Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dignity of the Soul

 I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed people damaging the health of their soul. It can happen in many ways. The most common involves groups of people who mutually push each other to complain about people who are not present. I ask, "is this just?" Usually the response is, "well, she deserves it because she is such a terrible person", or some such thing. There is often some action or offense that underpins this thinking. Still, I maintain, that if the person is not there to defend themselves, then the complainers may have it all wrong. And in acting this way, they are damaging their own souls rather than putting right any offense that may have occurred.

Now, some will ask, "what do I mean when I use the term soul?" A wise and fair question. Where I use this word, you may use the word character. So, when I speak of damage to the soul, I am referring to the character of the person.

Try to conduct yourself in a manner that best protects the dignity of your soul, or character. When you find yourself being pulled into circles of complaint of gossip, hold yourself to a higher standard. Remind your friends that it is best to talk to the person themself rather than to criticize them behind their back. After all, by talking to the person, we may learn something new about them. We might discover that there are good reasons for their action. We may even find ourselves in a position to offer help and advice.

- Socrates

Monday, September 28, 2020

Does feeling good make something good?

I had a most interesting conversation with my friend Paul yesterday. We were deliberating over his passionate addiction to rich food and wine. I asked him whether these things are good, to which he replied "undoubtedly, yes".

I questioned his answer, because he never really seems to put much thought into his habit of eating and drinking. He said that because it makes him feel good, they must be good, so he indulges. But is this true? Does feeling good make something good?

I suggested that next time a bodily pleasure calls to him that he pause and think before accepting the call. I said, "ask yourself whether this pleasure is fleeting or lasting. Will it endure? Will it improve your strength of character? What sort of person will it make you?"

He did not seem convinced that such questions would be of any use. Still, I maintain that if we can calmly distinguish between fleeting bodily pleasures, which we often regret, and the pleasures of the mind, which contribute to the health of our soul, we will find ourselves making wise decisions and living the good life.

- Socrates

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument and the Existence of God

A Socratic Dialogue


I have spent many years engaging thoughtful people in dialogue. This morning I happened, quite by accident I assure you, to visit a small Bible discussion group. The discussion was being led by a wonderful young man by the name of Joshua. Because I arrived late, I sat near the back and listened for a few minutes until the group took a break for coffee and cakes. The food was tempting, but not nearly as tempting as the opportunity to meet Joshua. He seemed like he could use some help in properly formulating his argument for the existence of God. The following is my recollection of our dialogue.

- Socrates


SOCRATES: What is it you are doing here?


JOSHUA: I help people interpret The Bible so that they may learn how to live according to God’s plan.


Saturday, April 25, 2020

Finding happiness in lockdown

The wise country of New Zealand, which I currently call home, has been locked down for the last few weeks. It reminds me of the time we locked ourselves within the walls of Athens to protect ourselves from Sparta.
How many times I have argued that happiness is not to be found in shopping malls and other materialist pursuits, I cannot recall. Over the centuries I have talked to many people about seeking happiness in simpler pleasures. And now we have that opportunity. It seems to me that if we can let go of our attachment to material things, true happiness can be found.
Let us not cling to the things that we can no longer have. Bringing those things back is beyond our sphere of control. Let us focus instead on what we can control. Walking in the sun. Talking with friends. The things that make us truly human.
One day those other things will come back -- brought back by people who control them. And when they return, we may find that we don't need them as much as we once thought.
- S

Friday, April 3, 2020

Sphere of control

Living in times of trouble can bring out the best and worst in people. It can also reveal emotional reasoning that leads to anxiety. I have been meditating on this, and today my friends, if I may have your patience, I shall share my thoughts.

Consider the anxiety you experience if you have to perform in public. Perhaps you have to make an important speech. But why are you anxious? Usually it is because you are worried about what other people will think. You may believe that if something goes wrong, then people would think badly of you. And if they think badly of you, you would be a less worthy person. The emotional reasoning can be expressed quite simply.

1. If I don’t have the approval of others, I’d be a worthless person

2. I don’t want to be a worthless person

3. So I must have the approval of others (from 1, 2)

4. Because I must have the approval of others, If something could go wrong and result in me not having the approval of others, then I must constantly think about it and not relax

5. My speech could go wrong and result in me not having the approval of others

6. So, I must constantly think about it and not relax (feelings of anxiety) (from 4, 5)

But why be anxious over something that is beyond your control? We have very little influence over the thoughts of other people. They will think whatever they like, and they are free to do so. Now, you don’t know that your speech will go wrong, but if it does, who is to say that you would lose the approval of the audience? They may admire your courage. And consider the thought that you’d be a worthless person if you don’t have the approval of others. Why base your reasoning on this rule? It can be easily refuted. For example, I imagine during World War 2, someone who hid Jewish people in their attic would not have had the approval of the Nazis, but they most certainly would be a worthy person. And very courageous. So the rule: if I don’t have the approval of others, I’d be a worthless person seems to be questionable.

Another way to look at your speech would be to accept that the audiences’ thoughts are beyond your control and you should instead focus on what is within your control. Write the best speech you can. Speak as clearly as is within your ability. Then walk away knowing that you did your best. If someone makes a negative comment, you can control your response to their comment. Smile and say “you should see me on a bad day”. But also learn from their comment, if it is reasonable. Learning is within your control. Your interpretation of the situation is within your control.

Consider this. I might say that people shouldn’t die from viruses. That there should be a cure. That scientists should be working faster and politicians should do something different. And I might get very upset while making these statements. But these are all outside of my sphere of influence. Who am I to demand that the world is such that people don’t die from viruses? The world is as it is. My statement is a symptom of the demand for perfection. But if I demand perfection from an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, then disappointment will be my friend. Instead, I should accept that the world is not always going to be the way I want it to be and that a great many things are beyond my control. But I do have control over my own responses to these issues. I can avoid public places and do my best to avoid catching the virus and slow its spread.

Some people might respond to this position by suggesting that in accepting imperfection, we slow or stop improvement. After all, we want to make the world a better place, right? Such wise people make a good point. I respond by agreeing that we should try our best to improve the world. But that we should work within our sphere of influence and not ruminate on things that are beyond our control. Recognize what you can do and accept that there are things that our not within your control.

- Socrates

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Finding happiness during a pandemic

I recall, many many years ago, a troubled time in Athens. The Spartans were on the March and we had been ordered to retreat within the city walls. You moderns would call this a ‘lockdown’. It seemed to Pericles to be our best chance of surviving. However, many didn’t. And not because of Sparta. Our dear city was ravaged by a disease. A plague.

I believe 100,000 people died in the outbreak. By the gods, I can still see the look of worry on the faces of my friends. Nobody understood what was going on. Tyche, (Fortuna) was not smiling on us at that time. But we got through. The plague ended and we rebuilt. Insofar as the future can resemble the past, the same can be true today.

You are more fortunate than we Ancients. You have an understanding of how disease spreads. We knew nothing of this. If we had your knowledge, perhaps more of us would have survived. The idea of keeping physical distance may be contrary to our human nature, but your knowledge tells you that it is the best thing to do in this situation.

Many folk try to find happiness in a shopping mall. Now that you can’t seek it there, you may feel saddened. But is happiness really to be found in the mall? Perhaps we have been over estimating how much happiness consumer pursuits can bring. And perhaps we have been under estimating how much happiness can be found in a simple walk in nature or game with a loved one.

I know many people cannot currently walk in nature. We are locked down. Under curfew. But I believe some lockdown rules allow for a walk around the street for exercise. No congregations, of course. Use this time for quiet contemplation. Enjoy the fresh air.

There is no rush to be anywhere during a lockdown. Is this not the most fortunate way to be? You can read a book. You can stay up late and look at the stars. You can immerse yourself in music. Learn how to appreciate a symphony.

We are undoubtedly finding this time challenging. And much of this is out of our control. And so be it. Let the universe be what it will be. Trust that it inclines towards the good and spend your time focusing on what is within your control. Your impression of things is within your control. Your decision on how to spend your time at home is within your control. Your happiness is within your control.

Scientists are focusing on what is within their control; running experiments and developing treatments.

During our Athenian plague we learned a lot about how fragile a population can be. You are being reminded of this. But you can survive. Stay at home and fill your time. Let go of the consumerist route to happiness. You can find it within yourself.

- Socrates

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Can you lose at life?

I have been carefully examining the language you moderns use in day-to-day life. As I am a slow learner, I have found myself confused in trying to understand how you view the world. It seems to me that you consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. You speak of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life. And when someone ‘wins’ you often deem the win to be deserved. For example, I have heard people say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose it follows that the poor also deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? We ancients didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, we wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead we would suggest that the will of Tyche, our god of fortune, had not been in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Their name for Tyche was Fortuna. She was depicted as holding a tiller by which she could shift one’s fortune. Because her actions were totally out of our control, we would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than a losers at life.

Perhaps people who consider life a game will find this a strange way of talking. But it does depend upon what sort of game they consider life to be. Is it a game with well defined rules in which a person can win or lose by using their skill and intellect? Is life, for example, like a game of chess? If so, it may make sense to speak of winners and losers. We wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves his win. After all, to win he must have played the game better than his opponent. And we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces and played by the same rules.

Would we use the same language to describe someone winning at a game of chance — for example, a slot machine or lottery? Would we suggest that someone who wins the lottery deserves the win? I don’t even think the word ‘win’ in games of chance means quite the same thing as it does in a game of chess. There is no skill involved in a game of chance. The outcome is totally in the hands of fortuna. I wonder if life is more like this than we care to believe.

Of course, we do need certain skills in life. But much of what happens in life is well beyond our control — including our position at birth. Is it not true that fortuna decides who is wealthy and who is poor at birth? And is it not true that this starting position can have a massive impact on a person’s life? If so, it would seem to be overstating things to suggest that a poor person is losing at life and deserve their position (if by ‘losing’ we mean in the sense of a game of chess rather than a game of chance).

I am interested in what would happen in society if we shifted our language. Rather than speaking of winners and losers in life, let us speak of those who are fortunate and those who are less fortunate. Seeing things in this way may prompt those who are fortunate to help the unfortunate more so than if they truly think they deserve to be ‘winning’ at life.

— Socrates

Friday, November 22, 2019

Does technology make us more intelligent?

I recently engaged a wise young man in a discussion about technology. He asserted that technology is making people more intelligent. As always, I was eager to learn more. The following is a recollection of part of our dialogue...

- Socrates

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sombre Sports

This morning I noticed a sadness in the city. As it so happened, the country’s team did not win an important sporting game. I found it interesting to observe the extent to which people’s happiness was dependent upon the actions of a sporting team so many miles away. An event which we have no influence over. It is almost as if people are thinking that a loss is not how the world *should* be. Such a thought, accompanied by the reality of a loss seemed to result in a dissonance and a sense of loss and general sadness.
It seems to me that demanding that the world ought to be a certain way is guaranteed to produce disappointment. And demanding perfection from an imperfect sports team is rather foolish. There are no perfect sports teams, for if there were, sport would not exist.
Perhaps people should seek happiness in things they have more control over, like going for a walk and enjoying fresh air. Better than leaving it in the hands of Tyche or Fortuna.
— Socrates

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Agree to disagree?

My friends! Yesterday I was presented with a common response to a line of questioning. It is a response I have encountered many times during my long search for wisdom. And I believe it hinders our progress. During a dialogue with a friend, I was asked to “agree to disagree”.
We had been debating a certain metaphysical claim–a claim that I did not find entirely convincing. I had proceeded to examine the claim in the manner of which I am most familiar: by asking questions. My interlocutor had interpreted my questioning as a belief in the falsity of his claim–perhaps a belief in the opposite of his claim–and after finding himself unable to provide answers, he had suggested that we “agree to disagree” about the issue. I was unsure what he meant, but I took his request to mean that we abandon our dialogue. And so it was. We each walked away carrying with us our existing beliefs about the issue. But if, as implied by the request that we “agree to disagree”, we cannot both be right, one of us must be wrong. Which one? We may never know.
Now, if my friend is unable to convince me that his belief is true then either it is false or he needs more convincing arguments. Either way, progress could have been made by continuing our dialogue. Simply abandoning our discussion by suggesting that we “agree to disagree” seems to me to leave us no wiser than we were at the start of the dialogue.
I have, for my entire life, maintained that I know nothing. But like everyone else, I have beliefs. And many of those beliefs are likely to be false. It is through dialogue that I test my beliefs and the beliefs of others. And I do this to move closer to knowledge. If knowledge is good, then I claim that we should continue our discussions and not simply defer examination of important issues by suggesting that we “agree to disagree”.
— Socrates