A cynical dog’s life

16 03 2014


The Cynics were a school of Greek philosophy and early fans of self-sufficiency. Living well for the Cynics meant living off the land. Hard work equated to a virtuous life. The four schools of philosophy: the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicureans and the Stoics were established in the early part of the third century BC partly as a reaction to the collapse of the old form of society based on independent city states.

One of the first Cynics was Antisthenes, who followed Socrates and who lived a fairly conventional life, mixing with other thinkers in the rather elite circles of early Greek philosophy, but after the death of Socrates and the collapse of Athens, he seems to have gone through a mid-life crisis. He rejected the fine clothes, high conversation and the wining and dining favoured by his aristocratic friends and instead starting hanging out with the workers, apparently dressing like a labourer.

Declaring that refined philosophy was worthless, Antisthenes left the rarefied atmosphere of the academy and started teaching philosophy in the open-air to those without education in what might be considered the first open university. He wanted to return to a so-called more ‘natural’ way of living and that meant doing away with government, private property, marriage and religion. He also thought slavery should be abolished. So what did that leave him with, apart from smelly clothes and clean conscience? Well, not much, according to historians. Antisthenes disliked any form of luxury and thought that indulging the senses was wrong.  He reputedly said:  ‘I had rather be mad than delighted.’

Few people would echo his view nowadays. Given a choice, most people would prefer to be delighted rather than mad, as delight in our understanding carries much less stigma than madness. But perhaps we need to consider Antisthenes in the context of his time. He was by no means the only philosopher to despise luxury. Socrates before him created the identity of a philosopher-eccentric by dressing in old rags and sometimes neglecting to put on his sandals.  Granted that a Mediterranean climate makes it much easier to wander around in the ancient equivalent of beach wear all year round, maybe these philosophers were not as rebellious as they seemed, but their example in giving up luxury is worth examining.

A new Waitrose opened in my home town this week. The giant high street mobile advertising, the wrap-around sandwiching front and back of the local newspaper, the texts, the endless stuff in the letter box, the home visits from freshly uniformed Waitrose butlers bearing free cheese and wine samples on silver platters ensured that I took notice.  In the interests of philosophical research I went to see what all the fuss was about.

As I stalked the shelves, browsing what looked to me to be the same sort of produce and goods you get in every other supermarket, I wondered why people had chosen to come to Waitrose in droves. Apparently on opening day people started queuing at 7am, an hour before the store officially opened. So what is going on? What’s the appeal? Part of it must be that Waitrose is a marketing triumph: it packages things nicely, makes everything look pretty, trains staff to smile and to help the customers feel good, and then makes a huge profit. If that sounds cynical, it’s meant to in the spirit of the original cynics who would not have been seen dead near Waitrose.

Nevertheless, my visit to the shiny new store made me wonder whether there is something interesting going on because from what I could see most people shopping in Waitrose know exactly what they are doing. Most people shopping in Waitrose are buying what they can’t get elsewhere and that’s the feeling of a shop that cares, even if it is manufactured.

Walk into Waitrose and you feel uplifted by the sense of abundance and plenty, by the sense that the age of austerity, exemplified by the dusty cut-price world of Lidl and Aldi and the now struggling Morrisons is over at last. Goodbye cruddy old Co-op with your worn-out slippers and cardigan and your unappetising deli. Hello Waitrose with your Easter-egg colours, your outlandishly priced delicacies and your sweet smile. Spring is finally here!

For the Cynics, luxury was to be avoided if you wanted to feel good. For people living in 21st century Britain, luxury is what makes us feel good. So why have things changed so radically? Why is it now that when we want to cheer ourselves up, we are encouraged to do so by brands that parade their luxury status. I bought muesli the other day; wholesome muesli that used the word ‘luxury’ prominently on the front of the packet. Why? I didn’t buy it for that reason; I just wanted some breakfast cereal, so why did the company try to persuade me that I’d somehow invested in my wider well-being? It is precisely this form of marketing that makes many people feel cynical.

Dropping out to grow my own muesli seems a bit extreme, but not as extreme as Diogenes, another Cynic who followed Antisthenes. Diogenes famously claimed to be ‘a citizen of the world,’ but decided rather bizarrely to live like a dog. Indeed the word ‘cynic’ is derived from the Greek word kynikos, which means canine. He ditched most of his clothes, didn’t wash and moved his bones into a burial urn, a big terracotta pitcher. He was visited by many dogs and considered them to be his friends. Naturally when people annoyed him (and you can just guess at how much he was teased) he barked and howled and sometimes sank his teeth into his tormentor’s ankles.

Alexander the Great apparently dropped by one day and the great leader famously asked Diogenes if there was anything that he could do for him: some more Winalot, perhaps, or maybe a brisk run on the seafront followed a good scratch on his tummy? Diogenes famously told Alexander that yes there was something that Alexander could do for him and that was that he could get out of his light. Alexander’s reply is lost in history.

Diogenes believed that living simply was the only way to live freely. For him, moral freedom is only possible without desire for material possessions. In this respect he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics and alternatives who believe that withdrawing from the temptations of society is the way out of the bind of consumerism. But for modern society it certainly is not that clear-cut. We have recognised that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We are not about to start lining our kennels with newspaper. Most people don’t mindlessly consume luxuries. We are canny enough to know the real motivations behind supermarket temptations, and we are open-minded enough to make our choices. We don’t need to give up on comfort in order to achieve wisdom. True wisdom lies in the subtleties of discernment.


Maths matters to those with golden bones

10 03 2014

Pythagoras has been called ‘one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history.’ Mathematics as we understand it today began with Pythagoras and also Philosophy itself as he was the first to use the word ‘philosophy.’ He is also credited with applying the term ‘cosmos’ to the universe. His ideas blended together mathematics and theology and directly influenced the philosophy of Plato and in turn St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the rationalist philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant.

As Pythagoras wrote nothing little is reliably known about the man behind the right angle triangle, which is still getting people worked up in maths tests. Some legends describe Pythagoras as the son of the god Apollo and accounts of his  miraculous, shamanic powers are fantastical making him seem like a character from a Greek myth. He was supposed to have travelled to the underworld and back and he could remember his previous lives. Reputedly Pythagoras could speak to animals, including eagles and bears and if that weren’t enough weirdness he also had a golden thigh which he liked to show off at parties. Some scholars have doubted whether he even existed at all. Perhaps he was made up by the cult of the Pythagoreans.

What is known is that Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, a particularly violent and corrupt Greek island ruled by a tyrant called Polycrates who practised a Machiavellian style of leadership, dispatching his brothers when they got fed up with his wicked ways and using his own navy to make raids on foreign fleets. Understandably Pythagoras decided to take his golden bones elsewhere and he moved to southern Italy where he set up a religious society in Croton (some sources spell it Kroton). His disciples were loyal, but the citizens of Croton turned against him and he had to flee to another part of Italy, Metapontion, where he worked until he died.

Pythagoras was the first to understand that numbers, if they are real at all, are eternal and outside of time. Such was the power and purity of numbers that the early disciples believed that they had discovered the secret to God’s thoughts. The Pythagoreans discovered that everything in the universe is based on numbers. This mystical cosmology relates to patterns in nature from seeds to shells to the rings in the bark of trees, and the markings on insects, birds and animals. For those early thinkers, numbers were the key to understanding the mystery of nature.

The understanding of numbers led to advances in astronomy, physics, engineering and meteorology. Any discipline requiring data and statistics can trace its lineage right back to the Pythagoreans. The beauty of numbers is expressed in the forms of architecture, painting and music. Without an understanding of numbers civilisation and culture as we know it would not have developed in the way it did.

Given the importance of numbers, it’s interesting to note that recent headlines about the state of British education claim that ‘schools are going backwards.’ The reason is that today’s pupils are seemingly worse at maths and reading than their grandparents. A report showing literacy and numeracy tables for 24 countries ranks England near the bottom at 21 and 22 (below Poland and Estonia in one report I read, and of course that must mean Brits are really and truly off-the-scale thick).

The ‘damning report’ shows that Japanese school leavers are more advanced than graduates from British universities (given that some of these same graduates would of course be Japanese, I’m not sure how this works, but you get the idea). The thrust of the reports is that action must be taken if the United Kingdom is not to fall drastically behind, remaining the dim-wits of the world, forever assigned to selling programmes and hotdogs at the great game of life. The question is what has happened to Britain’s world-class education, a system that used to be the envy of the world? How come children in the Netherlands and Finland end up more literate and numerate than British or American children?

Education minister Elizabeth Truss has been visiting China to see how things are done there. Working class Chinese children typically score higher at maths than middle class British kids. That must be so galling for those parents who are shelling out huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools, when any son or daughter of a Chinese factory worker will easily beat them in the race of life, well at the very least a maths Olympiad.   Simon Jenkins, writing (ranting) for the Guardian online says that there’s nothing like maths statistics for sending people mad.

“It is maths that has the mesmeric appeal. To Gove and Truss it is virtually a state religion…. Stuff the little blighters full of maths, they demand, and Britain will again rule the world. Square the hypotenuse, and Johnny Taliban will beg for mercy.”

Aside from letting off steam, Jenkins does raise some interesting questions about the relevance and importance of mathematics in education today. Why is there such a focus on testing the mathematical ability of school children? Why are humanities A levels now failing to attract students convinced that they need ‘proper’ subjects like English, science and maths? Why don’t we instead teach primary school children about old golden legs Pythagoras himself?

I have to say that I’ve never used any O Level maths knowledge in any real life situation, but then and again, I don’t use French much either. What interests me is why the British education system is (statistically, it has to be said) failing our children? Why is it that the children of Chinese hospital porters do better at school than children of British doctors and lawyers? There seems to be an assumption that the system itself is the key to success. Culturally the UK and China are worlds apart. Few parents and teachers of British children would welcome the Chinese system of nine-hour tests and drills. One newspaper commentator reminds readers that a couple of years ago film images of Chinese students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips to keep them going in the classroom while they studied for their entrance tests went viral on social media. What is also interesting is why the education minister picked China when the Netherlands (or dare I say it Poland) is so much closer to home?

Pythagoras has no idea of what he started.

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