Friday, February 21 2014

The impossibility of forgiveness

Next week's The Essay on BBC Radio 3 discusses forgiveness. My essay, on the impossibility of forgiveness, goes out on Tuesday 25th Feb. An extract is in today's Church Times. A taster:

HERE, then, is a clue. Put it like this: the things that most need forgiveness are the things that are most unforgivable. But being able to stay with that crux - and not short-circuit it in a bid to escape the pain - might bring us to a place where something higher or unexpected breaks through.

This different dispensation is illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, and blows it all. He ends up eating pig food, just to stay alive. Then, he remembers his father's servants. He resolves to return to his father, beg forgiveness, and live like the hired men.

But the striking thing is that the father does not forgive his son. Instead, he throws a party. He who was lost is found; he who was dead is alive, the father says - much to the annoyance of the elder brother, who descends into a sulk.

This brother is right, in a sense. Forgiveness is impossible. The younger son has done an inexcusable thing. But the father sees things differently, from beyond the rights and wrongs of his son's actions.

He has not short-circuited the struggle with anger and agony. He thought his son lost and dead. But when the son actually returns, he can welcome him into a new life, grounded in the economy not of moral righteousness or rage, but of gratuitous love.

So it seems to me that the impossibility of forgiveness is actually an offer, although it is certainly difficult. At one level, it draws attention to the moral hazards of not really forgiving, but forgetting or excusing; to the important incompatibility of forgiveness with justice; to the mental ill-health that might originate when the moral imperative to forgive leads to repressing, not-feeling, not-mourning.

But, at another level, it points to the human experience that sometimes, with the most difficult aspects of life, the best course of action is not to try to fix things, but to stay with things.

In time, a radically different horizon might be glimpsed. It feels above morality and forgiveness - more like redemption or grace;gift, or love. That is what is promised by this apparently unpalatable truth: the impossibility of forgiveness.


Thursday, January 30 2014

The Hidden God of Atheism

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Atheism is often taken as the default position with theism requiring additional beliefs or proof. So we talk about whether science actually rests on theistic assumptions, if with God removed from the equation. I 'play' atheist - trying to put the perspectives of the three greatest atheists in the modern world, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche - and Rupert argues that science with its working hypotheses of intelligibility, law-like predictability, and so on actually, at least, draw on theism...


Friday, January 24 2014

Ancient philosophy at The Idler Academy- new terms starts Monday!

Philosophy in 12 Key Steps starts next week - a few places left!


Saturday, January 4 2014

What does Christianity get right?

We've published the latest in the discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. It's available as a podcast or on iTunes.

Our starting point this time is that militant atheism is falling out of favour, and a new atheism seems to be emerging, looking for forms of spirituality. But still, many find Christianity not a viable option. So we seek to ask where Christianity is compelling in its view of life and how to live, and where it is challenging, and perhaps in trouble.


Wednesday, December 18 2013

Stoicism for today?


Friday, December 6 2013

Godless spirituality for secularists

I've a piece thinking about the significance of the RSA's spirituality project in the Church Times today…

The "spiritual but not religious" are the largest group of individuals in the UK, according to the think tank, Theos. Its recent poll, which shaped the inaugural discussion on the new Things Unseen podcast (, found that only 13% of adults agree that human beings are purely material with no spiritual element. That much may be unsurprising to members of the Church of England who routinely work at the interface of regular and irregular church-goers.

What does seem to be a new phenomenon, though, is that avowedly secular groups are seeking to explore the spiritual dimension in life - and not just privately but through meetings and action. A case in point is The Sunday Assembly, also called the "atheist church", although its founders are keen to stress that Dawkins-like rallies are not its raison d'être. In only a few months, it has drawn hundreds of people and led to several "church plants".

Some will feel sceptical about this new spiritual questing, much of that unease focusing on the word "spiritual" itself. In much the same way as "sin" now spontaneously throws up associations of chocolate and lingerie, so "spirituality" can mean little more than warm feelings and a fondness for scented candles. Where is the ethical engagement in this touchy-feely piety; where is the embrace of suffering; where the intellectual weight? The issue is being tackled head-on by another self-consciously secular organisation, the RSA in London. Founded in 1754, at the height of the English Enlightenment, and usually associated with practical policy development, the society became interested in recent work on human wellbeing. The s-word kept coming up, particularly in the domain of positive psychology, the academic movement that lies behind many of the current political attempts to think about mental health as well as economic wealth. It identifies spirituality as a "signature strength".

So now, Jonathan Rowson, one of the directors at the RSA, is leading a year long project, that will include workshops and public events, to help make spirituality "more tangible and tractable". The evidence shows, he believes, that personal growth and social engagement are nurtured when people have a spiritual perspective, are informed by spiritual experience, and shape their lives with spiritual practices. He argues that the world's main policy challenges, from climate change to rising levels of obesity, may ultimately be spiritual in nature because they are about our struggle to align our behaviour with our values. Spirituality addresses such inner conflicts. That so many seem unable to resolve them may be, in part, a product of a culture that is starved of that which can motivate us at the deepest levels.

The first of the public events was held on 9th October - the discussion can be found as a podcast on the RSA's website - and it was striking how apologetic the contributors were for even talking about the subject. Rowson thanked the head of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, for the "reputational risk" involved in sponsoring the project. Other participants talked of feeling nervous and unsure, even whilst confessing that religion was central to their lives. Spirituality is a kind of taboo. Intellectuals, politicians, the media and even clergy can be as embarrassed by it as Victorians supposedly were by exposed piano legs.

It must be because we live in a world that has been profoundly shaped by a rejection of the spiritual dimension. David Bentley Hart makes the case in his new book, The Experience of God (Yale University Press: 2013), arguing that the philosophical and scientific paradigms that shape the contemporary imagination, to the extent of determining what can and cannot be perceived of life, have put off-limits subjects like faith, the soul, the implicit and so on. "The philosophical tendencies and presuppositions of any age are, to a very great degree, determined by the prevailing cultural mood or by the ideological premises generally approved of by the educated classes," he writes.

I think that is true. Listen to BBC Radio 2 or 4 any day of the week and you will be drawn into a worldview that finds evolutionary speculations about the origins of love or music engaging and acceptable, whereas wondering about truth or transcendence gets kid-glove treatment. That spiritual sensibilities, the sources of human purpose and meaning, are ring-fenced is surely part of the reason we find ourselves so frequently to be ethically and personally at sea.

But perhaps the nascent secular interest in spirituality marks a change. The task of redressing the imbalance is about nothing less than shifting mindsets, but when unexpected parties - like the RSA or self-conscious atheists - come out about spirituality, new connections become possible. Conversely, those who needed no persuading but find the s-word difficult must swallow their disdain and be prepared to treat the word as a placeholder for a society striving to revive these half-forgotten insights about what it is to be human.

I suspect that some steps will be easy to make. As the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith put it during the RSA discussion, many well-meaning people can agree on a notion of spirituality that is essentially a form of ethical humanism - the intuition that community, wonder and helping others adds value to life. But does that get to the heart of what is meant by spirituality? Isn't it rather engaging with the possibility that the source of human vitality and purpose ultimately lies beyond human capacities and understanding; that life is sustained by what theists call God? The difficult moment for the new spirituality will arrive when those who have put their faith in secular enlightenment are confronted with the possibility that it is not enough.


Wednesday, November 27 2013

Stoicism today

Was on Night Waves tonight, talking about Stoicism Week.

Tried to say that Christianity is the richest form of Stoicism today - feeling only that captures what ancient Stoicism thought fundamental: of trusting in a benign cosmos, praising God for the logos, and seeking to know the divine within and out. (NT Wright in his new book on Paul is thorough on such points.)

The therapeutic aspects of Stoicism are useful but not enough, as I think any ancient Stoic would have told you, and as interestingly I suspect the emerging limitations of CBT are proving too - CBT being another form of Stoicism for today.

There's a day of it on Saturday coming...


Wednesday, November 20 2013

Lord Williams of Oystermouth: ‘Making representations: religious faith and the habits of language.'

I can recommend Rowan Williams' Gifford lectures of the last couple of weeks. Chewy but rewarding!

His main point seems quite straightforward, for all the subtle and complex ways he develops it. He is pointing out that if you reflect on language, you quickly see that it has to operate on many different levels or registers, not just the rational and empirical. In fact, the metaphorical seems far more basic to language than any supposed correspondence theory would grant. Apart from anything else, this is for the reason that language occupies that space in between the material and immaterial: it's an embodied activity - being sound and physical movement - that engages us symbolically.

What this has to do with God is what it says about the nature of reality, our embedded experience that gives rise, probably first, to music and then languages. The excessive nature of language, the way that it does way more than merely communicate sounds, does not prove God, as modern natural theology has been inclined to feel is its main task, but rather suggests that in language, we are every day grappling with a reality that can be interpreted as intelligible, giving and even compassionate - multi-meaningful, in the way a piece of music is meaningful.

That is commensurate with belief in God. Or to put it another way, a cosmos sustained by a creator such as the Judeo-Christian tradition conceives it, would be one in which you might expect people to speak in the many ways we do.


Saturday, November 2 2013


A day course in ancient philosophy with Mark Vernon.

Spend your Sunday at The Idler Academy learning about Socrates, Plato and the ancient schools. Price includes tea & coffee, lunch, afternoon cake and warming winter gin punch.

This is a lively, day crash course in philosophy, exploring the essentials you need to know about the ancient figures from Pythagoras to Plato, examining the origins of the western tradition in ancient Greece. The day will comprise of talks from Mark and group discussions, and there will be time for you to discuss any of your burning philosophical questions.

The day is divided in two. During the morning we will learn about the birth of Western thought, focussing particularly on the big hitters: Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides. Then we come to Socrates, arguably the most influential philosopher in history, alongside his disciples who are giants in their own rights, Plato and Aristotle. A number of schools of philosophy flourished then too, and during the Roman and early Christian period, notably the Stoics and Epicureans, and in the second half of the day we will examine the ways of life they advocated in the quest for insight and tranquility.

Order of the day

11:00 – 11:15 Arrival, tea & coffee and Introductions 11:15 – 12:00 The Pre-Socratics and the birth of western thought 12:00 – 1:00 Socrates, Plato and Aristotle 1:00 – 1:45 Lunch and open symposium 1:45 – 3:00 Stoics and Epicureans 3:00 – 3:30 Tea and cake 3:30 – 4:30 Cynics, Sceptics and what happened next 4:30 – 5:00 Conclusions, winter punch.


Friday, November 1 2013

David Bentley Hart and the experience of God

I have hugely enjoyed David Bentley Hart's latest, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It's philosophical theology with attitude and heart. A taster of his demolishing style (in this section, bashing computational models of mind):

"Software no more 'thinks' than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word 'pelican' knows what a pelican is. We might just as well liken the mind to an abacus, a typewriter, or a library. No computer has ever used a language, or responded to a question, or assigned a meaning to anything. No computer has ever so much as added two numbers together, let alone entertained a thought, and none ever will… A computer does not even really compute. We compute, using it as a tool."


Wednesday, October 16 2013

Making sense of the Trinity

I'm reviewing Sarah Coakley's new book - God, Sexuality, and the Self - a must read for anyone who gets 'why-three?' moments about the doctrine of the Trinity. In a nutshell, she argues Christianity loses touch with the experience that gives rise to the doctrine, with the result that attempting to hold onto the formula comes to feel disconnected or arbitrary.

The dynamic within which it makes sense begins with the yearning for the God known as Father, which comes to be seen as necessitating a purging of desire's possessiveness - a kind of self-emptying that follows the pattern of Christ. At the same time, the yearning itself is realised as being primarily of God too - God longing to make all things anew. (Hence, in Romans 8, the Spirit groans with us.) So our desire is, at root, the work of the Spirit in us, for all that the entanglements of human desire are inevitably very messy.

The upshot is that the spiritual process whereby people become Christians, in the transformed not merely assent-giving sense, is Trinitarian-shaped. (That pattern is interestingly mirrored in some Buddhist traditions, where there is a threefold conception of the Buddha too, based upon the processes that precede enlightenment.)

A deep read - promoting lots of thought; not exactly light but not overly technical either.


Sunday, October 13 2013

Owen Barfield's Evolution of Consciousness


Thursday, October 10 2013

Why the church needs therapy

I've a piece on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality in the October issue of Third Way. Here's a clip or two:

... Jung noticed that, of his patients in the second half of life, there was not one whose problem was not at base in some sense religious . The spiritual systems that had offered individuals frames of reference which generated meaning and purpose were breaking down. Modern individuals had spontaneously embarked upon a new search for soul, because human beings can do no other, though it is a chaotic process that often precipitates psychological pain and problems. Much is at stake, nothing less than the breakdown of society, Jung feared. Therefore, he argued, clergy and therapists must join forces to meet the precipitous spiritual challenge of our times.

Why does each need the other? The church needs depth psychology because people do not generally experience life in theological terms anymore. On the whole, they no longer feel redeemed by the death of Christ as the medieval individual did when gazing up at the broken body on the rood screen. The notion of sin has ceased to describe a deathly state of being as the first readers of Luther and Calvin must have felt inside themselves. So when the modern church speaks in terms of its old formularies and creeds, deployed without psychological insight, it comes across as dogmatic: at best, anachronistic; at worst, irrelevant. It is an insight Pope Francis seems to have recognised when, during his recent trip to Brazil, he spoke of the church as cold, caught up in itself, and 'a prisoner of its own rigid formularies'.

Then, depth psychology needs the spiritual dimension too because whilst, since Freud, there have evolved rich ways of understanding the origins of psychological distress based upon traumas in the early years of life, there has been less development when it comes to understanding how suffering is linked to spiritual advance across the life course of an individual. Psychotherapy can look back, but struggles to peer forward. This is where spiritual traditions come into their own.

To use the language of the Christian tradition, it is through suffering that new life is found. Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday. Spiritual traditions hold out the hope that suffering can become a means to a transfigured end because the experience exposes the individual or group - painfully but powerfully - to sources of connection, possibility and fulfillment that were previously beyond conception. Call it salvation, enlightenment, release, returning to God...

... One way of describing psychotherapy is as a relationship that enables the individual to see more of themselves or of the groups to which they belong, not least church groups. It is a kind of awakening; becoming more conscious of hidden tendencies and compulsions that are typically barely felt on the everyday level and yet will, over time, shape and constrain character, choices and worldview. The psychologist and priest, Fraser Watts, talks of the abundance that this 'joining up' allows . 'Renewal involves being integrated, integrating what's on the surface with what's inside.' It is a theme that Jesus often referred to in his teaching, Watts continues. He seems to have been the kind of person who would meet a rich man, say, and spot that even though the chap kept every article of the law, it was an inner and personally defining attachment to riches that kept him from God.

Importantly, psychotherapy does not primarily aim to fix or heal such conflicts. Like Jesus with the rich man, it aims instead clearly to point them out. This is the issue of trying to solve problems from within the purview of what is problematic: such solutions inadvertently tend to exacerbate the issue. The relationship between a therapist and client is used to bring tensions to light, to explore and understand them in a felt way. Then, in time, they lessen their hold on the individual. He or she comes to see more of the impact of the forces at play in themselves and, thereby, is liberated from them. Something new becomes possible...

... In practice, this preparation for spiritual growth may happen in broadly two ways. There are those for whom life is constrained for reasons of profound damage or trauma. The slow, steady work of therapy - probably of different types, medical, behavioural and psychological - offers the hope of shifts and change. More commonly, the second way that therapy helps is with tackling the everyday defenses that everyone has to some degree. They don't stop the person functioning but they do limit who they might become. (You might say that the church as a whole falls into this camp.) Problems are often revealed in those emotional responses that are the opposite of the fruits of the spirit - moments of hatred, grumpiness, fear, impatience, unkindness, obfuscation, indecision, hardness of heart and excess. The question, then, is how to nurture the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

A clue is in the way Paul describes such virtues, as fruits. They are not capacities that can be willed. As Paul also noted, for all that he wanted it to be otherwise, he continued to do what he wouldn't do, and not do what he would - which in psychodynamic language is to say that he was influenced by his unconscious. Rather, the fruits are capacities that emerge as the individual or church is transformed. That is the source of renewal, and it is the practical details of this transformation process that western Christianity seems to lose sight of in the modern world, and with which psychotherapy can aid. In effect, the therapist says, you are forgiven for your hatred, greed and jealousy. Now we are free to explore the extent of such feelings in you, and why they have taken hold. As the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott put it, it is only when an individual knows about their 'vast reservoirs of unconscious hate' that they can also know they are loved, and so not be so ruled by their hate - or fear or anger. An older religious way of putting it would be to talk of being convicted of your sin, and then knowing the full extent of God's forgiveness. But this is the kind of language that does not quite work for most today. The psychodynamic notion of acceptance and exploration, though, might make more sense...


Saturday, October 5 2013

Mindfulness and the western psyche

Have been doing a few short reviews at the TLS in recent weeks. The latest is Thich Nhat Hanh's The Art of Communicating, an intro to mindfulness. Here's a clip:

Books on mindfulness, including Nhat Hanh's, have begun to recognise that the psyches of Asian people, where mindfulness originates, tend to differ from those raised in the west. This has a major impact upon the effectiveness of its techniques.

To generalised: in the west, childhood is shaped by nuclear not extended families, which are also often broken. A particular kind of suffering arises should relatively isolated parents either not have enough time for their children, or project their unrealised hopes and fears onto them. Such children are trained in reacting to parental needs and so grow up out of touch with themselves. It causes what psychotherapists call narcissistic injuries, a profound inability to be content with oneself. A culture of distractions grows and reinforces the difficulty.

In Buddhist psychology, it is known as being in the realm of the hungry ghosts, who have extended bellies and tight throats, and are therefore unable to take in what would satisfy their longings. When it comes to mindfulness, particularly when practiced alone, the risk is that this basic predicament is left unaddressed. As a result, some teachers now recommend that mindfulness be coupled to psychotherapy.


Tuesday, September 17 2013

Ideas of power at the BBC

I'm enjoying The Ideas That Make Us programmes on BBC Radio 4, though struck again (like the series on Noise) by how they are shaped by a materialism and power agenda.

So, concludes Bettany Hughes in prog 1, ideas are born in our synapses. Is that so obvious - how an idea might spring from an electro-chemical exchange? Why isn't that questioned?

Or in prog 2, she thinks about fame as desirable because it allows for the successful exercise of power. Maybe fame is a misdirected longing for the eternal - which is what I think Plato thought.

Maybe the agenda will shift as the series progresses...


Tuesday, July 23 2013

The Brains Behind Spirituality

The new RSA Journal features an essay outlining the intellectual context for a new project. I think it's a significant one, examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspective, practice and experience. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large. I'd recommend a read.


A way to understand the power of myth

Dialogue is a great magazine that helps resource schools in the teaching of A-level religious studies. I write for it, and this is an excerpt from a piece in the current issue, on the power of myth. I try to draw an analogy with the power of words...

How do words work? Well, there is one theory of language that understands words operating on five different levels. (I've read about it in association with the ideas of the psychotherapist Ignacio Matte Blanco.)

First, unsurprisingly, is the literal level. Here, words or phrases have a straightforward meaning. If, for example, I utter, "I am a tiger", that can be treated as an empirical statement. It is either true or false, accurate or inaccurate. That is the way the literal level of language operates.

A second level is the analogical. Here, the literal meaning is eclipsed in favour of something more subtle that seeks expression. For example, consider this proverb: "Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep." To understand this phrase you have to sit with it for a while and contemplate what it might be suggesting. Presumably, the proverb is implying that there is something about the way tigers live that is good for humans too. Perhaps it is their courage, their independence, their stealth. What is quite clear is that the proverb is not advising you to go and dwell in the Bengali jungle and attempt to kill monkeys with your nails and teeth. To read the proverb in that literal way would destroy the meaning, as well as being ridiculous.

The third level is the metaphorical. It takes us down another rung of the ladder into a deeper meaning again. William Blake's famous poem, The Tyger, provides us with a tiger example that works at this level. He writes that the tiger burns bright, displays a "fearful symmetry", has fire in its eyes. So, asks Blake, what "immortal hand or eye" made such a creature? What work is displayed in such beautiful menace? Who is mirrored in the fire behind the tiger's eyes? The answer is God. The tiger becomes a metaphor for God and by contemplating the tiger the reader of the poem might gain a fresh sense of what the psalmist calls, "the fear of the Lord". That is the genius of Blake's verse.

The interesting thing about the metaphorical level is that it can't be described in a literal way at all. God is not the fire in the tiger's eye. Empirically speaking, there is no fire in the tiger's eyes, let alone divinity. God is not even like the fire in the tiger's eye, as if the meaning might be analogical: God does not flicker, is not coloured orange, does not generate thermal heat. And yet, somehow the image opens up something of the divine to us. To try to translate the metaphor into more straightforward language loses that possibility. The metaphor has to work on its own terms.

We come to the fourth level, and here things go mad. At this level, all meaning breaks down, even the metaphorical. It is a use of language that is hard to make any sense of. Instead, words deployed in this way provoke a sense of loss or terror, disturbance or dislocation. Take the word "tiger" again. It might be used in this fourth way by someone who was suffering from a psychotic episode. "I am a tiger!" they might yell or scream in a panic of craziness. The phrase would serve to inject into you something of their terror and dread. The communication is emotional not rational. In that sense, there is no meaning to be made of it. Instead, it conveys a side of life that is perhaps just beneath the surface for most of us some of the time. It is an experience that has to be survived as much as understood.

Then finally, beneath the troubled waters of this fourth level, lies a fifth. Its meanings are calm and unifying, though equally resistant to easy interpretation. This is the deepest sense in which language can be used. It is the one associated with mystery. To keep to our example one more time, the story of the Buddha and the tiger comes to mind. It tells of the day the Buddha, in a previous life, took pity on a hungry tigress. She was unable to feed her cubs and so the Buddha lay down in front of her, wounded himself, and sacrificed his life for hers.

The striking quality of the story is its peacefulness. It is an account of a man being killed by a wild animal, and yet it conveys a sense of equanimity. It can be read in many ways, of course. But perhaps part of what it is suggesting is the oneness of existence. It is saying that, in a sense, the Buddha's life was worth no more than the life of the tiger and her cubs. He simply passed life on. Maybe it is not too fanciful to imagine that the Buddha murmured, "I am the tiger", as he lay down before her. He did not mean it in a literal or mad way, but as a mystic. The story attempts to capture something of the unity of things, the lively being that flows through all sentient creatures.

Again, this meaning cannot be translated into back up the higher levels. Read as a literal story it would provoke moral outrage. Of course the life of the man is worth more than that of the tiger! If the story is to carry any insight at all, and if that insight is to be experienced, the story must be allowed to tell itself, in its own terms. It must be allowed to speak from the fifth level of meaning.

This is an article about myth, which comes from muthos, the Greek word for story. I've offered a long introduction, but I hope you get the point. In everyday speech, the word myth has come to mean a fabrication, a false belief, an idealized but ridiculous conception. I think that this must be because the literal has gained the upper hand in the modern world, presumably because the scientific and empirical way of engaging with life has become so powerful. My argument is not against the value of the literal: being able to speak factually and accurately is often crucial, useful and illuminating. But it does seem to me to be a profound loss when we place so much faith on the literal that we lose sight of the other ways that words can be used - the analogical, the metaphorical, the mad and the mystical. Only then do myths come to be regarded as colourful but silly fabrications, as the conveyors not of deeper meaning but false beliefs.


Myths use words and phrases in all of the five senses that we have discussed. Part of their joy is the way they can slip and slide across levels of meaning. Take the story of the Buddha and the tigress. There is, in fact, a literal sense in which the life of the tiger and the man are one and the same. Evolution suggests that all mammalian life on Earth originates from a common source. But whilst that is scientifically accurate, it is a rather concrete way to read the story, humanly speaking. The theme of sacrifice feels as if it carries more weight. That would be to treat the story analogically: we too might sacrifice something of ourselves for the next generation like the Buddha. Or there is the metaphorical that draws attention to the kind of man the Buddha was. He loved life, else he would not have cared to save the cubs, but he was not attached to life and so could offer his own life up without panic or struggle. We might sit with life and death in the same way, the story suggests.

The mad side of the story is evident too. Imagine being an onlooker. To watch this event would have been shocking. It would have stuck in your mind like a barbed thorn. What a mix of folly, horror and excitement!

Then, there is the mystery, which we've discussed.

To put it another way, myths use language in order that we might explore multiple aspects of life. The great advantage that myths have is that they, generally, tell stories that are gripping and archetypal. This helps to keep the analysis alive: the myth lives within you in a way that the factual cannot. As it points to what is not yet understood, or what will never be fully comprehended, the story's vitality is not lessened in the telling and retelling. Indeed, it deepens with repeating as the levels reveal themselves.


Tuesday, July 16 2013

Sheldrake on the evolution of consciousness

Rupert Sheldrake and I discuss the evolution of consciousness in this latest of our exchanges, available as a podcast or iTunes.

(Image: Oliver Spalt)


Friday, July 12 2013

Philosophy and true freedom of speech

This short thought has gone up on The Day website, the online newspaper for schools...

Philosophy struggles to find time in schools. This is probably partly the fault of contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. On their watch, the subject has come to feel dry, abstract and impenetrable to many on the outside. But it is also because, as a culture, we have lost touch with some of the key educational benefits of philosophy, not least of which is that young people love it.

They enjoy philosophy because it gives them a chance to explore, develop and air their own views. To put it another way, philosophy is not about what to think, but how to think. And thinking well – which ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato believed is the product of an educated heart as well as head – is exhilarating because it makes for our flourishing. Life is bigger as a result.

I think this is because really good philosophy, the kind that will appeal to students, is not just about reason and logic. They are important qualities, but thinking rationally is not the main aim of philosophy, in my view. Rather, the ability to sort through what you think serves a greater purpose.

If you can learn how to think freely through the practice of philosophy then true freedom of speech can be yours.

The ability to speak freely is harder than it might first seem. The ability to communicate with clarity is one component, the element with which rational thinking can help. To be able to offer three or four reasons for your point of view is far more persuasive, and personally satisfying, then huffing and insisting that such and such is just what you think.

But also, to speak freely, you have got to have discovered what you think about something to start with. That means having the inner freedom to explore possibilities. I have found that a number of components go into that process.

First, students need to be able to take risks with what they think. They may not be quite sure at first, and so need to feel encouraged and safe enough to venture a half-formed idea or possibility. Their inner accuser – the debilitating voice that whispers ‘Don't look stupid!’ – can be tamed in the process so that students find a greater liberty to step into the unknown.

Being able to tolerate not knowing is another attribute that philosophy can foster. This is what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’, the capacity to be 'in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' The problem with irritable reaching after reason is that it blocks the kind of honesty, openness and patience that discernment properly requires.

A third, related quality that you detect in those who can speak freely is an ability to play with ideas. It is the delight you find in, say, the novels of Lewis Carroll. ‘Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.’ Such sending up of tight, defensive reasoning makes space for the crucial elements of imagination and novelty, creativity and surprise that are the hallmark of free speakers – and of philosophers worth reading.

In short, philosophy is not just about reason. I suspect it might find more time in schools if that became more widely known. The good philosopher is the individual who can take risks, can tolerate uncertainty, can play with ideas. The heart is developed alongside the mind. And of course, such qualities should be central to education.


Tuesday, June 25 2013

Philosophy in 12 Key Steps with Mark Vernon

New at The Idler Academy!

Monday 23rd September – Monday 9th December 2013

‘I never spent Sunday afternoons looking forward to Monday until I joined this course!’

A twelve week crash course in philosophy, ancient and modern, western and eastern, examining key thinkers and key texts.

‘Mark is a great teacher who helps to bring clarity to some potentially very intimidating subjects.’

New to this course: - Read three key texts! - Explore Eastern philosophy! - Shine a light on the so-called dark ages!

1. Monday 23rd September 2013

Before Socrates: the birth of Western thought

We will consider the thought of individuals from Thales, sometimes called the father of philosophy, to the big hitters Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides, who argued over whether everything is in a state of flux or is, ultimately, one. The surviving texts of these philosophers are fragmentary but we can build up a fascinating picture of their extraordinary take on the world, ideas that have echoed across the centuries to our own day.

2. Monday 30th September 2013

Plato and Aristotle: the disciples of Socrates

Socrates is arguably the most influential figure in western philosophy. The richest picture of him comes to us via Plato, from the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, to that knowing that he knows little or nothing. What are his great insights? Why is he so important? Plato taught Aristotle with whom we ask further questions. How to be happy? What does it mean to have a friend? How should we organise society so as to flourish?

3. Monday 7th October 2013

Stoicism and Epicureanism: ancient philosophy’s success stories

The Stoics offered probably the most successful practical philosophy of life right up to the Christian period. Notions about ‘going with the flow’ and challenging one’s emotions can be traced back to Stoic ideas. Second most successful was Epicureanism, a kind of hedonism though one that severely critiques our consumer way of life. The trick, they thought, is to enjoy small pleasures rather than become addicted to ever bigger, unsustainable highs and kicks.

4. Monday 14th October 2013

Immanuel Kant, politics and the Enlightenment

After Descartes two different attitudes towards the world took root. Empiricism claimed that only the senses could be trusted as a source of knowledge. Idealism argued that our mental construction of the world must come first. Kant is the towering figure of the Enlightenment, attempting to outline the limits of human knowledge. His essays, What Is Enlightenment?, answers with the clarion call to dare to know for yourself. Though he was also a conservative figure, arguing that society must decide on truth, as well as seeking to synthesis empirical and idealist assumptions.

5. Monday 21st October 2013

Karl Popper and the philosophy of science

Modern science is indisputably one of humankind’s most powerful inventions, but just what it discovers and how it works is widely contested. Popper is a crucial figure in this debate, with his measure of falsifiability. He also wrote very well about history and Darwinism. We will also consider Thomas Kuhn, and the notion of paradigm shifts, and other contemporary interpretations. This evening will help you to get a grip on what science can and can’t address, equipping you for living in a scientific age.

6. Monday 28th October 2013

Friedrich Nietzsche and philosophies of the self

In this session, we cast an eye towards what is known as continental philosophy, which is generally as interested in questions of how to live alongside those of analytic philosophy’s how can we know. Some regard Nietzsche as the most important philosopher of the last century or so. A psychologist and poet too, he never fails to provoke. Foucault provides another stimulating way into this different world. A disciple of Nietzsche, theorist of the self and sexuality, his ideas have also percolated very widely.

7. Monday 4th November 2013

Eastern philosophy today: Indian idealism and Buddhism

Recent philosophy in the West has been dominated by various forms of scientific materialism, which is perhaps why the ancient systems of India are of growing interesting. They offer an idealist conceptions of things, the notion that mind is the fundamental way in which we relate to the cosmos. Buddhist thought represents another development of this approach, a practical philosophy that seeks to address the problem of suffering and discontent, simultaneously raising key questions about the nature of the self and how to live.

8. Monday 11th November 2013

Eastern philosophy today: Confucianism and Taoism

The great philosophical systems of China used to be curiosities for a few students of the Far East. Today, their impact can be felt on lives in the West, partly as a result of globalisation, partly as a result of growing interest in non-Christian spirituality. We will examine the basics of Confucianism and Taoism, have a brief look at some of the key texts, and origins. There will be time to discuss their relevance today.

9. Monday 18th November 2013

Medieval philosophy today: Plotinus and Thomas Aquinas

Although, the medieval period is known as the dark ages, it produced some of the greatest philosophers of all time. Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy was a best-selling for centuries, teaching that a right mind and heart can withstand all the pains of fate. And then came Thomas Aquinas, a monk in the new hippy order of Dominicans, whose interpretation of Aristotle is marked by genuine genius. His insights on the good life, on human psychology and on God, are still important today.

10. Monday 25th November 2013

Going deeper with a key text: Plato’s Symposium

It is said that sometime in 416BC, a group of notable Athenians, not least Socrates, sat down to discuss love. That’s Plato’s conceit, in his Symposium – one of those texts that you will recognise has influenced the way you think about love and beauty, truth and the highest vision to which mortals can aspire. It is a text to which you can return time and time again and always discover sometime new. We will do so in this reading-group style symposium.

'11. Monday 2nd December 2013''

Going deeper with a key text: Descartes’ Meditations

Descartes personal and highly readable reflection on what it is to be human stands on the threshold of a new way of being in the world, now called being modern. It turns doubt on itself to see what can be known for certain, and controversially concludes, ‘I think therefore I am’. Descartes is widely held responsible for mind/body dualism. In this symposium we will look his book, which he regarded as a spiritual reflection, and at what it means to live in his shadow.

12. Monday 9th December 2013

Going deeper with a key text: William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience

Delivered as lectures, this set of reflections on religious experience have not really been beaten in the one hundred years since their publication. James – the brother of the novelist Henry – is a brilliant writer: witty, insightful, arresting and scholarly in equal measure. He writes in the period before philosophy became separate from theology and psychology, even more so from spirituality, a change that would have astonished the ancient philosophers. His book offers a way back to integrating these key domains of human interest and concern.

‘It is much better to be talk philosophy than to read it.’

Sign up for all 12 weeks – £300 (2 weeks free), 6 weeks £150 (1 week free) or individual evenings – £30 an evening.


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