Skip to Content

Category Archives: Philosophy articles

Nothing More Demoralizing

by October 21, 2016

By Ben Potter and Van Bryan

“Money…there’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money.”

So says the 5th-century Greek playwright, Sophocles.

Now, dear reader, we’re a student of the classics. We believe that an understanding and appreciation for the literature and history of antiquity can lend us perspective. The classics teach us to think critically, ponder more thoughtfully the questions of our humanity.

That being said, we always wished that the ancient Athenian had elaborated on his claim of monetary demoralization.

What about money is demoralizing?

Is it a deficiency of money that demoralizes man?
Or perhaps an excess? Is money the root of all evil? Or is evil the root of all money?

We don’t know. We’re being Socratic and merely asking questions. We’ve only ever claimed to know nothing, and not once have we failed to live up to that standard.

Lucky for us, greater minds than ours have pondered questions of coinage. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, of the 4th century BC, had one such mind.

Perhaps our ancient forefather can lend perspective on this subject, and answer for us an age-old question: what exactly is money?

What is money?

Ancient Greece was a time of firsts for the Western World.

First democratic government? Yep.

First masterpieces in literature? Check.

First academic university? Double check. Plato AND Aristotle founded schools in the classical age.

It’s unsurprising then that the ancient Greeks were also responsible for minting some of the first coins in the Western world.

Perhaps even more unsurprising is that this was almost immediately followed by the first embezzlement scandal and an ancient version of the military-industrial complex.

See…we really are influenced by the Greeks.

coincoin
Ancient Greek Tetradrachm

Note: New subscribers to our monthly subscription can recieve their own classical gold tetradrachm for free. Learn more here.

The ancient Greek drachma enjoyed popular usage starting in the Archaic Age of Greece (around 600 BC) right up until the Roman Empire. Ancient coins were originally minted from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy, but over time gold and silver became the preferred metals.

The rising economic influence of the Greeks during the 5th century meant that the ancient drachma was widely accepted across the known world. Ancient coins have been found in Egypt, Rome, and Syria. They even reached as far as the western dwelling Celts.

But all of this so far is just nickel and dime stuff. Practice your best chin stroking, now we get philosophical.

Aristotle, a man who is often regarded as one of the most prolific and influential philosophers of the Western world, had a few ideas on money.

Unlike his predecessor and teacher, Plato, Aristotle felt no need to justify the existence of money. Being the practical guy that he was, Aristotle considered the necessity of money to be self-evident.

When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use.

 

And not to mention, Aristotle says somewhat patronizingly, …

The various necessaries of life are not easily carried about!

 

Importantly, Aristotle did not claim that money was wealth. Rather, money represented wealth.

How can that be wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger, like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold?

 

Money, to Aristotle, represents olives in the orchard, vases from the potter, wine from the vineyard. Money wasn’t wealth, but it could measure wealth.

Fair enough, we’ve talked about what money is not. What, then, is money?

Well, Aristotle says that money should ideally be five things…

    1. Durable – it must survive the trials and tribulations of daily life, i.e. of being carried around in people’s pockets, purses, or even in the mouths of the newly deceased.

 

    1. Portable – a small item should be of a high value.

 

    1. Divisible – breaking a coin, either figuratively or literally, should not affect its relative value.

 

    1. Fungible – mutually exchangeable i.e. it doesn’t matter which particular coin you have as long as you have one.

 

  1. Intrinsically valuable – the coin’s material should be a worthwhile commodity (mint coins from gold not concrete).

Ignoring this 5th principle, history tells us, is what can be particularly disastrous.

The Crisis of the 3rd Century

At the outset of the Roman Empire, starting in 27 BC, the preferred Roman currency was the silver denarius. Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, minted coins that were 95% silver.

Ah, but what good idea couldn’t be improved with a little monetary manipulation?

coins
Ancient Roman Denarius depicting Titus

The coinage was debased over the centuries; so much so that by 268 AD, there was just under .5% silver in the denarius.When questioned about the devaluation of the currency, Emperor Caracalla (who ruled from 198 to 217 AD) held up his sword and declared…

Not to worry. So long as we have these (gesturing to the sword), we shall not run short of money.

 

How do you like that for a monetary policy?!

Even non-economists can probably guess what happened next. Hyperinflation ran rampant in the Empire. Prices during this period rose as much as 1000%. This is often referred to as “the crisis of the 3rd century”.

Over the next fifty years, 26 different men would claim the seat of power, often through military force. As for Emperor Carcalla-in 217 AD his own soldiers stabbed him to death when the Emperor stopped to take a leak.

History really is fascinating…

Perhaps the madness is best summed up by the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, when he commented that the great wonder of the Roman Empire was not that it fell, but rather that it lasted as long as it did!

Nothing More Demoralizing?

Aristotle’s ideas have been used throughout the ages in order to justify or denigrate various economic policies and innovations; from fiat printing to the most recent phenomenon of crypto-currencies.

By now we’re feeling Socratic again. Are Aristotle’s ideas on money outdated or, perhaps worse, standing in the way of progress? Or are we, like the Romans, teeing off for our own crisis of the third century?

Over the centuries the great teacher has been proven wrong (he contended that flies had four legs and that women had fewer teeth than men). So, at times, society was only able to progress once it had rejected Aristotle’s assertions. Do his ideas on sound money fall into this category of outdated philosophical fodder?

Again, we have no answers… Perhaps that’s the most demoralizing thought of all.

Do dogs have souls?

by August 29, 2016

There are a few possible sources we could peruse for the purposes of uncovering the nature of canine souls. We have chosen to look at Aristotle and his treatment of the soul within De Anima.

Artie defines a soul as…

… the first actuality of an organic body that is potentially alive

 

Let that swirl around your mind for a bit; taste it as if it were a fine wine. Once you’ve done that, feel free to say to yourself…

‘um… what?’

What does Aristotle even mean by that? Perhaps what we should go over first is what he doesn’t mean.

Aristotle, although undeniably influenced by his mentor, departs rather dramatically from Plato’s conception of the soul. Plato believed that the soul was an object of sorts, trapped within the body. It is a very real thing that resides within in us, until the day of our death when the soul escapes back into the world of the forms where it regains infinite knowledge and wisdom.

Aristotle believed that such a notion was unnecessary. Despite how difficult it may sound, the soul can be explained through logical, empirical means.

Matter and Form

Aristotle believed that any object insofar as it is an object can be explained by two criterion.

  1. Matter: the material the thing is made of
  2. Form: the meaningful arrangement of said matter

If we were to examine a bronze statue of an ancient hero, we would very simply say that its substance, the stuff it is made out of, is bronze. The form of the statue is the meaningful arrangements of its parts. The statue has purposeful shape and structure. This shape and structure happens to resemble a Greek hero. If you were to combine these two (matter and form) then you would have a complete picture of the object in question.

Aristotle believed that substance was potentiality. Bronze insofar as it is bronze, has the potential to be a statue of a hero. It is only when the substance takes on a meaningful form (a Greek hero) that the object is actualized. Simply put…

Matter is potentiality, and form is actuality…” -Aristotle (De Anima)

 

Similarly the human body is composed of matter. In this way it has potentiality. It would follow then that the soul is the actuality of the body. The soul gives meaningful purpose and shape to life. the combination of matter and form create a recognizable human life. And so we see that the soul is the first actuality of a body that is potentially alive.

All make sense so far?

Don’t bother answering that, we’ve still got much to cover.

The three types of souls

It is important to keep in mind that the soul according to Aristotle is not an object in the way that Plato imagined. Rather, it is a grounding principle of sorts. It is the realization of life. The soul is the one thing that enables a body to engage in the necessary activities of life. And interestingly enough, there are several parts of the soul. They are the nutritive soul, the sensible soul, and the rational soul.

1. The Nutritive Soul

The soul is that by virtue of which things have life. The first part of the soul is known as the nutritive part. This is the first and most widely shared among all living things. For it can be said that anything that takes in nutrition, grows from this nutrition, and eventually decays over time has a soul.

plant

This part of the soul can be found in humans, animals, and plants. It was believed by Aristotle that the nutritive part of the soul aims at the continuation of life. It is impossible for any one thing to exist eternally and without decay.

However, it is possible for life, through virtue of the nutritive soul, to regenerate in the form of offspring. The continuation of life is the final aim for nature. Any creature with a nutritive soul will therefore be inclined to strive towards this end.

It is interesting to note that plants have only the nutritive soul. Plants have no higher aim other than the continuation of life. The nutritive soul allows plants to take in nourishment, grow, and spread life. However, their role in nature stops there.

2. The Sensible Soul

The sensible soul, or the soul of perception, is the part of the soul that by virtue of which we are able to perceive. In addition to sensation, the sensible soul endows us with the ability to retain memories, perceive pain and pleasure, and have appetites and desires.

While plants do not possess the sensible soul, animals and humans most certainly do. Aristotle makes a point to clarify that not all animals have the same abilities of perception. While some creatures have all five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste touch,) some creatures are only endowed with the sense of touch. Animals that do not possess the proper sense organs (some insects for instance) will not have the proper potentiality for perception and therefore can not be actualized by the sensible soul.

dog
Ancient mosaic of a classical dog

All animals have touch. Aristotle classifies this as a default of sorts. Any animals insofar as it is an animal will be able to have the sensation of touch and therefore can be said to possess the sensible soul.

Aristotle also takes the time to mention that any animal that possesses the sensible soul must also possess the capacity for pleasure and pain. The implication to this is that any creature with the sensible soul will therefor also have desires or appetites. Appetite can be said to be the the desire for that which is pleasurable to our senses while simultaneously avoiding that which is painful. It can be said then that animals have passions. They are subsequently driven by these passions toward an end.

Hunger and thirst are forms of desire, hunger a desire for what is dry and hot, thirst a desire for what is cold and moist; flavour is a sort of seasoning added to both. We must later clear up these points, but at present it may be enough to say that all animals that possess the sense of touch have also appetition.

-Aristotle (De Anima)

 

Aristotle believed that animals and humans both possess the sensible soul. However, he asks the question if animals have the capacity for belief. Belief would seem to imply conviction. Conviction would seem to imply that a creature was persuaded, because one can not be convinced of something without being persuaded in some way. Finally, persuasion would seem to imply a rational function of measuring possibilities and drawing conclusions, a function that Aristotle believed animals did not possess.

3. The Rational Soul

While it can be said that plants possess the nutritive soul and that animals possess the nutritive and the sensible soul, the rational soul belongs to man alone. The rational soul is that by virtue of which we possess the capacity for rational thought. A rather daunting notion, Aristotle divides rational thought into two groups.

The first is known as the passive intellect. It is the part of our mind that collects information and stores it for later use. This is almost an extension of the sensible soul in that it allows us to take Aristotle philosopherin that which we perceive, create a belief towards it, and store it for later use.

The active intellect is the part that allows us to engage in the actual process of thinking. We manage to call forth knowledge stored in our passive intellect and shape it into meaningful ideas using the reasoning power of our active intellect. Aristotle also believed that the active intellect was responsible for our ability to consider abstract concepts that we have never perceived. Intellectual abstracts become manageable with the power of our active intellect, philosophy becomes possible.

Actual knowledge is the same as its object; potential knowledge is temporally prior in an individual, but in general it is not even temporally prior. But active intellect does not understand at one time and not at another. Only when it has been separated is it precisely what it is, all by itself. This alone is immortal and everlasting.

I know what you are probably thinking at this point.

Modern science has disproven much of Aristotle’s ideas on the soul. There is no nutritive, sensible, or rational soul. All three levels of the Aristotelian soul can be explained by nutritive and perception organs. And the rational soul is merely the rapid firing of neurons in our brain.

Perhaps…

Perhaps not…

Old Artie didn’t have the modern conveniences that we enjoy today. He did not have thousands of years of medical scientific progress to explain the various functions of life. He was, in a very real way, the guy who was kicking off said medical scientific progress.

The fact that he relied on observable, empirical phenomenon was an enormous step forward. No longer were thinkers restrained to believing in ethereal forms or mysticism to account for the inexplicable occurrence of life.

So…do dogs have souls?

No answers for certain, but we like to think so.

Aristotle and the Myth of Political Justice

by March 1, 2016

Are there warring factions in any political society? We wonder.

Is that where all our problems stem from?

The idea that the few, wealthy oligarchs are constantly at odds with the disadvantaged masses is nothing new. In fact, if we were to read Aristotle’s The Politics, we might see that it’s been going on for millennia.

Besides, civil conflict and struggle arise between the common people and the prosperous. The result is that the side that happens to beat the opposition does not establish a system that all can share in fairly, but grabs the top place in a political system as a prize of victory. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book IV, Chapter 11)

 

It’s worth noting that the Aristotle, like all of us, was a product of his time. His understanding of a political society, as a result, is slightly skewed from our own.

For starters, there were not countries as we understand them today. Rather there were insulated city-states (polis) that acted as autonomous nations, independent of any larger governing body.

politics
The Politics, by Aristotle
Classical Wisdom Weekly edition

Additionally, Aristotle constructed his idea on political justice with the assumption that there were those in a society who were, inherently, unequal (women and slaves).

For these reasons we must approach The Politics cautiously, humbly. Not all of Aristotle’s ideas will gel with our own modern sensibilities, but there is enough meat there that we would be foolish to abandon our pursuits all together.

So, where were we?

Aristotle portrayed the never-ending battle between the haves and have-nots in terms of oligarchs vs. democrats (those who would benefit from a direct democracy).

You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. Picture young lefties fresh out of their liberal arts college picketing outside some prestigious Wall Street hedge fund where the traders wear Brooks Brothers suits and winter in the Hamptons.

Like I’ve said before, history can sometimes be so unoriginal.

All disagreements stem from inequality…

The combatants, Aristotle says, disagree on the true meaning of justice. All political conflict, he writes, springs from competing definitions of equality and all the bickering that follows is essentially a philosophical disagreement that plays out in the forms of campaign promises and, in the words of our CEO, “political claptrap”.

For everywhere conflicts arise because of inequality, whenever unequals do not receive their proportionate amounts. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book V, Chapter 1)

 

The disadvantaged masses believe justice to be numerical equality. The oligarchs see equality in terms of proportions; those who contribute more deserve to have more.

The consequence of such an altercation is that each party will vie for political control. The masses, should they achieve success, will be

“You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. “

swept in to office and proceed with a massive redistribution of wealth. The oligarchs, should they have control, will tighten the purse strings; make sure they hold on to as much as they can.

Aristotle, to his credit, does not seem to have a dog in this fight. He does his part as a, mostly, impartial observer. He comes to the conclusion that both sides have their merits.

But here’s the kicker- they’re both wrong.

What’s good for me is good for you… well, at least it’s good for me.

The problem stems from the confusion that what appears just to us, represents, unequivocally, true Justice. What seems good to us must therefore be Good.

What’s good for me is good for you, and even if it’s not good for you, at least it’s good for me.

Redistributing wealth might seem like justice to the poor, but this leads to conflict between the citizens. True justice, since it is a virtue, would never lead to such strife. The only justification then seems to be that such actions appeared to be just to those in power.

aristotle
Aristotle, author of The Politics

But let’s be clear, Aristotle isn’t painting the oligarchs as the poor rich kid on the playground who is bullied because his parents can afford expensive cars and designer shoes.

Should the oligarchs hold control, Aristotle says, they will “confiscate and plunder the possession of the masses.” The justification, again, is that this appears just to those in power.

When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.

The fight for the soul of political justice

In order to really grasp why any of this matters, we must first understand what Aristotle believed to be the goal and ultimate end of a political society.

The Aristotelian state was the vehicle through which a citizen would achieve a self-sufficient

“When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.”

life that was “happy and fine”. The currency in such a state was justice, true justice, which would lead to the larger goal- a happy and virtuous life for the citizens.

The conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats, therefore, is significant because they are both fighting for the soul of political justice, an integral part of achieving the ultimate function of the political state.

The political good is justice, and justice is the common benefit. Everyone thinks justice is some sort of equality, and hence to some extent they all agree with the philosophical discussion in which we have determined these ethical questions. They say that what is just is relative to the people involved and that it must be equality for equals. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book III, Chapter 11)

 

So the battle rages on, each party pursuing their own idea of justice while never really coming across true justice.

You may be wondering, what’s a philosopher to do? Pick a side and batten down the hatches? Abandon all hope and go along with the claptrap?

Maybe…

Maybe not…

Epicureanism: The original hippie commune and the birth of the American dream

by September 8, 2015

let me ask you a question. Are you happy?

“Quit kidding yourself!” says Epicurus.

It is more than likely that you might think that you are happy, but in truth you do not know what happiness is. We have been born into a world of

XXXEpicurus

greed and jealousy and misery. Rather than getting more and more wrapped up in it all, you ought to spend some time freeing yourself from all of it.

You may have guessed at this point that this week we are talking about Epicurus, the man who may or may not have been the creator of the first hippie commune in recorded history. He might also have been the philosopher to inspire the birth of the American dream.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself, first things first.

Epicurus was an influential philosopher of the Hellenistic age of Greece. He was born to the island of Samos in 341 BC and would navigate the treacherous period of Greek history immediately following the death of Alexander the Great.

After traveling the Mediterranean for a number of years as a young man, being careful to avoid political persecution from unfriendly tyrants and even other philosophers, Epicurus settled in Athens in 306 BC. Here he would remain for the rest of his life. It was in Athens where Epicurus laid the foundation for an ethical philosophy that would thrive for hundreds of years after his death.

What exactly was the Epicurean philosophy?

Philosophy Has Failed You

Epicurus believed that philosophy had failed to provide for the needs of the everyday citizen. So often, the philosophers of ancient Greece concerned themselves with questions of metaphysical, epistemological, and cosmological importance.

That’s just a fancy way of saying that most philosophers were contemplating questions that would never enter the realm of consideration for the common citizen.

When these philosophers did consider questions of ethics, they very often aimed at making people “good” and “virtuous”, whatever that means. Epicurus took a different route.

ConstantineMost philosophers used philosophy to make people “virtuous”. Epicurus believed philosophy should make people happy.

He dedicated his life to answering one of the most troubling, and most important, questions there ever was.

What makes people happy?

Even in classical antiquity, the world was a bitter and materialistic place. Much like today, people assumed that things like money, status, luxury, as well as sexual and romantic relationships would invariably make them happy.

The problem with such things, Epicurus noted, is that we consistently run into pitfalls whilst in pursuit of them.

Acquiring money, for instance, often entails enormous sacrifice. Backbiting behavior and long hours at the office are almost always a prerequisite for wealth. Romantic relationships, another example, might seem appealing, but they are so often marred with jealousy, backstabbing and infidelity.

From these observations, Epicurus began to grow uncertain that we could find our happiness by acquiring more and more. He proposed, instead, that we learn to rely on less.

Epicurus suggested that, instead of engaging in romantic relationships, that we give ourselves to friendship. It is with friendship where we find true human altruism. People tend to be more generous with their friends, less possessive, and all around decent when it comes to friendship.

Also, we shouldn’t devote ourselves to work we hate just so we might acquire enough money in the hopes that we will one day be happy.

Instead, we should find work that we can engage in on our own or with small groups. Work is fulfilling, Epicurus believed, when we are contributing to the welfare of humanity. In short, we should pursue work that we feel makes a difference.

The First Hippie Commune?

With this philosophy in mind, Epicurus did something that many people often talk about doing, but never get around to actually doing. He purchased a plot of land with a large house and invited all of his friends to come live with him. It would become known as “the Garden” and it was more than just another school of philosophy.

While it is believed that the Garden was located somewhere near Plato’s Academy, Epicurus’ institution was different from a typical school. If we wanted to get specific, we might classify Epicurus’ Garden as a community of unincorporated teachers, philosophers, and manuscript writers all living and working in a shared space.
With this in mind, we begin to think of the Garden, not as a school at all, but as a commune of sorts, perhaps the first one in recorded history. The inhabitants of the Garden were interested in studying happiness and finding true happiness. They practiced a uniquely Epicurean style of happiness; namely they pursued pleasure while avoiding pain and anxiety.

ConstantineWas the Garden of Epicurus the first hippie commune?
Source: RC Groups

This remote community where people practiced a quasi-hedonistic philosophy necessarily lent itself to rumors.

Diogenes Laertius, the author of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, tells us that all manner of accusations were hurled at Epicurus and his Garden. It was said that they (the inhabitants of the Garden) were all ignorant of philosophy, that they threw crazy orgies every night, and that Epicurus himself vomited twice a day from over indulging in wine and that he slept in a bed filled with naked virgins.

Diogenes assures us that such rumors were untrue.

“But all these people are devoid of sense. The preponderance of witnesses speak of the insuperable kindness of our philosopher to everyone, whether it be to his own country who honored him with bronze statues, his friends who are so numerous that they could not be counted in whole cities, or all his acquaintances who were bound to him simply by the appeal of his doctrines.”- Diogenes Laertius (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book X)

Such thinking demonstrates an ignorance of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus did not tell us that ALL pleasures were good or that overindulging in pleasure was good. He insisted that subtle pleasures were the way to go, friendship being the most important. More significantly, we must free ourselves from our fears, anxieties, and uncertainties that often plague us if we wish to be happy.

The happy man is the one who has banished his fears, even his fear of death, and who lives pleasantly, surrounded by his friends and his philosophical companions.

“Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death; 
what is good is easy to get, and 
what is terrible is easy to endure.”- (The four-part cure of Epicurus, as found on the Herculaneum Papyrus)

The Epicurean Garden would flourish during Epicurus’ lifetime. This is attributed largely to the organization of the Garden, which did not force its inhabitants to partake in shared property or to necessarily support the Epicurean leaders. A happy result of these two rules was that the leaders became accountable to the followers while future conflicts over money were often averted.

Even after the death of Epicurus, the Epicurean Garden continued to thrive. This, again, is due largely to the organizational abilities of Epicurus, who left a last will and testament detailing the efforts for the continued preservation of his school.

An Enemy of the Church

Unlike many other schools of philosophy, Stoicism and Platonism for example, the Epicurean philosophy remained largely unchanged in the ensuing centuries. Several hundred Epicurean communes were established around the Mediterranean.

Epicureanism was initially shunned by the Roman world, but eventually found advocates in the form of the Roman writers Gaius Amafinius and Rabirius. However, both men where criticized by Cicero for their unpoetic prose style and the clumsy manner in which they attempted to bring philosophy to the common people.

Ultimately, Epicureanism would not find great favor in Rome in the same way that Stoicism did. However, the Epicurean philosophy, as well as the Epicurean communes, did flourish in lands that were far removed from Rome. Western Turkey, for instance, was very hospitable to Epicureanism; so much that in the ancient city of Oenoanda, a civic official named Flavius Diogenes ordered the construction of a wall inscribed with numerous Epicurean writings in the 3rd century A.D.

At this point you may be wondering, ‘Gee…whatever happened to Epicureanism and all those ancient hippie communes?’

Well, it’s funny you should mention it.

As was common, the survival of an ancient philosophy depended on its compatibility with the doctrines of the next major institution that

XXXAmbrose of Milan as well as other early Christian writers were harsh critics of Epicurean philosophy

would arise in the history of the Western world- Christianity.

Unfortunately for our Epicurean friends, their ways of thinking were not in line with the dogmas of the church. For starters, the followers of Epicurus did not believe in an after life. To make matters worse, they were not even entirely sure there was a God!

The early Christian writer, Ambrose of Milan succinctly presents the incompatibility of Epicurean ideas on pleasure and the doctrines of the church in his letter written to a Christian congregation at Vercellae in 396 A.D:

“Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomae, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.

“But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?”

The Epicurean denial of any divine entity also came under fire by Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation:

“In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction.”

Things went down hill for the followers of Epicurus from here on. The Epicurean communes which had popped up around the Mediterranean were shuttered by Emperor Justinian I who, in the early sixth century A.D., ordered the closing of all pagan schools that conflicted with the church.

The Original American Dream

This has been a rather lengthy article, don’t you think?

Stick with me on this last bit, because there might just be a happy ending for Epicureanism.

So the philosophy fell into decline some time in the late fifth century A.D. That was the last anybody every heard of it, right?

Wrong!

Epicureanism made a few surprising resurgences throughout history. In fact, you might just be surprised at who is a follower of Epicurus.

“As you say of yourself, I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” –Thomas Jefferson (Letter to William Short, 1819)

That’s right, folks. Thomas Jefferson, always a brave advocate for the classics, was a fan of Epicurus. He even goes so far as to refer to the philosopher as “our master, Epicurus”.

XXXThomas Jefferson wrote that he considered himself an Epicurean

It has been suggested by some that TJ even slipped a piece of Epicurean philosophy into the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that the pursuit of happiness was inherent to human nature and human dignity. After all, you will remember that the Epicureans were all about their pursuit of happiness.

So yes, it is entirely possible that the American dream was originally proposed several thousand years ago by a Greek philosopher in a nondescript garden in suburban Athens.

Whatever you want to think about the Epicureans, that they were the original hippies, enemies of Christianity, or the intellectual scaffolding for the American dream, it is interesting to note the amount of influence they have had over the course of several thousand years.

They were a unique school that sought to free people from their fears and present them with a realistic path to a tranquil happiness. Their mission is perhaps best summarized by the inscription that Seneca tells us was once emblazoned upon the entrance to the Garden itself.

“Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.”

Plato’s Symposium: Always Change For Love

by August 31, 2015

By Van Bryan

So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right?

SymposiumPlato’s Symposium

After all, the popular opinion today is that you shouldn’t change for love and that your spouse shouldn’t make you change. I am who I am and that’s all that I am!

That certainly seems to be the mindset these days; at least that’s what my single friends tell me. They spend their evenings swiping left on their smart phones and making connections with total strangers on Tinder or J-swipe or…whatever.

“Never change for love.” That’s the battle cry.

Besides, if you just be yourself, surely you will find somebody just like you and you will inevitably fall in love.

Right?

“Wrong!” says Plato.

The problem with never changing who you are for love, or never letting your spouse change who you are, is that who you are might very well be a terrible person. What if who you are is an inconsiderate sociopath? Or worse, what if you are a sophist?

What I’m trying to say is that maybe a bit of change wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps we really should let our lovers change us. Who knows? Maybe they will make us better.

That seems to be Plato’s line of thought at least. Our particular topic of interest comes from Plato’s Symposium, that unique piece of philosophical literature that asks the question: “What’s love?”

Plato is a giant in the field of philosophy. He was easily one of the most, if not the most, influential philosopher in the Western tradition. his Symposium, for those of you who don’t already know, sounds more like the setup for a particularly funny joke than an actual piece of philosophical literature.

“Okay, okay, so a philosopher, a comic playwright, and a politician walk into a bar…”

See what I mean?

A symposium was like a dinner party in the days of ancient Greece. Except, instead of casually drinking beer and playing charades, the participants of a symposium would get rip-roaringly drunk off of wine and then commence to discuss some central topic of philosophical interest; although, that does sound pretty fun too.

symposium
Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the man dubbed “the Father of Western Philosophy”, is joined by a handful of important Athenian figures of the age, the most notable of which are the general Alcibiades and the comic playwright Aristophanes. They all gather to discuss the topic of love.

For the more initiated of you, you will recall that there are no shortage of interesting ideas to discuss in Symposium. However, today we are looking at the speech of Pausanias and the assertion that we ought to let our lover change us.

Pausanias first notes that love is the only thing that can justify some questionable behavior. Under normal circumstances, we might look strangely at a man who lies all night on a front porch. However, when we learn that this man is doing this in pursuit of his lover, then his behavior not only becomes somewhat acceptable, but even admirable.

“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from an y motive of interest or wish for office or power. He may pray, and entreat, an supplicate, and swear, and lie on a mat at the door, and endure a slavery worse than that of any slave…” –Plato (Symposium)

Heck, Pausanias tells us that even the gods will forgive you if you commit some transgression whilst in pursuit of your love, and we all know how unforgiving those gods can be.

So love seems to be something of great power and importance. However, Pausanias tells us that, just like anything, there can be good and bad love.

It all comes down to your motivations. Why do you love somebody? It may very well be that you love somebody because they are beautiful or wealthy. This, however, is not true love, and is actually quite dishonorable.

Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account. To love either of the latter is truly a base thing, because both of these things are temporary. The beauty of youth invariable recedes, and misfortune may befall any rich man and reduce him to a peasant. Where will your love be then? It will take wings and fly!

“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable…” –Plato (Symposium)

So don’t love your spouse’s beauty and don’t love their account balance. What do you love? Their virtue!

“There remains only one way of honorable attachment which custom allows in the beloved, and this is the way of virtue.” –Plato (Symposium)

Okay, so Plato isn’t telling us that, come next Valentine’s Day, we write on the card, “Dear Honey, I love your virtue.”

Instead, he is telling us that we ought to be drawn to a person for their inner qualities. We should fall in love with the beauty of their soul and its capacity for virtue and goodness.

symposium
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account

Moreover, we should, ideally, find somebody who has different virtues than us. This is where the whole “let your lover change you” thing comes into play.

Find somebody who has different qualities than you. Perhaps they are brave when you are timid. Maybe they are organized while you are messy. Whatever the situation, you should find somebody who possesses qualities that you yourself lack, and then let that person seduce you into becoming a better version of yourself.

True love does not mean loving your spouse for who they are right now. True love means that two people are committed to educating each other in the ways of virtue and enduring the stormy seas that result of such a union.

“This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to the individual and the cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement.” –Plato (Symposium)

Make sense?

So the next time you think your spouse is trying to change you, just remember that they probably are, and you really ought to let them.

Why Tragedy Is Good For Humanity

by July 14, 2015

It is probably worth mentioning, before we get started on anything else, that The Poetics of Aristotle is sometimes looked upon with disdain and mistrust. A soul as unpoetic as Aristotle’s has no business speaking on matters

PoeticsThe Poetics, by Aristotle

of drama and art, let alone telling poets how it is they ought to be going about their business!

Aristotle, some contend, reduces the art of tragedy down to its language, and then reduces the language even further with his disconnected, almost aloof, examination and contemplation. Such philosophical, investigative methods that are common of Aristotle might be fine and dandy for metaphysics, epistemology, maybe even politics. But the theatrical arts? Never!

However, we must believe that Aristotle had great respect for the theatrical arts. Specifically he had great respect for the arts of tragic theater and epic poetry, both of which he speaks of at length within his Poetics.

Indeed, Aristotle so respected the old masters of Greek poetry and theater that it is believed that he personally edited a copy of The Iliad for his student Alexander the Great, who reportedly carried it with him all over the world. Additionally, Aristotle believed that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex was the best example of tragic theater and refers to it again and again within the course of his book.

Therefore we must ignore the people who decry Aristotle for his foray into poetics. We sane individuals can see Poetics for what it truly is- a critical examination and interpretation of an essential art form; it is a treatise that, even to this day, provides us with one of our best understanding for the structure and function of a universal institution, that of storytelling.

And if you are an aspiring playwright or screenwriter, then you might do well to read Poetics. There are all sorts of tips that you could make use of.

Within Poetics, Aristotle writes extensively on what makes a tragedy good and a story appealing.

TitanicPeripeteia consists of a dramatic change in fortune for the characters

For instance, when writing a tragedy, you ought to make use of Peripeteia (περιπέτεια), or a sudden change in fortune. Think of Leonardo Dicaprio getting on board the Titanic and falling in love with Kate Winslet. Pretty good! Then the Titanic hits an iceberg. What a terrible change in fortune!

A good tragedy also tends to include Anagnorisis (ἀναγνώρισις), or a moment in the story when a character makes a startling discovery. Imagine Darth Vader, “I am your father”. Nooooooooooo! (Luke falls into the pit)

Today we won’t be looking so much at what Aristotle says makes a good tragedy, what elements must combine to create a compelling narrative. Rather, we will look at a much more important question. Why should we care about tragedy? What is the end goal of theatrical storytelling?

Put simply, if a bit more broadly, what’s the point of art?

The blockbuster art form of the day was live theater. Men like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides would have been household names during the days of Aristotle. The philosopher defined this culturally significant medium of storytelling as…

…an animation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. -Aristotle (Poetics, Chapter VI)

The final sentence of this definition is what is of supreme importance to us. Aristotle says that a proper tragedy must elicit both fear and pity. Moreover, a tragedy will, ideally, purge us of these emotions.

OedipusTragedy was a culturally significant insitution and the most popular medium for storytelling

Some commentators have suggested that Aristotle listed pity and fear as the first two emotions in an assumed list. That is to say that some people believe that Aristotle means that a tragedy should elicit fear, pity, anger, etc.

I believe we can reject this possibility. Aristotle was not a man to pick his words capriciously. If he writes that a tragedy needs to elicit fear and pity, then that’s just how it needs to be!

It is also important to know that a tragedy must elicit fear AND pity and not one or the other.

We do have genres that elicit one emotion and not the other. A play or film that elicits only pity is usually referred to as a “tear jerker” (think Dostoyevsky). The genre that elicits only fear might be considered the horror or slasher genre (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

The former type of story is typically more popular with an older audience, people who have had the opportunity to experience life and who would benefit from purging the regrets of their life in an outpouring of uncontrollable pity.

Horror is perhaps more popular with a younger audience. Teenagers, for instance, are at a point in their lives when they are consumed by uncertainty and fear. The anxieties of adolescence can be directed towards something external, grotesque, and ultimately ridiculous in an attempt to “clear the air”, so to speak.

However, horror and tearjerkers are ultimately insufficient. They do not, in short, elicit the “tragic wonder” which Aristotle describes as the end and ultimate goal of tragedy and art in general.

You would not describe your feelings after watching “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as “emotionally or spiritually transcendent.”

It is only at the intersection of fear and pity that we experience the tragic wonder, that all-important catharsis.

Now we are getting to the heart of things.

The idea of catharsis is perhaps misunderstood in the English language. The English word does not possess all that is contained within the Greek. While we might believe catharsis means to rid or purge ourselves of something, in ancient Greek the word would actually mean to rid or purge ourselves of the baser or worse aspects of something. With this in mind, we begin to see that catharsis is more inline with purification, not necessarily purgation.

You see, human beings are naturally hard-hearted. We often do not give pity where pity is due. When it comes to fear, we have the tendency to either exaggerate our fears or suppress our fears all together. Neither of these are marks of the excellent person.

AchillesEpic Poetry like The Iliad brings about fear and pity, resulting in tragic catharsis

The tragic catharsis then is a way for us to purify our minds and souls and to understand truths about suffering, loss, misery, adversity, and redemption.

Within The Iliad, we witness Hector crying out to the gods, “Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle…” and we instantly identify and appreciate the human instinct to combat our inevitable, unforeseeable demise.

In Oedipus Rex, we read the lines “Let every man in mankind’s frailty consider his last day; and let none presume on his good fortune until he find Life, at his death, a memory without pain”, and in doing so we recognize the miseries of life and how they can so often befall us.

And here we have the goal of tragedy and art in general. It is meant to purify us, to make us better and to allow us to understand significant and universal truths. And there it is-truth! It’s the battle cry of all philosophers and the death knell of ignorance.

When reading Poetics with Aristotelian philosophy in mind, we tend to see things fall into place. Aristotle believed that all things have a final cause, a goal at which they aim. The final cause of a human being is to be happy and to be in harmony with virtue and knowledge.

Tragedy then is a way for us to attain this final cause, this goal of life. When we witness the horrors of Oedipus Rex or read the unfolding tragedies of The Iliad we are moved and impassioned by their beauty and expressions of the miseries of life. We are transcended, forced to confront the naked truths that we so often ignore.

Tragedy, therefore, allows us to partake in wonder, and we are better off because of it.