Sunday, July 9, 2017

Socrates and the Buddha

You know, I think it is healthy to relate to ideas almost like to people.  Ideas have personalities, quirks, tendencies, emotive textures.  The idea of "I am RIGHT" feels different from "I have an idea".  Atheisms--I suppose there are various sorts, various ways of carrying this idea--feel different from the countless theisms on the planet at this time.

For myself, sometimes I am looking at them and they feel blank, lifeless, like a rice paper roll filled with nothing.  Other times, they open up, and I find myself in an ocean, wondering what will next emerge from the deep, at home because I am large and everything else is small.  This is of course my whale aspect.

It is dissociation that makes the difference.  I understand where Camus was going with L'Etranger, which in my understanding can be, and perhaps best is, translated as "a foreigner", someone just visiting, unknown to anyone.  His distance was nothing new.  Writing about it was what was new, and of course it spoke to the countless traumatized people in the middle half of the twentieth century, some of whom had seen not one, but two pointless and enormously violent conflicts in the heart of Western civilization.

Trauma is not new, and thus of course dissociation is not new either.

In this context I would like to place Socrates.  He was a military veteran of the Peloponnesian War, and as such as likely as any soldier to have been suffering from the ill effects of close in violence and death.  Human neurophysiology was no different then than now, although the bonds of affection among tribes and peoples were perhaps closer and more supportive.

Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404, Socrates was put to death in 399, 5 years later.  I want to argue these historical facts are relevant to understanding his ideas. 

Here is what one source has to say about him: 

All our information about him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed, but his trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy is nevertheless the founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy, and his influence has been felt far beyond philosophy itself, and in every age. Because his life is widely considered paradigmatic for the philosophic life and, more generally, for how anyone ought to live, Socrates has been encumbered with the admiration and emulation normally reserved for founders of religious sects—Jesus or Buddha—strange for someone who tried so hard to make others do their own thinking, and for someone convicted and executed on the charge of irreverence toward the gods. 

Socrates was plainly guilty of undermining the morality of the youth of Athens, because he questioned everything, and he considered it the summation of his lifes work to be able to pronounce, at the edge of his death, that he was SURE that he knew nothing.

Such a man began what we call in the West "The love of truth".

One senses his immense importance as the Founder, as the man there at the beginning, in Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind".  Bloom's impatience with the moderan academy is that it does not teach the questioning, skeptical, critical spirit.  It does not teach people sufficiently well to not know, and to be comfortable with the "not knowing".  It should teach openness to new experience, new ideas, the revisiting of old ideas, above all a spirit of curiosity.  Closing is the opposite of exploring, you see.  Telling, dogmatically, is the opposite of asking open ended questions.  Knowing, self evidently, is the opposite of not knowing.

One can derive readily enough the scientific method, which begins from a presumption of ignorance, that all premises and ideas have to be demonstrated using a clearly articulated method, from Socrates.  One could say that this thread from the Founder continues unabated, to the extent science is done honestly.  One can of course see readily deviation from the Founder to the extent "science" is conflated with political convenience, unexamined and untested assumptions, and simple arrogance.

But if we separate the Meaning function from the Truth function--as I do in my own definition of culture, (to which I assign the tasks of creating and distributing meaning, truth, power and wealth)--then what we see is that his not-knowingness has led to inertia and failure in the realm of philosophy.  If everything can be reduced to words, and if words only mean what we say they mean, then nothing is left.  We are left with a functional nihilism, of the sort which plainly is the parent of the blackshirted fascists which recently descended on the streets of Hamburg, and the smoke of whose visit--like that of a battle ground--still lingers.  Bloom is very clear on this obvious point that ideas have consequences, and that the failures of the academy to teach useful, life affirming values have antecedent failures. most of which on his account did happen in Germany.

Returning to Socrates, though, can we really side with Bloom that the aim of philosophy really is living a life where the goal is to know nothing?  Is this psychologically realistic?  He himself admits only a very few can pull it off, and one has to wonder: what is the value of this feat, and why should we make it the basis of the world view of our thought elites? Is knowing nothing a stable foundation for anything?  Of course not.

Famously, Socrates wrote nothing down.  He did not believe in recording conversations that were specific to times and places and people.  He was not trying to found a cult at all, although that is what happened.  In this, I feel he was like Jesus, who was trying to address problems specific to his time and place (and which I have argued likely had to do at least in part with an ardent desire to avoid the calamity which took place some 20 years after his death.  To be clear, I am no historian.  I say what I feel, and do not charge even Lucy's 5 cents for my opinions).

Could we not posit that Socrates existed in a time where radical change was happening--where the entirety of Athens was nearly enslaved, and her monuments destroyed--and that he was trying to find what he could hold on to?  Could we not posit he was trying to find a firm foundation, failed, but was still looking?  Can we not connect his questioning of everything to the disastrous times in which he lived, and perhaps to PTSD and emotional distancing from his own time and people?  Can we not say that the role of philosophy is not continual questioning, inherently, but that such questioning has a time and a place, particularly times and places of rapid change, in which seeking understanding, a knowledge of how things are put together, could prove useful in building something different and better?  Such would be my contention.

I would assert that the basis of Western culture is thus not questioning everything, but seeking to avoid complacency, of constantly engaging with life on its own merits, of continual curiosity and exploring.  It does not consist in the rejection of common sense morality, self defense, and some sense of satisfaction in achieving peace, prosperity, and social justice (in the honest sense of allowing all people to be equal before the law, and in their access to political participation).  These are not Western aims, but human aims.  Truth and justice have been the aim of all decent human beings for all time.

Now, it is a contention in the air and water of the philosophy of Buddhism that no honest Buddhist can be a Buddhist--one violated continually due, again (I have perhaps not quite said this yet, but this applies above, of course), to the human need for conformity, and fear of encountering the unknown alone--so I cannot say I am a Buddhist, but I am sympathetic.

Ponder, in this context, this excerpt from the Heart Sutra (Thich Nhat Hanh being au courant) :

“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is EmptinessEmptiness itself is this Body.This Body is not other than Emptinessand Emptiness is not other than this Body.The same is true of Feelings,Perceptions, Mental Formations,and Consciousness.all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;their true nature is the nature ofno Birth no Death,no Being no Non-being,no Defilement no Purity,no Increasing no Decreasing.Body, Feelings, Perceptions,Mental Formations and Consciousnessare not separate self entities.

How hard is it to reconcile this with knowing nothing?  In Buddhism there is no knower, but there is neither knowing nor not knowing.  These are not intended are riddles, but as thorough descriptions.  Buddhism is in my estimation by far the most diligent and useful philosophical system introduced on this planet of which I am aware.
Within my own Kum Nye practice, one becomes aware that "I" consist in a field in space.  "I" am my Kum, my space, and the motion within that space, or what is called Nye,  and the practice consists in part in developing and exploring my own space.  It is a delight seeing that there is a space where "I" exist that is completely unique.  Buddhists do not deny the ego, per se--in my understanding-- but want to point to the obvious fact that what we call "I" is usually a dessicated, truncated, defiled, small fraction of who we really are in our full extension, in our full life.  When you get to what is real, it is eternal and beautiful.
In my considered opinion, Socrates would have been a Buddhist, had he been exposed to these ideas.  In my own ideosyncratic view, among Buddha, Jesus, and Socrates, Buddha alone intentionally created and intentionally propagated a system of thought and practice and belief, one which in spite of the inevitable corruptions and permutations and even perversions which human stupidity has created over time, retained--continues to retain--essential elements.  This is the mark of genius.  
He did not intend monasteries, but no doubt foresaw their development.  He did not intend the ossification of his beliefs in ritual, but no doubt foresaw their development.  In spite of all of this, essential truths continue to exist, and useful practices continue to exist.
The spirit of Socrates, the spirit of abstraction, is always already a mistake.  No truth relevant to human life exists as an abstraction.  It is always in our body, in our unique individual, indivisible and incommunicable perception.
Socrates was obviously a creative genius of the first order, but he failed to grasp this.  If I might perhaps make the historical error of conflating his time, his psychology, with our own, it has long been obvious to me that people who want to live in their heads, who want to discuss ideas only, who want to live from their necks up, suffer from feelings, intrusions, griefs and inconsolable pains for which their malady of abstraction serves as a needed ointment, a salve, a distraction, and an escape.  But malady it is, because pure abstractions makes even the most intelligent people stupid when it comes to life itself. One sees evidence of this everywhere.
In speaking of universals, in speaking of relentless questioning, Socrates could be seen as the father of the concepts of universal human rights, of the universal value of all human life, and of the scientific method.  These are to the good. Perhaps his error was the will of God, seen as the pattern underlying it all, moving us all towards increasing awareness and following increasing perfection.  These are deep things of which I can claim no knowledge at all, other than the temerity to guess.
But looking forward over the next century, in trying to see where we are, where we come from, and most of all where we are headed, I would submit that we can do much better.
And I will continue to insist, from my own perspective, that no more useful philosophical practice exists than learning to know ones own body, ones deepest feelings, and expanding them.  And no better practice exists that I have found than Kum Nye.  In world committed to hyperbole, the language used to describe this practice consists in what I might term "hypobole".  It is small.  It starts small.  It stays small for a very long time.  But when it opens, there, there is something interesting and unique.  At its heart, it is feeling Life, big L, and participating in it.
My present life plans consists in using this method, and the Neurofeedback most Americans need, because we are horrifyingly inefficient at raising well adjusted children, to start creating small circles of sanity, and hoping they expand.
We are all so crazy, so alone, so lost, and so busy we fail to see it.  Rather, we are busy, because no large secret can ever remain so, except with our willful--on some level--complicity.  We run around, because we don't want to know.  Pessimism and darkness are in the air, at this very moment where global peace and prosperity and connection are a very real possibility.
Your homework, because I am an idiot (in Sufi typology I would almost certainly be an Arrogant Idiot, if that is one of their types.  I will in fact assume so, since I speak honestly.), speaking as a lone prophet praying to the winds, and welcoming the wolves in the frozen wilds as kindred spirits, is to rewatch Koyaanisqatsi.

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