Inner Bravery and Endurance

The film INVICTUS should be watched by the young and the less young.

It is an inspiring message on the inner bravery we can find in ourselves in order to endure any deep sorrow or big problem life can hurl at us.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, INVICTUS is based on John Carlin‘s book ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation. Invictus‘.

The film is a tribute to Nelson Mandela and to the South African people – blacks and whites alike – and it reveals the complex fragments of the souls of 3 men.

The Victorians, Mandela, the Afrikaans

Nelson Mandela in 2008
N. Mandela in 2008. Click for credits and to enlarge

1) A Victorian poet – William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) we never see in the film – who bravely faced life deprived of his left leg since the age of 12 and who wrote INVICTUS (see below,) an inspired poem on endurance.

2) Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who spent 27 years imprisoned in a quasi cubicle and who was resilient enough to survive and fight also because inspired by the poem INVICTUS.

3) The South African (Afrikaan) captain of the Springboks‘ – the country’s rugby union team – who, inspired by Mandela in his turn and by that same poem, brings the Springboks to victory, in the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa, by defeating the All Blacks 15-12 in the final.

An event that possibly helped the South African black and white people to better understand each other along the hard path towards a society where racial hate and mistrust may be progressively banned.

Morgan Freeman‘s (starring Mandela, and Mandela’s friend btw); Clint Eastwood; the solid plot-script – these in my opinion the elements that make the film compelling.

I forgot someone. Nelson Mandela.


William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903). R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Long John Silver’ character was inspired by his real-life friend Henley, ‘a glowing, massive-shouldered fellow’

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley, 1875

Note on Man & Religion

So beautiful, inspiring.

Henley’s position on religion seems pre-Christian to me and close to epicureanism and stoicismSir Bertrand Russell had declared:

“My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.” [read more ]

Henley’s position is also that of the Renaissance and of humanism, when Western man – a truly reborn dantesque Ulysses – found the guts to build his own destiny again (and regrettably to conquer the rest of the planet destroying other cultures etc.)

“Man can find all the force he needs within his own human soul and reason, within his character and will,” said many Greek and Roman wise men plus several humanists, no god really helping, no religion really helping.

[The italic text in INVICTUS is mine. It is where I believe the poet mostly expresses the said classic attitude.]


Now, what do readers think about all this? Can we live without religion, without a help from ‘someone’ up there?

Can we too – the simple men in the street – be the ‘captains of our soul’? Or is it only possible to the master, to the ‘real tough’?

So in the end:

Is religion basically a question of lack of balls? Or is there more than that?


Related posts:

Religion, Fear, Power
Force & Anger. Ghosts in the Mind (on Magister’s teachings on bravery and inner force)
On Solitude (where the totally self-sufficient Greco-Roman sage is analysed, a quasi-superman, like many Victorians were also)

A final note.

(I know, I’ll lose ALL my readers …)

INVICTUS attitude is classical. It reminds the Greco-Roman sage who has “like unsinkable goods in his soul that can float out of any shipwreck.”

Stilpon (Στίλπων) who according to Seneca lost his family and all his goods, when asked if he had suffered any harm, replied: “No, I haven’t.”

Compare now this classical attitude with a passage from the Old Testament (Psalm 91,9.) [the New Testament is identical in this].

You’ll measure the total overturning of many classical values Christianity carried out.


Here in fact man totally entrusts himself to God’s divine pro-vidence:

Because thou hast made the LORD,
which is my refuge, even the most High,
thy habitation;
There shall no evil befall thee,
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over thee,
to keep thee in all thy ways.

They shall bear thee up in their hands,
lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

Because he hath set his love upon me,
therefore will I deliver him:

I will set him on high,
because he hath known my name.

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him:
[exactly what Christ says in the New Testament, MoR]

I will be with him in trouble;
I will deliver him,
and honour him.
With long life will I satisfy him,
and shew him my salvation.

71 thoughts on “Do We Have Balls To Live Withouth Religion? INVICTUS

  1. For years now I have felt that there is a huge gap between spirituality and religion. Henley, Mandela and many others had a strong spirituality that kept them going. Religion entraps the spirituality and morphes it into rituals and rules soon devoid of meaning to the thinking man.
    The Spirit is free to roam the realm of the spiritual; religion corrals the spirit and keeps it in tight rein. And a case in point are the Roman Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam. The Esoteric movement and Paganism are much nearer spirituality than religiousness.


    1. Yes, Paul, but some find the spirituality of which you speak from within the strait jacket you describe. We all observe rituals of one kind or another, all the time.

      The extent to which our discoveries and the exercise of will are within us or without us is a perennial question, and unanswerable. Whichever alternative we opt for, there is a universal conjunction of the two, and the mystery of existence remains, as MoRa so ably illustrates.

      It is not fair to brand preferring the external option as “fear”.


  2. @Paul

    I had updated my text before you could read it (the title, the comparison between Psalm 91 and the Virctorian poem)

    Paul you once here made a difference between religion and spirituality.

    From what I understood – we didn’t get into any depth as for that – you maybe meant organized religion (Catholic, Hindu etc.) vs some vibrational thing that can connect us to ‘something’ ….

    I by chance (or maybe not) recently find myself close to this sort of mystic ‘vibration’ – I feel it as deep, sweet and ethical.

    It all started when, while reading ancient texts, I found out – to my consternation – that Roman stoicism – so crucial to the idea of ‘Rome’ – was related to Orphism, reincarnations, Plato, the East (near and far) and – which sorta killed me – not terribly far from Christianity as I thought (while Epicureanism is far.)

    Thence I got into Mysteries – the Eleusinian Mysteries, Palaeolithic, belonging to the Greek dark ages; and Hermetism which came out in late antiquity, but it’s nothing but Greek translations of Egyptian texts thousands of years before late antiquity (amazing!), rediscovered btw during Renaissance by the Italians, and linked to all sort of esoteric stuff (magic, astrology, alchemy) out of which Renaissance is not fully understandable!

    I am disconcerted. But excited too.

    And, I think Richard was addressing me when he mentioned ‘fear’. See my answer to him


  3. @ Richard (thecriticaline)

    The extent to which our discoveries and the exercise of will are within us or without us is a perennial question, and unanswerable.

    Welcoming you back Richard, I agree. I find comfort, diminished anxiety in this ‘spirituality’ Paul mentions, the doubt is only mine. My last question…

    Is religion basically a question of ehm lack of balls? Or is there more that that?

    … was a real doubt I have [I use this … language to stir things a bit (plus I am a Roman, not much understatement here ah ah ah)]

    Yes, there’s no answer, no possible arguments since we are in the field of emotions.

    I only regret that, to a person like me, being ethical has to go through this vibration – it disturbs me. Not that I was not ethical before it. I guess I was pre-programmed by my mother’s teachings when I was a baby.

    It is not fair to brand preferring the external option as “fear”.

    If by ‘brand’ you mean ‘condemn’, no, I don’t condemn, the external option – ‘something outside us providing strength’ is not being a coward.

    And yet, allow me, I have admiration for the guts some Victorians and Greco-Romans showed.

    And I have admiration for my dear *Magister*, who, realising he was about to die and that a priest was approaching his bed with communion, he found the strength to shout almost:

    “I don’t care about your God! I have my humanity, it is enough” Something like that. The priest had to run away.

    Magister was Magister, even at the moment of his death. In any case, wherever it comes from, I admire character, one reason why I like the Anglo-Saxons.


  4. Bertrand Russell was once jailed for acts of civil disobedience connnected with his opposition to war and nuclear armament (sentiments he shared with many of deep religious conviction). While he was jailed an amiable guard inquired which faith Russell professed, and Russell said he was an agnostic. Thoughtfully, the guard said, “Ah well, there are many religions, but I suppose we all worship the same God.” Russell said this remark kept him cheerful for about a week.

    In my experience, common decency, courage and selflessness are distributed equally among people of strong faith and among people of no particular faith, including professed atheists. The common thread seems to be a recognition that no good is served if any conscious being experiences avoidable suffering or injustice. The usual disagreements occur on the question of “consciousness” and who shares it.

    But even Russell, the agnostic, said:

    I must, I must, before I die, find some way to say the essential thing that is in me, that I have never said yet, a thing that is not love or hate or pity or scorn, but the very breath of life, fierce and coming from far away, bringing into human life the fearful passionless force of nonhuman things.

    A religious person would think of that force as divine. Russell saw it some other way, but he saw it.

    I think we can imagine something larger than ourselves whether or not we are religious, which in its most debased sense means merely believing what other people have agreed to believe about what can’t be proved. The world and Thought is bigger than we are, but we are continuous with it, and most religion that has risen above superstition grapples with that idea. Buddha said “I am awake.” Jung carved over his door the Sibyl’s answer: “VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT.”

    Or in short, I don’t think religion is a prerequisite for courage and decency and sometimes it can actually get in the way, but we do need the ability to pay complete attention, and act on what observe. The rest, I think, will take care of itself.


  5. @Sledpress

    In my experience, common decency, courage and selflessness are distributed equally among people of strong faith and among people of no particular faith,

    I have experienced that too. I didn’t mean 1) a religious person is a coward who cannot face difficulties without this bigger brother up there, or that 2) one cannot be a decent ethical man outside religion (even though the lay culture in Italy has totally failed to provide sound ethical rules, too long a story …)

    I was trying to provoke but I also expressed my personal dilemmas about such matters.

    As for point 2) when I said above:

    “I only regret that, to a person like me, being ethical has to go through this ‘vibration’ – it disturbs me”

    I meant: “that is just me, not everybody”

    Called and not called – you quote the Sybil in Delphi – God will be there.

    You know how much I love the Ancients, but I also think religious (or spiritual) persons should accept the idea that there are people who have not met any God (or whatever you want to call such a thing,) who have forgotten such a God (like me for almost 50 years) or that refuse any idea of a God (like my mentor, whose mind was among the most powerful ever.)

    1) I think we can imagine something larger than ourselves whether or not we are religious, 2) which in its most debased sense means merely believing what other people have agreed to believe about what can’t be proved.

    I don’t know, both 1) and 2), if I well understood, are not believed by everybody, it seems to me.

    Possibly it’s this difference between America and Europe, disturbing maybe, but a fact we have to accept even if we don’t like it: the majority of the US people have some kind of religion, while in the EU it is the opposite.

    Is it good? Is it bad? How do I know. As you say, I try to be awake, to listen. I hear some strange music that makes me feel weird, but I’ve always been fond of music after all… 🙂


    1. I always tell people I have an agnostic head and a pagan heart, because the world in its totality seems alive and interconnected to me, but I cannot accept any of the flat assertions that people have made over the centuries about what might account for that.

      America is unquestionably an awkward place for people who don’t “believe” in one religion or another. That is why I like the Russell jail story.


      1. Our president recognized non-believers in his innaugural address – a first! Next up, an atheist for president…or dog catcher, at least.

        Russell said many things about religion, most of them not nearly so warm and fuzzy. It’s also good to keep in mind when he goes on about the “force that is within me,” that he had both an extraordinary mind and ego. I like him very much, but …

        And while we’re on Bertie and jail, if he was jailed in America, it was probably very briefly only, but when he went to jail in England during WWI as a pacifist, at the height of the war fever, and for a few months. That took real guts then. He loved having a public life, and he risked ruining it entirely.


  6. Not sure most of us can live without religion. It’s origins certainly are in human fear and helplessness, and also awe and gratitude for the bounty of nature.

    Thus, paganism and religion are not totally separate. Atheism was rare in classical culture. Paganism is not the same as humanism, no?

    I’m also leary of Mr. Henley and his work. Sure, he inspired Mandela – one must take inspiration where one can find it. Clint Eastwood’s spiritual depth is not something I care to plumb – in his recent film, Gran Torino, he fancied himself as Christ. Henley was a Victorian through and through, and there was this weird joining of reverence for the classic with “muscular” Christianity in that culture. I would be interested in hearing more about Henley’s other work, and how he managed that combination.


  7. Pro-vidence

    Thanks for the pointer to the very interesting source of this word. Yes, God sees all in advance, trust to him…Of course, the problem of free will must intrude…


    1. Well, Latin ‘pro-videntia’ is fore-sight.

      paganism and religion are not totally separate. Atheism was rare in classical culture. Paganism is not the same as humanism, no?

      Greco-Roman paganism is so rich with religions, cults, ethics. You have ‘intelligent design’, kosmos – Pythagoras, Plato, Neo-platonism, Stoicism, mysteries like Orphism etc. – but also the hazard universe of Epicure, an infinite space with infinite atoms, no aim, with indifferent (or non existent) gods, and death as the death of all.

      If possibly by ‘religion’ you meant what Judaism and Christianity have in common (quite a lot, you surely know more,) the pagan and the Judeo–Christian are closer than I was willing to admit.

      The Greeks followed at least 2 sets of totally different beliefs: the Olympian religion (Homer) and the mysteries.

      To the former man is mortal – we become just pale ghosts in Hades – while to the latter the soul, immortal, comes from the stars and will go back there – the movie StarGate is kinda modelled on that – , the body being an impure prison for the soul so the path to purity implies a lot of reincarnations etc. etc.

      I’ve come to realise that, if it’s true the Hellenic civilization had a big impact on science, on how we see and use reason etc., in the field of deep spirituality Greece and later Rome were overwhelmed by a) Egypt, b) the Near East (Palestine, Asia minor, Syria etc.) and c) the Far East (India.)

      This reached a peak with the switch to Christianity, naturally, but the said influence was felt much earlier, before the Greek dark ages, possibly in Paleolithic times.

      Is there an unique origin of all this pure, non pure, sin, soul as positive, body as negative, this reincarnation, salvation etc.? Is it in a) b) or c)? There are many hypotheses.

      When I read Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream) I was both disconcerted and fascinated.


  8. Fascinating discussion, made possible by the inquisitive and gentle tone here, among all participants. Thanks to the host, Man of Roma.

    I’ll just add a little bit that has kept me going throughout my life about God.

    It’s all about irony. The daily irony in this world reminds me that there is something more than just evolution. Even though the beauty of a spider web laced threaded between two pieces of wrought iron alerts me to Nature’s perfection, for me—it always gets back to irony.


    1. The irony, or paradox, which pervades all of life, bespeaks that if someone called God did create us, he had a wonderful sense of humour.

      Apropos to the other things talked of in the comments to this posting, we are all of us Believers, whether we believe there is a God, or believe there isn’t a God, or believe Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins when they tell us we evolved from primordial slime, or believe in the Big Bang.

      Whatever we say is true, we say because we trust the veracity, or research methods, or extrapolations of experts, whether spiritual or secular.

      Whatever we say is true, is therefore faith-based. We are all equal-opportunity Believers.


      1. The irony, or paradox, which pervades all of life, bespeaks that if someone called God did create us, he had a wonderful sense of humour.

        I just don’t get this at all. I mean, I know why you are saying this, but I don’t get what you think it’s more than a witticism, if you do.

        Why would a creator with a sense of humor be ironic? Why a paradox? Because it goes against some of our notions of a creator? Where is the humor, anyway? Some more serious types see the creator as necessarily malevolent and mean to have created so much suffering.

        This entire ‘God’ concept does nothing by generate illogic and confusion. Why entertain it all? If there were a god, and we refused to believe in him, now that just might be an irony for him to chew on.


    2. @Cheri

      As I said in my comment below, I don’t know much about irony. To me it is just a figure of speech but since I hear you US people insisting on this concept quite a lot it intrigues me.


    3. @Phil

      Epistemology or theory of knowledge is not my forte. I always had difficulties in accepting the idea of a truth, tough topic.
      And the idea of a sense of humour by God is very funny, you made me laugh. God might not have sense of humour, but you certainly do.
      I regret I was too busy to comment on your series on language.


  9. @Phil’s we are all believers…

    I think not. This reminds me of the religious people I’ve argued with who try to convince me I believe in God because I accept the theory of universal gravitation or something like that…After all, it’s “something bigger than myself.” That’s your god, they say.

    No, accepting what Darwin or Dawkins say, and accepting what The Bible, the Pope, or a favorite prophet say are not at all the same. Only by using “belief” in the loosest sense can you make them that way. And when scientists speak carefully and non-colloquially, they will not say that they “believe” in the theory of evolution. They say that they accept the theory as valid, proven, or something like that. “Belief” just has too many connotations. Scientific theories are not the same as everyday beliefs, though popular speech uses “theory” to mean a hunch, a guess, and the like.

    If we didn’t believe -have faith- that the world exists, it would be hard to live as thinking beings. But it isn’t at all necessary from the evolutionary standpoint.

    @Cheri’s It’s all about irony. The daily irony in this world reminds me that there is something more than just evolution.

    I don’t see anything ironic in nature. Nothing at all. Irony is something from the realm of humans. Humans may find nature ironic, but only because they assign a goal or end to it. Is the fact that a sturgeon lays a million eggs while few survive ironic?

    From my point of view, your logic is exactly reversed. Because you feel there is something more than evolution, you see irony in nature. If you didn’t have that notion about evolution, the irony would be gone, except as a literary conceit that might stimulate and amuse.


      1. Well, he must then believe that just about anything you say can be true, because if you phrase it right, it’s awfully hard to prove a negative. (Ask Saddam Hussein. Ooops, too late!) So saying that “it can be true,” doesn’t help us to distinguish between fact and fiction. We’re back where we started.


    1. If we didn’t believe -have faith- that the world exists, it would be hard to live as thinking beings. But it isn’t at all necessary from the evolutionary standpoint.

      Is it not ironical, then, that the theory of evolution by natural selection is a function of thought?

      All theory is based on observation of nature and, separately, thought is itself a part of Nature. Thus Nature is axiomatic.

      The axioms and postulates, say, of Euclidean geometry, are self-evident only because they are derived from observation of Nature. The notorious fifth postulate (the one about parallel lines) which, when abandoned, led to other geometries and ultimately to relativity theory, ironically could not be based upon observation.

      The same applies to counting. The consistency of
      the observation that laying one pebble beside another gives two is a function of Nature, not specifically of human thought. There is no reason why it should be so. It is axiomatic. It is taken from Nature.

      It is hardly surprising that consistent theories lead to verifying observation since that consistency itself is taken from Nature.

      What is inexplicable, and will remain inexplicable because of self-reference, is that familiar phenomenon, consciousness. Without it, where is thought and scientific theory? Very ironical.

      Dawkins treats of the difficulty of the word “Theory” in his book published last year, and coins a new word (I forget what it was) to connote something more than a theory but less than a mathematical theorem, and this is how he categorises Darwin’s theory.


      1. I’m a bit of pedant about the word “irony.” When a man gives a woman a gift, she has an allergic reaction to it and dies, that’s irony. When a character pursues a course of action that the audience knows leads to disaster, that’s irony. I don’t see anything ironic that evolution is a product of human thought that is itself a product of nature. Materiality becomes mentality. Mentality transforms materiality. That’s just the way it is.

        What I meant – I spoke too casually – in my comment on faith in the world existing was that this is only a problem for us, thinking humans. Animals have evolved and adapted quite well without entertaining the notion. Once you start thinking about it, it becomes problematic because our thinking is so crudely representative of the situation.


        1. @Richard

          All theory is based on observation of nature and, separately, thought is itself a part of Nature.

          I’d say thought –matter, neurons and connections together with all that chemistry – being matter, we have matter that reflects on matter. Is it ironical lol?

          But you were both saying something else, my mind is flat, my blood being gone down to my stomach. I have to reflect on this, since it brings me to Pythagoras, although again epistemology or theory of knowledge is no easy thing, I might have got it totally wrong.

          Even if I got it wrong one point to me is: can we have real solid knowledge of nature, of the universe? How do we know that our brain or mind doesn’t deceive us, that we are not prisoners of our world representation that might not correspond to the actual world?(Kant etc.) – we have talked about this with Lichanos.

          Pythagoras in Croton, Calabria – who btw invented the concept of kosmos, of a rational ‘order’ in the universe – while he was analysing strings, harmonics, music and numbers, was the first to think there was like an ‘affinity’ between our mind (its math capabilities etc. ) and matter, ie the universe … which brings us to modern physics, Einstein and all that bunch, but also to evolution, since it is clear our mind evolved by adapting itself to the external world – only those whose representation of the world was not totally foolish survived, so, that such adaptive effort favoured this ‘affinity’, it can make sense.

          My wife is into that. She is an epistemologist. I am a humanistic musician who had to turn to computer engineering to feed family.

          All this cultured stuff ….if I can heal my right-hand finger and am able to play again, ah I’ll do blog harakiri and travel around the world with my instrument like a hobo 🙂 🙂


  10. @All

    Irony … I now understand why you people out there always talk about it. In Italy we don’t often use it in such wide meaning. We tend to restrict it to the common emphasis, in language, that can be deliberate or non deliberate, but reaches like a ‘special effect’ by stating the opposite of truth: “Ah, big man he is!”, meaning he is insignificant, but more effective. A figure of speech in short. I like this wider thing though. I told Cheri about it above.

    [More comments will follow]


    1. As I said, I’m for the more restricted meaning. I don’t know what this “wider” meaning is other than a wonder or awe at coincidence and that sort of thing.


      1. I checked in the wiki. There are so many types of ironies I am surprised.

        ‘Wonder or awe at any possible coincidence’ is too vast to me. It makes the term lame. Like when, in 68, everyone that didn’t agree with us was a ‘fascist’: it made the term not so useful any more.


      1. Ah ah! Always wonder if you write with 4 hands or 2. I’ll reply soon above but I’m afraid I am not very qualified. I am more the humanistic type.


  11. I’d say thought – being matter, we have matter that reflects on matter. Is it ironical lol?

    Interesting, but not ironic, I’d say. Matter becomes mentality, mentality transforms matter. This happens both in the outer world, and in our brains. Neuroscience tells us that learning actually changes our brains. That’s why it is not right to say, figuratively, “our brains are a computer,” or like a computer. They are not. They are massively redundant and they transform themselves.

    Even if I got it wrong one point to me is: can we have real solid knowledge of nature, of the universe? How do we know that our brain or mind doesn’t deceive us, that we are not prisoners of our world representation that might not correspond to the actual world?(Kant etc.)

    I used to tease my daughter by telling her that she was not really here, but was lying on the operating table of the evil Dr. Galvani, with electrodes in her brain. The jokes of an epistemological dad. Later, she saw The Matrix and said, “Hmmmm….”

    First we must be clear on what we call knowledge. Saying how do we know we are not being deceived implies we know what we mean by “know.” We don’t. We attack it purely logically, like Plato did. Only the contemporary philosophers who pay close attention to neuroscience will get onto the right track. The rest of epistemology is destined to be relegated to the shelf of interesting but not useful ideas studied by scholars for the heck of it. I except David Hume and his associates, of course.

    If you think about it, it doesn’t make too much sense to ask if our brain deceives us about the nature of the universe. Does the brain of a lizard deceive it? No, it does what it does, and it functions. Our concepts confuse us, but our perceptual apparatus does just what evolution meant it to do. I don’t think you can develop a robust theory of knowledge without taking an evolutionary-neuro-scientific approach. Plato’s Ideas and shadows on cave walls are nice, but just don’t cut it anymore.


  12. Perhaps you’ll say whether this Zen story cuts it anymore, please, Lichanos.


    Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four travelling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

    While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: ‘There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?’

    One of the monks replied: ‘From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.’

    ‘Your head must feel very heavy,’ observed Hogen, ‘if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.’


  13. My criticism of Plato’s ideas is not based on the fact that they are old, or even that they are non-scientific; simply that they don’t work with what we know and are learning.

    I am extremely interested in the Zen point of view. When I first encountered it, I thought, these guys really know how to do philosophy of mind! They don’t try to build a systematic theory of knowledge, but the Zen point of view, if you can use it to guide scientific inquiry, is so often the correct one, I think.


  14. Whilst its achievements are unparalleled and science has taken mankind to its peak of understanding of the world, ridding it in the process of the heavy burden of superstition, I still wonder about its capacity to address the fundamentals.

    The pre-eminence of mathematics at the edge of scientific enquiry can sometimes mislead us into thinking that it is the sum total of reality rather than an imitation of it.

    I find it very difficult to grasp how neuroscience can tell us anything about consciousness. Can you assist me?


    1. @criticaline

      I still wonder about its capacity to address the fundamentals.

      If you mean ethical foundations, how we should live, the nature of love, etc. I don’t think science has much to offer except a starting point of what we know about our organisms and what we don’t know. Ridding the ground of the superstitious scrub, as you might say.

      The pre-eminence of mathematics at the edge of scientific enquiry…

      Not sure mathematicians or scientists would agree with this. Certainly, pure mathematitions do something rather different from science, although it often proves of use to scientists…

      …mislead us into thinking that it is the sum total of reality rather than an imitation of it…

      I’d say representation rather than imitation…

      As for your real question,how neuroscience can tell us anything about consciousness, I’d say this:

      Philosophers, and the rest of us, talk as if we know what consciousness is, but we don’t. That is, we think we can point to it, but just cannot explain it. Descartes in his overheated room introspects and identifies himself…thinking. Consciousness, voila! So many discussions are based on that fundamental experience. I can’t tell you how many discussions by philosophers I read as an undergraduate in which they examined their internal response after hitting their thumb with a hammer: “I feel the pain – what do I feel? Can I doubt that I feel the pain? Is this an indoubitable fact? Nobody can contradict the proposition, I am in pain and will scream!! etc. etc…

      The value of neuroscience to philosophy of mind is that it tells us what is really happening in our minds at some level. It is often very different from what we think. Processes that we think are simultaneous or sequential are actually overlapping or out of order. Perception works differently than “common sense” would have us believe. The very notion of “I” is not the sort of notion we take it to be. (Oliver Sacks is a good source of stories about this. If you want to get some good ideas about consciousness, examine people with damaged brains. It will shake up your ideas.)

      Coming at this topic from the point of view of epistemology and philosophy of mind, I am depressed by how much of what is presented as “deep analysis” is simply recycling of intellectual cliches. Not quite superstition, but almost! Neuroscience clears a lot of that away.

      A full explanation of consciousness may never come, but at least we can cleanse our mental stables of the accumulated manure of centuries.


  15. @Lichanos
    @Richard (thecriticaline)

    Very stimulating exchange of ideas.

    I’ll try to trace in history something you most likely know, ie why mathematicians (and I’d add physicists) ‘assume’ so much … – but I rarely control my rants.. 😦

    Richard wrote:

    The pre-eminence of mathematics at the edge of scientific enquiry can sometimes mislead us into thinking that it is the sum total of reality rather than an imitation of it.

    Just imitation, representation …I agree on that, but nevertheless it is still debated today whether math objects (numbers, points etc. ) ‘exist naturally’ or are created by man.

    That math relationships & math objects are foundational in nature (and part of it), and that the universe is not only rational, but also musical and beautiful, Pythagoras was the first to sense it.

    He and his pupils in Croton, Calabria, analysed string harmonics and realised that ‘only’ the gentle touching of a string at precise math intervals created beautiful, silvery coloured sounds. Instead when such math proportions were not observed, the sounds were non harmonious.

    So his (or their) mind were like awestruck by the sudden intuition that behind the beauty of what they’d heard there must be a math orderliness 1) that they ‘understood’, 2) that they had not created, and 3) that they could not change (I am summarizing Kitty Ferguson here, see later.)

    It was the most precious start. Later in fact they found hundreds of coinciding arithmetical / geometrical regularities … which to them was just a verification of what they had sensed:

    Nature was rational, was beautiful (they were Greek after all) and man was in tune with this marvel since he could perceive it, not only with intellect, but with his senses.

    Music math and beauty pervading all universe! Allow me, it is a fable, but what a fable!

    Unfortunately the Big Music of the whole Big Thing – the Universe – base men were too used to it to be able to hear it. Pythagoras is aristocratic-minded – not as for blood possibly, but as for intelligence, knowledge, deep inspiration.

    Big was the influence on the thinkers who followed him. In the XX century a sort of Pythagoras legend arose with Arthur Koestler, this secular Jew, writing in his ‘Sleepwalkers’ that “P’s influence on the ideas and destiny of humankind was probably greater than any other individual before and after him.” (Russell was of the same idea, I might be wrong.)

    [To be continued]


  16. [Continuation]

    *Pythagoras’ great influence
    on succeeding philosophy, religion, math etc.*

    [such influence also linked somewhat to the clash between Hellenistic Pyrrus and the Romans – see below]

    It is this 6th century BCE which seems crucial – or axial: with Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Elijah, Thales (P was T’s pupil a bit, and T advised him to learn from the Near and Far east as much as he could).

    This era was ‘like an orchestra that was getting in tune’ writes Kitty Ferguson in her ‘The Music of Pythagoras’ (one of my info sources on P.) She is both a science writer and a pro musician.

    At a later time Pyth. and his school – science, math. physics, religion, esotery, orphism, reincarnation, rules of good health etc. – permeated Socrates possibly, Plato surely (he was totally Pythagorean in many things), Aristotle, all Roman stoicism and Cicero and Vitruvius etc., Plutarch, Neo-Platonism with Plotinus.

    Bernard of Chartres, ALL middle-ages Christian scholastics – (Dante and Thomas Aquinas for ex,) the Renaissance (Nicholas of Kues, Leon Battista Alberti, Marsilio Ficino, Palladio,) Kepler in the 17th century and later Newton up to the Scottish James Clerk Maxwell and to Russell and Einstein.

    *The Ionian Greeks as an interface*

    P was from Samos, an island of Greek Ionia close to Anatolia. Ionians were like a East-West interface. East’s seeds again.

    In Ionia Greek thought began, not by chance. Miletus, in today’s coastal Turkey, close to Samos, was where Thales, Anaximander and Anaximines lived, a thriving town reached by the caravans from India. The famous Greek Persian war began later there! (I am emphatic, I know)

    But the revolution happened in Croton, Calabria. There Pythagoras finally settled in 530 BCE and had time to creatively process all he had learned in his (possible) long travels: Palestine – Elijah’s Mount Carmel possibly-, Phoenicia, Egypt, Babylon of Cambyses II so close to India. In these places he possibly learned a lot of arithmetic and geometry, astrology, religions, was initiated to mysteries, cults etc.

    He became like Christ or Buddha in South Italy and also very influential politically, like a head of state. Thousands of people were flocking to see him. He didn’t mind that women (and slaves?) went to him to learn. Then he became so powerful – he possibly had South Italy in his hands – that had to flee and possibly was killed.

    He had great wisdom and possibly from the East he had learned the perfect diet. Croton in fact became like a factory for the best athlete machines ever produced – real supermen thanks to diet, lifestyle and oriental concentration – who were always the winners in the Olympic games (all pupils of P.) hence big stars all over the Greek world.

    Plato in the Republic (in theory,) and in Syracuse (in practice, a flop) was only imitating what Pyth had done (successfully) in Croton, a polis of like-minded philosophers – P’s school – who ruled all.

    The entire South of Italy was still Pythagorean centuries after P’s death, and Ennius was the great Roman Greek Oscan poet who chanted this culture (only 600 verses out of 30,000 surviving)

    When later the Romans were obliged to contrast Hellenic Pyrrhus who wanted to eat up Italy – like Alexander had eaten up the East – they met this Pythagorean world which literally blew their (dogged peasants’) minds. The impact of this was great because they were about to build a framework, the Empire, where the blending of East and West – flopped a bit with Alexander’s Hellenism – was finally possible.

    Which, at the end of a fireworks process, made us Judeo Christians.

    [Logorrheic … 😦 ]


    1. Ah, the penny finally drops for me about Milo of Kroton!!!

      All of us husky weightlifters swear by him as a spiritual ancestor. And we all say that the lift happens in the mind before it happens in the world, or not at all.


      1. @sledpress

        I love that you wrestlers etc. out there consider Milo of Croton an ancestor! Milo was like those machines created in Eastern Europe by communism. Phytagoras as far as we can tell was able to create a new aristocracy based on excellence in intellect, health and ethics.


        1. Somehow his story gets into every guide to weightlifting that discusses mental focus, persistence and discipline, even if he probably never really lifted the bull calf all that much. (Every successful athlete needs something to tell the media, right?)


          1. Bull Calf? Dunno what you mean, but Milo possibly lead an army (of other supermen?) and defeated neighbouring Sybaris in 510 BCE. Plus there’s this legend he saved his master’s life when a collapsing roof was about to crush him.


          2. The story is that the strength to hold up the falling roof was gained in youth by lifting a bull calf every day till it was a full grown bull.


    2. MoR:

      Rant connotes anger and a bit of unreason. Your rants are more like riffs, a term from jazz, I think, meaning free flowing associations and variations on a theme.

      Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy give P a balanced treatment. He says he was incredibly brilliant, and tremendously influential as you cite, but also a bit of a kook. Not sure what he thought of Koestler’s evaluation, but K was a bit of a kook himself.

      Russell remarks that what we call neo-Platonism, and much of Platonism is really Pythagorean. He was the mystic engine of the Greek philospohical legacy. But of course, that influence is not all to the good.

      He also points out that his All is Number credo got a bit of a shock with the Pythagorean Theorem (from P or his followers.) How can all be Number when some numbers…aren’t number-able, e.g., square root of 2. They adapted, though.


      1. By ‘kook’ you mean an eccentric? Of course P was one! And a mystic engine too and of course the legacy is not always good.

        What is interesting is that P was inspired by Orphism (linked to Bacchus Dionysus, reincarnation, soul and body, original sin and all that stuff) but according to many scholars he was the one to modify Orphism by introducing science and rationality as means of purification! THAT is interesting.

        [Russell] also points out that his All is Number credo got a bit of a shock with the Pythagorean Theorem … How can all be Number when some numbers…aren’t number-able, e.g., square root of 2.

        Well, possibly Pythagoreans were devastated by the existence of irrational numbers, which are not rational nor beautiful, a big blow to their harmonious vision of the universe. There are many theories. Yes, they adapted.


        1. I have always treasured the Pythagorean admonition to refrain from eating beans because the wind they produce upon digestion is evidence of souls.

          My last boy friend was the most soulful person alive, if you believe Pythagoras.


    1. I am a maniac. I should have written a post instead. 😦

      I am convinced no conception is well understood outside a history of conceptions. This at least I was taught at school. When Italy had good schools 😦


  17. Thank you Paul (you include myself also lol?).

    Thing is I am a darn slow thinker. It takes me time to process things, which I usually I do during showers.

    And I still have to reply to that Kosmos comment of yours. I’d better now, one never knows. No, tomorrow. Now it is time for bed.

    Ciao caro Paul. Il est beau d’avoir des amis comme toi et comme vous tous.


  18. It’s not a matter of balls and religion. At least, not to me.

    I believe in God BUT I am also the master of my soul. I’m spiritual BUT also very strong. I feel the urge to look beyond the clouds BUT I’m also down to earth when I have to deal with life challenges.

    PS. I’ve seen the movie and I did enjoy it. The poem is great and this post too. 🙂


    1. Well, Lola, that is the position of a ‘modern’ (vs middle ages) woman.

      I am no different, I am in-between Invictus and Psalm 91. If one is spiritual …

      Lichanos well pointed out *above* that religion is not only motivated by helplessness, but also by awe etc.

      In a few lines you’ve synthesized what we (‘I’) said with hundreds of words 🙂


  19. As Jonathan Swift said “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
    I believe we can live without religion and most of the problems on Earth are due to religion and the differences produced by it.

    As Annie Dillard, an American author aptly narrated the effect of religion in this story:

    An Inuit hunter asked the local missionary priest: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Inuit earnestly, “did you tell me?”


    1. Dear Reema, I understand you are focusing on what is happening now in the world and in India – religion creating hate & divisions among people.

      I agree with you in any case. I have lived without religion from 12 until now. I am not religious at this moment. I just feel ‘something’ and it is not unpleasant.

      I describe the feeling *here*. And it is enigmatically related to India, which fascinates me.


  20. I realize that I am arriving remarkably late to this thread. Please forgive the tardiness and permit me to share a few rambling thoughts.

    I think a more specific question is in order: Are we ready to live without religions of the God of Abraham? That is a more pertinent question since at least two of the major confessions of this Deity, Judaism and Christianity, certainly seem on the wane in a number of respects. I think the answer is probably yes.

    I mean yes in the sense that these religions no longer present many of what William James would have called “live propositions” to many of the descendants of the most pious adherents of these religions. Just as the crude and primitive beliefs of Grecco-Roman paganism were being displaced by divers mystery religions, Christianity, the cult of Mithras, Mani’s creations, etc. The dominant religions of Europe and America for the several hundred years seem to be speaking less and less authoritatively and helpfully to many people, even if hundreds of millions are still nominally affiliated with these religions. Many, not all, but many in the modern Western world are not really satisfied, guided by or looking for answers, even lacking any confidence in these religions to even provide the answers.

    I mean yes in the sense that the core beliefs of these religions are under sustained and I think fairly successful assault from within sects and denominations themselves. Obviously there have been changes in doctrine, dogma and discipline over the centuries and the ensuing, and continuing movement in these two faith groups is one of splintering and factionalism, not reconciliation or re-union. Efforts at union are really more political than belief based as a rule.

    More importantly, and rather to my liking, fewer and fewer religious people are willing to accept the use of violence and war to enforce their creeds. Fewer and fewer are willing to even entertain the idea of establishment of any kind, even if they could see the value that synthesis may have held at some point in history. For some, this is an honest repudiation of what these believers, myself among them, believes was something very wrong that should never have been allowed and has done grave harm to any witness our faith groups will ever be able to mount in the future. The huge blood stains that came with burning people alive (despite prohibitions upon cremation?), tossing people of of bridges, etc. will always loom large, and probably should.

    For others, even though they may be believers and even observant (not me), no creed is really worth fighting and dying for, much less worth killing for. Well that is true to some extent, but I think the untold numbers who fell at the hands of Red Guard and NKVD firing parties probably were right to feel differently and choose to perish, thus not to perish. But I am not speaking of the zealous believers who proved the courage of their beliefs even at the point of death. I speak of the social believers who no longer would use their put on garment of religion as a pretext for violence, usually for their own gain.

    I am not questioning the truth of my own Church, nor am I ready or willing to repudiate my faith. No, this is not because I fear anything but being dishonest to myself — a very legitimate and welcome fear, I think. I simply believe that the modern world, though not likely to be content with the deeply secular path we are currently embarked upon, is no longer interested, for some very solid reasons, in the messages of the Judeo-Christian religions. Could that change? I suppose.

    As for Epicurus, that great man of ethics, principals, courage, and practice. He was never a hypocrite, never a back peddler, but a man who truly practiced and lived his beliefs. That doesn’t mean his beliefs were right or that I agree with him, but neither are really important here. I think if he saw what was at the core of our deeply secular avant garde and progressive cultural centers today that he would be appalled and would lament the current state of affairs as deeply as the Prophets and the Saints. I would encourage everyone to delve into and learn from the writings (we haven’t many but the ones we have are powerful indeed) of this great soul.


    1. Please forgive the tardiness

      I’m always late these days. Look at my reply to you, and I never consider a thread closed, here or elsewhere.

      I agree Christianity is on the wane. Judaism I don’t know. Islam seems instead well alive, not always in the good sense.

      True, something is happening. It may concern a possible decline of the West (North America, Europe etc.) vis-à-vis new emerging countries – it is before our eyes – or at least the traditional idea especially Europeans have of it. This means our traditional values (of which the Christian religion is a big part) are losing ground, a situation, as you suggest, that presents analogies with the last phases of the Roman empire.

      But I don’t see why Greco-Roman paganism was crude, primitive. It was such a wide (and tolerant) umbrella, rich, layered, complex (and spiritual).

      fewer religious people are willing to accept the use of violence and war to enforce their creeds.

      In developed countries. But in developing ones fanaticism is growing. My Indian blog friends say it all the time. They are young, fighting for a modern India. But the Muslim fanatics have set an example that is spreading, they are influential and have not passed through any form of Enlightenment.

      Read Guard, NKVD etc.
      Communism has been a fanatical political religion. I have been a communist for 2 years in my twenties, then I got disgusted. My only luck was I read Gramsci instead of Marx. Not that Marx is not a powerful thinker, but Gramsci is more modern and goes well beyond Marxism.

      Ah Epicurus. But I have promised some research on Stoicism, Orphism etc. prior to my Greek and Latin classes. I have to continue along that path, at least for a while.


      1. …the Muslim fanatics have set an example that is spreading, they are influential and have not passed through any form of Enlightenment.

        Just for the record, I’m sure your Indian friends will confirm that there is a very healthy faction of Hindu fundamentalist fanatics too. They did some pretty nasty stuff in India recently.

        I like to keep in mind that this fanaticism thing comes and goes in lots of cultures.


      2. I have commented on your post.

        In short we all know intolerance etc. is part of our species. The point is whether there is ’something’ in the 3 Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) which adds an extra factor of intolerance. By saying ‘only one god’ doesn’t it exclude other spiritual experiences?

        One year ago I would have said: YES! Monotheism is to blame! Now I don’t know. A tendency to monotheism is – and was – universal, plus I’m feeling again the charm of this tradition but of other traditions as well. There are so many paths, I am for freedom.


  21. “Communism has been a fanatical political religion. I have been a communist for 2 years in my twenties, then I got disgusted. My only luck was I read Gramsci instead of Marx. Not that Marx is not a powerful thinker, but Gramsci is more modern and goes well beyond marxism.”

    Marx wrote some very interesting, insightful really, articles on the American Civil War. Of course his work on Napoleon III’s usurpation was fascinating.

    Indeed, Marxism is a religion, one that certainly didn’t value ecumenical relations much either.

    “But I don’t see why Greco-Roman paganism was crude, primitive. It was such a wide … umbrella, rich, layered, complex …”

    Cicero, in his Nature of the Gods certainly suggests this from the mouth of his State cleric official. Lucian the Skeptic too thought so. That doesn’t mean these men were willing to abjure their beliefs but they certainly recognized that the answers they were seeking were not really forthcoming.

    Btw, The Nature of the Gods is one of my all time favorite works. I also devoured Lucian’s works while in university. They had a whole shelf of his works in translation.

    As I was discussing privately with a fellow blogger, Islam has yet to be tamed and restrained by reason-based law. Too many adherents of this religious/political movement is still given to believe that violence is a legitimate option and that government is meant to be a tool of the religion. Most of the Christians have learned (if grudgingly) the folly of this choice. In the U.S. a so-called Christian militia’s members have just been jailed for planning violence. That is not happening as effectively in many Islamic states as of yet.


    1. Marx is a giant, no doubt, but to an almost illiterate 24-year-old (!) Italian discovering Gramsci (thanks to *Magister*) – such a solid South-Italy thinker (and harmonious writer in my native speech) who started his reflection from our own cultural roots – it meant a sort of revolution that Marx would not have been able to ignite.

      What I meant about the ancients is that one had, exactly like now (I know we agree), an extremely complex society rich with philosophies and beliefs – from the most simple to the most sophisticated, according to the class, level of instruction. The Stoic providence – or Epicure – were the refined, intellectual versions of the more popular (ie of the populace) animistic conceptions or of deities like Fortuna. Ancient texts have complexity and refinement, it is known. Certainly, human knowledge had moved on, but crude to me was not … exact, no offence intended of course dear Zeus 🙂 🙂


      1. Probably a better word in English would be “tired.” Which is what I think is going on with Christianity today. That of course does not mean useless or offensive, but the message and the instruments of the message are shopworn and battered. I think that was the case with the old religions and why the new mystery religions were gaining, some would absorb the old gods as well as the old learning, Christianity would reject the gods but absorb the learning.

        Today’s world, even if it is going to largely walk away from the Abrahamic religions would also do well to absorb the best of the Era. This is where your conversations about culture, as well as polymathy come into play. Our world would be foolish, in the rush to modernize and continue to overspecialize to discard all that has come of the Age of Faith as the Christian Era (305 – 1600’s, even later maybe) in Europe is often called. Best to integrate for the sake of a solid foundation.


    1. and I think that generally speaking the more orthodox forms of Christianity didn’t toss that baby out. That does not say they always remembered or used it well consistently.

      Our modern world is too eager to discard religion as so much baggage and hangups. There is plenty to be tossed overboard, but not everything.


      1. The values, that is the core and eternal values, are to be kept. The trappings they have been saddled with are to be discarded. That, I think, was the core teachings of the Greek philosophers long before Christianity.


      2. It’s hard to blame some people for revulsion when you watch the Catholic Church, for example, torque itself right out of Euclidean space-time trying to excuse clerical child abuse, and then follow that further to read about the cheap, vicious power trips inflicted on the Church’s charges in places like the Magdalen laundries of Ireland, where young “miscreants” were indentured as cheap labor. Self perpetuating power structures almost immediately begin to whittle away with anything responsible or self-examining in the philosophies they claim to represent. And that’s when the baby starts to look expendable.

        Agnostic that I am, the knee jerk hatred that I often see for anything traceable to a religious source pains me as much as religious condemnation of whatever is considered outside the pale. Human beings are very quick to announce that they have done away with some restrictive structure or other, while hastening to erect another one in its place. Communism is the perfect case in point.


  22. @Paul

    I am about to take a train to a place close to the Tyrrhenian see for a meeting (my wife or my daughters – needless to say – always take the car and leave me on foot, which is ok, what can I do)


  23. Religion simply put serves to divide us. It seeks to explain “why” and “how” and claims that “we” are superior and “they” are inferior, mistaken, or wrong. Only a person who is willing to believe in people who do not believe similarly can be a brave man or woman. A person who lives with the certainty that there are multiple explanations for these questions is a person who allows intellect to guide him or her and not antiquated answers. If the goal is to divide the world into separate factions…well then bring on religion. It has done so well in the past!


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