Marcus Aurelius – Philosopher King

Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, 121 – 180 AD) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180. He ruled with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, until his brother’s death in 169, and then with his son, Commodus, from 177 to 180.

Aurelius was the last of the rulers traditionally known as the Five Good Emperors. He was a practitioner of Stoicism, acquiring the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime. His personal philosophical writings,  Meditations, or ‘Things to Oneself’ are a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy and have been seen as one of the greatest works of philosophy.

In popular culture, he was portrayed by Richard Harris, in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster, ‘Gladiator‘.

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Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics in which, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by using our minds, our logic, to understand the world around us, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

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While on campaign between 170 and 180, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in common Greek, the style of which is simplified and straightforward, reflecting the Emperor’s stoic perspective; the work not of a man of nobility but of a man among other men.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

A central theme to Meditations is the importance of analyzing one’s judgment of self and others and the development of a cosmic perspective:

Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.

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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.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

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”.

If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.

His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him.

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

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An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with existence allowing one to rise above faulty perceptions of “good” and “bad.” Things out of your control like fame and health are irrelevant and neither good nor bad.

When you have assumed these names – good, modest, truthful, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous – take care that you do not change these names; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them.

The historian Herodian wrote,

Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.

Iain King concludes that Marcus Aurelius’ legacy is tragic, because the emperor’s,

..stoic philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.

His death in 180 is seen as an end to the Pax Romana. The increasing instability in the West that followed has traditionally been seen as the beginning of the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.

A brief summary of Stoic thought is captured here in this video by The School of Life:

Why I am So Wise – Nietzsche

Why I Am So Wise is one of several chapter essays with ironic titles including ‘Why I am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books,” in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is  [1908]. 

The book is the last original book written by philosopher before his death in 1900 and was published posthumously.

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The phrase ‘ecce homo’ is Latin for ‘behold the man‘ and is the phrase used by Pontius Pilate in John 19:5 [Vulgate] when he presents Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a crowd shortly before his Crucifixion.

According to Walter Kaufmann, the text contains parallels to Plato’s Apology which documented the trial of Socrates. Just as Socrates was presented as the wisest of men precisely because he freely admitted to his own ignorance, Nietzsche argues that he himself is a great philosopher because of his withering assessment of the entirety of Philosophy which he considered a cowardly failure to pursue its stated aim to its reasonable end.

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In this regard, the wording of his title was not meant to draw parallels with Jesus, but to suggest a certain kind of contrast.

Nietzsche posits that mythological figure of Jesus actually represents the mistake of failing to see that being a man is enough, that the important task of transcending the all-too-human requires nothing genuinely inhuman or supernatural,  nothing beyond the reach of flesh-and-blood humans.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic;

In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.

Nietzsche maintains that when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God,  the content of experience is negated.

Nietzsche’s scathing critique of religion and morality has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern thought, particularly on existentialism. However, his critique of the person of Christ, the ‘ecce homo’ of history and art, is in my view, somewhat amiss claiming Christ represented an embodiment of ultimate morality.

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In my view, Christ arrived not to represent a divine morality but to address the failure of human constructed morality, the very self-constructed morality Nietzsche championed.

A contemporary of Nietzsche, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, examined this dilemma in his 1880 novel, The Brother’s Karamazov. Nietzsche’s senior by only 23 years, Dostoevsky wrote of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God and concludes that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself.

Why so? Dostoevsky’s Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between good and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably. Ivan’s question is quite compelling because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it.

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Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place, because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker” is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule.

Dostoevsky’s novel, through the dialogue of the two brothers, examines and critiques the empty vanities of religion and moralism, pointing out many of Nietzsche’s later conclusions, yet ends on a very different note. Rather than championing the creation of new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, the Jewish and later Christian scriptures address the self-created morals of humanity and their failure.

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It is in the Book of Job, written in the 3rd century BC, in which the protagonist who in the face of pointless suffering has the choice to turning back to moralism or towards nihilism, turns instead angrily and audaciously to address God with an ultimatum.

Answer humanity personally!

This challenge was answered in the person of Christ, not an ‘ubermensch’ or ‘superman’ because he represented God’s moral superior standards, but because he represented the face of God’s suffering with and for humanity. The cost of human freedom and moral agency finds reconciliation, and ultimate meaning in the scars of God himself.

 

 

Why I Write – George Orwell

In a short essay entitled, “Why I Write,” [1946] George Orwell outlines the four motivations that drive all writers.

First, he states, is ‘sheer egotism.’

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood etc.

This condition is not limited to writers, he clarifies, and is shared by scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen etc.

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Second is ‘aesthetic enthusiasm.’

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and out not to be missed.

Third, ‘historical impulse.’

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Fourth and finally, ‘political purpose.’

Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

In Orwell’s mind there is no such thing as a book genuinely free from political bias.  The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics, itself is itself a political attitude.

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Orwell confesses that he is a person in which the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. However, for him personally, an unsuitable profession in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, followed by poverty and a sense of failure, increased his natural hatred of authority and made him fully aware of the working class.

Then came the Spanish Civil War and Hitler.

Orwell then confesses,

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.

He cannot believe anyone could live in his a period like his own, and avoid such topics. The challenge is to be aware of one’s political bias and to act politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

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Orwell continues,

My starting point is always … a sense of injustice… I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

He concludes, however, that he does not want the reader to think him selfless or his writing wholly public spirited. Oh no. All writers, himself included, are vain, selfish and lazy. Yet beyond motives, there lies a mystery.  Writing a novel is …

…a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not drive on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

However, when Orwell wrote without political purpose, he claims he wrote lifeless books, and…

…was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

So influential has Orwell’s work been on the English language that the term Orwellian is now synonymous with a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. 

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Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm [1945] and 1984 [published 1949] are now classics of popular and political culture, selling over 50 million copies between them.

 

The Alchemist

The Alchemist (O Alquimista) is a novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho which was first published in 1988. Originally written in Portuguese, it became an international bestseller translated into some 70 languages and selling over 65 million copies to date.

Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in [his] soul.” The book’s main theme is about finding one’s destiny. According to The New York TimesThe Alchemist is,

more self-help than literature.

The Advertiser, an Australian newspaper, reviewed the book in 1993 saying,

of books that I can recommend with the unshakeable confidence of having read them and been entranced, impressed, entertained or moved, the universal gift is perhaps a limpid little fable called The Alchemist… In hauntingly spare prose, translated from the Brazilian original in Portuguese, it follows a young Andalusian shepherd into the desert on his quest for a dream and the fulfilment of his destiny.

65 million copies does not lie. What then is so  appealing about this novel?

Andalusian Shepherd

An allegorical novel, The Alchemist follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago. Believing a recurring dream to be prophetic, he asks a Romani fortune-teller in a nearby town about its meaning. The woman interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that he will discover a treasure at the Egyptian pyramids.

Early into his journey, Santiago meets an old king named Melchizedek or the king of Salem, who tells him to sell his sheep so as to travel to Egypt and introduces the idea of a Personal Legend, which,

“…is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.”

He adds that,

…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Along the way, the boy meets an Englishman who has come in search of an Alchemist and continues his travels with him. When they reach an oasis, Santiago meets and falls in love with an Arabian girl named Fatima, whom he asks to marry him. She promises to do so only after he completes his journey. He is frustrated by this, but later learns that true love will not stop nor must one sacrifice to it one’s personal destiny, since to do so robs it of truth.
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The boy then encounters a wise alchemist who also teaches him to realize his true self. Finally they risk a journey through the territory of warring tribes, where the boy is forced to demonstrate his oneness with “The Soul of the World” by turning himself into a simoom before he is allowed to proceed.

When he begins digging within sight of the pyramids, he is robbed but learns accidentally from the leader of the thieves that the treasure he seeks was all the time in the ruined church where he had his original dream.

This story can be traced to an Hasisdic folk tale earlier addressed in a Bear Skin post.  Coehlo used the frame of the story to construct the larger fable of Santiago’s journey.

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The enduring popularity of the Alchemist, a simple story written off as “a limpid tale” or “more self help than literature” and quite obviously based on an earlier folk tale shows how stories that resonating with audiences does not require originality, length, complexity or intellectual rigour.

Good stories strike at the heart and readers vote with their feet or rather, their wallet.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus [Ἡρόδοτος] was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the modern-day Turkey in the fifth century BC (c. 484–c. 425 BC). As a contemporary with Socrates, Euripedes and Aeschylus, he lived during what is known as the Golden Age of Greece.

He is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he broke from Homeric tradition of mythologising events and treated his historical subjects with a method of investigation. The Histories, the record of his “inquiry” (ἱστορία historía)—was the result of  his collection of eye witness accounts and other materials and his systematic and critical arrangement of them into a historiographic narrative.

His work meditates on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars which occurred one generation before his life. While prone to some fancies and inaccuracies, his work played a significant role in establishing a framework for later historical writings.

 

You can view this and other TED-Ed videos HERE.

Thales, the Father of Philosophy

Thales of Miletus,  c. 624 – c. 546 BC was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who influenced much of later classical Greek and western thought

He was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who were concerned with “the essence of things. They were named physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι), physical or natural philosophers or physikoi (physicists) because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (theologians), whose explanations looked to the supernatural.

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The pre-Socratic philosophers were asking:

  • From where does everything come?
  • From what is everything created?
  • How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
  • How might we describe nature mathematically?

Thales’ hypothesised that the originating principle of nature and matter was a single substance: water. Moreover, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of the whims of divine beings, Thales explained them by theorising that the Earth was a large disc which floated on water and that earthquakes occurred when the Earth was rocked by waves.

Thales used geometry to calculate the heights of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.

Placing your stick at the end of the shadow of the pyramid, you made by the sun’s rays two triangles, and so proved that the pyramid[height] was to the stick [height] as the shadow of the pyramid to the shadow of the stick.

W. W. Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (1893, 1925)

He is the first known individual to use deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving the Thales’ theorem which observed that any triangle which sits along the diameter of a circle will by nature be a right angled triangle.

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Thales was one of the seven sages of Greece, ho heptoi sophoi, (οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφοί) alongside Solon of Athens, and Periander of Corinth. These sages were known for pithy sayings including the inscription [attributed to Thales] at the Oracle of Delphi

Know thyself!

The Seven Sages of Greece were not only philosophers, scientists and teachers but also involved in political life. Thales political involvement had mainly to do with the involvement of his region, Ionia in the defense of Anatolia [Asia Minor] against the growing power of the Persians. The neighbouring king of Lydia, king Croesus, had conquered many of the coastal cities of the Ionians and he engaged Thales support in his war against the Medes. The war endured for five years, but in the sixth an eclipse of the Sun spontaneously halted a battle in progress (the Battle of Halys). It seems that Thales had predicted this solar eclipse and based on it the Lydians and Medes made peace immediately, swearing a blood oath.

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The Medes were vassals of the Persians under Cyrus. Croesus now sided with the Medes against the Persians and marched in the direction of Persia, stopping by the river Halys, then unbridged.  The king gave the problem to Thales who got the army across by digging a diversion upstream so as to reduce the flow, making it possible to ford the river.  When Croesus was unsuccessful against the Persian armies in Cappadocia, he marched home, and summoned his dependents and allies to send fresh troops to Sardis. The Persian army surrounded the armies of Croesus, trapping them within the walls of Sardis. This time, Thales fame as a counselor was to advise the Milesians not to engage in “fighting together”, with the Lydians against the Persians.

Croesus was defeated before the city of Sardis by Cyrus, and Miletus was subsequently spared because it had taken no action. Cyrus was so impressed by Croesus’ wisdom and his connection with the sages that he spared him and took his advice on various matters. The Ionians were now free and Miletus, received favorable terms from Cyrus including amnesty.

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It was Thales wisdom in science, philosophy and politics which led to the rise of the Milesian school of philosophy which was influenced by both Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. It was Anaxagoras  [c. 510 – c. 428 BC] of the Milesian school of philosophy who later brought its teaching to Athens, influencing Socrates and Pericles under the Golden Age of Greece.

Although Socrates born two centuries later [c. 470 – 399 BC], is more famously remembered to be the ‘father of western philosophy’, it is Thales earlier wisdom and scientific endeavours that have led to him being credited with fathering western philosophy.

Why Should You Read ‘Macbeth’?

There’s a play so powerful that an old superstition says its name should never be uttered in a theater. A play that begins with witchcraft and ends with a bloody, severed head. A play filled with riddles, prophecies, nightmare visions, and lots of brutal murder. But is it really all that good?

Brendan Pelsue and TED-Ed, explain why you should read (or revisit) “Macbeth.”

 

 

 

Tuck Everlasting

When Winnie Foster decides to run away, a rather curious set of adventures unfolds. The 10 year old is the rather lonely only child of the wealthiest family in Treegap, a small village on the edge of a rather mysterious wood.

One afternoon around twilight, Winnie and her grandmother hear mysterious music wafting from the wood and Grandma reports it is “fairy music” which she has heard throughout her life. Winnie’s curiosity is piqued as no one ventures into the private woods owned by her family; even the cows circle around the forest rather than passing through.

Winnie’s family are visited by a “man in a yellow suit” who is asking questions about families in the area. When Winnie shares about the fairy music from the wood the man questions her more closely, almost greedily.

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Despite her every move being monitored and scrutinsed by overbearing grandmother and mother, Winnie manages to escape her iron fenced yard one morning, to run away. She ventures into the forbidding wood only to discover a delightful grove and clearing with a giant tree and spring.

Here in the wood she meets 17 year old Jesse Tuck. What unfolds next is an adventure in which Winnie is “kidnapped” by the Tuck family for discovering their secret – a spring granting immortality.

The family share their story with Winnie of how they came across the the spring by mistake and have been frozen in time ever since, never ageing a day. They have kidnapped Winnie to protect the secret and intend to return her home once she agrees to protect their secret also.

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Little do they know that “man in a yellow suit” is following them and eavesdropping on their conversations. His intentions for the forest and the magical spring are less than pure and so Winnie, Jesse and the Tuck family must work together to thwart his plans to sell the spring water for profit.

Written in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt,  Tuck Everlasting has sold over 5 million copies and is listed as one of the “Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children”. The story wrestles with some big questions about life including mortality, morality, land ownership, and love.

The Tucks attain what is so enviable, eternal life. And yet in the words of Angus Tuck, to stop ageing naturally is to become like a rock on the stream of life, unmoving along with all the other elements in dynamic relationship with each other. It is a constant grief to the Tucks to see life pass on without them and to live forever. At any cost they must stop the “man in the yellow suit” from selling to the public what seems so desirable and yet what would wreak havoc on space and time.

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Winnie too faces the decision to run away with the Tuck’s or to live on, a mortal life, and take with that the joys and sorrows of ageing and finally death. Natalie Babbitt’s story is a bitter-sweet meditation on the gift of life, the decisions of love and the mystery of nature including ageing and death.

Aesop

Aesop, a slave and storyteller is believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE; Herodotus refers to him only 100 years later in his Histories as “Aesop the fable writer” and a slave.

His stories were cleverly told, presenting human problems through the dilemmas of animal characters, a tradition present in the cultures of many different races.

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The mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young mouse got up and said: “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

All the mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old mouse arose and said: “I will say that the plan of the young mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the cat?”

The Moral Lesson: “It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.”

Aesop stories remain in popular culture among them “The Boy who Cried Wolf”, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and “The Goose that Laid Golden Eggs.”

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Philostrates writes best about the enduring power of Aesop’s stories, quoting the 1st century CE philosopher Apollonius, in  Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14:

…he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.

This is the mystery of story told well.

Stories can relate truer truths than history and fact and the simplest of stories can relate some of life’s most profound end enduring truths.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

An alternative title for this blog post is “Taste of Food and Drink in Hemingway.” However, the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel captures the essence much better.

Both writers’ works are characterised by lively accounts of sensory experiences  –  the taste of wine and good food, the experience of a sunset across a city, an encounter with a lover.

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Hemingway, in his  book A Moveable Feast, shares a meal:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

This literary technique brings their stories alive for the reader, painting taste and touch pictures with mere words.

In doing so, they articulate the ‘existentialist’ ethos of the 20th century. Against a backdrop of war, political regimes, and rapid social changes, the writers contrast simple sensory experiences to meditate on the mystery of being.

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Kundera writes:

The man hunched over his motorcycle can only focus on the present…. he is caught in a fragment of time, cut off from both the past and the future…. he has no fear because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

Existentialism posits that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their lives. Those who do are termed “authentic”, showing courage to reject the meaning imposed upon them by tradition, religion or political regimes. Those who do not impose meaning into their lives, can easily drift into nihilism.

Both writers seek to ground their lives in the beauty of freedom, and sensual experiences.

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Set in Prague Spring of the 60s, Kundera’s novel explores the question of  whether any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since humanity only has the opportunity to live once, a fleeting ephemeral existence.

The novel follows the life and loves of Tomas, a talented surgeon and an avowed philanderer, who though married to Tereza, cannot give up his mistresses. The novel explores his relationship to the various women in his life, and to his definition of love and meaning.

The novel intertwines their story with Sabrina, a talented painter and Franz, her lover all set against the backdrop of the invasion of Prague by the Russians.

Ultimately, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness.

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Similarly, Hemingway, writing in the 1920s, was part of the “Annes Folles” or “the Crazy Years” so called because of the fertile social, artistic, and cultural collaborations of the period after the First World War.

His generation was also nicknamed “the lost generation”, so named because their youth was grounded in the optimism of the late 19th century and their prime punctuated by World Wars, The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Both writers turn their art to ‘meaning creation’, capturing the sweetness of life, through taste and touch, no matter how fleeting nor how uncertain.

Each writer, a poet to life, meditates on the lostness, the lightness, of being.