An Eye for An I by Robert Spillane by Robert Spillane - Read Online

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Summary

How can we gain insight into and mastery of ourselves? Entering the world of the great philosophers and engaging with them, we become aware of what we are capable of becoming. They speak to us of themselves and the good life and thereby offer the possibility for self-development.

While this sounds like psychology, it is what the ancient Greeks called moral philosophy and its main precept is 'know oneself'. To know oneself is to embrace one's personal power.

From Socrates to Sartre, from Plato to postmodernism, philosophers have important things to say about the personal power that underpins human existence. This book discusses ten philosophical perspectives, or worldviews, which present original ideas capable of evoking in us values that are guidelines for personal conduct. Harmonising knowledge, values and conduct maximises our personal power and thereby enables us to solve the practical and psychological problems of human existence, or overcome those that cannot be solved.

The philosophers discussed in this book embody ideas of considerable fascination and force which can change our lives by penetrating the illusions of appearance and the delusions of common sense. As philosophy is thinking critically about thinking, it is a liberating activity because philosophers confront us with our prejudices and arouse our curiosity without satisfying it.

They show us what they were and how philosophy inspired them to live productive lives. They did not seek disciples but encouraged others to philosophise with them.

We cannot escape from philosophy because we philosophise when we reflect critically on how well we are living.

Philosophy is, therefore, a meditation on who we are and what we can become: it is an eye for an I.

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ISBN: 9781613397961
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Names.

PROLOGUE

This book is an attempt to personalise Western philosophy by emphasising those ideas which enable individuals to gain insight into and mastery of themselves. Although this sounds like psychology, the ancient Greeks called it moral philosophy and its main precept is ‘know oneself’.

While some philosophers discussed in these pages are concerned with religion and others with science, they all have something of importance to say about human existence and explore the possibility of arriving at a form of wisdom which is neither theological nor scientific. Whether this remains merely a possibility or a pipe-dream is itself a philosophical question. That is to say, the acceptance of the writings of philosophers is not entirely a matter of logic or science but of commitment to a particular view of oneself and one’s place in the world.

When it comes to beliefs about personal existence two main options confront us. We can agree with those philosophers who argue that it is freedom that we find to be so powerful within us that we cannot conceive of anything more significant. Or we can deny what is for them a personal truth and adopt the doctrine of psychological determinism which claims that we are products of our biological and social conditioning: mere puppets without freedom or responsibility. How do we choose between freedom and determinism? We can look to the local religious views for an answer. Or we can accept the views of those scientists who tell us that human beings, as cogs in the machine of the world, are condemned to a state of bondage. We can analyse the assumptions which ground all philosophies but, as to freedom and determinism, we shall probably forsake logic and science and choose, if at all, a philosophy according to our inclination and interests.

More than 2400 years ago, Socrates argued that what is important in the writings of philosophers is not what they explain, but what they assume. Philosophical problems appear as conflicts between competing sets of assumptions about human existence and, accordingly, philosophers embrace dialogue and disputation as the way of resolving conflicts. Philosophy is based on descriptive language and descriptions are rarely so unproblematic that they cannot be challenged, especially when people use metaphors to forsake literal for imaginative descriptions of themselves. Consequently, philosophers are like detectives searching for clues in three spheres: ontology (the study of existence); epistemology (the study of knowledge); axiology (the study of ethical and aesthetic values). The sum of these clues and arguments about their meaning yield worldviews which present a body of knowledge that evokes in readers values that are guidelines for personal conduct.

Traditionally, philosophers have attempted to make knowledge the regulator of values and a foundation for personal conduct. Those who are committed to knowledge, rather than opinion, accept truth as authority and, accordingly, their goal in life is to maximize personal power and thereby transcend personal boundaries. Insofar as individuals seek to increase personal power in harmony with or in opposition to the social power that regulates them, philosophy represents a challenging invitation. If individuals do not accept truth as their authority, arguments have no validity and disagreements are merely questions of social power: might is right. If, however, they reject this form of nihilism and embrace the idea that right is different from and more important than might, living becomes a philosophical activity.

One way to evaluate specific philosophies is to see whether they can be lived. Those brave folk who begin this quest encounter philosophers who invite them to penetrate the illusions of appearance and the delusions of common sense. Voltaire said that common sense isn’t very common and we might add that it isn’t very sensible. Philosophy is, therefore, a challenge because readers enter into dialogue with thinkers of the past who are nonetheless their contemporaries; through constant questioning they struggle to achieve wisdom. The willingness to set aside conventional thinking in order to confront new ideas is what the ancient Greeks called ‘examining one’s life’. One examines one’s life by thinking – by talking to oneself – and thinking about thinking is philosophy.

As philosophers talk to and argue with themselves a book about various philosophers talks to readers in different voices. Jean-Paul Sartre says somewhere that people who eschew philosophy are boring because they always speak with the same voice, something we cannot accuse Sartre of doing. Philosophy may have its critics but it can scarcely be said to be boring since it offers readers a bewildering variety of voices from which to choose. When ‘I’ speaks in different voices and ‘me’ listens, we do not enter a schizophrenic world but engage in an intelligent play of personal perspectives. Even the whispering voice so beloved by mad and bad people is philosophy in action.

The acceptance or rejection of philosophies is a complex matter and not well understood. Historically, philosophers assumed that the acceptance or rejection of their ideas would be based on rational criteria. More recently, under the impact of postmodernism, philosophies have been evaluated according to how people feel about them. Clearly, interests and inclinations play an important part in securing for a philosophy a popular following; philosophies are more likely to be judged by pragmatic criteria than by their logical coherence or empirical support. The popularity of philosophies, therefore, is frequently based on whether they ‘work’ for particular individuals or groups and this has the unhappy consequence that all philosophies, like all religions, are true when they work for some people. But, logically, they cannot all be true since they contradict each other. Of course, they can all be false, but how does one judge this pragmatically?

If truth is what works, it is open to us to judge true propositions by whether they feel right, true or good. Whether we call this reason for believing a proposition to be true ‘feelings’ or ‘faith’ is philosophically unimportant, although it is of considerable interest to clinical psychologists. To have faith in a philosophy is to admit that while there are neither logical nor empirical grounds for accepting its main propositions, one accepts them all the same. Such beliefs increase happiness for some people and that is considered to be sufficient justification.

There is, of course, another important reason for promoting a particular philosophy. Although lacking logical or scientific support, particular beliefs can give individuals and groups considerable power, and if Bertrand Russell is right that the fundamental concept in the social sciences is power, it is easy to understand why people embrace lunatic beliefs. Among philosophers there are those who value truth and those who value power and it is easy to understand the appeal of philosophers who offer disciples keys to the kingdom of knowledge since, as Francis Bacon says, knowledge is power. But power is not the same as knowledge and does not require the insurance policy which guarantees truth. As with so much in life, truth is valued for its ability to solve practical problems, not for its own sake. And the ability to solve problems is, in part, what we mean by personal power.

This book, then, includes those philosophers who walk in the shadows and those who walk in the light, those who value truth and those who value power. Included here are those thinkers who have taken up Socrates’ challenge and those who believe that the Western rational tradition was a misguided effort to achieve the impossible. There are philosophers in the following pages who believe that honesty is the best policy and those who think that people who tell the truth get their heads bashed in. One can be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that entering the world of philosophy is a potentially hazardous exercise, like entering the cave of Polyphemus (or a woman’s handbag) in which people are seen to enter but never leave. In the case of philosophy, the journey is out of the light of the ‘me’ and into the darkness of ‘I’. We live between these two poles, talking and listening to ourselves with a little help from our friends.

In our age of relativism where seriously frivolous people believe in everything and its opposite, many turn to philosophy for a kind of religious salvation. But they find questions and arguments rather than jejune solutions. Philosophers spend much of their time keeping their heads just above the water that threatens to submerge them in uncertainty. They invented such notions as ‘contingency’, ‘absurdity’ and ‘nihilism’ to account for the experiences which can drown those who seek religious salvation. In confronting these psychological issues, philosophers have attempted to outline ways of living with uncertainty without despair, looking without falling into the abyss, laughing in the face of absurdity, looking squarely at the brutality of human beings and still loving some of them, entertaining the idea that people are basically rational and coping with inevitable disappointments.

The cast of philosophical characters assembled here is dominated by those who offer philosophies of personal power: views about the nature of human beings and their place in the world which have shaped people’s lives. As such, they have explored the fusion of philosophy and psychology as a guide to an understanding of the good life.

1

HOMERIC HEROES:

Power and Tragedy

Some years ago a British sailor overturned his yacht and an Australian naval ship put to sea to rescue him. When the sailors returned to port, the newspapers hailed them as ‘Our Heroes’. There is something touching in the way heroes are applauded for their deeds even if today the deeds are not so great. If heroism entails a striving after something appallingly hard to obtain, then many of today’s heroes do not deserve the label or the exaggerated applause. This is merely to acknowledge that the meaning of the terms ‘hero’ and ‘heroism’ have changed over the centuries and since this chapter is concerned with ancient heroism, the anaemic, modern meanings have to be set aside. If, for example, we believe that we are on this earth mainly to be happy, we deny to ourselves heroic status. If we think that the world is wonderful and adopt the posture of the optimist, we are far removed from the views of ancient heroes for whom life was nasty, brutish and short. For the ancients heroism was a way of life and was not confined to occasional praiseworthy acts. If we prefer to concern ourselves with improving our ‘quality of life’ by placing pleasure at the top of our hierarchy of desires, we are not heroic. The heroic life was one of hardship, struggle and warlike achievement. We, as non-heroes, prefer to be sentimentally committed to the modern obsession with rights, rather than responsibilities, with pleasure rather than power, with sentimentalism rather than tragedy. We have to wonder whether it is possible to give a coherent meaning to heroism as a way of life. There are, thankfully, some philosophers who think that it is possible.

Ancient heroes lived and died for power and glory and thereby brought prosperity and honour to their families. If we prefer to live in a soft, hedonistic way, we cannot live heroically. In ancient times, heroism was a worldview which dominated the lives of everybody; today it is sporadic and confined to specific situations. Ancient heroism was embedded in a results-culture where poor performance was not tolerated. Today’s ‘heroes’ are often excused for poor performance and even attract sympathy when they fail. Ancient heroes expected to live short and glorious lives – if they achieved fame they were content even if they had a short time on Earth. Today’s heroes wish for long lives as celebrities.

For Homer’s noble warriors in the Iliad, to live heroically is to live honourably. The great warrior Aias tells his men to think of their honour and fear nothing in the field but dishonour in each other’s eyes. Neither honour nor salvation is to be found in flight. And the heroic Nestor advises his warrior friends to think of their reputation and remember their children, wives and parents, whether they are alive or dead, and for their sake they should stand tall and fight. The noble Trojan warrior Hector admits that if he hid himself like a coward and refused to fight he could never face the Trojan ladies. Besides, it would go against the grain, for he has trained himself to take his place in the front line and win glory. And so it is for Sarpendon who says that if after living through the war he could be sure of ageless immortality, he would desist from fighting. But that is not the way the world is. No one can cheat death, so he fights on, whether he yields the glory to some other man or wins it for himself.

A hero is a man of distinguished courage and performance, admired for his noble qualities. He is to be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s great epic poem, Iliad, the Viking societies, the Irish, Celtic and Icelandic sagas, and Japanese Bushido of the Edo period. Heroes in these societies are warrior chieftains of special strength, courage and nobility. They share a worldview based on power, glory and a keen appreciation of the tragedy of human existence. Those inheritors of the earth – the meek and the mild – are yet to make their appearance on the world stage. And when they arrive, the heroic worldview will receive its greatest challenge. Notions of nobility, courage and honour will be re-defined and combined with ideas about compassion, humility, truth and happiness, which are more familiar and comforting to the modern mind.

We need, therefore, to understand what it means to live heroically and to see how the philosophy of heroism was transformed in the classical age of Greece by philosophers and dramatists. Heroism will always be with us even if its philosophy is today less consistent and coherent than it once was. When in the 1880s Nietzsche tried to effect another inversion of values, it was to Homer that he turned. But, inevitably, he returned to Homer through the lens of his time and so foisted on ancient heroism a modern face which emphasised the importance of the powerful, alienated individualist. Thus was created a modern view – heroic individualism – much favoured by Hollywood, where noble, strong individualists pit themselves against malevolent authorities. This makes for inspiring storytelling but it has little to do with ancient heroes who would have regarded individualists as dangerous aliens.

The first reference to heroism in Western literature is to be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh (about 2300 BC), a story about the legendary king in Mesopotamia, a hero of the Kingdom of Uruk. The Gilgamesh poem is a rollicking adventure story about heroic deeds in the face of great adversity. Underlying it is an obsession with struggle and death and the search for the secret of immortality.

The hero of the poem is Gilgamesh, part god and part man, and the tension between these parts constitutes the tragedy of the story. He is beautiful, strong, courageous, arrogant and lusty but he is, alas, human, all too human as he confronts at the end of his life lost opportunities and his pointless struggle with the inevitability of death. Gilgamesh searches for an Earthly immortality, for a God-like glory on Earth. But he eventually realises that he is searching for the impossible. He must come to accept the futility of struggling for what he cannot have. In that acceptance is a hero who has learned to stare death in the face and, if not laugh, smile.

A close friend, Enkidu, tells Gilgamesh that the gods have given him kingship but not everlasting life. He pleads with Gilgamesh not be sad at heart since he has been given power to perform good or evil deeds. As he has been given supremacy over people, Enkidu implores his friend not to abuse this power.

If one cannot be a god one can at least be a hero and be talked about through the ages. So Gilgamesh shakes off his melancholy and announces that he will set up his name in the hall of famous men. Because of the evil that is in the land, he intends to go to the forest and destroy the evil beings lurking there. In the forest he faces a ferocious giant, Humbaba, causing his friend to suffer doubts about the adventure. But Gilgamesh utters words reminiscent of later heroic poems when he acknowledges that only the gods live forever and we, mere mortals, are living on borrowed time. Determined to win glory for himself he will fight and if he falls he will leave behind him a name that endures and he will be remembered as a noble warrior.

To be a hero, then, is to be the main subject of noble tales handed down to children and passed on to students. For more than two millennia educated people in the West studied the adventures of the great warriors. Epic tales of heroism provide a table of values against which we can judge ourselves for in them we find the challenges and dilemmas of human existence: courage and cowardice, love and loss, success and failure, honesty and betrayal, life and death, mortality and immortality. These dilemmas are not debated, they are embedded in the characters and we mere mortals can evaluate them by what they do and say. Values in heroic society are not laid up in a God-created heaven. Rather, human values are judged by what humans do. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the sum of their actions and they are judged by their actions alone. This is especially true of the relationship between the sexes, then and now.

The Epic of Gilgamesh offers humorous insights into love and the relations between the sexes. When Ishtar, goddess of love, fertility and war proposes marriage to Gilgamesh, he replies that if he marries her he has no gifts to give in return. He would gladly give her ointments, food fit for a god and wine fit for a queen. But he will not marry her. He tells her bluntly that her lovers have found her like a stove which smoulders in the cold, a castle which crushes the garrison, and a battering-ram turned back from the enemy. Ishtar is not pleased and tearfully runs to her father and begs permission to destroy Gilgamesh. The poor father points out that the citizens of Uruk will suffer if Gilgamesh dies. Ishtar, the woman scorned, is unmoved and plots her revenge. Foiled by Enkidu, Ishtar is determined that he must die. Enkidu is thus struck down by a fatal illness and after 12 days of pain realises he will not die heroically in battle, but shamefully in his sick-bed. He dies in agony and Gilgamesh is devastated.

Gilgamesh weeps bitterly for his dead friend and because Enkidu’s death reminds him of his own fear of death, he begins his search for everlasting life. On his travels he meets the divine wine-maker, Siduri, who tells him to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow he may die. But Gilgamesh is not placated and ponders how he can be at peace when Enkidu is, as he will be, lying under the earth.

Clearly, knowledge of the inevitability of death can liberate or enslave us. In The Epic of Gilgamesh it encourages bold adventures, but it can also lead to despair. As he approaches his own death Gilgamesh is told that, while death cannot be cheated and everlasting life is not the destiny of poor mortals, he should be proud that he has lived nobly and will be remembered as a hero. For despite its travails life can be more than an ignoble struggle in the dark. It was Gilgamesh’s fate to die a tragic hero, because human existence is an encounter with tragedy.

The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches the higher truth that heroism entails tragedy – without tragedy there is no heroism. There is nothing especially heroic about a man who fights bravely and hopes to die so that he may travel to a heavenly paradise. While we can admire the power of these warriors, they are not heroic unless they face the heroic paradox – the more they fight the quicker they die. As heroes they must continue to fight because they cannot trade on past glories. So they repeatedly expose themselves to an unwanted and excruciating death. To fight in the knowledge that one is thereby guaranteed a gruesome death and an eternity of misery is only possible if one defers to a table of values that renders one God-like on Earth. And so Gilgamesh, noble and tragic hero, dies. To be remembered as a man of beauty, power and heroic deeds, who used his authority to fight evil, should be enough to fill a man’s heart.

Until the discovery of the Gilgamesh epic, Western literature began around 750 BC with Homer’s great heroic themes which echo those of Gilgamesh, but also include withdrawal of the hero from battle, fights to the death between great warriors, feudal loyalty and disobedience, revenge and its bloody realisation.

The central theme in heroic societies is power expressed through action. Although the Bible says that in the beginning was the word, heroic societies emphasise the deed. People in heroic society are what they do; they are the sum of their actions. What people do is defined by social roles, rules and rewards. In heroic society people know who and what they are by knowing their role and the rules which bind roles. When they know their role – their place – they know almost everything they have to know. They know what they are owed and what they owe others. They know what to do in the face of the enemy and how to relate to warriors and camp-followers. There is a clear understanding of standards and orders of rank. Without a role people would not know who they are. In short, people in heroic society are what they do and what they do is largely influenced by their social roles.

To say that people are what they do sounds banal to modern ears. But in our day, most people disagree with the heroic view, believing instead that there lurks in humans a hidden source of actions – a puppeteer pulling the strings of action. We have diverse names for this actor – I, soul, mind, self, psyche, ego, character, personality. Yet, for Homer, there are no hidden depths, there is no puppeteer. Homer makes no distinction between actor and action in the same way in which we should make no distinction between the flash and the lightning (since the lightning is the flash). And so there is, for Homer, no I, soul, mind, self or psyche and so no psychology. Achilles is obviously different