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Aristotle was never one to ignore a challenge.  His curiosity about the world was unbounded.  His thinking laid the foundations for what we should call scientific thought.  When we insist on making accurate and detailed observations ; and close and controlled reasoning ; we are borrowing the words and thoughts of Aristotle.  His calm and rigorous thinking is, in large part, what has made our modern world.  If he had never lived, we should all be the poorer for it.  He lived to be just sixty-two.  What else might he have bequeathed us if he had lived another twenty years?

His principal teacher was Plato, an Athenian aristocrat who rejected the easy (and corrupt) life followed by his contemporaries so that he might follow his curiosity about the qualities of life and the world.  In fact among many ideas, he invented a new and important word, poiotes – the ‘whatness’ of a thing or ‘of-what-kind-ness’.  Cicero translated this as ‘qualitas’ ; we know it as ‘quality’.  It is strange to realise that, before Plato, nobody had a word for the ‘whatness’ of anything.  And, if there is no word for a thing, it cannot be properly examined.  When we pass a shop window where we see a sign telling us of the ‘best quality’ of some item for sale there, our minds are at once connected, by an invisible thread, to a man who lived nearly twenty-five centuries ago.  And, if we follow that thread to its source, we discover much, much more.  Plato founded his Academy, the first institute of higher education in the Western world.

And now, moving backwards in time again and still feeling the thread, we come to Socrates, the jobbing sculptor (or maybe stonemason) who had been a soldier (heavy infantry) and who was the teacher of Plato the aristocrat.  Perhaps he was the most peaceable man in pagan Europe.  But he wrote nothing.  Almost all we know of him comes from his pupil, Plato.  He was sentenced to death by a corrupt democratic court – ironically on a charge of corruption.  He was afforded the chance to escape into exile but refused it, for he preferred to die in his beloved Athens.  So he drank the prescribed chalice poisoned with hemlock and went without a fuss.

We owe so much to so many for the good that we enjoy here in the West ; but for our understanding of worldly things and of philosophy, we come close to owing the most to these three pagans.  Without these three pagans, our arts and sciences would be very much the poorer ; perhaps they would not exist.

It was quite a long time after the lives of these three that their philosophies took a practical form.  Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that their ideas should pop up in the last place on earth we should expect – in a place where for long centuries the native philosophy had been hard and severe ; in a place where long lived a hard and warlike nation ; in a place called Nazareth.

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One of the main attractions of psychology is that it is nearly all about putting old fine wines into new jazzy bottles.  The downside is that sometimes the flavour is lost in the process (and sometimes the spirit, too).  But that’s all right because, once having identified the vintage, you can always go out and buy a case of the real stuff.

There is a strange breed of psychologists called the Behaviourists.  They are strange because they actually deny psychology ; they have evicted Psyche from her dream castle and concentrate their attentions not on the mind and soul but on simple behaviour.  They are not interested in what people think but in what they do.  Hence their name – behaviourists.

They are, of course, quite wrong-headed ; but that is not to say that they are uninteresting, nor that they fail to give us things to think about (I hope they will forgive me for that lapse).  To see how useful behaviourist ideas can be we have only to look at the bricks they use to build their own castle of dreams.

For example, they ask the question, “How can we ensure that people behave correctly?”  And, to find the answer, they first look at what people actually do and then try to work out why they do it ; in other words, they form hypotheses about behaviour.  And then they do experiments on people in order to either affirm or deny their hypotheses. It is a very good method.

Our mature behaviour is derived entirely from our learning to modify our nature-given biological drives, our fundamental urges to do something.  Where these drives or urges ultimately come from is of no concern to them.  And there are three basic bricks used to build the behaviourists’ Castle of Learning (their school of life).

One of these building blocks is the concept of reward.  Out of all the deeds that you might do sometime in the next two seconds or so, there are some that will give you a sense of pleasure or satisfaction ; that is your reward for doing the deed.  And, because you received that reward, you are more likely to do it again.  Thus the deed – your behaviour – has been reinforced.  You have learned a Good Deed ; and, as long as you continue to receive that reinforcement, you’ll go on doing it.

Now, you might have spotted weaknesses in this concept, but it doesn’t matter because we are dealing only with the basics here.

Another building block in behaviourism is – you’ve guessed it – the concept of punishment.  For, if you behave in a way that gives you a feeling of displeasure or dissatisfaction then (rather obviously) you will be less likely to repeat it.

So far so simple.  But this interplay between rewards and punishments is often very subtle, and it is here that behaviourism becomes first interesting and then fascinating.  Just to scratch the surface as it were, we might ask, “Which is the more effective as an aid to learning?  The rewards or the punishments?”  Stuff to ponder.  But, before we commit the sin of speculating and swapping anecdotes in search of an answer, we must remember that the behaviourists have done the actual experiments ; and these contain some surprises as well as some treasured chestnuts.

Now for an ancient truth.  Behaviourism, like all the sciences, has yet to tell us anything we didn’t already know.  It has yet to produce any new wine.  But it has raised our awareness, our consciousness, concerning ancient truths ; and it has dressed them up in bright new bottles so that we can savour them afresh, according to our taste ; but that is all it has done.  Now there’s a Platonic thought for you.

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Just one of the pleasures of being officially retired is that one has the leisure to do pretty much what one likes.  Retirement is a time to be aware of all the things one has not yet done ; all those things that one would have done if only there had been the time.  But it must not be allowed to become a time of regret or reproach ; not a time for angst over missed opportunities.  There need be no recrimination attached to our omissions for, after all, if one was not reading High Lit. or not exploring the wilder forests and rivers or not driving Formula One cars, it was only because one was doing something else instead.

I can remember reflecting on this theme when I was young ; and remember thinking at the time that I had just hit upon an original idea ; a new insight into the nature of the world. Such is the vanity of youth.  But such vanity was dispelled when I came to reflect more effectively on things I had read (in a casual sort of way) in childhood.  And the vanity was decisively crushed when I dipped into a book of short stories which illustrated dramatically just what I had supposed was my piece of ‘original’ thinking ; for I discovered that Beirce and Poe had long since illustrated the theme beautifully and succinctly and memorably.  And John Fowles did the same in one of his novels (The French Lieutenant’s Woman?).

The world is such that very often we can usefully do only one thing at a time.  The traveller arrives at a junction in the road ; he may turn left or turn right, but not both.  You decide on a day out with the children ; you may go to the beach or to the forest, but not both.  You sit down to write a blog post ; you may write about this or about that, but not both.  To try to do even just two things at the same time generally leads to incoherence.

As it is with small things, so it is with the big.  You might decide to be an engineer or you might decide to be a lawyer ; a sailor or a forester ; a teacher or a train driver.  It is just possible to have a go at all six of these occupations ; but, if you wish to make your mark upon the world, you generally have to choose just one – at least as a major ; and that choice generally has to be made early.  Yes, career choices have to be made at exactly the time when we are least fitted to make a considered judgement.

Painting his word-picture on a wider canvas, Plato made this point in his account of The Myth of Er.  This account describes the Pythagorean eschatology, the story of life and death.  It is beautifully told and is both heartening and tragic.  More importantly, like all enduring myths, it has the ring of truth to it despite its contemporary subject matter.

So life is about choices.   And retirement is the time to review one’s choices – without too much regret and without losing sight of the fact that one may at last take up some interest which has lain dormant for so long.  And, if you can no longer hope to be what you wanted to be, you can at least write about it.  😉

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It’s always risky to question the form of government that happens to be in place at a particular time. For example, if anybody had been rash enough to propose a liberal democracy at any time up to the eighteenth century, then a short stay in the Tower would have been the law’s reply. But are we any wiser today?

If an intelligent and humane person from any century prior to our own were to review the events of the past hundred years or so, they would very likely conclude that democracy seems to be a resounding failure in the West. “Wherever you look,” they would say, “You see dissolution and decay.”

The West is, by almost any measure, in the process of becoming stultified by self-indulgence, and is being taken over by more vigorous cultures which seek a greater wealth on behalf of their peoples – rather than at the behest of their peoples.

Our intelligent and humane ancestors would argue that, while people in general desire the betterment of their lives, they are hopelessly divided as to the means of securing it.  On the other hand, an absolute ruler, or a small aristocracy, can reach agreement on both aims and means, and can therefore deliver the goods.

Plato famously argued that democracy was merely the prelude to tyranny. Was he right? Where do we see signs of tyranny emerging in our own times?

P.S.  Yes, I am a democrat at heart.

Jamie MacNab

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Nobody has ever defined, for general use, what poetry is.  As was noted in very early writings, a word cannot be defined except for the purposes of a narrow technical discussion.  As Plato said, “Don’t tell me what a word means ; tell me how you use it.”  Dr. Johnson was to come to realize the truth of this opinion when he came to write his dictionary.

So, if we cannot say in a word what poetry ‘is’, how do we recognize it when we see it?

This points to the crux of the matter.  For anything merely seen is almost devoid of meaning.  If I see a poem on a page it is not, in one strict sense, a poem at all ; it is merely ink marks on a piece of paper.  If I am to see those marks as poetry, I must first understand that they are symbols ; then I must interpret them as words ; then I must interpret their meanings, and then understand them to be poetical.

Similarly, if I hear a poem being read aloud, I must understand that the vibrations in my ear are symbols which must be interpreted as words, and then judge them to be poetical.

So a poem is not a thing that exists independently of the human mind and its consciousness.  It follows, therefore, that a poem is not ‘seen’ as such but is recognized as such.  The reader, or listener, brings his own knowledge (or memory) to poetic meaning.

It seems to me that many important consequences issue from these realizations.

This blog first appeared here :-

http://my.telegraph.co.uk/jamie_macnab/blog/2008/10/27/what_is_poetry

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