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Archive for March, 2014

How does one become a philosopher, perhaps a Socrates?  Emerson gives us a hint: ‘In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him; and in that I am his pupil.’  Potential philosophers, searcher and seekers of wisdom, are open to the teacher showing up, then are discerning of the teacher when he or she appears, and then pays attention to them when they ‘speak.’  I also have a sense that the student needs to have either the seeds or the young roots residing within seeking to be nurtured into their full potential by the teacher’s words, actions, care, challenges, invitations, and support (to name a few ways that the teacher helps nurture the ‘seeds’ into life and support the young roots so that they might become major tap roots that feed and sustain the soul, heart and mind of the student).  Ironically, most of us have had the same or similar experiences of the teacher; the difference — they took full advantage of them and we, living our divided and distracted lives, might not even have noticed them. [AN ASIDE: I am thinking of Buckminster Fuller – whose creative genius continues to awe many today.  In an interview he was asked how he was able to come up with so many creative and life-changing ideas.  He replied that it was simple.  Each day he would emerge 100 new ideas and then he would choose the one or two that were the most creative and then he would engage them.  Simple enough!]

Socrates also provided us a hint (one of many, actually) in ‘The Apology’ when he said to his friend, Crito: ‘Do you then be reasonable and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself.  Try to examine her well and truly; and if she be evil, seek to turn away all men from her; but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve her, and be of good cheer.’ 

I want to introduce us to Socrates, perhaps the greatest of the great philosophers; but I have this niggle nudging me – Context.  Socrates was a real human being and he lived for a certain number of years and he taught in a certain city-state and this city-state was located in a certain place (now called a country).  The ‘Context’ also helps keep me grounded as I search and seek to come to understand Socrates more fully.  So, gentle reader, I am going to provide you some context for our teacher Socrates; this will take at least two if not three postings [as far as I can determine sitting here this morning].  So, let us continue:

SOCRATES – THE CONTEXT, PART I
When I take the time to look at a map of Europe, and I look closely, I observe that Socrates’ homeland, Greece, is a skeleton-like hand stretching its crooked fingers out into the great sea, the Mediterranean.  South of Greece lies the magnificent island of Crete from which those grasping fingers caught and held onto the beginnings of civilization and culture [this was two thousand years before the birth of Jesus].  To Greece’s east, across a ‘lesser sea,’ the Aegean, lies Asia Minor.  It was ‘the center of civilization’ during Socrates’ time [and for centuries before].  To Greece’s west resided Italy, Sicily and Spain – each had young and thriving Greek colonies.  At the ‘far end of the world’ stood the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ (which we now call Gibraltar); the ‘Pillars’ were that portal through which few passed during this time period.  North of Greece there was Thessaly and Epirus and Macedonia – untamed and half-barbaric regions; these uncivilized regions would be the parents of Homeric and Periclean Greece [most of us have heard of Homer and it might serve us well to seek out Pericles and his contribution].

Now I pause.  Then I look again at the map; I look closer this time…

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As ‘lovers and seekers of wisdom’ [Philosophers], we seek ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding.’  We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before we run amok and become obsessed with the ‘little.’  We want to understand our own ‘life’s purpose’ and we want to live a life of ‘meaning’ so that we can learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even when the coachman we call ‘death’ arrives [see Socrates’ ‘Apology’].  We seek to live a life of ‘wholeness.’  As Thoreau noted: ‘To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of magnanimity and trust.’

Given ‘PHILO SOPHIA…PART I’ and given what I just wrote it might well happen that some ‘ungentle reader’ will check me (or is it us?) here by informing me that philosophy is as useless as a three legged chair and is as obscure as ignorance.  As the great Roman, Cicero wrote: ‘There is nothing so absurd but it may be found in the books of the philosophers.’  I have attempted to read some philosophers who seemed to me to have had all sorts of un-understandable wisdom but little common sense; and there have been philosophic flights that have been supported by the power of hot air.  This does raise a question: Has philosophy become stagnant?  Science and technology always seem to advance. . .but what about philosophy?  It appears to me that philosophy continues to fall behind, to lose ground, to become less and less a ‘big thing.’

Consider, gentle reader, that philosophy is about the ‘big things.’  Philosophy embraces its ‘call’ and thus accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science and technology – problems, paradoxes, and dilemmas like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, virtue and vice, order and freedom, life and death.

Consider that philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics) or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy); it is the front trench in the siege of truth.  Science is the captured territory; and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge (and, some say art) builds our imperfect and marvelous world.

Philosophy appears to stand still, perplexed; but only because she leaves the fruits of her toil to her daughter, science and her son, technology.  Philosophy, herself, passes on, contentedly discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Consider that science and technology are analytical descriptions, philosophy is synthetic interpretation.  Science and technology seek to resolve the whole into parts; philosophy seeks to synthesize parts into a paradoxical whole (life AND death, good AND evil, etc.).  The philosopher is not content to describe the ‘fact’; he/she wishes to ascertain its relation to experience and hence to seek out its ‘meaning’ and its ‘worth.’  The philosopher seeks a wholeness that is better than before.  As the great historian, Will Durant, noted: Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom – desire coordinated in the light of all experience – can tell us when to heal and when to kill.

Consider that science without philosophy (life is seeking ‘wholeness’ – often a balance between…AND we are missing a balance between science/technology and philosophy), facts without perspective and value cannot, and will not, save us from havoc, despair and destruction.  Science and technology can give us knowledge…philosophy can give us wisdom AND we need them to be balanced.  We live in a ‘both-and’ world of interdependence; yet too often we deny that we do so and when we deny this reality we move toward dis-ease and death (physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual).

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I am a philosopher; you, gentle reader, might also be a philosopher.  Philosophy is our English word for a Greek word: philosophia.  ‘Philo’ means, ‘the love of . . .’ and ‘Sophia’ means wisdom.  Thus, a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.  We can thank an old Greek, Pythagoras (as in the ‘Pythagorean theorem’) for giving us this word.  For centuries, philosophy was a ‘lived experience’ – it was ‘who’ the person was; it was their second nature (see Socrates, Plato and Aristotle).  Recently I have been thinking more about philosophy and so I thought I might write a few words; I am not sure as I type these words how many postings I will make, it feels as if what is emerging from within as I search and seek will require a number of them.

The important ingredients needed for the philosopher to emerge had to be in place and during the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. they were in a small country emerging into its adolescence: Greece.  Actually, ‘Greece’ was composed of a number of small city-states and one of these, Athens, had more of the ingredients in place during this time and gave us the philosophers many of us know, by name at least: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.  But they were not the only ones and they certainly were not the first philosophers to make an impact.

In Greece, there were ‘citizens’ (all Males and all ‘free’) and there was everyone else.  I find it interesting (is this the word?) that our founding ‘fathers’ (again, males that were free) defined ‘citizen’ in the same way (citizen was one who had both voice and vote – our ‘founding fathers’ were fearful of giving women and freed-slaves the vote; today many of us are fearful of giving the vote to the ‘wrong people.’).  As it does today, the appetite of the layman (today, layperson) grew as a result of what they fed on (‘What are we ‘feeding’ on today?’ is a question that raises my anxiety).  For the Greek citizen, philosophy became important because it was, literally, a matter of life and death (don’t believe me, ask Socrates).  The citizens of Athens learned that there was no short-cut to wisdom nor to knowledge.  They also learned that wisdom and knowledge were threats; they were threats to religion, to politics, to ignorance, and to any number of ‘belief systems.’  For them, wisdom and knowledge went hand-in-hand.

Consider that today, in our culture, we seem to value knowledge and are less interested in wisdom just as in our schools we seem to value ‘learning’ more than ‘education’ – we can, by the by, thank science and technology for these splits.  How so?  Science and technology nurtured into life the ‘specialist.’  Then over time the specialist put on blinders in order to shut out from his vision all the world but one little spot, to which he glued his nose.  Perspective was lost.  ‘Facts’ replaced understanding; and knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generated wisdom.  It is not that science, technology nor the specialist are ‘bad’ – it is that we have lost ‘balance’ and one discipline that had helped maintain that balance, philosophy, is no longer honored by the ‘common folk.’  Today, consider that our culture is in a race between achieving a re-balance and catastrophe [historically, great nations and great cultures ‘failed’ because they lost and could not regain the balances they needed in order to survive and thrive].

Philosophy can help us search for wisdom and for meaning.  As the poet Browning noted: “Life has meaning, to find its meaning is my meat and drink.”  It is in our DNA to seek ‘meaning’ and to ‘seek to understand.’  Science and Technology can help us ‘seek to understand’ and we need philosophy to help us seek ‘meaning’ and, if we continue to deepen the search, ‘wisdom.’  Religion can also help us seek ‘meaning’ and ‘wisdom’ but too often religion gets caught up in ‘sureties’ and once one is ‘sure’ then one stops searching and seeking; philosophy is inherently rooted in doubt and questions [Theists, by the by, are rooted in faith and faith is rooted in doubt – which is why it is called ‘faith;’ I recall that the Pharisees were rooted in ‘surety’ and that a certain Rabbi often took them to task for this – but I digress a bit].  The Oracle at Delphi, when asked, ‘Who is the wisest man?’ replied that it was Socrates.  Why?  Because Socrates knew that he did not know.

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Discipline = an activity that helps one develop one’s capacity.  Given this definition, ‘discipline’ is ‘neutral’ and becomes nurturing or depleting depending in large part upon what we choose and what we choose to do over and over and over.  Aristotle noted that we become our habits and so it is with ‘discipline’ – if a certain ‘discipline’ is habitual then over time we integrate it so that it can actually become ‘second nature’ to us.

I am a pre-cradle Roman Catholic; I write ‘pre-cradle’ because I was baptized while I was in the delivery room for I was frail, sickly and not expected to live (surprise!).  I learned to ‘pray’ early in life and prayer became a ritual (not a discipline).  When I was 18 years old I spent a year in a Monastery and that is where I was introduced to the ‘discipline’ of prayer.

Prayer = a devout petition to an object of worship; a spiritual communion with an object of worship.  For some the ‘object of worship’ is a transcendent being; for some it is truly an ‘object’ – e.g. money – that is worshiped.  We petition these via our prayers and we can also seek a ‘spiritual communion’ with them.

As I noted, prior to entering the Monastery, my prayers were primarily ‘ritual’ in nature.  I prayed when I awoke, I prayed prior to breakfast, from the age of 6 on I attended daily mass and prayed some more, I prayed for meals, I prayed before formal games, I prayed at night and I prayed before I went to bed.  I also prayed during severe thunder storms or when someone was ill or when someone had died.  Some of my prayers were prayers of ‘thanksgiving’ but most of them, as I recall, were prayers of petition or ‘begging.’

My time in the Monastery transformed my idea of prayer [Transformation = a fundamental change] – Now I need to be clear: I still offer prayers of petition and I am really good when it comes to ‘begging’ prayers; I have not changed my habit when it comes to these two types of prayers.

What changed for me was that prayer went from being a ‘ritual’ to a ‘discipline.’  In addition, I learned the power of the prayer of thanksgiving, I learned the power of prayer as ‘conversation,’ I learned the power of prayer as ‘connection,’ and I learned the power of healing prayer.

I still pray at certain times of the day; some of these prayers can – and do at times – simply be ‘ritual’ prayer.  On good days, I catch myself and can move from ‘ritual’ prayer to ‘disciplined’ prayer [I am awake and aware of my prayer and I am intentional and purpose-full about the prayer itself].  I often prepare myself for prayer by imaging my walking with God – who shows up in a number of guises; sometimes God shows up as ‘light’ or as a wise woman, or as a man about my age, or as a breeze that is gently moving throughout the universe; sometimes God shows up as a mentor, or as a wise person that I have read about – a Socrates, for example.  I do not try and force God into a certain image; I allow God to come to me as God wishes (God is God after all and can show up as God wishes…if I allow God to do so).

There are two other prayer disciplines that I have integrated: Meditation and Lectio Divina.  These help me to slow down, to become centered in my heart and soul and they are two disciplines that I use to nurture my spirit.  I learned the discipline and the power of both during my year in the Monastery.  Few things draw me closer to understanding who I am, to having a relationship with God, and to trusting that I really do not walk alone.

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What is the ‘Good Life’?

I am considering three ingredients that if, over time, they are balanced, complementary and in alignment that one by-product might well be the ‘Good Life.’  Are these the ‘only’ ingredients?  Are these the ‘key’ ingredients?  I don’t know; I am not sure.  My life experience is such that these three are crucial for me if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  I do invite you, gentle reader, to emerge the ingredients that must be balanced, complementary and in alignment in order for you to experience your ‘Good Life.’  Here are my three:

Provide Enough.  I must be ‘provided enough’ if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  As I look out upon my/the world I am aware that if one is not provided enough then misery is the by- product.  I have learned that I cannot, on my own, provide enough – either for me or for the other(s).  What is it that I need (not want, not desire, but need)?  I need to be provided enough opportunity – opportunity to grow and develop the talent, skills and capacities that will help me address my highest priority needs.  I need to be provided enough opportunity to then use my talents, skills and capacities to meet the needs that exist in my/the world.  Both needs must be addressed – mine and the needs of the other(s) – if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  For others they will need to be provided enough food, shelter, good health, education, freedom ‘to’ and freedom ‘from,’ and they will also need to be provided enough opportunity to develop their talent, gifts and capacities so that they can also address their needs and the needs that exist in their/the world.  There is also a crucial question here: What is enough?  Who determines this?  I live in a culture where ‘enough is not enough;’ there is never enough.  I have held this question for years.  Sometimes I have a real sense of what is enough for me and at others times I know that what is ‘enough’ is not enough (my desires and wants take over).

Identity.  I am thinking of an African tribe where the greeting is ‘I see you!’  This ‘seeing’ provides the one being seen with an identity.  I am thinking of another culture where the ‘naming’ of the person is communal in nature.  I am thinking of another culture where the new-born is welcomed with the belief that he or she has come to them because they need his or her gifts (and one task of the community is to help the person identify, develop and use their gifts to meet the needs of the community).  Part of my identity comes from my name – my given name, my middle name, and my family name(s) – I say the plural for family names because it is not just my father’s family name that is important it is also my mother’s family name (even though I do not formally carry this name).  Part of my identity is the result of the many relationships I have had since my birth.  I have chosen part of my identity; the motivations for this are many.  Part of my identity comes from the stereotypes, prejudices, judgments and ‘naming’ that others ‘put upon me’ – as we know, some of these take root and frame our identity.  Some questions I continue to hold include: To what extent do I choose my identity?  To what extent have I accepted the identity others have ‘put on me’?  To what extent have I ‘resigned myself’ to my identity?  To what extent do others resist my choosing to ‘alter’ my identity? 

Four Dimensions.  In other blog entries I have addressed these four dimensions, for our purpose today I will briefly explore them again.  I call these my P.I.E.S.  These are the four dimensions that contribute to my wholeness as a human being.  My experiencing the ‘Good Life’ is directly related to whether I am nurturing them more than depleting them – and as an imperfect being I will do both.  I am the steward of each of these dimensions.  I am the steward of my Physical dimension, my Intellectual dimensions, my Emotional dimension and my Spiritual dimension.  Not only am I entrusted with these – to nurture them more than deplete them; I am asked to make sure they are balanced, that they complement each other, and that they are in alignment.

These three – Provide Enough, Identity, and Four Dimensions – are, for me, integral to my responding to the question: What is the ‘Good Life’? 

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