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 Guy Wyndham-Jones

Our second issue of The Meadow arrives long after we posted the first one - which is not what we planned at all, but such is the nature of time-bound life!  We hope, however, that the mix of material here will prove to have been worth the wait, and that it provides both inspiration and food for thought.  We would be delighted to receive emails or letters in response to anything posted in this issue and will add anything relevant to the articles in our letters section.

"Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life"

This is the banner which heads the home page of our Website, and as we are serious about this claim perhaps an exploration of some of the words of the great philosophers of antiquity have to say concerning the present world crisis which has given rise to the so-called 'war on terror'.

The material advances mankind has made since the industrial revolution have been dramatic and brought undoubted benefits to many - although these benefits are not simple, and come with an admixture of problems.  Perhaps the biggest problem that our use of technology presents to souls being born into the present time is that of our relationship to materiality: for most of recorded history the ordinary human life ran down fairly limited and predictable tracks as regards the acquisition of material things, whereas today an increasing number of men and women have the power to accumulate a mass of possessions.  Consumption now runs riot and is regarded as good by the majority, and although a sizeable minority correctly recognise that human consumption beyond a certain point equals an over-exploitation of the world's limited resources, there are far fewer who understand the corrupting effects of a life of possessions upon the soul.

Such is the ignorance in these matters that no major political movement has, in recent times, suggested that there should be limits to the generation of wealth for the good of the individuals within their influence.  Many ridicule the idea that a moderately wealthy person would be happy if they could only increase their  income by a little more, realising that the "ideal income" will always continue to be a little beyond what is already brought in: but very few apply this to nations or societies at large.  

Life, of course, has many small purposes which should contribute to greater purposes, and these greater purposes, in their turn, contribute to an overall purpose.  Now since everything concerned with the human being is eventually dispersed except the immortal soul, the overall purpose can only be that of the soul herself.  The question we need to ask concerning wealth is "does this particular wealth serve the cultivation of my soul?"  If the honest answer is in the affirmative, then the portion of wealth which is before the questioner should be pursued by its proper means: but if wealth is acquired merely for its promise of corporeal pleasure, then it should be regarded with suspicion for, as Plato tells us in the Phaedo (at 83d) "Every pleasure and pain, as if armed with a nail, fasten and rivet the soul to the body, cause it to become corporeal, and fill it with an opinion, that whatever the body asserts is true.  For, in consequence of the soul forming the same opinions with the body, and being delighted with the same objects, it appears to me that it is compelled to possess similar manners, and to be similarly nourished, and to become so affected, that it can never pass into Hades in a pure condition; but always departs full of a corporeal nature; and thus swiftly falls again into another body, and, becoming as it were sown, is engendered; and lastly, that from these it becomes destitute of a divine, pure, and uniform association."

What Plato describes is the effect of an outward moving energy in the individual: but the same is true of societies.  The first effect of an overemphasis on possessions is the stimulation of the desire nature, which is never satiated, no matter what vast wealth is accumulated; but the second effect of possessions is fear, because the desire is not to have wealth but to continue for all time to have wealth - and so fear enters like a worm into the ripened fruit.  And, quite obviously, the thing which breaks our hold on possessions is death, for death removing body from soul must remove the ornaments of body, possessions,  from the soul at the same time.  Therefore the natural fear of death inherent in all mortal animals grows in humans to become a overwhelming shadow, and drives out - a far as this is possible - reason and peace from the life of the soul.  Societies which are based on the generation of material wealth also become destitute of a divine, pure and uniform association; for fear is that which encloses and isolates, corrupts and separates.  As Plato says (Phaedo, 66d) "all wars arise through the possession of wealth."

Now the ancient discipline of philosophy held that four virtues were cardinal to human life: Wisdom, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice.  Proclus shows, in his Commentary to the Republic, that wisdom is that excellence of the human soul which is exercised when the soul reasons well, temperance that excellence which is exercised when the soul desires well (that is to say, when it desires the true beauty), fortitude that excellence which is exercised when soul directs its actions in an ordered way, and justice that excellence which harmonises all these together so that each plays its proper part.   Looking at these four virtues or excellence, it is perhaps easy to see that wisdom and justice are required in the world, if we are to overcome the present problems.  Perhaps, too, temperance as a tempering of desires is also required in a world which has increasing wealth at its disposal: but fortitude is less obviously necessary.  But, in truth, fortitude is especially required at the present time, if we are to act wisely and well in our national and international relations. It is here that a couple of quotes from the sages of the Platonic tradition may throw some light on the subject. 

"The  characteristic property of fortitude is the not declining to things subordinate," says Damascius (Com. Phead. I, 149) who thus shows that when an individual or a society is attacked with disorder it must retain its own ordered nature.

"Not to fear a departure from body as into something void, and nonentity, gives subsistence to fortitude," says Porphyry (Aux. Int. Sent. 32) showing that the realisation that we are primarily an immortal soul underlies the ability to order one's life.

"I call fortitude," said Socrates in the Republic (429c), "a certain preservative.  . . . A preservative of opinion formed by law in a course of education about things which are dreadful, what these are, and of what kind: I called it a preservative at all times, because they [the guardians of law] were to retain it in pains and in pleasures, in desires and fears, and never to cast it off."  Who thus shows that those who cast off their previous convictions when under attack from whatever quarter are failing in fortitude.

When an individual is faced with loss and death, an appropriate response is required, but where fortitude is lacking the response is liable to be either too weak or too strong - too cowardly or too rash.  So too, a nation when attacked should respond according to reasoned necessity, and not allow emotional reactions to blot out reasoned considerations.  So the question that the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom must ask themselves is, does a spectacular but relatively small attack on a populated building in New York warrant the invasion of two countries with its inevitable loss of life, and breakdown in order?  Does it warrant the abolition of very long held constitutional safe-guards, which have been preserved even in the face of widespread death and destruction over the centuries?

On the other hand, the question many more governments must ask themselves is whether or not commercial gain in areas of great oil-wealth have not distorted their responses to the actions of tyrants who happen to be in control of those reserves?  Has an intemperate desire for wealth brought about an undermining of international justice?

And what of justice?  Has justice been served by the invasion of states which were, in very varying degrees associated with the perpetrators of the September attack on the World Trade Centre?  Let us turn to Socrates who is speaking in the Crito, after he has been wrongfully condemned to death, and see in him not only a full manifestation of fortitude, but also reason in the face of unreason:

Socrates: Shall we say then, that we should by no means willingly act unjustly?  Or may we in a certain respect act unjustly, and in a certain respect not?  Or is to act unjustly by no means neither good nor beautiful, as we have often confessed before, and as we just now said?  Or are all those things which we formerly assented to dissipated in these few days; and has it for some time been concealed from us, that though we are so old, yet in seriously discoursing with each other, we have in no respect differed from children?  Or does it not thus subsist more than any thing, as we then said, whether the multitude admit it or not?  And whether it be necessary that we should suffer things still more grievous, or such as are milder than these, at the same time shall we say or not that to act unjustly is evil and base to him who thus acts?

Crito: We shall say so.

Socrates: By no means, therefore, ought we to act unjustly.

Crito:  We ought not.

Socrates:  Neither, therefore, ought he who is injured to return the injury, as the multitude think, since it is by no means proper to act unjustly.

Crito:  So it appears.

Socrates:   But what then?  Is it proper to do evil to any one, O Crito, or not?

Crito:  It is not proper, Socrates.

Socrates:  But what?  Is it just to repay evil with evil, as the multitude say, or is it not just?

Crito:  By no means.

Socrates:  For he who does evil to men, differs in no respect from him who acts unjustly.

Crito:  Your assertion is true.

Socrates:  Neither, therefore, is it proper to return an injury, nor to do evil to any man, however you may be injured by him.

If we are to live our lives according to philosophy, then, neither fear nor revenge should shape our actions.  And we should require those who act on out behalf in the political arena to take cognisance of these ordinating reasons and place them above the reactive instincts of man as a herd animal.

February 2005

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