Tag Archives: philosophy

‘Socrates: A Man for Our Times’, by Paul Johnson -review

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the constellation of philosophers in the intellectual firmament, there is none other than Socrates whose influence on humanity, ranging from academic disciplines to everyday cultural memes, strikes the chords with the contemporary minds at its simplest form. It is this essence of Socrates’s simple but profound moral philosophy that has been enshrined in the pantheon of Immortal Knowledge of our collective human civilization for thousands of years. In Socrates by Paul Johnson, this immortal philosopher is hard to resist and difficult to find fault with through the author’s cicerone guide to the streets of the ancient Athens, where Socrates is in his usual convivial mood to speak in public and welcomes the reader with his genuine warm smile to join his conversation.

The stratagem of moral education in the form of philosophy is to tame the appetites (the senses or the id) and to guide spirits (emotions or the ego) in man to reach the highest level of humanness, which is the reason (the judgment or the superego). The process of this moral education is civilization, a standard by which barbarism is judged and separated from the educated mind, and Socrates thought it essential to implement it in all aspects of Athenian life because it was the surest avenue to happiness, meaning of human life. In fact, Socrates was the first philosopher to democratize the concept of philosophy from lofty abstraction of an academic plane to practical realism of a living guide. Johnson describes Socrates as something of a Prometheus, who translated the heavenly into the terrestrial in the sense that Socrates wanted to unlock the goodness of life for the benefit of mankind. For Socrates was the one who brought philosophy down from the wondering skies, domesticated it the huts and villas of people, and familiarized it with the ordinary life in examination of good and evil.

Socrates seems even more likable thanks to Johnson’s historical accounts of Socrates’s personal traits and physiognomy: the corroboration comes from his young, handsome, controversial, but nonetheless valiant aristocratic friend Alciblades that (1) Socrates was a selfless comrade in battle, fearless in fighting, and artless in helping his battle buddies: (2) commendable hardiness enabled him to wear thin clothing despite the cold and the snow; (3) he disliked letting his emotions show on his face; (4) he regarded poverty as a shortcut to self-control; and that (5) he kept fit in the stadium and gymnasium and even danced because he believed that a healthy body was the greatest of blessings. It is also well known that Socrates was an ugly man with a flat, broad nose and beer belly, especially by the standards of Greece in the 5th century that highly valued regularity of features we would call Byronic today. And yet, Socrates, ever imperturbable and optimistic, was not depressed by his ugliness because to Socrates beauty was not inherent in itself but was by the virtue of its use. It was more of utilitarian nature for practical purpose. Socrates’s way of accepting himself as he is relates to logotheraphy, neuroplasticity, and habit of positive thinking, now bestriding the domain of self-help literature.

I have always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s writing style in harmony with his wealth of erudition and fountain of humor, a fascinating combination that makes his reads so likable and interesting. And here again, he did it again: with his customary witty narrative packed full of lots of unknown anecdotes and personal tidbits on subjects he writes about, Johnson tells the reader about Socrates as precisely and candidly as possible based upon historical evidence to resurrect him in the textual theater of literature. His interpretations draw on his exceptional knowledge of the philosopher and the history of his time, but he wears his learning lightly and always writes with a general reader in mind. Hence, the figure of Socrates in his book is no longer seen as the ancient adumbral thinker but a jovial, avuncular teacher who really cares about the lives of his students of all walks of life in this highly entertaining book. This book presents a pleasant banquet of the mind and spirit hosted by the consummate storytelling narrative of Johnson in the honor of Socrates, the people’s philosopher.

Blasphemous

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The state of my heart is incarnate in Snoopy. The collective criticism on me is expressed in Charlie Brown.

It’s 10 minutes before regular Saturday Vigil mass begins, and I am sitting on my regular pew, feeling responsible rather than faithful. I wonder if I am being irreligious or irreverent toward the existence of God and the observation of the ancient rite of faith that has been performed for a long thread of centuries from the Last Supper to this Modern Day of Social Media. For my trinity of Heart, Soul, and Mind is not one with this belief when my emotions run counter to the teachings of the Church that seem incongruent with everyday reality. If this sentiment had been read aloud in the 16th or the 17th century Europe, then I would have been labelled an immoral atheist, a pariah cut adrift from the traditional mooring in the canonical faith and morals of Christianity.

My anxiousness about the existence of God is emotional, rather than logical in the working of the intellect, which has been shared by writers, philosophers, and even canonized saints of the Church. According to Professor Alec Ryne’s article of “The fury that filled the rise of atheism” as featured in this month’s BBC History, the workings of emotions and the first-hand experiences of uncharitable Christians and dogmatic clerics laid out a foundation of atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries, which later became nourishment of modern western civilization.

The French polymath Blaise Pascal knew about the power of emotions: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” In fact, humans make the great choices of beliefs, values, purposes intuitively, unable to articulate how and why they have been made. This means that prior to the establishment of conformed sets of moral code and religious doctrines, the Creator has already imprinted moral and ethical guides in the human mind. This can be also meant that you can be an atheist or unbeliever with a good heart because your conscience, the law of nature, can be a guide to an outward moral virtue.

In fact, the Enlightenment’s prime critique of Christianity, that is the churches in a broad sense, was that it was “immoral.” Thinkers, such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine declaimed against the churches because of their moral revulsion. Paine furthered his vehement subjective on religion as a human invention, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, bereft of advanced metaphysical views on the churches. In other words, religion as an institution should not govern human free will to decide moral choices laid out by arbitrary set of invented rules.

Thanks to the works of philosophers based upon humanism, a discovery of belief in contemplative retreat to natural wonder percolated institutionalized belief through individual spiritual reformation. That you can find God in the beauty of nature and the wonder of how the human body and mind work is a way you can affirm the existence of God as a manifestation of God because all of it could not have created itself. As a matter of fact, this natural way of finding the existence of God was St. John Paul II’s favorable method of praying during his lifetime because being a former student theater actor, he could see the clear signs of God in the workings of nature. Which coincides in the Enlightenment thinkers’ views on belief, free from institutionalized doctrines of belief.

In light of the above, my crisis of belief was more of emotional than of intellectual. The temptations that there was no God, also sprang in the minds of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of Cross, and other saintly men and women. Even Jesus on the Cross cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Which indicates the workings of emotions in the face of existential strife, a vantage point from which belief they had steadfastly held no longer or momentarily felt true. From angry unbelief that religion was morally intolerable to anxious unbelief that religion was an ethical institution, the history of atheism has ironically redefined the notion about belief, authentic faith, by pointing out the corruption of the churches and purifying the understanding of God as the modern world is familiar with. For me, it’s high time I went hiking on the nearby mountain trails to seek a manifestation of belief for My Own Reformation of Belief.

music of life

1dc50954796a2e0491b7dc93d333effdPaul McCartney sings, “Long and Winding Road,” whereas Rod Stewart utters, “I am sailing.” Then Tom Cochrane brings life back to land by proclaiming “Life is a highway.” Whatever metaphor they confer upon life, one thing is certain that it has a meaning, a sense of sui generis purpose, which leads all humankind to the glory of Enlightenment. Methinks life is a very long marathon race toward the grande finale after sailing through the vicissitudes of human conditions in the course of solipsistic running. That’s why all life is priceless and worth the living. How fast I will run and what route I will take is totally contingent upon my sui juris decision. Frank Sinatra knew it as in My Way, and the Animals shout out, “It’s My Life.” Snoopy, as wisecracking as ever, sums it all of the above.

Author’s Note: I came upon this felicitous Snoopy cartoon on the last train home. It gave me a fillip to this short vignette. You know what? I feel much better now. 🙂

Existentialism in a nutshell

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Landscape under a stormy sky by Vincent Van Gogh

Existence precedes
the secondhand identity;
Essence follows
the primary reality.
Where a fact finds a being,
Man defines a meaning.

 

P.S. The tenet of Sarte’s Existentialism is “Existence precedes Essence.” People love to criticize it because it lays bare to the starkest truth of life, even though they are all aware of it. Man defines himself where he stands in his life vis-a-vis his contemporaries, measuring himself against the burgeoning careers and just moderately settled lifestyles of his peers. I find this school of philosophy applicable to Charles Horton Cooley’s sociological theory of “Looking Glassed Self,” stating that you become what others think you are. Although I do not want to wholly subscribe to either of the thoughts, I can see where these thoughts come from: Human sentience, that is. Our faculty is rather instinctive than reasoning, physical than metaphysical because it reacts to an external stimuli much more than to internal principles of judgment. And I guess the age we are living in now is the apotheosis of sentient modus vivendi in many aspects…

Chariot and two horses

 

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The soul of man has its own chariot

With a driver and two horses:

The one eager for honorable praises;

The other intent on becoming corrupt

That only flogging and bawling can quell.

With the driver’s free rein to the mares,

The noble horse will go AWOL,

The ignoble will head dominance.