It seems to me that there’s an approach to thinking about divinity which is rarely mentioned today (though perhaps it has been growing in popularity just recently), which is powerful and beautiful indeed.
This approach is the Neoplatonic journey to the One, the movement of the mind toward that which is purely simple and indivisible.
Onewardness is a common direction of human thinking. It seems to me, indeed, that it might fairly be spoken of as that which most characterizes human thinking, and surely it is precisely this onewardness that makes human thinking so unique and powerful.
When we see a jumble of unlike things and find their interconnectedness in a single system, we are taking what is many and bringing the many into unity, by means of our thinking. Our ability to speak of ecosystems or communities highlights this human capacity to unify.
The opposite also shows the same thing; when we look at a coherent whole and mentally disassemble it into its essential parts, we are taking what is many and drawing forth the unities that are obscured by their participation in the multiplicity, and again we accomplish this by way of thought. To speak of the organs which compose an organism, or of strata or atoms or indeed of parts, shows this human ability and human yearning to find the unities behind multiplicity.
When we class multiple individuals together into a universal abstraction, we are once more taking the many and bringing them into a kind of unity. Speaking about biological kingdoms, families, genera, species, is an example of how we engage in this sort of simplifying work.
And again, our ability to move in the opposite direction is a sign of the same thing. When we begin with an abstraction which encompasses many things, and we recognize the individuality of a given instance of that general abstraction, we are taking the many and transforming it into one. Asking an infant to point to “a tree” is an example of this ability to move from the general (treeness) to the individual (that thing right over there).
So human thought is always striving toward the one. To think is itself almost able to be defined as a striving after the one. We are constantly confronted by the many, and straining to replace it with greater unity and simplicity of different sorts.
Well then, we find ourselves faced with two questions:
1. Do these mental steps toward greater unity correspond to deeper levels of unity that exist within reality, or are they nothing more than self-deceptions created within the human mind? And,
2. Is there an extreme limit to onewardness, or does it continue on without end? In other words, is it like straightness, where something can get straighter and straighter until it reaches perfect straightness and cannot be made any straighter? Or is it more like bigness, where something can keep getting bigger and bigger without ever reaching a logical point of maximal bigness?
The Neoplatonist takes the former position in each of the two questions. The unities in our minds bear at least some kind of resemblance to the way things are in reality, and there is a most-unified Something toward which all of the other, lesser unities point us.
The Neoplatonic answers to these questions seem entirely coherent to me. In fact, truth be told, any answers other than the Neoplatonists’ seem like they would be incoherent.
When I was younger, I heard a whisper of a rumour. It was a rumour about where wisdom was to be found.
I heard that long ago, there was a succession of thinkers, and in their thoughts can be seen glimpses of that wisdom which encompasses and indwells the world.
Out of one part of those thoughts grew all the mighty technology and terrible machines of the modern world, all the wonders that so impress us today. And I heard that this one part of their thought, which has expanded into such a marvellous enterprise in our past, was only the smallest and lowest part of what they knew.
Originally these thinkers were Greek, but their later successors often also wrote in Latin and Arabic and other languages.
Their writings are often translated, though sometimes not, or sometimes only poorly. Even where good translations are readily available, the ideas are highly difficult to assimilate, requiring many years of toilsome effort to make progress in.
And it’s only a rumour. Few people I’ve ever met have made any progress at all in that sort of learning, and even for those who have, they can often only impart some small portion of what they’ve learned.
Who would stake everything on a rumour? What if you gave your life to learning these things and in the end found only vanity and emptiness?
Still, so many of the other rumours of wisdom that float around today are more easily dismissed. This one at least seems like one of those that may be true. And this one hopeful glimmer will necessarily attract many who thirst for wisdom.
If this is where wisdom is to be found, it is everything. For many of us, then, it will seem worth the risk.
So you want to be healthy and strong? I know a couple books that might help.
We all feel inspired to improve our bodily condition at certain points in our lives. The doctor gives a suboptimal piece of news. The movie’s attractive protagonist is transformed through struggle and determination. An unexpected glimpse of oneself in a mirror or a photograph forces a confrontation with reality.
But inspiration and motivation aren’t enough. We won’t reach the destination if we can’t even find what direction to turn in, or which path to embark on. On the questions of diet and exercise, there is a veritable mountain of competing advice available, and a shocking level of misinformation floating around. Everyone wants to make a buck, and the best way to do so is apparently by telling people what they want to hear and offering some new spin.
So the trick, then, is to cut through the noise and find the truth.
I think these two books offer a great deal of help in that respect. You might not want to hear all of what they have to say, but it’s my conclusion that they are nonetheless worth hearing out.
One book offers guidance on the science of exercise, and one on the science of diet. Neither is a how-to manual. The exercise book doesn’t give a full workout regimen, and the diet book won’t offer a list of meals to eat. But they give the guidance which will make it possible to choose exercises and foods wisely, which in my experience is far more valuable.
The First 20 Minutes, by Gretchen Reynolds, is a book without parallel about exercise science. It blasts away some common myths, and it explores many of the benefits of exercise and the best and worst ways to exercise. An inspiring and informative read.
My second book recommendation is How Not to Die, by Michael Greger (not to be confused with his followup book How Not to Diet, also a pretty good read but not where I’d recommend beginning). How Not to Die is an amazing book. It is very challenging to most of us who read it, but it also makes an effort to be welcoming. There are almost certainly problems with the kinds of food we come to eat, including problems we had no idea were anything wrong. This is the book that will tell us how to change our eating for the better, and it will break the news to us in a gentle, clear, and winsome manner.
If you want to live a long life, to preserve your brain’s health, to feel good and strong, to be able to think clearly and without hindrance, then these two books are the place to start. They cut through the noise and lay out a path which is perhaps not easy, but at least clear.
I’ve realized that there’s a particular point in the language-learning process that I’m excited to reach with every language on my list.
“Good enough.” That’s the first big goal.
Obviously, “good enough” is not the end goal of language learning, but rather “proficiency,” whatever that might mean for a person’s particular goals, is the true aim.
Still, “good enough” might very well be the most important milestone on the road to proficiency. What does it mean? For me, “good enough” basically means being able to puzzle my way through a given short text in the target language, without being forced to give up.
I want the language to be good enough that I can read through real texts, slowly, with appropriate supports.
Currently, I’m nowhere near good enough with Arabic to add it into my reading rotation. I can’t quite even pronounce the script consistently, let alone consistently recognize eg the difference between a verb and a noun. With Russian, though, the gap between me and “good enough” is not nearly so wide. I’ve studied substantially more Russian than Arabic currently, and so at some point in the next while, if my schedule will allow, I hope to review a bit and work Russian into the cycle of languages that I read regularly.
Once I’m good enough with a language that I can begin reading in it and learning by encountering it directly in texts, then, in a way, I can coast. All I need to do is read, and keep reading. If I read a lot then I’ll learn more quickly, and if a little then I’ll learn more slowly, but all I need to make sure to do is to keep reading the sorts of things I want to be able to read.
Reading real texts in a language is incomparably useful for learning that language. It gives a sense of what the language is really like, what sorts of sentence structures are actually common, which words are important, which tenses are less common to see. Reading texts enables more targeted learning, focusing more on the most important components of the language rather than learning the whole thing evenly.
Besides, reading texts in other languages is the whole purpose of learning languages, for me. I might as well start on it as soon as I can.
So I’m most excited to get my languages to that point.
It can be an exciting thing, or a frightening thing, to realize that the things we’re doing regularly right now, if we keep doing them for the next few years, are things we’ll get to be very good at.
It can be reading and reflecting on philosophical texts. It’s astonishing how much a text changes over the course of a few years of practice. Something you read early on will make so much more sense when it’s read after half a decade of reading other philosophical texts.
It might be a language that we’ll be better at. It doesn’t matter how bad you think you are at languages. If you are constantly, repeatedly spending time studying one, it will eventually start making sense, and probably a lot sooner than you’d fear.
Maybe it’s exercise. Barring a serious injury, a couple years of running or lifting weights will change your body and soul, and will leave you considerably more capable than at the beginning.
Then again, it’s not only the good things we do that will grow within us.
Maybe being passive-aggressive is what we’ll be good at. Maybe it will be self-righteousness, or procrastination, that will become our expertise.
We have so much power over our future. Don’t think about the things that you’ll do this year, or by Christmas, or by next month. Think about today.
Make today the kind of day you can be proud of. Or at least make it one step closer to that kind of day.
Make that small change and hang onto it, and once it’s getting easy, make a second change. Don’t rush it. There’s no hurry. Make a small improvement and cling to it, and that’s more than enough.
Learn to change the day today, and you’ll simultaneously learn to change your entire life.
Do something you can be proud of today. And then do it again tomorrow.
Whatever we do day by day will be who we are, and what we’re great at, in just a few years. What will those things be?
I’ve met a number of intelligent people who think philosophy is always something historically bound and socially constructed and nothing more. They’ll say that philosophy is always really a theology, or always myth, bound to its historical origin and expressive of its originating circumstances and possessing no real claim to universality except what it can win for itself through conquest or propaganda. This view is actually not rare among conservative religious people, as surprising as that should seem.
The goal seems to be to pull reason down from its lofty, universalizing pretensions, and to show that we can never escape our particularity. Affirming our particularity is of course a valuable thing, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of philosophy’s rightful domain of evaluating the timeless, transhistorical questions.
Now, I’m not saying that religion or mythology are themselves always fictional, or that they don’t have a claim to universal validity (although a false religion could hardly claim to be more than a pleasant or useful fiction). What I am saying is that in my view, if everything is just competing religions, then there is no access to truth. In that case, all belief becomes fideistic and unable to appeal to any justification above itself or outside itself, which means that all belief becomes arbitrary. Historically, philosophy has been seen as something different. Its unique domain allows it, at its best, to look at particular claims and compare them impartially, and evaluate them.
Why, then, would anybody want to believe that philosophy should be treated as just another historical ideological sort of force, on a level field competing with countless other such forces?
I think there are a couple possible reasons, based on my experience. As we might fairly expect, they’re not all that philosophical.
For one thing, philosophy is exceedingly difficult to engage with well on its own terms, but is easily laid low when held to standards that are alien to it. We can defeat philosophy by this means, anytime we like, though our victory will always be meaningless. This victory will be a constant temptation for those who don’t have sufficient philosophical training to engage fairmindedly with the philosophical tradition (even though many will mistakenly feel that they have more than enough philosophical training to rest comfortably in their conclusions). It’s an easy view to slip into, because most audience members or conversation partners will likewise be lacking in such training, especially in our day, and unable to correct it.
I don’t mean to be rude or to “win” by being uncharitable here. I would say that most of us who study the philosophical tradition have an inadequate grasp of it. It takes years, or really decades, to begin to have a comprehensive sense of the alternatives and arguments that are available there in all their richness, and I suspect that many of us who make it our life’s work will still reach the end of our lives not having succeeded as well as we hoped to.
Those who have chosen to belittle philosophy show themselves to have two extra handicaps when it comes to understanding philosophy: They have made a decision to interpret philosophy in a way that is explicitly contrary to philosophy’s historic self-presentation, and they have showed how little motivation there is for them to do the arduous work of understanding philosophy. This is not unkind to say, I think, but only realistic and fair.
Furthermore, another reason why we may want to think that all philosophy is basically just religion dressed up is that then we religious people can feel good about ourselves and don’t need to be defensive before the tribunal of philosophical reason. This feels like it makes for a fairer fight against irreligious people. “You say my beliefs are based on faith, yeah, well, turns out yours are too!”
This mistaken effort treats philosophy as if it is somehow interchangeable with atheism or irreligiosity. The idea that there could be a realm of knowledge not determined by some kind of faith from the ground up is threatening, in that light. It means that the atheists might be right when they say religion is unnecessary! If we can get rid of that dangerous epistemological space called philosophy, then unavoidably the religious people will be right and the irreligious wrong, and so of course that’s attractive to some to be able to affirm.
However, I actually think this motivation fails to appreciate a legitimate intermediate position that can be held — that there is something outside of faith to which we can appeal, andalso that the great majority of irreligious people hold their beliefs for reasons that have more to do with faith and tradition and prejudice than with anything resembling rationality. We could entertain that possibility without having to reject philosophy’s autonomy before we ever begin. It is entirely possible to hold that philosophy is something other than a religious tradition, and at the same time also to insist that philosophy, properly understood, affirms the best arguments for God and the need for religion. Indeed, this is precisely what the great majority of important theologians and philosophers through history have taught.
I think there’s also sometimes an aesthetic consideration motivating this view of philosophy. Some people are just attracted to the vision of a world full of visions, of a world filled with competing faiths where everything that’s not a faith is really just faith in disguise — faith acting in bad faith, perhaps. And I have to admit, I do feel the attraction myself as well, though in the end I reject it.
And lastly, it may also be that people are misled by an obvious fact that can be twisted to an unreasonable conclusion. The truth is, every philosopher is indeed historically bound, speaking in a particular language and responding to a particular historical situation. Now, it would of course be very clearly a fallacy to try and say that this means the philosopher has, for this reason, no access to transhistorical truth … but that won’t stop people from trying.
There are two major and obvious problems with this whole approach to philosophy.
First, we have to ask from what vantage point it is possible to make such an absolute and universal pronouncement about the nature of philosophy. The pronouncement purports to be something quasi-philosophical, but of course it cannot be a philosophical position, or it would straightaway invalidate itself. So then it must be something held by faith. And if there are people who claim that fideism is everything simply because they believe very strongly that it is, then I suppose all we can really do is point out the circular nature of their conclusions and, if they do not see a problem, leave them to it.
Secondly, if it is true that all philosophical thought is ultimately only religious doctrine in disguise, then there is no way to judge between differing viewpoints.
I believe that in one sense we cannot escape our particularity. The material circumstances of our lifetime will always characterize our thoughts and speech in ways that are inescapable.
In another sense, though, we certainly can escape our particularity, through our particularity. It makes me think of Thomas Aquinas’s account of knowing, in which every particular leads us to the universal, so that every particular triangle, for instance, opens up for us the universality of triangularity. For St Thomas, we can never fully leave behind our particularity, since we cannot relate to the universal apart from particulars, but at the same time particularity cannot ever be the whole for a human. Particularity is always accompanied by universality, because of what it means for us to be human, and that is itself what makes philosophy possible.
There are two big mistakes we can make when beginning to think about science. We need to try to avoid, not one error or the other — we need to avoid both.
For one thing, the natural sciences aren’t solitary and supreme. We shouldn’t see them as the only source of knowledge, and we furthermore shouldn’t treat them as unquestionable, or authoritative in every area, or able to give a full answer to every question. Science has limitations, which many seem either not to know about, or not to care about.
But at the same time, the natural sciences are not merely Rorschach blots. They aren’t fictions, or postmodern artwork onto which any sort of interpretation can legitimately be projected. They do give us a kind of knowledge, which is not available otherwise, and which it is sheer folly to deny or ignore.
The natural sciences might not give us the whole truth, but at the same time that doesn’t mean they are completely devoid of truth either.
The natural sciences do develop within a social context with social pressures and idiosyncratic characters and biases and mixed motives. That is true of every area of study, though.
We shouldn’t bow down and worship the sciences or scientists. The materialist or atheist who claims not to believe anything that isn’t proven by natural science lives in a small and strange world. Science doesn’t tell us everything, and doesn’t (cannot) claim to.
It is also the height of stupidity to assume that a contempt for science gives us greater insight into the natural world than is available to natural sciences.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the predictions about climate change aren’t quite right, but I’m no expert.” That might be okay. “Those scientists don’t know what they’re talking about! The climate isn’t changing! I mean come on. I’m not a climate scientist but even I know there’s powerful, obvious evidence that they’re completely wrong which is just being ignored or suppressed by the entire scientific community except for a few crackpots who are probably the next Einstein, since they happen to agree with what I wish were the truth.” That is not so okay. That sort of thing is generally the sign of an uneducated mind.
When we realize that we have a finite daily amount of brainpower to expend on the things we care about, when we truly realize that, it’s life-changing.
I think about the first time I tried to learn Latin. I figured I would just sit down and start memorizing. I was very motivated, I thought, and would do however much it took. And then I would know Latin! How impressive would it be if I could make great strides in the language, over the course of only a few weeks? Someday they’ll make a biographical movie of my life and they’ll play something like the Rocky theme song at this part of the story!
After an hour and a half of brutally hard work that day, during which I learned very little, I gave up for the day, and the next day couldn’t bring myself to repeat the experience. A week later I got up the courage to try the same thing again, with the same results. Before long, I wasn’t even trying to fool myself into thinking that I was still attempting it.
That’s how college classes tend to go as well, at least for the majority of us. We start out with good intentions, doing all the assigned readings, the little assignments, and thinking ahead about some of the bigger projects. And then all of a sudden, a big assignment is due. It snuck up. We exhaust ourselves over a couple days getting it done, and we’ve fallen behind on the other, smaller daily tasks. And we don’t have the energy to get caught up on them right away, and soon enough we notice that nothing bad really seems to have happened since we stopped doing the regular readings. After that, we’re leapfrogging from big assignment to big assignment, long stretches of laziness punctuated by frantic bursts of intellectual effort.
That’s exactly the wrong way to learn. Whether we’re attempting that path because we’re inspired (as I was with Latin) or because we feel trapped into it (college classes), the whole approach undermines the long-term and masterful study of a subject.
The problem is just that we only have so much brainpower in a day, especially for a single task. Introducing some variety can help extend our daily limitations somewhat, but even then there’s only so much our brains can do in a day.
Pushing behind that daily limit, even only a small number of times, sets us into a counterproductive headspace. It makes us stressed, reluctant, resistant, tired, frustrated, distractible, lazy.
The smart way to learn, then, is to make a habit of doing a small amount every day. Never exceed that finite capacity.
Spend five, ten, fifteen minutes on a project, every single day. It will never feel burdensome or stressful, and progress will happen with surprising speed. Maybe learning a new skill will take a year or two at that rate, which might sound slow, but just think how much progress will be made over the course of a decade. Certainly I would know a lot more about Latin now if that’s how I had started out ten years ago.
So the next time you’re feeling inspired to learn something new, don’t be persuaded that motivation or willpower can overpower the brain’s natural limitations. That’s the way of folly. Instead, channel that inspiration into forming a new, small, repetitive habit.
Heidegger says somewhere that the two most philosophical languages in the West are classical Greek and modern German. I think he believed there was something special about the history or the structure of the languages themselves that lent itself particularly well to philosophical work; I’m not so sure whether that’s true, although I’m more open to it now since realizing something about myself.
The two philosophical literatures that I am most excited to be able to read in the original languages are the Greek and the German; the Greek especially up to the end of the end of the so-called Neoplatonic Academy in the sixth century, and German basically from Kant forward.
I originally wasn’t that excited at all about beginning to study German, or about the sort of things I’d be able to read. I had to cast about, helplessly trying to think of something, anything that I might enjoy reading in German, in order to motivate myself to stick with the language.
Somehow, though, in the course of studying the language I’ve realized how much is written in that language that I want to have access to. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and many more.
Now of course in the West, bridging from the end of the Greek to the early German philosophical traditions I’ve specified, there was Latin scholasticism. With my background, it might seem like I would be excited to read this part of philosophical history most of all! And indeed, it is very high on my list. Still, it does come in below Greek and German.
I don’t know if I can fully justify that. Certainly I wouldn’t get into an argument with someone if they were more excited to study the medieval scholastics than the ancient Greeks or the modern Germans. I would sympathize, and celebrate it!
And I would understand if someone said I was giving regrettably short shrift to great philosophical works produced in English or Italian or French.
I’m excited for those languages and literatures as well, and a year ago I might not have been able to arrange them into a hierarchy to represent which ones really seem most enticing to me. But after a lot of reflection, I’m getting closer to finding out what I see the most value in.
So then, that’s what it comes down to for me. I’m most excited for Greek, and second most for German. Those two are at the top by a good margin. And I feel that way because of my desire to study philosophy. So maybe old Heidegger was right about this one after all.
There’s a fear that philosophy is going to lead us away from the truths that we already know.
It’s a reasonable fear. The philosophical path begins by questioning many things, including many good things that will turn out to be true. The very act of questioning such things can have destructive consequences. The person who asks the questions won’t always have the capacity to follow those questions through to their best answers, or else by the time good answers are secured it may already be too late to undo some of the social damage our questioning may have caused.
What if a young woman, interested in philosophy, were to turn away from the religious faith of her family, ending up an atheist? What if a young man, interested in philosophy, were to turn away from the respectable progressivism he’d been raised in to embrace a far-right extremism? I’m not saying either of these are necessary conclusions of the philosophical journey, but they certainly are possible outcomes, and perhaps not uncommon today, and probably fairly undesirable, at least from the standpoint of the original community.
We might want to reject philosophy then, in favour of what we’ve always believed to be true, in favour of what a given community accepts as truth.
But to some degree, the questioning will happen anyways. Some people, certain young people especially, I think, have a seemingly natural inclination to question. Especially in today’s world, but even more generally, we might just have to accept that those who want to ask questions are going to ask them. So the questioning will come, and it might as well be at least somewhat directed by people who have thought these same sorts of things through before.
While the risk is that philosophy might lead us to falsehood in the process of learning to think, the eventual advantage is that later, the study of philosophy can itself be a safeguard against falsehood, and might in the end be the only real safeguard against misleading arguments.
The study of philosophy is necessary in order to be able to defend the truth from those who argue for falsehoods, because philosophy is what enables us to search for truth, wherever it might be found, despite any internal or external resistance to the truth, and also because it is what enables us to recognize and explain the faults that occur in erroneous argumentation. Philosophy is necessary, but perhaps not sufficient by itself, for the fight against destructive teachings and falsehood. In this way, philosophy is an ally in the safeguarding of the truth, not an enemy.
And if it comes out, in the process of studying philosophy, that some of the unexamined beliefs that we previous thought were true are actually themselves false, aren’t we better off having the opportunity to find out? It might be frightening, but it is worth the pain of giving up a part of our inherited opinion, in order to draw closer to the truth that is worth knowing and defending.