Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin Classics)

Ever since listening to Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast ( I was very curious to explore the writings of these early thinkers. In this book, Jonathan’s Barnes translation and editorial arrangement provides a high speed “fly by” of the presocratic philosophers. Context is minimal, but the scope is impressive, especially considering the small size of the volume. Readers will not finish this book ready to write a detailed theory piece on the writings of Anaxagoras (at least, I didn’t), but they will discover who Anaxagoras is and how his ideas build on the critical questions of his day. I came away from this book profoundly more appreciative for how strong the philosophical “tradition” was prior to Plato. And I doubt anyone can walk away without gaining a sense that the story goes back even farther than these fragments… but today, these fragments are as far back as we can go.


Interpreting the Bhagavad Gita


Mohandas Gandhi, a devout Hindu, found immeasurable hope and meaning in the holy writings of the Bhagavad Gita. “To me the Gita became an infallible guide of conduct,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It became my dictionary of daily reference. Just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meanings of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials.” (Gandhi, 1957, p. 265)

One who is beyond duality and doubt, whose mind is engaged within, who is always busy working for the welfare of all sentient beings, and who is free from all sins, achieves liberation. (Bhagavad Gita, 5:25)

Gandhi interpreted the Hindu mythology to instruct a higher morality than cyclical, retributive violence. He taught non-violence as the best strategy for achieving lasting peace. As the country of India faced divisional restructuring and the birth of a new state, his rhetoric of zero retaliation resulted in the death of many of his fellow citizens who chose his way of nonviolence.

Nathuram Godse was an extremely devout Hindu as well, but to him it was completely absurd that Gandhi would interpret the Bhagavad Gita as a creed of non-violence. After all, the mythology of the Bhagavad Gita takes place on a battlefield, as Lord Krishna exhorts the hero Arjuna to go to war—to fight for righteousness, truth and duty. Godse was appalled that Gandhi would use this sacred text to justify non-response, especially as it resulted in the massacre and torture of other Indians. (Perera,  2006)

…you should know there is no better engagement for you than fighting on religious principles; and so there is no need for hesitation… If, however, you do not fight this religious war, then you will certainly incur sin for neglecting your duties, and thus lose your reputation as a fighter. (Bhagavad Gita, 2:31, 33)

On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, shooting him at close range. Before his execution for the murder, Godse wrote, “You both are acquainted with the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita … In such horrible circumstances, either for fear of our lives or for fear of public criticism, it was not possible for me to be silent without doing anything … If at all there is anything as such salvation, I am eligible to it.” (Godse, 1949)

Ghandi and Godse were two Hindu men who loved the Bhagavad Gita dearly, yet their interpretations were profoundly different. How could the same text be understood with such stark variance? It is because no one can “just read” a holy scripture: like every other document, it must be filtered through the interpretive lenses of personal experience and expectation.

Likewise, you and I bring our own filters to everything we will read today. We will define this content in ways that go far beyond mere descriptive definitions. We will not see the world: we will paint it. We will colour our perception of life with an arsenal of our own past experiences.

When you hear someone describe the world in a way that is contradictory to your description, try understanding their experiences before correcting their interpretation.


Sitting in on the Unending Conversation


Ideas make the world.

Just as genes inherit their attributes, thoughts are built upon the ancestry of the past ideas. Ideas are extrapolated, inspired and derived.

Kenneth Burke, the literary theorist, described human history with the metaphor of the “Unending Conversation” as follows:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Burke, 1941, pp. 110-111)

Every day that we are alive we pull up a stool and listen in to this great, unending conversation. This conversation is not a puzzle — not just a perplexing riddle waiting for one particularly arrogant generation to think they have solved — but it is itself the substance of life. To engage in the dialogue is to be alive.

Participating in the dialogue itself is why we are here. What will you learn? What will you contribute? Today: how will you engage the discourse of your time?


Idolatry and the Sin of Literalness


To the modern Western mind, the concept of idol worship seems primitive. “Who,” we ask, “could conceivably carve a wooden statue, cover it with a precious metal, and then pray to it for supernatural guidance?” But as unfathomable as the practice might appear, it might not actually be that unfamiliar to us.

There have been many tablets unearthed from the ancient Mesopotamia region (the “Cradle of Civilization,” as it is called) that explain complex rituals to enliven inanimate statues, turning them into embodiments of gods. Two particularly important rituals were the mīs pȋ (washing of the mouth) and the pit pȋ (opening of the mouth).

During these religious ceremonies, the statue-maker would solemnly swear that the statue was created by such-and-such a deity — he was merely a conduit for its construction — and a priest would use a wooden sword to symbolically cut off the hands of the craftsman. (Kugel, 2003, p. 85) In some rites, the craftsman and his work tools were themselves declared to be divine. (Berlejung, 1997, p. 54) In the end, it would be declared that the statue was not actually made by a human, but born in the heavens by the power of the gods.

Fast-forward to the present. Most of us probably do not worship religious symbols, but we may be no less idolatrous. If we define idolatry as treating symbolic objects as if they are absolute representations, then the concept of money itself is technically idolatrous. Like a golden calf, the only thing that gives money any power is the fact that everyone believes in it.

Consider what we worship — or to that which we ascribe worth — as a culture: rank, wealth, status, stardom, promotion, title, position, prestige… do these values actually exist anywhere in the universe except in our own minds? Are these not but symbolic labels that we impute with meaning?

In a society that no longer reveres invisible deities and spirits, have we not simply turned to worshiping symbolic traits in one another instead?

The British philosopher Owen Barfield (1898-1997) cleverly described present-day idolatry as the “sin of literalness.” We believe so strongly in our meaning-making idols that we are like stubborn fundamentalists who refuse to consider life apart from our ideologies of self-worth and achievement.

…the besetting sin to-day is the sin of literalness, or idolatry…there is a valid connection, at some level however deep, between what I have called ‘literalness’ and a certain hardness of heart. Listen attentively to the response of a dull or literal mind to what insistently presents itself as allegory or symbol, and you may detect a certain irritation, a faint, incipient aggressiveness in its refusal. (Barfield, 1988, p. 162-3)

This reflection raises the question of whether we humans can even live without idols. It seems impossible for us to not look to something that our own hands have created in order to acquire a compass for our lives. And yet, perhaps like a spiritual awakening, we might yet repent of our foolish literalness and see the world through new eyes, not marred by our idolatrous obsession with symbols and statues, which we assume represent final revelations of truth.


Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

jamesshelley’s review: “‘Illness as Metaphor’ is highly polemical, and as such, is a suburb piece of polemic. Sontag, herself diagnosed with breast cancer at the time of the writing (a fact she does not disclose in the initial essay itself) compares eighteenth and early nineteenth century discourse about tuberculosis to present day language about cancer. Of course, “present day” for Sontag is 1977. This fact alone makes the book a compelling read — simply considering how much the approach of Western medicine to cancer has changed in 30 years. Doubtlessly this essay itself has been a large contributor to this shift in thinking.

In a nutshell: Sontag argues that the word “cancer” has become little more than a metaphor for everything that is wrong and evil in the world, and this systemic demonizing of this illness in particular makes it all the more complicated for its patients, and fosters a range of stigmas that are virtually invisible to anyone not dealing with cancer themselves.

Reading the counterpoints and rebuttals to Sontag’s thesis is compelling secondary reading as well. All together, a thorough inquiry into Sontag’s propositions yields a much broader awareness of the “cancerous” language and metaphors we still use rather flippantly today.”