Friday, May 15 2015

Silence: A User's Guide

This review of Silence: A User's Guide by Maggie Ross is in the current issue of Third Way Magazine.

Silence is the crucial element in Christian life, argues the solitary and author Maggie Ross in this punchy, timely book. It is vital because the fundamental promise of Christianity cannot be realised without it, namely, new life in Christ. Ross calls this process of transfiguration "the work of silence". The results of it St Paul realised when he declared that he no longer lived but Christ lived in him. It led St Augustine to sense that God was closer to him than he was to himself; Mother Julian to know that all will be well; and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to advocate the kind of contemplation that "beats away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love."

A practice of silence can move the individual from living within the anxious strictures of their self-consciousness, to living out of the infinite love of God's deep mind. The tragedy is that silence has almost disappeared from western Christianity. Ross describes this loss, a sorry tale over two millennia of theological and ecclesiastical seduction by political, personal and institutional power. The stance an individual or church must sustain towards the unfolding action of silence goes when, with James and John, individuals place themselves at Jesus's right and left; or when the receptivity of Mary is eclipsed by the busyness of Martha; or perhaps today in the Church of England when the growth demands of intentional evangelism out shout the quiet mission of God - with which, after all, God is engaged regardless of the nervous preoccupations of a struggling established church.

Ross's study is also timely because the need for silence is currently on many non-Christian minds. The intuition that silence tracks the path to life in all its fullness has become a popular movement with the explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation. Or consider the threatening ecological crisis: Ross argues that this is, at root, a result of our civilisation's disconnection from the natural world. It arises because we have learnt to regard creation as a commodity for human exploitation, and have forgotten how to approach it as an environment with a life of its own, which we might behold.

It is a sign of the times that a nascent science of silence is emerging too, as presented in Iain McGilchrist's seminal book, The Master And His Emissary, an important reference point for Ross. The science suggests that human beings have broadly two ways of engaging with the world. The first is characterised by focus and manipulation. It attempts to organise things for its own ends and according to its own lights. It has evolved to help us survive, but if it becomes dominant then it restricts and throttles the life it tries to possess. This, McGilchrist argues, is the current state of the western mindset.

The alternative way of dealing with the world is open and receptive; it delights in surprise and mystery; it embraces the expansive possibilities of paradox, the potential of uncertainty and disturbance. It delights to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase. It is necessary to spiritual flourishing because, in theistic terms, it can tolerate human fragility and let God be God. It can see beyond self-concern and hold out for a relationship with the inexhaustible source of all life. A silent practice is the way to come to know this gift because in silence an individual's default way of engaging with the world can, first, be seen and, then, shift from the controlled to the open.

It's a difficult shift to undergo because it also requires confronting the grief, anger, hate, envy, despair, pride that observing one's mind reveals. It's the path through the narrow gate though, paradoxically, it's also to take up the lighter burden that Jesus spoke of too. The great Christian psychologists that Ross discusses - from Evagrius Ponticus to Simone Weil - have undergone and charted the change, though I believe there is also much to be gained by engaging with the insights of contemporary developmental and depth psychology. It seems to me that they offer a tremendous resource of living theory and practice for those serious about the work of silence. This new resource may well have arisen because, as Carl Jung noted, modern churches have a fractured if not dying relationship with the older contemplative wisdom. Perhaps Ross will discuss this in a promised second volume.

Her book is rhetorical as well as scholarly, an eleventh hour plea for the recovery of silence and all that it opens, beholds and enables. And I agree: the situation is serious. Nonetheless, I felt that she is at risk of condemning too fiercely the noisy trajectory of western Christianity. It may be true that some of the desert fathers and mothers declared, "Flee the bishops!" as they made for the wilderness, before the bishops rebranded them "white martyrs" to keep them in the fold. But it seems untrue that the last great theologian and senior ecclesiastic who understood the relationship between speech and silence was the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa. Ross's book has a forward by an obvious counterexample: Rowan Williams.

This is just as well because silence requires much holding and skillful discernment if those undertaking it are not to go astray: the enlightened individuals that can guide us will necessarily emerge from flawed institutions. Plus, McGilchrist's point is that we need both ways of engaging with the world, in right relationship. The challenge today is to find where the flame of silence still flickers amongst Christians, as well as to connect with where it burns more strongly elsewhere.

 

Thursday, May 14 2015

Skeptiko interview on Christianity, Atheism and Rupert Sheldrake

It was a more robust discussion than I anticipated, though maybe what feels like discomforting aggression in England is but a bracing exchange in California. But here's my conversation with the host of the useful Skeptiko podcast, Alex Tsakiris.

 

Wednesday, May 13 2015

Platonic Errors

My annoyance at public intellectuals misunderstanding Plato overcame me and I isolated three common errors for The Idler Magazine, as below.

1. Plato invented secular philosophy.

The first story being told is of a crucial shift in human thought that crystalized in fifth century BC Athens. Before then, in the time of Homer and Hesiod, ancient Greeks had resorted to myths to guide them through the world. Now though, with the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in particular, a new generation of Greeks developed the capacity to think about the world without referencing their multiple divinities.

Instead they turned to cool, godless reason. Logic helped them derive arguments about what's true. No longer need things be believed because deities said so. Instead, humanity began to build knowledge on the basis of proofs.

This is wrong. It's right that the philosophers deployed new methods to investigate how to live, the nature of the cosmos, the way to rule cities. Those methods included reason and empirical investigation. But it was also a standard assumption amongst the ancients that true knowledge was true because it reflected divine knowledge. Reason and experience are gifts by which we can participate in divine life. Knowing came to be understood as a receptive capacity that reason serves by discerning. Nature came to be experienced as showing itself to us, if we attend to it aright.

Hence Thales, often called the father of philosophy, could exclaim, "All things are full of gods." This is what his wondrous investigations revealed. For Plato, reason was a tool that could lead to divine insight, but if and only if accompanied by myths, reverent invocations, and the hard work of personal transformation.

This is a very good way of doing philosophy, which after all is the desire for a wisdom that often seems beyond human reach. And it has very little to do with contemporary secular philosophy that often seems stranded on a desert island of soulless logic. Plato might, in fact, help restore it to life.

2. Plato opposed the spirit to the body.

The second story is that Plato held the body to be a prison for the soul that, with luck, the soul could flee at death. This meant that he denigrated the body and idealized the soul. He set up a dualism that we still experience in forms such as sexual prohibitions and women's oppression.

If the academics read Plato (which sometimes, honestly, I wonder) they would learn that, for example, Socrates tousles the hair of his youthful follower, Phaedo, on his deathbed. Or they'd spot that Socrates did not just advocate philosopher kings in his dialogue the Republic, but philosopher queens. They are very likely to know that Plato the man probably gained his name because it is a pun on the Greek for "broad", suggesting that before he was a philosopher he had been a wrestler. They will also know that gymnasia were one of Socrates's and Plato's favourite haunts. But they don't take the next step: these are not details from the life of a body-hater.

Plato was actually gripped by something more subtle, more interesting and more valuable. It is the possibility that the body reflects the soul. It's much as we say that someone's character becomes, in time, etched into the lines on their face. Plato proposed that the soul is the form of the body; that the soul is the aliveness of the body.

It's true that he has Socrates wonder whether, after death, the body might come to feel like it has been a prison, such is the liberation that death could bring. But that's just one of several possibilities he considers, as anyone with curiosity would. He never offers a definitive creed. So where did the dualism come from? I don't think it really existed until the seventeenth century, when Descartes proposed his famous cogito, "I think therefore I am." With this formula, it became possible to imagine a thinking part separate from a bodily part. We now live with that legacy. But before then, philosophers had assumed human beings were incarnate: ensouled bodies. If you're against the dualism, which I think is sensible, Plato is a sophisticated ally not enemy number one.

3. Plato argued that goodness trounces God.

The third error that the academics promote is that Plato proved that goodness is more basic than godliness. Or, to put it another way, that the gods have no choice but to be good. This is then developed to suggest that goodness is more important than divinity, which is a short step away from the conclusion that divinity is not important at all. In short, Plato was really a new atheist.

The reference for this line of argument is Plato's dialogue, the Euthyphro. Again, I would suggest that our academics take a second look. Because if you follow the dialogue through, you see that it is one of Plato's aporetic works. It ends inconclusively.

If anything definitive can be concluded from Socrates and Euthyphro's exchange it would be that when human beings claim to know anything for certain about the gods, they are certain to tie themselves in knots. That is a useful reminder for religious and atheistic folk alike. No-one with any seriousness can presume to know what causes gods sleepless nights, least of all feeling trapped into being good because goodness dictates it to them. Put it like this: to say the gods must be good is a bit like saying that grass must be green. It's nonsense. Goodness is implicit in divinity much as greenness is implicit in grass. But there's another more positive insight engaging with the Euthyphro can bring.

We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It's supremely desirable because it's integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.

Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become. Again, in an age starved of trust and vision - of goodness as a self-evident good - Plato can feed us. We should invoke his spirit and refuse the sticks with which academics routinely beat him.

 

Sunday, May 3 2015

The spiritual virtue of laziness

A Sunday Sermon from The Idler Academy

Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life. It's an oft forgotten insight in an age when mindfulness apps set targets for sitting still, and church-going is an obstacle course of activity, from food banks to flower rotas.

Take Rumi, the great spiritual writer of the Sufi tradition. He once told a story. A man left instructions on how to divide his estate. He was a devoted father and so wanted to do the wise thing. He told the town judge: "Whichever of my sons is laziest, give him all the inheritance."

It is a striking will, almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. But the man's sons were not spiritual lightweights. They knew their father was onto something.

So, when his father died, the eldest son told the judge that he was adept at laziness. It had made him patient. He explained how, for example, he could read another man's mind by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, he could watch him for three days and know him intuitively. Impressive, thought the judge: anyone who can wait three days shows promising signs of laziness. But what of the second son?

Laziness had made a different impact upon him. It had made him crafty. He too could understand another by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, the second son would start talking. The other was then bound to reply, and give themself away. Not quite so impressive, thought the judge: craftiness is a common human trait. All you have to do is know the trick. So what of third son?

Laziness had achieved its best with him. The youngest had the gift of presence - of being, not doing, we might say. And what comes with presence? The ability to be receptive. He could sit in front of another and feel what the other drew out of him. With that sense, he could understand anyone. Moreover, he could receive insights from a place beyond joy and grief. The deepest and darkest recesses of the soul were as clear as day to him. He knew the way between voice and presence where information flows.

"The youngest was, obviously, the laziest," Rumi concludes. "He won."

Other spiritual teachers have echoed the value of this key quality. Jesus told his followers that the burden is light. If it feels heavy, hard work, impossible then something has gone wrong. Ease is the key guide.

The Buddha taught "right effort", which in our day invariably means less effort. When your legs are dead, your back is aching, and your mind feels caught up in a storm, it's time to stop meditating. A mindless, joyful chat with a friend will be more spiritually beneficial. But why? Why is it that idleness, laziness, and ease offer the surest path to enlightenment? The quick answer, the gurus tell us, is that our own efforts can accomplish nothing. They key task is not to achieve, but to let go; it's not to be in control, but to release; it's not to live, but in a sense to die.

Then, and only then, by a supreme non-effort of the will - that is so hard in a world orientated around work, status, responsibility - something radically new might be glimpsed. It's a source of life and pleasure on the other side of partying hard. It's a resting place that is also alive. It's an intelligence that does not manically accumulate facts but calmly issues wisdom.

Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life.

 

Saturday, April 18 2015

The Sound of Silence

We've published the latest discussion between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

We discuss the transformative potential of silence, a practise integral to religious and wisdom traditions. So why is silence so important? What is silence anyway, and does any science back up the intuitions and experiences?

 

Thursday, April 16 2015

Beauty is Truth. Truth Beauty. Yes, But Beware

The British Museum's new Beauty exhibition is fantastic but I wish they'd made more of Socrates's moobs. A piece from The Idler.

The new show at the British Museum, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, is tremendous. To see such a collection of sculpture and artifact, idol and vase under one roof is an opportunity not to be missed. But, to my mind, there’s something the exhibition doesn’t quite nail.

The blurbs stress the take-home message: the ancient Greeks made our sense of beauty; we still think of the body beautiful according to the categories they developed two and a half millennia ago. What struggles to be heard, though, is that at the same time, the Greeks embedded a powerful, crucial critique of the notion they ostensibly celebrated in glazed clay and polished marble.

Just what’s missing in the exhibition struck me when reference was made to Charmides. He was a vibrant, thrusting and astonishingly beautiful Greek man. As Plato puts it in the dialogue named after him, when Charmides entered the room, everyone fell in love with him, and were astonished and confused by his entrance.

I’ve experienced the effect the statuesque have on others when I once spent a day with a woman who was a model. As we walked down the street, the crowd parted before us: we passed through the midst with the ease of the Israelites through the Red Sea. We sat in a bar: it was as if the entire place lent towards her, like iron filings to a magnet.

In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates is also bewitched by Charmides. But he nonetheless has the presence of mind to raise a question. Charmides seems perfect, indeed, an example of the Greek virtue of kalos kagathos, beautiful and good. But, asks Socrates, does he have a well-formed soul?

The first readers of the dialogue would immediate spot that this is the crucial issue, not his looks. Charmides had everything going for him in his youth: beauty, family, education. And yet, at the time Plato was writing, Charmides had grown up to become a notorious dictator. He was one of the Thirty Tyrants, the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after the Peloponnesian War that crushed the Athenian democratic experiment.

Sure enough, Charmides’ predilection for force emerges under questioning from Socrates. The message is clear: don’t be fooled by the bright surface. It can hide the monstrous.

The danger is almost spelt out with Aphrodite, another figure who carried the ancient consciousness of beauty’s allure and risk. Several of the sculptures depict her nude at her bath, inviting you to sneak a glimpse of her most intimate parts, only to be met by the back of her hand. And remember, the hand is of a god. It will strike you down. Beauty can do that. But on the whole, the curators don’t seem to have taken the lesson on board. They broadcast the dazzle, perhaps because dazzle sells, and so can’t quite focus on the danger. Various commentators on the exhibits don’t appear to have thought much beyond beauty’s surface either.

For example, the neuroscientist Semir Zeki, who pioneered the so-called science of neuroaesthetics, offers an explanation of why we share the same appreciation of beauty as the ancient Greeks. Roughly, it’s because our brains are wired to seek symmetry, and symmetry is what makes for beauty. And yet, the most symmetrical faces in the exhibition, such as those of the kouroi, aren’t beautiful but rather appear as eerie pastiches of beauty. They are unsettling rather than attractive. The ancient Greeks knew that true beauty is not a question of symmetry but rather of balance, a reflexive notion that can’t be hardwired because it’s responsive rather than programmed.

These ideas are also discussed by Plato. In the Symposium, he explicitly warns against becoming fixated on the beauty of the body. Instead, he argues that the energy released by the sight of the gorgeous figure needs to be channeled to a desire for a deeper beauty – that of the soul, of the good, of the divine.

Moreover, an ugly surface may transmit this deeper goal more safely, as was the case with Socrates. Three images of the philosopher are shown in the exhibition. They are typical, emphasizing his pug nose, pot belly and dangling moobs. Again, though, what is missed is that his iconography stands in ironic judgment on those who don’t give him a second glance and so miss a true incarnation of the beautiful and good.

The demon that possessed Charmides, whose power seems undiminished in 21st century Bloomsbury, must be chuckling at how little humankind has learnt in two and a half thousand years.

Mark Vernon’s course on psychology and psychotherapy at The Idler Academy begins on Monday 20th April.

 

Monday, April 13 2015

OFFER! Idler Course - Introduction to psychology and psychotherapy

A six week introduction at The Idler Academy to the history and fundamental ideas of psychology and psychotherapy.

OFFER! 20% discount when you use checkout code: v3rnon20*

Dates: Weekly from Monday 20th April to Monday 8th June.

Time: 6:30 – 8pm.

My course examines the key developments in the 20th century exploration of what it is to be human. We begin with Sigmund Freud, not because many agree with him now, but because he powerfully sets the ball rolling, and in part prompts the deep and insightful discoveries of figures including Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, and others.

The course will interest anyone who is engaged by ideas from the unconscious to attachment theory, from the ego to spiritual fulfilment. It assumes no foreknowledge, though welcomes a desire to think not only about what others have said but about your own experience of life and yourself too. It will be useful for those who are confused by the many different psychologies and psychotherapies of the 20th century, feel that the worldview they’ve inherited might be expanded, or is wondering about where they have got to in life, and why.

Monday 20th April: The first few years.

Perhaps the greatest discovery of 20th century psychology is that the early years of our life have a massive impact on our development. We are then at our most receptive; we are born vulnerable. We look at the stages of our growth, even in the womb.

Monday 27th April: From ghosts to ancestors.

We are all the product of families, some of us survive them, and there are those who even find themselves resourced by them. So why and how do ancestors and families have such an impact on us, and how can we learn to turn our hauntings into help?

Monday 11th May: The meaning of dreams.

This session examines the experiences Freud called the “royal road to the unconscious”. We ask what the unconscious is, how Freud’s ideas about interpretation have evolved, and we will work on particular dreams to unpack possible meanings.

Monday 18th May: Relationship styles.

We all have them, as explored by attachment theory, one of the most far-reaching and empirically tested developments in 20th century psychotherapy. So what is your relationship style, how does it help and hinder you, and might it change?

Monday 1st June: Psychological types.

This notion was one of Jung’s first great contributions to psychology. It’s the idea that we have dominant functions and grow by engaging the inferior parts of our personality; utilised in Myers-Brigg tests, though actually far older and more interesting.

Monday 8th June: Spiritual paths.

Jung observed that most of the people who came to see him where, at root, suffering from the great malaise of modernity: a lack of making. It’s also a lack of connection to the parts of ourselves traditionally opened up by religion. So how can psychology help us re-connect?

 

Wednesday, March 18 2015

Seeking an Easter Experience

Or, how to know Easter in the heart as well as head.

A podcast - available on iTunes or here as a feed - in which I try to talk about how the liturgical drama of the Easter services, from Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday, to Easter Sunday yields more insight than any doctrine or creed.

 

Wednesday, March 4 2015

Unbelievable - why we believe and why we don't

I've this review of Graham Ward's Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't in the March issue of Third Way magazine.

The Peterhouse Ghost made an appearance in 1997. The fellows of the oldest Cambridge college were at High Table. Dinner was disturbed by a commotion in the Combination Room. The then dean and author of Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don't, Graham Ward, discovered two quaking servants amidst hundreds of fragments of broken china, mute with fear at the spectre that had crossed their path.

What intrigued Ward was not the reality of the haunting (it intrigues me), but the wide range of beliefs that were rallied to explain what had happened, as discussion rippled around the college. For some, the idea of ghosts was entirely acceptable and little more clarification was required. For others, ghosts were an entirely unacceptable proposition and academic disciplines from neuroscience to physics were deployed to explain away the incident. Others again, felt that the sighting was indicative of the inadequacy of scientific materialism and of the need for new explanatory paradigms.

Ward uses the story to launch a wide ranging discussion on the nature of belief. He defines it not as propositional statements to which an individual can give assent. Rather, he convincingly shows that belief is more complex, subtle and primitive. It is a preconscious disposition that informs, shapes and possibly determines the way we then interpret and experience the world. "I trust in God" captures the meaning better than "I believe in God", as commonly meant.

Belief is, therefore, comprised of many dynamics. For example, it's partly a product of our embodiment. The medical doctor and philosopher Raymond Tallis argues that the evolution of an index or pointing finger was as crucial to the capacity for belief as anything that evolved in the brain. Only with pointing can you conceive of yourself as having agency and being an agent. It creates an instrumental awareness of the body and the world, and so is a prerequisite not just for advanced tool use but also for the concept of "tool". Some other animals deploy what we call tools, but without the concept they neither experience nor develop tools in nearly such a rich way. A crow can use a stick but it won't decorate one, let alone sell it as an expensive walking stick.

Such developments signal momentous changes in consciousness and in the capacity for belief. Ward takes several fascinating chapters carefully to examine the archeological evidence left by our hominid ancestors to track its emergence. Homo sapiens sapiens is a creature that doesn't just interact with the world like, say, plants. We don't just perceive the world as, say, single-celled animals do as they are drawn towards nourishment and withdraw from dangers. Human beings perceive the world as this or that. Moreover, such intentional perception of the world incorporates the immaterial as well as the material - the visible and the invisible - in a fine interlacing of meaning.

Consider the role of the imagination. Coleridge argued that imagination creates a potential space that can be then filled with something actual, be that tangible or intangible. This human capacity is required to do everything from carving figurines to composing symphonies. Belief is also a political issue, in the sense that a community of believers - scientists, artists, philosophers, church-goers - play a crucial role in deciding what is believable. This insights helps unpack the depth of the challenge for theists in circles that are broadly atheistic. Evidence or arguments for the existence of God are not enough because there is the prior issue of whether such cultures are predisposed to believe in theism at all. To put it another way, lives transformed or arts that show transcendence are more likely to open an individual to perceiving the divine because such experiences address the issue at the right level. Reason then comes in to aid discernment.

Contemporary understandings of consciousness are crucial to such believability. Materialist explanations render religious beliefs radically unbelievable by reducing them to neural firings. What is often overlooked is that the same move empties the science of explanatory value too. They also can't explain why we experience the world as 3D and "out there", an experience unimaginable to the zombie-like registering of electrochemical exchanges in brain states. The writer Will Self offered a more apt image in a recent interview: "We’re a kind of energy field rather than something that’s imprisoned in a small bone globe."

Ward develops the argument to show how novels and stories work only because we can know characters and visit places that are totally fictional. Even when fiction evokes or references real places and people, the literature speaks to us because it reveals aspects of experience that would not otherwise be known or seen. Take the sign saying "Platform 9¾" at King's Cross Station. For Harry Potter fans, it turns the spot into something akin to a sacred place.

A religious attitude towards belief, Ward concludes, develops a stage further what is implicit in all belief, which is to say in all human consciousness. If the latter facilities our perceiving the world as this or that, religious belief moves us beyond to perceive the divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. William James grasped this final movement of belief when he defined it as trust in "an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." It's what Paul meant by "living by faith". It's how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews could described faith not as belief in spite of evidence, as is sometimes said today, but as precisely the opposite: "the evidence of things not seen."

 

Thursday, February 26 2015

The Call of Silence

And the Unknowing of Noise…

We live in a society with a powerful aversion to silence; with an anxiety of not having something said, or anything to say. Silence is feared and equated with emptiness, meaninglessness, nothing. Muzak is, of course, omnipresent. Or phones and plugged-in pods that create a bubble of noise, keeping the outside world out and starving the inner world of space. If the radio or TV falls silent, it suggests a fault, at best, and possibly global disaster.

Twenty-four hour news, too, cannot tolerate any gaps. You see it particularly during election campaigns, as we are suffering in the UK at the moment. For our wannabe leaders, to be caught off-guard in front of a camera is career threatening. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor, famously filled the political day and night with the "grid". That's become the norm. It's noise as a means of control. "Silence is regarded as a sort of sin now, and it has to be filled with a lot of gossip and sound bites," Douglas Hurd, the politician and novelist, has written.

Or think about silence and friendship. It used to be said that a best friend is a person with whom you can be silent. No embarrassment, no irritation. Today, a best friend is someone with whom you are in constant contact, texting and messaging as automatically as breathing. Fill the space.

Research suggests that there is a connection between the wealth of a society and the levels of noise within it. A project at Sheffield Hallam University tracked the levels of noise in the UK for a number of years. It is rising - in Sheffield city centre, for example, by 3 decibels in 10 years. Officially 125 million Europeans suffer from noise above the recommended guidelines, according to the UK Noise Association, and this is almost certainly an underestimate.

Or maybe the lack of silence is a deeper, cultural issue? Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, argues that our suspicion of silence has religious roots. In the second and third centuries AD, ecclesiastical authorities became antagonistic towards a group known as gnostikoi. They were Christians who claimed that God is most fully known as unknowable, and so therefore in silence. The authorities, who felt the need to shape what believers believed, branded them gnostics and cast them out of the fold. The problem was compounded in the next century when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Belonging to the church meant having access to secular wealth and power, so now what you thought was of political importance too. Thereafter, western rites included creeds and confessions that had to be audibly rehearsed. They policed who was in and who out.. The logic was that that the inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.

The legacy of this tradition is that, today, most western churches do not practice silence. I suspect that this explains part of the appeal of mindfulness meditation: where else can you find and grow in silence? Silence is now also routinely associated with dissent and protest. Think of the tradition that runs from the Quakers to the use of silence by the Occupy protestors.

Alternatively, the Christian legacy seems to have shaped powerful scientific traditions too, such as empiricism or behaviourism. They work on the principle that if manifest evidence - scientific noise - cannot be produced in support of a theory or experience, then the theory or experience is either extraneous or deluded. Silence is treated as meaningless.

Does this matter? I think it does. I know a monk. He spends the majority of his day not talking. His aim is to live in quietude. Not talking has intrinsic value since it is then that he is able to listen to his inner tribulations and for the "still, small voice of God". To put it in secular terms, silence is necessary in order better to perceive and understand things.

To introduce some silence into your life is, therefore, a radical reorientation of your life, from one of possession by articulation to one of reception by waiting, watching, wanting. As Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time."

That, then, might be the most profound worry about rising noise levels and the strangeness of silence: it stops us thinking; it stops us experiencing. We must relearn to allow our minds to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase.

This piece, a revision and reworking of a couple of older pieces, has been published by IAI News.

 

Friday, February 20 2015

Buddhism, mindfulness, therapy, politics

A podcast of our BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking programme, broadcast last Wednesday.

Rana Mitter discusses Buddhism in Western therapy and in Eastern politics with psychotherapist Mark Vernon, Rupert Gethin - Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, Dr Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen expert in religion and politics in Contemporary Japan and Christopher Harding – Cultural historian of India and Japan.

 

Wednesday, January 21 2015

Freedom Of Speech Comes From Within

The role of the inner censor hasn’t been much discussed since the atrocities in Paris, though it has a crucial part to play in our freedom. A piece from The Idler.

Freedom of speech has been extensively discussed since the atrocities in Paris at the beginning of the year. But a crucial element has largely been overlooked, I think. The freedom to speak, question and satirize openly is not just a function of the society, democracy or culture in which we live. It is also, crucially, about our inner freedom and the extent to which we ourselves repress, edit or deny.

The proposal that outer freedom may depend upon inner freedom goes back to the debates on liberty during the Enlightenment. David Hume, the Scottish thinker, famously remarked that our passions drive us to the extent that he himself would "prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."

Adam Smith, his near-contemporary and the father of capitalism, argued similarly. He suggested that each of us carries an "impartial spectator". A personal haunting, it sees everything we do. It does not pass judgement but merely lets us know that we are being watched, by ourselves. That generates all manner of inner reactions and emotions, and we feel free only when we feel our impartial spectator sympathizes with our actions. As Mahatma Gandhi remarked, "Freedom and slavery are mental states."

Sigmund Freud made the link his own. He believed we have a personal censor within us. He called it the superego, or over-I. This inner critic and disciplinarian unceasingly monitors our thoughts, feelings and utterances. It represses, or at least moderates, what it considers illicit, intolerable or offensive. It can become more powerful than any law-maker or tyrant, manifesting a range of neuroses and obsessions that trap and disable the cramped, edited, self-monitoring individual.

The superego, Freud argued, arises inevitably out of childhood belligerence. Aggressiveness against the parent develops in the child because the parent prevents it having whatever it wants. But the child is also required to renounce this aggression, if it is to grow up. Caught between the Scylla of desire and the Charybdis of family authority, the child "takes the unattackable authority into itself". In other words, the external authority turns into an inner superego which displays all the aggressiveness against the child that the child would like to have shown its parents.

It's consciously experienced as conscience or morality or a persecutory voice inside the head that sounds strikingly like mother or father. As the adult emerges, society takes full advantage of the inner censor to keep the person in check because society requires that its members do not satisfy their desires willy-nilly with double the ferocity of any parent. In effect, Freud thought, civilisation demands that we live with a perpetual frustration of our most primitive needs to speak, seek and act.

The implication is that the inner intensity of the superego is echoed in the outer intensity with which issues like freedom of speech are debated. In part powering the demand for unrestricted freedom of expression, or the sacralizing of freedom of speech, is the severity and intolerance with which individuals struggle against themselves inside. (In repressive societies, the superego is simply writ large.) The suggestion is that the energy that drives the satirical artist to push at the boundaries of propriety, and the pleasure that comes from viewing outrageous cartoons, is partly caught up with this inner battle. At times like now, it certainly feels as if all kinds of unspoken, emotive dynamics are at play.

Freud's solution was free association. In the privacy of the consulting room, lying on the couch - because, interestingly, a vulnerable position helps outwit the superego - he encouraged his patients to say whatever thoughts or feelings came to conscious awareness. They were invited to wander in their minds without inhibition.

Try it. It's hard to do, and the capacity truly to freely associate may, in fact, be the end point of therapy rather than its starting point. But it's worth trying during the current debate about freedom of speech. A better appreciation of the wiles and strength of the inner censor and critic not only generates self-awareness. If Freud is only half right, it may moderate the ferocity with which the debate is engaged in the public arena, with all the external curtailments on freedom that intensity inevitably brings in its wake.

 

Friday, January 9 2015

A gate in the fence around belief

This piece is just published in the Church Times, thinking about the report on spirituality from the RSA.

SPIRITUALITY is back, if ever it went away. Sam Harris, one of the leading advocates of the new atheism, published a "guide to spirituality", Waking Up, last year. Then there is Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the highly successful Sunday Assembly, who argues that one of its main tasks is developing a language for spirituality. He describes himself as a "humanist mystic", and feels a "spirit in life" which transcends the everyday.

Now, a proudly secular institution in London, the RSA, has published a long report, Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Leader comment, 2 January). The report argues that spirituality needs to play a greater part in the public realm, because, without it, human beings are unable to draw on the depth in life which is required to tackle seemingly intractable problems, from unfettered consumption to climate change.

The author, Jonathan Rowson, consulted widely with more than 300 people of many faiths and none (including, I should add for transparency's sake, me).

This new curiosity about spirituality immediately raises hackles. There is a discomfort with the S- word itself, a feeling that "spirituality" is a vague term (as if "religious" were not). The charge is that it is ethically unengaged, intellectually incoherent, personally embarrassing, sentimental, and passive. One wag consulted by Rowson noted that, when he heard the expression "spiritual but not religious", he described himself as "religious but not spiritual". Last week's affirming Church Times leader still noted that the report did not escape the trap of treating spirituality as a largely individual matter.

The report recognises these difficulties, and makes them a starting- point. Rowson argues that the very vagueness of the term may be an advantage. It is one of those words, like "soul" or "sacred", that don't die, for all the railing against them, because they capture something that is crucial for human beings - crucial, perhaps, for the reason that it can't be precisely captured. The word can, therefore, hold a space that might withstand the onslaught of materialist values, and the tendency to pin down, exploit, and instrumentalise. If no one owns it, no one can claim a monopoly over it.

As for the charge of individualism, I would argue that this is also a strength of the report. Rowson's main motivation for thinking about spirituality is that it is needed to tackle important social issues, by means of personal growth. His professional life in policy development has taught him that, without individual transformation - expressed in the great spiritual injunction to "know thyself" - the big problems stay largely untouched. For Christians, you might say that, unless you and I are prepared to risk the happiness of the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the pure in heart, we may well be actually perpetuating the collective issues that face us.

THE new exploration of spirituality might also help to dissolve the religious barriers that are felt to exclude because they tightly define belief in God or Jesus. Religion itself could come to be seen as "a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels", as Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of Theos (and another of those consulted), put it.

Similarly, I wonder whether many religious people are uncomfortable with a serious, transformative spirituality, because of the demands it would make on them as individuals. Church of England religiosity currently seems to be taking a highly extraverted and paradoxically this-worldly turn. It is energised by a concern for the socially excluded and materially marginalised, as no doubt it should be. But such matters can also serve to keep the challenge of Christianity safely in other people's lives, thereby sidestepping the question whether we ourselves are dying each day to live more in Christ.

Related to the personal issue, spirituality should be a mission issue too. After all, if the mood music about spirituality has changed, it is also clearly true that a majority of people have not stopped believing in God or that there is a spiritual dimension to life. What has changed is the sense that the Church of England has much to offer when it comes to exploring those depths. As the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recently put it in an interview with the philosopher Jules Evans: "The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes. . . It's that it's spiritually incredible."

For all the valuable campaigning on issues of social justice, if the Church does not know and communicate the feeling that life is rooted in a source deeper and more compelling than the everyday, then it has lost touch with its wellspring, and its days will look increasingly numbered. The RSA report - and the new interest in spiritual depth - is, I believe, implictly a challenge to us, and to our Church.

 

Monday, December 29 2014

It's the end of the world as we know it

Another article published by the Idler Academy, partly to plug my new course starting in the new year, An Introduction of Psychology and Psychotherapy.

Life appears to pause on the last days of the year. The wintery week between Christmas and the New Year seems less frantic. We idle, mimicking the sun that rises late and stays low in the sky.

With the slower pace we see shadows and dreams. It's the time of year for ghost stories and sci-fi fantasies. Or have you noticed how the news takes on a different quality too, becoming more reflective and archetypal with planes falling out of the sky and ferries burning at sea? It's a dangerous time of year for elderly celebrities: the deaths of the famous seem to be announced like clock chimes during the short days. We slow down and, perhaps because we are not used to life without distractions, things feel unsettling as if the end of year allows us glimpses of what the apocalyptic imagination calls the end times.

Carl Jung felt that at such times a different dimension to the collective conscious becomes palpable. He himself lived during periods when the shadow side of life was evident at many times of the year, as a result of the edgy distrust of the Cold War and the frightening threat of nuclear war. He believed that the twentieth century was one "filled with apocalyptic images of universal destruction". Those particular horrors may have receded, or they may not. But it is striking how quickly the twenty-first century has replaced them with new threats. The most obvious is the devastation that is anticipated as a result of climate change. Or you could point to global terrorism. Or biological threats. And it does not stop there.

We seem to live with a fascination with ruination that extends beyond the possible or probable to the imagined. Look at how the end of the world repeatedly provides an irresistible storyline in movies: this year, there was the film Interstellar with a background story of unsustainable population explosion, and more recently the film Exodus retold the Biblical story of plagues and unnatural destruction.

There are many factors that contribute to these collective preoccupations. Jung was gripped by those that are psychological and reasoned that such concerns - real and imagined - arise in large part when we become disconnected from the spiritual side of life; that connection with depth that grounds us in dynamics of life that become smothered by our distractions and humdrum concerns. It's only when we idle that we notice it again.

Another factor is modern science. It has yielded unsurpassed knowledge about the human species, but it has led, paradoxically, to a narrower, machine-like conception of what it means to be a human individual. This presumably explains why complementary therapies are flourishing: they try to address the whole person, not just the illness or disease. Or it suggests why ecological lifestyles are increasingly appealing, because they try to reconnect us with the intrinsic value of the natural world. Conversely, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of life, it returns to haunt us in the kind of fantasies and concerns that come to the fore during these shadowy, last days of the year.

To put it another way, the full life of the psyche is crucial for we humans. Jung believed it is nurtured not just by therapy, but by the great spiritual traditions of our culture, with their subtle stories, sustaining rituals and inspiring dreams. The agnostic West has become detached from these resources. It is as if people are suffering from a loss of soul. Often, now, the world does not seem to be for us, but against us; and that in itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the distance between our conscious lives and the deeper life around us grows.

Towards the end of his life, Jung reflected that many - perhaps most - of the people who came to see him were not, fundamentally, mentally ill. They were, rather, searching for meaning. It is a hard task. "There is no birth of consciousness without pain," he wrote. But it is vital. Without it, human beings lose their way.

But there is always hope, like the hope of the new year, because the life of the soul - the connection that produces meaning - remains all around us, all along. We only have to take time to look.

 

Wednesday, December 24 2014

Why we go home at Christmas

This article is published by the Idler Academy, partly to plug my new course starting in the new year, An Introduction of Psychology and Psychotherapy.

"Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The truth of Leo Tolstoy's observation is unavoidable at Christmas. And you don't need to practice mindfulness to notice how exposure to fathers and siblings, aunts and in-laws, correlates with bubbling irritations, a subtle sense of sinking, or worse. So why do we go home at Christmas?

A number of factors may be at play: the expectations of others; hope that this year will be different; failures of imagination. But I suspect that something very deep in our psyches pulls and tugs us at this time of year. It's a love that draws us back to them, though it's a type of love that's often hard to live with. Its tricky dynamics have been tracked by the German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger. He calls it conscience.

He does not mean conscience as a sense of right and wrong, but conscience as a sense that involuntarily shapes our behaviour to fit in with our group. You feel it when you return to the parental home and feel instantly infantilized, as if all your efforts to grow up grew cold. Or you become a bossy eldest sister again, or an invisible middle brother, or the one who joshes and jokes. Why? You become the square block that fits into the square hole forged for you.

It seems impossible to resist, as if in doing so you'd spoil Christmas quite as badly as the supermarket running out of sprouts. That's the power of the need to belong, to do it right. Defiance provokes anxiety and guilt as well as anger and hate. By Boxing Day, you feel bound in an impossible bind. Why do we go home at Christmas?

We go like birds migrating to the poles. For all the testiness and tempers, the return tells us we have a place. Conversely, it's the reason why being alone at Christmas is such a painful predicament that may be experienced as a kind of psychic death.

Hellinger came to his realisations in the aftermath of the Second World War. He is German and wondered how it could be that ordinary citizens became complicit in the terrible deeds of the Third Reich. Group conscience is at work not only in families but nations too, he concluded, and explains how during times of war people will routinely kill, sacrifice, and terrorize for their fellows and country regardless of cause. Only an exceptional individual can stand above a collective.

"A clear or a guilty conscience has little to do with good and evil; the worst atrocities and injustices are committed with a clear conscience, and we feel quite guilty doing good when it deviates from what others expect of us," he explains in his book, Love’s Hidden Symmetries. Similarly, feeling innocent has little to do with following your moral compass, at least in the first instance. Rather, it is to know that you belong because you are behaving as the conscience of your group requires.

Freud said that becoming an individual is a psychological achievement because an individual is someone who has negotiated the welter of affective pressures that fill the environments in which he or she lives. We are caught in love's web, for good or ill, and become who we are mostly in response to those who are physically and psychically around us. It begins in our families, extends to our lovers, and is filled out by the circles that make up the communities and organisations, the society and culture in which we live.

So this Christmas, be tolerant not just of others, but of yourself. You are caught in a network of psychological connections that brought you life and, in a sense, to which you owe your life. It's tough. But if you can receive what's good, it will sustain you.

 

Monday, December 15 2014

What happens when we die - conversations with Rupert Sheldrake

We've published the latest two discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

In the first, we discuss our postmortem experience by thinking about what we know of being alive. Might dreams tell us something about what happens when we die? Is the notion of the subtle body an indicator of life after death? How do the living relate to the dead, and how might the way we live our lives shape our experience after death?

In the second, we explore how the communication of science routinely exploits notions of wonder and beauty, and what this might tell us about how science opens onto wider dimensions of reality. Does science fiction similarly suggest that science is grappling with aspects of reality that it can't itself contain? Why is the experience of wonder and, further, the so-called supernatural so popular with the public? What is the hidden metaphysics embedded in popular science, and so perhaps in science itself...

 

Monday, November 24 2014

In praise of the logos

It's Stoic Week 2014. This article is an adapted extract from the new issue of The Idler Magazine. The organisers of Stoic Week will be publishing it on their blog alongside a response from someone who disagrees.

Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction. 

The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that "moves through all creation". He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos. 

It's worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! 

It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.


The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.


By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.


O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one.


This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.


But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.


O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos. 

To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can't control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It's a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates. 

It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature. 

If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.

Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian." Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat." 

Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind - the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are "children of Zeus", he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God's omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God's life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: "If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?" Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. "You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!" He adds: "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within." 

Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God's purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God's world and witnesses of God's work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares: 

Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song. 

Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:

(Stoicism)says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God. 

Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren't embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: "Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers... are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted." 

I've laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together - physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot. 

That, I fear, is what today's atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.

 

Friday, November 21 2014

The School of Athens: then and now

Here is Dirk Lindner’s lovely pic of the School of London, take on 20 November on the steps of St Paul’s. The philosophers: 

ARISTOTLE: John Lloyd John is the founder of QI and produced the great TV hits Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image. 

PLATO: Angie Hobbs Angie is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and has written extensively on Plato. She is Honorary Patron of the Philosophy Foundation. 

ST PAUL: Nick Spencer Nick is research Director at Theos, a think tank promoting clear thinking on religion and society and author of Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury). 

PLOTINUS: Mark Vernon teaches philosophy at the Idler Academy and is the author of many books including Plato’s Podcasts. 

CICERO: Patrick Ussher Patrick is a post-graduate student at the University of Exeter working on Stoicism. He runs the Stoicism Today project. He will be teaching as Cicero the Sceptic. 

EUCLID: Alex Bellos Alex is an author and popular mathematician. He is the author of the Sunday Times best-seller, Alex’s Adventures in Wonderland, and is on mission to communicate the joy of numbers. 

DEMOCRITUS: John Mitchinson John is Director of Information at QI and co-founder of crowd-funding publishing platform, Unbound. Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher and first conceived the idea of atoms. 

EPICURUS: Tom Hodgkinson Tom is editor of the Idler and co-founder of the Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment. He is the author of the best-sellers How to be Idle and How to be Free. 

ZENO THE STOIC: Jules Evans Jules is author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. He will teaching ancient Stoicism. Jules is policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. 

SOCRATES: Peter Worley Peter is CEO of The Philosophy Foundation and author of award winning books on doing philosophy in the classroom. He is President of SOPHIA, the European Foundation for the Advancement of Doing Philosophy with Children.. 

DIOGENES THE CYNIC: Jock Scot Jock is a poet recently diagnosed with cancer. He has chosen not to accept chemotherapy. He was given three months to live six months ago. In earlier life he was a roadie for The Clash and the Pogues. 

PTOLEMY: Danny Wootton Danny is a musician and artist. He teaches music at the Idler Academy through the medium of the ukulele. 

PROTAGORAS: Martin Robinson Martin is a former teacher and author of Trivium 21st C, a book which aims to reintroduce the study of the ancient Trivium – grammar, rhetoric and dialectic – in schools. 

 

Tuesday, November 11 2014

Announcing new Idler online modern philosophy course

Click here and use the discount code 'ithink01' and for the next 48 hours get £10 off!

WHAT is it to be modern? What ideas and assumptions shape the way we experience ourselves? Why do we take pride in our modern ways, so that being called medieval, for example, is an insult?

Well, if you want one candidate, to be modern is to feel that things can be described by scientific laws that behave in predictable ways. With that insight, comes a powerful, irresistible sense of understanding, mastery, progress. Moreover, everything in the world can be regarded in this rigorous way, human beings included. Think of how our politics is ruled by demography more than ideas; our economics by bar-charts more than human wellbeing; our hopes by income more than service.

It’s a fixation on certainty that was explored by the French philosopher René Descartes. His thought has had a massive impact on the hopes and aspirations of the modern world. He wanted to establish firm foundations for what we can know and he had a rather brilliant idea as to how to do that. He would turn doubt on itself. Doubt everything you can, he says, and see what’s left standing.

In his Meditations, he imagines sitting quite alone, by the fireside in a winter dressing-gown, asking: what can I be sure of? Can he be sure of say the table, the chairs in front of him? No, because the senses are unreliable: sight and sound have sometimes deceived him before, and we shouldn’t trust things which have deceived us even once. He then doubts whether there’s a world at all: the trees and clouds might be a dream, an illusion beamed into my mind by some malicious demon (for which read malign computer, today). Modernity prides itself on being able to question everything, anything.

In fact, nothing seems certain until Descartes finds one single point of resilience. His one point of certainty is his own existence. ‘Even if I’m deceived I must exist, even if I doubt at least I must exist,’ he concludes. This is the famous, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

His experience of knowledge and certainty are still with us, profoundly shape us. Descartes also boosts the trend for thinking about things by beginning with me, my thoughts, my experience. The ‘I’ becomes sovereign, and a kind of hopeful new god. We separate ourselves from what our forebears would have assumed, the older guidelines, the medieval structures of experience and knowledge. Descartes himself firmly believes in God, but the scenario he presents means that God can be left alone, be forgotten, apparently be disproved.

It’s an exciting experience, a brave new world. We can be ourselves in a way that others before us just couldn’t. The modern imperative is not to know ourselves, but to make something of ourselves. Freedom no longer means taking your place under God, it means making and enjoying open choices. Reason is not so much about finding harmony with the cosmos, as using the human mind to determine what may and may not be the case.

But these liberties – and they do bring us many valuable things – come at a price. Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest of the modern atheists, understood that. When he has his ‘madman’ announce the death of God, he has the madman also lament: ‘How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?’

This is the modern challenge. It’s the predicament we find ourselves in. It’s as thrilling as it is alarming; as full of potential as disaster. It’s what many sense in our times, whether they worry about ecological meltdown, runaway technologies, biological pandemics, nuclear war. Pondering the implications of modernity has never been more engaging, unsettling, timely.

 

Thursday, November 6 2014

New conversations with Rupert Sheldrake - anatheism and common prayer

We've published the latest two discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

The first is on an anatheism, the notion that atheism is a phase that many people go through, as is widely recognised within spiritual traditions as a transition period in which ideas about God are discarded so that a deeper perception of the divine might emerge. We wonder whether the same thing happens at a cultural level and so whether contemporary atheism is itself a phase leading to more vital conceptions of God.

The second is on common prayer, that is, the value of spiritual practices undertaken with others. We ask what is lost when the so-called 'spiritual but not religious' generation assumes spiritual practice is an essentially individual pursuit, and what needs to happen in order for collective traditions to become accessible once more.

 

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