contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Greek Philosophy

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I’ve been questing a name for my stance in the world. At this point in my journey, I can’t think of myself either as either a Druid or a Buddhist, despite the importance of these movements in my life. But to keep saying this is enervating and dis-empowering. I want a name, a positive name. I want it to affirm my current values with the creative focus of a new identification. I have ended with Existentialism – with the proviso that I need to customize my own 21st century version. Here’s how I reached this point.

First, I turned from the realms of spirituality and religion and looked to philosophy – specifically the Western tradition bearing that name, which means ‘love of wisdom’ (philo – sophia). This emerged over two and a half millennia ago in ancient Greece, where “philosophy was not, initially anyway, something to be studied in isolation by a group of specialists, but rather the expression of a way of life” (1). As such, it covered areas we still call by Greek names: therapeutics, ethics, aesthetics, politics. It asked basic questions that we face in our lives. It suggested physical and spiritual exercises and dietary regimes aimed at the good life. It included ‘natural philosophy’, the basis of our science. Over time, rival schools of philosophy sprang up – Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, Cynic, Sceptic.

According to one of its champions, Existentialism is “arguably the only contemporary form of philosophy that remains true to the conception of philosophy first articulated” in ancient Greece (1). As a movement, Existentialism lasted for only a brief period in the mid twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre provided the name and was the only person who habitually used it of himself. Other people associated with the group were Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Only Merleau-Ponty was a full-time academic. The other Existentialists were better known for their involvement in politics and literature – fiction, drama, and journalism. Albert Camus said,” if you want to be a philosopher, write novels”.

The Existentialists were a diverse group with certain themes in common: living without God; freedom; others and otherness; anxiety; finitude; the absurd; authenticity; oppression. They struck a chord in an age of totalitarianism, world war, holocaust, nuclear warfare (actual and threatened) and anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. Buddhism’s dukkha becomes Existentialism’s angst, here worn almost like a badge of honour, a price of the human condition. This condition is one of self-conscious awareness, simultaneously free and compelled to make choices without divine sanction, in the absence of any cosmic template or plan. Existence precedes essence: we must make ourselves.

Existentialism both looks back from this historical moment and points forward from it. The looking back is to the nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Soren Kierkegaard came down in favour of religion out of loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence. For him, to ‘exist’ is to face the uncertainties of the world and commit oneself passionately to a way of life. Fyodor Dostoevsky is sometimes classed as another religious Existentialist in the way that he chose Russian Orthodoxy over Nihilism.

Moving into the 20th century, we find the development of ‘phenomenology’ as a scholarly attempt to learn from within the ‘life-world’, the subjective and inter-subjective realm, the insider’s view of existence, at a time when most academic endeavours adopted an objective, scientific, observer stance. Martin Heidegger, its best-known practitioner, is considered an Existentialist. The later French Existentialists drew inspiration from these earlier sources, but this didn’t involve taking on specific religious or political beliefs. They stood in a French republican tradition that was atheist and of the left.

Looking forward, Existentialism contributed to later Feminist and post-colonial perspectives. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was ground breaking in the 1950’s, whilst needing to be moved on from in subsequent decades. Existentialism has informed the politics of identity, though in itself also thought of as superseded by poststructuralist, postmodernist and other more recent currents. It appears to have done its job. But I’m not so sure. I was born during the heyday of French Existentialism. I am drawn to the term and I feel like taking this tradition and updating it for myself.

I thought of using the qualifier eco-existentialism, but the term is already used in eco-psychology and I have also spotted it in a business context, concerned with individual choice in creating sustainable households. I think I will stick with the single word Existentialist. It’s long enough. I want it to  incorporate practices of mindfulness and compassion and to be Earth centred. The Spell of the Sensuous (2) draws on Merleau-Ponty’s later work to demonstrate how an animist mindset makes sense: it is necessary to human perception even when apparently repressed and denied. Animist Existentialism? I believe that it is quite possible for me to live and affirm an Existentialism adjusted to 21st. century conditions and understandings. Names do matter to me, when I can mobilize around them. This one somehow makes me feel lighter and more resourceful. The magic of naming!

(1) Thomas E. Wartenburg Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide Oxford: Oneworld, 2008

(2) David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

HOLY SOPHIA

I have been on holiday, kissed by a Mediterranean of blue skies, extended midwinter daylight and temperatures into the 20’s. Sparsely populated beaches and warm sand. Water to walk through in lazy delight. The sensuous geometry of Moorish architecture in southern Spain.

I have felt dislocated in a good way, and still do. I’ve been treading an unfamiliar path through this season, this year. It has been accompanied by a contemplative text, which I read and marked before leaving home. It was posted earlier in the month by Rosamonde Ikshvaku Miller in her Gnostic Sanctuary group on Facebook.

“WithIn the depths of the abyss, we find the fountainhead and matrix of the Holy Sophia, pregnant with infinite possibilities. Divinity pours out Its life through her.

“In her womb, Wisdom-Sophia carries the blueprint of all prototypes before matter ever came into being.

“She remains with us in our exile, for She is the tender mother of mercy, great redeemer, and revealer of the mysteries concealed. She is the beginning and she is the end.”

Learning and inwardly digesting these words became the gentle spiritual task of the holiday. I found that the place suited the task, for the words belong to a Mediterranean and Levantine tradition, in which Greek, Jewish and other cultures interweave.

I made my task one of immersion and awareness rather than opinion forming and allegiance. There’s an image of a cosmic goddess (not the same as an earth mother) and a meeting becomes available in the ‘abyss’. The seasonal reference comes through Sophia’s being “pregnant with infinite possibilities … Divinity pours out its life through her”, here understood as a cosmic event in the eternal present. Then there are references to exile, redemption and revelation – not much present in our northern Paganisms. They do of course feature in the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition that has been profoundly influential for us over a long period of time. They are also classically Gnostic.

I have noticed that I resonate with this text more than I might have expected to. I need to sit with this and explore it further, and really sense into what the attraction is: a direction for my contemplative inquiry.

 

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