Thursday, April 20, 2006

External War

External War

This is the obvious title to follow that of the previous post.  “War” or conflict between people is obviously an outward expression of much inner disharmony.  Let us think of our places of work.  Who are the angry workers?  Who are the ones with the “chip” on their shoulders?  Who are the bitter ones?  Who are the power trippers?  They probably stick out like a proverbial pikestaff.  Those with big egos, who always have to prove themselves, who always bask in the sunlight of praise, who have to be seen as the person to really get things moving and finally achieved are quite often ill at ease in themselves – insecure in their self-image and often lacking in real though not in apparent confidence.  Bullies, who like to throw their weight around, are really somewhat pathetic beings who pick on weaker members of staff to give them the satisfaction of being able to wield their power.  All of the resultant external conflict mirrors a deeper internal struggle.

My previous post spoke about the internal struggle between passion and reason.  This is possibly one of the most important aspects of the “human condition.”  Here I would like to allude to the shadow aspects of the human psyche, to which the great psychiatrist Jung devoted much of his time and effort.  Oftentimes those who wreak havoc on the external world have many unresolved internal “shadow” issues.  A good example here would be Senator Joseph McCarthy of the communist witch hunt fame in the U.S.A. of the fifties.  As recent studies have shown, this powerful egomaniac, who happily went around outing communists at will, was a homosexual who in common parlance had never “come out.”  The point of his being a homosexual is of course irrelevant – as irrelevant as the colour of his skin.  What are relevant are the inner turmoil of unacknowledged truth and then the projection of that denial outward onto others where he now becomes the “outer” of suspected communists.  An interesting comment was made on Joseph McCarthy’s outward ruthlessness by a lawyer friend, Edward Hart, who had campaigned with him:  “I always felt that Joe lived in a different moral universe. He asked himself only two questions. What do I want and how do I get it. Once he got rolling, you had to step aside. It was every man for himself, sort of what anarchy must be like. Edgar Werner (a political opponent) was an honest man. Joe went after him in a way that was unconscionable. Maybe that's what he had to do to win. I don't know. But it's a hell of a price to pay. You've got to live with yourself.”  In the end Joe McCarthy drank himself to death at the age of 49.  This man projected his inner unresolved problems and misery outwards onto others and brought about much innocent suffering and anguish.  Hitler, of course, (whose autobiography, Mein Kampf, Joe McCarthy had studied by way of learning strategies and tactics to win and keep power), is a brilliant if too often quoted example of externalizing one’s inner unresolved conflicts onto the outward world.

I have often thought that politicians who constantly see “demons” running riot in the opposition must be interesting fodder for armchair psychiatrists and would-be psychotherapists.  What interesting clients or patients or candidates Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness on the one hand, and Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson (the oldest and longest surviving deputy leader in the history of any political party) on the other would make for the psychiatrist's chair.  Both parties project their worst unresolved internal conflicts onto their opponents – thereby demonizing the other side.  If we do not face our own inner demons then they haunt us so much that we must project them onto others.  I suppose each rival community projects its own worst unresolved fears onto the other in like manner as we do as individuals.  External conflict then is oftentimes the projection of unresolved inner issues.  World war is also, then, the projection outward of unresolved and unaccepted national identity issues - such as, say, collective megalomania reflecting superiority complexes etc. The picture I have inserted centre top of this post is of the sea water breaking over rocks at Cefalu, Sicily. Inner conflict must always break loose into the outer world!

Internal War

Internal War

I’ll start this post today with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche which runs thus: “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope over an abyss.”  This statement appeals to me because it sums up the complexity which we human beings are.  We are a complex mix between heart and head and, indeed this mix is oftentimes a hot boiling soup of passion and reason in a cauldron we call our bodies.  Our passion pulls us one way (probably with varying degrees of force) while our reason tells us another thing (as you will see the verb I’ve used here, “tells”, is a weak one suggesting less of an influence).  We have all heard of hot passionate nights, secret sexual liaisons and much worse crimes of passion.  

Questions worth asking myself are: “What am I passionate about?”  An even better question would be “Whom am I passionate about?”  Answers that come to mind for the first question would be: “my poems”, “my books”, “my ideas”, “my music”, “my own space”, “my freedom”, “my peace of mind”, “my travelling” and most especially “my creativity” in all these matters, but as I grow older my passion for my job is lessening.   I’ve used the possessive adjective over and over again here with purpose to stress my ownership and passion about these areas of my life.  Who am I passionate about?  At the moment there is no “lover” in my life, but I am passionate about “my close family” = “my brothers and mother”.   Family still plays an important part in my day to day life while we each live in different houses and places.  I am passionate about justice which to me really is a “who” rather than a “what” subject.  By this I mean that I am passionate about my students achieving as best they can academically while being as successful as possible in their lives.  Justice to me is not an object out there in Africa, but rather it wears the faces of my pupils in class.  They come from a working class background and I’m passionate about inspiring hope, self-confidence and self-belief in them.

However, this last paragraph refers to what may be termed “good” passion for want of a better expression, a passion kept in check by the rules and laws (mores and norms) of society and also by the dreams and hopes of real peace (“The brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind” to be politically correct) which essentially is the work of justice.  In short, that last paragraph refers to justice issues and real - if “hard” - love.  Of course, there are also those times of “bad” passion as it were when human beings succumb to anger, lust, jealousy, bitterness, revenge, winning by all means and power at all costs.  Needless to say unbridled passions lead to serious complications like disputes and worst still angry words and even angry actions and reactions.  Brought to their ultimate conclusion, unbridled passions lead to war and much bloodshed.

In short, what I wish to express here is the fact that much of both Eastern and Western philosophy over the past 2000 years or so have been concerned with both these poles of human reality, namely heart and head or as I’ve described it in the preceding paragraphs, passion and reason.  In fact they have seen these two extremes not as being in a healthy tension, but rather literally as being at war with one another. [I refer any interested reader to a recent book by Lou Marinoff, The Big Questions (Bloomsbury, 2004, p. 75 et passim)]  The task of all types of philosophy then is to referee as it were the fight between the two, letting neither have the upper hand to sustain the metaphor I have being using.  Or again to dress these polar opposites in different apparel, we might say that philosophy seeks to get them into a healthy tension with one another.  Buddhism can be viewed either as a great World Religion or as a philosophy without any hint at another life after this one – there are two distinct branches – the religious branch and the agnostic branch.  One of Buddhism’s central planks, as it were, is non-attachment or detachment from the things of this world. Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, taught his followers that this attitude was the key to ending all suffering.  Learning to develop such an attitude of course was and is a lifetime’s work.  Much meditation and much practice of compassion in one’s daily life are necessary to arrive at such a state of mind.  Essentially what is at stake in Buddhism is learning to control the passions as it were, and thereby, allow the reason or reasonableness to come to the fore.  In this regard we can see that Buddhism was always very much a practical philosophy and was indeed very psychologically sound.  That’s why Buddhism has never ceased to be unimportant in profession psychological and psychiatric circles.

While I have always loved Nietzsche’s passion for his subject and then his great reason brought to bear on it, I always remind myself that poor old Friedrich was also a depressive who ended up going insane at the end of his life.  His views are always a little sobering and often quite bleak.  Therefore I should like to end this post on a positive note with a powerful quotation from one of the founding fathers of psychology, William James: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.”  In short we need not become slaves to our passions – we can always control them.



   The above picture is one I took in Delphi a month or so back. It's a hedgerow tree that has been brutally hacked back. Destructive passions or what?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Little Lyric

Una bambina angelica
(all’ aeroporto di Palermo)

Graces fall freely
As water from great or little
Falls – nothing stalls –
All is motion where
The heart calls –
A small face is my angel hope,
My redeemer
On a downward day –
The clouds are lifting,
The sun burns grey away,
My little angel smiles
And flees to play. The picture I have placed at the top of this post is of the inside of the church of San Cataldus, Palermo.

Meditation at Cefalu

Today I offer a poem that I wrote at Cefalù, Sicily, last Wednesday 12/04/2006.  Cefalù is a beautiful seaside resort on the Northern coast of Sicily.  Che bella città – I’m sure you’ll agree!


Watching the Sea at Cefalù

Watching the sea at Cefalù,
Wave after wave mesmeric,
Is a mantra for the soul -
Wave crash and water splash
Where nothing is foretold –
The beach keeps its secrets deep
In pockets carved from stone.

Watching the sea at Cefalù,
Listening to the sound abound,
Rhythmic, rhythmic, rhythmic
Like the Easter drums at Gangi
Banging, banging, banging:
“Our hope has come!”

Watching the sea at Cefalù,
Far from far-away cares,
The surf sprinkling drops of foam
Like gentle dew on parched land
Where daddies bring their little ones
To dip their feet in thunder.

Watching the sea at Cefalù,
Is a mystery to behold:
Water and stone and chipped away sand
Are all one tremendous whole
Like a giant’s hug so strong –
Father and son in one embrace.

Watching the sea at Cefalù,
Is a balm for a tired soul,
Sun on surf like some strange
Lightening lingering long enough
To warm both heart and soul.
Watching the sea at Cefalù,
Is a mystery to enfold.


The picture I enclose at the top of this post is a view of the mysterious and mesmeric sea at Cefalù
What is Philosophy anyway? As anyone who has been reading this blog will know, I am attempting to present a series of reflections on life. In so doing these reflections are just that - reflections. They are not meant to be philosophy in the abstract, a philosophy qua philosophy. Rather they share something of Aristotle’s idea of “phronesis”, that is that we learn by doing, that we get to know what is good and true by doing what is good and true. In this, they are an attempt at getting some sort of “handle” on what we loosely term “life” or “the human condition.” They share something therefore with, shall I say, the store of wisdom handed on traditionally from father to son, from mother to daughter over the ages within any particular culture. They are also, of course, transcultural, as they attempt to offer some truths or approaches to truths that the writer of these thoughts considers of universal value. In all of this I have read widely in Christian, Buddhist and Hindu thought in an attempt to distil for myself some sustenance for the way, the “via” or “peregrinatio” through this life. I have also read as widely as time allows theologians and philosophers of all shades of opinion, from theist to atheist to agnostic. In so doing I have sought to gain an overall perspective on my experience of what life is for me; a practical guide for making my way through life’s vicissitudes more negotiable, and a certain peace of mind allowing me to live with myself with some ease of being, or, if you wish me to put it in more traditional terms, a certain peace of mind that allows me an easy conscience. For me philosophy is: o More a method than a subject per se. o A questioning of everything – not mind you from a cynical point of view. (i) o About growth, growing in knowledge and wisdom as a human being. o About healing the mind of fears and prejudices. o About increasing one’s knowledge of the things of the world and the universe. o Freeing us from limitations. Philosophy says to us: “Why not?” o Awakening to the wonder and mystery within us as well as outside of us. o Helps us deal with problems. o Gives us perspective and openness to the world of persons and objects. o Allows us peace of mind. o Encourages sincerity of being by which I mean authenticity and congruence with oneself (Carl R Rogers) (i)Oscar Wilde gave a marvellous definition of the cynic as being "a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Another way of defining a cynic to my mind would be to say that he or she would question the motives of the speaker rather than the ideas or thoughts that speaker might propose. By questioning everything I mean that you search out what is really true for you in a certain situation. In this task your motives are sincere, authentic and congruent. The picture I have inserted centre above is of a cave, called The Ear of Dionysus (l'Orecchio di Dioniso) Syracuse, which I took last week on my trip to Sicily. Like Plato advises us in his great Utopic book The Republic we must come out of the cave of shadows into the light of day, the light of truth. Philosophy will help us in this task.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Thinking Outside the Box 6

Thinking Outside the Box 6

How objective can we really be?  Now there’s a good question.  I suppose if I were correcting a problem in mathematics set as an exam for my students, I could be called objective if I give the appropriate marks for method etc.  Mathematics is cut and dried obviously, and I suppose I could be said to be 100 per cent objective.  Now let’s add in some constraints.  Suppose a student gets a good mark, say 80%, in a trial Leaving Certificate Mathematics paper and I know that this student has not really been working, then I might suspect that he or she had seen the paper before.  I might also suspect that maybe he or she had been copying from another student.  However, I must also ask the question about how biased I am against this student.  Perhaps he or she has taken last minute grinds or simply was inspired.  How objective a mark then is this 80% so?  When it comes to literature I suppose it is harder still to be objective especially when marking essays or other such work of the imagination since questions of personal taste and style enter the scenario.  Within reason – presuming that there are acceptable standards of lay out, use of language, spelling etc – one could accept the fact that two correctors or examiners might give varying marks for an essay.  How much such marks would vary I do not quite know, but obviously total objectivity is not possible all of the time.

In the world of the Arts personal taste is highly important.  Sure there are certain agreed criteria of what makes good Art – no matter how clear or even nebulous they might be – among those arbiters of taste like critics, professors and other various experts.  At school we have certain agreed criteria for “student of the year” awarded to one of our sixth formers at the end of their student career with us.  Last academic year I believed that the candidate I voted for was the better choice of the two proposed, while I realised that I was distinctly biased towards one given that he had been outstanding in editing his Year Book and in his general attitude of helpfulness to other students and involvement in many voluntary activities.  However, I believe that I was as objective as I could be given the criteria, but at the same time my decision was also coloured by my own interests and preoccupations.

As regards the world of ethics, “business ethics” and “medical ethics” are the two categories of this philosophical science that spring readily to mind.  Agreed principles in both these areas have been literally hammered out over the years, and indeed many contentious areas continue to be discussed by the standards of these ethical principles.  This area is referred to within philosophy as “normative ethics” because it is concerned with elucidating “norms” or “rules” or “principles.”  Then there is still another more fundamental area of ethics namely “meta-ethics” which raises such basic questions as:  “Do moral beliefs reflect some objective truth?” or “Are moral beliefs dependent on personal desires of their holders?” or “Is rational argument about morality possible at all?”  Here we have the debate between subjectivism and objectivism in ethics.  How self-evident are moral truths ask the subjectivists? Then I remember the debate we had in our philosophy class back in the late 1970s about Joseph Fletcher’s famous “situation ethics” which argued quite plausibly than the situation coloured the ethical stance in each case.  I remember our Catholic philosopher (obviously an objectivist ethicist) referring to this particular stance by Fletcher as being laid on “the shifting sands of situationism” alluding metaphorically to the lack of solid ground in this ethical position.  I will discuss relativism and perspectivism in later posts.  In the meantime I’ll leave you with a quotation from the Talmud, quoted by Carl Gustave Jung and Stephen Covey (of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People fame) among others in the self-help world, to whet your appetite:  “We see the world not as it is, but as we are!”
The picture I have placed above centre is one of an ice sculpture I took in Salzburg, Austria in December 2005. Water or Ice or Both or More?