The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Zeno’s Paradoxes

Zeno of Elea was a pupil of Parmenides, and undertook his teacher’s belief that change is an illusion by proposing arguments known as paradoxes, his most famous being Achilles and the Tortoise. In this paradox, it is said that Achilles and the tortoise are racing, but the tortoise has a head start of say, 50 metres. Even though Achilles is running much faster than the tortoise, once Achilles reaches the 50 metre mark, the tortoise would have covered another say, 10 metres, and so will be ahead. Once Achilles reaches this point, the tortoise would have covered more ground, ad infinitum, and Zeno argued that this proves that Achilles could never actually overtake the tortoise because Achilles must always reach where the tortoise has already been, at which point the tortoise will have moved ahead. Another paradox is the Dichotomy paradox, a paradox which says that if you want to walk to a certain point, you must first get halfway there, and before this a quarter of the way, and before this an eighth of the way, ad infinitum, and so one cannot actually reach any point whatsoever-change is an illusion. Many philosophers have attempted to solve these paradoxes. Hans Reichenbach argued that the paradox arises from believing time and space to be separate entities. Diogenes the Cynic simply got up and walked to a certain point instead of trying to refute the paradoxes through words. Herman Weyll proposed that there are only a finite number of distances between two points, rather than an infinite number, and so the paradox is resolved.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Parmenides

Parmenides of Elea was born in around 515BC, and he proposed that change is an illusion. He said that everything which exists is a being and that the one common thing between all things that exist is that they are-they are all being. So if something is not being, it does not exist, and therefore is nothing. So you have being and nothing. Parmenides held that for change to come about, being has to come together with something other than being (which is nothing), and therefore change is impossible and an illusion. Parmenides also held the view that fundamentally reality is one, unchanging being. This is because, he argued, everything is being, whether it is a chair or a cat or a person, it is all being and so reality is one. Change is merely an appearance, then, and Parmenides thought that it is our senses that deceive and trick us into thinking that things change. He wrote about this idea in his poem, On Nature, and wrote about what is real in the part called the ‘way of truth’ and appearances in the ‘way of opinion’. Parmenides influenced many, including the atomist Democritus and Plato.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Pythagoras

Pythagoras lived from c. 570—c. 495 B.C., and is perhaps most famously known for his theorem (a2+b2=c2). He was originally from Samos but moved to Croton to avoid being ruled by a tyrant. There he set up a school of people dedicated to scholarship.  He posited that there are three types of men (he used the example of the Olympics)-those who buy and sell, those who compete, and those who look on, and Pythagoras believed that those who look on are the best type of man. The Pythagoreans spent a lot of time studying numbers, and came to conclude that the world is made from numbers, and that reality was founded and based upon numbers. A famous comparison was made that the body is like a musical instrument. Just as a properly tuned and looked-after instrument produces good music, a properly cared for and healthy body produces the means for a good life. Moreover, our bodies, like instruments, can easily become out of tune, and so we should tune ourselves regularly. Moreover, it was a Pythagorean idea that music is a medicine that can heal the soul. Such was the power of music for Pythagoras. As Pythagoras’ ideas developed, two schools developed, the mathēmatikoi (μαθηματικοί meaning “teachers”) and the akousmatikoi (ἀκουσματικοί, meaning “listeners”). The former emphasised mathematical and scientific development, whereas the latter honed in on the religious aspects. Overall, it seems that Pythagorean thought was dominated by mathematics, and it was maths which the Pythagoreans based their outlook and their ideas about the world. We are indebted to Pythagoras for his work on numbers, as well as his ideas about man-ideas which influenced Socrates and Plato.

The Ancient Greek Philosophers: Thales

Thales is the first recorded philosopher of all time. He lived from c.624 BC to c.526BC, and his primary idea was that everything comes from water and believed (according to Aristotle) water to be the grounding of everything that existed. He was the first to try and explain the natural world through natural causes rather than turning to the supernatural as an explanation as to why the world is as it is. A lot of what we know about Thales comes from Aristotle, who said that what Thales was trying to do was find out what material grounded the composition of everything, and he thought that this was water, saying that the earth was floating on water and he used this theory to explain earthquakes. Thales was a hylozoist (literally ‘living matter’) and thought that the world’s matter is alive, making the earth a kind of living animal or machine. He was also a materialist and sensist-he believed that everything is material and founded on the material (today this would be atoms), and also believed that all we can take into account is what we can experience through our senses.

Thales is known as the father of philosophy, and his work was foundational in starting a long line of philosophers who attempted to discover natural explanations for why the world is as it is, rather than using the supernatural, and without Thales who knows what would have happened?

Why we need to be able to be alone with our thoughts

Lingering inside our own heads is a habit which is, at least in the world of work and commute, becoming less and less common. On the way to work adverts are everywhere, telling us how to think and pulling us away from entertaining any thoughts of our own. Phones and other devices enable us to distract ourselves from our minds, also controlling our stream of thought. Little opportunity is there for quiet and distraction-free time just to live inside our own head and explore the vast extent of our own selves. Real time alone is becoming more and more scarce, and it is harder, in a world obsessed with haste and getting as much done as quickly as possible, just to stop and sit in a quiet room. Why is it, though, that Pascal says that all men’s miseries stem from this? Not only does sitting in a quiet room enable us to explore ourselves, but it also provides time for deliberating upon our troubles and contemplating the generally trivial nature of our misery. Without this time, we are unable to separate ourselves from our problems, and thereby we become deeply engrossed and entrenched by our problems, simply because we do not distance ourselves from them, something that can easily be done through simple quiet thought. Sparing time for this basic yet effective action is crucial for dealing with life’s troubles, and gives us time to reflect, a thing which might at first seem scary, yet is on all accounts necessary.

Can anyone know what it’s like to be you?

The idea of subjectivity is one which has been contemplated upon for much time, and a common idea is that we should ‘put ourselves in another person’s shoes’. Yet to what extent is this really possible? We can attempt to imagine what it might be like being another person, but we can’t adequately experience what it means to be another person. We are, however much we like it, penned in by our subjectivity-something we cannot escape. Thomas Nagel writes about this in The Absurd, saying that our attempts to view things objectively conflicts with our subjectivity and that it is this very conflict which makes life absurd. There does seem to be a difficulty in the attempt to view someone’s else life through their perspective-it’s something that we just cannot do, and it seems that our state is inescapable. It is possible to imagine how another person must be feeling, yet this imagining is only based on our own interpretation of what that person is like, as well as our own feelings as to how we would react if certain events had happened to us rather than others. Fundamentally, it is not possible to satisfactorily know what it’s like to be another person. Only you can truly know what it’s like to be you, it seems, and this matter of subjectivity is a concept which has been, and will be, deliberated upon for much time.

It will be worth it

Undertaking a new task, a new challenge, is always difficult. The goals which reap the most are almost always the ones which will require the most effort and the most pain. Yes, it will hurt, for now, and perhaps for a while, but the outcome of that pain will have made it worth it. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and teacher of Emperor Nero, recognised that life is at times, if not always, painful. The endurance of pain itself is testing and undesirable, but the ability to look back, Seneca says, and remember how we endured such pain, is worth much. Not only does it give us the ability to see how far we have come, but also to understand that we are capable of endurance if only we pursued it and willed it strongly enough. The usefulness of pain is an almost eternal concept, an idea which has been supported for thousands of years, and it is certainly true that without sacrifice, nothing can be achieved.

The perils of freedom

Everybody says they want to be free. In the west, freedom is a value which is viciously fought for and supported, yet the freedom we talk of so highly is, in practice, not so sought after as it may at first seem. All around us are things which tells us what to think in the form of advertising, telling us that this is what makes you happy, this is what makes you feel free. The feeds of social media are also places of a certain slavery, in which we are told what to think, who to follow and how to think. The television, our phones, our shopping centres, all of these are places proclaiming and heralding false freedom. These are mediums which tell us-‘look here, if you do this, buy this, watch this, you’ll be free and you’ll be happy’. We consequently believe them and gradually we become hooked on these actions, and what we once thought would make us free now holds us down as a slave caught in an addiction. We say we want freedom, but the way we act suggests we desire quite the opposite. Another form of this rejection of freedom seems to be religion, an organization which likewise says that following the religion will lead to some form of happiness and freedom, be it redemption, salvation or satisfaction. The problem with both of these is that they are things outside of ourselves-they are external to us. We make the fundamental mistake of thinking that freedom will come from something out in the world, when in fact genuine freedom comes from the internal-within yourself. It may come in the form of detachment or the recognition of what is in your control and what is not or the way in which you prepare for and deal with loss and suffering, because once we find a fool proof way of dealing with suffering, then true satisfaction can come, and the only way that works effectively at all is in your own mind. I can’t just tell you this. The only way is to discover this for yourself. And why is it that we fear freedom so much? Because of the responsibility it brings, the unknowns it will show, and the fear of becoming lost. Yet, if we prepare ourselves, we can find freedom, within ourselves, and from there recognise that we will not become lost but we will rather find something worthwhile and good.

The answer is within

An argument greatly in favour of religion is the one which claims that it enables us to be moral, and that without it we would become immoral human beings. People claim that morality comes from God. Everybody recognises today that the Bible is not a moral book-it is literature, rather than a guide on how to live. A common phrase is that without God or religion, how could we be good? How could we even know what was good? Religion has made a fundamental mistake here. It claims morality came from elsewhere and was put into our minds by God. But in fact it is the opposite-morality came from our minds and was then put into religion. What a religion dictates to be right and wrong is not divine revelation or Biblical quotation (although, sadly, some of it is), but is based on what appears to be reasonable. It is thus right reason which dictates to us what is truly right and wrong, rather than God or any so-called religious authority. There is one basic law of morality, and that is to treat others as you would wish to be treated. This comes in different versions, from the Buddha to Jesus to Kant, and it is a law formed by reason. Kant said that two things awed him most: the starry sky above him and the moral law within him. Moreover, he said that great minds think for themselves. This isn’t true because Kant said so, however. It is true because it is reasonable, based on right reason and natural law. The answer about what is right and wrong is not out there, in the external in the forms of dogma or the Bible or religion, rather it is inside us, but only when we allow our right reason to govern our minds through the course of the natural law.

On anxiety

Anxiety is rampant today, and about 40 million people have some kind of anxiety, be it generalised anxiety, social anxiety or another form of which there are many. Anxiety can, of course, be brought on and triggered by many different things, such as an overuse of drugs, addiction, highly embarrassing or stressful situations, or traumatic life events. Given that it is such a great problem today, it is necessary to address it and attempt to offer some solutions to this great problem.

A common technique of battling anxiety is the use of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), a technique invented by Albert Ellis, and in fact Ellis used the ideas of Stoicism to form his main ideas about CBT, particularly the thought of Epictetus, and so it is he which we will focus on here.

Anxiety, Epictetus argues, is something that arises when we desire what is beyond our control. He uses the example of a lyre player-he is only anxious about performing in front of a crowd because he wants to win the approval of the audience, something which is beyond his control. Again, we are anxious because of our great concern for the external, rather than the internal. We wish to control what is beyond our choice and power, and our reliance on the external, especially the opinions of others, is what causes us to be anxious. How do we deal with this then? Epictetus says that like a doctor diagnosing a problem with someone’s liver, one should say that a person has a problem with his desire and aversion, and that it is this which is causing anxiety. Anxiety, it seems, arises from trying to control things we cannot.

Some might say that anxiety is innate, and runs through the core of our being. We are human, and so we just are anxious. It’s a part of our nature. To a certain extent this may be true, yet there is certainly an unhealthy amount of anxiety among many people, and it is this which causes problems. We must first confront anxiety and understand whence it comes-the desire to control things we cannot. After this understanding, we must practice and train ourselves to be less anxious by actually putting ourselves in potentially anxiety inducing situations and trying to deal with them more effectively each and every time.