Category Archives: Philosophy-Academic

Summary of Kazantzakis’: The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises

(Note – It is unusual for an atheist like myself to read a book like this, but I wanted to understand the origins of Kazantzakis’ rejection of hope. What I found therein was some of the most poetic imagery I have ever encountered. I found a heart longing for truth and meaning, and a voice that spoke to me from the grave. I am better for the experience of having reading it. I have written previously about Kazantzakis’ life and philosophy here.)

“Prologue” – Life is characterized by ascent toward immorality, and descent toward death.
“The Preparation” – Duties: 1) accept mental limits; 2) create with the heart; 3) reject hope.
“The March – We should transcend: 1) ego; 2) race; 3) humanity; and 4) the earth.
“The Vision” – The word god refers to an anti-entropic power.
“The Action” – Our struggles make god a reality.
“The Silence” – In the end we merge with the abyss.

The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (1923), serves as a guide to the spiritual life, and tries to help us understand the evolving nature of the divine. In the book’s prologue, Kazantzakis differentiates between two forces:

WE COME from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life. As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of ephemeral life is immortality! In the temporary living organism these two streams collide: (a) the ascent toward composition, toward life, toward immortality; (b) the descent toward decomposition, toward matter, toward death … It is our duty, therefore, to grasp that vision which can embrace and harmonize these two enormous, timeless, and indestructible forces, and with this vision to modulate our thinking and our action.

These considerations led Kazantzakis to enumerate three duties in the first section of the work, which he titled: “The Preparation.” The first duty refers to the mind’s power to know a reality beyond appearances.

… I do not know whether behind appearances there lives and moves a secret essence superior to me. Nor do I ask; I do not care. I … paint with a full palette a gigantic and gaudy curtain before the abyss. Do not say, ‘Draw the curtain that I may see the painting.’ The curtain is the painting.

Here are echoes of Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds. But while Kant said we can never know the “things in themselves,” Kazantzakis says we can’t even know if there is a reality beyond appearances. He concludes that the mind must give up its desire to know truth, assuming such a thing even exists. This leads to the first duty:

“To SEE and accept the boundaries of the human mind without vain rebellion, and in these severe limitations to work ceaselessly without protest—this is where man’s first duty lies.”

What attitude should we take toward this duty? Kazantzakis tells us:

I recognize these limitations, I accept them with resignation, bravery, and love … In sudden dreadful moments a thought flashes through me: “This is all a cruel and futile game, without beginning, without end, without meaning.” But again I yoke myself swiftly to the wheels of necessity, and all the universe begins to revolve around me … Discipline is the highest of all virtues … This is how … you may determine the omnipotence of the mind amid appearances and the incapacity of the mind beyond appearances—before you set out for salvation. You may not otherwise be saved.

I hear echoes of the Stoics and Buddhist in these passages. Accept that your knowledge is limited, but remember too that a disciplined mind is free. The second duty refers to the heart’s desire to merge with reality, and to deal with the anguish of the search for meaning.

I have one longing only: to grasp what is hidden behind appearances, to ferret out that mystery which brings me to birth and then kills me, to discover if behind the visible and unceasing stream of the world an invisible and immutable presence is hiding. If the mind cannot … then if only the heart could!

And what does the heart discern? “Behind all appearances, I divine a struggling essence. I want to merge with it. I feel that behind appearances this struggling essence is also striving to merge with my heart.” Now the mind and the heart battle. The mind is limited, but the heart rejects limits; it wants immortality. The mind wants the heart to “become serene, and surrender” but the heart protests: “Who plants us on this earth without asking our permission? Who uproots us from this earth without asking our permission?” The tension, between what mind can know and what heart wants, appears irresolvable.

Kazantzakis proceeds by illuminating the human condition with poetic imagery:

I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel all the powers of the universe whirling within me. Before they crush me, I want to open my eyes for a moment and to see them. I set my life no other purpose. I want to find a single justification that I may live and bear this dreadful daily spectacle of disease, of ugliness, of injustice, of death. I once set out from a dark point, the Womb, and now I proceed to another dark point, the Tomb. A power hurls me out of the dark pit and another power drags me irrevocably toward the dark pit.

As for our fellow travelers he says:

I strive to discover how to signal my companions before I die, how to give them a hand, how to spell out for them in time one complete word at least, to tell them what I think this procession is, and toward what we go. And how necessary it is for all of us together to put our steps and hearts in harmony …

And what is the meaning of it all?

… the purpose of Earth is not life, it is not man. Earth has existed without these, and it will live on without them. They are but the ephemeral sparks of its violent whirling. Let us unite, let us hold each other tightly, let us merge our hearts … so long as the warmth of this earth endures, so long as no earthquakes, cataclysms, icebergs or comets come to destroy us … let us create for Earth a brain and a heart, let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle. This anguish is our second duty.

The third duty derives from the failure of the mind or the heart to ultimately satisfy his thirst for meaning, or god.

The moment is ripe: leave the heart and the mind behind you, go forward, take the third step. Free yourself from the simple complacency of the mind that thinks to put all things in order and hopes to subdue phenomena. Free yourself from the terror of the heart that seeks and hopes to find the essence of things. Conquer the last, the greatest temptation of all: Hope. This is the third duty.

Yet the rejection of hope does not imply passivity—we still should strive. “We fight because we like fighting, we sing even though there is no ear to hear us. We work even though there is no master to pay us our wages when night falls.” This should remind us that we are radically impermanent:

I revolve for a moment in air, I breathe, my heart beats, my mind glows, and suddenly the earth opens, and I vanish … Say farewell to all things at every moment … Look about you: All these bodies that you see shall rot. There is no salvation. Look at them well: They live, work, love, hope. Look again: Nothing exists! The generations of man rise from the earth and fall into the earth again.

How should we respond to all this? He answers, as usual, with beautiful prose:

The endeavors and virtues of man accumulate, increase, and mount to the sky. Where are we going? Do not ask! Ascend, descend. There is no beginning and no end … What is our goal? To be shipwrecked! … Without hope, but with bravery, it is your duty to set your prow calmly toward the abyss. And to say: “Nothing exists!” … Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms—merging, begetting, disappearing—and I say: “This is what I want!”

We don’t ask where we are going; we proceed; we ascend; we find meaning in the struggle. He concludes this section with what will be his epitaph:

I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.

These preparatory exhortations are meant to free us from the hopes and fears that trouble us, and which impede both individual development and the ascent of the species. With our duties in place, he now moves on to the second section: The March.” It begins with a cry from within human consciousness to help free some upwardly striving reality. 

… when I hear the Cry, my emotions and the Universe are divided into two camps. Someone within me is in danger, he raises his hands and shouts: “Save me!” Someone within me climbs, stumbles, and shouts: “Help me! Which of the two eternal roads shall I choose? … Of the two, I choose the ascending path. Why? For no intelligible reason, without any certainty … “Upward! Upward! Upward!” my heart shouts, and I follow it trustingly. I feel this is what the dread primordial cry asks of me … I do not know from where he comes or where he goes. I clutch at his onward march … I listen to his panting struggle …

Some invisible tide seems to be moving forward and upward, but it needs our help to proceed. There are four steps on this journey or march. (Some interpreters call these things we must transcend to unite with god or reality. I prefer of them as successive, expanding circles of consciousness which manifest the ascent of the cosmos.)

The first step, describing the transcendence or ascent he calls “The Ego.” We are physically, intellectually, and emotionally deficient; we have a body, brain, and heart, but we should “struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart—to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.” This is clearly Kazantzakis’ god, this evolutionary process by which higher levels of being and consciousness emerge.

“Where are we going? Shall we ever win? What is the purpose of all this fighting? Be silent! Soldiers never question!” … But within me a deathless Cry … continues to shout. For whether I want to or not, I am … part of the visible and the invisible Universe. We are one. The powers which labor within me, the powers which goad me on to live, the powers which goad me on to die are … its own powers also … an onrush of the Universe fears, hopes, and shouts with me … It is not I but He who shouts.

The second step, describing the second thing we must overcome, he calls, “The Race.”

“THE CRY IS not yours. It is not you talking, but innumerable ancestors talking with your mouth. It is not you who desire, but innumerable generations of descendants longing with your heart … Future generations do not move far from you … They live, desire, and act in your loins and your heart … You are not one; you are a body of troops, One of your faces lights up for a moment under the sun. Then suddenly it vanishes, and another, a younger one, lights up behind you. The race of men from which you come is the huge body of the past, the present, and the future. It is the face itself; you are a passing expression … “Do not die that we may not die,” the dead cry out within you … “Finish our work! Finish our work! … Deliver us!”

Still the individual is unique and important, for “As soon as you were born, a new possibility was born with you … you brought a new rhythm, a new desire, a new idea, a fresh sorrow … you enriched your ancestral body …” Now it is up to you to carry on:

How shall you confront life and death, virtue and fear? All the race … asks questions … and lies waiting in agony. You have a great responsibility. You do not govern now only your own small, insignificant existence. You are a throw of the dice on which, for a moment, the entire fate of your race is gambled. Everything you do reverberates throughout a thousand destinies. As you walk, you cut open and create that river bed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow  … “I am not done! I am not done!” Let this vision inflame you at every moment.

We then must we do?

… Someone is fighting to escape you, to tear himself away from your flesh, to be freed of you. A seed in your loins, a seed in your brains, does not want to remain with you any more … A power greater than you passes through you … shouting: “Gamble the present and all things certain, gamble them for the future and all things uncertain! Hold nothing in reserve … We may be lost, we may be saved. Do not ask. Place the whole world in the hands of danger every single moment …”

Now Kazantzakis leads us to the third step “Mankind.” We must transcend, not only our ego and our race, but humanity itself and its humble beginnings:

See how he has detached himself from the animal, how he struggles to stand upright, to co-ordinate his inarticulate cries, to feed the flame between his hearthstones, to feed his mind amid the bones of his skull. Let pity overwhelm you for this creature who one morning detached himself from the ape, naked, defenseless, without teeth or horns, with only a spark of fire in his soft skull … look at the centuries behind you. What do you see? Hairy, blood-splattered beasts rising in tumult out of the mud …

The “multitudes ascend like grass out of the soil and fall into the soil again, fertile manure for future offspring.” This leads to the realization “of blind, heartless, brainless, ravenous powers” that permeate existence. “We sail on a storm-tossed sea … The centuries are thick, dark waves that rise and fall, steeped in blood …” How should we respond?

Gaze on the dark sea without staggering, confront the abyss every moment without illusion or impudence or fear. WITHOUT ILLUSION, impudence, or fear. But this is not enough; take a further step: battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.

And how might we do this?

Encompass through one century, then through two centuries, through three, through ten, through as many centuries as you can bear, the onward march of mankind. Train your eye to gaze on people moving in great stretches of time. Immerse yourself in this vision with patience, with love and high disinterestedness, until slowly the world begins to breathe within you …

All of this brings Kazantzakis full circle back to the voyages of Odysseus:

We are … out of a gigantic Odyssey … to give meaning to our voyage, to battle undauntedly … and then … to erect in our brains, marrow of our marrow, our Ithaca. Out of an ocean of nothingness, with fearful struggle, the work of man rises slowly like a small island. Within this arena … generations work and love and hope and vanish. New generations tread on the corpses of their fathers, continue the work above the abyss and struggle to tame the dread mystery. How? By cultivating a single field, by kissing a woman, by studying a stone, an animal, an idea …

Against the powers which seek to overwhelm us, we can live honorably:

The mind is a seafaring laborer whose work is to build a seawall in chaos. From all these generations, from all these joys and sorrows … a single voice rings out, pure and serene … because, though it contains all the sins and disquietudes of struggling man, it yet flies beyond them all and mounts higher still.

Now that the ego, the race, and humanity have been transcended, there is the fourth step, what he calls “The Earth.” He begins: “IT IS NOT you who call … It is not only the white, yellow, and black generations of man calling … It is the entire Earth …” Here he connects us with something even larger than our ego or humanity—the entire history of cosmic evolution. But there is more to come, and here I find a prefiguring of transhumanism:

… I passed beyond the thick-leaved plants, I passed beyond the fishes, the birds, the beasts, the apes. I created man … and now I struggle to be rid of him … Only now … do we begin dimly to apprehend why the animals fought, begot, and died; and behind them the plants; and behind these the huge reserve of inorganic forces. We are moved by pity, gratitude, and esteem for our old comrades-in-arms. They toiled, loved, and died to open a road for our coming. We also toil with the same delight, agony, and exaltation for the sake of Someone Else who with every courageous deed of ours proceeds one step farther. All our struggle once more will have a purpose much greater than we … It is as though the whole of life were the visible, eternal pursuit of an invisible Bridegroom who … hunts down his untamed Bride, Eternity.

The third section, which lays out Kazantzakis’ conception of his god, is called “The Vision.” His view somewhat reminds me of Hegel’s idea of absolute spirit, although I’ve always been mystified by Hegel’s philosophy. For Kazantzakis Spirit is this march onward and upward, an anti-entropic power from which order emerges out of chaos. In his words: “God is struggling to heave upward … God struggles in every thing, his hands flung upward toward the light.” So it seems that all this ceaseless, cosmic striving is his god. The struggle to find god, is god. 

The fourth section, which encourages us to help god emerge, is called, “The Action”. Kazantzakis says that “God is imperiled. He is not almighty, that we may cross our hands, waiting for certain victory. He is not all-holy, that we may wait trusting for him to pity and to save us … He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.” This is a kind of process theology—divinity is becoming

It is not God who will save us—it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit … But all our struggle may go lost. If we tire, if we grow faint of spirit, if we fall into panic, then the entire Universe becomes imperiled. Life is a crusade in the service of God. Whether we wished to or not, we set out as crusaders to free … that God buried in matter and in our souls … We do not only free God by battling and subduing the visible world about us; we also create God.

The final section of the work, which Kazantzakis added toward the end of his life, is titled “The Silence. It  first reiterates some of his previous themes: 

The ego, race, mankind, earth, theory and action, God—all these are phantasms … good only for those simple hearts that live in fear, good only for those flatulent souls that imagine they are pregnant. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of this life? That is what every heart is shouting …

Now he introduces the idea of the silence.

This ultimate stage of our spiritual exercise is called Silence. Not because its contents are the ultimate inexpressible despair or the ultimate inexpressible joy and hope. Nor because it is the ultimate knowledge which does not condescend to speak, or the ultimate ignorance which cannot. Silence means: Every person, after completing his service in all labors, reaches finally the highest summit of endeavor, beyond every labor, where he no longer struggles or shouts, where he ripens fully in silence … with the entire Universe. There he merges with the Abyss … How can you reach … the Abyss to make it fruitful? This cannot be expressed, cannot be narrowed into words, cannot be subjected to laws; every man is completely free and has his own special liberation. No form of instruction exists, no Savior exists to open up the road. No road exists to be opened.

This reminds me of Wittgenstein’s: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Or of Aquinas’: “Such things have been revealed to me in prayer that what I have written seems to me to be rubbish. And now in silence I will await the end of my life.” Or even Taoism’s: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be defined is not the unchanging name.” For Kazantzakis, our role is to align ourselves with the ascent toward higher levels of being and consciousness, but even these words don’t fully capture truth—neither the mind or heart can.

Kazantzakis’ conclusion to these spiritual exercises shocked me. After reiterating that god needs our help in order to become real, Kazantzakis says:

Blessed be all of those who free you and become united with you, Lord, and who say: ’You and I are one.’ And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret: ‘That even this one does not exist!’

Here it seems that Kazantzakis advocates nihilism—nothing ultimately matters. But I don’t think this is quite right. He is asking us to keep going, to always ascend. Like Odysseus, we should never anchor, as the journey itself is our true homeland. We may not know the meaning of our lives, but we can still play our small role as links in a chain that leads, hopefully, onward and upward. That is the meaning of our lives.    

It is hard to communicate the experience I have had reading Kazantzakis. I don’t share his theological sensibilities, but I was raised with them so I understand them. If he were alive today I think he would be a transhumanist, although he might reject all salvific narratives. Where are we going? As he said, don’t ask just proceed without fear, without hope, and you will be free. In future posts I will explore his rejection of hope.


[i]  Quoted in James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.

All translations are from this site:

What is the Difference Between Philosophy, Science, and Religion?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 25, 2016.)

In order to more clearly conceptualize Western philosophy’s territory, let’s consider it in relationship to two other powerful cultural forces with which it’s intertwined: religion and science. We may (roughly) characterize the contrast between philosophy and religion as follows: philosophy relies on reason, evidence and experience for its truths; religion depends on faith, authority grace, and revelation for truth. Of course, any philosophical position probably contains some element of faith, inasmuch as reasoning rarely gives conclusive proof; and religious beliefs often contain some rational support, since few religious persons rely completely on faith.

The problem of the demarcation between the two is made more difficult by the fact that different philosophies and religions—and philosophers and religious persons within similar traditions—place dissimilar emphasis on the role of rational argument. For example, Eastern religions traditionally place less emphasis on the role of rational arguments than do Western religions, and in the east philosophy and religion are virtually indistinguishable. In addition, individuals in a given tradition differ in the emphasis they place on the relative importance of reason and faith. So the difference between philosophy and religion is one of emphasis and degree. Still, we reiterate what we said above: religion is that part of the human experience whose beliefs and practices rely significantly on faith, grace, authority, or revelation. Philosophy gives little, if any, place to these parts of human experience. While religion generally stresses faith and trust, philosophy honors reason and doubt.

Distinguishing philosophy from science is equally difficult because many of the questions vital to philosophers—like the cause and origin of the universe or a conception of human nature—increasingly have been taken over by cosmologists, astrophysicists, and biologists. Perhaps methodology best distinguishes the two, since philosophy relies on argument and analysis rather than empirical observation and experiment. In this way, philosophy resembles theoretical mathematics more than the natural sciences. Still, philosophers utilize evidence derived from the sciences to reformulate their theories.

Remember also that, until the nineteenth century, virtually every prominent philosopher in the history of western civilization was either a scientist or mathematician. In general, we contend that science explores areas where a generally acceptable body of information and methodology directs research involved with unanswered scientific questions. Philosophers explore philosophical questions without a generally acceptable body of information

Philosophical analysis also ponders the future relationship between these domains. Since the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, science has increasingly expropriated territory once the exclusive province of both philosophy and religion. Will the relentless march of science continue to fill the gaps in human knowledge, leaving less room for the poetic, the mystical, the religious, and the philosophical? Will religion and philosophy be archaic, antiquated, obsolete, and outdated? Or will there always be questions of meaning and purposes that can never be grasped by science? Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the twentieth-century’s greatest philosophers, elucidated the relationship between these three domains like this: “All definite knowledge … belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a no man’s land, exposed to attack from both sides; this no man’s land is philosophy.”

What is Western Philosophy?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 21, 2016.)

The Beginnings of Rationalistic Thinking

The word philosophy comes from two Greek roots meaning “the love of wisdom.” Thus philosophers are (supposed to be) lovers of wisdom. In the western world, philosophy traces its beginnings to the ancient Ionian city of Miletus, the richest city in the ancient Greek world. There, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean in the sixth century B.C.E., the Greeks began to systematically apply human reason to questions concerning nature and human life without reference to the supernatural.

The first Greek philosophers were interested in the question “what is the world made of?” Thales (c.585 B.C.E.), the father of Western philosophy, argued that the earth was made of water, although his successors rejected his argument. How, they wondered, could cool and wet water be the basis of hot and dry things? What’s important for our purposes isn’t the specifics of these arguments, but that for the first time in recorded history hypotheses were being advanced which were subject to rational criticism.

Subsequent thinkers maintained that physical reality was composed of a boundless (Anaximander), air (Anaximenes), fire (Heraclitus), the four elements (Empedoles), or an infinite number of seeds (Anaxagoras). Both monism—the view that one kind of thing comprises reality—and pluralism—that many types of stuff comprise reality—encountered difficulties. Monism couldn’t account for plurality, and pluralism couldn’t account for unity.

Greek thinking about the nature of the physical world culminated with Democritus (460-360 B.C.E.) and other Greek atomists, who argued that all of reality was made up of empty space and tiny, solid, indestructible atoms. This theory provided a theoretical solution to “the problem of the one and the many,” by postulating a qualitative singularity and a quantitative plurality. Material things were identical regarding the qualitative nature of their atoms, but differed in the number and configuration of those atoms.

This theory also resolved the “problem of change,” the paradox of how something changes into something else and yet remains the same. To understand this problem, consider the following. How are you now both the same person and a different person from when you were a small child? If you are the same, then you aren’t different; and if you are different, then you aren’t the same. In answer to this conundrum, Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.E.) proposed that everything constantly changes. Parmenides (c. 515 – 450), on the other hand, asserted that permanence was the fundamental reality, and he used Zeno’s famous arguments against the possibility of motion to support his views.

Zeno (c.490-430) had argued that the swift Achilles could never pass a front-running tortoise in a race because, by the time Achilles reached the place where the tortoise was previously, the tortoise would have moved ahead to some further point. When Achilles reached that point, the tortoise would have moved further on again, ad infinitum. So Achilles could never pass the tortoise and motion, a kind of change, was impossible. However, because we ordinarily assume motion is possible, the atomists and pluralists rejected the views of Parmenides and Zeno.

The Atomists argued that atomic transformations account for our perception of change. In reality the number and configurations of atoms changes, but their underlying qualities don’t. What we perceive as change is in fact quantitative transformation at the atomic level. In little more than a century, rational discourse alone, without the benefit of experimentation, had advanced the argument remarkably.

But atomic theory wasn’t the only achievement of Greek rationalism. As Greek influenced spread throughout the Mediterranean over the next few centuries, its accomplishments were most impressive. Hipparchus mapped the constellations and calculated the brightness of stars, and Euclid produced the first systematic geometry. Herophilus argued that the brain was the foundation of intelligence, and Heron invented gear trains and steam engines. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with surprising accuracy, mapped the earth, and argued that the Indies could be reached by sailing west. (Yes, ancient scholars knew the earth was round.) Moreover, the accomplishments of Pythagoras the mathematician, Archimedes the mechanical genius, Ptolemy the astronomer, and Hippocrates the physician are legendary.

In Alexandria, where over the course of seven centuries the rationalist spirit flourished, the great library and museum held much of the knowledge of the ancient world. But this rationalistic spirit never seized the imagination of the masses and, in 415 C.E., the mob burned the library down. At the time, the greatest mathematician, scientist and philosopher at work in the library was a woman named Hypatia (c.370 – 415).

Unfortunately Alexandria in Hypatia’s time was in disarray. Roman civilization was in decline and the Catholic Church was growing in power. Cyril, the archbishop of Alexandria, despised Hypatia because of her friendship with the Roman governor and her place as a symbol of rationalism and paganism. On her way to work in 415 C.E., she was met by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. In his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan describes the scene thus: “They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.”

Though the pursuit of knowledge continued in the Middle East and in Eastern civilization, Western civilization would soon plunge into the dark ages and await the Renaissance, more than a millennium in the distant future, for the rebirth of the rationalistic spirit which began in ancient Greece. We can only speculate as to the increased extent of our scientific knowledge today had the spirit of this investigation continued unabated.

Western Philosophy Today

The ancient Greeks made no distinction between rational, philosophical, and scientific thinking. When Thales or Democritus practiced what we would today call physics or chemistry, these disciplines were still parts of philosophy. As the centuries proceeded and human reasoned discovered more about various branches of knowledge, the sciences formed their own distinct disciplines. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Newton, for example, considered his revolutionary seventeenth-century work in physics to be natural philosophy. The natural sciences as distinct disciplines are recent, and the social sciences even more so. For example, economics and became an independent discipline in (roughly) the early nineteenth century, psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and sociology in the early twentieth century.

Today, in the colleges and universities of the Western world, the residual, unanswered, and timeless questions which don’t fall within the specific purview of other disciplines comprise philosophy’s domain. Therefore some of the most difficult questions, for which there are as yet no definite answers or methodology, remain for philosophers to ponder. For example: Is the belief in a God reasonable? What is knowledge? Do we know anything for certain? What is the ultimate nature of reality? Why is there something rater than nothing? What is the nature of goodness, beauty, truth, liberty, equality, and justice? What is a good political system or fair economic system? What is valuable in art, music, or human conduct? What is morality? Are human free? What is the meaning of science? What is the relationship between thought and reality? What is language? Are human beings entirely material? What is the meaning and purpose of human existence? These are just a sample of philosophical questions.

Most of these questions fall into a few basic groups. Metaphysics probes the nature of ultimate reality and revolves around the question, “what is real?” Epistemology studies the nature and limits of human knowledge and centers on the question, “what can we know?” Axiology explores the nature of the valuable in art, politics, and ethics and asks, “What is good?” And, since philosophy invokes reasoned arguments to support positions—rather than relying on faith, authority, tradition, or conventions—logic is that branch of philosophy that differentiates good arguments from bad ones.

In addition, many specialized fields exist within philosophy. There is philosophy of religion, mathematics, science, law, medicine, business, language, art, sport, and more. Note, one can practice any of these without philosophizing about them. You can be cleric, mathematician, scientist, lawyer, nurse, physician, business executive, linguist, artist or athlete without philosophizing about them. So philosophy is by nature a theoretical pursuit rather than a practical one. Philosophers ask:  how do we know a religious claim is true? Does mathematics tell us about reality, or is it merely an arbitrary formal system? How do we know scientific theories are true? What justifies the use of legal coercion? What should the practice of medicine entail? Are ethical behaviors and profitable business compatible? Does language effectively communicate ideas? What makes good art? What purpose do sports serve? Any important part of human culture, the culture as a whole, or the ultimate nature of reality itself is ripe for analysis. Thus, philosophy is sustained, rational, and systematic reflection and analysis of the philosophical area in question.

In addition philosophers investigate the relationship between, for example, philosophy and psychology, literature, culture, gender, or history. Is philosophy independent of these forces, or does philosophy depend on them? Philosophers might study the history of philosophy in order to understand the evolution of ideas in history, or they might be more interested in the meaning of human history. Philosophers are also interested in theoretical issues in game theory, decision theory, and cognitive science, as well as practical issues concerning business, medical, and environmental ethics. The range of philosophy is enormous.

For the uninitiated, in order to get a grasp of the nature of philosophy, go into any library or bookstore and examine a work of non-fiction. Often, at the end of the work in question one finds a section entitled “Afterthoughts,” “Reflections,” “Postscript,” “Epilogue,” “What It All Means,” etc. There authors often move from their subject matter to reflect on the meaning or implications of their investigation. At that point, they are philosophizing.

The Trial of Socrates

Summary of Plato’s Apology

The Apology is Plato’s recollection and interpretation of the Trial of Socrates (399 BCE). In the dialogue Socrates explains who he is and what kind of life he led. The Greek word “apologia” means explanation—it is not to be confused with apologizing for one’s actions. The following is an outline of the argument that Socrates makes in his defense.

I. Prologue (17a-19a)

The first sentence sets the tone and direction for the entire dialogue. Socrates, in addressing the men of Athens, states that he almost forgot who he was, and that the speeches of his accusers reminded him. The dialogue will thus be a kind of “recollecting” by Socrates of who he is. That is to say, the Apology will become Socrates’ answer to the question: “Who is Socrates?

II. The First False Charges (19a – 24a)

A. The Charges and Their Assignment (19a-20c)

The first “charge” against Socrates arose from general accusations that had been directed toward him through the years. These accusations were that Socrates was: (1) a physicalist and (2) a sophist. The charge of “investigating things beneath the earth and in the skies” were also leveled at physicalists like Thales and Anaxagoras. The charge of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger” was directed to sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, and Evanus. But Socrates is neither a physicalist or a Sophist. He is not a physicalist because he believes in a non-physical soul, and he is not a Sophist because, among other reasons, he doesn’t charge for his teaching and he is interested in truth not influence.

B. Socrates’ Art and the Delphic Oracle (20c-23c)

The false image of Socrates arose because people misunderstood his true activity. Socrates explains this activity by relating a story about the Delphic Oracle. A friend of Socrates’ went to the Oracle and asked the priestess: “Who is the wisest of mortals?” and the priestess replied: “Socrates is the most wise.” When Socrates heard this he was surprised, since he thought of himself as ignorant. In response he tried to invalidate the claim by finding someone wiser than he. He began to question various people including politicians, poets, and craftsmen. In each encounter the various individuals claim to be in possession of some kind of wisdom or knowledge. But upon further questioning, Socrates became convinced that none of these persons possessed knowledge or wisdom.

Socrates concluded that the truth of the statement “Socrates is most wise” is that Socrates was most wise because he was aware of his own ignorance, while those around him who claimed to know were ignorant of their ignorance.

C. How the Charges Arose (23c-24a)

In the course of Socrates’ verification of the Delphic Oracle’s claims that he was most wise, he challenged many people about their cherished beliefs. The response of many individuals was confusion and anger. Over the years, this anger took the form of a general resentment toward Socrates.

III. The Specific Charges (24b – 28a)

The charges made were that Socrates was guilty of: a) corruption of the youth; and b) impiety or not believing in the gods. And the penalty they demanded was death.

Regarding the Charge of Corruption of the Youth Socrates responds:

  1. Meletus says that Socrates is the person in Athens who is responsible for the corruption of the youth. Yet it is absurd to say that only Socrates corrupts the youth. This implies that everyone else helps the youth. But just as there are few horse trainers, so there are few who really “train” the youth. Socrates is of these “trainers.”
  2. Who would voluntarily corrupt the youth? (25c-26a) If Socrates voluntarily harmed the youth, then (since evil begets evil) they would harm him. And no rational person voluntarily harms himself. But if he harmed the youth involuntarily, then he should be educated not punished. So either he is intentionally harming the youth which is self-destructive, or he is unintentionally harming them in which case he should be taught how not to do so, not punished.

Regarding the Charge of Impiety

Could a person believe in things like clothes and yet not in human beings who wear them? So too with divine things: Since Socrates believes in a Diamon (a divine thing), it follows that he believes in divinities. He also says that believes in spiritual activities so he obviously believes in spirits.

IV. Socrates’ Interpretation of his Art (28b – 32e)

Socrates is unpopular, but not ashamed of his occupation even if it brings death. One should not fear death, for that is to claim one knows what one does not know—that death is bad.) Socrates encourages people to care not for their possessions or bodies, but for their souls.

Socrates, far from being an impious corrupter of the youth, is actually a blessing sent by the gods. To show this, Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (a horsefly). Just as a gadfly constantly agitates a horse, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep, Socrates converses in the marketplace to prevent the city from becoming sluggish, careless and intolerant. Ultimately, Socrates’ whole life has been a service to the city begun out of a pious response to the saying of the gods. He is their gadfly.

V. Socrates Answers the Charges (33a-34b) 

Finally he asks if any present in the court felt that he had corrupted them. Plato and others indicate that, to the contrary, they have been helped by Socrates not corrupted by them.

VI. Epilogue (34c-35d)

Socrates tells the men of Athens that he wants to be judged according to his account of himself and not by any other standard—such as appealing to his old age or the fact that he has children. Thus Socrates wishes to be judged and not exonerated for any other reason than the demands of justice. A vote is taken and Socrates is found guilty.

VII. The Conviction and Alternate Penalties (36a – 38c)

The penalty proposed is death by hemlock. At this point Socrates has the opportunity to propose an alternate penalty. Socrates argues that since the penalty should be something he deserves, and since he has spent his life in service to the city without pay, he deserves free meals for the rest of his life. (He does appear to offer that his friends will pay a small fine for him.)

VIII. Final Speeches (38c-42a)

There are two final speeches. The first are to those who voted for his death; the second are for those who voted for his acquittal.

To those who voted for his death (38c-39d)

At his age of 70 death would have soon arrived naturally. But now these people will bear the responsibility for it—and they will have allowed Athens to be condemned for my execution. Socrates notes that he could have won his case if he had appealed to their emotions, if he had practiced Sophistry, but he chose instead to speak the truth. He prophecizes that there will be others to take his place when he is gone. After all, it is not the particular person of Socrates which is at issue here, but the activity of philosophy itself.

To those who voted for his acquittal (39e-42a)

Socrates notes that his Daemon never attempted to dissuade him from anything that he said. So this outcome must be for the good. After all, death is either one of two things: a deep sleep or a change of place. A deep sleep is more peaceful than most of our waking time. If he were to enter Hades—if death were a change of place—he would have the opportunity to meet all of the great Greek thinkers and heroes. And here he could ask them the same questions that he asked the men of Athens. So he has in no way been harmed, for he will either sleep soundly or continue talking. [He omits the ideas of some eternal punishment. Obviously such an outcome was unthinkable.]

[In the next dialogue, the Crito, Socrates rebukes his friends who want to help him escape. Socrates has been found guilty and believes he should abide by the laws of the state that has nurtured and educated him. Finally the dialogue The Phaedo will describe the scene of Socrates’ death. After he has gone Plato writes movingly:

“Such was the end of our comrade … a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most just.”

More on the Mystery of Existence

A reader asked me to clarify a distinction, that was made in a previous post, between a local and a cosmic possibility in the philosophy of Derek Parfit. Here are Parfit’s exacts words on the distinction:

It will help to distinguish two kinds of possibility. Cosmic possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that the whole of reality might be. Only one such possibility can be actual, or the one that obtains. Local possibilities are the different ways that some part of reality, or local world, might be. If some local world exists, that leaves it open whether other worlds exist.” ~ Derek Parfit, “Why Anything? Why This?” London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 2 · 22 January 1998, pages 24-27

This distinction doesn’t seem completely clear. The local could refer to a part of reality—like a planet—and the cosmic to the whole of reality—the universe. Alternatively, the local could refer to a particular universe, and the cosmic to all the universes or the multiverse. I favor the latter interpretation. Either way the cosmic possibilities are what is important.

As I said in my previous post regarding Parfit’s position:

The cosmic possibilities range from every conceivable reality existing (the all worlds possibility) to no conceivable reality existing (the null hypothesis). In between there are an infinite number of possibilities such as: only good universes exist, only 58 universes exist, only worlds that obey string theory exist, only bad worlds exist, etc. Of all these cosmic possibilities at least one of them must obtain. So the question is, which one and why?

Parfit concludes that the null hypothesis is the simplest, the all worlds hypothesis the fullest, the axiarchic hypothesis the best and so on. Now Parfit wonders if a cosmic possibility obtains because it has a special feature like fullness or simplicity or goodness. What if that feature chooses reality? If it does Parfit calls it a “selector.”

… Of course this raises the question of whether there is some deeper explanation of why there is one selector rather than another. Is there a meta-selector and a meta-meta-selector ad infinitum? Parfit acknowledges that the ultimate selector would have to be a brute fact–to stop the infinite regress–but that this is better than no explanation at all. But Parfit also believes that the simplest explanatory possibility at the meta-level is that there is no selector! This does not mean there would be nothingness–that would be a special outcome best explained by simplicity as the selector. Rather no selector leads to a mediocre universe with nothing special about it–the way things turned out would be random. “Reality is neither a pristine Nothing nor an all-fecund Everything. It’s a cosmic junk shot.” (Holt, 236)

In the end, if it wasn’t clear in the previous post, Parfit thinks our reality is most consistent with there being no selector. And at the meta-level the no selector hypothesis is most likely because that’s the simplest hypotheses. So simplicity -> no selector -> lots of generic possibilities.

Here is how I would summarize the issue of why there is something rather than nothing.

Reality is either has a cause, reason or explanation (CRE) or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t have a CRE then reality is unintelligible, it is a brute fact or eternal. If it has a CRE then either it is its own CRE or its CRE is something else. This something else—god, aliens, other universes—is in turn either its own CRE or its CRE is something else, ad infinitum. So this chain of CRE is either infinite or something is its own CRE. As for reality being infinite, this is consistent with reality having no CRE, being its own CRE, or having its CRE be something else. So whether the reality is beginningless or not doesn’t affect our question.

Think of it this way. If you are told that reality has no CRE are you satisfied? No. You think there must be a CRE because normally things have CREs. If you are told that reality explains itself are you satisfied? No. Because normally things don’t explain themselves. If you are told that reality is explained by something else are you satisfied? No. Because now you need an explanation of that thing. For of that thing you can always ask “what is the CRE for that?” And the only answer to that question is: a) it has no CRE; or b) it is its own CRE; or c) its CRE is something else. And then you are back where you started.

In the end this mystery seems to have no end. Our minds can’t penetrate it. And so we go on living.