Understanding Art - The Death of Socrates

When I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, I make it a point to stop by Jacques Louis David's famous neoclassical masterpiece "The Death of Socrates." This habit is motivated partly from a humble desire to pay homage to the inventor of the Socratic method (a tool the use of which has become an essential aspect of my own sense of personal identity), and from a desire to reflect on the meaning of his life and moral fortitude.

But there's also the art, the aesthetic and philosophical contemplation of which almost invariably forces on me the understanding of the necessity and the struggle of balancing realities that are often in conflict with one another: the abstract and the concrete, alienation and connection, distance and understanding, mind and body, authenticity and comfort, feeling and rationality, change and timelessness, meaning and purposelessness, identity and freedom, freedom and equality, individuality and belonging, etc.

Great art often manages to convey its message at various levels of discourse, from the simple and humble to the technical and esoteric. If you've simply seen "The Death of Socrates" before, even in passing, you have probably already experienced some of its emotional, moral and intellectual power. But if you want to get a better sense of how much more there is to this painting than meets the eye, how much thought went into developing every inch, how much history, philosophy, politics, geometry, religion and symbolism is hiding in plain sight, how a centuries-long dialogue is expressed in the negative space between the characters, you will probably find the short introductory video below quite helpful, and your own appreciation of the aesthetic experience enhanced and improved.




Jim Jefferies on U.S. Gun Control

Whenever a shooting massacre takes place in the US, and we raise the question of whether there ought to be some kind of regulation on fully automatic assault rifles and machine guns, conservatives lose their shit (about the regulation, of course, not about the abuse of gun rights and the innocents killed). Led by the NRA's bipolar and simplistic rhetoric based on catchy bullshit soundbites rather than reasoned and principled arguments or on well-formulated statistical analyses of crime rates patterns, gun enthusiasts and advocates predictably defer to the constitutional right to bear arms (well, as long as it's for whites and not for black people, and as long as we ignore the fact the 2nd Amendment starts with a clause referring to the right to bear arms conditional on our need for a national militia, which is utterly unnecessary when we happen to have the most powerful army in the history of the world). Unfortunately, moderate and reasonable people who don't think in such simplistic black-and-white terms, can't get through to the other side.

Fortunately, there's Jim Jefferies. Well, he might not be able to get through to the other side either, but he can at least call the bullshit arguments for what they are. :)




Hey, any reference to Descartes can be an excuse to post on this blog. :p

Lucretius - De Rerum Natura - On the Nature of Love

Epicurean philosophy is hedonistic, and as such it exalts the importance of pleasure and makes it the standard of the good. Although the term has of late gained a connotation for decadence, since in modernity we tend to equate pleasure with physical excess, it was originally meant to refer to simple pleasures, particularly those of the mind. Epicurus thought that if we learned to take pleasure in such simple things as enjoying a piece of bread and a glass of water, good conversation, intellectual contemplation and friendship, we would need little else.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure, Epicurus thought, even more so than pain and fear, is delusion, especially fantasies that delude us into thinking that we can attain something that exceeds the limits of our finite nature. It is this fantasy of infinite pleasure that helps explain our tragic proneness to romantic love. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in The Swerve, "in the misguided belief that [our] happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness."

When Lucretius set himself the task of conveying these ideas in his masterpiece De Rerum Natura, his prodigious verse would be unparalleled, as this short excerpt describing the way these romantic tidal forces pull, toss and break us shows:
When the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine,
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to t’other’s heart:
In vain; they only cruise about the coast;
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost;
As sure they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentary rage;
So ’tangled in the nets of love they lie,
Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.
Then, when the gathered bag has burst its way,
And ebbing tides the slackened nerves betray,
A pause ensues; and nature nods awhile,
Till with recruited rage new spirits boil;
And then the same vain violence returns;
With flames renewed the erected furnace burns.
Again they in each other would be lost,
But still by adamantine bars are crossed.
All ways they try, successless all they prove,
To cure the secret sore of ling’ring love.
Based on the 1685 classic translation by John Dryden, the following audio excerpt, produced and narrated by the inimitable Charlton Griffin as a personal favor for which I'm eternally grateful, captures the essence of Lucretius' poetry as it concerns the question of romantic love and its relationship to human happiness and misery. If you want to read along, you can follow the link above. If not, just sit back, close your eyes and let the beauty of the poetry fill your imagination, the power of the ideas stir your mind, and the cruelty of this human reality fill your belly with laughter and your eyes with tears...



Or, if you prefer the Rolfe Humphries more prosaic translation, we have that too:

Monica Lewinski - The Price of Shame

Almost overnight, and without almost anyone knowing the person behind the name, her name became an infamous global phenomenon, and her reputation became permanently tarnished as political, ideological and commercial forces used her circumstances to suit their own purposes.

In an increasingly global and more technologically advanced world dominated by social media and anonymous online comments, an ugly aspect of human nature has been festering for the past decade or more: a culture of humiliation, our proclivity, ironically exercised behind the safety of our own anonymity, to publicly prey on the weak and shame them.

In a brave re-appearance into the international spotlight, Monica Lewinski is back, urging a message of empathy, and appealing to our better selves to create the conditions that make this a better and more compassionate world, one where we empower the powerless and disenfranchised instead of furthering the abuse. The standing ovation she receives at the end of this TEDTalk presentation is well-earned.




Malcolm X - The Ballot or the Bullet

Fifty years ago today, as he was preparing to deliver a speech to the Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City, Malcolm X, the famous Muslim minister and human rights activist who made a name for himself in the struggle against social, racial, political and economic inequality in America, was gunned down and killed.

It's difficult to know exactly how his thoughts would have developed had he not been assassinated. As a member of the Nation of Islam, his philosophy was originally a condemnation of white supremacy, and it sought to empower black businesses and communities to attain the same economic power that whites had achieved. Over time, however, he slowly started to see racial inequality more as a function of the evils inherent in capitalism than as a purely racial question. In his fight for civil rights, he became more politically active and came to see the necessity of separating politics and religion, a move that led to his expulsion and renunciation from the Nation of Islam.

I agree with those who believe that Malcolm X (or Malik El-Shabazz, as he would rename himself after a pilgrimage to Mecca) was the greatest orator of his generation. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who, appropriately enough, sounds like a preacher, Malcolm X's thoughts may be less rhetorical, but for that same reason they are more fluid and less contrived, framed in such a way that they automatically dismantle most objections one can try to throw against them. As we contemplate the trajectory of civil rights, the progress that has been made so far, and how much further we still need to go, it is worthwhile to listen today to what is perhaps the best speech given by one of the best orators in history.




Animated Fibonacci Sculptures

When math is expressed aesthetically, and when art is expressed with the precision and rigor of math, things are bound to look stunning and inspiring. If you haven't checked out Vi Hart's amazing little doodles on the Fibonacci series, or the incredible animation Nature by Numbers, you need to go and check those out right now.

To add to that little collection of awesomeness, today we have a series of sculptures inspired by the Fibonacci sequence (or what ultimately amounts to the same, by the Golden Ratio). To produce this amazing sequence, the artist, John Edmark, synchronized things so that a strobe light would flash every time the sculpture rotated 137.5º—yes, precisely the golden angle. The final result, as you're about to see, is nothing short of spectacular and mesmerizing...




And if rotating animations are your thing, you could do worse than to check out and be hypnotized by the cyclotrope.

Pascal's Wager - Betting on Infinity

Blaise Pascal is, in my mind at least, almost always a mixed bag. Many of the thoughts he expressed in his appropriately titled book, Pensées, are decidedly parochial and antiquated, but for all that, it's also quite impressive to see how far ahead of his time he was in other respects, to the point that many of his philosophical and psychological insights would eventually inspire even the atheist existentialists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And this, of course, is to say nothing about his mathematical brilliance, his contributions to physics, and his abilities as an inventor. As a highly devoted Christian, and as one of the founding fathers of probability theory, it should come as no great surprise that Pascal tried to work out a way to justify the rationality of belief in God through the rigor of a mathematical argument, which has come to be known now as Pascal's Wager, one of the more popular arguments theists use to justify their faith, and the essence of which is explained, and critiqued, in the animation below.



And if you want to listen to the creator of this animation explaining his criticism of Pascal's Wager, you can find it below:



Ed Yong - Suicidal Wasps, Zombie Roaches & Other Parasite Tales

By its very nature, philosophy is an iconoclastic discipline, dedicated to questioning and dissecting the basic assumptions we use to make sense of our experience, in order to get a better understanding of reality and of the human condition. It was the ancient Greeks who first posed the question about whether the nature of determinism and fate might preclude the possibility of free choice. The answer to this question, in my mind at least, cannot be completely answered either by philosophy or by science alone, but by a cross-disciplinary collaboration of the two, so that the empirical evidence discovered by the natural and social sciences can be properly interpreted in light of philosophical concepts, theories and arguments that cannot be settled scientifically (things like consciousness, intentionality, whether reasons can count as causes, etc.).

One of my favorite tags in this blog is the one on Mind Control. There's just something morbidly fascinating and interesting about the prospect that, at least some of the time, we may be little more than automatons or zombies blindly doing the bidding of forces that we might not even be aware of, and which may actually go against our own personal and collective interests. And as one of my favorite science journalists, Ed Young, argues in the following TEDTalk presentation, biologists are continuing to find instances of parasitic mind control that will make you want to put yourself under a microscope...




Bow down to our parasitic overlords...

Lawrence Lessig - We the People, and the Republic We Must Reclaim

The grand Enlightenment experiment in political self-rule and representative democracy that the United States was supposed to embody was dealt a potentially fatal blow some years ago with the Citizens United decision. Despite the rhetoric about free speech and the gross equivocation between free expression and money, the decision is one that essentially legitimized the bribing of political candidates so that, once elected, they could do the bidding of their corporate and capitalist overlords.

In the following TEDTalk presentation, Professor Lawrence Lessig explains and puts in context what this means for democracy, offers some insights into some possible solutions out of this political nightmare, and makes a powerful case for our moral obligation to overturn the corrosive power of money in politics, even if it feels futile sometimes.





Diotima's Ladder - From Lust to Morality

Just about everyone has some idea about what platonic love is: a spiritual form of love in which what one loves is the essential nature and moral character of another human being qua person, irrespective of such accidental features as physical attractiveness, wealth, skin complexion, youth, body type or even sex or gender.

In Plato's famous dialogue Symposium, Socrates claims that one of the deepest lesson he ever learned on the nature of love he learned from the wise Diotima, who argued that our infatuation with physical beauty, if approached properly, could represent the first step in a process that could lead to some of the most important revelations about the relationship between the beautiful, the good and the true.

I highly recommend you read the Symposium, but just to whet your appetite about this theme, here's a little animated introduction to some of these ideas, thanks to a great and recent collaboration between the BBC and the Open University.



Now, in the Symposium there are various memorable speeches about love, quite heavy on symbolism sometimes, and some of which presuppose some previous understanding and familiarity with Plato's theory of the Forms. If you want a nice, thoughtful introduction to many of those ideas, and to how they all fit in with Plato's larger metaphysical account, the following interview from Entitled Opinions, should be pure intellectual delight:



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