Category Archives: Ancient philosophy

Know thyself: still excellent advice, after all these years

“gnothi seauton,” know thyself

I have been at Delphi twice already, and I plan on going back again. It is a truly magical place. No, I don’t believe in “magic,” I’m talking about real magic, the sense of awe that strikes you when you arrive there. Despite the tourist shops, the bed and breakfasts, and the restaurants, you cannot avoid been struck by the sheer beauty of the place: a green mountainous peak overlooking a deep valley, from where you can see the Aegean Sea in the distance. No wonder the ancients thought it a place privileged by the gods, as testified today by the beautiful ruins of the temples of Apollo and Athena.

It is in Delphi, of course, that the most famous Oracle of the ancient world resided. Still today you can see the omphalos (i.e., navel), the stone that allowed direct communication between the priestess and the gods. Modern science has suggested that the location is characterized by significant underground quantities of ethylene or methane, which may cause hallucinations to people exposed to them. So far, however, this is speculation, and not really germane to the psychological power of the Oracle. The advice given by the priestess of Apollo, regardless of its natural trigger, was often sound, if not necessarily amenable to an immediate interpretation.

One of my favorite stories is that of Themistocles, the Athenian general who was told that Athens will successfully defend itself from the powerful army of the Persian king Xerxes by building a wall of wood (“Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail”). The notion, of course, is ridiculous on its face. Surely the mighty Persians would not be stopped in their tracks by mere wood. But interpret the advice more creatively, as Themistocles did, and you realize that the wood in question was that of the ships forming the formidable Athenian navy, which did, in fact, annihilate the opponent fleet at the battle of Salamis.

Temple of Athena at Delphi (Photo by the Author)

Delphi was also famous for a list of “commandments” that were allegedly assembled from the wisdom of the Seven Sages, a legendary group of philosophers, statesmen, and law-givers from the early history of Greece. Perhaps the most famous of such commandments was “know thyself,” which has since inspired countless philosophers, most famously informing Socrates’ entire career as a gadfly to the good people of Athens (who repaid him for his trouble, as we know, by putting him to death by hemlock).

Now an article published in Aeon magazine by Bence Nanay (a professor of philosophy at the University of Antwerp, Belgium) tells us not only that “know thyself” is “silly” advice, but that it’s actively dangerous. While Nanay has a point, I will argue that it is his own article that is, in fact, dangerous.

Nanay tells us that the Delphic injunction is based on an untenable picture of the self, and of how we make decisions — though I wonder how he knows which theory of mind and psychological agency was endorsed by whoever chiseled the famous phrase on the entrance to the temple of Apollo.

He invites us to consider a simple situation: “You go to the local cafe and order an espresso. Why? Just a momentary whim? Trying something new? Maybe you know that the owner is Italian and she would judge you if you ordered a cappuccino after 11am? Or are you just an espresso kind of person? I suspect that the last of these options best reflects your choices. You do much of what you do because you think it meshes with the kind of person you think you are. You order eggs Benedict because you’re an eggs Benedict kind of person. It’s part of who you are. And this goes for many of our daily choices.”

The notion is that we have somewhat stable ideas about who we are, which is practically useful, since it saves us a lot of time whenever we have to make decisions. Except if you go to Starbucks, because they have far too many choices. Then again, no self respecting Italian would go to Starbucks. Or order a cappuccino after 11am. (See what I did there? I have an image of myself as a self respecting Italian, hence my choices about where to get my coffee and when it is proper to order a cappuccino. Also, no Parmesan cheese on seafood pasta, please.)

But of course, as Nanay reminds his readers, we also change, all the time. On occasion these changes are sudden and dramatic, and therefore very noticeable. Many people feel and act differently after having had a child, for instance. Or having experienced a trauma, such as a diagnosis of cancer. Many changes, though, are subtle and slow, yet cumulative over time. It is this second kind of change that creates the major problem for the Delphic injunction, apparently: “The problem is this: if we change while our self-image remains the same, then there will be a deep abyss between who we are and who we think we are. And this leads to conflict.”

Not only that. We apparently suffer from what psychologists call the “end of history illusion,” the idea that, right now, we are final, finished products. This, and not our selves of five, ten, or twenty years ago, is who we really are, and who we will keep being until our demise. The end of history illusion is, of course, nonsense. We are never finished, as the only constant throughout our life is precisely that things, including ourselves, change. You can see why Nanay is worried.

The problem concerns much more than your choices of morning java: “Maybe you used to genuinely enjoy doing philosophy, but you no longer do. But as being a philosopher is such a stable feature of your self-image, you keep doing it. There is a huge difference between what you like and what you do. What you do is dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.”

Theater and temple of Apollo at Delphi (Photo by the Author)

In an interesting twist, Nanay even manages to blame our addiction to social media on this alleged incongruence between who we are and who we think we are. That incongruence not only wastes a lot of our time and efforts (because, robotically, we keep doing things we no longer enjoy or think important), it also generates a fair degree of cognitive dissonance between reality and our image of reality. And cognitive dissonance, again the psychologists helpfully remind us, is emotionally costly. “Hiding a gaping contradiction between what we like and what we do takes significant mental effort and this leaves little energy to do anything else. And if you have little mental energy left, it is so much more difficult to switch off the TV or to resist spending half an hour looking at Facebook or Instagram.” Now you tell me!

Nanay concludes that “If we take the importance of change in our lives seriously, [following the Oracle] just isn’t an option. You might be able to know what you think of yourself in this moment. But what you think of yourself is very different from who you are and what you actually like. And in a couple of days or weeks, all of this might change anyway.” He then concludes with a pseudo-profound piece of poetry from André Gide, who wrote in Autumn Leaves (1950): “A caterpillar who seeks to know himself would never become a butterfly.”

Right. Then again, caterpillars are too stupid to philosophize about themselves, not to mention that their are profoundly ignorant of their own biology. And does anyone really believe that, except (maybe) for traumatic experiences, we can change a lot in mere days or weeks?

I hope it is clear what the central flow in Nanay’s argument is: he is assuming an essentialist view of the self, the self conceived as the “true,” unchanging part of who we are, which people are supposed to “discover” in order to live authentic lives. I’m sure some Ancient Greeks did hold to a similar notion (Plato comes to mind), though they were usually far too good observers of human psychology to fall into that trap. It is not at all clear whether whoever came up with the Delphic injunction subscribed to such an untenable theory of the self. What is abundantly clear is that “know thyself” is very good advice regardless, indeed even more so if our selves are dynamic bundles of perceptions, sensations, desires, and deliberations, to paraphrase and build on David Hume.

Let’s consider the more serious of Nanay’s examples, that of the philosopher who doesn’t realize that he doesn’t believe in philosophizing anymore. I don’t know whether that example was autobiographic, but I can certainly counter it with an autobiographical anecdote of my own. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a scientist, a dream that eventually came through when I was appointed assistant professor of botany and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, back in the distant 1995.

I had a reasonably successful career for several years in my chosen field of specialization, gene-environment interactions, rising through the ranks of associate and then full professor with tenure. My self image had been one of a scientist since I was five or six years old, and it had served me well until my late thirties and early forties.

Then a midlife crisis ensued, partly precisely because my reflections about myself began to alert me of some sort of growing gap between my mental image of me and how I was feeling while doing what I was doing. I realized that I was less and less interested in laboratory and field research, and more and more in theoretical and conceptual issues. And the step from the latter to philosophy of science wasn’t very big. Partly because such conscious reflections (the “know thyself” part), and partly because of serendipitous events, I was able to enroll as a graduate student in philosophy, publish a book and several papers in the field, and eventually switch career and become a full time philosopher.

That’s where I am now, though other adjustments have occurred in the meantime, like my increased interest in public philosophy, and my novel interest in Stoicism. These changes, too, were made actionable by the fact that I have a habit of reflecting about my feelings and experiences, trying as much as possible to keep adjusting what I actually do and what I want to do, in a never ending exercise of reflective equilibrium.

The bottom line is that my life, I can confidently assert, has been made better and better by trying to follow the Delphic commandment. I suspect the same is true of other people, who can benefit from a monitoring of the evolving “self,” coupled with the occasional redirection and adjustment of what they do or pursue. Contra Nanay, it is this process of self knowledge that reduces, or even preempts, the cognitive dissonance he refers to. And, apparently, it will also save you a lot of wasted time on Facebook and Instagram.

What is truly dangerous is not to follow the not at all “silly” advice that has served Socrates and so many others since. You may end up mispending a good chunk of your life if you ignore it. And if you have the chance, go to Delphi. You’ll thank me for it.

The Greeks were right about love

An Ancient Greek symposium

Love is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. When people are incapable of it we think there is something seriously wrong with them, something that makes them almost inhuman. And yet there are many different types of love, for one’s partner, one’s children, one’s parents, even one’s nation or God. Each carries with it its own version of pains and pleasures. Yet, our vocabulary may not be well suited to such an important phenomenon. When I first came to the United States I was struck by the fact that the English language, the tongue of Shakespeare, has only one word for the notion. In Italian, for instance, I would never say to my daughter “I love you,” it would sound weird and incestuous. And that’s only one problem.

Even if we limit ourselves to “romantic” love, i.e., to love for one’s partner or spouse, the modern notion is confused compared to both what sound psychology and modern neuroscience tell us. A classical study on the progression of love in human beings found major differences between the neural underpinnings of intense romantic love (see also this, more recent, study), of the type we feel at the beginning of a relationship, and what scientists call limerence, the more subdued, but deeper attachment we may or may not develop for a partner with whom we were initially “in love.” (If you are curious about the details, the first phase activates mostly the striatum, part of the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain; the second one activates also the insula, which the brain uses to assign value to our activities so that we continue to engage in them.)

Insisting in using the same word to describe these two conditions confuses two very different biological and psychological (and hence also social and cultural) phenomena. More crucially, expecting — both individually and as a society — that once two people embark on the first phase they will necessarily move to the second, which will itself automatically last a life time (the famous “and they lived happily ever after” of Disney-style tales) is absurd and arguably the cause of a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The modern idea of romantic love probably traces back to the medieval concept of chivalry, made popular as well as more specific by French, Italian and Spanish troubadours, and finally canonized for Western audiences during the Romantic era that followed, as a backlash, the Enlightenment. However, it is arguably the Ancient Greeks and Romans that got it right, or at least closer to the mark. Interestingly, they used three different words that translate to “love,” none of which actually corresponds to our (confused) conception of romantic love. (A good and short introduction can be found in this video.)

To begin with, there is agápē, which means love that comes with an aspect of charity, in the sense of benevolence, embedded into it. This is the sort of love we have for our children, but also for our spouse or partner. Early Christians adopted the term to mean the unconditional love that God has for his children. As Thomas Aquinas put it, agápē means “to will the good of another” (in Summa Theologiae I-II, 26, 4).

Second, we have érōs, which in part does mean, as the modern word “erotic” indicates, sexual attraction for someone (the sort of stuff that stimulated the striatum in the neuro-studies linked above). However, Plato for one expanded the concept to indicate, after maturation and contemplation, love for beauty itself. This is the origin of the phrase “Platonic love,” which does not mean love without sex, necessarily, but rather love of the ideal Form of Beauty itself. This may begin with erotic attraction, but eventually transcends it.

In the Symposium we are treated by a lesson on love by none other than Socrates, who says that érōs allows the soul to recall knowledge of beauty and thus to arrive at an understanding of spiritual truth. In this sense, then, both lovers and philosophers are inspired by érōs.

Finally, we have philía, which describes a sense of affection and regard among equals. Aristotle uses this word to characterize love between friends, for family members, or of community. It is a virtuous type of love, often cast as of a brotherly sort, but with a component of enjoyment.

Notice that what distinguishes the three types of love recognized by the Greeks is not the object of love, but rather the modality of the sentiment. Take the specific instance of a long-term “romantic” relationship. Ideally, what one wants in that case is a particular combination of the three modes: we unconditionally (i.e., not because it is to our advantage) want the good of the other person (agápē); we want not just physical attraction, but a deeper appreciation of the “beauty” of our partner, in terms of his or her character traits (érōs); and we want to be their friends and to enjoy their company for its own sake (philía).

What distinguishes love of a partner from love of our children, friends, country or God, then, is the specific modulation of all three types of Greek “love.” Notice that none of them obviously maps to the initial phase of romantic love in the modern conception. That’s because, arguably, that phase is not, in fact, love itself, but (potentially) preliminary to love. If it lasts, and if it matures, then it becomes love. If this is even approximately correct, than a lot of what our literature, movies and advertisements describe as love is — rightly conceived — no such thing.

_____

Postscriptum: various readers have commented on the fact that I have left out a fourth Greek word for love, storgē. That’s because it was actually rarely used in ancient texts, but still, it does help add even more nuance to the concept. Storgē means affection, especially (but not only) of the kind one has toward parents and children, and includes a component of empathy of the type felt naturally toward one’s children. Storgē was also used to indicate love for a country, or even a sports team, and — interestingly — in situations when one has to put up with unpleasant things, as in the oxymoronic phrase “love for a tyrant.”

On the crucial importance of rhetoric

IMG_8164As is well known, we officially live in an era of post-truths and alternative facts. Even though we have arguably always lived in it, to an extent, the current cultural and political climate has moved even scientists, a group of people notoriously shy when it comes to social and political engagement, to get to the streets and protest in defense of science. Who would have thought.

A recent Gallup poll showed that — despite the overwhelming scientific evidence — only 45% of Americans are seriously worried about climate change. But the worst news comes when one looks at the details: the partisan split is incredibly sharp: 66% of Democratic voters are worried (wait, only 66%??), and a mere 18% of Republican voters are. When we add to that the likely observation that even those who are concerned with climate change express the feeling more as a badge of identification with the party line than because they genuinely understand what the problem is, we are in dire straits indeed.

Continue reading

Socrates: ancient Humanist?

MNR-Socrate

Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

Continue reading

Ancient vs modern philosophy

Ancient vs Modern

Did the ancients get it right? Indeed, better than the moderns? No, this conversation between Dan Kaufman and I is not about mystical insights or the secret scientific knowledge of the people who built the pyramids. Rather, it’s about what, if anything, ancient philosophers understood about the human condition that was then lost by the philosophy that developed during and after the Scientific Revolution.

Continue reading