Saturday, October 8 2016

Why Socrates believed that sexual desire is the first step towards enlightenment

This piece first appeared in The Idler Magazine.

The wisest person he ever met - during a long life encircling luminaries such as Pericles and Sophocles, Aspasia and Protagoras - was a humble temple prostitute. Diotima of Mantinea showed Socrates of Athens more about the tricky dynamics of desire and love, insight and revelation than the greatest politicians, poets or sophists. The experience took him quite by surprise. He was already known as impeccable when it came to deploying logic; as an irritating genius at winning arguments. And yet, rational dexterity was a poor substitute for the erotic arts demonstrated to him by this adept, the courtesan priestess.

According to Plato, in his dialogue the Symposium, it is her we must thank for disclosing the height, depth and breadth of things to the prophet of western philosophy. Without her careful instruction along the paths of longing, the tradition that subsequently fired Augustine and Ficino, Hypatia and Iris Murdoch might never have been born. Another follower, William Blake, was to describe it as the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom. This almost forgotten woman stands behind her now axial protégé. Who was she? What, by Zeus, did she teach?

Scholars today doubt whether she existed: doubting is their dismal science. And it seems simply unlikely that she should be the one individual in Plato's dialogues who was not based upon an historical character, especially when she was so key. I suspect the doubt speaks of more than just professional skepticism. It tells of an inability, now, to imagine what a courtesan could have offered a philosopher, or more generally what philosophy has to do with Eros. You can sense that lack when many modern philosophers speak. They positively value dispassion as they coolly unpick ethical issues. Their "love" is telling you that it's all about reason and intuition can't be true. Hence the widespread assumption that philosophy is "harsh and crabbed", to quote Milton.

Diotima means one who honours God, or one who is in the service of the gods. That's another reason modern philosophy forgets her, as if philosophy is the opposite of theology, and reason undoes spirituality. The implication is that it would be a retrograde step to ask after the sacred hetaira who stands at philosophy's origin - quite as odd as resurrecting Thomas Aquinas' fascination with angels or Giordano Bruno's interest in magic. Oh that we could bring back the angels and the magic too.

Now, there was a bawdy side to temple prostitution. When Socrates tells his fellow symposiasts, with whom he has gathered to talk about love, that he must defer to "the one who taught me the rites of eros", they have a chuckle. But through the sniggers emerges a high calling.

Take the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One of its main centres was in Corinth, at the midpoint between Mantinea and Athens. A fragment of Pindar celebrates the priestesses: "Guest-loving girls! Servants of Peitho in wealthy Korinthos! Ye that burn the golden tears of fresh frankincense, full often soaring upward in your souls unto Aphrodite." These women are guest-loving and soul-soaring. One led to the other. They would dedicate themselves for a period of time to serve in the temple, shaving their heads as a sign of their vocation. Incidentally, this detail explains why, four centuries later, Saint Paul told the women in the young Corinthian church to cover their heads. It was not to demean them. He wanted to ensure that any passerby wouldn't spot the women from the temple for whom the arrival of Christianity had sparked interest in a different set of secrets: the Christian mysteries. If all heads were covered, none of Aphrodite's shaved heads could be seen.

It might further have been the case that many of the women in this early church modeled themselves on the priestesses. That might explain why Paul's famous letter to the Corinthians contains his best words on love. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." Such insights might have been the steady convictions of the women of Aphrodite. Paul learnt from them.

Socrates learnt from Diotima too. The first lesson was that conventional stuff on Eros, the sanctioned creeds, is at best misleading and at worst wrong. Take Hesiod, author of the revered texts Works and Days and Theogony. They were as close as ancient Greek religion got to scriptures. Hesiod's description of Eros is quoted by one of the earlier speakers in the Symposium. "Love is a great god," Phaedrus opines, "wonderful in many ways to gods and men, and most marvelous of all is the way he came into being." If that sounds like a formal encomium, and a bit hifalutin, that's precisely what it sounded like to Diotima too. Predictable. It's the kind of speech parroted by individuals who have read about love, but don't know of love. It's wrong because the rendition makes safe, and so neuters, the potential of the god's powerful embrace. It's a bit like the difference between describing moonlight as reflected sunlight, which is empirically correct, and describing it as an eternal pearl that can be bathed in, like a diamond-bright cloud. That's what Dante Alighieri wrote. It's clear which is more penetrating and so, by Diotima's measure, conveys more truth.

Lesson two can follow once conventional pieties have been set aside. The ground is tilled for fresh perceptions to sprout in the soul. That said, Socrates tells his friends that Diotima was not sure he was ready. She was onto a second preparatory step that an initiating priestess would have spotted.

It's one thing to question what you have taken to be the case. It's another thing entirely to be ready to adopt what's different. Our known knowns are sticky. The paradigm shift of experience that was Diotima's potential gift requires not only a capacity to tolerate uncertainty and to trust an unknown other. It needs the individual themself to be ready to change. The insight is in Dante too. He had to travel through hell, to know his pride; and then purgatory, to know its effects, before his "Diotima", the beloved Beatrice, could show him what lay across the threshold of heaven. The soul must undergo a journey, a making ready.

The author Jennifer Nash writes about this shift following a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Compelled to set out by an inner force she at first did not understand, the trip was initially disorientating. In her memoir, On Pilgrimage, she describes feeling like a demented dog being dragged along a path. But her inner world cleared. "Then gradually it dawned on me, that some sort of intellectual pride held me back from the only possible conclusion. It is not enough to seek and care; to pay lip service to all manner of ideals. Real witness is what counts. Recognising that truth is hidden."

Anselm of Canterbury appreciated the same dynamic: "For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand." A receptive quality of mind is key. That's doubly hard to cultivate today when, post-enlightenment, we treat knowledge as an accomplishment and possession that exists only inside academic heads.

Diotima looked again at Socrates with her penetrating eyes. She decided he was educable. She presented her mysteries to him in two groups - mysteries meaning that which is known by direct experience, Nash's "real witness". The first, lower mysteries she felt he would grasp. After all, they arise from a direct experience everyone has: falling in love.

What's that like, she asked? Wanting what's beautiful and good, replied Socrates. To fall in love is to believe you have discovered who or what you need to be happy. It's "love's young dream", as the phrase goes. But what does that tell you about Eros, Diotima continued? Socrates was not sure. Eros does not have what he seeks. He desires what he lacks with the unquenchable energy of a great spirit, she said.

To put it differently, love is dangerous. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare because if someone does not get what they want, they will try to take what they want. And if they cannot take what they want? Think of Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Better to be dead than to live with the heartache. When you fall in love - when you are seized by Eros - all your energies are re-orientated towards gaining your beloved. Unsatisfied, the longing will not let you go.

Sexual passion is, in a way, the main issue for Diotima. Her central priestly concern is to direct it aright in others, so they become capable of soul-soaring too. As Iris Murdoch explained, we are born with it pulsing through us. We've no more choice in the matter than the need to breath. The question is what next?

Diotima knew that many become stuck at love's first stirrings. They fall in love with falling in love, or bodies become a preoccupation. Others manage to redirect the dissatisfaction a little onto alternative promises of beauty. Celebrity has the allure of beauty, though its often skin deep. Money can make a life beautiful, on the outside.

More hopeful is the most common sublimation that is also quite remarkable when you think about it. Lovers, who at first wanted only to have each other, find their love spilling over. They develop a desire for children. This is the "moreness" of love, Diotima explains, the realisation that your own life is too small. Sacrificing something of yourself to that more is the reason bearing children can be such a profound delight and, more generally, generates the joy of creativity inspired by the presence of beauty. Walt Whitman called it "the procreant urge of the world," noting in his poem 'The Base of All Metaphysics' that "underneath Socrates" was "the attraction of friend to friend, Of the well-married husband and wife - of children and parents, Of city for city, and land for land." It's an attractively expansive vision of love and its possibilities.

These are the lower mysteries. If they seem obvious, remember how much can go wrong. And it's reflecting on that which leads to the higher mysteries. Again, Diotima pauses. You could probably come to be initiated into these rites of love, she says to Socrates. I won't stint any effort, and you must try to follow if you can.

The higher mysteries require another step-change. The difficulty with that was identified by Ficino, the Renaissance philosopher who brought Plato back into the west. The lower mysteries, of children and parents and city and land, are powerfully fecund because they are attached to "propagating one's own perfection," he noted - the best thing in us. There's nothing wrong with that. But the philosopher who wants to continue on love's path must now be prepared to loosen those ties. It's a shift of perceptive from the human to include the divine, not to leave this world behind, but rather to become a lover of the transcendent that rests in it, Blake's "heaven in a wild flower" and "eternity in an hour".

Diotima tries to convey the subtlety of this vision to her student: "You see, the person who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature." There's a moment of conversion. The moonlight is no longer just sunlight but a pearl. The wild flower shares in heaven; eternity is felt through the passage of time.

It's a perennial theme in wisdom traditions. Jesus called it the kingdom of God. The Buddha, the uncreated that emerges when the transient world clears. The Bhagavad Gita simply, That.

From then on, the individual will not much think of measuring beauty in the old ways - by gold, or clothing, or sexual vitality. They're not against such things. They're indifferent. Now, they know something immortal, and become immortal insofar as any human being can be. That's Diotima's promise.


Tuesday, October 4 2016

Is the Sun Conscious?

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the significance of the Sun.

When you look into the blue sky on a sunny day do you glimpse a ball of nuclear fire or, as the London poet and mystic, William Blake, reported, the heavenly host singing God's praises?

It's an old question, revived today by the notion of panpsychism which suggests that the Sun might in some way be considered conscious. In this Science Set Free podcast, Rupert Sheldrake and I ask whether the Sun is a psychical as well as physical entity in the solar system, and consider what that might mean for our participation in and connection to the cosmic dimensions of ecological life.

I draws on Plato's notion that matter is a manifestation of mind, as well as how the sun was honoured in ancient Egypt; and Rupert explores how the sun is regarded in eastern religious practices, to suggest how it might be meaningful to relate to the sun today, as well as enjoy its light and warmth.


Monday, September 26 2016

Why's the church so sniffy about personal development?

This piece was originally published in the Church Times.

Researching a radio programme on the Sunday Assembly, the remarkably successful "atheist church" that in 3 years has grown to more than 70 congregations, highlighted a trick that the Church of England is missing, and can actually be averse to. Personal development. Alongside Sunday Assembly's gatherings and a serious commitment to social concern, it offers self-help support and mentoring groups. The founders heard a request for personal development, and responded.

The demand is entirely unsurprising. Personal development is commonplace in the modern world. Self-help books, various types of therapy, mindfulness trainings, professional coaching, projects like The Idler Academy and The School of Life (that run various adult courses and with which I'm involved). Even the BBC website has a substantial personal development section.

Of course, the quality of what's on offer varies enormously. At one end, there are best-sellers like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne that, frankly, I find creepy: the "secret" is that you can attract to yourself anything you want, from more happiness to a new Porsche. At the other, are guides like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, which could have been titled, A Practical Introduction to Aristotelian Ethics - only, of course, that wouldn't have sold.

The Church of England might be a leader in personal development too. There are numerous sayings of Jesus that promise followers a transformation so profound that they will become nothing less than friends of God. How else might that happen without putting in the legwork to be changed? It's a path monastics have long understood. From its earliest days, monasticism utilized a self-help book of the ancient world: Epictetus the Stoic's Enchiridion, or Handbook. It laid out a kind of basic training for novices. Or there are central doctrines of Christianity that invite personal development, such as coming to know, not just be told, that you are made in the image of God.

And yet, mention personal development in the church, and you often receive a sniffy response. There's a culture about that would dismiss a retreat of forty days and nights as self-indulgent and excessive. I was once told to stop narcissistically fixating on myself and turn to the light of Christ. (In therapy, that'd be called splitting.) Someone else decried all the naval-gazing, before scurrying off to the next church meeting. (In therapy, that'd be called a manic defense.)

The irony of that last response is that the phrase, navel-gazing, was first coined to mock meditating desert fathers and mothers. How is that going to save souls? they were asked. How is that going to help others? It might do so because the most compelling presentation of the gospel is when you sense its transformative potential in someone else; when you detect someone is living out of Christ rather than the shallow waters of themselves.

I'm sure this is what Paul meant when he spoke of having died. But there's only one way to that new life: through the heart of your own darkness. That's not narcissistic, it's the truth of Good Friday.

Coupled to the concern about narcissism, there's a related source of aversion to personal development. It has to do with a particular interpretation of the gospel. Taking up your cross has become a burdensome moral command rather than a liberating transformative invitation.

I feel I've heard countless sermons when the gospel message, you can change, is subtly shifted to, you should do this, that or the other. The upshot is that Christianity is often, in this country, viewed as a guilt-inducing and probably suspect ethical framework. I felt this again when visiting the Sunday Assembly. One of things it gets right is projecting a powerful sense that you are welcome as you are; indeed you are wanted as you are. That's very different from how church can feel, particularly if your only exposure to it is via news and headlines, as is the case for most now. It feels a bit like a workplace that, when you arrive at the office door, implicitly requires you to leave your personal life outside.

It's not that moral behaviour is not important. Rather, though, what we do should arise from how we've changed, at root. The Good Samaritan was not dutiful. He was free: he helped because he was without fear. As William James put it, good works are fruits not roots, and if you try to force the fruits with no deep roots you burnout and die.

There's another issue that, to my mind, opens up the most important area of modern personal development, namely psychotherapy. It's the sense that psychotherapy is an intervention needed when something has gone wrong, not a source of know-how that can routinely aid spiritual development. But twentieth century psychotherapists like Melanie Klein and Wilfrid Bion were not only interested in clinical cases. They explored the dynamics of everyday human envy and hate; of the struggle to be grateful and to love.

They were, in a way, rediscovering what Christians know as sin - though in a way that treats sin as personal qualities that anyone will discover within themselves, if they paid enough attention. Psychotherapy in effect says, your sins are forgiven, there's no judgment here. But now: let's try to think about and understand them.

Evagrius Ponticus was one of the first contemplatives systematically to explore and describe gluttony, anger, despair, pride in a way that is comparable to modern psychotherapy. He believed they were worth getting to know in yourself because the kingdom of God is the tranquility of soul that is found on the other side of them. Through practice and grace, we can thereby come to have first hand, felt knowledge of true things; of God. That's the goal of Christian personal development. He describes this inner journey in his Praktikos, from which we get the word practice: it outlines the life of the ascetic, from the Greek askesis, originally meaning stepping out of your limited self, or personal development. That ascetic has become an anxiety-laden word, again, speaks volumes.

An individual, or organisation, can only truly assist the spiritual development of others by being engaged in a process of askesis too. Like sunshine on plants, spiritual growth is fostered by direct exposure to the practical intelligence that shines out when it is embodied in the life of teachers or guides. Philosophers like Plato called it wisdom. Buddhists talk of skillful means. It's why psychotherapists must have their own therapy.

For me, this is the most profound meaning of Jesus' call to follow. He's walked the path already, and so knows. As a clergyperson recently put it to me, what the church needs is not more managers but some gurus. I think that's right.


Wednesday, September 21 2016

Brangelina: the risks of living the lives of others

This piece was published by Newsweek.

In his great letter from Reading Gaol, De Profundis, Oscar Wilde bitterly chastises Lord Alfred Douglas, his former lover, with a terrible accusation. Douglas has not lived his own life, Wilde writes. Douglas has leached his life from the lives of others, not least from Wilde's. Douglas's life is therefore a borrowed life, a half life, a distorted reflection of others' lives.

This matters tremendously to Wilde. His humiliation in prison has convinced him that the greatest task which faces human individuals is to live their own lives, to own them, including the suffering. Then, they find dignity, individuality, truth. The flaw with living through the lives of others is that it destroys these supreme qualities. "To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul," he explains.

The massive interest in the failing marriage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reminded me of Wilde's warning. Wilde pinpoints why celebrity culture is so corrosive, of celebrities and their admirers. OK. A little gazing at the glamour of others may be harmless enough. Who can't resist the temptation sometimes? But it does feel as if it's become endemic today, to the point of being a kind of sickness.

Wilde tells us why. "Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live." Living by love and admiration takes us into life. It enables us to discover the fullness of life. Living for love and admiration is a desperate twisting of life's promise; a narcissistic insistence that life shores up an emptiness inside.

Psychotherapists call it projection - unconsciously detecting in others what we fail to make contact with in ourselves. Getting to know the way you project onto others is a major part of psychotherapy.

And we all do it. There's the moment of road rage when a split second delay at the lights precipitates a deluge of projected anger. There's the moment of envy when we long to look as good as the model in the magazine, and vow to start running or shed a few pounds. Or there's the moment allegedly described by Gore Vidal, when he remarked, "Every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies." That something is part of himself. He's projected his own desire for success into the friend and watched his desire being taken from him in the process.

Or there's the projections involved in watching the split of celebrities. It's to borrow from their suffering. Just what's being borrowed or projected only you yourself can say. Perhaps it's a substitute for your own loses in love: it's easier to feel sadness for them than to experience your own sadness. Perhaps it's a kind of schadenfreude that the golden couple have fallen, implying perhaps that you have a hidden longing for wealth, beauty or fame. Who knows?

But Wilde's warning, and the mechanism of projection, might also turn the news story into an opportunity. If the Pitt-Jolie saga grabs you, even for a moment, ask yourself why? What's going on when you observe them? What are you borrowing? What are you losing? And can you take your own life, including its suffering, back again?


Sunday, August 21 2016

Ayahuasca, Plato, and this summer of drugs

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler

I feel as if this is a summer of drugs - though not of legal highs or familiar recreationals. It's more interesting than that. The drugs many seem drawn to are substances of a particular kind. They are psychedelics: chemicals with meaning. And even entheogens, generators of the divine within. It feels like the doors of perception are opening once more.

Articles in newspapers are charting a new growth industry: ayahuasca tourism. A mesmerizing, award-winning movie, Embrace Of The Serpent, was released in June: it followed two white men and a shaman as they travelled along the Amazon in search of caapi. Then, there was the friend who told me of a new craze: ecstasy evensong - folk who have a smoke and then head for a gothic cathedral to hear the angels sing alongside the choir chanting the service. Even the BBC is running documentaries on psychedelics, one called Getting High for God. It's almost mainstream.

What makes psychedelics different, the research suggests, is that the effects of the experience last - not the trip or high, but the meaning of it. People report meeting love head on, or fear, and it is such a vision, with such an impact, that it subsequently reconfigures their life. Relationships are healed; addictions dropped; God comes alongside.

The trend is a rediscovery. As any advocate of entheogens will tell you, they are tools in an ancient spiritual science, and the antique status is part of the appeal. The modern world is too constrained by its horizontal imagination. It has forgotten that experience goes deeper than logic; transcendence is immanent and all around. Wisdom is something discoverable and knowable, and it's prior to evidence-based facts that can be googled.

I've a lot of sympathy with the view. A man who survived the siege of Sarajevo speaks of his neighbours risking their lives to walk miles to a theatre or church. He imagines the same for those currently trapped in Aleppo. In extremis, we humans don't just seek water or safety. Meaning is a basic need.

But I also wonder whether the summer of drugs is missing something. Put it like this. It's as if the concrete desert of the shopping mall and office leaves many yearning not for a drink but for a flood of mystical experience. They want to be submerged, drowned. They want to be frightened by angelic beings; shocked by the massiveness of reality, break through to the other side.

Plato was a shaman as well as a philosopher (in fact, there was then little difference). He learnt the art of ascending to the heavens, and of dying the little death to know of life. Scholars debate whether he received the knowledge from the Arians of Asia, or the priests in pharaonic Egypt. But it's also clear he developed and transformed the tradition.

He lived during a period in which human consciousness was shifting. In particular, it had become more awake. His contemporaries had a sense of "I" that was absent for Homer's first listeners. The gods were still present in fifth century BC Athens, but human beings were no longer merely their playthings. As Socrates realised, he could chose to follow Apollo's daemon or not.

This meant that communing with the gods became more conscious too. The Pharaohs are often depicted lying asleep as their spirits ascend in the form of Horus, presumably after ingesting a narcotic. Socrates had discovered he could maintain contact with other realms whilst standing upright, during the middle of the day. The evolving powers of the human psyche meant that spiritual insight needn't require comatose or dramatically altered states of mind. There was a more subtle path to follow, which could be traversed by embarking upon a training that was simultaneously therapeutic, moral and enlightening. I suspect the Buddha discovered something similar at about the same time.

There were distinctive advantages to what Plato called the Apollonian way, when contrasted with the wilder ecstasies of the Dionysian. The spiritual was no longer so blinding, but more intelligible; it could be conveyed not only in myths but discussed via images and even reason. Socrates emerged from the cave, he ascended the ladder of love, he spoke not of belief but transmitted gnosis.

In other words, he could discern the meaning of the experience, which in turn nurtured the virtuous spiral of return and deification. In the Symposium, Plato sees Socrates as Eros, the go-between who at first seems only to disrupt and disturb, like Dionysus; but shows himself more fully as Apollonian - meaning unified - as good, beautiful and true.

This path is not about being out-of-it, or even touchingly dazed. Its entheogenic power is gentle, and legal. It's felt in the delicate shifts of consciousness that accompany poetry, music, movement, an "Aha!" moment. These can be known all day, every day. The Stoics made a virtue out of discerning the divine pulse even whilst buying cabbages in the marketplace.

But it's a longer route. It asks for more discipline. It's a practice rather than a trip. The investment, though, pays back in a life experienced intensely not via fading peaks but a steady presence. It has moments of riotous flight, but values more the inner light, the still voice.

And it'll be available in September, as the days lengthen, as worldly demands stop the freedom of festivals; after this summer of drugs.


Tuesday, August 16 2016

The Meaning of Rituals

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the meaning of rituals.

Human life is full of rituals, from shaking hands to venerating relics. But how do rituals work, how do they convey meaning?

We discuss how rituals connect us with people who have done them before, using Rupert's concept of morphic resonance. Rituals build up the collective memory and, be they religious or secular, are one means by which we can access an aspect of life that lasts over time.

The conversation explores how rituals bring the sense of the past into the present, touch us in embodied as well as imaginative ways, and convert spaces into sacred places. They explore examples from the foundational rituals of social groups to the rituals of psychotherapy which can bring back memories of the past.


Friday, August 5 2016

Swapping psalms for popsongs

Available as a podcast!


Sunday, July 24 2016

The meaning of megalithic peckers and crevasses

Phalluses adorned the ancient world. Over-sized erections were everywhere.

Instead of street signs, the Greeks placed monumental penises at road corners. Instead of door buzzers, Romans hung tintinnabulum - phallic figures decked with bells. Instead of decorating temple walls with instructive pictures, the Egyptians carved strutting, ithyphallic gods into the stone.

Erotic symbols, inscriptions and paintings so filled the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, that when the towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius were first uncovered, hundreds of these items were squirrelled away to save embarrassed modern eyes. The British Museum had a room for obscene artifacts: the Secretum.

To penises you can add symbolic vulvas and wombs, in the form of wells and caves, passages and grottos - dark spaces to be dipped into or entered. And such representations are not only found in Europe. They're widespread in India, in the lingam and the imagery of Shiva, and elsewhere. They're primitive, earthy and universal.

And yet, it's very hard for us today to sense why our forebears put gods like Priapus in the hallway; why they painted lovers in flagrante on their drinking cups; why they prized fine sculptures depicting gods copulating with goats. They didn't even hide them from their children.

The seemingly pornographic tone of the ancient world struck me whilst holidaying in Ireland. We'd travelled to the Celtic isle to search out holy sites. What I'd not expected was the prevalence of thrusting columns and ritual crevasses in sacred places. They clearly conveyed the ancient fascination. The Hill of Tara is capped by a megalithic pecker. The so-called passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth invite you in, if you dare. It's not hard to see links between the pre-Christian imagery and the iconic symbol of Ireland's medieval period: the nation's numerous, magnificent high crosses that stand up in the sky.

It's as if we've lost the imaginative equipment to relate to these shapes in ways that must, once, have come spontaneously, naturally. Instead, biology reduces them to pudenda, functional organs evolved for sexual reproduction. Or we see them in the light of the sexual revolution, evoking the promise of light-hearted pleasure. But there must have been more to erotics back then.

Take the Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius. Written in the second century AD, it's the story of Lucius's metamorphosis into a donkey, through wizardry, and his return to human form by the power of Isis. Whilst an ass, he sees many things and undergoes numerous adventures, including a love-affair with a lady who seduces him. In fact, she is so impressed by the donkey's amatory capabilities that she puts him on display. Lucius feels degraded and escapes. The story was often told and illustrated in the ancient world, but are we to assume, simply, that Roman men found tales of women mounting male animals irresistibly exciting? The imagery was not for private titillation, sold in brown paper bags.

Maybe an imaginative, enriching link back can be found in another work by Apuleius, entitled On the God of Socrates. It's here that a famous proverb first appears, "familiarity breeds contempt". And the treatise is, in a way, about how the familiar can be defamiliarized, and so reveal something unexpected, expansive and new. It's what Socrates' god did for him. Lucius' tale of becoming a donkey achieved that goal too. The vantage point of the ass releases him from being the ass that human beings so often are, or at least can be. It's an initiation into a higher conception of experience and possibilities, hence the inclusion of the mystery rites of Isis. Lucius is born again.

Erotics must have spoken to the ancient mind in such a way. It was not just about the sexual - or at least, the familiar forms by being embraced or entered would convey a dynamic that was not only reproductive and pleasurable, but transformative. The stone phallus, for example, expresses a vitality that links to the sky. The standing stone looks like a giant pin between the heavens and the earth. They reach for the gods.

No doubt the deployment of them was also superstitious. The ringing of the tintinnabulum in the wind, or when touched, must have felt reassuring. The Hermes that stood on street corners must have offered protection against the evil eye that monitors your every turn. But that was only the beginning of it. Surely, the sacred womb was not just a place to hide but an origin from which to be reborn? Surely, the phallus conveyed a pronounced, active energy? Next time you see one, hug it and see! The thrust might keep devils at bay, but only because it invokes stronger forces for good.

But there is a twist that the erotic images present. Their good could only be known by the risk of being engulfed, consumed, penetrated, invaded. The modern writer who understands this element is Georges Bataille, the French author of the Erotism: Death and Sensuality. For Bataille, the erotic is that which upsets us. It is not natural: sex is natural, but the meaning human beings load onto the sexual lifts the biological into the imaginative and spiritual.

Bataille is like Freud who, contrary to the popular characterization, did not reduce everything to sex, but precisely the opposite. He realised that for human beings, there is no such thing as pure sex. Such acts are always already saturated with desire - the desire to conquer, submit, connect, experience, live, die.

To put it another way, the erotic is sacramental. These artifacts make hidden meanings manifest. Familiarity breeds contempt, remarks Apuleius, as happens when we moderns snigger at our forebears' apparent obsessions. Do laugh, but do also sense the deeper energy they release.

For when we only see sex, and not symbol, we lose touch with an enchanted side of life. It's a dimension found not only on mountaintops and in temples. It can be felt in the portals of doorways, or in the direction we chose when we make a turn on the street.


Friday, July 22 2016

Philosophy Slam live!

Robert Rowland Smith and I took our philosophy slam to the Camden Comedy Club, where the audience, supercharged by the wonderful Pippa Evans, threw out words and ideas for us to riff on.

Click here to listen to what happened...


Monday, July 11 2016

Can there be a secular Buddhism?

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the emergence of secular Buddhism.

Until relatively recently, Buddhism was a specialist interest in the west. Now, secular forms of Buddhism, in the shape of mindfulness meditation, are even available on the NHS. One of the leading advocates of secular forms of Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, is in search of the historical Buddha, arguing that many of the beliefs of traditional Buddhists, such as reincarnation, are unnecessary accretions.

So we ask what is lost when Buddhism is stripped of its devotional and metaphysical elements? Might the historical Buddha be found? And can there really be a materialist form of Buddhism, which is nothing if not a training in that most materially inexplicable feature of existence, consciousness?


Sunday, June 26 2016

The soul of Europe

A Sunday Sermon for The Idler.

I voted Remain. I believe Leave is a mistake. But the UK is now in a new place. The ground has shifted. Or has it?

There are steadier links that haven't changed. They are older than the EU. And they might assist us by reminding us of these islands' happier roots in Europe. In fact, I'm beginning half to hope that the removal of the promise of cheaper German washing-machines and Spanish holidays could release us to want deeper connections: the cultural and spiritual wellsprings of our union.

Move in your mind to the other side of Europe, to the sunny eastern end of the blue Mediterranean, and think of one of the continent's most successful creations: the Corinthian column. Discovered in the 5th century BC, in ancient Greece, no city or town is now complete without one. And they're worth contemplating for the spirit they convey, something of the soul of Europe.

The Corinthian capital's acanthus leaves spring up from a high votive basket. They stand for life pushing up from the soil. Hence, a Corinthian column does not support its load, like its Doric cousin, but elevates it. Think of the West End of St Paul's cathedral: its portico does not rest on stone leaves, it floats above them, apparently lighter than air. Or think of Nelson on his column: he becomes god-like, lifted into a heavenly realm.

The Corinthian capital invites us to look up, to reach out, to grow. It speaks of virtue in action, not mere utility: nobility is the Corinthian capital of civil order, wrote Edmund Burke. The Corinthian column remembers that the best architecture is "frozen music", not boxes in glass: its fluting holds an echo of the silent melody that the natural world conveys. Ancient Greece first invited us to strive for double vision, as possessed by William Blake, that "inward eye" which can feel the soul of life and politics, and help us contain edgy gut instincts.

Plato operationalized this aspiration for Europeans by being the first to champion education, and the skills required not to survive but flourish. He advocated it not only for freemen, as the Athenian democracy had assumed, but for women and slaves too. He initiated the long struggle that opened people's minds to the spiritual worth of individuals, and how that matters more than birth or status.

England's greatest son, Shakespeare, made Plato's vocation his own. His history plays are meditations on the meaning of turbulent times. Remember Falstaff and Hal. I reckon* Falstaff stands for the English soul when it loses its focus. Sack replaces spirit. "What is honour? a word... What is that honour? air," Falstaff sneers. He is lost to distractions; fears for himself; celebrates by jeering.

Little wonder that Hal has to banish him to establish a kingdom of friendship. It's a vision that moves England from the regimented feudalism of Richard II, with its gap between landed and poor, to the freedom of Henry V, in which "English may as French, French Englishmen, Receive each other."

Higher vision always runs the risks of hubris, and nationalism. It's no coincidence that Sisyphus was the first king of Corinth. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, depicts him as the political type who, desiring power for power's sake, is fated to meaningless victories and defeats - a lifetime rolling the boulder again to the top of the hill.

But another English Platonist, Thomas Traherne, understood that the European experiment in vision will not, finally, let us down - and he lived through the blood-letting of the English civil war. What he realised is that fulfillment doesn't originate in economics. Happiness doesn't necessarily follow institutional union. Rather, liberation comes when we act as if our souls see "The very brightness of Eternity; For Man to Act even in the Wilderness, As if he did those Sovereign Joys possess."

Only those joys offer us personal sovereignty, because they link us to the place that's truly our home. Such is the indigenous spirituality of Europe. It belongs to no-one, and is ours each to know. Like the acanthus leaves, it springs up from the ground of our being, and draws us towards a more subtle union.

*With thanks to a recent lecture by Valentine Gerlier


Thursday, June 2 2016

Why is there something not nothing?

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing why there is something not nothing.

This ancient question has resurfaced in modern science and atheism. The discovery of the Big Bang as a beginning for the universe in the 20th century was a complete surprise, igniting a debate about what caused everything, space and time, to spring into being. The hint that a cause beyond science is implied has been picked up by prominent atheists who have tried to supply scientific accounts of "nothing" from which the universe - or a multiverse - could emerge.

They don't achieve their goal and, though they reject it, philosophy can show why. And the question remains a fascinating one. We explore how the ancient discussion of the relationship between something and nothing can profoundly inform the contemporary debate.


Saturday, May 14 2016

What is the systemic view?

In this new series of podcasts, Abigail Peters and I have a third discussion, this time about what is meant by the systemic view.

We discuss concepts such as what it means not to be an individual but part of living networks - family, cultural, at work - and how we can find ourselves living in the service of these system, in ways that may or may not make for our flourishing. The podcast is on iTunes or can be listened to here.

For more information about forthcoming workshops do email,


Friday, April 29 2016

Cycles of civilisations

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing the rise and fall of civilisations.

So where is the west in this cycle? Can the widespread sense of pending crisis - be it economic, environmental or political - be understood in relation to the ideas of Oswald Spengler, Owen Barfield or David Fleming? And can signs of new vitality, vision and participation be found, as if the crisis may also be the birthpangs of a new spirituality and consciousness?

We explore how a sense of connection and disconnection, excitement and fear, can be traced back to the thought of Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. We ask where it's possible to discover soul.


Wednesday, April 27 2016

A time to mourn

This piece was published by Newsweek.

It's odd that we think of nostalgia as a feeling to indulge. We play an old record, listen to a favorite sketch, relive a scene from a film - things that many might be doing now, given the recent deaths of Prince and David Bowie, Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling and Alan Rickman. Odd, because nostalgia is a kind of pain. The root of the word is shared with neuralgia, nerve pain, except that nostalgia is literally "home pain". It's an acute longing for the familiar.

This is what celebrity deaths stir up in us: the loss of what's gone. And because celebrities often once captured powerful hopes and emotions in their music and performances, their deaths can be genuinely unsettling.

Their passing - prompting repeats on the radio and images on screen - can also stir up unfinished business hidden in the depths of our psyches. That can reignite a residue of unmourned emotion left from a different category of deaths: those who were very close to us, perhaps a parent, a partner, a child.

Sigmund Freud was onto this dynamic. He detected a risk when we lose someone with whom we are intimately bound. The risk is that with those deaths, we lose too much. We can't comprehend what's gone. The gap is overwhelming and consumes us in a miasma of grief from which it feels there's no escape.

The philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, caught the horror of this experience when he wrote of the early death of his closest friend and soulmate. "We were halves throughout. By outliving him, I defraud him of his part. I am no more than half of myself. There is no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him."

Freud described this experience as a shift from mourning to melancholia - or depression, as it would be labeled now. It's as if we enter a state of mind in which everything is blackened by emptiness, absence, departure. We can't mourn the loved one because that person was, in a way, the whole of life to us. The residue of that ache may linger for years.

Then, someone famous dies. Suddenly, mourning becomes possible. The icon meant a lot but, unlike a parent or partner or child, was not half of us. And so it's a loss that can be felt. It precipitates an outpouring of grief - the death of Diana comes to mind - that is as much an unblocking of the deeper melancholia as it is sadness at the departure of the celebrity. The tears are real. But they are about more than the shock of the immediate news.

What this suggests to me is that there is a kind of art to mourning, though one we are hindered with today. We're not very well served by our culture because it tends to keep the genuine tragedy of death at bay.

You see it in the trend to hold celebrations for a life rather than funerals. The urge to do so is understandable: there is a time to give thanks. But there is also a time to mourn, and that might be denied.

Or death becomes hidden from us because, due to increased longevity, it happens mostly to those who are old - homed and hospitalized out of sight. That's perhaps why this year's celebrity deaths amongst stars who are relatively young is shocking. We've forgotten that death is found in the midst of life.

Wisdom traditions advise practicing mourning. Socrates said that philosophy is learning to die. Buddhists meditate before skeletons. Christians keep Good Friday. And it's good advice. Lesser losses - even the end of the day, the final page of a good book, the browning of the cherry blossom - can be opportunities to practice the fact of demise. They won't be overwhelming as big deaths can be. But we may still recoil from them and reach for a distraction rather than experience the difficult feelings. Maybe it's wiser to linger.

That's perhaps the departed celebrity's final gift to us: a moment to live their deaths and so know some of the feelings around our own. It's nostalgia in a healing sense: an embrace of life in all its tricky fullness.


Saturday, April 9 2016

The Meaning of Money

A Sunday Sermon from The Idler.

Money is making the news - or to be more specific, off-shore money that supposedly affords the über-rich a glamorous life that most of us can only dream of.

But it's odd, the minute you think about it. Take the other big story of last week, the unexpected paternity revelation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also carried the distinctive sound of sloshing excess money, though with a very different tone. Justin Welby comes from a privileged background. He was sent to Eton. When his mother was short of money, the establishment secured her a job at Number 10 and a flat in Hyde Park Gate. The source of DNA for Welby's deceased father was found on ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes. And yet, it's quite clear that money bought Welby no happiness. "The poor child was left like a little football," his biological father is said once to have remarked.

So when we all know that money doesn't buy happiness, why do we get so excited about it? I think it's because no-one is quite sure just what money is.

Attempts to answer the question are ancient. The theory that tends to capture the imagination can be sourced to Aristotle. He argued that in complex societies, marked by citizens seeking very different lives, there is a need for something universal that everyone desires. That universal something facilitates exchange. Say that I make shoes and you make hats, but I don't want a hat though you want shoes. We therefore need some third thing that both of us value. For much of civilized human history that universal something has been gold - or silver or bronze; some type of valuable metal.

It's left us feeling that money is real; something that can be meaningfully accumulated; something that is worth being jealous of; that is worth organising your life in pursuit of. You can feel the weight of it in your pocket, see the sum of it in your bank. And it's a plausible theory. A friend of mine, who's a banker, said he realised he was fascinated by money when as a child he received his pocket-money as a fiver, when his friends only got coins. He was the envy of the playground and he's been gripped by the power of money ever since.

So here's a startling thought. Perhaps money isn't anything real at all. After all, stashed in the bank, or an off-shore account, it does you no good. For that, you have to spend it. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a wonderful expression for stored, inert money: "frozen desire". Those who live their lives with more filthy lucre than they can spend become a bit frozen, a bit dazzling, a bit dead, he thought. He's not alone. Plato observed, in the wealthy Athens of his day, that those who have made fortunes are often boring company because they only really value others who have made fortunes.

So Plato offered another answer to the question of what money is. He argued it wasn't primarily a means of exchange, though it can be that. Rather, it was a symbol. And onto that symbol can be projected all manner of worries, hopes, aspirations, dreams.

I think this idea about the nature of money explains more. For one thing, it's actually the way the modern economy has gone, since the abandonment of the gold standard in the 1930s. Today, money is usually called fiat money: it is printed by governments at will. It comes with a promise on it. But that promise is in itself meaningless, and that's the point. Money can therefore come to mean almost anything to anyone. Hence, last week, the prime minister's off-shore money brought into focus all sorts of complaints and resentments, and there was nothing he could do to stop the vitriol that came his way.

Plato thought it's worth remembering that money is only a symbol because he hoped that educated citizens would be able to contain what it symbolised. Some things can be usefully bought with money, yes. But other things cannot - for example, happiness

What seems to have happened in late capitalist cultures, such as our own, is that we've forgotten to limit our understanding of money. It's become almost everything. To recall a saying of the person who finally brought Justin Welby happiness, Jesus of Nazareth: the risk is that you serve money like you serve God. But whereas the latter gives life, the former simply cannot.

When it breaks all bounds, money gains a terrible pseudo-divine power over us. But if Plato is right, you can be sure it's not real. It's just a symbol. And when we worship mere symbols, our civilization really is on the rocks.


Sunday, March 27 2016

Is life tragedy or comedy?

A Sunday Sermon for Easter Day…

Is life a tragedy or a comedy? The ancient question is worth revisiting when Easter falls early and Spring is still striving to establish herself; when the happiness of a prospective holiday is tinged by terrorist threats at the airport; when tens of millions want Donald Trump to be the most powerful man in the world.

By tragedy, I don't mean "when the morning cries and you don't know why", to quote the eponymous song of the Bee Gees. Such sadness, after all, can at least be touched by a heartfelt lyric. No. Tragedy is meaninglessness beyond reach. It's what Nietzsche felt about the death of God: the sun is unhinged, the world has grown cold, we're adrift in empty space.

By a comedy, I don't mean that life's challenges can be lightened by a well placed laugh, though they can. Rather, it's the archaic sense of comedy I'm after, as in Dante's Divine Comedy. This is the hard won realisation that life's darkness is actually the prelude to the dawn of life's broader completion. Comedy is the fairytale with a happy ending, not out of wish fulfillment, but because the sinister middle passage has been endured and has precipitated an awakening.

Writers like Christopher Hamilton, who has just published A Philosophy of Tragedy (Reaktion), reject life as comedy. Who can affirm that after Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz? They plunge deep into the "suffering, failure, confusion and homelessness" of the tragic experience of life, and argue that staring it unflinchingly in the face is infinitely better than the other tragedy towards which comedy would entice us: easing the load with faux-meaning.

The tragic view is probably the default credo of our times. Consumer faux-meaning tacitly acknowledges it: shop or drop. It's between the lines of cheerful self-help books, paradoxically implied in their cascade of upbeat tips and consolations: keep trying, because trying is all there is. I think it's there in the growing trend for humanist funerals, which - understandably but in my view mistakenly - aren't called funerals but celebrations. It's as if the parent or partner is remembered on an island of care, and for an hour those present turn their backs on surrounding oceans of presumed indifference. Nietzsche saw it coming. If reality at core is no more than our folly and sufferings, all that remains is the fragile will to live.

Comedy understands that folly and sufferings are facts of life, but senses they are not the bare facts. There is always, eventually more to be said, felt, understood. It argues that tragedy's claim to be squaring up to reality is, in fact, two things. First, a projection of fear onto the cosmos that is then experienced as a void; it's what happens when we're overwhelmed. Second, a refusal to give up being the author of oneself when, in truth, we never were nor entirely will be.

So, it's different from the Panglossian belief that all things turn out for the best, or that suffering has a meaning. It's rather that suffering has a place, just not the whole place. It's the intuition that the blackest moments are black but can still be touched by love; that despair whilst easily defeating manic optimism is not stronger than Malala's courage or Mandela's hope.

Put it like this. There is a deeper logic to reality than tragedy allows. I wonder if it's illuminating to ask why you can't say, "there's a lack of cold," when you can say, "there's a lack of heat." The point is that coldness is the removal of heat, but heat is not the removal of coldness. Heat is the reality. Coldness can only be defined in relation to heat.

So too with love and fear, or gift and possession, or life and death. Fear, possessiveness and death appear sovereign when it's forgotten that they are really forms of existential forgetfulness. Fear is a lack of love's connection. Possessiveness is a denial that life's a gift. Death is a part of life in a way that life could never be a part of death.

Which is also to say, Happy Easter.


Saturday, March 26 2016

The New Asceticism by Sarah Coakley

This review is published in the new issue, and the last, of Third Way

Desire has always been a problem in the church, perhaps the main problem. And yet, implies Sarah Coakley, this should come as no surprise. Christianity is, at heart, about the human desire for God. Her new book, which weaves together a series of talks and so provides a readable introduction to her theology, finds its focus in the flourishing of desire expressed in the Trinitarian understanding of God. It's a basic theological dynamic that Coakley argues individual Christians and church leaders alike repeatedly lose sight of when the desire for God is unleashed.

As it must be, because becoming a Christian begins with the yearning to know God called Father - the verb "know" meant in the Biblical sense: the most basic sense of knowing has always implied a union with what is known. As Paul intimated in the crucial eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, this yearning is discovered to actually be God's because, as Paul puts it, the Spirit groans within us with a desire too profound for words. It is God's longing for cosmic rebirth and renewal. But there's a crucial step that must now be taken. Desire must be purged if it is truly to know God. In particular, its inclination towards possessiveness must be converted into the kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. In short, in coming to know the Father by the energy of the Spirit, we become like Christ. At least, that is, when the transformation is going well.

A key figure for Coakley is Gregory of Nyssa. This fourth century Greek bishop offers an approach to desire that is radically different from those typically adopted in the western church. The latter has tended to faintheartedness in the face of the desires that the Spirit stirs. It has wanted to control and contain, within ecclesiastically enforced limits; it has been nervous of the sexual imagery that the exploration of desire inevitably requires because the desire for God is an erotic desire for more from life. But in Gregory, Coakley finds a fascinating figure who never recoils with distaste. And moreover, offers an approach to the transformation of desire that offers crucial leads for us today.

Take his first treatise, On Virginity. It is an arresting choice of subject because Gregory was married at the time he wrote it. The question arises as to how or why he so celebrated this virtue? The answer is that literal virginity is, for Gregory, the least interesting form of virginity. At its most developed, it is a state of mind in which all desires intentionally channel towards God. This means, for example, that simply being celibate is not nearly enough. In fact, the celibate who keeps his vow but turns to the bottle or becomes overbearingly churchy may be being less true to the Christian vocation than the married person who, through an exploration of desire in a faithful relationship with another, comes to a rich often painful understanding of the ups and downs of love.

Gregory had the advantage of being Greek and, therefore, of reading Plato. Plato realised that the palace of wisdom is found via the road of excess, as William Blake was subsequently to put it. In fact, the experience of falling in love may be a crucial first intimation of the path towards God. Think of what falling in love is like, Plato advises. It's wanting what is beautiful and good. At first, that's mistakenly over-identified with the newfound beloved, as becomes apparent in any relationship that matures. But that's not the important thing early on. Rather, it's that the individual has fallen for the alluring power of what's beautiful and good - the desires that can carry them to God.

It's a journey through the narrow gate, for sure. The shadow of love's dream is a nightmare, because it continually runs the risk of not getting what it wants, and so forcefully taking what it wants. That's why, in Christian terms, the possessiveness of love must be transformed into the pattern of Christ's love. But again, married life offers helpful models here. After all, what is the desire to have children if not the moreness of the love that originally wanted only the beloved, evolving into a kind of over-spilling of love that wants to share its love with the offspring of that love? If that has a Trinitarian feel to it - love over-spilling in love to share with the offspring of love - then that's because Trinitarian desire energies reality.

Discipline is crucial in all this, hence the new asceticism of Coakley's title. Without the purging, there is no fulfillment. But perhaps we need new resources to inspire the discipline, as the old ones so easily feel as if they are closing life down, not opening life up. Take the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when the goal of love is so quickly aligned with sexual consummation. But courtly love sought the more patient goals that asceticism at its best aims for too. The knight fell in love with an unavailable lady so that the love would be indefinitely delayed. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, he was transformed, becoming gentle, aware, kind - more Christlike. Love nurtures experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unaware.

Coakley's work is important because it goes to the heart of what we need to address in Christianity today - not just the problems faced by the church, but what might make Christianity attractive in a culture that yearns for the spiritual dimension and yet doesn't consider that the church has anything substantial to offer it. That's because, in many of the church's current manifestations, it doesn't. But the deep wisdom about desire that's in the tradition, and is always longing to be reawakened, can stir us all anew.


Friday, March 18 2016

Classics with the transcendence ripped out

This comment piece is in this week's Church Times.

A debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard, on the virtues of Greece and Rome, recently drew an audience of thousands. Greek philosophy and classical history routinely secure primetime slots on TV and radio. Books on similar themes abound. The Classics hold a surprising fascination for we twenty-first century moderns.

And yet, contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless or aimless.

Maybe the likes of Johnson and Beard get nervous when it comes to gods or metaphysics. Reputations are at stake. But the loss of this crucial dynamic matters because it goes to the heart of much with which we today are struggling, from mental health to climate change. If the Greeks have anything for us, it might well be the element that has gone missing. And it's one that should concern Christians too.

Most of the media treats the Classics in much the same way as it treats matters from the history of science to issues in ethics: cut from the discussion is anything that fails to fit into a secular narrative. Take the presentation of the ancient philosophers. Broadly speaking, it's said that they developed human reason, overcame religious superstition, and thereby liberated the human mind. You could say: logic plus democracy equals progressive godlessness. Science and reason are treated as diamond-sharp tools that surgically unpick the myths and metaphysics of the past. Public discourse has developed an unthinking habit that pitches enlightenment against divinity.

But the ancient philosophers had an entirely different vision of things, one that might refresh our vision now. They saw reason as a gift that reveals an extraordinary truth: the human mind can share in a cosmic reality that far exceeds its own understanding. Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open onto transcendent vistas upon which the soul can gaze and feed. Consider how Lucretius celebrates Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, who is today often praised as a poster boy for modern atheism: "The keen force of his mind conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his soul." Ancient Epicureans kept their founder's birthday like a saint's day, and granted his request to honour his "holy body".

It's why Aristotle said that philosophy begins and ends in wonder not empirical evidence, or knock-out proofs, or self-consistent conclusions. It's why figures like Thales and Pythagoras rushed to the temple when they gained insights into magnets or music: they were not indulging superstitious customs that die hard, but were reframing religious practices as thanksgivings for sharing in the cosmic mind. Similarly, nature is not primarily for us to exploit, but rather for us to connect with and know - an attitude that it's clear we've lost, if you think about our failures to meet challenges such as climate change.

If we could regain the ancients' transcendent imagination, we might regain an immanent experience of our connection with nature. Caring for the environment might cease to feel like a moral burden and come to be felt as a joyful good. I suspect such a sensibility would make Christianity more attractive too: less a question of judging creedal probabilities about the resurrection or miracles; more a welcome to engage deeply in a felt sense of God.

To put it another way, what ancient philosophy offers is a pathway towards the transformation of your soul. Indeed, it nurtures the sense of having a soul, another perception that the secular narrative undermines. The soul can be likened to the liveliness of a poem — the very poetry, you might say. It is conveyed, but exceeds the material “body” of the poem, namely the words.

An undeveloped soul is like an unfinished poem. It's flat. It feels empty because its full potential is not realized. People are similar, the ancient philosophers realized. Only worse, they suffer from the emptiness too. The loss may manifest itself in addictions, or persistent and crippling anxieties, or a diminished and depressed sense of vitality. So they developed a range of practices - including meditations and visualizations, rituals and rites, community-living and reason - to awaken the soul. Many of these are becoming popular again, though sadly, often outside of Christian circles.

In fact, it's more accurate to think of ancient philosophers as monks and nuns. They lived a way of life that was dedicated to manifesting a vision of reality in their lives. Their therapy was not primarily designed to get you through the day. It was designed to release you from a restricted view of things in order to become aware of the deeper pulse upon which life rest, in which we live and move and have our being, as the Stoics used to say before St Paul borrowed the expression.

Again, this has direct implications for today. Take Stoicism. It's core advice was to learn to notice how you respond to what happens to you. It was the inspiration behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now widely available on the NHS. And yet, longitudinal studies of CBT's efficacy are increasingly showing that it does not deliver what it promised. The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why. If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.

Socrates became wise when he appreciated how little he understood. He realised that although the scientists of his day could theorize about the cosmos, and although the engineers of Athens could construct the Parthenon in nine impressive years, this ability to manipulate was being mistaken for wisdom about what the soul requires. He learnt that a civilisation's moment of greatest peril is when it is at its material peak. Human hubris then feels it can master all things, and exceed the ways of the gods. It's another lesson the Classics, in their fullness, might prompt us to consider.


Sunday, March 6 2016

What's to fear from virtual reality?

I'm no luddite but there's something to understand in the anxiety immersive technologies provoke.

It's been a good couple of weeks for virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg put on a clean t-shirt and welcomed us to the future he knows we're all waiting for. It's going to change the way we work and communicate, he preached, making it sound exhausting: imagine your stuffed inbox impatient for attention not only in your pocket but winking in your field of view. VR headsets are set to revolutionize everything from horror movies to health care - except that at the same time, they may isolate us from one another, lost in solipsistic fantasies, with 3D porn addicts quelling panic attacks and nascent psychoses, the critics sigh.

Now, who can tell what the new technology will do. When the railways arrived in Camberwell, in 1872, resident John Ruskin called for his horse-drawn carriage and never returned. It was probably an overreaction. Then again, commuters from Denmark Hill may now half know what he feared. But it's worth trying to gain a sense of why the prospect of ubiquitous virtual reality feels unsettling; a risk. Forewarned is forearmed.

Martin Heidegger can help us. The German philosopher wrote an essay in 1954 entitled, The Question Concerning Technology. It pinpoints the crucial issue. The difficulty with technology, he said, is not that it enhances our lives. It does. Rather, it's that it radically prescribes the life it enhances in the process.

He realised as much on holiday, cruising on the Mediterranean. Pocket cameras were then the latest thing. And he noticed how the technology reframed the holiday experience. When the ship pulled into a new port, his fellow tourists were no longer excited about the sites they might see or the food they might eat. They pushed their way to the dockward side and gangplank in order to secure the best composition for a photograph. The trip was judged by the quality of snaps secured. Technology simultaneously enhanced the experience whilst also dramatically narrowing what the experience would be.

When he reflected further, Heidegger wondered whether the situation was worse. The ports of Cannes and Venice, Athens and Alexandria had ceased to be romantic places with a history and presence of their own, at which strangers might gaze and wonder. The technology transformed them into stage sets, with a value determined by their usefulness as a means of impressing envious family back home. The camera turned tourists in on themselves. It collapsed their worlds, strangling any openness to the numinosity of new destinations. The selfie stick, which shrinks the cosmos to a backdrop for me, is just the logical endpoint of the technology's quiet control.

The philosopher Jeremy Naydler applies Heidegger's warning to virtual reality, in an essay entitled, Living in the Shadow of the Machine. Technology increasingly hardens our forgetfulness of unmediated experiences, he argues. It makes us more dependent upon it by insisting that we orientate our lives towards it, rather than towards life itself. I suppose that's why people yearn not just for a smart phone but the latest smart phone. It's as if we're missing something without it. "A certain weakness insinuates itself into the soul," he continues, because our sense of equanimity is no longer secured in nature, God, or the soul but is toyed with by the relatively trifling and endlessly flickering dance on the screen.

Naydler notes that one of the most spooky VR developments comes courtesy of an experience called a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or CAVE for short. It's an immersive reality named after the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic. Only, whereas Plato argued we need to escape from the cave because its "reality" is merely shadows, CAVE invites us to remain perpetually as prisoners. Which most prisoners prefer, as in Plato's story.

Conversely, it's no surprise, then, that gardening and walking, house design and cooking boom in the silicon age. We gaze at growing grass and a setting sun in a daze of half-remembering that life can be embodied. Except that another technology already prescribed the experience for us. The TV. We watch others planting, creating. It's possible that the populous is actually gardening and cooking less, even as interest in the activities increases, because the technology has already narrowed the invitation: don't dig potatoes be couch potatoes.

That's the fear, then. That's the sense of trouble. Psychic fragmentation will be a constant threat as VR users resign their life and perhaps fatally neglect their ground.


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