Monday, March 2, 2009

Philosophy: Because We're Mindless Without It

Check out the image on the right. I can think of no better way to illustrate what this blog, "Knowledge is Necessity," is all about. The guy pointing to the sky is Plato, the one with his palm facing the ground is Aristotle.

The two form part of a much larger painting by Raphael - his masterpiece - entitled "The School of Athens." The canvas portrays more than twenty identifiable Greek philosophers - as well as a bunch of unidentifiable ones - clumped in small groups engaged in enlightened discourse.

What's so important about philosophy? Last year, I happened to catch the first three or four episodes in a 60-lecture video series, entitled, "Great Ideas In Philosophy." Oxford scholar and Georgetown professor-emeritus Daniel Robinson PhD explained that something extraordinary happened in ancient Greece.

Prior to Greek philosophy, Professor Robinson pointed out, thinking was essentially religious. Entire cultures were organized around the principle of encouraging everyone to think the same. No one questioned handed-down beliefs.

What the Greeks did essentially changed everything. Socrates and others urged their followers to think for themselves, to take nothing for granted, to challenge everything. In the face of Socrates' withering inquisitions, lazy thinking didn't stand a chance. Athens, it appears, wasn't quite ready for this, and Socrates paid in full measure.

His student, Plato, managed to die in bed, as did Plato's student Aristotle. Without them, our frontal lobes would have nothing to do. Not only did they turn thinking into a profession, they gave us the tools to think. The world was never the same.

Every field of human enquiry bears their indelible stamp: Science, government, the arts, human nature ...

Even religion. The way we appreciate Jesus is through the intellectual framework built by Plato and Aristotle. "The School of Athens" hangs in the Vatican.

The image that illustrates today's blog post is Diogenes. You might refer to Diogenes as the anti-philosopher. When Plato described man as a "featherless biped," Diogenes handed him a plucked chicken.

In Raphael's painting, Diogenes is seated alone, as if shunned by the others. Diogenes serves as a forceful reminder that even today's bold free-thinking is tomorrow's mind-crushing orthodoxy. This tends to happen when we organize our connected thoughts into schools of thought.

The antidote is to be our own philosopher. We learn, then challenge everything we learn. Then we relearn.

Knowledge is necessity, but knowledge is also elusive. It is something we strive for, rather than possess. If someone claims to have it, and offers you a piece of it - stop, think. What would Socrates do?


Moira said...

I dunno what Socrates would do. I was going to complain that I didn't see any women in the School of Athens, but nevermind.

I do see Hypatia, martyr of the feminist movement. Here's a closeup of her from the School of Athens:

Here she is as martyr of the Pagans:

Hypatia provides a beautiful segue into some comments I've been meaning to leave on a much earlier blog entry of yours. You wrote something about clearing the room at Ground Rounds. Did you mention Marilyn Monroe in that talk? Or were you thinking of mentioning her in future talks?

Marilyn Monroe is hypersexuality personified.
She's sexy and vulnerable.

What would she be like if she had access to treatments for her bipolar disorder that we "enjoy" today?

Would it be alright if Marilyn lost handfuls of her hair. If acne broke out on her face and her back (backne)? No big deal if she gains an extra 50 pounds in three months? Shaky hands and clumsiness shouldn't be too obvious, eh? How about if all the sparkle vanished from her eyes?

Thank you, John, for finding creative ways to explain the challenges of living well with depression and bipolar disorder.

Marilyn is no candle in the wind. She's a bleeding volcano. LOL


John McManamy said...

Hey, Moira. If you ever talked back to your teacher, you're doing exactly what Socrates would do - and I bet you gave your teachers a lot of lip. :)

Re women - If Raphael had painted The SALON of Athens rather than the SCHOOL of Athens, Aspasia would have been the center of attention. Aspasia was the consort of Pericles. Their home became an intellectual center that attracted the likes of Socrates.

Because Aspasia was technically a foreigner, she was not subject to the same social restrictions as other women, and thus participated in public life.

So: No Aspasia, perhaps no Golden Age of Greece. No philosophy. No civilization. One can only guess how many other golden ages we missed out on by keeping women confined to the house.

Re Marilyn - I'm sure you read my earlier piece, Treating Marilyn.

I can assure you, Marilyn is way too fascinating to confine to one blog post. You will be hearing about her an awful lot in future blogs.

Keep commenting - or better yet, write me a guest blog. You choose the topic.

Rachelle Sharp said...

I was privileged to have Dr. Robinson as a professor when he visited Brigham Young University one semester. He truly is insightful about psychology and philosophy and how they are connected. Great mention of him and thanks again for such a great blog!

John McManamy said...

Many thanks, Rachelle. It's one of my life resolutions to work my way through all his videos. Dr Robinson is truly illuminating. It must have been a great experience having him as a professor. Please feel free to share your experiences here. Or better yet, why not develop the theme as a guest blog.