Category Archives: Philosophy-Popular

Introduction to Will Durant’s, The Story of Philosophy

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, originally published in 1926, has sold millions of copies and it launched publishing giant Simon & Schuster. It has probably introduced more Americans to philosophy than any other book. It is one of the first philosophy books I ever read and, thanks to a gift from my son-in-law, I own a signed copy. The book’s introduction beautifully discusses the value of philosophy. I reprint it here.

There is a pleasure in philosophy, and a lure even in the mirages of metaphysics, which every student feels until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag him from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain.

Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, “that dear delight;” when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably — than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. “Life has meaning,” we feel with Browning. “To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. “Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!” We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov –– “one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” We want to seize the value and perspective of passing things and so to pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance.

We want to know that the little things are little, and the things big, before it is too late. We want to see things now as they will seem forever — “in the light of eternity.” We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death. We want to be whole, to coordinate our energies by harmonizing our desires, for coordinated energy is the last word in ethics and politics — and perhaps in logic and metaphysics, too.

“To be a philosopher,” said Thoreau, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, or even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.” We may be sure that if we can but find wisdom, all things else will be added unto us. “Seek ye first the good things of the mind,” Bacon admonishes us, “and the rest will either be supplied, or its loss will not be felt.” Truth will not make us rich, but it will make us free.

… .

We should study not merely philosophies—but also philosophers. We should spend our time with the saints and martyrs of thought, letting their radiant spirits play about us until perhaps we too, in some measure, shall partake of what da Vinci called “the noblest pleasure, the joy of understanding.”

Each of the philosophers has some lesson for us—if we approach [them] properly. “Do you know,” asks Emerson, “the secret of the true scholar? In every [one of them] there is something… I may learn of [them], and in that I am [their] pupil.” Well, surely we may take this attitude to the masterminds of history without hurt to our pride! And we may flatter ourselves with that other thought of Emerson’s, that when genius speaks to us we feel a ghostly reminiscence of having ourselves, in our distant youth, had vaguely this selfsame thought which genius now speaks, but which we had not art or courage to clothe with form and utterance.

And indeed, great [people] speak to us only so far as we have ears and souls to hear them—only so far as we have in us the roots, at least, of that which flowers out in them. We, too, have had the experiences they had, but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings: We were not sensitive to the overtones of the reality that hummed about us. Genius hears the overtones — and the music of the spheres. Genius knows what Pythagoras meant when he said that “philosophy is the highest music.”

So let us listen to these [philosophers], ready to forgive them their passing errors, eager to learn the lessons which they are so eager to teach. “Do you then be reasonable” said old Socrates to Crito, “and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself. Try to examine her well and truly, and if she be evil, seek to turn away all [people] from her — but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve her and be of good cheer.”

I too felt the pull of this “dear delight” almost 50  years ago. Since then it has been a constant companion, even in the most troubling times. I’m fortunate to have encountered philosophy, and I thank all those who introduced me to the world of mind.

Summary of Plotinus

The first philosophy book I ever bought—above is the exact cover—was the The Essential Plotinus. Conversations with a friend in the summer after high school in 1973 awoken me, as Hume did Kant, from my dogmatic slumber. At the time my friend was something of a devotee of Plotinus, having studied him in a metaphysics class. I eagerly bought the book and carried it around with me, although I didn’t understand much of it. But I have fond memories of the book. It marked the beginning of a long intellectual journey for, unbeknownst to me at the time, the world of the mind was beckoning.

Plotinus (c. 204/5 – 270) was a major Greek-speaking philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy there are three basic principles: the One , the Intellect, and the Soul.[1] He is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism,[2] a mystical form of Platonism that thrived in Late Antiquity. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Gnostic metaphysicians, as well as other mystics.

The One – Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, godlike, totally transcendent One containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. The One is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The One isn’t a thing or a person; it isn’t the sum of all things; and it isn’t sentient or self-aware. But the One is the first principle; it is good; and nothing could exist without it. The One is the source of the world, but it doesn’t create the world by willful action. Instead, reality emanates from the One, as an outpouring or overflowing of its nature in an ongoing temporal process. In other words, the One reflects itself onto lower planes, but these reflections represent limits on the ‘s perfection.

Nous – The first emanation from the One is Nous (Divine Mind, Logos, Thought, Reason, Intelligence.) This intelligence contemplates both the One, as well as its own thoughts, which Plotinus identifies with the Platonic Forms (eide).

Soul – The second emanation brings soul, the creative power of which is divided into the upper aspect, World Soul, which remains in contact with Nous, and the lower aspect, identified with nature, which allows for individual human souls.

Matter – The third emanation results in matter, the lowest level of being, and is thus the least perfected level of the cosmos.

Mystical Experience – To experience the is be in ecstatic union with it, a union Porphyry says that Plotinus achieved multiple times in his life. This union with the is probably related to enlightenment, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.

This Metaphysics – The concept of the One is similar to the concept of Brahman in Hinduism. It also has much in common with pantheism, the view that god and reality are the same thing. This idea that all reality is divine shows up throughout the history of philosophy and religion—most notably in the pantheism of Spinoza. The idea that nous contemplates Platonic ideas finds echoes in St. Augustine. And, no doubt, other parallels could be drawn between Plotinian metaphysics and other thinkers.

Happiness – Human happiness for Plotinus is beyond anything physical, attainable only within consciousness—the incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul. If we achieve true happiness, we can ignore pain and suffering, as our minds will be capable of focusing on eternal things. Thus the happiness of enlightened individuals cannot be disturbed, for in contemplation they experience the inner peace of union with the One.

Knowledge – Plotinus distinguished between: sense knowledge, which gives us little truth as it is about the changing physical world; reasoned cognition, which gives us knowledge of essences (Platonic forms); and ecstasy, which consists in intuition of, and connection with, the One. This climax of knowledge that consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the One is something achieved by only a few.

Reflections – I am generally skeptical of this kind of metaphysical speculation. I’m just too influenced by Kant to believe that this kind of metaphysics can be sufficiently justified. I also believe that Plotinus basically has it backwards. His is a top-down system that starts with mind and ends with matter. But I’m a bottom-up or evolutionary thinker. Cosmic evolution begins with matter and mind slowly emerges. Of course this is something of a chicken or the egg question, and the issue of whether mind or matter is the eternal principle is a long-standing one in metaphysics. So I will say Plotinus does some pretty good top-down thinking.

Disclaimer – This is a very brief outline of Plotinus’ thinking, and I refer readers to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Wikipedia for more. I also thank my old friend Dan Dunay for long ago introducing me to Plotinus.

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study: Triumphs of Experience

A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in a recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant: Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those most proud of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.

Robert Waldinger, who now heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

Reflections

Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Victor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through: 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The Life and Philosophy of Nikos Kazantzakis

Kazantzakis black and white.jpg

In my thirty-three years by his side, I cannot remember ever being ashamed by a single bad action on his part. He was honest, without guile, innocent, infinitely sweet toward others, fierce only toward himself.” ~ Elina Kazantzakis

I have previously expressed my affinity for the thought of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957). I would now like to highlight of a few more of his salient ideas. I begin with a disclaimer. Kazantzakis was a voluminous author who wrote a 33,333 line poem, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, six travel books, eight plays, twelve novels, and dozens of essays and letters; thus no brief summary does justice to the complexity of his thought. He was a giant of modern Greek literature, and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years.[2] He is best known in the English-speaking world for his novels, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, as both were adapted to the cinema.

                                            

Report to Greco

In the prologue to Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiography, Report to Greco, he writes that there are three kinds of souls: One wants to work; one doesn’t want to work too much; and one finds solace in being overworked. Kazantzakis thought of himself as the third type of soul.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion, Greece into a peasant family surrounded by fishermen, farmers, and shepherds. Of his parents he said:

Both of my parents circulate in my blood, the one fierce, hard, and morose, the other tender, kind, and saintly. I have carried them all my days; neither has died … My lifelong effort is to reconcile them so that the one may give me his strength, the other her tenderness; to make the discord between them, which breaks out incessantly within me, turn to harmony inside their son’s heart.

As a child he was enrolled in a school run by French Catholics where he found religious history fascinating with its fairy tales of “serpents who talked, floods and rainbows, thefts and murders. Brother killed brother, father wanted to slaughter his only son, God intervened every two minutes and did His share of killing, people crossed the sea without wetting their feet.” Religion would become a lifelong object of his thinking.

After completing his secondary education, he sailed to Athens where he studied law for four years. He recalled the time with sadness: “My heart breaks when I bring to mind those years I spent as a university student in Athens. Though I looked, I saw nothing … this was not my road …” After he returned home he wandered the countryside, alone except for his books and notebooks. He had begun to feel the pull of writing: “Here is my road, here is duty.” He would never look back.

Indignation had overcome me in those early years. I remember that I could not bear the pyrotechnics of human existence: how life ignited for an instant, burst in the air in a myriad of color flares, then all at once vanished. Who ignited it? Who gave it such fascination and beauty, then suddenly, pitilessly, snuffed it out? “No,” I shouted, “I will not accept this, will not subscribe; I shall find some way to keep life from expiring.”

His Philosophy

In his early years Kazantzakis was moved by Nietzsche’s Dionysian (emotional and instinctive) vision of humans shaping themselves into the superman, and with Bergson’s Apollonian (rational and logical) idea of the elan vital. From Nietzsche he learned that by sheer force of will, humans can be free as long as they proceed without fear or hope of reward. From Bergson, under whom he studied in Paris, he came to believe that a vital evolutionary life force molds matter, potentially creating higher forms of life. Putting these ideas together, Kazantzakis declared that we find meaning in life by struggling against universal entropy, an idea he connected with god. For Kazantzakis the word god referred to “the anti-entropic life-force that organizes elemental matter into systems that can manifest ever more subtle and advanced forms of beings and consciousness.”[i]The meaning of our lives is to find our place in the chain that links us with these undreamt of forms of life.

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope. We fight because that is how we want it … We sing even though we know that no ear exists to hear us; we toil though there is no employer to pay us our wages when night falls. [ii]

In his search for his god—or what I would call his search for meaning—he ends not as a believer, prophet or saint, he arrives nowhere. Kazantzakis thought of the story of his life as an adventure of mind, spirit, and body—an odyssey or ascent—hence his attraction to Homer. In, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, Odysseus gathers his followers, builds a boat, and sails away on a final journey, eventually dying in the Antarctic. According to Kazantzakis, Odysseus doesn’t find what he’s seeking, and he doesn’t save his soul—but it doesn’t matter. Through the search itself he is ennobled—the meaning of his life is found in the search. In the end his Odysseus cries out, “My soul, your voyages have been your native land.”[iii]

In the prologue of Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors who struggle bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it bravely and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy, in the face of tragedy, by taking full responsibility for our lives. Life is struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:

General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[iv]

Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.

Kazantzakis was always controversial and misunderstood, his philosophy too ethereal for most readers. He was accused of atheism in 1939 by the Greek Orthodox Church, although he was never summoned to trial. They tried again in 1953, outraged by his depiction of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ—a book subsequently placed on the Index of forbidden books by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the last decade of his life Kazantzakis prolific, producing eight books. A psychologist once told him that he possessed energy “quite beyond the normal.” In 1953 he developed leukemia, frantically throwing himself into his work, but wishing he had more time. “I feel like doing what Bergson says— going to the street corner and holding out my hand to start begging from passersby: ‘Alms, brothers! A quarter of an hour from each of you.’ Oh, for a little time, just enough to let me finish my work. Afterwards, let Charon come.” He continued to work and travel, but died in 1957 with his wife at his side.

Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

The gravesite of Kazantzakis.

____________________________________________________________________

[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656
[ii] Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 656.
[iii] Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 653.
[iv] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

The Meaning of Life: Does It Make Sense To Talk About It?

I recently received this query from a thoughtful reader:

can doubts about our ability to know–really know–anything be a legitimate source of life’s meaninglessness?  Bryan Magee‘s just published Ultimate Questions is a meditation about just that. I suppose this is the Kant phenomenon/noumenon thing—albeit taken to a sophisticated level with Magee’s elegantly reasoned arguments …  If our senses, however carefully filtered by reason, together with the limitations of a necessarily subjective vantage point, cannot provide sure knowledge of the “thing-in-itself,” how does it even make sense to discuss the meaning of anything? This would seem to be the kind of thing you’d have to get out-of-the-way before even wrestling with the merits of the arguments for the many forms of intrinsic and extrinsic meaning you’ve been addressing in recent weeks in your blog.

In my view our inability to know the truth about many things may be part of what makes life meaningless, although you could maintain life was meaningful even given our ignorance. Our inability to know things certainly seems to make life less satisfying, although if the truth is really terrible perhaps it is good we don’t know it.

I would disagree that our inability to know the meaning of life implies that it doesn’t make sense to think about our discuss the issue. As I say in my book about the meaning of life, we cannot demand precision about such issues, but that hardly means it’s worthless to discuss them.

I do agree that we can’t really discuss metaphysics with any precision until we know the answer to epistemological questions. John Locke made a similar point about religion. Before we can have productive discussions about religion, we need to ask whether we possess the intellectual wherewithal to really understand the subject. This line of thought eventually led the British Empiricism to Hume’s skepticism, and Kant’s rejection of metaphysics in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

The problem is you can’t really get epistemology out of the way. The epistemological turn in philosophy has led to centuries of dispute about what we can know. The main problem is that we must investigate our cognitive faculties with those same cognitive faculties, so we can’t be any more sure of our thoughts about epistemology than we can about metaphysics. Again I address this in my book on the meaning of life by claiming that we will do the best we can to try to answer urgent questions about life’s meaning, with the caveat that we can’t achieve much precision in this area. Still there is value in reflecting about life’s meaning because doing so may aid our understanding and help us live better. If the effort does that, it is worth it.