Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Essential Thinkers #10: St Augustine, Rational Thought is the Servant of Faith

Religious scholar and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) produced works, principally his Confessions and his City of God, that are classics in both the philosophy of religion and Christian doctrine. Born in Algeria, he studied in Carthage, Rome and Milan before returning to North Africa to found a monastery. He was made Bishop of Hippo Regius in 395. At the heart of Augustine’s philosophy is the belief that only through faith can wisdom be attained. He saw both philosophy and religion as quests for the same thing, namely truth, but with the former inferior to the latter in this pursuit. The philosopher without faith could never attain to the ultimate truth, which for Augustine was beatitude, or ‘the enjoying of truth.’ Although reason alone could attain to some truths, Augustine maintained that rational thought was the servant of faith.

One of Augustine’s favourite texts, quoted from [the prophet] Isaiah, held that “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” One must believe in order to acquire understanding. This idea of Augustine’s was not mere slavish following of Christian doctrine. Indeed, in his youth he had renounced religion, finding the Scriptures intellectually unsatisfying. It was his aim, after his conversion to Christianity in his early thirties, to show how reason could prove the tenets of faith. This was the idea that informed his philosophy.

Augustine’s use of reason to justify the doctrines of faith is best known, famously or infamously depending on one’s point of view, for putting down the so-called ‘Pelagian heresy.’ Pelagius had questioned the notion of original sin, and further held, in accordance with the notion of free will, that when a person does good they do so from the virtue of their own moral character. As a result they are rewarded in heaven. Augustine found this doctrine subversive and distasteful. He argued, following the Epistle of St Paul, that all men are born in sin. Redemption is only possible by the grace of God regardless of our actions on earth. Adam, in taking the apple [Richard: The Bible doesn’t say ‘an apple’ but ‘the fruit’] had condemned himself and all of mankind to damnation. Our only salvation lies in repentance, but this does not guarantee that we will be chosen to go to heaven and not to hell.  

Augustine’s arguments, later revived by John Calvin and eventually abandoned by the Catholic Church, are skilled rationalisations of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. But nowhere does he question the assumptions of the Epistle, concentrating instead on drawing out the logical conclusions of the Scripture.

In more recent times, Augustine’s Confessions received attention from Ludwig Wittgenstein, not for its religious or even philosophical pronouncements, but for the way in which Augustine describes the learning of language:

When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all people: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes…. Thus as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and… I used these signs to express my own desires” (Confessions, I. 8).

At the beginning of his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein famously called this common-place conception ‘the Augustinian picture of language.’ Much of the rest of the Investigations is a successful repudiation of the Augustinian conception of language. [Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Augustine Documentary (2015)’]

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Essential Thinkers #9 Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher King

Adopted son of the Emperor Pius, Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) himself became Roman emperor for almost 20 years until his death in 180 AD. He is known for his only work the Meditations or Writings to Himself, written, according to critics, in the midst of the Parthian war when he might have better used his time directing the army. Still, as a ‘converted’ Stoic, he was greatly concerned with the social problems of the poor, slaves, and the imprisoned. Despite this, he continued, as emperor, to persecute the increasing Christian population, undoubtedly because he saw them as a threat to the Roman religion and way of life, based as this was on conquest, polytheism, and the deification of dead emperors. His own life ended as a result of the plague which broke out whilst he was planning a campaign to increase the domain of the Empire to the north.

The important of his Meditations lies in their practical and aphoristic Stoic message. A loosely-organized set of thoughts relating to stoic philosophy, they nevertheless represent an example of a living ethic, of a teaching closer to religion than to philosophic speculation. For example, the following is typical of Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

Like Seneca before him, Marcus Aurelius believed that a divine providence had placed reason in man, and it was in the power of man to be one with the rational purpose of the universe. The Stoic philosophy was primary concerned with living in accordance with both one’s own nature and universal Nature, perhaps best understood in the sense meant by Taoist philosophers of the East. Simple living and contentment with one’s lot go hand in hand with stoicism, but run the risk of leading to quietism. As a means of social control Stoicism is the ideal ‘religion’, since the more people are willing to accept the things are just they are, the less trouble they are likely to give the Emperor. Though it is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius professed Stoicism for political purposes – the Meditations seem sincere enough – it is a factor of his philosophy that should not be ignored.

The rationale behind the Stoic insistence on living ‘in accordance with nature’ stems from a certain biological outlook. According to the Stoics, all ‘ensouled beings’ (by which they mean to include everything we would now call ‘sentient life’) strive towards self-preservation. Self-preservation leads a being to look for that which is in tune with its nature and appropriate to its own being. Man, being endowed with reason, seeks not just food, warmth and shelter, but also that which is good for the intellect. Ultimately, Reason allows us to choose that which is in tune with our true nature with greater accuracy than if we merely follow our animal instinct.

Central to this Stoic outlook is an understanding of what constitutes the good or most appropriate life for human beings. Whilst many thinkers might suppose health and wealth, the Stoics insist that the ultimate good must be good at all times. It is conceivable that wealth may be sometimes detrimental to me, and so too, even, health, if for example, my strength were put to ill-doing. Hence the Stoic conclusion that the only infallible good is virtue, which includes the usual list of Greco-Roman excellences: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch Philosophers Note TV: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius]

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Essential Thinkers #8 Seneca, a Simple Life Devoted to Virtue and Reason

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much...
The life we receive is not short but we make it so;
we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

Son of Seneca the Elder, the younger Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – AD65) was born in Cordoba, Spain. He was educated in philosophy from an early age in Rome, where he would flirt with death at the hands of thee emperors during his lifetime. Caligula would have had him killed but was dissuaded on the grounds that he was destined to live a short life. Claudius exiled him and finally, after falsely being accused of plotting against Nero, whom he had tutored as a small boy, Seneca took his own life in AD 65. Nevertheless, he had a successful career as a lawyer and amassed a personal fortune. He wrote many works, which can be categorized into broadly three main kinds.

First, there are his essays on Stoic philosophy, then the sermonising Epistles, and finally his plays, often depicting graphic violence. His many plays include The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes.

Seneca was a Stoic philosopher but with a somewhat pragmatic bent. Unlike the other Stoics who often aspired to lofty goals few if any could ever reach, Seneca moderated his philosophy with a more practical approach. As with the other Stoics, the heart of his philosophy was the belief in a simple life devoted to virtue and reason. However, his extant works, particularly the one hundred and twenty-four essays of his Epistles, but also to a degree his essays, contain the same tone, being often persuasive entreaties rather than expositions of technical philosophy. He is constantly trying to administer advice to his reader rather than impart philosophical wisdom. It is said that Boethius was consoled by reading Seneca whilst in prison. One particular passage to Seneca’s grieving mother is illustrative of his sermonising style:

You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty. So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults.”

This sermonising is typical of Seneca’s work and becomes more frequent as he matures. His Stoicism is tinged with a kind of pseudo-religious flavour but importantly reflects a concern with ethical and moral principles at the expense of metaphysics. Seneca’s stoicism is less a theoretical philosophy than a guide to living. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics did not pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. Rather, Seneca insists that the only good is virtue. Doing the right thing is of paramount importance and one should show an attitude of indifference to all else. Each and every one of us, professes Seneca, has a god within him guiding us along the path set for us by Providence. We can attain happiness only by acting in accord with our own true nature, as revealed by our inner guide, and by being content with one’s lot in life. Altruism and simple living are essential to Seneca’s idea of correct living.

The important of Seneca places on doing the right thing in his philosophy appears to be sincere, given the manner of his death as reported by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Upon hearing Nero’s sentence, Seneca slashed his arms and legs and gave an erudite speech to his wife and a gathered audience. His wife Paulina, in despair, attempted to take her own life at the same time, to which Seneca said, “I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example.” However, the Emperor’s soldiers prevented Paulina from carrying out the dead by tying her up. Despite his wounds, Seneca lingered on. Tacitus reports that Seneca “begged Statius Annaeus… to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, the same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens [i.e. the hemlock of Socrates]. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison… He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without funeral rites. So he had directed in his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life’s close.”

[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also watch Stoicism: On the shortness of Life by Seneca]

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Essential Thinkers #7 Cicero, A Mixture of Scepticism and Stoicism

For much of his life Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) was known as a Roman politician, lawyer and orator, who despite his humble origins, rose to pre-eminence among the conservative Roman aristocracy. As a youth he had travelled and studied in Greece and maintained a firm interest in philosophy throughout his public life. He maintained friendships with philosophers from all the leading schools but it was not until his retirement, finding himself in the political wilderness, that he devoted his final years to translating large parts of the Greek corpus into Latin. Much of our knowledge of Greek thought is due to Cicero’s translations and he remains a primary source for students of Hellenistic philosophy.

Of Cicero’s many works the most important include his Acedemica, on the impossibility of certain knowledge, the De Finibus and De Officiis, in which he discusses the ends of human action and the rules of right conduct, the Tusculan Disputations, concerning the problems of happiness, pain, the human emotions and death, and On the Nature of Gods and On Divination, both concerned with theological matters.

Mostly produced in the last two years of his life, Cicero’s philosophy comprises a mixture of scepticism in the theory of knowledge and stoicism in ethics. He was largely critical of all things Epicurean. Although he maintained a claim to some originality in his thought, Cicero’s dialogues are principally a ‘pick and mix’ of the three leading Greek philosophical schools. This was neither by accident, nor disguised. Cicero felt that the more modern Latin language could resolve and clarify the problems of Greek philosophy, as well as make it more appealing to a modern audience.

In this aim Cicero is largely judged to have been successful. The philosophical vocabulary invented by him is responsible for Latin becoming the primary philosophical language over Greek: despite the invention of modern languages, Latin remained the primary language of philosophy right up until the Renaissance. Even Descartes’ hugely influential Meditations of First Philosophy, published in 1641, was written first in Latin and only later translated into French. Its most famous conclusion ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (popularly translated as “I think, therefore I am”) is still today referred to in philosophical schools by its Latin name, “the Cogito.”

Although philosophy no longer uses Latin as its first language, many of Cicero’s philosophical terms are still in common employment today. Latin phrases such as a priori (meaning “prior to experience”), a fortiori (even more so), reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity), ceteris paribus (a caveat meaning “other things being equal”), are not just in common philosophical usage but also, in some cases, set the agenda for the philosophical debate. For example, the great debate between empiricists and rationalists is primarily a debate over whether there can be such a thing as a priori knowledge – as the rationalists maintain – or whether all knowledge is a posteriori, in other words, derived from experience. In both logic and philosophical logic, Latin terms remain in current and widespread use.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also listen to Forgotten Thinkers: Cicero ]

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Essential Thinkers #6 Aristotle the Philosopher also Scientist, Astronomer and Political Theorist

Aristotle’s achievements in the history and development of western thought are both stunning and unrivaled. More than just a philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a scientist, astronomer, political theorist and the inventor of what is now called symbolic or formal logic. He wrote extensively on biology, psychology, ethics, physics, metaphysics and politics and set the terms of debate in all these areas right up to modern times. Indeed, his writings on justice are still required reading for undergraduates reading Law.

After his death his works were lost for some 200 years or so but fortunately rediscovered in Crete. Later translated into Latin by Boethius around 500 AD, Aristotle’s influence spread throughout Syria and Islam whilst Christian Europe ignored him in favour of Plato. Not until Thomas Aquinas reconciled Aristotle’s work with Christian doctrine in the 13th century did he become influential in Western Europe. Aristotle received his education from age seventeen in Plato’s ‘Academy’, where he stayed for some 20 years until Plato’s death. Later he founded his own institution, ‘The Lyceum’, where he would expound a philosophy altogether different both in method and content from that of his former teacher.

More than any other philosopher before him, Aristotle made much of observation and strict classification of data in his studies. For this reason he is often considered as the father of empirical science and scientific method. Unlike his predecessor Plato, Aristotle always undertook his investigations by considering the regarded opinions of both experts and lay people, before detailing his own arguments, assuming that some grain of truth is likely to be found in commonly held ideas. Aristotle’s method was nothing if not rigorous and lacked the proselytising tone of many of his predecessors.

In contradistinction to both Plato and the Pre-Socratic, Aristotle rejected the idea that the many diverse branches of human inquiry could, in principle, be subsumed under one discipline based on some universal philosophic principle. Different sciences require different axioms and admit of varying degrees of precision according to their subject. Thus Aristotle denied there could be exact law of human nature, whilst maintaining that certain metaphysical categories – such as quantity, quality, substance and relation – were applicable to the description of all phenomena.

If there is one common thread to much of Aristotle’s work it lies in his conception of teleology, or purpose. Perhaps as a result of his preoccupation with biological studies, Aristotle was impressed by the idea that both animate and inanimate behaviour is directed toward some final purpose (‘telos’) or goal. It is common to explain the behaviour of people, institutions and nations in terms of purposes and goals: for example, John is sitting the bar exam to become a barrister; the school is holding a fete to raise funds for the roof; the country is going to war to protect its territory. Similarly, modern evolutionary biology makes use of purposive explanation to account for the behaviour of, for instance, genes and genetic imperatives.

However, Aristotle thought the concept of purpose could be invoked to explain the behaviour of everything in the universe. His reasoning lay in the idea that everything has a natural function and strives towards fulfilling or exhibiting that function, which is its best and more natural state. It is by means of the concept of function that Aristotle then ties his ethics to his physics, claiming that the natural function of man is to reason, and to reason will is to reason in accordance with virtue.

Unlike the opposing ethical theories of Kant and Mill, both of which view actions as the subject of ethical judgements, Aristotle’s ethics focuses on the character of the agent as that which is morally good or morally bad. This is so-called ‘virtue ethics’ was revived with much critical success by Alistair Macintyre in late 20th century.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012]

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