the oppressive push and pull of our desires (appetite, lust, jealousy, et cetera). It is a path toward clarity, serenity and humility.

Somehow, this kind of freedom seems not to have factored as a motivation for the pole-sitting Christians.

A seconds difference:

Christianity soon turned lifelong asceticism and total chastity into a virtue.

By contrast, asceticism in antiquity and in Eastern philosophy was a temporary effort, practiced at a certain stage of life.

Vestal Virgin

The Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, for example, were expected to remain chaste while serving the goddess of the hearth (Roman Vesta or Greek Hestia). But only until they were 30! Then they were expected to do the natural and healthy thing, which was to get married and start a family.

Hindus and yogis first make a living, marry and have sex, start a family, and then, at the end of life, withdraw into asceticism to contemplate the absurdity of it all. (This is called sannyasa, and it is the last of the life stages, or asrama.)

So, asceticism has a place in many spiritual traditions.

But what were these early Christians up to? Were their stunts not huge ego trips?

Worse, did they not begin what Nietzsche would later consider the ultimate perversion of nature — by slandering every one of nature’s instincts to be evil? Were they not fundamentally … sick?

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Nietzsche: Bitter truth or happy illusion?

Nietzsche

“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.” So Friedrich Nietzsche, aged only 19, ends a touching letter to his younger sister Elizabeth.

Nietzsche, son of a (by then dead) Lutheran pastor from a small, conservative town and family, was at this time a student in Bonn, drinking too much (and getting a beer belly) in his fraternity and even engaging in the odd duel and dropping by the odd brothel. Above all, however, he was expanding his mind. And with that came certain ideas.

Ideas about God, in particular. They horrified his mother and younger sister, who otherwise adored Fritz. Fritz, as we now know, would go on to become the bad boy of philosophy, the man who told us that God is dead and so forth. Those would be the ideas for which I consider him one of the world’s greatest thinkers. But at this point, he was just a sweet older brother, being tender with his li’l sis.

Elizabeth, hoping to bring him back to the church, had written him that

it is much easier not to believe than the opposite, and the difficult thing is likely to be the right course to take…

(I am quoting all this from pages 58-60 in Julian Young’s excellent “philosophical biography” of Nietzsche, which I am currently devouring.)

To which brother Fritz answered:

… Concerning your basic principle, that truth is always to be found on the side of the more difficult, I agree in part. However, it is difficult to believe that 2 x 2 does not equal 4. Does that make it therefore truer?

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?

Is the most important thing to arrive at that view of God, world and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Is not the true inquirer totally indifferent to what the result of his inquiries might be? When we inquire, are we seeking for rest, peace, happiness? Not so; we seek only truth even though it be in the highest  degree ugly and repellent.

Still one final question: if we had believed from our youth onwards that all salvation issued from someone other than Jesus, from Mohammed for example, is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? It is the faith that makes blessed, not the objective reality that stands behind the faith. I write this to you, dear Lisbeth, simply with the view of meeting the line of proof usually adopted by religious people, who appeal to their inner experiences to demonstrate the infallibility of their faith. Every true faith is infallible, it accomplishes what the person holding the faith hopes to find in it, but that does not offer the slightest support for a proof of its objective truth.

Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

There are some timeless ideas in this innocent passage. For instance, Nietzsche already phrased (more eloquently, I might add) what would become Richard Dawkins’ opening attack in The God Delusion in our time.

And he expressed (again, more eloquently) what every free thinker feeling the pressures of political correctness has felt since. (Compare, for instance, Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist at the LSE I like to read.)

Yes, there is indeed a choice to be made.

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Was Socrates an atheist?

Toward the end of my three-page article about “Socrates in America” in the Christmas issue of The Economist, there are these two lines:

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist. As was his wont, however, he cared more about debating, with a man named Euthrypho on the steps of the courthouse before his preliminary hearing, what piety even meant.

(This refers to one of the two charges against Socrates at his trial, which was disbelief in/disrespect for “the gods of the city.”)

By the placement of these lines, and by the word count I devoted to them (1% of the total words in the article), readers should be able to tell how interested I, as the writer, was in this particular point.

Ie, not very.

To quote I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates on the matter:

It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. The discussion of his religious views diverts attention from the real issues….

But I should have known better. After all, the word atheism appears!

It is a word that makes many people, but Americans in particular, go ballistic. Indeed, it is something of a Rorschach test: Mention it, and people immediately project their ideas, fears, and beliefs into the conversation. Whatever the conversation was about, it is now about something else.

Readers react

One of the online commenters, somebody named “RPB2″, tries to refute the possibility that Socrates was atheist by quoting him (presumably from English translations). Thus Socrates says in the Apology:

For I do believe that there are gods and in a far higher sense than any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.

And in the Phaedo, he says:

In this present life I believe that we most nearly approach knowledge when we have the least possible bodily concerns and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.

In the Republic, he says:

[Society's leaders] must be able to see the one in the many, to appreciate and realize the great truth of the unity of all virtues, have a genuine knowledge of God and the ways of God, and must not be content to rest on faith in traditions, but must really understand. Only in this way can they order all things for the benefit of all

From this RPB2 concludes:

You really have to work to find an atheist here; and thus, sadly, one can see that this article indicates that erudition often does not equate to understanding.

Another commenter, Michael  Bessette, offers RPB2 his support:

… Socrates repeatedly invokes not only gods, but “the god”, as in this famous passage from the Apology: “Athenians, I honor and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you” (29d). Socrates further asserts that he has been specially chosen by “the god” to persuade the people of Athens of their ignorance (23b) and that abandoning this mission would mean also abandoning his god (30a)…

And a reader named Robert J. Farrell from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, wrote in a letter:
… the most extraordinary statement in the piece is its labeling Socrates an atheist.  No one can read the accounts given by Xenophon or Plato without recognizing the philosopher’s piety.  His own pilgrimage to Delphi attests to this; and many, many statements exceptionlessly confirm it.  Indeed, he comes across as being very close to monotheism; for, as my tutor remarked years ago, whenever in the Memorabilia he is most earnestly referring to the divine , he speaks of “the god” (ho theos) rather than of “the gods” (hoi theoi).  To call Socrates an atheist for his coolness towards the conventional polytheism of the state is as misleading as it would be to so label Jesus because of his confrontation with the priesthood of the Temple…

Discussion

Let’s examine some of these points.

First, what does it prove if Socrates uses, in the writings of Plato or Xenophon, the word “gods”? Not a whole lot, I submit.

All sorts of atheists today scream Goddammit every time they hit the rush hour, and atheist starlets stammer Ohmigawd, ohmigawd when accepting their Oscars. We have to distinguish between a word as figure of speech, as familiar trope to facilitate communication, and as intended content.

What I find curious in the quotes above is the capitalization of the word God. It’s a loaded capital letter, to say the least. In fact, let’s use this occasion to parse some terms:

1) Monotheism:

Is it possible that Socrates believed that there was only one god? I believe we can rule this out. The Greeks did not have that concept. (Even the Jews, who invented it, were just developing at this time, in the century following the Babylonian captivity, as Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God explains quite well.)

2) Atheism:

Admittedly, the same is true for our modern concept of atheism–ie, the Greeks did not have that concept. If somebody was “godless”, that meant he had been abandoned by one god or goddess or another. It did not meant that he denied their existence.

3) Polytheism

Aphrodite

Polytheism is how the Greeks (and most of the world at the time) understood divinity. Alas, this is a concept that has become quite alien to us (unless you happen to be, say, Hindu), so we are the ones struggling to understand it.

Polytheism was an infinitely stretchable and flexible spiritual instinct. A polytheist had mental room not just for many gods and goddesses but for new gods and for other people’s gods. Even the Greek pantheon included many gods and goddesses (Aphrodite, eg) “imported” from Mesopotamia and thereabouts, for instance.

4) Pantheism

So polytheists were also, by implication, pantheists. They had an expandable pantheon of gods, and divinity was to be found everywhere and in everything.

Zeus

Put differently, gods and goddesses were often personifications of things. Zeus/Jupiter/Thor/Baal of thunder, for example. Hermes of humble door-thresholds, among other things. Hestia of the hearth. Helios/Apollo of the sun. Kronos of time (→ Chrono-logy). And so on.

Names of things in effect became potential divinities. Sophia could be thought of as a goddess of wisdom, tyche (Roman fortuna) could not just mean luck but be the goddess of fortune, and so forth.

(In fact, I.F. Stone, believes that Socrates’ indictment for “impiety” referred specifically to two such personifications/divinities: The “gods of the city” of Athens may have been understood to be Peitho, a personification of “democracy” and thus a political concept, and Agora, which meant not only marketplace but also assembly, and thus dovetailed with Peitho.)

It was, in other words, a rich and metaphorical way of expressing ideas and telling stories. Eloquent people at the time were as unlikely to avoid using tropes of divinity as we are today to avoid metaphors.

“Science”

Having said all that, there was something interesting that happened in the Greek world at around this time, and we might think of it as the beginnings of “science”.

The Greeks traditionally relied on their religion (their “myths” to us) to explain the world. And they relied in particular on the corpus of stories in Homer and Hesiod.

Thus, if summer turned to winter (a perplexing process, if you think about it) it was because Persephone returned to her husband Hades, thus making her mother Demeter, the goddess of fertility and grain, so sad that she turned the earth barren for half a year. If somebody went into a rage and killed innocent people, it was because a jealous god or goddess possessed him temporarily (eg, Hera possessing Hercules). And so on.

Heraclitus

But, starting about 200 years before Socrates’ trial, some (mainly Ionian) Greeks rejected these mythological explanations and tried to use direct observation of nature (physis in Greek, as in physics) and reason (logos) to explain the world.

These were the so-called “pre-Socratics”, such as Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Heraclitus. They wanted to know what things were ultimately made of (fire, earth, water, etc) and how they changed. They wanted to understand the world better and differently.

So they ignored the gods. I don’t think they boycotted temples and sacrifices and other fun cultural activities, just as even Richard Dawkins today might sing along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the gods ceased, for them, to explain anything. In that sense, you might say, using a modern term, that they were atheists.

Pre-Socratic Socrates

Now let’s talk about Socrates. The first thing to know about him, as silly as it sounds, was that he spent the first half of his career as a pre-Socratic philosopher. (Obviously, “pre-Socratic” is a term we invented, not the Greeks). This is to say that he also tried to do “science”, to inquire into the nature and causes of the physical world and its phenomena.

Aristophanes

This is the Socrates, aged about 40, whom Aristophanes mocked in his comedy The Clouds. In that play, Socrates runs a “thinkery” where he examines how far flies jump and how they fart–presumably, with the Athenian audience, including Socrates, in stitches.

And Aristophanes has the Socrates in that thinkery argue that “Zeus does not exist.” “If no Zeus, then whence comes the rain?” he is asked by Strepsiades, a country bumpkin. Socrates offers another explanation for rain, and Strepsiades admits that he had always thought it was “Zeus pissing down upon earth through a sieve.” But at the end of the play, he burns down Socrates’ Thinkery, saying “strike, smite them, spare them not, for many reasons, But most because they have blasphemed the gods.”

Now, folks, this is humor. I get that. But there is more to it. Aristophanes was describing a new (proto-atheistic) worldview in a hilarious way. Socrates would, twenty-four years hence, at his own trial, say that this (ie, The Clouds) is where the charge of impiety originated.

The Socratic “turn”

At about the time of The Clouds Socrates had a wrenching midlife crisis. Apparently, he came to believe that he was not very good at being a philosopher–ie, he became frustrated by his inability to explain nature satisfactorily.

So he made his famous “turn”: away from questions about nature and toward the humanistic subjects of ethics, politics and meta-physics (literally: “beyond nature”). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he invented all three as subjects.

Hades and Cerberus

But he brought with him his pre-Socratic proto-atheism, by which I mean his tendency to ignore myth and gods as explanations for anything.

For example, on his own deathbed he gives a moving (but confusing) speech about death and the immortality of the soul. As it happens, this should not have been necessary: Greek religion gave detailed information about what happened after death. You took a gold coin with you, went down to Hades, past Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog. Then you gave your coin to Charon, the boatman, who ferried you across the river Styx, where you would henceforth hang around as a shadow. Lots and lots of heros (Hercules, Odysseus….) had already been down there and come back to tell us about it.

But no, Socrates had none of that. No Thanatos, no Hades, no Charon. He used his reason alone. Again, I consider that proto-atheist.

Theism, Deism …

Did Socrates ever go one step further and deny spirituality or divinity? No. I doubt he was interested in that.

Did he really believe, as he claimed when addressing his jury, that his own personal daimonion (“little divine thing,” whence our daemon) talked to him to warn him of danger? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Did he consider himself a proto-atheist? Perhaps, perhaps not. The one time he could have spoken about the matter explicitly, during his trial, he reverted to form (ie, Socratic irony and dialectic) and maneuvered his accuser, Meletus, into defining atheism as both believing in unorthodox gods and no gods at all, which is impossible at the same time. He was a wise ass, in short.

So we do not know, and we will not know.

What we can agree on, I believe, is that Socrates was a highly unusual man with unusual opinions and extremely unorthodox views about everything, including religion. Whatever he believed, neither atheists nor theists today can claim his support to wage their ongoing battle.

In this respect, in fact, Socrates reminds me of another non-conformist I admire: Albert Einstein. Einstein also studied physis and inadvertantly ended up “beyond” it, in meta-physis. And Einstein also had notions about religion that still divide lesser minds today. Was he an atheist? A believer? Everybody wanted to know. So Einstein penned an answer, which concludes (page 387 in this biography):

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

I believe Socrates might have said the same exact thing.

The Procrustean Bed, again

And so, I have spent as many words again on that one little sentence as I wrote in that entire article. Would I change the little sentence?

I’ve posted before about the Procrustean Bed that page layouts represent to writers: you must either stretch or, more often, amputate your text in order to fit the space an editor gives you. Socrates in America: Arguing about Death was not an article about religion. It was about how we talk to one another and the tension between individualism and democracy. Religion only came up en passant, and so I was forced to commit a journalist drive-by shooting.

When I said

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist

I had all this and more on my mind. Given another chance, I would say

Socrates may have been an atheist

or perhaps

Socrates’ views on religion were unorthodox to say the least.

And then I would have done just what I did: I would have moved on.

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Mythos and logos: Armstrong v Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

I admire people like Albert Einstein and Carl Jung (both characters in my book) who were able to feel awe. They retained their ability to be amazed by the world, and derived out of that amazement what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.”

I also admire people like Richard Dawkins (and of course Charles Darwin) who are able to use the precision-scalpels of their minds for clear thinking and shocking insight. Eg: Evolution. Eg: No God.

Like Einstein, I don’t really see combat between the one attitude and the other, between the left brain and the right, the yang and the yin. I especially like what happens when the two are well connected.

So I very much enjoyed this little contest in the Wall Street Journal (thank you Cheri) between Karen Amstrong, a religious scholar I have a lot of time for, and Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist. They were both asked: “Where does evolution leave God?”

Dawkins, true to take-no-prisoners form, answered:

The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip.

Armstrong responded brilliantly too, by avoiding the embarrassing efforts of certain people to deny the evidence of evolution and instead going a level deeper, into topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: story telling, mythology, and archetypes:

First Armstrong concedes that

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived…. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

But then she expands the topic:

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity…

(Note 1: Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in several different ways. Viktor Frankl, as you recall, translated it as meaning, and named his approach logotherapy after it.)

(Note 2: The complementarity of mythos and logos is the stylistic assumption behind the book I am writing. It is non-fiction (logos) but–or so I hope, and so the editor believes–reads like myth. That’s because I feel that ideas, even logical ones, require stories for their telling.)

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Galileo

Galileo

Four hundred years ago exactly, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at the moon and began, with his wonderfully open mind, writing down what he saw. Other people had done this before him. So why include Galileo in my pantheon of the greatest thinkers ever?

Two reasons:

  1. He made us understand that our universe is much bigger than we could imagine.
  2. He, in his human and fallible way, stood up for truth against superstition, ignorance and fear, otherwise known as… but I get ahead of myself.

I) The universe is bigger than we can imagine

It’s one of those many cases in science, and in all thought (think: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), when a great contribution came from several people building on the work of one another. This is wonderful. We place far too much emphasis on the solitary genius.

In Galileo’s case, he built on the prior work of, among others,

  1. Copernicus,
  2. Tycho Brahe, and
  3. Johannes Kepler,

in the process proving wrong the views of Aristotle and everybody else that the sun (and everything else) moved around the earth.

Copernicus

Copernicus

Copernicus was the first to realize that the earth in fact moved around the sun, which must count as one of the most revolutionary (pun intended) advances in our understanding of ourselves and our world. But Copernicus assumed (and why not?) that the orbit was a circle.

Tycho Brahe took things an important step further not so much by thinking as by measuring: the motion of Mars, in particular. He created data, in other words.

Kepler

Kepler

Kepler, who was Brahe’s assistant, then looked at those data and realized that our orbit, and those of the other planets, could not be circular but had to be elliptical. (A colleague of mine wrote a good and quick summary of all this.)

And Galileo? He filled in a lot of the blanks with his telescope.

  • He saw the moons of Jupiter, realizing that they were orbiting another body besides the earth and the sun, which was a shocker.
  • He saw that Venus was, like earth, orbiting the sun.
  • He saw that the sun was not a prefect orb.
  • He saw that the Milky Way contained uncountable stars just like our own sun.

For Homo Sapiens, who was still coming to terms with the fact that the earth was round, all this was almost too much to bear. Our universe was vastly, unimaginably, bigger than the Bible had told us. How would we react to that news?

II) Those who seek and are open to truth will have enemies

This brings us to the church, or shall we say “religion” generally. The church hated Galileo and everything he said and stood for. He questioned what they thought they “knew”, which unsettled them, scared them, threatened them. But they had power. With Nietzschean ressentiment, they attacked him.

You can make anybody recant, and Galileo did. Sort of. In any case, he was declared a heretic and sentenced to house arrest for his remaining life.

In one of my all-time favorite ironies, the Catholic Church, having condemned him, decided–359 years later, in 1992, two years before I sent my first email!–that Galileo was in fact right. How? A committee had discovered this. Good job, guys.

And so, Galileo is still with us, inspiring many. As he discovered that our universe was incomprehensibly big, we are discovering, as another colleague of mine, Geoff Carr, puts it, that

the object that people call the universe, vast though it is, may be just one of an indefinite number of similar structures … that inhabit what is referred to, for want of a better term, as the multiverse.

And as Galileo had to confront the the mobs of ignorance, fear and superstition, so do we today. Here, remind yourself with this casual comment by an Arizona state senator (!), Sylvia Allen, Republican, that the earth is 6,000 years old:

Oh, and what about Aristotle? He was the one proved wrong, you recall. That’s OK, as I have argued. You can be wrong sometimes and still be a great thinker, provided you were genuinely looking for the truth.

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More trouble with “truth”: Religion

In opening this thread on Socrates and his relevance to our modern lives, I mentioned “an oddly serendipitous string of events”: Several of you had, independently, emailed me with links and thoughts that, directly or indirectly, touched on issues that Socrates raised.

Here is one example, which segues from the previous post on Socrates’ negativity, his apparent sacrifice of gentleness at the altar of unvarnished truth. A few weeks ago, Joel Rotem, a reader of The Hannibal Blog, emailed me this TED talk of theologist Karen Armstrong, in which she puts forth a theory of “good” religiosity. Joel was sceptical and asked philosophically:

Is it OK to misinform your listeners in order to get to a noble target? Do the ends justify the means?


As you see, Armstrong wants to persuade us that religion is not really about “believing” this or that, but about behaving in a certain way: with compassion. All religions, she argues, have at their core a version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Hatred, she infers, is alien to true religiosity and a form of “hijacking” religion.

Now, this is of course a Rorschach test of sorts. Those who would like to exonerate religion will tend to confabulate ways to agree with Armstrong, those who would like to indict religion will do the opposite. Joel is in the later camp, as I tend to be. But that is not the point.

The point, as Joel said in our impromptu debate (because Socratic dialectic seems to come naturally and effortlessly to readers of The Hannibal Blog ;)) is this same tension between true and good that got Socrates into so much trouble. Joel’s words:

In western thought, we often equate truth with good (both very subjective terms). Telling the truth is good. Lying is bad. We must always strive to reveal the truth. We have book and movies dedicated to heroes struggling to reveal the truth. Some of our (my) heroes fighting to reveal the truth include: Woodward and Bernstein, Galileo and hey, how about that Superman guy fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Seems pretty open and shut until you listen to a Karen Armstrong. Is it better to paint Islam as the religion of humility and peace or to [point to] Islam’s bloody roots and doctrines?

Joel did not single out Islam but implicated all religions. He then listed other topics, beyond religion, where “truth” will get you into a world of hurt. For instance, race: What if we were to discover a truth that we would find just too apalling to entertain? We seem to need lies to maintain civilization. The problem, as Joel said,

is of course the slippery slope. Who says what lies we should believe for the common good?


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The “body” (literally) of the Western Tradition

Yesterday, I ranted on behalf of the classics; today I’m following up with the single most beautiful metaphor I have ever heard to explain–really, really explain–the Western tradition, our tradition. It just so happens that this metaphor is another powerful reason, should any of you still need one, to get off our butts and go back to the old stories from Greece and Rome.

It comes from Professor Phillip Cary, and in particular from Lecture 13 in this course on the Western Intellectual Tradition.

Professor Cary wants to give us an “image that will help conceptualize the whole shape of the Western tradition.” That image is a body, which has a left leg, a right leg, a torso where the two legs come together, a left arm, a right arm, and a neck and head on top. Any old body, in other words. Your body.

The right leg, he suggests, is the Bible, religion, the Judeo-Christian tradition, Jerusalem, Moses, Job, Jesus. We live in a right-handed and right-footed culture, so this is a strong leg. It’s also, he suggests tongue-in-cheek, the leg that right-leaning types in our tradition tend to stand on. It is the conservative leg, the leg that gives quick and certain answers, not the one that asks difficult questions.

The left leg is Athens and Rome, the classics, Socrates, philosophy and enquiry. It tends to be the leg that intellectuals stand on, people who prefer to ask probing and embarrassing questions (as Socrates did). But it’s not purely intellectual. It’s also sensual and mythological. Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio are part of it.

The two legs are joined, of course, in the crotch. If you had to give the crotch a year, it would be 313 AD, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, thus formally bringing together the two traditions, biblical and classical. The crotch, of course, is a) phenomenally fertile and b) embarrassing and awkward for most people. So has been that union in our tradition ever since.

The torso is the Middle Ages. That’s when the two traditions were thoroughly blended and mixed in our monasteries and palaces.

The right arm sticking out from the top of the torso is the Reformation, Luther and Calvin, the yearning to go back to a purer form of the right side, back to the right leg, the Bible.

The left arm sticking out is the Renaissance, the simultaneous yearning to rediscover the classics, the wisdom of Greece and Rome, their beauty, art, philosophy–and their stories.

On top is the neck, the Enlightenment, which supports the head, Modernity.

So there we are: the head, looking down for self-knowledge, all the way to our toes. Would anybody volunteer to cut off his or her left leg and either topple over or hop around crippled? Didn’t think so.


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