A Short History of Love

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In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles held that there are four primordial elements: air, earth, fire, and water. These elements are driven together and apart by the opposed cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Love brings the elements together, and unopposed Love leads to ‘The One’, a divine and resplendent sphere. Strife gradually degrades the sphere, returning it to the elements, and this cosmic cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. According to legend, Empedocles killed himself by leaping into the flames of Mount Etna, either to prove that he was immortal or to make people believe that he was.

Empedocles may have conceived of love as a great cosmic principle, but it is in fact Plato who transformed it into the spiritual, transcendental, and redemptory force that it has become. Before Plato, and for a long time after, some people did, of course, fall in love, but they did not believe that their love might in some sense save them. When, in Homer’s Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or elevating. The Greeks recognized several types of love: the one that most approaches our modern concept of romantic love is eros, or passionate love. Rather than celebrating eros, Greek myth sees it as a kind of madness induced by one of Cupid’s arrows. The arrow breaches us and we ‘fall’ in love, often with disastrous consequences such as, well, the Trojan War. In the Antigone of Sophocles, the chorus sings: ‘Love… whoever feels your grip is driven mad… you wrench the minds of the righteous into outrage, swerve them to their ruin…’ In Homer’s Odyssey, despite her many suitors, Penelope remains faithful to her husband Odysseus. But her commitment is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. In the last resort, when Odysseus returns and slaughters all the suitors, Penelope is reluctant even to recognize him.

Plato’s Symposium (4th century BC) contains a myth about the origins of human love. Once upon a time, there were three kinds of people: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and hermaphrodite, with both male and female parts, descended from the moon. These early people were completely round, each with four arms and four legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards, and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets. They were powerful and unruly, and threatened to scale the heavens. So Zeus, the father of the gods, cut them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling’, and even threatened to cut them into two again, so that they might hop on one leg. After that, people searched all over for their other half. When they finally found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go. This is the origin of our desire for others: those of us who desire members of the opposite sex used to be hermaphrodites, whereas men who desire men used to be male, and women who desire women used to be female. When we find our other half (the expression descends from Plato’s myth), we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple drive for sex, but by a desire to be whole again and restored to our original nature.

Later in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with the priestess Diotima, from whom he supposedly learnt the art of love. According to Diotima, a youth should be taught to love one beautiful body so that 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 comes to understand that the beauty of the soul is superior to that of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of the beauty of their body. Once he has transcended the physical, he discovers that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, arriving at the summit of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue itself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods.

Although Plato’s model eventually gained the upper hand, other models of love in antiquity are the perfect friendship of Aristotle, and the naturalism of Lucretius and Ovid. For Aristotle, friendships founded on advantage alone or pleasure alone are as nothing to those founded on virtue. To be in such a friendship, and to seek out the good of one’s friend, is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. In a virtuous friendship, our friend is as another self: rather than removing from it, his good adds to our own, such that there cannot ever be any conflict of interest. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for instance, in young people, who are not wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if the friends spend a great deal of time investing into each other.

Two exemplars of perfect friendship, from very different times and places, are David and Jonathan, and Michel de Montaigne and Etienne de la Boétie. David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel. After slaying Goliath, David appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle’ (1 Samuel 18). Much later, upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Samuel 1:26). One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: “Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love between them was homosocial rather than homosexual.

The essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and the humanist Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563) became the closest friends from the moment they met at a feast in Bordeaux. Montaigne wrote that friendship, ‘having seized my whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in his.’ ‘Our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.’ He struggled to explain this enthrallment: ‘If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.’ The young men had much in common, including their privileged backgrounds, soaring intellects, and refined sensibilities. Perhaps more importantly, they shared a devotion to classical ideals of the good life, which had prepared the ground in which their friendship could blossom into one so fine that ‘it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries’. In a sonnet, la Boétie declaimed: ‘You have been bound to me, Montaigne, both by the power of nature and by virtue, which is the sweet allurement of love.’ The married Montaigne never fully recovered from la Boétie’s premature death from the plague, and for the rest of his life felt like ‘no more than a half person’. No one, he warned, should ever be ‘joined and glued to us so strongly that they cannot be detached without tearing off our skin and some part of our flesh as well.’ Compared to the four years of friendship with la Boétie, the rest of his life seemed ‘but smoke and ashes, a night dark and dreary’. It is sobering to think that, had the Aristotelian template not been available, and socially condoned, their friendship may never have flown. Love, like madness, can only fill the models that society makes available.

The Roman poets Lucretius (99-55BC) and Ovid (43BC-17/18AD) did not idealize love, seeing it neither as a track to transcendence, like Plato, nor a vehicle of virtue, like Aristotle. Instead, they thought of it merely as thinly garbed animal instinct, a kind of insanity that could nonetheless be enjoyed if tamed by reason and sublimed into an art. ‘Love’ said Ovid, ‘is a thing full of anxious fears.’ ‘I am the poet of the poor, for I was poor when I loved.’ The modern heirs to Lucretius and Ovid are Schopenhauer, and, later, Freud and Proust. In his masterwork, The World as Will (1819), Schopenhauer argues that beneath the world of appearances lies the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction. Everything in the world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract objectified hunger, and so on. Even our higher faculties have evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the demands of will. The most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. The will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring draws man and woman together in a shared delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, the delusion dies and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.

In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand: ‘now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.’ It is true that the Old Testament instructs us to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and to love our neighbours (Leviticus 19:18). However, the Binding of Isaac highlights that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience or allegiance to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love. In contrast, the New Testament elevates love into the supreme virtue and commingles it with life and death. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption: ‘He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him’ (John 3:14-15). One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). Over the centuries, the Church doctors sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy, especially Platonism; and Christian love, more properly called charity, and ultimately aimed at God, blurred with something much more self-oriented.

This laid the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in the late 11th century in Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married and unavailable lady, often of a superior social rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to a higher virtue, notably by carrying out a succession of chivalrous acts or tests. For the first time in the Judeo-Christian tradition, love, insofar as courtly love could count as love, did not ultimately aim at, or depend upon, God, and the Church duly declared it a heresy. In a significant cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve, although in this context an essentially passive and interchangeable idol, turned from devilish temptress or object of contempt to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God. The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.

Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) taught that nature is the mirror of God. Although a reforming Christian, his Canticle of Creatures comes across as almost pagan in inspiration: ‘Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.’ In the next period, God gradually comes down to earth, to be worshipped through His creation, and, above all, through the human body. This, in any case, served as justification for all those Renaissance nudes, first among them Michelangelo’s magisterial statue of David (1504) which the Florentines displayed at the political and historical heart of their city in the Piazza della Signoria. One could admire David, or anyone else for that matter, as the mirror of God, but, for just that reason, one could not turn him or her into an object of lust. God’s descent concludes with the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), who thought of God and nature as one and the same. More precisely, Spinoza brought nature into God, thereby, in some sense, eliminating or radically redefining Him: ‘Whatsoever is, is in God… God is the indwelling, and not the transient cause of all things.’

As God retreated from love, Platonism, which had been lurking in the background, stepped forward to fill the void. Abraham had surrendered himself and his son Isaac out of devotion to God. But in the Romantic era, love became all the opposite: a means of finding and validating oneself. In the time of God, finding oneself—or, more to the point, losing oneself in God—had required years of patient spiritual practice, but, after the French Revolution, romantic love could save almost anyone, and with very little investment on their part. Plato’s ladder of love had been an elitist project aimed at subliming sexual desire into virtue, but the Romantics, concerned with neither God nor reason, held that love with a good and beautiful person could only intensify sexual desire. The sacred seeped out of God and into love, and, with more success than reason, progress, communism, or any other -ism, love took the place of the dying religion in lending weight and meaning and texture to our lives. People had once loved God, but now they loved love: more than with their beloved, they, like the troubadours before them, fell in love with love itself.

The Dangers of Dehumanisation, Or, Why Trump’s Rhetoric Is More Than Just Wrong.

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Dehumanisation is a kind of deception—of the self, of others, or both—that paints other people as less than human, so as not to have to think about them and/or feel guilty for overlooking or abusing them.

It’s easier to dehumanise a person or group if they’re already marked out as different, perhaps by gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, or even a different manner of speaking or dressing. For example, it’s all too common to witness people in uniform, such as waiters, cleaners, bus drivers, and police officers, being treated as mere automatons without human attributes such as feelings or families.

In April 2011, riots broke out in Bristol, England over the opening of a new supermarket. During the riots, one Benjamin Cyster dropped a five stone concrete block from the top of a building onto an advancing line of police officers. The block caught PC Nicholas Fry square on the shoulder, crushing him to the ground. Instead of expressing anguish or remorse, Cyster continued rioting, and even exclaimed, “I want to find that copper I hit on the head. I want to do it again.”

Diane Davies, a 62-year-old grandmother of nine from Anglesey in Wales, was holidaying in one of the most exclusive areas of Barbados. One day, in broad daylight, she was brutally raped by a complete stranger. One year on, in November 2011, she decided to talk about her ordeal in a national newspaper. She felt certain that she would have been killed, had she not remembered reading that a victim of attempted rape should talk to the rapist so that he might see her as a person rather than an object of gratification. “So I told him I was a 61-year-old grandmother with four children and nine grandchildren and felt he slightly softened. I think talking to him saved my life.” Similarly, in the UK Brexit referendum, areas that voted for Remain tended to have a much higher level of immigration than areas than voted for Leave.

Unfortunately, dehumanisation is not limited to thugs and rapists, and may also be used by politicians and other so-called decent, middle class people. For example, it is commonly used by healthcare professionals to cope with distress at loss, grief, disease, and death, with patients referred to by their diagnosis rather than their name (“the stroke in bed number 6”, “the fractured hip in the ER”…), or just being thought of in terms of a long line of faceless ‘patients’.

One notable politician who regularly engages in dehumanisation is, of course, Donald Trump. He tends to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, splitting off the American “we” from “these people”; and to refer to minority groups by using the definite article ‘the’, as in, “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks”, or “I love the Muslims.” Other, less subtle, ways in which Trump dehumanises people is by stereotyping, belittling, or even objectifying them. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician.” Of Mexicans, he said, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Of women, he said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.” Of grief-stricken Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan, who stood by her husband Khizr as he criticized Trump, he said, “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” He has questioned the competence of a federal judge on the grounds of his Mexican heritage; called his opponent Hillary Clinton a criminal who should be jailed or perhaps even killed; and even questioned the citizenship, and hence the legitimacy, of America’s first black president.

Dehumanisation is more than just wrong. It quickly becomes normalised, serving to undermine morality and the rule of law, and incite and endorse discrimination and violence. In the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison with hidden cameras and microphones in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The researchers selected 24 undergraduates, mostly white, middle class men, and randomly assigned them to the roles of either prisoner or guard. The ‘prisoners’ were to remain in the mock prison round the clock, while the ‘guards’ were to ‘work’ in three-men teams over eight-hour shifts. The experiment had been scheduled to run for 14 days, but had to be stopped after just six days owing to the aggressive and abusive behaviour of the ‘guards’ and the extreme adverse psychological reactions of the ‘prisoners’. Even Zimbardo, who had been acting as the prison warden, overlooked the dehumanising behaviour of the guards until a graduate student voiced objections. In his book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo wrote candidly that, ‘Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class.’

Dehumanisation is often witnessed during times of crisis or war. If certain people or groups can be seen as less than human, they become dispensable, and any atrocity can be justified. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ in Hitler’s Nazi regime, exploited all contemporary methods of propaganda to inflame anti-Jewish sentiment. By pinning the blame for all the economic and social ills of the time on the Jewish people and then lampooning them as an ‘inferior race’, he prepared the ground for the progressive elimination of their rights and freedoms and, one thing leading to the next, for the mass genocide of the Holocaust.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the EmotionsHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook

Plato on Democracy, Tyranny, and the Ideal State

In any Greek city, there are perhaps no more than fifty good draught-players, and certainly not as many kings. —Plato, Statesman

In one of Plato’s books, the philosopher Protagoras tells a genesis story. Once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals by blending earth with fire, and asked Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to equip each animal with its proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any animal, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts, and hides. But by the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them. Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole from the gods Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, and so they lived in scattered isolation, at the mercy of wild animals. Each time they tried to come together for safety, they treated one another so badly that they once again dispersed.

As human beings shared in the divine nature, they gave worship to the gods. Zeus, the chief of the gods, took pity on them and asked his messenger Hermes to send them reverence and justice. Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

At the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans captured the Athenian fleet. The ship carrying the news of the defeat arrived in the Athenian port of Piraeus at night, and, in the words of the historian Xenophon,

…one man passed it on to another, and a sound of wailing arose and extended first from Piraeus, then along the long walls until it reached the city. That night no one slept. They mourned for the lost, but more still for their own fate.

Mercifully, Sparta resisted calls to execute every Athenian man, sell every woman and child into slavery, and turn the site of the city into pastureland—as it had once done to the city of Plataea. However, Athens had to agree to Sparta’s terms of surrender and became a Spartan territory under Spartan control. Sparta suspended the political institutions that had been the pride and symbol of Athenian sovereignty, determined that Athens should be ruled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy, and sealed the appointment of the so-called Thirty Tyrants.

As they blamed the democrats for their defeat, the Athenians initially lent their support to the Thirty; but the oligarchy proved so brutal and oppressive as to alienate all but its most fanatic supporters. After the democratic forces in exile defeated the oligarchic forces and the allied Spartan garrison, Sparta reluctantly restored a limited form of democracy to Athens.

After the death of his uncle Critias, the first and the worst of the Thirty, Plato once again contemplated a career in politics. At first, the restraint and moderation of the restored democracy led him to believe that he could find his place in the ecclesia (the Athenian assembly), but the trial and death of his teacher Socrates put paid to any fragile illusions that he might have entertained about Athenian politics. In any case, after the fall of the Thirty, his name had turned from asset into liability: he had lost all his political friends and allies, and his background, politics, and association with Socrates all sat uncomfortably with the mood of the times.

Like Plato, Socrates had once considered becoming a politician, but his inner voice had dissuaded him from doing so on the grounds that he would soon have been killed and made of no good to anyone. At his trial, he sought to explain his lack of public involvement to the five hundred jurors:

For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don’t be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.

Having experienced the limits of both tyranny and democracy, Plato sought to devise another and better system of government. In the Republic, which have been nothing more than a thought experiment, he conceived of an ideal state ruled by a small number of people selected, after close observation and rigorous testing, from a highly educated elite.

These so-called guardians would not hold any private property. Instead, they would live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance. In spite, or because, of these deprivations, the guardians would be the happiest of men. Were a guardian become ‘infatuated with some youthful conceit of happiness’ and seek to appropriate the state to himself, he would have to ‘learn how wisely Hesiod spoke, when he said, ‘half is more than the whole.’

For Plato, if a person is to give good advice on the highest affairs of state, he or she must have expertise in justice, which is a part of virtue and self-knowledge. The person who rushes into politics without having found self-knowledge falls into error and makes himself and everyone else miserable. He who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom.

The tyrant, who is the most unjust of people, is also the unhappiest. The tyrant is constantly overcome by lawless desires which lead him to commit all manner of heinous act. His soul is full of disorder and regret, and is incapable of doing what it truly desires. The life of the political tyrant is even more wretched than that of the private tyrant, first, because the political tyrant is in a better position to feed his desires, and, second, because he is everywhere surrounded and watched by his enemies, and becomes at first their prisoner and at last their victim.

The best and most just of all rulers are those who are most reluctant to govern, while the worst and most unjust those who are most eager. Therefore, if the state is to be well ordered, it must offer another and better life than that of ruler, for only then will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. And the only life that looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy.

The ideal state is an aristocracy in which rule is exercised by one or more distinguished people. Unfortunately, owing to human nature, the ideal state is unstable and liable to degenerate into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and, finally, tyranny. States are not made of oak and rock, but of people, and so come to resemble the people that they are made of. Aristocracies are made of just and good people; timocracies of proud and honour-loving people; oligarchies of misers and money-makers; democracies of people who are overcome by unnecessary desires; and tyrannies of people who are overcome by harmful desires.

Plato provides a detailed account of the degeneration of the state from aristocracy to tyranny via timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy in particular arises from the revolt of the disenfranchised in an oligarchy. The state is ‘full of freedom and frankness’ and every citizen is able to live as he pleases.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

However, citizens are overcome by so many unnecessary desires that they are ever spending and never producing, and are ‘void of all accomplishments and fair pursuits and true words.’ As a result, the state is ruled by people who are unfit to rule.

In a later book, the Statesman, Plato contends that there are three forms of government other than true government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Each of these further divides into two according to the criteria of voluntary and involuntary, poverty and riches, and law and lawlessness. Monarchy divides into royalty and tyranny, oligarchy divides into aristocracy and plutocracy, and democracy may be with or without law.

In ideal circumstances, the king rules above the law, because the law is an ignorant tyrant who ‘does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all, and therefore cannot enforce what is best’. The differences of man and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule, and no art can lay down a rule which will last for all time.

So why make laws at all? The trainer has a general rule of diet and exercise that is suited to the constitutions of the majority, and the same is true of the lawgiver, who cannot ‘sit at every man’s side all through his life’. As only very few people are able to attain to the science of government, the general political principle is to assert the inviolability of the law, which, though not ideal, is second best, and best for the imperfect condition of man.

If the multitudes decided to regulate the arts and sciences and to indict anyone who sought to upset the status quo, ‘all the arts would utterly perish, and could never be recovered… And human life, which is bad enough already, would then become utterly unbearable.’ However, things would be even worse if the multitudes appointed as guardian of the law someone who was both ignorant and interested, and who sought to pervert the law. If a guardian or some other person tried to improve the law, he would be acting in the spirit of the lawgiver, but lawgivers are few and far between, and in their absence the next best thing is to obey the law and preserve customs and traditions.

Given this, which of the six forms of government other than true government is the least bad? The government of one is the best and the worst, the government of few is less good and less bad, and the government of many is the least good and the least bad. In other words, democracy is the worst of all lawful governments, and the best of all lawless ones, ‘in every respect weak and unable to do any great good or any great evil’. The rulers in all six states, unless they be wise, are mere maintainers of idols, and no better than imitators and sophists.

What would Plato have to say about today’s democracies? Perhaps that their laws must underwrite sufficient safeguards, or repositories of true aristocracy, to prevent and arrest the rise of an eventual tyrant.

Neel Burton is author of Plato’s Shadow and Plato: Letters to my Son.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook.

The Meaning of Madness Goodreads Giveaway

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/191277-the-meaning-of-madness

MoM 2e Cover

What is Super-Sanity?

Self-deception is the price that we pay for our sanity.

This self-deception holds us together by shielding us from truths that threaten to undermine our sense of self, or ego integrity. A person on the verge of ego disintegration makes frenzied use of self-deceptive ego defences. The resulting loss of perspective or change in function can in itself count as mental disorder, while the ultimate capitulation of the ego defences leads in particular into the depressive position.

By removing us from fearsome truths, ego defences not only blind us to those truths and thus to reality, but also confuse and constrict our thinking. Their partial or temporary failure can lead to a range of psychological disturbances including anxiety, anger, irritability, insomnia, and nightmares. The more they are challenged, the more exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible they become. The person is reduced in scope and ability, with little left of the capacities for consciousness, spontaneity, and intimacy that define, elevate, and glorify the human condition.

A vicious cycle takes hold: the more constrained a person becomes, the less he is able to reason; and the less he is able to reason, the less he is able to overcome his constraints. For the philosopher Aristotle, the distinctive function of human beings is to reason, and, therefore, the happiness of human beings is to lead a life of reason. Reason begets freedom, and freedom begets reason, and both together beget knowledge of the truth, which is wisdom, which is the highest happiness.

Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic replied parrhesia, which means ‘free speech’ or ‘full expression’. Diogenes used to stroll through Athens in broad daylight brandishing an ignited lamp. Whenever curious people stopped to ask what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

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Diogenes looking for a human being.

Self-deception, which is often rooted in the unconscious or semi-conscious fear of falling short of familial and societal standards, and in the fear of death, is a defining part of our human nature. By recognising its various forms in ourselves and reflecting upon them, we may be able to disarm them and, even, in some cases, to employ and enjoy them. This self-knowledge, which I call super- or hyper-sanity, opens up a whole new world before us, rich in beauty, subtlety, and connection, and frees us not only to take the best out of it, but also to give it back the best of ourselves, and, in so doing, to fulfil our potential as human beings.

Reasoning is but one route to self-knowledge or hyper-sanity. The other route—more painful, destructive, and uncertain—is mental disorder, or ‘madness’, which involves the failure or complete breakdown of the ego defences. Unlike medical, or physical, disorders, mental disorders are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simply acknowledging this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow from their experiences. At the same time, mental disorders should not be romanticised or left unattended simply because they may or may not predispose to problem solving, personal development, or creativity. Rather than being medicalised or romanticised, mental disorders, or mental dis-eases, should be understood as nothing less or more than what they are, a cry from our deepest human nature.

Both mental disorder and hyper-sanity place us outside society, making us seem ‘mad’ to the mainstream. Both attract scorn and derision, but whereas mental disorder is distressing and disabling, hyper-sanity is liberating and empowering.

Ultimately, standing out is the price we pay for being outstanding.

Phenomenology as a Cure for Depression and Anxiety

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Phenomena derives from the Greek meaning ‘things that appear’, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.

Pioneered by philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), phenomenology involves paying attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to the naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories, preconceptions, abstractions, interpretations, and emotional associations.

Unlike many other philosophical approaches, phenomenology is not a theory or set of theories, but a formal method for accessing bare human experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. It enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness.

Phenomenology is not quite the same as mindfulness. Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. In contrast, phenomenology is more explicitly outward-looking.

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In the early 20th century, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) brought the method of phenomenology into the field of clinical psychiatry to describe and delineate the symptoms of mental disorder. This so-called descriptive psychopathology created something of a scientific basis for the practice of psychiatry, with Jaspers emphasising that symptoms of mental disorder should be diagnosed according to their form rather than their content. This means, for example, that a belief is a delusion not because it is deemed implausible by a person in a position of authority, but because it conforms to the definition, or phenomenology, of a delusion, that is, ‘a strongly held belief that is not amenable to logic or persuasion and that is out of keeping with its holder’s background or culture.’

Unfortunately, Jaspers and others rather overlooked or underplayed phenomenology’s healing and protective potentials. Potentially phenomenological endeavours such as writing, drawing, gardening, bird watching, and wine tasting remove us from our tired and tortured heads and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations. Phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life. In The Philosophy of Existence (1938), Jaspers himself described it as ‘a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me’. To describe is to know, to know is to understand, and to understand is to own, to enjoy, and even, to some degree, control. Like mindfulness, phenomenology is a balm not only for depression and anxiety, but also for boredom, loneliness, greed. selfishness, apathy, alienations, and any number of human ills.

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Magnificent Hummingbird (Male), Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon, Near Green Valley, Arizona

If that were not enough, phenomenological practice also offers a number of other benefits and advantages. Wine tasters, for example, often say that wine blind tasting enables them to:

  • set a standard of objectivity,
  • test, stretch, and develop their senses,
  • apply their judgement,
  • recall old memories,
  • compare their analysis with that of their peers,
  • discuss the wine and learn about it, and about wine in general,
  • forge meaningful human relationships, and
  • imbibe the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, wine tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world.

For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

A Gourmand’s Guide to the Passionate Life

Review of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Prof Peter Toohey, author of Jealousy and Boredom: A Lively History

Review article (redirects to Psychology Today)

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