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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Five Great Philosophies of the Western Tradition

Based on a book by William DeWitt Hyde published originally in 1904. 

The five great philosophies are Epicurean, based on atomic theory and with emphasis on pursuit of pleasure; Stoic based on the psychological principle of apperception with emphasis on self-control; Platonic based on universal ideals and cardinal virtues with emphasis on subordination; Aristotelian, based on empiricism with emphasis on sense of proportion and practicality; and Christian based on the spirit of love. 

Epicurean philosophy is about leading a “simple life” of “pleasure” based on the observation that all of us want to be free of pain and fear. Pleasure is defined as “the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul”. What is emphasized is not on blind pursuit of pleasure, but on an attitude of the mind which focuses on what is immediately at hand, prudence and moderation in everything. It also emphasizes not getting hung up on the results. One can see a similarity to the teachings of Gita in the emphasis on moderation in effort and also on “accepting what comes”. 

It says: “Do not hurry; do not worry”. There is “no useless regrets of the past; nor profitless foreboding for the future”. These are also similar to some of the Vedic and Buddhist teachings. 

Although the attitude of the mind recommended by Epicureanism leads to relaxed life, not pursuing wealth and fame, it is also self-centered. It is somewhat similar to the Caravaka system of India. Its biggest weakness is that it treats other lives as means to one’s pleasure.  

According to Dr.Hyde, some famous proponents of Epicureanism are Herbert Spencer and Walt Whitman. John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is a variant of this philosophy. 

Stoic philosophy says that external facts, possessions and experience get their value from the way we respond to them. Sensation and associated experiences come from without; ideas and reactions come from within. We cannot control the external factors which follow universal laws. Health and wealth affect us all differently because we react to them with our inherent patterns which are different. But, we can unlearn. We can learn to accept reality. Stoics emphasize self-control and change of attitude to external events. In this, this idea is similar to the modern day version of Cognitive-Behavior psychology. But, this attitude is to apply to oneself and not to impute to others. 

Stoics teach us how to accept vicissitudes of life by surrendering to the Universal Law. Some of the proponents of stoicisms are Epictetus, Aurelius and Matthew Arnold. They taught us “the secrets of that hardy virtue which bears with fortitude, life’s inevitable ills”.  

The weakness is that unconditional surrender to one’s fate takes away the incentive to change things that can be changed. One can see the similarity to some of the Vedic teachings. 

Philosophy of Plato deals with the worth and the relative value of things. It says that it is virtue that determines how far one goes to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure and pain are good up to a point. “What is the point? What is the limit? Virtue is the point up to which the bearing of pain is good, the limit beyond which the bearing of pain becomes an evil”. Virtue is the supreme goal and whatever makes it attainable is good, whether it is pleasurable or painful. Whatever hinders that virtue is bad, whether it is pleasurable or painful. Virtue has to be practiced for its own sake, not expecting rewards or honors; in spite of hardships. The philosophy is very similar to that of Gita and actually favors asceticism.            

What are some of those virtues? What makes them virtues? Plato talks about righteousness and unrighteousness – both in the “republic” (the state) and the individual.  In the Republic, unrighteousness is “….each of the great classes in the state – working men, capitalists, police, politicians, scholars – are living exclusively for themselves and are ready to sacrifice the interests of the community  as a whole to their private interests.” In a righteous state each one of these classes will be working towards the welfare of the whole.  Good or bad, righteousness or unrighteousness, virtue and vice of actions are defined by their ability to contribute to the welfare of the whole. It is the sacrifice of the whole for its parts which constitutes vice.  

When these ideas are applied to the individuals, Plato defines the actions by their driving force – was it driven by appetite, spirit or reason?  None of them should be allowed to dominate. Any one of them acting alone ignoring the interest of the “self” as a whole (the whole person’s welfare) is “bad”.  This is where Reason comes in.  Reason has to bring in balance between appetite and spirit.  

That particular form of virtue “that results from the control of the appetites by reason in the interest of the permanent and total self is temperance”. One needs fortitude to control the spirit’s “inability to bear a transient, trifling pain patiently and bravely for the sake of the self as a whole”.  The third virtue is Wisdom which “consists in the supremacy of reason over appetite and spirit; just as temperance and courage consists in the subordination of appetite and spirit to reason”.  In essence “Virtue and vice are questions of the subordination or insubordination of the lower to the higher elements of our nature, of the parts of ourselves to the whole”.  

Righteousness consists of the three cardinal virtues – temperance, courage and wisdom, as noted earlier. At the level of the state, it “consists in each citizen doing the thing to which his nature is most perfectly adapted…….with a view to the good of the whole”. In an individual, it consists “in having each part of one’s nature devoted to its special function: in having the appetites obey, in having the spirit steadfast in difficulty and danger, and in having the reason rule supreme”.  

Plato goes on to describe the four stages through which a state can degenerate, if there is no harmony or righteousness. Those stages are: ambition, democracy (defined as a state where each citizen does what he pleases), tyranny and aristocracy! 

The weakness of this view is that it favors acts based on an ideal which is not practical in this world. It leads to asceticism and other worldliness. Indeed this view is close to the mysticism of the east (and of the west) and Neoplatonism of early followers of Christianity such as Boethius and Plotinus.  

Aristotle’s philosophy relates all of our actions and thoughts to means, ends and social context. He rejects the epicurean idea of pleasure since it does not pay attention to the welfare of the individual or of the society as a whole. He rejects the stoic principle of “surrendering to the laws of nature”, since it gives no scope for the worth of the individual and human effort. He was not a follower of Plato, his own teacher, and his ideas of an ethereal “supreme good” and the “ideal”, but prefered concrete and practical ideas to live in this imperfect world.  

Aristotle was closer to the Vedas when he said that effect is in the cause. Happiness is the effect if one performs his functions and duties with a view towards “permanent personal interests” and “wide social ends”. “Goodness does not consist in doing or refrain from doing this or that particular thing. It depends of the whole aim and purpose of the man who does it, or refrains from doing it”. “It is not what one does; it is the whole purpose of life consciously or unconsciously expressed in the doing that measures the worth of the man or woman who does it”. Finally, “Virtue and vice reside exclusively in the will of the free agent”. 

Aristotle’s first doctrine is that “we must work for worthy ends”.  It equally important that the means with which we gain those ends are used wisely – just as much as need to aim the noble end, not too little, not too much. This is the doctrine of the “mean” in discussing the instruments required to function. In Aristotle’s own words, “By the mean relatively to us, I understand that which is neither too much nor too little for us; and that is not one and the same for all”.   What is right for one man in one set of circumstances may not be right for another man in another set of circumstances.  In these, the teachings are so similar to the concept of Dharma, flexible to time and context. 

In order to get this, Aristotle emphasized knowledge for its own sake, “for only he who knows how things stand related to each other in the actual world, will be able to grasp aright the relation of means to ends on which the success of the practical life depends”.  This is the driving force behand all modern advances in science.  
Wisdom is the next requirement and also courage to follow the means once the end has been determined.  These virtues can be acquired by repeated practice like any other art or skill.  “You must do the thing before you know, in order to know how, after you have done”. In Aristotle’s words: “We acquire the virtues by doing the acts, as is the case with the arts too. We learn art by doing that which we wish to do when we have learned it; we become builders by building, and harpers by playing on the harp”.   

The fifth system covered in this book is Christianity. The essential teaching of Christianity, according to this author is Love, and the humility that goes with it. The “love” taught by Jesus is not the word with its current meaning(s); but “the outgoing of the self into the lives of others”, particularly to the meek and the poor (as is shown by the current Pope). The “negatives” of the early teachings of the prophets (such as the Ten Commandments) as to what to avoid and what the prohibitions are, were converted into a simple, “positive” value – that is LOVE. If you carry Love in your heart, those prohibitions become unnecessary.  

“Treat both others and yourself as their place and yours in God’s coming Kingdom require……All things, therefore, whatever ye would that men should do unto you”. We come to this same spiritual place if we accept that He or It is in you and me, and both of us have the same predicaments and needs in life and your life is sacred, and so is mine. How can I hurt you without hurting a part of myself? How can I not make you happy, without making myself happy? 

Besides, “Law and institutions are made for men, rather than men for institutions and laws; and the instant an old law ceases to serve a new need in the best possible way, Love erects the better service into a new law or institution, suspending the old. Any law that fails to promote the physical, mental, social and spiritual good of the persons and the community concerned, thereby loses Love’s sanction and becomes obsolete. Law for law’s sake, rather than for the sake of man and society, is flat denial of Love” says the author of this book.  This statement supports placing morality over legality and covenant over contract, in human interactions. 

Love implies reverence for the other. It “is kind to the evil and the vicious and magnanimous to the hostile and the hateful”. It does not make fuss about its sacrifices. It is given to all of His creatures, expecting nothing in return.