Author Archives: Kevin A. Straight

Aristotle on the Soul

In our modern era a book titled “Of the Soul” could be nothing but a theological work and, without thinking, I assumed that that’s what I would be reading when I started Aristotle’s De Anima. I quickly realized, though, that this work is primarily concerned with biology. Unlike Plato’s Phaedo, for example, which is also largely concerned with the soul, there is no consideration of how an individual’s moral conduct (or lack thereof) affects there soul, or how the soul’s condition relates to virtue. There are only passing references to the afterlife: Aristotle argues that a particular soul is shaped or fitted to a particular creature, and can not be transferred to another, thus refuting the Pythagorean notion of transmigration. He doubts whether a soul could can survive outside the body at all. One gets the impression, however, that both points are secondary to his main inquiry.

To Aristotle, the “soul” is nothing more or less than the essence which makes a creature alive. In a characteristically teleological Aristotelian formulation the soul is the “final cause” of the body or, conversely, the purpose of the body is to be an “organ of the soul”.

The book begins with a lengthy literature review in which Aristotle mentions previous work on the soul by Plato and many other philosophers, mostly dismissing their theories on the basis of logical errors or because they are so abstract as to be ridiculous (e.g. those theories that attempt to prove that the soul is number or geometrical figure). The remaining two thirds of the book contains a detailed examination of each of the four attributes that Aristotle identifies as belonging to different orders of besouled creatures. The first, with belongs to all life forms, is nutrition and reproduction. That is, it has a way of taking in food and using that food to continue its existence through offspring. The second, which belongs only to animals, is sensation. The third, which belongs only to higher animals, is local movement. Aristotle also hypothesizes that appetite is a necessary condition for local movement and imagination for appetite, so all three attributes will necessarily be found together. Finally, humans alone, of all besouled creatures known to Aristotle, have the attribute of reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.


As is typically the case with Aristotle’s scientific works, De Anima is well organized and the conclusions are logical based on the facts he had to work with. Numerous details are completely wrong because of his reliance on the “four elements” model of physical science and lack of all but the most basic scientific instruments. Nonetheless, at least from a biological point of view, his general definition of the soul and the attributes of organisms with souls still seem perfectly plausible.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.


Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.


What is Knowledge? Plato’s Theaetetus

In Theaetetus Plato plunges into epistemology, the theory of knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we know things? How do we really know what reality is? and similar questions are the topics of discussion.

The dialog opens with a flashback to Socrates, at the end of his life shortly before his trial, talking to the geometer Theodorus about his current pupils. Theodorus tells Socrates that one, Theaetetus, shows particular promise. The youth arrives on the scene and Socrates decides to test him dialectically. After some preliminary banter, he asks Theatetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus initially starts by listing different kinds of knowledge such as geometry, calculation, shoe making, and others. After some prompting from Socrates, he states that knowledge is perception. Socrates accepts this provisionally but points out that different observers perceive things differently. Does this mean that knowledge is relative? This begins a section which introduces the debate between objectivism and subjectivism which has been a perennial question of Western philosophy. According to most of the pre-Socratic philosophers, including Protagoras, Heracleitus, and Empedocles, reality is not only relative but in a state of constant flux, so knowledge about reality is also relative and mutable.

"Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2" by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

“Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2 (on Luna)” by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

This argument is the precursor not only to later Epicurean theories of the universe, such as we read about in Lucretius, but also foreshadows both postmodern theories of subjectivism and much of modern physics including thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory. For example, the passage,

Yes, Theaetetus, and there are plenty of other proofs which will show that motion is the source of what is called being and becoming, and inactivity of not-being and destruction; for fire and warmth, which are supposed to be the parent and guardian of all things, are born of movement and of friction, which is a kind of motion;–is not this then the origin of fire?

Expresses at least the glimmerings of an intuitive understanding of the laws of thermodynamics.

Socrates leads Theaetetus to explore the implications of these ideas further. He also introduces the point that mad men and dreamers see things that are not there, so perception does not necessarily lead to true knowledge. This struck me as interesting, since at the same time I was reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, in which the main character certainly seems to gain knowledge from events which occur only in his own mind. Be that as it may, however, Socrates’ arguments are more than enough to force Theaetetus to rescind his definition of knowledge as perception.

Socrates then steers the dialog into a discussion of the nature of memory. What about a man who has obtained true knowledge but then forgets or makes mistakes based on that knowledge?

At this point, Theaetetus needs a little help and, at the urging of Theodorus, begins to argue the opposite position. Among other things, he mentions the point that while all men might perceive things differently, wiser men and those with reason and specialized training in the subject at hand, are more likely to perceive correctly and gain true knowledge.

Socrates has another trick to spring, though, when leads Theaetetus to explore the question “What is perception?” and points out that sensory inputs are meaningless until processed by the mind (soul). He then asks about abstract concepts which can not be perceived with the senses. Theaetetus soon agrees that “[K]nowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained[.]”

If knowledge is actually a sort of opinion, though, what about false opinions? This line of inquiry leads them back into an exploration of memory, since failure of memory is one possible cause of false opinions. This leads them back into deep waters. Socrates then points out that they have not adequately defined the verb “to know”, nor the concept of “false opinion”. With these points clarified he leads the boy on another discussion in which they define knowledge as “a way of understanding something by understanding it’s component parts.”

From this position, Socrates introduces yet a third conception of knowledge, understanding things by understanding the differences between them. But after discussing this, they conclude,

But how utterly foolish, when we are asking what is knowledge, that the reply should only be, right opinion with knowledge of difference or of anything! And so, Theatetus, knowledge is neither sensation nor true opinion, nor yet definition and explanation accompanying and added to true opinion?”

Since the definition itself includes the word “knowledge” and is thus circular. However, even though they have failed to provide the definition for which they were seeking, they are better for the attempt itself. Socrates then leaves for his indictment before the king archon, possibly never to see Theaetetus again.

Never mentioned explicitly, yet ever present in the dialog, is Plato’s theory of ideas. Plato believed that even though the material world is indeed mutable, imperfect, and subjective, everything in it partakes of perfect ideals or ideas which are unchanging and objective. Perhaps Socrates doesn’t bring up the theory of ideas because he wants to see if Theatetus will discover the concept on his own. Perhaps Plato is simply trying to keep the dialog to a manageable size and complexity. Or perhaps the state of epistemology conveyed in the dialog is actually as far as Socrates ever got on the subject, and this particular dialog is meant to express the master’s views without Plato’s later additions.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse cover image

Steppenwolf is an easy book to write about; the semiotics are so strong, the tropes are so plentiful, and the plot so powerful, that a critic has a wealth of material to seize on. At the same time, like all great works, it contains paradoxes and ambiguities which make it difficult or impossible to sum up the “meaning” or main idea of the book. Hesse himself, who lived to see the age of postmodern criticism, wrote that it was a “poetic work” in which the reader should find his own meanings. In the same author’s note, however, he states,

Yet it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more frequently and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly.

By these words we can infer that he did indeed have an objective message in mind and that he felt that at least some readers would be able to discover it.

The book is set in Weimer Republic Germany between the World Wars. It is a time of political and cultural uncertainty in which many of the old ideals and cultural norms no longer seem relevant. While the bourgeoisie, the class least affected by ideals and culture, continue their stolid lives, relatively unaffected, the rest of the society is adrift and devotes their lives to vice and transient material pleasures–living for the day because they know that the next war will start soon and be even more horrible than the last one. In this setting we find Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual who is almost completely alienated from his society, thoroughly lonely, and deeply depressed. Unable to form lasting relationships and convinced that the high culture he loves is dead, Haller repeatedly considers suicide but lacks the courage to go through with it. Haller’s life changes when he meets a “courtesan of moderately good taste” named Hermine. Hermine makes it her project to teach Haller to enjoy life, forcing him to learn to dance and engage himself with the beau monde of the city, associating with party girls, jazz musicians, and others whom he would never have approached on his own.

The book can be understood in various ways. Most literally, it is the story of a man’s mid-life crises. Like all of Hesse’s novels, it is partially autobiographical. Hesse wrote the book when he was fifty years old an “dealing with the problems of that age”. And so, the book is at least partially the story of a man who is approaching fifty who feels like his life has been wasted and compensates by dating younger women and trying to fit in on the modern musical scene. On a slightly deeper level, it is a case study in paranoid schizophrenia. Haller is far from “sane” in the conventional sense. Right up to the end of the book it is unclear which characters and events are real and which exist in his own mind. The word “schizomania” appears several times in the text and Haller himself excuses himself at one point by explaining that he is a “schizomaniac”. The parallels with other works treating with schizophrenia, such as A Beautiful Mind are quite obvious.

Beyond these interpretations, however, Steppenwolf is fundamentally an investigation into the concept of personality. All men, particularly men of genius, have personalities made up of many facets or aspects. Haller, who is still dealing with his divorce, is having trouble with his long distance relationship, has recently been fired from his writing job for his political views, and has moved to a city where he has no close friends, is clearly under massive stress. In this situation he is forced to integrate the various aspects of his personality or go mad.

This is far from easy, because his mind is occupied by a number of “people” who aren’t necessarily compatible. One of these is Harry Haller The Man, who is the somewhat artificial personality that Haller tries to present to the world. Shaped by bourgeoisie norms and long education, The Man is the least flexible (and likable) of Haller’s personalities. Opposed to The Man is The Steppenwolf, which represents both Haller’s animal nature and his individuality. The Steppenwolf is dangerous, because there is no place for him in civilized society but he gives Haller the strength to stand up for his convictions about the war and other issues. The beautiful and sensual Maria represents the part of Haller that loves freely and lives for pleasure, as well as the feminine part of his nature. This personality is initially completely suppressed, but waxes stronger as the book goes on. The wise and androgynous Hermine is Haller’s aspirational self. She represents mature sexuality and a balance of sensuality in which one pays for one’s pleasures but enjoys them unreservedly. She also represents religion, which used to be a factor in his life and will be again. Pablo, the brilliant young jazz musician who never talks about music but only plays it, represents Haller’s artistic soul–true art, not The Man’s dry intellectual analysis of art–and his emotions. He keeper of the “Magic Theater” i.e. Haller’s subconscious mind. Only by “meeting” each of these aspects and following the relationships between them through to their conclusions can Haller integrate the best parts of each of them into his core personality.

Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda as Haller and Hermine in the 1974 movie adaptation of Steppenwolf

Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda as Haller and Hermine in the 1974 movie adaptation of Steppenwolf

Major Tropes and Themes

Unification of Eastern and Western Thought – Like most of Hesse’s middlew and late works, Steppenwolf is infused with several ideas from Buddhism. Haller himself is represented as being a scholar of Eastern religion and it is implied that the ultimate end of his process of self discovery is to extinguish the self so as to become one with the all, a very Eastern concept.

Man is Never the Same Over Time – Haller at first seems like a static character, who has always been as he is now. It soon becomes apparent that he has changed greatly over time and is still changing. As Horace said, “Non sum homo eram” (I am not the man I used to be). His quest for self awareness and actualization is thus a never-ending process.

The “Real Man” – Society creates artificial men who are conformist and hypocritical. Real men are individualist and pursue their drives, particularly sexual drives, naturally and without guilt. Compare T.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from the same period, particularly the character Oliver Mellors. The real men often feel that they should have been born in a different time and place.

Conflict Between Intellectuals and the Bourgeoisie – Intellectuals can see the way things “ought to be” but the bourgeoisie won’t listen. As much as the intellectuals rebel, they can never completely escape their own bourgeoisie roots.

The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness – One of the most memorable monologues of the book contains the lines, “[M]any persons pass for normal, and indeed for highly valuable members of society, who are incurably mad; and many, on the other hand, are looked upon as mad who are geniuses.”

Substance Abuse to Suppress the Personality – Many of us writers, especially, have chosen to sedate our personalities with alcohol and other drugs rather than dealing with them, as Haller does early in the book.

The Inevitability of Death (and War) – Everyone dies, and all societies eventually go to war. It is useless for men to try to oppose these forces; they must learn to accept them.

Suicide as an Ongoing Process – Suicide has bad and good sides. On the one hand it can be a cowardly escape. On the other, it can represent killing the ego to seek enlightenment. In either case, it represents and ongoing decision or commitment to kill ones personality and actual physical death is strictly ancillary.

Parmenides of Plato

The Parmenides is Plato’s account of a meeting between the Italian-Greek philosopher Parmenides, then a venerable sage of sixty-five, and a young Socrates. Unlike earlier dialogues, which tended to focus on a particular topic, usually some aspect of virtue, it is not completely clear what Plato was trying to accomplish in the Parmenides. It is clear that Plato held Parmenides himself in high esteem, even though he would have been too young to have met him personally. A simple wish to memorialize him would not have been enough reason for him to write a dialog, however–particularly one as technical as this one. It is possible that he meant it as some sort of teaching aid for the dialectal method, but this also seems unlikely since there are so many good examples of dialectic in his earlier works. In addition, this is not the best written or most dramatic of Plato’s works. It flows awkwardly and the characters are poorly developed. It is easy to see why this has traditionally been one of the less popular Platonic dialogues with readers. So is this just an example of mid-career slump, or is there a deeper message to be gained?

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides' Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides’ Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

The dialog begins in a somewhat convoluted manner as a recollection by Cephalus of a recollection by Adeimantus (Plato’s older half-brother) of the meeting. Parmenides and Zeno are in town and Socrates and his friends have gone to see Zeno recite one of his own dialogues. Afterward, Socrates begins asking questions and, in the course of the conversation, starts arguing for an early version of his (Plato’s?) theory of ideas. Parmenides breaks in and offers several objections which Socrates is unable to answer. He then advises the young philosopher to be more rigorous in exploring all the implications of his hypotheses to their ultimate conclusion. Socrates then convinces Parmenides to provide a demonstration of his dialectal methods which he does, with Adeimantus as interlocutor.

Zeno has been speaking about “the One” (as opposed to “the Many”) so Parmenides chooses to examine the null hypothesis “The One does not exist”. There follows a rather long and tortuous dialog, the main structure of which are summarized in Jowett’s preface to his translation of the dialog):

1. One is.
2. One is not.
If one is, it is nothing.
If one is not, it is everything.

But is and is not may be taken in two senses:

Either one is one,
Or, one has being,

from which opposite consequences are deduced,
1.a. If one is one, it is nothing.
1.b. If one has being, it is all things.

To which are appended two subordinate consequences:
1.aa. If one has being, all other things are. If one is one, all other things are not.

The same distinction is then applied to the negative hypothesis:
2.a. If one is not one, it is all things.
2.b. If one has not being, it is nothing.

Involving two parallel consequences respecting the other or remainder:
2.aa. If one is not one, other things are all. If one has not being, other things are not.

This is barely more easy to follow than the dialog itself. In the end, though, Parmenides proves that the one must exist:

Parmenides: Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: If one is
not, then nothing is?

Adeimantus: Certainly.

Parmenides: Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Adeimantus: Most true.

We are told that after this Adeimantus gave up philosophy and focused on training horses.

The existence of “The One” or Unity is certainly an important part of number theory and (much later) abstract algebra, but I don’t think Plato had math on his mind when he decided to write this dialog. We don’t know as much about Parmenides as we would like, but it seems from what we do know that his primary interest was cosmology. “The One” has a central place in Platonic and neo-Platonic cosmology as the First Hypostasis of the godhead: The One, The First Existant, The Unknowable, Infinite Unity which Christian theologians would eventually equate with The Father.

The first half of the dialog might have been a chance to memorialize a respected philosopher, but I think that Plato, who was himself turning more to metaphysics and cosmology in his later career, deliberately used the second half of the dialog to record an important proof that he knew would be useful in later work by himself and his students.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.

Automatic Indexing of LaTex Documents

A couple weeks ago I mentioned in a post that I was working on a Python script to automatically generate indexes of books written in the LaTex typesetting system.  At the time I promised to post the script in “a couple of days”.  Predictably, weeks have passed, my little script has ballooned into a full on open-source software project, and the code is now too long to post (or explain) in a single blog article.  If you’re interested, however, you can now download my alpha release from sourceforge.

The package includes two Python programs.  Indexmeister is a console utility which reads a file (in several formats, not just LaTex) and suggests terms for indexing.  It uses three different methods to figure out which terms are important.  Imbrowse is a Curses program which helps you interactively browse multi-file LaTex books and quickly insert the right tags to generate an index.

I made this video tutorial to show how the system works:

In the future I am thinking of adding a plug-in for LibreOffice, and possibly a graphical interface (probably using GTK bindings). Porting it to Windoze is not a priority, however.

Handyman Kevin Series II Premier

I rarely post updates here for my YouTube show, Handyman Kevin–mainly because it has its own dedicated blog. I thought I should mention, however, that the first episode of my second season premiered a few minutes ago:


The first season focused mainly on general Handyman skills. This season will have more of a focus on workshop tools and techniques. As before, we are planning to release thirteen fifteen to twenty-five minute episodes, each with an accompanying blog post.

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.

On The Nature of the Universe by Titus Lucretius Carus

On the Nature of the Universe (aka Of the Nature of Things) book cover, Penguin edition

The entire universe is constantly moving. Objects, images, even souls are really unending streams of atoms, eternally reconfiguring themselves. Everything contains the seeds of its own creation and destruction. No sooner have the atoms assumed a form than it starts to decay–whether that thing is a person, a world, or a universe. This is the world view of first century Epicureanism, which the poet Lucretius tried to spread to the masses by casting it in the form of a book-length philosophical poem called De Rerum Natura. As a poem, it was apparently a hit when it was published posthumously about 55 BCE (possibly after having been edited by Cicero, although this story is usually considered apocryphal). Nonetheless, Epicureanism never really took off in the Roman Empire. The claims that there was no afterlife, nothing except matter, and that the gods, if they existed, had no interaction with the world of men, held no resonance with the people. The takeaway point, that the philosopher should live simply, enjoying simple pleasures and avoiding ambition and the pursuit of wealth, was anathema to Roman society, which was, if possible, even more bourgeoisie than our own. Stoicism and Neoplatonism were the dominant philosophies of Rome, until both were replaced (and largely absorbed by) Christianity.  Epicurus, Lucretius, and their fellows were centuries before their time; it was not until Spinoza, their natural scion, rediscovered and built upon their ideas in the 16th century that Western Civilization began to seriously incorporate these ideas in its main stream of thought.

In Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, George Santayana writes the Epicurus was primarily a moral philosopher who adopted and adapted the natural philosophy of Democritus to support his moral platform, “Epicurus, the Herbert Spencer of antiquity, was in his natural philosophy an encyclopaedia of second-hand knowledge.”  Lucretius, on the other hand, puts the natural philosophy in the foreground in his poem, striving to present a well justified, internally consistent system–a grand unified theory, if you will. When I read it, I was surprised how many things he got right, well before his time. For instance, his understanding of air resistance is fairly sophisticated. He also correctly identified smells as being composed of tiny particles which slowly diffused through the air. He was half right when he advanced a similar explanation for light (photons sometimes behave like a particle, and sometimes like a wave depending on circumstances) but makes up for it by correctly arguing that light will move faster in a vacuum than in a medium like air or water. He also correctly identifies that the shapes of particles are an important determinant of the physical properties of substances. At times he brushes tantalizingly close to a notion of entropy.

Of course he gets plenty of things wrong, mainly because he is mistaken about some of his fundamental axioms. For instance, his anatomy suffers from the fact that he thinks the mind is lodged in the upper abdomen. He does not question that the earth is the center of the solar system. Most importantly, because he feels everything is made up of matter, he advances completely erroneous explanations for many phenomena which really involve energy. For example, he believes that lightning is a concentrated form of the kind of matter which is found in fire. He sees the human brain as being composed of a multitude of microscopic moving particles which shift around rapidly, sort of like a very complex pachinko machine.  He believes that magnets extrude microscopic fibers of iron to entangle other iron pieces. He believes that what we would call chemical bonds are caused by a physical hooking together of the shapes of atoms. Many of these errors were unavoidable, however, since he had no instruments with which to detect energy or fundamental forces. And on one level he was absolutely correct: Einstein would eventually prove, with his famous E=mc2, that everything is matter, or at least convertible into matter.

Despite these occasional quaint misconceptions, On the Nature of Things is a fascinating piece of work. To me, the epicurean viewpoint is much more intuitive that that of Plato and Aristotle, whose books I have recently been studying. I attribute this to the fact that, since my early training was in engineering, I have taken quite a few science classes in my life, so it is very easy for me to slip into the materialist/naturalist viewpoint. Then again, Spinoza–who, as I said, is the Epicureans philosophical heir–has long been one of my favorite philosophers. That being said, I find that I just can’t accept Lucretius’ contention that there is nothing beyond the material world. As fabulous and infinite as the universe (multiverse?) is, I just can’t accept that this is all there is. Lucretius seems to have been unquestioning in his atheism. For myself–even if I were not a Christian–I just find it hard to be that sure about anything.

Note About Editions:

Lucretius’ original poem was written in Latin in dactylic hexameter, a meter which isn’t compatible with English (or Latin, really–Lucretius literally couldn’t use certain words and phrases because they wouldn’t fit). English translations are either in verse or prose. The poetry translations give more of a sense of the original experience, but the prose translations are much easier to read. Project Gutenberg has William Leornards’ blank verse translation. Penguin’s prose translation (by Ronald Latham) is sold as On the Nature of the Universe. It would be preferable, of course, to read the poem in the original language, but that would require a better recollection of high school Latin than I can boast.

Off to Grad School Again: The Second Essay

The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.

Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.

Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.

With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.

Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.

Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.

Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.