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Proclus – A good example of how all spiritual beliefs are not the same


Lycia-46 by Phoebe Luckyn-Malone via Flickr

Proclus (410-85 CE) was an influential Greek Neoplatonist philosopher. Born in Lycia, he moved to Athens for the remainder of his life.

A lawyer by trade, Proclus came to realize that he preferred philosophy so made a study of the classics and beliefs of his time. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, mathematics and the ancient mystery cults were all under his purview.

Modern writers often call him the last of the classical Greek philosophers.

Proclus’ works include extensive commentaries on Plato’s dialogues and on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. He also wrote several major treatises, to include Platonic Theology, Elements of Theology, and Elements of Physics.

Like his better known predecessor, Plotinus, Proclus attempts to combine the Platonic notion of the ideal Forms with Aristotle’s concept of a prime, unmoved Mover (the first cause of all creation).

Proclus’ synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian systems culminates in his theory that an overall, divine action coordinates all cosmic elements as the soul returns back to the One from which it originally emanated. This One is unlike the monotheistic God of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, mainly because it is not a being but rather some kind of creative principle.

The first principle in Neoplatonism is the One (Greek: to Hen). Being proceeds from the One. The One cannot itself be a being. If it were a being, it would have a particular nature, and so could not be universally productive.¹

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid’s Elements via Wikipedia

Due to the non-Christian aspects of his teaching, the emperor Justinian closed the reknowned school of Athens after its (more or less) nine century run.

But the ecclesiastical powers couldn’t suppress Proclus’ ideas indefinitely.

Considerable interest in his work reappeared during the medieval and renaissance periods, as scholars and monks gained access to a considerable array of classical literary, religious, mythological, biographical, historical and scientific sources.


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Philia – One of many loves

Brotherly Love Series via Wikipedia

Philia is a Greek term usually translated as brotherly or friendly love.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says there are three types of philia:

  1. Love for what is of practical use
  2. Love for what is pleasing
  3. Love for the good

Aristotle is a powerful thinker but, unlike Plato, not a mystical one. And he himself realizes that his three types of philia are not watertight categories.

Believing that good relationships are important to the development of virtue, Aristotle says we get something from our friends, and vice versa. Friends please each other and if they are excellent friends, they mutually help one other to grow toward the good.

Aristotle by F. Hayez via Wikipedia

So Aristotle’s view of philia could mean that by helping and enjoying others, we help ourselves. Superior friendships maximize the good, contributing to a win-win situation. And this, one could argue, approximates the idea of agape.

Again, Aristotle was not a mystic and some believe that mystical experience is essential to learning about love.

Although upheld as one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition, Aristotle doesn’t appreciate how some saints, Christian and otherwise, have no need for human friendship.¹ Saints of the highest order say they are completely fulfilled by God, making other people mere distractions or burdens to intercede for.

Sweet Solitude by E. B. Leighton via Wikipedia

This is exceptional but there are first hand accounts. These narratives are often overlooked or trivialized by materialists yet they are worth considering. So much emphasis today is placed on being “social.” If someone prefers solitude over society they’re usually regarded with suspicion, or worse. Emily Dickinson, who lived a life of solitude, put it this way:

MUCH madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,-you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.²

Emily Dickinson – Sharon Brogan via Flickr

The term philia is sometimes interpreted by Christian theologians to mean a superficial, transitory and contingent kind of love (I have also heard a priest in homily extol the virtues of brotherly love as found in the New Testament).

Likewise, Catholics give secondary status to eros, or romantic love, especially when taking place outside of marriage.

Similar to Aristotle’s merging of different types of philia, however, Christian theologians also believe the Holy Spirit strengthens married couples so as to properly align their physical and emotional desires (eros) with agape.

For most Christians, the sacrificial love of agape stands above all as the permanent, noblest and highest type of love. Perhaps some of us only discover agape after journeying through many relationships filled with the pleasures of philia and drama of eros.

Jim Forest via Flickr

Surprising enough, or maybe not surprisingly, the popular Catholic monk Thomas Merton, whom some see as a great mystic, had a romantic relationship with a student nurse whom he met while in the hospital, away from his monastery.³ Ultimately Merton came to reject the relationship, seeing it as a temptation that obscured his higher purpose and fulfillment.

That is, Merton let go of philia and eros in favor of agape. For most of us, however, it’s a mix. And to pretend otherwise when one isn’t really “there” is, I think, unwise.

¹ Some Christians might say, well yeah… Aristotle lived before Christ. But Catholics claim that Christ exists through all time, making it conceivable that some knew him intimately before his earthly appearance.

² Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Part 1: Life (XI), Boston: Little, Brown, 1924;, 2000.

³ I don’t think Merton was a great mystic but I do see him as a sincere seeker. See

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Realism – What is real, anyhow?

English: Cover of the October 1920 issue of Po...

Cover of the October 1920 issue of Popular Science magazine, painted by American illustrator Norman Rockwell. It depicts an inventor working on a perpetual motion machine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Realism is a term with several meanings. Here are three:

1- Creative work in arts and culture, known as “representations” that appear natural and accurate. The accuracy can be poetic or blunt, and may carry a political message.

Like most things, the definition of a realist artist is unclear. For instance, people still debate whether the American painter, Norman Rockwell, is a realist or not. Cristina Acosta says “To most non-artists, Norman Rockwell is perceived to be a Realist. He isn’t. And he is.”¹

2 – Realism is a philosophical view that external objects exist, even when not perceived by an observer. This is related to the question – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

On this point I remember talking with a professor about the possibility of the world being a “field of stimuli” external to the observer. I was still pretty young and it was an abstract idea which, at the time, was fascinating to consider. Basically it means that the world as we perceive it isn’t always as we perceive it. But something is still there: The potential to be seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted.

Little did I know that philosophers and physicists had been thinking along the same lines for many years. Well, actually, I did know. I was beginning to find out. But my discoveries were not only conceptual but also experiential. And it wasn’t always fun and games, to put it mildly. Looking back I can see that I was entering into a pivotal period of personal growth. And this leads, in a sense, to the third definition.

3 – In theology, realism is the belief that universal essences are more real than any individual temporal manifestation. An early version of this view is outlined in Plato‘s theory of eternal, unchanging Forms. After that, Medieval theologians adapted Plato’s theory to fit with Christian belief (Plato living well before the earthly Jesus).


Related » Akhenaton, Idealism, Nominalism, Surrealism

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Orpheus, Orphism and the Orphic Mysteries

Orpheus surroundend by animals. Ancient Roman ...

Orpheus surroundend by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic, from Palermo, now in the Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Orpheus was a legendary ancient Greek musician, singer, poet and philosopher from Thrace, said to be the ancestor of the poets Homer and Hesiod.

In ancient lore, Orpheus could charm wild beasts with his melodious lyre (a musical instrument, like a small harp).

According to the myths, his wife Eurydice died from a poisonous snake bite, prompting Orpheus to journey to Hades in the desperate hope of rescuing her. He used his lyre to liberate Eurydice from the underworld‘s Lord of Death, the giant three-headed dog Cerberus. But while escaping, and like the Biblical Lot‘s wife, Orpheus ignored a dire warning to not look back. In looking back, Orpheus lost Eurydice to the underworld forever.

Orpheus & Eurydice by Cervelli

Orpheus & Eurydice by Cervelli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Orpheus died his lyre transformed into a constellation. As a rough parallel to this story, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and many other faith groups believe that the right type of music can help to deliver a fettered soul to a better existential plane. And the grim fates of both Eurydice and the Biblical Lot’s wife arguably symbolize the importance of not obsessing on the past.

Orphism was the ancient Greek mystery religion stemming back to the 6th century BCE, based on the myth of Orpheus. In its Elusinian form Orphism emphasized the rebirth of the soul. The myths and practices of Orphism were based on poems attributed to Orpheus, and the movement had some influence in Pythagorean and Christian circles.

Deutsch: Orpheus

Orpheus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Orphic Mysteries were an important aspect of Orphism. Grounded in the myth of Zeus and Persephone‘s son, Zagreus, the mysteries dealt with the Titanic (evil) and Dionysian (divine) aspects of humanity. By participating in the mysteries and their strict purification rites, one apparently overcame the Titanic aspect, becoming worthy of eternal life.

In more recent times, I think the name of the enigmatic figure, Morpheus in The Matrix films was well chosen. Although Morpheus was the ancient Greek god of dreams, the similar sound of his name to “Orpheus” arguably serves to maximize the deep, unconscious resonance which movie goers most likely experience.¹

¹ See also Numinosity

Related » Pythagoras, Transmigration, Eleusinian Mysteries, Original Sin, David Bowie, Gregorian Chant, Mantra, Polyphonic Chant, Raga, Rock and Roll, Song, Synthesizer, Throat Singing




Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Socrates (470-399 BCE) was Plato and Xenophon’s Athenian teacher of philosophy who, while never writing a word, left an indelible stamp on the history of ideas.

The ancient Greek poet Aristophanes in The Clouds lampooned Socrates’ simple appearance and ascetic lifestyle. Despite this, Socrates for the most part was a well-liked character.

Socrates rejected the traditional Greek gods in favor of his daimon—apparently a kind of presence or inner voice that never told him what to do but always what not to do.

He made his impact, in part, by wandering the streets of ancient Athens, freely engaging in public discussions. An exemplar of the moral life, Socrates was particularly interested in ethical questions such as, What is virtueWhat are the correct means to pursue virtue?

His method involved logic and cross-examination, often aimed at those who regarded themselves as wise. Although he didn’t write anything, his “Socratic method” is illustrated in the dialogues of Plato. Several other ancient writers also wrote dialogues based on Socrates’ teachings, but the works of Plato best survived the ravages of time. Indeed, Socrates’ ideas and presence touched many ancient thinkers via dialogues they wrote with Socrates as protagonist.

These were numerous and popular enough for Aristotle to classify them in the Poetics… But apart from the works of Plato (1), only a few fragments survive of the dialogues of Antisthenes, Aeschines (2) of Sphettus, and Phaedon of Elis, and nothing of the dialogues of Aristippus (1), Cebes of Thebes, and many others. In addition to Plato, most of our own information about Socrates comes from Aristophanes (1) and Xenophon (1), both of whom also knew him personally, and from Aristotle, who did not.¹

The "obscene" medieval depiction of ...

The “obscene” medieval depiction of Socrates and Plato. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato’s Socratic method is often said to cut to the marrow of uncritically accepted beliefs held by bearers of mere opinion and belief. As to the adequacy of the Socratic method, this remains open to debate.

Socrates was sentenced to death for charges of atheism and corrupting the youth (for apparently teaching them subversive ideas). He was offered a way out by Crito but chose to obey the laws of the state, finding more meaning in his death than he would from an escape attempt.

Tim Peters summarizes Socrates’ explanation, as outlined in Plato’s Crito:

Although they may execute me, the really important thing in life is not to live, but to live well.²

Gregory Aldrete comments that Socrates probably could have escaped, as the death sentence for notables in ancient Athens wasn’t always intended to be carried through. Along with this and the provocative manner in which Socrates chose to defend himself, Aldrete feels that Socrates’ death is really a suicide.³

If Socrates were alive today, where corruption is more openly talked about, would he have made the same choice? One can only wonder. Perhaps he would have adhered to his own ideals instead of those of the imperfect reality around him; or perhaps his vision of justice would have incorporated the imperfect realities of the world.

Impossible for us to say. But to some, Socrates’ surrender to the authority of the ancient Athenians may seem somewhat naïve, possibly self-destructive; to others, it was noble.

Related » Clairaudience, Meno, Republic, Skepticism, Sophists

¹ See “Socrates” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press 1996, 2000.

² See entire summary: (dead link, searching for equivalent)

³ See

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Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The issue of suicide has plagued humanity since ancient times. The Greek and Roman Stoics condoned suicide in certain circumstances, such as extreme illness, loss of faculties or to avoid serving a tyrant; whereas the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas unequivocally said, “suicide is the greatest crime,” both against oneself and society.

The pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) published a statistical study that outlined four distinct types of suicide: Egoistic, Altruistic, Anomic and Fatalistic.

For Durkheim, each suicide group corresponds to a specific societal orientation.

  • Egoistic suicide arises from excessive individualism and lack of integration without a greater social purpose. Along these lines, Durkheim believes that Protestants suicide more frequently than Catholics because the former are not as tightly knit within their Church.
  • Altruistic suicide arises from a lack of individualism combined with an excessive identification with some greater social purpose, such as the Japanese Kamikazi pilots of WW-II or the Middle Eastern suicide bombers of the 21st century.

The term “altruistic” sounds strange in this context, but Durkheim claims to not make moral judgments within his theory. He merely seeks to understand the type of relationship between (a) the person committing suicide and (b) their social group.¹

  • Anomic suicide arises from feeling alienated in a society characterized by diffuse social ideals and a lack of clearly defined meaning. For instance, Durkheim found that high divorce rates were linked with high suicide rates.
  • Fatalistic suicide is the opposite of anomic suicide. Fatalistic suicide is characterized by a sense of helplessness and futility in a harshly regulated social system, as found in societies condoning master-slave relationships.

While his theory has its limitations, Durkheim is important to the history of the social sciences because he looked at European demographics to try to understand suicide as a social phenomenon, just as social psychologists, researchers and advertising agencies gather and interpret data today.

¹ (a) One could argue that a (supposedly) dispassionate study like Durkheim’s still implies some kind of moral agenda—e.g. that such a study is a good and worthwhile thing to do. (b) The Hale Bopp Comet or Heaven’s Gate suicides of 1997 would probably be seen as altruistic suicide according to Durkheim’s schema. This California-based UFO group believed the Earth was about to be destroyed. For members, survival necessitated moving to a higher level; and this group believed they had to die at a precise cosmic moment to achieve that end, somewhat like jumping on a train when it’s arrived at the station. Because the Earth is still much the same as it was in 1997, it seems reasonable to say that this community was sadly misguided.


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Paradox Cafe by Jamie Campbell via Flickr

Zeno (c. 495 BCE) was a Stoic philosopher best known for his nine surviving paradoxes.¹

The two most popular paradoxes are:

1 – Zeno asks how many grains of millet must fall before a sound is heard. One fallen grain makes no sound on impact, therefore it accounts for “nothing.” A second grain (a second “nothing”) might also make no sound. But suppose a third grain (a third “nothing”) is added to the two grains and this does make a sound. This would result in a “something” (audible sound) being made out of three “nothings.”

2 – The great runner Achilles can never catch a slower tortoise in a race if the tortoise begins ahead of Achilles. By the time Achilles reaches the tortoise’s starting point, the tortoise has moved to a new position. And by the time Achilles reaches the tortoise’s new position, the tortoise has moved on to another position. The distances between the two may become increasingly small but the tortoise always remains a fraction ahead of Achilles.

Philosophers still debate the import of the Achilles paradox but its solution might be simple. The problem seem to arise from Zeno’s use of logic divorced from actual observation.

The student of vectors will observe that a higher-velocity object gaining on and moving in the same direction as a lower-velocity object will at some point overtake the slower moving object. Not so complicated.

The Tortoise and the Hare - Project Gutenberg ...

The Tortoise and the Hare – Project Gutenberg etext 19993 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Zeno imaginatively ‘stops motion’ to observe the competitors in a series of equally imaginative points to say that Achilles will never reach the tortoise’s position. And this act of imagination doesn’t correspond to what actually happens in observable reality.

Among other things, Zeno’s paradoxes illustrate how thinking about problems and their apparent solutions can be influenced, limited and distorted by our use of symbol systems like language, logic or mathematics—especially when divorced from empiricism.

Still, he remains significant in the history of ideas because he was thinking out of the box and imagining new scenarios. Sometimes this works well, as with Einstein. But the difference is that with Zeno, we find limited conceptualizations and a lack of empirical support for his ideas.

With the first paradox, for instance, we might say that a grain of millet makes no audible sound but, in actual fact, it does create a disturbance in the air (a wave pattern) when it hits the ground. Today, this could be measured, amplified, and thus demonstrated to actually make some sound. So it’s not a “nothing” as Zeno would have thought in the ancient world.

¹ Scholars actually debate just how many paradoxes Zeno authored. But for the sake of simplicity I’ll go along with the Wikipedia entry.

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