Pax Romana

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Spending time with friends at New Year, a penny dropped – I do like my peace and quiet. I can do ‘gregarious’ in bursts. But in the main I’d rather be a respectful distance from folk having a good time. Ideally in the next room.

Perhaps, with the passage of years, I’m more interested in knowledge than conversation? The Platonic ideal of ‘justified true belief‘ appeals far more than the garrulous Socratic Method – especially when Google and Wikipedia are such reliable and immediate alternate sources.

I’m far more up for the first two legs of the Reithian ideal of inform, educate and entertain – although one excellent rediscovery this New Year’s has been a tall, well iced Gin and Tonic which puts me far more in the mood for the latter.

And perhaps this is the crux of it. As Russell Crowe famously said to a baying crowd in Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?” I recognise a duty to engage and take part, but after a few thrusts and parries, a lap or two around the sociability track and a couple of good conversational gambits – I’m done.

More booze and I’m nodding off, more chat and I’m reaching for the iPhone for facts and data… And so to the kitchen for my reliable friend the dishwasher. A pot, porcelain and pan-based puzzle of stacking and arrangement, which doesn’t answer back – peace at last.

The Undiscovered Continent

I discovered a poem I liked by Emily Dickinson in a poetry anthology. Her words seemed fresh, direct and unaffected. So I looked to see whether she was still writing. A surprise then to see she wrote the words in 1862.

I asked my partner who knows more about literature than me. ‘She’s American, I think’ she said. Transpires she is, from Massachusetts. Reclusive and introverted, Emily lived through letters. But, as with many writers throughout history, it only became evident how much she’d written after her death. Thousands of poems.

She lived much of her later life in what she called the ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind and soul. She seemed to think of it as an almost a physical place you can inhabit and explore.

This set me thinking – puttering through slow traffic today – of Socrates. He thought everything could be discovered by earnest dialogue and reason – the answers are all there to be found in our heads if we are rigourous and vigourous enough.

Or Berkeley the ‘idealist’ philosopher, who argued that everything we see, touch and feel is ‘mind’ not matter. Then there are contemporary philosophers, who tease undergraduates with solipsism, asking ‘Are we sure it’s not all in our heads’.

The ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind is a tempting destination. But it’s attractions need to be treated with care. Life is enriched by real world observation and experience and is best explored with friends.

A reclusive life might find order. But the beauty and brutality of nature, the intense experiences of life and the fickle gods of chance are in the material world. The ‘undiscovered continent’ is a place I like to visit, but isn’t a place to live I feel.

Here’s the line from Emily Dickinson which drew me to her and her poetry.

I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows – superior for doors.

Poetry in Motion

A few weeks ago, newly enamoured of poetry, I wrote a short ditty to capture what I think increasingly drives my life. It came out quite easily so I guessed it might be quite close. But then I forgot about it. Sat in traffic in the rain today, the last two lines came back to me unbidden. It has clearly lodged in my subconscious. So here it is:

Pay attention to life with bright eyes and keen ears.
Helped by poets and thinkers, refine hopes; master fears.

Embroider each minute and day of my years
with friendship and love and knowledge and ideas.

And the main credits are: for line 1) Montaigne and Aristotle; line 2) Aristotle, Kay, Csikszentmihalyi, Nietzsche, Homer, Armitage, Aquinas, McCabe, Socrates, Stoics, Sceptics; line 3) Me latterly; and line 4) Aristotle, Aquinas, my Friends in Contemplation, my family, reading, writing, work.

I’m not sure I’ll get a poster on the subway for these lines of rhyme, but they are pretty much where Eudaimonia lies for me I think.

Tragedies

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Simon Armitage’s updating of The Odyssey this week – a rattling good read, in my view. Our hero Odysseus, helped by Athene – and in spite of Poseidon and the only sometimes benign neglect of Zeus – overcomes a decade of trials and torments to return to the arms of his long-suffering Penelope.

Serendipitously, I also heard a Philosophy Bites about Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued Greek Tragedies were the perfect human and artistic response to the balance of ‘Dionysian’ chaos and ‘Apollonian’ order in life. The world is chaos and disorder (fickle gods) but humans can briefly rise above that to create pockets and moments of order (depending on the goodwill of the gods).

This tension of chaos and order, it is suggested, energises, drives virtue, excellence and courage and guards us against hubris and vanity. For Nietzsche, tragedies and myths enriched and invigorated Athenian culture, fuelling its dynamism, optimism and creativity – a latter day ‘Yes we can’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s onto something. Planet Earth is an extraordinarily delicate life-boat in a cosmos of nothingness occasionally punctuated by ice, fire and crushing gravity. And our world wasn’t always so benign. On hols in France – watching an improbably large stork fly overhead – I was reminded of massive raptors bouyed by high levels of atmospheric oxygen, avoiding the constant vulcanism and raging forest fires which were the Carboniferous era. Pretty Dionysian. As The Odyssey teaches we can be heroic and stoic, but we are mere mortals against primal forces.

Enter Socrates – everything can be learned, mastered and understood by unrelenting reasoned debate and dialogue. The human mind can penetrate the deepest mysteries and bring order to nature’s chaos. And indeed we can to some degree – with a bit of observation and Aristotle’s scientific method thrown in. But like Odysseus, Achilles or Icarus we can all be raised up and brought low by the fates, with only chaos and chance as explanations.

For Nietzsche the pre-Socratic Greeks had it right. Tragedy and myths were the spiritual batteries of their culture – their way of coping with an unpredictable and inhospitable mother nature. But they could, through luck, bravery and virtue, enjoy moments of truimph and joy. Art lifted their spirits and their culture.

But then along came Socrates who badgered us into believing the world was rational. I like the Socratic method – stepping outside your own beliefs to examine them and debate them with others – but not his unintended consequence. Nietzsche accuses Socrates of killing art with reason and, with it, art’s ability to help us live with and laugh in the face of chaos.

I’ve cited Armitage’s Odysseus three times at work this week. It helped me and others understand and deal with our workplace fates and some all too human failings. It made us reflect, laugh a bit and cope better. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, stepping outside our local tragedies to reflect on ancient ones seemed to help.