There is no evil that does not promise inducements. Avarice promises money, luxury, a varied assortment of pleasures, ambition, a purple robe and applause. Vices tempt you by the rewards they offer.”
Our ancestors shared our love for colour and would sacrifice great amounts of wealth to obtain the plants and substances that could be made into dyes. You had to be exceedingly rich to afford Tyrian purple, named after Tyre, the city that manufactured this exclusive dye. Prized above silver or gold, its colour would never fade; only grow vividly brighter under the nurturing warmth of the sun. Purple, from the beginning, assumed the symbol for royalty, pomp, power, wealthy and majesty.
The ancients believed that Tryian purple was discovered by Heracles, or rather his dog, which had a fondness for dining on the tender snails he found along the coastline of the Levant. It was only a matter of time before Heracles put two and two together to establish the cause of the purple stain around the mouth of his dog. It was truly a gift from the sea, for there was only one source for this brilliant colour – the secretions of a specific gland of the unfortunate sea snail called the Murex brandaris. Whether the discovery was Hercules’s dog or the Minoans as archaeological evidence suggests, it was an immediate success with the power elite of emperors, kings, and clergy. And if the Minoan theory is correct, Tryian purple has been around for at least 3500 years. Purple has never gone out of style, gracing the toga wear of the Roman Republic, the mosaics of the Emperor Justinian in Ravenna, and the haute contour designs on the runways of Paris.
Purple includes a range of hues that occur between red and blue. We experience purple through our senses – the heady juice of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the pleasantly bitter taste of eggplants, and the sweetness of ripe plums. We admire the delicate majesty of amethyst and linger over gardens filled with fuchsia and azaleas. Nature, with her infinite generosity, continues to bring colour to our world. As John Keats, once wrote, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.”
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke’s the Book of Hours: A New Translation with Commentary
“I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”
A Vancouver spring is all about colour and rain. Everywhere I go my camera comes with me because timing is everything. The first to awake are the crocuses, then daffodils, tulips and now azaleas and rhododendrons. Just the other day, I was so excited about taking a photo that I literally fell into the garden as I was bending over to capture a subtle yellow flower.
Our lives are surrounded by colour. As children, we see blue for the sky and sea, green for grass and trees, browns for the warmth of Earth, yellow for the brightness of the Sun. We intuitively seek colour in our gardens, paintings, photographs, home designs and clothing. Our moods and attitudes are profoundly influenced by the colours around us. From the very beginning, we have linked colour to seasons, planets, the elements of wind, earth, sky and fire. In Greco-Roman mythology, the rainbow was considered to be a path between Earth and Heaven; in Norse mythology a rainbow connects the realms of Ásgard, home of the gods, and Midgard, home of the humans,
This week I want to focus on our creative relationship with a colourful world. Edouard Manet once said, “There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against another.” Paul Cezanne agreed, “Pure drawing is an abstraction. Drawing and colour are not distinct, everything in nature is coloured.”
In the end, we are all the children of nature, always searching for the colours of life.
“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.”
Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds
“Those who educate children well are more to be honoured than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”
A relay relies on a team to run the race. A time will come to hand the baton to another; our work complete, we will watch as the runner diminishes into a far horizon. Far from being sorrowful, we should be elated. We have run our distance.
The ancients left a legacy that remained vibrant and strong throughout the centuries. Socrates once said, “I am not an Athenian nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” He was a citizen of history, as are all who walk this earth. Whether we are remembered one hundred years from now is of no consequence. What we do today, in the time and space that has been given is what counts. Our legacy will be held in the hearts of those who love us, in the stories that will be shared when they recall our memory. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus once wrote, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Run the distance. Enjoy the moment, for this is our time. As Plato said, “Love is the pursuit of the whole.”
“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
[Address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 November 2004]”
Most of us dislike conflict and will do anything to avoid the unnecessary unpleasantness of raised voices and difficult conversations. There are those among us, however, who would welcome the opportunity to engage in an animated discussion. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.” The Ancients would be in complete agreement.
Xeonophanes was a contemporary and outspoken critic of Pythagoras. Heraclitus was quick to scorn Homer; even Pythagoras and Xenophanes did not escape his ridicule. Leontion’s audacious criticism of the celebrated and unassailable philosopher, Theophrastus, was still talked about centuries after her passing. Plato recorded the iconic debate on love in the famed Symposium. The fundamental standard within all of these historical scuffles was the subject matter. The debate was about ideas, not about personal vendettas or trivial disagreements.
Great thinkers engage in debate, not conflict. As Joseph Joubert, French moralist and essayist, once said, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Our world is in need of thinkers who look for solutions when they put forward their ideas in a way that welcomes an open dialogue. Argue the merits of the position, rather than stooping to pettiness and vain posturing. Recall Aristotle’s words, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.”
“You are forgiven for your happiness and your successes only if you generously consent to share them.”
Themistoclea, the sacred priestess at Delphi, and mentor of the renowned Pythagoras, did not hoard knowledge. Zeno of Elea, famous for his mind-bending paradoxes, did not hoard knowledge. Diotima of Mantinea willingly shared her ideas on Platonic love while Arete of Cyrene wrote 40 books during her 35 years of teaching the next generation of philosophers.
We live in the age of information, where technology allows us to connect with others on the other side of the globe in a matter of seconds. Yet, there is a ubiquitous fear that if we share knowledge we may be at a disadvantage. Within a highly competitive job market, dispensing shards of knowledge on a “need to know basis” is not uncommon.
Great thinkers share knowledge, without fear that their personal power will be eroded. Joseph L. Badaracco, a professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, suggest that “In today’s environment, hoarding knowledge ultimately erodes your power. If you know something very important, the way to get power is by actually sharing it.”
Thank you to my friends in the blogging community for sharing your knowledge, your creativity and your enthusiasm. Our power is growing exponentially.
“Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.”
Robin Morgan, an American Poet, Author, Political Theorist and Activist
“Eureka! – I have found it!”
I have often wondered about Eureka moments, sometimes known as an epiphany, which incidentally comes to us from the ancient Greeks, signifying a manifestation or striking appearance. In the past, it was considered an insight given by the divine, or the supernatural, whereas today, it has lost much of this nuance. Even so, when someone has an epiphany it usually means there has been a scientific, religious or philosophical breakthrough of grand proportions.
Archimedes is a shining example of this form of the extraordinary. Diotima and her idea of Platonic love and Hipparchia’s decision to embrace the Cynic’s lifestyle, in my opinion, fit into this category. In fact, all of the ancient great thinkers seemed to have encountered a new and deeper understanding or perspective. While we gratefully acknowledge their contribution, there is within all of humanity a wistful desire to experience a Eureka insight.
So let us consider the idea that most of us have, indeed, felt that moment without recognizing its profound meaning. We may be expecting a thunderbolt, when the reality may come as a gentle whisper. Eureka insights usually signal a dramatic shift in thinking. Some people consider it an “ah ha” moment. The catalyst may be a simple conversation, a line of a poem, or a book that challenged.
The ancients gave substance to their thoughts and ideas by sharing, teaching, documenting and living in accordance with their fresh awareness. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success suggested that, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
“People think of these eureka moments and my feeling is that they tend to be little things, a little realisation and then a little realisation built on that.”
Roger Penrose, Mathematical Physicist, Recreational Mathematician and Philosopher
“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living differ from the dead.”
The other day I visited Simon Fraser University, advantageously situated to overlook the mountains that stand guard over the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. I felt the energy of learning the minute I stepped through the doors and saw students with books and laptops studying in solo, duet, and trio formations. It was exam week; tensions were high, the atmosphere filled with enough brain activity to power the campus streetlights for the coming week. Somewhere between the pages of a text and the long hours of study resides the hope that education will provide a way to participate within the world.
Participating is contributing. When Hipparchus was inspired to compile a catalogue of the 850 or so stars whose positions were then known, he was contributing to collective wisdom. As was Claudius Ptolemy when he wrote Almagest! As was Arete when she wrote forty books and taught one hundred and ten philosophers over the course of her life.
The nature of education, regardless of varying methodologies, has not changed over the centuries. It is humanity’s way of transferring knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next, much like a relay race without end. Great thinkers know that the outcome of education is action. Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Learning takes on many appearances; it shifts our thinking, challenges our beliefs and fills us with passion to seek better outcomes for ourselves, our families and our communities, local and global.
“When you know better you do better.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The singular connection throughout the narratives of the ancient world was the search for truth. This universal appeal resonates throughout history. Establishing objective truth is difficult as times because it must pass through the lens of personal values. We want the truth, yet want it to be in compliance with our internal belief system.
Truth exacts a high price; that we relinquish our desire for security and opt for an uncertain, risk-filled existence. It is as Dumbledore said, In J.K. Rowling’s, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The truth…It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” Our intrepid ancients accepted the challenge. Truth and knowledge were preferable to living within a society bound by superstition and controlled by myths and legends.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” was Henry David Thoreau’s entreaty in Walden. In the end, love, fame, and glory are all subordinate to truth. It is the genesis of hope, of progress, of moving forward.
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”
“It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”
Søren Kierkegaard’s quote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” reminds me of the intricacies of navigating a timeline that pushes us in only one direction – forward. It is impossible to even go back a few seconds, much less a decade or a lifetime. Instead, we have been given the gift of memory that allows us to reflect upon events, circumstances and decisions that have nuanced our journey.
Over the past weeks, looking backwards has given me a glimpse into an ancient world which is often celebrated within the framework of legend that borders on mythology. Yet, these men and women were made of flesh and blood. They lived extraordinary lives and left a legacy for those that came after. As I read their narratives, I wondered why they chose to think differently, to ignore the demands of accepted cultural norms. They embraced a more arduous route, seeking fulfillment that transcended trivial rewards offered by a status quo existence.
This week, I want to look backwards, to pause and reflect on the lives of the ancients, from Euclid to Aspasia, Thales to Zeno, Hipparchia to Ptolemy. I confess that I have not mapped out an outline for the next few posts, merely an idea that I want to follow as I consider my place in a world that is moving ever forward.
“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
In every age, you will find a woman that captures the imagination of an entire generation. And then there are the exceptionally rare ones that capture the imagination of history. Names like Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Marie Antoinette, and Joan of Arc have archetypal influence even until this very day. I believe that Aspasia, the lady of Classical Athens, is one of these remarkable women.
Bold, beautiful, intelligent and educated, Aspasia sought equality within a male-dominated society that allowed women few rights and little opportunity to take part in public life. Aspasia became the consort of Pericles, leader of democratic Athens, the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator and general. They were a power couple that lived in the Golden Age of Athens, between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. Her life was lived in extremes, her intelligence and power both admired and scorned. Praised by her admirers and blamed for unpopular events by her enemies, she remained politically progressive until the very end.
Aspasia’s narrative is more riveting than a best seller, yet it was her ability to live her philosophy that garners our admiration. She came from Miletus, the city known for knowledge and cultural diversity. Long before she conversed with philosophers, poets and politicians, she was in the classroom, immersed in study. In those formative years, Aspasia was preparing to take centre stage. Her life is a testament to the power of education.
“The really important thing is not to live, but to live well. And to live well meant, along with more enjoyable things in life, to live according to your principles.”
“Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”
Diotima of Mantinea’s place in the history is unrivaled. Indeed, without her, Plato’s Symposium would have been a rather commonplace affair. You may recall the setting. A group of brilliant thinkers came together, in the manner of the elite of Athens, to discuss the merits and intricacies of love.
The banquet’s guest list was a “who’s who” of Athens: Phaedrus, an aristocrat, Alcibiades, a statesman, orator and general, Pausanias, a legal expert, Eryximachus, a physician, Aristophanes, a comic playwright, Agathon, a tragic poet and host of the event and Socrates, the eminent philosopher and Plato’s teacher. Everyone had their turn to speak, however it was Socrates’ dialogue that transformed our understanding of love. Over the course of a lavish feast, he related with persuasive eloquence the ideas that were given to him by the prophetess, Diotima.
Diotima’s inspiration was the concept of divine or Platonic love, the means by which humanity can ascend to the contemplation of the divine. The most truthful way to love others is to embrace a love that transcends the earthly plane, to touch divinity. A genuine Platonic love recognizes the beauty and loveliness in another person in a way that inspires the mind and soul to the spiritual, rather than the physical.
Diotima’s name means “honoured by Zeus.” Her identity is shrouded in mystery, and there is some debate as to whether or not she actually existed. Even so, we have the word of two reliable philosophers, who stated without reservation, that Diotima of Mantinea gave the world the best of all possible loves.
“Love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.”
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Whenever I think of Epicurus, I think of a sumptuous banquet held in a bucolic environment with soft music set against the lingering light of a late summer afternoon. This is not precisely what Epicurean philosophy was all about, however. While Epicurus was thought of as hedonistic because of his emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure, it would be a mistake to think he condoned an immoral or decadent lifestyle. Rather, his philosophy featured wisdom as the greatest virtue, enabling the student to learn which pleasure to seek and which to avoid. More remarkable, Epicurus allowed women and slaves to attend his school.
Leontion was of pupil of Epicurus. We only know about her through the writings of others who considered her to be noteworthy. There has been some debate on her background. She may have been a hetaera, or courtesan, which accounts for her independent lifestyle, denied to most women in the Ancient Greek male-dominated society. She was also the companion of Metrodorus of Lampsacus, one the four major proponents of Epicureanism. According to the writings of Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus praised Leontion for her finely written arguments against other unnamed philosophical perspectives.
Centuries later, Pliny recorded that Aristides of Thebes painted her in his work entitled, “Leontion thinking of Epicurus.” Even Cicero is said to have published her arguments. Why was she remembered so vividly? Leontion did the unthinkable. She criticized the celebrated and unassailable philosopher, Theophrastus, the pupil of Plato and the chief assistant of Aristotle. She was audacious, confident and able to match the great philosopher in a debate.
Leontion must have caused quite a fracas, for historians were still marveling at her impudence long after her passing.
“Leontium, that mere courtesan, who had the effrontery to write a riposte to Theophrastus – mind you, she wrote elegantly in good Attic, but still, this was the licence which prevailed in the Garden of Epicurus”
“Not one tower does my country have, not one roof, But for home and city, the entire earth lies, At my disposition for a dwelling.”
Diogenes Laertius, on a Cynic’s view of the world
The moment Hipparchia of Maroneia, saw Crates of Thebes, the renowned Cynic philosopher, she was passionately and irrevocably in love. Nothing, not even her parents’ strong misgivings, could dissuade her from marrying him. She would rather end her life than face the prospect of living without him. Indeed, Crates warned her of what her life would be with him. It is said that he disrobed and pointed at his garment, saying, “Here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.”
Crates of Thebes, once heir to a considerable fortune, gave it all away to live a life of poverty on the streets of Athens. According to many accounts, he lived with a cheerful simplicity, well-liked by all who knew him. The meeting with Hipparchia came by way of her brother, Metrocles, who was a student of Crates.
Hipparchia became an ardent devotee of the Cynic philosophy and became an eminent Cynic philosopher while still in her early twenties. Cynics believed that the purpose of life was to seek virtue and live in harmony with nature. Renouncing conventional desires for wealth, power and fame, Cynics took pleasure in an unadorned life, without the complications of materialism.
Crates and Hipparchia lived remarkable lives. Their marriage, which produced a son and daughter, was based on mutual respect and equality, a foreign concept for ancient Greece. Hipparchia embraced the Cynic poverty-based lifestyle, donned masculine attire, and accompanied Crates everywhere in public. The Athenians were stunned by their lack of propriety. With her husband by her side, Hipparchia fought tirelessly for the rights of women bound within a strict, male dominated culture. She dared to flaunt the status quo and chose her personal destiny.
“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic.
Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not;
But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground,
My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running.”
Epigram ascribed to Antipater of Sidon on the life of Hipparchia
“A wise man’s country is the world”
Aristippus of Cyrene
Arete of Cyrene, daughter of the philosopher Aristippus, was born and raised in the city of Cyrene located in North Africa in what it now the nation of Libya. In Arete’s time, Cyrene was one of the great intellectual centres of the classical world, boasting a vibrant academic community and celebrated medical school.
Aristippus, a student and close friend of Socrates, founded the philosophy school known as the Cyrenaics. Pleasure was the only good in life and pain was the only evil. Happiness was the main dynamic of existence, while virtue had little essential value. This was a clear departure from Socrates’ philosophy, which argued that virtue was the only human good, relegating happiness to a less important goal of moral action.
Arete was one of her father’s most devoted students becoming a philosopher of note in her own right. She continued in her father’s footsteps by teaching philosophy to her son, Aristippus the Younger. Known to be prudent, practical and to abhor excess of any kind, she lived the principles of her belief system. With her father’s passing, she became his successor until the rise of her son and a new generation.
Arete was beloved by her city and all through Greece. And no wonder! For thirty-five years she taught natural and moral philosophy in the schools and academies throughout Attica. She wrote forty books and taught one hundred and ten philosophers over the course of her tenure. Her mission was to spread equality throughout her world. Respected, admired and mourned at her passing, her tomb was inscribed with an epitaph that would be read down through the centuries. Arete, the splendour of Greece, who possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the soul of Socrates, and the tongue of Homer.
Arete’s life is a testament to the power of knowledge, community, and shared compassion.
“I dream of a world where there are neither masters nor slave.”
Arete of Cyrene
“Aristoxenus says that Pythagoras got most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess, Themistoclea.”
Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers
Themistoclea was a sacred priestess at Delphi, the site of the revered Delphic oracle, the sanctuary dedicated to the great god, Apollo. Apollo would speak by way of the sibyl or priestess of the oracle known as the Pythia. Not everyone could aspire to this lofty position. Only older women known to have an impeccable, flawless character could apply.
Themistoclea had those qualifications and was recognized for her wisdom. Her talents as a teacher were recorded by Diogenes Laertius in his comprehensive work, “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.” It was written that Pythagoras was introduced to the principles of ethics by none other than our priestess, Themistoclea. Ethics, the branch of philosophy that classifies, defends and recommends concepts of right and wrong, requires the application of wisdom, honesty and compassion. It is the education of the spirit as well as the mind.
Pythagoras went on to discover one of the most famous equations of all time, yet we can thank Themistoclea for teaching him discernment.
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
“The goal of life is living in agreement with Nature.”
Zeno of Elea is renowned for his paradoxes. Indeed, they continue to challenge, confound, inspire and amuse even until this day. We can thank Plato for what little we know of Zeno’s life. Plato wrote in his Parmenides dialogue of a meeting in Athens between Parmenides, Zeno and a young Socrates. I can only imagine the intellectual energy generated by their conversation.
Zeno defended Parmenides’ views against the followers of Pythagoras by introducing a series of paradoxes to argue that change and plurality (a belief in the existence of many things rather than only one) are illusory. It seems that there may have been up to 40 paradoxes; unfortunately, only two have survived over the centuries.
The paradox that I recall suggests that Achilles of The Iliad fame, at his best speed, could never catch a tortoise that had been given a head start. Suppose you want to walk to the other side of a room, the end point. Before you reach the end point, you must first reach the halfway point, but before that, you must reach the halfway point of that, and the halfway point of that, and so on. If space consists of an infinite series of points, to complete the walk across the room, you must pass every one of those points. Bottom line – you can never move through all of those infinite points within a finite timeline. A tortoise, with the benefit of a head start, will outperform even the great Achilles.
“if being is many, it must be both like and unlike, and this is impossible, for neither can the like be unlike, nor the unlike like”
“It is all one to me where I begin;
for I shall come back again there.”
Parmenides, On The Order
Parmenides of Elea, a poet-philosopher, willingly challenged Heraclitus on his premise of continual change. Parmenides’ poem “On Nature,” which has come to us in the form of fragments, presents one of the first examples of a reasoned argument that change is impossible and that reality is singular, undivided and homogenous. Parmenides, in “The Way of Truth,” the first section of his poem “On Nature,” wrote of his rendezvous with a goddess who taught him how to make a distinction between an inquiry into what is, and an inquiry into what is not.
Parmenides believed that to think of something is to give it a manifestation of existence. For example, a phoenix does not exist in the material world, but it has a place in our thoughts and imagination. Hence, to think of the phoenix implies its existence even though it never existed except in Greek mythology and the legends of ancient Egypt. Similarly, if we can visualize something that will exist in the future, then it must already exist in our minds. If we remember something or someone who is no longer with us, then they continue to be present at the moment we thought of them.
I confess that I was amazed to meet a philosopher who had divine revelation. Nevertheless, Parmenides started a dialogue on the connections between thoughts, words and things. It is a debate that has ignited the thoughts of every key thinker down through the centuries.
Perhaps, some credit should go to the goddess.
“We can speak and think only of what exists. And what exists is uncreated and imperishable for it is whole and unchanging and complete. It was not or nor shall be different since it is now, all at once, one and continuous…”
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
I love to quote Heraclitus, because he seems so gentle and serene. Think again!
Heraclitus, who once said that “character is destiny,” believed that war and strife between opposites is the eternal condition of the universe. Considered the quintessential antagonist, he once declared that his fellow citizens of Ephesus were so witless they should hang themselves and leave the city to the rule of children. You can imagine the fracas that came out of that pronouncement. Even so, for those brave enough to invite him, he would be a riveting and entertaining dinner guest.
Heraclitus was quick to scorn Homer, suggesting that he should be turned out and whipped. Even Pythagoras and Xenophanes did not escape his ridicule. Instead, he argued that the three principal elements of nature were fire, earth and water, the primary being fire which he believed controlled and modified the others. The cosmic fire finds its complement in the human soul, which in weak men is contaminated by the ‘watery’ elements of sleep, stupidity and vice. The virtuous soul is able to escape death and unite with the cosmic fire. Much like the concepts of yin and yang within Chinese philosophy, Heraclitus suggested that strife and opposition are both necessary and good. Although the universe itself is eternal, permanence does not exist within it. Change is continual; everything is in a state of flux.
I have a feeling Heraclitus would thrive in our fast paced, ever-changing, mercurial world.
“Allow yourself to think only those thoughts that match your principles and can bear the bright light of day. Day by day, your choices, your thoughts, your actions fashion the person you become. Your integrity determines your destiny.”
“But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do their work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”
Xenophanes of Colophon
Xeonophanes, a free thinker and poet, was a contemporary and outspoken critic of Pythagoras. He mocked the idea of transmigration of souls and scoffed at the possibility that a human soul could inhabit another animal. Like Thales before him, Xenophanes argued for the principles of natural phenomena. Thales believed the first principle to be water, whereas Xenophanes argued for the possibility of mud. We may smile at this thought; however his proof was in the fossil remains of sea-creatures embedded in the earth. It seemed that the earth was at one time in a muddy state before drying up.
What was even more forward thinking, in my opinion, was his anticipation of Socrates’ caution regarding claims of certain knowledge. He stated that “no human being will ever know the Truth, for even if they happen to say it by chance, they would not even known they had done so.”
Xenophanes’ influence was keenly felt by those who followed him, especially given his criticism of the Homeric gods still revered throughout the Hellenistic world. He eschewed their shameful traits that imitated the flaws of humanity. He considered that they were simply a reflection of the prevailing society, undeserving of respect or worship. He declared, “If horses could draw, they would draw their gods like horses.”
One thing is certain; Xenophanes had a way with words and was not afraid to use them.
“It takes a wise man to recognize a wise man.”
Xenophanes of Colophon
Pythagorean Theorem — or Pythagoras’ theorem: in any right-angled triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle).
Pythagoras of Samos, the creator of one of the most famous equations of all time, has a rather obscure history. He wrote very little about himself, delegating the task of documenting his life and views to his followers. What we do know is that in his world of the mid-sixth century BCE, he was considered to be a thinker and a mystic.
In today’s world, Pythagoras’ school would be considered more like a religious cult than a philosophical establishment. His teachings included many eccentric doctrines including, the veneration for, and abstinence from, the eating of beans. He advocated reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Most see him as the founder of the modern belief in numerology, later popularised by Nostradamus.
Pythagoras argued that the ultimate nature of reality is number, which he developed out of his theory of music. He claimed that music had a special power over the soul. The proof was found in the intervals between musical tones, which could be expressed as ratios between the first four integers, number 1 – 4. His discovery of irrational numbers did play havoc with his beliefs on the origin of the universe; however, they have proven to be a major and lasting development in mathematical thinking.
After his death, his followers split into two camps; one embraced his religious and mystical teachings, while the other pursued his scientific and mathematical philosophy. Ideas and beliefs, whether or not they prove to be valid, must be considered, lest we overlook the very insight that will bring us to the next stage of development.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
This defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”
Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles
The more I read about Thales of Miletus, the more I believe that he was the ancient version of the Renaissance man. Philosophy is a thinking exercise that usually involves a considerable amount of time. Most of the population of any age or society are involved in making a living and putting food on the table. Thales of Miletus, possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, cleverly dealt with the issue of time and money. It seems he made a fortune investing in oil-presses before a heavy olive crop harvest. All of which suggests that to be a philosopher and scientist in Ancient Greece, 7th century BCE, business skills are a notable asset.
Thales significance as a philosopher centers on methodology. He was the first thinker who tried to find common, underlying principles to account for the natural world, rather than relying on the whims of anthropomorphic gods. He sought to give a naturalistic explanation of observable phenomena that still has relevance in modern scientific exploration. Thales believed that the mind of the world is god, that god is intermingled in all things, a viewpoint that would shortly emerge simultaneously in a number of world religions.
Thales lived in the past, yet his thought process made him universal. He would thrive in any age.
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”
“Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”
The other day, someone asked me, “What is your philosophy of life?”
We talk about philosophy as if it were something that could be summarized in one or two sentences. And yet, it generally takes a lifetime to identify with the reality. It is more than a thought, a response or a single activity. It is our entire worldview, our personal system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.
The “philosophy question” has been in the back of my mind over the past couple of weeks, especially as I was researching the ancient scientists. It seems that their philosophy was the precursor to their scientific investigations.
Philosophical discussions rarely have neat and tidy outcomes because the business of philosophy is to challenge prevailing assumptions and concepts in order to generate new perspectives on complex problems. This week will focus on beginnings. That is the only place that will give us the genesis of this worthy conversation that has spanned the history of humanity.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”
“Great acts are made up of small deeds.”
We were all born for greatness, even though only a few individuals will be recognized by name in history. That does not lessen our contribution, nor does it signify that our participation did not change the course of world events. Our dreams are ever renewed when we act with compassion and optimism. And when our voices merge with others, every thing is possible. John Lennon once said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality.”
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”
Robert F. Kennedy
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
What does “dream big dreams” really mean? The definition of “big” is: of considerable size, extent, or intensity. While these three adjectives serve to provide a basic meaning, they can only be understood by way of comparison using a reference point or yardstick. Context provides the subtle nuances that are lacking in the mere words – size, extent, intensity.
Humanity is small within the structure of the universe. The extent of our physical reach is limited by time and space. We live intense lives, but they are short compared to the duration of a star. William Butler Yeats once said, “In dreams begins responsibility.” Perhaps “big dreams” are those that are universal, that endure beyond our timeline, foster a greater good and gives meaning to our existence.
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”