Tag Archives: philosophy

The examined life…

Master Shih Te’s Words



I see a lot of silly folks
who claim their own small spine’s
Sumeru, the sacred mountain
that supports the universe.
Piss ants, gnawing away at a noble tree,
with never a doubt about their strength.
They chew up a couple of Sutras,
and pass themselves off as Masters.
Let them hurry and repent.
From now on no more foolishness.

This is poem XI* from Master Shih Te, a hermit on Cold Mountain; contemporary of and close friend to the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan. This verse is translated by J. P. Seaton from his book, Cold Mountain Poems (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 2009).

Only 49 poems attributed to Shih Te (also written as Shi De or  Shide) survive; most have distinctly Buddhist themes, but like this one, have metaphorical resonance outside the strict religious or spiritual framework.

This particular poem struck me as particularly relevant, when I read it in Seaton’s collection, this weekend. How much some people  think their own view alone gazes from the highest mountain, and all the rest of us are below them. How they think their own words are akin to scripture, and those of others are dross. But, as Shih Te says, they are merely ants gnawing at the bark of the great tree of truth, thinking their tiny jaws will topple it.

Foolishness,  he says, just foolishness.

~~~~~
* James Hargett translated it thus:

I am aware of those foolish fellows,
Who support Sumeru with their illumed hearts.1
Like ants gnawing on a huge tree,
How can they know their strength is so slight?
Learning to gnaw on two stalks of herbs,
Their words then become one with the Buddha.
I desperately seek to confess my sins,
Hereafter, never again to go astray.

** Sumeru, or Sineru, is the central peak in Buddhist cosmology and mythology: Sumeru rises above the centre of a ‘mandala-like complex of seas and mountains.’ We use a similar metaphor when we speak of the ‘Everest’ of things.

How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada


“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld



Certain good qualities are like senses: people entirely lacking in them can neither perceive nor comprehend them.

MaximsYou might think that was written about local politics, or a comment on the local blogosphere. But no, it was written in the mid 17th century by Francois, du de La Rochefoucauld. It is number 337 in his famous book of Maxims, a work that stands beside other timeless classics of advice, reflection and epithets; like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Balthasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I found a copy in a local used book store recently and have been digesting his words of wisdom.

La Rochefoucauld published five editions of the Maxims in his lifetime between 1665 and 1678. During that time he edited, deleted, added to and rewrote much of it, refining it every time. But as he did so, he found more and more to say, stretching from 317 maxims in the first edition to 504 in the last.

Later editors took more from his other writings; his unpublished notes and his memoirs, raising the total to 647 or even more (647 in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Leonard Tancock, published first in 1959; mine is the 1984 reprint ).

France went through a lot of change and catharsis in the 17th century, from the brutal and exhausting civil way of La Fronde to the renaissance of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and a blossoming of art, culture, theatre and literature. It was the age of Moliere and Cyrano de Bergerac, the great salons of Paris, the Musketeers (about whom Dumas would write his great novels, two centuries later). It was also a time of great political upheaval, war, shifting allegiances, treachery and violence.

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Evolutionary Dead-Ends


Some people seem genetically inclined – perhaps I should write doomed? – to believe in nonsense: believe in conspiracy theories, in myths, legends, superstitions and supernatural, in magic, in pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. Nothing – no amount of fact, truth, education, reason or contrary evidence will change their minds. The harder you try to correct them, the more firmly they believe.

Watch, if you can, this painfully dim woman trying to dismiss paleontology and evolution as she blunders through Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on the evolving Earth and comments on the displays. It’s a tough video to view for anyone with an IQ bigger than your shoe size. Within seconds you’ll be wincing and asking yourself “Can anyone really be this stupid or it is a joke?”

Yes, they can be that stupid. I couldn’t make it all the way through in one sitting. I had to stop and clear my head. Shake it, drink wine. Who is this woman, you ask? According to Patheos, she is a public nuisance who is also a

…self-described “homeschooling, Tea Partying, conservative mother”

Okay, I have a low opinion of all of those categories even without the head-shaking, face-palm-encouraging video.

Dragons? She really believes dragons were dinosaurs and humans walked around the planet with them? Cave paintings of dinosaurs? (This has been long debunked by better minds than mine). She believes in a global evolutionist conspiracy theory trying to hide this stuff?

Maybe this critique will be easier to follow and less painful to watch:

or this one:

or even this condensed version.

One even has to have some sympathy for the museum staff who suffer such fools among their visitors. It almost makes me wish there were a higher power who could ensure such wingnuts don’t reproduce. Just a prod with that magic finger and *zap* they’re out of the evolutionary game. Damn, too late for this one…

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The Theology of The Fly


The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

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A Modern Take on Gorgias


GorgiasPlato’s dialogue Gorgias is mostly about the difference between content and form. Or rather it’s about how Socrates saw the difference between philosophy – content and truth – and rhetoric – form and words. Both of which are practiced and studied today in much different forms from what they were in ancient Greece. But the essential core of his argument is still there for us.

Socrates felt rhetoric  – oratory – was shallow; merely using words for persuasion, for effect, for emotion: it lacked the validity, the meaning and depth of philosophy. It lacked truth and knowledge.

If you look at the dichotomy in Gorgias as one between science, fact and evidence on one side, and pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and angry bloggers on the other, then it makes sense in a modern way. Instead of the speeches he discusses, imagine them like this: as blog posts. Gorgias argues his speeches are about freedom – angry bloggers often argue their posts are a right, and they have freedom to write whatever they please, to belittle and demean others without punishment. A modern Socrates might label these sophists “A” types.

What kind of change, then, does rhetoric effect in the soul? Socrates infers from Gorgias that it is persuasion. What kind of persuasion? One kind of persuasion “provides belief without knowing,” and another “provides knowledge.” Clearly knowledge is better than true belief, which is better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge. But rhetoric merely imparts belief, Gorgias admits, and experience shows that rhetoric produces both true belief and false belief (454e). By this reasoning rhetoric, to the extent that it is a theoretic art, is powerless to effect the best possible change (knowledge) in the soul of the hearer, but it has the power to effect the worst possible change (false belief) in the hearer’s soul.

This may be the main reason that Socrates stops discussing the greatest of goods and begins to discuss the greatest of evils. It is important to protect one’s soul against the worst effects of rhetoric. Socrates refers to the greatest of evils, in slightly different formulations, over a dozen times. The subject matter of the greatest evil takes many forms, most notably that of injustice. Can the state of soul called false belief be reconciled with the state of soul called injustice?

One could easily apply Socrates’ views about content versus empty form to the local political scene: the debate between financial facts, facility facts and council accomplishments versus the fictions, fantasies and outright lies presented in attack ads, on social media and angry blog posts. Wikipedia tells us:

Socrates believes there are two types: “…one part of it would be flattery, I suppose, and shameful public harangue, while the other—that of getting the souls of the citizens to be as good as possible and of striving valiantly to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant—is something admirable. But you’ve never seen this type of oratory…” (502e). Although rhetoric has the potential to be used justly, Socrates believes that in practice, rhetoric is flattery; the rhetorician makes the audience feel worthy because they can identify with the rhetorician’s argument.

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Crito: Doing What’s Right


Collected DialoguesIn his dialogue, Crito, Plato has Socrates gently admonish his friend, Crito, for his concern over what the uneducated public might think, or might spread by rumour and gossip, and encourages him instead to focus his attention on those ‘reasonable people’ who know the facts and in doing what is right:

“Why, my dear Crito, should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The really reasonable people, who have much more claim to be considered, will believe that the facts are exactly as they are.”
(Trans. Hugh Tedennick, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, 14th printing, 1989)*

Had this been written today, Socrates might tell his friend not to be concerned with the chatter on social media; look to informed people rather than simply those posting on Facebook and Twitter.

Crito, however, replies with a caution:

“…one has to think of popular opinion as well. Your present position is quite enough to show that the capacity of ordinary people for causing trouble is not confined to petty annoyances, but has hardly any limits if you get a bad name with them.”

Socrates then says he wishes people had the same capacity for doing good as they do for doing harm, but adds that, although they may put him to death, the masses do not change who you are: “They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”

He later comments that, “…one should not regard all the opinions that people hold, but only some and not others…” Crito then agrees with his statement on opinions that, “one should regard the good ones and not the bad… the opinions of the wise being good, and the opinions of the foolish, bad…”

“In that case, my dear fellow,” Socrates continues, “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us, but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority who represents the actual truth.”

Socrates wants to hear from a moral expert; without finding one, he has to make up his own mind on what is right and wrong.

Crito, one of Plato’s shorter ethical works, is ostensibly about the death of Socrates, but it’s really about how to live an ethical life even under dire circumstances: wrongdoing damages the soul and must be avoided.

Socrates awaits his fate in his prison cell and is visited by his friend, Crito, who encourages Socrates to flee into exile. Socrates says no, and accepts his coming death calmly. However, the dialogue has much to say to us today outside of its historical context.

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Logical Fallacies


Dilbert
Post hoc fallacyLast night at council I referred to seeing what I believed was a post hoc fallacy in a report, or more properly a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Yeah, I probably annoyed some folks in the audience because I used Latin words and that confused them. But hey, they already think I’m a jerk because I can spell words like egregious and nefarious without using spellcheck, so I doubt I lost any votes over it.

It means an error in assigning a causal relationship between two or more coincidental events. For example:

  1. I combed my hair a different way and I came down with a cold.
  2. After a few days, I combed my hair the old way and the cold went away.
  3. Therefore combing my hair a different way gave me a cold.

This is an easy one to see through, but you’d be surprised how many people apply this logical fallacy to their thinking. For example, the typical chemtrail conspiracy theory:

  1. I saw contrails from a plane overhead.
  2. My skin got itchy afterwards.
  3. Therefore the government is spraying something from jet planes that is making me sick.

Which pretty much sums up the whole nonsense around chemtrails. People naturally look for events that explain what they already believe to be true (confirmation bias). When causality does not exist between events, what you often find is merely wishful thinking.

Post hoc fallacies are part of a group of related informal, logical fallacies that fall under the general non causa pro causa group.* The Fallacy Files describes this category as:

…the most general fallacy of reasoning to conclusions about causality. Some authors describe it as inferring that something is the cause of something else when it isn’t, an interpretation encouraged by the fallacy’s names. However, inferring a false causal relation is often just a mistake, and it can be the result of reasoning which is as cogent as can be, since all reasoning to causal conclusions is ultimately inductive.

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