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Friday, February 5 2016

What is ancient philosophy?

My recent talk at Watkins bookshop, exploring the spirit of ancient Greek philosophy.

The book of the talk:

Wednesday, February 3 2016

"I am large, I contain multitudes."

Science Set Free On Family Constellations

Rupert Shedrake and I have published the latest in our Science Set Free podcasts, discussing family constellations.

We look at how we are not individuals but rather are more like nodes in networks: we are connected across living systems of families, organisations, cultures and spiritual traditions. The discussion focuses particularly on family constellations therapy, a way of examining how blocks and difficulties in life can be related to elements that we have taken on board from others. Rupert examines how this idea of inherited unconscious memory reveals what he has investigated as morphic fields. Mark asks how what is revealed in constellations workshops can be related to insights that can be traced back through psychotherapy to Plato and before.

Mark's next constellations workshop is on Saturday March. 5. Full details here.

Tuesday, January 26 2016

New stuff at the Idler

The new Idler magazine is launched today. I've a piece on Socrates and his unexpected relationship with the priestess Diotima. Plato says she was key to his life. You'll hardly hear her discussed by philosophers today.

Starting next month, I'll be leading two classes at Pedlars, one of the new venues for The Idler Academy - first on psychotherapy, then on ancient philosophy. Do consider signing up.

Thursday, January 14 2016

Constellations workshop, March 5th

Constellations is a type of therapy that provides a way of looking at the issues we experience in life as a puzzle, or block, or struggle, or anxiety. They might be personal or work-related, to do with relationships or past events.

Mark runs regular constellations workshops, as a chance to take a fresh look at these troubles, one that is complementary to other kinds of therapy or quest. The next workshop is on Saturday 5th March. Full details and booking here. For further information or questions email him here.

Participants in constellations workshops frequently find what emerges to be unexpected, illuminating and liberating. To attend a workshop, you do not need to have a particular issue in mind. In fact, during a workshop only 5 or so participants will have a chance directly to look at their question. But other members of the group can be involved during the course of the day and, in fact, often find that they indirectly gain great benefit from being so. It explores how each of us belongs to networks of other people, times and places, with whom our lives are intimately bound.

To put it a little more technically, constellations is a systemic therapy: it looks at our experience of life as the product of wider family and cultural systems. Things can become difficult or go wrong when our place in these systems becomes problematic for one reason or another - perhaps because of family secrets, traumatic events, injustices, or relationship breakdowns. It's an aspect of our existence that is crucial and yet infrequently considered in our otherwise rather individual-focused times.

I can honestly say that it will be fascinating and moving. These events always are. If you have an interest in the inner life and unconscious processes, you will be engaged. You can participate as an observer, as a representation, or as an issue-holder - the level at which you bring something personally that you would like to explore.

The next workshop is on Saturday 5th March. Full details and booking here.

Sunday, June 28 2015

Order now: The Idler Guide To Ancient Philosophy

My new book, published by Idler Books, will be available from July 2015. Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter…

Our story begins a long time ago in a universe that, psychologically speaking, is pretty far away. It is the age of Homer – of warriors and heroes, gods and monsters. Oral means of communication were the norm, not writing: thoughts were written on the heart before they were transferred to the page. An individual in those times – the undifferentiated years of the tenth, ninth, eighth centuries BC – might have looked at the red sky, the black sea or the green land (ancient Greeks had no word for blue) and felt a flood of meaning washing from the hills and waves. The experience was unlike a modern mentality in which we spontaneously turn inside seeking insight in introspection.

There was, as yet, no clear distinction between inside and outside yourself. Human beings were porous, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has put it. Hence, if you read Homer, you find that his heroes have crises but unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they do not stand on an empty stage and reflect via soliloquy. ‘To be or not to be…’ Such deliberation requires a sense of self that is individual, separate, facing its own unique clusters of pain. Rather, in Homer, a miasma rises up, the scene cuts to gods arguing on Olympus, and the characters of Achilles or Hecuba are played like chess pieces in the game called fate. They have what the philologist Owen Barfield called participatory consciousness. We are therefore I am, not I think therefore I am. Things began to shift in the first stirrings of what we now call philosophy. The presocratic philosophers were those individuals who began to ask the kind of questions that cause a certain distance to open between the individual and the world in which they had felt immersed. They began to create a mentality that feels more familiar to us, one that planted the seeds of the modern. We know one of those queries left by Anaxamines of Miletus, one of the earliest philosophers of the sixth century. He thought to blow on his hand in two ways. First, with his mouth wide open. Then, with his lips pursed. He noticed a difference. Try it.

When blowing with his mouth wide open, the air felt warm. With his lips pursed, it felt cold on his hand. And then he thought to ask why?

That small question represents a massive leap of mind. It wonders if the difference might have a physical reason, a proto-scientific explanation. We now describe the effect as a result of Boyle’s law. The air from pursed lips feels cooler because it undergoes a rapid expansion as it leaves your mouth. That takes energy, so the temperature drops. The air from an open mouth undergoes no change of pressure, and so emerges still warm, at body temperature.

But there is something more subtle going on in Anaxamines’ ‘why’ too. The effect of asking is to distance you from the experience itself. Part of you has the experience of warm and cool air hitting your palm. But now, another part of you takes an inner step back and reflects on the experience. That inner shift is symptomatic of the new way of engaging with life that was emerging at the time of the presocratics. It is that change of consciousness they can be said to have helped crystalize. It is as if alongside life known as a series of fateful events, a deeper truth may be found by turning inwards and reflecting. Introspection had begun.

It carries benefits and costs. One big benefit is that sciences can get going. The presocratics are remembered for coming up with questions we still ask, such as what the world is made of, can I predict whether it will rain tomorrow, do living organisms evolve? Their answers, like ours, also made them more capable of manipulating the world. The change put power in their hands. Another early philosopher, Thales also of Miletus, was such an astute observer of nature that he was able to forecast that next summer would be particularly good for olives. His new science gave him the confidence to buy the rights to license olive presses. Next summer came and he made a killing, because he was correct. Everyone had to pay him a small tax to capitalise on the bumper crop.

But there is a cost of prioritising this more analytical, manipulative form of consciousness over a participatory one, too. It is separation. Hence, Barfield labeled this new phase of life, alienated. I now have the sense that there is a distance between myself and the world, one that feels difficult to bridge because I regard myself as an isolated subject, an ‘I’, in a universe of objects, or things. The shift from an oral to a written culture has a similar effect. Put words on a page, and you cause the illusion that they have an abstract, virtual existence; no longer living in the heart but on the page. What they describe need not be intimately tied to our experience. Hence we know Hamlet as an artifice, a fiction. Homer’s hearers must have felt his heroes existed, in some archetypal way. Similarly, we no longer live with the supposition of oral cultures who see words in the landscape, aboriginal meanings in the stars and clouds. Hereon, philosophy runs the risk of seeming to conquer all mysteries ‘by rule and line’, to recall Keats’ lament for those lost times.

The effects of these changes in the presocratic era have evolved over the centuries, responding to socio-economic as well as ideological developments. For example, whilst Thales thought to capitalise on his new knowledge, it was not until the early modern period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that science and technology became the raison d’être of entire societies, in the industrial revolutions. Alternatively, it was the conditions of the nineteenth century that generated a new kind of human being, the atheist, who concluded there was a fundamental gulf between the worldview known as scientific and that known as religious. An ancient philosopher, upon making a discovery, would have thought it entirely sensible and appropriate to offer a sacrifice in the local temple. ‘Everything is full of gods,’ Thales the meteorologist also delighted in declaring. None of the ancient philosophers felt it necessary to ask whether there was a meaning to life either. If anything, they struggled because life was too full of meaning. They did not adopt the assumption that disconnected introspection alone must adjudication on purpose and fulfillment. That took the emergence of an ideal of self-sufficient, self-determining, autonomous individuality. Ancient philosophers, like most humans in history, argued that asking where you are is as valuable a question as asking who you are: they followed the injunction to know thyself rather than the more modern need to make something of oneself.

But nonetheless, the assumptions that shape us now find an early reflection in the surviving fragments of works by individuals like Anaxamines and Thales. Unlike Homer, who always comes across as a bit dreamy and mythological, their inquiries feel familiar. Their take on life is striking because, though two and a half thousand years old, it feels related to our own.

Monday, April 13 2015

OFFER! Idler Course - Introduction to psychology and psychotherapy

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

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

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

Time: 6:30 – 8pm.

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

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

Monday 20th April: The first few years.

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

Monday 27th April: From ghosts to ancestors.

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

Monday 11th May: The meaning of dreams.

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

Monday 18th May: Relationship styles.

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

Monday 1st June: Psychological types.

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

Monday 8th June: Spiritual paths.

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

Monday, December 29 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 24 2014

Why we go home at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21 2014

The School of Athens: then and now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11 2014

Announcing new Idler online modern philosophy course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7 2014

Freud the sceptic, Idler Academy talk

Few people take Freud at face value anymore. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But he did us a great service. After Freud, it's much harder to ignore the fact that we are not the commanders of our consciousness. We do things that we wished we hadn't done, and don't do things we wish we had. Even more so when it comes to feelings when, on occasion, we are swept away by rage, envy, hate.

To put it another way, we don't really know ourselves; can rapidly become strangers to ourselves. If you pay enough attention you quickly come to realise that the bit you feel you do know, which Freud called the ego, is only one part of the complex system called the human psyche. Waking thoughts are just the tip of the unconscious iceberg.

In fact, Freud was not the first to realise that there is more to our inner lives than we might or can be aware of. The ancient Hellenistic philosophers known as Epicureans and Stoics realised that there are many situations when we cannot control ourselves. We might will it, but another part of us won't it. They reasoned that we must have feelings we don't feel; desires we don't realise we're slaves to.

But arguably, the ancient philosophy school that Freud followed most closely were the sceptics. In the Greek, sceptic means searcher or enquirer, and they were entirely unlike modern day 'sceptics'. They did not go around debunking other people's beliefs, a strategy that Freud would have instantly realised is defensive since the upshot is that it protects your own beliefs. Rather, the ancient and true sceptics tried to go let go of their consciousness understandings and see what novelties and fears might emerge.

Put it this way. Although you may think you are walking through life with your eyes open, they realised that in truth we may as well have our eyes closed. So they metaphorically shut their eyes and embraced the bumps and blows. They found it was not only therapeutic, leading in time to an unexpected inner tranquility. They found that actually they discovered far more about life in the process because they could tolerate, even welcome, what life threw at them. To use Freudian language, they became far less defensive.

Freud developed another technique called free association. He encouraged his patients to speak out whatever comes into their mind. It sounds easy, but it's hard. In fact, free association - speaking whatever the life of the mind throws at you - is more likely to be the end point and achievement of psychoanalysis rather than it's starting point. It opens up the unconscious and that is often frightening. But also, the search is intriguing and unexpectedly revealing. It can, in time, lead to an entirely new experience of life, one that embraces the darkness of the psyche, and ends at least some of our inner fights, anxieties and struggles.

We'll talk more about Freud at the Idler Academy on Monday 20th October.

And also about Jung at the Idler Academy on Monday 27th October. 

Book here!

Friday, September 5 2014

LPC Wisdom event - Rupert Sheldrake on science and spiritual practices

Thursday 25th September, St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Book here!

Rupert Sheldrake writes: "Science has done much to alienate us from our direct, intuitive experience of nature. But now the sciences themselves are transcending the materialist world-view, and recent experimental research points to the reality of our intuitive and mental connections to the world around us."

Rupert Sheldrake will show how the sciences can now illuminate aspects of spiritual practices including pilgrimage, the power of sacred places, rituals, rites of passage, meditation and prayer.

Entry will be five pounds. There will be the opportunity to get a glass of wine before the event, and doors will be open at around 7.00. We will finish at roughly 9.00.

Book here!

This event is part of a series organized by Jules Evans and Mark Vernon, called 'LPC : Wisdom' , exploring the ancient idea of philosophy as the love of wisdom.

Monday, August 11 2014

Southbank summer of love festival

I enjoyed this definition of philia in the festival posters, and was struck by how much agape was around - a rather Christian kind of love… And so am glad to be contributing with a talk on philautia this Saturday too.

Friday, July 18 2014

What kind of love do we need?

In this RSA series on reconceiving spirituality, we have explored what it might mean to 'take spirituality seriously', the role of the body in spiritual experience, what sense we can make of the soul in a scientific age, and the importance of reflecting on our mortality. Join us for the penultimate event in this series, when we examine an experience and ideal that many believe has to be at the heart of any reappraisal of the spiritual: Love.

Tuesday, June 24 2014

Let's talk about death

The RSA had the latest in its public discussions of issues related to spirituality last night, on death. Worth a watch, especially for the disturbance Will Self brings which is entirely appropriate to the subject.

It also struck me how woefully misunderstood traditional religious approaches to death are these days, as if Buddhism is mostly about being happy or Christianity just promises jam tomorrow.

Some of my take-home thoughts are below…

If we saw people dying and dead then perhaps mass entertainment of people dying and dead would seem less enticing. Will Self.

Christianity teaches dissolution and actualization as part of the same process, not unlike Buddhism. Will Self.

There is no such thing as life and death but rather deathlife like spacetime. Will Self.

Deathlife brings the dead back into play, not disappearing them beneath the waves, as secular culture tends too. Will Self.

The present moment is having its moment at the moment. Joanna Cook, thinking about mindfulness.

Thinking about my death moves death from a problem to be solved to a how to live life. You are already naked. Joanna Cook

Wednesday, April 30 2014


There are still a few places left!

Enjoy a weekend of philosophy and food down at the Idler farmhouse on the North Devon coast.

Your hosts will be Idler Academy founders Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull, and your teacher will be philosopher Mark Vernon.

The weekend will start on Friday evening with welcoming cocktails, introductions, bread-baking class and a short talk from Tom before dinner.

On Saturday morning we’ll take classes in Ancient philosophy, where we will learn about the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the schools that followed. We’ll be placing great relevance on how their ideas are relevant today and to your own situation. After lunch there will be time for walks and naps. There will be a further class at 4pm on Saturday, followed by cocktails and dinner.

On Sunday morning Tom will give a sermon, followed by a seminar from Mark. After lunch there will the opportunity for another walk, followed by tea.

This is a real treat for mind and body.

Book here and get a discount! (Purchase the retreat as usual, and when the green strip which reads 'Got a coupon?' appears at the top of the page, type in 'Zeno'.

Thursday, April 3 2014

What happened to the soul?

Iain McGilchrist talked to this theme at the RSA on Monday. Very much worth listening too!

Some Twitter highlights I made, if you want a quick digest:

Soul has a meaning because of instances in language when mind or heart or brain won't do. It's something bigger or deeper.

We don't have words for certain spiritual or soulful music. We need a word that's hard to define or we miss it.

Soul is more process than thing. Hence imagery of fire or spark. A latent function that needs nurturing. And suffering too?

Soul is resonant area. A disposition towards life. A way of knowing knowledge itself.

To understand soul need to put ourselves in the disposition to understand it. It won't just show up.

Shouldn't try to enoble soul by splitting from body. Instincts make substance of the soul. See soul in the eyes. So soul is not dualistic notion. The body is the best image of the soul, Wittgenstein remarked

Spirituality is often about not knowing because if you know too much, you miss it. Like time or beauty in that.

Soul is not going way of god of the gaps. Will always need appropriate modes of thought for different objects of thought

Soul is not ghost in the machine. Body is not machine. Plus soul & body may be aspects of one. Duality not same as dualism

McGilchrist on afterlife: perhaps we are like waves in water, or a part that's part of a whole. Our cognition is too small.

How to approach soul? Through depth, sublime, love, experience, the oblique, awareness of the ground of being.

Finally, for those engaged in 'Iain McGilchrist' studies, the talk was of note to me too because Iain quoted Platonic sources positively and without qualification (unlike in The Master and His Emissary, where to put it too crudely Plato is one of the 'bad guys'.) Afterwards, Iain did say he's changed his mind on Plato...

Friday, March 7 2014

The three kinds of love, or four

Investigating the three kinds of love in a talk given last summer at How The Light Gets In festival...

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!

Wednesday, December 18 2013

Stoicism for today?

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