Monday, September 25, 2017

Stoic principles of life – Stoic principles that still stand

Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.

We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times.

Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca [AD 4-65]; and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius [AD 121 to 180]. Their works remain highly readable and deeply consoling, ideal for sleepless nights, those breeding grounds for runaway terrors and paranoia.

1. Anxiety

At all times, so many terrible things might happen. The standard way for people to cheer us up when we’re mired in anxiety is to tell us that we will, after all, be OK: the embarrassing email might not be discovered, sales could yet take off, there might be no scandal…

But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy, because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might, and what we hope could, happen. The larger the gap, the greater will be the oscillations and disturbances of mood.

To regain calm, what we need to do is systematically and intelligently crush every last vestige of hope. Rather than appease ourselves with sunny tales, it is far better – the Stoics proposed – to courageously come to terms with the very worst possibilities – and then make ourselves entirely at home with them. When we look our fears in the face and imagine what life might be like if they came true, we stand to come to a crucial realisation: we will cope. We will cope even if we had to go to prison, even if we lost all our money, even if we were publicly shamed, even if our loved ones left us, and even if the growth turned out to be malignant (the Stoics were firm believers in suicide).

We generally don’t dare do more than glimpse the horrible eventualities through clenched eyelids, and therefore they maintain a constant sadistic grip on us. Instead, as Seneca put it: ‘To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’ To a friend wracked with terror he might be sent to prison, Seneca replied bluntly: ‘Prison can always be endured by someone who has correctly understood existence.’

The Stoics suggested we take time off to practice worst-case scenarios. We should, for example, mark out a week a year where we eat only stale bread and sleep on the kitchen floor with only one blanket, so we stop being so squeamish about being sacked or imprisoned.

Each morning, a good Stoic will undertake a praemeditatio, a premeditation on all the appalling things that might occur in the hours ahead. In Marcus Aurelius’s stiffening words: ‘Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. So you must reckon on everything, expect everything.’
Stoicism is nothing less than an elegant, intelligent dress rehearsal for catastrophe.

2. Fury

We get angry – especially with our partners, our children, and politicians. We smash things up and hurt others. The Stoics thought anger a dangerous indulgence, but most of all, a piece of stupidity, for in their analysis, angry outbursts are only ever caused by one thing: an incorrect picture of existence. They are the bitter fruits of naivety.

Anger is, in the Stoic analysis, caused by the violent collision of hope and reality. We don’t shout every time something sad happens to us, only when it is sad and unexpected. To be calmer, we must, therefore, learn to expect far less from life. Of course our loved ones will disappoint us, naturally our colleagues will fail us, invariably our friends will lie to us… None of this should be a surprise. It may make us sad. It must never – if we are Stoics – make us angry.

The wise person should aim to reach a state where simply nothing could suddenly disturb their peace of mind. Every tragedy should already be priced in. ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life?’ asked Seneca, ‘The whole of it calls for tears.’

3. Paranoia

It is easy to think we’ve been singled out for terrible things. We wonder why it has happened to us. We tear ourselves apart with blame or direct bitter venom at the world.
The Stoics want us to do neither: it may neither be our, nor anyone else’s, fault. Though not religious, the Stoics were fascinated by the Roman Goddess of fortune, known as Fortuna, whom they took to be the perfect metaphor for destiny. Fortuna, who had shrines to her all over the Empire, was popularly held to control the fate of humans, and was judged to be a terrifying mixture of the generous and the randomly wilful and spiteful. She was no meritocrat. She was represented holding a cornucopia filled with goodies (money, love etc.) in one hand, and a tiller, for changing the course of life in the other. Depending on her mood, she might throw you down a perfect job or a beautiful relationship, and then the next minute, simply because she felt like it, watch you choke to death on a fishbone.
It is an urgent priority for a Stoic to respect just how much of life will always be in the hands of this demented character. ‘There is nothing which Fortuna does not dare,’ warned Seneca.

Understanding this ahead of time should make us both suspicious of success and gentle on ourselves around failure. In every sense, much of what we get, we don’t deserve.

The task of the wise person is therefore never to believe in the gifts of Fortune: fame, money, power, love, health – these are never our own. Our grip on them must at all times be light and deeply wary.

4. Loss of Perspective

We naturally exaggerate our own importance. The incidents of our own lives loom very large in our view of the world. And so we get stressed and panicked, we curse and throw things across the room.

To regain composure, we must regularly be reduced in our own eyes. We must give up on the very normal but very disturbing illusion that it really matters what we do and who we are.

The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.

Nothing that happens to us, or that we do, is – blessedly – of any consequence whatsoever from the cosmic perspective.


We need the Stoics more than ever. Every day confronts us with situations that they understood and wanted to prepare us for.

Their teachings are dark and sobering yet at the same time, profoundly consoling and at points even rather funny.

They invite us to feel heroic and defiant in the face of our many troubles.

As Seneca reminded us, ‘Look at your wrists. There – at any time – lies freedom.’

To counterbalance the enragingly cheerful and naive optimism of our times, there is nothing better than the bitter-sweet calming wisdom of these ancient sages.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Descartes, life and works

René Descartes, (born March 31, 1596, La Haye, Touraine, France—died February 11, 1650, Stockholm, Sweden) French philosopher mathematician, and scientist. Because he was one of the first to abandon scholastic Aristotelianism, because he formulated the first modern version of mind-body dualism, from which stems the mind-body problem, and because he promoted the development of a new science grounded in observation and experiment, he has been called the father of modern philosophy. Applying an original system of methodical doubt, he dismissed apparent knowledge derived from authority, the senses, and reason and erected new epistemic foundations on the basis of the intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the dictum “I think, therefore I am” (best known in its Latin formulation, “Cogito, ergo sum,” though originally written in French, “Je pense, donc je suis”). He developed a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions. Descartes’s metaphysics is rationalist, based on the postulation of innate ideas of mind, matter, and God, but his physics and physiology, based on sensory experience, are mechanistic and empiricist.

Early life and education

Although Descartes’s birthplace, La Haye (now Descartes), France, is in Touraine, his family connections lie south, across the Creuse River in Poitou, where his father, Joachim, owned farms and houses in Châtellerault and Poitiers. Because Joachim was a councillor in the Parlement of Brittany in Rennes, Descartes inherited a modest rank of nobility. Descartes’s mother died when he was one year old. His father remarried in Rennes, leaving him in La Haye to be raised first by his maternal grandmother and then by his great-uncle in Châtellerault. Although the Descartes family was Roman Catholic, the Poitou region was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots, and Châtellerault, a Protestant stronghold, was the site of negotiations over the Edict of Nantes (1598), which gave Protestants freedom of worship in France following the intermittent Wars of Religion between Protestant and Catholic forces in France. Descartes returned to Poitou regularly until 1628.

In 1606, Descartes was sent to the Jesuit college at La Flèche, established in 1604 by Henry IV (reigned 1589–1610). At La Flèche, 1,200 young men were trained for careers in military engineering, the judiciary, and government administration. In addition to classical studies, science, mathematics, and metaphysics—Aristotle was taught from scholastic commentaries—they studied acting, music, poetry, dancing, riding, and fencing. In 1610 Descartes participated in an imposing ceremony in which the heart of Henry IV, whose assassination that year had destroyed the hope of religious tolerance in France and Germany, was placed in the cathedral at La Flèche.

In 1614, Descartes went to Poitiers, where he took a law degree in 1616. At this time, Huguenot Poitiers was in virtual revolt against the young King Louis XIII (reigned 1610–43). Descartes’s father probably expected him to enter Parlement, but the minimum age for doing so was 27, and Descartes was only 20. In 1618 he went to Breda in the Netherlands, where he spent 15 months as an informal student of mathematics and military architecture in the peacetime army of the Protestant stadholder, Prince Maurice (ruled 1585–1625). In Breda, Descartes was encouraged in his studies of science and mathematics by the physicist Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), for whom he wrote the Compendium of Music (written 1618, published 1650), his first surviving work.

Descartes spent the period 1619 to 1628 traveling in northern and southern Europe, where, as he later explained, he studied “the book of the world.” While in Bohemia in 1619, he invented analytic geometry, a method of solving geometric problems algebraically and algebraic problems geometrically. He also devised a universal method of deductive reasoning, based on mathematics, that is applicable to all the sciences. This method, which he later formulated in Discourse on Method (1637) and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628 but not published until 1701), consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex, and (4) recheck the reasoning. These rules are a direct application of mathematical procedures. In addition, Descartes insisted that all key notions and the limits of each problem must be clearly defined.

Descartes also investigated reports of esoteric knowledge, such as the claims of the practitioners of theosophy to be able to command nature. Although disappointed with the followers of the Catalan mystic Ramon Llull (1232/33–1315/16) and the German alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), he was impressed by the German mathematician Johann Faulhaber (1580–1635), a member of the mystical society of the Rosicrucians.

Descartes shared a number of Rosicrucian goals and habits. Like the Rosicrucians, he lived alone and in seclusion, changed his residence often (during his 22 years in the Netherlands, he lived in 18 different places), practiced medicine without charge, attempted to increase human longevity, and took an optimistic view of the capacity of science to improve the human condition. At the end of his life, he left a chest of personal papers (none of which has survived) with a Rosicrucian physician—his close friend Corneille van Hogelande, who handled his affairs in the Netherlands. Despite these affinities, Descartes rejected the Rosicrucians’ magical and mystical beliefs. For him, this period was a time of hope for a revolution in science. The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in Advancement of Learning (1605), had earlier proposed a new science of observation and experiment to replace the traditional Aristotelian science, as Descartes himself did later.

In 1622, Descartes moved to Paris. There he gambled, rode, fenced, and went to the court, concerts, and the theatre. Among his friends were the poets Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597–1654), who dedicated his Le Socrate chrétien (1652; “Christian Socrates”) to Descartes, and Théophile de Viau (1590–1626), who was burned in effigy and imprisoned in 1623 for writing verses mocking religious themes. Descartes also befriended the mathematician Claude Mydorge (1585–1647) and Father Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), a man of universal learning who corresponded with hundreds of scholars, writers, mathematicians, and scientists and who became Descartes’s main contact with the larger intellectual world. During this time Descartes regularly hid from his friends to work, writing treatises, now lost, on fencing and metals. He acquired a considerable reputation long before he published anything.

At a talk in 1628, Descartes denied the alchemist Chandoux’s claim that probabilities are as good as certainties in science and demonstrated his own method for attaining certainty. The Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629)—who had founded the Oratorian teaching congregation in 1611 as a rival to the Jesuits—was present at the talk. Many commentators speculate that Bérulle urged Descartes to write a metaphysics based on the philosophy of St. Augustine as a replacement for Jesuit teaching. Be that as it may, within weeks Descartes left for the Netherlands, which was Protestant, and—taking great precautions to conceal his address—did not return to France for 16 years. Some scholars claim that Descartes adopted Bérulle as director of his conscience, but this is unlikely, given Descartes’s background and beliefs (he came from a Huguenot province, he was not a Catholic enthusiast, he had been accused of being a Rosicrucian, and he advocated religious tolerance and championed the use of reason).

Residence in the Netherlands

Descartes said that he went to the Netherlands to enjoy a greater liberty than was available anywhere else and to avoid the distractions of Paris and friends so that he could have the leisure and solitude to think. (He had inherited enough money and property to live independently.) The Netherlands was a haven of tolerance, where Descartes could be an original, independent thinker without fear of being burned at the stake—as was the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619) for proposing natural explanations of miracles—or being drafted into the armies then prosecuting the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In France, by contrast, religious intolerance was mounting. The Jews were expelled in 1615, and the last Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle, was crushed—with Bérulle’s participation—only weeks before Descartes’s departure. In 1624 the French Parlement passed a decree forbidding criticism of Aristotle on pain of death. Although Mersenne and the philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) did publish attacks on Aristotle without suffering persecution (they were, after all, Catholic priests), those judged to be heretics continued to be burned, and laymen lacked church protection. In addition, Descartes may have felt jeopardized by his friendship with intellectual libertines such as Father Claude Picot (d. 1668), a bon vivant known as “the Atheist Priest,” with whom he entrusted his financial affairs in France.

In 1629,  Descartes went to the university at Franeker, where he stayed with a Catholic family and wrote the first draft of his Meditations. He matriculated at the University of Leiden in 1630. In 1631 he visited Denmark with the physician and alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu, who invented siege engines, a portable bridge, and a two-wheeled stretcher. The physician Henri Regius (1598–1679), who taught Descartes’s views at the University of Utrecht in 1639, involved Descartes in a fierce controversy with the Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) that continued for the rest of Descartes’s life. In his Letter to Voetius of 1648, Descartes made a plea for religious tolerance and the rights of man. Claiming to write not only for Christians but also for Turks—meaning Muslims, libertines, infidels, deists, and atheists—he argued that, because Protestants and Catholics worship the same God, both can hope for heaven. When the controversy became intense, however, Descartes sought the protection of the French ambassador and of his friend Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), secretary to the stadholder Prince Frederick Henry (ruled 1625–47).

In 1635 Descartes’s daughter Francine was born to Helena Jans and was baptized in the Reformed Church in Deventer. Although Francine is typically referred to by commentators as Descartes’s “illegitimate” daughter, her baptism is recorded in a register for legitimate births. Her death of scarlet fever at the age of five was the greatest sorrow of Descartes’s life. Referring to her death, Descartes said that he did not believe that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man.

The World and Discourse on Method

In 1633, just as he was about to publish The World (1664), Descartes learned that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) had been condemned in Rome for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Because this Copernican position is central to his cosmology and physics, Descartes suppressed The World, hoping that eventually the church would retract its condemnation. Although Descartes feared the church, he also hoped that his physics would one day replace that of Aristotle in church doctrine and be taught in Catholic schools.

Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) is one of the first important modern philosophical works not written in Latin. Descartes said that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to think for themselves. He believed that everyone could tell true from false by the natural light of reason. In three essays accompanying the Discourse, he illustrated his method for utilizing reason in the search for truth in the sciences: in Dioptrics he derived the law of refraction, in Meteorology he explained the rainbow, and in Geometry he gave an exposition of his analytic geometry. He also perfected the system invented by François Viète for representing known numerical quantities with a, b, c, … , unknowns with x, y, z, … , and squares, cubes, and other powers with numerical superscripts, as in x2, x3, … , which made algebraic calculations much easier than they had been before.

In the Discourse he also provided a provisional moral code (later presented as final) for use while seeking truth: (1) obey local customs and laws, (2) make decisions on the best evidence and then stick to them firmly as though they were certain, (3) change desires rather than the world, and (4) always seek truth. This code exhibits Descartes’s prudential conservatism, decisiveness, stoicism, and dedication. The Discourse and other works illustrate Descartes’s conception of knowledge as being like a tree in its interconnectedness and in the grounding provided to higher forms of knowledge by lower or more fundamental ones. Thus, for Descartes, metaphysics corresponds to the roots of the tree, physics to the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals to the branches.


In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. Written in Latin and dedicated to the Jesuit professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the work includes critical responses by several eminent thinkers—collected by Mersenne from the Jansenist philosopher and theologian Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and the Epicurean atomist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655)—as well as Descartes’s replies. The second edition (1642) includes a response by the Jesuit priest Pierre Bourdin (1595–1653), who Descartes said was a fool. These objections and replies constitute a landmark of cooperative discussion in philosophy and science at a time when dogmatism was the rule.

The Meditations is characterized by Descartes’s use of methodic doubt, a systematic procedure of rejecting as though false all types of belief in which one has ever been, or could ever be, deceived. His arguments derive from the skepticism of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus (fl. 3rd century ce) as reflected in the work of the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) and the Catholic theologian Pierre Charron (1541–1603). Thus, Descartes’s apparent knowledge based on authority is set aside, because even experts are sometimes wrong. His beliefs from sensory experience are declared untrustworthy, because such experience is sometimes misleading, as when a square tower appears round from a distance. Even his beliefs about the objects in his immediate vicinity may be mistaken, because, as he notes, he often has dreams about objects that do not exist, and he has no way of knowing with certainty whether he is dreaming or awake. Finally, his apparent knowledge of simple and general truths of reasoning that do not depend on sense experience—such as “2 + 3 = 5” or “a square has four sides”—is also unreliable, because God could have made him in such a way that, for example, he goes wrong every time he counts. As a way of summarizing the universal doubt into which he has fallen, Descartes supposes that an “evil genius of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”

Although at this stage there is seemingly no belief about which he cannot entertain doubt, Descartes finds certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking—even if he is being deceived—he must exist. In the Discourse, Descartes expresses this intuition in the dictum “I think, therefore I am”; but because “therefore” suggests that the intuition is an argument—though it is not—in the Meditations he says merely, “I think, I am” (“Cogito, sum”). The cogito is a logically self-evident truth that also gives intuitively certain knowledge of a particular thing’s existence—that is, one’s self. Nevertheless, it justifies accepting as certain only the existence of the person who thinks it. If all one ever knew for certain was that one exists, and if one adhered to Descartes’s method of doubting all that is uncertain, then one would be reduced to solipsism, the view that nothing exists but one’s self and thoughts. To escape solipsism, Descartes argues that all ideas that are as “clear and distinct” as the cogito must be true, for, if they were not, the cogito also, as a member of the class of clear and distinct ideas, could be doubted. Since “I think, I am” cannot be doubted, all clear and distinct ideas must be true.

On the basis of clear and distinct innate ideas, Descartes then establishes that each mind is a mental substance and each body a part of one material substance. The mind or soul is immortal, because it is unextended and cannot be broken into parts, as can extended bodies. Descartes also advances at least two proofs for the existence of God. The final proof, presented in the Fifth Meditation, begins with the proposition that Descartes has an innate idea of God as a perfect being. It concludes that God necessarily exists, because, if he did not, he would not be perfect. This ontological argument for God’s existence, introduced by the medieval English logician St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/34–1109), is at the heart of Descartes’s rationalism, for it establishes certain knowledge about an existing thing solely on the basis of reasoning from innate ideas, with no help from sensory experience. Descartes elsewhere argues that, because God is perfect, he does not deceive human beings, and therefore, because God leads us to believe that the material world exists, it does exist. In this way Descartes claims to establish metaphysical foundations for the existence of his own mind, of God, and of the material world.

The inherent circularity of Descartes’s reasoning was exposed by Arnauld, whose objection has come to be known as the Cartesian Circle. According to Descartes, God’s existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Physics, physiology, and morals

Descartes’s general goal was to help human beings master and possess nature. He provided understanding of the trunk of the tree of knowledge in The World, Dioptrics, Meteorology, and Geometry, and he established its metaphysical roots in the Meditations. He then spent the rest of his life working on the branches of mechanics, medicine, and morals. Mechanics is the basis of his physiology and medicine, which in turn is the basis of his moral psychology. Descartes believed that all material bodies, including the human body, are machines that operate by mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. He argued that, because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel; thus, vivisection, which Descartes practiced, is permitted. He also described the circulation of the blood but came to the erroneous conclusion that heat in the heart expands the blood, causing its expulsion into the veins. Descartes’s L’Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus (Man, and a Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus) was published in 1664.

In 1644 Descartes published Principles of Philosophy, a compilation of his physics and metaphysics. He dedicated this work to Princess Elizabeth (1618–79), daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, titular queen of Bohemia, in correspondence with whom he developed his moral philosophy. According to Descartes, a human being is a union of mind and body, two radically dissimilar substances that interact in the pineal gland. He reasoned that the pineal gland must be the uniting point because it is the only nondouble organ in the brain, and double reports, as from two eyes, must have one place to merge. He argued that each action on a person’s sense organs causes subtle matter to move through tubular nerves to the pineal gland, causing it to vibrate distinctively. These vibrations give rise to emotions and passions and also cause the body to act. Bodily action is thus the final outcome of a reflex arc that begins with external stimuli—as, for example, when a soldier sees the enemy, feels fear, and flees. The mind cannot change bodily reactions directly—for example, it cannot will the body to fight—but by altering mental attitudes, it can change the pineal vibrations from those that cause fear and fleeing to those that cause courage and fighting.

Descartes argued further that human beings can be conditioned by experience to have specific emotional responses. Descartes himself, for example, had been conditioned to be attracted to cross-eyed women because he had loved a cross-eyed playmate as a child. When he remembered this fact, however, he was able to rid himself of his passion. This insight is the basis of Descartes’s defense of free will and of the mind’s ability to control the body. Despite such arguments, in his Passions of the Soul (1649), which he dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden (reigned 1644–54), Descartes holds that most bodily actions are determined by external material causes.

Descartes’s morality is anti-Jansenist and anti-Calvinist in that he maintains that the grace that is necessary for salvation can be earned and that human beings are virtuous and able to achieve salvation when they do their best to find and act upon the truth. His optimism about the ability of human reason and will to find truth and reach salvation contrasts starkly with the pessimism of the Jansenist apologist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–62), who believed that salvation comes only as a gift of God’s grace. Descartes was correctly accused of holding the view of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), an anti-Calvinist Dutch theologian, that salvation depends on free will and good works rather than on grace. Descartes also held that, unless people believe in God and immortality, they will see no reason to be moral.

Free will, according to Descartes, is the sign of God in human nature, and human beings can be praised or blamed according to their use of it. People are good, he believed, only to the extent that they act freely for the good of others; such generosity is the highest virtue. Descartes was Epicurean in his assertion that human passions are good in themselves. He was an extreme moral optimist in his belief that understanding of the good is automatically followed by a desire to do the good. Moreover, because passions are “willings” according to Descartes, to want something is the same as to will it. Descartes was also stoic, however, in his admonition that, rather than change the world, human beings should control their passions.

Although Descartes wrote no political philosophy, he approved of the admonition of Seneca (c. 4 bce–65 ce) to acquiesce in the common order of things. He rejected the recommendation of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) to lie to one’s friends, because friendship is sacred and life’s greatest joy. Human beings cannot exist alone but must be parts of social groups, such as nations and families, and it is better to do good for the group than for oneself.

Descartes had been a puny child with a weak chest and was not expected to live. He therefore watched his health carefully, becoming a virtual vegetarian. In 1639 he bragged that he had not been sick for 19 years and that he expected to live to 100. He told Princess Elizabeth to think of life as a comedy; bad thoughts cause bad dreams and bodily disorders. Because there is always more good than evil in life, he said, one can always be content, no matter how bad things seem. Elizabeth, inextricably involved in messy court and family affairs, was not consoled.

In his later years Descartes said that he had once hoped to learn to prolong life to a century or more, but he then saw that, to achieve that goal, the work of many generations would be required; he himself had not even learned to prevent a fever. Thus, he said, instead of continuing to hope for long life, he had found an easier way, namely to love life and not to fear death. It is easy, he claimed, for a true philosopher to die tranquilly.

Final years and heritage

In 1644, 1647, and 1648, after 16 years in the Netherlands, Descartes returned to France for brief visits on financial business and to oversee the translation into French of the Principles, the Meditations, and the Objections and Replies. (The translators were, respectively, Picot, Charles d’Albert, duke de Luynes, and Claude Clerselier.) In 1647 he also met with Gassendi and Hobbes, and he suggested to Pascal the famous experiment of taking a barometer up Mount Puy-de-Dôme to determine the influence of the weight of the air. Picot returned with Descartes to the Netherlands for the winter of 1647–48. During Descartes’s final stay in Paris in 1648, the French nobility revolted against the crown in a series of wars known as the Fronde. Descartes left precipitously on August 17, 1648, only days before the death of his old friend Mersenne.

Clerselier’s brother-in-law, Hector Pierre Chanut, who was French resident in Sweden and later ambassador, helped to procure a pension for Descartes from Louis XIV, though it was never paid. Later, Chanut engineered an invitation for Descartes to the court of Queen Christina, who by the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) had become one of the most important and powerful monarchs in Europe. Descartes went reluctantly, arriving early in October 1649. He may have gone because he needed patronage; the Fronde seemed to have destroyed his chances in Paris, and the Calvinist theologians were harassing him in the Netherlands.

In Sweden—where, Descartes said, in winter men’s thoughts freeze like the water—the 22-year-old Christina perversely made the 53-year-old Descartes rise before 5:00 am to give her philosophy lessons, even though she knew of his habit of lying in bed until 11 o’clock in the morning. She also is said to have ordered him to write the verses of a ballet, The Birth of Peace (1649), to celebrate her role in the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The verses in fact were not written by Descartes, though he did write the statutes for a Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences. While delivering these statutes to the queen at 5:00 am on February 1, 1650, he caught a chill, and he soon developed pneumonia. He died in Stockholm on February 11. Many pious last words have been attributed to him, but the most trustworthy report is that of his German valet, who said that Descartes was in a coma and died without saying anything at all.

Descartes’s papers came into the possession of Claude Clerselier, a pious Catholic, who began the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding to, and selectively publishing his letters. This cosmetic work culminated in 1691 in the massive biography by Father Adrien Baillet, who was at work on a 17-volume Lives of the Saints. Even during Descartes’s lifetime there were questions about whether he was a Catholic apologist, primarily concerned with supporting Christian doctrine, or an atheist, concerned only with protecting himself with pious sentiments while establishing a deterministic, mechanistic, and materialistic physics.

These questions remain difficult to answer, not least because all the papers, letters, and manuscripts available to Clerselier and Baillet are now lost. In 1667 the Roman Catholic church made its own decision by putting Descartes’s works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Latin: “Index of Prohibited Books”) on the very day his bones were ceremoniously placed in Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont in Paris. During his lifetime, Protestant ministers in the Netherlands called Descartes a Jesuit and a papist—which is to say an atheist. He retorted that they were intolerant, ignorant bigots. Up to about 1930, a majority of scholars, many of whom were religious, believed that Descartes’s major concerns were metaphysical and religious. By the late 20th century, however, numerous commentators had come to believe that Descartes was a Catholic in the same way he was a Frenchman and a royalist—that is, by birth and by convention.

Descartes himself said that good sense is destroyed when one thinks too much of God. He once told a German protégée, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78), who was known as a painter and a poet, that she was wasting her intellect studying Hebrew and theology. He also was perfectly aware of—though he tried to conceal—the atheistic potential of his materialist physics and physiology. Descartes seemed indifferent to the emotional depths of religion. Whereas Pascal trembled when he looked into the infinite universe and perceived the puniness and misery of man, Descartes exulted in the power of human reason to understand the cosmos and to promote happiness, and he rejected the view that human beings are essentially miserable and sinful. He held that it is impertinent to pray to God to change it. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Roger Bacon, Scholastic Philosopher

Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292), Master of Arts, contemporary of Robert Kilwardby, Peter of Spain, and Albert the Great at the University of Paris in the 1240s, was one of the early Masters who taught Aristotle's works on natural philosophy and metaphysics. Sometime after 1248–49, he became an independent scholar with an interest in languages and experimental-scientific concerns. Between 1247 and 1267, Bacon mastered most of the Greek and Arabic texts on the science of optics. In 1256/57, either at Paris or Oxford, he joined the Franciscan Order. By 1264 in Paris, he came to believe that his university reputation for advanced learning had suffered. Because he regarded this decade as an exile from university teaching and writing, he sought the Patronage of Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulque, Papal Ambassador to England (who later served as Pope Clement IV, 1265-68). On the instruction of the Pope on June 22, 1266, Bacon quickly wrote “an introductory work,” the Opus maius, and the related works, Opus minus and Opus tertium. He set out his own new model for a reform of the system of philosophical and theological studies, one that would incorporate language studies and science studies, then unavailable at the universities. In this project, he was partly successful. He wrote a new and provocative text on semiotics, and influenced the addition of perspectiva to mathematical studies (the Quadrivium) as a required university subject. He succeeded in setting out a model of an experimental science on the basis of his study of optics. The latter was used in his extension of experimental science to include new medicines and the general health care of the body. He did this in a new context: the application of linguistic and scientific knowledge for a better understanding of Theology and in the service of the Res publica Christiana. Heretofore, it appeared that Bacon was condemned by his own Order in 1278 “on account of certain suspected novelties.” This may have been due to his interests in astrology and alchemy. The historical accuracy of this condemnation has been questioned by some Bacon scholars, and it is now seen by some as a later retrojection. Bonaventure and John Pecham were among his first readers. It is clear that with the possible exception of the uses or astrology and alchemy, Bacon shared in Bonaventure's project seeking a “reduction” of the sciences to theology. Bacon also found a sympathetic reader and interpreter in the great secular scholar of the Sorbonne, Peter of Limoges (d. 1306). Through the latter, Bacon may have influenced Raymond Lull. Sometime in the late 1270s or early 1280s, Bacon returned to Oxford, where he completed his edition with introduction and notes of the Secretum secretorum, a Latin translation of an Arabic text on the education of the Prince, the Sirr-al-‘asrar, which he believed to be a work by Aristotle written for Alexander the Great. This work of advice to the Prince points to Bacon's close connections to the Papal Court through Pope Clement IV, the French Court through Alphonse of Poitiers, and the English Court. His contacts with the Papal Curia were mediated by William Bonecor, Ambassador of King Henry III. Bacon died at Oxford c. 1292.

Life and Works

Bacon remarks in the Opus tertium [OQHI], written c. 1267 that he had devoted forty years to study since he first learned the alphabetum and that no other scholar had worked as much in the Arts and Sciences as he. Some scholars use this text to argue that Bacon was writing about his elementary education and therefore that was born c. 1220 [Crowley (1950), Easton (1952), Lindberg (DMS, 1983)]; others hold that he was writing about his early university education -- Alphabetum philosophiae is a term Bacon uses in the chapter from which the following cited text is taken -- and thus that he was born c. 1214 [Little (RBE, 1914), Maloney (CSTM, 1988), Hackett (1984, 1992, 1997a, 2005), Molland (2004)]. The text reads:

    I have labored much in sciences and languages, and I have up to now devoted forty years [to them] after I first learned the alphabetum; and I was always studious. Apart from two of these forty years I was always [engaged] in study [or at a place of study], and I had many expenses just as others commonly have. Nevertheless, provided I had first composed a compendium, I am certain that within quarter or half a year I could directly teach a solicitous and confident person whatever I know of these sciences and languages. And it is known that no one worked in so many sciences and languages as I did, nor so much as I did. Indeed, when I was living in the other state of life [as an Arts Master], people marveled that I survived the abundance of my work. And still, I was just as involved in studies afterwards, as I had been before. But I did not work all that much, since in the pursuit of Wisdom this was not required. ([OQHI], 65)

It would seem, then, that prior to his entry to the Franciscan Order, c. 1256-57, he was very active in his studies or at a studium or school, and that he was known for his proficiency in sciences and languages. And yet, he himself tells us that around 1248 or perhaps a little later, he set aside the common scholastic ways of teaching in order to devote time to languages and experimental concerns. (We are dealing with Bacon's vague recollections from c. 1268; it could well be that in 1250–51 he was still in Paris. He was certainly there in 1251.) Thus, we can see the period from c. 1240–48 as the time during which he lectured at Paris on Aristotle, on Grammar/Logic, and especially on the mathematical subjects of the Quadrivium. And so, depending on the chosen year of birth, the chronology would be as follows: (1) Bacon was born c. 1214, educated at Oxford c. 1228–36, Master of Arts at Paris c. 1237–47/8, Private Scholar 1248–56/7, active again at Oxford c. 1248–51, back in Paris 1251, Franciscan Friar at Paris c. 1256-57 to 1279, returning to Oxford c. 1280, died c. 1292. Or: (2) Bacon was born c. 1220, educated at Oxford c. 1234–42; Master of Arts at Paris c. 1242–47/8, active again at Oxford c. 1248–51, back in Paris 1251, Franciscan Friar at Paris 1256/7 to 1279, returning to Oxford c. 1280, died c. 1292. Further precision on the chronology must await the critical edition of all the works of Roger Bacon and careful scientific study of these works in relation to other thirteenth century scholars.

The Aristotelian Quaestiones are to be found in a single manuscript, Amiens MS Bibl. Mun. 406. The materials found in this manuscript include two sets of questions on the Physics and two sets of questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, the questions on the Liber de causis, and the Pseudo-Aristotelian De vegetabilibus. A new version of Bacon's second set of questions on the Physics inter-textually excerpted by another thirteenth-century author has recently been identified by Silvia Donati in Philadelphia MS Free Library, Lewis Europe, ff. 77ra-85rb [Donati, in Hackett, 1997b]. This is an important discovery that has enabled scholars for the first time to carry out a critical-textual study of Bacon's works on Aristotle's Physics in the context of the development of English natural philosophy in the period 1240–1300.

The early logical works consist of the Summa grammatica, Summa de sophismatibus et distinctionibus and the Summulae dialectices [=Summulae super totam logicam]. These works show that Bacon is indebted to the teaching of logic at Oxford and Paris in the 1230s and 1240s. They have received much critical study in recent years. They reveal Bacon as a mature philosopher of logic who is representative of terminist and pre-modist grammar and logic. Bacon's writings on grammar and logic have a connection with the Oxford Logica cum sit nostra and with the works of William of Sherwood. The logical works are clearly influenced by the teaching in Paris of Robert Kilwardby. They give evidence of Bacon as a philosopher who connects the Logica modernorum with new logical and philosophical problems based on the natural philosophy and metaphysics of Aristotle as commented on by Avicenna and Averroes.

Alain de Libera has argued that the Summulae dialectices is typical of mature works in the philosophy of logic c. 1250 and a little later. Scholars have long held that Roger Bacon was a pioneer in the introduction of the study of Aristotle as interpreted by Averroes and Avicenna to the University of Paris c. 1240. During the past ten years or so, research has shown that two Erfurt manuscripts (Amplon. Q. 290 and Q. 312) ascribed to Walter Burley (1274/5–1344) by the Amplonius de Berka in the fifteenth century, actually belong to the first half of the thirteenth century. Rega Wood, the editor of the Physics from the Erfurt MS Amplon. Q 290, has attributed these questions on the Physics and most of the other works in these two Erfurt manuscripts to Richard Rufus of Cornwall, a contemporary and opponent of Roger Bacon [Wood in Hackett 1997b; Wood, IPA, 2003].

Recently, it has also been demonstrated that as Master of Arts at Paris during the period of the First Averroism (c. 1240-48), Bacon had confronted and reviewed some of the major issues concerning the Latin Averroism which eventually produced a major crisis at Paris in the period 1266–77.[2] And, as we will see below, Bacon, in his works from the 1260s, will revisit these topics. One can conclude that sometime in the late 1240s, Bacon ceased being a Master of Arts at Paris, became an independent scholar, and returned to England. Yet, there is evidence that he was back in Paris in 1251.

Bacon joined the Franciscan Order about 1256/7; whether he did so at Oxford or Paris is not known. At any rate, he was probably in Paris in the late 1250s and was definitely there in the early 1260s. He had been attracted to the Order by the philosophical, theological, and scientific example of Grosseteste, Adam Marsh, and other English Franciscans. He had personally known Adam Marsh at Oxford c. 1248-51. Because of their over-emphasis of a purported condemnation of Bacon c. 1278, scholars had tended to ignore or tone down Bacon's very real commitment to his Franciscan way of life. The past ten years have seen new work by Amanda Power (2013) and Timothy J. Johnson (2009, 2010, 2013) placing significant emphasis on the compatibility of Bacon's concerns c. 1266 with the mission of the Franciscan Order as presented by Bonaventure and the Franciscan School at Paris. By 1266, however, Bacon had come to regard the previous ten years as one of enforced absence from scholarly work. He had done little new intellectual work apart from some small pieces for his friends.

In answer to the Papal Mandate received in July 1266, Bacon produced some very significant works. The Opus maius, Opus minus, and the related foundational work in natural philosophy, De multiplicatione specierum, the work on burning mirrors, De speculis comburentibus, together with an optical lens, were sent to the Pope c. 1267-68. They were seen as a preamble to a proposed major work on Philosophy. It remains a question as to whether the Opus tertium was sent. Together with these works in the 1260s, Bacon produced the Preface to the Works for the Pope, Communia naturalium, Communia mathematica, Epistola de secretis operibus naturae et de nullitate magiae.

Amanda Power (2013) has provided a masterful interpretation of the new context of Bacon's post-1266 works for Pope Clement IV. She places Bacon in a Franciscan context within the wider mission of Christendom in its relations with other cultures and religions. The Compendium studii philosophiae can be dated to about 1271. This latter is a largely polemical work on the state of studies at Paris and an apology for his scholarly situation. It does, however, contain an important section on his theory of language and translation. He completed the edition of the important work on medieval politics and statecraft, the Secretum secretorum, at Oxford some time after 1280. It used to be the view of scholars [Easton, 1952] that Bacon had composed this work in the 1240s and that it was the main influence in his search for a "universal science". But even if Easton's position on the dating of the publication of the Secretum secretorum does not hold, it is clear that by 1266 and later, this work played a major role in Bacon's understanding of the political uses of the experimental sciences. He also produced an important work on the calendar, the Computus. The Compendium studii theologiae is usually dated c. 1292.

One must bear in mind that Roger Bacon in the 1260s is writing as an individual author for a patron, Cardinal Guy le Gros de Foulque (Pope Clement IV, 1265–68). A onetime Master of Arts, he was no longer a teaching Master at the University of Paris. This gave Bacon the freedom to address both philosophical (Aristotle) and theological (Augustine) issues in a manner denied to teachers in the Faculty of Arts, who were limited for the most part to disputations on the texts of Aristotle. He writes self-consciously as a representative of the text-based practices of Robert Grosseteste and in opposition to the new “sentence-methods” of the schools of theology. His polemical writings ca. 1267-68 are centered on the struggles in the Arts and Theology at Paris. The Pope instructed Bacon in 1266 to ignore the rules of his Order and to send him his remedies about matters of some importance. It would appear from the context of Bacon's works for the Pope that the remedies had to do with educational matters at Paris, which at this time was the foremost university of the Christian commonwealth. The remedies sought must also have concerned geo-political matters as well as the exigencies of Christian missions. Because of this instruction, Bacon's later works, written in haste, consist of short treatises united by a self-conscious rhetoric for the reformation of education in the early universities of the Latin West. They are fundamentally important for an understanding of the “struggle of the faculties” in the mid-thirteenth century. The Compendium studii theologiae c. 1292 reflects the concerns of the 1260s. It does not add new information.

The reception of the life and works of Roger Bacon is complex. Each generation has, as it were, found its own Roger Bacon. Another study by Amanda Power (2006) has provided a thoughtful account of the complex reception of Roger Bacon in England and of the extent to which the image of the Doctor Mirabilis is often colored by the changing controversies of the present down through history.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Letters of the Younger Pliny -Stoic

Some slight memoir and critical estimate of the author of this collection of Letters may perhaps be acceptable to those who are unfamiliar with the circumstances of the times in which he lived.

Moreover, few have studied the Letters themselves without feeling a warm affection for the writer of them. He discloses his character therein so completely, and, in spite of his glaring fault of vanity and his endless love of adulation, that character is in the main so charming, that one can easily understand the high esteem in which Pliny was held by the wide circle of his friends, by the Emperor Trajan, and by the public at large.

The correspondence of Pliny the Younger depicts for us the everyday life of a Roman gentleman in the best sense of the term. We see him practising at the Bar; we see him engaged in the civil magistracies at Rome, and in the governorship of the important province of Bithynia; we see him consulted by the Emperor on affairs of state, and occupying a definite place among the "Amici Caesaris." Best of all, perhaps, we see him in his daily life, a devoted scholar, never so happy as when he is in his study, laboriously seeking to perfect his style, whether in verse or prose, by the models of the great writers of the past and the criticisms of the friends whom he has summoned, in a friendly way, to hear his compositions read or recited.

Or again we find him at one of his country villas, enjoying a well-earned leisure after the courts have risen at Rome and all the best society has betaken itself into the country to escape the heats and fevers of the capital. We see him managing his estates, listening to the complaints of his tenants, making abatements of rent, and grumbling at the agricultural depression and the havoc that the bad seasons have made with his crops.

Or he spends a day in the open air hunting, yet never omits to take with him a book to read or tablets on which to write, in case the scent is cold and game is not plentiful. In short, the Letters of Pliny the Younger give us a picture of social life as it was in the closing years of the first, and the opening years of the second century of the Christian era, which is as fascinating as it is absolutely unique.

Pliny was born either in 61 or 62 A.D. at Comum on Lake Larius. His father, Lucius Caecilius Cilo, had been aedile of the colony, and, dying young, left a widow, who with her two sons, sought protection with her brother, Caius Plinius Secundus, the famous author of the Natural History. The elder Pliny in his will adopted the younger of the two boys, and so Publius Caecilius Secundus -- as he was originally called -- took thenceforth the name of Caius Plinius, L.F. Caecilius Secundus. Though later usage has assigned him the name of Pliny the Younger, he was known to his contemporaries and usually addressed as Secundus. But in his early years Pliny was placed under the guardianship of Virginius Rufus, one of the most distinguished Romans of his day, a successful and brilliant general who had twice refused the purple, when offered to him by his legionaries, and who lived to a ripe old age -- the Wellington of his generation. So it was at Comum that he spent his early boyhood, and his affection for his birthplace led him in later years to provide for the educational needs of the youth of the district, who had previously been obliged to go to Mediolanum (Milan) to obtain their schooling. What can be better, he asks, than for children to be educated where they are born, so that they may grow to love their native place by residing in it? Pliny was fortunate in having so distinguished an uncle. On the accession of Vespasian, the elder Pliny was called to Rome by the Emperor, and when his nephew -- vixdum adolescentus -- joined him in the capital, he took charge of his studies. At the age of fourteen the young student had composed a Greek tragedy, to which he playfully refers in one of his letters, and in Rome he had the benefit of attending the lectures of the great Quintilian and Nicetes Sacerdos, and of making literary friendships which were to prove of the utmost value to him in after years. Pliny tells us that his uncle looked to him for assistance in his literary work, and he was thus engaged when his uncle lost his life in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, so graphically described in the two famous letters to Tacitus. That Pliny deeply felt the loss of his relative and patron is shown by the eloquent tribute he paid to his memory, and doubtless, as his death occurred just at his own entry into public life, he was deprived of an influence which might have helped him greatly in his career. Domitian was on the throne, when, in 82, Pliny joined the 3rd Gallic legion, stationed in Syria, as military tribune. Service in the field, however, was not to his liking, and, as soon as his period of soldiering was over, he hurried back to Rome to win his spurs at the Bar and climb the ladder of civic distinction. He became Quaestor in 89 on the recommendation of the Emperor, Tribune in 91, and Praetor in 93.

So far his advancement had been rapid, but evil times succeeded. Domitian went from bad to worse. Always moody, suspicious, and revengeful, he began to imitate the worst vices of his predecessors of the line of Augustus. His hand fell heavily upon the Senatorial order, and another era of proscription began, in which the dreaded delatores again became the "terror" of Rome. It was a time of spoliation and murder, and Pliny writes of it with a shudder. Contrasting with the happy regime of Trajan that which prevailed in his youth and early manhood, he declares that virtue was regarded with suspicion and a premium set upon idleness, that in the camps the generals lacked authority and the soldiers had no sense of obedience, while, when he entered the Senate, he found it a craven and tongueless assembly (Curiam trepidam et elinguem), only convened to perpetrate some piece of villainy for the Emperor, or to humiliate the Senators by the sense of their own impotence. Pliny was not the man to make a bold stand against tyranny, and, during those perilous years, one can well believe that he did his best to avoid compromising himself, though his sympathies were wholly on the side of his proscribed friends. He was a typical official, suave and polished in manner, yet without that perilous enthusiasm which would simply have marked him for destruction. For two years he was Prefect of the Military Treasury, an office directly in the gift of the Emperor, and it would seem, therefore, that his character for uprightness stood him in good stead with the tyrant even in his worst years. He did not, like so many of the Roman nobles, retire from public life and enter into the sullen opposition which enraged the Emperors even more than active and declared antagonism.

In one passage, indeed, Pliny declares that he, too, was on the black list of the Emperor, but the words must not be taken too literally. He was given to boasting, and he may easily have represented, when the danger was past, that the peril in which he had stood was greater than it really was. No doubt he felt keenly the judicial murder of his friends Senecio, Rusticus, and Helvidius, and the banishment of Mauricus, Gratilla, Arria, and Fannia -- for women were not spared in the general proscription; but, after all, the fact that he held office during the closing years of Domitian's life is ample proof that he knew how to walk circumspectly, and did not allow his detestation of the informers to compromise his safety. When at length, in 96, the Emperor was assassinated in the palace, and the Senate raised Nerva to the purple, Pliny stepped forward as the champion of the oppressed, and impeached Publicius Certus for compassing the death of Helvidius Priscus, though he was only so far successful that he prevented Certus from enjoying the consulship which had been promised him. Pliny revised the speech and published it in book form, and Certus died a few days after it appeared, haunted, so Pliny tells us, by the vision of his prosecutor pursuing him, sword in hand. Nerva's reign was short, but he was succeeded by one of the best of the Roman Emperors, Trajan, a prince under whose just, impartial and strong rule, a man of Pliny's character was bound to thrive and pass from office to office. In 98 he had been appointed by Nerva Prefect of the Treasury of Saturn, and in 100 he held the Consulship for two months, while still retaining his post at the Treasury, and delivered his well-known Panegyric on the 1st of September in that year. Either in 103 or 104 he was advanced to the Augurate, and two years later was appointed Curator of the Tiber. Then in 111 or 112 -- according to Mommsen's Chronology -- Trajan bestowed upon him a signal mark of his esteem by selecting him for the Governorship of the province of Pontus and Bithynia, which he had transferred from the list of senatorial to that of imperial provinces. Pliny was given the special title of Legate Propraetor with full Consular powers, and he remained in his province for at least fifteen months. After that the curtain falls. Whether he died in Bithynia, or shortly after his return to Rome, or whether he lived on to enjoy the ripe old age of which he writes so pleasantly in his letters, we do not know. Certainly the probabilities are that, if he had lived, he would have continued to correspond with his friends, and the absence of further letters makes for the probability that he died in about his fiftieth year.

In judging these letters for their literary value, the first thing which strikes the reader is that Pliny did not write for his friends alone. Whatever the subject of the epistle, whether it was an invitation to dinner, a description of the charms of the country, an account of a visit to a friend, or an expression of condolence with some one in his or her bereavement, he never allowed his pen to run on carelessly. He scarcely ever prattles in his letters or lets himself go. One always sees in the writer the literary man, who knows that his correspondence is being passed round from hand to hand, and who hopes that it will find readers among posterity. Consequently there is an air of studied artificiality about many of the letters, which was more to the taste of the eighteenth than the nineteenth century. They remind one in many ways of Richardson and Mackenzie, and Pliny would have been recognised by those two writers, and by the latter in particular, as a thorough "man of sentiment." Herein they differ greatly from the other important collection which has come down to us from classical times, the Letters of Cicero. Pliny, indeed, -- and in this he was a true disciple of his old teacher Quintilian, -- took the great Roman orator as his model. Nothing pleased him more than for his friends to tell him that he was the Cicero of his time. Like Marcus Tullius, he was the foremost pleader of his day; like him again he dabbled in poetry, and his verses, so far as we know them, were sorry stuff. Yet again like his master, he fondly believed that he enjoyed the special inspiration of the Muses. Pliny, unfortunately for his reputation, gives us a few samples, which are quite as lame and jingling as the famous "O fortunatam natam, me Consule, Romam!" which had made generations of Romans smile. And so, as Cicero was in all things his master, Pliny too wrote letters, excellent in their way, but lacking the vivacity and directness of his model, and, of course, wholly deficient in the political interest which makes Cicero's correspondence one of the most important authorities for the history of his troublous time. Pliny's Letters cover the period from the accession of Nerva down to 113 A.D. None precede the death of Domitian in September 96. That is to say, they were written in an era of profound political peace, and most of them in the reign of Trajan, whose rule Pliny accepted with enthusiastic admiration. One certainly could have wished that he had written freely to his friends during the last years of Domitian's tyranny, for the value of such contemporary documents would have been enormous. But he would only have risked his life by so doing, and that he had no desire to do. It was not until the tyrant had fallen under the sword of Stephanus that he felt it safe to trust his thoughts to paper. The new era which was inaugurated loosened his tongue and made him breathe more freely. He exulted that at last an honest man could venture to hold his head high without drawing down upon himself the vengeance of the vile informers who throve upon the misfortunes of the State.

Two of Pliny's correspondents and friends were Cornelius Tacitus and Suetonius Tranquillus. Yet no one can read either the Histories and Annals of Tacitus or the Lives of the Caesars and then pass to a reading of Pliny's Letters without being struck by the enormous difference in their tone and spirit. It is almost impossible to believe that their respective authors were contemporaries. When turning over the pages of Tacitus one feels that the vices and despotism of the Emperors and the Empire had crushed all spirit out of the world, had made quiet family life impossible, and had stamped out every trace of justice and clean living. It is a remarkable fact that the great writers of the first century, as soon as the Augustan era had closed, should have been masters of a merciless satire, which has rarely been equaled in the history of the world, and never excelled. When we think of Roman society, as it was in the early Empire, our thoughts recur to the lurid canvases which have been painted for us by Juvenal, by Tacitus, by Lucan, by Seneca, and by Petronius -- pictures which have made the world shudder, and have led even careful historians astray. Pliny supplies the needful corrective and gives us the reverse side of the medal. Like the authors we have mentioned, he too writes of the evil days which he himself has passed through, as of a horrid nightmare from which he has just awakened; but from his letters, artificial and stilted as they are in some respects, we learn that there were still to be found those who had not bowed the knee to Baal.

And so, with this volume in our hands, we obtain a personal introduction to a number of distinguished Romans and Roman matrons, whose names have been preserved for all time by the Younger Pliny. His circle of friends was a large one. Let us mention a few of them. We have already spoken of Virginius Rufus, the grand old soldier and patriot, who, dying at the age of eighty-four, was awarded a public funeral, while Cornelius Tacitus, then Consul, delivered the panegyric in his honour. Vestricius Spurinna was another distinguished general of the old school, and Pliny relates with enthusiasm how he paid a visit to him in his country-house when Spurinna was seventy-seven years of age and had retired from public office. He tells us how his friend spent his day, how he drove and walked and played tennis to keep himself in health, wrote Greek and Latin lyrics, and maintained a keen interest in all that went on in the capital. Corellius Rufus is another of the older men of whom Pliny writes with sincere affection, and he helped to pay the debt of gratitude he owed him by numerous acts of kindness to his daughter Crellia. Voconius Romanus is another of his closest friends, and Pliny tells us that he wrote such admirable letters that you would think the Muses themselves must speak in Latin. His literary associates numbered among them Caius Cornelius Tacitus, Silius Italicus the poet -- whose veneration for Virgil was so great that he kept his master's birthday with more solemnity than his own, and visited his tomb on the Bay of Naples with as much respect as worshippers pay to a temple, -- Martial the epigrammatist, Suetonius Tranquillus the historian, and others such as Passennus Paullus, Caninius Rufus, Virgilius Romanus, and Caius Fannius, whose works have not survived the wreck of time, though Pliny showers upon all of them enthusiastic and indiscriminate praise. Again, he enjoyed the friendship of a number of distinguished foreigners, professional rhetoricians and philosophers, who came back to Rome after their sentence of banishment, passed by Domitian, had been revoked by Nerva and Trajan. Euphrates, Artemidorus, and Isaeus were the three most famous, and their respective styles are carefully described by Pliny. Even more interesting perhaps is the gallery of Roman ladies, whose portraits are limned with so fine and discriminating a touch. Juvenal again is responsible for much misconception as to the part the women of Rome played in Roman society. The appalling Sixth Satire, in which he unhesitatingly declares that most women -- if not all -- are bad, and that virtue and chastity are so rare as to be almost unknown, in which he roundly accuses them of all the vices known to human depravity, reads like a monstrous and disgraceful libel on the sex when one turns to Pliny and makes the acquaintance of Arria, Fannia, Corellia, and Calpurnia. The characters of Arria and Fannia are well known; they are among the heroines of history. But in Pliny there are numerous references to women whose names are not even known to us, but the terms in which they are referred to prove what sweet, womanly lives they led. For example, he writes to Geminus: "Our friend Macrinus has suffered a grievous wound. He has lost his wife, who would have been regarded as a model of all the virtues even if she had lived in the good old days. He lived with her for thirty-nine years, without so much as a single quarrel or disagreement." "Vixit cum hac triginta novem annis sine jurgio, sine offensa. One is reminded of the fine line of Propertius, in which Cornelia boasts of the blameless union of herself and her husband, Paullus --

"Viximus insignes inter utramque facem."

This is no isolated example. One of the most pathetic letters is that in which Pliny writes of the death of the younger daughter of his friend Fundanus, a girl in her fifteenth year, who had already "the prudence of age, the gravity of a matron, and all the maidenly modesty and sweetness of a girl." Pliny tells us how it cut him to the quick to hear her father give directions that the money he had meant to lay out on dresses and pearls and jewels for her betrothal should be spent on incense, unguents, and spices for her bier. What a different picture from anything we find in Juvenal, who would fain have us believe that Messalina was the type of the average Roman matron of his day!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Explaining the nature of consciousness is one of the most important and perplexing areas of philosophy, but the concept is notoriously ambiguous. The abstract noun “consciousness” is not frequently used by itself in the contemporary literature, but is originally derived from the Latin con (with) and scire (to know). Perhaps the most commonly used contemporary notion of a conscious mental state is captured by Thomas Nagel’s famous “what it is like” sense (Nagel 1974). When I am in a conscious mental state, there is something it is like for me to be in that state from the subjective or first-person point of view. But how are we to understand this? For instance, how is the conscious mental state related to the body? Can consciousness be explained in terms of brain activity? What makes a mental state be a conscious mental state? The problem of consciousness is arguably the most central issue in current philosophy of mind and is also importantly related to major traditional topics in metaphysics, such as the possibility of immortality and the belief in free will. This article focuses on Western theories and conceptions of consciousness, especially as found in contemporary analytic philosophy of mind.

The two broad, traditional and competing theories of mind are dualism and materialism (or physicalism). While there are many versions of each, the former generally holds that the conscious mind or a conscious mental state is non-physical in some sense, whereas the latter holds that, to put it crudely, the mind is the brain, or is caused by neural activity. It is against this general backdrop that many answers to the above questions are formulated and developed. There are also many familiar objections to both materialism and dualism. For example, it is often said that materialism cannot truly explain just how or why some brain states are conscious, and that there is an important “explanatory gap” between mind and matter. On the other hand, dualism faces the problem of explaining how a non-physical substance or mental state can causally interact with the physical body.

Some philosophers attempt to explain consciousness directly in neurophysiological or physical terms, while others offer cognitive theories of consciousness whereby conscious mental states are reduced to some kind of representational relation between mental states and the world. There are a number of such representational theories of consciousness currently on the market, including higher-order theories which hold that what makes a mental state conscious is that the subject is aware of it in some sense. The relationship between consciousness and science is also central in much current theorizing on this topic: How does the brain “bind together” various sensory inputs to produce a unified subjective experience? What are the neural correlates of consciousness? What can be learned from abnormal psychology which might help us to understand normal consciousness? To what extent are animal minds different from human minds? Could an appropriately programmed machine be conscious?

The Metaphysics of Consciousness: Materialism vs. Dualism

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the ultimate nature of reality. There are two broad traditional and competing metaphysical views concerning the nature of the mind and conscious mental states: dualism and materialism. While there are many versions of each, the former generally holds that the conscious mind or a conscious mental state is non-physical in some sense. On the other hand, materialists hold that the mind is the brain, or, more accurately, that conscious mental activity is identical with neural activity. It is important to recognize that by non-physical, dualists do not merely mean “not visible to the naked eye.” Many physical things fit this description, such as the atoms which make up the air in a typical room. For something to be non-physical, it must literally be outside the realm of physics; that is, not in space at all and undetectable in principle by the instruments of physics. It is equally important to recognize that the category “physical” is broader than the category “material.” Materialists are called such because there is the tendency to view the brain, a material thing, as the most likely physical candidate to identify with the mind. However, something might be physical but not material in this sense, such as an electromagnetic or energy field. One might therefore instead be a “physicalist” in some broader sense and still not a dualist. Thus, to say that the mind is non-physical is to say something much stronger than that it is non-material. Dualists, then, tend to believe that conscious mental states or minds are radically different from anything in the physical world at all.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Cultural Relativism:

All Truth Is Local

Cultural Relativism is the view that moral or ethical systems, which vary from culture to culture, are all equally valid and no one system is really “better” than any other. This is based on the idea that there is no ultimate standard of good or evil, so every judgment about right and wrong is a product of society. Therefore, any opinion on morality or ethics is subject to the cultural perspective of each person. Ultimately, this means that no moral or ethical system can be considered the “best,” or “worst,” and no particular moral or ethical position can actually be considered “right” or “wrong.”

Cultural relativism is a widely held position in the modern world. Words like “pluralism,” “tolerance,” and “acceptance” have taken on new meanings, as the boundaries of “culture” have expanded. The loose way in which modern society defines these ideas has made it possible for almost anything to be justified on the grounds of “relativism.” The umbrella of “relativism” includes a fairly wide range of ideas, all of which introduce instability and uncertainty into areas that were previously considered settled.

Stepping up to the edge of a cliff gives you a good perspective of the terrain below. Taking one step too far, as cultural relativism does, is simply a disaster.

Obviously, perspective is important to our understanding of history, psychology, and politics. Cultural perspective can help us understand why certain actions are considered right or wrong by a particular culture. For example, an ancient society might have considered dyeing one’s hair green to be a punishable offense. Most modern societies would find that strange, if not oppressive. Yet, good cultural perspective might tell us more. If we were to find out that green hair was a sign of a prostitute, we would understand that it wasn’t the hair color itself, but the prostitution that was truly considered “wrong.”

However, the problem with moving from cultural perspective to cultural relativism is the erosion of reason that it causes. Rather than simply saying, “we need to understand the morals of other cultures,” it says, “we cannot judge the morals of other cultures,” regardless of the reasons for their actions. There is no longer any perspective, and it becomes literally impossible to argue that anything a culture does is right or wrong.  Holding to strict cultural relativism, it is not possible to say that human sacrifice is “wrong,” or that respect for the elderly is “right.” After all, those are products of the culture. This takes any talk of morality right over the cliff, and into meaningless gibberish.

Tolerance, acceptance of differences, respect for all cultures are absolutely right and our world lives by those standards. Problems begin to arise when someone gets “hurt.” Perhaps the starting point maybe to put again into use Kant’s moral categorical imperative. First formulation: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” Second formulation:“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Third formulation: “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” The first formulation of the Categorical Imperative appears similar to “The Golden Rule.” Kant himself did not think so in “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals “ Rather, the categorical imperative is an attempt to identify a purely formal and necessarily universally binding rule on all rational agents. The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is neither purely formal nor necessarily universally binding. It is "empirical" in the sense that applying it depends on providing content, like "If you don't want others to hit you, then don't hit them." Also, it is a hypothetical imperative in the sense that it can be formulated, "If you want X done to you, then do X to others." Kant feared that the hypothetical clause, "if you want X done to you," remains open to dispute. He wanted an imperative that was categorical: "Do X to others." And this he thinks he discovered and formulated. Kant thought, therefore, that the Golden Rule (insofar as it is accurate) is derived from the categorical imperative

Absolutely Impossible

The contradiction of cultural relativism becomes immediately apparent. A society that embraces the notion that there is no ultimate “right” or “wrong” loses the ability to make any judgments at all. The way in which relativism, including cultural relativism, has permeated modern society is demonstrated in the bizarre ways in which we try to deal with this contradiction. “Tolerance” has mutated to imply unconditional support and agreement for all opinions or lifestyles. However, those who choose to be “intolerant” are not to be supported or agreed with. Tolerance, therefore, becomes an “ultimate good” in and of itself, which is contradictory to the entire idea of relativism. In the same way, heinous crimes such as rape and murder demand a moral judgment -- but strict cultural relativism cannot say that such things are always wrong.
Relativism in general breaks down when examined from a purely logical perspective. The basic premise is that “truth is relative.” If every truth statement is valid, then the statement “some truths are absolute” must be valid. The statement “there are no absolute truths” is accurate, according to relativism -- but it is an absolute truth itself. These contradict the very concept of relativism, meaning that absolute relativism is self-contradictory and impossible.

Crumbling Away

In practice, cultural relativism cannot overcome the boundaries of logic, nor can it override the sense of morality inherent to mankind. We instinctively know that some things are wrong, so cultural relativists attempt to tweak their philosophy to fit that need. Declaring certain actions “mostly” wrong, or “mostly” right is nothing more than making up the rules as one goes. Saying that some morals are “better,” even if they aren’t “the best,” still implies some ultimate standard that’s being used to make that judgment. How do you know which cloud is higher unless you know which way “up” is? To firmly state that anything at all is always wrong is to reject relativism itself. In the end, those who insist on clinging to cultural relativism must jettison logic, because there isn’t room for both. It is literally impossible for a person to rationally believe that there are no moral absolutes, or at least to live out that belief in any meaningful way.

 Since this philosophy is nonsensical, there must be some fundamental absolutes of right and wrong, regardless of the opinions of any given society. Since there are disagreements among different cultures, we cannot assume that these truths are developed by one particular group of people. In fact, the only logical place for these concepts to originate from is something more universal, or at least more fundamental, than culture.  What may be?  I am not sure, but we must work on it. Something akin to the resurrection of Universals from the ashes of post-modernism, very easy said but very, very complex to realize. Kant help us !