What Does Studying Classics at Oxford Teach You about Running a Country?

An article in the Guardian declared the Oxford University degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) “the degree that rules Britain.” Here’s a snapshot of the UK political and media elite from a few years ago:

“Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.

Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukip’s two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Comments on the day’s developments were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.

On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Times statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an election column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, studied PPE at Oxford.”

The subjects of Philosophy, Politics and Economics were clearly combined into a degree that would attract those with ambitions to take leading roles in running a country.

There was a time when a degree in Classics (ancient languages, literature, history and philosophy) would have been thought to be the subject of choice for those wanting to run the country, or the Empire as it was, not just for career politicians but also for those in public administration.

A degree in Classics is the degree the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, holds. Before him you’d have to go back more than half a century for a Classicist Prime Minister to Harold Macmillan (1957-63) who also happens to have been at the same school (Eton) and the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson.

Anthony Kenny, who was Master of Balliol College when Johnson was a student there, wrote about Johnson’s time at Balliol:

On the basis of the tutors’ reports, I formed the judgement that while Boris had the necessary intelligence, he lacked the appropriate diligence to achieve the first-class degree that he clearly felt was his due. Though he sat lightly to formal academic obligations, Boris did acquire a genuine love of the classics during his undergraduate years…

This genuine love and to some extent mastery of the classics is obvious from stories like the one (told here) from Johnson’s time as a journalist in Brussels:

In the days when French was the only language authorised in the EU press operation, Johnson once asked a question in Latin. He wanted to know more about some directive supposedly intended to enforce the use of the Latin names of fish to facilitate the common fisheries policy.

Johnson also gets journalists to cover forgotten celebrities like the 5th century BC Roman legend Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus by saying things like this (when asked in 2009 whether he’d want to be party leader and Prime Minister):

“In the immortal words of Michael Heseltine, I cannot foresee the circumstances in which I would be called upon to serve [as prime minister]. If, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help out.”

This is knowledge of Roman history used as a stylistic device to present oneself in a certain light. Cincinnatus had such a reputation for competence in leadership that he was brought back into a position of great political responsibility, even as he was busy just doing work on his small agricultural holding. The words that the Roman historian Livy uses ahead of the episode Johnson alludes to are:

“It is worth those persons’ while to listen, who despise all things human in comparison with riches, and who suppose that there is no room for exalted honour, nor for virtue, unless where riches abound in great profusion. Lucius Quintius [Cincinnatus], the sole hope of the Roman people, cultivated a farm of four acres, at the other side of the Tiber, which are called the Quintian meadows…”

There are very few clearer contrasts than that between Cincinnatus  and a current-day career politician who spends all his life plotting to achieve the highest political office.

Another Classics moment in Johnson’s career is the fact that he, as Mayor of London during the 2012 London Olympic Games, commissioned a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, to write an Olympic Ode in ancient Greek and in the style of Pindar. Johnson recited it himself at an opening gala.

But besides the odd recherché reference and the occasional lapse into Greek or Latin, what else might Johnson’s time at Oxford  have taught him about running a country?

There is an episode of his life in student politics at the Oxford Union remembered by Anthony Kenny that looks like an early lesson in political self-presentation:

In 1986, he ran for the presidency of the Union. Though nothing like as rabid as the Balliol JCR, the Union was sufficiently left wing for it to be inconceivable for a Tory to be elected as president. Boris concealed his Conservative affiliation and let it be widely understood that he was a Social Democrat. So far as I know, he told no actual lies, but his strategy recalled Macaulay’s words about the difference between lying and deceiving: ‘Metternich told lies all the time, and never deceived any one; Talleyrand never told a lie and deceived the whole world.’ With Talleyrand-like skill, Boris got himself elected as President of the Oxford Union in Trinity Term.

Shortly after this I was telephoned by an SDP MP, Dick Taverne, who told me that he was looking for an intern to work for him during the vacation. He inquired whether I could suggest any candidates. ‘I’ve just the man for you’, I said, ‘bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the Union, and his name is Boris Johnson.’ When I summoned Boris to ask whether he was interested in the job, he burst out laughing: ‘Master, don’t you know I am a died-in-the-wool Tory?’

Toby Young, a contemporary of Johnson’s at Oxford, said that Johnson “had successfully courted the backing of the leftwing Limehouse Group to secure victory. He didn’t join the group but was seen at one of its parties. According to Young, Johnson also stopped describing himself, for the period of the Union election campaign as a Conservative and rebranded himself as an environmentalist.

There may be parallels between that episode and the 2019 leadership campaign during which Johnson was relatively hard to pin down on his views and avoided many opportunities to communicate them, but was seen in the presence of various fractions of his party, associating himself with both the One Nation Group and the hard Brexit plans of the European Reform Group.

When Johnson almost became Prime Minister in 2016, Anthony Kenny was reminded of the time Johnson, almost achieved a first-class degree, but had to settle for a 2:1 instead:

In 1987, Boris sat the final examinations. He was determined to get a first, and seemed confident that he could do so on the basis of six weeks of really hard work. Perhaps he might have been able to do so had he taken eight weeks: quite a few firsts have been gained on the basis of a last-minute spurt. But some weeks after the end of the examinations, Boris was summoned from France, told that his work was on the borderline between the first and second class, and instructed to appear for a viva, or oral examination. A day or two later Boris knocked on my door, and presented a very humble appearance – the only time I have ever seen him do so. ‘I am to be viva’d on Aristotle’, he said. ‘My tutor is in France – but I hear you know something about Aristotle. Would you be kind enough to give me a tutorial in preparation?’ So we sat together for the best part of a day and went over a number of likely questions. In spite of this expert assistance, however, Boris achieved only an upper second. That is something that he has never forgotten. Nor has David Cameron, who got a first – not, in [Classics] however, but in PPE, as Boris likes to remind people.

There are critics of Johnson who would claim that his unwillingness to put in the hard work over a sustained period of time still disqualifies him from the highest achievements of political office. In 2016, some of those who pulled the plug on Johnson’s bid for the party leadership cited a lack of seriousness. The media reported as emblematic the fact that Johnson took a day out to play cricket on a day that was crucial to the leadership campaign.

The attitude on display smacks of what a previous Balliol Prime Minister, Asquith, called the Balliol man’s “tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority.” That is to say, one is meant to want and acquire the top office, the best degree, a superior grasp of one’s subject, but one shouldn’t be seen to make an effort in acquiring it. One is meant to have it despite not working very hard, despite, say, occasionally just playing cricket for a day.

Anthony Kenny became disenchanted with his former student, Boris Johnson, over the fact that Johnson supported the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union. His final recorded reflections on Johnson, are these:

I reflected ruefully on the college’s part in his education. We had been privileged to be given the task of bringing up members of the nation’s political elite. But what had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No. What had we taught? Was it only how to make witty and brilliant speeches? I comforted myself with the thought that even Socrates was very doubtful whether virtue could be taught.

If we were going to stay with Kenny’s initial instinct that Johnson’s future conduct and programme of Government reflects on his college, his university and on the way Classics is taught, what should we look out for? In contrast to many of the populist politicians with which Johnson is often classed, he has enjoyed an elite education and spent four years of his life studying classical history, literature and philosophy. If that isn’t meant to have any kind of influence on his truthfulness, wisdom, morality, or at least an influence that could broadly be called civilising, then what is it meant to be doing?

One of the texts that should haunt anyone observing populist politicians, which I’m sure no one with a degree in Classics would have been able to avoid, is the beginning of Plato’s Republic, where the challenge to Socrates’ ethics is fiercely put by an aggressive sophist called Thrasymachus. Known as Thrasymachus’ challenge, or the immoralist’s challenge, the passage contains the following language. In the translation of Benjamin Jowett, another former master of Balliol College, who took the view that learning Classics at Oxford was a good preparation for men to go into the Indian Civil Service, it goes like this:

“You fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens of tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable –that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace – they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.”

In a post-truth environment, the worry must be that the populist politicians are adopting Thrasymachus’ programme of lying and stealing on a grand scale. Why should they, they might think, tell the truth, when they can get away with lying? Why should the bother with fair taxation when they can get away with enriching themselves and their friends through the tax system? It is crucial that people learn that the immoralist’s challenge doesn’t succeed.

And yet, I know that there is a strand of teaching Plato at Oxford that consists of a lecturer taking a passage of Plato, treating it as an argument in analytical philosophy and showing up its deficiencies as an argument (Well… drawing the conclusion Plato does from his premises is a non-sequitur… It might work if Plato helps himself to this additional premise that he uses in such-and-such other dialogue, but then that contradicts what he does here.) It is quite possible to learn that Plato didn’t succeed in defeating the Thrasymachus’ challenge in the Republic. I’m pretty sure a tutor once told me not to read Plato for the philosophy but for the Greek prose style.

Clearly Jowett’s vision, that one could read Livy in order to be like Cincinnatus, rather than give oneself a learned – and at the same time humble – air, or that one could read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics to learn about governing an Empire have deservedly failed with the decline and fall of the British Empire and the many ways in which post-colonial analysis shows how problematic it was for the British to think that they were the successors to the Greeks and Romans in their colonialism.

But that shouldn’t mean that those teaching future elites (another problematic concept in itself), have no responsibility for teaching them about how to be good at being an elite. Anthony Kenny, Jonathan Barnes and others who would have taught Johnson are leading experts in ancient philosophy. They awarded him a good, almost a top, degree in the subject they taught. What he learned, is something we have yet to see as he starts his position at the top of Government.

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Some Philosophical Aspects of New Year’s Resolutions

There is a lot of advice on making and keeping New Year’s resolutions. A lot of it is conflicting. Some say resolutions made at the turn of the year could work, some say they’re doomed to fail. Some say we should aim for small changes in our lives, one at a time, others that we should aim for ambitious all-encompassing change. Some say we should tell other people about our resolutions, others say we should keep them to ourselves and work on them quietly. Some say we shouldn’t even bother making resolutions, others argue we should make them more frequently, suggesting, for example, that we look about every four months at what we want to change and what our targets might be. Do philosophers have anything to say on New Year’s resolutions?

Plato and the State of the Mind

Plato argues that the self or the mind is like a city state. The mind has three parts: a) reason, b) passion / motivation and c) appetite / desire. These are equivalent to three parts of a city state: a) rulers, b) soldiers and c) labourers. And as in the city state, order needs to be established by creating the right kind of hierarchy between the three parts. Self-control or self-mastery, the sorts of things one might need in order to implement a New Year’s resolution is given when the passionate or motivating part of the mind is only in the service of reason, not in the service of appetites or trying to do its own thing. Reason needs to rule, passion / motivation needs to help it implement its policies and jointly they need to lord it over the appetites and desires. If that correct hierarchy is established and if each part of the mind does its own work and doesn’t develop ideas above its station, then the person whose mind is thus structured will live a self-controlled and good life.

Conclusion: the only resolution worth making is to ensure the mind is correctly structured. The way this happens is through education and practice. We shouldn’t expect suddenly to be able to do the things we haven’t been able to do, just by making a resolution. Rather we will have to spend time on getting the mind into the right shape. Being clear about our reasons for wanting to keep a resolution, the strength of our motivation and the desires that might conflict with them will also help.

The Stoics and Things Worth Focussing On

The Stoics teach us not to worry about things outside of our control and to focus only on the things internal to us that we can control. In the former category are things like good health / ill health; good looks / ugliness; life / death; riches / poverty; power / powerlessness; being liked / not being liked; and so on. In the latter category is only whether we have virtuous character. Having a resolution to make more money, or to lose weight, or to have more friends would therefore be pointless, if they are not properly thought through. It makes more sense to think about what virtues we would need for a chance at them. We should then aim to develop the virtues of industriousness and frugality instead of making a million dollars; self-control and maybe a certain abstemiousness instead of losing weight, and so on.

Conclusion: the only resolutions worth making are about developing the virtues as only our character is under our control. Any specific targets regarding the outcomes we want to achieve might be blown off course by things outside of our control. Work on our attitudes and habits should be the focus.

Derek Parfit and Future Selves

Derek Parfitt, who was called the most influential philosopher of our times, died in 2017. One of his biggest contributions in philosophy was on questions surrounding personal identity and the self. He argued that personal identity was a question of certain physical and psychological continuities, but that there was no special further ingredient. His views were sometimes likened to Buddhist views that there is no stable self over time. He talks about past and future selves who have separate interests to the current self. Resolutions then would be attempts of a current self to impose certain ways of behaving on future selves, in order to achieve certain things for an even further future self. To aim to do so is perfectly reasonable for the current self. But future selves will look from their perspective as to whether the resolution made by a (now) past self is still one that they have reason to honour.

Conclusion: Not keeping a resolution may not be simply a question of weakness of will but may be a legitimate evaluation of the interests of the current self compared to those of the past self.

Bernard Williams and the Things that Propel us into the Future

Bernard Williams took the view that “an individual person has a set of desires, concerns or, as I shall call them, projects, which help to constitute a character”; these “ground projects [provide] the motive force which propels him into the future, and gives him a reason for living.” For Williams this was a strong argument to critique ethical theories that demanded of people that they should abandon their desires, concerns, commitments, relationships or projects when universal ethical considerations required it. For Williams, our “projects” were not co-incidental fancies, but the very things that are central to being who we are and that make our ives worth living. New Years Resolutions could then be seen as an exercise to audit where we are with our “projects,” what is really important to us, what are our reasons for living and to re-focus our attention on those “projects.”

Conclusion: New Year’s Resolutions could be far more than an unrealistic exercise in setting targets for oneself. They could be a useful audit of what really matters to us and a re-focussing of attention.

 

The Birth of Philosophy from the Spirit of Contemplative Practice

There’s a lot of interest in contemplative practices and traditions at the moment. Their steady but circuitous route to their current position in public consciousness went something like this: a number of contemplative practices were reduced to the non-religious and non-metaphysical core practice of mindfulness meditation. Its positive impacts on things like general health and wellbeing, chronic pain reduction and stress management, job performance and effectiveness has been shown in study after study. Neuroscience proved that mindfulness meditation could lastingly alter the structure and activities of human brains. Then interest grew again in the spiritual hinterland of mindfulness meditation. Buddhism provided much of that background. And from there, interest grew again in the contemplative practices of other traditions. As it turns out there is a “contemplative core”  present in a variety of cultures and traditions which is highly meaningful for humanity.

So, for example, the meditation teacher Shinzen Young writes about his own research into the contemplative traditions of various cultures and religions:

It was quite astonishing for me to discover that all over the world and in every historical period there had been people who lived their lives in the state of high concentration that I was just beginning to explore. I began to feel a link to them all. It was fascinating to feel that I shared something deep and important with people living centuries ago and having customs and beliefs completely different from mine. I realised that when we practice meditation, we are engaging in a quintessentially human endeavour. The science of enlightenment doesn’t belong to any particular religion or culture or period, rather it belongs to humanity as a whole and helps us to connect to our basic humanness.

But What is a Contemplative Tradition?

There are a number of interrelated elements that belong to a working definition of a contemplative tradition:

  1. We could say it requires a system of insights or teachings (most likely about the place of human beings in the universe).
  2.  Specific techniques or practices to experience, deepen and reap the benefits of those insights.
  3. More specifically, the techniques and practices of contemplative traditions involve the temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts.
  4. A key aspect of contemplative traditions is that they promise that the practice of their techniques are a route to a better, more fulfilled, in some senses, happier life and a liberation from the struggle, dissatisfaction and drudgery of non-contemplative day-to-day life.
  5. There is something important about how the practice and techniques of the contemplative practice lead to a better life. The practices themselves may generate feelings of fulfilment and happiness while they are being practiced and in the immediate aftermath. But the important thing is that a brief but regularly repeated period of practice carries over into the rest of life. So, for example, mindfulness meditation is practiced at best for a small proportion of a day, but imbues daily life with greater awareness.

These are basic central formal elements of contemplative traditions, even if the nature of the insights and practices differ. As Shinzen Young writes:

One way to trace the theme of meditation in world spirituality is through vocabulary. Most of the world’s contemplative traditions have a generic technical term that designates any concentrated state. In addition, there are often specific technical terms used to describe different depths or levels of concentration. When we take the systems and put them side by side, we notice some broad parallels between the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu systems of contemplation.

Similarly, the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana writes about the “overlapping practices called prayer and contemplation” that are present in many different religions and cultures:

Prayer is a direct address to a spiritual entity. Contemplation is a prolonged period of conscious thought about a specific topic, usually a religious ideal or scriptural passage. From the standpoint of mental cultivation, both of these activities are exercises in concentration. The normal deluge of conscious thought is restricted, and the mind is brought to one conscious area of operation. The results are those you find in any concentrative practice: deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism, and a sense of peace and well-being.

While the practice of restricting the breadth and increasing the depth of concentration and focus is something that takes place as a conscious practice for designated periods of time in a day, the results of such practices are changes in the overall life of the practitioner. There are a many mechanisms by which this might happen, such as a) that the insights gained during the practice allow for a better understanding of the practitioner’s place in this universe and therefore better navigation in life, b) that the overall better control of the own mind and the ability to concentrate leads to greater effectiveness in addressing any opportunities or challenges that life might offer, c) that greater feelings of connectedness to the world and other human beings (e. g. through a practised focus on compassion, loving-kindness or charity) evoke and strengthen such feelings outside of the contemplative practice, d) that brain activity during contemplative practice changes the structure of the brain long term in a way that increases contentment and decreases feelings of craving and dissatisfaction.

This last point is a more recent focus of neuroscience and again one that is true for contemplative practices with differing forms and content. Shinzen Young, for example, writes:

First, the research seemed to show that while the conceptual systems of the various religions (and specifically those of Buddhism versus Christianity) are very different, the underlying neurological correlates of contemplative adepts in those traditions are often rather similar. This lent credibility to the notion that the world’s contemplative traditions can be viewed as a unity.

So Where Does Philosophy Come Into It?

Is philosophy a contemplative practice? Is Western philosophy one kind of contemplative tradition? We can certainly trace aspects of contemplative traditions through the history of western philosophy. I would argue that philosophy is at its best when it connects to its status as a contemplative practice and weakened when it moves away from it.

Let’s run through the five aspects of contemplative traditions set out above:

A System of Insights or Teachings and Specific Techniques or Practices

It could be argued that Western philosophy can’t possibly be a system of insights or teachings, as there are too many differing strands that are in conflict with each other. But if we gain enough distance from it, we may be able to detect a system of key insights that are in some form or other relevant to the whole tradition. That would be equivalent, for example, to seeing fundamental philosophical tenets of Buddhism as the theoretical backdrop for the practice of mindfulness meditation without worrying too much about the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and the many arguments and differing theories between or within those schools.

It might be possible to extract certain insights as key to the contemplative tradition of Western philosophy. Just a few of these might be:

  1. We cannot rely on appearances. There is a truth that is somehow behind or beyond the things of our world. This is a key point from the attempts of pre-socratic philosophers to identify the original substance from which everything is made, be it water, fire or an ever-changing mix of source elements. This is behind the Platonic idea that the objects we perceive through our senses and handle in every day life are instances of more abstract ideas and forms. This is behind the idea that there is a nature of things beyond their appearance as phenomena. This idea is alive and well in the pop-philosophical question about whether our lives could be taking place in a simulated virtual reality. A special case of this insight is the Heraclitean idea (also flowing through Stoicism) that everything is in flux, or the insight that the things we regard as hard and fast are in fact ephemeral. Corresponding contemplative practices are: radical doubt, whereby we apply discipline in order to second guess everything that seems reliable until we get to a core of certainty (perhaps most obviously associated with Descartes). Aiming to see the abstract and eternal beyond the practical and fleeting. The practice of really de-valuing things that are part of the unreliable and fleeting world of appearance and looking for things that are eternal (including the devaluation of the body in favour of the soul).
  2. It is important to understand the real reasons for things and events. Philosophy (and from it science) started when people stopped seeing certain events as acts of gods and started looking for other (better) reasons. From that the practice of looking for and providing reasons became important in being able to say what is true and what is good. This capacity for perceiving, critiquing, providing and acting on reasons – rationality – became seen as a distinctly human capacity, or more lately as a capacity available to a distinctly larger extent in human beings. Rationality here is not meant as a contrast to being emotional but as an ability to deal with reasons. Corresponding contemplative practices are: looking for reasons, critiquing reasons, refining our ability to perceive and act on (right) reasons.
  3. There are ideals that we can somehow aim to get at. The True, The Good and The Beautiful to name but a few. Freedom, Right Action, the Good Life. These things are out there and it is our job to somehow get closer to them, unveil them, get them to reveal themselves, define them. Philosophy is a journey towards such ideals (out of the cave). Corresponding contemplative practices are: the contemplation of ideals.

The temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts

  • Contemplation and Deep Thought: The practice of Western philosophy may not have the same specificity of practices as other contemplative traditions – it doesn’t have particular cushions, mats or stools for sitting on during practice, it doesn’t have the sounds of gongs or chimes – but it has its own forms of temporary narrowing focus. What does a philosopher do? In the first instance he or she narrows his or her thinking onto a single concept or proposition in order to develop and illuminate it.
  • Dialogue: Not too long ago, a newspaper published a letter-to-the-editor from Professor Simon Blackburn, that described the following course of events:

Sir, I was a member of the then sub-faculty of philosophy in Oxford some 30 years ago when the chairman received a letter from the administration asking us to detail innovations in teaching methods we had recently made. His reply was that the right method of teaching philosophy was discovered by Socrates some 2,500 years ago, and we had no intention of changing it. We heard no more about it.

That method which has run through Western philosophy for more than two millennia is the practice whereby two or more people are engaged in the practice of talking to each other, more specifically asking and answering questions, in order to establish the truth about certain concepts. Whether this takes place in the agora, the Ancient Greek market-place, where one might have found Socrates, the particular stoa, or portico, where the (therefore) Stoic philosopher Zeno taught, the seminar rooms of universities, or elsewhere doesn’t particularly matter.

  • Reading and writing: These are key practices of the contemplative tradition that is Western philosophy. Of course we are not talking about any kind of reading or writing. It is much more a case of extending the practice of dialogue to a situation where people aren’t necessarily in each other’s presence. So the writer in this practice writes in a way that allows the reader to understand his or her insights. The writer also anticipates objections the reader might advance and answers them. The reader not only aims to take them in, but reads critically, i. e. thinks about what his or her objections would be, what he or she agrees with, and what could be said in response. The reader aims for a charitable reading whereby he or she reads the arguments of the writer in a way that gives them as much sense as possible, before opening the text up to critique. The practice of teaching or learning philosophy by working with classic texts comes close to the idea of contemplating certain bits of scripture as a way of narrowing the focus of concentration.

A better, happier life through brief but repeated periods of practice

Does the practice of philosophy make life better? And do occasional periods of practising philosophy have a positive effect on life as a whole?

Philosophers have long argued that the answer to both questions is yes. In Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, he talks about people who are constrained to life in a cave where they can only observe shadow images on the walls and guess at what objects they represent. Some lucky cave dwellers manage to escape. On leaving the cave these people start seeing real objects, reflections of the sun in water and finally the sun whose light makes everything visible. These people are the philosophers who move from merely dealing with the objects and concepts of the practical world to being able to contemplate the forms, the essences of things, and eventually the form of the good – the ultimate source of truth.

In the ideal society, Plato argues, these people who have seen the light, must not be allowed to stay out there basking in the sunlight – even though they will “think that they’ve been transported to the Isles of the Blessed.” The philosophers will have to go back down to the cave to use their advanced understanding gained from contemplation of the sun to lead the community in the cave and share their understanding with them.

In other words: although philosophical contemplation is a pleasant and liberating experience in itself, those practicing it, must return to “real life,” better able to act there because of the insights gained in contemplation and with a responsibility to enlighten their non-contemplative fellow citizens insofar as they can.

There is also a famous paradox in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which may benefit from applying to it the idea that philosophy is meant to be a contemplative practice. The paradox is in the fact that in book 10 of the Ethics, Aristotle says that happiness consists in contemplation, that contemplation is the highest form of virtue and that it is divine. Whereas elsewhere he gives the impression that all the virtues are equally valuable and that human life is at its bests when it contains activity and social interactions. This is a bit of a paradox that comes about from the fact that engaging in contemplative practice provides a different mindset and perspective in which contemplation is a superior activity. But its value consists in when it carries over to the activities of “normal life.”

Then we have the Stoic philosopher Seneca who, in his essay on the Shortness of Life, proposes that practising philosophy is really the only worthwhile, happy-making and life-prolonging activity. He recommends an ongoing dialogue with the philosophers, as:

“No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.”

So What?

So what if philosophy once was, or in some places still is a contemplative practice? It certainly has moved on now. It is now taught as an academic discipline, rather than a contemplative practice. Isn’t that better? It depends. There are those who regret that philosophy is becoming increasingly invisible in the public space. (I have written about that in this post.) Philosophy could re-connect with its roots as a contemplative practice. It could be a discipline that aims to benefit its practitioners and through them the wider world. Or it could become ever narrower, thinner, specialised and removed from the circumstances of the lives human beings lead. Then it shouldn’t be surprised if people turn either to the ancient philosophers who took their task seriously (has anyone noticed the resurgence of Stoicism) or the teachers of other contemplative practices when they need some insight into what is going on in their lives and the world.