The Platonic Proof of God

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.

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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.

But that’s a post for another day.

A Rumour of Wisdom

When I was younger, I heard a whisper of a rumour. It was a rumour about where wisdom was to be found.

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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.

Books for Health and Strength

So you want to be healthy and strong? I know a couple books that might help.

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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.

Learning A Language Well Enough

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.

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“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.

You’ll Be Good at It

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.

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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?