Saturday, December 03, 2005

Great Philosophers

Some years ago a book called "The Closing of the American Mind" inspired me to begin reading Philosophy. I'm one of those people who made it almost all the way through college without ever taking a Liberal arts core course- I took languages instead of foreign studies; anthropolgy, psychology and sociology instead of minority studies or political science; biology instead of current events or history. My introduction to logic was in mathematics, statistics and experimental design courses, not philosophy.

When my senior advisor pointed out that I'd avoided these courses (it wasn't conscious, I spent my time learning the stuff I wanted to know) and that it was required to graduate, I took a term filled with LA stuff. It lived up to my expectations- professors with a thin grasp of history ignoring their own stated facts to present their 'enlightened' conclusions. It was about opinion and seemed to be more about finding weasel room in the facts so that they could be twisted to your own predetermined conclusion than about learning. Philosophy, "the love of learning" in my experience had nothing to do with learning at all. It was an academic discipline for people who couldn't survive if held to a consistant standard.

"The Closing of the American Mind" was a lament of the decline of philosophy in American education, but I was inspired by something else. The author had been able to point out how changes in philosophical thinking had inspired or enabled major changes in politics and culture. Hmmm. So we got a group together and started reading and discussing Western Philosophers from the ancient to the past. (We planned to do Eastern later). That I remember we read Plato (Symposium, Republic, a few others), Aristotle (Metaphysics, Politics and Nichomachean Ethics), Lucretius (De Rerum Naturae), and Marcus Aurelius (Meditations) before the group disbanded. I've stuck with it alone, a little less intently, hence the present reading of "The City of God". Hey! I'm up to the 5th Century!

It's been clear that human thinking has really evolved over time. Socrates was an idiot who couldn't win a gradeschool debate contest. His student, Plato would write the dialogues in such a way that the debating opponents would allow Socrates to set the parameters of the argument and then meekly say (over and over again) "Surely it must be so, Socrates! You are right, Socrates!" Grrrr.... So some one would say, "Prove to me that a just man who people think is wicked has a better life than a wicked man who people think is just, Socrates." That's a damn good question. Socrates would then say that it was too hard to study a man because he was small (huh?) and that it is hard to read a small sign far away but easy to read a big one up close but since they were both signs, you could read the big one and know the small one (utter horseshit- that billboard will not tell me what your bumper sticker says) and that therefore by describing a city he can prove that the good man who seems wicked has a better life than the wicked man who seems good... and everyone just says, "Surely it must be so, Socrates." Grrr. By the end of the Republic, Plato/Socrates had "proven" that a perfect society should have no poetry, no fiction and only music chosen by the state.

In "Metaphysics" I expected Aristotle to go into the deeper nature of reality- what is beyond physics? Why must we have physics? Nope. About a hundred pages into it I realized he was asking the Clinton Question- what does "is" mean? Is Mac Mac the martial artist? Or Mac the cop? Or Mac the teacher? Is he a combination of every atom of his being and every second of his history or only his name? Or only what we see right now? Is a chair a chair if it's not being sat in? And is a barrel a chair if someone sits on it... The whole premise of the book could only have arisen in a culture that was just beginning to understand the concept of symbolics. We forget that in many early cultures, the Name is the Thing and there is no clear separation of an object from it's symbol.

I liked the Latin guys better. Lucretius tried to apply common sense to explain the universe with mixed success. Marcus Aurelius was giving advice to his son, and the advice holds up pretty well over the millenia. There's the difference, here. These Roman philosophers were trying to create or collect a system of knowledge that was to be used- not scoring points off of drunk friends. Aurelius cared about his son. Socrates/Plato cared about looking smarter than every one else.

Now St. Augustine and the City of God. I'm half way through and there have been a few moments. I've blogged about two and he makes an assertion that only the Hebrews have ever claimed a divine source for their codes of law. That struck me, since it seems that religion would be a natural for making rules... but I can't think of another society. The Code of Hammurabai, the Athenian laws of Solon, none of the ancient laws that I can think of claim a divine source. Curious. Other than that, the book, so far is little more than a collection of slimy debating tricks and self-serving redefinitions. The arguments he uses against the Roman gods would also destroy the logic of his own religion, if he allowed it to be applied in that directions. His proofs of Christianity rely heavily on changing the meaning of words like 'death' and pretending that any prediction which didn't come true did, actually, but only if all the words mean something else.

Still plowing through, still learning.


Anonymous said...

It's only complex because we have lost our frame of reference and instead focused on the context. The blind men and the elephant. Hell, the elephant knows what he is and probably wonders why all these little 'two-legs' are feeling him up. Once we experience the framework, the house only matters to others.

Jesse Kilp said...

Aristotle wrote his Ethics for his son, Nicomache