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Episode 10 Transcript

This is a transcript of Episode 10 on Epicurus

Have you guys ever heard of a stoa? A stoa was a common structure in ancient Greek architecture that served a wide variety of purposes…but most of the time it was just a place that people gathered. Imagine Two huge lines of Big…Doric or Ionian Columns holding up a massive roof usually hundreds of feet long and positioned right in the middle of town…offering people a little shelter from the elements while they do business…merchants would sometimes set up shop…artists would lay out their work for people to see…people would sometimes hold religious ceremonies or hold a gathering in honor of some local prestigious war hero. In the second century AD there was a guy named Diogenes, and he was incredibly rich. The richest man in the town of Oenoanda…the Mitt Romney in fact. He was so rich and believed so much in the philosophy of a guy named Epicurus who lived almost 500 years before him…that he paid to have a giant wall built onto this stoa that was right in the middle of town. He built it where he knew everyone would be walking past it and they’d all have have no choice but to look at it all day long…and on this wall he carved in 25,000 words…that’s about 260 square meters of text…and the text he chose to carve into this wall was the philosophy of Epicurus.

Metaphysics…epistemology…ethics…imagine going about your daily business and constantly having to look at some antiquated view of how to be a happier person written by a guy that never knew you and lived hundreds of years ago who is telling you that you’re doing everything completely wrong. Must have seemed pretty pretentious by whatever guy thought …yeah I’m gonna carve some stuff into this WALL…that’s a good idea. On one of the sections of the wall…at the very beginning there was a sort of prologue written by Diogenes explaining why he even put up the wall in the first place. He writes about being extremely troubled in his youth and that by studying Epicurus and his philosophy, he turned his life around… he achieved a level of tranquility he didn’t even know was possible. He writes that the older he got, the more gratitude he had for the teachings of Epicurus and it was this gratitude that drove him to put up this wall…He said he did it “to help also those who come after us” and “to place therefore the remedies of salvation by means of this porch.” because the wall he built was adjacent to a portico of this stoa. He said that if there were only one or two people who were lost or had been led astray in this human existence… He would just go and talk to them personally about Epicurus. Instead, he built a giant wall in the middle of a public place…because as far as he saw it, everyone was lost.

 

 

Hello Everyone, I am Stephen West, this is philosophize this! and today we return to western philosophy, at least for a while…and this episode is part 1 of a mini-series that months from now people will probably see as one block. And if you’re listening to this months from now, in sequence, one after another…this next part may seem kind of repetitive or contrived, but please be considerate of the fact that we’re releasing one episode every…two weeks almost and I need to re-up my gratitude for the love and support of the last two weeks. This show is growing rapidly and this audience is the nitrate fertilizer. Thank you for the donations. Thank you for following me on twitter and posting kind words on Facebook…Thank you for the emails. Just know that I’m constantly trying to find ways to become a more efficient person and shave time off of other obligations so that I can spend MORE time improving my craft and trying to bring you guys better shows. Your compassion makes me want nothing else in this world.

 

 

Ten episodes ago we started talking about the Presocratic philosophers…this group of really strange guys… with really strange ideas even by today’s standards. None of them really knew what to think of this whole “philosophy” thing. Nobody really had anything figured out that well. You had all different kinds of approaches…Some of them like Thales just taught people informally, Pythagoras started a cult and super restrictive lifestyle…Heraclitus buried himself in up to his neck manure for god’s sake… but despite all their different methods of philosophizing and the different results they arrived at, they were all, generally speaking, talking about the same stuff…the building blocks of metaphysics and epistemology. Then Socrates was born… and for the first time in the west you had someone using this tool of philosophy to try to discern what the most effective way to live life was. Then came Plato and Aristotle, two polymath geniuses, diametrically opposite in most ways but similar in the sense that philosophy as they pursued it was nearly impossible for the layman to relate to. There wasn’t much salvation from your everyday problems in Plato telling you that there is a magical world of forms where a perfect form of everything exists…you know…some ruthless dictator may have just rode into town and sold you into slaver…but don’t worry! somewhere up in the sky there is a perfect form of that shovel you’re gonna be using for the rest of your life…

 

Keep in mind…it really helped the longevity of your philosophy as well as it’s ability to even get off the ground in the first place if it had a popular following…and not just popularity among aspiring philosophers of the day, but of the average person. And really… part of what makes Plato and Aristotle so remarkable today is just how foreign the things they talked about were from the average thought process. I mean, Both of them had schools you needed to attend for years to fully grasp some of these concepts they were talking about. When it came to philosophy being useful to the average person, it must have seemed like it skipped a couple generations. So goes the infamous quote by Cicero that:

“Socrates however (was the) first (who) called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove (it) to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil.”

But When Aristotle died in 322BC, he wasn’t the only supremely important figure to keel over and die recently. Just one year earlier, Alexander the Great died…ending an uncharacteristically stable time in the life of the average citizen of Athens. The life of the average citizen was changing. Philosophy was changing. and the Hellenistic Age was beginning.

 

The death of Alexander the Great is one of those moments in history where it’s crazy to think about what history would look like today if things went down differently. He died very mysteriously and unexpectedly. And apparently Alexander the Great wasn’t watching much daytime television in his day…or he definitely would’ve seen the hundreds of commercials from insurance companies and law firms telling him …hes gonna fall off a ladder a die someday…so make sure your family is protected. nope…he died so suddenly, he hadn’t even named a successor…and nobody knew what to do. In the year 323 BC, suddenly the LARGEST and most powerful empire known to man at the time was just…up for grabs…and everyone was scrambling just trying to hold on to this really good thing they had going. Opinion was divided on what to do…some people thought Alexanders half brother was the best way to go…other people thought they should wait around for his unborn child to come of age…long story short…some people got murdered and chaos ensued. Constant War. Four Giant Dynasties made up of many kingdoms each, many of which just grasping at straws in this battle for succession. Even a couple hundreds years later, people were still reeling from the death of Alexander and jockeying for their own geo-political position.

 

The life of the average person during this time period changed dramatically with the death of Alexander. I mean…depending on where you lived…you might have a guy ride into town one week who tells you…you guys are all under my rule now…you are subservient to me. and the people would say OK…and then the guy would leave and a few weeks later someone else would come into town and say, I killed that guy…now I’m your ruler you’re all subservient to me now…and so on and so forth. Things were very uncertain…and uncertainty breeds fear. People were scared…they didn’t know what their future was gonna look like. And when this paradigm of the average life changed, so too did philosophy. This whole period is known as the Hellenistic age…Philosophy was shifting from a focus on metaphysics and epistemology to a focus on ethics. Philosophy was changing from something that resembled the works of Plato and Aristotle to something that more resembled the work of Socrates. Remember, Socrates was the guy that didn’t have time for all those pointless abstract questions about what the universe is made of…he was more concerned with finding what the best way to live life was or how to be happy. With all the stress of the political climate of the time, Its no wonder why all of these new schools of philosophy that were cropping up were much more heavily influenced by Socrates than Plato or Aristotle.

 

There were three main schools… but also a fourth which is worthy of note. These were Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism and later, Cynicism. Much like the four dynasties of the political landscape…these four schools were constantly battling with each other trying to assert their dominance. Throughout this Hellenistic Age series…we’re gonna be talking a lot about the relationships and battles between these schools. And in the end.. when we’re left with the winner, the king of the Hellenistic Age hill, we’ll realize just how important the politics of the day are in determining which Philosophical Schools emerge victorious and which fail. A concept that will be crucial in understanding the next 1500 years or so.

 

There aren’t many people throughout history that can claim to be as misunderstood as Epicurus. I think most people think of Epicureanism as being synonymous with a life of indulgence, but this actually is very far from the truth. The entire goal of his philosophy was to increase your “Ataraxia”, it was a word at the time that meant tranquility or more specifically a complete freedom from pain. For Epicurus, it was a very literal struggle against pain. Apparently he spent most of his life with chronic severe pain in his stomach and gut and it’s commonly thought that he died of very bad kidney stones. I mean, he writes a letter on his death bed where he tells his friend that he knows he is going to die and that he’s unable to urinate and he is in EXTREME pain. It’s terrible.. But the freedom of pain that he talks about in his philosophy…the freedom of pain that someone could relate to very well in the Hellenistic age, was a completely different kind of pain.

 

Seven years after the death of Plato, Epicurus was born…341 BC. Every account seems to agree that he was born and raised by poor parents on a small island in the Mediterranean sea that would have been considered a relatively insignificant colony of Athens at the time… so it’s important to note that for all of his childhood…all of his formative years…Epicurus lived a…maybe not a constant poverty stricken existence…but definitely a very modest and humbling existence. And much like Siddhartha Gautama… both spent their malleable years in a place that would offer an invaluable insight into what happiness truly is when developing their philosophy later. Both had access to an extreme end of the spectrum that they could contrast… their future more realistic lives with, so as not to fall victim to the common delusions about what people think they’re lacking…Palaces and riches for Siddhartha…abject poverty for Epicurus…and when he finally left the island he spent all those years on…it’s interesting to consider that he studied under philosophers who were direct students of two people…Plato and Democritus. When you compare the two as philosophers…they’re not even in the same galaxy…If you compared innovating philosophy to the task of getting off a deserted island…Plato would be Tom Hanks in Cast Away…and Democritus would be his volleyball friend Wilson. Plato did EVERYTHING…and Democritus just kinda…floated there with that creepy smile…

But for Epicurus, it was the opposite. Democritus was the guy that he really attached himself to…he laid the groundwork for all of his metaphysics. Now, just to recap, Democritus is the guy that believed that everything we see in the world consists of atoms and void. Epicurus agreed with him. They both believed that because things we see are able to move around…they must be moving into empty space right? or else they wouldn’t be able to move. So they call this empty space…Void. They also both believed that the things we see around us are composites…they’re made up of many things smaller than the thing itself…because if they weren’t, then we wouldn’t be able to break them into smaller pieces or cut them down to size. But on that same note, they both don’t think that that process of cutting things in half can go on forever…and there must be some fundamental, unchanging, eternal building block of stuff that can explain the uniformity of the world and everything in it. That building block is the atom.

 

So they love each other. They agree on many things. But obviously not everything…and the differences between the Metaphysics of Epicurus and Democritus, as far as atoms go… lie in three main areas. The first one is that Epicurus believes atoms have a weight, and naturally move downward. There’s all sorts of multi-generational drama at work here…let me bring you up to speed though…Previously on General Hospital: Democritus said that ALL atomic motion…all movement of atoms throughout the void…is the result of previous atomic collisions…like this atom got his by that atom and they collided and hit that atom that went flying over there…etc….then years later Aristotle threw Democritus a curve ball and said…well…that’s great and all, cool story but how did they begin moving in the first place? Then Epicurus responds to Aristotle by saying that atoms have a weight, and therefore…in this pre-sir Isaac Newton world they are living in…atoms naturally would travel downward…so this explains why they started moving at the beginning of time.

But then you gotta be thinking…and I’m sure Aristotle WOULD have been thinking…well why didn’t the atoms just move perfectly downward and never collide into each other? How do you explain them running into each other in the first place? Well the answer to this is the second of three differences between epicurean metaphysics and Democritean metaphysics…The swerve.

Simply put, the swerve is Epicurus’s way of explaining how atoms originally collided with each other… and its just that every so often…at random times…in random intervals…an atom will kind of “swerve” to the side a bit…..That’s it. Now everyone tries to compare this to modern quantum physics and how there is some infinitely small percentage chance of an atom shifting position on its own…I think it’s safe to say Epicurus didn’t stumble across this in 300 BC…but that’s not to say there is nothing profound about this idea. The implications behind the swerve theory fueled a philosophical debate that still exists to this day.

Here’s what I mean…Democritus believed in a sort of cosmic determinism…he thought that based on his theory of the universe…pick an atom…if you followed that atom…right now somewhere in the universe…and it is moving…eventually that atom is going to run into another atom and combine with it and maybe those two atoms will run into a rock or something……the universe is so constant and predictable that you could’ve known the future of that atom…you could’ve known it was going to combine with the rock…and for that matter…you could know EVERYTHING that was EVER going to happen to that atom if you were willing to do the calculations far enough out. Humans, like rocks and planets are ALSO made up of just atoms…so everything, including human action, to Democritus were just atoms colliding and moving around in space…and in that sense that everything was already pre-determined.

But Epicurus didn’t agree…he agreed that our bodies are made up of the same atoms that celestial bodies are made up of…but if this determinism was true, we would all be hopeless spectators to our bodies and their actions…passengers not in control…. You know…you’d just be hopelessly watching your atoms go to the bathroom and forget to put the toilet seat down…MILLIONS OF MEN AROUND THE WORLD WOULD HAVE AN EXCUSE…and you can’t really be held accountable. And not just that… this would make morality absolutely pointless because you could never hold anyone accountable for any of their actions…it was just an unfortunate sequence and collision of atoms…he agreed with most of what Democritus said…but he held that there must be at least some small amount of free will at work here…and that’s how he rationalizes the “swerve” doctrine…

A Roman Poet and staunch Epicurean named Lucretius puts it well in his poem De Rerum Natura

“Again, if all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order – if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect – what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?”

 

The third difference between their theories of atoms involves his thought that the causes of our sensations come from something outside of the sensations themselves, but I think it will make the most sense and be the most memorable if we cover it in a future episode.

 

Let me just say…the first half of his philosophy is natural philosophy…or what in modern times we would probably just call science…and even though he got a lot of things wrong…he didn’t do too badly…considering…but make no mistake his aim was to find a rational way of understanding the world that had nothing to do with gods or supernatural forces…this was extremely important to him…and if he didn’t have one, ALL THE REST of his philosophy becomes much less effective. Throughout the years epicureans railed against any sort of magical or supernatural or fate driven account for some phenomena happening. Sometimes they got a little carried away. Just how you can stagnate scientific progress by blindly accepting that a supernatural force is behind something you don’t understand…You can also stagnate scientific progress by prematurely accepting a rational account for why something happened without any evidence…simply because you want SOME explanation that’s not supernatural. The epicureans were definitely guilty of this.

Just to make this clear…The two halves of Epicurus’s philosophy fit together beautifully, but in order for the second half to work properly, Epicurus thought you NEEDED this rational explanation of the world without gods. So he naturally approached it more comprehensively than just making a few updates to Democritus and his theory of atoms.

 

He was an empiricist. On one hand he had to refute the rationalist descendants of Plato…and on the other he had to refute one of the major rival philosophical schools of the time…the skeptics. In other words, not only did he have to make a case for why information gathered through the senses is the BEST way to arrive at truth, but he also had to make a case that TRUTH was something that could be obtained at all. Not exactly an easy task…but he came up with some pretty interesting ideas.

He believed that we COULD arrive at the truth, but in order for us to get there…we needed three things: sensations, preconceptions and feelings. He thought when we see any object…that object is constantly sending off a layer of atoms…one atom thick…think ripples in a pond…except the ripples are atoms and they are moving in every possible direction…and those atoms…SLAM up against our eyes or into our body…and our sense organs READ this layer of atoms and create a picture in our minds of what the world around us is. But he made it VERY clear that we need to proceed with caution. He heard the arguments from people…He heard when they said that the senses lie to us and are crude, biological instruments that deceive us all the time…why should we trust them? Well, Epicurus thought that it wasn’t the SENSES that were deceiving us…our MINDS were deceiving us. And this is where the preconceptions and feelings come into play…the way Epicurus saw it…how can we blame the sense organs? The eyes or ears or nose are just transmitting information…it is purely mechanical…the EYES aren’t making judgments that the world IS a certain way or ISNT a certain way. That’s YOU doing that. That’s your mind.

 

At the same time, he recognized that the senses weren’t perfect…he just thought it was dumb to go against EVERYTHING the senses tell us…because if you went extreme and discounted EVERYTHING the senses told you…you would have no reference point to relate other information to…He says it in number 23 of his principal doctrines:

“If you fight against all your sensations, you will have no standard to which to refer, and thus no means of judging even those sensations which you claim are false.”

 

He gives a great example about seeing a tower in the distance…If you were half a mile away from that tower and it looked round…you would assume based on that input that the tower was round in shape…but then if you walked towards the tower and it slowly started to change…and eventually when you were only a couple hundred yards away the tower looked square…at which point were your senses lying to you? Well, he gives us an atomic explanation for distortions between your senses and the waves of atoms coming off of an object and gives us a general rule of thumb that the CLOSER you are to something the more accurate of a representation you are getting…but that’s probably delving too far into it…the important rung on the ladder of epistemology is that…yeah…the senses are far from perfect…but he thought they’re the best and most reliable thing we have…so really what you should do is realize the faults and limitations of them and the things they are good at. No matter what the senses tell us there is at least SOME basis in reality…they’re never COMPLETELY lying to us.

 

And THIS is the nexus of epicurean philosophy. This is the JUNCTION STATION of the two halves of his philosophy that we were talking about earlier…we perceive the world in a flawed way because of our mind…our mind’s flawed way of interpreting what the senses tell us. In the same exact way, we perceive our happiness in a flawed way because of our mind…our mind’s flawed way of interpreting the situations we live in. It’s not the input…it’s the mind’s interpretation of that input. and if you ask me…THIS is what Epicurus should truly be remembered for. I mean…people have this misconception that Epicurus was a guy that preached constant indulgence and vice…these people have this idea that the guy was walking around telling everyone to drink a thermos full of clam chowder everyday…become 900 pounds…come on…really? It couldn’t be further from the truth…but in a way he suffered the same fate of rampant gossip that Pythagoras did years earlier…because after Epicurus studied under and wasn’t really happy with the way he was teaching…he set up his own philosophical schools in and then in before finally settling back down in Athens at the age of 34 where He bought a house on the outskirts of Athens and started the school he would become famous for…the Garden.

 

Now the Garden was very special…it accepted women and slaves as members and advocated a very communal simple life…a collection of friends all reveling in the production of Epicurus’s teachings…leaving behind all the politics and ambitions that come with being a citizen living in the busy city that lead to nothing but disappointment or dissatisfaction. The only problem was…it was precisely that…a commune. The secretive cult-like atmosphere where they secluded themselves from the population… led to tons of gossip and over-simplifications of what Epicurus taught. It was kind of a perfect storm of several things all coming together. People love to draw comparisons between Epicureanism and Hedonism…they love to attach the two. Hedonism is a school of thought where pleasure is seen as the only intrinsic good and not only was it not CREATED by Epicurus…it would have been well known by the time of Epicurus…I mean Hedonism goes all the way back to even Ancient Sumeria in the Epic of Gilgamesh. You know…it says “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night. These things alone are the concern of men.” The problem is that the definition of pleasure varies between all of the hedonist philosophers, so it is unfair to classify Epicurus with people like the Cyrenaics and think of them all as the same. But years later, the hedonism of Roman times…when they were conquering and looting the world, would have been associated with Epicureanism. But he wasn’t an advocate of just ANY pleasure, or anything anyone could possibly perceive to be pleasure.

 

He thought it was OBVIOUS that PLEASURE is the goal of life…i mean we all start from birth with the knowledge that pleasure is a positive experience and pain is one we should avoid, but the important distinction he makes is that there are two kinds of pleasure. Kinetic pleasure and Static Pleasure. Kinetic pleasure is also known as “Moving” pleasure…and it’s what most people think of when they think of pleasure…an example of kinetic pleasure would be like eating a half gallon of ice cream when you’re hungry…you experience kinetic pleasure when you are actively in the process of satisfying a desire…like hunger in this case. Your senses are stimulated in a pleasurable way…most people see this as pleasure.

But once you’ve actually ladled the half-gallon of Rocky Road into your stomach… you aren’t hungry anymore…once your desire has been fulfilled… a certain state of being overcomes you. You are satisfied. You are no longer DESIRING that thing anymore. Epicurus says that this state of tranquility is also a type of pleasure…a static pleasure…and whether we realize it or not, it is the BEST kind of pleasure and the kind we should strive for. So in other words, pleasure in its purest form is just the absence of pain…and when we desire something, we see ourselves as lacking in some way…which also counts as a form of pain. As humans were constantly thrown back and forth on a crazy ride between these two states. In number 8 of his principle doctrines he says:

“No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.”

 

On this same note, he thought a lot of people wrongly believe that once they’ve reached this tranquility…this static pleasure…that by treating themselves to a kinetic pleasure… THAT will increase their level of happiness. For example…lets say it’s really cold outside…and you want a jacket. You desire warmth. What Epicurus is saying is that once that warmth is satisfied…lets say with a 20 dollar jacket from Target…there’s not much difference in pleasure between that 20 dollar jacket from Target and a $3000 jacket from Nordstrom. There’s a point of diminishing returns, and for Epicurus it is that point of static pleasure…the absence of pain.

 

If you don’t agree with the jacket example…if you’re thinking it’s not true…just think of how ridiculous it would seem if you tried to increase your pleasure with a kinetic pleasure while you were in pain. Imagine if you were riding your bike…and a car hits you and breaks your leg in six places. You’re just lying on the ground writhing in pain…screaming for help. And then the ambulance comes…the EMT comes up to you on the ground…looks at your leg and says “I know what you need…here’s a nice vanilla ice cream come little guy there you go!” and pats you on the head……..NO! that’s not what I need…I want to go to the hospital! I want this pain to go away…In the same way the kinetic pleasure is USELESS when it comes to actually increasing your level of pleasure in THAT context…Epicurus thinks it is equally as useless at actually increasing your pleasure when nothing is wrong. He expands on which desires are good and bad in number 26 of his principle doctrines:

“All desires that do not lead to pain when they remain unsatisfied are unnecessary, but the desire is easily got rid of when the thing desired is difficult to obtain or the desires seem likely to produce harm.”

So, pleasure is really about removing things that cause pain. And we have to be careful about choosing what we THINK will bring us pleasure that might in the long run bring us pain. And besides…all these physical pleasures and pains are secondary anyway. The really important part is achieving a state of MENTAL static pleasure…or mental tranquility. It is the more powerful, more useful and ultimate form of pleasure. The goal of life. Now when we have the broken leg…its very obvious to us which pain needs to go away…but how do we figure out what is preventing us from MENTAL tranquility?

Epicurus thought that people live in a constant state of irrational fear, anxiety and superstition. The biggest causes of these fears are the fear of death or the fear of being trapped in some really terrible afterlife for all of eternity…a fear of the gods. But Epicurus wasn’t too worried about the gods…as far as he saw it…for some reason everyone thinks of these gods as existing in some blissful…tranquil state of being…but also believes that they are perpetually concerning themselves with all the troubles and woes of humans living on planet earth. He thought that the gods must exist, but they just…don’t want anything to do with humans…too much trouble. And it certainly explains why they’re working so hard to conceal themselves from everyone all the time. We should view the lore surrounding them as a lifestyle to emulate…not as something to fear after death. So great…we don’t have to fear the gods anymore…that’s a weight lifted off of our shoulders. But what about death? Certainly were justified in being anxious and scared about death right?

Well…no. And this is why understanding his metaphysics and epistemology is so important, because having that knowledge, the rational explanation for the mechanics of the world works so well with his ethics and his view on “what is the best way to live life?” According to principle doctrine number two of Epicurus:

“Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.”

Death is nothing to us. Human beings consist of only atoms. The human mind or soul is just another component of a human, and must also consist only of atoms. So therefore…when you die…the atoms that make up your mind…just like the ones that make up your body…will disperse and all go their separate ways…and you have no sense organs…so you are incapable of sensing anything. See… people got it all wrong….the STATE of death isn’t unpleasant…maybe the PROCESS of dying will be…but once were dead… we don’t exist anymore…Death is nothing to us…the Roman poet Lucretious would later say:

“the mind must be made of matter and suffer same fate as the body”

Epicurus says in his principle doctrine number 10 that:

“If the things that produce the pleasures of profligate men really freed them from fears of the mind concerning celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, and the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures from every source and would never have pain of body or mind, which is what is bad.”

Remember, the goal of life is pleasure…but the only way you can achieve true pleasure, atoraxia… is by first understanding the nature of things…the rational explanation for the physical structure of the universe. Then once you realize that you’re just atoms and void like everything else…and you’re not going through some… obstacle course constantly trying to earn your spot into Andy’s toy Box in the sky…you know…like in toy story…because the gods have new toys to play with, alive on planet earth…and you’re just a relic of the past in a constant state of limbo…I thought it was clever…once you understand all that…then you can ACTUALLY set out to achieve happiness in this life. We don’t NEED immortality to have a good life…in fact…constantly worrying about it just wastes time in the short stint we DO have on this planet. It’s really interesting how as humans we agonize over the quantity of our life so much. I was talking to a woman from France one time and she told me that Americans and French people see food in two completely different ways. In France, it’s about having just a couple bites of the most high quality, delicious, most excellently prepared food possible…and in America its about eating as much low-quality, overly salted fat filled stuff we can…we love to feel stuffed. Now obviously both are generalizations, but in the same way a wise person would want a couple bites of really high quality food as opposed to a mountain of french fries…Epicurus thinks that a wise person would want a couple bites of super high quality life…as opposed to an eternity of dissatisfaction.

 

 

Elimination of all these mental fears is the ultimate form of pleasure, and thus the goal to life.

And to experience these fears and superstitions is a form of pain. The medication for this pain…was philosophy. When we think about anxiety and fear we don’t really see it as a form of pain…but Epicurus did. He almost approached his philosophy as though it was medicine. He famously said:

“Empty is the word of that philosopher by whom no affliction of men is cured. For as there is no benefit in medicine if it does not treat the diseases of the body, so with philosophy, if it does not drive out the affliction of the soul.”

 

His medical themed approach to ending pain and achieving a state of tranquility completely devoid of fear and anxiety was called Tetrapharmacos…directly translated it means…The four fold remedy…Don’t pay attention to the similarities between his plan to end pain and achieve tranquility by following his four fold remedy and Siddhartha Gautama plan to end suffering and achieve tranquility by following his eightfold path.

 

 

He thought philosophy was medicine for the soul. he thought if we can understand four things, it would dramatically help us on our quest towards a happy life.

The four were God holds no fear…Death holds no worries…Good can easily be attained…and Evil can be endured. The first one… God holds no fears we’ve talked about this one… once you realize the nature of the universe…you realize that no God living in a state of bliss would ever be worried about you as a mere human.

The second one…Death holds no worries..Again we already touched on this…the soul is made of atoms and… just like the body…will find itself in a state of dissolution. Death is nothing to us.

The third one…Good can easily be attained…If the only intrinsic good is pleasure…and pleasure is just the absence of pain and the satisfied feeling you get when your basic natural desires are met..then it seems… pretty easy to feel pleasure.

The last one is that evil can be endured…or more specifically…pain can be endured… remember I said maybe the PROCESS of dying might be terrible…well this is the contingency plan if that’s the situation you find yourself in. There are a few different strategies…some involve reliving good times in your past but the more fool proof one is to realize that the more severe the pain is…the less time it’s going to last. Basically he’s saying you know that stabbing pain in your chest? Don’t worry about it! If it’s bad enough…you’re gonna die soon anyway! Hooray!

 

So I want you to imagine yourself as an Epicurean…your life would be a simple one…living in the commune on the outskirts of Athens…away from the hustle and business of the city…with no ambitions other than to remove your desire of ambitions and increase your atoraxia. It was Athenian Culture to have aspirations of one day… making a bunch of money…or gaining military prestige…or succeeding in politics and making a difference…you know it was all about being a citizen and contributing to society. That’s just what you did. But as an Epicurean, you wouldn’t care about any of that stuff…you would focus on the complete removal of pain and all you needed for that were your basic needs met. He says in his principle doctrine number 15:

 

“The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.”

Remember the example from before…if you’ve already had dinner and you aren’t hungry and you decide to have a bowl of ice cream, it doesn’t increase your level of pleasure much at all….well just like that, Epicureans would focus on meeting their basic needs and not worry about changing the world or making tons of money…all that stuff is really just like a bowl of ice cream…it’s not increasing your pleasure much at all. It’s actually really consistent with the way statistics seem to be heading in modern times…Have you guys ever seen those studies where it’s like a happiness index…and the difference between the level of happiness people experience in relation to their income? The ones I’ve seen always show the difference in happiness between $0 in income per year and something like $50,000 a year in income is MASSIVE…no comparison between the two…but the difference in happiness between $50,000 a year and $50 million a year is almost nothing. The point of the study is that once people make enough money to pay for their basic needs, it doesn’t matter how many cigars you light with $100 bills…you don’t get that much happier. This seems to be the idea that Epicurus had when he set up the Garden. As an Epicurean…Politics and Prestige were not important….in fact Epicurus often said things like “withdraw from public life and focus on a private group”. And this “private group” he was referring to…were the fellow members of the commune…your friends! If meditation was the way you cultivate happiness in Buddhism…then in Epicureanism…friendship was the way you can cultivate the steady and long lasting joys that counter the inevitable pain of life. He famously said:

“Before you eat or drink anything, carefully consider with whom you eat or drink rather than what you eat or drink because eating without a friend is the life of the lion or a wolf”

See, pleasure was the goal of life…and Epicurus thought that friendship is one of the greatest ways to gain pleasure. Friends contribute in a number of ways to the complete removal of pain from our lives. Firstly, they make us feel secure, not just emotionally secure…but they always have your back. I remember when I was thinking about getting married, I was asking people, “In today’s modern society, in a world where your church doesn’t label you as a social pariah for NOT getting married…and in a world where women are perfectly capable of being self-sufficient…in a world where there’s no risk of dying of Typhoid Fever at the age of 25…other than a slightly increased tax return…why would anyone get married?” And everyone I talked to said the same thing…it’s just nice to know that no matter what happens…no matter how bad things get or seem, you can ALWAYS count on SOMEONE being there for you. Epicurus saw that level of security as one of the perks of having friends. Another way friends help to remove pain from your life is that they help you to reason properly. Throughout your day to day life…when you become emotionally attached to things…it is really easy sometimes to deceive yourself and convince yourself that something is true that isn’t. If Epicurus was alive today and saw the show American Idol, he would DEFINITELY think that the first few weeks of the show…the audition phase…is full of people that don’t have very many good friends. One of the biggest mysteries of the known universe…right next to finding a link between quantum physics and string theory…one that I’m sure Stephen Hawking is working on right now…is how these people go from singing in the shower to singing on national television completely unscathed. I mean, does anyone love these people? Don’t these people have mothers that care about them? These people are a good example of when friends in the epicurean sense could help out. They’ve convinced themselves they can sing, and a true friend can shine light on their delusions and help remove or prevent the future pain of Simon Cowell telling them “that was dreadful”. Friends, in this way, provide an objective interpretation of ourselves. In Buddhism, it was a life of constant self-reflection…removing yourself from your own ego and thus removing the delusions we cloud ourselves with or at least finding which ones were destructive. In Epicureanism, our friends act as a neutral third party that calls us out when we’re fooling ourselves. But the type of friendship Epicurus is talking about is not the type of friendship we are accustomed to in modern times…in order to truly benefit from friends…you couldn’t just…send them a text every now and then…or see them sporadically…you needed to LIVE with them…be with them all the time…and that was the life you would have lived in the commune. Friendship was about trust, and you needed to consider the well-being of your friends as equal to your own well-being. I mean, after all, sometimes being a good friend means sacrificing yourself in some small way so that your friend receives benefits. And this is one of the most controversial points of Epicurus’s philosophy…and one I’m sure countless academics over the years have wished they had more of his work to dissect to… find, authoritatively, his true feelings on the matter. It all centers around an interpretation of one quote…principal doctrine number 5:

“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.”

On one side of the fence you have people that say that Epicurus was completely amoral…meaning that there are no good things or bad things in themselves…just things that add to or detract from your level of pleasure…or atoraxia. So…in this case…the idea of altruism wasn’t his favorite thing…because if you’re making sacrifices or forgoing potential pleasure so that someone else, even your friends, can be better off for it…then you are by definition…at least in some small way…in pain. And based on his egoist hedonistic philosophy, if you are in pain, you are doing the wrong thing. And I’d like to direct your attention back to the quote by Dr. Epicurus…”it is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely.”

On the other side of the fence you have people that respond to this with principal doctrine number 8…we said it earlier “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” You can smoke a cigarette now, and maybe it will relieve stress and make you look super cool in the short term…but eventually…years from now you will get lung cancer and die. Epicurus would not condone this behavior because the pain you receive in the long term completely overrides the pleasure you get in the short term. Conversely, the sum total of ALL the benefits that having close friends give you in the long term, completely override whatever insignificant amount of pleasure you would get in the short term from not acting altruisticly. These people argue that Epicurus really thought that acting altruisticly is a self-serving venture and that the benefits of having friends actually increases your net pleasure overall. For Epicurus, all the different forms of virtues that other philosophers laid out are actually all forms of prudence, or expertly choosing what is best for you.

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Episode 5 Transcript

This is a transcript of Episode 5 on Aristotle’s Ethics.

Hello everyone, its me Stephen West this is Philosophize This! Today we’re talking about Aristotle. Now, its not crazy to think that some of you guys have heard some stuff about Aristotle before, he’s a man of great stature in the philosophical world. Maybe you even started listening to this thinking, “Aristotle! We’re gonna learn about biological classification, his system of logic, his scientific method” and you’d be right. we’re just not gonna learn about it today… that’ll be next weeks episode in part 2… that’s right, as you probably guessed because I just said it, Aristotle will be broken down into 2 parts. And THIS WEEK we’re gonna learn about what Aristotle thought the best way to live life was. By the end of this episode, you’re gonna know exactly why you’re miserable. You’re gonna know all the mistakes you’ve made up until this point. Obviously, I’m joking. But Aristotle wasn’t, he really thought he came up with THE WAY to live life, and even if you’re happy in your current existence, if you follow Aristotle’s plan, you could be even happier! It all starts when you’re really young… most people spend their days in their teens and early twenties with no real direction. You know, there’s no definitive end goal in mind or if they have one its pretty uncertain… or vague and they spend most of their free time doing recreational things, having fun gaining experiences.. being young. If you were an exception to this rule, more power to you, but realize that people say things like “what are you worried about.. you’re young!” for a reason. Young people might make a plan to go to the movies.. or a plan ride quads around in the sand dunes.. you know recreational things that don’t have much to do with bringing some distant master plan into fruition. In other words, Most young people are concerned with short term plans…not their 401k plan. But for the most part what ends up happening is the older you get the more you begin considering your future…you start putting more thought into the decisions you make… even down to random everyday things… like, you know, your posture or how you treat people..you start to do things for a specific purpose, and although you may still slate aside a couple weeks for a vacation once a year, its a far cry from your days of getting drunk, staying up all night and waking up in your friends bathtub.

So, Aristotle thought we needed a plan for our life if we wanted to achieve a certain level of mastery for living life. And I’m sure all of us can understand what its like to try to get good at something. I think whenever you’re achieving mastery at anything, the more proficient you get at something, the more purpose you have behind every individual action you take. for example, i was watching a video of Gordon Ramsey cooking scrambled eggs the other day…and naively I was thinking… I cook scrambled eggs everyday… I mean he may know how to cook a crunch-berry souffle or something but I’ve probably made scrambled eggs as many times as he has…cause I’ve made them every day of my life. i mean I have a whole system…like I crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk them i add salt and pepper… I put a little grass fed butter in the bottom of the pan… you know I leave it there for a while… usually come back with a fire extinguisher to try to prevent damage to the house things like that. Watching Gordon Ramsey do it… I felt like a complete moron. Firstly, he doesn’t put butter at the bottom of the pan, he just cracks the eggs into the pan and puts the butter on top of is because it gives it a “lovely velvety finish” to the eggs… also, he doesn’t add salt and pepper to the eggs beforehand because the seasoning starts to break down the eggs and turns it into “something quite watery and dreadful” Look Gordon Ramsey my eggs may not have had a velvety finish to them but they weren’t watery and dreadful. I am offended at this point. He says to never whisk the egg beforehand, you whisk it in the pan because you don’t want to “break it down” beforehand. And then he has this super advanced method of cooking where he just keeps putting the pan on the stove and then taking it off…constantly stirring it “like a fine risotto… on the heat …off the heat…on the heat…off the heat” Then he adds some stuff called creme fresh to his eggs so they don’t overcook…what is creme fresh? with my newly lowered scrambled egg self esteem I Googled it… and apparently its like a french version of sour cream with a little more fat. All these things that I take for granted… all these things I do completely mindlessly while cooking scrambled eggs for no real purpose, Gordon Ramsey, through experience and wisdom has achieved a much higher level of mastery at cooking scrambled eggs and is therefore much better at it.

The same rules apply to becoming better at life. Or better at living life. You start to develop priorities, you find out what is important to you… and eventually you do almost everything for a purpose…and usually the purpose you do any random thing for is to nurture the positive growth of your goals… like being healthy… living a long life, making a lot of money…etc. eventually we combine all these various things we prioritize as a sort of rulebook for living… a set of values that we live by. Aristotle calls this “a plan” and encourages people to make one of these plans…

Aristotle was born in 384 BC…15 years after Socrates had been put to death in Athens…but when Aristotle arrived in Athens and enrolled at Plato’s academy as a student, he no doubt heard all about Socrates’s final days from Plato, as well as his famous saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” in response, Aristotle did Socrates one better. he said that an unplanned life is not worth examining. what point is living a life if we don’t know what we’re trying to do and why or how we’re gonna to get there? we need a plan!but not just a set of priorities… we need to find out how to use these priorities to distinguish certain goals that we want to achieve and figure out how we’re going to achieve them. but even that’s not good enough for Aristotle….not only should you have a plan…but you should have HIS PLAN. THE PLAN. To Aristotle, There is only one fully correct plan for life, and if you don’t follow it then you may be happy, but not as happy as you could be. Now, The idea of there being one… single ultimate plan that every human has to follow is a relatively foreign idea in modern times…and for good reason. I mean to us, It seems like a waste of time to agonize over what the ultimate goal of life is, because its obviously a glaring and important question that all of us ask at some point…and if there was a right answer, we probably would have figured it out by now, probably thousands of years ago. so we end up just applying our own meaning to our life and deeming it to be the best for us. but when we use terms like “what is the BEST end goal to life?” we’re implying that there are better and worse end goals, but what makes them better or worse? what metric are we using to determine what is better?

if one person deems the purpose of life to be the pursuit of knowledge and a completely different person thinks the purpose of life is finding a way to use your brain as little as possible, how can these two opposite world views have the same end goal? Aristotle thought they did if you analyzed them deeper.

Aristotle thinks the ultimate end goal of life…what we should all shoot for… is “living well”. Now real quickly lets establish a few things about living life…There are a variety of things we do, solely for the sake of staying alive. Like eating, drinking, exercising, things like that. There are other things we do because we think that if we do them, well be able to make living life easier or better in some way. For example, you could educate yourself, its not necessary to stay alive, but we think that by expanding our mind and knowing about a variety of different subjects, we can use that knowledge to live a better life, not to mention the satisfaction we get from constantly growing as people. We can think of these two different types of things… as things that we do just to Live and things that we do to live well,and we can think of both of them as end goals that we hope to achieve that are in line with the priorities we developed earlier…In fact, we could even break it down further, you only really need one of these things…right? living well. you can’t live well if you aren’t alive, so things we do just to stay alive…really are all requisites on our path to achieving the goal of living well. Aristotle talks about how everything we do is either an end…or a means to an end…we either do something for the sake of getting something else, or we do something solely for its own sake. Now…if “living well” is one of our goals in life, is there anything we want after that? Are we living well for the sake of achieving some further goal? Aristotle didn’t think so. He thinks that we live well just for the sake of living well…therefore, living well, to Aristotle is the ultimate goal of life. Some people may disagree, but I think its pretty reasonable. Almost everyone I’ve ever asked what they want in life they say they just want to be happy, and I know that evidence is anecdotal…but the plural form of anecdote is data.

Aristotle says that there are a lot of things, as humans, that we desire in this world…or things that we think are good…like we said in our earlier example…one person may say “the pursuit of knowledge”…one person may say the pursuit of using your brain as little as possible”…and all of these things we think are good are really just our own little personalized path we’re taking with all the paths eventually arriving at a single final destination, which is what you actually want “living well”. Modern translations of Aristotle’s term for Living well say the best modern translation for what he was talking about is our concept of “happiness”. Living well is happiness and happiness is what we all seek, whether its through pursuing knowledge or not pursuing knowledge, both of those people still want happiness. the difference is what brings them happiness. Aristotle didn’t just think this was the case… he thought that it was self-evident that this is what the ultimate end goal of life is, because when you ask someone why they want happiness, they can never really give you an answer. so they’re obviously not doing it for the sake of getting something else. the only way you could really say that you wanted happiness for a REASON is if happiness was a requisite for achieving some OTHER ultimate goal, but the way Aristotle saw it, there was no such thing…happiness or living well WAS the ultimate goal.

Now, as I was saying before, what brings us happiness varies from person to person. I mean, by and large, we experience happiness when we get what we want. so because one person might be made happy by pursuing knowledge and someone else might be miserable pursuing knowledge…there’s no cookie cutter recipe for happiness right? Aristotle thought that even though our paths to happiness were so astronomically different, if you distill it down enough, we really all want the same things too. And before we continue, real quick, its important to know that Aristotle thought that things we think of as “good” are the same as things we think of as “desirable”. The two terms were synonymous to him.

Aristotle thought as humans we are all individuals. We have individual upbringings individual experiences and individual perspectives. Its Based on our experiences …that we determine what is desirable. This is how you can explain the difference between someone who thinks its desirable to pursue knowledge, or not to pursue knowledge, or to be the greatest tennis player in the world, or to strap dynamite to yourself and glorify god, all of these things are based on things we’ve deemed to be desirable because of our individual backgrounds. But even if most of these desires differ from person to person, as human beings, we all have similar desires…like being able to eat or drink or sleep, etc. On that same note, we all desire things that we don’t actually need to stay alive. I mean…we desire to have the double bacon cheeseburger, but we don’t need it. We desire to get a big promotion and date a supermodel, but we don’t need it. we think if we had these things they would be good for us and enrich our lives…so we desire them…hence Aristotle idea that if we see something as desirable we see it as good. But like in the case of the double bacon cheeseburger, which is also my favorite Nancy Drew book BTW, the case of the double bacon cheeseburger… what we desire and we see as good, is not ACTUALLY good for us. The double bacon cheeseburger is a good example of how easily something can seem like its good for us at a particular time or place, but at a later time and place it may seem… completely terrible for us. and this dynamic applies to most things, even your worldview…like if the guy that relentlessly pursues NEVER using his brain or learning anything as the most desirable thing one day..lets say some other day hes trying to memorize the ingredients of different alcoholic drinks so he can pass his bartenders exam…pursuing knowledge and using his brain turns out to be really good at that time and place. Aristotle uses this fact to mark a distinction between things that we think are desirable that may vary from time to time, and things that we think are desirable that never vary…like things we need to survive. This is another way of marking the contrast between two different types of desires, wants and needs…both are things we desire, but they’re not the same thing. Aristotle referred to these things as either acquired desires, or wants….desires we’ve acquired based on our experiences during our lives…and natural desires…or needs which are desires we were born with because we are human and all humans have them regardless of background. He says that the only things that are really “good” for you are things that fulfill your natural desires, because these things we need whether we are conscious of the need or not, whereas everything else you desire falls into the acquired desires and only appear to be good at the time.

The one correct ultimate end goal or plan for living well…the plan that brings us happiness is a plan that includes us attaining all the things that are actually “good” for us to have. and because all of these natural desires we have are the same for everyone…because we are all human and share the same natural desires of things like food, shelter, water, sleep…what is truly good for one person is actually truly good for everyone. that’s why Aristotle says happiness is the same in the case of all human beings and that’s why he refers to all of these things that fulfill our natural desires as “real goods”. Now remember that term, real goods. We all have our own unique individual paths that we take to try to acquire all these real goods…i mean Donald Trump’s plan to secure things like food clothing shelter is obviously much different than a panhandling homeless guy…and Aristotle would say these differences definitely make some plans better than others. But remember…Aristotle thought there was one ultimate plan that was the best you could do. Its one that involves getting every real good in the right order and quantity while simultaneously making it possible for us to seek things we want, but do not necessarily need that will enrich our lives.

So, if we want to achieve true happiness by using Aristotle’s plan, it seems pretty important to figure out what these real good are. I mean, if the main thing we need to be happy are all these real goods, we should at least make a list of them…we should have them laminated or something.

Aristotle separates these real goods down into a few parts. He says…

“Human beings are animals with the unique ability to think and reason.”

Because we are animals with a machine like body that needs maintenance, some of these real goods help us with our bodily needs. These …bodily goods are made up of…vigor, vitality, health and sensual pleasures. Aristotle says that even though we go about getting these things in different ways, we not only share all of these desires with every other human, we actually share all of these desires with every other animal in the animal kingdom. Animals avoid pain and seek pleasure, as well as vigor vitality and health. Now, if living well is the ultimate end goal then Vigor vitality and health are three requisites on the road to living well…they’re means to an end…but to achieve even one of them is a goal in itself, so there are requisites for achieving these things too. To have vigor, vitality and health, you need five things… food, drink, clothing, sleep and shelter. Now, when you break vigor vitality and health into these 5 tangible or easily identifiable things, its easy to see how they’re extremely interrelated…like it doesn’t matter how much food or drink you have, you cant be healthy if you don’t sleep…and it doesn’t matter how much sleep you have, you aren’t going to have much vigor if you’re walking around naked with no home to go to at the end of the day. So… because it makes sense… and seemingly to make it easier for people like us studying him 2500 years later, Aristotle groups all of these EXTERNAL things that we need to achieve the bodily goods, he groups them all together and calls them external goods or wealth. Now, I could’ve just said wealth was a requisite for living well, but that would’ve been misleading. I wasn’t trying to waste your time there, this was the definition of wealth for Aristotle…and if I just said wealth, you’d think it meant getting some generic burlap sack with a green dollar sign on it but wealth is no where near the same thing today.

When I think about Aristotle and these needs that correspond with goals that we need to achieve on our path to happiness, It may be kind of dumb, but I remember it by thinking of the quote, early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. we’ve all heard our grandma tell us this before, but just in case it helps you remember, the early to bed and early to rise part reminds me of the 5 external goods, because “sleep” is in there and when I think of sleep I think of being in a house with a sleeping cap on, so it reminds me of the other four external goods, and then the “makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” part reminds me of the goals that harnessing those external goods is going to give me. Healthy reminds me of vigor vitality and health…Wealthy reminds me of the 5 external goods and the Wise part, represents the next part were gonna talk about, because what we’ve talked about so far isn’t all you need to be happy. Remember, He says Human beings are animals with the unique ability to think and reason. Because we have the unique ability to think and reason, there are some real goods that we need to supplement and nurture our ability to reason. Instead of bodily goods, or external goods…he grouped these into the “goods of the soul”. Remember, at the time, this phenomena known as conscious thought wasn’t connected to the brain, they thought that humans have a soul that controls our ability to think and reason, among other things. Now, when it comes to the goods of the soul, Aristotle thought to be truly happy we need to pursue a certain amount of knowledge. Were thinking, curious learning creatures by nature, and it seems like without acquiring knowledge, something would be lacking. Another one of these goods of the soul is the desire to be loved, or the desire for friendship. We are social creatures, like we talked about in the first episode…you lock a guy in solitary confinement for six months and he goes crazy. We need interaction with other humans and Aristotle realized this. He thought that our desire to be respected for our favorable characteristics, like our skill at a particular thing, or our six-pack abs or whatever …is closely related to being loved. Because of this, He said that as long as we are honored for a legitimate reason he would include the goods self-esteem and honor as part of the goods of the soul. He makes this distinction for good reason, this wouldn’t apply to people that delusion of instant fame

Aristotle realized that all of these real goods are end goals in themselves, and when you’re creating a road map for eventually arriving at living well and achieving happiness, it can be unclear as to how you even get to these end goals, so that you can then start your path to the ULTIMATE goal of living well. So Aristotle developed a way for us to consistently make correct decisions, too. Have you ever had a bad habit before? You ever eat something while driving and then when you get to where you’re going you just leave the trash in your car? Ah…Ill get it next time…but then you don’t? And then the next time you leave the trash in your car it just piles up over and over until your passengers seat looks like a yard sale? If you had a time lapse of your passengers seat it would be really obvious it was just one bad habitual decision being made over and over. It takes conscious effort to stop a bad habit, no matter what it is. Aristotle knew we were habitual creatures, when you have a bad habit, to stop doing it, you really are just training your mind in the direction of a more productive behavioral habit. It helps to have your mind on auto-pilot sometimes. But he knew this wasn’t just restricted to negative habits, positive behaviors can be worked on too. Behaviors that end up making your life better and leading to the real goods we just talked about. It could be something as simple as eating in your car and not leaving the trash on the passengers seat…if you see the banana peel on your seat, just take the initiative and throw it away, because each time you do it…the next time you’re staring down the banana peel and trying to find an excuse to leave it there, its slightly easier to just throw it away the next time. And if you leave it there, you are slightly weaker and it is slightly more difficult to throw it away next time.

But Aristotle didn’t restrict this to just things like banana peels. He thought to live well and be happy we have to make habits out of virtuous behavior so that it comes almost as second nature. An example of this would be like if you’re on a diet. You know you’re not supposed to eat at McDonalds you’re supposed to go into the woods and eat tree bark on your lunch…and every time you’re on your lunch break and you pull into the Mcdonalds drive through and concede to those impulses, the easier it is for you to do it the next day. Aristotle called these sorts of bad habits “vices” and thought that if you made a habit of acting virtuously, eventually it would be such an ingrained habit that it wouldn’t take any effort at all to act virtuously. Aristotle thought this applies to all virtuous behavior, and that by making the habit of acting virtuously we will be naturally moving on the path to achieving these goals of things like “honor or wealth” and on our way to living well. He thought that we Needed virtuous behavior. and it makes sense. Mcdonalds is food, food is one of the 5 external goods, but without virtuous habits telling us what type of food to eat, how much of it to eat, at what time to eat it, etc…we could technically stuff ourselves so full that we die. Although he didn’t give the McDonalds example, he thought this same dynamic applies to most decisions in life.

Controlling yourself to not eat at McDonalds and stick to your diet is an example of Aristotle’s virtue of temperance. The dictionary defines temperance as “moderation”. And its easy to see that we run into most of our problems as humans, health wise or with relationships when we do things to excess. Moderation or temperance is a virtue. Temperance was one of two primary moral virtues Aristotle wrote about…the other one was courage. Now, if you’re like me, you hear the word courage and you think a soldier charging into battle…or a kid going on a scary roller coaster.. but Aristotle thought of courage a little more broadly than that. He thought that doing things that cause us temporary discomfort or pain to ultimately achieve some higher good, is just another form of courage. Going to the gym and pushing yourself to the next level, would be courage to Aristotle. Challenging your brain, learning…have you ever read a book that is just…challenging? like your stomach hurts when you’re reading it challenging? and you want to just stop and watch TV instead? Achieving mastery at anything is HARD WORK…Aristotle called this courage.

Both temperance and courage involve using our ability to reason to distinguish between things that just look like they’re good for us, and things that are ACTUALLY good for us. These were the two primary virtues that Aristotle laid out in his writing, then he laid out several other more minor ones but qualified them all as well as the real goods we are pursuing by acting virtuously with the idea that achieving them was based at least in some cases around luck. You know, if there is a mass drought or famine, you didn’t do anything wrong to make that happen, it was just a bad roll of the dice that made you unable to get the external goods of food and drink. This applies to the goods of the soul too, to acquire a certain amount or kind of knowledge, it may just come down to whether you were lucky enough to have a teacher that could relay it to you effectively. Not having that isn’t necessarily your fault. And how about diseases like cancer? Aristotle makes a case for why acting in a virtuous way is not good enough on its own…acting virtuously may ultimately put you in a lot more favorable circumstances that allow luck to go your way, but luck definitely plays a role.

But I don’t want to misrepresent what Aristotle talked about as luck… its not just something that squanders virtuous behavior…its not just something that takes someone who lives a perfectly moral life and starves them to death making good actions worse. It can also make people who are not virtuous temporarily happier like if a criminal wins the lottery, or it can even make bad decisions worse. Imagine if there are two people going through the McDonalds drive through…both of them decide to eat their McChicken sandwiches on the way home, and for the sake of the example imagine they are really bad at eating and driving…like holding the sandwich in front of their face so they cant see the road. One of them swerves off the road and crashes into a tree. The other one swerves off the road and crashes into a tree, but there happened to be a mother walking with her baby in a stroller in between them and the tree, and they kill both of them. BOTH DRIVERS have committed the same act of negligence, but because of bad luck, one of them has a completely different life than the other moving forward. This is an extreme example, but you guys can see how on a smaller scale this same dynamic can exist with non-virtuous behavior. And as a society, we would view justice in these two scenarios completely differently. Which brings me to the last thing Aristotle points out as things we need to make us happy…justice. We cant pursue living well alone. We need other people and social interaction. Aristotle breaks down justice into two types…distributive justice, which simply put, has to do with the elements of whatever system of government you are born into…like, if you are born into a life of slavery or a society with tons of unjust laws it becomes really hard to live well. And the other kind is corrective justice, which involves correcting unfair distribution..like when individuals make non-virtuous decisions and don’t exercise temperance, taking more than they need at the jeopardy of others. As you can probably see, it starts to get difficult to know what the correct thing to do is when trying to incentivize human progress with things like capitalism.

A great quote by Aristotle that I use on a consistent basis that really sums up a lot of his ideas for living a good life is “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit”. It really is an inspirational quote. It puts our own egos into context. It doesn’t really matter what you’ve done in the past…like if you have a long list of accomplishments and successes, but you spend every day now doing nothing and making bad decisions…Who are you exactly? On the other hand, you could’ve messed up every single day before today…you could’ve been the type of person that leaves trash on the passengers seat of their car, but if for two weeks you take that trash to the trash can, what kind of person are you now? We’ve all heard the stories about the people that smoke cigarettes for 30 years and then one day decide they’re never going to touch them again. I realize it doesn’t usually work that way, but if you looked at those people even one minute after they had made that decision to never smoke again…do we consider them a smoker? Aristotle’s quote is empowering. It really makes you think about who you are not from the standpoint of what you SAY your values are, but what you actually do consistently every day. A long time ago I read a book on the power of self-confidence…and in the book they ask you to do an exercise that is really eye-opening when it comes to determining what kind of person you actually are, and I still try to do this exercise on a monthly basis. Philosophize This! If you knew you were going to die tonight, and you had to write your own obituary that would appear in the newspaper the next day. What would you write? What would your actions portray as your true values and how did you make the people around you feel?

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Episode 4 Transcript

This is a transcript of Podcast Episode 4 on Plato

This episode was really close to being a two-part episode. When you’re dealing with philosophers that are as influential as Plato and have a body of work as extensive as Plato’s, it starts to become very difficult to make one single 45 minute conglomeration of it all. A guy named Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of western philosophy “consists of a set of footnotes to Plato” and his work. Footnotes! I mean, by the end of this episode … you’re gonna understand why he said that. and you’ll understand why it was almost a two-parter. Plato wrote 27 treatises…practically 27 full length books…and the reason I decided to keep it down to one part is because I saw the content that was going to be in the second episode and I asked myself what I would want in a philosophy podcast. I don’t think anyone here is listening to this podcast so they can be the…curator of the Plato museum or something, I don’t think anyone wants to know what the guy’s favorite color was…you want to know the essentials. What were his most notable contributions to philosophy…notable being ones that ended up influencing future philosophers and shaping the world we live in. And now that were dealing with philosophers that have most of if not all of their work surviving to this day, we can’t cover everything. Plato wrote a treatise about the nature of the physical world and human beings and the origins of the universe called the Timaeus. Its brilliant. Its fascinating, but not necessarily game changing in the philosophical world. So what I’m gonna do, out of respect to the people that don’t care to hear about the non-essentials of these philosophers, starting this week with the Timaeus and any other non-essential work of future philosophers, I’m gonna write up a synopsis of it and send it out as additional content with the weekly email I send out to let people know a new episode came out. Uh, anyone whose interested enough in philosophy to want to expand their understanding of it even further to that level…uh my hats off to you. you are awesome. let me be the guy that digs through dozens of sources to bring you an unbiased account of it. you can sign up to get an email when a new episode comes out on Philosophizethis.org, onto Plato.

Plato experienced heartbreak in 399 BC. He watched from the sidelines in horror as his teacher, friend and mentor Socrates was put on trial and convicted to death… and there was nothing he could do about it. He was angry with the city of Athens, and rightfully so…their witch hunt mentality following the Pelopenesian war killed his best friend … and he decided he needed a little change of scenery. A 12 year change of scenery. It was like the movie Wild Hogs..He left town crestfallen…went on an extended road trip where he learned a lot about the world, and a little about himself along the way. It was a transformative road trip. It changed the entire way he looked at the world for the rest of his life. You could almost think of this road trip as an extension and finishing of his education…he studied under Socrates for a long time, learning the Socratic method and argument, and then he studied abroad. He studied with Euclides, Theodorus, the Pythagorean…some say he made it all the way to Egypt. Now what happened next is still open for debate. Some sources say he was captured towards the end of his road trip and sold into slavery, uh then his friends rescued him and brought him back to Athens, some say something else triggered the end of the journey, but what is certain is that SOMETHING made him decide in 387 BC to return to Athens and found his infamous school called “the academy” a school that would stay operational for almost 900 years in one form or another, a school whose name is where we get our modern word academic. He took it upon himself with this new school of his to not only catalog the thoughts of his beloved teacher Socrates but to also foster and develop future philosophers. But Plato wasn’t satisfied with the definition of the word philosopher. Pythagoras’s view that its a lover of wisdom wasn’t good enough for him, he felt more was necessary to be a good candidate to go to his school.

Plato didn’t like how the definition of philosopher included people that just always loved to hear a new fact. I’m sure we’ve all known someone like who hes talking about…some guy…buys a diet peach Snapple, looks under the cap and sees, did you know your body is made up of 80% water? and then runs around telling everyone about it endlessly. Now, I have no problem with this guy…and neither does Plato, aside from the annoying evangelizing of a random fact…but Plato didn’t think this guy should be considered a philosopher. Plato would see him as a sightseer, someone who enjoys wisdom for practical benefits or for the spectacle of it all, not for the wisdom itself. Plato thought Non philosophers live in a sort of dreamlike state, they see things they think are beautiful and naively think that the objects themselves encompass what beauty is…really, if they looked deeper what they would see is…beauty itself. He didn’t think to be a philosopher you should be pursuing wisdom because you love to revel in the fact of the day…a true philosopher is someone who uses their brain as merely a tool in the process of arriving at wisdom.

Now, developing future philosophers through his school was only half of his initial plan, he also was committed to continuing the work of his friend and mentor, Socrates. As we talked about last episode, he wrote the apology, which was the story of Socrates’s trial, defense and conviction. But he was no where near done preserving his name. See, Plato was another one of these brilliant philosophers that chose to write down their work in an entertaining and sometimes poetic way to try to get people to listen to the ideas underneath the story. And Plato was…really good at it. he was a philosopher, but many historians say that his writing is THE BEST writing in all of ancient Greece…and i agree…you have to read some of this stuff guys…you can even buy them in paperback at Barnes and Noble…even the modern translations keep your interest…which is saying something…considering it was meant to keep the interest of people that lived thousands of years ago. It’s really high quality stuff. A lot of what made it so entertaining was that he wrote it as a story, with people just having normal conversations about things, and then eventually casually weaving in a philosophical discussion about some abstract idea. Plato would use REAL PEOPLE…REAL NAMES…Real personalities of people that lived at the time and use them as a mouthpiece to deliver his philosophy. A guy I went to school with said to me once that Plato’s writing is like crossover fan-fiction. And its true! This is a great modern comparison…for anyone that doesn’t know, crossover fan fiction would be like if a crazed fan wrote a short story about Edward and Bella from the Twilight franchise enrolling in Hogwarts and meeting the cast of Harry Potter. Plato would have different philosophers and public figures having conversations that they never actually had, sometimes even people that didn’t even live at the same time. Plato would, often times, need a character in these stories that people could perceive as the quintessentially WISE person…and whenever that demand arose, he chose to evoke the name of the wisest person he knew…Socrates…He was consciously typecasting Socrates as a WISE person in every book so that the legacy of Socrates would be that he was a wise person…kind of like how certain actors are typecast in modern movies…like if I saw Michael Cera walking down the street, I would instantly jump to a conclusion and assume he is a meek, reserved person even though that’s based on absolutely nothing…I don’t know Michael Cera…really the only thing that tells me is he plays that character really well…Plato was no doubt deliberately doing this in the case of Socrates, making him the WISE man in his dialogues to leave a legacy. Unfortunately, it led to a little bit of confusion…Socrates was a philosopher himself, and he never wrote anything down…so by making him the central character in a dialogue that’s actually conveying Plato’s philosophy, it can sometimes be difficult to discern which views are the views of Socrates and which are the views of Plato himself. 27 treatises. And all these are separated down into 3 distinct periods based on when they were written …and each of these periods mark large changes in Plato’s way of thinking and the subject matters covered. see, in Plato’s early dialogues he deals with issues that concerned Socrates exclusively … not only that, he addressed them in the way Socrates would have addressed them…his Socratic method…its almost like he felt an obligation to carry on Socrates’s legacy after he was put to death…but then throughout the chronology of his writing, the Socrates in his writing starts dealing with more issues of government…metaphysical claims etc. the fact that Socrates changes and is a completely different person in one writing as opposed to another, it shows the progression of Plato as a philosopher…and really it doesn’t really matter that much. Socrates wasn’t the kind of guy that had a set of unfaltering beliefs anyway…remember he vehemently swore that he knew nothing and was always trying to get to the bottom of what things actually were. What Plato has succeeded in doing in this case is to keep the spirit of Socrates alive…the ever changing ever questioning spirit of the Socratic method.

An example of this continuation of Socrates and the way he did philosophy lies in one of his treatises from the early years called the symposium…The symposium is one of Plato’s most famous works…and keep in mind…all the characters from this dialogue are written by Plato…just revel in the sheer genius of how well he encapsulates each of the characters and the reputation that they had, writing YEARS later probably DECADES later depending on who you believe. And its not like he had a private stenographer sitting in the corner at the dinner party…try recounting a conversation you had 15 years ago! the word symposium means, a drinking party…Plato writes about a fancy dinner party where several different people take turns after dinner standing up in front of the group and giving their thoughts on and trying to get to one of these deep Socratic definitions of the concept of love…how it starts..what the end goal is when you love someone…whether it overall is actually a benefit to mankind or not…

All kinds of people were at this dinner party… generals like Alcibiades, playwrights like Aristophanes and most notably, Socrates. Aristophanes, being a playwright that writes comedy gives a quasi humorous and metaphorical account for what love is. he talks about a time when men and women were actually fused together, two heads four arms four legs and we would roll around everywhere…There were three sexes back then apparently..all male, all female, and the “androgynous,” which was half male, half female. The all males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. Apparently we were a little feisty when we had four arms and we tried to take over the god realm, and Zeus was JUST ABOUT to throw lightning at us and kill us all, but he decided…he wanted to, but he didn’t want to deprive himself of all the offering and sacrifices that humans were giving him, so he just set his lightning bolts from kill to stun mode and separated us in half. That way they could get TWICE the offerings they were getting before.

Aristophanes refers to sexual attraction or erotic love as the desire humans have to find their other half…they may seek it out for their entire lives without finding it, but the urges and feelings that attach us to people is our way of trying to get back our other half that was taken from us. Apparently this is also why people often say that they feel “whole” when they are in love with someone. To put it another way, Aristophanes believes love is actually a quest…a pursuit to fill areas that you’re lacking in that were once yours. Later on in the dinner party, Socrates doesn’t agree with him…he agrees that it is a quest, but he doesn’t think we love something because at one point it belonged to us…he thinks we love something because we find it beautiful or good. Socrates breaks down the concept of love and tries to distill it down to its essence, as he would …he claims to have gotten his enlightened account of what love is from a conversation he once had with an older priestess …he explains it like this…man seeks immortality…we cant live forever…that is certain…so what we all do is seek other alternative forms of immortality….and Plato saw these alternative forms as coming down to one of 3 things…firstly, through children you know, a little piece of you is passed on through them and then again through their children, secondly, by doing some really noteworthy thing that gets you famous and written down in the history books, or thirdly you can create some body of work that is evergreen or important enough that future generations hold it up in high regard, like Plato’s symposium ironically enough. all three of these things are creating offspring…either physical offspring made with someone you love or intellectual offspring where we use our desire for being loved to motivate us to achieve these things…almost like we’re peacocks… and the things we accomplish intellectually are colorful feathers we’re adding to our tail. now these people that we want love from, we think they are beautiful, but to Plato they’re just inferior copies of an IDEAL form of beauty, which we will touch on later, but what hes basically saying is that we accomplish what we choose to accomplish in life, our careers, our cars, our children all out of a love of beauty that we then transmute into motivation to get things done.

I know some of you are saying…well that isn’t love…that is lust, or whatever you want to call it. You’re right. Plato thought that this was only the first step on a staircase of love. love can be broken down into a few different stages, each stage leading to the next stage and eventually coming to a head at the appreciation of the IDEAL form of beauty itself. it starts with a love of the person’s body, or as Plato put it “eros”…or exotic love..both sexual attraction or thinking that person is an attractive person that’s what we just talked about. he says that after a while of this, you eventually realize that someone you think is beautiful has a lot in common with all other people who are beautiful, therefore making this really hot person, not as much of a rare Pokemon. There’s tons of them. Then once you realize this, you realize that all the variance that the body can have that makes it beautiful is nothing in comparison to the variance and things that make the soul beautiful, or more simply to us modern folk, their personality. then, the yardstick you use to measure whether someone is beautiful or not has everything to do with their personality, even if that personality exists inside of a mangled or ugly body. Eventually, you begin to transcend EVEN the personality and stop loving individual people that inhabit an individual body, and you start to love even broader things like concepts themselves. You fall in love with things like the arts or laws, or biology or things like that and then finally, at the end of the staircase, you fall in love with the ideal FORM of beauty itself. Socrates says that if it is possible to live life anywhere, it is here. because when you are in love with a single human being, you are vulnerable. They could leave you…or die…or go live on a farm upstate like my dog did…it is a PAINFUL life of servitude this person, whereas loving the form of beauty itself you never feel vulnerable because it is eternal and unchanging. its never gonna give you up OR let you down. But here’s the problem, it will NEVER love you back…and you know this. It is a perfect, eternal structure…it doesn’t have any use for love…a quest searching for something you’re lacking or whatever your definition is. This is what is known as, Platonic love. And it wasn’t just intended to be used to find a life partner, we have e-harmony for that now. it was also supposed to be used to look past superficial properties of laws or people in government or even things like bridges. do these things just appear to be beautiful…or of substance…or should their worth be judged by the qualities that actually vary between them and other things. I could dress up like a UFC fighter…i could wear the affliction shirts and i could stack some encyclopedias on the bill of a hat so it is as flat as a UFC fighters hat…but examine me a little closer, and I DO MEAN A LITTLE, cause I’m not fooling anyone and you’ll find that i don’t know how to fight…at all…and Dana white is never gonna book me for a main event fight, because there is no substance behind the look.

eventually he got tired of dealing with just moral issues and started trying to answer questions like the presocratics were trying to answer…about what the cosmos is made out of and how did it get here. in a funny way, he arrived at the same conclusion about both. morals and concepts like justice and beauty, are eternal and not defined by the perception of the person seeing them…and he thought that nature and the things we saw were the exact same way…eternal, unchanging and not based on perception.

Plato agreed with Socrates that finding the eternal definition of things like justice was an extremely important thing, because how can you philosophize about something accurately if you don’t even understand the definition of the concepts you’re philosophizing about. how can you talk about justice, without knowing exactly what justice is. to Plato, the entire quest of trying to find the definitions about these things should be done through the Socratic method…two or more people discussing something, with no malicious intentions or horse in the race, but just giving their best guess based on their own experiences and having the other guy nitpick it relentlessly. but he also asks the question, my guess is after being completely frustrated after years of wondering what anything actually is, that…if we arrived at the perfect, eternal definition of justice, beauty or whatever, how would we even be able to recognize that it was the end all, be all perfect FORM of it, and not just some flawed perception like we usually have. But not just the perfect FORM of moral concepts, how about the perfect FORM of everyday objects…what is a tree? exactly? what is a photograph? exactly? right? is there a perfect definition of what the essence of a tree is? Plato thought just as there’s an illusive difficult to define version of what justice is, there’s an illusive difficult to define version of what a tree is, or all physical objects for that matter… a PERFECT tree..and that all the trees we see around us are just inferior copies of that perfect tree. To put it another way, He describes it like this, when we see a tree, we know its a tree and can recognize a tree when we see one, but trees are all very different…no two of them are they same…one may have a knot here, or a random branch there…some trees have one kind of bark or one kind of leaves..there’s a lot of different kinds of trees , but we still recognize it as a tree because it has a sort of a… “tree-e-ness”…uh, for anyone wondering… if it means anything, I’m the moron that decided to use “tree” as an example so id have to say the word tree-e-ness…Plato in his work used dogs and dogginess as an example but anyway, we can recognize tree-e-ness, you know that thing that makes a tree a tree. We recognize it at some level and attach a definition to a tree. So if we analyze what the essence of a tree is long enough, we can understand what a “tree” is by definition. right? We can conceive of what the “perfect” tree really is, but does it actually exist anywhere in the world? no. Plato thought that that perfect tree, along with the perfect forms of EVERYTHING else that exists, including the concepts of justice and beauty, exist in a magical world of forms, that is completely separate from the material world that we live in. Humans cant see or smell or touch the world of forms, but they can think really hard for a really long time about the definitions of one of these things or concepts and access the world of forms through reason. Not only that, but to Plato, the world of forms is the TRUE reality, and that the entire world we live in and everything in it, including people, and trees and dogs …they’re all inferior copies of the quintessential person quintessential tree and quintessential dog that exists in the world of forms. This concept is known as his Theory of Forms, its a pretty strange way of looking at the world and all the things in it, so to try to put it into context and to explain what he means,

This is usually the point in the podcast where I go into some long winded example that no one understands trying to relate the material to you guys, but luckily for me…Plato did it for me! except, his isn’t incomprehensible at all, it’s actually so genius its the thing he’s most known for. It’s called his Allegory of the Cave. Here’s a quote from it:

“Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. “

To Plato, typical human existence is a pretty depressing thing.

So, imagine if from the moment you were born you were tied up and held prisoner inside of a dark cave, being forced to face the dark back wall of the cave. Now, some translations say the light source is a fire, some say it is the sun, but either way shadows are cast of you and the other prisoners tied up around you onto the back wall of the cave…now also, for the sake of including all the other things in the world, Plato includes that there is also a pathway between you and the fire where people walk by every so often and hold up everyday items, like a tree, or a dog…etc…so that the shadow of the tree or the dog is cast on the back wall of the cave. Plato says that if you talked to the prisoners, they would have no idea about the world that’s going on behind them…from birth the only thing they’ve ever seen or known about are the shadows of the actual items being cast on the cave wall…he compares the everyday experience that humans have…seeing a tree or a dog in the real world is like seeing the shadow of the actual item on the cave wall. He continues by saying that if a prisoner manages to untie himself and turn around and look at the actual items and see the fire…or in some translations he would leave the cave and eventually see the sun, which symbolizes complete truth… he would be confused and his eyes would strain at the sun, and most likely he would turn back around and stick to the shadows because its the existence hes known for so long. Not mention he’d probably feel really dumb that hes been sitting there since he was a baby and could’ve untied himself this whole time and didn’t realize it. Plato thought that everything on earth that we had the ability to perceive with our senses had a corresponding Form in the world of forms. When we use our senses to perceive something, like when we see it, smell it touch it, we are essentially seeing shadows on the cave wall. The only true way to know what something is, is to “untie yourself” and turn around to see them for what they actually are, and the way you do that is through reason and thought. Remember how philosophers like Democritus and Empedocles were just trying to find a compromise that accounted for the changing world we perceive, as opposed to Parminides idea that the world is eternal and unchanging? Well, with his theory of forms, Plato was basically doing the same thing. The material world that we live in and perceive, or the shadows on the cave wall…is seemingly changing, but true reality is in a completely separate, eternal and unchanging world, the world of forms. He thought it was a philosophers job to identify as many of these forms as they can in life. Being able to untie yourself and see the truth for what it actually is gives that person a unique perspective of understanding that no one else around him possesses. It’s kind of like watching a football game with a pro football player sitting right next to you. You guys are both watching the same exact game, but he sees SO MUCH MORE than you do, he understands subtleties and strategy that you are completely ignorant to. Plato thought true wisdom did this with everything we see.
here’s another quote from the republic about a prisoner that manages to untie themselves:

“while still blinking through the gloom, and before he has become sufficiently accustomed to the environing darkness, he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the images that cast the shadows and to wrangle in debate about the notions of these things in the minds of those who have never seen justice itself?”

Now, its important to note that a lot of really smart people that don’t think Plato LITERALLY thought that a separate world existed with perfect forms of everything just floating around everywhere. They say he probably was just stating in a melodramatic way that concepts like justice or beauty exist independent of just actions or beautiful things…human beings commonly mistake just actions and definition of justice as being the same thing. I mean, he did speak of a different heaven like world…but really he may have just been marking a contrast between considering what is a just action here and now and what is the eternal unchanging definition of justice regardless of time and place

But there is one glaring problem with his …theory of forms and the …allegory of the cave…how can we even know what the ideal form of anything is? how can we know the difference between reasoning to an imperfect form of a tree or reasoning to a perfect form of a tree. Plato says that even though we don’t realize it, we are all born with knowledge of everything in the world of forms, or as he put it, what we call learning is only a process of recollection. He thought that human beings could be broken down into two separate parts, the body and the soul. the body is responsible for the inferior senses, the things we use to perceive the world around us in a flawed way. the soul, on the other hand, has the ability to reason, and we use the soul to perceive the world of forms. He thought that our soul is eternal and at one point lived in the world of forms before we were born and really wants to go back. so, when we see a tree with our senses in the everyday world, we can recognize that its a tree but we need to use our soul, or reason to remember exactly what a tree is.

“Come now, try to tell me how long each side of this will be. the side of this is two feet. what about each side of the one which is its double?

Obviously Socrates it will be twice the length.

you see Meno that I am not teaching the boy anything but all I do is question him and now he thinks he knows the length of the line on which an eight foot figure is based do you agree?

I do.

And does he know?

Certainly not

He thinks it is a line twice the length

Yes

Watch him now recollecting things in order as one must recollect, tell me boy do you say that a figure double the size is based on a line double the length? Now I mean such a figure as this not long on one side and short on the other but equal in every direction like this one and double the size, that is, eight feet…”

He goes on for a while never teaching the boy anything, but asking questions and getting the boy to arrive at new conclusions all on his own. This is a great example of the Socratic method of questioning at work, and a great example of Socrates being a midwife for ideas like we talked about last episode. You can really see in this story that the boy had no idea what the answer was before he questioned him, and then Socrates gives birth to new ideas, just as he claimed to do when questioning people on the streets of Athens. Plato thought this story and the fact that the slave boy was told nothing, but was able to arrive at new understanding was proof that were born with total knowledge of everything in the world of forms and that understanding the world of forms is just a process of using your soul’s ability to reason to remember them.

The theory of forms may seem a little weird. That’s because it is. If you gave him enough time, Plato himself may have agreed with you. The theory went through several different stages where certain aspects of it changed throughout his life…no doubt because other philosophers would argue about it with him…he’d recognize there was a problem with it and try to adapt to account for it. but He was the first one to designate what the path to having true knowledge was. Yeah, he was addressing the sophist idea of relativism which led him to base his thoughts on something eternal like the theory of forms, but this was a breakthrough in Epistemology. Epistemology, simply put is what do we know and how do we know it, and Although we’ve heard several other philosophers echo the concept of the senses being inferior to reason when trying to arrive at knowledge of the world we live in, his explanation for why it is better really sets him apart from them, and because of this he is usually credited with single-handedly laying the groundwork for 17th century rationalism.

Now, Plato wasn’t done changing philosophy yet. He even had a lot to say about the role of government in a civilized society. Plato was an aristocratic elitist that hated democracy, the conviction of Socrates probably added to this..his thinking was just like there’s an ideal form of justice, or beauty, Plato says there is an ideal form of government, and he crafts a sort of utopia laying out exactly what the ideal government would be and why it should be that way.
The biggest problem he saw was with the leadership that is typically elected to office…here he is giving his account of why leaders never seem to get things done.

“Such was the conviction I had when I arrived in Italy and Sicily for the first time. when I arrive and saw what they call there the “happy life” a life filled with Italian and Syracusan banquets, with men gorging themselves twice a day and never sleeping alone at night, and following all the other customs that go with this way of living I was profoundly displeased. For no man under heaven who has cultivated such practices from his youth could possible grow up to be wise, so miraculous a temper is against nature or become temperate or indeed acquire any other part of virtue.”

People that are born into a rich lifestyle of indulgence, in Plato’s eyes were among the worst that could possibly govern a population.

“I saw clearly in regard to all states now existing that without exception their system of government is bad. Their constitutions are almost beyond redemption….Hence I was forced to say in the praise of the correct philosophy that it affords a vantage point from which we can discern in all cases what is just for communities and for individuals, and accordingly the human race will not see better days until either the stock of those who rightly and genuinely follow philosophy acquire political authority, or else the class who have political control are led by some dispensation of providence to become real philosophers.”

Plato’s idea of what an ideal city is starts at the beginning of the republic where the character Socrates comes across a guy named Thrasimicus…who tells Socrates that morality is nothing more than a set of rules forced upon the weak by strong people who have the power to impose them. he thinks if you can break the law and get away with it you should and if you can change rules and get a bunch of people to follow suit, you should do that too. He finishes by saying that a man who acts morally always ends up worse off than a guy who acts immorally…or to put it in modern terms…nice guys finish last.

Socrates doesn’t have much to say and then, but in the interest of getting to the bottom of it, after Thrasimicus had left, his friends play devils advocate and try to argue against Socrates and get him to explain why it isn’t true. Socrates explains not by pointing out the merits of an individual that acts justly, but by pointing out the merits of a just state…or a system of government that acts justly, he says that it’ll be easier to understand if looked at on a broader scale. So… Plato is not only going to point out what the ideal form of government is, but also make a case for why it is in your own self-interest to act morally. Simultaneously, in A SINGLE WRITING tackling two gigantic tasks that have plagued brilliant humans ever since. This is why Plato is amazing, BTW. right there.

So first, Plato defines what the ideal city would need to have. It would need a police force or some sort of protective enforcement to protect it from invaders and to prevent civil wars from breaking out. but then he goes on to say that everyone should work in the area that best accentuates the individual gifts they have, for example if you are naturally gifted at math you would work in the math field, if you’re naturally gifted in the arts, you’d be an artist etc….honestly, I know were talking about a utopia here and it isn’t necessarily viable in the real world, but doesn’t it GREATLY benefit society to have things this way? It really makes you wonder how many super geniuses that could’ve cured diseases ended up being the dishwasher manager at taco bell. The potential of a society with this idea in place is endless, and whenever I think about it in action, I think of a scene from a movie about another area of Greece that was facing conquest.

300 video

In that scene king Leonidas, or if you’re on NPR, Leonidas, comes across the Athenians who marvel at the fact he only brought 300 soldiers…and then as you heard…he points out that the Athenians didn’t bring soldiers, they brought blacksmiths and potters…BY having specialization in a society that accentuates the natural gifts of the population, how can you lose? And those 300 Spartans would’ve stopped Xerxes EASY if Quasimodo hadn’t led them through the mountains.

In his utopian government Plato even said women would have the ability to work their way up in the city just as much as men do, which was an unprecedented belief back then, but I don’t really see why…why does it make sense to forfeit 50% of your brain power right off the bat? all I’m saying is it was obviously unfair subjugation and not some calculated move that people that designed cities made back then..Plato’s city would be made up of a hierarchical class structure that would consist of 3 classes. the producers, which were like farmers, blacksmiths…artisans…you know working class…and the other two were the guardians and the rulers. the rulers would be chosen from the best guardians and the guardians would be chosen from children that looked like they would be good rulers with the right training and guidance. Plato noticed that its always when the rulers act selfishly or immorally that the problems start to arise for the population, so if all the rulers are chosen from the guardians, and the guardians are in a sort of interim boot camp phase, they would have a much better stock to pull from. but the training and guidance of these guardians needed to be perfect. they were cultivating their future president after all. all the guardians would live a communal lifestyle with no private property which even goes for their wives and children. they were forbidden to touch or own silver, gold or other riches. all of these precautions were taken so they didn’t have a horse in the race…the only motivating aspect should be the improvement of the state. they would be strictly regulated when it came to diet, exercise and even the types of songs or poems they heard in their malleable years. they would make sure all the stories they heard had the main character or hero of the story acting in the way they would want one of their leaders to act. In short, his utopia would involve spoon feeding only positive influences to children from a very young age in an attempt to remove them from their ego, fabricate a moral compass and teach them to think rationally all in an attempt to eventually yield a leader that would be flawless.

Plato says that this would be the ideal form of a city. Specialization…each person using their natural gifts and capabilities to their highest potential. he continues making his case by saying that a just city has all of its parts working together well and this is comparable to a human being who has all of their parts working well. and just as the city has 3 classes, the human soul has 3 parts as well. firstly, the appetitive, which is the desire for sex or money which is comparable to the producers who live as they do to make money, secondly, the spirited which wants honor, fame or notoriety and is comparable to the class of guardians…and lastly the rational part of the soul which desires knowledge. he compares the ideal state of a city to the ideal state of a human being…the human shouldn’t let his desires for sex or food or fame or glory overtake him, he should make decisions based on reason. this is the same reason why cities should be ruled by reason, or people cultivated to think purely rationally. Plato thought that the only way for this system of government to ever be implemented would be for the public to elect philosophers as their kings or for the current kings to educate themselves in the area of philosophy. These people that used reason to “untie themselves” from the back wall of the cave and see the absolute truth, Plato thought that wisdom earned them “the stamp of the ruler” . The way he saw it, who better to rule everyone than someone who understands the exact definition of moral values or what justice or fairness is…instead of flawed people ruling everyone that always impose their biased and often times corrupt views on the entire populace.

This supreme form of government that I have just laid out is what Plato would call an Aristocracy. Plato thought the less excited people were to be leader the better things would inevitably turn out. An Aristocracy is ruled by a philosopher king, and therefore is managed by wisdom and reason. Plato thought there were five main types of regimes that could potentially govern a society and they were on a hierarchy from best to worst…and he explains how each form of government subsequently devolves into the next worse form of government on the hierarchy. The 5, in order, were an Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny. Now, The meanings of these 5 types of governments is not even close to the modern definitions of them, but there are enough similarities for us to understand what he means and see his brilliance. The aristocracy is the best form of government and devolves into a Timocracy when, someone misjudges who a good candidate for the guardian position would be…so instead of getting someone who’s completely removed from their own ego and rational, you get someone who may still be incredibly smart and rational, but their main driving force is not the acquisition of knowledge…its the acquisition of honor. still pretty noble, but not as noble as knowledge. also known as a military dictatorship. This love of conquest causes them to allow themselves to own property. Usually through military conquest right? and this was actually the system of government in Sparta…Then the Timocracy devolves into the oligarchy. uh and Plato saw that happening because as the desire for honor comes into play… doing something in ones self interest always keeps going and doing things in desire of money is the next logical step… the people in power want to protect their financial interests so they make it a rich ruling the poor sort of dynamic and that’s what an oligarchy is…they still have some morals, they’re thrifty, but only for the cause of saving money, not being wise or for the benefit of the city necessarily… the people in the oligarchy admire power and money, so they put the rich in office and despise the poor…this form of government is destined to fail because eventually class warfare will erupt and the rich will be against the poor and there will always be more poor than rich…so then what inevitably happens is the poor revolt and the oligarchy devolves into a democracy, or a society ruled by the masses…uh…in a democracy, freedom is seen as the supreme good…and back in Plato’s time people in a democracy were seen as self indulgent, focused on immediate gratification, of food, sex and other short term pleasures and he saw the democratic state, as an undisciplined pandemonium. when freedom is the most important tenant of society, eventually, Plato thought, through policy dictated by the masses laws cease to exist and then democracy devolves into a tyranny where there’s still all the self-indulgence of democracy, but then there are no laws either…society is in chaos… and then a tyrant seizes power.

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Episode 2 Transcript

This is a transcript of Episode 2 on Italian Pre-Socratic Philosophy

If you’re like me, when you hear the name Pythagoras you probably think of, the Pythagorean theorem. You probably have post traumatic stress flashbacks to 7th grade pre-algebra class and all the turmoil he caused you there. you know, A squared plus B squared equals C squared. but it turns out, as ill explain in a second, you may have been mad at the wrong guy all along. like all of these early philosophers, not much is known for sure, most of the information we have is hearsay from other future philosophers, most of the time those future philosophers are just 2 guys, Plato and Aristotle. but in the case of Pythagoras, this lack of hard facts and general ambiguity is at an extreme. to history, Pythagoras is known almost as a mythical figure, i mean we know he existed…we know for sure he believed in reincarnation and that he had a thing for numbers, but as far as everything else, saying that Pythagoras the man himself did it, is speculation. see, most of the stuff we know about him was written down by his followers. followers that were vowed to secrecy and saw him as an exalted figure, like a messiah. and all that secrecy fueled a TON of speculation from people that weren’t his followers, which no doubt contributed this mythical figure status that he had.

But why would his followers see him as a messiah? cause he named himself a messiah. and this is how I remember Pythagoras, I think of him as the “crazed cult leader” from ancient Greek philosophy. cult leader is probably a little unfair, but only because of the modern connotation associated with the term cult leader. He definitely was at the helm of a religious cult back then. His love of mathematics and astronomy probably began when he was young when he visited Egypt and Miletus, and its not farfetched to think that he would’ve studied under the Milesian school of thought, remember that’s where Thales and Anaxamander came from that we talked about last episode. i mean, he grew up right next to them, he certainly would have heard about them and was born into the kind of social standing that would’ve allowed him the luxury to travel and study. but around the age of 40, he started gathering together these followers who saw him as a religious sage, and set up a commune in a town called Croton, in southern Italy. a few different sources say when he first started up he had around 300 members of this commune and everything he’s known for comes from the work he did when he was inside of this commune, and because of how unclear it is whether he himself came up with any ONE theory or whether it was one of his followers attributing it to his master…the brains behind the operation, historians just kind of lump everything under this one umbrella of Pythagoreanism. And this applies to everything, even the famous Pythagorean theorem itself. Its not hard to imagine a modern day example of this exact situation happening, i mean imagine if tomorrow someone like, Barrack Obama started up a scientific movement called…Obamareanism. and he has a lot of people on this quest with him, so long after he lives a long healthy life and dies at the age of 124, Obamareanism is still going…50 years after his death some guy that still calls himself an Obamarean comes up with a pretty important scientific theorem. 2500 years later when students are learning about it in science class might call it the Obamarean theorem, and they also might mistakenly think Obama himself came up with it.

Now, Pythagoras himself wouldn’t have been offended, he wasn’t doing all of this stuff to become famous, or to leave some legacy. he was doing it simply for the love of wisdom. which reminds me, the world philosopher…means lover of wisdom. ‘philo’ means love, ‘soph’ means wisdom, and Pythagoras himself was actually the first guy to coin the term. he came up with the word, philosopher. now, all of his followers may have called themselves Pythagoreans, but they definitely were philosophers. imagine being one of these cult members…imagine Pythagoras convincing you that its a great idea for you to join this commune he is starting up in Southern Italy. It really speaks to how likeable and authoritative Pythagoras must have been. You know how there’s IQ which is your intelligence quotient and then there’s NQ which is your networking quotient, or your ability to interact socially and influence people? Pythagoras was no doubt a genius in both of these areas. I mean, this commune wasn’t like, hey come live in a village with us and study math every once in a while. This was a complete lifestyle overhaul. and a restrictive overhaul at that. Not only was it dedicating your entire life to the pursuit of knowledge in math, music and astronomy, the 3 areas they saw as the most important those were only half of it. The other half was the religious side of the cult and all the behavioral restrictions. so you may be asking, how can Pythagoras go from a young person that is just generally fascinated with the way the Egyptians did math to thinking he’s a messiah for some movement? i think the best way to understand is to put yourself in the shoes of someone studying math at the time.
You know when you’re in math or science class and you sign your name at the front of the textbook and you can look back at the people that had the book before you for generations, you can actually see this is the same book Abe Lincoln used when he was a kid…they didn’t have that thick textbook, let alone one that had been around for hundreds of years. Math was done completely differently. When these people thought about the number four, it wasn’t the number 4…it was the essence behind the number four…like the number four is just a representation of a quantity of four things. when these people drew a right triangle on the ground and were thinking about the squares of the different sides of it, they actually drew a square with the side of the triangle being one side of the square and counted the units. math to them consisted of little things, little experiments they could repeat and understand what the world was in a world that was no where near understood. we take so many things for granted today that are explained in modern physics and chemistry that they had no idea about, so to realize that adding together the squares of two sides of a right triangle was equal to the square of the hypotenuse…that was cool. But to realize…that applies to all right triangles and there are no exceptions to that rule…and to feel that you really understand something about the essence of that triangle and the laws that govern the sides of that triangle or any triangle in the universe? That must have been…mind numbing. I mean here’s this giant universe with tons of mystery we know nothing about…and here’s a formula we arrived at to explain one part of it. They saw these mathematical proofs as the way the universe could be understood, or as they put it, number is the ruler of all forms. So in that sense, they kind of jumped to a conclusion, but its easy to see how back then, these proofs must have seemed like magic, or god given wisdom…not only that, but its also to see how a man like Pythagoras, the messenger boy arriving at these conclusions could have seemed like a demigod himself. The difference between Pythagoras and what we think of as a modern cult leader is that the modern cult leaders start these things up so they can have money, power or influence, its not crazy to think that Pythagoras actually thought of himself as relaying some sacred information. whenever i think of this concept I love to contrast it with the fact that the SAME information that was so powerful it made a man believe he was a messiah in a religious movement 2500 years ago, is the midterm for 7th grade pre-algebra in today’s world. It really is a testament to human progress and just how far we’ve come as a species. and how about a testament to how far were capable of going.

It must have been easy to jump to a conclusion like they did given the fact that there were other conclusions they arrived at in other areas of study that completely reinforced this concept of numbers being the rulers of all forms. They saw math, music and astronomy as three areas of study that were completely interrelated and understanding them was the key to understanding the universe. Pythagoras is said to have stumbled across …much of the basis for his understanding of ratios and proportions as they relate to numbers… when he was actually studying the relationship between musical intervals and harmonies.

It kind of makes sense too, because understanding the difference between two music notes is similar to understanding the difference between two numbers. in every single source about Pythagoras I’ve read there’s this story about him getting a revelation about musical notes while listening to blacksmiths work so there must be some merit to the story…it basically says that by complete chance, Pythagoras just decided to listen to two blacksmiths working…i guess there wasn’t HBO back then…he had to entertain himself some way, and the two blacksmiths were hammering on their anvils and one had an anvil exactly twice the size of the other anvil, so when their hammers beat on the anvil, it made the same note…just one octave apart. an octave in the world of music is the same notes, just 8 intervals up or down. so its the same note…for example…and I’m sorry for this “LA! LA!” remind me to never sing in a podcast again…

it wasn’t just the 8 note difference between octaves of each other, Pythagoras found that harmonies that we hear all the time, even in music today were just simple mathematical ratios…like in the case of a major scale, a major third would be 3 intervals up or a fifth, five intervals up. numbers governing acoustic relationships, just reinforced the idea that numbers could explain everything in the universe. In 1865, John Newlands used these relationships that Pythagoras found and used it as the basis for his discovery that chemical elements are arranged according to atomic weight, and that those with similar properties occur at every eighth element…like notes of a musical scale. this became known as the law of octaves and it lead to the development of the periodic table of elements was organized.
again, you can see how finding constants when explaining things with numbers could reinforce the idea that everything can be understood through numbers

We can’t really blame them, though. It’s scary to live in a world without explanation..and in a world without explanation, its easy to try to apply meaning to things that really might not have that much significance. But as long as we understand what could have led them to think this way, I think its really interesting to hear what the Pythagoreans thought the best way to live life was. If you lived in this Pythagorean cult, you couldn’t eat meat. you were a vegetarian. the reasoning behind this was because Pythagoreans believed in reincarnation, more specifically the transmigration of souls to different species. they thought that by eating other animals, you were essentially eating your grandma who just died and was reincarnated into the body of a chicken. what is this based on? well the story goes that one day some men Pythagoras was hanging around were beating a dog and it cried out in pain… and he told them to stop because he swore he heard the voice of his friend crying out in the dogs yelp. that dog had to be his friend…reincarnated…now I’m not sure if that’s true , but how about we take out the reincarnation part and just arrive at the revelation to…not beat dogs? what kind of sick people was he hanging around anyway.
when it came to reincarnation, the Pythagoreans believed that this cycle of constantly dying and being reincarnated into a new body was some sort of punishment, and that the goal of life was to end the cycle of reincarnation and finally be set free to live eternally in the blessed realm…either the sun or the moon…i guess you take your pick. for the record I pick the moon.
only by adhering to a strict regimen of behavioral restrictions and thought can you end the cycle of reincarnation. but where did they get this idea? historians say they may have gotten this idea from an OLD mystic ancient Greek religion called Orphism. There’s a story that basically conveys the same idea…the story of Dionysus. basically Zeus had sex with his mom and they had a beautiful baby girl…who Zeus then had sex with, once she was of legal age of course, and then they had a kid named Dionysus….you know what? long story short…man is part evil because of some bad stuff the gods did. one night. but the concept that man is part evil and the only way to cure himself of this evil that he is born with is to live a life of restriction and thought was an Orphic concept, and for Pythagoras the thought portion of this was math music and astronomy. so why did he pick those concepts as opposed to something else? because the understanding of those topics led to the understanding of the universal truths that govern the universe. eternal truths…truths that never change. And its pretty awesome to think about it the way they did…they thought that the closest thing a person can achieve to immortality is to understand these eternal truths and to try to live in harmony with them. by understanding concepts that are eternal, that’s the closest man will ever get to being immortal.

A couple other interesting facts about Pythagoreans,
A lot of people claim Pythagoreans established the idea of deductive reasoning…but if you look at the sources where these people get their information…there isn’t anything particularly conclusive. You can kind of say they had a rudimentary version of it, but the first use of axioms is obvious in the work of Euclid 500 years later and there is a lot of deductive reasoning done by Parmenides, but not by Pythagoras. Pythagoras and his followers really innovated the idea of studying mathematics solely for the sake of intellectual satisfaction. rather than trying to construct buildings better or some other practical gain.
One other very notable contribution is he was the first one to make the statement that arriving to conclusions through reason was greatly superior to evidence gathered through the senses. There have been hundreds of rationalist philosophers that would go on to arrive at notable conclusions themselves, but one of the best examples of this was Plato and the idea of using reason to arrive at conclusions was the BASIS of his super famous theory of forms. Pythagorean thought went on to develop in small pockets over the years even though the commune was no longer around. The thoughts developed eventually went on to greatly influence Nicolaus Copernicus and Johaness Keppler’s treatise on the harmony of the universe among others.

I think of Parmenides as the dark, dark cloud of deductive reasoning. To the presocratic philosophers, Parmenides represented this dark cloud on the horizon, because all these ideas great thinkers before him were so sure of, he threatened to destroy everything they thought they knew with his ideas. Parmenides was a huge curve ball in philosophy. a turning point in early philosophy, people like Thales and Anaxamander they tried to explain how the cosmos came to existence, parmenides explained how it couldn’t have come into existence in the first place. everyone before him tried to explain the phenomena we saw in the changing world…he seemed to be able to prove that nothing ever changed, that those phenomena didn’t exist and that true reality was that everything was one single unchanging blob.

Nobody saw this coming…he came completely out of left field with this. One day, he just told everyone a story about taking a chariot ride in the clouds and coming across a goddess who for some reason decides to let him in on the secret that…oh yeah everything that every man has thought before you is completely wrong and let me just give you the real answers. I mean who was this guy, Parmenides, just completely out of the blue he comes up with a single poem that calls into question everything that everyone had every thought they’d known previously? It must have seemed somewhat believable that it was given to him by some goddess, because its not like he was building on the ideas of any previous thinker. This was the first time anyone had ever brought deductive reasoning to the table in any real sense. And it…was…huge. Imagine being the first person to discover some other really effective way of doing something that changed the way the whole world thought about things. Like….imagine if you were the first guy in history to tie your shoes with the two bunny ears method. Old people would be looking at your perfectly tied shoes…resenting you. You’d cast doubt into the hearts of all the loop swoop and pullers that lived alongside you. You’d shake things up in the shoe tying community, that’s for certain, and Parmenides did exactly that with his deductive reasoning.

The only surviving poem, and thus all we know about Parmenides is actually really difficult to read because he was one of only two presocratic philosophers that wrote all of his thoughts down in something called hexameter verse. It’s a structured poetic style of writing that was pretty common at the time…famous poets like Homer and Hesiod wrote in. Philosophers knew that talking about the nature of the cosmos and existence wasn’t the most entertaining concept to the average person. It was by no means a Broadway musical. So to try to make it more digestible to people, he tried to write it in an entertaining poetic way so people would not only be able to enjoy the poem, but also be exposed to his heady concepts. It’s actually a brilliant idea…Parmenides in this way reminds me of C.S. Lewis how he wrote this masterpiece of literature…the chronicles of Narnia that people deeply enjoy, and it turns out it was an allegory of Christianity the whole time…like Jesus is the lion and what not.

Anyway, onto his deductive reasoning and how it changed philosophy. His idea was actually pretty simple, but he phrases it in a way that makes it a little difficult to follow. He says…what is is….and what is not is not…in other words if something exists it exists if something does not exist it does not exist and its impossible for something to exist and not exist at the same time right? he says that because of this, a point in time where the universe was in a state of nothing existing is impossible because things exist now and nothing can come into existence from a place where nothing exists. In other words, something cannot come from nothing and so the universe must have always existed in some form and is eternal. If the universe came into existence… what caused it to come into existence in the first place? what made it start then as opposed to earlier or later?
Philosophers hadn’t really thought of this before, they were content with accepting that…they were here and it did exist and everything has a beginning, so lets try to think of some interesting explanations for how it happened that don’t involve gods.

He also thought that we cannot speak of what “is not” or what doesn’t exist. For example, to think about a unicorn is to essentially think about nothing…because it doesn’t exist. To talk about a unicorn, to Parmenides is just to be making meaningless sound, because it doesn’t exist. The way Parmenides sees it, if change was possible it would first have to be one way and then change into another way that its not right now, but we can’t speak of what is not, so we cant speak of change. Therefore change is impossible. He uses this same logic to say that nothing actually moves either cause it would have to be in one place first…etc. Parmenides thought the universe was one, eternal, unchanging massive blob with no empty space inside that is like a sphere. And at the time Greeks saw the sphere as the most perfect and divine of all the geometric forms.
If any part of you is annoyed with Parmenides for coming to all these confusing conclusions, take some solace in the fact that he lived his entire life walking around in a world that he logically concluded to be a complete illusion, a world where change and movement is impossible so doing anything, as far as he saw it was absolutely pointless.

The picture Parmenides begins to paint begins to look familiar right? There seems to be a common thread among most of the presocratics where they use this amazing ability to think they’ve been given to arrive at a fundamental conclusion about all the stuff around them…and then they spend the rest of their time trying REALLY REALLY hard to apply that one concept to as many things as possible sometimes even the entire universe. With Democritus and Leucippus it was their atoms like we talked about last episode, with the Pythagoreans it was numbers and harmony, but in the case of Parmenides its pretty extreme. he basically is saying that although we see motion and change and birth and death…that none of it is actually happening. which completely contradicts what we see. not to mention, hes saying we cant speak of “what is not”…but by talking about the fact that birth, death motion or change, he IS speaking of “what is not”. and that just doesn’t make any sense Parmenides.
he would’ve said, yeah, you think you’re speaking of something that doesn’t exist but really you’re just talking about nothing, you should abandon these “common sense prejudices” you have. see, the fact you think you’re talking about something that doesn’t exist is based on evidence you’ve gathered through the sense organs, if what you think you see with your senses and what reason tells you contradicts each other…reason should always be held in higher regard because the senses are deceptive and cant be trusted.
He definitely was a weird guy. but he certainly wasn’t a dumb guy. This idea that he is talking about is, in my opinion his greatest contribution to philosophy. It was the fact that all the thinkers that came before him and their perceptions of the world were actually full of contradictions. We use our senses and think we see changes happening all around us, but reason, at least as far as he saw it, tells us change is impossible. Not only was this a strong victory for proponents of using reason to arrive at conclusions as opposed to the senses, but it gave credence to the idea of accepting the outcome of an experiment despite what might immediately appear to be rational or irrational through the senses. In other words, you have to trust the science.

This idea that parmenides had about the ordinary world that we see just no existing…that contrast with common sense was too difficult for anyone to swallow. future philosophers wanted to agree with him, but they just couldn’t accept that everything they see isn’t real. so they took his idea that there is a world where there is an ultimate reality where things aren’t born and doesn’t change or die, and added onto it an explanation for the seemingly changing world that we perceive. Like Atomism.
Empedocles was one of these philosophers that added into parmenides. he thought that the whole world was made up of 4 elements that were in themselves eternal and unchanging, but added that they had the ability to combine with each other to make up the changing world we see.

According to Empedocles, he was an immortal god among men who had been given his divine status because of all the knowledge he had gained through extensive thought during his life. He would walk around everywhere in this ridiculous outfit, a purple robe, a giant golden belt, bronze shoes, and a wreath around his head like he was the Delphic oracle. And he did it on purpose…he said when he walks through a new town, he wants people to see him and wonder what hes all about and follow him around in the thousands…and it WORKED.

Anyone that didn’t agree with him or questioned him were complete fools.
You see, he was a god and he knew of a time a long time ago when man experienced a golden age when all men lived happily together and there was no turmoil in the world. The bad news was all men at first were gods, they just lost their immortal status and were put here on earth. the good news was they all had the ability to become gods again, they just had to live the right way. Only through knowledge and following Empedocles could men can regain the divine status they once had.

Like I said before, he agreed with parmenides that the universe is eternal and that nothing is ever created or destroyed. He just tried to find a compromise that would account for the seemingly changing world that we see everyday with our sense organs.
He claimed there were four elements. Air, Water, Fire and Earth and that all things are just different recipes of different quantities of these four elements. Combine his ridiculous super-hero like getup, with his Earth, Fire, Wind and Water with his views on the forces of love and strife that I’ll talk about later and he begins to sound pretty familiar.
captain planet theme song
Empedocles is Captain Planet. At least that’s how I remember him. For anyone that is incredibly confused right now, let me explain. Captain Planet was a cartoon from the early nineties. where a group of teenagers all had the power to summon a superhero named captain planet. each one of them had a ring. there were 5 different things they called out and then a double rainbow of light shot out of their rings and captain planet arrived. these were earth, fire, wind, water and heart.
If Captain Planet has any emotional context for you, it is an extremely effective way to remember Empedocles. Like I said, the crazy super-hero like getup, his views of earth fire air and water and heart symbolizing his thoughts on the forces of love and strife that we will talk about in a little. If Captain planet holds no significance to you, i humbly apologize for wasting 30 seconds of your life, and maybe consider checking out a few episodes for comedic value, you just don’t see cartoons that deliver a positive message like that to kids anymore.

Empedocles thought the elements, earth fire air and water, themselves do not change, they just intermingle and move around and combine with each other. This was the compromise Empedocles made to Parmenides’ extreme idea that change and movement is impossible. Empedocles said that the process of the elements intermingling and moving around is what man calls “birth” or death. birth and death are just human constructs, or words, used to define different assemblies of unchanging things. this has a lot of similarities with the idea of atomism that we were talking about last episode. remember, the atoms themselves do not change, just the configuration of atoms.
he saw the mixing of the different elements as similar to the mixing of colors of paint that an artist would have, when you look at a cup, you’re really just looking at nature’s masterful combination of these 4 elements. and this applied to anything you can see around you. what about metals? he had bronze shoes after all. all metals were actually seen as water because they could be melted down and combined with other metals.

“As painters, men well taught by wisdom in the practice of their art, decorate temple offerings they take in their hands pigments of various colors, and after fitting them in close combination, more of some and less of others, they produce from them shapes resembling all things, creating trees and men and women, animals and birds and water-nourished fish, and long-lived gods too, highest in honour; so let not error convince you in your mind that there is any other source for the countless perishables that are seen, but know this clearly, since the discourse you have heard is from a god.”

i like how, just for good measure he adds on at the end…by the way I’m a god so trust me. Just in case you guys didn’t agree with the mixing of paint analogy I just made…as you’ve probably noticed he was pretty similar to Pythagoras in several ways. He WAS a Pythagorean. He believed in reincarnation. He believed that there were two forces in the universe that were constantly at battle with one another. One of them was love, which not only is responsible for bringing the elements together to make up the everyday items we see, but is responsible for human emotion, this force of love is actually what caused humans to feel sexual attraction towards each other…the other force was strife, which constantly seeks to drive the elements apart and break them down and in the case of humans its what drives people away from each other and creates problems. love and strife are constantly at battle with one another and the result of this constant battle is the changing world we perceive.

see, he thought a long time ago, there was a time when love reigned supreme…it had triumphed over strife completely and all the elements were all in one sphere with love protecting them, in the middle of the universe…but then strife started attacking love and the elements got out of this protective sphere and were scatted around everywhere…and then love fought back and started grouping the elements back together, in the process, as these small quantities of elements are drawn together by love, the everyday things we see like mountains, and trees and chairs were assembled. In the current state of the world, love and strife are constantly battling one another..love combines the elements into a human or a dog and then strife tears it apart and makes it into ashes… eventually, a long time from now Empedocles says that one of them, either love or strife, will reign supreme and the entire process will start over again.

well, its a wonderful story and all, but the thing that makes it important to philosophy is that it was the first time anyone had thought of the idea of there being an intangible force responsible for the actions of the elements. before, if the whole world was made up of varying different forms of water, water itself doesn’t move right? how can you explain the fact it somehow manifested itself into all this stuff? the idea of a force being behind it was revolutionary and incredibly insightful and similar to what we know of forces in modern physics.
He also seems to have accurately arrived at the idea of natural selection as being the way animals survived and adapted. they owe the features that allow them to survive to the fact that there used to be MANY different species of creatures and the ones with characteristics that didn’t behoove them died off before they were able to propagate…leaving only the strongest and best adapted. quote” here sprang up many faces without necks

One last way you can think of Empedocles as Captain Planet is that he was a huge proponent of recycling, but not recycling cans and bottles…but ideas. He really was a giant conglomeration of several great ideas that were successful for previous philosophers in their own time. He was like Pythagoras being the crazy demigod, and he also had a whole religious message to his philosophy that was similar to Pythagoras…basically it was a positive message about living with the ways of love as opposed to strife and that all men are being punished in their current form because they sacrificed animals and ate meat. His constant battling spectrum is like the flux theory of Heraclitus. His compromise on Parmenides eternal universe being very similar to Democritus’ theory on atoms, although he was a contemporary of Democritus.
Anyway, legend has it that eventually Empedocles jumped into a volcano to prove that he was immortal, i don’t have to tell you how that one worked out for him. but he left the world an accomplished man who came up with a theory of what everything around us is made of that was so successful that Aristotle himself heavily endorsed it with only a few corrections and it was widely seen as the truth until 18th century.

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Episode 3 Transcript

This is a transcript of Podcast Episode 3 on Socrates and the Sophists

Try to imagine yourself as a citizen of Athens right around the 5th century BC…the city of Athens at this point is undergoing a massive period of prosperity…and there’s this guy named Pericles in charge…he had just assumed the throne and is doing a really good job and this leads to a “golden age” of culture and philosophy. so naturally when things are going really well in one place…people flock to that place from all the surrounding areas… and in this case it was mostly from other Greek city-states…now as an Athenian, you would live in a democratic society that had a LOVE of its legal system. Athenians loved a good argument…they loved to be entertained…and most of the time you could find both of those things in the courthouse. Athenians would have been HUGE fans of Judge Judy…or back then it would’ve been “Judge Judicles”…i mean, it was exciting, if someone took you to court for something, it could affect the entire outcome of your life! problem was, language and critical thinking was still in its infancy…so defending yourself in one of these trials was not only crucial, but it was incredibly unlikely that you had the ability to argue or speak well enough to do an effective job of it. on top of all this… people were just as ambitious back then as we are today, and it was possible to work your way up the social ladder and earn a prestigious place in government, but no one was gonna vote for you if you weren’t educated and well spoken. These two things created enough of a market for self-improvement that an ENTIRE industry of philosopher teachers arose called…the sophists. Now, we talked last episode about the word philosophy…the love of wisdom…but the second half of that word is sophia…which means wisdom. sophists…they have the word for wisdom in their name…they certainly were wise, but as you can see…there was no love involved here. Sophists were a mixture between ITT tech and a taco truck. they were mobile schools. and they’d teach you anything you wanted to learn about for the right price. Music…rhetoric…mathematics…grammar…it actually does remind me of an ITT Tech commercial…there’s always two women in an elevator and they’re like “bob lost his job again….WHAT BOB LOST HIS JOB? WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO? I dunno! I despise my current job and i just wish i had the skills to move forward! You should call ITT Tech….they can help you specialize in…paralegal…dental assistant…SCUBA instructor…you know the marquee pops up on the bottom of the screen…ITT tech provides a very similar service to what the early sophists provided and this kind of commercial could be compared to how they used to have competitions screaming at each other trying to draw a crowd and show that they knew more than other sophists. These sorts of screaming matches combined with the just generally sleazy nature of charging A LOT of money for something that was held to be sacred made a lot of people dislike them. Not to mention the actual subject matter they were teaching was pretty shaky. remember how the demand for sophists came about because people were being called to court to defend themselves? well when all those people told these sophists they wanted to win the argument in court and learn to make a case for themselves, the sophists just taught them how to win arguments…they didn’t teach them any facts or true wisdom…as a result you had hundreds of people that just became masters of rhetoric…even in cases where they probably should have been guilty they were able to win…the sophists taught these people little argument tactics like…nitpicking insignificant points…or discrediting the source of the information…They taught them to win the argument, even if they had the worse argument. this didn’t make people too thrilled with the sophists.

They definitely understood the power of language and its ability to influence people…one very notable sophist was named Gorgias and he wrote about language in one of his works called Encomium of Helen. it was basically a promotional flyer for his school. he wrote it with the sole intention of attracting students and getting business and to really try to make a case for why the investment of their money would yield benefits:

“Just as different drugs draw forth different humors from the body – some putting a stop to disease, others to life – so too with words: some cause pain, others joy, some strike fear, some stir the audience to boldness, some benumb and bewitch the soul with evil persuasion”

You can definitely see in this quote that he not only UNDERSTOOD the power of language, but in a funny way he was using the power of language to try to recruit people to learn the power of language from him.

One common thread among all the sophists was that they were skeptics. They didn’t like the idea of accepting something because reason tells us it SHOULD be true…they wanted hard evidence. really, they just wanted a philosophy that made sense through the lens of everyday experience. They didn’t like the ideas of Democritus or Empedocles where they said that our senses show us an artificial world and that the real world exists at the atomic level or the level of the mixing of elements. They thought human experience should be paramount…the only question was…if truth is based on a sensory experience, whose sensory experience should be the guide?

One of the very first and most influential of all the sophists was a guy named Protagoras. he was friends with Empedocles, the guy that walked around in bronze shoes…if that tells you anything. Like the other sophists…Protagoras made his money teaching people not what right or wrong was, but teaching them how to argue. So it really was conveniently aligned with his job security when he decided that he believes that every argument has two sides, neither of which is more right than the other. he said he could win an argument with a worse argument if he was just more persuasive than his opponent. because of this, he concluded it is the man holding the opinion that is the measure of the worth of the argument, not the actual argument itself or the facts its based on. Or as he put it in the opening line of his most famous work “Man is the measure of all things.”

He took this idea one step further and applied it to everything. what is true for one person may be false for another…what is hot for one person may be cold for another… but it also applies to morals…what is right for one person may not be right for another etc…he said nothing is inherently good in itself, something is only right because a person or society judges it to be right. This idea of there being no absolutes or moral principles and that everything is subjective… is known as relativism. Protagoras didn’t think truth was something that only god knew or that you could only attain by thinking and analyzing things for decades. he thought truth is what any one guy makes it…

To philosophy, Protagoras is the ultra accepting, fanny pack wearing soccer mom that hands out Capri Suns at the end of the games. Now, I’m sure we all know someone or have known someone who agrees with him. It really is a compassionate and accepting way of looking at things and people, so you can’t be too mad at them. but relativism always begs the question…so if everyone is right in whatever truth they arrive at, then what about the people that condemn all other cultures and think everyone else is wrong? shouldn’t they be right too? and i remember reading something Socrates said and it was something like if relativism is true…and everyone is right regardless of what they think….how can any one man be wiser than another? aren’t they all correct? and also…aren’t they in the business of teaching people stuff for money? why is anyone buying lessons if they already know all the truth? the sophists would’ve said they don’t teach people anything that is better knowledge…just more useful knowledge…knowledge that can be used to benefit the person like in the courts.

All of this stuff…this relativist view on morals…that there isn’t a good or bad just different…and their specialty to use rhetoric and language to sometimes make the worse argument win all of this no doubt led to the negative outlook on the sophists. People always think about their argument skills and assume they only used them to do nefarious things…they have this view like the sophists sitting around teaching one OJ Simpson after another how to get off scott free. But don’t forget they could have just as easily used their special ability to argue to fight for justice or do what the citizens thought was right. I mean, you can definitely find several examples of how the sophists helped advance philosophy…relativism was a direct assault on the idea of moral principles…or there just being one definition of good, or just, or whatever. and all of this discourse ended up heavily influencing Plato to address the tenants of morality and really try to base it on something eternal or stronger than one man’s opinion, and if it weren’t for the sophists, Plato may have never taken the time to clarify these things, and its some of his most important work. personally, I like what they had to say because it was open-minded. and, if argument was their specialty, any truly great position would have to suffer the gauntlet of sophist argument, and if it could survive that…no matter how annoying it would have been at the time, it would be a stronger more well crafted argument for the experience.

So real quickly, I’d like to tie up some loose ends and help bring together all of the stuff we’ve covered so far in the last 2 episodes. Now, we arent the first people to ever study presocratic philosophy…there have been several really smart people that have categorized all of these thinkers and ideas in detail…and THEY wanted to find a way to remember it more effectively too. As you can probably imagine, they all didn’t use the same method of categorizing them. If there is one thing you do outside of this podcast this week, you NEED to look at a graph of the presocratic philosophers that is really common. Its really important guys…you have to see the visual…it will really help you put all the philosophers that we’ve covered so far into context. were gonna have it up on the website…but its probably faster for you to just go to GOOGLE images and type in presocratic graph and you’ll see it. On the left it shows the years they lived..on the right are the names of them…color coded to a legend that designates the school of thought they came from, and arrows pointed to all of their students or the people they influenced. Now there are different ways people categorize these presocratics…One example is what we’ve already talked about…the Ionian and Italian classes…those are two geographic regions, so if you wanted to remember them based on where they came from, that would be one method of remembering. But there are other ways…sometimes these historians of the presocratics will break them down by their ideas…and this usually ends with them being separated into 6 or so different schools of thought. Now these will probably never…ever come up in a conversation you’re having about philosophy, but think of it this way, if this ever comes up on jeopardy…people are gonna look at you like you are the rain man…then you just stand up and go…is this TEEN jeopardy? no? too easy and just walk out of the room..you will be an instant legend.. but another reason is, you’ll see why we learned about the particular philosophers we learned about…each one of them comes from a different one of these 6 schools. and I’ve even seen a couple guys break down the 6 schools into 2 separate categories further…they divide them into monists and pluralists. monists are philosophers who thought the universe is made up of one fundamental substance. the three schools that thought this way are the Milesian school, you know that’s where Thales and Anaxamander came from…the Pythagorean school….the school formed by Pythagoras and his followers…and the eleatic school whose most notable member was Parmenides. It was called the Eleatic school because Parmenides came from a town called Elea in Italy. So those were the monist schools…the pluralist schools were made up of people who believed there wasn’t one fundamental substance…but many fundamental substances that made up the universe. The three schools classified as pluralist would be…you guessed it…the pluralist school…that was the one Empedocles was part of with his earth fire air and water…the atomic pluralist school…which had Democritus and Leucippus at the helm…and then the sophists, who we just talked about. but it is important to note that the sophists weren’t necessarily all pluralists, they just lived at the same time that pluralism was very popular…in fact they didn’t care at all about what the universe was made of…they just wanted to make money. maybe if the universe was made out of coach purses they would’ve cared.

If you look at the graph…it moves in a pretty deliberate direction towards one guy. Not only was he highly educated from all the conflicting schools of thought that existed at the time, but he took all that he learned from them and created his own completely new way of thinking, a way of thinking that made him one of the biggest names in philosophy. His name, was Socrates.

Socrates must have smelled like the dumpster behind panda express. He had famously terrible hygiene. People would say he went everywhere without shoes, never bathed, never cut his hair, not to mention he wasn’t very easy on the eyes to begin with. there’s a story of him being challenged to a beauty contest as a joke against a guy named Critobulous, where both sides have to make an argument as to why they are more beautiful than the other…they actually went through with everything just to entertain themselves…this is the kind of stuff people did back then…Socrates starts making his case for why he is more beautiful than his opponent Critobulous:

“Do you hold, then, that beauty is to be found only in man, or is it also in other objects?”

Crit. “In faith, my opinion is that beauty is to be found quite as well in a horse or an ox or in any number of inanimate things. I know, at any rate, that a shield may be beautiful, or a sword, or a spear.”

Soc. “How can it be that all these things are beautiful when they are entirely dissimilar?”

“Why, they are beautiful and fine,” [Note] answered Critobulus, “if they are well made for the respective functions for which we obtain them, or if they are naturally well constituted to serve our needs.”

Soc. “Do you know the reason why we need eyes?”

Crit. “Obviously to see with.”

“In that case, it would appear without further 9ado that my eyes are finer ones than yours.”

“How so?”

“Because, while yours see only straight ahead, mine, by bulging out as they do, see also to the sides.”

Crit. “Do you mean to say that a crab is better equipped visually than any other creature?”

Soc. “Absolutely; for its eyes are also better set to insure strength.”

I love this story because it encompasses a lot of what Socrates was. he had a great sense of humor, he was famously unkempt and through asking Critobulous to give his definition of what beauty is, he is able to use the contradictions in his definition of beauty to make a case for why he is more beautiful, even though it is obvious to everyone that is isnt. he lost the contest by the way…but it didn’t matter…What he succeeded in doing is that he showed Critobulous that maybe he didn’t know exactly what beauty was. Critobulous said when things are well made for the respective functions for which we obtain them…they are beautiful…but by asking him a series of questions, he proved that the answer couldn’t be that simple.

This…is…what he is known for. He never started a university, he never lived in a castle, he never even wrote any of his thoughts down, he didn’t believe written text was the way to do philosophy anyway…to Socrates the ONLY thing philosophy was, was discussion, questioning and argument. His particular brand of it was called The Socratic Method.

The best guess historians can make as to how he developed this intense questioning style is in a famous story about friend of his going to the oracle at Delphi, which was essentially a rotation of an older peasant woman that lived in the area that was on drugs, who apparently channeled the god Apollo…and Socrates’s friend asked the woman who the wisest man in the world was…she said Socrates…his friend came back and said hey Socrates the oracle said you’re the wisest man in the world! Socrates was absolutely shocked by this. he went instantly to work to get to the bottom of it…no victory dance or anything he just started… he went around to all the wisest people he knew and interrogated them to get to the bottom of it. he realized that these people only thought they knew a lot…when you ask the right questions…it turns out their knowledge is false.

quote from apology:

“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.

This method he used to question people and ultimately point out how little they actually know was his greatest contribution to philosophy… there’s a quote from a guy named Cicero who was writing about Socrates and said:

“Socrates however (was the) first (who) called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove (it) to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil.”

This quote is amazingly insightful for someone who lived almost a half millennium later…before Socrates, philosophy was done only by men, and only by men who were born into or were clever enough to attain a lot of money, so they didn’t have to spend their days working, they spent them thinking. Once Socrates realized that the reason he was wiser than everyone is because he can admit that he knows nothing, he set out to correct the citizens of Athens and fix their assumptions and preconceptions. He hit the streets…like those Mormons that come to your house on their 10 speed bicycles…in the market place…a public square…in front of the courthouse…and he just started accosting anyone unfortunate enough to not look busy. He’d walk up to them with a very self effacing manner saying things like…oh please help me i am an ignorant person, and I’m wondering if you can help me get to the bottom of something…what is justice? or what is virtue? people would give their, obviously flawed response, and he would just lay into them…questioning them pointing out contradictions or exceptions and eventually getting to a place where the person was either angry at him because he made them feel stupid or angry at him because he wouldn’t leave them alone. either way they were angry. this didn’t make him a lot of friends around town. he even did it to judges or prestigious generals or government officials…it didn’t take long before he had so many people mad at him for doing this that they started labeling him a sophist. but he didn’t care if people liked him or not, his main goal wasn’t to make friends, it was to help others discover how little they knew and get them on the path to truth. he compared himself to a midwife, but instead of helping deliver babies, he questioned everyone and helped deliver new ideas into the world. But his midwifery didn’t stop in his lifetime…the Socratic method can also be called inductive argument… this is where a set of premises based on experience is first established to be true and then shown to lead to a universal truth. Inductive argument was used by Aristotle and even Francis Bacon who used it as a major influence in the scientific method. That had a little bit of an impact…

Socrates eventually humiliated enough people in public that they banded together and he was put on trial, at the ripe age of 70. The entire story of his trial, his defense, his conviction and his reactions are cataloged by Plato in one of his most famous works, The Apology.

And because Socrates didn’t write anything down, all we have to go off of are other people’s perspectives, in the case of Socrates that comes down to four people, Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes and Aristotle. Xenophon was an old friend of Socrates but he doesn’t go into much detail and often put his own theories in the mouth of Socrates as if to give them merit by association, so we cant really trust him. Aristophanes was a play write who made a ridiculous caricature of Socrates as a character in a comedic play, so hes not a good source. and Aristotle wasn’t even born until after Socrates was dead. so that brings us to the last guy…Plato. Plato was his student and deeply respected Socrates, so he probably isn’t the best testimony if we want to know the truth. but he really is all we have, and of the 4 of them, Plato’s testimony is usually held in the highest regard, especially because he was the closest to Socrates. but one thing is for sure, although these 4 sources vary considerably about who Socrates was, its a pretty good chance that the similarities that we find in all 4 of them are accurate right?

To understand why Socrates was put on trial in the first place and the kind of biased jury he faced, its good to know about the political climate that existed in Greece at the time…

five years before the trial of Socrates Athens and Sparta ended the Pelopenesian war. Sparta won by the way. So Athens was turned into an oligarchy …taken over by a nice group of gentlemen known as “the thirty tyrants” in the year 404 BC…they committed such gruesome genocide that they were overthrown only a year later…now, it took a couple years to sort things out, and democracy was finally restored…Socrates was being tried only 2 years after democracy had been restored in Athens…and back then 2 years was nothing…so they were really uneasy and testy towards anyone who was questioning government or trying to evoke change. The charges that they eventually placed against him.. were corrupting the young and denying the gods of the state and introducing new gods. see, there was no separation of church and state…in fact, quite the contrary… ONLY the state had the power to choose what was a suitable god to worship or not worship, and it didn’t look very good for Socrates being a guy that used to walk around claiming to be getting advice from this thing that followed him around called “Diemonionn” or his personal guardian angel or something like that, people started to ask him about it and he was like…what this guy? Diemonionn?? no…its just flying around giving me advice all the time…its not a god or anything…he was treading on thin ice..take all the personality traits we’ve discussed thus far, and now imagine what you would think of Socrates when an extremely popular play is released with him as a central character. the play was by Aristophanes and it was called “clouds”… Socrates was depicted as a complete moron, it was a ridiculous cartoonish version of Socrates…but it was supposed to be that way, it was a comedy. the goal was to make people laugh. the Socrates in the play would just ramble on about silly things…like…there is one scene where he puts his arms out and spins around in a circle screaming “I’m walking on air! I’m walking on air!” seeing how many people in modern times get their perception of the world through media or entertainment and then take no time to educate themselves about whether its true or not, its not hard to imagine this immensely popular play shaping the public’s collective view on Socrates. i mean this kind of stuff happens all the time…like how many movies have you seen where a drug deal is going down…or some two-timing street hustlers are taking people to the cleaners…and for some reason its accepted as the gospel truth that if you ask a cop if hes a cop he HAS to tell you yes…It’s IN THE CONSTITUTION MAN!…where? its in there SOMEWHERE man! there’s a lot of words in that constitution…sometimes people just accept what they see in movies… and it doesn’t seem like it was much different in the time of Socrates. the play also painted him as a sophist and people hated the sophists. The reason it was a common rumor that he was a sophist is because of his lifestyle…although he didn’t take money as payment, the guy didn’t shower, let alone work or know where his next meal was gonna come from…he was broke…so he would trade sitting around having good conversation with people for meals and shelter…this is how he made his living…he just didn’t take money like the sophists did. but people still saw that as taking payment for teaching people…kind of an unfair parallel to draw…the intentions of Socrates’ actions and the intentions of the sophists were COMPLETELY different. all of this …was what the people of the jury had in their heads as “what they knew” about Socrates when they first started his trial.

So, Plato chronicles everything that happened during Socrates trial in his work, the apology, but although it was called the apology…Socrates didn’t apologize for anything. He refused to grovel and beg for his life…it was common at the time to bring up your family and try to appeal to the sympathy of the jurors, but he refused to do that too. see, Socrates was all about doing the RIGHT thing…not about trying to get acquitted. like…in the first part of his trial when he needs to address the charges leveled against him..they were like “to the charge of corrupting the young…what say you?” He says:

” is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life, and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him; and yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, too”

Basically what he’s saying is…to corrupt someone is to harm them…it makes no sense to say that id harm someone…because he’s younger and stronger than i am…I’m 70 years old…and he could beat me up me…so why would I ever do this? that doesn’t make sense….

It went down in history as one of the worst arguments ever crafted.

but its not because he was incapable of defending himself, he just wasn’t making decisions for the sake of staying alive or avoiding punishment. He was just trying to do what he saw as “the right thing to do” which wasn’t begging the jury for mercy and manipulating people. and his main focus wasn’t on defending the ACTUAL charges…he spent most of his time defending the terrible reputation that followed him into the trial. and really that boiled down to him defending the way he carried himself, like not bathing and not caring about the typical things Athenians cared about like money or status. he had to explain why he questioned people about their beliefs and embarrassed them…and in the process of explaining all this he didn’t just defend the way he lived his life…he didn’t just claim he shouldn’t be punished for what he does…he actually went so far as to tell the Athenians they should be thanking him for all this questioning he has bestowed upon them.

So in Athenian trials there are a few different votes that the jury does in any given trial…the first one is to determine if you’re guilty or not guilty…he obviously failed miserably there…the second vote was …the person accused offers what they think a suitable punishment would be…you’d think he would start changing the unapologetic tune…but instead he decides the best course of action is to insult them a bit more…

He went on to say other things in the trial like:

“Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul? ”

when he was asked what the proper punishment would be….he says that he’s been doing the Athenians a favor with all of this questioning hes been throwing at them…so he suggests his “punishment” for this “crime” should be free meals for life at the expense of the state. usually this kind of thing was done for people who were victorious at the Olympic games from Athens…after he said this… during the second vote, people voted for the death penalty by a larger margin than they voted him guilty in the first place…he actually turned people from thinking he’s not guilty to wanting him dead. he didn’t care though…he saw death as just another one of these things people think they are wise about…but really nobody knows whether death is a bad thing or whether it is the best thing that could ever happen to you. and when he said maybe its the best thing that can ever happen to you, he wasn’t talking about going to an amusement park in the sky he was talking about a release from all the things that trouble humans on a daily basis. Quote from apology:

“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know.

Like I said before, Socrates wasn’t saying what he was saying to try to get the charges dropped…he was saying what he was saying with the same motives he had for doing everything else in his life…to live a “good” and virtuous life. He was one of the first philosophers to ask…what is a “good” life? and in his opinion, a good life was getting… a sort of “peace of mind”… as a result of doing the right thing, as opposed to doing things simply because society tells you its a good idea. He didn’t agree with Protagoras and most of the sophists who believed morals were relative…he believed morals were absolutes and they apply to everyone in the world the same way, regardless of what country or time period they are from. i think this is very insightful…the morals and laws of then are not the same as now….but which of them is more right? Socrates would have argued that neither of them are right and that we are in no place to even be labeling what is good or bad, because we don’t even know what “good” or bad is…how can you philosophize about what is good, if you don’t even know what the word good truly means…he thought that life… when you’re on earth is not just some preparation for what happens after death, he thought there was a whole set of tasks and problems to tackle when you’re on the planet…like thought, self reflection and striving to live a virtuous life…but the catch was, Socrates thought the only way to live a virtuous life is to know what the TRUE definitions of these virtues were…and the only way to find that was through extensive thought…he believed that the key to living a good life was understanding these virtues…virtue was the best and most important trait to have. he thought that when people don’t act virtuously, and commit evil acts, that no one actually desires to do evil…if only they knew enough they would never commit acts of evil because that knowledge would then make them uncomfortable and humans all strive by their nature to be as comfortable as possible so they would never do it. now, it doesn’t take a genius to realize several counter examples to this…like people addicted to cigarettes want to stop…but they cant…or various other examples where we KNOW what the correct decision is, but choose to act otherwise out of convenience. but at the time, people must have not argued with Socrates that much about it and just thought they had not reached the level of wisdom he was at…he appeared to be walking proof of this life…he was definitely seen as wise, and he seemed to never make an immoral decision. in retrospect his self-mastery was probably just the byproduct of countless hours of self-reflection. through these countless hours of thinking about things you arrive at knowledge. he famously said there is only one good: knowledge and one evil” ignorance. knowledge is DEEPLY tied to morality…like we just said…if people KNEW enough they would never make a wrong decision, or commit an evil act. one really notable thing that makes him stand out from other philosophers around the time is that he thought that EVERYONE could be a philosopher…not just could be…but should be or must be…his most famous saying was when he was defending himself at his trial saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” so really he thought if you were a person who just walked around aimlessly, not questioning anything…or why you believe what you believe…he doesn’t think that life is worth living.

to Socrates…pursuing knowledge WAS the ultimate goal of life. it isn’t because it is entertaining to us…it is the reason WHY we exist. makes sense to me…but maybe I’m a little biased…like, from the time we are babies we are just…information sponges…constantly trying to learn more and gather skills that will make surviving later in life easier…but for some reason, at a certain age some people just stop…they’re perfectly content with the knowledge they’ve gained thus far and they just call it a life. you know…honey boo boo and yelling at 12 yr olds on call of duty all day. but Socrates takes it one step further…knowledge is also is supposed to help your soul… he thought the unexamined life makes the soul dizzy and confused…where the wise soul is stable…and eventually through wisdom…all the straying that makes the soul dizzy and confused can be brought to an end. by not seeking truth…you are harming your soul and by pursuing it you are nurturing your soul. so in this case, doing good things…acting morally is in your own self-interest, which is a pretty cool way of looking at it. he said in the apology

“I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and that examining both myself and others is really the very best thing a man can do.”

Socrates was convicted to death…and with all of his friends around him crying he was forced to drink hemlock…or a poisonous broth made from a plant indigenous to Europe that actually is found in the parsley family…or if you want a modern version of hemlock just go buy a zero calorie energy drink. but Socrates died a martyr for the cause of philosophy, and his dialectical method and the questions he asked would change the way philosophy was done forever.

It’s really sad, Socrates had so many enemies, just for asking questions…he really was kind of like an annoyingly inquisitive child; I think of him this way sometimes at least. I’m sure we’ve all had a curious little kid ask us a bunch of questions at some point in our lives…you know you say something and then they just keep asking…why? why? why? why? because I said so! adults that get angry at that either react with the because i said so or they tell the kid, you know who knows a lot about that? your mother, you should go ask her…but its funny how similar these two reactions are to the reactions Socrates would get in the public square of Athens…the because i said so would be his victims getting angry because he embarrassed them and the go ask your mother would be his victims getting angry because he wont leave them alone. These enemies of his would label him as a sophist, and its that label and the reputation that went along with his name that eventually landed him a guilty conviction to a crime he didn’t commit. but Socrates wasn’t a sophist. Every source of history agrees that Socrates could have EASILY avoided execution, he even could’ve easily defended himself, manipulated the jury with his superior intellect and been deemed not guilty. So, if a sophist was someone people despised for their ability to use rhetoric to win an argument even when they should’ve lost the argument…the Socrates was the furthest thing I can imagine from a sophist. He lost an argument he could’ve easily won, because of how much he cherished his moral principles. And just think about this for a second guys, he faced death. He knew he could easily avoid it, but to him, living life wasn’t good enough in itself…living a noble life was the bare minimum. To go against his basic survival instincts was to go against hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, and I cant think of anything more admirable than what he did. In modern times, most of the characteristics of people that we admire as humans, are characteristics that are gained from going AGAINST our evolutionary instincts. Like, to see the delicious, calorie dense cupcake full of fat and sugar that our brains are telling us we need to jump on in case we cant catch and antelope next week, its an admirable person that never succumbs to that desire. Or to be a selfless person removed from your own ego…an ego that is put there by evolution in the interest of self-preservation…to make ME the most important thing. Make no mistake, what Socrates did went against the most deeply ingrained of all animal instincts, and forget philosophy for a second, he is an incredible HUMAN BEING for that.

Last week I asked you if there is anything you care about so deeply that you would do it for free indefinitely, because its not about the return you get for it. Think about that thing that is really important to you, and philosophize this: Is there anything you believe in so deeply that you would picket on its behalf in the streets? Is there anything you believe in so deeply that you would die for it? thanks for listening.

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Episode 20 Transcript

This is the full transcript of Podcast Episode 20, Two Medieval Approaches to God. 

One of the hallmarks of philosophy is looking at one question from multiple different angles. It’s not enough to think about stuff for a while and come to what seems like a reasonable conclusion, and then call it a life. You can’t do that. Our thoughts about any subject should be an evolution. The subject today is a topic we’ve danced around quite a bit; we’ve covered little pieces of it, but today we’re going to talk about it more. That’s right, by the end of the show today you’re going to know the answer to the question: Does God exist? Just Kidding, obviously. But I would like to talk about some common ways that people think about this question and address them.

For about a year of my life, most of my free time was spent reading proofs of God’s existence or non-existence. Not just philosophical proofs, although I read a lot of those, I read forums, I read articles, I read hateful YouTube comments, I read books. I called it my spiritual quest, you know, there are many philosophers we’ve talked about that come to question what they think about the nature of existence and the world they live in, and they go on some sort of spiritual journey where they find themselves, I believe I compared it to John Travolta’s mid life crisis in the movie Wild Hogs. Well this year that I spent, was my Wild Hogs when it came to the question of: does God exist? And what I saw was, like most things, the vast majority of the people are emphatically on one side or the other. And one of the main lines of thinking I saw from the Atheist side of things, not from the philosophers, but from the average person walking around on the street, was they were “proving” God didn’t exist or making fun of the idea of a God existing based on a very limited view of what God is. These people are born into a world where monotheism rules the day when it comes to religion, people are given a code of ethics to follow and if they do a good job they’re given VIP treatment in the afterlife. That’s the world they’re born into. That’s what “God” is to them, because that’s the only concept they’ve ever been introduced to because they’ve never studied it, and they call it a life. Pathetic fairy tale, meant to keep humans in line, God doesn’t exist. Well it isn’t that simple.

Just like when philosophers use words like virtue and good and truth, and when they say those words they mean something very different based on who is saying them, because the individual definitions of them change, the word “God” is describing a concept that changes based on who is saying it. How ridiculous would it be to think that when Plato talked about God he had the same concept in his mind as a modern day Christian or Jew, he lived hundreds of years before Jesus supposedly walked the earth. Some of these people get so caught up in thinking “I’m so smart. I realize that snakes can’t actually talk and that a guy didn’t build a giant ship and corral two of every species on the ship while God killed everyone else on the planet, I know that’s just a story.” They get so caught up in that phase that they quit, they don’t look at it any deeper; they don’t think about the underlying concepts and whether they have merit. They don’t think about the fact that maybe they just disagree with the medium its being communicated through.
Just think about something for a second. Just on the concept of God, just on this show we’ve already talked about several definitions of the concept. We’ve talked about God being the thing, whatever it is, that brought this cosmos, into existence. Nothing more. Not interested in whether you said a bad word yesterday, not interested in whether you cheated on your test, to put a modern spin on it, the thing that caused the big bang. Later philosophers would say stuff like, the totality of all existence. Think of EVERYTHING that exists as a single unit, a unit that we and everything else in the universe are just aspects of. Couldn’t that be considered God? If you don’t think the big bang needed a cause, you certainly cant think it’s pointless to entertain the possibility that it had one. We’ve talked about the Stoics and their pantheistic view of God where god is the universe. You know, this thing, God, pervades all things. That thing which is difficult to describe with words, but it animates all things that possess life. We’ve talked about Plotinus and his transcendent “one”. And guess what guys, we’ve barely even gotten started with the concept of God. In fact, there are people, for each and every one of these philosophers that dedicate their lives to understanding what they meant by their concept of God. How they used reason to determine that something transcendent like that must exist if you logically keep going, well what comes after that? Now here’s the point of all this. That’s just “what God is”. That’s just one very small part of what is laid out in these monotheistic religious texts. Just imagine being five years old and your parents take you to church for the first time, and you’re really excited and instead of hearing the story about the man who built a giant ship and with God’s wind at his back managed to conquer this unconquerable task, imagine if you started diving into Plato’s Timaeus and started talking about the concept of a transcendent Good that can serve as a wind at your back. How many Sundays would you last before you started convulsing on the ground every Sunday morning like you’re in Paranormal Activity, just so you can get out of going to church. I mean, the philosophical concept of each virtue goes equally as deep as the concept of God. People go to school for years to understand these things with any sort of depth, and like Averroes pointed out in the last episode, can we really expect the average person to go through that kind of schooling and understand the underlying concepts of religion in depth?
How many Sundays would pass before the pews start looking like a Pittsburgh Pirates game? Make no mistake. When philosophers talk about the concept of a God, they’re thinking about it in a philosophical way. Today, we’re going to be talking about probably the most famous proof of God’s existence in the history of the world and it was put forward in the Middle ages where we’re studying philosophy now. As we’ve talked about before, monotheistic religions were powerful and in charge during the Middle Ages. As a result, most of the great thinkers were members of these monotheistic religions, and most of them used all their excess brainpower to make adjustments to Plato or Aristotle compatible with this monotheism. We’ve seen Plotinus and his neo-platonism and Saint Augustine who was heavily influenced by him. We’ve seen people like Philo of Alexandria trying to make Plato compatible with the Torah. Plato’s philosophy really lent itself to being compatible with these new religions on the scene because of several things. He believed in a creator, he believed in the mind and body being separate from each other which then allows for the possibility of an immortal soul, many things were good about it. But Aristotle was a tougher sell to the church. We’ve seen how the Islamic world and beyond worked to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy with Islamic theology. But what was going on in the West during that time?

Have you Ever heard the phrase Greek East Latin West? Well it refers to this period of time that we’re in right now. When the Roman Empire fell it broke into two parts, the very Greek Byzantine empire of the east and the Latin speaking west. Philosophy continued in both areas, but the more historically significant thing to talk about is what was happening ALL throughout Europe at the same time; it’s what’s known as Scholasticism. People use Scholasticism as a way to categorize philosophy of the time, you have a list of names known as Scholastic Philosophy. But really Scholasticism is just a method acquiring knowledge and learning that focuses heavily on dialectical reasoning. Dialectic is, if you remember, what Socrates used all the time. It’s a style of doing philosophy that is conversational. Some people have opposing viewpoints and argue against each other being sure to use their tools of logic and reason as best they can, and hopefully at the end of the conversation they are a little closer to the truth. Well, one of the guys were talking about today is known as the father of Scholasticism. St. Anselm of Canterbury. And it’s his argument for the existence of God which would later become known as the “Ontological Argument” is the most famous proof of God’s existence in history. But I want to give it to you guys in true dialectical fashion. I want you guys to have a conversation with St. Anselm and let him convince you that God exists. But first, I want to talk about the way Saint Anselm would have been thinking about things that exist. Simply put, he would’ve broken things down into two types. Things that exist in our HUMAN understanding alone and things that exist in reality.
So lets think about some examples of these. What are some things that exist only in our human understanding? Well that would be anything that exists in our imagination that does not exist in reality. You can take your pick of the countless options. My little pony, Harry Potter, if you have an idea for an invention and it exists only in your mind because you haven’t actually created it yet, these are all things that can be thought of as only having existence in relation to a human understanding them. Now if you had that invention manufactured; if you finally put pen to paper and got off of your parents futon and made that invention exist in reality, then it would not only exist in reality, it would still exist in your imagination too right? Well, at that point, your new invention falls into the category of most everything we see around us. A lawnmower, a vacuum cleaner, a Honda Civic with the muffler taken off of it, all of these things exist both in our imaginations and in reality. They also all make recording this podcast nearly impossible. But there is another class of things. Things that exist ONLY in reality and not in human understanding. For example, you see every once in a while some backpackers go deep into the Amazon rain forest and come across some new species of bird or insect. A species that was buried so deep in the Amazon jungle, no human knew that it existed, no human had understanding of it, no human had it in their imagination, but it still existed in reality despite the fact that a human didn’t know about it. And there are all kind of examples of this. There may be galaxies and other bubbles of the multiverse that we have no idea exist yet, but they still exist in reality. Really, there could be things flying all around us all the time, beings existing in this same space whose existence really doesn’t affect us at all, we can’t see them, but they still exist.

Well when we look at St. Anselm’s famous proof of God’s existence, we have to not let our individual biases of what the word God means get in the way. Anselm is proving the existence of the concept of God. He says himself:
“I began to ask myself whether there might be found a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists, and that there is a supreme good requiring nothing else, which all other things require for their existence and well-being; and whatever we believe regarding the divine Being.”

Now focus on what he said there. All he’s looking to do is prove that there is a supreme good that requires nothing else for its existence, which all other things require for their existence and well being. He could be equally proving the existence of Plotinus’s transcendent “one” or “good”, which didn’t have any human characteristics. What’s important to point out, is that whenever you’re proving that God exists or proving that anything exists for that matter, the most important thing you have to do is define terms, understand exactly what concept you have in your head that you’re trying to describe with words and then prove. You need to provide a definition. And this is where St Anselm’s Ontological argument begins and ends: Within his definition of what God is. He’s setting up the idea here:
“Therefore, Lord, you who give knowledge of the faith, give me as much knowledge as you know to be fitting for me, because you are as we believe and that which we believe. And indeed we believe you are something greater than which cannot be thought. Or is there no such kind of thing, for “the fool said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” But certainly that same fool, having heard what I just said, “something greater than which cannot be thought,” understands what he heard, and what he understands is in his thought, even if he does not think it exists. For it is one thing for something to exist in a person’s thought and quite another for the person to think that thing exists.”

So if you were having a conversation with St. Anselm, and you were one of these people who “know” for a fact that God doesn’t exist. He would start by setting a trap. He would say, Ok, I hear what you’re saying. God doesn’t exist. But lets just talk about what we religious people think of as God, would you agree that if, and only if, we’re talking in theory here, if God existed, he would be the greatest thing you could ever imagine? If this thing existed, you as a mere human could never imagine something greater than him?

Now, this seems perfectly reasonable. I think 99.9% of people would answer yes here. He’s not saying that that thing exists yet, he’s just defining what it is we’re trying to prove the existence of. And he does so by describing it as “That than which nothing greater can be thought.” If you’re a Gnostic Atheist that claims to KNOW that God doesn’t exist, you are quick to agree to this, because you see it as him just shining a light on this delusional concept he believes in. But it’s a trap! He quickly makes that person feel a little stupid:

“Thus even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought. And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.”

That’s something he does a lot in his writing, he writes in tongue twisters. It’s like something Ron Burgandy would read before he goes on air. Good thing you got me to turn it into English. What he’s saying is: By acknowledging that God is “the greatest thing you could ever imagine”, you are acknowledging that God exists in your imagination, right? Again, most Atheists wouldn’t have a problem with that. They would say he ONLY exists in my imagination. Remember as we talked about before, there is a difference to St. Anselm between things that exist only in human understanding and things that exist in reality.

Then Anselm would say, well certainly it’s wonderful to be able to imagine things, you know, you can imagine that new invention of yours being made and on store shelves, but it’s much greater when that invention exists in reality right? Most people would say yes here. Things that exist in reality are a little bit better than that same thing only existing in a day dream of ours.

Then he goes in for the kill. He says, “Well you agreed that God is ‘the greatest thing you could ever imagine’, and you say this “God” that only exists in your imagination is the greatest thing you can ever imagine, but you can also imagine that that concept of God ALSO exists in reality, and wouldn’t that be greater than ONLY existing in your imagination?
What he’s saying is: if we define god as the greatest thing you can ever imagine, then you CAN imagine that God exists, so therefore according to the definition you agreed to, he DOES exist. Something funny that I’ve noticed as I’ve been re-reading all of this Medieval Philosophy is that whenever one of these guys asserts something to be absolutely true, like they preface what they’re saying with obviously or certainly, most of the time that’s the portion of the argument that I take issue with. It’s a weird psychological thing there, it’s like they’re trying to convince themselves of it.
When most people hear this argument for the first time, if they’re not invested in the outcome one way or another, I think they usually say, “Hmm. Sounds good, but I think there’s something wrong with it, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.” For the record, this was my reaction when I first read it. I was incredibly open minded to either outcome. I ended up reading it a few more times and thinking about it for a week or so and I’ll have you know, because I’m very proud of myself for this, I independently arrived at the same conclusion that a guy named Immanuel Kant did centuries after Anselm. He wrote the most famous refutation of the Ontological argument, although my thoughts were no where near as justified as his and he did it with a much different educational upbringing than me, so Kant wins by far. But what he says is that the problem with this argument lies in two main areas, both of which are centered around that initial definition of God. God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”. Why necessarily is something that exists IN reality, greater, than something that doesn’t exist in reality? That sounds a lot like a bias inherent in a human that values existing over not existing. The second thing Kant said is that Anselm is wrong to think of existence as a quality of something. You know, you can’t think of a banana as being yellow, thin, calorie-dense and existing. Existence isn’t the same as the quality of yellow. Without existence, the banana wouldn’t have the ability to be yellow, thin, or calorie-dense. If we invented a new fruit and made existence a quality of it like being yellow or thin, what would happen? Let’s say we believe in a fruit called a Washington. Washingtons are small little green fruits that are round and they grow on trees and they have an outer shell that you have to peel off to get to the fruit, oh yeah and they exist. Based on our definition, if you thought that Washingtons don’t exist you’re contradicting yourself because they, by definition, exist.

One of the other really popular refutations to it was done by a guy named Gaunilo who lived at the same time as Anselm and was devoutly religious himself. He points out that you can use the same argument to prove that lots of other things exist. His example was a Piland. He says he believes in an island existing, somewhere out there, that is greater than any island you can imagine. An island that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Everything about the island is perfection. We can imagine this glowing perfect island, but if we defined it as an island than which nothing greater can be conceived, then Anselm proves that island DOES exist somewhere out there.

But then again, there is a refutation to THAT argument that says that there can’t be a perfect amount of trees on the island or a perfect temperature. There is no “perfection” when it comes to those traits, but there can be a perfect “goodness” and “justice”, and these are the qualities Anselm was proving the existence of with his argument. Honestly, the best way for you to figure out what you think about it is to be alone or with friends and think about it. This is the kind of thing I do all the time, and people sometimes think I’m weird. When I’m in a setting where people are sitting around each other and no one is saying anything, like in the car or at a dinner or something, I look around for the person of the group that obviously thinks they’re very wise and I ask them what they think about some concept in philosophy or politics that is highly debated. See, I know both sides of the argument, and the last thing this type of person is going to do is say “I don’t know”. So it’s fun to listen to their answer and either find the fallacies or offer the counter argument in a respectful way and hear what they say. I’ve learned so much about how people arrive at what they think the truth is just by doing this and I highly recommend it. And come to think of it, now that I’m saying it, it sounds a lot like what Socrates did. Hopefully it won’t get me killed one day.

Real quick, there’s also a reading of Anselm that says that because a quality of a perfect God would be that he exists in all possible realms, if there is even a possibility of him existing, he must exist, but all the same fallacies are present in that argument, they’re just in different places. Just thought i’d mention it so that people didn’t think I’d never heard that reading of it.

Now if this argument doesn’t convince you that God exists, at the very least let it illustrate that the concept of God is not a narrow one-dimensional conversation.

Almost 4000 years ago if you were born in Babylon, if someone stole something from you, “justice” to you was cutting their hands off. You’re born in today’s world, someone steals something from you and you have a very different idea of what sort of retribution balances the scales. Just how you can’t be born into modern times, allow modern social conventions to tell you what justice is and then pretend to understand everything about the term justice, you cant do the same thing with God either. It’s not just because it’s not fair to great thinkers of the past, it’s not fair to yourself. You severely limit your understanding of anything if you experience something once and then pretend there’s nothing else to know about it.

We talked about the period of time before Avicenna where people read Aristotle once and declared it was practically worthless and then people like Al Farabi were able to look at it from a different angle, update the examples and find a way to make it compatible with Islamic theology. Well there’s still two major monotheistic religions left that could have found a way to make Aristotle compatible with them. Judaism and Christianity. Well Christianity is done unquestionably best by next week’s episode: St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s a huge episode. But first I want to talk about what many consider to be the greatest Jewish thinker in history Moses Maimonides.

The discussion about Moses Maimonides and his philosophy is centered around something we were touching on at the beginning of the show. Should we look at the Bible, or in his case the Torah, the rest of the Old Testament and some other works, should we take those things literally? Should we look at the stories in the Torah and the way that Moses described this monotheistic all-powerful creator and take them to be a perfect account of what God is?

Well, Maimonides thought to do that was ludicrous. The first thing we have to understand is that Maimonides was smart. Really smart. He was a highly skilled doctor AND lawyer. If you’re a girl, he is the best guy you could ever take home to meet your parents. And he applied his massive brain to philosophy.

Have you ever thought about the fact that when the Old Testament talks about God they talk about him as though he has human characteristics? You know, God said let there be light. He’s speaking like he has vocal chords and a larynx? They always refer to God as a He as though he has higher levels of testosterone than other Gods. They call him the Father as though he impregnated something. They even use terms like create that have a very human flair to them, so to the untrained reader, this God sure does seem like something humans made up and they didn’t think about it very hard. Well Moses Maimonides thought this was a terrible mistake. Firstly, even in his times the Torah was written by Moses a LONG time ago. I mean, Maimonides lived during the 1100’s and the Old Testament was written, most people believe around 1400 BC. So, if we use those dates, Maimonides is commenting on a book that was: Maimonides was to the Old Testament as We are to the New Testament. Maimonides said that Moses, when he wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, had a giant task in front of him. See, we have to understand that the people of his time weren’t familiar with the monotheistic personal God outlook. He had enough of a mountain to climb just relaying to people that this single God existed, let alone everything else about it. He had to write it in terms that were understandable to humans in HIS day.

It’s funny because this is really similar to what we were talking about at the beginning of the show. I mean, what was Moses going to do? Go from zero to calling God an “it” in three seconds? Similar to the way a church wouldn’t tell somebody just getting into things about Plato’s Timaeus, was Moses supposed to tell the people of his time about this perfect, infinite entity that was beyond any linguistic explanation? No! Maimonides says he couldn’t have done that, so that is why he wrote the Bible using personification. God is not a He. He doesn’t have a hand. He doesn’t speak. These are all metaphors for what he actually did that humans can understand easier.

In fact he goes further than that. I mean, when people that believe in God picture god, they must think of something. Do they think of a homo-sapien? What does he look like? Maimonides doesn’t just say God doesn’t have human qualities. He said that he doesn’t have qualities at all. To have qualities is to have a certain amount of plurality. And that begs an obvious question, one that goes all the way back to Zeno and his famous paradox of Achilles running halfway to the finish line and then half way to the finish line and never actually reaching the finish line because he has to go half way before he can go the whole way. If multiple parts exist in ANY sense, the question, “What brought those two parts together.” becomes valid. God cannot actually possess attributes because of this to Maimonides. He says:
“There is no oneness at all except in believing that there is one simple essence in which there is no complexity or multiplicity of notions, but one notion only; so that from whatever angle you regard it and from whatever point of view you consider it, you will find that it is one, not divided in any way and by any cause into two notions”

There are obvious similarities between this conception of god and Plotinus’s transcendent “one”. Remember the first rule of the “one” is that you can’t say anything about the “one”. This is the same thing Laozi and Zhuangzi said about the Dao. It is beyond the unfair categorization of words. See, whenever we say anything, even words like Justice and God, to bring it full circle, we’re categorizing them. That is the object of language, to convey a specific idea. Language wouldn’t work very well if words were like what they are in Hawaii, where one word means twelve different things. But language runs into problems when trying to define or categorize something like God. God is infinite to Maimonides. Maimonides repeatedly says God is indefinable or other similar things. The way around this, what he thinks is that it’s impossible for us to say what God IS, we can only say what God is not. One time I was randomly walking down the road and a mother duck and about seven baby ducklings were walking in a line across the road and a couple people were really impatient, they honked their horns and swerved around them, so I went into the road and tried to hurry the ducks up across the road and I held my hand up to the next car that was waiting like I’m directing traffic or something and when the ducks crossed the person rolled down their window to me and said “You’re so benevolent!” and I was like “Thank You!” at least I think that’s what he said to me.

So, I’m benevolent for helping the ducks, but is calling God benevolent at that point fair at all? To put God’s benevolence on the same level as mine for helping the ducks is ridiculous to Maimonides. What he draws from this is that anything the Old Testament says about God is a metaphor. To think it’s the truth is naive; you can’t actually categorize God with words. In fact, outside of understanding what it says in the Torah as a metaphorical representation of God, there are only two other ways you can accurately say anything about God. One, is by what is known as negative theology or a concealed negation. You cant talk about what God is, the only thing you can talk about is what God isn’t. If we were saying that God is benevolent, that would be wrong because we use that same word to describe me with the ducks, instead we would say God is not merciless. We can only say what we know he is not. The only other way you can talk about God according to Maimonides is by talking about what God does and then making inferences yourself afterward. You can say that God blessed me with a certain quality, but you can’t say things like God is loyal to his children or loving or anything else you would infer from God blessing you with a certain quality, you would just say “I am blessed.” I’d like to end with a quote by Maimonides that has stuck with me for years he said:
“When I have a difficult subject before me — when I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools — I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude; I prefer to extricate that intelligent man from his embarrassment and show him the cause of his perplexity, so that he may attain perfection and be at peace.”

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Episode 20 – Two Medieval Approaches To God

St. Anselm of Canterbury
St. Anselm of Canterbury

On this episode of the podcast, we discuss the concept of God from a philosophical perspective. We first broaden our definition of God by recalling the multitude of ways that the philosophers we’ve already studied have approached the subject. Next, we examine St. Anselm’s famous “Ontological Argument” in proof of God’s existence, which is strangely reminiscent of a tongue twister Ron Burgundy might use to prepare for his evening newscast. Finally, we learn why Moses Maimonides would say that the first rule of God is, “You do not talk about God.” Or at least, “You do not talk about what God is, only what he isn’t.” All this and more on the latest episode of Philosophize This!

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See the full transcript of this episode here.

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Episode 19 – Three Islamic Truths

Averroes
Averroes

On this episode of the podcast, we discuss the nature of truth and examine it through the lenses of three Islamic philosophers who each had a different approach to truth seeking. We first discuss Al Kindi and what he would have to say about modern day news organizations and their approach to reporting the “truth.” Then, we learn about Al Ghazali, who at one point became so skeptical about our ability to discover the truth, he actually made himself physically ill. Lastly, we take a look at Averroes who desperately wanted philosophy and religion to be business partners. All this and more on the latest episode of Philosophize This!

Philosophize This! Can you think of anything that, as humans, we accept on faith alone, and we live our lives as through it is the truth? Answer in the comments below!

See the full transcript of this episode here.

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If you want to know more about what we talked about on the show, I recommend these books. Also, if you get them through the links below, it directly supports the show!

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Episode 18 – Avicenna

Avicenna
Avicenna

On this episode of the podcast we learn about Avicenna, a 9th century Arabic philosopher who is most known for his “Flying Man” thought experiment. We discuss the mind-body connection (or lack thereof) and ask ourselves what becomes of an iPhone if you pulverize it in a blender. We also work in two Breaking Bad references, and apply Avicenna’s Flying Man argument to modern day ethical dilemmas relating to life support. All this and more on the latest episode of Philosophize This!

Philosophize This! Does Avicenna’s Flying Man thought experiment really make it impossible for the body and mind to be inseparable? Answer in the comments below.

See the full transcript of this episode here.

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Episode 17 – Boethius

Boethius Imprisoned
Boethius Imprisoned

On this episode of the podcast, we learn about the medieval neoplatonist philosopher Boethius. We find out how he came to be wrongly convicted of treason and subsequently sentenced to death, and how this led him to write a philosophical text that solved one of the oldest problems in philosophy. We manage to compare the main characters of Boethius’ book to Lady Liberty and Eeyore selling a rice cooker on QVC, and explain why Boethius believed that we’re all just contestants on a never-ending episode of Wheel of Fortune. All this and more on the latest episode of Philosophize This!

Philosophize This! Is there anything you are currently scared of that in reality is just a shadow on the cave wall? Answer below in the comments.

See the full transcript of this episode here.

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