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Reflections on the Brevity of Life

by November 15, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Weekly
“Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” So said  the 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his magnum opus, Leviathan. It is a stark and negative statement, to be sure.
Of course, Hobbes had in mind that the life of ordinary people would go much better under both a strong Sovereign and governmental structure, but on its surface there is some serious truth in his statement.
Human life can be full of wonder, happiness, fulfillment, and love. However, often concurrent with these positives, we must all endure negatives such as terrible diseases, loss, loneliness, war, destruction, and ultimately death.
The ancient Athenian historian and general, Thucydides (ca. 472 – 400 BC), in his monumental work History of the Peloponnesian War (dates of the war: 431-404 BC) records one of the greatest speeches of the ages in Pericles’ “Funeral Oration.”

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

The situation addressed by Pericles is somewhat analogous to a Memorial Day celebration in the U.S., where the President speaks to honor the soldiers who lost their lives in war.
Pericles was making an address to Athenian citizens the year after the war with Sparta had begun, in which he recounts many of the glories and blessings of Athenian life during that time. He extols the virtues that the citizens enjoyed, such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, an open society, patriotism, free trade, and consequent prosperity.
According to Pericles, Athens had reached such a height that it served as “the school of Hellas.” The prosperity and freedom of the Athenians, of course, was due to the honor and bravery of those who died defending Athens. “Freedom,” most certainly, was “not free.”
In one of the supreme ironies of recorded history, within a year after Pericles made his famous oration extolling the virtues and prosperity of Athens, the city was stricken by plague.

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The death and destruction were horrific, and Thucydides gives a thorough record of their effects on the population.
He states that plague spread with “appalling rapidity,” causing widespread sickness of the most unpleasant kind and mass death.  Lawlessness prevailed; people forgot their morals, religion, and ethics, and, in Thucydides words, “resolved to enjoy themselves while they could, and to think only of pleasure.”
Their physicians could make no headway against the spread of the plague, and their prophets and priests were unsuccessful in availing of divine help:

No human art was of any avail, and as to supplications in temples, inquiries

of oracles, and the like, they were utterly useless, and at last men were over-

powered by the calamity and gave them all up.

The Athenians realized in brutal fashion the truth of Hobbes’ aforementioned statement about life being “nasty and short,” having come from the height of their freedom and prosperity to dismal suffering from plague and war.

Spartan Warriors on Greek Vase. Google Images.

Of course, as most of our Classical Wisdom enthusiasts know, the war with Sparta ended up being a catastrophic loss for Athens in 404 BC, and the prosperous and free golden age of Pericles was long behind it.
Thucydides encapsulates in his work what amounts to an analogy for the human experience in general: the astonishing heights a great civilization can reach on the one hand, coupled with the miserable lows they can descend into on the other.
As I write this, we are nearing the end of another hurricane season in the northern part of the western hemisphere. In early September, Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas with such a fury that $7 Billion of damage was caused and, much worse, 61 people lost their lives and 70,000 were left homeless. It was catastrophic.
All of us read of natural calamities taking place each year, wherever we live.  Ironically, it sometimes takes the worst of natural calamities for the best in human nature to come forward, manifested in unusual acts of bravery, charity, love, and care for those affected.
My point in using these two examples, from ancient Greece to the present, is to show that this is the natural cycle of human life – from the dreadful low points in human experience to the high points.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

Though all of us have suffered in some way in this life (or will), we manage to come through with amazing contributions to the overall human experience:  amazing acts of kindness and charity, creation of great art works, literature, architecture, scientific achievements, relief of suffering through medical breakthroughs, and the like. Life goes on.
Has Classical Wisdom anything to say to us about how we should live our lives in response to life’s extreme vicissitudes? Moreover, how do we respond to life’s ultimate brevity?
As it turns out, these subjects weighed heavily on the minds of the ancient thinkers, and the study of ethics came about in ancient Greece to articulate an answer to the problem of “how we should live.”
Was it, “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”? Or were there rationally attained virtues and guidelines for human beings to strive towards in order to overcome moral laxness, existential despair, and the overall feeling that we cannot make a difference on our own?
Roman Decadence

Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, 1847 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

The study of ethics (normally defined today as a moral philosophy of personal and/or corporate behavior) was addressed somewhat by pre-Aristotelian philosophers and writers (such as Homer, Aesop, and Pythagoras), but it was up to the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle (ca. 384-322 BC) to leave us an entire life’s work dedicated to the subject.
According to Aristotle, our behavior and ethics had a telos; a “goal” or “purpose” higher than ourselves. In other words, how we behave and respond to life’s negatives matters.
He was writing at a time after the greater Greek world (“Hellas”) had gone through the convulsions of the Peloponnesian War and plague. In one of his most influential and popular works, the Nicomachean Ethics (likely named after his son Nicomachus), Aristotle set forth in a series of lectures several propositions, guidelines, and his famous “Golden Mean.”
The Golden Mean is where virtue lies, between the vices of excess and deficiency. Courage is a virtue, situated between the excess of rash confidence and the deficiency of cowardice; liberality is a virtue, situated between the excess of prodigality and the deficiency of miserliness. Aristotle thusly contrasts many other virtues and vices.
The Ethics is set forth in a series of ten “Books,” each subdivided into several chapters.  These explicated to his students (count us in, Classical Wisdom Weekly fans!) how human beings can, by reason and practice, excel towards virtue and excellence (arête).
Ultimately, these practices can result in happiness (Eudaimonia) which then enables the achievement of the summum bonum (the “highest good,” or “goodness embodied in a flourishing human life”). He also addresses issues such as cultivation and improvement of friendships, and explains the nature of Eudaimonia.
This idea of the happiness of human beings, for Aristotle, carried with it a teleological element. Teleology is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning “goal” or “purpose.” For Aristotle, our behavior can be modified by teaching and diligent practice. Moreover, our acts have consequences; ideally in the furtherance of good intentions and aims.
This is the way we ought to live—a noble way of living. Far from being aimless, drifting, and purposeless in such a challenging world, humans can act with a purpose which uplifts not only themselves, but everyone around them.
As we master ourselves, our passions, and our personal behaviors, we cultivate these virtues and contribute to the summum bonum, or the “highest good” of human activity. This is real “happiness.”
The Philosophers

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-1511, fresco (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

Of course, for Aristotle, being the master thinker that he was, philosophy was the mechanism whereby this ultimate good could be realized. Each of us should aspire to be a student of philosophy in order to “know ourselves” much, much better.
Moreover, we should constantly examine our motives, set out goals for ourselves towards greater achievement, and make a habit of virtuous behaviors. In other words: Rise! We can do it!
In so doing, we improve our own lot in life while also improving our relationships with our families, friends, and communities.  By being the best we can be as individuals, it is only natural that the community at large is uplifted and inspired as well.
Allow me to put something quite deep into more prosaic terms and examples: Are you a teacher? Then be the best possible teacher you can be.  Are you an artist? Then be the best possible artist you can be. Are you in business? Then run the best and most ethical business you can.  On and on. (A contemporary example of the latter is the rise recently of the doctrines of “conscious Capitalism”—a more holistic and ethical approach to the making of profit.)
The bottom line here is this: whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability and always strive to improve. By doing this we maximize our natural talents and potential and, as the saying goes, “make the world a better place.” Invest in yourself and others will prosper along with you. Making the best of ourselves, in an ethical fashion, helps lead all of us toward the summum bonum (greatest good).
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Like most of you, from a very young age I’ve contemplated the very difficult existential question of life: does it have a purpose? The same for our Universe: does it have any purpose? Is there meaning?
We inhabit a Universe that simultaneously provides us with evidence of a well-ordered design (Aristotle, for example, thought nature followed some kind of order implemented by the “Unmoved Mover”) as well as randomness, chaos, and destruction.
How do we respond to all this? Do we “eat, drink, and be merry,” since tomorrow we die? Life is “nasty, brutish, and short” anyways, right? Or, do we take Aristotle’s cue and cultivate our virtues, abilities, and talents in order to best realize our happiness and make this a better world?
On this wager, I’ll take the latter proposition. I have nothing to lose from following the ethical path to realize my own potential and maximize my own personal virtues, thereby living a life devoted to Aristotle’s idea of excellence and happiness.
Is there something of us that continues after death—an afterlife, if you will? Or do we return to the void? Regardless, we are all in the same boat while we are alive. And when all is said and done, dear reader, what kind of life would you have wished you lived?
So take the rewarding proposition: take Aristotle’s cue and pursue virtue, excellence, and happiness. Read his Nicomachean Ethics—and continue on to other sources of classical wisdom.  You’ll have a much more rewarding and full life, in good times and bad. What more meaning, what more purpose, could one ask for than that?

How to Be a Citizen of the World

by November 1, 2019

The term ‘cosmopolitan’ is derived from the Greek kosmou politês, which roughly translates to ‘world citizen.’ 
The notion of what it means to be a cosmopolitan was probably best expressed in a response often attributed to Diogenes the Cynic who, when asked where he came from, responded, “I am a citizen of the world.”
Cosmopolitanism, a concept that finds its deepest roots in the arguments of the Stoic philosophers, conceives of the whole of mankind as citizens belonging to a single human community. Such a concept seems to be more and more relevant when we discuss the challenges that face us in the 21st century.
In this increasingly interconnected world of ours, the distinctions made between our responsibilities to fellow citizens and distant others are being blurred, and what properly falls within the scope of our moral concern seems in need of expansion. 
Seneca, in his De Otio, wrote that, 
[E]ach of us dwell, in effect, in two communities – the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration that ‘is truly great and truly common, in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun.

Baroque marble imaginary portrait bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th century. Museo del Prado.

It is to this “truly great and truly common” community that we truly belong. 
For the Stoics this meant that moral obligation could not be founded on accidental factors such as where we happen to be born. It was, rather, our common humanity and the traits that define us as a species that serve as the foundation for our moral obligations. 
As Martha Nussbaum put it, the Stoic view was that, “We should recognize humanity wherever it occurs, and give its fundamental ingredients, reason and moral capacity, our first allegiance and respect.”
That’s all fine and dandy, you might say, but is it really possible to see ourselves as citizens of the world? Is it really possible to show equal moral concern for distant others as we do now for our compatriots? 
Well, the Stoics thought it was, or at least thought that we should. 

Becoming Cosmopolitans 

So how do we go about cultivating such cosmopolitan sentiments in ourselves? The Stoics had two techniques: 1) conceiving of the world as a single body and 2) taking a view from above

1) The world as a single body

Regarding the first one, Nussbaum mentions that it was a favored exercise of the Stoic philosophers to “conceive of the entire world of human beings as a single body, its many people as so many limbs.”

Marcus Aurelius often used this example as a reason for cooperation with one another, writing that, “We are born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.” And just as these body parts,
[W]ere made for a particular purpose, and fulfill their proper nature by acting in accordance with their own constitution, so man was made to do good: and whenever he does something good or otherwise contributory to the common interest, he has done what he was designed for, and inherits his own.

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

Nussbaum argues that this sense of cooperation is especially important for humanity as it moves through the 21st century—as we come to realize that “we live in a world in which the destinies of nations are closely intertwined with respect to basic goods and survival itself.”

2) Taking a view from above

The second method that can aid us is what Aurelius referred to as “[taking] a view from above.” This view allows us to see the many trivialities that divide us as human beings. 

Looking from above, there are no borders, no flags, no promised land—the planet and all that exists on it is seen in its unity, and squabbles over religion, politics, and national pride begin to seem absurd. 
Literally taking a view from above, as detailed in reports by astronauts from their actual experiences of seeing the earth from space, can have quite an effect. 
This experience is referred to as “The Overview Effect.” In their Declaration of Vision and Principles, The Overview Institute describes The Overview Effect as follows: 
It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.  From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. 
Yet, you don’t need to be an astronaut in order to experience this… Photos of Earth taken from outer space, such as those taken by the Apollo missions or Voyager 1’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo, captured 4 billion miles away from Earth, instill a sense of awe and humility in the observer. 

Earth, described by scientist Carl Sagan as a “Pale Blue Dot,” as seen by Voyager 1 from a distance of more than 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers). Source: NASA. [Hint: Look closely to the middle of the sunbeam furthest to the right].

So much so that Carl Sagan wrote a book inspired by the latter of these images. In it he famously and beautifully wrote, 

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. 
In this passage Sagan demonstrates the kind of sentiment and attitude that can be gained by taking a view from above. 

What’s the verdict?

Is it really this simple? Do these two methods for cultivating cosmopolitanism do the trick?
Maybe you’re skeptical. 
Maybe you think that we are so naturally tribal that we are not capable of anything beyond nationalism or national loyalties
Or, maybe you think there is something important about our more local affiliations that cosmopolitanism dangerously overlooks. 
There are plenty of objections one could make, and plenty have been made. 
We’re certainly not going to wake up tomorrow and all become cosmopolitans! If adopting such a view of the world and of others is at all possible, it will certainly take some effort.
Perhaps the Stoics were wrong, or simply naïve. Yet, perhaps the Stoic arguments for cosmopolitanism have something to offer this increasingly interconnected world of ours.
Whether their view is to be seen as plausible or preferable, I leave to you to decide, dear reader. 

Three Pre-Socratics You’ve Likely Never Heard Of

by October 16, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
As I read and re-read the philosophers, tragedians, poets, and other commentators of the ancient world, I am constantly amazed. The insights they came up with regarding natural and speculative philosophy, nature (and human nature), and the universe oftentimes drop my jaw! More than anything else, it’s stunning how close they were to our modern understanding of physics, the universe, and much of the knowledge we take for granted in the “settled” scientific world we live in today.
It was the pre-Socratic philosophers (Thales, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles,, however, that really set the stage for all of the great, critical philosophy to come. I like to call their era the “Big Bang” of Western philosophy, as these guys were really “on to something.”
Mosaic of Men discussing

The Philosopher’s Mosaic, villa at Torre Annunziata near Pompeii

They didn’t possess all the wonderful scientific tools we have today (the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope, etc.) to better understand nature and our universe, but they, by mere reasoning and daring to ask critical questions, came up with astonishing insights. Here is a brief overview of three pre-Socratic philosophers you’ve likely never heard of, who, nevertheless, were really “on to something”.
Hermotimus of Clazomenae
Hermotimus (ca. 6th Century BC) was a member of the Ionian League and hailed from near Smyrna (modern Izmir) on the west central coast of what is today Turkey. Unfortunately, like many of the more obscure pre-Socratics, none of his original works is extant. As such, we rely on mentions by other philosophers and writers, such as Aristotle, to provide us with information about their thinking.
Hermotimus is credited with being the first philosopher to propose the stunning idea that mind is fundamental in the cause of things. He submitted that physical entities are static, while reason causes change. This sounds remarkably similar to one of the critical axioms of modern day quantum mechanics: that the human mind is an active player in “creating” the reality we perceive.
For instance, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to know simultaneously the exact position and momentum of a particle. That is, the more exactly the position is determined – from human perspective – the less known the momentum, and vice versa. Wrap your mind around that, dear reader! At the quantum level, nature is always in flux and unpredictable; chaotic in a sense. By observation and participation, we humans stamp our sense of “order” onto it, and it is thus a random universe to which we bring meaning.
The Uncertainty Principle
Sextus Empiricus, a 2nd century AD philosopher and physician, places Hermotimus with Hesiod, Parmenides, and Empedocles as belonging to the class of philosophers who held a dualistic theory, that of a material and an active principle (reason) together being the origin of the universe (cf. Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover”). While I don’t believe Hermotimus had anything like quantum mechanics in mind (he was likely presaging Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” in cosmology – a Creator, or First Cause in creation), he was definitely “on to something.”
prime mover
Alcmeon of Croton
Born in 510 BC, Alcmeon was a contemporary of Empedocles and Anaxagoras. While none of his works is extant, we have comments from Aristotle and Theophrastus to enlighten us. Alcmeon was considered a brilliant physician of his day and lived during a transitional period in Greek medicine. While traditionally medicine was wed to philosophy and religion, it took a dramatic turn in the sixth century BC.
Alcmeon was a pioneer in the strictly empirical method of diagnosis, as opposed to the more “generalist” approach of his predecessors, who attributed a disease or problem to some transgression against a god. Instead, Alcmeon looked at the individual and wanted identifiable facts: how do the senses function in the case? Why does the patient present as so? What are the symptoms actually telling us?
Alcemeon of Croton
He introduced his doctrine of physical equilibrium (isonomia) to define and explain the state of health in the patient. Alcmeon performed detailed physiological investigations of the different senses in order to explore the actual causes of the sensations and symptoms presented. Moreover, he thought that the human body should be “in balance” in a healthy person. Four aspects, or “powers,” of cold, hot, wet, and dry should naturally be in balance in the human body. If any of them gets out of whack, problems present. While primitive, this “four humors” pathology persisted well into the Middle Ages… And remember – physicians were blood-letting routinely as recently as two centuries ago!
The important thing is that Alcmeon set the stage for future physicians with the focus on the patient’s sense information and how he/she presented. What did those symptoms say? His efforts to focus on empirical data, with a mind to keep the patient in equilibrium, were seminal in the advance of the medicine of his era. Alcmeon was definitely “on to something.”
Diogenes of Apollonia
Diogenes of Apollonia, born 460 BC, is often considered the last of the pre-Socratics and seems to have done most of his important work in Athens. He was influenced by Anaxagoras’ doctrine of Mind, and was indebted to the atomists’ view that coming to be and passing away were caused by the mixing or separating of elements of the same kind. Following Anaximenes, he proposed the physical theory that all things in the world are modifications (heteroioseis) of the same basic stuff: Air.
The assertion that everything in the universe is a modification of a single basic substance was made by Diogenes on the force of two related considerations: 1.) physical interaction would be impossible if each individual thing were radically and substantially different from everything else, and 2.) the uniformly exhibited harmony of nature would be a mystery if an underlying, all-pervasive intelligence did not control and guide everything. To deny these considerations would be equivalent, Diogenes thought, to ignoring the ways in which things mix, or help or harm each other, as well as the way things depend on each other (as in water to a plant, or any living thing breathing air). It would be tantamount to overlooking the balance, measure, and intelligible structure that characterize every aspect of nature.
Diogenes asserted that air is the basic cosmic substance, since it is the life principle and intelligence of the whole animate world. In his thought, air is the source and guiding power of every physical change. It is the most versatile and adaptable substance. Its capacity to manifest itself in a wide variety of forms, and under every conceivable condition – hot, cold, wet (humidity, vapor), and dry – is evidence of its rationality and divinity. To the extent that there is air in all animation, a part of God is in every living creature.
While we moderns don’t share the ancient notion that “earth, air, fire, and water” comprise the basic cosmic substances (we have a catalogue of 118 elements that comprise nature, as of 2017) there’s no question that Diogenes was “on to something.” Diogenes, in his time, was working in a period of transition in Greek thought. He attempted to reconcile ancient insights with new discoveries and bring pre-Socratic speculations inline with the systematic details of biological and natural observation.
The late, great cosmologist and astrophysicist Carl Sagan was very impressed by the ancient Greek thinkers. (Dear reader: if you haven’t read any of Dr. Sagan’s great books or seen his “Cosmos” series on DVD, what are you waiting for?!) He speculated that had they been allowed to continue to flourish, we as a human species would have become a space faring civilization centuries before the modern era. Think of that, my friends! And the bedrock of their scientific and philosophical ideas and speculations was formed by the pre-Socratics. Most certainly, they were “on to something.”

How to Get Over a Break-Up… and Other Love Tips from Lucretius

by September 20, 2019

By Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom Weekly
Being lovers of Classical Wisdom, you are likely familiar with Epicurus and his school of thought. His remedies to deal with the fear of death, his description of what the blessed life consists of, and his praise of friendship, among other things, makes him a lovable figure in the history of philosophy.
Titus Lucretius Carus (~94-50 BCE), slightly less well known, is responsible for carrying on the torch of Epicureanism into the Roman world. The teachings and maxims of Epicurus were preserved by Lucretius in his philosophical poem On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). In this work Lucretius captures not only the Epicurean approach to life but also explains the Epicurean approach to studying the natural world, as well as the underlying metaphysical and epistemological views that formed the Epicurean method of inquiry.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Translation of On the Nature of Things, by John Creech, 1683.

Lucretius also had some advice to offer on love. Now, you might be wondering, what could an ancient Roman philosopher-poet have to say about love that would be of any relevance to us today? Well, plenty as it turns out… in fact, reading this back in high school might have saved me a lot of troubles!

Origins of Love

According to Lucretius, the body is the source through which the “mind is pierced by love.” Think, for instance, of how the wounded person falls “in the direction of their wound”, how the “blood spurts out towards the source of the blow”, and how the “enemy who delivered it, if he is fighting at close quarters, is bespattered by the crimson stream.” Similarly, Lucretius tells us, when someone is “pierced by the shafts of Venus”, that person “strives towards the source of the wound and craves to be united with it and to transmit something of his own substance from body to body. His speechless yearning is a presentiment of bliss.” This yearning, this striving to be united with the source of the wound, is the very origin of love — “that drop of Venus’ honey that first drips into our heart, to be followed by numbing heart-ache.”
So, basically, love hurts, because we love what hurts us.
Viewing the body as the source of love makes sense too when we reflect on how much the feeling of love impacts the body. Think of those early days when love first sparks; how we feel “butterflies” in our stomach, how our heart starts racing, how we blush and even sweat in the sight of the object of our love. Further reflections like these suggest that Lucretius is right, that the experience of love is not entirely a mental experience, it is one that is very much rooted in the body.

The Bitterness of Love

From the very heart of the fountain of delight there rises a jet of bitterness that poisons the fragrance of the flowers.

Though we are apt to think of love in positive terms, Lucretius did not have so rosy a view of it. According to Lucretius, love is insatiable, accompanied by pain, heart-ache, bitterness, and other mental disturbances. Love, he tells us, “is the one thing of which the more we have, the more our breast burns with the evil lust of having.” Whereas we can satisfy hunger and thirst by eating and drinking, the cravings of love are only multiplied.
Bacchus and Ariadne

Bacchus and Ariadne, Guido Reni (1575 – 1642, Bologna). Italy, circa 1619-1620.

Even when love comes to fruition, in the moment of lovemaking, all is in vain:
Then comes the moment when with limbs entwined they pluck the flower of youth. Their bodies thrill with the presentiment of joy, and it is seed-time in the fields of Venus. Body clings greedily to body; moist lips are pressed on lips, and deep breaths are drawn through clenched teeth. But all to no purpose. One can glean nothing from the other, nor enter in and be wholly absorbed, body in body; for sometimes it seems that that is what they are craving and striving to do, so hungrily do they cling together in Venus’ fetters, while their limbs are unnerved and liquefied by the intensity of rapture. At length, when the spate of lust is spent, there comes a slight intermission in the raging fever. But not for long. Soon the same frenzy returns. The fit is upon them once more.
This passion of lovers, this passion that cannot be satiated, is “storm-tossed, even in this moment of fruition, by waves of delusion and incertitude.” Delusion perhaps about what that moment might be like, what it might feel like, perhaps deluded by the façade the lover put on; Uncertain of one’s own performance, uncertain of one’s own feelings or the feelings of the lover. And, thinking delusion and incertitude might dissipate with the climax, there is instead only “a slight intermission in the raging fever” before it comes roaring back.
Nor does it end with the carnal aspect of love. Indeed, the curse continues even in the absence of the lover. As Lucretius puts it, “Though the object of your love may be absent, images of it still haunt you and the beloved name chimes sweetly in your ears.” And then there is the bitterness that arises in the presence of the lover. Lucretius writes,
Perhaps the beloved has let fly some two-edged word, which lodges in the impassioned heart and glows there like a living flame. Perhaps he thinks she is rolling her eyes too freely and turning them upon another, or he catches in her face a hint of mockery.
That the beloved can say something that stings in a way that no words from another could, and that insecurities arise in our minds concerning the beloved that don’t arise in the presence of others, are just some of the many bitter aspects of love.

Baby Don’t Hurt Me

Whether it is the infirmities of mind that arise during lovemaking, in the absence of the beloved, or even in their presence, these are only the “evils inherent in love that prospers and fulfills its hopes.” How much more apparent, then, are the evils that accompany “starved and thwarted love.”
Thus, Lucretius advises us to avoid the passions of love altogether:
Thrust from you anything that might feed your passion, and turn your mind elsewhere. Vent the seed of love upon other objects. By clinging to it you assure yourself the certainty of heart-sickness and pain.
This might seem a bit extreme. However, given the pains that are inherent in love, according to Lucretius, it makes sense that he would caution us against it. It is also the case, he thinks, that avoiding the snares of love is easier to do then to break free once you are enmeshed. We must be on our guard beforehand.
But not all hope is lost for those of us whose hearts have already tasted Venus’ honey! For, “be you never so tightly entangled and embrangled, you can still free yourself from the curse unless you stand in the way of your own freedom.” What can we do to break free of the curse? This is where Lucretius begins to offer what can, I think, be rightfully termed as break-up advice.
Venus and Love

Friedrich Rehberg (1758-1835), Venus and Love, 1808. Munich, Germany.

The first method of getting over our beloved is to,
Concentrate on all the faults of mind or body of her whom you covet and sigh for. For men often behave as though blinded by love and credit the beloved with charms to which she has no valid title.
I am sure we can all, men and women alike, think of things we attributed to the mind or body of past loves that, in retrospect, we came to see as attributes not truly belonging to the person. Whether it was honesty, beauty, intelligence, humor, kindness, wit, etc., we have likely reflected on past relationships and thought, “Why on earth did I ever think my beloved ever was any of those things?” Following these reflections we might feel a sense of regret or shame for being duped. Yet these are exactly the type of delusions that love inherently brings with it. If we keep these disappointments in mind regarding those we desire, and those we once desired but sigh over now, we can both avoid future pains and overcome present ones.
If that doesn’t work, well, Lucretius tells us, we are to remember that there are others, that there was a time in life where we carried on fine without the beloved before, and that the beloved shares much in common with others of their sex. Or, as Lucretius put it,
Even so, there are still others. Even so, we lived without her before. Even so, in her physical nature she is no different, as we all know, from the plainest of her sex.
In modern terms: there’s other fish in the sea! So cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it!
Well, you get the point.
But perhaps, dear reader, you find all this unsatisfying. After all, is love really so terrible? Sure, sometimes we experience the terrible things Lucretius speaks of, but there are also aspects of love that outweigh all that. Is it not only certain types of love, perhaps not even deserving of the title, that carry with them these pains? Yet, even when love is accompanied by such things, even when we feel crushed under the weight of grief, do we not still hold that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? Sure, it might sound nice to avoid the heart-ache in the first place, but then we would be missing out on all the beauties that love has to offer us as well!
As mentioned above, I’ll leave its relevance up to you, dear reader. But however you feel after reading these love tips from Lucretius, it is humbling to reflect on the fact that someone who set out to understand the nature of the universe, stopped along the way to understand the nature of love.

Love and Strife: Empedocles’ Universe

by September 13, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who hasn’t looked up into a sky full of stars and wondered what our place is in this vast universe? What is the nature of this environment we find ourselves living in? Are there underlying substances to this “stuff” that makes up our world? For the contemplative among us, there are all too often few satisfying answers, yet an endless list of questions. This is especially true for those of us who have cruised around our sun on planet Earth for many years, as when we were younger we seemed to “know” everything! A revered professor of mine once said that as we progress in age, that is precisely the trajectory: as we go along, the “answers” become fewer and the questions accumulate, until we have pretty much nothing but questions! Perhaps that is a bit cynical, but not far off the mark in my opinion.
Empedocles, an ancient Greek philosopher, was one such man who contemplated these essential questions. Born in Acragas (now Agrigento), Sicily, sometime during the early 5th century B.C., and dying in 444 B.C., he belongs to a remarkable group of philosophers we call the pre-Socratics. Among this group are many incredible thinkers such as Thales of Miletus (with whom is normally reckoned the beginning of this era; born in 624 B.C.), Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Heraclitus, and the list goes on up until Socrates (born 470 B.C.).
Empedocles, 17th-century engraving

Empedocles, ancient Greek Presocratic philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655)

I liken this period to the “Big Bang” of Western philosophy, since so many of the questions that have occupied the philosophic enterprise from that day until now were articulated, pondered, debated, and written about during those nearly two remarkable centuries before Socrates. The role of the senses in knowledge, the nature of reason, morality, religion, the gods, the soul, and what kind of stuff the universe was created of, are just some examples. The questions asked then, as well the methodologies and schools of thought that developed in order to answer them, have persisted to this day (with variations of course).
What we today call “Greece” was then a far flung set of city-states and islands throughout the Mediterranean, modern (western) Turkey, the Aegean Sea, etc. This was a time when these various geographic locations were the hubs of trade routes, aiding the transportation not only of goods but of a plethora of cultural, religious, political, and philosophical ideas.

What is This Thing Called Nature?

Empedocles was a poet, and his only surviving major works (in fragments and written in hexameter) are On Nature (Peri Phuseos) and Purifications (his later religious-themed work). Being that I could write all day about Empedocles and the implications of his thought (and you likely have other Classical Wisdom Weekly articles to attend to, don’t you, dear reader?), I will attempt instead to give a brief overview of On Nature.
For many of the pre-Socratics, their approach to philosophy consisted of trying to get at the root of things, beginning with the universe at large and then moving inwards from there. Empedocles posited four underlying substances, or “elements” comprising nature (phusis): Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These he considered to be the “roots” of the “stuff” which we perceive and interact with every day. This view of nature remained prevalent in western thought down to the Renaissance. (It still survives today in some circles, especially in neo-Pagan thought.)
Of course, today we generally have a far different understanding of the word “elements,” or the underlying “stuff” of the natural universe. Our modern understanding of “all that is” (for Materialists, anyway) comes down to the 118 elements (as of 2017) arranged on the periodic table. (Catalogued in this fashion beginning with Mendeleev in 1869.) The air that we breathe, for instance, is comprised of several gases, primarily nitrogen (78%), oxygen (nearly 21 %), and argon (nearly 1%), along with other trace elements.
As the entire philosophic enterprise is often referred to as a millennia-long “conversation,” individual philosophers, such as Empedocles, are often seen as in conversation with, or as reacting to, other thinkers of their time (or immediately preceding). From Parmenides, Empedocles accepted the fundamental principle “that nothing can arise out of nothing,” nor can anything perish into nonentity. Sound familiar?! (“Matter is neither created nor destroyed” – 18th Century French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier) Whereas for Parmenides this meant that all motion and change must be illusory, Empedocles admits that there is a real process in nature: “the mixture and separation of things mixed.”
Empedocles' four elements/roots

A wood engraving of Empedocles and the four elements/roots.

Since the elements are four (rather than a monistic “One”), Empedocles then is able to explain natural change as the result of the combination, separation, and regrouping of these indestructible entities. Moreover, in Empedocles’ thought, these four interact continually under the influence of two cosmic powers on the other: Love and Strife. These two function as forces of attraction and repulsion. The power of Love, for instance, functions first by bringing together “like” together with “like,” (earth to earth, fire to fire, e.g.), but also assimilates the four elements one to another, creating a homogeneous compound of organic unity.
Strife, on the other hand, is seen as a force of differentiation and repulsion for the elements, one that creates great diversity in nature. This is really what we mean by the statement that the Universe (humanity as well) is “dynamic” (think plate tectonics, volcanism, impact events, etc.) – nature seems to be both “fixed” in the sense that matter is neither created nor destroyed, yet always in flux by forces molding and shaping the reality we perceive. It is not that the universe itself undergoes any fundamental change, but that the forces of Love and Strife, with their constant bringing-together and forcing-apart, create what we see as “change” over time. Here is a chart roughly depicting Empedocles’ view:
The Cycle of Love and Strife

A graphic depiction of the cosmic functions of Love and Strife as envisioned by Empedocles

What is This Thing Called Love?

Sometimes charts just don’t quite cut it. If you asked me to show you what love is, dear reader, you would likely be disappointed if I returned with a chart like the one above. Thus, along with the chart I have decided to appeal to this great song from the popular American music composer Cole Porter, because I believe it will further aid us in envisioning exactly how Empedocles conceived of the universe.
Cole Porter penned many songs that have been adapted by jazz musicians over the past nearly one hundred years, with “What is this Thing Called Love” being one of the most popular (it now belongs to the pantheon of classic tunes from the “Great American Songbook” that Jazz musicians love to play and improvise over). Jazz musicians love to rearrange the chord structures of popular songs (called “substitutions” – often thought to be “hipper” and more accommodative to improvisation on instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, They also love to change the underlying rhythm (resetting it to Latin rhythms, swing feel, ballads, etc.) and tempos (faster or slower). It is a real art to do this in a way that both pleases the players and the audience, and to come up with something “new” and relevant to the occasion.
As I continued to think about Empedocles, it occurred to me that the jazz musicians’ art could serve as an analogy to Empedocles’ understanding of Love and Strife. Though western music utilizes 12 different tones (in a chromatic scale), it’s all in how they are juxtaposed that makes something “new” out of the underlying, unchanging substances, or notes (a new melody, new set of chord changes, rhythms, etc.) of music. As is the case with Love and Strife, acting on the four primal Elements in various ways, the 12 different tones are constantly being brought together and forced apart in various ways by musicians, while, like the products of Love and Strife, beings still dependent on what underlies them. As Empedocles put it,

Now there grows to be one thing alone out of many; now again many things
separate out of one.

Hopefully you have found this analogy helpful in understanding the way Empedocles viewed the universe. Music, like Nature, has shown itself to be a constant source of new creations. This is no surprise, as music is a product of Nature’s many creations. For Empedocles, it is the forces of Love and Strife that make the universe so dynamic. As a result, life is dynamic, and it is this very dynamism that makes it so joyful to contemplate. Empedocles, along with his fellow pre-Socratics, set Western philosophy on a journey of contemplating the cosmos. Friends: we are most fortunate to be able to continue their enterprise. Let us not take it for granted.

Christianity and Stoicism

by September 5, 2019

By Rodrigo Ferreyra, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is no secret that the origins of Christian thought are closely related to other Mediterranean philosophies and religions. Already determined by its Jewish heritage, Christianity additionally borrowed for itself different elements such as the Golden Age myth, the fatalism of living in a fallen world, and Zoroastrian duality. Greco-Roman influence is no less present. It was Stoicism, however, that held a remarkably special position in early Christianity.
To the recognition of the Stoics as “ecclesiastical writers” by church fathers like Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome, we shall add the apocryphal correspondence maintained between the Latin writer Seneca and the apostle Saint Paul. Sadly, these documents, which have reached us in the format of fourteen letters, have been proved false. This does not, however, dismiss the fact of an existing bond between the Stoic school of thought and the genesis of Christianity.
Michael Pacher - Altarpiece of the Church Fathers

Michael Pacher – Altarpiece of the Church Fathers

First of all, we are to immediately notice how broadly linked their discourses are… This is especially so in their understanding of philosophy as lecturing on ethics, that is, the idea of a practical philosophy that is composed to assist one on how to act.
At the same time, they both developed an ethic extremely interested in self-improving by detachment from the mundane activities of the mind and body. Christianity finds its grace in salvation personified in the resurrection of Christ. The Christian life, as a sum of practices, guides to it.
Seneca by Vorsterman

Seneca by Vorsterman, Lucas
Datierung: 1610 / 1675

The Stoics, for their part, found guidance in being in harmony with nature throughout their everyday lives. Although these ethical positions seem to invite virtue to be part of our beings, it is interesting to notice how the Stoics ‘deal’ with these virtues. In On the Tranquility of Mind, Seneca writes:
I like for my servant a young house-bred slave without training or polish, for silverware my country-bred father’s heavy plate that bears no maker’s stamp, and for a table one that is not remarkable for the variety of its markings * or known to Rome for having passed through the hands of many stylish owners, but one that is there to be used, that makes no guest stare at it in endless pleasure or burning envy.
Seneca’s renouncement of commodities as fulfilling what he understands as the true nature of life does not show any disagreement with his attachment to slaves. From our modern point of view, it would not be stoic at all to own slaves. It wouldn’t be very Christian either. And yet, Pope Gregory I the Great (540-604), one of four Fathers of the Western Christian Church, was indeed both a stoic at heart and a slave dealer.
Saint Gregory the Great. Engraving by A. Hogenberg

Saint Gregory the Great. Engraving by A. Hogenberg after D.

Nevertheless, Seneca admittedly defended slaves as humans and preached for a just and kind behavior in dealing with them. As a matter of fact, in both Seneca and Gregory’s writings slaves are integrated into their ethical safeguard judgments: They too are to reach salvation/harmony.
How come, then, that these two schools of thought have shown a similar hypocritical ethic or, at least, no signs whatsoever of impugning the social order with their own ethical judgments?
In his Phenomenology, Hegel argues that the historical development of Stoicism was a movement from a collective to an individual consciousness: the “freedom of self-consciousness”. It was after the fall of the Roman Republic that the most influential Latin Stoics appeared. Stoicism was a response to the ending of the institution in charge of society’s mind. The Republic was replaced with a ‘State’ in which these new thinkers had no part.
Epicurus in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

Epicurus in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

Yes, both servants and slaves are free owners of their consciousness, but at the same time, they are unable to address critical thinking in order to change any nature nor salvation they may be pursuing. Judgment remains solely within the “rational”, that is, the Latin or Christian social order. Control always remains in the self without reaching, as Hegel states, the further skepticism required for the true realization of this freedom: Where mere self-discipline and awareness find its limit.
We can acknowledge, then, that both Christianity and Stoicism preached ‘self-improving’ as a means to an end. And while their purpose was certainly different, the adepts of both philosophies identically adopted a passive role over the world in which they lived to achieve it.