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Plato – One of the most esteemed thinkers of all time

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) via Wikipedia

Plato (427-347 BCE) was a Greek philosopher born into an aristocratic Athenian family. Over the centuries he has come to be regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of all time, especially within Western philosophy.

Plato’s quick wit and eagerness to learn was evident at an early age. He most likely was instructed on a wide variety of topics, to include grammar, music, natural science, geography and gymnastics. And as an aristocrat, Plato would have been taught by the most respected teachers of the day. According to the Roman writer, Apuleus:

Speusippus praised Plato’s quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the “first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study.” ¹

All this bore fruit. Few philosophers are seen as his equal, with the exception of, perhaps, Immanuel Kant, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Plato’s contemporary Aristotle, whom Plato taught.²

Plato has an interesting take on knowledge. Essentially, he believes in reincarnation. Plato suggests that all knowledge rests in the soul before birth. The trauma of being born makes us forget what we knew. So learning is just “remembering” what we once knew on a higher, transcendental plane.

Freud via Wikipedia

Some might liken Plato’s view of knowledge to Freud‘s idea of the unconscious, but I don’t think Freud, the materialist atheist, would have agreed. More correctly, Plato’s theory of knowledge leads to the notion of the Forms.

For Plato, the Forms are perfect, unchanging and eternal. They are the true reality that everything else on Earth approximates. Not unlike Buddhism, everything in our changing world is viewed as secondary and impermanent.

But any similarities with Buddhism end there. For Plato, gaining knowledge of the eternal Forms means we become aware of the soul’s eternal nature. So for Plato, the philosophical life is a “preparation for death,” a death where we continue onward as individual souls.

Buddhists, on the other hand, try to eradicate individuality. For them, individuality, even an individual soul, is illusory. And to believe in any kind of individuality – be it the ego or the soul – hampers one’s spiritual development (which for Buddhists is a kind of unpacking and disposal of psychological contents).

Plato’s most influential teacher of philosophy is Socrates. Socrates never writes anything but roams the streets philosophizing with just about anyone who will listen. At Athens, Soctrates is eventually sentenced to death on charges of “atheism” and “corrupting the youth.”

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 via Wikipedia

Socrates’ supporters probably had an escape plan for him. And many would have turned a blind eye had he fled in the night. This kind of thing was almost half expected with exceptional cases in ancient Athens.

But Socrates chooses to drink poisonous hemlock rather than flee and, in his eyes, live dishonorably. From this, some contemporary thinkers say that Socrates’ death is a kind of suicide.³

So impressed by Socrates, Plato makes him the protagonist in most of his philosophical works, which are written as dialogues. In Plato’s dialogues, the character Socrates debates with others about many of the big questions.

Plato sometimes is regarded as hostile to poetry, while his student Aristotle is seen as sympathetic to the poetic imagination. But this isn’t entirely right. Plato admires divinely inspired poetry, in contrast to poems crafted by mere technique.

Aristotle writes prose commentaries on the importance of the artistic process, along with rules for creative artists. Plato, perhaps believing he is eternally justified in doing so, writes not prosaically but with a poetic flourish.

Plato condemns or severely restricts the use of poetry in education, yet he uses poetry extensively in his own works, citing verses with approval, imitating poetic style and imagery, or subjecting poems to critical study.4

Plato’s distinction between inspired verse and poetry based on technique seems a bit clunky. Aristotle begins to collapse the distinction by arguing that well crafted poetry can be cathartic. In other words, Aristotle recognizes that good poetry taps into something deeper than the world of the senses.

Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, was an early Christian saint and the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Colored engraving from Diodore Rahoult, Italy 1886.

After the Christian church takes hold of the European imagination, St. Augustine of Hippo recasts aspects of Plato’s work to support Christian belief. St. Augustine’s tremendous influence on Christian theology isn’t really challenged until medieval theologians obtain translations of Aristotle made by Muslim scholars.

Today, Plato’s influence has fallen out of favor in the Catholic Church and the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, who borrows from and respectfully calls Aristotle “The Philosopher,” is taught in various theological contexts.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato

² No brief summary can account for all of Plato’s beliefs and ideas. Some that have captured my imagination are mentioned here.

³ See G. S. Aldrete http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/history-of-the-ancient-world-a-global-perspective.html

4 Paul Woodruff, “Plato’s Use of Poetry” in Oxford Art Online (Plato)


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Rupert Sheldrake and Morphogenetic Fields

Rupert Sheldrake, Toward a Science of Consciou...

Rupert Sheldrake, Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona via Wikipedia

Morphogenetic fields is a biological term adapted by the English biochemist Rupert Sheldrake to suggest that evolution is a transference of past habits to present ones.¹

Sheldrake says morphogenetic fields have “physical effects” but “are not made of matter.” In contrast to the idea of morphic resonance, which deals with chemical and species behavior over a distance, morphogenetic fields are localized and refer to the development of chemical and biological forms.

When I last wrote this entry, the morphic field was described as a larger family of morphogenetic fields. But today the line seems blurred. Sheldrake himself says that morphic fields are hierarchically nested. So it seems that the two terms are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable.  Most likely he is streamlining his terminology to make his ideas more accessible.

Sheldrake has gathered archival and previously ignored “anomalous” scientific data that he believes supports his theories. He says morphogenetic fields may explain Carl Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious but does not consider the possible influence of the future on the present, as Jung would.² Also, his theory does not consider possible spiritual influences from heavenly and hellish realms.

In Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home he adapts mathematician Rene Thom’s notion of the “attractor” and says habits “come only from the past, not from the future.”³

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and A...

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle would become highly revered in the medieval Islamic world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we look at Aristotle‘s view of causality within the time frame pertaining to evolutionary theory, Aristotle’s thinking is not entirely unlike Sheldrake’s. Aristotle outlines four interrelated causes: material, formal, efficient and final. However, Aristotle includes a “prime mover” which exists outside of space and time. In Wim Kayzer‘s  A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle (1993), it’s clear that Sheldrake is not antagonistic to divine ideas. But he doesn’t seem to fully integrate all that theology has to offer within his scientific theories.

Although Sheldrake’s concepts have caught on within some New Age circles, to some paranormal investigators they seem limiting. Conversely, not a few scientists and skeptics, alike, say his theories are too general or paranormal (connoting “unfounded” or perhaps “speculative”).

To his credit, Sheldrake does advocate a scientific approach to parapsychology. But just what type of science is most appropriate to the study of parapsychology remains debatable. After all, science is variously defined. And those who favor and, perhaps, benefit from a given scientific approach usually champion that approach as if it were the gospel truth. And their own human limits probably prohibit them from seeing things differently.4

¹ Rupert Sheldrake, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, New York: Crown, 1999, p. 305.

² See this » Click Here

³ Sheldrake, Dogs That Know, pp. 304, 306.

4 When I was even more of an unknown than now, I wrote Dr. Sheldrake via snailmail with images of some Indian dogs (taken during my M.A. in India). These dogs  seemed to know when challenger dogs were going to invade their turf, well beyond the range of sight, scent and sound. Dr. Sheldrake replied cordially, which was surprising given his stature. So I can see why he has a considerable youth following. He seems like a decent person who cares about the advancement of knowledge—and not just a paycheck, like some professors I’ve known.

On the Web

Related » St. Augustine, Synchronicity


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The Scholastics

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym of Thomism. Picture by Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “scholastics” is what we call the leading churchmen-scholars in the Middle Ages.  These religious thinkers used the logical methods of their time to debate complex, often abstract theological issues, many of which were premised on faith. This is also known as Scholasticism.

The scholastics never asked “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.” But this question is often cited to satirize their approach, which to critics seems arbitrary and metaphysically excessive.

The influential scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas adapted arguments from (the Greek pre-Christian) Aristotle into a Christian network of beliefs. Interestingly, Aristotle’s voluminous works were translated from the Greek into Latin by Arab scholars.

Duns-Scotus

Duns-Scotus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After some kind of direct encounter with God near the end of his life, Aquinas apparently said that his many writings were like a “house of straw.” In other words, worthless compared to direct experience. Nevertheless, his arguments, many of which seem to be couched in ancient and medieval ways of understanding, are often cited to illustrate and (apparently) legitimize Catholic teachings.

Perhaps the abstract intellectualism and intense quibbling of the scholastics lost sight of basic Christian teaching of loving God and one another. And for one person to believe he or she can definitively speak about God, no matter how cleverly, seems quite arrogant from a contemporary standpoint.

Some of the more noteworthy scholastics are St. Anselm, William of Ockham, Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus

Related » Idealism, Nominalism, Ontological Argument, Universalism

¹ Wikipedia lists several more whom I’ve encountered but not really had the time to study.


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Tabula Rasa

Русский: На фотографии забражена рок-группа Th...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tabula Rasa (Latin: blank slate) is the idea that human beings are born psychologically equal, and that all knowledge comes from experience or perception.

We usually hear that the British empirical philosopher John Locke forwarded this view. This is true, but Locke was by no means the first to advance the idea. It is found as far back as Aristotle, the Stoics and, still before Locke, the Persian thinker Avicenna.¹

Locke believed the human being is born into the world with a blank slate. Accordingly, we inherit nothing more than physical characteristics and a basic sense of goodness. The mind is free and equal among different individuals, sort of like a computer processor rolling down the assembly line. We’re all hardwired just the same.

Tabula Rasa (video game)

Tabula Rasa is also the name of a video game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most contemporary psychologists adhere to the “nature-nurture” paradigm, meaning we’re each the outcome of genetically inherited and socially developed potentials.

More recently, the ideas of epigenetics and brain plasticity have complicated the picture. Basically these two concepts mean that we can not only outgrow our genetic programming but, moreover, in some instances experience and perception can alter that programming.²

Scientific and religious debates continue, but most of us agree that, regardless of our differences, we are all of equal value as human beings.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_rasa

² This development should have a profound influence on psychology and psychiatry, particularly in regard to the professional and public perception of current diagnostic categories. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity

Related Posts » Lévi-Strauss (Claude)


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Athens

English: Temple of Zeus in Athens, Greece on a...

Temple of Zeus in Athens, Greece on a rainy day from the Acropolis. The Arch of Hadrian is in the foreground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Athens is the largest city and the capital of modern Greece. It was a city state of Attica around the 7th century BCE.

Athens reached its economic and cultural zenith during the 5th century BCE while ruled by Pericles. Wikipedia nicely sums up just how huge this city was in the ancient world:

A centre for the arts, learning and philosophy, home of Plato‘s Academy and Aristotle‘s Lyceum,[3][4] it is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy,[5][6]

Indeed, Athens is home to much philosophical thought that remains relevant today. The Athenian democracy, for instance, in which women and slaves couldn’t vote, is the first formalized democracy recorded in human history.

In 146 BCE it fell sway to the Romans, later to become a province of Rome. By 1456 the Ottoman Empire engulfed Athens. In 1835 it became the capital of modern Greece and it was occupied by the Nazis during WW-II.

The contemporary city attracts hordes of tourists for its scenic locale and historical marvels of art and architecture like the Parthenon and the temple of Olympian Zeus.

In the summer of 2004, Athens hosted the XXVIII Olympiad, returning the Olympics to their place of origins (there were only foot races for the first 13 Olympics; other events like wrestling and the pentathlon were added later).

A previous modern Olympics was hosted in Athens in 1896, and an unofficial one in 1906.

Related Posts » Aristotle, Plato


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Aristarchus of Samos

English: The Greek astronomer Aristarchus of S...

The Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC – 230 BC), in the 17th century atlas of Andreas Cellarius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus is commonly regarded as the genius who first devised a sun-centered model of the solar system, but this is a modern fable. Way before Copernicus, another science prodigy, Aristarchus of Samos, (310 – 230 BCE) proposed a heliocentric model—that is, that the earth revolves around the sun.¹

Today it seems amazing that this ancient Greek thinker also accurately predicted that the reason we don’t see parallax (the stars moving relative to each other as the Earth travels around the sun) is because the stars are very far away from the Earth. In essence, Aristarchus was imagining great distances that most ancient people could not really conceive of.

Aristarchus's 3rd century BC calculations on t...

Aristarchus’s 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of the Earth, Sun and Moon, from a 10th century AD Greek copy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as usual, forward thinkers are rarely rewarded in their day. They almost always meet with resistance from ignorant, possibly stupid, and certainly regimented thinkers. His theory was roundly rejected in favor of the geocentric models (where everything rotates around the earth) of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and, later, of Ptolemy (90-168 CE).²

¹ Aristarchus was influenced by the ideas of Philolaus (circa 470–385 BCE), who spoke of a “central fire.” Not as precise as Aristarchus’ model, Philolaus’ ideas have given him the honor of being the first in recorded history to propose a non-geocentric (Earth-centered) view of the universe. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philolaus

² His only other ancient follower was Seleucus of Seleucia (born circa 190 BC), who demonstrated Aristarchus’ heliocentric model through reasoning.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seleucus_of_Seleucia

Nicolaus Copernicus - Heliocentric Solar System

Nicolaus Copernicus – Heliocentric Solar System (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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St. Thomas Aquinas

aquinas.jpg

“Thomas Aquinas” by Niall McAuley via Flickr

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was an Italian theologian born in his family’s castle near Aquino. While staying in a Dominican monastery, his family members couldn’t accept his decision to become a monk and abducted him, taking him prisoner for two years. He fled to Germany where he taught in 1248 after studying under Albertus Magnus.

Aquinas’ theological work borrows heavily from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, recasting his arguments within a Christian framework. This is particularly evident in Aquinas’ treatment of time and eternity, which for him are different. Aquinas adapts Aristotle’s notion of a “prime mover” in saying that God is eternal and knows what will be for all time.

This does not mean, as some maintain, that the future exists in its own right. Rather, for Aquinas the mind of God has perfect knowledge of the future. Aspects of this knowledge may be imparted to individuals in the present through prophecy.¹

Although Aquinas wrote extensively on angels and spiritual powers, his work recognizes the importance of knowledge gained from sense experience and experimentation. His Summa Theologia attempts to provide a comprehensive theology. The Summa outlines Five Ways to prove the existence of God. Like most theological proofs of God, these often seem self-evident to believers but somewhat weak to skeptics.

Much of the contemporary Catholic catechism cites Aquinas to support Catholic teaching and practice. This might be a little ironic if, indeed, legends are true about what Aquinas apparently said after receiving some kind of heavenly vision toward the close of his life:

“All my works seem like straw after what I have seen”, St Thomas told Brother Reginald.²

Meanwhile, another legend claims:

“Aquinas heard a voice from a cross that told him he had written well.”³

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neither, one, or both of these legends could be true. That both might be true is possible because theoretical discourse is often a necessary precursor to more immediate forms of experience, not just with regard to spirituality but most human endeavors.4

Despite its medieval limitations, the sheer scope and intricacy of Aquinas’ work is impressive. No wonder the popular writer Umberto Eco likened St. Thomas to a “medieval computer.” To modern thinkers, however, it seems unwarranted for one person to set out to definitively explain the workings of God.

While Aquinas may have humbly admitted his intellectual grandiosity after having a direct experience of the godhead, it seems that some contemporary theologians continue to adhere to his kind of medieval analytical framework, with all the strengths and weaknesses that such an approach might provide.

Aquinas was canonized in 1323 and was given the formal title, Doctor Angelicus. His feast day is 28 January.

Related Posts » Adam, Alchemy, Archangel, Anselm (St.), Augustine (St.), Evil, Heaven, Origen, Original Sin, Providence, Reason, Reincarnation, Scotus (Duns), Soul, Suicide

¹ The contemporary idea of time dilation complicates this distinction.

² http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/tomaquin.htm

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Aquinas#Career and http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/when-st-thomas-aquinas-likened-his-work-to-straw-was-that-a-retraction-of-what-he-wro

4 We often study conceptual basics before actually doing. Not to say that theory and practice are mutually exclusive; instead, we can look at theory and practice as a dynamic continuum. For example, one studies the rules of the road before taking a driver’s test. But licensed drivers continue to revise their driving theory as a result of ongoing experience (e.g. how much to slow down in snowy conditions). And the same could apply to some forms of spirituality.