09/29/14

Montaigne: The Depravity of Our Morals


Montaigne“Our judgments follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay On Cato the Younger (Essay XXXVII, Book I, Screech translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). That’s quite a condemnation.*

Montaigne opens that essay by quietly commenting, “I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me.” Would that we all had his strength, not to judge others by what we think of ourselves. But he was born long before the age of selfies.

In our more narcissistic age of social media we are all too quick to judge, too quick to anger, too quick to take offence. We react first, strike back immediately, think long after. We treat anyone with different ideas or visions as intruders; trespassers on our internet. We disparage rather than discuss. We hurl invectives and insults rather than ask questions. We slough off civil debate in favour of personal attack.

(Yes, I’ve been reading The Essays again. I never seem to tire of Montaigne; there’s always something in his words to move me, inspire me and make me think. There’s nothing quite so comforting as sitting on the front porch in the late afternoon, under a clear, warm sky, Susan reading beside me, dogs at my feet, while I sip a glass of homemade wine and peruse Montaigne… well, him and a small pile of other books I am also currently reading. Would that these moments could be frozen in time and all afternoons be so comforting and civilized… as blogger J. D Taylor writes, “I will never finish reading Montaigne…”)

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09/26/14

Examined Lives


Examined LivesThought and deed. Thought and life. How does a person’s life, their upbringing, their daily toil affect their deepest thoughts, their beliefs, faith and passions?

And as outsiders looking in, can we understand a person’s thinking by examining their lives? Can we understand their philosophy that way?

I don’t know. Biographies describe the events of a person’s life, but cannot look into their innermost thoughts. Modern biographies told in conjunction with living people as collaborators may pull the curtains up, letting us see what they want us to see. But dead people?

Most lives are measured in arbitrary milestones that mark various transitions on the roads of our lives. Our tenth birthday. Or thirtieth. Sixtieth. First kiss, Last girl/boyfriend. First car. 100,00th kilometre on the odometer. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. First job, Last job. And so on. Do these events define a person, or are they just convenient places on which to hang memories or to craft stories that reflect the bigger picture?

Most of the biographies I’ve read, most of those that still sit on my bookshelves, follow the predictable path through their subject’s life: birth, childhood, teens… building the story through the stages of life until the focal period is reached – Shakespeare’s writing prime, Darwin’s epiphany before he wrote Origin, Einstein’s period of cosmological insight, Patton’s WWII activities, Nixon’s presidency, Hudson set adrift on the bay – there’s always a particular someplace the author wants to take us. Someplace that every other line in the book leads to; someplace that justifies all the rest of the writing.

Biographies are, too, interpretations; a form of storytelling designed to lift or tear down the subject for the audience. To reaffirm or demolish the image others (and history) have built around them. And to shore that view up through the bricks and mortar of fact and (allegedly) objective data.

Most of my biographies are about scientists, politicians, kings and queens, writers, warriors, explorers. Very few seem to be about philosophers (Montaigne excepted). Which is one reason I picked up James Miller’s 2011 book, Examined Lives, in which he looks at twelve philosophers – not just who they were and how they lived, but how that influenced what they thought. I wanted to flesh out my rather thin knowledge about these people: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.

(You might note that my happy discovery of Montaigne among them helped incur my interest in the rest…). Yes, they are all men, all Western philosophers, and it’s a very personal selection, not entirely representative of the long trends and history of Western philosophy. Miller explains why he chose them, why he wrote this book, Examined Lives, and why philosophy is important to us today, in this radio interview:

Surely we can’t know them through fully biography alone; only know of them. But does knowing what Descartes ate, or where Montaigne wrote, or when Nietzsche went for his daily walks help us understand their thinking? Perhaps, if a causal link can be demonstrated (and that events and thoughts are not simply synchronistic) we can connect the dots. Miller helps us do that.

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09/23/14

The Trolley Problem


The Trolley ProblemI had read about the “trolley problem” in the past, but not given it much thought until recently when I saw Thomas Cathcart’s little book of that name in the philosophy section of an Indigo bookstore. It’s subtitled, “Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum.”

I, of course, was so intrigued I had to buy it. I have read others of Cathcart’s books and liked his work in introducing/popularizing philosophical concepts.

The original trolley problem is a thought experiment that goes like this, as Wikipedia puts it:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

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09/20/14

The Unexamined Life


“The unexamined life,” Socrates declared in his trial, “is not worth living.” His student, Plato, wrote down those words in his account of Socrates’ trial and death, in the book, Apology.*

Socrates was speaking for himself and about the value of his life as a thinking person. He was on trial in 399 BCE for impiety – questioning the gods and introducing new gods – and corrupting youth. His real “crime” was his threat to established thought: he made his followers think, to question everything, to examine their beliefs and their knowledge and determine for themselves its validity. He taught them critical thinking and analysis – a dangerous new way to look at things. It shook the foundations of his society.**

And, of course, here is where Socrates’ approach conflicts with faith. Faith requires us to stop questioning and believe. Socrates exhorted his followers to question. His detractors stood on the firmament of faith. There was bound to be a clash.

The jury found him guilty and sentenced Socrates to death. But more than two thousand years later, Socrates words remain with us, are still repeated and debated today, while the members of the jury and their arguments are long forgotten.

As Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Socrates, of course there were political undercurrents to his trial:

Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates’s questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their elders. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates’s much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

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09/15/14

The Emperor’s Handbook


Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of the Roman Empire. He lived 121-180 CE and died while on campaign in Germany. Like many Roman thinkers of his day, he followed the popular Stoic philosophy and his writing became an important document in the late Stoic phase of classical antiquity.

While he ruled, Marcus Aurelius kept notes – written in Greek – about his thoughts and beliefs, as a guide for his own life and behaviour, applying his Stoic beliefs to his everyday life.

These thoughts were never intended for public reading or publication such as it was in that time (since the printing press would not come into use for roughly another 1,300 years, for works to circulate they needed to be hand-copied). He titled them simply “For Myself.” They have become known today as The Meditations.

A central theme to Meditations is to analyze your judgement of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As he said “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite”. He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. It seems at some points in his work that we are all part of a greater construct thus taking a collectivist approach rather than having an individualist perspective. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “Being a good man”.

After his death, his writings were saved – by whom, no one knows for sure – and shared. And copied over the centuries. Copies in Greek survived until the mid-16th century when it was first printed (1558). It was translated into English shortly after and had undergone numerous translations ever since.

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09/5/14

Coffee with Cicero


CiceroCan you imagine what it would be like today to be able to meet the Roman philosopher, Cicero, for coffee and spend an hour chatting? Or meeting up at a local pub and settling down to a beer or glass of wine? How great would that be to spend an hour with one of the world’s great thinkers?

What would you talk about? What wouldn’t you? Just imagine having the opportunity to share your thoughts on politics, religion, justice, philosophy, morals, friendship… the scope of what Cicero wrote about means you can talk about almost anything.

Okay, maybe not our gawking-at-celebrities culture, or the latest ad-riddled TV sitcom, or how well a vastly-overpaid sports star or team is doing this season (I would pay teachers, firefighters and police first, before any sports celebrity, but I don’t get that choice). To which he might respond, O tempora, o mores! (O, the times, O, the customs!) which he said in his First Speech Against Catilina. It sums up every older generation’s view of the upcoming generations’ lifestyles, I expect.

I’m sure Cicero spoke among his friends of the trivialities, too, just didn’t write much about them, at least in what of his works remain. But why waste that hour with such irrelevancies?

No, you’d have the chance to engage in stuff of consequence: big ideas, embrace the range of humanity and its behaviour, grab at issues that affect the tides of culture, the meaning of life, and the ebb and flow of politics. A real conversation, it would be, even perhaps a debate in which his famous rhetorical skills might come into play as he challenged you, parried your points and argued you into a corner.

(There’s a book in this: what would you talk about if you could have coffee with a dozen of the world’s great thinkers? I need to get back to writing for print…)

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