Plato - Crito

After having been unjustly convicted of the bogus charges brought against him in that most infamous and influential of trials, Socrates was asked to propose a penalty for himself. Defying everyone's expectations (exile, paying a fine, delivering a public apology, etc.), Socrates claimed he should be rewarded with free room and board at the Prytaneum. This response upset the Athenians so much that an even greater number than those who had originally found him guilty decided the proper sentence should now be death.

In the Crito, and against all sorts of argumentsmoral, prudential, political, philosophicalurging him to escape this unjust punishment, thereby saving his own life and reputation, as well as his ability to continue to philosophize and to question everything under the sun, Socrates makes a powerful and unexpected plea for the need to obey the laws of the state, even when such a conviction is completely groundless and unfair. Deploying a powerful rhetorical device, as well as a number of ingenious arguments, Socrates leaves his friend Critowho really wants him to escapespeechless. A man of principle, Socrates could not bring himself to betray the rationality that was his essence.


The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan

Ever since I first watched Memento and its fascinating exploration of the philosophical question of personal identity as constituted by memory through time, film director Christopher Nolan has been on my radar. And, Insomnia aside, he has consistently managed to set the bar higher and higher to the point where he stands on a category of cinematographic and philosophical genius all by himself.

In addition of being a master of character development, non-linear storytelling and building hair-raising suspense—not to say anything about the pure aesthetic beauty of his films—Nolan is a director of big ideas. There's virtually no film in which he does not explore—and through multiple angles—concepts of time, the constitution of self, moral and metaphysical identity, character, courage and integrity, mortality, meaning, the difference between reality and appearance, or between memory, perception and imagination, game theoretical questions regarding competition, trust and cooperation, or the tension between scientific knowledge and existential human needs.

And because there's so much to Nolan's films, the good folks at Wisecrack have just finished producing a three-part series on The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan, which we are showcasing here today for your viewing pleasure.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

And as an added bonus, here's a little NerdWriter analysis of the meta quality of Nolan's masterful adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige.

Voltaire - Candide

The philosophical problem of evil—the question of how the existence of unnecessary suffering is possible in a world created and sustained by an all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent deity—has vexed theologians and philosophers for millennia.

Apologists have attempted to vindicate God's goodness in various versions of what is known as theodicy. One of the most famous was articulated by the Enlightenment polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Given that he thought the existence of contingent beings requires an explanation that is itself not contingent, Leibniz deployed a really clever argument to prove the metaphysical necessity of the existence of God. Since God was for Leibniz a metaphysical certainty, the problem was how to reconcile the existence of suffering with the traditional divine attributes. His solution—and consistent with the very same principle of sufficient reason he had already used in order to prove God's existence—was that when contemplating what kind of universe to create, God had a sufficient reason for creating the particular universe we inhabit, and not some other universe. In other words, though this world is not perfect, it is nevertheless the best of all possible worlds.

Little could Leibniz have suspected that two powerful natural forces would threaten the intellectual sophistication of his a priori proofs: a powerful earthquake that would suddenly obliterate the pious city of Lisbon in 1755, and the literary eloquence of the French philosophe Voltaire, whose satirical and biting mockery of Leibnizian optimism, the short novel Candide, would become the most famous of his many celebrated writings.

Here's the Crash Course take on Candide:

And because it's one thing to talk abstractly about some earthquake, and an altogether different thing to experience the real devastation and suffering it produced, the following documentary should help give you an idea of why Voltaire was enraged by the callous attempts on the part of priests and theologians to explain away the suffering and the misery experienced by so many people.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that before Candide, Voltaire wrote a more serious poem in which he vociferously and mercilessly conducted a head-on attack on those who would seek to glorify God at the expense of trivializing human suffering. That poem is not as well known as Candide, but it is certainly worth reading in full, and so I'm including it below in full for your reading pleasure:

Or an Examination of the Axiom: “All Is Well”

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All's well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.

Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives,
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o'er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother's breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers' wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.
When earth its horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"'Tis pride," ye say—"the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."

Go, tell it to the Tagus' stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house of grief,
Whether 'tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All's well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?
Are ye so sure the great eternal cause,
That knows all things, and for itself creates,
Could not have placed us in this dreary clime
Without volcanoes seething 'neath our feet?
Set you this limit to the power supreme?
Would you forbid it use its clemency?
Are not the means of the great artisan
Unlimited for shaping his designs?
The master I would not offend, yet wish
This gulf of fire and sulphur had outpoured
Its baleful flood amid the desert wastes.
God I respect, yet love the universe.
Not pride, alas, it is, but love of man,
To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.

Would it console the sad inhabitants
Of these aflame and desolated shores
To say to them: "Lay down your lives in peace;
For the world's good your homes are sacrificed;
Your ruined palaces shall others build,
For other peoples shall your walls arise;
The North grows rich on your unhappy loss;
Your ills are but a link in general law;
To God you are as those low creeping worms
That wait for you in your predestined tombs"?
What speech to hold to victims of such ruth!
Add not such cruel outrage to their pain.

Nay, press not on my agitated heart
These iron and irrevocable laws,
This rigid chain of bodies, minds, and worlds.
Dreams of the bloodless thinker are such thoughts.
God holds the chain: is not himself enchained;
By his indulgent choice is all arranged;
Implacable he's not, but free and just.
Why suffer we, then, under one so just?
There is the knot your thinkers should undo.
Think ye to cure our ills denying them?
All peoples, trembling at the hand of God,
Have sought the source of evil in the world.
When the eternal law that all things moves
Doth hurl the rock by impact of the winds,
With lightning rends and fires the sturdy oak,
They have no feeling of the crashing blows;
But I, I live and feel, my wounded heart
Appeals for aid to him who fashioned it.

Children of that Almighty Power, we stretch
Our hands in grief towards our common sire.
The vessel, truly, is not heard to say:
"Why should I be so vile, so coarse, so frail?"
Nor speech nor thought is given unto it.
The urn that, from the potter's forming hand,
Slips and is shattered has no living heart
That yearns for bliss and shrinks from misery.
"This misery," ye say, "is others' good."
Yes; from my mouldering body shall be born
A thousand worms, when death has closed my pain.
Fine consolation this in my distress!
Grim speculators on the woes of men,
Ye double, not assuage, my misery.
In you I mark the nerveless boast of pride
That hides its ill with pretext of content.

I am a puny part of the great whole.
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law,
Suffer like me, and like me also die.
The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All's well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.
Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o'er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, "All's well,"
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a hundred times your mind's conceit.

All dead and living things are locked in strife.
Confess it freely—evil stalks the land,
Its secret principle unknown to us.
Can it be from the author of all good?
Are we condemned to weep by tyrant law
Of black Typhon or barbarous Ahriman?
These odious monsters, whom a trembling world
Made gods, my spirit utterly rejects.

But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he's lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!
O wondrous mingling of diversities!
A God came down to lift our stricken race:
He visited the earth, and changed it not!
One sophist says he had not power to change;
"He had," another cries, "but willed it not:
In time he will, no doubt." And, while they prate,
The hidden thunders, belched from underground,
Fling wide the ruins of a hundred towns
Across the smiling face of Portugal.
God either smites the inborn guilt of man,
Or, arbitrary lord of space and time,
Devoid alike of pity and of wrath,
Pursues the cold designs he has conceived.
Or else this formless stuff, recalcitrant,
Bears in itself inalienable faults;
Or else God tries us, and this mortal life
Is but the passage to eternal spheres.
'Tis transitory pain we suffer here,
And death its merciful deliverance.
Yet, when this dreadful passage has been made,
Who will contend he has deserved the crown?
Whatever side we take we needs must groan;
We nothing know, and everything must fear.
Nature is dumb, in vain appeal to it;
The human race demands a word of God.
'This his alone to illustrate his work,
Console the weary, and illume the wise.
Without him man, to doubt and error doomed,
Finds not a reed that he may lean upon.

From Leibnitz learn we not by what unseen
Bonds, in this best of all imagined worlds,
Endless disorder, chaos of distress,
Must mix our little pleasures thus with pain;
Nor why the guiltless suffer all this woe
In common with the most abhorrent guilt.
'Tis mockery to tell me all is well.
Like learned doctors, nothing do I know.

Plato has said that men did once have wings
And bodies proof against all mortal ill;
That pain and death were strangers to their world.
How have we fallen from that high estate!
Man crawls and dies: all is but born to die:
The world's the empire of destructiveness.
This frail construction of quick nerves and bones
Cannot sustain the shock of elements;
This temporary blend of blood and dust
Was put together only to dissolve;
This prompt and vivid sentiment of nerve
Was made for pain, the minister of death:
Thus in my ear does nature's message run.

Plato and Epicurus I reject,
And turn more hopefully to learned Bayle.
With even poised scale Bayle bids me doubt.
He, wise and great enough to need no creed,
Has slain all systems—combats even himself:
Like that blind conqueror of Philistines,
He sinks beneath the ruin he has wrought.
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.
This world, this theatre of pride and wrong,
Swarms with sick fools who talk of happiness.
With plaints and groans they follow up the quest,
To die reluctant, or be born again.
At fitful moments in our pain-racked life
The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears;
But pleasure passes like a fleeting shade,
And leaves a legacy of pain and loss.
The past for us is but a fond regret,
The present grim, unless the future's clear.
If thought must end in darkness of the tomb,
All will be well one day—so runs our hope.
All now is well, is but an idle dream.
The wise deceive me: God alone is right.
With lowly sighing, subject in my pain,
I do not fling myself 'gainst Providence.
Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure's genial rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age,
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.

A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
"To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin."
He might have added one thing further—hope.

Arrow - A Celebration of Love

Life is hard enough as it is. Existence, in many ways, is suffering. Obviously, some have it much worse than others, and that matters, but at some point in our lives we all experience pain, disease, loss, betrayal. We struggle with existential angst, with the fear of meaninglessness, with questions of character, with the impending coming of oblivion. We struggle to pay rent, to put food on the table, and to have enough energy at the end of the day to make a positive difference in the world.

And we don't all find love. Few things make the loneliness of existence bearable, and perhaps none is as effective at combating a sense of meaninglessness as having someone with whom you can let your guard down and allow yourself to be vulnerable, knowing that you'll be safe in their arms.

Love is not guaranteed. But if you're gay, transgender, etc., you also have to deal with small-mindedness, with intolerance, with hatred, with abuse, with public condemnations, with policies that would deny you the rights and protections that most of us get to take for granted. For you, an outward expression of love can become the reason your family and your community disowns you. On any given day, the mere act of hugging or kissing your partner, or even just holding their hand, could be the difference between going home at the end of the day or being beaten or killed.

Today, in this blog, we celebrate love, and your right to exist, and to be who you are.

And below is the back-story behind this powerful performance:

I also can't help but think of Leonardo's famous Vitruvian Man, and somehow that seems rather appropriate...

If 'Despacito' Were Written by an Evo-Devo Biologist

If you are a geek, you are likely to get excited over things others might find boring, laughable, lame, etc. You still like what you like, but you also know when to keep that to yourself.

But sometimes you stumble upon something so incredibly brilliant that, no matter what else may be going on in your life, you just have to let your inner geek go nuts. And the following parody of 'Despacito' is just such an instance...

James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley

James Baldwin, the great essayist, poet, civil rights activist, writer and orator, would have turned 93 this week. In order to commemorate the importance of his memory and legacy, we are showcasing today the very famous Cambridge debate in which—while surrounded by an overwhelmingly white audience—he courageously and adeptly defended the proposition that “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro” against the influential conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr.

Prior to this debate, Buckley had made his reputation as a leading American conservative, at least partly, through his writings opposing the civil rights movement and desegregation, and by publishing in 1957 a famous editorial in National Review titled “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he cited the "cultural superiority of White over Negro" while defending his belief that whites are "entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where [they do] not predominate numerically." All of this while conveniently—though in perfect line with conservative ideology—remaining silent about the fact that the lack of educational equality afforded to blacks in the South was the direct result of cultural and legal obstacles deliberately created and consciously enforced by white supremacy.

Everyone knew this would be a fascinating and important debate, but though expectations were high, no one could have predicted just how powerful and historic Baldwin's performance would become, not only for his skill as a masterful rhetorician, but for the deep honesty, humanism and personal conviction from which he so eloquently spoke...

Genius of the Ancient World - Socrates

Few figures have been more important and influential in the history of civilization than the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. And it's not simply that he was a philosopher either. Despite the importance of the intellectual contributions made by his predecessors, and despite the vast differences between them (just think Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Democritus, etc.), virtually all philosophers who preceded him were ultimately consigned to the category of Pre-Socratics.

So what exactly was so special about Socrates that it would be he, and not any of his forerunners, who would be generally recognized to be the first master of philosophy? Well, for today's installment, historian Bettany Hughes brings her usual charm, passion and humanity—not to say anything about her lovely British accent—to bear on the importance and influence of this great, unique and fascinating thinker.

The Presocratics

Anyone who's ever contemplated Raphael's celebrated painting The School of Athens knows that the painting centers, quite literally, around Plato and Aristotle (the former pointing up toward his transcendent Realm of the Forms, while the latter attempts to ground his understanding of reality on a much more naturalistic conception). A quick glance also reveals a few other obvious personalities: Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, Pythagoras, and Euclid (or perhaps Archimedes?). But if you look even closer, you can see that this painting is also paying homage to the Presocratics, those thinkers who dared to imagine the cosmos might be intelligible to human beings, and who set out to prove it.

In the process of attempting to understand and explain the world, these thinkers came up with many of the concepts that are still highly influential today: the uniformity of nature, mathematics as the foundation/expression of all reality, mind as a potential cosmic principle, atoms as the basic constituents of the universe, explanatory reductionism, physical necessity, methodological naturalism, reductio ad absurdum, materialism, teleological explanations, anthropomorphic skepticism, the questioning of the nature/reality of space and time, presentism and the block universe, the difference between appearance and reality, and many, many others.

With many thanks to philosophy professor Peter Adamson and his fantastic podcast, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, the following selection of audio clips provides a great and accessible introduction to the thoughts of these daring and intellectually creative thinkers. It is because of the move from mythos to logos begun by the Presocratics that it has been possible for human beings to unshackle ourselves from the chains of superstition and ignorance to which we were subject before there was any philosophy or science, and to come to realize that though our knowledge may always limited, it is nevertheless not only possible and worth pursuing, but perhaps a delightful moral obligation.

It all started with Thales, who shocked the world with his successful prediction of the solar eclipse of May 28th 585 BCE, and who said that "water is best":

Once the spark of logos had been kindled, Anaximander would think up his cosmic principle of apeiron (the indefinite, boundless, infinite), and Anaximenes would offer up the first idea of a scientific mechanism to explain change:

It would not take long for Xenophanes to recognize that our point of view can influence our perception and our judgments, and that we therefore have a natural predisposition to impiously anthropomorphize our ideas about the nature of the gods:

And then, in a truly odd mix of uber rationalism and mysticism, Pythagoras would argue that number is the fundamental reality of the cosmos, and would warn to stay away from beans!

Do things really exist? If everything we see changes, as experiences implies, then perhaps 'things' are actually processes, and everything is in flux. There is no being, only becoming, or so thought Heraclitus:

But why trust the senses when we know they are prone to deceiving us? Pure reason, on the other hand, is objective, and it works independently of our biases. And pure reason implies that change, of any kind, is logically impossible. Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school, argued that there cannot be any becoming, only being:

And if you thought he was just being cheeky, his students Zeno and Melissus set out to prove their master right with a set of paradoxes that continue to perplex, delight and frustrate thinkers of all stripes down to our own day:

So how do we reconcile being, which seems to be the necessary presupposition for any kind of possible predication, with becoming, which is what our sensory experience tells us is a basic fact of the world in which we live? Perhaps a combination of indestructible, indivisible and unchangeable particles, atoms, moving around the empty space of the void, and organizing themselves in countless collective configurations? According to Leuccipus and Democritus, this compromise would preserve the strengths of the Heraclitean and the Eleatic schools without being subject to their weaknesses:

But whence order? According to Anaxagors, perhaps behind all the regularity of the cosmos, and especially behind the construction of living organisms, there is a teleological principle of Mind responsible for organizing it:

Pythagoras may have started a religion, but Empedocles declared himself a god, and jumped into a volcano to prove it! (Unsuccessfully, I'm afraid.) Still, it is from Empedocles that we get the ancient conception of chemistry: air, earth, fire and water. Everything we see around us, he thought, is just different combinations of these elements (or roots, as he called them), mixed through the cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Oh, and we also get a bit of a precursor to the idea (not the theory) of evolution:

Well, when you take Empedocles seriously, you start to understand why so much of ancient medicine was concerned with finding the right balance between the four fluids (or humours) contained within the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile:

And finally, from the Sophists we get an attempt to question the validity and limits of the kinds of claims made through language and on the basis of our experience. Doesn't the form of our perception, as well as the form of our linguistic expression, in some sense influence or determine the nature of our conclusions? But if so, is objective knowledge possible?

It is in this intellectual context that a brilliant and charismatic thinker would emerge, and who would eventually become the embodiment of philosophical brilliance, humility and principle that has made its way through the centuries. That rascal was, of course, Socrates.

President Obama's Farewell Address

As his presidency sadly comes to an end, President Obama delivered last night what is sure to become one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in his already admirable history of powerful and memorable speeches.

In a time when democracy, justice, freedom, equality and human rights have come under threat in America—as a right-wing administration inspired by unabashed hatred, divisiveness, racism, xenophobia and greed prepares to take office—President Obama's message is a sober and thoughtful reminder that this experiment in self-governing is not a foregone conclusion but a process that requires permanent work, vigilance and cooperation.

Thank you for being an inspiration to us all, President Obama. We are truly going to miss you...

John Berger - Ways of Seeing

Art critic John Berger's recent death has left a huge void in the world of art appreciation. While his career prompted numerous controversies and instances of outrage and public condemnation, Berger's attacks on what sometimes amounts to the condescending and elitist attitude of his own profession helped popularize the appreciation of art. His 1972 BBC documentary series Ways of Seeing, as well as its subsequent eponymous book, helped bring the world of thoughtful art appreciation to an entire generation of people who may have otherwise never gotten interested in the fine arts. Unlike conventional forms of art criticism and appreciation—which tend to focus primarily on concepts such as form, function, craft, materials, beauty, the sublime, or on the history of various schools of art—Berger tended to provide a more humanistic, sociological and philosophical introduction to how to decipher the ideology hiding behind the surface of the canvas. Though it has been used for centuries to promote the interests of those in power, Berger believes that art's true function is one of liberation.

The first episode of Ways of Seeing—based on philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin's classic work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction—explores the impact of photography on our aesthetic experience of works from the past. On the one hand, new technological means of reproduction have helped to democratize the appreciation of works of art that had previously only been accessible to wealthy elites. On the other, it has also severed the work of great artists from their historical context, thereby changing their original meanings. To look at a photograph of a painting at home or on a screen is a fundamentally different experience from that of looking at the painting housed in a church, the home of a wealthy aristocrat, or in a museum, and the difference matters.

The second episode—an exploration of The Male Gaze, a concept originally posited by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her groundbreaking article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—starts with the following intriguing (and now famous) observation:
Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. [This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.] 
Combining aspects of Marxist, feminist and phenomenological theories, Berger makes a distinction between a naked and a nude, and shows how much of the female nude in the European tradition perpetuates certain misogynistic paradoxes through which women are simultaneously revered and reviled, sexualized and denied their own sexuality, made the objects of desire, but denied the possibility of being autonomous subjects of experience, and in all cases, dehumanized, scorned, shamed, belittled. The discussion that follows at the end provides a powerful demonstration of the effects that this tradition has had not only on the place and role that women have played in society, but even on their own self-understanding.

The third episode explores the way in which oil painting enabled an unprecedented degree of realism in European art. Along with this realism, however, and the physicality and texture such paintings were able to convey, oil paintings also helped to promote an economic ideology that celebrated the wealth and status of the individuals who commissioned such works of art, while simultaneously concealing the exploitation and dehumanization on which such wealth was often based.

Finally, the last episode attempts to demonstrate the ways in which advertising, particularly through the medium of photography, represents an extension of the artistic tradition, though one that reverses the context: instead of portraying the reality of wealthy individuals and their possessions, advertising conveys an imagined and idealized reality that preys on our fears and insecurities, and attempts to turns us into consumers.

Rest in peace, John Berger.
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