Aristotle’s influence

Live and die in Aristotle’s works.
– Christopher Marlowe, Faust

After Sulla removed Aristotle’s esoteric writings to Rome, they were edited and published by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. By late antiquity they had almost fallen out of circulation, hampered by the rise of the Church and of neo-Platonism, the fall of Rome, and the loss of the Greek language amongst educated people. In the early sixth century, the Christian philosopher Boethius translated Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin, and, for centuries to come, these were the only significant portions of Aristotle’s writings (or indeed of Greek philosophy) available in the Occident. However, the study of Aristotle continued unabated in the Orient, in the Byzantine Empire and more particularly in the Abbasid Caliphate, where Persian and Arab philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, whom they referred to deferentially as The First Teacher.

In the twelfth century, this Aristotelian fervour spilt over into Christian Europe. In the Condemnations of 1210–1277, the Bishops of Paris prohibited Aristotle’s physical writings on the grounds of heterodoxy, but without too much success. In the thirteenth century William of Moerbeke produced a Latin translation of Aristotle’s writings from the original Greek text rather than from Arabic translations, the first complete Latin translation faithful both to the spirit and to the letter of Aristotle. At around the same time, Albert the Great and his pre-eminent student Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Angelus, sought to reconcile Christian thought with Aristotle, whom they and other scholastic thinkers referred to simply as The Philosopher. Under the aegis of the Church, Aristotelian ideas achieved such prominence and such propriety as to be assimilated to God-given gospel, to be overturned only centuries later by pioneers like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.

Aristotle is without a doubt one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and, along with Plato, one of the most influential people in Western history. Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece, The School of Athens, depicts Plato and Aristotle walking side by side, surrounded by a number of other philosophers and personalities of antiquity. An elderly Plato is holding a copy of his Timaeus and pointing vertically to the lofty vault above their heads, whilst a younger Aristotle is holding a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics and gesturing horizontally towards the descending steps at their feet. Plato was chiefly interested in moral philosophy, and held natural philosophy, that is, science, to be an inferior and unworthy type of knowledge. His idealism culminated in the Theory of the Forms, according to which knowledge of the truth cannot be acquired through the sense experience of imperfect particulars, but only through the rational contemplation of their universal essences or Forms. Aristotle flatly rejected the Theory of the Forms and emphasised that all philosophy should be grounded in the simple observation of particulars. In so doing, he laid the foundations for the scientific method, and his meticulous zoological observations remained unsurpassed for several centuries. His moral philosophy prevailed throughout the ancient and mediaeval periods, exerting a profound influence on Christian thought, and returned to due prominence in the twentieth century with the resurgence of virtue ethics. His extant works, to say nothing of those that have been lost, cover such a wide range of topics, from aesthetics to astronomy and from politics to psychology, as to constitute a quasi encyclopaedia of Greek knowledge. Some of his most important works are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, Poetics, and, of course, the Organon, with which he created the field of logic and dominated it so thoroughly and for so long that even Kant in the eighteenth century thought that he had said the last word upon it.

More than any other figure in Western history, Aristotle is the embodiment of knowledge and of learning. His ideas have shaped centuries of thought and are still keenly pored over by all those who seek to understand Western civilisation, or simply to inhabit one of the greatest minds of all time.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Corpus Aristotelicum

According to legend, while the infant Plato was sleeping in a bower of myrtles on Mount Hymettus, bees settled upon his lips, auguring the honeyed words that would one day flow through his mouth. In his Lives of Philosophers, Diogenes Laertes says that, in the night before Plato was introduced to him as a pupil, Socrates ‘in a dream saw a swan on his knees, which all at once put forth plumage, and flew away after uttering a loud sweet note.’ Cicero, who was himself one of the greatest stylists in antiquity, lauded Plato’s subtle and mellifluous dialogues, but then added that if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was ‘a flowing river of gold’. This may come as a surprise to modern readers of Aristotle, whose treatises often seem heavily technical, poorly written, and badly organised – and yet it is difficult to doubt the judgement of a man like Cicero. One can only assume that Cicero had before him works that have since been lost, such as the dialogues that Aristotle is known to have written earlier on in his career, probably while still at the Academy. The few fragments of these dialogues that remain suggest that they were written in a style similar to that of the Son of Apollo, who was then Aristotle’s master.

Whilst the lost works of Aristotle appear to have been intended for publication, this is not the case for the surviving works, the so-called Corpus Aristotelicum, which are not dialogues but technical philosophical treatises from within Aristotle’s school. They were probably lecture notes or student texts, and were almost certainly repeatedly reworked over a period of several years. Although their prose is unembellished, this does not usually detract from their philosophical content, and some scholars even come to admire them for their candour and for their clarity. Aristotle divided his writings into two groups, those intended for the public (‘exoteric’) and those intended for his students and for other specialists (‘esoteric’), and it is possible that all of his extant writings are from the second, esoteric group. According to Strabo and to Plutarch, Aristotle willed his esoteric writings to Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to his student Neleus of Scepsis, who supposedly took them from Athens to Scepsis. Neleus’s heirs hid them in a vault, where they were discovered by the famous book collector Apellicon of Teos some two hundred years later, in the first century BC. According to the story, Apellicon repatriated the dilapidated manuscripts to Athens, wherefrom Sulla, who occupied Athens in 86 BC, removed them to Rome. They were then published by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus and, later, by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

The works in the Corpus Aristotelicum can be classified into one of several groups according to their subject matter. Aristotle referred to the branches of learning as ‘sciences’, which he divided into three groups: theoretical sciences, practical sciences, and productive sciences. Theoretical sciences are concerned with knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and comprise both natural sciences and non-empirical forms of knowledge such as mathematics and ‘first philosophy’ (metaphysics). Practical sciences are concerned with good conduct and action both at the individual level, as in ethics, and at the societal level, as in politics. Productive sciences are concerned with the creation of beautiful or useful artefacts, and include, amongst many others, agriculture, medicine, music, and rhetoric. Logic, that is, the branch of learning that is concerned with the principles of intellectual inquiry, does not fit into this tripartite division of the sciences, but stands apart under the heading of Organon or ‘Tool’.

Not all the works in the Corpus Aristotelicum are considered to be genuine, and the list that follows is composed only of those that are. The works are referred to by their English titles, but their Latin titles and standard abbreviations, which are often used by scholars, are also given. The works are ordered by their Bekker numbers, which are named after the classical philologist August Immanuel Bekker, editor of the Prussian Academy of Sciences edition in Greek of the complete works of Aristotle (1831-1870). The Bekker numbers are based on the page numbers used in the Bekker edition, and take the format of up to four digits, a letter for column ‘a’ or ‘b’, and then the line number. For example, the beginning of On the Soul is 402a1, which corresponds to the first line of the first column on page 402 of the Bekker edition. Bekker numbers are included in all modern editions or translations of Aristotle that are intended for scholarly readers, and enable citations to be cross-checked in any edition or translation that contain the numbers. The equivalent numbering system for the Corpus Platonicum is the Stephanus pagination.

Organon
Categories [Categorie, Cat.]
On Interpretation [De Interpretatione, DI]
Prior Analytics [Analytica Priora, APr]
Posterior Analytics [Analytica Posteriora, APo]
Topics [Topica, Top.]
Sophistical Refutations [De Sophisticis Elenchis, SE]
Theoretical Sciences
Physics [Physica, Phys.]
On the Heavens [De Caelo, DC]
Generation and Corruption [De Generatione et Corruptione, Gen. et Corr.]
Meteorology [Meteorologica, Meteor.]
On the Soul [De Anima, DA]
Brief Natural Treatises [Parva Naturalia, PN]
Sense and Sensibilia
On Memory
On Sleep
On Dreams
On Divination in Sleep
On Length and Shortness of Life
On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration
History of Animals [Historia animalium, HA]
Parts of Animals [De Partibus Animalium, PA]
Movement of Animals [De Motu Animalium, MA]
Progression of Animals [De Incessu Animalium, LA]
Generation of Animals [De Generatione Animalium, GA]
Metaphysics [Metaphysica, Met.]
Practical Sciences
Nicomachean Ethics [Ethica Nicomachea, EN]
Eudemian Ethics [Ethica Eudemia, EE]
Politics [Politica, Pol.]
Productive Sciences
Rhetoric [Ars Rhetorica, Rhet.]
Poetics [Ars Poetica, Poet.]

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Life of Aristotle

I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced;
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
Who stood beside him closer than the rest.

Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno IV, verses 131-135.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC at Stageira in Chalcidice, a Grecian colony in the Macedonian region of north-eastern Greece. In 348, Stageira was occupied and destroyed by Philip II of Macedon. Philip later rebuilt the city and freed its inhabitants from slavery in honour of Aristotle, who had been his childhood friend, and whom he had appointed as tutor to his son, the future Alexander the Great.

The Stagirite’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, the father of Philip, and the profession of medicine was quasi hereditary in his family. His mother, Phaestis, was a woman of aristocratic descent, and he also had one sister, Arimneste, and one brother, Arimnestus. Both ‘Arimneste’ and ‘Arimnestus’ translate as ‘Greatly remembered’, and the parallelism of these names suggests that Aristotle may have been the youngest of the three siblings. Arimneste married Proxenus of Atarneus and had a daughter, Hero, and a son, Nicanor. Hero in turn had a son, the historian Callisthenes of Olynthus, great nephew to Aristotle. Both Nichomachus and Phaestis died when Aristotle was about ten years old, and Aristotle became the ward of Proxenus of Atarneus. Proxenus taught him Greek, rhetoric, and poetry, and thereby complemented the biological education that Nicomachus had been giving him.

In 367, at the age of seventeen, Aristotle went to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy, which had by then already become a pre-eminent centre of learning. Whilst Plato and Aristotle certainly had differences of opinion, there was no lack of cordial appreciation, or of that mutual forbearance which one would expect from men of lofty character. Aristotle remained at the Academy for nearly twenty years and left around the time of Plato’s death in 347. The reasons for his departure are unclear: he may have felt slighted that the scholarchship (or leadership) of the Academy had passed on to Plato’s nephew Speusippus, or he may have opposed Speusippus’ views, or he may have left before Plato’s death because he feared growing anti-Macedonian feelings.

Then in his thirty-seventh year, Aristotle travelled with Xenocrates of Chalcedon to Assos on the north-western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to join the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus. He may or may not have travelled to Assos as an ambassador for Philip. In either case, it seems that he exerted a moderating influence on Hermias, who softened his harsh tyrannical rule and introduced reforms consistent with Platonic principles of government. Aristotle married Hermias’ niece and adoptive daughter, Pythias, who was then probably around eighteen years old, and Pythias bore him a daughter, also called Pythias. In 344, Hermias was captured by the Persians and tortured for information about Philip’s plans, but Hermias kept his silence. His dying words were that he had done nothing shameful or unworthy of philosophy, and Aristotle honoured him by dedicating a statue in Delphi and composing a hymn to Virtue. At around this time, Aristotle travelled with his pupil Theophrastus (‘Divinely speaking’ – the nickname given to him by Aristotle) to the nearby island of Lesbos where he researched the zoology of the island and Theophastrus researched its botany.

Some two years later Aristotle was invited by Philip to tutor his son Alexander, who was then thirteen years old. At the temple of the Nymphs near Mieza near the Macedonian capital of Pella, Aristotle gave lessons not only to Alexander, but also to two other future rulers, Ptolemy and Cassander. He probably had considerable influence over Alexander, who took with him on his eastern conquests a crowd of zoologists, botanists, and other researchers. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the greatest of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War, the semi-divine Achilles. According to Plutarch and to Aulius Gellius, upon hearing that Aristotle had published some of his oral teachings, Alexander wrote to him from Asia,

Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.

In 339, Xenocrates succeeded Speusippus as Scholarch of the Academy, with Aristotle being passed over for the scholarchship for a second time. By 335, Aristotle had returned to Athens where he established his own school in a public exercise area dedicated to the god Apollo Lykeois, whence its name, the Lyceum. Aristotle often discussed philosophical problems while walking along the shaded walks (peripatoi) of the Lyceum, for which reason affiliates of the school came to be known as ‘peripatetics’. The Lyceum survived until 86, when Athens was sacked by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla being the only man in history to have attacked and occupied both Athens and Rome). Aristotle taught at the Lyceum for some twelve years, during which time he also wrote many of his works and collected the first great library of the Ancient World. After the death of his wife Pythias, he became involved with (but did not marry) Herpyllis of Stageira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus. According to the Suda, he also kept an eromenos (younger male lover), the historian Palaephatus of Abydus.

Near the end of his life, Alexander ordered the execution as a traitor of Aristotle’s grandnephew Callisthenes and this and other things soured the relationship between the king and his master. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, anti-Macedonian feelings in Athens flared up, and Eurydemon the hierophant denounced Aristotle for not holding the gods in honour. Aristotle fled to his country house at Chalcis on Euboea, an island off the Attic coast and the homeland of his mother’s family. Referring to the trial and execution of Socrates in 399, he famously explained, ‘I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy’. He died of natural causes within the year on March 7 of 322, aged sixty-two. There is a story according to which he threw himself into the sea ‘because he could not explain the tides’, but this is unlikely to be true, as are other fanciful conjectures about his death. After Aristotle had left Athens, Theophrastus – who was not Macedonian but Lesbian – had stayed behind as scholarch of the peripatetic school, and in his will Aristotle made provisions for him and for others to take over the care of his children and of Herpyllis. He also left him his works and his library, and designated him as his successor at the Lyceum.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Socrates: A life worth living

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

The ‘real’ Socrates is shrouded in mystery as he did not leave a written corpus of his own and there is no purely historical account of his life and thought. The three principal sources on Socrates are his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comedian Aristophanes. These sources do not claim historical accuracy, and their portrayals of Socrates are undoubtedly influenced by their authors’ biases and agenda. The richest source on Socrates is Plato, in whose writings it is always uncertain whether the character Socrates is the real Socrates or a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is generally agreed that, as Plato’s thought developed, the character Socrates became less and less of the real Socrates and more and more of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, after the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale, and before the start of the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta and her allies. According to Plato, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates grew up under Pericles, in the heyday of Athen’s imperial hegemony. He grew up to be ugly: short in stature, pot-bellied, snub-nosed and pop-eyed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates asks the geometer Theodorus to tell him which of the young men of Athens are ‘showing signs of turning out well’. Theodorus immediately singles out Theaetetus, the son of Euphronius of Sunium, whom he describes to Socrates as ‘rather like you, snub-nosed, with eyes that stick out; though these features are not so pronounced in him’.

Socrates married Xanthippe, a shrew of a woman, but some forty years younger than he. According to Xenophon, Socrates married her because, ‘If I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else’. According to Aelian, she once trampled underfoot a cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos Alcibiades, the famous or, rather, infamous Athenian statesman and general. ‘Xanthippe’ has entered the English language as a term for an ill-tempered woman, although Plato himself portrays her as nothing other than a devoted wife and the mother of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys, constantly following them around ‘in a perpetual daze’. Yet he also says that Socrates cares very little whether a person is beautiful or rich or even famous: ‘He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well’.

Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi if any man is wiser than Socrates, and the pythia (priestess) replied that no one is wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. In the Apology, he says that the gods attached him to Athens as upon a great and noble horse which ‘needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly’. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says of Socrates that,

…he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! … He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die.

According to Plato, Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, for which he never accepted payment. It is unclear how he earned a living, but a combination of meagre needs and rich friends may have been enough to get him by. Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, and when he did it was always because he had learned it from somebody else or because he had been divinely inspired. For example, he claimed to have learned the art of love from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, and the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. In the Theaetetus, Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife who attends not to the labour of the body but to the labour of the soul, helping others to ‘discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light’. When Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus says that he has never come up with an adequate answer to this question and cannot stop worrying about it. Socrates tells him, ‘Yes; those are the pains of labour, dear Theaetetus. It is because you are not barren but pregnant.’ Socrates’ method, the celebrated ‘elenchus’ or Socratic method, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept, for example, courage or temperance, so as to expose a contradiction in their initial assumptions about the concept, and thereby provoke a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept or, more often than not, to the conclusion that the concept cannot be defined, and thus that we know nothing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human illness, and the other resulting from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness has four parts: inspiration, mysticism, poetry, and love. Socrates probably believed that madness, like virtue, is a gift from the gods and that the two are intimately connected. He frequently questioned the sophists’ doctrine that virtue can be taught, and observed that virtuous men rarely, if ever, produced sons that matched them in quality. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are one and the same, as no one who really knows the best course of action can fail to choose it, and all wrongdoing results from ignorance.

Whilst Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or instinct that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics. In the Phaedrus, he says,

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art … So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates served in the Athenian army during the campaigns of Potidaea (432BC), Delium (424BC), and Amphipolis (422BC), which were more or less the only times he ever left Athens. In the Laches, Laches calls on Socrates for advice because of his courageous behaviour during the retreat from Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and that he took the hardships of the campaign ‘much better than anyone in the whole army’.

In the Apology, Socrates says that ‘a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time’. Socrates cites the time in 406BC when he was chairing the assembly meeting and alone opposed the trial as a body of the generals who, after the Battle of Arginusae, failed to pick up the Athenian survivors because of a violent storm. At the time the orators had been ready to prosecute him and take him away, although later everyone realised that the prosecution would have been illegal. Socrates also cites the time in 404BC when the Thirty Tyrants asked him and four others to bring the innocent Leon of Salamis to be executed, and he alone refused, even though his refusal may have cost him his life.

In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. The real basis for Socrates’ indictment may have been his anti-democratic leanings and his close association with aristocrats such as Critias and Charmides, who had been prominent in the oligarchic reign of terror. Yet his behaviour when faced with the demands of the Thirty Tyrants suggests that he placed his ethics far above his politics.

In the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, intimating to the jurors that they should be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. In an aristocratic flourish, he insists that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he tells the jurors that he was sentenced to death not because he lacked words, but because he lacked shamelessness and the willingness to say what they would most gladly have heard from him. ‘It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.’

After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape from the Athenian prison. In the Crito, one of the main reasons he gives for not escaping is that, by choosing to live in Athens, he tacitly agreed to abide by her laws, and is reluctant to break this ‘social contract’. In the Phaedo, which was known to the ancients as On the Soul, Socrates prepares to die. He tells his friends that a philosopher disdains the body in favour of the soul, because the just or the beautiful or the reality of any one thing cannot be apprehended through the senses, but through thought alone. Socrates warns his friends not to become ‘misologues’, as there is no greater evil than to shun rational conversation. Instead, he urges them to take courage and be eager to ‘attain soundness’. After joking with his gaoler, Socrates drinks the poisonous hemlock. His famous last words are, ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ (A cock was sacrificed by ill people hoping for a cure, and Socrates probably meant that death is a cure for the ills of life.)

After his sentencing, Socrates told the jurors: ‘You did this in the belief that you could avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I have now held back, but you did not notice it.’

His pupil Plato was standing in the audience.

Adapted from

Gnothi seauton: Mature ego defences

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from

Depression: A sign of failure?

People suffering from depression are often stigmatised as ‘social and moral failures’. However, many people who suffer from depression do so not because they have failed, but because they have high standards and expectations for themselves and for life in general, and have come to be disillusioned by the comparative baseness or hopelessness of their life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

In such cases, the onset of depression is not so much a sign of failure as it is a sign of ambition, and even of nobility.

Furthermore, the experience of depression may enable a person to recognise and to address difficult life problems, and, in so doing, to develop a more refined perspective and deeper understanding of her life and of life in general (much more on this in a future post). Indeed, many of the most creative and most insightful people in society suffer or suffered from depression. They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, the poets Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, John Stuart Mill, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, and Tennessee Williams – to name but a few.

Are you an Epicurean?

Epicurus of Samos, who flourished not long after Aristotle died, founded a school of philosophy that convened at his home and garden in Athens and that dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason and the application of rational principles. According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually intended. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain.

Epicurus wrote prolifically, but the early Christians thought of him as especially ungodly among the ancient philosophers, and almost none of his works survived their disapprobation. Epicurus held that the gods exist, but that they have absolutely no concern for, or even awareness of, humankind. Indeed, for them to get involved in the menial matters of men would be to perturb the supreme happiness and tranquillity that characterises and even defines them. Human beings should seek to emulate the gods in their supreme happiness and tranquillity, but they need not to fear them.

Neither need they to fear death, this for two principal reasons. (1) The mind of a person is a part of his body, and, just like other parts of his body (and everything else in the universe), it consists of atoms. The death of the person entails the death of both his body and his mind and the dispersion of their atoms. As there is no longer any person to be troubled, death cannot trouble the person after he is dead. And if death cannot trouble the person after he is dead, then nor should it trouble him while he is alive (this is the famous ‘no subject of harm argument’). (2) The eternity that comes before a person’s birth is not regarded as an evil. Therefore, nor should the eternity that comes after his death (this is the famous ‘symmetry argument’).

Epicurus himself died at the age of 72 from renal colic (kidney stones), which is associated with one of the sharpest and most intense of all bodily pains. On the last day of his life, he penned this remarkable letter to his friend and follower Idomeneus, which is nothing if not a testament to the overriding powers of philosophy.

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is an end-in-itself and the highest good of human living. However, he identifies happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain rather than with the pure exercise of reason. Pleasure is the highest good, and anything else that is good is so only by virtue of the immediate or deferred pleasure that it can procure. The behaviour of infants confirms that human beings instinctively pursue pleasure and that all of their actions, including those that may be construed as being either virtuous or altruistic, are ultimately aimed at obtaining pleasure for themselves. Just as human beings can immediately feel that something is hot or cold, colourful or dull, so they can immediately feel that something is pleasurable or painful. However, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people seem unable to handle.

To help them a bit, Epicurus proceeds to distinguish between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after eating a meal. Static pleasures, says Epicurus, are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the pain of need or want. Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains, and argues that anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death, are the greatest obstructions to happiness. To attain a state of perfect mental tranquillity or ataraxia, a person needs to avoid anxiety, which he can do by learning to trust in the future.

Pleasure often arises from the satisfaction of desire and pain from its frustration. Thus, any desire should either be satisfied to yield pleasure or eliminated to avoid pain, and, overall, it is elimination that should be preferred. There are, Epicurus says, three types of desires, (1) natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, (2) natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation, and (3) vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. Natural and necessary desires should be satisfied, natural but non-necessary desires can be satisfied but should not be depended upon, and vain desires should be entirely eliminated. By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimise the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia. Given the prime importance that he attaches to the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and peace of mind, Epicurus is far more of a ‘tranquillist’ than a hedonist. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy’, he says, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Adapted from