The brain: How body makes spirit

We Westerners have traditionally viewed mind as separate from matter, spirit as separate from body. This assumption started with Plato and culminated in Descartes, who drew the sketch above. And the notion trickled down from the various philosophers into what we consider “common sense”. In the Graeco-Roman “leg” of our heritage, spirit and body were seen as equal in stature (hence Juvenal: “mens sana in corpore sano“). In the Judeo-Christian leg, body was seen as inferior. But the essential dualism between the two was mostly taken for granted.

Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, by contrast, have traditionally viewed body as arising out of spirit. So pure energy or collective spirit, Brahman, might take the form of individual spirit, Atman, and become the body of something, through the magic process of Maya. (Recall that the Sanskrit word Maya is the root of magic.) That magic could work in both directions, but the essential monism of spirit and body were and are mostly taken for granted.

Modern neuroscience lets us correct and refine both of these views. And this is the first of my tentative conclusions after studying the brain for the past year. We now understand that something as simple as a thought or an emotion or as complex as “consciousness” is an emergent phenomenon from a pattern of physical events.

Those events are action potentials, electrochemical signals that propagate through one neuron and jump across synapses to other neurons. The mechanics of such propagation inside each individual neuron and of the “hop” (or the non-hop) across the synapses are fascinating. But the magic, the Maya, arises — or emerges — when those patterns of action potentials become self-aware. And not just self-aware but “happy”, “aroused”, “aggressive” and so forth.

Dualism, in other words, is wrong. Monism is right, but runs in the opposite direction. Not from spirit to matter and back, as in the Vedantic model, but from matter to spirit and back again to matter.

This insight, once one gets used to it, is merely the beginning of a cascade of radical questions. Such as:

  • What is “personality”? Why and how is your emergent magic different than mine?
  • Do we have “free will”? When, and how much?

Those have to wait for their own posts.

Storytelling and invidualism

I’ve long described myself as a classical liberal on this blog, and I’ve tried on occasion to define what that means — for example, with this doodle (above). Its point was to locate the unit of analysis of liberals in the individual, not in any groups that individuals might belong to. That’s always made intuitive sense to me, and it still does.

So consider that Premise 1.

I’ve also expressed my appreciation of storytelling here over the years, with what has (to my surprise) turned out to be the longest-running thread on this blog. My intuition tells me that humans make sense of the world and of themselves through stories, that we form identity from narratives.

So consider that Premise 2.

I was therefore delighted to be disturbed by a suggestion that Premise 1 and Premise 2 might actually contradict each other. (Perhaps that’s the definition of ‘intellectual’: somebody who delights in seeing his contradictions uncovered, espying an opportunity to learn.)

The suggestion struck me, roughly, between minutes 5 and 10 of the lecture below, by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of philosophy. (I recommend the entire course, which covers some of my favourites, from Rawls to Aristotle and beyond, in a very entertaining way.)

In this segment, Sandel introduces the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • MacIntyre also starts from the premise that identity (‘the self’) is a product of narrative (ie, my Premise 2).
  • But he then concludes that individualism (ie, my Premise 1) is impossible, because narrative necessarily leads to a communitarian identity.

Specifically, Randel quotes MacIntyre saying:

Man is … essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual. … We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, a citizen of this or that city. I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be the good for someone who inhabits these roles. I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation a variety of debts, inheritances, expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is, in part, what gives my life its moral particularity.

So: anti-individualist (and thus implicityly anti-liberal) and pro-communitarian. Right? Liberalism says: I am free and thus I am responsible for myself, but I don’t answer for parent, country, tribe, or history. MacIntyre says that is self-deception:

The contrast with the narrative view of the self is clear. For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships.

It’s made me think a lot. Watch the entire lecture. (But first, read this update regarding this post’s title.)

The Buddhism of Christmas


Tis the season when my wife and I, as we behold our children reacting to packages and presents arriving in the mail, exchange knowing glances and mumble something about how “Buddhist” Christmas is.

Spouses, as everybody knows, use a sort of shorthand that is unintelligible (and thus usually misleading) to everybody else, so I will translate. It means something like:

Christmas, like all existence but perhaps more so, torments people through the subtle and insidious mechanism the Buddha first described.

Oh, and what was that mechanism?

As is my wont, I will get gratuitously intellectual about all that in a moment, but let’s start with the actual scenario.


Christmas is a time when presents show up unannounced. This is otherwise known as stuff. Uncles, aunts, and other acquaintances send the stuff because, well, it’s Christmas and that’s what one does, whether anybody wants stuff or not.

So the packages arrive — in a household that contains children. In fact, the stuff is meant mostly for those children, and the children know it. How do the children react?


Definition of “child”:

I have read enough academic papers to know that one must, whenever a text threatens to get interesting, interrupt with definitions. Herewith:

Child (noun; plural = Children): A human being who is exactly like an adult but has not yet had sufficient time to practice the adult skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.

Back to scenario

Where were we? Oh yes, the presents that are arriving at the door. How do the children react, in the first instance and over the next hour or so?

Exactly as both the Buddha and his contemporary Patanjali (my favorite thinker) would have predicted:

  1. Child A, arriving first: A momentary thrill. ‘Here is something that promises to suspend my boredom. No, I wasn’t actually bored, but now I would be if I do not immediately rip this package open.’ Rips package open.
  2. Child B, arriving split second later: Another momentary thrill. Then: ‘But wait. Sibling has got a head start. She can’t have more thrill. It’s my thrill. Must have.’ Attacks package.
  3. A & B: Conflict. Hair pulling. Tears on A. Time Out for B.
  4. A, having played with toy (because it’s already open anyway, so what can you do?), loses interest. Returns to previous activity and temporary balance/bliss.
  5. B, emerging from Time Out, gets his turn with toy. Notices that A has lost interest and returned to previous activity. Also loses interest and returns to balance/bliss with A.
  6. New package arrives. Repeat cycle.

Sanskrit: duhkha and sukha

Both the Buddha and Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (as far as I’m concerned, original Buddhism and authentic Yoga are exactly the same philosophy), describe our minds as causing us near-permanent discomfort in precisely the way these toys are tormenting my children.

The word both the Buddha and Patanjali use for this mental discomfort is duhkha.

T.K.V. Desikachar, a great yogi, translates duhkha as restricting or squeezing in this excellent book.

This is noteworthy, because duhkha is usually mistranslated as suffering. Thus, you’ve probably heard the first Noble Truth of Buddhism expressed as follows:

All life is suffering.

Well, actually, the Truth says that all life is duhkha. And suffering is a bad translation (with the effect of turning many Westerners off before they’ve even begun to absorb the rest), because, manifestly, not all life is suffering.

Duhkha is more subtle, so let’s investigate as we usually do: by looking into etymology.

Etymology of duhkha

The Sanskrit roots of duhkha relate to its Indo-Germanic nephews German and English as follows:

duh ≡ du(nkel) ≡ da(rk)


kha ≡ ka(mmer) ≡ cha(mber)

In other words, duhkha is, or feels like, a dark room, an oppressive space.

Its opposite is sukha, a happy, good or light space.

The goal of Yoga, Buddhism and all other Indian philosophy is to exit the dark room and enter the light room.

Remember that this entire time we are talking about our minds. Our mind constantly shoves us into the dark room (duhkha) by conjuring disturbances (called “fluctuations” in the Yoga Sutras):

  • distraction,
  • fear,
  • anxiety,
  • anger,
  • craving,
  • jealousy,
  • disgust
  • boredom
  • etc etc

This does not have to be very profound. If you’re a child, the arrival of a package suffices.

In the Bhagavad Gita, all these disturbances are represented by the Kauravas, the vicious cousins of my hero Arjuna.

The Kauravas of Christmas

Christmas is — aside from a time for cosiness, festiveness and so forth — an intense agglomeration and onslaught of mental disturbances.

For the kids, each package creates an expectation of thrill, quickly leading to a disappointment (= duhkha).

Or to a pang of jealousy (= duhkha).

Or simply to distraction from the activity the child had just been absorbed in (= duhkha).

And for the adults?

Definition of “adult”

Adult (noun; plural = Adults): A human being who is exactly like a child but has had ample time to practice the skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.

Adults don’t run to the package and rip it open. They put it under the tree. And they don’t pull your hair when you’re opening your package.

But they walk around all December with that jingly-jangly music in the stores and those trees in the windows and they feel … that they should — shouldn’t they? — be somewhere special, with someone special, feeling special. And is the person next to me special enough, is all this special enough,….?

So they yearn, and they crave, and they’re lonely, and perhaps they envy or regret, and they’re in the dark chamber of duhkha.


But there’s a jail break.

One strand of Buddhism/Yoga invites you to discipline your mind (ie, meditate) for years so that your mind becomes still, thus setting you free.

Another strand, called Zen, guffaws at the hilarious inside joke of it all and simply says: ‘Snap out of it — now!’

That can be easy, it turns out: You put away the packages and the toys, and you tickle the kids, and you all roll around under the tree, in the beautifully light, comfortable room of sukha.


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.


  • 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 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


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).


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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In praise of sublime Greek violence

Nietzsche turned 26 as the Franco-Prussian war was raging (above). He saw this bloodshed as a failure of culture. So he started thinking more deeply about culture and its most fundamental mandate: dealing with human violence. And he arrived at some very interesting insights.

He did this by weaving together two strands of his thinking:

  1. the nature of violence in humans, and
  2. the nature of ancient Greek civilization

This is a great example of the benefits of cross-fertilization between areas of expertise. That’s because Nietzsche was not yet what we would call a philosopher. Instead he was, by training and profession, a philologist, which at that time in Europe basically meant a classicist — somebody who studies antiquity, which in turn mainly meant studying the Greeks.

Nietzsche absolutely adored the Greeks of the classical era (as we do here on The Hannibal Blog). He believed that they were the first to elevate humanity by transcending violence. Here is how.

(This is based on pages 139-141 of Julian Young’s excellent philosophical biography of Nietzsche, which I am currently reading.)

I) Violence

First, according to Nietzsche, the Greeks were honest about the human instinct to violence, and that’s a great start.

The Greeks knew that they were just as capable of violence as the barbarians. (Just read Homer’s account of Achilles’ wrath, or Thucydides’s account of the rape of Melos.) So they accepted that violence was simply part of human nature. The question was what to do about that knowledge.

Pause here for a moment:

a) 19th-century context

In Nietzsche’s own time, this was already a radical interpretation. First, European academe (of which he was part) basically viewed the Greeks as serene and enlightened über-thinkers, as beyond violence. And second, European society (of which he was also part, at least at the outset) had adopted a Christian morality (which Nietzsche would later in his life set out to debunk) that considered violence sinful and tried to eliminate or even deny it. So Nietzsche was already being politically incorrect.

b) Our contemporary context

While no longer politically incorrect, this view is still controversial today.  Which is to say that we are still arguing about whether we are at heart peaceful, like our cousins the bonobos, or violent, like our other cousins the chimps. (Video via Dan.)

In any case, the Greeks recognized the chimps in us humans, but then went a crucial step further.

II) Agon

That step was to redirect and sublimate whatever violent energy there is in humans.

Rather than denying or suppressing human aggression (what Nietzsche would later call the “will to power”), the Greeks purified it through the filter of culture.

The result was agon — strife or, better, competition. That’s agon as in agonize, agony, protagonist and antagonist, et cetera.

Classical Greece was perhaps the most agonistic — meaning competitive — civilization in world history, surpassing even modern America. Everything was a competition:

  • poets such as Homer and Hesiod competed with words,
  • playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides competed with their tragedies — literally for an award given out during the Dionysian festivals at which their plays were performed,
  • Socrates and Plato competed with the Sophists, and the Sophists with one another,
  • orators like Demosthenes and Aeschines competed with their rhetoric, and
  • athletes competed at the Olympic Games.

The result was beauty such as this discus thrower, sculpted by a competitive artist of a competitive athlete:

Agon pervaded every single aspect of Greek culture. It was the nasty goddess of strife, Eris, reincarnated as “good Eris”. Bad Eris had started the Trojan War. But Good Eris, according to Hesiod,

drives even the unskilled man to work: and if someone who lacks property sees someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant… Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.

You can choose to see infinite parallels in our own time and lives. For example, culture succeeds when Good Eris enters a courtroom in an adversarial justice system such as America’s. Culture fails when Bad Eris takes her place.

In the name of peace, may humanity study the Greeks and learn to ‘agonize.’

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Nietzsche: Bitter truth or happy illusion?


“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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Greatest thinkers: Greeks or Germans?

The Hannibal Blog has featured many thinkers — in the threads on Socrates and Great Thinkers among others.

Inevitably, Greeks and Germans have been somewhat disproportionately represented.

So it is time to revisit the most scientific and conclusive confrontation between Greeks and Germans to date.

Not new but timeless:

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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…


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

“Ought” vs “is”: Socrates and Callicles


One of the most momentous conversations in history you’ve never heard about took place between Socrates and a man named Callicles, and is recorded in Plato’s Gorgias. It is a surprisingly moving portrayal of a man who tries to describe the world as it is but, upon prompting, reveals how much he yearns for the way it ought to be. Although it took place 2,400 years ago, the conversation is timeless and very modern. I think it describes many of us today.

Lions and sheep

As usual, Socrates is going around asking people to define “justice” and to expose, as was his wont, their confusion and ignorance. Callicles decides to have a go.

He proceeds to give a sort of genealogy of the concepts just and unjust. The law of nature is that the stronger and better dominate the weaker and worse. The lions feast on the sheep. That is natural justice. (Compare: Thucydides, writing at about the time the dialogue would have taken place, about the genocide of Melos.)

The weak, the sheep, don’t like that, of course, so they get together and call what the strong do unjust. By implication, what they themselves do is just. Collectively as a herd, the sheep want to dominate the lions. So whereas nature is on the side of the strong and the lions, convention is on the side of the weak and the sheep.

Influence on Nietzsche

To many of you, this rings a bell. Yes, this is where Nietzsche got his ideas for his Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche took his metaphors of lions, sheep, herds, slaves and so forth from Callicles, then spun his theory. It was that the sheep banded together to invert the natural concepts of good and bad, strong and weak, motivated by a festering rage for which Nietzsche used the French word ressentiment.

Relevance to Darwin

Socrates being Socrates, of course, he goes on to needle Callicles about the precise meaning of words in order to poke a hole in his argument. He asks Callicles to clarify the terms “better” and “stronger”. Are they the same?

Callicles has to admit that they are not. And off they go, debating what that means.

Today, of course, we know that Callicles was looking for a better word: not strong or good but  fit. Not fit as in ‘toned from the gym’ but as in ‘survival of the fittest’. The fittest, according to Darwin, are not the strongest or the best but the most adapted.

The law of nature that Callicles refers to is therefore evolution. It is the tautological observation that those who are better adapted to the prevailing circumstances will leave more of themselves (ie, their genes) behind than those who are worse adapted.

Gibe at democracy

Callicles and Socrates go on to mock democracy (Athens was an even more direct democracy than America is today). Democracy to them is the inversion of nature, the herd of sheep ruling the lions, the weak dominating the strong, the inferior getting their revenge on the superior.

Yearning for what ought to be

But the dialogue between Callicles and Socrates becomes more moving than anything Nietzsche did with it. That’s because during the conversation it becomes clear that Callicles is a sophisticated and sensitive man who is trying to describe how the world is while simultaneously being sad about it and yearning for how things ought to be.

He is confused and bitter–about many things. He is angry at Socrates for needling him, but also because he already foresees (correctly, of course) that the democratic herd of sheep will condemn the lion Socrates. And he hates himself for having to suck up to the herd, to the Athenians, to make his living.

But he also hates seeing the fit succeed whether or not they are also good. In other words, he has the ideal of justice in his head as though it were an archetype and is, like most of us, frustrated. That’s all that Plato definitely establishes in this dialogue.

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