Plotinus & Neoplatonism

Plotinus lived in the 3rd century AD during one of the most disastrous periods of the Roman Empire. It is not surprising that he turned away from the real world to contemplate Plato’s perfect and eternal world of ideas. His influence on Christian philosophy was enormous, and the ‘other world’ would become the Christian kingdom of heaven. ‘Platonism’ (including Neoplatonism) forms a key part of the foundation of Christianity, and without it Christianity would be unrecognisable or may not have existed. Russell describes Plotinus as a ‘melancholic optimistic’. In the kind of world in which he lived, if happiness from thought and imagination can be achieved at all, it is through reflection on things that are remote from the senses and not derived from the everyday world. Plotinus is someone who was unhappy in a mundane sense but succeeded in finding happiness in the world of theory. In an intellectual sense he can also be credited with clarifying and developing Plato’s teachings.

The Holy Trinity

Plato as reflected in the work of Plotinus is narrower than the real Plato. Plotinus focuses on the theory of ideas, and largely ignores subjects such as politics and mathematics (although Plotinus did attempt unsuccessfully to setup a new city based on Plato’s republic to be called Platonopolis, but the project did not get the support of the Emperor). Plotinus’ metaphysics starts with a Holy Trinity: The One, Spirit and Soul. As with Christianity these are not equal; The One is most important, followed by Spirit and then Soul. The One is also referred to as God, but is unknowable and indefinable, so we should not try to describe it. We can only say that it transcends being, and is present in all things. Spirit is next, but Russell tells us this is an imperfect translation of the original Greek word ‘nous’, as it doesn’t sufficiently communicate the intellectual connotation. Spirit is the means in which God sees itself and the world. To use an analogy, if God is the Sun, then Spirit is the light of the Sun. Spirit can also be thought of as the Divine Mind or Intellect. We can get closest to understanding the Divine Mind when we focus our minds not on the sensible world (things that we can detect with our senses) but on the super-sensible world. The true goal of our souls is to admit the light of the spirit, and therefore to experience divine inspiration. Plotinus refers to this feeling as ‘ecstasy’ (which means standing outside one’s own body).

Soul & Matter

Soul can be thought of as the offspring of The One, and it is Soul that creates the material (or sensible) world. It does this from memory of the intellectual (or super-sensible) world to form a copy, which is why the material world is inferior to the intellectual and doesn’t capture its full beauty. There is also a duality to Soul. The inner soul faces upwards towards Spirit and the outer soul faces downwards towards the material world. The outer soul is the inferior part, and represents Soul when it is not acting as it should. The question of which part of the soul is dominant varies with each soul. Matter is made when a part of Soul descends and enters it (thereby becoming separate from Soul in general), and it does so through a desire to recreate the intellectual world on earth. This is somewhat analogous to a composer who hears a new piece of music in their mind and tried to recreate it on paper. When Soul leaves a body it will return to the intellectual world, unless it has sinned in which case it will enter another body until it has repented. Soul is immortal, but when it returns to the intellectual world it forgets its experiences in the material world.

Neoplatonism is full of hope and idealism, but requires both moral and intellectual effort. This helped to ensure that early Christianity was not a purely superstitious doctrine. Neoplatonism also had a negative legacy. It encouraged people to look inward and to ignore the material world, which discouraged attempts to better understand and improve the world. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century marked the end of philosophy in the style of Greek culture, to be replaced by thinkers whose purpose was to provide intellectual weight to the doctrines of Christianity.

Stoicism

Stoicism was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BC, but would have a longer existence than contemporary Hellenistic doctrines. Its most famous following was the Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius who lived in the 2nd century AD. The Stoics believed in determinism, which says that the course of events is already determined by natural laws which are created by God. They believed that God created the world such that everything has a purpose that is connected to mankind (to give Russell’s example, even bed bugs are useful to us as they prevent us staying in bed too long). God is the soul of the world and is contained in everything, including people. The cosmos is naturally created and destroyed in never-ending cycles, such that everything that happens has already occurred many times.

Virtue & Happiness

The only important thing in life is to be ‘virtuous’, which means to live in harmony with nature. Determinism says that nature has already decided what will happen to us, but the virtuous person’s desires are consistent with nature and so will always be satisfied. The wicked will fight a constant losing battle with nature and be always unhappy. The Stoic Epictetus said that we are actors in a play in which God has assigned the parts. It is our duty to perform those parts, and if we are virtuous we will find happiness in that. Beyond acting virtuously nothing else is important, including possessions, health and freedom. As long as we eliminate our desires for such things we can always be happy, because we can always live virtuously. It is within our own control regardless of our circumstances and relies on no external factors. Indeed, suffering cruelty and injustice give good opportunities to exercise virtue. Socrates is the saint of the Stoic doctrine, having been indifferent to all bodily comforts and extremes of hot and cold, and in the way that he faced death calmly, safe in the knowledge that he would die virtuously.

The Problems with Stoicism

However, this ethical doctrine does present problems for the modern mind. If the world is completely deterministic, does that mean that some people are compelled to be wicked and unable to be virtuous? If virtue and sin alike are the inevitable result of previous causes then what is the point in trying to act morally? Further, if we can feel virtuous (and therefore content) when subjected to cruelty, is cruel behaviour to be accepted or even encouraged? What is the point in being virtuous other than a sense of serenity? Combined with determinism and the inevitable destruction of the world at the end of the current cycle, it is easy to feel a strong sense of futility in Stoicism. There is also a certain coldness to the doctrine. Passions good and bad are to be avoided, because they don’t contribute to virtue. Why should I feel sad if a friend or even family member dies, given that it is no obstacle to me living virtuously?

Russell highlights two contradictions within Stoicism. The first is that Stoics at various times believe in both free will and determinism. A Stoic might refute this apparent contradiction by saying that God is free and freely chose to create the laws of nature which determine all subsequent events. God exists in everything including us, and so the divine part of each of us would choose to act in line with Gods laws of nature if we were free, so effectively we are free when we act virtuously. This theory seems unsatisfactory when tested against specific cases, such as when one’s resilience is tested by tyranny and torture, or when we choose to intoxicate ourselves with drugs. The other contradiction is that the Stoics preached the importance of benevolence whilst also believing that there are no good or bad actions, because everything that happens is pre-determined by the will of God. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent his time administering the empire to promote the happiness of his subjects when according to Stoic philosophy he should have left them to it. It appears that Stoic philosophers had one standard for themselves, but did not expect others to be able to meet those standards. A Stoic might say that the result of acting virtuously is that others benefit in some way (e.g. in happiness, wealth or well-being), but this is a side effect which is ultimately worthless. However this is impossible for most people to accept.

Hellenistic Philosophy

The period of the Macedonian empire (including the successor states) in the 3rd century is known as the Hellenistic, and was characterised by subjection and disorder. Fear replaced hope within philosophy, and the predominance of ethics replaced the innocent search for knowledge and truth of the earlier Greek age.  Philosophers asked how mankind could be happy in a world of suffering. During this period four schools of philosophy were founded: the Cynics, Sceptics, Epicureans and Stoics. This post deals with the first three.

The Cynics

The school of the Cynics was founded by Diogenes who was a contemporary of Aristotle. He decided to live like a dog and was therefore called a ‘cynic’, which means ‘canine’.  He rejected all conventions of society and became a beggar. There is a famous story that Alexander the Great visited him and asked if he desired any favour, to which Diogenes replied ‘only to stand out of my light’. His philosophy is based on the belief that the world is bad, so it is best to be independent of it. Worldly goods are precarious and so should be treated with indifference – only subjective goods such as virtue are to be valued, and through this attitude one may be freed from fear. This aspect of Cynicism heavily influenced the Stoics, but the rejection of society did not. It was only later that the word Cynic took on its modern meaning. The followers of Diogenes took it to greater extremes, preaching for example how silly it is to mourn when one’s friends or family die. They did not teach abstinence from good things but rather indifference, and it is easy to see how this might be a convenient doctrine for some, when acting cynically in the modern sense.

The Sceptics

Philosophical Scepticism said that there could never be any logical basis for preferring one course of action over another, and that it is impossible to ever know anything for certain. For some this was reassuring. We are all equally wise or foolish, and there is no point worrying about the future as it is entirely uncertain – best to focus on enjoying the present. One basis for Scepticism was the weakness of deductive reasoning that every argument has to start with a principle that is assumed to be self-evident. If you deny that anything is self-evident then all deductive arguments fall apart. Sceptic teachers were given to deliberately presenting both sides of an argument to demonstrate that there is never a clear answer. While the Sceptics were quite successful in turning people away from their State religions, it offered only doubt and nothing positive. The exception to this was those Sceptics who thought in degrees of probability. While we can never feel certainty, we can at least say that some things are more likely to be true than others.  

The Epicureans

The Epicurean school is name after its founder Epicurus, who believed that the goal of life is a happy life. ‘Virtue’ is a meaningless word, and justice consists in acting in a way which ensures that other people like you. Unusually for a philosopher he believes pleasure of the body is more important than pleasure of the mind (including the pursuit of wisdom and culture). The main benefit of the mind is in learning to contemplate bodily pleasures when not actually experiencing them. However Epicureanism is not Hedonism. In an age of relative scarcity and uncertainty Epicurus wants (for example) to always feel happy in having eaten enough. Having a gluttonous desire to eat means a reliance on external factors and indicates the pain of hunger. Over-eating comes with its own problems. Epicurus lived a simple life and ate only bread and water, except we are told for a little cheese on feast days. He abstained from public life, as it would only lead stress and worries, and to envy from others. One should avoid passionate relationships as the risk of pain is too great. Measured friendships are the best forms of relationship. The prudent and quite life is the surest way to happiness.

Epicurus believed that the two greatest sources of fear are religion and the fear of death. These are related – he believed religion encouraged a fear of the afterlife, because of the risk of going to hell. He also believed that the idea of the gods interfering in our lives was a source of fear, so set out to prove that they don’t. He preached that the soul disperses when the body dies and is no longer capable of consciousness or sensation, meaning that there is no afterlife. Epicurus accepted that the gods exist (on the basis that everyone else did), but said that they were Epicurean by nature. As an Epicurean avoids public life, so the gods avoid meddling in the affairs of people. However, other than a guide to a happy life the Epicureans contributed very little in terms of knowledge and understanding, and had no interest in science. Epicurus was dogmatic, and his followers did nothing to develop his beliefs after he died. Among Philosophers the schools of Stoicism and Neoplatonism were always favoured.

Aristotle (part 2) – Politics, Logic & Physics

Politics

Following on from my previous post, ethical virtues are aimed at achieving happiness, but happiness also requires communities to be organised in a political State. Indeed the purpose of the State is to facilitate the happy life of its citizens, by introducing laws which encourage virtuous behaviour. People cannot fulfil their natural function unless they are part of a State, in the same way that an eye cannot see unless it is part of the body. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle defends private property on the basis that things held privately are better looked after, and because it is necessary for virtues such as benevolence and generosity. He believes in equality in proportion to virtue. Reminiscent of Animal Farm, this suggests that the more virtuous should be ‘more equal’. Aristotle does not address the issue that virtue is very difficult to measure, and in reality will be equated to wealth. As Russell says, every kind of ‘justice’ other than absolute equality will in practice reward some quality other than virtue, and should therefore be condemned.

It is curious that Aristotle believed that the Greek City State was the ideal form of State at a time when Alexander the Great was proving it to be obsolete. He says that the State must be able to defend itself in war at a time when Athens and the other city states had recently been conquered by Macedonia. His failure to give any mention to Alexander and the emerging period of empire appears wilful. It is impossible to know how much influence these two had on each other, but Russell believes it to be nil. He cannot see anything in Alexander that could be attributable to the teachings of Aristotle, who may have seen Alexander as idle, headstrong and impatient of schooling. Aristotle’s ‘rule by cultured gentlemen’ would not appear again until the Renaissance and the Italian City States.

Logic

Aristotle’s influence was greatest in the field of logic, where his pre-eminence lasted until the modern era. Russell writes that he made a great advance upon his predecessors, but his work turned out to be a dead end, leading to 2000 years of stagnation. Aristotle’s most important work in logic is the doctrine of the syllogism, which is an argument consisting of three parts: a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion.  For example, ‘all men are mortal (major premise), Socrates is a man (minor premise), therefore Socrates is mortal (conclusion)’. This is the beginning of formal logic. Aristotle believed that if all arguments are written in syllogistic form it is possible to avoid all fallacies. However Russell presents some criticisms to this system, for example the over-estimation of the syllogism which is only one type of deductive argument (deduction being to start with a universally believed premise and deduce a specific conclusion from that premise). This can be shown by the fact that Mathematics is wholly deductive but it would be absurd to try and write Mathematical arguments in syllogistic form. Another criticism is the over-estimation of deduction relative to induction (starting with observations and using this information to generate new knowledge). This is a criticism that applies to all ancient Greeks. Using the above example of syllogism, we start by assuming that ‘all men are mortal’ based on the historical evidence, but it is possible that some people alive today may live forever. I won’t spend any more time on this topic, noting Russell’s view that any person today who wishes to learn logic will be wasting their time if they read Aristotle.

Physics

Russell is no more forgiving of Aristotle’s scientific work, noting that Aristotle dominated science until the time of Galileo, but hardly anything he writes can be accepted in the light of modern understanding. As with everyone, Aristotle’s scientific understanding is heavily influenced by his imaginative background, which dictates the kind of thing which he expects to find true. To Greeks, the motion of animals and of the heavenly bodies seemed particularly important, and for Aristotle this was a basis for a general scientific theory. The movement of the heavenly bodies differs from that of animals due to their superior perfection – they are moved directly by the will of God, whereas animals (including humans) have their own will. Physics for Aristotle is the science of nature, which in ancient Greek terms is related to growth and broadly means the purpose for which something exists. Nature is the purpose that drives change, and describes the final form of something. Aristotle would say for example that the purpose of an acorn is to be an oak, and that its nature is to grow into an oak. For an acorn to do anything else would be unnatural. Changes due to nature are fixed and reach predetermined conclusions; therefore Aristotle rejects Empedocles’ view of evolution via survival of the fittest. Aristotle said that everything on earth is subject to generation and decay, and is made of the four elements, with the earth at the centre of the universe. Everything in the heavens is indestructible and everlasting, is perfectly spherical, and is made of a separate fifth element. This view is driven by the pagan worship of the sun and moon and planets.

Aristotle (part 1) – Metaphysics & Ethics

Aristotle came at the end of the most creative period of Greek thought, and after his death it would be 2000 years before the world would see a philosopher that was his equal. His authority became as unquestioned as the Church, which became a serious obstacle to progress. Aristotle was very different to his predecessors: a professional teacher rather than inspired prophet, he is critical, careful and pedestrian. The Orphic passion of previous Greek philosophers is replaced with a heavy dose of common sense. According to Russell, he is good in detail and criticism, but lacks the clarity of thought for grand ideas.

Metaphysics

Aristotle’s metaphysics, which is his theory of universals and theory of forms, could be described as Plato diluted with common sense – two things that apparently do not mix well. Aristotle says that there are proper names which only apply to one thing (e.g. the sun, France or Napoleon), and adjectives which are description words. But there are also words like ‘cat and ‘dog’ which apply to many different things. The problem of universals is concerned with the meaning of such words. Proper names signify a substance, which is something specific to the object and does not apply to anything else. A universal signifies something which is common and applies to many things. A universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things. For example the game of football is a universal which applies to many things, but cannot exist without the constituent substances (e.g. football players).  This does not apply the other way – the people who play football would still exist without football. The value of this theory appears to be in the distinction between words that apply to actual objects and those that do not, but Russell freely admits that he doesn’t find Aristotle’s theory very clear.

The theory of forms relates to the difference between ‘form’ and ‘matter’. To start with a simple example, in the case of a marble statue the marble is the matter and the shape conferred by the sculptor is the form. The boundary of any object is its form, and it is form that turns something from a universal (such as marble) to a substance (such as a specific statue). Form does not just mean shape but is what allows an object to be defined as a single thing and gives its unity of purpose. The soul is the form of the body because it allows the body to function. The function of the eye is related to sight, but the eye cannot see on its own; the soul enables sight by allowing all the parts of the body to work together as one unified object. The form of an object is its essence, which are those properties which an object cannot lose without becoming a different object, or which you cannot lose without ceasing to be yourself. (My personal view is that only our souls or minds are our essence). Aristotle believed that forms exist independently of matter. The final form of the statue exists before the sculptor gets to work – they only bring the form and the matter together. Forms can exist without matter, such as souls not associated with a body. More than that, forms are more real than matter (much like Plato’s ideas are more real than their tangible imitations). Matter is defined as potential form, such that a block of marble is a potential statue. In a teleological sense, the most important cause of change is that everything is constantly evolving to be more like God, who represents the perfect form and is entirely form (rather than matter). This is due to the love and admiration for God that all living things feel, either consciously or otherwise.

Ethics

Russell writes that Aristotle’s ethics are appealing to the respectable middle-aged, and has since been used by them to repress the over-enthusiasm of the young. Virtues can be either intellectual or moral. Moral virtues are defined by the doctrine of the ‘golden mean’, where every virtue is a mean between two extremes, which is a vice. For example the virtue of courage is between cowardice and rashness, and modesty is between bashfulness and shamelessness. In common with the views of his day, Aristotle does not believe that equality is necessary for justice. For Aristotle some people are worth more than others, and so it is right to have unequal relations. For example wives and subjects should have more love for their husbands and monarchs than the latter have for them. Perfect friendship is only possible between two people of equal worth (e.g. equal virtue), otherwise it would be imbalanced. Aristotle’s best individual is quite different to the Christian Saint. They must be intelligent and magnanimous and are assumed to be high-born. They must have the right level of pride and will disdain help and praise from those who are socially beneath them. Aristotle believed intellectual virtue was an end unto itself, whereas moral virtue is a means to an end, and that end is happiness, which consists in successful activity. Some inequality is therefore essential in Aristotle’s view, as it allows the community to be managed more successfully (because some are naturally better politicians than others). This example illustrates the fact that Aristotle considers ethics to be merely a branch of politics. Intellectual virtue gives a greater happiness than moral virtue, because reason and contemplation set humans apart from animals and bring us closer to God (who is always in contemplation).

Aristotle’s acceptance of inequality is striking to us in modern times, but was the majority view among his contemporaries. His ethics are different to Christian and Humanist ethics which focus on the importance of the individual, but which struggle when the interests of two individuals clash. It appears a little like the utilitarian view in that it seeks happiness as the goal, but includes an aristocratic sense that the greater happiness should be reserved for the high-born of society. For Russell there is an emotional poverty in Aristotle’s ethics – he has nothing to say about the suffering of mankind except in a cold intellectual sense, which includes a pervasive smugness. He appears to talk of friendship more like an impartial observer rather than from personal experience.

Plato (part 2) – Politics, Ethics & More

Politics & Justice

Plato’s republic describes the perfect political state, and the meaning of justice. This is the subject of an earlier post on Plato’s politics, so I will only dip into this briefly. Plato’s utopian republic is an austere communism where there is no wealth or poverty. Political power belongs to a philosopher-king and an aristocratic ruling class. Everyone is kept in their place by a caste system which is based on the necessary myth that God has created three kinds of people: those of gold (the aristocracy), silver (the soldiers) and brass (the workers). Plato’s republic is a rigid society devoid of innovation. Given that Plato experienced military defeat and famine in Athens, it is perhaps not surprising that his society achieves little more than providing enough to eat and a competent military.

The definition of justice consists in everybody keeping the role that they are naturally suited to. This comes from an older Greek belief that every person and thing has their appointed place and function, including the Olympian gods. If someone should overstep their appointed place this will lead to strife, but fate will punish that person and sooner or later restore balance. This definition of justice has nothing to do with equality, but then it could be argued neither does our modern justice system, which protects property rights regardless of inequality. Plato does raise the question of how to decide what someone’s appointed place is. Surely this can only be a question of judgement rather than objective fact, so does it not come down to whoever has power gets to decide? Justice then is only the interests of the stronger, and there is no objective ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Plato unfortunately does not take this argument seriously and simply insists that he knows what ‘the good’ is, and the debate remains undecided within philosophy today.

Cosmogony

Russell is wonderfully dismissive of Plato’s cosmogony (explanation for the origin of the universe) as written in his work the ‘Timaeus’, calling it at times ‘simply silly’ and unimportant to philosophy. It was however one of Plato’s most famous works in the Middle Ages and so had enormous influence on western thought. Following his theory of ideas, Plato says that there is the idea of a perfect universe which is perceived by God (also referred to as the Creator). God took existing matter, which was imperfect and irregular and fashioned it as closely as possible to be like the ideal universe. For Plato, the sphere is the perfect shape and circular motion of the perfect form of motion. The true elements of the world are not earth, air, fire and water. These substances are made up of elemental shapes – the right angled and equilateral triangle, which Plato says are the most beautiful forms, and therefore God arranged these shapes to construct matter. God then created the four kinds of animals: gods, birds, fishes and land animals. God made the souls of all animals (which is the immortal and divine part) and instructed the gods to make the mortal part. According to Russell, the last point may have been meant by Plato to be more of a creative flourish than a serious thought.

Ethics

Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ recounts the last hours of Socrates’ life before he is executed. As ever with Plato we don’t know to what extent he has faithfully recounted Socrates’ words or whether he has invented an entirely fictional character based on Socrates. The truth is probably somewhere in-between. The Platonic Socrates in his final hours is Plato’s ideal man, both immensely wise and good, and without fear of death. The influence Platonism would have on Christianity is very evident here in the parallels between in the martyrdom of Socrates and that of Christ.

Socrates is given the chance to escape, with Athens only too happy to look the other way to be rid of him. But his sense of justice is unwavering; even though he has been sentenced to death unjustly, it would be morally wrong to evade the law. His conclusion is familiar to Christians – two wrongs don’t make a right. Also in common with Christianity he decides that suicide is wrong, because our lives are ultimately owned by God. In the same way that a farmer would be angry if their cattle took their own life, so God is angry with us if we commit suicide. Instead he settles down to one last philosophical discussion with his friends (apparently sending his wife away first so that her weeping does not interfere with the conversation).   

Immortality

The Orphics believed that the body is of earth and the soul of heaven, as did Plato. As reality is superior to appearance, so the soul is superior to the body. Death is the separation of the soul and the body, so that the soul can live on in heaven in the company of the gods. Death then is not something to be feared but welcomed. The philosopher in life should be entirely concerned with the needs of the soul not the body. This asceticism does not mean forgoing physical luxuries out of a moral effort, but rather as a natural consequence of focusing instead on other matters such as the pursuit of knowledge. The body is a hindrance to the acquisition of knowledge; the bodily senses such as sight and hearing are imprecise and misleading. True knowledge is revealed to the soul through thought, not through the senses. Not only do the senses distort true reality, they also distract us from our thoughts, so are doubly evil. Only the soul of a true philosopher will go to heaven. The soul of a person who paid too much attention to the needs of the body will be trapped on earth like a ghost. A person who lived well and justly but was not a philosopher can hope to be reborn in human form again, or perhaps as an industrious and sociable animal (such as a bee, apparently).

The Platonic Socrates provides some arguments in favour of immortality, including the doctrine of reminiscence. We can gain some understanding of physical objects around us through experience, but where does our understanding of ideas that we can’t observe come from? Plato says we must have brought that knowledge from a previous existence, which proves the soul is immortal. This doctrine has several flaws. For example if our soul achieved knowledge in a previous life, it doesn’t explain how the soul achieved knowledge in that previous life (although Plato might have said that the soul originates in heaven in the realm of ideas). More importantly, most people would agree that understanding of intangible things (including ideas) can be taught and elicited by experience, even if not directly experienced.

The Platonic Socrates was held as the ideal philosopher until the modern era, but Russell’s judgement of him is not entirely positive. Yes he is indifferent to worldly success and cares most of all for what he believes to be true. His courage in the face of death appears remarkable, but is enabled by an evangelists’ faith in the afterlife. He is at times dishonest and sophistical in argument. He is unscientific and uses his intellect to prove that things are as he sees them, rather than pursuing a disinterested search for knowledge. For Russell this is the worst philosophical sin.

Plato (part 1) – Theory of Ideas

Plato is considered by Russell to be the most influential of all philosophers. This is partly due to the significant influence he had on the second most influential philosopher, Aristotle. He was born in the late 5th century into an aristocratic family and was a student of Socrates. As a young man he experienced the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War and the execution of Socrates, and in part he blamed Athenian democracy for both events, which contributed to a predisposition to the aristocratic Spartan model of society. The influence of several preceding philosophers can be found in his work.

Knowledge and Opinion

Plato’s theory of ideas is perhaps his most famous and influential contribution to philosophy. Unfortunately it is also one of the most difficult to understand, and I won’t pretend to have understood it fully. Plato’s philosophy rests on Parmenides’ logical distinction between reality and appearance, and a Pythagorean mystical and religious tone about reality. A philosopher is one who achieves absolute knowledge rather than something that is just opinion. Knowledge is infallible and is about things which exist. However opinion is about things that simultaneously do and do not exist. For example a person may say that an object is beautiful and another that it is ugly. The beauty of the object is therefore opinion rather than knowledge. All objects can be perceived differently to different people, so in Plato’s strict sense they do not really exist, or rather what we perceive is not what really exists.

We have general words we don’t apply to specific things. The word ‘cat’ does not apply to a specific cat but all animals that we consider to be cats, and the idea of a cat is eternal. The idea of a cat exists because we can have infallible knowledge of that idea. Each individual cat is an imperfect version of the idea of a cat, and so the question of what it is is a matter of opinion rather than knowledge. What we perceive when we see a cat is not exactly a cat, in that it is not the same as the idea of a cat. When things have a common name (such as ‘cat’) they also have a common idea. Any particular thing is just a copy of the idea. Plato adds the religious element by saying that the ideas of things are not just thoughts, but are real things created by God, which we can perceive if we have knowledge. Philosophers are only interested in the divine original things created by God about which they can achieve knowledge, not the mundane copies of these things, which are subject to opinion.

Plato distinguishes the world of the intellect where there is knowledge and the world of the senses where there is only opinion. There are two kinds of intellect: ‘reason’ and ‘understanding’. Understanding is the kind of intellect used in mathematics. It is inferior to reason as it relies on hypotheses which it cannot test. For example in geometry we may start by saying that ABC is a rectilinear triangle. We cannot ask if that initial statement is true and we can’t create a rectilinear triangle because we can’t draw perfectly straight lines. Mathematics then is limited to hypothetical truth. Reason is required to gain knowledge of the idea of perfectly straight lines, from which geometric propositions can be affirmed categorically rather than just hypothetically.

The Allegory of the Cave

Plato explains the difference between the clarity of the intellectual world and the blurred world of the senses with the famous allegory of the cave. Using the analogy of sight, we only see things clearly when light shines on them. In twilight we see partially and in darkness not at all. A mastery of philosophy represents the light which allows us to have knowledge where otherwise we would be fumbling from one opinion to the next. Imagine then a cave where people have been held in chains since childhood, facing the back of the cave and unable to turn their heads. There is a fire burning behind them, and whenever people walk in front of the cave they cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The people in the cave have never seen those who cause the shadows and so assume that the shadows are real, rather than the poor imitations of people. When someone finally escapes the cave and comes into the light they perceive the real objects and realise they have been deceived by shadows. The escapee then returns to the cave to explain what they have learnt to the others. Unfortunately their eyes have become acclimatised to the light and they perceive the shadows less clearly than the others, and so appear to them less knowledgeable.

Plato’s theory of ideas is underpinned by the belief that true knowledge can only apply to the abstract – to ideas, not to tangible objects. In his work ‘Theaetetus’ Plato argues that there is no such thing as empirical knowledge. Russell organises Plato’s thoughts into three arguments. The first is the limitations of our senses. We can sense colour through our eyes and sounds through our ears, but we have no organs to sense characteristics such as good and bad, or to establish what exists and what doesn’t. The second is the individual nature of our perceptions – since we can all perceive things differently, what we perceive must be opinion rather than true knowledge. The third argument is the idea that what we perceive is constantly changing (if only very slowly), therefore any ‘knowledge’ we gain through perception is immediately out of date. While it is tempting to disregard these arguments out of hand, we might at least concede that not all knowledge can be gained through empirical means. 

Clearly Plato’s theory of ideas has issues, but Russell reminds us to respect its originality. The distinction between what is real and what is appearance cannot be as dramatic as Plato insists. Whatever we perceive must in some sense exist, even if we don’t always perceive every aspect of things. Also to say that an object is both beautiful and ugly is not necessarily a contradiction, and so isn’t a barrier to existence. For example it could be that some aspects of the object are beautiful and other aspects are ugly. In addition Plato says that ideas are timeless but also that they are created by God, so must have been created at a point in time. Further, where did the idea that God created come from before it existed? However Plato became aware of some of the flaws in his theory of ideas, and deserves great credit for exploring those flaws in his work ‘Parmenides’ in later life.

Socrates

Surprisingly few things are known for certain about Socrates. He was a well-known Athenian citizen of moderate means who taught philosophy, but not for money. He was tried and executed by the state in 399 B.C at about the age of 70. Beyond that our main sources are his students, Plato and Xenophon, but they each give a very different impression of the man. Xenophon claims Socrates to be eminently pious, having only a positive influence on the people he met. This does not explain the hostility aimed at Socrates. Xenophon was apparently not a very intelligent individual, which perhaps undermines him as a source on Socrates, as he may often not have understood his teacher. Plato’s weakness as a source is for almost the opposite reason. Russell describes Plato as “an imaginative writer of great genius and charm”. Even Plato does not pretend that the dialogues he writes really occurred exactly as he recorded them. It is hard to judge whether he is even depicting the real Socrates in his work, or rather a character inspired by Socrates, who is really a mouthpiece for his own views.

The Trial of Socrates

Nevertheless, the dialogue considered most historically accurate is Socrates’ defence at his trial. He was prosecuted for not worshiping the Gods, and for corrupting the young with his irreligious teachings. Socrates’ prosecutors say he claims the wisdom of the Gods, but Socrates responds that he is not wise. He tells a story that the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that there was no one wiser than Socrates, and that he had attempted to prove the Oracle wrong. He speaks to eminent people in society who he supposes to be wise but finds that they are not (and tells them so). What the Oracle means is that all men are equally wise, because no man is wise. From this story one can start to see how easily he made enemies. According to Plato’s telling, Socrates goes on to debate with his accusers, and exposes contradictions in their arguments. For example, at one stage his accusers claim he is an atheist, while also introducing new divinities to the young people of Athens.

He finishes by claiming that he has been commanded by God to live the life of a philosopher, so to renounce that life (as his prosecutors ask) would be to disobey God. More than that, if the state side with the prosecution and find him guilty, the state will have disobeyed God. He is not pleading then for his own sake, but for the sake of the judges and the people of Athens. It appears that the judges found this line of reasoning infuriating. From this Socrates appears to be utterly self-assured, high-minded and indifferent to worldly success, with no fear of death. Plato paints a picture of a man who has achieved mastery of the mind over the body. He can withstand great physical hardship without complaint, never feels lust even under temptation, and can out-drink anyone without appearing drunk. Like the Stoics, the Platonic Socrates believes that the greatest good is ‘virtue’, and that no man sins knowingly. Therefore, the pursuit of knowledge is the key to the perfect life (this is contrary to Christian ethics, where a ‘pure heart’ is the essential, and this can be found in the learned and ignorant alike).

Dialectic Reasoning

Socrates is depicted by Plato as reasoning using the dialectic method, where knowledge is elicited through a series of questions and answers. This method is suitable where sufficient knowledge exists to arrive at the right outcome, but we need clarity of analysis to make the best use of logic. Ethical questions such as ‘what is justice’ fit this category, as well as cases where the logic rather than facts of an argument are being debated. Matters of empirical science are not suited to this method. It is hard to imagine arriving at germ theory through a series of questions and answers. If we think of philosophy of being more about ethics and logical enquiry rather than scientific discovery, it is because of the significant influence of Plato on subsequent thinkers.

The Pre-Socratics (part 2) – Empedocles, Anaxagoras & the Atomists

Empedocles

As we travel through ancient Greek philosophy there are several further important people to consider before arriving at Socrates. The first is Empedocles, who lived in southern Italy in the late 5th century. Russell paints him as quite a character; “philosopher, prophet, man of science and charlatan”. Like Pythagoras he was heavily influenced by Orphism and considered himself partly divine, and like Pythagoras his contribution to science was significant. His most important discovery was that air is a separate substance, which he proved by holding an upside-down bucket under water and showing that it doesn’t fill up. He also demonstrated an example of centrifugal force, by spinning a cup of water at the end of a string and showing that the water doesn’t come out. He knew that the moon shines by reflected light and that light travels, but it is so fast that we cannot detect its movement. He also founded a school of medicine which heavily influenced Plato and Aristotle among others. Like Heraclitus he believed that strife was a constant source of change. The four elements (air, fire, earth & water) were combined in different proportions by love but then separated by strife. Love and strife should be considered as primitive substances similar to the four elements, and it is only these things which are everlasting. There is a cyclical contest between love and strife – one is dominant, then balance, followed by dominance of the other.

Anaxagoras

The next philosopher Anaxagoras lived in the 5th century, first in Ionia and then in Athens during its golden age (and was expelled from Athens for being an atheist and teaching about ‘things on high’). He made a great contribution to science but did not think much about religion and ethics. He said that everything is infinitely divisible and that even the smallest portion of matter contains some of every element. What we call fire is predominantly fire, but also contains traces of air, earth and water. The exception is mind, which is a substance that only exists in living matter. Mind does not get mixed with other substances, and controls living matter. Mind is uniform; the apparent superiority of human over animal intelligence is due to environmental rather than mental factors. Mind is also the source of motion, but this seems to be in the way of a universal force such as gravity. On cosmology he gave the what is now known to be the correct theory of eclipses, and said that sun and stars are fiery stones, but we don’t feel the heat of the stars because they are too far away.

The Atomists

Atomism was founded by Leucippus and Democritus, who both lived in the late 5th century. It started as an attempt to reconcile the monism of Parmenides and the pluralism of Empedocles. Atomism says that everything is made of atoms which are physically indivisible and indestructible, that atoms are always in random motion, and that between atoms is a void. This was consistent with Parmenides’ view that objects can only move into empty space, so there can only be motion if there is void. The question of whether there can be ‘void’ or empty space occupied the greatest minds through history. Aristotle and Newton asserted the existence of absolute space, but Einstein and quantum theory showed that there is no absolute space. Atoms are Parmenidean in the sense of being constant and unchanging, but they collide with each other to create motion, and join together to create the world around us. However, we should not get over-excited and think that the ancient Greeks invented modern atomic theory. For example, they did not understand chemistry in order to know how atoms bond together. The Atomists believed atoms come in infinite shapes, and when atoms that happen to have interlocking shapes collide, they join together.

Democritus was a pure materialist who did not believe in popular religion. For him even the soul is made of atoms and thought is a physical process. The Atomists were strict determinists who believed everything follows natural laws and fixed mechanical principles. When we ask why an event occurs, we may ask this in two ways. Firstly, what purpose did the event serve, and secondly what earlier circumstances caused the event. The first question is teleological, i.e. it seeks to explain events based on their final purpose (e.g. bread is baked because in the future people will be hungry), and was the method of Socrates, Plato and in particular Aristotle. The Atomists asked the second question, which is mechanistic. Crucially Russell says that the mechanistic question invariable leads to scientific knowledge, whereas the teleological one does not.

Declining Curiosity

Russell believes that a decay began in western thought after Democritus which was not ended until the Enlightenment. This is at first surprising given the eminent Greek thinkers still to come. The earlier Greek philosophers combined a generally scientific approach with unlimited curiosity about the universe. However, sceptics would soon be preoccupied with challenging how we know things rather than acquiring fresh knowledge. Socrates’ focus on ethics was invaluable but did not contribute new scientific knowledge.  Plato and Aristotle’s genius came with vices (respectively the rejection of the world of sense for one of pure thought, and the teleological belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science) which caused enormous harm to future progress. After them came a loss of vigour and independence of thought, partly caused by the victory of Catholic orthodoxy.

Also alive in the late 5th century was Protagoras, who was the most prominent Sophist. This word originally meant teacher or professor. They taught practical skills to the wealthy elite, such as law and oratory (ancient Athens in particular had an addiction to litigation). They taught the art of arguing, and like a modern lawyer were prepared to argue for or against any position. They were less concerned with advocating positions of their own, and for that were criticised and mocked by other thinkers. On the other hand, the Sophists suffered less from bias than later philosophers including Plato. They would follow an argument wherever logic took them, without selecting those which advocated for their existing point of view.

The Pre-Socratics (part 1) – Pythagoras, Heraclitus & Parmenides

Pythagoras

It says everything you need to know about the importance of Socrates in Greek philosophy that the period preceding him is known as the pre-Socratic. The next sections will cover the eminent philosophers of this period. The first is Pythagoras (yes that Pythagoras). Russell provides a rather double-edged compliant; “[he] was one of the most intellectually important men that ever lived, both when he was wise and when he was unwise.” It seems that both his successes and his mistakes were influential. Pythagoras established himself in the city of Croton in southern Italy in the late 6th century. There have always been two sides to Pythagoras, and his history is full of mythology. He is known to have founded a religion heavily influenced by Orphism and was surrounded by disciples who claimed he could perform miracles (he described himself as semi-divine). On the other hand he is credited with inventing mathematics in the sense of demonstrating deductive argument and founded a school of mathematics in Croton.

Pythagoras held the Orphic view that souls are immortal; when living things die the soul is reborn in new life in an endless cycle. He also founded a society where men and women had equal rights, all things were held in common, and even intellectual discoveries were owned by the collective. For Pythagoras, the endless cycle could be broken by intellectual contemplation, which brought one closest to God. For him this contemplation took the form of mathematics, which appeared certain and exact. It was therefore superior to everyday empirical knowledge, in the same way that a geometrically described circle is perfect and a drawn circle never will be. The idea that thought is superior to observation would influence Plato significantly. According to Russell, it was also a source of much that was wrong in later metaphysics and theory of knowledge.

The greatest discovery of Pythagoras (or one of his disciples) was that the sum of the length of the sides adjacent to the right angle on a triangle squared is equal to the square of the remaining side, or hypotenuse. Key was the discovery of a proof for the theory. The influence of geometry on philosophy and the scientific method was significant. It was from geometry that the Greeks derived the method for starting with a truth which appeared to be self-evident, and then arriving at theorems through deductive reasoning which were relevant to the real world. In other words, it was possible to discover things about the actual world by noticing what is self-evident and using deductive reasoning. However, the inability to use inductive reasoning (i.e. to generate knowledge from observation) has held back society up until the modern era.

Heraclitus

The philosopher Heraclitus lived in Ionia and was prominent at around 500 B.C. His most important doctrine was that things are formed by opposites, which are in constant tension and strife, but through a cosmic justice remain in balance (which sounds similar to Anaximander). This constant strife creates perpetual change in the world, where nothing is permanent. Russell describes Heraclitus’ ethics as a proud ascetism. He believes the soul is made of both fire and water, which are of course opposites. A predominance of fire in the soul makes one noble and wise, whereas a man with a ‘moist’ soul is like a drunkard, stumbling around and not knowing where he is going. Heraclitus believes fire to be the primordial element.

Parmenides

Ancient Greek philosophy can be a world of extremes. Where Heraclitus said everything changes, Parmenides said nothing changes. Neither did he think in terms of opposites. Rather than hot and cold, and light and dark, there are different levels of temperature and light. Parmenides lived in southern Italy and was prominent around the middle of the 5th century. He considered the senses deceptive, and that the world of everyday things is an illusion. He is credited with inventing metaphysics based on logic, which influenced subsequent metaphysicians up to and including Hegel in the 19th century. His metaphysics is essential as follows; everything that we can think and speak of must exist, and since we can think of things at any time, everything must always have existed. This means that things cannot start or end, and therefore that there is no change. This according to Russell is the first example in philosophy of an argument originating from thought and words applied to the world at large. Clearly it has significant issues, but there are kernels of truth in it.

One issue is that we can think of things which are imaginary, such as unicorns. Parmenides might have countered that even though unicorns do not physically exist (as far as we know), the idea of them exists, therefore his theory still stands. Another issue is there are things that self-evidently no longer exist, such as people who have passed away. However, it could be said that we are not thinking of the individual as such, but our idea of the individual, either from our own memory of them or of what we know about them from other sources. However, it is hard to argue that as a society our memory of past people never changes. It is also hard to argue that a person has always existed, even before they were born. Subsequent philosophers did not generally accept the idea that nothing changes, but the speculations of Parmenides led to the view that substance itself is indestructible (a view that was only disproven by Einstein, who showed that matter could be converted to energy).

In The Beginning

Why the Greeks?

Mesopotamia is commonly said to be the cradle of civilisation, where large settlements first became cities and empires. However, it was the ancient Greeks who invented mathematics, science, philosophy and history in the western world, and made remarkable contributions in art and literature. Bertrand Russell starts his history of Western philosophy by trying to understand how the Greeks did it.

According to Russell, one of the characteristics of ‘civilised’ people is prudence or forethought, i.e. the willingness to endure present hardship for future gain. Hunting is enjoyable and gives a short-term benefit. Generating a surplus harvest for use in winter is hard work and requires reason to plan for the future. Civilisation is counter to our natural impulses, and must be enforced through, law, custom and religion. These constraints can feel irksome at best, particularly when civilisation is relatively new. The Cult of Bacchus allowed people to feel freed from these constraints. Bacchus was a God of fertility who become associated with intoxication, which his followers thought to be divine. Intoxication (both physical and spiritual) liberates the mind from the preoccupations of civilised life and exposes us to a world of delight and beauty.

From the Cult of Bacchus came Orphism, which was ascetic and substituted mental for physical intoxication. It would have a great influence on the Greek philosophers. The Orphics aimed at becoming ‘pure’ (by ceremonies or purification and by avoiding contamination) in order to become closer to God. In this way they aimed to acquire mystic knowledge not obtainable by ordinary means. It is common to think of Greek philosophers as calm and serene, and many were. Others were influenced by the Orphics, who were in a constant, painful and weary struggle to escape from endless cycles of life and death, in order to attain the blissful union with God. The greatness of the ancient Greek thinkers was fueled both by their passion as well as their intellect. Orphism showed the initiated that the true nature of the soul could only be revealed through ‘out of body’ experiences. At the same time the lack of a priesthood prevented dogmatic thinking; revelation was the source of religious authority.

The Milesian School

Western philosophy starts with Thales in the early 6th century. Thales lived in Miletus, which was a trading city in Ionia (the western coast of Turkey), and home of the Milesian school. Trade brought Greek minds into contact with Egyptians and Babylonians, and this diversity of thought dampened primitive prejudices and superstitions. The thinkers of the Milesian school are not principally important for what they achieved directly, but rather for the influence that their scientific enquiries and methods had on later thinkers. It is important that we do not ridicule the speculations of the early thinkers with the benefit of what humankind has subsequently learnt, but remember that they were living right at the beginning of philosophical thought. It must also be remembered that our sources on the philosophers preceding Socrates are very sparse, and often limited to what later thinkers have said of them. While some ancient Greek ideas may have been infantile, they often had the strength to develop to maturity over the next two thousand years.

Thales’ most prominent belief was that everything is made of water, which is the original substance. As Russell says, this is not as foolish as it may sound, considering that less than a century ago the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen (which makes up two thirds of water). Unfortunately, we don’t know what empirical testing Thales carried out to support this hypothesis. Anaximander was the second prominent philosopher of the Milesian school. He held that everything is made not of water but of another primal substance, from which all other substances are formed, including the elements of fire, air, water and earth. He believed that each substance had a God-like conscious and tried to subsume the others, but each was held in check by justice, which is conceived as a supreme power which is perpetually redressing the balance and returning things to their natural state. This conception of justice as not overstepping eternally fixed bounds, enshrined as natural laws, was one of the most important Greek beliefs. Even the Greek gods were subject to justice. Anaximander argues that the primal substance cannot be one of the four elements as it would overcome the others. It must be neutral in this cosmic strife. This battle creates constant change and constant evolution. He believed that the world and everything in it evolved to its current state; all animals, including humans, are descended from fish. Humans could not always have been as we are now, because our long infancy means that the first humans could not have survived as we are now.

Anaximenes is the last of the Milesian philosophers. For him the fundamental substance is air, and he describes how air turns into the other elements. Fire is rarefied air. Air when condensed becomes, water, which if condensed further becomes earth. The soul is made of air, and air surrounds the world, which Anaximenes believed was in the shape of a disc. The Milesian school came to an end in 494 B.C after Miletus was destroyed following an unsuccessful revolt against Persian rule.

The History of Philosophy

Prior to this point I have published 30 blog posts, which have covered the history of (western) political ideas, with a few of my own thoughts thrown in. This seemed a good place to stop. Then I was given a copy of Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’ and I couldn’t resist giving it the same treatment. This blog will now be re-christened ‘A Brief History of Politics & Philosophy’.

At the time of writing this seems an intimidating prospect. Russell’s book is around 750 pages (absolutely no pictures) of challenging concepts, but I hope to compress it into about 30 bite sized posts. It is an impressive book, covering the beginnings of western philosophy in the 6th century right through to the 20th century. Critics have called it one of the most valuable books of our time, with ‘enough ideas on each page to broaden the mind to bursting point’.

Before diving into any specific philosophical ideas I will complete this post by describing Russell’s definition of the word ‘philosophy’. For him, it is something in between science and theology. It consists of speculation on questions which science (so far) cannot answer, but it appeals to reason rather than dogma and belief. Unlike science and theology, philosophy does not try to give certain answers, and admits to dealing in the realm of unanswerable questions. What might wonder what point there is in studying questions that cannot be answered? The first is historical; Russell tells us that to truly understand a period in history we must understand its philosophy, and to do that we must at least to some extent be philosophers. The second is that philosophy helps us to remember how little we really know about the world. Too much time spent in either science or theology breeds an over-confidence in human understanding. Science focuses on what can be known and ignores the rest. Theology tries to convince us we have knowledge where in fact we are ignorant. Philosophy helps us to be both humble and curious. It is in that spirit that I have read and written about Russell’s work.

Brexit

So I was wrong about Brexit. I reasoned that if the majority were against Brexit (as has consistently been the case in polling since 2017) then it wouldn’t happen. But even in this post-truth age I cannot deny that on 31st January 2020 we legally left the EU. However that does not mean that Brexit is over. As Churchill said about the battle of El-Alamein, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. Now that Brexit has really started I thought I would be a good time to record some of my thoughts on the topic.

Firstly, some quick self-reflections on why I got it wrong on Brexit. Fundamentally I did not think that the Conservatives could win a majority in an election based on a hard Brexit policy, given that this type of Brexit is a long way off majority support. I did not expect Johnson to purge his own party of non-believers so dramatically, I didn’t fully account for Brexit fatigue, and didn’t think that Labour and Corbyn would be as disappointing as they were during the election (which includes their own muddled and confusing Brexit policy which came two years too late). In the end Johnson persuaded enough people to grit their teeth and vote for him despite their concerns over Brexit.

The Cost of Freedom

The reasons for my opposition to Brexit are difficult to articulate verbally, so I think this blog is a good place for them. Most people in favour of Brexit recognise that the economic argument is against them. Nevertheless that infamous bus did influence the referendum outcome, so it is worth highlighting that Standard & Poor estimate that the cost of Brexit since the reference is £66bn, or £550m per week (mainly due to lost economic growth). Goldman Sachs put the value at £600m per week, and the Bank of England estimate £800m. Bloomberg Economics estimate that the cost has already reached £130bn and will surpass the £200bn mark the end of 2020, which is equivalent to the total sum of payments made to the EU during our 47 years of membership. This range does highlight the difficulty in making economic forecasts based on opportunity cost, but it should be remembered that we haven’t left the common market and customs union yet, so the impact of increased trade friction has not yet been felt.

My first fundamentally objection to Brexit is that it will not address any of the key problems in our society, and is therefore a monumental waste of time and resources. As an engineer I think that a good solution is one that addresses the root cause of a problem. The referendum and its result are a symptom of an unequal and divided society. The less well-off half of society has been largely ignored by successive governments during the era of neo-liberalism which we have lived through since the 1980s. Will Brexit allow us to address inequality? It is hard to see how. We have always had the tools available to us to address inequality, but have lacked the political will to do so. Indeed, history and the evidence available suggest that the cost of Brexit will fall disproportionally on the less well-off. More than that, one of the few visions of a post Brexit Britain that makes logical sense (i.e. explains why we would want to be outside the EU) is a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ Britain with low tax and low regulation. This would in theory give us a competitive edge against the EU trading bloc and make us more attractive for foreign investment. However this vision is only advocated by a tiny minority of libertarian extremists, because the majority intuitively recognise that a low tax and low regulation state is not in their best interests (anyone who has tried to buy a property in London knows that foreign investment does not necessarily benefit the majority). Unfortunately for democracy, that tiny minority is noisy, wealthy, influential, and disproportionally represented in government. Therefore there is a very real risk that this vision will at least partially be realised due to Brexit, and it will make the problem of inequality worse than rather than improve it.

The Wrong Vision

Brexit represents a vision for this country and our place in the world which I fundamentally disagree with, and this is my second objection to it. I believe in the advantages of political integration and close relationships. The ultimate purpose of the EU is to prevent war in Europe by promoting political and economic integration. It has been very successfully in this purpose. This integration also makes it easier to tackle challenges that cross national borders, including climate change, terrorism and tax evasion. The most popular slogan during the referendum was ‘take back control’, which means taking back our national freedom from the EU (e.g. freedom from EU legislation). However freedom is a double edged sword, and for that reason we subconsciously choose not to be entirely free. This applies from the individual to the international level. The only way to achieve total freedom is to live as an anarchist outside of society, perhaps as a hermit living off wild berries. Even our friends constrain our freedom. For example we may decide we want to meet a friend for a drink, and find that we are not both available at the same time. We can choose to compromise and go at a time which isn’t ideal, or we may prioritise our freedom to go when we want, in which case we will be drinking alone. Brexit represents the latter choice. Libertarian extremists insist that free trade means national freedom, but like society itself they require compromises which constrain our freedom (for example we may have to accept deregulated food products from the U.S, relaxed visa controls from India, or regulatory alignment with the EU). The fact that these constraints be may be conflicting is an additional challenge.

So the trade agreements we now need to pursue represent compromises, and the extent that we need to accept compromise depends on our relative bargaining position. Before Brexit we negotiated as part of the EU, which is currently the world’s largest trading bloc and second largest economy in GDP terms, and as a result we achieved relatively advantages outcomes. The UK’s GDP at time of writing is ~$2.7 trillion compared to the EU’s GDP of ~$18.8 trillion. It is a simple logical fact that we are now in a far worse negotiating position and will need to accept far more compromise. While big countries get bigger and smaller ones club together, we in Britain are swimming against the tide. Many on the right are blinded to the reality of the situation by nationalist pride, and a nostalgic sense that we can recreate the world of the British Empire. Brexit then is much easier to agree with if you are a nationalist. Unfortunately there has always been a positive correlation between nationalism and racism. I recognise that not everyone who voted leave is a nationalist, and only a small minority are racists, but it is not a coincidence that the number of reports of racial hate crimes has increased dramatically in this country since the referendum. The problem is that nationalism is inextricably tied to the logic of Brexit. Brexit represents an inward looking nationalistic vision for Britain, which is naturally inclined to compete with rather than collaborate with other nations. Brexiteers like to claim a monopoly on patriotism and call the rest of us traitors. I consider myself a ‘patriot’ because I love my country and broadly speaking am proud to be British, but I do not think that Britain is ‘better’ than other countries. I recognise Britain’s weaknesses as well as its strengths, and the value of close collaboration with other countries, particularly our nearest neighbours the EU (both geographically and culturally).

Lets Fail Quickly

I worry about what Brexit has already done to the character of our society and our place in the world, and what it will do to us in the future. In a few short years we have gone from being a global leader within Europe (for example leading the global response to the 2008 Financial Crisis) to being an international basket case, and a source of both amusement and pity to other countries. Brexit represents a vision for this country which is both economically and morally wrong, and we will all suffer as a result (with the exception perhaps of the very wealthy). There are of course legitimate criticisms to be made about the EU as with any institution. For example it is too bureaucratic, and its legislature is too trigger happy when it comes to matters which are really national rather than international. However the right thing would have been to use our influence to reform the EU. Running away from the challenge is cowardly and not in our own best interests.

It is sometimes the case that in order for something to improve it must first be allowed to fail. This seems to be where we are with our relationship with the EU, and with British society more broadly. It could also be argued that a battle over competing visions for Britain will test both options more rigorously and ensure a better outcome. I would be more relaxed about this thought if it were 1990. In 2020 we face urgent crises (most urgently climate change but also the impact of new technologies such as AI) that will require functioning and cohesive societies, both at the national and international levels in order to address. We are almost out of time on climate change. I only hope that Brexit will fail as quickly as possible, so that we can move on with solving the real problems in our society.

Fixing Politics (part 2)

In my previous post I described my view of the problem with our current political system – we are a bitterly divided society unable to find compromise, and large numbers of people feel they have no stake in the system. I said we need to reform the system so that every vote counts, and so that politicians are more representative of the people they are supposed to represent. I also said that this was barely half the answer, so this post is my attempt to complete it.

The Voters

I’ve discussed the need to reform the role and responsibilities of politicians, but in representative democracy voters also have responsibilities to fulfil. They must inform themselves sufficiently to understand the problems they face in society, and be able to weigh-up which solutions offered by politicians are in their own best interest (without getting drawn into the minutiae of policy detail). If voters don’t do this, their votes are redundant, and the entire system of representative democracy fatally undermined. This is the liberal fear of a politically inert mass society. Joseph Schumpeter described democracy by the analogy of a commercial car sale. To extend that analogy, most people would not go to a used car salesperson and do whatever they are told on faith. Yet too many people are prepared to go along with whatever they are told when it comes to how society is governed, voting for the same party election after election. Voters must also be able to make basic assessments regarding the quality of information they are given by politicians, including identifying bias. This is even more relevant today given the age of surveillance capitalism, where social media can be used to flood voters with highly targeted political ads. Education is vital to making democracy work, as John Dewey and others have argued. For example, time must be set aside in schools to teach ‘citizenship’, i.e. to teach pupils what society requires of them as citizens, including the skill of determining the value of information and potential biases. Some will argue that politicians should not deceive voters, but this doesn’t seem practical to me. The world is not as simple and binary as truth and lies. There will always be an incentive to selectively use and emphasise information in order to make an argument. Any attempt to prevent politicians from ‘lying’ represents a significant risk to freedom of speech.

Local & Regional Government

There are other changes needed to ensure voters meet their responsibilities as active citizens. During his visit to the United States, Tocqueville identified that the key reasons the U.S. had remained a healthy democracy were the relative weakness of central government, and the self-reliant nature of Americans who managed their own affairs at the local level. Similarly, J S Mill was a keen advocate for decentralisation and for devolving the responsibility for government (local and national) deeply into society. John Dewey was also against top down government, stating that the essence of democracy is a community working out what its needs are and how to satisfy them. With those thoughts in mind, I believe the following reforms are needed: more devolution of authority to local and regional government, and an increase in participative democracy at all levels of government. I will start with local government. The majority of people do not vote in local council elections, partly because local government doesn’t have the authority to resolve local issues. Some people wonder what the point of local elections is. Local government should be given more powers, including on tax and spend. For example they should have the power to determine council tax valuation bands, and to borrow much greater amounts for financially sound projects, such as building council housing.

Devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been positive, but it is a job half done with unresolved issues (including the need for further devolution and partial transfer of sovereignty, in the style of the U.S state system). One key issue is that it has left the vast majority of the U.K without regional government, i.e. England, which makes up ~80% of the U.K population. The English complain that they should have their own parliament, and others complain that the UK parliament behaves like an English parliament. I think an English parliament would be a missed opportunity and would not address the issue. I believe I’m safe in saying that the people of Newcastle do not relate to the people of Plymouth any more than they do those of Glasgow, and neither have much time for Londoners. I would therefore propose of true system of regional parliaments in England which would follow the model of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland parliaments, and cover the following regions: London, the South, the Midlands and the North. On the thorny issue of the location of these parliaments, I would recommend the parliaments rotate between several locations, similar to the European parliament. This reform should be accompanied by a reduction in the size of the U.K parliament, to match its reduced responsibilities. It would provide significantly more powers to the regions of England, and provide a far better balance of devolution across the U.K.

Participatory Democracy

People only feel they have a stake in a system if they are truly involved in it, and the best way to get people involved is through participatory democracy, which should be employed at every level of government, including locally. It can no longer be acceptable for the general public to be involved in decision making only once every five years, where vague manifestos are subsequently used by governments to justify any policy they choose. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, efforts at participatory democracy in the 1960s and 1970s were ultimately unsuccessful, as there was insufficient appetite among the majority for continued engagement in the management of institutions. It is also contrary to Max Webber’s view that the politics of modern states is too complex for the majority and should be restricted to a small political elite. The example of jury duty points the way forward. As a society we are generally happy for a group of strangers to pass sentence on us, as long as the jury has been selected fairly (i.e. randomly) and they are properly informed when making their decision. People rarely object to being jurors, as long as the request is very occasional. The recent Irish Citizen’s Assembly appears to have been a very successful example of participatory democracy and should be used as a model for the U.K. Such assemblies allow people to have direct access to experts and become knowledgeable on the matters being debated. This is in contrast to referendums, where we are forced to get our information second hand through the often biased rhetoric of politicians and journalists. Careful thought must be given to how Citizen’s Assemblies are integrated with our existing system of representative parliamentary democracy. It would be sensible in my view for sovereignty to remain with parliament and for the outcome of Citizen’s Assemblies to be advisory (although their political authority will likely to significant). Issues should be selected for Citizen’s Assemblies when parliament is struggling to resolve them, or if they are of a constitutional nature.

The Lords & The Monarchy

I could not write about the problems of our political system without mentioning the House of Lords and the Monarchy. The unelected nature of both institutions is a clear affront to democracy, and a relic of a previous era. The current system for appointing members of the House of Lords is vulnerable to corruption (such as various ‘cash for peers’ scandals). The role of the Monarchy is at best an unnecessary confusion in the constitution and at worst a source of significant authority for someone who is in the role purely by chance. We are fortunate that the present Queen has never used her constitutional powers, ambiguous though they may be, but we may not be so lucky in the future. It seems clear to me that the House of Lords must be elected, but the more difficult question is by whom. I don’t think the Lords should be elected in the same way as the Commons. It is too much to ask people to determine who is best placed to scrutinise legislation, and it risks making the Lords too similar to the Commons in behaviour. Being directly accountable to the general public often makes politicians short sighted, election obsessed and too keen on doing what is perceived to be popular. The Lords must be a counterweight to those inclinations. A better compromise would be for the Lords to be elected by the Commons. This would likely lead to more effective Lords, and would maintain a link of accountability to the general public. It also seems clear to me that the Monarchy should be dissolved. As Thomas Paine said, hereditary monarchy is suited only to the ignorant. Many people in response demand to know what we would have instead – surely not a President? Reading Hobbes’ and Montesquieu’s work helps clarify that the sovereign does not have to be an individual, and the head of state does not need to be sovereign. The sovereign is simply the person or body where ultimate political authority resides, and in the case of the U.K that is in reality parliament, not the Monarchy. The Prime Minister in reality already performs the function of a head of state. In short, I can see no need to have anything in place of the Monarchy.

A New Era

Our political system must be reformed so that politicians and the people are brought together. Politicians must be representative and the voters able to hold them to account. Local and regional government must be dramatically strengthened to bring politics closer to people geographically. Participatory democracy must be introduced so that people are involved in real decision making. Finally, reforms must ensure there is no place for undemocratic institutions, including the present House of Lords and the Monarchy. Since the late 1970s we have in the western world been living through the era of neo-liberalism (which itself replaced the post-war settlement). Setting aside the economic flaws of this system, from a political perspective the liberal emphasis on freedom of the individual has led to the idea that we should be free of the interference of governments, leading to deregulation and small government. Unfortunately the power of politics has not reduced but has been handed by politicians to a small elite, with damaging consequences. I think it is time for a new era, and one where politics is for everyone.

Fixing Politics (part 1)

Having written about other people’s ideas throughout this blog, I would like to indulge in some of my own thoughts, specifically on the subject of our broken political system and how it might be fixed. I’ve tried to reference some of the political ideas mentioned throughout this blog, to show that they are relevant to today’s problems.

A Broken System

It is common for people to claim that our political system is broken. Increasingly, politics seems unable to solve the key issues we face, be it inequality, climate change, Brexit, and the housing & homeless crisis, just to name some examples. It also feels that we are bitterly divided as a society. In the same way that engines need oil to run smoothly, politics needs debate and compromise. Rousseau said that the fact that people have conflicting interests makes politics necessary and the fact we have common interests makes politics possible. He also said that an unequal society has fewer common interests, a weaker general will, and so is unstable and risks splitting apart. In short, our society is in danger of becoming ungovernable.

In addition, there are large numbers of people in British society (and Western society in general) who don’t feel they have a stake in the system. They don’t feel they can influence politics and don’t feel there is any likelihood that they will benefit from the system regardless of the outcome of elections. This represents a significant threat to democracy itself. Democracy only exists if a sufficient number of people participate in it. If enough people turn away from democracy (either through violent rejection, or, more likely, passive non-participation) it will be replaced by tyranny or oligarchy. Tocqueville articulated the fear that individuals turn away from politics and society and look inwards, making us “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd”. For democracy to work, people must be active, engaged and informed citizens. We all have a vital role in holding our politicians to account, but increasingly politicians are relying on emotion to win votes, and belittling the importance of facts and logic. The problem is that while people can check facts and debate logic, it is very difficult to counter emotion. The use of emotion is a trait of demagogues and authoritarian leaders, who can all too easily control a politically jaded electorate.

Voting Reform

One question, then, is how the political system should be changed so that the whole population feel they can influence politics and have a stake in it. One vital change is voting reform to introduce a form of proportional representation (PR). Arguments against the current system of First Past the Post are not new. John Stuart Mill identified, in the 19th century, the risk that it is possible under this system to form a parliamentary majority with as little as 20% of the vote. This risk is more likely to be realised today where the influence of the two main parties is much reduced. In the 2015 UK election, for example, six parties gained more than one million votes. However, where the Scottish National Party’s 1.5 million votes earned 56 seats, the Greens’ and UKIP’s combined five million votes earned them merely one seat each. This means that the elected parliament does not represent the overall intention of voters, which undermines the incentive of people to vote. It also leads to inequality of engagement, where the vast majority of party resources are focused on a small number of marginal seats, and the remaining seats are comparatively ignored. Opponent of PR claim that it would lead to coalition governments which are slow, ineffective and represent compromises that no one voted for. Recent years have heavily undermined this argument. The election of 2010 showed that due to our plurality of political parties, coalition government is also likely under the present system. The election of 2015 showed that majority governments are no guarantee of effective government. The polarisation of views and the inability to work across party lines is a large part of what has caused the UK government to grind to a halt in recent years. Coalition governments would force politicians to change their thinking. In my view, we are not going back to true two party politics any time soon, and we need a voting system which reflects that.

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Having given people a greater incentive to vote by ensuring that every vote counts, there remains the problem that MPs as a group are generally not representative of the population as a whole. This means that some sections of society don’t feel represented by parliament. The term ‘political elite’ is often used pejoratively. Education level is an important example. As of 2017, approximately a third of MPs attended an independent school and around 90% went to university (according to the Social Mobility think tank). Personal wealth is another example. In addition to a salary which is more than three times the UK average, MPs collectively earn millions of pounds a year from second jobs. The combined wealth of the Conservative Cabinet is in the tens of millions, much of which is inherited. This makes it more difficult for MPs to relate to the majority of the people they are supposed to represent. Many argue that we need to pay politicians more in order to attract the best people, but I don’t agree. Offering more money attracts the kind of person who thinks having more money is important, and you only need to look at the financial sector in recent years to see what behaviours that can lead to. The most important qualities of a politician are a moral compass and the ability to relate to their constituents, so that they can make decisions in the best interests of the people they represent.

The Role of Politicians

However, the public’s expectations of their politicians, and in particular their MPs make it a job that very few people would take on. As a parliamentary candidate, this is something I have some small experience of. MPs are expected to master a dizzying array of policy areas and have a ready solution to every problem. They are expected to be good public speakers, be able to talk individually to voters and be polished in media appearances. They must be good people managers and administrators, as well as effective campaigners. They are expected to run the country or scrutinise the government, while simultaneously being at the beck and call of their tens of thousands of constituents. If that is what we expect from our politicians, it is no wonder they are not ‘normal people’. We need to reform the role of MPs, and the biggest opportunity is the relationship between MPs and their constituents. The majority of communication between MPs and their constituents is with a noisy minority, and the majority of issues are either a matter for local government or not a matter for politics at all. This is neither democratic nor an efficient use of an MP’s time. Direct communication between voters and politicians should be with local councillors, who only refer issues to their MP when appropriate. Communication with MPs is important, but should generally be via ‘town hall’ style meetings, which are more open and more efficient.  

Selecting Politicians

If we want politicians to be more representative, another important issue is selection. In general, politicians are selected by political party members from among the members (although it is not uncommon for candidates to be imposed upon local members by the national party, particularly for high profile candidates looking for a safe seat). The flaw in party members selecting candidates has become more obvious in recent years. Membership of all the main parties is now around only 1% of the population. Members are far from representative of the wider population. Around 70% of Conservative Party members are men and over 40% are older than 66. The evidence also suggests that party members generally hold more radical views compared to voters in general. It seems clear that party members are not sufficiently representative of the wider electorate to have such a significant role in selecting MPs. A new method is needed which better engages with the local community, and which selects potential candidates from a much larger pool of people. One method could be to invite all registered groups and societies within a constituency to nominate a candidate for one or more political partys, in a way that is managed by the local council.

Party Funding

Political party membership fees represent one of the sources of funding for a political party, as well as private donations. However, the system of private donations (including from organisations such as unions) must be reformed as it gives donors unfair access and influence over political parties. This is relatively easy to resolve by ensuring that all political party funding comes from the Government (which could be allocated on the basis of votes in the last election). This means that party membership would be free, which should increase participation in politics. It may require higher taxation. However, given that political parties are a necessary part of democracy (at least for the foreseeable future) and everyone benefits from democracy, it is right that every earner helps to pay for it.

To sum up then, in order for people to feel part of the political system, we need voting reform so that every vote matters, and reform of the role and selection of politicians (particularly MPs) so that they truly represent voters. This is barely half the answer to how our political system needs to be fixed, but I feel I’ve written more than enough for one post. I’ll be back to try and complete the answer, and cover themes such as the role of voters, devolution to local & regional government, participative democracy, the nature of sovereignty and the need to address inequality.