Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Guest Post: Health and Wholeness: From Plato to Quantum Physics

Health and Wholeness: From Plato to Quantum Physics

By Matthew Allen Newland, PhD (c)

The following is somewhat autobiographical, but describes my coming to realize the importance of “wholeness” in the concept of health. Growing up in a religious home, I always heard a lot about the soul, the state of which was a prime concern of my mother's. Granted, we talked about the resurrection of the dead, etc., but the soul dying, leaving the body behind, and going to heaven was the real belief, if one considers things as they were really imagined. The body was just a shell; what really mattered lay hidden inside, and caring for the body was secondary to that.
Though I am (and I realize the irony) intellectually aware of this mistake, I continue to grapple with old habits which have a real effect on my life. I am both a teacher and a student, and as a result spend most of my time either at the computer or in ach air. My work and studies preoccupy my mind, but my body is often neglected. Of course, one might ask why it matters; my work requires that my mind function well, not my body, right? (Even my role as a parent doesn't seem to hinge on anything but the most basic physical abilities; I drove my kids to the swimming pool, and am at this very moment writing this text on a bench by the poolside ... sitting again). I trim my nails, wash my hair, and eat when I'm hungry; why isn't this good enough?
Luckily Plato and my studies have set me straight. Plato makes the health of the body a prime point of focus in the Republic (the very book I am writing my doctoral thesis on). Specifically, Plato tells us (via Socrates) that
The man who makes the finest mixture of gymnastic with music and brings them to his soul in the most proper measure is the one of whom we would most correctly say that he is the most perfectly musical and well harmonized.

Plato recognizes the individual who exercises both her or his body and her or his mind as someone who is harmonized, well-cultured, and educated; a prime example of humanity, in other words. Plato was especially concerned with exercise and gymnastics, as they had great potential to add to the formation of good citizens. Through working and playing together, citizens could strengthen their friendships, learn to trust and rely on one another, and cultivate a spirit of teamwork that would aid them in all aspects of life. It is Plato’s understanding that the individual’s purpose is to serve society and play a particular, unique role (each according to her or his talents and capabilities), ensuring the fitness of the body to do that role. In that case, getting along with those others with whom I share citizenship, makes sense; as long as I live in society, this aspect of life needs to be cultivated. 
On the other hand, if my job is to teach, should going to the gym (or at least having a regular workout routine) really be that essential? My job is not physically demanding after all. My studies would not let the mater go; my look at Plato’s Republicand the tripartite soul sent me to look at more present-day understandings of the human mind and body: Paul MacLean's triune brain (his parallels with Plato’s parts of the tripartite soul are striking) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who not only emphasizes the brain’s links with the body (for it is an organ of the body, after all), but reminds us that neural activity does not exist isolated on its own. To function, the mind depends on stimuli taken in from the nerves, from one's physical and socio-cultural environments and the body's actions on those environments. Damasio says: “I am saying that the body contributes more than life support and modulatory effects to the brain. It contributes a content that is part and parcel of the workings of a normal mind.” Indeed, soul and body were not the separate things I'd been led to believe growing up!
Aiming to supplement and contrast my investigation into the mind-body relationship with an alternative perspective, my studies in Asian philosophical viewpoints led me to a fascinating insight from Fritjof Capra in his 1975 book, The Tao of Physics. My old idea of the mind-body distinction, it would seem, owes something to Rene Descartes, whose thought had a major impact on the scientific worldview on which the West has built its understanding of the world. In its effort to understand reality, I learned, the West has taken it apart. It has analyzed the components, but forgotten to see them as parts of a larger, single whole:
As a consequence of the Cartesian division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ their bodies. The mind has been separated from the body and given the futile task of controlling it, thus causing an apparent conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instincts.

This Cartesian separation has put us at odds not only with our own bodies, but with the world in which we live as well. “This inner fragmentation of man,” he goes on, mirrors his view of the world ‘outside’ which is seen as a multitude of separate objects and events.” It has turned the world into a collection of objects, rendered the environment ripe for exploitation, and has separated us from our bodies as well. Capra sees this as a major flaw in the Western understanding, and so long as these distinctions remain it will always be incomplete (something I think the author of the Republic would certainly agree with)
Capra’s understanding that wholeness is an essential part of accurately understanding reality is reflected in the writings of other physicists, who are now working to unify our understanding of the world as a single whole. David Bohm also saw a divided, selfish world arising from the old Cartesian understanding, but also saw the potential for something new and better to follow from the acceptance of the quantum understanding of reality. While Western scientific successes allowed the Cartesian worldview to endure for several centuries,, human beings have “always been seeking wholeness – mental, physical, social, individual. From the twentieth century on, quantum physics has specifically sought a wholeness which unites the whole universe into a single event. Bohm, like the Greeks long before him, sees a clear connection between the concepts of wholeness and health: “To be healthy is to be whole.” Of late humankind (at least in the West) has been living in fragmentation, but this has sadly not allowed for a truly well-lived life.

Early on I mentioned that I continue to grapple with old habits, and now find myself in the interesting position of knowing intellectual what I am not yet regularly putting into practice physically (thus making me a living example of this aforementioned fragmentation). I know a physically active life is best, not only for my body, but for every aspect of my being. I realize that mind and body are really one; they are all connected, and are all aspects of a single, united being (that’s me). And having realized this, and understanding that every facet of my life would benefit from a more physically active lifestyle, I know the time has come to get started. 
Luckily for me, I went to school with the Fitness Philosopher. 
It’s time to give him a call.

Matthew Allen Newland, PhD Candidate 
Faculty of Philosophy 
Dominican University College

Bohm, D. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. New York, NY: Routledge Classics. 2002. Originally published in 1980.

Capra, F. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Revised 2000 edition). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2000. Originally published in 1975. 

Damasio, A. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005. Originally published 1994.

Plato. The Republic. A. Bloom, trans. New York, NY: HarperCollins Basic Books. 1991, translation originally published 1961.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Trump talk: The life of money making in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Plato's Phadreus

Trump talk: The life of money making in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Plato's Phadreus 

In classical Greece, the good city-state (such as Athens for a period of time) was based on the good lives of its citizens. This simply means that a state exists in order to make better lives possible for all, as an alternative to the earlier communities such as small family collectives and rural villages. (Aristotle in his wisdom, does not make the silly mistake of modern philosophers like Hobbes, who pretend there existed some 'state of nature' in which individuals popped up and existed with no built in connections prior to forming various social contracts). 
 I argue that the good lives of the citizens in a good state are based in leisure, as they are today. Leisure is based primarily on having relative wealth in a community to not just prevent one from having to engage full time in labour that degrades the mind, but also in having the character that chooses correctly- that is actually virtuous. Today most people no longer labour like they did in the past but manual labour and drudging work still exist. (No sitting in a heated office with a computer is not drudging work historically- think rather, those men who do the diamond mining in Africa as an example of hard labour today.)  So while an important part of Aristotle’s good state is wealth- and he even offers some ideas on how one creates it- it must be noted that the pursuit of wealth was just another means to the end of a good life and was not an end in itself. The miser was not celebrated in Aristotle. Aristotle would not agree with Trump that the good life is simply the wealthy life. There are countless examples of miserable wealthy people historically. 
So when Aristotle says that εὐδαιμονία (happiness) includes many things, it must primarily contain enough wealth to gain some σχολή (leisure). This leisure time can then be used for certain activities that contribute to an excellent life. (The Greeks had the term a-skole for having to attend to business and social obligations and this is the literal opposite of leisure.) A life without proper leisure cannot be called a happy one- but it does not negate a life dedicated to a great cause or great work in which one might work very hard. When properly educated, one knew that the best use of leisure was for friendships and the speculative life of philosophy. Aristotle writes in the Politics:  “but leisure seems in itself to contain pleasure, εὐδαιμονία and the blessed life.”[1] Εὐδαιμονία (happiness or the good life) results from having the leisure to engage in certain activities deemed good. The leisure to engage in them is necessarily dependent upon on a good social organization, including a proper education and at least some freedom from full time labour, meaning wealth. An issue of social justice was at the time only Greek noble males were really educated in the community, but today with many advances in human rights and equality, this is no longer the case in liberal democracies. 
But hold on a minute, you might be thinking, does this mean philosophers were just a bunch of rich people? Well yes and no. Yes because historically one could not be born into poverty and expect an education. No, because wealth in itself is not a necessary or sufficient component of wisdom. Socrates was poor and wise. In the Phaedo, Plato summarizes Socrates lifestyle as a poor one:
…I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the god. Furthermore, the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure  the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others.[2]

Here Socrates denies he has leisure for public affairs or personal matters, and instead must participate in his ‘divine duty.’ The economic connection is made when Socrates says it is the sons of the very rich who have the most leisure, such as Plato himself, from a rich noble family. It shows that money is needed for leisure but can also be a burden as Aristotle emphasizes. Socrates emphasizes the same idea. Neither of them sees a point in the constant growth and chasing of excessive wealth. Too much wealth can create vicious amounts of competitiveness, greed and bring on the jealousy of others. It will be a distraction from political contributions, also from the arts, and from philosophy. 

Yet, Aristotle in his discussion of every detail offers three ways to gain wealth. The first and most natural is in the attainment of natural needs such as meat through hunting and fishing, or plants through agriculture and farming. Of course, a Greek citizen would have slaves and servants to labour for him. The second and intermediate way was through bartering these things on gained in farming or another natural way. This is the idea of the market and the exchange of certain goods for other goods, such as the exchange of wheat for olives. The third “unnatural” way was in the exchange of money, as a way of bartering goods and services. This distain for the exchange of money was part of the distain for commerce in general, which like labour was below the character of the good man. 
            It needs to be reiterated that most wealth in classical Athens was hereditary and the wealthy families would pass this money down in the generations. In fact, only those inheriting money would be fit for proper leisure, since if one was not born wealthy then one most likely did not have the necessary education for proper adult leisure. Like all of the other external factors to the good life, there was a limit to the amount of wealth needed, since wealth is only a tool. Aristotle writes, 
Although Solon in one of his poems said, ‘No bounds is set on riches for men’. But there is a limit, as in the other skills, for none of them have any tools which are unlimited in size or number, and wealth is a collection of tools for use in the administration of a household or a state.[3]

The common theme of Aristotle is not to become obsessed with any single component of the good life to the exclusion of others, and leisure was prevented by the constant pursuit of wealth.  
Aristotle’s main use of this type of life is as a type of contrast to better ways of life. The problem was not that one was being paid to do something, but that all of a sudden the action may become restricted by external factors. This may be the tension of having spectators, or being forced by certain outside agendas to rush and this will prevent the leisurely attitude. Certain issues like professionalism (just like classical labour) can hinder the timeless and leisurely quality of an activity. Therefore, even if leisure can include work, work may have external constraints such as time limits, which becomes an obstacle, making the work less leisurely and falling into labour.
Furthermore, when any activity becomes all-consuming it blocks other components of εὐδαιμονία. This may take the form of obligations to work, business, politics, indulgence, or even forms of education such as the theoretical sciences. Aristotle warns,
Even in the case of some of the sciences that are suitable for a free person, while it is not unfree to participate in them up to a point, to study them too assiduously or exactly is likely to result in the harm just mentioned.[4]

This notion of not allowing anything to be all consuming is a common theme for Aristotle. A prime example for him was found in the early athletic competitions, which gave natural gifts such as laurel wreaths as prizes, but this devolved eventually into monetary prizes. The monetary prizes which devalued the activity from a philosophical point of view. Being paid as a motivation to compete and win was equivalent to a Sophist taking money in the name of creating a clever argument. When money gets involved, both Plato and Aristotle think that a necessary degradation will occur since the action falls back into the world of labour and necessity, the animal world. 

[1] Aristotle, The Politics, 1337b33.
[2] Plato, Phaedo 59a.
[3] Aristotle, The Politics, 1256b30.
[4] Aristotle, The Politics, 1337b3.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Quest for Immortality

“I was always dreaming about very powerful people - dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered."

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Classical Greek ethical and political philosophy is ultimately divisible into two main streams.
The first is the Platonic idealism with its Pythagorean foundations. 

The second is the Aristotelian ‘realism’ with its biological foundations. This means there are two main metaphysics of man, which ultimately feed into the idea of a good life.

            Before the rise of the Athenian philosophers there had already been the idea of a life devoted to contemplation, as found in the Pre-Socratic philosophers. When Aristotle writes in the Ethics that the best life includes contemplation he is referring to such people and their lives. These philosophical lives were rare.
            However, during the growth of Athens in the “Golden Age” a life of the gentleman evolved, which included a life dedicated to the polis, and to an active social life in the community. (The Greeks had no word for ‘social’ only for ‘political’ based on the idea of a special space, a polis) The life of the gentleman was a life of politics, a life of leisure and included both the private life of the home and personal affairs as well as the public life of the city-state and public affairs.

            In Plato, we find a celebration of the philosophical life over and above the political life, since the philosopher kings would be forced into politics, which is below them. Socrates in various passages discusses how he does not have the time for politics in reference to the public sphere, and how he is a terrible husband, in reference to the private sphere. The idea of the philosophical life as found in the Pre-Socratics is held as the best. It is also the base of Epicurus’s philosophy and therefore was influential on the Stoic ideas of the good life.

            Therefore, when Aristotle in the Ethics attempts to discuss the nature of the good life, he says that while there are many opinions, the best life is the one dedicated to philosophy, but for Aristotle this would necessarily include the political life.  The idea of a contemplative life in opposition to an active life is not in Aristotle, but was a creation of later interpreters. The Latin concepts of vita-activa and vita-contemplativa are not in Aristotle; instead, Aristotle has two major distinctions. 
The first is the opposition of a life dedicated to philosophy with lives dedicated to indulgence in the forms of pleasure or honour or wealth. Aristotle is distinguishing between a life dedicated to leisure or a life still caught up in the world of labour and necessity. That is the difference.

The second is the opposition of leisure used for contemplation as found in the Ethics for those who have the components and leisure for the appreciation of the arts in the Politics as the proper end for the gentleman which he calls noble leisure.

For Plato, immortality of the soul meant that a human life of virtue and appeasing the gods meant a happy after life. Therefore, for Plato, the philosophical life, concerned with private affairs led to immortality. Leisure in this sense is the attitude one takes towards the private life and the use of free time for the sake of the soul but is not connected with the public affairs.
However, for Aristotle there was no immortal soul. The ‘political life’ was the proper use of leisure and this meant a life that included by necessity the private life, but also included the public life. BECAUSE since the human was mortal, the only chance for any sense of immortality was through great works and deeds, so that one could be remembered and honored after death. 

CONCLUSION: Leisure is the path to immortality. In a less dramatic way, leisure is the space for necessary components of the good life such as artistic, athletic and minor-political honors in times of peace.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Aristotle and Hanna Arendt on the false tension between the "vita active" and "vita contemplativa"

Hanna Arendt- a student and romantic friend of Martin Heidegger. 

The idea of the vita activa [active life] is often contrasted with the vita contemplativa [contemplative life]. In classical times, the story goes that some people pursued activity like labour or business while others choose a path less taken and forgo those lifestyles in the name of thinking and learning. In modern terms, we no longer have the priest class or philosopher class or caste which was devoted to a private life of contemplation. Well we do in some ways, but not like it was in medieval times. The natural new order- a university full of various stripes of scientists (another artificial modern distinction of thinkers in classical Athens) seem to be either working forever in research that is dependent on specific university funding- or no longer researching but working away making new ED pills and stuff. In liberal democracy, perhaps only the uber wealthy 'Silicone Valley' types live like this anymore. Having lives where work is not seen as bad, but a life in which one can wonder and create and be publicly supported for doing so. This may make these people as odd as the philosophers of old, just as Thales was said to fall into a well while watching the stars. The nutty professor type who cannot drive a car but understands the innermost workings of a star. Like the character Peter Gregory on HBO's Silicone Valley show. 

Fantastic acting Chris Welch: RIP 

Apple now has a philosopher in residence (dream job, hint :) so we will see where the future of the thinking life lies. 

The contemplative life, was the original life of the philosopher. The contemplative life was said to be “devoted to inquiry into, and contemplation of, things eternal, whose ever lasting beauty can neither be brought about through the producing interference of man nor can be changed through his consumption of them.”[1] However, this distinction  is shown by Arendt to be a historical fabrication not found in Aristotle’s theory to which it is often credited. Arendt writes, “…the term vita activa is loaded and overloaded with tradition. It is as old (but not older than) our tradition of political thought.”[2] This is a very important point, since how one understands the relationship of the active and the contemplative life will influence a theory of leisure- which is my chief philosophical concern at this time. 
For Arendt the trial of Socrates was the beginning of the political life in western culture and this ended with the philosophy of Karl Marx. She writes that the term itself, the political life, in medieval philosophy was the standard translation of the Aristotelian bios politikos. It was already in Augustine, where vita negotisa reflects its original meaning as a life devoted to public political matters. Therefore, the active life was one concerned with action, and by this, it means political and social action freely chosen over a life of indulgence or a life of philosophy. Arendt writes:
The chief difference between the Aristotelian and the later medieval use of the term is that the bios politikos denoted explicitly only the realm of human affairs, stressing the action, praxis needed to establish and sustain it. Neither labour nor work was considered to possess sufficient dignity to constitute a bios at all, an autonomous and authentically human way of life; since they served and produced what is necessary and useful, they could not be free, independent of human needs and wants.[3]

Politics is higher than pre-political violence, and that is what Aristotle means when he says, man makes war for the sake of peace.  As Arendt writes:
It is not surprising that the distinction between labor and work was ignored in classical antiquity. The differentiation between the private household and the public political realm, between the household inmate who was a slave and the household head who was a citizen, between activities which should be hidden in privacy and those which were worth being seen, heard, and remembered, overshadowed and predetermined all other distinctions until only one criteria is left: is the greater amount of time and effort spent in private or public? Is the occupation motivated by cura private negotii or cure rei publicae, care for private or for public business?[4]

For Arendt the rise of philosophical political theory overruled the original distinction of private and public philosophical lives. It instead focused on a tension of the contemplative life with the active life. Furthermore, the Christian writers solidified this artificial division of vita-activa and vita-contemplativa for modernity. Arendt writes, “Nor can we reasonably expect any help from Christian political thought, which accepted the philosophers distinction, refined it, and religion being for the many and philosophy only for the few, gave it a general validity, binding for all men.”[5]
The contemplative life was the original 'good life' in Aristotle, since it was a truly human life. The good life in modernity, if authentically inspired by Aristotle, should balance private and public life. Aristotle considered the solitary life only worthy for (poetically) a god or an animal and was not part of his idea of a properly human life. However Aristotle is clear that pleasure, business, politics are all good, but not the proper ends of a truly human life, since the best life has its end in wisdom. 

[1] Ibid., p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p. 12.
[3] Loc. cit.
[4] Ibid., p. 85.
[5] Arendt, Op. cit., p. 85.