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.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fate, chance and neither

The following dialogue between Aristageles, a philosopher, and his younger protege, Caro, took place on a street in Athens sometime in the 4th century BCE.


Aristageles: Caro, I heard about your cousin’s death. My sympathies are with you and your family.

Caro: Thank you, Aristageles. Xanthus and I were quite close, even though he was younger than me. I’m sorry for my glum looks but I’m still very much grieving and in shock.

Aristageles: Of course.

Caro: I have spent the past few days shut up indoors, not wanting to brave this beastly world or speak to anybody. But Torcus, my father’s slave, pleaded with me to go for a walk for my health and sanity. He said it was possible to die from sadness and it made no sense to join Xanthus in Hades’ company. So here I am, as needs must.

Aristageles: Grieving is very hard on the soul, dear friend.

Caro: Yes, it is. My mind is tormented with questions I can’t answer, Aristageles.

Aristageles: I understand. We are but mortals, after all, up against the great Mysteries.

Caro: He was only 17. Did you know that? Just 17 and he had everything before him. Intelligent, brave, athletic; he would have had a fine career in any number of fields had he ripened to a proper age.

Aristageles: And he died after being thrown from his horse? Forgive me for asking.

Caro: Yes, the grey mare. He was riding alone to Marathon, which he’d done many times before. Some passing merchants found his body, with the horse grazing nearby, and said it may have been scared by a rabbit or some other animal and bolted. Judging by where his body lay, he probably hit his head on a rock when he fell.

Aristageles: Sad indeed.

Caro: Yes. But you must answer one thing for me, Aristageles.

Aristageles: If I can. I am better at asking questions than giving answers.

Caro: Was Xanthus fated to die? Perhaps Zeus or another god was angry with him for some reason and sought vengeance. Or do you think his death was pure misfortune? He knew that road well and it is not dangerous; a few more strides by the mare and he would have likely been thrown well clear of the rock and lived.

Aristageles: I can’t provide an adequate response.

Caro: But surely philosophy would guide us in answering this.

Aristageles: Philosophy is a guide, but it affords no certainty.

Caro: Then what can you say, Aristageles? Nothing?

Aristageles: I could say that the death of Xanthus was occasioned by the Fates and by chance, and neither.

Caro: I don’t understand.

Aristageles: Well, let’s firstly look at fate. Is it not about the exercise of will – human or the higher will, the will of the gods? When a man consistently drives his chariot fast and recklessly, we say he is fated to have an accident and hurt himself. And behold, it happens! The higher will of the gods is harder to figure because we do not have their knowledge or power. Someone dies and we say Zeus willed it – but why? Why should it be so? Why was your cousin taken so early? The ways of the higher powers are a mystery. However, the wise tell us that we and the gods are kin and that we can open ourselves to them, through reverence, prayer and patient listening, and become true servants of their will. We can live so that everything makes sense, so that fate speaks to us – not by the typical everyday mode, but in a deeper way.

Caro: I can see where your words lead. After Xanthus was brought home and laid on his bed, I sat with all the relatives around him, and amid the wailing and moaning I had the feeling that his soul was hovering above his body, and that he was being called to service in other worlds. Just in that brief time I understood. Then it passed and everything was black and incomprehensible and infuriating again.

Aristageles: It would not be the world if it were not blissful and hellish at the same time.

Caro: But you say chance played a role in Xanthus’ death as well. How is it possible for both fate and chance to be present at once?

Aristageles: Well, they are not mutually exclusive. Did you not say yourself that had the horse taken a few more strides Xanthus would likely still be with us?

Caro: Yes.

Aristageles: I’ll give another example. In walking here from your house today you must have passed many people. What was the significance for you in each individual who came from the opposite direction?

Caro: I don’t know. I passed no-one who was familiar to me.

Aristageles: Exactly. Then would you say that every incidental fact of life has meaning?

Caro: I suppose not.

Aristageles: Life proceeds in a glorious array of multiplicity. Perhaps the gods are responsible for every minute detail, or maybe they oversee the general sense of it all and allow the spirit of life to proceed as it will under their watchful gaze.

Caro: But last month as I walked the same way I met Ariston, a friend from Megara whom I hadn’t seen in years, and he invited me to visit and be in the company of Demetrius the sophist, as it turns a close friend of his.

Aristageles: Ah! So here meaning arrives and fate and chance are clearly working in hand in hand. Whatever the circumstance – good, bad or indifferent – we are presented with the opportunity of learning, improving ourselves and the lot of others.

Caro: But you said earlier that neither fate nor chance was also at work – how does that hold?

Aristageles: Well, do you see that dog over there scratching in the dirt?

Caro: Yes.

Aristageles: Do you think it cares anything about the discussion we’ve just had? Whether one thing is just so, or another thing something else?

Caro: I don’t expect it to – it’s an animal. It doesn’t reason like we do.

Aristageles: Yet we can still learn much from it. When reason ceases its labours and sits down in the dust to scratch fleas off itself, what are we left with?

Caro: I don’t know.

Aristageles: Nothing, and everything. That is, all as it really is; the hum and the clamour of the universe.

Caro: I don’t understand.

Aristageles: Simple living, simple gratitude for all that is just as it is without concern or striving.

Caro: I am very puzzled.

Aristageles: The wise say that true knowledge begins with utter confusion.

Caro: And will you leave me in such a state?

Aristageles: I leave you so blessed.

Caro: Goodbye, Aristageles.

Aristageles: Goodbye, Caro, and may your grieving from now on be light.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Dialogue on Place

The following imaginary dialogue happened in a street in Athens sometime in the 4th century BCE. The two people involved are philosophers, Aristageles an older man and Xanthon a younger protégé.

ARISTAGELES: Ho, Xanthon! Where are you off to so hastily on such a fine morning?

XANTHON: I have much to do today, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: People have been talking and wondering what has become of the learned Xanthon. You haven’t been seen in weeks, not since the symposium at Alkaios’ house at any rate. Your friends miss you.

XANTHON: I’ve had very much on my mind, Aristageles. The weight of it has been such that I’ve had no time for friends or frivolity, not even for philosophy.

ARISTAGELES: May I enquire what has detained you in such fashion?

XANTHON: Oh, Aristageles, it is something about which I dare not speak for shame. My heart is a hollow vessel of sadness.

ARISTAGELES: Is it something that cannot be shared with one who cares? ‘A heavy sack between two is no burden’, the saying goes.

XANTHON: If only. I’m afraid the grief is solely mine to bear.

ARISTAGELES: But is there no way a friend could help? Remember, philosophy beats paths through all things.

XANTHON: Yes, I know it does, but for me? You see I have no way out.

ARISTAGELES: Out of...

XANTHON: I am going into exile, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: Ah, so this is the rock that sits on your soul?

XANTHON: Yes, it is. I was chosen for the expedition against the Macedonians, which as you know is only days away. I’m not a fighter, cannot fight, will not fight again. The very thought of the battlefield sickens me and I have a feeling in my gut that if I go to war again I will die.

ARISTAGELES: It is very normal to hate war, my friend. War is a plague, a curse, and it is a great stain on Athens, on our civilisation, that we have danced to the blood frenzy more than many other cities; even as much as some barbarians. Nor is it unmanly to refuse to fight. Reason is a divine gift, and it makes no sense to walk into butchery, even if sanctioned by the laws of the land.

XANTHON: You are right, Aristageles. But do you know what weighs on me heaviest, even more than being known as a coward and losing my honour? It is the thought of leaving Athens. It fills me with the blackest dread.

ARISTAGELES: Do you fear never returning?

XANTHON: Yes. Athens is home. I have only ever left Attica twice in my life, and then only to Corinth. Athens is everything to me; it is my life, my soul. What will I do without the sight of her hills every day, her temples and squares? The Acropolis, the life of the agora, the processions and singing of the Panathenaea, Boreas sweeping through the leaves of the plane trees by the Ilisos, even the chaos of the Piraeus – all these have made me, have built what I am block by block. And soon I will have only impressions of her for comfort, mere memories, and I will be entirely undone. So here I am, Aristageles, running around furtively making preparations for my voyage.

ARISTAGELES: Did you know that the Ilisos was one of Socrates’ favourite places to walk? It is said he often went there with his companions. They would pay their respects to Pan and the wood nymphs and talk philosophy for hours.

XANTHON: Ah, philosophy. What of it, now? What can it ever say to us when we are in such dolor?

ARISTAGELES: Well, it speaks to us most in the darkest times. It teaches us always to follow the gods, and as you have strived to do so here in Athens, so shall you, I am sure in ... Where is it you are going?

XANTHON: Olbia.

ARISTAGELES: By Zeus, that far! You will be missed.

XANTHON: But how is the pain healed by the gods? How is this city, this soft earth of Athens, to be replaced with anything I find anywhere else?

ARISTAGELES: The wise tell us that gods and men are kin. And as you stand on your ship watching the shore of the Piraeus recede in the distance and weep for your loss, so the great ones will be weeping with you. Every place has its own gods – its temples to a particular guardian, its goddesses in the sacred groves, its satyrs and nymphs in the hills and rivers. Where one city builds shrines to Artemis, another will honour Apollo or Demeter or Hephaestus. But what does the multitude of gods from all the corners of the world have in common? What is the shared thread, whether the sacred garment is woven for one or another?

XANTHON: I confess I don’t know.

ARISTAGELES: Do they not all represent the good, some variation of it?

XANTHON: They represent power, it is true. Of the good, I am not sure. Ares is rarely anybody’s favourite, and Dionysus has a wild edge of intoxication and violence.

ARISTAGELES: Power implies choice. The gods offer us a choice – do we respond to conflict with a neighbour in the way of Athene, with justice and dignity, or descend into bloodshed? Do we accept Demeter’s laws about the tending of the wheat fields or do whatever we like when it comes to nourishing our city and the land? Do we honour Dionysus with wine and song, or become prudish and miserable? If we truly follow the gods, we follow what’s best.

XANTHON: I have had no cause to think deep thoughts in the past few weeks.

ARISTAGELES: All that you have learnt in Athens, all that is noble in this city, all that has nurtured your soul, your family and friends and lovers, the wisdom of philosophy – take these in your heart to your new home. Will you not find the good in Olbia? Not in the same forms as here in Athens, not with the same people or the same soil, but in some local shape nonetheless. And if Olbia prove barren and inhospitable, go to another place and find what you seek there. The world opens to those with the mettle to grasp it.

XANTHON: They are kind, wise words, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: And as you go about your new life, friend, be sure to ‘keep your hands soft’. Have you heard that old phrase? It means to change as conditions arise; not in the way of a fool who has no idea what they are doing, but as someone whose hands shape fortune in their life and the lives of others. As Euripides says, ‘that I may lightly change my ways, my ways of today when tomorrow comes, and be happy all my life long’.

XANTHON: Thank you, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: And one last thing. Before you set forth on your journey, do pay a visit to Agathe. She hasn’t seen you for a long time and misses you terribly.

XANTHON: I will.