There is a major problem with writing philosophical letters, one which I only came to appreciate after I had begun writing and when it became clear that my style and my interests tended in this direction: there is simply too much that can be written about. When you begin to explore, it also becomes clear that many people have an inkling, if not an understanding, for philosophical argument or even philosophical knowledge, whether they appreciate it or not. Philosophical thinking, on all levels, is inherent in our characters: we delve into our minds, into our thoughts and deepest emotions, to create an opinion based more on our innermost feelings and personal considerations than on facts and figures. Many people simply do not appreciate that they do this, and write philosophy off as either a thing of the past, or far too complicated to follow in modern terms. Many philosophers, or those who would be called such, are more media oriented, and less understandable to the mainstream, to ordinary people. And, of course, any form of philosophy, philosophical thought, is an inessential part of our lives, always has been, as even Seneca observed in one of his Letters:
Even if you had a large part of your life remaining before you, you would have to organise it very economically to have enough for all the things that are necessary; as things are, isn’t it the height of folly to learn inessential things when time’s so desperately short!
And yet so many people know of Socrates and Plato, and have phrases used by them and many, many other philosophers engraved in their hearts as pure fact, as a way t live their lives, as an indication of the path they should be taking or, better, attempting to follow. Socrates claimed to know nothing, and drew people out as a result, forcing some of the finest debates – if we are to believe Plato’s reporting and recording of events – on a wide variety of philosophical themes including ignorance. One of his arguments, in Meno is:
Do you see what a captious argument you are introducing – that, forsooth, a man cannot inquire either about what he knows or about what he does not know? For he cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case is in no need of inquiry; nor again can he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know about what he is to inquire.
This, you will agree, cannot work or there would be no knowledge at all in the world, no wise men, no modernity, no advancements in the breadth and depth of wisdom. And, as you can well imagine, Socrates does not find this a good argument and justifies his belief in the opposite with a long discussion on the immortality of the soul, on virtue, wisdom and truth. For our purposes, as ordinary humans without the debating capacities of a Socrates, it is enough to say that we must inquire into what we know, because we do not know it all; we must inquire into what we do not know, to advance our own knowledge and gain, hopefully, wisdom. No one is truly ignorant, you will forgive me for disagreeing with your own assessment of yourself, if they can express themselves and are willing to inquire further into what they do know, what they believe and what they do not (yet) know. We all have a certain degree of knowledge, learned through experience as you also write, and our opinions based on what we know, our surroundings, our upbringing and so on. Otherwise there would be no Socrates, and no Plato to report his words, and probably no mankind which, I think, would be a sad affair.
I must admit, despite the fact that I have most certainly not read everything written and cannot agree with all that which I have read, that I enjoy reading Plato. I would like it more if I was capable of reading it in Greek, since every single translation, no matter how good, removes or loses something of the original meaning, the nuances and especially references to things linked to the times which we, thousands of years later, cannot always appreciate. Place yourself in the position of someone who receives a copy of your poetry, but without knowing anything of you or your situation: would they be able to appreciate it in the same manner as when they know something of the background, even about your life and circumstances? They would not be completely ignorant, because the poetry is in their hands and they have an insight; they would also know to inquire into something that they do not know, as well as being able to inquire into that which they do know. Socrates’ argument can be used in many ways, not just to prove that there is an immortal soul – or not – which gathers experiences and knowledge through many lives. The one thing we do know from these times, which some tend to forget these days, is that the immortal soul they discuss has nothing, but absolutely nothing, to do with modern day religions, no matter how hard Renaissance Humanists such as Marsilio Ficino attempted to twist their words to give that impression.
You write that man is born with traits of lust and violence, that these are inherent and that all else is learned through experience. I am inclined to agree with you, but by using slightly different wording than lust and violence as the initial traits, those of a baby which develop into the full-grown adult over time, as these two words convey considerably more, in our modern world, than I can agree with. The human child is born with an inbuilt desire, and need, to survive. I believe this is inherent in all creatures which have the ability to defend themselves, either by fighting or fleeing, and is probably, certainly from the view of the infant, a good thing. How this develops is another matter entirely, and here I would also be careful which words I use, as, for me, the ideas of lust and violence become more obvious with age, with experience, and with the building up of an individual character. There are those who discover at an early age that they have a certain power over others, through size, intelligence or simply the ability to convince someone else to follow and believe in their opinion. A child will, initially, be consumed with the desire to keep itself fit and well fed, for example, and only later learn that it requires others to do this, and begin to show some form of empathy towards their providers. They will also learn later – although this is difficult with single children – that sharing brings more benefits than an obsessive desire to collect, to hoard or to be top of the pile when it comes to many aspects of life. Man, for me, is born with a survival instinct, which develops into many other aspects of character later in life, be they good or bad.
Being capable of placing yourself into the shoes – as we say – of another person, to see the world through their eyes or through their experiences also belies the idea of ignorance. Whether this is a factual experience, placing yourself into the life of a person who exists and who you know, or a fictional one, creating a character, make little difference. There is a requirement to have information about the real person, and to create information about the fictional. Here we are looking at a stage beyond experience: we have learned, we have adapted, we have taken all that life can throw at us, and now we take a step beyond that, to a place where our experiences have never been. The writer, whether it be a letter writer exploring ideas in a philosophical manner, or the fiction writer exploring a concocted life, goes far beyond experience and what life has taught. The first, the philosophical, goes into the mind and works through ideas and notions based on the initial experience, or what has been taught, to further their understanding. This is no longer experience, but wisdom. The writer of fiction – be it books, short stories or even poetry – takes an experience and expands upon it with characterisation, with plot, with a wealth of imagination removing it from the realms of experience and into a fantasy world. Anyone can experience something – within reason – but only the human beast is capable of increasing that experience, expanding it into something else and doing more than just learn from it. Experience may well be the foundation for many things, but it is not the be-all and end-all of life.
Education is over-rated. In many cases education, as we know and practice it today, fails completely. We, as a society, have changed the educational standards to meet an immediate need, whilst forgetting that those being educated will be addressing future needs; all education reacts to need far too late to be of any use. And when there is a timely reaction, it often falls far short of what is required. Everything that we learn, at the fundamental and initial levels, is learned by rote with little or no incentive toward individual thought. Few things that are proposed for the educational standards set meet either the needs of society – manufacturing or otherwise – or the individual. In many cases, what we learn after the fundamentals – reading writing and basic arithmetic – is wasted time as it has little to do with needs and more to do with beliefs. We could learn far better by lowering some of the barriers and allowing more experience learning in the classroom, and by taking the children – or students – out of the physical classroom and into the world they will eventually be joining. And we should go back, in my not so humble opinion, to learning from the experiences of the past, from the classic authors of past times who made their way through life successfully and, our good fortune, collected their experiences, their life stories in such a form that we may learn from them today.
Back in the Eighties, there were calls for changes to education to meet the challenges of a new, automated, world. The rise of automation was foreseen by many, as much as the need for a change in education to meet the future technological needs of society. The rise of a society based more on leisure was suggested, with robotics and the automation of factory systems being advanced. This was back in the Eighties, and today? Today we have unemployment because society did not take the advice of those times, and we have worries over automation, the loss of employment possibilities, because the calls for a change, for a look into the future rather than the immediate present, were ignored. Western civilisation, and probably the world, would be a far better place if those in control had cast their political differences as much as their own ingrained beliefs to one side, and taken advice from others regardless of their political or religious leanings. Today we base our educational needs on the future, but have forgotten the present, and seem to have skipped over several decades as a result. Now is the time when experience should be brought into the classroom, after all, it is used in business every single day of the year, so why not help students to use their own experiences and gain more from those of their predecessors?
I, too, do not see that a person knowing one thing automatically equates with them knowing its opposite or counterpart. I can see some exceptions, such as love and hate and several other emotions, but not in a experience-based sense. You cannot, for example, know and understand being rich if you live in poverty; perhaps observe it and wish, but not understand the feeling of actually being rich. I exempt the emotions because they come from inside and are not learned: a person who has only known hate all their lives from their parents, from contemporaries and so on – can still feel love towards another person or creature. Likewise, I believe, a person who has only known ugliness – or what we might turn to be ugly – from childhood onwards would still be able to recognise beauty and appreciate it although, here, I think that sense of what is beautiful would be tainted by lifelong experience. New experiences change people, their outlook and their opinions: two prime examples of this are in the political arena recently; an American politician who was set against the Affordable Care Act during his legislative period and now, unemployed and without health care, suddenly appreciates and supports it; the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been against same-sex marriage all her political career and changed her mind after a talk with those who seek it – and I don’t mean politicians, but real, live people on the street. The result in this latter case – the American example is, unfortunately, almost a lost cause as politicians there now avoid their constituents with a vengeance – is that the same-sex marriage act came up for a vote in the German parliament this morning, and were passed. Without the agreement of Angela Merkel, the act would not have been on the agenda.
I could also draw on my own personal experiences as far as education, emotions and the like go, having lived a long life and travelled, experienced many things in many countries, in both peace and war, but that would probably expand the length and depth of this short letter beyond what can be found acceptable. I am also pleased that my strange letter provoked thought and a thoughtful, interesting reply from you: there are many who would not have accepted the challenge to think and to voice their thoughts in words, even just between two people. It makes the pleasure of writing all that more pleasurable, and the reply gave me, gives me still, more food for thought.