Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Chance Meeting In Aristotle After Buying Plato's Gorgias

“Corgi-arse” seems to be the correct pronunciation. I don’t suppose the ancient Greeks had Corgi-like dogs.

I got it from Mary Martins for 13 dollars. I read Polus’ lovely sentence in Gorgias on the way home on the train about art and experience versus chance and inexperience. I had a chuckle at Socrates’ generally inquisitorial tone. I don’t think our friend Socrates was a very nice man.

As it happens, I contemplate Socrates’ key idea every day: “Every man does the good, the trouble is that they don’t know what the good is, therefore humbly accept that you don’t know anything and live from there.” This idea is a brilliant summary of Socrates, but no-where yet can I find the precise formulation of it. It is all in parts, scattered across the Gorgias and other texts.

To my delight, when I got home I read the first few pages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics before falling asleep on the couch with it open on my chest. Aristotle happened to mention Polus’ speech. It was like running into a stranger who knows a mutual friend.

The pleasure of books is the acquaintance with the wise. The pleasure of thought is the acquaintance with your own self through mind. And the joy of philosophy is to go beyond thinking out of love of truth.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Power of Primary Texts

If you want to learn philosophy, read Plato. If you want to learn metaphysics, rhetoric, politics, or psychology, read Aristotle. If you want to learn about reason and faith, read Thomas Aquinas.

Don’t settle for second best. Go to the source. Read the primary texts.

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. You will probably be able to rediscover a few things on your own, but you don’t have twenty six centuries to consider them. Only fools, rebels, narcissists and young people try to go it alone intellectually. You have one life to live and wasting years on reproducing a conclusion you can learn from Plato or Aristotle is not smart. Start at the start with Plato.

Can’t understand the primary texts? Neither can I. But in saying that, we need to draw a distinction between two kinds of difficulty with these texts.

There are difficulties in primary texts that should be avoided, and difficultiesin primary texts that should be embraced.

The best way to show you this is give examples from my own experience:

In reading Plato’s Republic the first time I recognised that I wouldn’t be capable of understanding most of the middle books of the text without more effort than I was able to give the text this first reading. I learnt this from reading the introduction of the Penguin Classics version. This kind of difficulty is worth avoiding until I am more capable of comprehending them, and more motivated by a broader base of understanding. Had I ploughed through, I would have discouraged myself, then dispirited myself, then demoralized myself (had I kept going: I would have quit the moment I became dispirited rather than be demoralized).

Then there are difficulties with primary texts which are what Harold Bloom calls the “difficult pleasure” of a classic. Simply put, what some people might find a problem or a hassle, I find a stimulus and a challenge in these texts. The marvel of these texts is that on the other side of the difficulty is a stark simplicity that comes from their irreducible basic truth.

Intellectualism that does not respect and honour the past is snobbery and arrogance, and in fact fake or pseudo-intellectualism because it leads to circuitous ramblings which mainly appeal other to other poor people seduced by intellectual falsehood.

The basis for genuine intellectual ability is humility. Specifically, being humble enough to accept that most of the things you can usefully think have already been long since thunk by Mister Aristotle and Mister Plato!

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Socratic dialog turns Proustian.

Tonight after the group meets I walk up to my favorite cafe with Samuel and we get a burger, look at girls, and discuss martial arts. On the last topic Samuel, with years more experience in the field, makes a very provocative comment:

“The secret of this type of martial arts is relaxation, plus connection, plus aiming,” he says.

I ask him to repeat it and when he does, I plunge into deep contemplation for a few minutes.

Samuel is as fascinating as a character from Proust. When we walk he directs our steps and expects I walk with him. We wander down Grenfell Street.

“I’m such a creature of habit,” I say. “Normally I walk along Rundle Mall and look at the menswear in the shop windows on the way to the Adelaide train station.”

“Listen to you, you’re such a faggot,” Samuel says.

“I’ve been doing it for years. I now own some of the menswear I used to wish for in the windows,” I say, not even bothering to defend myself. Samuel doesn’t care what you think of him, so any defence I can mount is a waste of our time and energy.

He follows me into the literary bookstore, and listens in on my superficial conversation with the bookseller without adding a single disapproving word. But when we come to the local men’s fashion emporium he finally balks, refusing to look at the clothes. “I can’t stand the music,” he says of the dance music blaring from the store.

“Too much high culture for you,” I jeer. He doesn’t reply.

We walk down King William Street deep in conversation. Eventually the talk comes around to the person he had a phone text message dispute with over our dinner. A mutual friend, it appears. Apropos of the dispute Samuel begins to speak openly and with perfect naturalness about his character defects.

“It’s not that I mean to be arrogant. I am just being myself and other people take offence.”

“How do you know when you’re just being yourself and when you’re being arrogant?” I ask.

“Oh I know,” he says, with perfectly unconscious arrogance. “Even if I’m saying I’m not being arrogant I know deep inside when I am. I feel it.”

I watch his face carefully, fascinated by the notion that gut feelings might be any sort of reliable guide to social truth.

He talks at length about his defect and his natural personality. His view on personal responsibility is what inspires his legendary bluntness and impoliteness, he reveals:

“If I say something and you get offended, that’s your choice. You choose to be offended. Fine; no harm done. But if you get hurt and angry and cry at how I hurt your feelings because you took offence, then I have no time for you. You’re playing the victim when you think someone else can make you feel anything.”

“But isn’t offence an emotion?” I ask.

“Offence,” he says, “is a mental state. You don’t choose to be offended, but you do choose to feel the associated emotions with it. I speak bluntly to some people and they couldn’t care less, and I speak the same way with others and you’d think I’d taken their firstborn, they get so upset.”

“That is fascinating, Samuel. Thankyou for explaining that for me, now I understand what that behaviour’s all about,” I say. I had been wondering what motivates his bluntness for several weeks, and to have him simply explain himself to me without my asking is an unexpected boon.

But I do not speak my mind until the conversation has ostensibly moved on to other topics and I can bring up the subject of his vanity without fear of causing offense:

“I notice some people habitually take offence because of political correctness. That is to say, because I am a female, you can’t say that; because I am indigenous, you can’t say that. For such people, offence and emotion is one and the same thing.”

Samuel heartily agrees. So I continue:

“You know neurologists have found that being able to restrain your emotions is one of the last traits to appear in adulthood. It’s associated with the frontal lobes and generally finishes growing in the thirties, so many people either have brain damage or they haven’t grown the proper brain structures to be able to restrain themselves from getting upset,” I say. “So when a person without the ability to stop themselves reacting feels upset, would it not follow they would automatically be offended?”

But Samuel is not interested in examining his own views. He says: “Imagine what the world would be like if drinking alcohol was unpopular on a Saturday night.”

“People would be playing chess in the square,” I say. We are sitting at the bus stop in Victoria Square as I say this.

“Giant chess with human bodies,” Samuel adds whimsically.

“There would be comfortable couches in nightclubs, and they wouldn’t have to fear people ruining them by spilling alcohol all over them.”

“Nightclubs would be so different. Comfortable.”


“People would be playing instruments in cafes. Jazz, rock bands.”

“String quartets in nightclubs. And wouldn’t it be cool if you could go to a yoga class at 9.30 on a Saturday night!” I say.

He looks at me oddly, as if doing a yoga class on a Saturday night is just completely beyond the pale. His disturbed look just makes my night. I am delighted. Sometimes Samuel finds me very strange indeed, and this is one of those times.

“Here comes my bus,” he says, standing. “You’ve missed your tram.”

“I have, and I’ve had the compensation of a very interesting conversation,” I say warmly, and we part ways.

My behavior tonight was half-way between Proust and Socrates. The Socratic desire to cross-examine my friend’s absurd views on causing offense was overcome by the simple pleasure Marcel Proust takes in the gentle unconscious comedy that comes from enjoying the implaceable bad defects of those we hold in high affection.

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How to Develop the Healing Power of Gratitude.

Love and gratitude are the most powerful healers on the planet. Gratitude is love in operation, so to speak. But many people when they try to practice gratitude find it difficult.

Gratitude is difficult because it develops over time. Most people are at the basic level of gratitude, and therefore cannot imagine it being an easy and natural way of life.

Just knowing that gratitude will develop and blossom eventually into something marvellous can be reassuring. It will get easier to practice gratitude. But knowing what stage you are at helps you understand what is ahead too.

I will describe four stages of the development of gratitude. They aren’t distinct phases, just points of reference along the way. Can you tell where you are on the scale of gratitude?

The four stages in developing gratitude are:
1. grudging gratitude
2. forced gratitude
3. balanced gratitude and
4. inspired gratitude.

Grudging gratitude is casual attention on things that are ok, or not significant problems in your life. It has little power to heal, and is centred around satisfaction of desires and appetites. The real power of grudging gratitude is in re-sensitizing you to the good aspects of every day life. For example, if you see a certain car you think is cool and remembering to grudgingly give thanks for having seen something you would like, then you will be now sensitised to seeing that kind of car more often, and more likely to enjoy your day as a result. Most grudging gratitude happens at the level of daily attention.

Forced gratitude is what you write a gratitude list because you want to feel grateful even though you don’t. You write the list, and some small degree of balance is evoked throughout your day, which feels pleasant or at least feels less unpleasant. It mostly deals with the senses and sensory ideas. It evokes excitement and emotional highs that don’t last, but they feel okay. Forced gratitude is more powerful than grudging gratitude, usually because it is written down or shared with a friend. It has the power to inspire. It takes effort, but the effort is worth it!

Balanced gratitude is when you see clearly with your mind how problems and opportunities both serve you. You ask and answer questions to yourself. You consciously seek the perfection not by positive thinking mood-making of yourself, but by looking at how an event serves and harms you, by seeing both sides at once.

When you see both sides of a thing, it is a relief from resentment and indulgent infatuation. You are free to see clearly. It feels wonderful, but in fact it is merely relief from the constant pressure of emotionalised perception. Balanced gratitude is how it feels to live in accord with reason and education. Balanced gratitude is normally done through a formal written process, and only gradually internalised with education, skill, and life experience, as well as formal repetition. Balanced gratitude is connect with our ability to be reasonable. This balanced gratitude has the power to bring peace and satisfaction, and is a powerful healing resource for caring professionals like doctors and nurses, but also a potent inner resource for anyone who wants to cope with life more effectively.

Inspired gratitude is itself a gift and a revelation. It discloses itself when conditions are right. If you are inspired you can say thankyou to problems as they arise; you can meet opportunities with equanimity and balance; you can swim upstream to the source.

The prerequisite for inspired gratitude is that the mind is balanced, because in inspired gratitude the heart is wide open and inspirational guidance streams through consciousness.

If this sounds like a bit of hard work, then consider how hard it is trying to force yourself to appreciate things with a closed heart and confused mind! It is so much less effort to simply balance your perceptions of a situation using your reason and education, and if you do that enough, inspiration is inevitable.

Gratitude, love, inspiration, compassion, reason and that gracious inner balance the world only knows under the word “charisma” are idle potentials unless shared. As the proverb says, a friend sharpens another friend like iron against iron. Likewise your friends can blunt you. In grudging and forced gratitude, exposure to the negativity of others must bring you down; in balanced gratitude, you get free of the negative of others.

How does balanced gratitude deal with negativity?

The hidden blessing of negative, irrational and limited people and experiences is that you can own their faults – somewhere, sometime in your own experience you have behaved the way you see negative people behaving. And when you can own it, you are paradoxically free of it. The saying goes, If you can spot it, you’ve got it.

Owning others’ negative qualities as your own returns you to gratitude and allows you to challenge those negative people to see the hidden blessing inherent in their difficulties. And because you have identified with them and “been there and done that”, they have no basis to reject your words because you are simply sharing your experience.

Real power inspires and heals through balanced gratitude. The kind of power that brings tears of compassion to your eyes can melt even the hardest heart and open even the most rigid mind to the balanced truth that we are all on the same journey to the wholeness and peace of gratitude, our true condition.

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How Emerson Out-Thinks Us All.

Vanity makes my friend Samuel interesting to talk to. For example, this Saturday night he reminded me that I was reading Emerson.

“Yes, I’m reading his essays from his youth.”

“I love some of his quotes,” Samuel says.

“Emerson is fantastic,” I say, “Whenever I read him I see my own thoughts. He is the original American free thinker. If I try to think for myself I learn I am either doing it in resistance to him or along the lines he laid down.”

“I don’t think so,” Samuel says, frowning and looking down.

“Emerson is bigger than us,” I tell him. “His thinking is larger than ours. You can’t be self-reliant without to some extent relying on Emerson’s guidance, unconsciously or not.”

But it was evident by then that he had not actually read Emerson, beyond the occasional inspirational quotation, so we changed the topic to talking about Mark Twain, another writer he had not read but one he could talk about with more of a veneer of saving face.

On The Incredible Badness of Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Coming of Arthur’ With Sundry Slurs And Personal Smears Against the Poet Laureate

Tonight I read Tennyson’s ‘Dedication’, and ‘The Coming of Arthur’. I suggest we consign ‘The Coming of Arthur’ to the Office of Dead Bad Books. That we just forget it existed.

Let’s look at what ‘Arthur’ has got. Tepid sentiment. Rancid blank verse. Chilling second-hand reports of vapid inactions and trite offstage discussions between faceless characters.

Tennyson’s ‘Coming of Arthur’ is Milton left to go cold, reheated by Keats, then left to go cold again and reheated and served up as if fresh meat. Tennyson’s blank verse reads like three day old stew. Spenser in comparison is an imagiste.

I read aloud the opening four lines no less than four times to make them sing:

Leodogran, the king of Cameliard,
Had one fair daughter, and none other child;
And she was fairest of all flesh on earth,
Guinevere, and in her his one delight.

This scans like handful of mud. “Fairest of all flesh” – is she a lump of meat or what? “Of all flesh on earth” – and at what butcher shop the unearthly or heavenly flesh is to be got?

And what’s with that last line? “Delight” clinks against “child” in a nasty ole mis-rhyme. And, reader, you must read aloud the last two lines to really get for yourself how stilted and idiotically tuneless this poetry is.

Then I read three times the passage where Arthur decides to take Guinevere as his girl. The first read through I thought, “Sweet, a half decent poetic figuration!” and so re-read the lines to get at their meaning. But on second reading, I discovered that the figure (a rich expanded metaphor of Arthur and Guinevere as the alchemical and magical enaction of social unity), was in fact my own imagining projected onto the lines, and if present at all, it was not quite articulated.

Tennyson had just plain failed to put the idea across, and I read it a third time in disgust just to make sure that poor Alfred’s disaster was complete. I cannot quote it; it is too poor. It’s lines 81 to 93; Arthur is speechifying.

I quickly read the rest of the ‘Coming of Arthur’ so I could be sure there seems to be absolutely nothing of lasting value in it, and passed on to Plato’s superb ‘Theaetetus’. I even glanced forward over the chronological selection and realised that when I first as a thirteen year old kid read his short poems I had got the best his work.

I mean, did Alfred Tennyson have a stroke or just start taking anti-psychotic drugs? All his work from ‘In Memoriam’ on features lots of grinding rhythms, and precious little romance, music, color, and life, and woeful verbal fluff combined with vague imagery. It’s like a detailed record of really bad sex.

I want to suggest that Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ is in fact composed to commemorate a series of painfully ill-executed headjobs which Alfred got from Parisian whores, including a series of stanzas on the trauma of painful teeth grazings, and a sequence on Tennyson’s treatment for syphilis. I suggest this as the real meaning of these poems not because I believe you can read that into the text at all, but because any topic would be more exciting than the unpersuasive panegyric on the death of a friend that poor Alf has has inflicted upon posterity.

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Why Read Proust?

Why Read Proust?

There are many good reasons not to read Marcel Proust’s great novel A la Rechere du Temps Perdu.

It is uneventful. It can be boring. The narrator is a bitchy snob. It has too many outright lies in it to be autobiography, and too much tiresome bickering to be considered a novel. And it is too long.

It is cynical: all human relationships except close family are false, fake; naked unconscious self-interest and vanity drive all social interactions; childhood habits once broken can never be recovered; insomnia, poor health, jealousy, sadomasochistic urges, ungovernable impulses – all of these completely overrule and overdetermine the individual’s sense of reason.

It is capricious: a huge cast of mostly irrelevant characters caper about uttering strange irrelevancies, whose total sum is some kind of mysterious calculus of snobbery cloaking intense animalistic urges, which Proust seldom deigns to explain to readers living in a less uptight culture. Cruelty is commonplace between characters that are considered friends, and sexual compulsions bind everyone together invisibly and inseparably.

It is disorganised: the tone changes from page to page, from book to book, without warning, guidance, or apparent reason. The paragraph divisions are completely useless, presenting the book messily. The chapter headings are either hopelessly irrelevant or simply nonexistent; the reader is left to impose his own structure on the book if he is to make sense of it.

So why read Proust? If the good is the enemy of the great, surely Proust’s book is its own worst enemy? But if you read merely good books, then you are condemned to mediocrity. And since Marcel Proust’s book is both bad AND great, it provides the most uniquely vulgar amusements in the midst of the most sublime art. I don’t dispute its greatness; its goodness I sincerely doubt.

So why read it? I can tell you must read Marcel Proust. I can tell you it is great. But I cannot tell you why. Harold Bloom blathers on about identity and memory; I don’t know about that. I can only tell you that I do, you must, it’s worth it – that is all I can say.

Addendum: Okay, okay, so Proust is funny, charming, insightful, sweet. His language is beautiful, delicate, tough, and sinewy. His ideas on love are shocking and wise in equal measure. And the badness of Proust’s book makes the great qualities all the more astonishing. It is as if it were discovered that Thomas Aquinas has been, in addition to writing his Summa Theologica, the author of some pornography – I kid you not: Proust is THAT shocking.

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