Plato’s Podcasts (The ancients’ guide to modern living)

by Mark Vernon

Each chapter looks at one of the ancient Greek philosophers, putting them in their historical perspective and pointing out similarities with some modern dilemmas.

In the introduction, the author states that the turbulence of the times in which these people lived gave birth to philosophy, in the same way that people today are questioning and discussing lifestyles and ethics.  The times in which we live are equally turbulent in their way, and people are looking for ways to cope with this.

In modern style, the chapters are short enough that they could be made into a series of podcasts, but the author stresses that this would only be an introduction, as it takes a lifetime to study philosophy, and is best done by living the philosophy itself.  Podcasts and online learning might take a person from novice to beginner, but for expertise and mastery, the fellowship of risk-taking and trust is required.

Pythagoras is covered, who searched for meaning and found it in mathematics.  Sappho, whose love poetry embodies attention to detail and imagery.  Plato, who developed the device of the dialogue, a conversational style in which ideas are discussed.

Diogenes the Cynic was the man who lived very simply on the streets, with a barrel for shelter.  Diogenes message seems to be that fame is ephemeral and deceptive, while the best way to get a message across is to devote your life to it, which then attracts attention and makes the message newsworthy.

Epicurus was the man famous for his “less is more” philosophy.  Epicurus believed, after Democritus, in the atomic model of matter.  They reasoned that if matter is infinitely divisible, you would be able to divide and divide until you were left with nothing.  Since this is clearly impossible, there must be tiny indivisible units, which they called atoms.  They were far ahead of their time, and their ideas were not popular.  This reductionist way of thinking led Epicurus to consider what is fundamental for life to exist, and to try to live the simplest way possible.  He asked, what is natural and necessary; natural and unnecessary; and what is both unnatural and unnecessary?  Worth considering in our modern times!

The psychology of shopping is touched upon, and hedonism, which is found to be a rather shallow philosophy.  Other philosophers thought that pleasures should be appreciated and enjoyed, but allowed to pass without yearning.

Cleanthus (the water-carrier) had a clear message for us today: don’t work so hard that you miss what you want.

The final chapter is about Socrates and his ideas about accepting the inevitability of death.  Aristotle was keen on logic, and recognised that all humans are mortal.  If we can contemplate life as if we are near death, it highlights the present, but also makes death seem less daunting, apparently.  It is the truth that sets you free.  Socrates talked of separating the soul from the body, which he hoped for in death, and practiced this by contemplating the body while keeping still.  In today’s language it sounds very like transcendental meditation.  His message was to choose a philosophy and practice it, in order to come to terms with death.  Because the contemplation of death leads to life, in the here and now, and the hereafter can take care of itself.  Which also sounds like meditative practice.

Altogether, a fascinating introduction to philosophy, which made me want to read more, and I hope I will.  Who would have thought that the ancients would have a message for our times?  But then, nothing in this world really changes, does it?

The Moving Finger

In “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

In one of the blogs I’m following (sorry, I can’t remember which one now), a link led to another link and another, where I found what seemed to be a good idea:
The blogger suggested, as an aid to being mindful about the present, and as a deterrent to daydreaming too much about the future, that we should work out the projected date of our death (using actuarial tables), then figure out how many years, months, days etc we have left.  A little program called TimeLeft can be downloaded free, which then works out how much time you have left and displays a countdown on your desktop.  The idea is that seeing the time disappearing before your eyes will make you more conscious of how you use the time right now.

In my case, this has been an abysmal failure.  Having worked out that I have about 29 years of life left in me, my initial response was “that’s ages!”.  I set the countdown to show me the years, months, days etc, but that number 29 at the beginning each day made me feel that time was standing still.

So I changed it to show the number of days, hours and minutes.  It started at 10617 days, and now it’s reading 10604 days.  It still seems to crawl along, even when those individual days are packed with lists of activities that I don’t have time to complete.  The large number at the front makes me feel that I will indeed almost live forever – it might as well be infinity!

My instinct is to delete the damn thing and get on with my life, but I’m intrigued by the subjective nature of time.

On one hand, the weeks seem to fly by.  Has another week passed, and I haven’t decorated the bathroom / put the kitchen curtains up / paid the bills / sorted out my wardrobe?  Is it really March already, when it seems only yesterday that we were recovering from Christmas?  If I’m not careful I’ll miss the Springtime again – it will slip past when I’m looking the other way.

But on the other hand, time seems endless (silly thing to say, of course it is), always the same, nothing ever changing, seasons following seasons, years following years.  I feel I’ve been here forever, in this house, in this village (27 years), in this job (6 years), and there’s nothing new in the world.

But back to the point of TimeLeft.  I’m going to try another experiment and set it to count upwards (if it will do that) so that I can see how much time has passed.  Maybe I’ll make it start today, or perhaps from some other point – from my 50th birthday; or from the start of this year; or perhaps going back to when I started my current job.
I wonder if a visual representation might work? A pie chart perhaps, showing the slice gone and the slice left.

I will return to this.

No Room For Secrets

By Joanna Lumley

A while ago I came across one of those things one is forever seeing on the internet; a suggestion that by listing the people (real or fictional) that you admire, you might gain some insight into what is important to you, and how you would like to be.

I was surprised at how many I could list, and among them was Joanna Lumley. As she is almost 10 years older than me, perhaps I could use her as a role model? I like how she is slim and well-kept, and yet not afraid to be seen without her make-up and hair-do. She is nicely spoken and polite, has enthusiasm and a sense of humour, believes strongly in certain things and is not afraid to stand up and be counted. Her TV programme about a trip to see the Northern Lights is excellent.

But beyond that, I wondered how much I really know about JL, and so I borrowed this book from the library. In it she uses a tour of her London home, with its many rooms full of art and memorabilia, to recount her background and life story, and to share her interests.

From a rather exotic background, with grandparents and parents moving around India and the far East, she went to boarding school in England from about 11. Travel is important to her, it seems to hold no fear or anxiety. Her tips on packing for a trip are something that everyone should know – quite minimalist! We learn a lot about her experiences at school, which she enjoyed, and her days as a penniless model and single parent, not through stories of hardship and woe, it was just the way things were.

I learned a lot about JL that I didn’t know before. Her home must be extremely cluttered; no hint of minimalism there. Every room is full of items handed down from her grandparents or parents, given by friends or relatives; things brought back from her extensive travels; pictures and photos of places she’s been; diaries from every stage of her life. The woman never seems to discard anything! Everywhere she looks she encounters memories.

DIY came as a bit of a surprise to me. Curtains she made herself, floorboards she mended, walls painted, tiles grouted. All highly imperfect (as described) but she doesn’t seem to mind. Second home in Scotland sounds idyllic too. And the garden, similarly haphazard and crammed with plants, including fruit and vegetables and a fishpond.

Diet – weight loss is touched on. Several old-style model diets are described, such as the toast diet! JL says one way is to eat only really bland food so you don’t particularly enjoy it and so you don’t eat so much. Sounds dull to me. She is a vegetarian, and is quite insistent on the evils of modern farming, but with several misunderstandings about the way agriculture works. For example, the price of outdoor-reared pork is too expensive, so no wonder people buy imported meat. No hint of understanding of the cost of rearing animals and the need for the farmer to make a living, nor of the possibility that the foreign farmers might be more heavily subsidised than we are. No discussion about the relative levels of animal welfare required by law in different countries. On balance I am not in agreement with her on food matters, but neither am I so slim and healthy-looking, so who is the winner?

On manners, she admits to being “old-fashioned”, preferring gently courtesy and good manners, and not liking modern ways, the way people always want to know such personal things about others. I’m with her on that.

On balance, I think I still admire Joanna Lumley. With her background, I could never be like her, and I’m not at all convinced by her vegetarianism and sentimentality about animals. But I suppose everyone is allowed a few blind spots here and there.

Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel

This is the first new novel I’ve read in a long time. I mean, properly read, as in, started, enjoyed, become absorbed, and finished within a reasonable length of time.

It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell from his humble beginnings in 1500 as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith, through his years as a kind of assistant and friend to Cardinal Wolsey, to the height of his power as Secretary of State to King Henry VIII in 1535.

The book is packed with minute detail, and yet it doesn’t become boring. It’s told from the point of view of Cromwell, but in the third person. Cromwell is almost always referred to as “he” and “him”, so that sometimes you have to stop and think who the author means. But this is not a problem. The main cause of confusion is the number of peripheral characters, historically accurate figures who were a part of the King’s court at various times. First names are often common ones, such as John, Mark, George, Thomas or Tom. And many characters are referred to by their first name, their surname or their title, variously. For instance, Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, becomes the Earl of Wiltshire during the story, and is referred to as Monseigneur as well. Her uncle is the Duke of Norfolk, but also a Howard, which is important to the story at times.

The story covers the years from when the King becomes fascinated by Anne Boleyn, through to the time when he is tired of her and obsessed with the need to father a son. The title of the book, Wolf Hall, is almost incidental to the story, in that it is the name of the home of the Seymour family, whose daughter Jane is a part of the story, and as we all know, is to become the King’s third wife. But not in this book – maybe there will be a sequel. Only at the very end of the last chapter do we find Cromwell planning a summer jaunt for the Henry, ranging across his kingdom, and including a few days at Wolf Hall.

Cromwell is depicted as a complex character, who pulls himself up from a low, violent childhood, runs away to the continent where he learns business and finance, returns to England and learns about the law and builds himself a life and family. Along the way he makes useful contacts, friends and enemies. Among his friends is Cardinal Wolsey, a larger than life figure who teaches Cromwell a great deal and furthers his interests. Cromwell is devoted to Wolsey but can’t prevent his eventual disgrace. Following Wolsey’s death, he becomes ever closer to the Boleyn family and then to the King, continuing Wolsey’s work as he sees it, which is to promote the King’s interests and to steer the country away from the Catholic Church. Sir Thomas More features heavily, as a dedicated Catholic and a ruthless torturer of heretics, yet there is respect between him and Cromwell, who does his best to spare him his eventual execution.

The morals of the times are fascinating and complex. There is no explicit sex in the book, but it is gradually made clear that Cromwell himself must have had many women. After his wife dies, he carries on an affair with her sister for several years, while she and her husband live in his own household. There are hints an gossip about many other ladies. Ladies in waiting are said to draw lots among the courtiers queuing up to sleep with them. The King and Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, not only have an affair before Anne becomes queen, but also whilst Anne is pregnant. It is said that their father prefers the king to have Mary rather than a girl from any other family. And yet apparently Anne does not allow the king to actually have her properly until they are married. She is described as a ruthless woman who knows that once the king has had his way with her, he is less likely to marry her.

The story shows how the people around the king progress slowly through trying to prove that his first marriage to Queen Katherine was wrong because she had first been married to his brother Arthur; to endless negotiations with the Pope and the king of France, against a background of Lollards, Lutherans and Tyndale’s English bible; through Henry’s frustration because he wants Anne, but he also wants to be loved by his people, and is afraid of the power of Rome. It goes on for years, while Cromwell builds his position at court and gradually becomes indispensable.

Cromwell comes across as a man who knows that the only person he can rely on is himself, and yet he empathises with many people. He is forever grateful to Wolsey for his patronage and friendship; takes in many apprentices to train them in the law; rescues wives of men executed as heretics, and young people mistreated by Thomas More. He even feels sorry for the king, and for More. His sons, daughters, nephews and nieces love and respect him. His aim always seems to be to arrange things while doing the least harm to anybody, and yet he accepts that it is necessary when deaths occur, and shows little emotion over executions or death by plague. He is a consummate diplomat who knows how to deal with the moods of Henry, Anne, Queen Katherine and Princess Mary; and also with the temperamental Duke of Norfolk, the quixotic Cardinal Wolsey, and the martyr Thomas More.

In all this book illustrates how complex people’s characters and motives can be. In this life we’re impatient for things to happen, and easily bored by minute detail, and yet the most momentous events in history take years to unfold, and the details are the most important aspects.

Mindfulness – an early Spring walk

The sun was shining today so I achieved something I’ve been failing miserably at since Christmas.  I went for a walk. A whole hour in the sun and the fresh air!

The first thing I noticed as I went up the hill was my aching legs.  Obviously my laziness has not gone unnoticed by my calf and thigh muscles.  But I pressed on.

Next thing was the snowdrops.  They are at that perfect stage just now – almost open but not quite.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, glowing against the mud and the dead stuff and the dirty brown of the hedges.  I found myself wishing that I’d brought my camera, but hard on the heels of that thought came an insight that I’ve had once or twice before.  Let me explain.  I have photos on my computer, in folders with names such as Spring 09, Winter 08/09 and so on.  The photos are of sunsets, spring flowers, ferns opening, bare branches against January skies, lambs in fields, Autumn leaves, etc etc.  Things that you can see every year.  Things that can never be captured adequately on film.  Things that are always immeasurably better if you see them for real.  And finally, things that never lose their freshness and always make you glad to be alive.

So let’s save the camera for times that aren’t going to come again, like young children playing, birthdays and anniversaries, holidays and special occasions. And let’s get out there as often as possible and renew ourselves daily, weekly, season by season.

After that it was just one thing after another.  Tight catkins waiting for the warmth of spring.  Pennywort and Hart’s Tongue ferns and fluffy moss contrasting beautifully against the brown, dead leaves and ferns and the tightly cropped hedgerows.  Young lambs skipping in the fields.  Water rushing in the gully beside the lane, and pouring out of the hedge after the recent heavy rain.  (Hey, that rhymes – maybe I’ll try poetry one day).  And the sun was warm (in places!)

By the time I got home my mood was more positive than it had been for days.  It would be silly to claim that I’d forgotten all those wonderful things were out there on my doorstep; but it certainly did me a lot of good to be reminded.

Of course it’s raining again now, but I know that Spring is coming and I plan to looking out for it.

When I got home I cut some twigs from the garden like we used to do as children.  Sticky buds from the Horse Chestnut, and some green and red stems from Cornus, in a glass on the kitchen windowsill.  It might be a bit early for them to come into leaf, but we’ll see.

I think this could be counted as an hour of Mindfulness.  I’d like to do it more often.

No good with animals

Nothing is guaranteed to make me feel a failure than trying to work with animals.  Cattle and sheep take one look at me and run the wrong way.   “Come and help move the heifers”; “Lets go and count the sheep”.  Who, me?  Whatever I do is wrong.  “Keep them in the corner”; “Guide them towards the gate”; “Send them down the hill”.  WHO, ME?  I don’t think so, they yaws have minds of their own.  What you need is a DOG.  Or someone who can RUN.

However, there is no point in complaining (though I do) because we don’t have very many animals now.  The sheep don’t belong to us but to someone who buys our grass for the winter (50p per ewe per week, that’s why we needed to count them…).  We don’t employ anybody to work on the farm besides the Farmer and me (the Farmer’s Wife), and both of us have other jobs too.  A farm dog would be seriously under-employed.

So anyway, after today’s fiasco I came home and did something that I’m good at.  I cleaned the car, cooked the dinner and wrote my blog.  Not Great Work, but useful all the same.

Equilibrium restored – till the next time… 

On the treadmill

So, Christmas… family, bedrooms, dinners, visitors, meals, gifts, breakfasts, weariness, more visitors, more dinners, lunches, more gifts, cough, cold, more dinners, total exhaustion…

Yes, I think that just about sums it up.

After Christmas… cough, cold; snow, ice, dangerous roads, school closed for nearly 2 weeks; stayed indoors for a fortnight straight before returning to work; tired, wishy washy, procrastinating obsessively…

Back to work/school… email, messages, filing; updates to website, VLE, digital display system (aka big tellies); more messages, more updates, and so it goes on…

Doing my best to step off the treadmill today… slow breakfast, listening to radio; food shopping (well we have to eat don’t we?); Waitrose wrap, fresh soup and posh crisps for lunch; catching up with The Happiness Project, Zen Habits, Box of Crayons, Bad Science etc; feeling sleepy in the afternoon; hoovered and put shopping away to wake up (it worked); blogging here…

So this blog post represents my success today in getting off the treadmill.  I have enjoyed slowing down, thinking my own thoughts without interruption.  I’ve come across a couple of interesting things to make me think.  And most important of all, I’ve taken action – I have lived to blog again!

Note: Interesting things mentioned above

The Reason you’re stuck – Seth Godin on ZenHabits 

Middlemarch, Improvisation, and a Little Bit Married – Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project