Buddha, bird – an original poem

Buddha, bird – first penned 11/16/17, 1:45am
© C. L. Tangenberg

Buddha bird?
Is there one?
Is it Chinese?
Or Tibetan?
China says, Same question.
I have a question
for China.
Impertinent, no doubt,
but probative.

I wonder
if there are any
bamboo forests
left on mainland China,
where the panda
dies in slow
attrition, skirting
evolution. Natural
selection chose
extinction
for the Giant.

China’s cranes
fly more grace
than the crane-fly,
and who will die first
matters less than
to be blessed,
knowing a rise-over
in life, a lightness
of heart, a soaring soul.

Is the bird thus blest?
Transcendent?

A soul in shadow—
umbrage thrown by
tongues of raging fire
—alights in the
brightness cast
with the heat
on the wall that’s
crumbling to cinder,
and lets go.

Long live Buddha.
Long live bird.

And it led to https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhas-birds/ Buddha’s symbolic bird could be a swan, goose, rooster, peacock, Garuda, or crow.

Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! 

From Scotland with the Wee White Dug, a tale of adventures in the Highlands, including the Pump Room and Spa Exhibition in Strathpeffer, a view of Castle Leod (seat of Clan Mackenzie), the Touchstone Maze honoring Scotland’s historic sites, a Moray Firth cruise with Dolphin Spirit Inverness, enchanting music at Embrace Gifts shop along with wood carvings at Victorian Station, the Eagle Stone of The Pictish Trail, and more. Just further proof, as if we needed any, that your Scotland trip deserves quality time in Inverness-shire and at least a glimpse of the Northern Highlands.

Scotland with the Wee White Dug

Today I’m going to share with you an eclectic mix of Victorian spa town in the Scottish Highlands and a dolphin spotting adventure on the Moray Firth.

Last Saturday after an early breakfast at our B&B near Portmahomack, we set off along the NC500 route between Tain and Dingwall to make the 34 mile journey to Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer lies a few miles west of Dingwall.

The village sits in a wide mountain valley or strath. Leafy, and surrounded by mountains it has the look of an Alpine village to it.

Arriving in Strathpeffer is like stepping back in time. The Victorians have left an instantly recognisable imprint on the architecture of the village. You half expect to see elegantly dressed ladies, strolling down the street on the arm of top hatted gents with mutton-chop whiskers.

The Victorian Station

When we arrived at the station a cute little shop calledEmbrace…

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Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression at AWP 2017. Corrected commentary.

My commentary–updated with corrections 2/6/17–and a reblogged post (at bottom).

Many have been saying the following and then launching new campaigns of activism. As always, I launch only my considered opinions, research-based (the one statistic I did use and cite needed correcting afterwards–my apologies) views, and best advice, leaving each person to do as conscience dictates.

It has been my aim to avoid politics in large part on my blog, focusing on pre-chosen themes that put art and beauty and positivity first. However, those themes include freedom of expression and opposing censorship, I’m still putting positivity first, and I’ll offer content according to my conscience regardless of trends, mine or others.

We all have choices to make. Wouldn’t it be great if we all kept the freedom to make them?


When executive orders forbid, for instance, federal workers from discussing federal policy, conditions at work, or opinions at all related to their jobs, it is a form of corporate practice as lawful as the conditions of security clearance or signing a confidentiality agreement. It goes with the job. That’s why it’s called an executive branch rather than just “the president”; there’s the Cabinet with 15 departments including Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State, Justice, Agriculture, Interior, Environment, Education, Energy, etc., each with subsets of dozens of other organizations such as the FBI, the EPA, and the CIA.

The unreasonable suddenness, logistical difficulty, and accumulation of such orders amounting to a moving target that creates confusion and chaos is another matter for the company to work out within itself, lest its efforts to comply break a host of laws and fracture the Constitution. Even as they comply, federal workers must be cognizant of the consequences of their actions and weigh the risks and benefits of continuing to comply, keeping the conversation open amongst themselves if nothing else.

But there is more to consider in a climate in which the default impulse of the executive–whether he chooses to act on that impulse each time or not–is to rule by unexpected direct order, absolute silencing, intimidation, bullying, bribery, general dismissive belligerence or a combination of these. We must consider that non-federal employees with legitimate, rights-based objections to those or other orders have an even greater obligation than previously, and than their federal fellow citizens, to voice or also enact their objections.

Those included under such an obligation are state-level law enforcement leadership, whose duty it is to oppose, countermand, and, if necessary, arrest federal agents who have little choice but to carry out federal orders regardless of state-level legality or moral rightness. Where refusal to comply is truly untenable, blockage of compliance becomes essential.

The power of the executive branch of the federal government has expanded dangerously over the last several decades, for nearly a century in fact.

Now we see (because we finally choose to pay attention), in more vivid and alarming detail than under previous administrations who also wielded such power with various degrees and kinds of impunity, the threats that unchallenged executive mandates and manipulation pose to a panoply of basic freedoms–to pursue work or education, movement, trade, speech, religion, decisions about one’s own physical body and property, including land, and the ability to ask our State and military leader challenging (or any) questions. The legislative branch, the judicial branch, the states, and everyday citizens all have the obligation to check and nullify those threats.

Speak on, ask on, petition on, fund, litigate, assemble, enjoin, fight for what’s yours, relinquish what is not, pray or abstain, and don’t be intimidated. You’re not alone. No persecuted American left behind. Liberty and justice for all. Keep the conversation going. Debate, question, and prioritize your engagements.

No one has the right not to be offended, but you can choose not to take offense by ignoring non-threats to your freedom and focusing on those things that actually threaten it. In a society in which it has become far too easy to get distracted by inflammatory language and pursue useless tangents, the first order of business in making positive change in your country is to restrain yourself so that your energy is not spent before it can apply to what matters.

To that end, speak but don’t just speak. Think before you speak, choose your words wisely, and move from speech to action to protect your liberty and your neighbor’s. Don’t fight each other; fight the unlawful and abhorrent actions of your government. Show each other the respect, but not without adherence to Constitutional law, that your executive chooses not to show as he flouts the Constitution.

Be brave enough not to panic but to question, find facts, learn, engage, think, object, reconsider, seek alternative views, train your mind, open your heart, think critically, understand, decide, and, when necessary, dissent. That’s freedom. That’s patriotism.

What is not freeing or patriotic is terrorism, which comes in many forms. Since 9/11, we have scared ourselves into creating a less secure and far less free society. Now we are seeing the culmination of that extended, misguided, and misapplied paranoia.

From the Patriot Act forward, starting with Bush Jr., we have made incremental choices to excel at being our own most effective terrorists. We have looked the other way while our government implemented ineffectual laws and programs, and devastating military operations, and continued them under Obama:

the counterproductive bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act’s negation of habeas corpus and due process, Guantanamo Bay’s remaining open with the resulting unjust detentions, NSA snooping on American citizens, the TSA’s invasive blunders, Benghazi’s wrongful deaths, lack of transparency in leadership, Afghanistan, and drone strikes amounting to undeclared war in Syria and now troops in Yemen, for just the more obvious examples.

The effects–of both these government actions and the people’s acceptance of them–have been gradually eroding our basic freedoms and rights, and increasing our enemies’ hostility towards us, as well as abilities and determination to harm us.

Nothing brings that fact into sharper relief than the election of this president, who now perfectly embodies our terror. The fear has merely been disguised as anger. We must eventually learn and might as well start now: The only response with any chance to reverse this freedom-hating trend is calm, reasoned, organized, and well-applied resistance–first and foremost, to our own worst impulses.

Resist. But: Know why you resist, be clear about what you’re resisting, prioritize what is most important to resist, and learn how to do it more effectively than the government does anything.

Stop looking to centralized government to fix everything. They have proven repeatedly, in both parties, from all angles, that they are unfit to do so. A new executive won’t resolve this; the system itself is unfit, and the wisdom of term limits supports this notion. Being “unfit” may seem unfortunate, but it is not the tragedy. The real misfortune is our continued gullibility in believing they can fix it all as we passively await our deliverance. The corrupt, powerful godheads have led by fear and kept us afraid. In this respect, the federal government is a modern god for those no longer beholden to the earthly bonds of organized religion, a secondary one for those still trapped by it.

The alternative?

Start being responsible for the state of your own citizenship; the least of the actions demonstrating this is voting for a leader or simply attending church regularly. Each of us is the first, best, and only leader of ourselves. Set yourself free, and become the best kind of advocate for fellow citizens without the power to do so. Grow your worth, moral and monetary, to apply to the community in discerning, uncompromised benefit. Transform your anger into loving, positive, freedom-expanding action.

Real liberty is scary, but it is worth everything. Jesus, who sacrificed himself for everyone, understood that. So did Stalin, who sacrificed everyone for himself. Neither way is right or practical for the citizen who must remain strong and vital to serve as a thread in the societal tapestry, lest it all unravel. Neither absolute equality, nor absolute deference, nor totalitarianism will serve. Only generous spirit for uncommonly meaningful and inclusive purpose combined with an educated, well-reasoned will can defeat the frightened sheep–in this externalized form of a stingy, insecure egomaniac–that lives in us all.

Liberty is that inclusive purpose. Liberation is that will enacted. Actual security is an illusion. Actual equality is an illusion. We can choose to put first either freedom or safety, either freedom or equality, but not both. Put safety first, and freedom dies. Put equality first, and freedom dies. In seeking freedom first, we welcome safety and equality; we open the door for both. We can and must choose whether we are our own worst enemies or our own best friends, whether we will stay fearful and overly self-sacrificing or calm and wise.

Protectionism is fearful and unwise–bad for the economy and global relations. Discriminatory application of basic rights by sex, religion or politics is fearful and wrongheaded. Targeting things and people to ban by a scary-sounding name or traditionally suspect nationality is cowardly and stupid. But if you’re going to be that way, at least be consistent. Targeting those things and people while at the same time allowing even more actually suspect ones to travel freely is asinine and completely counterproductive. We seem to have a Joseph McCarthy-like character in the highest office.

However, the illogic of this seemingly arbitrary discrimination is nothing new. Obama’s “higher deportation numbers than those of all 20th-century presidents combined” (questionable claim) at least partly targeted those illegals previously convicted of a crime, though non-criminal ejections (whether mostly returns or removals) have exceeded criminal ones consistently since 2001.¹ See updates to this footnote (in purple). Ousting peaceful but illegal Mexican farmers with non-violent criminal records, and peaceful but legal Shiite Muslim Iranian academics, when the real problem is legal Sunni Muslim Saudi immigrants learning to fly planes into iconic American buildings, is pure bald-faced, idiotic cruelty in the guise of tough do-something-ness.

Furthermore, behaving like an absolute monarch or dictator is fearful, malicious behavior. Supporting only like-minded advisers is infantile and short sighted. Gag orders are fascist–fearful and growth stunting. Acting without thinking, without warning, and without remorse is profoundly malignant, distrusting (fearful), and incredibly foolish. Whether cunning steamroller or bold imbecile, and at times he seems to be both, this president may well be insane. Signs of schizophrenia would not be more disorienting to the observer. (Well, maybe that’s insulting to schizophrenics.) What is certain is that the man is a frightened rabbit with a nest for hair. It would be funny if he were not so dangerous to freedom.

He either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or both. But even if he were a better leader, it would still be up to the people to lead. To each person. Freedom is not free. For free speech, free religion, free choice, freedom over our bodily person, free assembly, free expression, free enterprise, free trade, and free pursuit of happiness, freedom to have a sense of humor or none whatsoever, we have the responsibility to control ourselves: to avoid fraud and falsehood, assemble peacefully and lawfully, invest wisely, refrain from censorship, interact only by mutual consent, permit individuals’ free use of their own minds and bodies, and defend the rights of everyone else to do the same. Live and let live.

Not just Uncle Sam but the people of your country want you. Need you. Facts are indisputable, and this is the plainest fact: Only you can make things better.


¹ Corrected, 2/6/17: See the Pew Research Center’s August 2016 article “U.S. immigrant deportations declined in 2014, but remain near record high,” The Economist‘s February 2014 article “America’s Deportation Machine: The Great Expulsion,” and ABC’s August 2016 article “Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President.”

Pew’s chart does not distinguish illegal immigrant returns from removals, both of which have increased fluctuated since the late 90s but together have steadily decreased, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), since 2004; see the Center for Immigration Studies’ chart spanning 1982-2011.

The CIS reports directly cite the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s own “internal” records as opposed to “packaged press kits.” CIS’s claim is that the DHS numbers used by other sources (such as the 3 above) to report record highs in expulsions were manipulated in unprecedented ways under the Obama administration. Some of this has to do with which agency is doing the ousting (ICE vs. Border Patrol), the actual departed vs. ordered gone status of illegals (order vs. enforcement), and how returns and removals have traditionally been counted.

The Reuters blog reported a total of 414,481 deportations in fiscal year 2014, citing DHS, closer to the annual downward trend shared by CIS. According to their chart referenced above, it appears that President Clinton was the expulsion winner among two-term presidents in recent decades (including Reagan, Bush Jr. and Obama).

I encourage you to seek additional sources beyond those above, to take few things at face value, to challenge the media not to swallow whole everything authority figures tell them, even when quantified and packaged well, and to take this example of the unclear state of reported facts as a lesson in the value of general skepticism, if not that of deeper, nuanced investigation few of us have time to conduct personally. And, thus, to understand the futility and folly of rash, precipitous action based on sound bites taken out of context, half truths that ignore equally relevant truths, and distortions of fact that breed further distortion.

What politician does not spin the facts for his or her own purposes? And, ultimately, what is the government if not political?

Often, our reactions and overreactions prove that we can be puppets in their hands. Take great care and consider that sometimes on certain issues, just maybe, we really do not need to do anything, except wait for the fog to clear. Abstinence, restraint, and calm but alert, steady work make the best, most effective kinds of resistance to the seductive call to chaos.


BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

March.jpgThe annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is in D.C. this year, and in fact, it is next week, and this year is starting to look a bit different. Yes there will be books, and yes there will be beer, and chances are good someone at some panel is going to sound pretentious, but in keeping with the times, we have this:

On Saturday, February 11, during the last evening of the AWP Conference & Bookfair, a Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression will be held in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, which faces the north side of the White House. The vigil is set to begin at 6:15 p.m.

The gathering will include several speakers: Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.

The group organizing the event writes on their Facebook page: “This basic freedom is threatened in…

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Five-Phrase Friday (22): Why Freedom?

Five-plus phrases of things to celebrate about freedom of the press and free expression:

  1. revelation through openness: unfettered expression of facts, opinions and impressions, making possible the discovery of truths
  2. diverse, idea-rich culture and personal responsibility instead of sacred cows and “safe” spaces for absolutely everything: Such riches flow out of sources ranging from irreverent comics to wise, reasonable academicians and beyond.
  3. constraint and dissent against bureaucracy and corruption: government transparency, accountability, restraint of power; courageous whistle blowers; the repeal of bad and excess laws
  4. greater personal safety, freedom, and fairness–and less fear: no to a military-style police state, no to federal intimidation, no to economic imprisonment, no to political entitlement, no to terror, no to executive power grabbing, no to detention without charges or trial, no to knee-jerk litigation, no to more prohibition (yes, upholding the Constitution in general is essential to numbers 3 and 4)
  5. lighten up, get real and get out of your own way: uncork childhood and let them breathe, laugh at ourselves, leave the Internet unregulated, and say “yes” to risk, to play, to innovation, to experiments in arts and sciences–to better life

Roosevelt was right: Our greatest enemy is our own fear. And guilt is a close second.

Most of us theoretically want the foundation of the five conditions above; we just advocate different ways of getting there. For my part, I say:

Self-control is a skill worth cultivating alongside rational and critical thinking.

Let not your pulsing heart scream silently in ready offense, righteous indignation, outrage, despair, doom, panic, self-hatred, or vengeance. And if you can’t help it, delay the impulse to give your heart voice until after it consults your mind (or a neighbor’s if you are out of yours).

To kick our addictions to dread and catastrophe, and curb our bad habit of trying to change others, if we really want to make life better, first we have to change our own hearts and minds. Adaptation propels us beyond mere survival into thriving.

You find what you look for, so look for the good in others. You cultivate what you rave about, so, if you must rave, rave about the good you have found. Replace the need to spread anger and fear with an addiction to the highs of good news and hope.

Oppression rules when we approach life as an error to correct, as a problem to solve, as something broken to be fixed. Hypocrisy and idiocy reign when we engage with and operate from assumptions of imaginary woes and wars within society.

Out of such an atmosphere spring useless, tyrannical communism; insidious, oppressive fascism; and volatile religious fanaticism–and their attendant violence. Feel free to despair at that point, but then quickly dust yourself off to fight the now-real war.

Either way, no one is getting out of here alive.

Therefore, let life pursue its natural course–improvement. Let there be creativity on earth, and let it begin . . . with freedom. Only under this necessary first condition can we hope for truth, love, integrity, respect, and trust in ourselves and each other to foster widespread, lasting peace and prosperity.

Book Review: Molière’s Tartuffe

Le Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur (Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite)

by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière

Note: In this detailed review, I discuss most significant plot turns, character developments and interactions, and issues of authorship and publication. I also compare English and French versions. These aspects may or may not spoil the book for you.

Another classic for my book club, this 17th-century comic play I read during November in both French* and English**, brushing up on some French vocabulary, switching to English when the going became too cumbersome. My first reading was in college French class. A manageable English read, the piece is relatively light in mood and not of excessive length, with a straightforward plot to match.

In French, Molière demonstrates impressive poetic skill, rhyming the entire work in couplets of roughly 6-foot meter (one more foot than in pentameter, for those learning prosody) and of varying rhythm (i.e., not all iambic). These elements augment the original language’s inherent music.

Certain translations of Tartuffe into English, our group discovered, take liberties with the bawdiness level (raising it) and modulate the degree of rhyming compared to the French version, among differences beyond the universal dilemma regarding works in translation: Some are simply truer to the original than others.

Tartuffe is a play with a societal message—a critique of the false zealot wherever he may rear his head, but particularly within the French religious establishment. It was so effective in touching a nerve in the day that the Church succeeded in convincing King Louis XIV to ban the play, which led to Molière’s significant revisions and redactions. It would be fascinating to be able to read the uncensored version for a clearer picture of Molière’s creative vision and political viewpoint, but alas, it has been lost to history.

Among admirable characters, Dorine shines as the ultimate bold and witty servant; lady of the house Elmire provides subtler moments of comic relief; and her brother Cléante is a great voice of reason advising the rest of the family. A kind of echo of Orgon, the young Damis lacks his father’s severe blindness to the impostor’s potential villainy.

Master of the house, Orgon, like his mother Madame Pernelle, is quite simply a blustering idiot and, I would argue, Molière’s primary satirical target as the French society archetype of the unthinking hothead. So easily and completely duped by vice in the guise of virtue, Orgon extends his obstinacy to the point of dismissing all his family’s concerns and doubting all their testimonies. He must, and does, see for himself.

At last, and late in the play, we come to the title character. Tartuffe represents the hypocritical icon pretending to be a holy pauper whom Orgon has taken in, but it is really Orgon who is taken in by Tartuffe. Using the veneer of Heaven, the impostor insinuates himself to gain power, financial reward, and the sexual conquest of the ladies of the house—the mother through lust and the daughter through marriage—and all right under Orgon’s nose. But like the young couple in love, Mariane (Orgon’s daughter) and Valère, Tartuffe serves merely as the fulcrum on which the household’s foolish zeal and reason rise and fall.

Overall, the action keeps a steady pace, and the dramatic developments are interesting and often amusing, but, primarily a play of ideas, Tartuffe studies the nature of morality and its pretensions in the hands of people. With the rather abrupt surviving ending, the Prince of France is exalted as a practically omniscient god swooping in to solve all conflicts swiftly and at once, dispensing justice against the impostor Tartuffe and supporting his loyal subject Orgon. The ass-kissing on Molière’s part is obvious, if understandable.

Despite this positive turn, with Orgon unchanged and a household saved from itself, it is zeal and emotionality—not reason—that emerge victorious.

Through the main characters’ portrayal, Molière manages to declare mixed results. After all, to adapt Obi-Wan Kenobi’s line from the film Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, “Who’s the more foolish—the fool or the fool who follows him?” Who is the more dangerous figure? The cowardly, deceitful impostor or the extremist who violently shifts from blind zeal to blind rage in response to him? As layered in vice as Tartuffe is, Molière seems to condemn the latter more than the former. At least Tartuffe has a purpose, a method to his menace, whereas Orgon is aimlessly volatile.

Importantly, rationality, the one true weapon against the cowardly, hidden vice posing as and extolling virtue–that phenomenon the French call l’hypocrisie–arises from neither Orgon nor his Sovereign, but from his policing brother-in-law. As the curtains close, this measured man Cléante, and perhaps to a lesser extent the ill-respected and snarky Dorine, seems forever fated to keep his sister’s husband out of the trouble into which he so easily falls and drags the rest of his family.

If Molière has inserted himself into his most famous work, surely it is in the form of Cléante, but the extent to which post-publication surgery disfigured this apparent face of reason can never be known. Tangible life lessons and social critiques come through nonetheless, as Molière’s Tartuffe trains the discerning reader to think about, if not quite see through, even his own comedy’s “Tartuffery.”

My ratings: 4 out of 5 stars for the French edition*, 3 stars for the English translation**


* Goodreads.com metadata on the French edition I used:

I created this edition on Goodreads.
Le Tartuffe
0.00  ·  rating details  ·  0 ratings  ·  1 review
Paperback, Classiques Larousse – Texte Integral, 200 pages
Published 1990 by Larousse (first published February 5th 1669)
original title Le Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur
ISBN 2038713151

** Goodreads.com metadata on the English translation I used:

TARTUFFE OR THE HYPOCRITE
by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, Curtis Hidden Page (Translator), Dagny and John Vickers (Producers)
Average: 3.65 of 5 stars  ·  rating details  ·  19,983 ratings  ·  427 reviews
Released January 2000.
ebook, EBook #2027, 126 pages.
Published October 26th 2008 by Project Gutenberg
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2027 (first published 1664)

Does the Atheist have a Theory of Mind? (a pressed post)

Does the Atheist have a Theory of Mind?.

Are atheists “all there,” or are they somehow cognitively impaired? In other words, do you have to be stupid or crazy not to believe in God or gods? This excellent scholarly essay by Thomas Coleman III, originally posted on Scientia Salon, explores and answers that question.

A Soul Assumed: Reading Socrates’ “Phaedo”

My classic literature book club is reading Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo of Socrates this month. Our focus has been on classic novels written in English by deceased authors of works published prior to the mid-twentieth century. Last year, the only similar work to Plato’s was the classical drama of Oedipus Rex.

While this month’s work is also a story, Plato tells it in the form of what has become known as the Socratic dialogue (just “dialogue” in his time), a debate between Socrates and others. This form pervades “Crito” and “Phaedo,” whereas “Apology” is more of an extended trial testimony by Socrates in his own defense.

With a BA in philosophy, I find amusement in the reading as well as in the fact that, until this month, I was under the impression Plato was Socrates’ master, but it was the other way around. My schooling was less in the history of philosophy than in the ideas themselves, if that’s any excuse.

I did select the Socratic dialogue approach for my senior-year paper on conformity, using Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as my source text. It’s interesting to return and read a philosophical work that’s new to me, though the ideas within are less so.

A large part of philosophy is about challenging assumptions. Perhaps ironically, my senior college paper challenged the conventional wisdom, or assumption, that a college education is something everyone should pursue. Since college, I have discovered various better reasons than I used in the paper to support the negative response to that basic question, but I digress.

Philosophy is also about developing the skill of rhetoric to argue a position you do not necessarily agree with. Considering the counterarguments to your philosophical thesis on a topic, and coming up with responses to those counters, is key to a strong, persuasive presentation of that thesis.

If I were to worship a god of philosophy, it would be Socrates, his greatest lesson in my view being, simply put, “I know that I do not know.” I discovered the quote outside the context of its origin in this rendering of Socrates’ story by Plato. Far too few people heed the call to humility embodied by that statement. The results are, for instance, little things called wars, sometimes religious in nature. Most people are just so frightened by uncertainty and mystery that they cannot cope without religion.

Periodically in touch with my own degree of conformity, I consider myself to be agnostic on the questions of a supreme being, the soul, and the afterlife. This means I do not know whether there is one of any of these things or not. Maybe there is. Maybe there isn’t.

You could say there is a sort of arrogance, if not cowardice, in this position that adds to “I don’t know” the assertion “and neither do you.” I profess ignorance about those things for which there is no scientific proof, and I claim your ignorance, too. I dare to put myself on equal human footing with everyone from the Pope to the plumber. We share mortality, capacity for reason, and the rest of the human condition–challenging self-concepts, emotions, relationships, moral dilemmas, imperfections, and so on. If such a claim is arrogant or cowardly, so be it. I make no apology.

I have no traditional religious faith, though my childhood Catholic priest might disagree on the technical grounds of my baptism as an infant. My consciously chosen faith is in reason, philosophy, humanism, and the complexities of this life. I value these. I love these. The word “philosophy” itself means “love of wisdom.”

Socrates apparently experienced no uncertainty as to the existence of the soul, which is a major source of my amusement in reading the third dialogue of this text: “Phaedo.” At this point in history, with as high of esteem as we hold Socrates in, his assumption seems like a rookie mistake, something rather quaint.Platos_ApologyCritoPhaedo_of_Socrates_cover

He argues for the immortality of the soul, which is the puzzle to be solved in “Phaedo,” and his foundational assumption is the soul’s existence. That is the common ground from which the discussion grows, a ground based on cultural context as much as, if not more than, on reason.

Accused of corrupting Athenian youths with teachings in conflict with the Greek gods’ wisdom, Socrates’ self-defense in “Apology” consists partially of proving his loyalty and consistency with those gods. Fundamentally, then, no part of the subsequent dialogues could do anything but take gods’, the soul’s, and the afterlife’s existence for granted. Otherwise, there would have been no point in attempting to defend himself at all.

However, on the face of it, it seems as though Socrates genuinely believed in these things.

You may be asking, “Why wouldn’t he?” Well, philosophers are a type who do not tend to take the existence of the soul, or anything else, for granted. Some historical minds thought there was a soul; others did not. Still others focused on different questions, not addressing this particular one at all.

The purpose of the discipline of philosophy is to use reason and critical thinking to examine the existence and nature of all sorts of things, in order to come to some degree of new insight or to establish or confirm a truth. Over the centuries of human thought, as of various sciences and other intellectual disciplines, thinkers have chipped away at the outer layers toward the core of wisdom.

Being an early philosopher, Socrates worked under the disadvantage of having few precedents to draw from. Now, we can examine Socrates in light of the Rationalists, the Empiricists, ontologists, epistemologists, ethicists, political philosophers, analytic philosophers, and many more theorists. Our hindsight, so to speak, is much richer and sharper, though most of us will never approach Socrates’ sheer genius of mind.

I may not assume the existence of a soul and, therefore, I may find the question of its immortality less relevant than Socrates did as he considered his moral obligation as a citizen condemned to death. But every argument is based on some kind of assumption. We have to start somewhere. And Socrates certainly proved his skill at argumentation within the realm of his own assumptions.

He says the body is an impediment to wisdom, establishing the superiority of the soul over the body. He says the true philosopher shuns material things and “ornaments” of the body. He says the philosopher’s aim and advantage over other men is to transcend the body. By contrast, the soul, which for Socrates is synonymous with the mind, uses reason rather than the physical senses to gain knowledge.

Therefore, death is the philosopher’s greatest wish, for it is in death alone that the soul may find absolute supremacy over the body, and only in death may true, unadulterated wisdom be attained.

He explains that, granting this premise as true, one of two things follows: Either wisdom is attainable only in death, or it is not at all attainable.

Separately, seeming to choose faith in wisdom’s attainability, Socrates takes the bulk of the dialogue to argue for the immortal nature of the soul, a portion I admit I have yet to read.

One might call “Phaedo” simply Socrates’ elaborate peace making with his imminent death, but the questions are no less worthy of exploration, whether one faces death by poisoning or the presumption of plenty of life ahead. Besides, the sentimental would-be Socrates worshippers among us feel some solace in the notion that Socrates, not just his teachings, lives on.

Perhaps the completion of my reading will convince me of his viewpoint. We’ll see. . . .