Saturday, 3 March 2018

This is not America

"This is not America" – I’ve heard this said many times in the media by activists in response to Donald Trump, condemning his right-wing policies and all for which he stands.

"This is not America", and I always think "Oh yes, it most certainly is." I reason that if the country in which I live, Australia, has its warts and barnacles, then America must have plenty too. Take the dominance of corporate power that makes democracy at the highest levels in the US an illusion, take economic inequality in the richest country in the world, take its urban ghettoisation and squalor, its addiction to gun-toting violence at home and military empire abroad, its race problems, history of slavery and genocide of Indigenous people.

All of these are surely America, as much so as all that is good about the place. In fact, how is it possible to say that the good outweighs the bad? If you are middle or upper-class you may not be directly exposed much to the ugliness, but it exists nonetheless. Trump, it seems to me, represents raw, naked power and the arrogance and stupidity that goes with it. That's as American, as the old saying goes, as apple pie.

The question for me is: How do we oppose the bad while not casting it as somehow alien to ourselves and the body of humanity as a whole? How do we fight Trump in a reasoned and mature way without denial and demonisation?

This points to one of the burdens that has come down to us from Christian civilisation – the absolute dichotomy between good and bad and identification with good at the expense of evil. Modern psychology takes a sharp knife to this simplistic approach: We are all capable of good and evil acts, it says, and the way through the opposites is a psychic acceptance and integration of all elements. When we accept our own capacity for evil, we may come to a point of integration that allows us genuine freedom to choose how we act, no longer trapped in binary opposition within ourselves and against others.

From this point of acceptance and love we can still fight the good fight, but there’s a qualitative change. We don’t exclude or dehumanise the evildoer because we see them as our self. Even as we act to stop what they are doing, we are conscious not to create an "us and them" picture that severs the fabric of humanity. The result is always an affirmation of wholeness rather than a negation; we ask, “What is it that I am affirming in this situation?” to guide us.

In its own uniquely contradictory way, the Christian tradition offers helpful insights. St Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh … but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." What Paul means is that we focus on combating the wrongness of actions and not the individuals involved, or in another formulation we look to the principles at stake and not to personalities. So much energy in the current opposition to Trump is sucked down into useless name-calling and shrillness.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s, in my view, showed a remarkable degree of maturity. Martin Luther King steadfastly refused to lower the tone of the movement in reaction to the hideous racism of the time, continually affirming the dignity and humanity of everybody – black and white, oppressed and oppressor – while acting decisively for a better society. That’s America, the kind we desperately need to see more.

Monday, 1 January 2018

What is Man?

Most dialogues involving the ancient Greek philosopher Aristageles were written by his students (notably Caro of Athens) after his death in the late-4th century BC. Some dialogues, including the following, are of unknown authorship and likely written much later. How closely these later works relate to the thought of Aristageles has been much debated.

Gordias: Aristageles, I am so glad to see you. Where have you been? Your friends haven’t sighted you for days. Have you been ill?

Aristageles: Dear friend, this cold, damp weather is no good for my bones. What’s more, the flabby old rascal dropsy has been harrassing me for days with pain in the legs and swelling. By Zeus, I challenged him this morning, saying I would go to the Agora whether he liked it or not. And as you can see I am here, grimacing somewhat but still determined, with the aid of a stick.

Gordias: I am sorry for your condition.

Aristageles: Over the years I have prayed to every god on Olympus, tried every ointment known in Greece, but this miserable beast still importunes me. It will pass, I know, like everything, and likely take me with it. But you seem lively, despite the leaden skies. There is a brightness in your eyes and a spring in your gait.

Gordias: Yes, indeed. I am preparing to host a symposium. Phokion, Thoxias and Thribias have all said they will come, and Polydoros will no doubt when he returns from Argos. And I have asked Ascaldea of Miletus, the citharede, to perform for us. It would be an honour if you too could join us, if you are able.

Aristageles: How kind. And what will be the subject of our discussion on this propitious occasion?

Gordias: Uh, well, I haven’t quite fixed on that.

Aristageles: You haven’t something in mind? Something enticing enough for Phokion, Thoxias, Thribias and Polydoros to slake their thirst for philosophy at your well?

Gordias: Well yes, I do.

Aristageles: Out with it, then. No false modesty here.

Gordias: What is Man?

Aristageles: What is Man? Is that it?

Gordias: Are you not pleased?

Aristageles: Well, it is to the point. Philosophy is nothing if it doesn’t take us to the essence of things.

Gordias: I have no doubt, if this be the topic of the night, that the discussion will be lively, deep and reasoned. But I would like to know, Aristageles, your view on the subject; for if you come I would like to place you in the best order of speakers.

Aristageles: Then you are asking me, What is Man?

Gordias: Most humbly, yes, I am.

Aristageles: Man is an animal.

Gordias: Then it is my turn to put on a perplexed face. An animal?

Aristageles: Indeed. Man is a donkey, carrying the burden of his desires.

Gordias: Just that? An animal?

Aristageles: Man is a pig, wallowing in the disasters of his own making. Man is a horse that dances when set free. Man is a nightingale that sings to the glory of God. Man is a curlew that cries out in fear in the night.

Gordias: Nothing more than an animal?

Aristageles: He is a cat, preening himself with simple pride; he is an ox, determined, steady and wilful; he is a fox who cunningly preys on all he can; an oak that with great strength lifts its arms to heaven.

Gordias: Wait, an oak is not even an animal.

Aristageles: I am stretching the cord, it is true. But I mean life, my friend, life.

Gordias: And is that all Man is, life? He is surely nobler, more refined, more advanced than a mere animal.

Aristageles: Have you no great regard for creation, and for the mighty creator and originator of all?

Gordias: Of course I do. I am questioning your placement of Man in the order of things.

Aristageles: His place is that which Zeus assigns him.

Gordias: But greater than an ox, a donkey, a nightingale and all the others you mentioned. A man has reason. It sounds ridiculous, but no ox ever came up with philosophy.

Aristageles: Ah, let me prove to you the connection between the two. Would you allow me to lead such an animal to the symposium?

Gordias: With respect, that is madness.

Aristageles: Socrates said that the greatest of goods comes to us through madness, provided it is bestowed by divine gift.

Gordias: I don’t understand. Man has created civilisation – no animal could do that.

Aristageles: Have you not seen the nests of some ants, where thousands working harmoniously together build the most contrived and delicate structures? Or the hives of bees, that through labour and ingenuity create the nectar we call honey?

Gordias: Great temples, art, poetry – you say all this is comparable to the work of ants, bees and oxen?

Aristageles: It is a matter of how one looks and sees the world. I do not privilege men because I have seen the worst and best of what we are capable. We have our own role, it is true, in this great dance of the cosmos, our unique capabilities and purpose, but as to some special altar at which we should erect and bow down to the statue of Man, of that I beg to express my disapproval.

Gordias: Why you are a contrarian, Aristageles. I have seen you worshiping at the Acropolis, taking part in the rites and processions of the Dionysia, speaking eloquently at debates of philosophy with your peers. You partake in all this, the gift of the genius of our ancestors carried forward by the good men of our time, yet you trifle with it as if it was nothing at all.

Aristageles: I don’t trifle, and I don’t wish my words to fall too hard on your years. But I do say that I would happily spend some days in the fields in the company of butterflies and grasshoppers in preference to my fellow men and women; some time watching the flight of partridges or the play of dolphins.

Gordias: And you would bring an ox to my symposium, let it stand there and defecate on the marble and break wind from its rear end?

Aristageles: It would be no better or worse than what I have seen and heard at many symposia.

Gordias: Then I have nothing more to say to you, Aristageles. Good Day, and until we meet next time.

Aristageles: Until next time, Gordias.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

On perfection

Zorba once said: “I always act as though I were immortal.” This is God’s method, but we mortals should follow it too, not from megalomania and impudence, but from the soul’s invincible yearning for what is above.
- Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was an adolescent and continuing into my 20s, I used to daydream. A lot.

At home, at school, in almost any circumstance when my mind didn’t have to focus too much, I would drift into a hazy zone of pleasure. Maybe most young people are prone to daydreams, unburdened as yet by the mundane realities of life that keep more mature folk stolidly earth-bound.

In my dreams I was invariably a hero of some kind: a rock star, a famous footballer or cricketer for Australia, a saviour who rescued beautiful women and people who were in trouble. There were times when I was possessed by the sweet oblivion of these fantasies; they would sometimes entrance me the entire distance of my walk home during my university days, the duration of almost an hour.

Looking back, I see the worth of this escapism that was so intoxicating. It held the promise, the ideal, the sense of perfection that I was to move towards once I threw off the layers of my childhood self and entered the tumult of the world as an adult. It signified the bridge between adolescence and maturity, and that I was ready to make the journey across. I was never actually to become a famous musician or sportsman, for the value of the fantasies was in their meaningful symbolism.

Just as birds, people and much of life on Earth awakes and rises with the appearance of the sun each morning, so as a youth I was "rising" in the direction of what I could be, towards alluring archetypes of realisation. And as the sun dispenses life-generating energy, so the archetypes heralded a new psychic energy that was available to me in my struggle to adulthood.

There’s a tendency in contemporary times to reject perfection and do away with ideals. We counsel ourselves to be realistic and practical and to drop absurd notions of the perfect. At times of failure we may draw out the truism that “nobody is perfect” and fight against the harsh demands of "perfectionism". It’s perhaps no coincidence that God, the ultimate perfection, has lost so much value in the West, as we increasingly look to the earth and less to heaven.

But what is problematic is surely not perfection itself but our relationship to it; namely to judge ourselves and others in relation to the perfect and to form unhealthy attachments to it. Perfectionism is a kind of enslavement in which a person has become driven by the perfect, the energy of the archetype corrupted and misused. For the ideal to have worth it acts as a guide, a motivator, an inspiration and pointer to inner realities of what we may be; not a dictator, demon or possessor.

The question of personal judgement in relation to the perfect has been one of the most troubling in the history of Western spiritual development. The wrathful God demanding obedience in the face of flawed, sinful nature has left a legacy of anxiety in the relationship between human and divine. But it need not be so: If perfection is seen and experienced without the baggage we tend to place on it, without projections, judgements, desires or demands, with only its numinous essence, its wholesome capacity to uplift, we align ourselves with it appropriately.

Likewise the so-called "realised" historical personages of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and others. Not only do these figures of perfection act as models, through what they did and said, for people in daily living, but their presence generated symbols of wholeness that continue to reverberate in the collective psyche to this day. As living, breathing humans they were subject to the successes and failures all of us experience, but their attainment to a certain degree of spiritual mastery marked them out; they rose higher than others and so were able to act as teachers and catalysts of profound change. Our attitude to their realisation ought to be one of gratitude not servitude, appreciating all the gifts that have come, and continue to come, for our improvement and that of the world.

Perfection is actually closer to us than we think. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: "The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it." With similar meaning Buddhism asserts that “every moment is perfect” – that reality as a whole, understood through the most refined capability of the mind, is just what it is and what it needs to be. The vital, intuitive capacity to see this is the very same that allows us to appreciate beauty. In beauty we are taken to a higher experience of being, we glimpse the divine. Yet this divinity is thoroughly present in myriad ways in the everyday world, for who could not say that the beaming smile of a child, the rosy blush of dawn on the horizon, the blossoming of flowers and the human form are not perfect?

Perfection does not cancel out the reality of the imperfect – the two co-exist in the paradox that is the universe. Pain, suffering, destruction, the various mistakes and limitations of human action and societies all must be reckoned and placed alongside the presence of the perfect. Reconciliation of the two is perhaps the cutting edge of the spiritual development of our species: God meets humanity, humanity meets God.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not, perfection is integral to life and our experience of it. It is the balance, the hope and the passing beyond hope that affords life’s essential happiness and unity. It is the call from the summit to ascend towards our seemingly unlimited potential, reflecting "the soul’s invincible yearning for what is above."

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Plato's goat

The following is another dialogue involving Aristageles, a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher. This time he is in conversation with Typhrion, about whom nothing is known.

Typhrion: Have you seen him?

Aristageles: Yes, I was at his bedside last night. There is a tremendous crowd of people around him now, but the mood was hushed and solemn, as you’d expect.

Typhrion: How was he?

Aristageles: Ashen-faced, falling in and out of consciousness, mumbling at times. His fire burns quite dimly now.

Typhrion: Did he recognise you?

Aristageles: When I entered the room and touched his hand, he opened his eyes and thought I was his brother, Glaucon. I said my name and his face changed to the most profound look of disbelief, then it relaxed slowly to a knowing smile and he closed his eyes.

Typhrion: Ah, Plato. Plato the great.

Aristageles: May his soul take flight with ease to its resting place.

Typhrion: May it be so. With Hermes’ guidance to Elysium, there to sup with the gods and all the heroes who have ever lived.

Aristageles: To Elysium, of course.

Typhrion: But I am curious, Aristageles. Do you not go back a long way with Plato?

Aristageles: Many years ago he was my mentor and teacher, and indeed I was a student in the early years of the Academy.

Typhrion: Tell me, what did you make of the man then? What was he like and how did he influence you?

Aristageles: He was passionate, firm, driven by a daemon that told him he was always right. The might of his intelligence was such that he didn’t seem to need other people but simply fed off his own thoughts, building a ladder higher and higher towards Olympus. I was afraid of him for a while – every time he looked at me I felt his dark eyes boring into my soul, uncovering everything that wasn’t quite pure.

Typhrion: Do you remember your first days in the Academy?

Aristageles: Not well. My father, as it happens, thought philosophy a waste of time – “mental pig’s muck” was what he called it – so it was my mother who introduced me to Plato. She saw that I had an inquiring mind and would be of little use in the family business, and she was distantly related to Plato’s family. He always thought highly of women and welcomed my mother and me graciously.

Typhrion: What did you think of his teachings?

Aristageles: At first I swallowed everything he said, because I was young and his presence was powerful. He taught me a great deal. His commitment to what was right and good was unerring; he could not be bought by anyone. And the elegance of his thought, particularly to impressionable youths like me, was at times breathtaking. We will fashion the world, he thundered, in the name of Truth, Justice and Beauty! The rarefied air of ideas, the notion that you could see through the world around you to what lay at its heart, its soul and essence laid bare, made many of us, his students, giddy. We felt we could almost speak with the gods. We were ready to follow Plato to the farthest shore, for what mixed thoughts we had of him soon gave way to much admiration and love. Then, gradually, my own thinking diverged from his as I found my maturity and embraced the lessons of life.

Typhrion: Do continue, Aristageles.

Aristageles: My father had property near Mount Pastra, around the valley of the Asopos – vineyards and olive groves. From the time that my legs were strong enough, I would climb Pastra every summer, walk for hours frolicking around its flanks, exploring its crags and crevices, talking to the goatherds who pastured their flocks there. It became my second home.

It’s impossible to describe the joy I felt drinking the clear water of the mountain streams, bathing under a waterfall, climbing to a great rock and staring down from vertiginous heights with no company but an occasional curious eagle gliding on the gusts above. And coming down at sunset the song of goatherds and tinkling of bells, as if Pan and his satyrs were stirring the whole mountain to chorus as it welcomed the oncoming night.

I grew so fond of the place that in the fourth year of my studies at the Academy I asked to take a break so that I could live up there.

Typhrion: And what did Plato say to that?

Aristageles: He was in absolute disbelief. My father, and to my despair my mother as well, considered it a disgrace. “Imagine my own son living like an animal, reeking of goats and dung!” she said. But I was old enough to make my own decisions, I wasn’t to be swayed. I bought a small flock and lived for the next three years on Pastra – each summer the goats grazing on the mountain and winter in the valley below. Home was a series of shacks; I ate what cheese I could make, bread I could buy and herbs I could pick; my only meat was an occasional snared rabbit; I drank only milk and water. It was, of course, a much harder life than I thought it would be, but I was content nonetheless.

Plato actually visited me there one time. And that’s when our differences first became evident.

Typhrion: How so?

Aristageles: As you know, he had an ambivalent relationship to all material things. Soul, to him, was what really mattered, and mind took precedence over body. He followed his own teacher Socrates in this. The ideas, the forms, were true reality, the world a mere passing parade of shadows. Only the eternal was substantial.

We had been walking all day and both of us were hungry when we returned to a hut I had been living in by one of the streams that feeds the Asopos. I spread out a cloth with cheese, thin bread and some olives. The way we both shovelled food into our mouths made me quip, “We may have underestimated the importance of the body after all, Plato.” He smirked, rather unimpressed, but it started an argument between us that lasted the remaining time of his stay.

Living on the mountain I had found it impossible to say body was inferior to mind. How could I? All around me was body – the fresh spring earth smelling of oleander and narcissus, the rocks, the sky, the clouds, the goats that fed me and demanded my attention. I had sensed my own body, my own life, becoming one with the body of the mountain. It nurtured me and I, in some small way, gave back to it. Mind and body seemed inseparable, served one another, ate at table with the gods through the daily rhythms of living.

Typhrion: But Plato thought the body’s needs were a distraction from the work of the mind, didn’t he?

Aristageles: He did. He held that the body, being the well of the instincts, of insatiable and uncontrollable urges, had to be subjugated or it would drag the mind down into mud. I challenged him, saying my mind was as enlivened and developed on Pastra as it had been in Athens, only it was functioning differently, working with the body instead of pretending to be independent from it. The virtuous soul was not partial but accepted all reality.

Emboldened, I urged him to reconsider the form of the good as a unity of mind and body, but he didn’t understand. His greatest achievements, he said, had been the result of the mind liberated in flight towards the light of God. He became furious with me and warned that I was in danger of regressing to the state of an animal, which made me angry in turn. You can imagine that we parted in less than convivial fashion.

Typhrion: What happened afterwards?

Aristageles: After my years living on the mountain, I returned to Athens to be with my family. Friends counselled me to go back to philosophy, for still being young I was unsure of my future and felt as a leaf in the wind – blown one way and then another. I sought out Plato and he generously welcomed me back into his circles. But things didn’t end well.

Typhrion: Oh?

Aristageles: It all went awry midway through the very first lecture of Plato’s I attended. As we were listening to him, there was a sharp crashing sound, then loud chaotic voices and a sandy-coloured billy goat, bleating, tore into the middle of the room. On one side of it, in bright red letters, was painted “My form is good”. After we had captured the animal I tried to tell Plato that I had nothing to do with the prank, but he would not have me study with him again. “You humiliate me,” was all he said.

Many years afterwards, by way of mutual friends, I learnt that he had been quietly pleased with my subsequent achievements.

Typhrion: Well, well, Aristageles. Perhaps now his soul, before it departs, will look upon the broken vessel of his body with empathy and honour for all it has given him over so many years.

Aristageles: We scorn it at our peril, Typhrion.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The return

Under no circumstances ever say "I have lost something", only "I returned it." Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, she was returned. "My land was confiscated." No, it too was returned.

"But the person who took it was a thief."

Why concern yourself with the means by which the original giver effects its return? As long as he entrusts it to you, look after it as something yours to enjoy only for a time – the way a traveler regards a hotel.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 11.

One of the joys of philosophy is its ability to act as a guide through the perils and pleasures of life, its determination to go to some of the deepest and hardest places in order to shine a light, grasp a meaning and ameliorate the condition of the soul.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the above passage by 1st century Stoic philosopher Epictetus ever since I read it about a year ago.

On the one hand it sounds cold and insensitive, dealing as it does with one of the hardest aspects of being human – coping with loss, particularly that of people you love. The philosopher appears to simply say “Get over it” as a means to deal with hardship, where the mental, philosophical observation of "return" is somehow meant to ease emotional pain.

We ought to reflect that Epictetus lived in the Mediterranean world at the height of the Roman Empire, a time when patriarchal culture ruled, war and masculinity were accepted and celebrated, and emotions considered a weak part of being human, unworthy of the loftiness of reason. It's a good thing by all measures that 2000 years later Western culture is no longer as dominated by the masculine.

Yet I still find what Epictetus says remarkably wise and current.

"Return" is about recognising that all beings, all things, come and go. Everything eventually goes back to its source, the great Mystery and seedbed of the universe from which it originally arose. The Stoics called it Nature, the physical-spiritual reality that governs our lives. Through their eyes we see there is no gap between that which is and that which is not; everything belongs to the great turning wheel of the universe and each will have its day in the sun and its darkness.

To contemplate "return" is to understand that there are no separate objects, nothing that is entirely without relationship to something else; and the most important relationship we all have is to the source of our being, which has total claim over us and which will "return" us at the appropriate time. Nothing can be lost because loss implies possession, when all that we have and all the people we love are not really ours to keep, but subject to what Nature gives and takes away from one moment to the next. The philosopher is urging us to acknowledge what we are given, and not to react with recrimination and disappointment when it is taken away: "Look after it as yours to enjoy only for a time."

Being human we immerse ourselves in people, in our work, in ideas and in various material objects that fill our lives. In doing so our identity, some part of ourselves, inevitably comes to reside in many different people and things. When something of value goes, we experience it as a kind of death in us. The greatest challenge that Epictetus poses, I think, is to reshape or reframe the identity-making process; so that not only is some realisation of impermanence anchored in it, but that endings are respected as necessary to the fulfillment of life as a whole. We may grieve, but we must also hold to a vision of continuum in which life is affirmed at each stage of ever-going, ever-coming. And what has passed always leaves some mark, some legacy big or small, whether we are able to see it or not.

I learnt my most profound lesson of return a few years ago when I lived for a time in a mud-brick cottage at the edge of a forest in central Victoria. Animals of all kinds were present both inside and outside the house – at one moment a centipede crawling out of the sink or a rat scurrying in the wall, at another a mob of kangaroos munching on the front lawn or honeyeaters sipping out of the bird bath. Everywhere something living was on the march, doing its thing – running or flying past, eating, defecating, procreating, dying. Loss or death in this environment seemed to not have a hard edge of meaning but was simply a part of the process of life, countless waves of beings coming and going.

In the rounds of life, then, what is lost? Or for that matter, what is gained? With our human way of seeing we necessarily experience reality at one level most of the time; Epictetus is calling us towards a bigger, grander and at the same time more balanced vision.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The outer and inner life

Wherever you are in Japan, it seems you are never far from a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. By the side of the road, behind houses, on a grand approach by a wide path or in a quiet lane the religious life of the Japanese springs into view.

From simple stone monuments of local protector deities to grand vermillion gateways, bold pagodas and halls with gilded Buddha altars, Japanese religion appears rich, textured and varied. And anyone who partakes is graced by the waft of incense, surrounded by the sound of chanting monks, led through the pleasing forms of a rock garden to purify the mind for the blessed experience of divinity. Leave the mundane you at the gate, enter with your true self.

So varied and fascinating were my visits to shrines and temples in a recent trip to Japan, I began to wonder what exactly it was that people were worshipping in all these places – what was the common object of it all?

My musing led to the observation that all the different sects of Buddhism and Shinto in all their rites, rituals and beliefs were human constructions of one form or another. What did this then say about the experience of the divine, of the feeling of depth and transcendence beyond the ordinary physical world? Was that also a human construct, an illusion (some would say) of the imagination induced and fortified by the edifices of religions?

I’m not a doubter when it comes to spirituality. It’s clear to me – intellectually and emotionally – that life is more than just matter, more than the sum of the material activity of various cells and particles. For most of the history of humankind, religious beliefs and practices have been a central part of living, and indeed remain so for the vast majority of the planet’s people. Even in Western countries, where a reductionist, materialist scientific worldview is dominant, the arts and culture express depths of meaning and experience well beyond materiality. It seems to me that it is healthy for a rounded and full life to acknowledge and embrace the spiritual – in whatever form that suits.

But a Western, critical view remains highly valuable when engaging with the realm of spirit. In service, it asks the faithful to stand back and see the human element in religious forms and understandings, to see the way those forms have been constructed by human minds and hands, to note that they are finite and transient. Spirit may be the inspiration, it may be present and deeply felt, but its potential expression in myriad ways is a necessary insight. Armed with this thought, we might avoid the common partiality of many religions and their followers seeing their own beliefs and rituals as divine to the exclusion of others. Spirit needs human craft and ideas to take shape in the world, and just as the world and its people change over time and according to place, so spiritual forms inevitably vary, religions rise and pass away.

This view of relativity need not weaken religion or spiritual practice. A person can still fully engage with their particular spirituality while accepting its finite and transient parameters in time and space. The key focus here is on spirit, the essence of the experience, which is boundless and can take a vast array of forms. The Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar DT Suzuki said: “The foundation of all concepts is simple, unsophisticated experience.” To the heart of the experience is where the faithful must continually return.

Critical, logical thinking can actually aid spiritual practice by restoring a vision of wholeness in which both matter and spirit are part of the one play of life. Maligned by Eastern religions as “ignorance”, logical dualism – the everyday phenomenal mind – is really no better or worse than the oneness of spirit. Both are the offspring of the one reality of the universe, and the task for wholeness is to bring about their alignment, their unity.

Perhaps the single greatest lesson of Buddhism relates to attachment, one it has been consistently hammering for centuries. Its message: “Don’t get hung up on the world of the senses, of words and ideas. Seek the truth within.” But just as we can be lost in the ordinary world of phenomena (taken perhaps to an extreme by modern Western rationalism), forgetting spirit, so we can lose ourselves in spirit (the tendency of Eastern religions) and forget the outside world and our necessary responsibility to it. Practising non-attachment means moving between matter and spirit, understanding their respective claims, until there is a purposeful resonance such that the two gradually become one in our life. The Buddha is then seen and experienced amid the noise and chaos of the city as much as within the emptiness of the individual soul in a meditation room.

Practical examples of spirit-matter synthesis abound in the various Zen-inspired arts of Japan: martial arts, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, haiku poetry and others. It is said that the great poet Basho achieved enlightenment when he once heard a sound in a monastery garden and produced the following: still pond/a frog jumps in/kerplunk! Simply, life unfolds in dazzling multiplicity, with its inner and outer faces, within and around us.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The tyrant

Sometime in the 4th century BCE democratic government in Athens has been overthrown and a tyrant called Stesichorus has taken power. While walking along a prominent street in Athens, the philosopher Aristageles is accosted by Lambros, a friend, who quickly ushers him into a nearby laneway. The following dialogue is one of the few extant on politics involving Aristageles.

Lambros: By Zeus, what are you doing walking so blithely out of doors?

Aristageles: I go this way all the time. Why, what’s the matter?

Lambros: Have you gone mad? Do you not know that Stesichorus’ men are rounding up all the philosophers they can find and throwing them in jail?

Aristageles: Yes, I have heard. Such things ought not stop a person from enjoying such a fine and warm afternoon.

Lambros: But do you want to be in jail? Murdered? You must keep a low profile and stay at home, at least for the next few days.

Aristageles: I have nothing to fear from this man or his followers. Athens has had tyrants in the past, if not for many years, and they have rarely enjoyed more than a brief time in the sun.

Lambros: But how can you be so relaxed? Everything has changed.

Aristageles: Oh? Does day no longer follow night? Are the birds not singing in their trees as ever before? Have all our temples been turned to dust?

Lambros: You know what I mean.

Aristageles: I’m afraid I don’t and ask your guidance. What is the change that so alarms you?

Lambros: Democracy, Athens’ jewel, has been overturned. And not just by anyone, but by a brute, an oaf with so little refinement or education and so openly contemptuous of the proper ways.

Aristageles: My dear Lambros, there is not so much difference between Stesichorus and the democratic politicians who were our lords only a few days ago.

Lambros: And what do you mean by that?

Aristageles: A lie can issue from the gilded tongue of a professed democrat as much as from the rough one of an oafish despot.

Lambros: So? Make your point.

Aristageles: Well, the current political crisis was caused by our war with Macedon. Before the Macedonians we were fighting the Thebans, and before that we had skirmishes with Mytilene and Corinth; we fought in Samos, Thessaly and Euboea, and there was the disaster in Sicily and the decades of war with Sparta. I have lived many years but I can remember only a few without wailing processions for the war dead. Nearly all that time Athens was under the democratic, popular will.

Lambros: You would prefer tyranny to democracy?

Aristageles: I would prefer people to live by virtue and wisdom, resolving their differences without bloodshed.

Lambros: Then you are dreaming, Aristageles.

Aristageles: Yes, and fully aware of what is possible.

Lambros: Men will always seek power if they can get it; power to take whatever they can for themselves from whomever they can.

Aristageles: And our democracy was no better than this?

Lambros: It was no better, but we were better for having a democracy than being left to the whim of one man.

Aristageles: Then the choice is between the greed and power hunger of the many in a democracy and the one in a tyranny? That seems hardly a choice for the good.

Lambros: Without our system of government, Athens could never have flowered and become a great city. We would never be properly civilised – never have the system of law, the glorious buildings and statues, the culture and refinement we enjoy today.

Aristageles: But are there not tyrannies where culture flourishes? Cities like Syracuse and Elea have produced some of the finest poets and philosophers but are not democratic. And the Persian kings sponsored magnificent art, built temples and developed sophisticated laws. Should we be the only ones to rightfully call ourselves civilised?

Lambros: Many a cultured Greek from abroad has settled in Athens for our freedom of expression, liberty they could not have back home. You know that, yet you stubbornly continue on a line of argument that leads nowhere.

Aristageles: And did this liberty of Athens help Socrates? For simply speaking the truth, he was put to death.

Lambros: Socrates was no naive babe and knew what he was doing. He went beyond the limits of what the citizens of the city could tolerate.

Aristageles: But here is exactly my point – what is it that we tolerate and find acceptable? What do we value? You have said that power is central to what we uphold, so does everything else proceed from it? Is everything else an adornment to power? Are wars and domination fundamental to the civilisation we so proudly cherish?

Lambros: I don’t know. Answer your own questions.

Aristageles: It seems to me that we will never be truly civilised unless we abandon war, let go of the need to take from others what is not ours. What is the worth of our society, of all our refined culture, if it feeds on blood and the spoils of other lands?

Socrates saw wisdom as of the highest value and it is to wisdom that we must turn as the cornerstone of all our public and private works. Imagine if the institutions of Athens were ruled with wisdom – what could be achieved not just for our own city, but for all Greeks and humanity in general.

Lambros: But if others – Macedon, for instance, as the immediate pressing example – come to conquer us, you say we do nothing?

Aristageles: We would do what is wisest at the time. It may be nothing – for sometimes it is better to surrender than to risk life in futile struggle – or it may be some kind of defensive action to stop the attacker. We would simply be guided by what is best to maintain the integrity of our city and its people.

Lambros: May I say it would be best for you now, Aristageles, to hurry home at once before the agents of Stesichorus find you. I see a phalanx of his men in the distance.

Aristageles: I thank you for your concern, but the sweet breath of the afternoon calls me forward on the walk I was undertaking before it was interrupted.

Lambros: You are, as always, your own man.

Aristageles: Always.