Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rem ipsam dic, mitte male loqui.

Translation:
Speak out the whole truth boldly, but use no bad language. -- John Adams, 1775

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Ancient History

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In Defense of the Primitive

In my ever-continuing ramblings through the jungles of philosophy, I’ve strayed off the path I’d long ago begun hacking for myself (starting at the very beginning) and impatiently leapt ahead, into the 18th century and its changing, probing attitudes toward religion. Early into my exploration, I came upon Frank E. Manuel’s 1967 probing of the topic, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods.

Something was stirring back then in the 1700s—and it wasn’t just war over religion. It seems to me (and I’m only just beginning this exploration, so bear with me if I go wildly off-base here), this was the start of intellectual snobbery.

During this time, the secularists threw off the shackles of having to couch their criticisms of religion in the premises of being Christian themselves. Now they could openly mock and ridicule believers. They set themselves as being above such tomfoolery of using faith and myth in getting through the day. These so-called intellectuals decided that they would be the arbiters of what was civilized and what was primitive, and somewhere along the way, society gave their opinions credence and allowed themselves to be judged from the ivory towers.

In concluding his introduction, Manuel writes:

Present-day inquiries into the few remaining primitive societies have revealed the investigators more often than the savages. The contemporary who describes the primordial function of the myth in either a sociological or a psychic context often says more about his own attitude toward moral problems, toward progress, God and the devil, toward reason and the uses of the imagination than he does about the mind of aboriginal man.

This is a study of the eighteenth-century mind and sensibility, not an attempt to determine the nature of myth. The underlying questions raised by the Enlightenment are, however, enduring ones: Is there a unique primitive mentality differentiated from that of the rational, civilized man? If this is affirmed, what is the relationship between the man of reason and the man of the mythic world? Is he a respectworthy ancestor who will never visit the city of the future, or is he a monster ever threatening to return? Is he a contemporary, the human mob about us, poised to engulf the lone philosopher? Are there unique qualities in this mythic mind which the man of reason loses as the inevitable fate of growth and maturity, or should man rejoice in the imminent sloughing off of his prehistoric coils?

I’m not far enough into Manuel’s book to determine how he will answer his questions, though I suspect he will fall more in the civilized camp. I, on the other hand, find myself immediately, fervently on the side of the primitive. I take offense for him that someone should even call him a primitive and look down a nose at him.

It’s happening today, 45 years after Manuel wrote those words, this battle of the supposed civilized and primitive. And it shows that Manuel was wrong then he said that few primitive societies remain. According to today’s modern academic elite and the liberal political class, America itself is pockmarked with primitive societies: trailer parks, hunting lodges, KOA campgrounds, beer bars, community swimming pools, Boy Scout meetings—anywhere the low-brow, the anti-intellectual, the commonplace man (and woman) lives and takes leisure. These are the new American aboriginals. Ones who have resisted the civilizing call of their sneering betters.

To me, and to them, there’s little difference in the soul and nature of the primitive man versus the civilized snob. The primary difference is attitude. The primitive man doesn’t care what the civilized man does, as long as he’s left alone to do as he pleases. The civilized man can’t be content with his own life, but must remake primitive man in his image because he finds his primitive nature to be offensive.

It embarrasses the civilized man to have to share a continent with a primitive man. He’s afraid what some pompous civilized man somewhere else is going to think about his primitive neighbors. So by God, he’s going to do something about it. The problem is, his god is government.

Primitive and civilized men alike want to be good persons; they just have a different definition of what is good. Striving to be good doesn’t eliminate the baser instincts. It just becomes easier to resist them as we become more practiced at resistance.

That’s where civilized man does indeed have to fear that primitive man is ever threatening to return, is indeed the human mob surrounding his civilized citadel.

Every birth is a new primitive life. Every day, every minute, somewhere, the civilizing must begin all over again. All the snobbery and arrogance and ill consequences of “good intentions” must be reinstilled and reinforced. Just like manicuring the lawn of the gated men’s club, the work of civilization is fighting against the undeniable, the unstoppable.

And that gives all us primitives out here hope.

|Daily Tread

Heraclitus and the Odyssey

My favorite saying of Heraclitus is “Strife is justice.” It makes sense, that we will gain our piece of the world through our toil, perseverance and battle. We will get what we earn, what we deserve, even if it may not be what we originally set out to achieve, and even if the results are not what we expected. If we want more, we must strive more.

The sticking point, though, comes in jealousy. In working so hard, enduring so much strife, it can aggravate us to see someone else gain what we desire through seemingly no strife at all. It can make the end result of our strife seem unfair, unjust.

The Odyssey contains an excellent example of this:

As Odysseus comes home to Ithaca after his hard ten years’ journey, he arrives at his house disguised as an old beggar. He wishes to observe all the men that have feasted upon his wealth and lived in his home, courting his wife, while he has been away. It is time to take retribution and to reclaim what is rightfully his. He takes a spot at the threshold.

But Irus, another beggar, considers the threshold to be his property. All of it. He is the king beggar of the house. Running errands and doing chores for the suitors, he has earned this spot, and he does not wish to share it with some newcomer who just waltzes in and wants the same rewards that he had to toil to achieve.

To Irus, the threshold is his just reward for all his strife, for all that he has had to endure at the hands of the suitors. He warns Odysseus that he will fight him if the old man doesn’t get out of his threshold.

From Irus’ perspective, he has fought already for what he has, and the stranger hasn’t striven at all. But he can’t see that it is the stranger’s house of which he is trying to proclaim a portion. He doesn’t realize that he is trying to claim another man’s rightful share, even if Irus thinks he is the one that has truly earned it.

He hollers at Odysseus, telling him he better get up and move on, or else he will haul him out by the foot.

Odysseus replies that neither in deed nor word does he harm the beggar, nor does he begrudge the men giving him food and goods, even if they give him lots of it–enough to cause envy. “This threshold will hold us both, and thou hast no need to be jealous for the sake of other men’s goods,” the disguised Odysseus tells Irus.

For Odysseus, he too believes that strife is justice, and justice is about to rain down hard upon all the suitors and unfaithful maids of his household. But the justice he is searching for is not affected by the beggar’s gains. Odysseus is focused on his own, and offers the man a chance to coexist in their own strifes.

Irus refuses, however, and the suitors use the fight as a source of entertainment, guaranteeing a reward for the victor. When Irus falters at the sight of Odysseus’ muscular thighs, the suitors push him forward, and the two men come to blows. Well, two blows. Irus lashes out at Odysseus’ shoulder, and Odysseus, consciously choosing not to kill Irus with one powerful blow and thus reveal his identity, gives him one strike beneath his ear, knocks him out, and hauls the bloody beggar out of the house…by the foot.

Therefore, the next time you fear someone is encroaching on your justice, take a moment to consider whether the threshold would hold you both. If so, it may be best to devote your energies to your other battles.

|Daily Tread

Meditation on Heraclitus: Strife Is Justice

Many months ago, as I was working my way through the pre-Socratic philosophers, I was reading my Heraclitus, loving him. Then suddenly, I came across this concept of his:

Strife is justice.

Those three little words socked me in the chest and took my breath away. It seemed to contain truths on so many levels.

I started one essay on it, but couldn’t find an ending. I started another, and couldn’t end that one either. So I just began avoiding Heraclitus. And then because I hadn’t finished Heraclitus, I, in my perfectionistic obsessive way, felt I couldn’t move on to the next pre-Socratic in line. I was stymied.

The reason I couldn’t finish the essays was because there was a nagging hole in my “Strife is justice” belief—and i didn’t want to face it and have another belief crumble without something to replace it.

See, I’ve always believed that if you work hard, you will prevail. Hard work (strife) doesn’t mean you won’t fail. It just means you will eventually get your reward (justice) if you keep trying. It may not be the justice you expected, but it will come.

That belief has pushed me through hard times and rallied me when I was tiring, lagging behind. And it’s given me courage to set off on new paths, take risks, because I felt confident I would get my reward.

It works on metaphysical and material levels, on personal and communal levels, except for one nagging thing: Some people seem to win their reward without having much or any strife. Some people just waltz up to the front of the line.

Doesn’t that punch a big hole in the whole “strife is justice” thing if that can happen?

In writing my other essays, going into the various applicable levels of it, I came up with myriad excuses to justify my clinging to the concept while watching some escape it:

Maybe they had already striven and have fully earned it. Maybe they will have to strive to hang on to it, without having the tools all the strivers have already learned and practiced. Perhaps they won’t meet their justice in this life, but it will still come.

All true, but also all unsatisfactory in closing the mammoth believability gap that question opened.

So lo these many months I have seen and quietly noted instances proving that “strife is justice” indeed, but with no explanation for the exceptions coming to me, to allow me to complete my essays.

But today I found that a new friend was also struggling with the concept of justice. It upset her that, in a certain instance, justice was not swift nor assured. I could sympathize, but something in me still made me confident that it would come, although maybe she would never learn of it or know the full extent of it.

With those thoughts rambling around my brain, still feeling silly I was trying to keep the nagging question at bay, I popped in a good old country CD, Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance, and click! A little light turned on.

I’ve always listened to the title song and imagined sending its lyrics out into the ether to dear ones, and today was no different…until I thought, wait, what about me? Why don’t *I* try to more actively live that way? Why can’t I sing that song to myself? (in a non-narcissistic way, of course!)

Read the simple lyrics. Listen to them. See if you can guess where I’m going with this:

It’s all about strife, striving and doing it in the most beautiful, challenging, purposeful, gratifying, graceful manner you can. The joy, satisfaction and pride of that kind of strife is its own justice.

Listening to those lyrics it occurred to me that I was looking at it all the wrong way. If I live my life according to the “Strife Is Justice” precept, going along, working hard—or not working hard and knowing I have only myself to blame for not getting any reward—does it change things for *me* if someone else gets a freebie tossed their way? Does it give me an excuse not to strive? Or, should I be like some others who mainly strive to get in with the people that always get let into the club while everyone else waits behind the rope?

Does it affect my justice? No. Because nothing is owed to me, and life is not a zero-sum game. Just because one person gets their justice doesn’t mean there’s no justice left for me.

It’s the age-old liberal trap that I was falling into. That it’s unfair, gosh golly! I could try to game the system, get some freebies, arrange my life choices so that I can continue to receive those freebies. Or I can get out there and strive like hell. I can fall on my face, but I can pick myself back up. I can open up my world, my opportunities by getting out there.

It doesn’t change things for my life if I worry about what’s happening with other people’s lives, whether they are getting the harsh justice they sorely deserve.

Instead I need to wake up each morning, and strive. I need to go for the gusto and live like the lyrics in Womack’s beautiful song.

If I attack each day in that manner, I shape my own justice. I control my frame of mind. I can love, I can forgive, I can live. I don’t have to permit others to drag me down. I can exercise my hope and optimism and courage, and gain the strength to hang on tight in times of trouble—and maybe have a little extra left over to help pull others along when they need a hand.

All the others that appear to be getting strife-free rewards won’t be waltzing by me in line, because I won’t be in any line waiting for my justice. I’ll be dancing to it myself.

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P.S. In searching for a suitable YouTube copy of I Hope You Dance with the lyrics shown, I came across this video that some guy put up his own thoughts instead of the lyrics. He has some nice things to say, some of them relevant to “Strife Is Justice.”

Strive on.

|Daily Tread

Meditation on Heraclitus and Theory of Flux

On the theory of flux, Plato wrote in Cratylus:

Heraclitus says somewhere that everything moves and nothing rests; and comparing what exists to a river, he says that you would not step in the same river twice.

18th century sculpture of Heraclitus by Marinali

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

While Heraclitus was theorizing more about the essence of physical things being unstable, transitory, in a constant state of flux, it seems to carry through to more gossamer elements, such as moments in time, as well. Every moment is different. Moments of the past can never be recreated again in their totality. Something, many things (everything technically), will have changed, and thus alter the total experience of the moment. New obstacles will have tumbled into our path; old ravines will have been bridged.

As such, we must temper our assumptions and not expect to be able to recreate the perfect moment or dodge the speeding train again. Instead, each recurring event will be something different, perhaps even entirely unique. Resistance to change is futile, because everything is in a constant state of flux. At most we can try to manage the change, attempt to limit or control it as best we can.

The holidays often are a time when we depend on tradition and ritual to restrict changes to our celebrations. We can get our hopes up that the best moments of the past will happen again (and that experience will allow us to avoid the worst), if we just try hard enough. So we make all the right preparations, have everything in its place, and somehow it doesn’t seem quite the same again.

That’s a moment when we can become disappointed and sulk, or we can enjoy the new energy and let each new moment surprise and thrill us. We can make it a moment that we will want to try to recreate again.

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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q7. In the tradition of the earlier pre-Socratics, such as Anaximander and Anaximenes, Heraclitus believed the world was composed of one primary element? What is it?

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Up Next: Even More Heraclitus!

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Meditation on Heraclitus, Knowledge and Truth

On finding the truth of things, Heraclitus said:

If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored.

Raphael's Michelangelo as Heraclitus in the School of Athens

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

In the macro sense, Heraclitus’ words go beyond the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared.” They say to me, “Go seek.” I need to hear his words on the lazy days, when ennui tinges my going through the motions of daily chores and duties. If I’m in a rut, I’m merely treading over my own footsteps. What can I hope to find there, going over the same old ground? On those days especially, I need to take a chance, intentionally go in search of something new, no matter how small or insignificant, to cultivate my sense of anticipation, to create new paths and explore them.

In the micro sense, Heraclitus’ words also prod me to expand my horizons in my quest for information. If I always return to the same sources, I have limited my scope willingly, expecting them to provide me with the unexpected and defining the truth according to their views and principles–again being lazy. Instead, I need to venture into unknown and opposing realms, to make my own discoveries and verify (or adjust) my own truths.

Then I can carry these discoveries and truths back here to report on the new frontiers, paths and oddities I have found—or to simply provide material for those days when someone else feels too lazy to explore.

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Related Bonus Quote

On knowledge, Clement wrote in Miscellanies V:

For philosophical men must be versed in many things, according to Heraclitus, and it is in truth necessary to “wander in the search to be good.”

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

This seems to reiterate much of what the first quote said, just from a slightly different vantage point. I leave it for you to ponder, and even comment on here, if you dare.

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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q6. in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius writes that Heraclitus wrote a book…

And he deposited this book in the temple of Diana…having written it intentionally in an obscure style, in order that only those who were able men might comprehend it, and that it might not be exposed to ridicule at the hand of the common people.

What is the book about generally, and what are its three discourses?

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The Daily Apologia:

I am sorry once more, for abandoning the daily postings for so long. I’ve fired up the philosophical treadmill once more, and hope to get back to regular postings. Perhaps not daily, but certainly more frequently.

I also apologize for the last Daily Tread posting: Heraclitus’ Aphorism Bonanza. It was entirely incomplete, and certainly no bonanza because I’d barely begun it. Unfortunately, I must have accidentally published it instead of keeping it in draft mode. Oops. (Can you be an absent-minded philosopher?) Once I discovered my error, I thought it better to leave it than to confuse those that had already read it.

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Up Next: More Heraclitus!

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Heraclitus' Aphorism Bonanza

Part of the allure of Heraclitus for me is his wordsmithery, which earned him the nicknames of “The Obscure” and “The Riddler.” He is described variously as producing fragments that are “cursed by their enigmatic obscurity, which was already notorious in ancient times….” If these fragments were dense in meaning back then, translation into English and into modern usages fogs their clarity all the more.  Another expert writes: “The Riddler delights in puns and word-play—most of which are lost in translation.”

In introducing Heraclitus in The First Philosophers, Robin Waterfield says:

It is even possible that Heraclitus did not write a coherent treatise, but a series of longer and shorter aphorisms, suitable for an oral culture, which frequently rely on metaphor and paradox.

As quoted by Sextus Empiricus in Against the Professors:

But the general run of people are as unaware of their actions while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.

On opposites being one:

The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for me, undrinkable and death-dealing.

On immortality:

Immortals are mortals, mortals immortal: living their death, dying their life.

|Daily Tread

Meditation on Xenophanes and Knowledge

Xenophanes, poet philosopher

From Hippolytus, in Refutation of All Heresies:

Xenophanes thinks that the earth mixes with the sea and in time is dissolved by the moisture, offering as proof the fact that shells are found in the middle of the land and on mountains; and he says that in the quarries in Syracuse there was found an impression of a fish, on Paros the impression of a goby deep in the rock, and on Malta traces of all sea-creatures. He says that these were formed long ago when everything was turned into mud—the impressions dried in the mud. All men are destroyed when the earth is carried down into the sea and turns into mud; then they begin to be born again. And this is how all the worlds begin.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

Imagine being the first person to figure out the cause of fossils—and to get it right. (Just think of all the wrong guesses that must have floated around.) We haven’t come much further in the intervening 2,500 years in our fossil origin knowledge. Like Xenophanes, we still use fossils as our proof of the earth’s stages of development.

I’d love to be like Xenophanes and discover something. The pace of modern life, the need for multitasking just to keep up, makes it difficult to truly observe anything, let alone make those observations more incisive. I’m trying to relearn that mindset. Turn observation into play, to look upon the world around me, which I know is filled with highly scientific and rational rationales and principles, and create my own scenario for its being the way it is. And when I’ve dreamed up my own theory, I can go and look it up and see just how far off I was, to see how I would have fared as a scientist in Xenophanes’ day.

It’s a much more entertaining use of brain power than the time I spend rehearsing the list of things I must not forget at the grocery store. I’d hope more productive, too, in the long run. Alas, it’s difficult to turn off the grocery lists in my head.

Granted, with all the knowledge we have gained since Xenophanes’ day, it would be difficult to look upon something all mankind has seen already and see something no one else has seen. To have something click in just my mind, then to not just push it aside to move on with my day, but instead to stop and take heed of my unique perspective, to recognize its uniqueness, to pursue that perspective and test it, and end up discovering some fantastic principle in something so ordinary. That’s numerous obstacles to overcome to get to the buried nugget of truth.

But surely these nuggets must exist all around us, awaiting close inspection. How could we possibly know everything about the world around us? And the truth of what we do think we know keeps shifting as new discoveries are made. How can we be sure of anything?

In Strobaeus’s Anthology I, he quoted Xenophanes as saying:

Not at first did the gods reveal all things to mortals,
but in time, by inquiring, they make better discoveries.

I take that to be similar to a previous discussion here in which I asked, what if man has all the knowledge of the world in him, but is still learning how to tune it in, able to see only a tiny bit of it right now?

Through mere observation and imagination, Xenophanes constructed an entire cycle of creation and destruction. He got it right in that parts of the world were once covered in water and created those sea fossils inland. As far as we now know, the earth is not simply mud in a continual rotation of dissolution and desiccation.

But to believe our knowledge is flawless, unimpeachable, in any age, is the height of arrogance. As Robin Waterfield writes in The First Philosophers, in paraphrasing Xenophanes’ philosophy of knowledge:

We cannot attain infallible knowledge, and we are limited by the experiences we happen to have encountered. Enquiry can improve matters [see Xenophanes quote above], but even so we will never attain certainty about the big questions of life. This thesis in turn depends on a thesis about the senses: Xenophanes is implicitly saying that the reason we will never attain certain knowledge is that the information we receive through our senses is incapable of taking us there.

Xenophanes could never be assured of the truth he found. We are still arguing over his theory, though not in the manner he intended it to be interpreted:

Xenophanes’ theory fits in well with the world flood tales that preceded him in the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew story of Noah (while omitting the religious implications and causes of those tales). But what if the universe gave him a hunch that flooding is a part of a pattern, not a one-time event? Do we have any proof that it’s impossible to occur again?

The Bible does promise it will not happen again. Al Gore and his band of global warming hoaxers claim it will. As for me, this is one instance I hope Xenophanes got it wrong.

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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q5. Xenophanes was (one of) the first to reject the then-popular Homeric conception of anthropomorphic gods. What form did Xenophanes say that god took?

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The Daily Apologia:

Seems as if I’m always apologizing here, so today’s apology is: I’m sorry that I posted no meditations in the last two days. Try as I might to get something up daily, I’m finding it a bit of a struggle, as meditation requires unhurried focus, something of which some days are in short supply. Rest assured that I will not give up on my attempts. It just seems that I will experience more failure than I would like on that front.

On the bright side, failure is always superb fodder for mediation, so I expect it will work its way nicely into these posts. In the meantime, if I’ve nothing new for your reflection, then please do feel free to add to the discussion on the other postings. Or even, if you dare, submit something of your own for me to post on a Prudence Delinquency Day.

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Tomorrow: Heraclitus

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Meditation on Alcmaeon, Physician Philosopher

From Clement’s Miscellanies VI:

Alcmaeon of Croton says that it is easier to be on your guard against an enemy than against a friend.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

This seems to be the perfect advice to give to all the new incoming US Senators and Representatives.

The Prudence translation: Beware the welcome party until you are sure you can tell the difference between a smile and bared teeth.

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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Free Day! No quiz.

Celebrate by making up your own question that will show how brilliant you are when you answer it with ease.

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Tomorrow: Xenophanes

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Meditation on Pythagoras and Women

From Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras:

After that, [Pythagoras'] reputation greatly increased: he found many associates in the city of Croton itself (not only men but also women, one of whom, Theano, achieved some fame), and many, both kings and noblemen, from the nearby non-Greek territory. What he said to his associates no one can say with any certainty; for they preserved no ordinary silence. But it became very well known to everyone that he said, first, that the soul is immortal; then, that it changes into other kinds of animals; further, that at fixed intervals whatever has happened happens again, there being nothing absolutely new; and that all living things should be considered as belonging to the same kind. Pythagoras seems to have been the first to introduce these doctrines into Greece.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

It wasn’t until I read that paragraph that I realized I could not name a single female philosopher until reaching the 20th century and Ayn Rand.

I don’t go around taking score on gender diversity in anything really. I figure that if you excel at something, you will be admitted to the club. It doesn’t bother me that some fields are predominated by women and others by men.

But as I am just starting on this philosophical journey, I have to wonder, am I venturing into an area that women typically don’t excel at? Why is there such a dearth of women philosophers? Don’t worry, it won’t scare me off. I’m used to going places where I make a surprising addition. I just hadn’t considered the possibility that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.

Could it be as Larry Summers said, and was roundly chastised for, about women mathematicians and scientists: that even in the brain, we’re just built different. Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion and Russian politician, once said that women could never equal men in chess either. Our brains just couldn’t handle the mathematical complexities. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s true. But that doesn’t mean of course that we can’t make our own contributions to the science, or have occasional “freaks of nature” that do find themselves competing on the same level. It would, of course, be nice to see more women give it a try.

It does strike me as odd that the first mention I find of a female philosopher is one attached to Pythagoras, whose philosophy was heavily intertwined with mathematics (see preceding paragraph).

I looked up Theano on the internet, and found a website dedicated to women philosophers. It turns out that Theano was Pythagoras’ young wife who took over his school upon his death. Ah, so that’s how you become the first famous female philosopher. (Not to take away from her own intellectual abilities, which in her writings showed she was one smart cookie.)

The website has lists of women philosophers in different eras. Upon review, there are a few names that I recognize, but couldn’t tell you why I have heard of them. Upon reaching the 20th century there, I see that I left Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft off my one philosopher list. (I hadn’t really thought of her as a philosopher, even with her Vindication of the Rights of Women, but I can the classification now. Apologies to Mary.) There was also Iris Murdoch, whom I know as a novelist, but wasn’t aware of her philosophical writings.

It’s funny. The one female philosopher that I could name—Rand—and who had a great impact in my conservative/libertarian evolution, she wasn’t to be found at all on the Women Philosophers website.
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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, says:

The influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method has been profound. Geometry, as established by the Greeks, starts with axioms which are (or are deemed to be) self-evident, and proceeds, by deductive reasoning, to arrive at theorems that are very far from self-evident.

Q4. What 18th century American document models itself on this method?

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Tomorrow: Alcmaeon

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Meditation on Pythagoras & Souls

While Pythagoras and his cult-like followers are most known (particularly by junior high school students)  for their development of mathematical theories, he’s also known as the one who revived the concept of the transmigration of the soul.

An oft-repeated tale involves him telling a man not to hit his dog because by the dog’s bark, Pythagoras recognized an old friend. But in Histories II, Herodotus relates a story that shows Pythagoras as a transmigration traveler through time:

Heraclides of Pontus reports that [Pythagoras] tells the following story himself. He had once been Aethalides and was considered to be the son of Hermes. Hermes invited him to choose whatever he wanted, except immortality; so he asked that, alive and dead, he should remember what happened to him. Thus in his life he remembered everything, and when he died he retained the same memories.

Sometime later he became Euphorbus and was wounded by Menelaus. Euphorbus used to say that he had once been Aethalides and had acquired the gift from Hermes and learned of the circulation of his soul—how it had circulated, into what plants and animals it had passed, what his soul had experienced in Hades, and what other souls undergo.

Copleston notes that it’s possible Pythagoras was influenced by Orphicism, as they shared a principle that Orphic novices were taught: “the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, so that for them it is the soul, and not the imprisoning body, which is the important part of man; in fact, the soul is the ‘real’ man, and is not the mere shadow-image of the body, as it appears in Homer.”

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

The idea of a soul has always intrigued me. In separating myself from established religions and disbelieving in a God or gods, the one thing I have not been able to divorce myself from is the belief that I have a soul. It bothers me that I have no logical proof of this, and that in the absence of any proof my belief in it is solely based on my faith in it.  I can’t conceive of what life would be if there were no soul. We’d be just fleshy automatons.

When I first entered into atheism, I could accept the psychically brutal concept that this is it, that once you die, it’s over. While that belief provides no comfort in times of turmoil and trouble, it does provide motivation to get going, to not waste this chance. It’s a hard, tough way to live, having no forgiveness or second chances, but I think it made me stronger.

(I’m reminded of Eminem’s song, “Lose Yourself,” which starts: “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment / Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?” and continues the concept in the chorus of “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment / You own it, you better never let it go go / You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo.”)

But as I looked over Eastern philosophies, I began to wonder, if I believed I had a soul but that death was final, did that mean a soul was not eternal? Where would it come from then? Could it really just go poof and be gone? I had a big gap in my personal philosophy.

Slowly I let myself slip back into belief of some sort of reincarnation, and energy that remains when we leave and recycles, similar to the principles of E=mc^2 in which there is a finite amount of energy that merely transforms but remains equal. [Math people: don't slay me if I've been less than articulate in paraphrasing Einstein's theory.]

That seems to make logical sense, and it seems almost provable in anecdotal tales of past lives. And yes, I know, if you want to make fun of that, you could also point out that there’s anecdotal evidence of alien abduction, too.

But if I’m truly honest with myself, I have to wonder if my growing faith in “reincarnation” is not just a weakness, based not on logic and reason, but on desire, on a wish so strong that all my mistakes of this lifetime will not be for nothing. That there will be some benefit that remains behind, and that there’s added purpose in moving forward.

My desire for eternal recycling was somewhat tempered, however, when I read what Herodotus also wrote in Histories II:

The Egyptians were the first to propound the theory that men’s souls are immortal and that when the body dies they enter another animal which is then being born; when they have gone round all creatures of land, sea and air, they once more enter the body of a man which is then being born. This cycle takes three thousand years.

Three thousand years. Wow. Sounds less enticing now. I think I’ll favor the Eastern teachings in this aspect, that each lifetime is used to perfect a flaw, to gain experience to benefit the whole, to pay penance for past grievances.

It’s not that I would mind returning as an animal from time to time if it would teach me something instead of being just a mandated sequence of transmigration. (Obviously Pythagoras had found a loophole for himself, as he was not waiting 3,000 years before reinhabiting a new man.)

A cat, for instance. I wouldn’t mind experiencing such a life, though it would be my luck to end up a scraggly alley cat. Watching my cat, I sometimes think that such a life would be one way to learn patience. I look at my cat and wonder, if she is a recycling soul that I’m responsible for nurturing, I wonder if this life was to be a reward or a punishment for her.

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And Now For Something Completely Different:

I have had a request for more video. Ask and ye shall receive. Here’s a cartoon summary of Pythagorean philosophy in three minutes by some Australian guy. [Language Warning: A few unnecessary, juvenile uses of the F-bomb ahead. What a shame. It could have been great for kids otherwise.]

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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q3. Pythagoras was an ancient Ben Franklin, creating lists of rules for clean and healthy living. Other than not eating beans, what are three Pythagorean rules that you could obey, and one that you could simply not abide.

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Open Thread Discussion Topic:

What part of Pythagorean philosophy gave you the most food for thought?

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NOTE: If you have been coming here every day by my stated 8 am posting time, you have no doubt noticed I’ve been missing that deadline. My apologies. I’m trying to get a few posts in the hopper so that there is always something ready to go, but I’m still behind on my preparation. So, to be sure I don’t have you coming here when there is nothing ready for you, I’m going to move the posting time to 2 pm ET. Once I get ahead, I’ll move it back to the morning for you. Thanks for your cat-like patience with me.

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Tomorrow: More Pythagoras/Alcmaeon [to allow some of you to get caught up as well :)]

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