Archive for Philosophy

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Searching for the Dao

This post presents some ideas about the Dào (“Way”) as described in the Dàodéjīng (“Book of the Way and its Virtue”), that legend claims was composed by Lǎozī in the 5th Century BCE. The Dào cannot be explained in words. But that has never stopped anyone from writing about it.

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Thoughts on the Kaballah

The Kabbalah is a body of Jewish thought based on mystical insight into the nature of God and an imaginative interpretation of the Torah. The word itself means “received.” According to legend this special knowledge was imparted by God either to Adam in Eden or to Moses on Sinai, and handed down thereafter from generation to generation to an enlightened few, who preserved the received wisdom and taught it to their students. This post presents some thoughts about the Kabbalah from someone who, though neither Jewish nor fluent in Hebrew, is fascinated by the intricacy of its ideas. 

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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) is one of the most famous of the Roman Emperors. Some of his renown is related to the many representations of the Emperor that have persisted to the present day: the Aurelian Column documenting the Marcomannic Wars he waged on the Northern frontiers of the Empire; the bas-reliefs that were initially mounted on a triumphal arch in Rome, and later preserved when the arch was destroyed; and the equestrian statue that, from the Renaissance, was displayed in Rome’s Piazza de Campidoglio on a pedestal designed by Michelangelo. Most of Marcus’ fame, however, derives from the book that he wrote during the many years when he campaigned against the Germanic Tribes who threatened to cross the Danube and invade the Empire. This book, which has come to be known as the Meditations, presents a philosophy that derives from Greek Stoicism: to live each day as if it were one’s last, to act in accord with nature, not to become upset by whatever happens, and to help others as best one can.

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Condemned to be Free

When Paris was liberated in August, 1944, everything was possible. A new world needed to be created to protect their  regained freedom. The philosophy that epitomized this desire for freedom was “existentialism.” The term, originally used in a derogatory sense to characterize those who followed the philosophical concept of the primacy of “being,” was grudgingly accepted by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as a description of their thinking. Existentialism fitted easily with the idea of the absurd proposed by Albert Camus. These concepts became the main focus of both art and philosophy in the decade that followed the end of World War II.

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The Axial Age

In his 1949 book Vom Ursprung und Ziel des Geschichte (translated in 1953 as The Origin and Goal of History), Karl Jaspers proposed that the millennium before the time of Christ (or more specifically 800-200 BCE) could be considered an Achsenzeit or “Axial Age.” During this period, in five isolated regions of the world (China, India, Persia, Israel/Palestine, and Greece), human society and thought changed radically and irreversibly. A world that had until then been understood in terms of legends (mythos) was now examined in the light of reason (logos). During this time, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.” A multiplicity of gods and demons ceded their power to one universal god or life force. Sages, prophets and philosophers proposed rules for how we should behave. Though the axial age passed long ago, we still return to these teachings for moral guidance.

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The Rise of Ravenna

The Disintegration of the Roman Empire

Constantine the Great (reign 306-337) re-unified the Roman Empire and promoted Christianity as the imperial religion. For several decades after Constantine, the Empire remained stable. However, after the death of Theodosius I (reigned 379-395), the Empire fractured into Eastern and Western regions, each ruled by one of his sons.

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Story of Job

Everyone knows the story of Job. A righteous man is tested by God. All that Job owns is taken away, all his children are killed, and he is struck down by disease. Job’s friends advise him to seek God’s forgiveness since he must have somehow offended Him. However, Job insists on his own righteousness. He does not repent. He demands an explanation for why he is being unjustly punished. An angry God appears unto Job in a whirlwind. He proclaims His workings to be far beyond the understanding of Job. He talks of Behemoth and Leviathan. He castigates Job’s friends. He grants Job happiness and prosperity. He neither explains nor justifies what happened.

Everyone knows the story of Job. No one fully understands its meaning.

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“Death is Nothing to Us”

Death is inevitable. What it entails is largely unknown. Some believe that it permanently ends an individual’s existence; others that it simply provides a transition to another form of life. Most people fear it, but some consider it with equanimity. Among the latter are the followers of Epicurus, who claimed

Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us.
(Epicurus, reported by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Inwood and Gerson, 1997, p 32; another translation is by Yonge, 1983, p. 474).

Epicurus proposed that human beings are made of complex compounds of atoms. At death these compounds dissolve, releasing the atoms to form other things. The body decays and the soul evaporates. Once we are dead, we are no more. We cannot feel what it is like to be dead. And the dead certainly cannot experience pain. Death should therefore not be feared.

Epicureanism was popular during the Roman period. A common Latin epitaph summarized the life of the Epicurean as a brief interlude between the nothingness preceding birth and the nothingness following death:

          Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo
          (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care).

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Metaphor and Meaning

At the close of the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio notices the arrival of the dawn

But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
(Hamlet, I-1: 165-6)

No one is on the hill. Horatio is speaking metaphorically, describing the dawn as though it were a person. His words relax the tension of what has just happened. He and his colleagues have just seen the spirit of Hamlet’s father wandering in the real world where it should not be. Terror is in the air. At this moment, however, Horatio does not see a real person on the hill – this is how the dawn seems in his imagination. He takes comfort in metaphor.

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Vanity of Vanity

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-2)

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.

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