Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

I use Wikipedia all the time, but it has been a long time since I’ve looked something up in an encyclopedia. But the other day I was doing some background research for an upcoming column and happened onto a beautiful and very meaningful article on the topic from the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

The search term I used was “tragic flaw,” which took me to a dry as dust one-page article on Wikipedia. But a half page down I noticed the unusual word “hamartia,” with a link to a 28-page entry in Encyclopedia Britannica. (Note: When I tried the link at work later, it only gave me a synopsis.) Whichever scholar wrote the Britannica entry, he or she produced a tour de force of literary and philosophical insight. I came away both moved and enlightened, and with maybe a deeper understanding of humankind and myself. It is the sort of experience I was looking for, and often found, in my literature classes long ago. It is, I think, the justification for the Liberal Arts in higher education.

Looking at college as career training is a lot like that Wikipedia page:  information without much context and with no particular impact on our humanity. We learn a trade, pick up some skills, and become useful economic participants in society. But do we polish our souls? Do we deepen our humanity? We learn to make a living, but rarely learn how or why to live.

We don’t need to go to some exclusive college out in the country or even any college at all to know ourselves. There is many a self-educated thinker and philosopher, Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer spring to mind. The library is the treasure house of learning. But it takes tremendous discipline to really educate ourselves. Sometimes a great teacher can guide us into understanding. It’s happened to me a few times, and the memory of the experience lingers for a lifetime.

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Somewhere in one of the books on the shelf I will find the quote exactly, but for the moment you will have to take my word for it. Stuck in my memory are the words “We live our lives to the lyrics of popular songs.”  It is a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who knew what he was talking about.  He and his wife Zelda were the poster children for the “Roaring ‘20s,” reckless and beautiful and doomed.

I remember a summer night in south Florida driving north on the Palmetto Expressway that edges the city of Miami.  I was playing the radio, a rock and roll station called the Magic Bus, and when the music stopped the DJ reported the sad news that Tim Hardin had just died of a heroin overdose. I felt an unexpected sense of loss, a sudden emptiness, as though someone close to me had died, although I only knew him through a few songs he had written and other people had sung.

One of those songs was called “A Reason to Believe,” and we used to play it on the jukebox at the Duck Inn where there was sand on the floor and you could hear three songs for a quarter. This was the version sung by Rod Stewart back when he was a serious rocker, before he became a pop star. You can still hear it on the radio now and then, and it always gives me a tingle to hear that phrase, “Still, I look to find a reason to believe.”

I think for many of us our personal philosophy is made up of bits and pieces, sometimes as random seeming as the objects that the waves toss up on the shore. We walk through our life as though on a private beach, picking up a little knowledge here, some understanding there, and all along we search for things we can believe in. The end result, whether or not we think of it as such, is philosophy. Some of it we have even learned from the lyrics to popular songs.

Philosophy is how we explain our lives to ourselves.  It is not the thing taught in the classroom, anymore than a frog dissected on a lab table is the same as a living frog leaping a lily pad. Philosophy is what prompts us to get up in the morning, though we may call it duty or obligation or desire.

Some 1,500 years ago the Roman statesman/philosopher Boethius wrote a book called “On the Consolation of Philosophy” from his prison cell to ease his dying.  After the Bible, it was the most important book of the Middle Ages in Europe. To Socrates, philosophy seemed crucial enough to give his life for. Now, too often, it is a dry and dusty subject for dissertations.

Poetry and song lyrics both condense meaning into a small space, a brief phrase. If the particular phrase resonates for you, you may find yourself repeating it at certain turnings of your life, like a mantra or a koan. Once I was part of a group of students in a candlelight procession on the campus of Old Dominion University the night after the shootings at Kent State. I think that all of us that night were numb with disbelief, and the words that gave me comfort and that I repeated over and over as we carried our candles through the dark were from a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash called “Carry On.” The words, “Rejoice, rejoice, you have no choice,” helped me to carry on. It was the consolation of a philosophy embodied in a song.

I was saddened when Tim Hardin died because it seemed to me he had quit looking to find a reason to believe, and he had let the darkness overwhelm him. Yet he had left me with something to hold onto if I needed it at some dark turning of my life, a few words, the lyrics to a song. Sometimes that’s enough.

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“… a deeper and more ultimate reality than that in which our lives are lived.”

I have been living in ancient Greece the past week, with the help of the magnificent Edith Hamilton, the first and greatest woman scholar of the classics. The above quotation, on tragedy, from her 1930 book The Greek Way gives a feeling for her sensibility and her literary style.

I wanted to find her books on Greece and Rome when I visited the Midtown Scholar bookstore in Harrisburg two weekends ago, but despite the thousand scholarly books on this or that niggling aspect of the period, there was no Edith Hamilton to be found. It was a bit like going into a Christian bookstore and finding Sunday school material and the Left Behind novels, but no Bibles. But the local public library had a copy. Bless the libraries and save them from budget cuts, Amen.

The great age of Greece, the period of Socrates, Plato, and the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, lasted only one hundred years. Out of that brief flowering comes much of what we still think of as science, philosophy, and literature. Also it gave our forefathers the idea of democracy and the republic.

Hamilton compares the flowering of Greece, with its courage and love of freedom and belief in the mind, with the death obsessed cultures of the East, ruled by priests and tyrants, in which freedom of thought was impossible and the only hope was in a better life beyond the grave.

The great classical age of Greece in which so many new ideas were invented that have lasted for more than two thousand years was fueled by a particular event – the defeat of the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC. This defeat of the vast empire of Persia by the city states of Greece against overwhelming odds very likely changed the course of Western civilization. The Greeks escaped slavery, and they believed their hard won freedom was worth preserving, and they did preserve it long enough to invent much of the modern world.

In a side note, Hamilton suggests that a similar event, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, gave us the English Renaissance and Shakespeare. Maybe the same is true of the American Revolution, and the founders of American democracy who were so steeped in the ideals of Greece.

I have a few more pages of The Greek Way before I plunge into The Roman Way, the next of her classic books. What a pleasure awaits.

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