…from myth to philosophy

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“From Myth to Philosophy: Examining the Transition by Way of Metaphysics and Epistemology”

When we look to the transition from myth to philosophy, we make use of philosophy as a guide into connections that are not readily apparent. Two primary philosophical modes of inquiry are metaphysics and epistemology. The two are defined in a number of ways and this short essay will only focus on metaphysics as the study of ultimate reality, and epistemology as an inquiry into how we rationally understand things—when connected, both disciplines disclose true knowledge. When we are doing philosophy we are not only asking questions, we work to answer the questions we ask: what is ultimate reality (as with metaphysics)? How do we know things rationally (as with epistemology)?

Once we apply these questions to the transition from myth to philosophy, we immediately are reminded of the long-lived mythologist Edith Hamilton who distinguished the ancient Greek myths as inherently rational. Hamilton also distinguishes the myths as distinctly human. The Greek myths are concerned with human problems—human reality. The Greek legends are answering the ancient need for answers about the natural and human realties that could not be explained any other way. This confrontation of nothingness reveals the myths metaphysically. Likewise the myths are answering causal problems, where does war come from?—Ares! If one cause (Ares) brings about the effect of something else (war), we are answering a way we know something, and this is rational and epistemological.

Friedrich Nietzsche hails the first Greek philosopher as Thales, a Presocratic who thought the origin of everything is water. This is an empirical claim, we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell: water. This is another way of showing how we are perceiving the world, this is a way we gain knowledge of things using our rational faculties. Therefore Thales is, not only answering epistemological questions, where does everything come from?—he answers the question scientifically, with empirical evidence, something the myths did not do. Metaphysically, he’s offering us answers to where everything comes from, and to what (empirically) does reality consist of?—water.

Turning to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, metaphysics and epistemology gain in philosophical complexity. With Socrates we have the famous dialectic, based in dialogue, and aimed at gaining true knowledge while exposing flaws in common and opinionated reasoning. Socrates is a champion of reason in favor of goodness and true knowledge. This is epistemology and it is curiously ethical. When considering metaphysics, we immediately recognize an answer to the question: what is ultimate reality for Plato and Socrates?—the acquisition of true knowledge.

Aristotle, another scientist philosopher, categorized the way we explain things into distinct categories and components. This tendency to organize knowledge is both scientific and metaphysical. To do philosophy is to look at the components of knowledge which constitute reality. This is metaphysical. As mentioned above, to consider causation is to examine how we come to know things and how to explain things. Aristotle’s causal tools give our knowledge explanatory power. This is epistemological.

To philosophically examine the transition from Greek myth to Greek philosophy by way of metaphysics and epistemology is to see a flowing line of inquiry into the ultimate realty and into the way we rationally know things. Such thinking is abstract and takes a readjustment of our everyday understanding, thus fulfilling a demand of Heraclitus the weeping Presocratic, to find connections in what is unapparent.

…aquinas, immortality, &c.

344px-Thomasaquino

…then to Aquinas and whether or not he considered the soul to be immortal, and the concurrent issue concerning whether or not the soul is separate from the body. I found an entry to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Richard Swinburne on this issue, http://www.newdualism.org/papers/R.Swinburne/Swinburne-Nature%20of%20Soul.pdf When we read the first few paragraphs, we get good synopsis of the problem. The issue rests on the transition from an Aristotelian version of the soul (psyche, Ψυχῆς) as intrinsically connected to the body. That is, Aristotle believed that the soul is the animating part of a person’s body–when the body died the soul dies with it. Given that Aquinas is Aristotelian, he mentions this very notion in the Summa Theologica, giving all of us the impression that he agrees with Aristotle, that the death of the body entails the death of the soul.

Yet it is not the case that Aquinas thought that the soul simply died with the body, or that the soul was not immortal. The easy way to think of this would be to recall that Aquinas is advocating a notion of resurrection. If a body is to resurrect with the body it once inhabited, the soul must live without the body until judgment day when the soul becomes embodied. Then according to Aquinas, the person resurrects from the dead to live on into eternity in heaven or hell. The questionable part comes with the notion of what the soul consists of while it is separate from its material matrix, its body. Does the soul lose its identity when it is not animating the body? As Swinburne indicates, Aquinas thinks that the soul is somehow “fitted” to its original body, perhaps like a key to a lock. The other point I am not sure of is what happens to the material body after it is judged.

aristotle: metaphysics book XII (Λ), chapters 9-10

medieval manuscript of aristotles metaphysics

Aristotle / Metaphysics Book XII (Λ), Chapters 9-10[1]

Part of the job of reading Aristotle is reading and re-reading till one reaches only a satisfactory understanding of what is ultimately being said. We already know that that the Metaphysics have to do with the question of being, and that with the question of being begs the question of a primary being, which can be said to be the ultimate cause. This means that while we are reading only two short chapters, we are also jumping three-quarters of the way into the complexity of Aristotle’s inquiry about being and a primary mover that looks like God. With all this in mind, it is also difficult to ignore a few of the points Aristotle makes in chapters 6 and 7. For instance, there’s the idea that “actuality is prior to potentiality” (1072a, 10). This in itself is interesting since we typically assume that potentiality must precede the actual, so Aristotle’s claim becomes one where potential is contained within the actual. This is a profound thought indeed, one that anticipates Bergson’s ideas of the virtual, and so on. Another point, similar in its profundity, is brought about in chapter 7, where Aristotle names a “mover, which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality” (1072a, 25). Along with this mover, Aristotle also attributes thought, the good, the eternal, and a intricate way that it is necessary without being caused itself (1072b, 1-30). From here we move through chapters 9 and 10, where we find Aristotle trying to qualify what the nature of divine thought consists of. His opening up of the discussion starts with the tail end of chapter 8. Aristotle finds inspiration with the idea that the divine is not anthropomorphic and is better thought of as “the first substances to be gods” (1074b, 10). Aristotle continues with the idea that divine thought must be of a substance, it must also be “itself that thought thinks” (1074b, 34). This must mean that the kind of thought that the divine is, must contain thinking before thought thinks about things—the divine is thought (shades of Xenophanes’ divine). Aristotle also seems to discount the idea that this divine thought can be composite, since human thought is not necessarily composed of parts of thought. Divine thought must then be whole, and not a composite of thought units. In Chapter 10 Aristotle compares the good and the higher good (of the divine) to an army and the leader, respectively. This is a way of saying that the good depends on the higher good, and not the other way around. To suggest that order depends on the higher good suggests a telos to Aristotle’s divine, i.e.: order is informed by to good, to be what it is and what it will be. Another point Aristotle addresses has to do with the Pre-Socratic (probably Heraclitus) notion of contraries. Aristotle finds this view lacking in its lack of full explanatory evidence. There are other views Aristotle covers including Plato’s Forms, with a question of how real things (forms) actually participate with the Forms. Aristotle concludes later in the chapter that “the form and the thing are one” (1076a, 35). Characteristic of this move we find the Homeric quote at the end “the rule of the many is not good, let there be one ruler” (1076b, 5).


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, n.d., 1692-1700.

want more than less

wantless

Aristotle wrote extensively on the art of persuasion. He easily makes the distinction that rhetoric is not the same as science. Rhetoric is not a scientific demonstration, and rhetoric typically does not try to persuade facts, since facts are understood without any persuasion needed. Aristotle definitively writes: “The function of Rhetoric, then, is to deal with things about which we deliberate, but for which we have no systematic rules […] we only deliberate about things which seem to admit of issuing in two ways […].” [1] He also named three appeals employed to persuade an audience to a particular point of view: pathos: emotion, ethos: character, and logos: logic.

Let’s briefly look to an example of low-brow rhetoric in use today, a bumper sticker. The message is: WANT LESS. The rhetoric is logically [2] implied as: one should curb spending, quell your hunger for material goods, get rid of your over consumption, etc. The assumed rational message targets a consumer, as it also suggests an ascetic ideal, implying that it’s better to be less desirous than to be overindulgent.

Want is a part of our lives. To ‘want less’ is to tacitly suggest that all wants are to be harnessed. Therefore, to be better people, we essentially need less wanting in our lives. A mixed message arises when we logically inquire about the quality vs. quantity of our wants. All wants are not worth reducing. For instance, should we want less out of our lives? Should we want less well being? These questions are answered with an emphatic NO! This quickly leads us the other side of the argument with worthwhile questions about our over/consumption. We can then look at how intrusive these basic wants of ours affect the lives of others we cannot see or know—e.g. how our purchasing power indirectly affects (potentially) exploited third-world laborers.

Logically speaking, want is not something we can get rid of, nor should it be lessened—in and of itself. What’s at stake here is for us to try to better understand our wants and desires, more than less. Only then can we begin to educate ourselves to continually prefer a broad range of wiser choices that progress rather than regress our basic fundamental urge to want more. Our new bumper sticker should then read: WANT MORE, a logical step from having less wisdom to wanting more wisdom.

Aurelio Madrid

want more


[1] Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric (ΤΕΧΝΗ ΡΗΤΟΡΙΚΗ),trans. J.H. Freese, Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1967, 1357b 12-13.

[2] The basic logic used for our rhetorical example is identified as an enthymeme. An enthymeme is closely related to a formal syllogism, with a part of its premises missing. The missing premise is to be assumed by the audience. Aristotle names an enthymeme as being closely related to the syllogism rhetorically rather than in a strict scientific logic—re: a ‘rhetorical syllogism’ persuades more with commonly held beliefs, rather than with scientific proofs.

thoughts on karma, cause & effect

mutual possesion of the ten worlds
mutual possesion of the ten worlds
the nine consciousnesses
the nine consciousnesses

(click on diagrams for a better view)

 Thoughts on Karma, Cause & Effect

Within Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism

 Although David Hume said that causation is the “cement of the universe,” I couldn’t use any of what he said on causality for this discussion (other than this little quote).  I also couldn’t talk about Aristotle’s views on causation, his four causes &c., although he did say that “all causes are beginnings…” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book V, Part 1). Both thinkers are not silent on the subject, & I am not suggesting that what they had to say on causality is valueless, but I did have to put them aside, since their brilliant theories (on causation) are ancillary to this month’s gosho: “Lessening One’s Karmic Retribution.” The Buddhist philosophers Daisaku Ikeda & Nichiren Daishonin are of complete relevance here & it is their thoughts I will focus on.

The word Renge in Nam Myoho Renge Kyo means lotus flower (in Sanskrit), it also signifies the concept of the simultaneity of cause & effect.  Simultaneity here suggests that by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo one can (with faith) access/cause one’s Buddha nature to be effected immediately.  We believe that we all contain (and can access) our own individual Buddha nature (enlightenment) & that by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo we will manifest it in our lives immediately.  The lotus seeds & blooms simultaneously, which is why it’s used as a metaphor for this concept.  The form of causality that is simultaneous is as I just described & it is also related to the concept of the 10 worlds, since (the theory is that) we inhabit all the 10 worlds at once (& we have mutual possession of the ten worlds) & are able to use the nine worlds to propel us to the tenth world of Buddhahood &/or enlightenment (by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo).  Non-simultaneous causality is also important here, because all the past actions we’ve taken (in life), (good or bad), are also inevitably contained & manifested in our present lives (karma) & on into our future lives.  The nine consciousnesses concept describes the Alaya (8th) consciousness as the karmic store-house: where all our past actions, thoughts, words (&c.) are stored as latent potential.  Karma might also be seen as an intermediary between cause & effect (in non-simultaneous cause & effect). Karma is where all our latent causes are waiting to be “effected” by some external stimuli in one’s life.  When we look into (note that it is said that karma is unconscious, but let’s say that we can look into) this store-house & rummage through our past causes, we are able to understand our present lives better, we are on the road to enlightenment, & we are enlightening our own lives, by doing so. 

Nichiren Daishonin quotes from The Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra,” that states:

If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present.  And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present” (WND-1, 279).  

So, what does it mean to “lessen one’s karmic retribution?” Daisaku Ikeda writes:

Present effects are due to karmic causes from the past. However, future effects arise from the causes we make in the present. It is always the present that counts. It is what we do in the present moment that decides our future; our past causes do not govern our future as well. Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that no matter what kind of karmic causes we have made in the past,[it is] through the causes we make in the present we can achieve a brilliant future.”

To face the problems of life with courage & faith is the goal of Buddhist practice, along with doing (& helping) others to do the same (in their lives).  We must see that as Nichiren says: “difficulties will arise, & these are to be looked at as ‘peaceful’ practices” (Nichiren Daishonin, The Record of Orally Transmitted Teachings p. 115).  When one decides to practice Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, one essentially commits to transforming one’s life, instead of accepting our “destiny,” then we can transform our karma with the Buddhahood that resides within us all.  Ikeda goes on to point out that this act of lessening one’s karmic retribution is at the heart of our practice. 

I also found this interesting distinction on cause & effect (in Living Buddhism March-April, 09, page 77):

“Nichiren refers to two kinds of Buddhist teachings, those that view things from the standpoint of ‘cause to effect’ & those that approach things from ‘effect to cause’” 

This idea/teaching suggests that instead of approaching the practice from a cause to effect position, as Shakyamuni taught to cause the effect of Buddhism; one should effect a cause of Buddhism (as encouraged by Nichiren).  This idea might be related to the (complicated) concept of True Cause & True Effect (two of the Three Mystic Principles, the third is True land):

“In one sense, how we approach life and our Buddhist practice depends on whether we have a perspective of ‘true effect’ or ‘true cause.’ A perspective of ‘true effect,’ only sees enlightenment, or happiness, a result of past causes. From the perspective of ‘true cause,’ enlightenment, or happiness, is an ever-present potential; the cause for bringing it forth can only be made right now, in the present moment. The moment we make the ‘true cause,’ enlightenment reveals itself.” (Jeff Kriger, SGI-USA Study Department vice Leader)

Let us effect the cause of Buddhism in our daily lives as imperfect as we are, as we suffer through our hardships, as we rise to challenge our past mistakes, as we join together to celebrate our victories & as we chant Nam Myho Renge Kyo.

 Aurelio Madrid

April 2009