The Cave and the Light

I’ve been reading a quite in-depth account of how, throughout history, two particular strains of thought have been instrumental in quidding our understanding of the world around us.

Platonic thinking attributes essential truth to an eternal reality in relation to which our world is but a temporary, fleeting imperfection. The ultimate answers we seek, according to this philosophy, will be realized in contemplation of the eternal ideal forms of true reality.

On the other hand, Aristotelian thought is, that to know, to gain knowledge of the world in which we live requires sensory observation. Experiencing first hand, gathering information and applying inductive logic to what we see around us will unravel the mysteries of this life.

The thinking is, I guess, that pretty much all our philosophical tendencies will fall into one of these two modes. The Plutonic tending toward (or rationalizing) religious engagement with an heavenly realm, while the Aristotelian thinker gravitates toward science with its logical processes and empirical observations.

On a personal level it seems to me both perspectives can be embraced to some degree without contradiction. In fact remaining open to all possibilities would appear a smoother road to travel and with better scenery along the way.

 

 

 

 

The Romantic Sublime

The romantic inclination to solitary communion with nature in order to find truth in beauty is beyond doubt appealing and resonates with anyone who enjoys an invigorating walk in the woods.  The thoughtful Romantic realizes, of course, that nature has her darker side. The sun isn’t always shining, the birds sometimes are silent and Nature can on occasion lose her nurturing aspect, may in fact turn violent and even hostile, threatening the well-being of humankind. Nature’s beauty isn’t lost, though, in the violence of a hurricane or snow-storm but is re-characterized as sublime: an overwhelming and awesome power beyond human imagining.

It seems Nature’s sublimity is increasingly apparent these days, extreme weather events occurring with regularity. A thoughtful Romantic might wonder if perhaps there’s anger being leveled at a humanity exploiting her realm, encouraging us to take heed, to realize a necessary respect for the nurturing environment that sustains us.  Well, being the timid Romantic I am, I’m doing my best to reduce my carbon footprint in the hope Mother Nature will see fit to allow my continuing existence.

 

An Incurable Romantic

I suppose there must be an inclination for the thoughtful mind to balance opposites. During the 18th century the scientistic logic of the Enlightenment generated the philosophical counterpoint of Romanticism, a view of nature as transcendent ‘beauty as truth, truth beauty’. The thinking was, I guess, that Nature was the source of all knowledge, the way to deep understanding, so communing with nature, engaging in contemplation of the natural world was the way one might proceed to fully find the secrets our world holds.

I wonder if the adolescent ideas of ‘romance’ get in the way sometimes of an understanding of the significance of this early philosophy. Certainly the aspects of the romantic displayed in media dramatics: maudlin emotionalism, heroic fantasy and the like are a far cry from the philosophical significance of 18th century Romanticism.

I think that the attention to our nurturing natural world that the Romantics found so significant mustn’t be forgotten. The contemplative mind will embrace those ideas and work to philosophically assimilate them. Hopefully the true’ Romantic spirit’ won’t be lost amidst the superficiality of our popular culture.

Capitalism

I’ve been reading, how, in the 18th century the spirit of capitalism was instrumental in establishing wide spread personal freedoms and a kinder more cooperative society. The concept of free marketing meant everyone had opportunity to go into business for herself, solidifying her relationship with her fellow townsfolk and contributing to the betterment of all.

I guess it took a while before the realization there might be a downside to a materialistic prosperity to take hold. Class division, owners versus workers, made for disproportionate gains. Access to natural resources, mineral and timber rights and land ownership contentions, leading eventually to excessive exploitation of resources all spelled out a basic human fallibility: an over-blown, out-of-control self-interest. Obtaining more, often much more, didn’t necessarily translate to altruistic behaviors.

And, now, as the divide between the moneyed and the poor continues to grow, the more enlightened among us call for a moral capitalism, a conservation of the earth’s resources and a fairer distribution of wealth.

As I look about at what’s happening these days it appears we still have a way to go with that.

A Social Contract

I’ve been reading about the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who developed quite an enthusiastic following in 18th century France. The gist of his thinking had to do with the idea of subordinating individuality to participation in the ‘social welfare’ of all in the community (which he identified pretty clearly as ‘us’ not ‘them’, a xenophobe, I guess). He advocated a purer, simpler life free of the oppressive class divisions that competitive commercialism produced. The primacy of our community should always supersede personal acquisition and behaviors, he offered, which sounded to pretty much everyone at the time a virtuous direction for society to take.

Anyway, around the same time the enlightened public (the well-to-do ones anyway) were enthusiastically embracing these ideas, the king, Louis XVI was bankrupting France, allowing a lot of folks to go homeless and starving in the streets. Oblivious to the plight of the masses his Queen, Marie Antoinette, suggested that if the people were starving they should just go ahead and eat cake.

The people understandably revolted, stormed the Bastille, released political prisoners and guillotined the royal couple. The leadership vacuum was filled by the likes of an egocentric Robespierre who took to extremes the philosophical perspectives of our Rousseau such that if one wasn’t overtly sacrificing for the ‘general will’ she might likely end of guillotined or hung. Apparently, Rousseau’s ideas got a bit out of hand, applied with a bit too much zeal.

Lessons to be learned, I guess: be skeptical of leaders that attempt to isolate and demonize a perceived evil ‘other’, that find conspiracies were they don’t exist. Do we need another Napoleon?

Wisdom

I’ve been wondering lately how exactly one achieves wisdom. After reading credible commentary on the actual lives of some of western civilization’s most notable philosophers it appears that, more often than not, the great minds of history have fallen well short of achieving the high ideals they advocate in their writings. When it came to basic living and social functioning many of our philosophical heroes struggled; were pretty inept to be perfectly honest. They often capitulated to oppositional forces out of fear of retribution from an intolerant church or tyrannical politics. They tended to fail in attempts to establish lasting relationships and they regularly came up short of the moral imperatives they so often championed.

It makes me wonder how seriously I should take Socrates admonishment that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ or the Delphic injunction to ‘know thyself’. Should I even wonder what I can know or what ultimately I ought to do? Can I hope for more than what I have reasonably before me?

The alternative, though, is daunting: proceeding without direction, acting exclusively from self-interest or pursuing survival as an end-in-itself. I guess great ideas and thoughts lift us above the mundane, offer possibility and hopefully help us maintain a healthy sense of altruistic support for our fellow man.

I guess I’ll keep reading.

Saving Planet A

I’ve discovered recently the thoughts of an innovative thinker, Kim Stanley Robinson, who has some quite amazing ideas about how we might potentially nurse our threatened world back to health or at least slow its deterioration.

Could it be possible to blast particulates into the earth’s atmosphere, simulating a volcanic explosion, to filter the heat of the sun with the very positive result of lowering temperatures? How about spraying sea water onto the polar ice caps on a massive scale to recapture the melting seas? Technologically and economically challenging ideas I suppose but at what point will such extreme measures be necessary to save the world?

Then there’s the concept of ‘quantitative easing’, a method of monetary manipulation that’s already been employed to stave off financial crises by ‘producing’ large amounts of capital. Perhaps with the proper monetary incentives farmers could be induced to engage in carbon trapping technologies and to replant acreage in bio-diverse forest lands. With additional capital solar and wind farms could become a primary factor in electricity production. Everyone, given the proper incentives could move toward clean energy transportation.

Being that there’s little doubt that impending environmental disaster is imminent, perhaps innovative thinkers like Kim Stanley Robinson should be taken seriously.

 

Leisure Capitalism

I’ve been reading, lately, about this idea, sort of a thought experiment I guess, offered by an innovative thinker that addresses concerns about the health of our planet. The idea, leisure capitalism, proposes reducing the hours workers work by as much as half. The twenty hour work week would reduce considerably the toxic emissions we are presently spewing into the atmosphere and relieve pressure on our contaminated waterways and depleted forests. These things will be accomplished by reducing work commutes, industrial run-off and large-scale harvesting of South American rain forest.

The wealth of the developed world could easily compensate workers with a living wage and, one would think leisure capitalism would be an idea enthusiastically embraced by the majority of people who could then pursue recreational interests, the nature of which might responsibly be directed toward healthy non-polluting activities.

While the western world is scaling down production developing countries could be encouraged to increase production, raising the standard of living for many in poverty to reasonable levels enjoyed by most of us, after which production can be reduced and people everywhere can find meaning in recreational pursuits.

Seems to me like a great idea for those of us who find pleasure and meaning in activities not providing a paycheck, but I suspect there will be plenty of folks not willing to forego wealth accumulation, status relationships and economic power. The folks, who, I suspect, find it expedient to deny climate change wouldn’t look favorably toward doubling (tripling?) worker wages in the interests of bringing our earth back to full health.

Well, in my mind, the idea of leisure capitalism is optimistic and uplifting even though probably unrealizable. Still, let’s hope innovative thinkers will always be with us.

The Beauty of the Mysterious

I’ve been reading that sometimes everyday events can trigger subliminal memories lying deep within the unconscious mind that have nothing to do with lived experience. Psychologists suggest the indeterminate source of these ‘memories’ may be a collective accumulation of insights we share with all who have come before us. How exactly we acquire these insights I find to be pretty mysterious.
The idea, though, seemed somewhat reasonable to me but then I read that inanimate objects may cooperate with these subliminal messages in the arrangement of symbolic patterns; a prime example of which is the grandfather clock that suddenly stops ticking upon the death of its ancient owner. Apparently there are numerous documented incidents of similar occurrences, which suggest we may have mental capacities beyond the physical neurological operations of the mind.

Well, it all appeared to me kind of questionably new-agie, but then, when I considered the idea that over evolutionary time survival has dictated the acquisition of certain intuitive knowledge associated with the natural environment that took on super-natural significance as our ancestors dreamt of the dead, come alive, and witnessed powerful life-forces within nature. The thought made the man and his clock a bit more palatable. And the whole idea of a collective unconscious fits in pretty nicely with the psychic inclinations our primitive, eons-old brains have yet to evolve beyond.

As reasoned and logical as I might wish reality to be, I’ve got to accept, and revel really, in the beauty of the mysterious.

Why Western Europeans Dominated the Rest of the World for Awhile

So, as I understand it, a long time ago, way back, as humankind emerged from their hunter/gatherer roots, civilization developed in the Fertile Crescent (it being a place particularly conducive to plant and animal domestication) while much of the rest of the world,( save China and a bit later Mesoamerica), remained tribal people for millennia.

Before too long these newly sedentary farmers created complex societies that produced artisan craftsman and a written language. Unfortunately for those urbanizing folks they didn’t have a good grasp on the importance of environmental stewardship: deforestation and soil degradation took its toll. The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent fell into decline.

But, over the millennia, technologies developed by these folks traveled with relative ease and speed into soil rich Western Europe, where, before long, (relatively speaking), the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English and Dutch became the powers that dominated and exploited the rest of the world.

And so, it’s pretty clear geography and circumstance is responsible to a considerable extent for the historical dominance of the Western Europeans. One would think such knowledge would undermine the racist tendencies of our primitive minds. I fear that’s not the case.