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.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The death of Diogenes

Diogenes of Sinope (c.410BCE – c.324BCE), a Greek philosopher of some fame and notoriety, lived in Athens most of his life and taught his students in the open. Often referred by his nickname, the Dog, Diogenes lived an austere life with few possessions, begging for food and sleeping in a ceramic barrel in the marketplace.

The Cynic school of philosophy he founded was based on the renunciation of worldly attachments and commitment to a style of living in keeping with nature; that is, what mattered most to a person’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. Using himself as an example, Diogenes taught happiness through simplicity and railed against social conventions, pretence and luxury.

Accounts of the time say there was a large gathering in Athens’ Agora a few days after he died to honour the man and his principles. Of the many speeches given only that of Stanios of Pharsalus, a one-time student of Diogenes, has passed down to us in full:


So, what of the Dog? Why do we remember him?

It would be wrong to speak only about the way he lived as if that was all that explained the man, but neither would it be right to touch lightly on his lifestyle, for it resonated so much with him, made the philosophy he practised, and served as his trusted weapon against all the folly of humankind.

We would all agree that in no other philosopher has there been a closer link between thought and way of life, none as consistent as the Dog. Many people think and talk about what is right, but he actually lived, he lived the righteous path, and what’s more he made his life a touchstone by which others could compare their commitment to what is right and good.

I was with him many times when, in the middle of a fine conversation with a man or woman about some aspect of life or philosophy, he abruptly reached out a great, dirty hand in a gesture of begging. The surprise, the shock, the fluster on the other person’s face told much about their soul. Whenever on these occasions he received an open-hearted and unencumbered response he’d leap into that peculiar Diogenes dance of swinging arms and legs many of us still remember with fondness.

Was he a perfect man? We all know he was not; perfection belongs to the gods. He was stubborn, at times pig-headed, at times lacking display of the human kindness he had in plenty in his heart. More than once he said to me, “Ah, Staniou, the good has left me today. I am too bitter to speak.” He simply could not surrender the belief that other people should aim as high as he did, or could share the same kind of faith and commitment.

He saved his most caustic attacks for the ignorant, the ambitious, the braggarts and windbags, the politicians and the rich; but somehow those whom he stripped to reality with his words, flayed with the fire of his tongue, still came back to speak with him, as if his wisdom was a kind of necessary tonic.

Who can remember the wrestler, Teles? He was the epitome of an Olympic champion with conceit to match. And Diogenes challenged him to a contest, spat in front of him saying he was nothing because his soul was nothing. All of us who crowded round to watch were praying Teles wouldn’t kill him, but the Dog was summoning him to a fight that was not about brawn. Time after time he broke out of Teles’ holds, squirmed and scrounged until the enraged wrestler finally gripped him, holding him well after his body went limp. When he let go Diogenes looked dead, and everybody suddenly turned to Teles, the mood went dark and even the women seemed ready to spring on him. The wrestler had the look of a hunted deer about to be torn apart by hounds. We know that after that day he never wrestled again.

Many years ago, when I first arrived in Athens and began to fall under the spell of philosophy, I would walk past that curious dishevelled man here at the Agora, lounging as he did in the sun by the fountain, talking to the shopkeepers, begging from passers-by. I thought he was a vagrant, perhaps mad. It was a shock when I learnt that this man was one of Athens’ finest philosophers.

Like everyone else, I was interested in the “Why” question – why he lived that way, and how it related to his thinking.

One morning in spring I found the courage to approach him. He was reading, in the sun as always, on the steps of the Temple of Zeus.

“Diogenes, I ... I have a question for you,” I stammered nervously.

He didn’t look up, but kept softly mouthing the words to himself as he read. So I sat down near him and waited.

It was some time, past noon, before he rolled up the parchment and finally acknowledged my presence. He of course knew what I was going to ask him, and I sensed a rehearsed, but not thoughtless, answer would come my way.

He pulled a bunch of grapes from his satchel, tore it in half and shared it with me. Then he shifted and set those calloused feet of his and said:

“A philosopher cannot be anything but what he is, just like a grape cannot be anything but a grape. Can a grape be a pear, or a fig or olive?”

“But philosophers don’t live like you do.”

“Show me another philosopher,” he said.

Sometimes those words of the Dog come back to me. Sometimes I wonder if he was right.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Learning and unlearning

The extant Annals of Philosophy by Stesimachos contains several dialogues involving the Athenian philosopher Aristageles (second half of the 4th century BCE), believed to have been written by his student, Caro. In the following, taken from the Annals, Aristageles is in conversation with a merchant called Phidoxes on aspects of the nature of wisdom.

Phidoxes: What can you teach me about wisdom, Aristageles?

Aristageles: Nothing. I know nothing on the subject.

Phidoxes: Come now, don’t play Socrates with me! By your venerable grey beard, I’d say you would have learnt a thing or two over the years.

Aristageles: A thing or two? Yes, I learnt, but now to me it is as naught.

Phidoxes: How so?

Aristageles: Well, look at me. Do you see wisdom?

Phidoxes: I see only an old man.

Aristageles: Exactly. Wisdom is not something that you see.

Phidoxes: Is it something that you hear?

Aristageles: No.

Phidoxes: Feel?

Aristageles: Absolutely not.

Phidoxes: Well then, what?

Aristageles: Fill a cup with wine, it is full. Empty the cup, it is empty.

Phidoxes: By Zeus, Aristageles, enough with opaque words and let’s have something that makes sense!

Aristageles: Learning and unlearning, accumulating and letting go – that’s the nature of wisdom. If you don’t learn, life is limited and basic. But if you learn and don’t unlearn, you lack the completeness for wisdom.

Phidoxes: Can you say more?

Aristageles: When I was a child, I loved the hearth-side stories of the Trojan War. I wanted to be one of the great warriors who fought at Troy – an Achilles, a Diomedes, an Ajax – and my brother and I used to cover ourselves in bruises running around hacking at each other with wooden swords pretending to be one hero or another.

Then I grew up and gradually realised the adult meaning of those Trojan War stories. All of them are cautionary tales about what goes wrong when you become a slave to your emotions: lust, anger, pride, envy, greed. Achilles was almost permanently in a rage, and it ultimately cost him his life. Ajax’s hurt at being cheated by Odysseus drove him to madness and ultimately suicide. Indeed the whole ghastly slaughter of the war would not have happened if not for Paris’ infatuation with Helen.

Phidoxes: And how does this relate to wisdom?

Aristageles: There are men well into their old age still believing themselves to be Achilles, still pretending to be Ajax or Odysseus, and still enslaved in all the ways of those heroes. Learning requires participating in life, gaining experience, but unlearning is seeing through the boundaries and limits of ordinary life to what lies at its heart.

What do I care if my honour is offended? If someone curses me in the street, I thank them for the opportunity to practise humility, going on my way without responding in kind to create more trouble. If another philosopher has views opposed to my own, what is the use of storming about and writing endless treatises to destroy his position, as so many of our people do? I should rather thank him for what his views can teach me about my work and improve accordingly.

Phidoxes: So wisdom is about being humble?

Aristageles: It is like a sculptor chipping away at stone, taking away the quantities of the bare material of living to find the core and create something beautiful. Wisdom removes the apparent, the obvious and the hard-edged, to get at what is truly life-giving. It is the cool spring high in the mountains that feeds a myriad of streams tumbling to spread a bounty of life below.

Phidoxes: You speak of unlearning, but to me that sounds like removing knowledge. Why would a man spend his whole life learning, only to lose the very thing he sought?

Aristageles: Unlearning is not subtracting knowledge but transforming it. Tell me, as a merchant who no doubt travels much by sea, have you encountered ship’s captains who have been particularly good at what they do?

Phidoxes: Yes, I have.

Aristageles: And can you describe one of these men?

Phidoxes: Well, the best I use is one called Stopheon. He has an uncanny knack of bringing ships through the worst storms and highest seas without damage. His ability to read the winds and the seas, to navigate and steer, to know the sails and how to employ his crew, is peerless. And he has more than a touch of the requisite captain’s sense of humour.

Aristageles: Is it likely this Stopheon would have had to learn much when he started out as a seaman?

Phidoxes: Of course, like everyone working on ships.

Aristageles: And you would say that his knowledge now as a seaman and ship’s captain is great?

Phidoxes: Vast. I have never seen him unsure of himself. He seems to act seamlessly, like the ship is an extension of himself, his own body – he knows how it must move in all conditions, what to do when.

Aristageles: Ah, seamlessly – that is the clue to the unlearning. Stopheon has all the knowledge but it is not mere knowledge any more, the bare facts or ideas of what to do in various circumstances, he has transformed it into something else. Can he sometimes act in ways contrary to received knowledge, unorthodox as it were?

Phidoxes: Yes, I have been on a ship of his when he has steered towards an oncoming storm – not a major one, mind you, but a storm nonetheless – to use the winds. I wonder if sometimes he makes up his own rules as he goes along, but I still have full confidence in him.

Aristageles: So there is wisdom: you learn the rules, you know the rules, the rules are transformed. It is not that a wise man does not observe customs and laws – he lives in the world like everyone else – but that he sees beyond them and operates in a refined way.

Phidoxes: May I remind you, Aristageles, that only a few minutes ago you said you knew nothing about wisdom.

Aristageles: And I don’t.

Phidoxes: Then what you have just said is worthless?

Aristageles: You must let go of it at the appropriate time, Phidoxes. As for me, it is gone – just a pleasant breeze from the west that has graced us for a few moments and disappeared.

Phidoxes: Gone? No more?

Aristageles: It is a feature of being elderly that all that is solid, all that is substantial to younger people, becomes much less so. The older I get the quicker I see through what is present in the world and the quicker I let go. It is as if I am only partially here, reaching into the next world. Sometimes I feel I can almost touch the gods.

Phidoxes: I pray the gods grant us a few more years of enlivening discussions with you, Aristageles.

Aristageles: That, along with everything else, is entirely in their hands.