Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Quest for Immortality

“I was always dreaming about very powerful people - dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered."

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Classical Greek ethical and political philosophy is ultimately divisible into two main streams.
The first is the Platonic idealism with its Pythagorean foundations. 

The second is the Aristotelian ‘realism’ with its biological foundations. This means there are two main metaphysics of man, which ultimately feed into the idea of a good life.

            Before the rise of the Athenian philosophers there had already been the idea of a life devoted to contemplation, as found in the Pre-Socratic philosophers. When Aristotle writes in the Ethics that the best life includes contemplation he is referring to such people and their lives. These philosophical lives were rare.
            However, during the growth of Athens in the “Golden Age” a life of the gentleman evolved, which included a life dedicated to the polis, and to an active social life in the community. (The Greeks had no word for ‘social’ only for ‘political’ based on the idea of a special space, a polis) The life of the gentleman was a life of politics, a life of leisure and included both the private life of the home and personal affairs as well as the public life of the city-state and public affairs.

            In Plato, we find a celebration of the philosophical life over and above the political life, since the philosopher kings would be forced into politics, which is below them. Socrates in various passages discusses how he does not have the time for politics in reference to the public sphere, and how he is a terrible husband, in reference to the private sphere. The idea of the philosophical life as found in the Pre-Socratics is held as the best. It is also the base of Epicurus’s philosophy and therefore was influential on the Stoic ideas of the good life.

            Therefore, when Aristotle in the Ethics attempts to discuss the nature of the good life, he says that while there are many opinions, the best life is the one dedicated to philosophy, but for Aristotle this would necessarily include the political life.  The idea of a contemplative life in opposition to an active life is not in Aristotle, but was a creation of later interpreters. The Latin concepts of vita-activa and vita-contemplativa are not in Aristotle; instead, Aristotle has two major distinctions. 
The first is the opposition of a life dedicated to philosophy with lives dedicated to indulgence in the forms of pleasure or honour or wealth. Aristotle is distinguishing between a life dedicated to leisure or a life still caught up in the world of labour and necessity. That is the difference.

The second is the opposition of leisure used for contemplation as found in the Ethics for those who have the components and leisure for the appreciation of the arts in the Politics as the proper end for the gentleman which he calls noble leisure.

For Plato, immortality of the soul meant that a human life of virtue and appeasing the gods meant a happy after life. Therefore, for Plato, the philosophical life, concerned with private affairs led to immortality. Leisure in this sense is the attitude one takes towards the private life and the use of free time for the sake of the soul but is not connected with the public affairs.
However, for Aristotle there was no immortal soul. The ‘political life’ was the proper use of leisure and this meant a life that included by necessity the private life, but also included the public life. BECAUSE since the human was mortal, the only chance for any sense of immortality was through great works and deeds, so that one could be remembered and honored after death. 

CONCLUSION: Leisure is the path to immortality. In a less dramatic way, leisure is the space for necessary components of the good life such as artistic, athletic and minor-political honors in times of peace.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Aristotle and Hanna Arendt on the false tension between the "vita active" and "vita contemplativa"

Hanna Arendt- a student and romantic friend of Martin Heidegger. 

The idea of the vita activa [active life] is often contrasted with the vita contemplativa [contemplative life]. In classical times, the story goes that some people pursued activity like labour or business while others choose a path less taken and forgo those lifestyles in the name of thinking and learning. In modern terms, we no longer have the priest class or philosopher class or caste which was devoted to a private life of contemplation. Well we do in some ways, but not like it was in medieval times. The natural new order- a university full of various stripes of scientists (another artificial modern distinction of thinkers in classical Athens) seem to be either working forever in research that is dependent on specific university funding- or no longer researching but working away making new ED pills and stuff. In liberal democracy, perhaps only the uber wealthy 'Silicone Valley' types live like this anymore. Having lives where work is not seen as bad, but a life in which one can wonder and create and be publicly supported for doing so. This may make these people as odd as the philosophers of old, just as Thales was said to fall into a well while watching the stars. The nutty professor type who cannot drive a car but understands the innermost workings of a star. Like the character Peter Gregory on HBO's Silicone Valley show. 

Fantastic acting Chris Welch: RIP 

Apple now has a philosopher in residence (dream job, hint :) so we will see where the future of the thinking life lies. 

The contemplative life, was the original life of the philosopher. The contemplative life was said to be “devoted to inquiry into, and contemplation of, things eternal, whose ever lasting beauty can neither be brought about through the producing interference of man nor can be changed through his consumption of them.”[1] However, this distinction  is shown by Arendt to be a historical fabrication not found in Aristotle’s theory to which it is often credited. Arendt writes, “…the term vita activa is loaded and overloaded with tradition. It is as old (but not older than) our tradition of political thought.”[2] This is a very important point, since how one understands the relationship of the active and the contemplative life will influence a theory of leisure- which is my chief philosophical concern at this time. 
For Arendt the trial of Socrates was the beginning of the political life in western culture and this ended with the philosophy of Karl Marx. She writes that the term itself, the political life, in medieval philosophy was the standard translation of the Aristotelian bios politikos. It was already in Augustine, where vita negotisa reflects its original meaning as a life devoted to public political matters. Therefore, the active life was one concerned with action, and by this, it means political and social action freely chosen over a life of indulgence or a life of philosophy. Arendt writes:
The chief difference between the Aristotelian and the later medieval use of the term is that the bios politikos denoted explicitly only the realm of human affairs, stressing the action, praxis needed to establish and sustain it. Neither labour nor work was considered to possess sufficient dignity to constitute a bios at all, an autonomous and authentically human way of life; since they served and produced what is necessary and useful, they could not be free, independent of human needs and wants.[3]

Politics is higher than pre-political violence, and that is what Aristotle means when he says, man makes war for the sake of peace.  As Arendt writes:
It is not surprising that the distinction between labor and work was ignored in classical antiquity. The differentiation between the private household and the public political realm, between the household inmate who was a slave and the household head who was a citizen, between activities which should be hidden in privacy and those which were worth being seen, heard, and remembered, overshadowed and predetermined all other distinctions until only one criteria is left: is the greater amount of time and effort spent in private or public? Is the occupation motivated by cura private negotii or cure rei publicae, care for private or for public business?[4]

For Arendt the rise of philosophical political theory overruled the original distinction of private and public philosophical lives. It instead focused on a tension of the contemplative life with the active life. Furthermore, the Christian writers solidified this artificial division of vita-activa and vita-contemplativa for modernity. Arendt writes, “Nor can we reasonably expect any help from Christian political thought, which accepted the philosophers distinction, refined it, and religion being for the many and philosophy only for the few, gave it a general validity, binding for all men.”[5]
The contemplative life was the original 'good life' in Aristotle, since it was a truly human life. The good life in modernity, if authentically inspired by Aristotle, should balance private and public life. Aristotle considered the solitary life only worthy for (poetically) a god or an animal and was not part of his idea of a properly human life. However Aristotle is clear that pleasure, business, politics are all good, but not the proper ends of a truly human life, since the best life has its end in wisdom. 

[1] Ibid., p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p. 12.
[3] Loc. cit.
[4] Ibid., p. 85.
[5] Arendt, Op. cit., p. 85.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

GUEST POST #1: MORGAN FLOYD: The power of fiction! The good, the bad and the ugly.

As promised, I will start having a guest blogger once per month in 2016. In January we are keeping things in the world of literature and have a nice treat from Morgan Floyd!

There is a side of education and philosophy which just love literature. When you hear of things like Great Books programs it is generally a university curriculum based on reading the great classics of literature as the centrepiece of education. Philosophy in many ways is also the study of great books in history. But Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued for the benefits of reading literature, on ethical grounds. By reading fiction and about the lives of various people in various times and spaces one gets a look into the life and minds of others. In this way we can expand our subjective sense of self, and get into other peoples shoes for a period of time. For Nussbaum, she thinks that we can become more compassionate and understanding human beings through reading like this. To develop a moral imagination. In this way, the rural man from Nantucket can read about and understand somewhat how it is to be a women in Afghanistan. I have always like this approach to ethics, and to helping people grow their hearts and expand compassion beyond themselves or immediate family and friends.

However, a writer and Facebook friend named Morgan has shared some very interesting insights into this. Perhaps most interesting is the idea that fiction can teach us that some humans are not likeable and that everyone is different.

What follow are Morgans great insights!


"Every day I keep seeing people watching the news.  Something we are told to do every day because it keeps us with current events.  This thought isn’t necessarily very bad, but so much of the news today is opinioned.  It tells people what to do and how to think.  Meanwhile, here I sit thinking all this news actually good for people.  I have to admit that the more I read literary fiction novels the less I care about the here and now.  We don’t stop and think about how others think.
What I mean by all of this is that not everyone is the same and if we read more fiction that is literary, we would see this.  For example, there are some people who think about death and there are others who think about life.  I’m not saying I promote suicide, but sometimes I can see why people kill themselves.  We still live in a world where we are told who to be, what to think, what to look like, and some feel like they can never tell the world who they really are; being different, weird and maybe a little crazy is perfectly fine.

There are so many books that I feel like I read were I tell people what they are about and they just stare at me and act as if I’m speaking of a foreign language.  They constantly read books that simply entertain them or they will read non-fiction that tells them this is what happened.  My two favorite authors of all time (Virginia Woolf and Yukio Mishima) just feel like they are shoved in the corner sometimes because people don’t want to read “different” thinkers.  They want to stick with something that is familiar to them and stay in their safe place I feel.  When it comes to reading, don’t just read your safety zone books, read books that might make you agree with the opposite viewpoint or at least let you understand that viewpoint a little better.
What if I told you that there are book about people were everyone is dislikeable.  Things happen you hate to read or don’t agree with and you might even think the author is insane.  In my mind, those are the best book ever written.  Why?  Those books show to me that we are capable of understanding the human race by realizing that no one is the same.  These characters aren’t just figments in your mind, these character actually breathe and have souls.  Authors have been writing these books for ages too, so we need to start realizing that one thing that makes us “human” is the fact that our minds are different form one another.
I feel like people who spend their lives reading just non-fiction and the reading the news don’t see that world as I do.  Which oddly I think is perfectly fine, I just feel sad for them in a way.  They never know that people like me exist.  I’m someone who has sexual feels to both sexes, someone who isn’t part of a political party, and someone who was baptized Protestant, but believes that all religious are true.  For those who just read non-fiction and the watch the news, I urge you to try for a week not looking at the news and read a book that digs into the mind of a character rather than an event.  Challenge yourself and don’t assume everyone thinks the same way you do.  This should be obvious, but looking at last year it feels like people want me to be yin or yang, when I rather be yin and yang.
I realize my way of thinking doesn’t imply to everyone and I know some people might not like my way of thinking, but that is fine with me.  I don’t want everyone to agree with me.  I do like thinkers and people who can make a joke with just about anything.  I think some people take me as this serious depressing person because I never talk, but I’m open in worlds, but if you really know me, I like making jokes or getting people to think about things in a different light.

"Time.  Time is what matters.  As time goes by, you and I will be carried inexorably into the mainstream of our period, even though we're unaware of what it is.  And later, when they say that young men in the early Taisho era thought, dressed, talked, in such and such a way, they'll be talking about you and me.  We'll be lumped together." ― Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow

Note: Some non-fiction is wonderful to read especially philosophical and psychological ones or some biographies.  I just feel like non-fiction doesn’t really do a good job at digging into the mind and taking about the everyday person."