Introduction to Western Philosophy: Who Were the Presocratics?

While reading up on Richard Feynman, I stumbled upon a fascinating article called The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything. This Farnam Street (FS) piece breaks down the Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s recommended method of learning. The basic premise is that if you want to learn something, pretend that you’re teaching it to a sixth-grader.

Now, due to a very real shortage of sixth-graders in our household, I’m modifying my application of the Feynman Technique. I’m substituting the teaching part with writing, specifically writing articles about Western Philosophy.

This is my attempt at a sixth-grade-worthy Presocratic Cheat Sheet.

Who were the Presocratics (Pre-Socratics)?

The Presocratics were a group of ancient Greek philosophers who flourished around the 6th and 5th century BCE. These ancient thinkers were often credited for kickstarting philosophy in the West and for being some of history’s first scientists. Using their commendable observation skills, an array of ancient math techniques, and the power of inference and deduction, the Presocratics sought to find rational answers to some of mankind’s hardest questions. We’re talking—Why are we here? Where does life come from? What is the Universe made of? How did the Universe begin? How was the world formed? Really thought-provoking questions.

With the advancement of science and technology, we can now say definitively that these philosophers did get a lot of things wrong. But they also got some things right—chief of which is asking the right questions. By asking the difficult questions and going for it, the Presocratics succeeded in changing the way man thinks, forever.

Presocratic philosophers have contributed greatly to science, math, and philosophy. One can even say that they have ushered in the birth of cosmology, logic, and metaphysics. Thanks in part to these early theorists, mankind has broken the tradition of blind belief, turning instead to critical thinking.

Socrates and the Presocratics

Now, with the way the word is structured, Pre-Socratic, it’s easy to assume that these thinkers all came before Socrates. But that assumption is only partially true. While a great number of Presocratic philosophers did precede the Athenian Gadfly, a few of them were his contemporaries.

See, contrary to its confusing prefix, Presocratic isn’t a chronological term. It’s more of an umbrella term or identifier used to describe a group of ancient Greek thinkers that were NOT influenced by Socrates’s teachings. In the end, it all boils down to a difference in topic. Bear in mind that:

Socratic teachings focus on ethics, political philosophy, moral philosophy, epistemology, teleology, and eudaimonia (the life worth living).

While Presocratic philosophy keeps the spotlight on nature, reason, existence, reality, and the universe. Sure, some of these early thinkers did touch on ethics, politics, and religion, but for the most part, their studies had more of a scientific bent. Dissatisfied with the ancient creation techniques, the Presocratics sought to find alternative, logical explanations for the universe’s, the world’s, and man’s existence.

My philosophy reads. Used some websites for research but most of the info here come from three books: Philosophy 101, A History of Western Philosophy, and A New History of Western Philosophy

The Different Presocratic Schools

There were several important schools and major players in the Presocratic scene. The following list is just going to be a quick run-through—a cheat sheet of sorts. I do plan on writing longer articles for each school or philosopher, but until then, we’ll go with key points.

THE MILESIAN SCHOOL (6th Century BCE)

The Milesian School gets its name from the ancient town of Miletus, a Greek colony situated on the western coast of Anatolia (a.k.a., modern-day Turkey). Its philosophers were preoccupied with finding the “material cause” or “basic material” of the universe—a substance which they referred to as the primary principle, the quintessential substance, or archê.

The school produced three key Presocratic thinkers: Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.

Thales of Miletus (c. 625-545/624-548 BCE)

“Water is the first principle of everything.”

Thales of Miletus is one of the most impressive philosophers on our list. He’s a member of the Seven Wise Men of Greece and is often regarded as the founding father of Western Philosophy—though some insist that this is a title he ought to share with Pythagoras of Samos.

Primary Principle: Water
Thales posited that all things originated from water. Depending on who you’re reading, he may have come to this conclusion based on his observations of how water can shift from gaseous to liquid to solid and back again via condensation, evaporation/vaporization, freezing, and melting.

Believed that the Earth is… a flat disk that rests on water.

Is Credited With… Measuring the height of the pyramids through the shadows they casted. He used his own shadow to find the right time to take the pyramids’ measurements.
Had pretty good estimates of the size of the moon and the sun.
Could determine the distance of ships from the shore.

Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610-546 BCE)

“The Earth is cylindrical, three times as wide as it is deep, and only the upper part is inhabited.”

Anaximander of Miletus is thought to have been Thales’s student and successor. He’s also arguably the first philosopher to have kept writings of his work.

Primary Principle: Apeiron
Like Thales, Anaximander thought that everything in existence originated from one substance. But unlike his master, Anaximander thought that this substance wasn’t something readily visible or tangible like water, earth, or fire. He thought it was a boundless, unlimited, interminable, and undefined stuff, which he called Apeiron.  This substancethen produced opposites like hot and cold, dry and wet, which then brought on the creation of the world and all things in it.

Believed that the Earth is…cylindrical in shape.

Is Credited With… Making the first star chart and the first map of the world.
Creating the earliest Greek sundial.

Anaximenes of Miletus (c. 586-526 BCE/fl. 546-526 BCE)

“Just as our soul, being air, constrains us, so breath and air envelops the whole kosmos.”

There’s still some debate as to whether Anaximenes was a student or a friend of Anaximander’s, but what isn’t up for debate is how Anaximenes also subscribed to the idea of a quintessential or primary substance.

Primary Principle: Air
Anaximenes believed that air was the primary substance that made up and brought about the creation of the world. Like Thales, Anaximenes got this idea by observing his surroundings. He thought that air could transform itself into a myriad of other things like clouds, fire, water, wind, and even earth.

Believed that the Earth… was flat, like its surrounding heavenly bodies. He also asserted that the Earth breathed—which, if you think about it, is only partially wrong.

PYTHAGORAS of SAMOS (c.570-495 BCE) | PYTHAGOREAN SCHOOL

“All things are numbers.”

Now here’s a Presocratic school that’s named after its founder. With his invaluable contributions to math (specifically geometry) and philosophy, Pythagoras of Samos might just be one of the most important men in history. And yes, this is the same Pythagoras of the Pythagorean Theorem fame.

On Math and God. Pythagoras of Samos was a curious fellow. A true mathematician at heart, he asserted that mathematics is the key to learning more about the order and structure of the world and the universe. To Pythagoras, mathematics is everything—and the fact that we can explain much of the world through numbers shows that God is likely a geometer.

On Mysticism. Beyond being a school of mathematics, the Pythagorean School was also an ascetic religious brotherhood with exact rules and rituals. These practices ran the gamut of practical to borderline illogical. We’re talking selective vegetarianism, exclusively wearing white clothes, putting on the right shoe first, and the avoidance of beans at all cost.

Is credited with… inventing the word philosopher, from the word philosophos, which means ‘lover of wisdom.’
Discovering harmonic progression and harmonic mean. (The relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals.)

XENOPHANES of COLOPHON (570-475/470 BCE)

“All things are from earth and in earth all things end.”

Xenophanes of Colophon wore a multitude of hats. He was a poet, a philosopher, a staunch critic of polytheism, and a theologian. He had a long life which he spent continually learning, traveling, and writing. Xenophanes often wrote about cosmology and his criticisms of mythology and religion.

On Cosmology. Xenophanes believed that there was a natural link between earth and water, and that water once covered the earth. This was a theory he posited after discovering fossils of sea creatures inland. He also believed that we experienced a new sun every day. Now, whether we’re talking solar regeneration or the actual replacement of the sun, I’m not quite sure. But either way, it’s not as solid as his theory on earth and water.

On Religion. Xenophanes was very much against polytheism and the idea that the gods were anthropomorphic. He criticized mythology and asserted his belief that there was only one God (monotheism) who could control everything with His thoughts.

Is credited with… the observation of fossil records.

EPHESIAN SCHOOL

The Ephesian School of philosophy was established during the 5th Century BCE and was based on the teachings of one philosopher—Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BCE)

“You cannot step into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”

Most of us have come across the saying, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” The expression is often used as an illustration of how everything changes with the passing of time. Well, now it’s time to get to know the Greek philosopher who said it first—Heraclitus of Ephesus. Heraclitus is considered the most famous and the last of the Ionian Philosophers.

On Religion and Cosmology. Many historians think that Heraclitus may have been inspired by the philosophy of Xenophanes of Colophon. They definitely share certain beliefs. Both were very critical of religious sacrifice and the religion of their times. The two philosophers also suggested that the sun was new every day. This was consistent with Xenophanes’s belief in the Cosmic Principle of Reparation or the idea of the Universe as flux—a.k.a. the reason you can’t step in the same river twice.

Primary Principle: Fire
Heraclitus also had a theory on the primary substance of the universe. He believed that the world was ever-living fire. That the soul was made of fire and that fire had the power to change into any other element.

ELEATIC SCHOOL

The Eleatic School of philosophy was established in the 5th century BCE in the ancient city of Colophon in Ionia (present-day Turkey). Its founder, Parmenides of Elea, is believed to have been one of the students of Xenophanes of Colophon.

Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BCE)

“Ex nihilo nihil fit.” (Out of nothing, nothing is produced.)

On Reality and Metaphysics. If Heraclitus was all about movement and flux, Parmenides of Elea was the Ephesian thinker’s opposite. To Parmenides, everything is permanent and static. Nothing is ever in motion. The past, the present, and the future are one and the same.

He also believed that the only thing that is true is what is or what exists. And that to arrive at that truth, to understand and see reality for what it truly is, one has to use pure logic and reason. There’s no room for the subjective data provided by one’s senses because reality has nothing to do with what we experience.

Is Credited With… creating the founding charter for logic-based Metaphysics and Ontology.

Zeno of Elea (490-430 BCE)

“There is no motion, for whatever moves must reach the middle of its course before it reaches the end.”

On Motion. Like his predecessorParmenides, Zeno of Elea believed that nothing is in motion. Since he was a master at creating clever paradoxes, he used these arguments to illustrate the impossibility of movement. His most popular paradox may have been the Achilles and the Tortoise Paradox.

The paradox presented a race between Achilles and a tortoise—hardly seems fair, I know. But then, Zeno decides to try to level the playing field. Why not give the slow-moving tortoise a bit of a head start? Now, common sense tells us that despite the head start, Achilles should be able to catch up to the tortoise after a sprint. However, Zeno disagrees. According to the philosopher, there is bound to be a gap that never ends. Every time Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise was a moment ago, the tortoise would have since moved on.

Melissus of Samos (440 BCE)

“What was ever, and ever shall be. For, it came into being, necessarily, before its generation, there was nothing; so, if there was nothing, nothing at all would come from nothing.” QUOTE

On Reality and Metaphysics. If the idea of nothing arising out of nothing sounds familiar, that’s because Melissus of Samos expounds on the ideas of his master, Parmenides. Like Parmenides, Melissus believed in the unchangeable nature of the Universe. He saw the universe, and actually everything in existence, to be fixed, homogenous, and indivisible.

To the Presocratic philosopher, when a thing is x, it always will be x, and never not x.* Now, I know that sounds tricky, but author Paul Kleinman helps break this idea down in his book Philosophy 101. In Philosophy 101, Kleinman gives us the example of cold water. Imagine a glass of cold water—maybe straight from the fridge or filled with ice cubes. There’s no doubting the coldness of this cold water.

If we were to follow Melissus’s logic, that cold water will remain cold forever. But all of us know from experience that this simply isn’t true. A glass of cold water left on the counter for a day or two is bound to come down to room temperature. If it’s left in a hot car, the water may even become warm over time. And if you wait long enough, it will evaporate leaving no trace of water at all. So much for permanence, right? But that’s exactly Melissus’s point. Beyond absolute truth—or Parmenidean truthnothing ever really is, it just seems.

On Pain and Vacuum. Melissus didn’t believe in pain and the vacuum. As per Melissus, pain isn’t real because the experience of pain implies imperfection in Being. As for the vacuum, its nothingness implies the absence of existence, which goes against the idea of the permanence of Being.

EMPEDOCLES (c. 494-434 BCE)

“Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus, life-bringing Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis, who wets with tears the mortal wellspring.”

Now, here was a philosopher who was able to bring together multiple philosophies and make them his own. Empedocles fuses the philosophies of the Ionians to explain the origins of the universe. Because he borrows concepts from different philosophers, many have alleged that Empedocles may have been a student of Pythagoras, Parmenides, or even Xenophanes. Aside from being a famous philosopher and an avid student to the earlier masters, Empedocles was also a democrat, a counsellor, and a physician.

On the Four Classic Elements as the Roots of the Universe. Empedocles is credited for bringing together the four classic elements—Water (Thales), Fire (Heraclitus), Air (Anaximenes), and Earth (Xenophanes)—and presenting them as the base ingredients of the Universe. What sets Empedocles apart from his predecessors, however, is that he presents these elements as equal contributors/ingredients. 

Now, if the four elements are ingredients, implying passivity from their end, they’re going to need a catalyst or an agent of change to bring them together and to get them to interact. According to Empedocles, these agents are Love and Strife. Love unites the elements and Strife pulls them apart. This “coming together and breaking apart” action is what leads to the creation of more complex beings.  

ANAXAGORAS (c. 500-428 BCE)

“All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite.”

As far as philosopher nicknames go, Anaxagoras has one of the best ones. He was called “The Mind,” a nickname he received due to his study of the Nous (Cosmic Mind) and the role it plays in the creation of the universe.

On the Concept of Nous/The Cosmic Mind. A student of Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, like his master, had a special interest in the way the Universe worked. He believed that the Nous/Mind was divine and unlimited and that it was separate from the body. According to Anaxagoras, the Cosmic Mind set creation into motion and still continues the development of the Universe.

Is Credited With… being the intellectual ancestor of the Big Bang Theory. One of Anaxagoras’s cosmology theories is that the Universe began as a primordial pebble—compact and dense with possibility. The pebble started spinning and threw off air and ether to create the moon and the sun. Anaxagoras also posited that the Universe was ever-expanding, creating multiple worlds like ours.

THE ATOMIST SCHOOL

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” – Democritus

The Atomist School was started by Leucippus of Miletus (fl. 5th century BCE) and was continued by his student Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-370 BCE). Because the two philosophers are often mentioned together, it’s difficult to distinguish each one’s contribution to the theories of Atomism. So, to keep things simple, in this section we’re going to be discussing the Atomist ideas in general.

On Atoms and the Void. The Atomistsbelieved that the physical universe was made up of the Void (the great nothingness) and these miniscule and indivisible bodies called Atoms, (atom being the Greek word for indivisible). So, yes, I think we’re pretty much talking about the same atoms that we studied in science class.

Now, according to the Atomists, atoms are so tiny that it’s impossible to see them with the naked eye. They are also infinite in number and exist in the void. While the void may be vast, the atoms are in constant motion, which means that they frequently collide. Upon impact, the atoms merge to form anything and everything that’s visible and in existence.

Other Philosophy Posts:

Philosophy 101: The Six Branches of Philosophy

Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality

What is Philosophy?

Sources
Kenny, A. (2012). A New History of Western Philosophy (Reprint ed.). Oxford University Press
Kleinman, P. (2013). Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought (Adams 101) (Illustrated ed.). Adams Media
Russell, B. (1967). A History of Western Philosophy) Simon & Schuster/Touchstone

Presocratics Entry at Stanford.edu

Socrates – Wikipedia

Hermann Alexander Diehls – Wikipedia

Presocratics – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Pre-Socratic Philosophy – Wikipedia

Wikiquotes

Achilles Paradox – Britannica

Feynman Technique – Farnam Street

A Year of Reading: What I’ve Read So Far (Books 1-15)

Image by Kaboompicsfrom Pixabay

THE FIRST FEW HOURS of 2020. Like most everyone, I had grand plans for the new decade. Being an enthusiastic list maker, I wrote all those plans down. I listed, categorized, and mapped out all the wonderful things I was going to do this year. The list was lengthy, but I made sure to write down the most important resolutions first. That way, even if I don’t get past the fifth item on my list, I’d still have the most crucial bases covered.

At the very top, (the ones I felt were do or die), were these three goals:

  1. Spend more time with family.
  2. Keep traveling. (On the list were Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, and Singapore.)
  3. Read 52 books this year.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the last few months. Most of my plans have gone out the window. Where I’m at, a simple family visit or a quick trip somewhere is a complicated affair. My city hasn’t come out of lockdown/quarantine since March 16, so non-essential travel still isn’t allowed. So that’s #1 and #2 out of the running.

This brings us to #3. Well, I’m happy to say that #3 still holds a lot of promise. Don’t get me wrong, reading 52 books is a tall order for me. See, I’m a slow reader and a lingerer. I like to read books at least twice—the first time for pleasure and the second time for reflection. Plus, I take notes and that takes forever.

                                         The book that started it all.

Thank God for Children’s Books. In my experience, these books are like sanity balms for these insane times. These books are short, sweet, and soul-saving. There’s a predictability to them that’s comforting. It also doesn’t hurt that these stories rarely stretch past the 200-page territory. Now, I’m bringing this up because you’re going to be seeing a lot of children’s books in this list. Fair warning, my friend.

As I’m writing this, I’m 35 books into my goal. I’m feeling confident about my pace and am also really excited to share my thoughts on each book with you. But because this is an ongoing list (and a really long one too), we’re turning this into a three-parter.

And now, without further ado, here are Books 1-15 in my Year of Reading.

P.S. I’ll be lumping book series together.

#1 Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix;
#2 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; and
#3 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Rating: A
Note: Maybe it was the holidays, but last December I was in a nostalgic mood. In terms of reading, I didn’t want the excitement of new books. I wanted the steadiness and the familiarity of old favorites. So, I went on a full-on Harry Potter binge. I wanted to see if the books were as good as I remembered.

Long story short, they were. The part where Harry tells Dumbledore that he was Dumbledore’s man through and through made me cry. Hard.

Book 4: Emma by Jane Austen
Rating: A
Note: After having read Emma for the nth time, I find myself slowly softening towards Ms. Woodhouse. I used to find her insensitive, manipulative, and spoiled. I still do. But what I regarded before as willfulness, now comes across as blind optimism or good intentions coupled with botched execution.

Book 5: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Rating: A+
Note: Still my favorite book from Austen with Persuasion as a close second.  The angry exchange between Marianne and Elinor—the following immortal lines from the book… perfection.

“What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering. For weeks, Marianne, I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultations again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.”

 

I have very strong feelings about this book. Few of them are good. (But admittedly, it is a book worth reading.)

Book 6: Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Rating: B
Note: I know a lot of people love this book, but I have very mixed feelings about it. That it is well-written is a given. D.H. Lawrence was a very talented writer. However, I also found Women in Love to be dragging at points and its characters absolutely repulsive. The rot, the deception, the pretentiousness of Gudrun, Birkin, Ursula, and Gerald just bled through the pages. They felt so much like real people who I could and would really dislike in real life.

Book 7: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Rating: A+
Notes: I don’t know why it took me so long to pick this book up and give it a go, but I sincerely wish I read it sooner. To Kill a Mockingbird is the best fiction I’ve read this year. The way it tackles such difficult and painful subjects like racism, injustice, and prejudice using a child’s perspective just doubles the impact of the work.

Book 8: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin
Rating: A-
Notes: One of the best self-help books I’ve read in the last few years. Amy Morin offers solid and practical advice for people who want to become mentally tougher. Definitely a book I’d recommend reading this pandemic.

Book 9: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Rating: A
Notes: While The Haunting of Hill House remains my favorite novel from Shirley Jackson, this is a close second. We Have Always Lived in the Castle draws the reader into the twisted world of Merricat and Constance Blackwood. And though you may disagree with Merricat’s reasonings and actions, you do end up understanding or at least following, her warped logic.

Book 10: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Rating: A
Notes: When I was a child, I thought Charlotte’s Web was a good children’s book. Wilbur’s antics made me laugh and Charlotte’s final sacrifice made me cry, but that was that. As an adult, however, I can fully appreciate how good of a book Charlotte’s Web is. It’s heartwarming and impeccably written, although the latter is to be expected. Author E.B. White did cowrite the writing bible The Elements of Style, after all. But what I like most about this book is its delicate but truthful treatment of topics like death and loneliness. 10/10 would read to my future kid.

                            It was a summer for tomato sandwiches…

Book 11: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Rating: A
Notes: As a child, Harriet M. Welsch was my spirit animal. I thought we had a lot in common. We were both prickly, borderline rude, and awkward wannabe writers who were really close to their nannies. I liked Harriet the Spy so much that for an entire summer I snacked on nothing but tomato sandwiches. Mayo and tomato, a dash of pepper, and occasionally, a slice of cheese. Now that still makes my mouth water. Rereading the book as an adult, I see that Harriet wasn’t as nice as I remembered her to be. But she’s still my favorite spy and this is still one of my most-loved books of all time.

Book 12: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Rating: A
Notes: This was the children’s book that began the binge, (outside of Harry Potter, of course). I picked up a new copy of The Hobbit and thought it would be a good time to revisit Bilbo’s adventure. I must say, the book’s pacing was a lot faster than I originally remembered. Still a fantastic journey though. And because I’m in no rush to get to the next scene, I took my time appreciating J.R.R. Tolkien’s stellar writing.

Book 13: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Rating: A
Notes: Like Charlotte’s Web, The Graveyard Book tackles difficult topics like murder, revenge, and death. The difference is that Gaiman takes a slightly more straightforward/realistic approach. Instead of farm animals, we have a living boy surrounded by ghosts, a vampire guardian, a werewolf, and a witch. It’s a beautifully written and heartwarming book with a dose of horror and a dash of adventure to boot. In short, it has something sweet for every type of reader.

                                As important today as it was in 1949.

Book 14: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Rating: A+
Notes: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird might be the best fiction I’ve read this quarantine, but The Second Sex is hands-down the most important book I’ve read in the last few years. Though the book was written in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece is just as relevant today as it was during that period. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate this book, though if you are a feminist, this is a seminal piece you wouldn’t want to miss.

Book 15: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Rating: A
Notes: I can’t help but compare Matilda the book and Matilda the film. Don’t get me wrong, both are fantastic and the film does stay true to the book. But somehow, the book feels darker. Miss Trunchbull reads meaner and more despicable. The neglect that Matilda suffers and the emotional torture that Miss Honey goes through are also more palpable in print than on celluloid. I don’t know why. Either way, it’s a great book. Just fair warning, it does gets dark at times.

And that’s what I have so far. I’m currently writing the post for Books 16-30. Will be adding the link here once that post goes live.

How about you? What literary landscapes have you been exploring this quarantine? Any recommendations for me? Come, drop me a line. 🙂

The Great Escape: On Reading Children’s Books

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

NORA EPHRON ONCE wrote, “Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”

“A day that’s all too real.” I’m sure this is a feeling that we’re all familiar with at this point. When 2020 rolled in, it was full of potential and promise. It wasn’t just a new year; it was an entirely new decade. For a lot of people, myself included, 2020 was supposed to be a year of lasting and positive change. This year I was finally going to get my sh&t together. At least that was the original plan.

Obviously, plans fell through. Nowadays, it’s less getting my sh&t together and more just trying to keep everything from falling apart. Like other anxiety-ridden folks, guilt, overwhelm, and mild panic have become my constant companions this quarantine. And I don’t know about you, but aside from being exhausted 24/7, I find it difficult to focus on anything these days. My writing’s hit an all-time s-low and even my reading comprehension has been affected. Being constantly on edge makes it difficult to find moments of flow, relaxation, and joy.

Thank God for Children’s Books.

I never fully appreciated the beauty and complexity of children’s literature until this quarantine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a fan of the genre. In fact, some of my favorite books are children’s books—A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, The Giver, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, The Little Princess, Black Beauty, and the list just goes on.

In fifth grade, I was especially obsessed with a particular female detective series. And no, it wasn’t Nancy Drew. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Nancy Drew.) It was Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton Mystery Series! I spent the entire year just devouring those 38 books. They were those heavy, clothbound hardbacks with glossy jackets depicting an auburn-haired young woman dressed in gorgeous shirtdresses and camel coats.

I loved everything about those books—the stories, absolutely. The artwork, yes. But I also loved that old book smell, the yellowed pages, the thick, coarse paper, and the large typeface. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think the font used in those books were mostly Bembo—very easy on the eyes. They were just all-around really solid books.

So, I guess I did read and enjoy a fair number of children’s books growing up. But there’s something different about reading children’s books as an adult. When you read your childhood favorites 20 or 30 years down the road, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a wealth of new meanings, a fresh understanding and appreciation of the text. The words themselves haven’t changed, but the context has—you have.

Suddenly, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree has gone from sweet story of a generous tree to something that gives you a soul-deep ache. In my case, revisiting the book after almost 30 years had me crying in bed at 4 a.m. and wanting to see my parents. So, you see, beyond acting as an easy respite from the harsh reality of this pandemic, reading children’s literature can also help you zone in on what’s important in life—family, friends, and the good path.

Most of these books also come with a moral lesson or two, and I think that’s a good thing. Some people don’t like the didactic nature of children’s books, I love it. You want to know how to be a good person, read a children’s book. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

Now, I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time and it was exactly the kind of magic I needed. It reminded me to face each day with courage, integrity, honesty, compassion, and dignity—pretty good perspective to have during a pandemic.

On Writer’s Block.

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Image by Lukas Bieri from Pixabay

Not for the first time in the two decades that I’ve been writing, I whistle but the words would not come. Writer’s block—it has happened before, sure. But never this bad and never this long. It’s as if an expansive blankness has covered everything around me. The senses have dulled and the self has been rendered vacant. The dullness is near-impenetrable. The silence is deafening.

The truth is I have grown accustomed to the mind’s voice and its unstoppable chatter. Its constant narration of the everything of the every day, its rehashing of old conversations after finally finding a good comeback, its self-righteous monologue about something I saw on TV, its existential whinging. My mind is far more verbose than my convoluted prose, but it did let me pull strands of thought ready and ripe for weaving.

Many a night it has woken me from deep sleep, saying, Get up! I have an idea and you need to write it down. Naturally, I would shush it with a pill or smush it with a pillow. Die, die, I would grumble. Those days I felt I needed the shut-eye more than the sound-off. But even as I slipped into the stream of sleep, the mind’s low susurrations became the soundtrack of my slumber. Now, there is nothing. Well, next to nothing.

The ideas still arrive promptly and regularly enough. Insistently enough. Barging into the consciousness, teeming with self-importance. Half-formed but still dazzling with tremendous possibility. Their uncontrollable wildness is a lure, and I do so desire to wrangle them and tame them, to fashion them into something shiny to dress the ego’s mantel. But no sooner have my eyes adjusted to their light, their forms crumble into fine, fine dust. Dust, dust, and nothing but dust.  No amount of coaxing and maneuvering could form anything of substance from this wretched dust.

Oh, if it were only up to me, I would give up chasing my dreams of writing. This compulsion for literary creation. If it were up to me, I would take this barren landscape and grow more productive fruit. Turn to business, make money, be content with a hobby. Read without feeling the familiar itch to also make something of value. But I am far too miserable when I’m not writing. I can’t sit still. I can’t sleep. I’m compelled to keep trying—even if it means penning a long and winding (whining) piece On Writer’s Block.

Philosophy 101: The Six Branches of Philosophy

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A/N: Taking a chronological approach to self-studying philosophy

This year, I have decided to take self-studying Philosophy seriously. Up to this point, I’ve been casually listening to an assortment of podcasts and reading and abandoning texts from Sartre, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Simone de Beauvoir, Descartes, Kant, and Hobbes. Now, if that reads like a mess, that’s because it is.

I have been blessed with a very short attention span, which means that I am almost-hopeless at single-tasking. That spills over to reading. At the moment, I have five unfinished books on my bedside table. Every day, I read a few pages from each book—but it’s a real struggle not to add another one to that pile.

So, as you can see, I am a person that needs structure otherwise I’m all over the place. Hence, the decision to study Western Philosophy chronologically. I figured it would be easier for me to follow the birth and development of various philosophical movements this way, as opposed to randomly moving through philosophers or philosophical teachings.

That being said, on to today’s learnings.

THE SIX MAIN BRANCHES OF PHILOSOPHY

In a previous post called What is Philosophy?, we defined Philosophy as a study that “seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology).” As is evident in that definition, Philosophy is a study that covers a lot of ground. And like other complex fields of study, it is one that contains a multitude of classifications. Today, we’re going to be focusing on its six main branches or themes.

(Note: some sources leave out logic and politics in their lists, but I’m keeping those in.)

METAPHYSICS

Metaphysics is the philosophical branch that studies reality, existence, the nature of being, the physical world, and the universe.

It seeks to answer difficult questions like, what is the nature of reality? How can we say that the world exists outside of our thoughts? How did mankind come to be? How was the universe made? Was the universe made?  How can our disembodied minds control or affect our physical bodies? How can we prove the existence of something? Can “nothingness” exist? Etc.

EPISTEMOLOGY

Then there’s my favorite branch, Epistemology. So, Epistemology is often referred to as the theory of knowledge. It delves into the definition, scope, and parameters of knowledge and knowledge formation. It seeks to explain how we acquire knowledge, how knowledge relates to notions like justification, truth, and belief, and how and where it falls in the spectrum of certainty and error.

It is a study that asks big questions like what is knowledge? What can we know for certain? How do we know what we know? How can we acquire knowledge? What is a justified belief, and what makes it justified? Etc.

LOGIC

Logic is the branch of philosophy that studies reasoning. It teaches us how to differentiate between good and bad reasoning and how to construct valid arguments. It seeks answers to questions like, what is valid reasoning? How can you distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument? How can you spot fallacies or errors in an argument?

Now, we’ve all studied logic in one form or another. In Math class, logic came in the form of puzzles or word problems that required the use of inductive or deductive reasoning to arrive at the right equations or solutions. In English/Speech class, we studied fallacies and paradoxes and solved riddles with inferences, which taught us how to create convincing and logical arguments and how to debate properly. And the list goes on.

ETHICS

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is often referred to as the study of morality. It seeks to address questions about how we should live our lives, how we define proper conduct, and what we mean by the good life. It’s a study that teaches us what the virtuous life is like and how we can put these virtues into practice.

Ethics concerns itself with questions like, what is the good life? How should we act? What do we mean by virtue? What does “right” even mean?

AESTHETICS

In the world of philosophy, Aesthetics refers to the study of everything related to beauty, art, and good taste. This includes how we define art, how we feel when viewing art or witnessing beauty, how we judge works of art, and how we form our taste.

This branch of philosophy concerns itself with questions that include: What is art? What makes an artwork successful? Is art an expression of feelings? Can it be a “vehicle of truth?” Is “good taste” innate or learned? And, is art and morality connected?

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Last on our list is Politics or Political Philosophy. As you can already tell from its name Political Philosophy examines various concepts related to politics, government, laws, liberty, justice, rights, authority, state, and even ethics (ethical ruling). It discusses how states should be built and run, and how its constituents should act.

It posits and attempts to answer questions like What is government? What makes a government work? Why do we need governments? What rights and freedoms should be granted to a state’s constituents? Why should the constituents follow any of the laws set by the government? What is the extent of the power of the government? And so on, and so forth.

Now, these six themes are very broad representations of the many categories in Philosophy. Of course, within these themes/branches are even more philosophical movements that give birth to more studies—seemingly ad infinitum. But that is the nature of philosophy. It’s a thinking subject. It’s a progression. It’s meant to move us forward, oftentimes by looking backwards.

Not-so-random thought:

When one thinks oneself out of a box, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve thought ourselves into another box to think out of.

Sources:
http://www.evphil.com/philosophy-101.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_philosophy
https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_logic.html
Kleinman, Paul (2013). Philosophy 101
Blackburn, Simon (Third Edition, 2016). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Featured Poem: “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson

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Image by gnav from Pixabay

The great South African cleric, theologian, and activist, Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” To say that the last two months have spelled dark times for mankind is an understatement. With most countries under strict lockdown and the global economy sliding towards a worldwide recession, with so many people sick or starving or both, times like these make it difficult to even muster a sliver of hope. And yet these are the moments when we need hope the most.  Hope is what will make it possible for us to put one foot in front of the other, to persevere and stand resilient in the face of utter chaos and uncertainty.

So today, I would like to write about Hope. Or, more accurately, I would like to write about the poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers by the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. This is one of my favorite pieces from Dickinson, and it’s one that I hope would bring a spot of brightness to your day.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
By: EMILY DICKINSON

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The Bird’s-Eye View: A Brief Background on “Hope” is the thing with feathers

That Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) is one of America’s most noted and influential poets of all time is indisputable. The poet was a maverick. She wasn’t afraid to go against the flow of literary trends. At a time when her contemporaries were throwing themselves into creating lengthy, grand, and dramatic pieces—Dickinson pared down her details without sacrificing her message and metaphors. She also had no qualms playing around with punctuations and capitalizations—as you no doubt saw in her poem above.

Another noticeable facet of Dickinson’s writings is the lack of titles. Now, before we go any further with this, it’s important to note that most of the poet’s writings were discovered and published after her death. A lot of the poems didn’t have titles, so editors and publishers went with the poem’s first line.

In the case of our featured poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, the lack of title may have been deliberate. The piece was written and compiled in 1861/1862 in Dickinson’s hand-sewn Fascicle 13, and published posthumously in the 1891 collection called Poems by Emily Dickinson.

Style, Structure, and Punctuation

Like most of Emily Dickinson’s other works, “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a three-stanza lyric poem that’s written in first person. Though with the way the poem is structured, only using “I” and “me” once throughout the piece, the persona takes a backseat to her subject. She is simply narrating, stating facts.

Each line is said with certainty and conviction—“Hope” is the thing with feathers – that perches on the soul.” And the first-person perspective is used only in testament to these “facts.” As if the narrator is saying, “I know this to be true! I know this from experience,” because I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She is telling us a story but in a rather distant fashion, opting to shine the spotlight fully on Hope and not herself.

Another notable feature of the poem is its incredible readability, or rather read-out-loudability. Like the often-recited “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley,  “Hope” is a poem that shines brightest when read out loud. Now, the secret to this lies in the poem’s clever structure. See, “Hope” is the thing with feathers uses alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter to lend the poem its appealing cadence or rhythm (the da-dum quality of its words). It also has a basic ABCB rhyme scheme that translates well to pleasant reading.

As for the poem’s punctuation, I think unconventional is an apt descriptor for Dickinson’s unusual capitalization of common nouns and liberal use of dashes. Let’s start with the capitalization. The common nouns capitalized in the poem are as follows: Gale, Bird, Sea, and Extremity. Now, it’s apparent that the words were chosen to emphasize certain points in the poem.

When Dickinson says And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –, she is referring to how hope often appears during the hardest times. When she drops the word Bird in the second stanza, it’s actually the first time she’s putting a name to her metaphor for hope. And when she says I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea, aside from giving us lovely and contrasting imagery, it’s as if she’s also telling us that hope springs wherever and whenever it’s most needed. Lastly, the capitalization of Extremity serves to emphasize the final line of the poem, (never)… It asked a crumb – of me.

And finally, it’s time to tackle the dashes. For a very short poem, “Hope” has a ridiculous number of dashes—fifteen in total! Now, Dickinson uses the dash liberally and deliberately for two reasons. The first is to emphasize a point or a word. Case in point, in the penultimate line, the word never is highlighted by the dashes that enclose it.  The second reason is for caesura—or to create breaks for the poem’s reader. Much like the way Derek Walcott uses line breaks in Love After Love to create pause points, Dickinson uses dashes to give the reader time to breathe and take in the words.

Poetry Analysis: “Hope” in the Tempest

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

The first line says it all— “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a poem that uses the image of a Bird to describe the qualities of Hope. While it takes an entire stanza for Emily Dickinson to explicitly say bird, the descriptions she uses all but spells it out for the reader. As you can see in the first stanza, the thing the poet describes has feathers, perches, and can wring out a pretty tune. So, the metaphor is easy enough to grasp. However, what the poet does leave out is the type of avian friend we’re facing. Not that it really matters—a change in bird won’t alter the poem’s tune—but some people do think that the bird could be a white dove. This makes sense as the dove is often used in Christian imagery to signify hope.

Now, when Dickinson describes Hope as something that perches in the soul, she tells us where the emotion blooms and resides—in the heart and not as a product of pure rationalization. While the lines about singing the tune without the words and never stopping tells us about the insuppressible and maybe even unreasonable nature of hope. One can have hope even when the odds are stacked far too high for a positive outcome. The feeling is hardly ever ‘logical’ or controllable.

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

Apart from the metaphor of the bird, Dickinson also utilizes seafaring imagery to illustrate the harsh conditions that Hope is able to weather. The words gale and storm appear in the second stanza as situations that try to abash (deflate, humble, or humiliate) Hope. But the little Bird is far stronger than it appears. It will continue its song amidst trouble and thunderstorms. Hope remains constant even when the prospects are dim. It is capable of providing each of us with warmth, comfort, and much-needed reassurance.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

It is here, in the final stanza, that Dickinson uses the words “I” and “me.” As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, the use of these words read like a testimony. It tells us that the narrator knows about the nature of Hope firsthand, because she has heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She tells us that in spite of everything Hope has given her, it has – never – in Extremity… asked a crumb – of me. These last two lines tell us that the persona may need and receive Hope, but that the feeling has never wanted or needed anything from her—not a morsel of acknowledgment or even a crumb of encouragement.  It persists almost independent from one’s reasonings.

A possible nod to Noah’s Ark

At the risk of over-reaching, I was thinking of how the use of seafaring words in the text – things like “Gale,” “Sea,” “Storm,” and “Land” – seem to conjure images of surviving a tempest at sea. If you close your eyes and let Dickinson’s words wash over you, you can imagine being stuck in a ship or a boat while a storm rages on and threatens to upend your vehicle.  With the elements so outside of your control, the only thing keeping you sane is the irrational but unsinkable hope you have for safe passage and survival.

Now, I’m not sure if the imagery was meant to be biblical, but if we go with the theme of the dark and rough seas, you have to admit that there’s something about the poem that harks back to the story of Noah’s Ark. The dire situation, the unending storm, and the bird that carried in its wings the hope of an entire people—these are all elements of the biblical account. Again, I don’t think this was necessarily something that Dickinson had planned out but I still think it is good food for thought.

Book Review: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin

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Developing mental strength isn’t about having to be the best of everything. It also isn’t about earning the most money or achieving the biggest accomplishments. Instead, developing mental strength means knowing that you’ll be okay no matter what happens. – Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

In 2015, psychotherapist and Northeastern University lecturer Amy Morin did a TedxOcala talk called The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong. The talk was a success, garnering over 11.7 million views on YouTube in the last four years. On a personal note, it also happens to be one of the most impactful Ted Talks I’ve ever listened to. To think I almost skipped her speech the first time I heard it! But there was something about Amy Morin’s voice that compelled me to stop and pay attention.

Perhaps it was the curious, tremulous quality of her voice that piqued my interest. After all, the vulnerability her voice betrayed seemed to contrast starkly with the talk’s subject matter. (Of course, this was before I learned that showing vulnerability is a sign of mental strength.) But as her speech went on, and she began talking about her own experiences of grief—having tragically and unexpectedly lost three of her loved ones in a span of a few years—I realized that this was a person who had lived through what she was teaching.

Her work as a psychotherapist may have given her theoretical knowledge on how to deal with grief, but she had more than just her expertise to back her recommendations, she had experience. During the talk, Morin shared a condensed list of the hard lessons she learned during those difficult years. In her book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, she expands the list and expounds on each lesson.

Now, for copyright reasons, I’m not going to go through the entire list of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. If you want the full list, you can view it here on the author’s website. But as a backgrounder for the review, Amy Morin’s list does include the following items:

  1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves;
  2. They Don’t Shy Away from Change;
  3. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone;
  4. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success; and
  5. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything.

Now, if you read a lot of self-help books, you may have already encountered some of the ideas discussed in 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. You may even think, “Well, that’s all just common sense.” But as the old saying goes, “Common sense isn’t always common practice,” and what’s great about Morin’s book is that it gives its readers a chance to bridge that gap between knowledge (common or otherwise) and practice.

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Written in simple and accessible prose, 13 Things is a very easy and helpful read. It’s packed to the brim with relatable anecdotes from both the everyman, (usually the author’s patients), and key figures in history. Morin uses their stories to underscore the importance of each lesson and to illustrate how we can apply these learnings in our own lives.

Another thing I really like about 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is how each chapter is structured to maximize the reader’s takeaway and to improve recall of the book’s key points. This is particularly important because as Morin stresses at the start of the book, developing mental strength requires practice. You don’t just read a book and become instantly better. The process of betterment is an ongoing one that requires consistent recalibration and reflection. And the fact that each chapter includes a checklist of “symptoms,” a list of benefits, and separate sections on What’s Helpful and What’s Not Helpful, makes it easier and quicker to review the most important ideas in the text.

Yes, but does it work?

I suppose that’s the big question isn’t it? Is the book effective? Does it work? Well, in my experience, I started reading the book at a time when I really needed some guidance. I had been feeling the blues for a while and was experiencing serious self-doubt over whether or not I could make something out of my life. I was teeming with insecurities, resentments, and self-loathing. So, you can say that the timing was right. Like any other self-help book out there, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is only as effective as you want it to be. As Lao Tzu puts it, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

And I sincerely believe that Amy Morin’s book has a lot to teach us. That is, if we’re willing and ready to listen. So, though not terribly “original” in terms of ideas, 13 Things does deliver as an efficient and potentially practicable self-help book. At the very least, it provides readers with the tools they need to apply change in their lives. All in all, this is a pretty solid self-help book. I’d say right in the region of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”

Rating: A-

Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality

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Image by: Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

Frank Herbert once said, “To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.”

Now, being inspired by aphorisms like YOLO (you only live once) is one thing. I mean, true, there is emphasis on having one life, but it’s easy to stay positive when the conversation is about life or living. However, when you throw in words like mortality and impermanence, when the focus shifts to death, well, that’s when things can take a turn for the bleak. For most people, myself included, the idea of facing one’s impending death is a terrifying thought.

Sure, one can talk about death and the permanent peace that comes with it. But oftentimes when such talk arises, it’s one that’s cloaked in abstractness. For the healthy person, at least, death may seem like a concept—a faraway thing separate from the reality he/she inhabits.

The truth is that few people want constant reminders of the impermanence of everything—especially life. It’s certainly not small-talk material. And yet, many mental health experts believe that facing and accepting one’s mortality can be an important ingredient to a better life. In Stoicism, for example, the path to eudaimonia, a.k.a. the life worth living, requires reminding yourself of the transient nature of your life and everything and everyone you hold dear.

In Massimo Pigliucci’s enlightening book, How to Be a Stoic, he asks the readers to come to terms with the impermanence of everything. He introduces the short Latin phrase used by Roman generals to remind themselves of their mortality—memento homo, Remember, you are only a man.

Now, I don’t quite know where the phrase originated from, but according to this source, Julius Caesar had asked an Auriga (slave) to whisper it to him during his victorious march.  Memento homo was a way for the great Roman General to keep his mortality and humanity in mind in the face of his great achievements. I guess in a way it was there to keep the general’s head in the game by keeping his ego in check. And that makes perfect sense. Ancient Rome was a place rife with plotting, conniving, and murder. Letting your guard down at any moment could prove fatal. Just ask any of the 80+ Roman emperors who were assassinated.

That’s all well and good for the ancient Romans, but how exactly does facing our mortality benefit us, the modern common folk? Well, for this lifelong student, the following advantages come to mind:

Contemplating and accepting our mortality gives us time to make preparations for the inevitable.

A former colleague once joked about the best graduation gift he’s ever received. It was a funeral plan, complete with his own plot of land where he could set up camp permanently in the very distant future. I remember we all got a big laugh out of it. We were all in our early 20s and the gift had seemed ridiculous then. Fast-forward to a decade later and the gift no longer seems ridiculous—if anything, it’s practical. The last few years have taught me that death is almost always unexpected. And while I’m not telling anyone to start purchasing funeral plans, or start giving them out to friends and family at Christmas, at a certain point, we’ll all have to start making some preparations.

Whether it’s setting up a trust fund for the kids, investing in life insurance, drafting a will, or creating a map that details the location of buried treasure, I think it might somewhat help our loved ones when it’s our time to go. Of course, having a ready last will and testament will not lessen the pain experienced by one’s family, but it might prevent further friction between them. I have heard about too many families fight over property, money, and other assets. If we can help save them from that kind of pain, why wouldn’t we?

Pondering death can motivate us to live our lives intentionally.

When somebody asks you, “What is your life’s purpose?”, sometimes it may sound like a loaded question, an opening for judgment. There is pressure to give an answer that would be considered noble, grand, or laudable. Now, I know a lot of people who struggle with this question. However, the upside of choosing your life’s purpose is that you get to decide on which things give your life meaning. The truth is that you define your own goals and objectives. No one else has the right to fault you for whatever answer you may have, or if you choose not give an answer at all. As the Wiccans put it, “Do what you will if it harms none.”

And the beauty of pondering and accepting the inevitability of death is that, in a way, it can help motivate you to pursue your dreams and to focus on the things that give your life value. Life is short—oftentimes, it feels too short. So, there’s no better time to start building the life you want than the present. Whether or not you achieve all your dreams isn’t as important as going after them. That is what it means to live your life with purpose.

Remembering that we must return to dust teaches us to appreciate what we have.

Take a deep breath and picture everything and everyone you love. Let your mind’s eye dwell on every detail of every person, pet, item, or place that brings your life tremendous joy or meaning. Do you have a clear picture yet? Now, imagine each one fading into nothingness. One day, everything and everyone we love will be taken away. Either we’ll go first or they will. This is the impermanence of everything.

It’s hardly a comforting thought, I know. But you know what is comforting? It’s the fact that we’re still here—and if we’re lucky, most of the things and people we love are still here as well. Our time on Earth is very limited. So, why don’t we spend the time we have left to show our love and appreciation for our loved ones? Now, before the clock runs out.

Thinking about death offers liberation from stigma and definition.

This is where memento homo really kicks in. Imagine being one of those triumphant Roman generals. You have vanquished your enemies and you might just be the most powerful man or woman in one of the most powerful empires of all time. You are the top dog. It’s so easy to get swept up in the hype (whether yours or other people’s), and you may even fancy yourself god-like with all your amazing achievements. Then, an Auriga comes up to you and whispers, “Remember, you are only a man.”

Now, let’s flip the coin. Imagine being the general who is forced into retreat. The advancing powers have left your army decimated and you have escaped by the skin of your teeth. You are cloaked in shame and are consumed with the guilt of having disgraced your family, your ruler, and your people. You weep at the thought that your name is forever sullied by your defeat. Then, the Auriga’s words ring clear in your memory, “Remember, you are only a man.”

While, as mentioned earlier, the reminder brings a unique set of advantages to an actual general/dictator/emperor, remembering that you will one day be gone and even forgotten is still pretty good advice today. It teaches you to see yourself beyond your reputation (how other people see you), your greatest strengths, and your most staggering failings. You are going to be just one of the many people who have graced the Earth. You are neither your greatest achievement nor your greatest failure. There’s a certain poignancy and freedom that comes with truly understanding that statement.

Knowing and understanding this can help free you from whatever definition or stigma you may carry inside of you. Here is a simple fact of life. We all win some and lose some and that’s all part of the journey.

Accepting our mortality reminds us to be mindful and to live hic et nunc (here and now).

The minute we’re born, our body’s countdown to the end begins. It’s a peculiar clock. There’s no way to see how much time we have left. We have no way to halt or significantly slow its pace, though a myriad of things can quicken its ticking. This should be a reminder to us that each moment we have is precious and should not be wasted.

I believe that instinctively, we all know this to be true. And yet, so many of us still spend our days just half-present. Somehow the days meld together into an unrecognizable heap that by the end of the week, we can’t even remember what we had for breakfast last Wednesday. While man has yet to discover how to physically time travel, our minds have become proficient at living in the past and worrying about the future. Going through life in this manner, speeding through life just half-there to experience the ride is a surefire way to gather deathbed regrets. And what use is regret when you can no longer rectify your errors?

This is where the importance of mindfulness and living in the hic et nunc (here and now) comes in. When faced with certain death, you wouldn’t want to be the person who spends your final hours taking stock of the countless should’ves, would’ves, and could’ves. So, slow down. Be here now. Live every moment with intention and appreciation. Make use of the time you have left wisely and deliberately.

Book Review: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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It was a shooting that inspired outrage throughout the globe. On October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was on her way home from school when her school bus was stopped just a few hundred meters from a checkpoint in Swat Valley. A young man boarded the van and asked a single question, “Who is Malala?”

Though none of her schoolmates had answered, some of the girls had looked over at her. The man aimed at her and fired three shots, one of which hit Malala square in the left eye socket. The Taliban bullet was intended to silence the young woman forever, but instead, it only served to make Malala’s voice louder—and this time the whole world was listening. Almost overnight, Malala Yousafzai became the face and the voice of all Pakistani girls who were struggling to get an education at a time when the Taliban was blowing up their schools and demanding purdah or risk violence or even death.

In I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (with the help of Christine Lamb) bravely tells her story. She talks about how it was like growing up in the beautiful Swat Valley, the Switzerland of Pakistan, and how the Taliban had tried to eradicate all that was wonderful in her homeland—their culture, their history, their art, architecture and music, and the Pashtun way of life.

A Name Fit for a Hero

“I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.” – p.13

When Malala was born on July 12, 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan, her father, Ziauddin, and her mother, Toor Pekai, were over the moon. While most Pashtuns considered the birth of a daughter as a “gloomy” event, her parents saw to it that her birth was properly celebrated. Her father asked the community to throw coins, candies, and dried fruits into her cradle—a custom typically reserved for newborn sons. Ziauddin even insisted on adding Malala to the Yousafzai family tree, which prior to that moment only included the names of male relatives.

He also named her after a revered Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand. Legend has it that when the war against the British broke out, Malalai’s fiancée was among the thousands of Afghans who fought against the invading forces. Like the rest of her village’s women, Malalai took to the battleground to bring aid and water to their troops. When the flagbearer fell, Malalai bravely took his place. She could see that her countrymen were losing hope. So, the young woman took off her white veil, raised it overhead, and began marching with the troops. She cried out, “Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.” She died fighting for what she believed in.

That Malala had been named after one of the most courageous women in history is incredibly fitting. She is, after all, a hero in her own right. But the choice of her name also reflects her parents’ incredibly progressive views, especially that of Ziauddin’s. Even as a young man, Malala’s father had believed in the importance of education—not just for the boys of the village, but for the girls as well. His dream—a dream that was realized in the early 2000s—was to open a school that all the village’s children could attend. In I am Malala, we actually see Ziauddin’s struggle to keep his school open and afloat.

Ziauddin’s eloquence, high morals, and commitment to education for all made him a popular member of their community. It also made him a target for the ultra-conservative members of the town. One mullah* (Muslim scholar) in particular, Mufti Ghulamullah, tried multiple times to close down Ziauddin’s school. He claimed, “Ziauddin is running a haram* (forbidden by Islamic law) school in your building and bringing shame to the mahalla* (neighborhood).”

Despite the mullah’s many protests, Malala’s father kept his school open. Time and again, Ziauddin argued and won his case in front of the village elders. But what the family didn’t expect was that bigger trouble was just beyond the horizon. Within a few short years after issues began for the Khushal school, the Taliban hit their valley.

The Rise of the Taliban: Children Caught in the Crossfire

“Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading, doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time it was our future.” – p.136

When Malala was just ten years old, news broke out about trouble in other parts of Pakistan. Religious extremists had begun banning and destroying DVD and CD shops, attacking cinemas, and harassing men dressed in Western-style clothing. The women were also being forced into purdah—the practice of keeping Muslim and Hindu women covered up and in seclusion. But for the people of Swat Valley, life went on as usual. That is, until the rise of Radio Mullah.

The rise of the Taliban in Swat Valley started out innocuous enough. Maulana Fazlullah, a 28-year-old former pulley operator, began a radio program called Mullah FM. He used his program to voice his very traditional views about everything; from haircuts to vaccination, beard length to the ‘proper way of dressing.’ But as Fazlullah gained a large following, his prescriptions to his listeners became more and more extreme. He began speaking out against the education of women and the need for purdah. He turned tyrannical, urging violence against anyone who disobeyed Taliban laws or dared to speak out against him.

Music, movies, board games, television, and all radio stations apart from Radio Mullah were banned. Dancing was banned. And then the Taliban began blowing up schools and cultural sights. They strong-armed their way into Swat Valley, destroying homes, killing offenders and detractors and dumping their bodies in the town square. They tried to scare everyone into compliance, but Ziauddin and his family would not be silenced.

How One Girls’ Voice Landed Her in Trouble with the Taliban

“If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” – p.131

At every turn, Ziauddin spoke out against Fazlullah. He organized peace marches, met up with various village leaders, and created a group that was designed to protect the rights of the community, including the right of all children to an education. He also convinced some of his female students to speak out about how the growing militancy in the area was forcing many of them to drop out of school. Malala, of course, was the most outspoken of the girls.

She was determined to let the rest of the world know how the Taliban was destroying her hometown. Like Ziauddin, Malala placed tremendous importance on the education of girls. Her dream was for every girl in Swat to be free to go to school regardless of their financial situation. So, she spoke out. At first, she did so ‘anonymously’ by writing an online journal for BBC Urdu where she talked about life under Taliban rule. To protect her identity, she opted to write under the pseudonym Gul Makai. But her anonymity was short-lived.

Pretty soon, Malala was speaking out against the extremist group freely and openly. She gave interviews to various local and international news agencies. The awards and the prizes began rolling in. And yet, despite the recognition she received, Malala knew that none of it would amount to anything if her dream wasn’t realized.

“I began to see the awards and recognition just like that. They were little jewels without much meaning. I needed to concentrate on winning the war… We decided to spend the rest of the money on people who needed help. I wanted to start an education fund.” – p.201

And just as quickly as the awards came, so did the threats against her family. Now, what makes Malala’s case especially commendable is how she didn’t go into it blindly. In the book, she talks about how she prayed for strength every day and how she’d check the gates and doors at night to make sure they were locked. Malala’s actions exhibited true courage. As the Nelson Mandela quote goes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

From Peshawar to Birmingham: The Fight Continues

The day Malala Yousafzai was shot was a day of chaos for the people in Swat Valley. To protect her against further attacks, the gravity of her injuries was kept secret even from her family. She spent the first two days in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Peshawar before being airlifted to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi, where doctors and nurses worked round-the-clock to save her.

The hospital was put into lockdown. Snipers were positioned on the hospital roof and soldiers were posted all over the area. The Pakistani government was determined to find her shooter, even offering 10 million rupees for any information regarding the gunman.

Although Malala was expected to survive, a sudden swelling in her brain forced doctors to perform a risky emergency procedure that included the removal of a part of her skull. The surgery was successful and the swelling went down, but there was still the question of rehabilitation which was bound to take months. The security risk was too great to keep her where she was.

After much weighing of political ramifications and logistics, the government decided to send Malala to the Queen Elizabeth Medical Center in Birmingham—a hospital that specialized in emergency care and rehabilitation. After a few weeks, her family was allowed to follow her in England, where they have since remained.

It took almost three months before Malala could join her family in their temporary lodgings in the West Midlands. A month later, she underwent another surgery to restore her hearing and help reconstruct her skull. Since her successful recovery, Malala has become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2014) and has continued her activist work for girls’ education in Pakistan. And though the book may have concluded with her recovery, her fight continues today.

Not a Quick or Easy Read but an Incredibly Important One

At just 310 pages, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is a pretty slim volume. It’s certainly one of the shortest autobiographies I’ve read thus far. And yet, despite just being over 300 pages long, with a good few pages dedicated to pictures of Malala and her family, it still took me several days spread out in the course of three months to finish the book.

To be clear, it’s a very well-written book, and a definite page-turner from a quarter in onwards. But it did take a while for me to get used to the writing style. Part-history lesson and part-narrative, I am Malala is a highly informative book that intersperses the history of Pakistan’s politics with Malala’s own experiences. The book provides multiple heavy but eminently necessary backgrounders on the changing sociopolitical climate of the country. The shift in tone can be a little hard to read or jarring the first few times you encounter it, but the deeper you go (and the more you understand about her homeland and their culture) the more gripping the book becomes.

It’s a heavy book to be sure, but it’s one that should be read by as many readers as possible.  Malala’s story is one that must be told again and again until it generates the force needed to create positive change.

Rating: A

What is Philosophy?

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Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

The word Philosophy is rooted in the Latin word Philosophia—a portmanteau of the two Ancient Greek words: philos which means loving and sophia, which means wisdom. So, you can say that the literal and original translation of Philosophy is the “love and pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.”

Nowadays, however, the word has taken on a broader meaning. In everyday conversation, the word is often used to refer to a person’s values and ideologies. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to their belief systems as their philosophy/ies in life. And the usage would still be correct. However, for the purpose of this post, and most succeeding posts pertaining to this subject, we’ll be examining and using the definition of the academic discipline called Philosophy.

Merriam Webster offers a broad definition of Philosophy as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life.” While Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive definition with, “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Now, whether you choose to go with the Merriam Webster definition or that of Wikipedia’s, you come away with a fundamental understanding that Philosophy is a thinking subject. One that requires effort, action, and deliberateness. It is a subject that seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology). It’s also an incredible history lesson because it gives you a glimpse of the prevalent ideologies and belief systems of various civilizations throughout the ages.

If the definition seems expansive, that’s because it is. After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Philosophy is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Through the constant thinking, imagining, and overthinking of various philosophers throughout history, humankind has come away with a thirst for discovery and knowledge. If curiosity killed the cat, the philosophers’ curiosity birthed modern science, critical reasoning, logic, and many of the plotlines of today’s best works of art, film, and literature.

Trivia Time: Plato’s belief that everything in the universe is patterned after “invisible geometrical shapes” (Platonic solids) helped start the study of Modern Chemistry. His telling of the story of “The Ring of Gyges” in The Republic is also the inspiration behind Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” As for Aristotle, he happens to be the father of the species-genus classification that we use in Science today! He also believed the world was round long before Copernicus was even born. He came away with this conclusion after studying the lunar eclipse and the shadows created by the Earth against the Moon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, you see, Philosophy has taught us a great many things throughout history—and it continues to offer us a plethora of learnings today. By offering us multiple perspectives on life, meaning, reality, et al., it helps expand our mindset. It teaches us to become more logical, introspective, openminded, and consequently, empathic. And since creativity means venturing past reality into the realm of possibility, there’s a great chance philosophy can also help widen and deepen our thinking process, i.e. make us more creative. All good things in my book.

 

Recommended Read: The website Philosophy Basics offers an excellent collection of the many definitions of Philosophy that you’ll find online and in various dictionaries.

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Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?