The Philosophy of Lust

teresa

Lust can be defined as the strong, passionate longing or desire for certain things, not only sex, but also food, drink, money, fame, power, and knowledge, among others. But owing to the resonance of Matthew 5:27-28, lust has come to be particularly associated with sexual desire.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

There are many reasons for which we can desire sex, for example, to be close to someone, to maintain or manipulate that person, to make a child, or, in the case of prostitution, to make money. However, with lust, sex is sought out for itself.

Yet, it is possible to seek out sex for itself without this desire being lustful. For the desire to be lustful, it has to be disordered, that is, disproportionately or inappropriately strong, or directed at an inappropriate object.

If lust is not acted upon, it is possible to be lustful without being lecherous; but if the lust is acted out, especially repeatedly and habitually, then one is both lustful and lecherous (although, depending on usage, ‘lust’ and ‘lechery’ can be synonymous).

Bible and Church

For Dante, lust was the ‘excessive love of others’, excessive in that it rivalled and surpassed even the love of God. Romanesque art depicted lust, or carnal luxuria, as a siren or naked woman with snakes biting at her nipples. According to the Church Doctors, luxuria had several daughters, among whom blindness, haste, and self-love.

The Church distinguishes lust from fornication, which is having sex with one’s husband or wife for enjoyment rather than procreation, or having sex outside of wedlock, which is even worse. In Corinthians 7:7, St Paul famously says that, to avoid fornication, every man should be allowed to have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.

But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

While St Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, King Solomon, who is the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, warns against it, as well as against lust.

I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.

Solomon may be warning against lust and marriage, but he is certainly not warning against misogyny. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the fear of lust and of its effects contributed a great deal to his, and the Church’s, attitude towards women.

Force

King David was undone by his lust for Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother, although Solomon was not by David), and Bill Clinton, while still the most powerful man in the world, was almost undone by his lust for a young White House intern. Lust is such a strong and subversive force that it can be very difficult to reason clearly about it. There are many people out there who couldn’t organise a two-ticket tombola, but who suddenly become impressively industrious when it comes to acting out their lust. In Dante’s Inferno, souls who have committed the sin of lust are blown around in a hurricane that represents their own lack of self-control. And although MRI scanners were not available in Dante’s time, what they show is that the same area of the brain lights up in lusting people as in addicts receiving their cocaine fix.

According to mediaeval lore, when Alexander the Great found Phyllis (by some accounts, his wife) riding Aristotle around the garden, Alexander exclaimed, ‘Master, can this be?’ Whereupon Aristotle replied, ‘If lust can so overcome wisdom, just think what it could do to a young man like you.’

Lust is so powerful that it is often beyond the power of reason to contain.

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait.

These verses are from Shakespeare, who here (Sonnet 129) and elsewhere, goes so far as to aliken lust to madness.

No wonder, then, that in Greco-Roman mythology Eros/Cupid is depicted as a blind child, and the ithyphallic (erect) Satyrs are only half-human.

But it is not just that reason can sometimes be overcome by lust. For Schopenhauer, lust ultimately directs all human behaviour. This is certainly borne out by advertising, which seems mostly about suggesting that buying a particular product will excite the lust of others. In contrast, no one ever made a fortune by peddling restraint or wisdom. It is sometimes said that everything is about sex, except for sex, which is about power. Even the Church, when it needed to express the ecstatic communion with God, could do little better than to paint it in terms of an orgasm.

Consequences

Schopenhauer, who was heavily influenced by Eastern traditions, also notes the misery that will almost certainly result from lust.

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of God’), Lord Krishna declares that, along with anger and greed, lust is one of the three gates to Naraka or hell. When Arjuna asks him by what one is impelled to sinful acts ‘even unwillingly, as if engaged by force’, he replies, ‘It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world … Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin—by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization…’ (See Bhagavad Gita 3.36-43 for the full quotation.)

For the Buddha, lust, in the broader sense of coveting or craving, is at the centre of the Four Noble Truths, which are as follows,

1. Suffering (dukkha) is inherent in all life.
2. The cause of all suffering is lust.
3. There is a natural way to eliminate all suffering from one’s life.

4. The Noble Eightfold Path is that way.

For the Buddha, lust is controlled or eliminated through attaining a higher consciousness. This idea can also be found sporadically in the Western canon; indeed, Baudelaire goes so far as to suggest that the artist, who is consciousness personified, should never have sex.

The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes… Only the brute is good at coupling, and copulation is the lyricism of the masses. To copulate is to enter into another—and the artist never emerges from himself.

The other

As well as being destructive to its subject, lust is also destructive to its object. Lust is the only appetite that is for a person rather than an object, but a person qua object rather than a person qua person. Either the other is seen as an object, or as other than they truly are. Through the subconscious processes of idealization and projection, the other becomes what is wished for or needed—quite literally, a fantasy.

It’s not just that the other is treated as an object of lust, but that he or she is shorn of uniquely human qualities and, in particular, of dignity and agency. Thus, the lustful person is not only unconcerned about the fulfilment of the other (and perhaps also of the ‘old’ partner to whom he is being unfaithful), but will act against her best interests to feed his appetite, and with his appetite sated, discard her as ‘one throws away a lemon that is sucked dry’. These sharp words belong to Kant, who asserted that a person should never be treated as a means to an end, but always as an end in herself.

It is perhaps in the nature of lust that it seeks to possess the other, to incorporate and degrade the other by destroying his dignity and autonomy. In the novel One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis, the protagonist says that, when it comes to sex, his aim is ‘to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.’ Of course, there are some people with rather low self-esteem who consciously or unconsciously want to be hurt, degraded, and sabotaged, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Because it is so inhibiting, destructive, and subverting, lust is, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘a waste of shame’. So as to hide that shame, many cultures made use of a male demon who lay upon sleepers, especially women, to have sex with them. This incubus (and the less prevalent female equivalent, or succubus) could then be blamed for embarrassing nocturnal emmissions, disturbing claims of adultery and abuse, and even unexplained children.

Lust or love?

Another way of dealing with the shame of lust is to deceive ourselves into thinking that our lust is in fact love or underpinned by love. While lust is shameful, love is respectable, even commendable. Thus, while we may look warmly upon a couple holding hands or hugging (particularly if they are very young or very old, on the presumption that these groups are asexual), we look around for the police if they start acting out their lust. Love is the acceptable face of lust, but the love that is not love is even more perverse and destructive, and in that sense, even more shameful, than the lust that knows its game.

How to tell lust and love apart? Often, with difficulty. But while, in general, lust is hasty, furtive, and ashamed, love is patient, measured, and constant. While lust subverts propriety, love is thoughtful and nurturing. While lust is all about taking, love is all about sharing. Lust can lead to love, but it is a poor start, and a poor basis, akin to choosing your favorite book by the picture on the cover.

The ladder of love

Of course, there is nothing wrong with sexual desire in itself, and none of us would be here without it. Sexual desire is a life force, to be enjoyed and even celebrated. But, as with wine, the problems arise when it becomes the master rather than the servant. It is very important to be able and ready to recognize lust for the blind and destructive force that it is. That’s why lust is particularly unattractive in the elderly, because, as the saying goes, there is no fool like an old fool.

Lust is by definition hard to suppress, but it can more readily be redirected or sublimed. If a person feels angry with her boss, she may go home and act out her anger by kicking the dog, or she may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. This second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of unproductive or destructive forces into socially condoned and often constuctive activities. As Baudelaire said, the more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes.

For Plato, lust is not something to be shunned, but the first step on his so-called ladder of love. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates say that a youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body. By loving one beautiful body, he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth learns to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once the physical has been transcended, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, he is able to experience beauty itself, rather than the various apparitions of beauty. In so doing, he exchanges the various apparitions of virtue for virtue itself, gaining immortality and the love of the gods.

In sum, for Plato, so long as one is willing to learn, lust can be its own cure.

Further reading: Lust, by Simon Blackburn

The Psychology & Philosophy of Boredom

bored

The modern concept of boredom goes back to the 19th century. For Erich Fromm and other thinkers, boredom is a response to industrial society, in which people are required to engage in alienated labour, and to the erosion of traditional structures of meaning.

Yet, it seems that boredom of some form is a human universal. On the walls of the ruins of Pompeii, there is Latin graffiti about boredom that dates back to the first century. And the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of an affliction of monks called acedia, a state of listlessness or torpor that could have been related to melancholy. Aquinas opposed this ‘sorrow of the world’ to spiritual joy, and, revealingly, the ‘noonday demon’ came to be seen as ‘the sin that inspires all other sins’.

A definition of boredom

So what, exactly, is boredom?

Boredom is a deeply unpleasant state of ‘unmet arousal’: you are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, your arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. So whereas you want to do something stimulating, you find yourself unable to do so; and, moreover, you are frustrated by the rising awareness of your inability.

Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they get bored at all, generally have much higher thresholds for boredom. Whereas most animals dislike boredom, man, says writer Colin Wilson, is tormented by it.

In man, boredom is often brought about or aggravated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is particularly common in children and teenagers, who, in addition to being dictated to, lack the resources, experience, and discipline (the mind furnishings) to cope with boredom.

Stuck at the airport

Why is it so damned boring to be stuck in a departures lounge while your flight is increasingly delayed?

You are in a high state of arousal because you are anticipating your arrival in a novel and therefore stimulating environment.

You do have plenty of shops and newspapers, but shopping or the news is not what you are interested in at this particular time, and the shops and newspapers succeed only in dividing your attention and so promoting your boredom.

To make things worse, the situation is completely out of your control, unpredictable (the flight could be delayed further, or even cancelled), and inescapable. As you can do nothing but check and re-check the monitor, you become painfully aware of all these factors and more.

Apart from shops and newspapers, you also have alcohol, which could dull your consciousness; but at the same time you cannot afford to sleep because sleep may lead you to miss your flight. So here you are, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

If you really need to catch the flight because your livelihood or the love of your life depends on it, you will get much less bored than if you don’t really need to go to wherever it is you are going. Thus, boredom is an inverse function of need or perceived need.

If, in addition, you don’t want to catch the flight (perhaps because you would rather be going somewhere else, or staying at home), then you will get all the more bored, and perhaps also angry.

As a result, you might develop an aversion to flying, just like the child who is bored at school might develop an aversion to learning.

Effects of boredom

So far so good. But why exactly is boredom so unpleasant?—so unpleasant that the problem is hardly ever recognized, still less addressed; so unpleasant, in fact, that I am finding it hard to write this article, over which I have procrastinated longer than usual.

For philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, boredom is evidence of the meaninglessness of life; because, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom.

So what boredom does, effectively, is to open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings.

This is the essence of the manic defence, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. (I have written on the manic defence on this blog.)

Boredom is so unpleasant that we expend considerable resources on preventing or reducing it. The value of the global entertainment industry is poised to top $2 trillion in 2016, and entertainers such as singers, actors, and football players are accorded impiously high levels of pay and social status.

The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but, paradoxically, this has only made things worse, in part, by removing us even more from reality. Instead of being satiated, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation: ever more war, ever more gore, and hardcore.

If we cannot escape boredom by engaging in intentional activity, we escape it through daydreaming or sleeping.

People who are prone to boredom are also prone to mental disorders such as depression, overeating, substance misuse and dependence, and gambling. And they often prefer pain to boredom—not only suffering pain, but inflicting it as well. For them, the choice is simply one of boredom and pain, a choice between pain and pain.

Benefits of boredom

Yet boredom can also be your way of telling yourself that you’re not spending your time as well as you could, that you should rather be doing something else, something more enjoyable or more useful, or more important and fulfilling.

And so boredom can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities. Most of our achievements, of man’s achievements, are born out of the dread of boredom.

Indeed, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who spent time in prison, intimated that prison is in fact the ideal setting for a creative person. For Russell,

A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Dealing with boredom

There are many ways of reducing the propensity to boredom.

If boredom is an awareness of unmet arousal, you can minimize boredom by avoiding situations over which you have no or little control, cutting out distractions, motivating yourself, expecting less, putting things into their proper perspective (realizing how lucky you really are), and so on.

But rather than fighting a constant battle against boredom, it is easier and much more productive to actually embrace it. If boredom is a window on the fundamental nature of reality, and, by extension, on the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling the curtains. Yes, the night outside is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.

For just these reasons, many Eastern traditions embrace and encourage boredom, seeing it as the pathway to a higher consciousness.

So instead of fighting boredom, go along with it, make something out of it; in short, be, yourself, less boring.

Schopenhauer said that boredom is but the reverse side of fascination, since both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other. So instead of being outside a situation, learn to get inside it, however hard this may be.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh advocates appending the word ‘meditation’ to whatever activity it is that you find boring, for example, ‘waiting in an airport—meditation’.

Developed by British psychiatrist Russell Razzaque, Mindful Moment Training is a free online resource that aims to reconnect you with the real you.

In the words of Samuel Johnson,

It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.

Shadows of Schopenhauer

Arthur_Schopenhauer_Portrait_by_Ludwig_Sigismund_Ruhl_1815

In his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation (1818), which is heavily influenced by Kant, Plato, and the Vedas, Schopenhauer begins by drawing a distinction between the world of appearances, or ‘representation’, and the world as it actually is.

The world as representation
The world of appearances is the world that we perceive through our senses, and it is governed by certain structures, notably, space, time, and causality. It is our experiencing selves that impose these structures onto the world of appearances, and it is through these structures that we apprehend the individual material things that make up the world as we know it. Thus, the world as it appears to us is a product of the kind of organism that we are. Moreover, individual material things depend on us for their order and existence; without us, they simply would not exist as such. Although our bodies are objects in the world of appearances, we ourselves are somehow outside this world and so beyond knowledge. The experiencing subject, says Schopenhauer, knows all things and yet is known by none. It is like the eye that sees everything but cannot see itself.

The world as will
Beneath or beyond the world of representation is the world as it actually is. Now here things get much more interesting. The world-in-itself is the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction. The whole world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract are objectified hunger, and so on. Everything about us, including even our higher, cognitive faculties, have evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the demands of will. Although able to perceive, judge, and reason, our intellect is not designed to pierce through the veil of mâyâ (or illusion) and apprehend the true nature of reality. Instead, it and we are driven by blind will into a life of inevitable frustration, strife, and pain.

Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring; and as if through a troubled dream it hurries back to its old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart. Then let one consider what as a rule are the satisfactions of any kind that a man obtains. For the most part nothing more than the bare maintenance of this existence itself, extorted day by day with unceasing trouble and constant care in the conflict with want, and with death in prospect…

The unconscious
Our intellect is like a lame man who can see, riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. Schopenhauer anticipates Freud by effectively equating the blind giant of will to our unconscious drives and fears, of which our conscious intellect may not be entirely or even mostly cognizant. For instance, the most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. Schopenhauer says that it is the will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring that draws man and woman together in a delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, their shared delusion fades away and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’. Despite what we may tell ourselves, it is blind will that takes charge of our destiny, while our intellect remains largely ignorant of its workings, and is only employed, if at all, to help us justify and come to terms with its dictates.

We often don’t know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired.

Aesthetic contemplation and genius
So long as we are enthralled to the will, we can know no peace or happiness. One way of disengaging the will is through aesthetic contemplation, when we adopt a disinterested attitude that enables us to consider things free from their or our relation to the will. Through aesthetic contemplation, we can glimpse at the timeless reality of things, not as the individual material things that they are but as the universals or essences that they represent. Genius is nothing but the ability of the perceiver to disengage from the will and, as it were, merge with what he perceives (I say ‘he’ because, according to Schopenhauer, a woman cannot be a genius). Unlike people of mere talent, the genius lives outside the strictures of time and place, and marries insight with imagination to create works of art that in some sense embody and reveal his higher knowledge. Thus, aesthetic contemplation serves both to release us from the tyranny of the will and to enable us to acquire and enjoy a higher knowledge. Schopenhauer speaks highly in particular of tragedy, which, through the enacting of suffering and resignation, brings out both the problem of life and its solution. Music, he says, is ‘a copy of the will itself’, with the progression of musical notes—especially the melody on top—mirroring the progress of our own inner strivings. Music replicates the structures of emotions without however furnishing their contents, enabling us to feel the emotions without feeling or fearing the pain that they are normally associated with.

Compassion
While we have the freedom to do what we will, we do not have the freedom to will what we will, and so, in effect, our actions are determined. Yet we somehow feel responsible for our actions, indicating that there is an aspect of us that lies beyond the world as representation and that escapes deterministic causal necessity. Our character is inborn and constant, and manifested through our actions over time. Three fundamental forces drive our actions: compassion, malice, and egoism, with egoism most commonly in the driving seat. Yet, some people are brimming with compassion, the existence of which, Schopenhauer tells us, is ‘a mystery’. Compassionate people not only make the world more bearable for others, but also exist in a higher plane. This is because they tend to see other people less as other objects in the world and more as other selves, and so are closer to apprehending the unity and indivisibility of reality—piercing through the veil of mâyâ to the Vedantic principle that tat tvam asi (‘that art thou’).

Pessimism and renunciation
The will is the cause of constant suffering, creating deficiencies for us to satisfy. On this account, satisfaction or happiness is not a positive state but merely the removal of striving and suffering. Once a deficiency is satisfied, another inevitably arises, and, with it, more striving and suffering; even if satisfaction can be sustained for a short while, this only leads to boredom. All considered, says Schopenhauer, it would have been better for us and the world never to have existed. The only way out of this predicament is to reach the realization that our individuality and the world of appearances are illusions, renounce those illusions, and welcome the eventual release of death—which, since reality is outside of time, is itself an illusion. A man who has found this nirvana (‘blown out’, as in a candle) is either a saint or has suffered so intensely or for so long that his will has been broken. Freed from willing, he is left as a pure knowing being, ‘the undimmed mirror of the world’, and marked out from other men by his calm confidence, his insight, and his compassion. And this, for Schopenhauer, is as good as it’s ever going to get.

How Can We Tell When We Are Deceiving Ourselves?

masks

Last week, I received a question from one of my readers.

“Just a quick question: I’ve gotten a bit confused about your posts considering self-deception. Are ordinary things like seeing the bright side of bad things, a silver lining or an opportunity in misfortune just feeble rationalizations in order for us to live in a comfy illusion?

Your example about ‘sweet lemons’, a rejected love interest explained away as a blessing in disguise doesn’t feel to me as an illusory or self-deceptive belief. If a cancer patient is glad that they can respect life more fully after getting sick, surely they’re not just dwelling in self-deception and rationalizing away things, clinging in some mistaken belief.

Could you clear things up a little about the murky world of self-deception, for example, what is considered as a deception? It’s true that someone might for example, say that they got connected better, they’re keeping doors open, that at least they got experience and that it’s all part of life when their job interview got rejected, and this would allow them to feel better, but I’ve never considered that this would be some sort of self-deception, that they’re “wrong” in some respect.

Thanks in advance for your answer.”

My reply:

“Dear X,

That’s a very good question. How do we know when we are deceiving ourselves, rather than learning or growing from our experiences? It is in the nature of self-deception that it is very hard to distinguish from the truth—whether the internal (emotional) truth or the external truth. To a large extent, one has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I am reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, nuanced, and mature, or does it rather feel like a shallow, knee-jerk reaction? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it just all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or do I instead feel angry or anxious or gratuitously and inappropriately elated?

Second, self-deception does not ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things, and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try and look at the bigger picture and see how the thought or reaction fits in. Did I react from a position of vulnerability or a position of strength? Am I being fair (or just) to myself and others? What would the person I respect the most think? Talk to other people and garner their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry or upset i.e. even more defensive? The degree of coherence, or lack thereof, of a reaction can in itself give us a clue as to its real nature.

Third, truth is adaptive whereas lies are destructive. So how useful is my thought or reaction going to be? Is it just covering up an irrational fear that I have always been unable to face, or is it a solid foundation upon which to build a secure and reliable future? Is it going to help me fulfill my highest potential as a human being, or is it depriving me of opportunities for growth and going to cause me even more problems down the line? Is the cycle going to repeat itself, or will I, so to speak, escape the circle of eternal rebirth?

I hope this goes some way to answering your question.

With best wishes,

Neel”

What Lies Behind Pythagoras’ Theorem

pythagoras

Pythagoras (570-500 BC) was born on the island of Samos in what is now Greece. On the advice of Thales of Miletus, he travelled to Memphis in Egypt where he came into contact with priests renowned for their wisdom. At the age of 40, he fled the tyranny of Polycrates to Croton in Southern Italy, where he established a philosophical and religious community. Those who entered the community’s inner circle were governed by a strict set of ascetic and ethical rules, forsaking personal possessions, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and—since words are so often careless and misrepresentative—observing the strictest silence. Some of the community’s more eccentric rules, such as ‘do not break bread’ or ‘do not poke the fire with a sword’ may have been riddles or allegories that required interpreting. Pythagoras’ brotherly community has been hailed as a prototype for later philosophical institutions such as Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, and, indeed, for the monastic life and associated early universities.

Music played an important role in Pythagoras’ community. Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of both body and soul. It is said that, one day, Pythagoras passed by some blacksmiths at work, and found that their hammering on anvils produced especially harmonious sounds. He then found that the anvils were simple ratios of one another, one being half the size of the first, another two thirds of the size, and so on. This discovery of a relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals led Pythagoras to believe that the study of mathematics was the key to understanding the structure and order of the universe. According to his ‘harmony of the spheres’, the heavenly bodies move according to mathematical equations that correspond to musical notes and form part of a grand cosmic symphony.

Pythagoras never separated religion from science and philosophy, which, even in his day, left him open to accusations of mysticism. No doubt under the influence of Orphism, an Ancient Greek mystery religion that arose from pre-Hellenic beliefs and the Thracian cult of Zagreus, he believed in the transmigration of the soul; that is, in the reincarnation of the soul over time into the bodies of human beings, animals, or plants (metempsychosis) until such a time as it became moral. He claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation (being in two places at once). But in his own lifetime Pythagoras had always been a paragon of modesty, declining to be called a ‘wise man’ or ‘sophos’, and preferring instead to be called ‘a lover of wisdom’ or ‘philosophos’—thereby coining the term ‘philosopher’.

It is said that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, had been schooled by Pythagoras, whence his great wisdom and piety. This story is referred to and discredited by Plutarch and Livy, not least because the dates do not tally, with Pythagoras having lived from about 570 to 500 BC, and so considerably later than the semi-legendary King Numa. Even though Pythagoras and Numa never met, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans exerted a strong influence on the Roman mind. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero indicates that Pythagoras rose to fame in southern Italy at just the same time that Brutus brought an end to the monarchy, and that many Roman usages derived from the Pythagoreans. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the nature of these usages. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells us that, in 343 BC, during the war with the Samnites, the god Apollo ordered the Romans to erect one statue to the wisest and another to the bravest of all Greeks, with their choices falling upon Pythagoras for the former and Alcibiades for the latter. Pliny expresses surprise that they picked Pythagoras over Socrates, whom Apollo himself had called the wisest of all men. But the fact is that the Romans liked to think of the Greek-Italian Pythagoras as their very own philosopher, and spun all sorts of stories, such as the one about Numa, to better appropriate him.

Apart from this, Pythagoras also exerted a strong indirect influence on Roman thinking, and indeed on all philosophy and theology, through the teachings of Plato, the principal architect of the western mind. Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil of twenty years, claimed that his master’s teachings owed much to those of Pythagoras; so much, in fact, that, in his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell upheld not Plato but Pythagoras as the most influential of all Western philosophers. Pythagoras’ influence is especially evident in Plato’s mystical approach to the soul and in his emphasis on mathematics and, more generally, abstract thinking, as a secure basis for the practice of philosophy.

A Modern Socratic Dialogue on Psychiatric and Medical Research

socrates

Socrates: Congratulations, Phaedrus, on your recent graduation.
Phaedrus: Please don’t mention it, Socrates.
Socrates: Now that you are a physician, what are you going to do?
Phaedrus: I am applying for a research post.
Socrates: In what specialty?
Phaedrus: Psychiatry, the healing of the soul—of course! I have my job interview tomorrow. Will you help me prepare for it?
Socrates: Very well, my good friend. I shall interview you as though I were an eminent professor of psychiatry. Are you ready?
Phaedrus: I am!

Socrates: Our university has a large and highly rated department of psychiatry. How many people do you think it employs?
Phaedrus: You mean the research department and not the hospital?
Socrates: Yes, just the research department. Forget about the clinical services.
Phaedrus: I’d guess about 50.
Socrates: Are you counting just principal investigators? Or are you also including senior researchers, junior researchers, course organizers, personal assistants, receptionists, cleaners, and so on?
Phaedrus: OK, well maybe about 200 then.

Socrates: Let’s go with 200. What’s their average annual salary?
Phaedrus: Before or after tax?
Socrates: Before tax.
Phaedrus: Well, I suppose an eminent professor could make perhaps $500,000 per year…
Socrates: Don’t include payments from pharmaceutical companies.
Phaedrus: Then maybe $250,000. At the other extreme, some staff may be paid no more than $20,000. So maybe, what, $50,000 on average?
Socrates: Yes, that sounds reasonable. Let’s stick with that. So, in total, how much is spent on salaries every year?
Phaedrus: 200 staff multiplied by an average salary of $50,000. Give me just a moment… $10,000,000.

Socrates: $10,000,000, just on salaries. How much do you suppose is spent on the actual research? More or less?
Phaedrus: I would assume that most of the money in a typical research grant is spent on research rather than on salaries.
Socrates: How much more do you think?
Phaedrus: Maybe twice as much.
Socrates: So twice $10,000,000, or $20,000,000, on research projects. Do you agree?
Phaedrus: Yes, that seems fair.
Socrates: So how much is spent in total, on both salaries and research projects?
Phaedrus: $10,000,000 plus $20,000,000: $30,000,000.

Socrates: So, according to you, our department spends $30,000,000 a year. Assuming that our budget has remained constant over the years, how much have we spent since 1960?
Phaedrus: Do you mean in today’s dollars.
Socrates: Yes.
Phaedrus: Well, 53 years multiplied by $30,000,000, which is, what, about $1,600,000,000?
Socrates: Yes, $1.59 billion to be exact.
Phaedrus: Amazing.

Socrates: Right. Now tell me: what was our most significant discovery in these past fifty-three years?
Phaedrus: Let me think.
Socrates: Or any one of our more significant discoveries.
Phaedrus: I’m ashamed to say that I cannot name any.
Socrates: Why are you applying for a position in our department when you cannot even name any of our breakthroughs?
Phaedrus: I wish I could!
Socrates: Fret not, it’s not your fault.
Phaedrus: How do you mean?
Socrates: I mean, there have been no breakthroughs to speak of.
Phaedrus: Oh dear!

Socrates: If, since 1960, we have spent $1.6 billion in one single psychiatry research department, how much do you think we have spent in every psychiatry research department in the country?
Phaedrus: It must be several times that, maybe $50 billion.
Socrates: Yes, or more than that. And how much have we spent in every psychiatry research department in the world?
Phaedrus: Several hundred billion, no doubt.
Socrates: Does that include the research budgets of pharmaceutical companies?
Phaedrus: No, not at all.

Socrates: Now, can you name me one important breakthrough in psychiatry since 1960?
Phaedrus: SSRI antidepressants.
Socrates: Many intelligent people, including within psychiatry, argue that SSRIs are no more effective than a placebo.
Phaedrus: Yes, and they seem to have the figures to prove it.
Socrates: What’s more, SSRIs have disturbing side effects, whereas placebos do not.
Phaedrus: What about second-generation antipsychotics? They have fewer disturbing side effects than first-generation antipsychotics. Surely they must count as an important breakthrough.
Socrates: Some people argue that the only difference between the one and the other is that second-generation antipsychotics are administered at considerably lower doses—which explains why they have fewer disturbing side effects.
Phaedrus: Yes, and, in any case, they remain very dirty drugs. I heard someone argue that they only work because they knock you out.

Socrates: Phaedrus, are you saying that, despite having spent hundreds of billions on research, there has not been a single breakthrough in psychiatry in these past fifty or sixty years?
Phaedrus: You have given me no choice but to say it.
Socrates: And yet, you wish to pursue a career in psychiatric research. Perhaps you fancy that you, of all people, will be the one to make the breakthrough?
Phaedrus: In the cold light of what has just been said, my chances do indeed seem very slim. But perhaps medical science is more about making small steps than giant leaps.
Socrates: Small steps forwards or small steps backwards?
Phaedrus: How do you mean!

Socrates: When do researchers make small steps backwards rather than small steps forwards?
Phaedrus: When they publish research that misleads. There is a saying, is there not, that to do the wrong thing is worse than to do nothing at all.
Socrates: Do they put out misleading research because they are lacking in intelligence?
Phaedrus: No, it’s more that they are under a silent pressure to publish.
Socrates: In what way?
Phaedrus: Researchers need to publish results to appear successful and advance their careers, and, more subtly, to justify themselves to themselves. Positive results are more likely to be published than negative results, and so there may be a tendency, however subconscious, to arrive at results that are slightly positive.
Socrates: If only positive results are ever published, then negative results are hidden from view, deceiving us into thinking that a particular phenomenon is present when it is not, or that a particular treatment or intervention is effective when it is not.
Phaedrus: And that gives rise to false theories, false constructs, and false paradigms: blind alleys in which other researchers lose themselves.
Socrates: Not just other researchers, Phaedrus, but also physicians, science writers, journalists, and so on.
Phaedrus: Not to forget the patients themselves.

Socrates: That’s absolutely right. How else might we be misled?
Phaedrus: Commercial interests.
Socrates: How do you mean?
Phaedrus: Well, for example, there are pharmaceutical companies that have been known to selectively publish research with positive findings, while spinning, doctoring, or suppressing any research with negative findings. This creates the impression that their products are more effective than they are.
Socrates: Or that their products are effective when they are not.
Phaedrus: Yes, it misleads the research community, who create or adjust explanatory models to fit the “findings”.
Socrates: Which creates even more confusion.
Phaedrus: On top of all this, pharmaceutical companies spend large sums of money promoting their products to physicians and end consumers.
Socrates: How do they promote their products to physicians?
Phaedrus: By meeting with them and “educating” them about a particular product or range of products, sponsoring their conferences, contracting them as speakers or consultants, and such like. They target the most influential physicians, so-called ‘key opinion leaders’.
Socrates: So the physicians they target are those in leadership positions.
Phaedrus: Yes, just those who are driving the research!

Socrates: Well then, Phaedrus, if, after all this, you still wish to pursue a career in psychiatric research, you must take great care to avoid all these pitfalls and make small steps forwards rather than small steps backwards. Otherwise, you will have thrown away your education. You will have wasted your life. And you will leave this world, to which you owe so much, having done it more harm than good.

Invisibility Cloaks and the Ring of Gyges

George Eleftheriades and Michael Selvanayagam, researchers at the University of Toronto, have designed and tested a new approach to invisibility cloaking. Their method involves surrounding an object with miniature antennae emitting an electromagnetic field that cancels out waves reflecting back from the cloaked object. Although their tests showed the cloaking system to work with radio waves, they see no reason why, as the necessary antenna technology matures, it could not also work with light waves.

All this opens the way for a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak that is thin, scalable, and adaptable to different types of objects. Some of the uses being touted for this quasi magical cloak include hiding military vehicles and conducting surveillance operations. But what if the cloak falls, as it surely will, into the wrong hands? Have the scientists really thought through the consequences? The infamous banker Bob Diamond spoke of ethics as ‘what you do when nobody’s looking’. If bankers, politicians, and even churchmen can no longer be trusted to do the right thing, then who can? But beyond this, the cloak of invisibility raises important questions about human nature: do intelligent people do the right thing because it is the right thing or because they fear being caught, judged, and punished? More fundamentally, is man innately good, under the direction of his conscience and sense of guilt, or is his restraint rather the product of fear and coercion instilled by a Hobbesian social contract that serves to keep him in check?

In Greek mythology, the Cap of Invisibility or Helm of Darkness is a helmet or cap variously worn by Athena, Hermes, and Perseus to make themselves invisible to gods, heroes, monsters, and men. In Book II of the Republic, Plato discusses the Ring of Gyges, which, according to legend, makes its bearer invisible. The ring was once given to the shepherd Gyges who used it to seduce the Queen of King Candaules and thereby usurp the throne of Lydia. In the Republic, the character of Socrates asserts that justice is the excellence of the soul without which a man cannot live well and be happy, and, therefore, that justice is inherently desirable. However, Glaucon doubts whether to be just is always better than to be unjust. All goods, he says, can be divided into one of three classes: harmless pleasures that are desirable in themselves; goods such as gymnastics, the care of the sick, or the various ways of making money that are desirable for what they bring; and goods such as knowledge, sight, or health that are desirable both in themselves and for what they bring. To which of these three classes does justice belong?

Socrates replies that justice belongs to the third class, but Glaucon points out that most people would disagree and place it firmly in the second class. Indeed, most people think that to do injustice is good, but that to suffer injustice is evil; as the evil outweighs the good, they agree among themselves not to do injustice. If a just man got hold of the Ring of Gyges, he would most certainly behave unjustly, proving that he is just only because he is weak and fears retribution, and not because justice is desirable in itself. The truly just man who cares only for justice and not for the appearance of justice will be thought unjust and suffer every kind of evil until the day he finally understands that he should not be, but only seem, just. In contrast, the unjust man who is resourceful enough to seem just will be thought just and always get the better of everyone and everything. Adeimantus adds that when people praise justice, they praise it for what it brings rather than for itself. Realizing this, the superior man devotes himself not to justice itself but only to its appearance.

Adeimantus claims that he does not truly believe his argument, but is nonetheless pressing it to provoke Socrates into taking its other side and demonstrating that justice is desirable in and of itself. As part of his lengthy reply, Socrates famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him define justice (or, as he puts it, “locate justice within the State”). After having defined justice in the state and justice in the individual, Socrates asserts that the just man orders his inner life in such a way as to be his own master and his own law. The soul of such a man can be said to be healthy, for justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: virtue is the health and the beauty of the soul, vice its disease and debility. If justice is the health of the soul, and if health is desirable in and for itself, then, by analogy, justice too is desirable in and for itself.

This is as far as Plato gets in the Republic. Notice that his conclusion that justice is intrinsically desirable does not in itself answer the original question, which was whether an intelligent person would still behave justly if he no longer feared being caught and punished. From Plato’s other writings, the answer is surely yes, even if Plato defines ‘intelligent’ in such a way that only he and some of his friends at the Academy actually meet the criteria. These select men are, of course, the famous philosopher-kings.

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