Tag Archives: Plato

Minding–and Not Minding– the Mind. #I–Caring

Have you ever noticed how closely related are the words “thinking” and “thanking?” The mind is one of Nature’s loveliest creations. I remember reading somewhere that just as a meadow gives birth to wild flowers, so the mind generates thoughts and ideas. This is its nature, and it does so beautifully and without effort. It is a delight to walk along a beach, thinking, musing, imagining–all functions of the mind. I love Wordsworth’s allusion to “the inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.”  It has become fashionable, however, in some “spiritual” circles to denigrate the mind. The “left brain” is often seen as the source of all of our problems, and if we could just turn the darned thing off, life would flow more smoothly.  Perhaps, however, there are perspectives in which sometimes minding our minds, and at other times not minding our minds, could make life immeasurably richer.

We use “to mind” in many ways, but in this series of essays, I would like to think about four of them: Tonight, I am going to mind the kids. Mind the gap.  Mind your Mother!!  I mind it when the guy at the next table is smoking.

These meanings suggest that we put the mind to work when we care about something, ranging from nurturing love to dependent attachment; when we sense danger, ranging from reasonable attention to paralyzing terror; when we are in the sway of authority, ranging from suggestions to  harsh commands; and when something irritates us–ranging from mild discomfort to severe aversion. The mind itself is often the object of each of these senses of “minding:” It, too, can be irritating, or needing care, or issuing orders, or warning of danger. As I “think” about it, it seems to me that in most of the gentler meanings of “to mind” there are ways to mind the mind that are positive and helpful.  As we get to the other end of the spectrum, however, the mind can become a tyrant that inhibits the creation of an artful life.  During the next few days, I am going to write a series of essays on these various meanings of minding the mind.

1.  Minding the kids: caring for the mind.  I can think of two ways in which it is important to care for the mind.  The first is obvious: use it or lose it.  In my mid-seventies, I am still devoting significant time to learning languages.  I just love this.  Speaking a person’s language is a key to opening the hearts of oneself and others. It  keeps my mind agile and attentive, and my heart filled with joy. This connection between the heart and the mind, between mental exercise and joyful engagement, is the key to caring for the mind.  We all learned in school that force-feeding the mind is counter productive, to put it mildly.  Plato, in fact, was against compulsory education of any kind and at any stage of life.  “For the free spirit” he said, “there should be no element of slavery in learning, for forced learning takes no hold in the mind.”   I will write more about healing the gap between mind and heart in the next essay in this series.

There are other ways to care for the mind.  It helps to turn off the TV and read a decent book once in a while.  Even planning a trip (how to get from Madrid to Seville to Malaga to Nerja) is invigorating mental exercise, with a great pay-off.  For many people,  meditation in one form or another has become a powerful gentling of the mind’s anxieties.   And of course, writing a blog, and reading the inspiring thoughts of fellow bloggers, nurtures the mind’s vitality.

The second way we care for the mind is suggested by Thich Nhat Hahn.  “Be careful,” he says, “about what you invite into the living room of your minds.”  Just as with my children, I need to have a “parental filter” on my own mind.  What do I read, what do I watch, what fantasies do i entertain, and what is the quality of my conversations?  Am I feeding my prejudices,or opening my mind to more ample vistas?   Am I paralyzing my mind with fear, or learning to create positive frames for this challenging world in which I find myself?   Our minds, like our children, call for tender nurturing and healthy nutrition, and perhaps some discipline, in order to grow toward their richest possibilities.

On the negative side, we can become obsessed with the mind, and live entirely within its narrow confines.  G. K. Chesterton once observed that modern people have huge heads and tiny chests, like the Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small. Just as a parent can become overly protective of his children, so we can attempt to insulate the mind from ideas that upset our cherished opinions.  It is tempting to protect the mind by building a wall around it, turning it into Plato’s cave. As Robert Frost advised, however, before I build a wall, I want to know what I am walling out and what I am walling in.

Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, was fond of urging his students to “great faith and great doubt.”  I think the trick is to honor the truth that you have crafted over a lifetime of learning, whether through reading, thinking, discussing, or even cultural conditioning–and at the same time to realize that the entire content of the mind is partial and tentative.  What I think I know is always open to question and further  refinement, often expansion, and sometimes outright rejection. This is what Socrates meant when he said he knew nothing true and beautiful, and that this  not-knowing is the essence of wisdom.  My ideas, no matter how beautiful and considered they may be, must always be open to doubt.  The mind’s greatest enemies can be its cherished answers that close off further thought.  It’s greatest friends are its questions.   Thus,  a mind lovingly cared for is one filled with wonder.

 

Morning In Seville

Monday morning dawns with a promise of beauty and adventure. Carolyn and I traveled by the high speed train (AVE) yesterday from Madrid to Seville–328 miles–in just 2 and 1/2 hours. We are staying in an apartment in Triana, across the river from the main part of town. We love this area, since it is where the folks live, and is not too touristy.

Part of the joy of travel is the surprising and usually brief encounters with people, both local and international. Martin Buber suggests that real living is encounter, even at a distance if one has the ears and the heart to hear the call of the soul in another. Three times yesterday morning in Madrid I had Spanish people ask me directions, and twice I actually knew the answer. The third gentleman was most gracious when I explained I was an American, and did not know the street he was seeking. We had a lovely exchange, and parted shaking hands. These short but sweet human meetings warm my heart, and reinforce my belief in the positive energies of life. We hear the horrors of the world on the evening news (if we choose to listen), but every day offers the gift of grace and warmth that brings light to those dark forebodings.

This Ebola scare is a good example. None of our lives will have a happy ending–at least from one point of view. We might find some consolation in the belief in an afterlife or in reincarnation, but still, death has its sting. Plato, of all people, warns us not to live a life which is little more than “a rear guard action against death.” I find that inspiring. I don’t want to miss today’s blessings because I am worried about what awful thing might happen.

A student once remarked that this attitude could have me ending up with a bullet in my head. I answered that I would rather live ten more years without fear, and catch that bullet, than live 50 more years in craven fear. So many people worry about life after death. I think it is far more important to give attention to life before death. Whatever happens afterwards will take care of itself.

So we are off for a day in Seville. What will we see? What fabulous tapas will we discover? Who will cross our paths? And if things should “go wrong,” then the adventure begins.

I’ll end by sharing a picture I took last night from our balcony of the Seville Cathedral–the third largest in the world:
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What’s a PH.D.?

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Have you ever wondered why professors in so many disciplines of the arts and sciences are called Doctors of Philosophy? What does this have to do with chemistry, or even history? Is the title simply an anachronistic throwback to the Middle Ages? Or is there a richer meaning here?

It is well known that the word Philosophy comes from two Greek words that combine into φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom.” Diogenes Laertius tells us that the word was coined by Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who said that only the gods were wise. He was rather a lover of wisdom.

The contemporary usage of “Doctor,” of course, primarily refers to physicians. Ph.D.’s sometimes use this title, but most prefer Professor. (In Japan, the term “sensei” applies across the board to most professionals: dentists, physicians, and teachers from kindergarten to university–as well as to Zen masters like Mr. Miyagi).

Etymologically, however, Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” to teach, and thus originally doctor meant “teacher.”

So to be a Doctor of Philosophy is to be a Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. Philosophy is therefore more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge. It is enlivened by wonder and entranced by mystery. It is, as Jacob Needleman says, a longing for awakening.  This love, according to Plato, should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences.

I wonder how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom? How many professors, how many people, recognize their own lack of self-knowledge and general ignorance of “what is truly good and beautiful?” Robert Pirsig laments the university professor who unwittingly kills the creative spirit of his students, which is something none of us wants to do.  It is so easy, however, given the pressures of modern education, to be caught in the vortex of a downward spiral.  Our youthful ideals can atrophy as we approach the shoals of burn-out.

I was blessed to be drawn to Philosophy.  The readings in my courses inspired me and most of my students as we encountered provocative questions, and were swept up in “the eternal conversation of things that truly matter.”

Clearly, the facts, the information and the skills necessary for one’s subject are important, even lovely, things. They have served to spark the interest and quicken the heart of every engaged teacher. But if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.

One cannot teach love with words. The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it–and living that love in and out of the classroom. The teacher must BE what she teaches.  She can only teach peace with a peaceful heart; he can only teach love with care and vulnerability.  What ultimately stays with our students, I believe, is the respect with which we listen to them, the attention with which we regard them, and our abiding faith in the power of our subject to enlarge the soul and thus to expand one’s world.

A Ph.D., therefore, worthy of the name, does not identify an “expert.”  It identifies a dedicated, passionate and skillful learner.   In every class she gives life to these words of e.e.cummings

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing

Than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

Making Friends with Life: The Coefficient of Adversity

Hokusai

Yikes! Look out for that wave!

Those folks in Hokusai’s boats are about to experience unavoidably the reality of the phrase that Jean-Paul Sartre borrowed from Gaston Bachelard: the Coefficient of Adversity.   That rather ponderous elocution (he says ponderously) carries within it a powerful clue to a recurring theme on this blog: making friends with life.  Things from lousy weather to an unkind word to a traffic accident can catapult us into victimhood, and enroll us in the “bitch and moan club.”  Eric Berne’s Games People Play featured the game “Ain’t it Awful,”  and it seems that often the conversations one hears are simply strings of complaints.   I sometimes imagine that if some people did not have their list of complaints, they would be absolutely mute.

So how does recognizing the inevitability of a coefficient of adversity temper one’s adversarial stance toward life?  I can think of three avenues of reflection.

First, it is a fundamental tenet in the philosophy of Plato that this material world is one of imperfection.  Whether one wants to follow him out of the cave into the light of perfection is a question for another essay. It does, however, seem clear, as he says in Book V of the Republic, that there is nothing in this world so perfectly beautiful that we can find no element of ugliness; nothing is so good that we can find no negative vantage point.  Combine this with John Stuart Mill’s insight that a part of happiness is “not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing,” and it yields a healing perspective.  “How good does life get?’ leads to “How good do I expect life to get?’ and then “How good do I expect myself to be?” Realizing that a coefficient of adversity is built into the very fabric of life trims the sails of my expectations, and lets me see more clearly the wondrous miracle of what is.  As Wittgenstein said, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Seeing that it is, as it is, can help to liberate us from the illusion of perfection, and to embrace life with its many textures.

Sartre offers a second insight that brings the discussion to a deeper level.  He sees (in Being and Nothingness, Bk 4, Ch 2) that every adversarial element in my life is created by my own perspectives, values, and intentions (in his words, my “self-project”).    For example, I am stuck in a traffic jam.  He calls this a “brute fact,” neither good nor bad.  But if I am on my way to collect a lottery prize, and that is important to me, then the delay can be unbearable.  If, on the other hand, I am on my way to be executed, then the traffic jam becomes a god-send.  Clearly, my life so far has not been filled with lotteries or executions, but even on the mundane level, we can see that a shift of values or perspective can alter the coefficient of adversity in any given situation.  I might find myself seething in a traffic jam, and realize that the ten minutes I lose are not worth a roiling stomach.  My project then shifts from being on time to creating peace of mind, and the coefficient of adversity eases.

This leads to the third reflection: even if I cannot ease the present resistance, Sartre urges us to accept the fact that every coefficient of adversity in our lives is self-created, and thus freely chosen.  The living of life is a package deal, and the art of living consists in weighing the costs and benefits of any given situation.  If the costs are too heavy, we can do our best to change them, or failing that, to leave.  If we do not leave, then our attachment to the benefits is more valuable than the pains, and the only mature option is to buy the whole package with its mixture of sunshine and shadow, blessings and a coefficient of adversity.  This is why Sartre says,  “it is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”   Complaining doesn’t change a thing, but claiming responsibility for one’s life opens a luminous path beyond victimhood to a powerful freedom that expresses itself in an unwavering gratitude for life as it is; for life as we are creating it.  As Rumi says, “Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.”

Shoddy Virtues

 

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In his Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck writes these iconoclastic lines:
“Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding.  Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.”

The notion of “shoddy virtues” is at once unsettling and resonant. Steinbeck clearly has a point. Jesus taught that it is better to give than to receive, but Steinbeck is adding that giving is also easier. We have all experienced how difficult it is to allow someone else to pay the check at a restaurant, or even to open the presents given to us at Christmas. It does take great humility to receive with grace.

In modern times, the notion of virtue has become restrictive and dull. Virtuous people are kept from doing things they would like to do, mostly sexual. It has sometimes been used as a subtle denigration of women. Have you ever heard of a man of easy virtue, or of a man losing his virtue? For all the lip service we give to virtue, the truth is that many think of it as bland, boring, and unprofitable. Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”

For the record, this recognition of virtue’s dual nature has a long pedigree. In the Republic, Plato says “The most surprising fact of all is that each of the gifts of nature which we praise tends to corrupt the soul of its possessor and divert it from the love of wisdom. I am speaking of courage, sobriety, and the entire list [of virtues]” (Rep., Bk. VI, 491). Plato thought that materialistic cultures are incubators of a perverse caricature of true virtue. Professions that offer money, prestige, or power have the ability to seduce the truly talented away from careers that serve the spiritual growth of oneself and others. He is especially decrying the profession of Philosophy, or University Professors in general, who are often fifth-rate poseurs who have little true Love of Wisdom. Cleverness poses as Wisdom, authoritarianism poses as courage, and self-righteousness poses as integrity. If ego drives our natural and acquired gifts, they do indeed become shoddy.

In the East, Lao Tzu makes the same point with his characteristic simplicity as he distinguishes between higher and lower (shoddy) virtue in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “1. Superior virtue is unvirtue. Therefore it has virtue. Inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue. Therefore it has no virtue. 2. Superior virtue is non-assertion and without pretension. Inferior virtue asserts and makes pretensions.” I read this as saying that virtue, aware of itself, is self-inflating and therefore ultimately self-defeating. Jesus talked about the person who gives money at the temple only when he is sure of an audience. “Look at me. Aren’t I good?” Inferior virtue, to be sure.

It seems to me that Steinbeck, Plato, and Lao Tsu are all saying that our most beautiful gifts of mind and heart can be diverted to the service of the ego and thus become powerful tools of self-centered, self-congratulatory selfishness. It is quite easy to see how such attitudes as Giving, Forgiveness, Temperance, and even Sexual Restraint can feed a rigid superiority, full of pretension and assertiveness, if not aggression. The self-righteous often speak warm words that ride on cold breath.

William James noted that the human being is “a bundle of habits.” These habits are channels worn into our minds and hearts and bodies by our quotidian choices and actions. Habits of thinking, feeling, and moving become ingrained, and either imprison us in fear and ignorance, or open us to autonomy and growth. Sadly, the habits that most of us carry into adulthood are narrow and distorting, and inhibit the flow of life. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, they make the mind and heart two sizes too small. The ancient Greeks called these crippling habits “vices.” Because of them our minds and hearts are literally caught in a vise, and the smallness of our resulting worldview produces suffering for ourselves and others. The mark of the fool, Socrates taught, is that he is ignorant of his own ignorance. He is a “know-it-all” who stagnates in the backwater of his cognitive illusions. In perhaps his most powerful image, Plato depicts humankind as chained by fear inside the cave of its own disordered (or overly-ordered) and rigid mind.

For Plato, the purpose of human life is to undertake the dramatic journey out of the dark cave of the closed mind. It is a journey toward a mind open to wonder, aware of the provisional nature of what it thinks it knows; and it is a journey toward a courageously vulnerable heart. On this journey, new patterns of thinking and feeling are assimilated into our nature (Aristotle calls this ‘second nature’) by repeated choices and their attendant actions. These new channels that enable us to be the people we long to be–wise and brave, kind and compassionate–are what Plato calls the “Virtues” (arete in Greek). The English word comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘virile.” It means to be strong, powerful, independent. In sum, the virtues are qualities of mind and heart that empower us to live life with vigor and joy. The virtues, the qualities that allow us to function at our best, are in fact prisms through which one’s love flows into the world. Shoddy, ego-serving virtues go by the same names, but they dam the flow of love.

I want to take care, therefore, that the soaring ideals of religion and philosophy do not themselves become self-serving. The virtues of wisdom, compassion, courage, and equanimity are truly real only if they are conduits of love in the ordinary, daily unfolding of life. If I can be kind to my children, supportive of my friends, and truthful with my wife; if I can honor the Divine light in everyone I meet; if I can cherish the inexpressible beauty of the natural world, then perhaps I might be approaching true virtue. I aspire to live the Taoist ideal of gracious action without any sense of being “virtuous.” In the realm of higher virtue, as Hayden Carruth observed, “Now I am almost entirely love.”

On Reading Plato

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About 35 years ago, Plato stopped being a stuffy old philosopher full of “teachings,” and became a friend. For the previous five years, I had been centering each semester’s introductory course around The Republic. After ten preparations, I had gotten pretty good at showing the chain of Plato’s reasoning from beginning to end. I thought the book was brilliant, although it contained many ideas that did not seem to make a lot of sense to me or to my students. Still, the ideas that did make sense were numerous enough to justify the book’s 2000 year stellar reputation. (Who, after all, will be reading this blog in 4014?)
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Living the Love of Wisdom #1

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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.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.

[Children’s education] should not be in the form of compulsory instruction, because for the free man there should be no element of slavery in learning. Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind.
Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 536