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Category Archives: Dialectics

What is it to be Happy?

by August 3, 2020

Time to stretch out the old noggin today, dear reader. We’ve got a philosophical inquiry on our hands proposed by our senior editor Alex Barrientos… one that I think we can all agree is probably the most important question we can ask.
As such, I’ll get straight into it.
“As for a topic I’d like to discuss in a future mailbag, I’ve definitely been obsessing over what the good life consists of. What is it to be happy? Is it to experience many pleasures? Is it to experience a certain kind of higher intellectual pleasure? Does it consist of abstaining from pleasures altogether or limiting them? Or is it simply about finding some meaning between the two and living virtuously?”
You can see its importance, no doubt. Such an inquiry needs to be asked by every individual for both themselves and their immediate community at one point in their life. Without this moment of reflection, one could argue it is impossible to ever be truly happy…
Of course the ancients had plenty ideas on the topic, many of which differed. Some schools of thought employed a more ascetic approach, which may conjure up thoughts of Diogenes and his dog-like lifestyle hanging around the streets and throwing birds at people. Others, such as Epicurus, felt a good life went hand in hand with pleasure and enjoyment… as long as it wasn’t too much. Others still felt the realm of the mental was the only path to happiness. Aristotle – I’m looking at you.
But who was right? Which way brings happiness? And… perhaps as importantly, how do you know when you get there?
As usual, you can comment below or write me directly at [email protected] with your thoughts on, “what is it to be happy?”

Do We NEED Pain? Is Suffering Essential for Understanding?

by July 27, 2020

‘Gain a child, lose a tooth’
After childbirth, obviously, and a few bad stints of food poisoning in Thailand… and Mexico… and northern Brazil, it was definitely the next most painful experience in my life.
The old wives tale (which has subsequently been proved true – and part of my theory on why Aristotle thought women had less teeth) resulted in a two hour extraction… An enameled sacrifice for contributing to the human race.

Maybe Aristotle could count teeth after all…

The procedure was brutal – saws, pliers and heavy metal objects were employed. The dentist was woefully stingy with the anesthesia (from the Greek word “without sensation”. This, however, gave your editor ample time to contemplate the deeper things in life, albeit punctuated by bouts of screaming.
First and foremost, thank goodness for modern medicine! Moments like these give us small glimpses into the, no doubt, pain filled past.
Then I started to conjure up the Stoics. After all, they were experts at handling difficult situations.
In the words of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, as found in his diary, “Meditations”:
“For times when you feel pain: See that it doesn’t disgrace you, or degrade your intelligence—doesn’t keep it from acting rationally or unselfishly. And in most cases what Epicurus said should help: that pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination. And keep in mind too that pain often comes in disguise— as drowsiness, fever, loss of appetite. . . . When you’re bothered by things like that, remind yourself: “I’m giving into pain.”
Of course, Marcus Aurelius was very familiar with pain. His physical frailty was notorious, and of great concern to his subjects. We know that Marcus suffered from chronic chest and stomach pains, problems sleeping, and poor appetite, among other symptoms. Around 174-175 AD, in fact, he was in such poor health that false rumors that he was dying, or already dead, actually spread throughout the empire.
But Marcus Aurelius wasn’t the only Stoic to suffer.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic Philosophy, survived a difficult shipwreck and loss of wealth.
Epictetus spent his childhood as a lame slave, perhaps crippled by his very master.
Seneca suffered from asthma, tuberculosis, exile…and Nero.

Seneca Most Certainly Suffered…

And yet these pains did not stop them. In fact, they may have done the exact opposite.
In our modern life we try to spend all of it pain free. We take pills for the smallest inconveniences, we trade our hard earned resources for every comfort, and all procedures are preceded by all the expected numbing agents (except by a certain sadist Argentine dentist).
But what if the pain is good? Maybe Eve’s curse is a path to greater understanding and wisdom? Men drawn to the battlefield to access previously inexperienced revelations?
Essentially, do we NEED pain? Is suffering essential for understanding?
As always, you can write to me directly at [email protected] or comment below.

What Makes you YOU? The Paradox of Theseus’s Ship

by July 21, 2020

It’s one of the oldest concepts in Western Philosophy. Heraclitus wrote about it. So did Plato
But perhaps the most eloquent explanation of this timeless thought experiment was accomplished by the historian, biographer and essayist, Plutarch.
He did so with the help of the Greek hero Theseus and his famous ship.
The concept goes like this:
After a famous battle the legendary Theseus has his ship moored in a harbor as a museum piece. Over the years parts of the ships, such as the wooden planks, begin to rot and need to be replaced. The question then is if all the parts of the ship are restored, at what point is the ship no longer that of Theseus… but instead becomes a new ship?
Likewise, if all the original materials are preserved and one day used to build a boat, is that then the true ship of Theseus?

Model of a Greek trireme. Credit: Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany.

To quote Plutarch directly:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
— Plutarch, Theseus

The implications of this paradox are many, and it can be seen in the fields of philosophy, law, and even engineering.
But for our intents and purposes, I’d like to stick with the philosophy of the mind and how we determine who we are…
After all, we inhabit many versions of ourselves, constantly changing, evolving, progressing. Our mindset and ideas develop over time, but even on a microscopic level we have to ask who are we – really? After all, at one point every single one of our cells has been replaced.

Ever changing human cells

So considering this ever constant state of change – and the fact that we are all works in progress rather than complete and static persons – I’ll present this week’s question:
Who are you? What makes you YOU?
Moreover, which you is ‘who’? The person you are today? Ten years ago? Or in the future?
And which aspect of you is ‘I’? Are you your thoughts and feelings? Your physical body? Or the culmination of your actions?
As always, you can write to me directly at [email protected] or comment below.

How Should Society Be? Collective or Individualistic?

by July 13, 2020

We really stood out. I mean literally, a foot above.
I remember the morning commute, staring down at a sea of black hair, slowly inching towards the constantly rotating subway doors. My (then) boyfriend, towering above everyone at 6’2”, was the only non-Asian face I could see among the thousands, often for weeks on end.
I never lost him in a crowd!
It was 2009 and we were living in the densely populated capital city of Taipei, Taiwan. The expat crowd usually skips over the stunning and super modern island of Formosa, preferring the party scene in Hong Kong or the well paid jobs of Singapore.

Taroko Gorge, a stunning landscape in Taiwan

As such, we foreigners were quite the novelty, treated with impeccable hospitality and kindness. But no matter what, our differences were quite apparent.
And it wasn’t just the superficial stuff either. It was clear we came from very different cultures, especially when it came to group dynamics.
Perhaps the most glaring example was crossing the road.
I worked at various schools at the time, and unlike my more disciplined and organized colleagues, I was usually running late to the next class. I would be hauling down the street, locals agog at my pace (sweating is frowned upon), when I’d come to a street crossing.
I’d look left. No cars.
I’d look right. One car, but a long way away. I had plenty of time to get across.
But as I walked out, in clear defiance of the red glowing hand, something happened.
Without looking up, everyone else on the corner followed me. As well as those on the other side… They automatically took my cue to walk, assuming that it was safe for everyone to cross.

Crossing the road

It became clear that unless I wanted a flattened Taiwanese pedestrian on my hands, I had to change my mindset real quick. I had to let go, just a little, of the fully individualistic perspective I grew up with in the US and the UK.
I HAD to think of the group around me, because they became, suddenly, my responsibility too.
This sense of the collective still found with frequency in the Far East was also prevalent in the ancient world. I imagine our classical forefathers would have been confounded by our western cult of the individual.
Instead, the regular rituals, community sacrifices, processions and religious proceedings, especially in the archaic and classical eras, worked to reinforce the collective culture.
Indeed, it is this difference that often incorrectly colors our understanding of ancient history. For instance, when reading the poetry of Sappho, we envision our modern poets, romantic figures like Bryon or Keats, furiously scribbling their deepest most intimate thoughts next to a rain streaked window in a forlorn attic somewhere no doubt cold.
Their words are portals to their individual feelings and emotions, a true reflection of their love, pain or fear.
Imagine instead, that they always wrote for a performance. Those powerful words were sung with dancers with an audience. How then are we to know the individual thoughts of the writer? As André Lardinois, a Greek Poetry Professor at Radboud University writes, “What is ‘personality’ in such a group-oriented society as archaic Greece?”
Painting of Poets Sappho and Alcaeus

Sappho and Alcaeus, By Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Acknowledging the vast differences between cultures, both then and now, with regards to being individualistic or collective… we come to our monday mailbag question. We’ve already been talking about Collective guilt, and its shadow in history, but what about the more general question?
What is better? In light of all our current events and the issues that plague us, what should we strive for? The cult of the individual? Or a society of the collective? What will work best now… and in the long run?
As always, you can comment below or write me directly at [email protected]

Is Collective Guilt Good?

by July 6, 2020

The teacher looks over the classroom, a frown conspicuously distorting her face. With knitted brow she passes down the aisles peering at each child suspiciously.
“NO ONE is leaving… until I found out who did it!”
The kids squirm. They furtively glance at the guilty and innocent alike.
“No one owning up, hmmm??? Okay, no recess for anyone!”
A collective groan is issued from the adolescents… again.
Yes, most of us have experienced it at one time or another.
Collective guilt… and her twin sister ‘collective punishment’ have been (still are) a popular form of social control. They live freely in closed institutions: the prisons, the military halls, and boarding schools the world over.
Throughout centuries they’ve wandered the globe and danced triumphantly with various regimes. They’ve handed out policies, economic sanctions, and spurred on political movements. At times, they have left long bloody trails behind them.
They rose up in the ancient world too.
During the Peloponnesian War, for instance, the Athenians would massacre the entire population of an island after beating them. Indeed, this seems to have been the rule rather than the exception.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

Even on their own home ground, the classical Athenians imposed Atimia (loss of citizen rights) on the descendants of state debtors. Didn’t get around to paying that court fine? Your son will suffer for that!
Meanwhile in Rome, the best example of collective responsibility was the Senatus Consultum Silanianum, a resolution passed by the Roman senate around 10 AD concerning the treatment of slaves of a murdered master. Basically, any slave in the house that could not prove they didn’t try to prevent the murder – including throwing their own body in the way – would be tortured or killed themselves.
Roman collared slaves Relief, Ashmolean Museum

Roman collared slaves Relief, Ashmolean Museum

Collective guilt/responsibility/punishment is found frequently in mythology and biblical stories. Plagues are sent, cities are burned, and entire nations razed for the actions of some, or many, but not all.
Today, the notion is prevalent again. It’s the idea that we or you or them should feel ‘guilt’…and pay for it. We see it in classrooms, in papers, and in public discourse.
Which is exactly why we should discuss it here!
But let’s begin where all good discourse should. With the terms themselves.
What exactly is collective guilt? Or collective responsibility? Is it a powerful tool for change and progress? Or an unjust path of revenge?
Is Collective Guilt Good?
As always, you can write to me directly at [email protected] or comment below. And please, write “COLLECTIVE” in the subject line so I can find it in my overzealous spam folder.

Do we need Police? The Ancient World of Policing…

by June 22, 2020

It seems almost impossible to keep up! Each week comes with huge movements, unfolding events and new important questions to debate and philosophize.
This time, it is the question of the ‘police’ – and whether or not we need them?
The idea of the police is nothing new, though its form in the ancient world took very different shapes. We here at Classical Wisdom believe knowledge of past events can be helpful, at times instrumental, in understanding complex and nuisance issues. As such, we’d like to review the history of policing in the ancient world.
Let’s begin with Egypt.
Evidence of law enforcement exists as far back as the age of Pyramids, the Old Kingdom period (c. 2686–2181 BC), with records of an office known as “Judge Commandant of the Police”. Officers armed with wooden sticks were tasked with guarding public places such as markets, temples, and parks, and apprehending criminals. However it wasn’t until the Middle Kingdom that a professional police force was created with the goal of enforcing the law. Previously there had only been informal arrangements, using warriors as police or Bedouins hired to guard the borders and protect trade caravans.
egyptian punishment

Relief drawing of Egyptian punishment involving disgrace

The police force was further reformed during the New Kingdom period (16th century BC and the 11th century BC). Police officers served as interrogators, prosecutors, and court bailiffs, and were responsible for administering punishments handed down by judges. There were also special units of police officers trained as priests who guarded temples and tombs and prevented inappropriate behavior at festivals and religious rites.
Interestingly, the police only existed in cities and did not guard rural communities. There, they took care of their own judicial problems by appealing to village elders or had a constable to enforce state laws.
But let’s leave the Nile river region and cross over the Mediterranean.
In ancient Greece, policing was a job taken on by publicly owned slaves.
In Athens, for example, a group of 300 Scythian slaves (the ῥαβδοῦχοι, “rod-bearers”) was used to guard public meetings to keep order and for crowd control. They dealt with criminals, handling prisoners, and making arrests. However, other aspects associated with modern policing, such as investigating crimes, were left to the citizens themselves.
Kurgan stelae of a Scythian at Khortytsia, Ukraine

Kurgan stelae of a Scythian at Khortytsia, Ukraine

Meanwhile in Sparta, a secret police force called the krypteia existed to watch the large population of helots, or slaves.
The slave police arrangement did not continue into the Roman empire. Rather than a dedicated police organization to provide security, the Romans employed the army and other duties related to police work were shared out. For instance, cities hired local watchmen for extra vigilance and magistrates, such as procurators fiscal and quaestors, investigated crimes. Victims of crime or their families organized and managed prosecution, as there was no concept of public prosecution at the time.
These informal systems evolved with the size of the city. Once Rome had grown to almost one million inhabitants under the reign of Augustus, 14 wards were created. Protected by seven squads of 1,000 men called “vigiles”, they acted as firemen and night watchmen. The vigiles caught thieves and runaway slaves, guarded the baths at night, and more generally, stopped disturbances of the peace. While the vigiles mostly handled petty crime, violent crime, sedition, and rioting was handled by the Urban Cohorts or the Praetorian Guard.

The Praetorians Relief with an aquila grasping a thunderbolt through its claws, in reference, to the Roman interpretatio graeca form of Jupiter.

Augustus then went on to create the cohortes urbanae, who were commanded by the urban prefect and served as a proper police force, in order to counterbalance the enormous power of the Praetorian Guard.
It is clear that there is always a demand for some sort of policing, but how it takes shape differs greatly. So considering the wide variety in duties, expectations, and formality that encompassed the job of ‘police’ found in the ancient world, we return to our modern question:
Do we need police? What should their job be? And how can we keep our communities safe? And who should provide these services?
As always, you can write to me directly at [email protected] or write a comment below.