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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

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I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche: Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

The Birth of Tragedy (Complete Works)The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche

My Rating★★★★★

Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

Nietzsche never struck me as a real philosopher. He was too much the story-teller.

This is probably his most a-philosophical (?) works. But it is my favorite. It was the most accessible to me and it was the most relevant of his works. It helped me form my own convictions. It was universal and yet not choke full of platitudes. It was forceful but not descending into loud (almost incomprehensible) invectives. (you know which works I subtly allude to)

‘Birth of Tragedy’ was his first major work and to me (in contradiction of the previous paragraph) his most philosophical. It seems to me to be the very soul of his philosophy – that was then refined and reformed in the fire of his (self-imposed?) suffering. The later philosophy is the ‘Nietzschian’ one – grand and too powerful to ignore. But, this earlier core is, to me, the real beauty that livens all the later fury.

Nietzsche, already in this, his first work (ostensibly on the source of Greek tragedy), set Dionysus (the god of vitality, ecstasy, thriving life, and of wine) against Apollo (the god of tranquillity, logic, and of contemplation).

According to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy as in life, it is the unruly chorus who represented Dionysus and was a crying-out of humanity (the species) itself. Apollo, on the other hand, was represented by the human actors and expressed himself through the orderly dialogue. Apollo was designed to be noticed – the conscious story. Dionysus was designed to be evoked – the collective unconscious?

In this early core of Nietzschian philosophy, a philosophy of species vs individuals, of species evolution pitted against human vanity, Dionysus is the strength of the human race, of life itself (vide Darwin) but manifests only as mere background to any given human drama (but still the source of all drama and is THE actual Drama).

Apollo, in contrast, is expressed in any given human drama (composed or lived) – important and represented and thought about. But, always about mere individuals, weak and mortal.

With this early work Nietzsche leapt into the depths and all the later developments was a climb back and proclamations of the reality of the Deep. He adored and embraced the tragic sensibility which is the condition for man – of adoration of life and of its cruel laws, despite all the weakness of the individual – the real genesis of the Superman.

Disclaimer #1: Written more than a year after the original reading and after only a cursory re-reading/re-glancing. Please trust the reviewer when he asserts that the work is powerful enough to stay fresh-to-review even after a year has passed.

Disclaimer #2: Required Expansion of Essay: ‘The Superman as The Buddha: The Inevitable Evolution of Tragic Consciousness’

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Christopher Bartley

An Introduction to Indian PhilosophyAn Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Christopher Bartley

My Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

This very engaging introduction to Indian Philosophy can be thought of as a series of essays on some of the most prominent schools of thought of ancient Indian philosophy, with each essay being followed up by detailed ‘further readings’ that can be used to explore particular ideas further. While this presentation of the book facilitates an easy introduction to each of the schools of thought, it can have the effect of obscuring the subtle interconnections and derivations within and between them.

Also, the fact that Bartley chose to use Buddhist arguments as the point of departure for defining all the other schools of thought has the unfortunate effect of making them seem overly derivative. In spite of these defects, the books is worth a read, particularly the sections on Sankhya and Nyaya are a discursive delight to read.

The section on Buddhism is a bit stretched out, as it had to be given the nature of the presentation. The section on Mimamsa school is given a slightly simplistic explanation and the earlier and later schools are not delineated enough to give full play to the power of this school of thought, nor are the connections with Sankhya, particularly with Gita, fully explored. The Vedanta school is given a lot of detail and space but without looping back and connecting fully with Sankhya through the upanishadic arguments.

Given the scope of an introductory book, it is perhaps asking too much to address all the nuances but some of the space dedicated to quoting Sankara’s and others’ arguments could have been given over to tracing the differences and similarities between the schools and in showcasing the organic nature of the growth of the entire philosophic edifice.

P.S. Forgive the omission of diacritical marks. Please do google to pick out exact pronunciations.

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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of ReligionMinds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion by Todd Tremlin

My Rating★★★★☆

Non-scholarly musings on a Scholarly work

So it is then established that Gods, Religious concepts and Rituals are natural effervescences of the kind of mind that we posses, parasitic on our cognitive processes. It (our minds) is uniquely suited to imbibe them.

Mark though: We cannot (yet) make a claim that our minds WILL produce Gods and Religions and Rituals if left to themselves (though historical evidence might indicate that this could well be the case) but only that our minds cannot avoid the God Meme once exposed to it. Our society is very efficient at ensuring that.

An Atheist or an Agnostic is in this way, in this fundamental cognitive aspect of the nature of our cognitive construction, indistinguishable from a Theist – once exposed to a God concept they cannot but let their mind’s velcro stick to those burs forever.

The Theist adheres to a theological notion, the Agnostic to a scientific/skeptic’s credo and an Atheist to his own brand of faith in a new-found Religion of Science (reminding one of the Buddhists who tried to go nuclear (agnostic) and ended up as theistic in daily life).

But, we do have two brains inside us (yes, that is quite a ‘new’ finding too)) as Daniel Kahneman elaborates in his new book (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and only our rational brain system (read pathway) can entertain these abstract concepts. Our emotional/instinctive (read pathway) brain will still repeatedly resort to the God Concept we are familial (thus familiar) with in most of our our “on-line” thinking – that is in our daily (non-abstract-thinking) life.

“Deal with it”, the message is: We are all the same – Theists, Agnostics, Atheists or whatever we call ourselves, we are all in the same boat believing in the same agencies “on-line” and professing different versions of our pet abstractions “off-line”.

Not even managing to fool ourselves.

Disclaimer:

The above review is not a summation of the book but more a running with the ball tossed by it. The book is a study and an overview of the new Science of the Cognitive Study of Religion and deals with Religion in a new way – as a cognitive by-product of our psychology and our evolution. It is thoroughly fascinating and can lead to all sorts of ideas just as any new science should.

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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Paradharmo Bhayaavahah: Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-RelianceSelf-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

My Rating★★★★☆

Shreyaan swadharmo vigunah paradharmaat swanushthitaat; 
Swadharme nidhanam shreyah paradharmo bhayaavahah. 
~ The Bhagavad-Gita, 3.35 (Chapter 3, Verse 35)

[Better is one’s own Dharma, though devoid of merit, than the Dharma of another well discharged. Better is even death in one’s own Dharma; to attempt the Dharma of another is fraught with danger.]

I felt that Self-Reliance is a book length homage to this verse. Emerson, while talking loftily of originality seems to have not the slightest compunction in drawing heavily from oriental philosophies to achieve the grandeur that is reflected in his thoughts and writings. Of course Emerson was no stranger to the beautiful verses of Gita nor to the Upanishads. Emerson and Thoreau, both, were greatly drawn by the philosophy of The Gita. As Thoreau says, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.” Emerson has also been vocal in his praise – “The Bhagavad-Gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged monotheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanisadic absolute.”

I just wish that the book itself had a reference to The Gita and did not depend on my memory to make the connections. Self-Reliance is a great and inspirational work, but would have been the better for quoting its own inspirations.

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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Philosophy Bites

Philosophy BitesPhilosophy Bites by David Edmonds

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This book mostly consists of philosophers raising some interesting questions and then failing miserably to answer them. It really is a hodgepodge of concepts where they stick their feet into every interesting philosophical pond available but hardly spends the time required to really test the waters or to gauge the depths. So while the book was not very valuable from the perspective of finding good answers, it was still a good exercise in framing a lot of new (to me) questions or reframing some old ones, and that is after all the essence of all philosophy. Once we have answers to any question, or have the proper way to ask it, then it crosses over from philosophy to science.

So just for getting one thinking in these wide variety if questions, the book was fascinating and worth the time in reading and probably it is also worthwhile putting down here the major questions and also a few attempted answers.

The first question to be addressed was whether the “yuck” reaction ie whether moral or physical disgust should be a yardstick for policy measures or for any informed judgment. The answer was a unilateral No and I will cover this further in my review here.

Another question to be taken up was on whether Relativity should be the foundation of all morality. This Relativism would be any theory which encapsulates the idea that there are individual differences in morality (for which there may be a cultural explanation) and that there are no absolute truths about any moral judgements that we make. Is it all just a matter of taste? The Relativist would answer that it indeed is, he would say that ‘you’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine’ – end of story. But the trouble is, it’s not the end of the story because we’re each seeking to impose a policy on the other.

To illustrate this take an example where I want people to purge al streets of the menace of street dogs and you want them not to, then just at the level of desire we’ve got a disagreement and you could be expected to act to prevent this dog-culling and I act to promote it. We’ve got policies that are in conflict and we might come to blows, as people do. Suppose you say ‘Dog Culling No!’ and I say ‘Dog Culling Yes!’, and in comes Rosy The Relativist, and she says ‘Hey you two, why don’t you just realize that stray dogs are good for you and bad for him and that’s the end of it?’ The question I want to ask is, ‘How does this help?’ Whatever led you to oppose the culling or wish to tolerate the stray dogs is presumably still there; whatever led me to promote it is still there. The idea that we’re not in conflict just starts to look farcical. And the conflict has not been resolved by Rosy – it hasn’t even been helped.

The question of how to treat animals too is explored. How do we regulate cruelty to them and decide where to draw the moral lines? The answer that Peter Singer puts forth is two fold, any creature that is capable of making plans fo the future should be treated with that respect for its own ambitions and any creature capable of suffering should be given the consideration of alleviating any needless suffering. Singer brings up the example of factory farming where we confine animals in conditions that for their entire lives make them miserable. We have to ask: what do we get out of this? Well, we produce food a little more cheaply. But we are not starving, and we can afford to pay a little more for our food. I don’t think there’s much doubt that that’s not something that can be justified if we give equal consideration to the sufferings of the hens and the pigs.

Then the discussion turns to the question of Human Enhancement for excelling in sports and other competitive fields. the thrust of the argument is that if we enhance human performance artificially sports will lose its meaning, we watch it for the human element, to see people overcoming the odds of their bodies to do impossible things. If they are no longer ‘impossible’ and inconceivable, then why watch them?

The next part was about friendship and I could not make out any real questions in this discussion except a back and forth about how can we justify the morality of giving special treatment to our friends over strangers. Are some friends more equal than others? The answer is that the social morals of treating all the same is about equality but friendship is about individuality.

Is cosmopolitanism really that important and how far should toleration just for the sake of toleration go? Can we allow practices we consider morally depraved just because they are part of the cultural tradition of a community? The only anser seems to be that if these practices are imposed on people who are not in a position to make an informed choice for themselves, children, for instance, you might want to be paternalistic and protect them from it for their own good. Adults making informed choices would be a different case. But ultimately it should be about giving the people in that community the education and the informed choices so that they can rise above the blinding customs and then make a decision for themselves, without having them imposed on them from a Big Brother who knows better.

The question was again picked up in the section about Multiculturalism and how Tolerance should not be the word we should be using. To tolerate something is different from real acceptance of the culture. The problem with ‘tolerance’ is what it sounds like – suffering someone’s existence rather than dealing with them violently.

The tricky nature of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice is also explored. That’s when one person is telling another person something and the hearer, owing to some prejudice, deflates the level of credibility they give to the speaker. A good example that we might relate to to understand this abstract concept is the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where we find the defendant being charged with rape just because none of the white jurors believe the word of a ‘negro’, then the injustice matters deeply, and indeed in that case the consequences prove fatal.

Who can try and define the nature of Infinity? The mathematicians define it thus: if you can pair off a sub-collection of any given collection with the whole collection, that means you’re talking about an infinite collection of objects.

Scientific realism is to believe that everything that science postulates is really here and is real, even if our sense organs can never perceive it. The conclusion seemed to be that we should be skeptics about some areas of science which has a history of producing wildly wrong theories (such as astronomy?) and realistic about the sciences with a better track record (chemistry?). But with such a short history, do we have enough data to really decide?

This was followed by a very abstract discussion on time and how we treat it so differently from spatial measures. I have nothing worthwhile to comment on this really. Then came the section on the nature of the relationship between the mind and the body as Tim Crane tried to explore it. Most of the discussion was centered on Vedantic philosophy and the Upanishads and is much too detailed and in any case the question is more important!

Tim Williamson then tries to explain how to classify Vagueness and boundary conditions. When do you start and stop being a teenager? When does a heap of sand stop being a ‘heap’ if you remove one grain at a time? At what hour, or minute, or second, does one become middle-aged? Basically it is an exploration of the famous Sorites paradoxes.

The discussion from here on centers on Art and how to define and classify them. Apparently, the fine arts as we now know them today, was the invention of one man – a French thinker called the Abbé Batteaux. The real question though is when does any object get classified as Art? If it is beautiful? Beautiful to whom? Is institutionalization inevitable in a field like the Arts?

Alain de Botton makes an appearance to talk about aesthetics and architecture. His main argument is that form and functionality are important but aesthetics is as important since that too one of the fundamental function so architecture. To explain the real function of a building, Botton invokes John Ruskin – it should encompass both sheltering and also what John Ruskin calls ‘speaking’, when he says buildings shouldn’t just shelter us, they should speak to us. They should speak to us of all the things that we think are most important and that we need to be reminded of on a daily basis. So the idea is that buildings should be the repositories of certain values, ideas, suggestions, and that they should reflect these back to us, so as to inspire us. I was strongly reminded of the speech made by Arkady Bogdanov during the meteor shower episode in that fantastic book Red Mars, and this was the only reason I felt that I agreed with Ruskin on this one.

From art we move to wine and about how to truly appreciate it. And then takes a radical shift into the possible motivations for watching a tragedy.

The discussion was about resolving the paradox of Aristotle when he says Tragedy gives pleasure through pain. This paradox of tragedy is dissolved in effect by saying Aristotle was wrong. The tragic poet’s task is not really to generate in the audience a peculiar species of pleasure. What he should have said, and arguably what he really means, is that a tragic poet aims at giving us a certain kind of insight.

From here on, the discussions are about God and Atheism and so all the really bored ones can get off the bus now.

Don Cupitt says that he has given up on the ideas of a pre-existent self, world, and God, quite apart from human belief, human commitment, and human descriptions. God doesn’t exist apart from our faith in him is his belief now. John Cottingham exploring the Meaning of Life itself says that God is not necessary and neither is religion. Spirituality and spiritual practices independent of both can still give us the calm and peace that we seek. Stephen Law then delves in the famous Problem of Evil: If we begin with the thought that God is all-powerful, all-good, and indeed all-knowing, the question, then, is why does evil exist? or why does evil exist in quite the quantities that it does? There are two different problems here. The first is called the logical problem of evil. Some people argue that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any suffering or evil whatsoever. The other problem of evil is this. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, why is there quite so much suffering and evil in the world? Surely an all-powerful, all-good God would have the ability to produce a world with far less suffering, and, if He’s all-good, then He would surely want the world to contain far less suffering. Why, then, is there quite so much suffering? So, on the evidential problem of evil, it’s the quantity of evil that’s really the issue, whereas on the logical problem it’s the existence of any evil or any suffering at all that’s deemed the problem. The quantity of suffering is evidence that there is no God.

Keith Ward proposes that a return to eastern Idealism might solve the problem of this definition of God. But, then comes A.C. Grayling who says no to all conceptions of God in his first statement but never raises a finger against any idea that the Judaeo-Christian personal God in his talks. But he is surely a Radical Atheist, rejecting the idea that there are gods or supernatural agencies of any kind in the world. It is even a rejection of the idea that there might have been supernatural agencies at some earlier point in the universe’s history, which is the deist position. He calls himself a naturalist, but the only hole I could detect in his argument was if he was confronted with the numerous ideas of God that never ascribes anything ‘supernatural’ to the concept.

The entire book was in an interview format and most of the times the answers are more evasive than conclusive in any way. But since these are supposed to be the leading philosophers in their respective fields, we can at least take heart that they know as little as we do?

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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Consolations Of Philosophy – How to Use Philosophy to Guide Your Life

The Consolations Of PhilosophyThe Consolations Of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I went through the book I was unable to make up my mind whether it was a work on philosophy masquerading as a self-help book to reach a wide audience or if it was a pretentious self-help book with aspirations to be a book on deep philosophy.

Even after I finished it, I am not sure how to judge it. Should I judge it harshly or picking and choosing among the works of these great philosophers to fit them into the narrow framework that Botton has drawn for them and thus making them draw his yoke? Or should I be lenient with thought that Botton makes lofty thoughts so accessible by dragging them down and tethering them to the normal privations of men and offering consolations for the same?

The title is of course a brilliant one and almost irresistible. Not original maybe, as Boethius has already used it, but Boethius’ was a private consolation with his own philosophy (personified as a woman) while Botton offers up his philosopher‘s thoughts for a public audience for his reader’s consolation. I am no judge on which was the more effective work as I am yet to read the original work.

As for the book itself, Botton tries hard to make it entertaining and relevant and uses almost a bullet-point like efficiency to ensure that he can pack everything into a ‘airport size’ book.

The framework of the book is to use the wisdom of six philosophers, almost in chronological order, to offer consolations for some of the common maladies that afflict the average person. The fact that he spends more time and pages detailing out the lives of the philosophers should not deter from the fact that he does manage to stick admirably to the overall structure of the book and does offer a coherent sequence and logic of ‘consolations’.

Consolation For Unpopularity

Botton uses the example and philosophy of Socrates and his life to illustrate that the judgement of others should have no real bearing on how we judge ourselves. This is not to say that we should count ourselves superior by being in the minority. No, the real message is that the weight of numbers supporting any argument or moral standpoint has nothing to do with the real strength of that position. Only reason should guide us in our judgements of ourselves and of others. In the hatred unfairly directed towards an innocent philosopher we recognize an echo of the hurt we ourselves encounter at the hands of those who are either unable or unwilling to do us justice. But if your reason tells us we are right, we should stick to our beliefs and we might be redeemed as Socrates was by the very people who condemned him and be consoled by the prospect of posterity’s verdict.

Consolation For Not Having Enough Money

What is wealth? Is it mere material wealth or is it anything that provides us real happiness? These were the questions that Epicurus grappled with. His answer was that just as we are not capable of judging what is good for our physical body and would gladly gorge ourselves with unhealthy food to the point of death (as a lot of us do). so we are not capable of judging what is truly good for our souls, for our life.

I want to belabor this point – If left to ourselves and our instinctive tastes, we would find no reason to refrain from consuming as much as we can of everything that tastes good and this only leads to a decay in bodily health. It takes an expert opinion and self-control to be able to give up this unhealthy habit and adopt a moderate and healthy diet that allows us much better health.

Epicurus says that we similarly gorge on money and all the other pleasurable thing sin life and jump head long into the rat race thinking that is important. But only deep reflection can show us that it is a bad for our spiritual well-being and health as all that good food is for our bodily health.

So he says pleasure is the ultimate goal of life – but what gives you true pleasure can only be found by deep reflection. So what should we dedicate all our energies to if we want a happy life?

We should find Friendship, good companionship – association with people who recognize our true nature with all our defects is what we really need. in fact all our mad scramble after money and power is just a manifestation of our need to be esteemed and listened to by our fellow beings. We may seek a fortune for no reason but to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look straight through us. But do we need money to get them to respect us? Would not a true friend value every word of yours and respect you even if you were penniless?

The second most important constituent of happiness is Freedom – the freedom to be ourselves. This eventually connects back to being with people who will accept us as us. Epicurus and his friends made a radical innovation. In order not to have to work for people they didn’t like and answer to potentially humiliating whims, they removed themselves from employment in the commercial world of Athens (‘We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and polities’), and began what could best have been described as a commune, accepting a simpler way of life in exchange for independence. They would have less money but would never again have to follow the commands of odious superiors.

Simplicity did not affect the friends’ sense of status because, by distancing themselves from the values of Athens, they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis. There was no need to be embarrassed by bare walls, and no benefit in showing off gold. Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic centre of the city, there was – in the financial sense – nothing to prove.

So, Happiness, an acquisition list:

1. A hut 2. Friends 3. To avoid superiors, patronization, infighting and competition 4. Thought 5. Art.

Happiness may indeed be difficult to attain. The obstacles are not primarily financial.

Consolation For Frustration

All frustration arises from a faulty view of the world says Lucius Annaeus Seneca. We are frustrated because we expect the world to behave in a particular way and then reality turns out to be different. the Great Stoic philosopher advises us to be always aware that the worst scenario is always possible and to be prepared for it so that when it does happen we are ready for it and will not descend into anger, shock, anxiety or despair, all of which are marks of an unprepared mind that was not in tune with reality. Correct your worldview to accept the fact that reality is cruel and thus find escape from these common frustrations. This does not mean that you should accept everything, you may struggle mightily to avoid the misfortune but you just need to be aware of its possibility to be not prey to anger, grief and other frustrations.

Consolation For Inadequacy

Michel de Montaigne consoles us about the ultimately human nature of us all. We have to accept that we are not perfect, no one ever was. Once we accept that every inadequacy we find so appalling in ourselves is shared by millions and is one of the side effects of being human and being alive, we will learn to be less embarrassed by them and can live a more fulfilling life.

Consolation For Heartbreak

The nerve to invoke the greatest pessimist of the western world to console heartbroken young Werthers!

But it is Arthur Schopenhauer who is being called upon to give advice on how to deal with rejection and broken love affairs. Schopenhauer’s famous ‘will to life’ theory which modern readers might as well read as a sort of natural selection through conditioned unconscious eugenics states that we are controlled in who we find attractive and lovable by a great force of nature which is concerned only with the need to propagate the species. It is not concerned with our happiness and more often than not we will end up with people who are our anti-thesis and inconducive to our happiness. So a happy marriage is a statistical anomaly and unnatural rather than something we can naturally expect.

So, if and when you find yourself a Young Werther with a broken heart or a girl for that matter, understand that it is not you who were rejected but it was just that the union was not approved by the good of the species by the ‘will to power’ or natural selection. This might sound like an artificial explanation but think about it, please, it is all just genetics.

Consolation For Difficulties

Finally Friedrich Nietzsche makes his grand entry and gives The Ultimate Consolation – You do not need consolations in life!

All life’s difficulties are to be embraced. So accept your unpopularity, poverty, inadequacy, frustrations, heart-breaks and every sorrow as necessary to become the best you can be. If you do not have these difficulties you will be a mindless creature without knowledge of life. Use all these grief and ills of life to forge a character and life that is noble and grand.

Your greatest gifts are your difficulties.

Disclaimer: I have modified the views expressed in this review from that in the book to match my own understanding of these philosophers at times (especially for Nietzsche). At other times I have reproduced the core message of the book without modification. I have not distinguished the two as the original works of all these great minds are always available to anyone who finds any disparity between this review and their own convictions. I have done justice neither to this book nor to the philosophers in this review and would ask you to pursue them further if you find it interesting. I will try to do a comprehensive review of Will Durant‘s The Story of Philosophy as a counterpoint to this simplistic interpretation of multi-faceted thoughts.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Appreciation: The Story of Philosophy By Will Durant

The Story of PhilosophyThe Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a long postponed book as I always thought it would be a long and trudging read, hard to comprehend and harder to remember afterwards. But Durant’s treatment of the philosophers and their ideas as organic evolutions of their character and their times was what made the book a joy to read.

The ideas and the long dead philosophers come alive magnificently in these pages and Durant even manages to fill one with the thirst to go ahead and read all these works that are compressed and presented here.

This is one of those books which takes a long time to read not because they are long and arduous but because you end up spending more time thinking about each section than in the reading. The best part of the book was the fact that wherever possible the ideas are put forth in the philosopher’s own words without commentary or interpretation marring the expostulation.

With the right mix of history, biography and philosophy, Durant has achieved a wonderful synthesis and summary of the evolution of thought. It leaves one with a tantalizing glimpse of great minds and a partial open door through which is too filled with riches to be left unexplored.

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Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Walden, or Life in the WoodsWalden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first half is written by Thoreau, the accomplished philosopher and soars much above my humble powers of comprehension; the second half is written by Thoreau, the amateur naturalist and swims much below my capacity for interest.

After reading about the influence the book had on Gandhi, I had attempted reading Walden many (roughly four) times before and each time had to give up before the tenth page due to the onrush of new ideas that enveloped me. I put away the book each time with lots of food for thought and always hoped to finish it one day.

Now after finally finishing the book, while I was elated and elevated by the book, I just wish that Thoreau had stuck to telling about the affairs of men and their degraded ways of living and about his alternate views. Maybe even a detailed account of his days and how it affected him would have been fine but when he decided to write whole chapters about how to do bean cultivation and how to measure the depth of a pond with rudimentary methods and theorizing about the reason for the unusual depth of walden and about the habits of wild hens, sadly, I lost interest. I trudged through the last chapters and managed to finish it out of a sense of obligation built up over years of awe about the book.

The concluding chapter, to an extent, rewarded me for my persistence and toil. In this final chapter, he comes back to the real purpose of the book: to drill home a simple idea – “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

This I think was the core philosophy of the book – if you pursue the ideal direction/vision you have of how your life should be, and not how convention dictates it should be, then you will find success and satisfaction on a scale unimaginable through those conventional routes or to those conventional minds.

I will of course be re-reading the book at some point and thankfully I will know which parts to skip without any remorse.

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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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