Maajid Nawaz (I hadn’t realized that he was only 38) is, as most of you know, a former Islamist extremist and now an Islamic moderate who runs the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation. And he’s a brave man. I don’t know if he has bodyguards, but given his calls for moderation in Islam and his vigorous condemnations of Muslim oppression, he would seem to be in danger. (He regularly gets death threats.) His latest piece at The Daily Beast, “Why did Obama pander to the UN’s stunning anti-Israel bias?“, isn’t going to make him any more friends, for it’s largely pro-Israel.
Although Nawaz is against Israel’s building of settlements and in favor of a two-state solution, he’s an even stronger critic of despotic Arab regimes, and pulls no punches about it—or about the bigotry of low expectations that concentrates in Israel while ignoring the far greater oppression in many other…
Only a particular species of creep could persuade me to write to the son of a friend and ask him to describe the death agonies of his beloved father. I typed that he must say “I would rather not talk about it” if he wished, then sent an email to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens.
I sat back, feeling dirty and not expecting a reply. I would not have troubled Alexander had not journalists at the nominally serious Times and BBC promoted the claim of a strange, spiteful book that Christopher Hitchens was “teetering on the edge of belief” as he lay dying from cancer of the oesophagus.
As I visited a wildlife park in New South Wales in 2011, the keeper at the daily “dingo talk” confidently told us that “pure dingoes don’t bark”. After five years studying dingoes’ vocal behaviours, I can tell you that this is a myth. Dingoes do bark!
While travelling around Australia to study dingoes, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with all sorts of people. One thing I realised is that the “dingoes don’t bark” belief is widespread – and it isn’t the only unproven dingo myth out there.
Lots of people in Australia take these three myths as hard facts:
“pure” dingoes don’t bark
“pure” dingoes are all ginger
dingoes are “just dogs”.
But none of these are actually true and here’s why.
Myth 1: dingoes don’t bark
Anyone who has been around dingoes for long enough will tell you that they do bark, but not like domestic dogs. Dingoes’ barks are generally harsher, and given in short bursts.
Domestic dogs will bark anytime, anywhere, for anything (often to their owners’ or neighbours’ chagrin). This is not the case with dingoes. They will generally bark only when alarmed – such as when researchers trap them to fit a radio tracking collar, or if you stumble across one in the bush.
Dingoes can also bark if they get very excited (about food, for example) but this is quite uncommon. The rarity of these events probably explains the prevalence of the “no barking” myth – wild dingo barking just doesn’t happen often enough for most people to witness it.
Another associated misconception is that captive dingoes will learn to bark from listening to domestic dogs. Although humans are very good at learning new sounds – indeed, that’s how we acquire our language – most other species (including canines) can make only a limited range of vocal sounds, and can’t learn new ones.
So the fact that captive dingoes bark actually confirms that they have barking abilities right from the start. It is, however, possible that by listening to nearby domestic dogs, captive dingoes learn to bark more often and in more situations than they otherwise might.
It is easy to see how this myth might harm efforts to protect dingoes. Imagine a well-meaning pastoralist shooting or baiting anything that barks, in the mistaken belief that it’s not a dingo.
Myth 2: all pure dingoes are ginger
The “typical” dingo that people picture in their minds – think Fraser Island – will be ginger (or tan) with white feet and a white-tipped tail. But dingoes, like people, come in a variety of shapes and colours.
Importantly, although ginger dingoes make up about three-quarters of the population, there is genetic evidence that their coats can also be black, black and tan, black and white, or plain white.
There is also a lot of variation in the size and shape of white patches and these may even be absent altogether. It’s often thought that dingoes that lack ginger fur or white patches are dingo-dog hybrids, but this is not necessarily true.
Like the no-barking myth, misconceptions about coat colour can potentially harm dingo conservation. If we were to protect only ginger dingoes, we would unwittingly reduce the natural genetic variation of the population, making it more vulnerable to extinction.
Myth 3: dingoes are just dogs
This is perhaps the hardest belief to address, because it can vary depending on whether we look at their behaviours, ecology or origins. But this concept is arguably even more relevant to their conservation and management.
So is a dingo a dog? Although dogs’ evolutionary origins are still unclear, we know that dingoes are descendants of animals domesticated long ago somewhere in Asia and then brought to Australia. Dingoes are thus an ancient dog breed and so, yes, dingoes are dogs.
However, we also know that dingoes arrived in mainland Australia roughly 5,000 years ago and have since been isolated from all other canines right up until European settlement. Some experts argue that this makes them distinct enough to warrant protection from hybridisation with domestic dogs.
As dingo researcher Ben Allen puts it, “pure ones need to be distinguished from hybrid ones somehow, and it is the pure ones that have conservation value as a species”.
But as fellow dingo expert Guy Ballard points out, dingoes are undeniably a type of dog, so arguably all that really matters is that their function as top predators in the ecosystem is preserved.
But there’s a catch (as Ballard has acknowledged): we do not know whether dingoes, feral dogs and hybrids behave similarly – or in other words, whether all three can perform the same ecological role.
Until we know more, the best approach to safeguarding dingoes and their role in the ecosystems might be to view and treat them as completely separate and distinct from other free-ranging dogs in Australia.
Far from being “just dogs”, dingoes really are unique dogs.
I’m not really keen on doing these Best Books lists because it’s always a struggle to choose when there are so many good books I’ve read, but here goes anyway…
These are the books I really liked and admired during 2016. They are books that I read this year, not necessarily published this year.
(At the time of writing there are 9 days reading left for this year, so who knows what other treasure I might find…)
The contenders are ANZ authors only. If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, it’s summertime here so let the sun shine on antipodean authors. All links go to my reviews.
I rated all of these 4 stars on Goodreads, and I felt a surge of pleasure remembering them when I looked at their covers at See What You Read in 2016. (I didn’t rate anything 5 stars…
These stories are based on a study from University College London using a brain imaging technique called functional MRI. The authors report that as subjects tell lies, activation of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with emotion and decision making, actually decreases, suggesting that subjects may become desensitized to lying, thereby paving the way for further dishonesty.
Of course the notion that lying breeds dishonesty is nothing new. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that our character – whether we are brave or cowardly, self-indulgent or self-controlled, generous or mean – is the product of habit. Virtues and vices are not acts but habits, he said, and we become what we accustom ourselves to doing.
What seems to make the University College study novel and newsworthy is the linkage between a pattern of conduct – lying – and changes in patterns of brain activity. The authors offer what they call “a mechanistic account of how dishonesty escalates, showing that it is supported by reduced activity in brain regions associated with emotion.”
Brain not simply a machine
Findings of this sort are subject to misinterpretation in three potentially misleading ways. First, there is the suggestion that a behavior such as lying can be explained “mechanistically.” Saying so implies the brain is a mechanism that can be accounted for in purely mechanistic terms. In fact, however, calling the brain a machine vastly oversimplifies it.
We know, for example, that the brain contains nearly 100 billion neurons with perhaps 150 trillion synapses. This may sound like an incredibly complex thinking machine, but no analysis of the brain as gray matter, electrical circuitry, or neuro-chemistry makes the leap from machinery to our experience of the world.
As Nobel laureate Charles Sherrington, one of the founders of modern neuroscience, famously declared, natural sciences such as physics and chemistry may bring us tantalizingly close to threshold of thought, but it is precisely at this point that they “bid us ‘goodbye.‘” The language of natural science is inadequate to account for human experience, including the experience of telling a lie.
Consider Mozart’s “A Little Serenade” or Rembrandt’s self-portraits. We can describe the former as horsehair rubbing across catgut, and we may account for the latter as nothing more than pigments applied to canvas, but in each case something vital is lost. As any reader of Shakespeare knows, a lie is something far richer than any pattern of brain activation.
The brain is not the mind
A second dangerous misinterpretation that often arises from such reports is the notion that brain and mind are equivalent. To be sure, altering the chemistry and electrical activity of the brain can powerfully affect a person’s sensation, thought, and action – witness the occasionally remarkable effects of psychoactive drugs and electro-convulsive therapy.
But in much of human experience, the causal pathway works in the opposite direction, not from brain to mind, but mind to brain. We need look no further than the human imagination, from which all great works of art, literature and even natural science flow, to appreciate that something far more complex than altered synaptic chemistry is at work in choices about whether to be truthful.
In fact, our capacity to lie is one of the most powerful demonstrations of the fact that the human mind is not bound by the physical laws that scientists see at work in the brain. As Jonathan Swift puts it “Gulliver’s Travels,” to lie is “to say the thing which is not,” perhaps as profound a testimony as we could wish for free will and the ability of the human mind to transcend physical laws.
In the Genesis creation story, it is after woman and man have tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and hidden their nakedness that God declares that “they have become like us.” To be able to lie is in a sense divine, implying a capacity to imagine reality as it is not yet. If used appropriately, this capacity can make the world a better place.
Blaming the brain
Perhaps the most dangerous misapprehension that can flow from new findings in brain science is reflected in the CNN and PBS headlines: the notion that lying is “your brain’s fault” or that “the brain keeps lying.” The idea, it seems, is that lying is something that happens in and by the brain, much as a dysrhythmia happens in the heart or strangulation happens in the bowel.
In reality, of course, lying is not the fault of the brain but the person to whom the brain belongs. When someone tells a lie, he or she is not merely incorrect but deceptive. People who lie are deliberately distorting the truth and misleading someone in hopes of gain, placing their purposes above the understanding and trust of the person to whom they lie.
Even in the era of functional neuro-imaging, there is no lie detector that can tell with certainty whether subjects are telling the truth. There is no truth serum that can force them to do so. At the core of every utterance is an act of moral discernment that we cannot entirely account for except to say that it reflects the character of the person who does it.
Lying is not a matter of physical law, but of moral injunction. It is less about chemistry than character. It reflects not merely what we regard as expedient in the moment but who we are at our core. Ironically, while it is less momentous to act well than to be good, we are in the end little more than the sum of all the moral compromises we have made or refused to make.
This is why we abhor the deceptive conduct of narcissists, crooks and politicians, and why we esteem so highly the characters of people who manage to tell the truth even when it is especially inconvenient to do so. Such acts are morally blameworthy or exemplary precisely because we recognize them as the products of human choice, not physical necessity.
Last week, I wrote a post on the hierarchy of scientific evidence which included the figure to the right. In that post, I explained why some types of scientific papers produced more robust results than others. Some people, however, took issue with that and accused me of committing a genetic fallacy because I was attacking the source of their information rather than the information itself. They were specifically unhappy about my claim that personal anecdotes, gut feelings, counter-factual websites, etc. did not constitute scientific evidence. After all, how dare I assert that their opinions weren’t as valuable as a carefully controlled study (note the immense sarcasm). In reality, of course, my argument was not fallacious, and they were simply misunderstanding how the genetic fallacy works. This misunderstanding is, however, quite common and somewhat understandable. The genetic fallacy can admittedly be very confusing. Therefore, I want to briefly explain what…
The resurrection of universal basic income (UBI) proposals in the developed world this year gained support from some prominent Australians. But while good in theory, it’s no panacea for the challenges of our modern economy.
UBI proposals centre on the idea that the government would pay a flat fee to every adult citizen, regardless of his or her engagement in skill-building activities or the paid labour market, as a partial or complete substitute for existing social security and welfare programs.
Of the schemes run in developing places like Kenya, Uganda, and India, some have been evaluated statistically, delivering some evidence of positive impacts on educational investments, entrepreneurship, and earnings.
In the developed world, Canada is trialling a UBI scheme. Finland also just rolled out a UBI trial, involving about 10,000 recipients for two years and costing about A$40 million. While Switzerland’s voters just rejected a UBI proposal via referendum, a similar proposal is presently looking like a goer for Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Here in Australia, it has been suggested the government might hand out somewhere between A$10,000 and A$25,000 a year to every man and woman.
Can we afford it?
There are two big questions to ask before taking a UBI proposal seriously, and the first is the most obvious one: where would the money come from to pay for it?
Giving A$20,000 to every Australian adult (19 million people) would cost approximately A$380 billion. That’s a little over twice the present total cost we pay for the above-mentioned programs.
Economics journalist Peter Martin has suggested that abolishing the tax-free threshold would pay for a UBI scheme. Working out whether the abolition of the tax-free threshold would fully fund a UBI is non-trivial, given the complexity of changing marginal tax rates as income rises and the need to estimate how many taxpayers fall into which tax brackets, but one thing is sure: the income tax bill of most if not all earners would have to rise in order to fund a UBI.
Let’s look at what would happen to someone earning A$80,000 per year if we were to implement a UBI, abolish the tax-free threshold, and leave the marginal income tax rate kink points unchanged.
This person presently pays about A$18,000 in income tax – made up of a marginal tax rate of 19% on dollars from the tax-free threshold of A$18,200 to A$37,000, and a marginal tax rate of 33% on dollars from A$37,000 to A$80,000.
Under a UBI scheme involving the abolition of the tax-free threshold, that same individual would receive the UBI (say, $20,000) but would then face a 19% tax rate on ALL of the first A$37,000 of income, and then a marginal tax rate of 33% on dollars from A$37,000 to A$80,000, yielding a total tax bill of A$21,220.
This person would be better off under the UBI in terms of take-home pay: instead of A$62,000, he would get A$79,000 in his bank account. But is the additional revenue increment from abolishing the tax-free threshold enough to pay for the UBI, if we spread it across all earners? I’ve yet to see a hard-headed answer to this question.
We may need to increase taxes elsewhere to pay for a UBI – possibly corporate taxes, land taxes, etc. – and most of these other taxes disproportionately impact richer people. Would legislation to fund a UBI scheme via increasing taxes on the rich get passed?
Some might suggest taking the money we presently spend on social security and welfare payments and converting it to a UBI. This would be enough to fund payments of about A$10,000 to each adult. But it would be a reverse-Robin-Hood policy: instead of spreading a fixed sum across our neediest citizens, we’d be spreading that sum across everyone, making the neediest worse off in order to send cash to our more well-heeled citizens.
Question 2: What is the perceived “broken” part of our present welfare system, and would UBI fix it?
Any targeted (e.g. means-tested) social support payment must be clawed back as income and/or wealth rises. While arguably an efficient way to get money to where it’s most needed, means-tested social security payments inevitably depress the incentive to earn more, at least in the section of the earning distribution where social security payments are paid out. This is talked about a lot, but I haven’t seen a reliable cost estimate for Australia of the disincentivising effects of the claw-back of social security and welfare payments.
The administration costs of the present system of targeted payments, also an argument given for moving to a UBI, are estimated at about A$3-4 billion. Whether this includes all much-pilloried costs of “churn” is an open question. And a UBI scheme would also have administration costs, which have not yet been estimated.
Another frequent theme describes the modern economy as turbulent, with more part-time, casual roles and more employment uncertainty than in the past. The implication is that the way our present system compensates people in insecure work is inadequate. Yet a social support model like a UBI that makes it even easier for people to be precariously attached to the workplace carries the implication that the workplace is not good for them.
In fact, work is socially and psychologically supportive for many people. Studies have found negative psychological impacts from job loss and retirement that seem driven by the social aspects of working. Do we want to isolate our most vulnerable citizens even more?
Arguably the biggest problem in our current tax-and-transfer system is that the rich, and their organisations (like big companies), do not get taxed enough and/or benefit from special provisions (for example in regard to superannuation).
Instead of changing our present targeted welfare system into a diffuse scattergun money-for-all scheme, we could instead courageously tackle the worst part of the problem first.
What else is relevant?
Some worry that a UBI scheme would further depress the incentive to work. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I doubt that the drive to win in terms of labour market success is going to go away anytime soon.
Others have also found small impacts on work incentives from cash transfer programs, though this evidence is mainly drawn from developing countries.
In principle, two types of work incentives may be affected. People receiving unconditional handouts every year may feel less pressure to get and keep a job. Secondly, if the UBI were funded by the abolition of the tax-free threshold and/or increases to income tax rates, then people would be more strongly penalised for working additional hours and might hence work less.
Would people receiving unconditional handouts feel freer to explore their creative sides? To explore entrepreneurial ideas? To engage in more meaningful work than they presently do? These are all mentioned as possible benefits of a developed-country UBI, but we really don’t know whether they would materialise, nor do we really know how to measure them.
We do know that people adapt to new reference points (including income reference points), and there is good reason to expect that at least some of a long-term UBI would be soaked up in higher prices – particularly for goods that the poor buy most.
Watch and learn
A proposal to throw money at people, while wrapping that proposal in the flags of “equality” and “basic rights”, can be argued to be the lazy man’s face-saving response to the complex, entrenched problems of poverty. The poor arguably lack access and/or skills as much as or more than they lack money.
What’s more, the present Australian social security and welfare system can be viewed as a UBI scheme with exceptions for people who don’t need it. Some changes to the system that do not involve wholesale overhauls could address many of the problems discussed above.
My advice for Australia? Watch the policy experiments in Europe keenly. But don’t assume for one minute that universal basic income is a magic bullet. Compared to our current system, it is expensive, inefficient, and potentially regressive.
We come now to a discussion of the third chapter of Paul Feyerabend’s posthumously published Philosophy of Nature, on the universe as perceived by the Ancient Greek poet Homer. (My treatment of chapter 1 is here and of chapter 2 here.) Remember that Feyerabend’s goal is to compare and contrast three different ways — or forms of life — in which human beings make sense of the world: myths, philosophy, and science. We are then continuing to explore the mythological approach. Homer’s epics represent a concrete example of what Feyerabend discussed in chapter 2.
Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.
Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.
Shame and Necessity
by Bernard Williams
After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?
However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).
So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.
Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.
It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.
The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.
Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney
The Philosophy Book
by Will Buckingham
Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.
With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.
The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.
The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.
There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.
The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.
This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know
by Ben Dupré
Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.
Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.
The book’s blurb asks:
Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?
It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.
There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.
This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
by Harry G Frankfurt
When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.
But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.
So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.
Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.
In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.
Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.
The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.
The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.
Patrick Stokes, Deakin University
The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher
by William H F Altman
Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.
Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.
The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).
Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.
The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.
Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.
This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).
But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.
Matt Sharpe, Deakin
Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot
This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.
It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.
The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.
Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.
I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:
Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.