Plutarch's Idea of Leadership

October 21, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Leadership has been on nearly everyone's mind as of late. Unfortunately, it is not a Great Idea in the Great Books canon. However, there are many categories that touch upon ideas of leadership, such as Government, Man, Constitution, and Virtue and Vice. There is very little agreement about what makes a good leader. In fact, the only point of nearly universal agreement among Great Books authors is that some sort of government is necessary for the life of a state. The authors tend to talk about government through a specific lens, such as religion or family or state. As a result, Mortimer Adler decided to split this idea of leadership and government into categories. In other words, researching leadership will take you through a number of Great Ideas. Combining a group of Great Ideas as they pertain to leadership or government may be very instructive.

Perhaps the lack of holistic instruction in the form of leadership is due in part to a lack of imagination. It is ironic that sometimes I find history (and historical fiction) to be as difficult to identify with as science fiction. Science fiction is a relatively new 'genre'. H.G. Wells really inspired the field of science fiction that we know today (though works such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein existed prior to Wells). When he published War of the Worlds in the 1890s, he explored a path for scientists to discuss potential futures as related to the advancement of science. In other words, in combining two previously unlike entities he created an entirely new entity. Or, an entirely new lens. This is important for the current discussion, since we are attempting to discover a way to enlighten leadership through universalities. Plutarch offers one enlightening experiment that discusses leadership from a variety of perspectives.

In Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch compares two successful leaders of different societies. He gives a full account of one leader, then another, and then compares the two based upon their birth, education, actions, events, environment, and government style. His combination of virtues depends upon the success of the civilization. He defines this success in a number of ways: longevity, certainly, but also through moral and virtuous actions of the citizens and sustainable structures that supported these citizens. (I intend “structures” to include both physical and intangible elements, such as city development in combination with legal and cultural developments too.) In each case, however, Plutarch focuses on the behaviors in which the leader was not focused on himself, but on the people. So, even though their laws may seem odd or harsh to a contemporary reader, the leader earned respect from their community for having attained a level of safety, peace and prosperity, not for themselves, but for the survival of a race.

From a contemporary standpoint, it can be really difficult to understand virtue as demonstrated by some of these leaders and their corresponding societies. We almost have to think in terms of science fiction – as something that stretches beyond current possibilities. Lycurgus, a Spartan king included in Plutarch's Lives, as an example, created an insular society completely independent (and undesirable) to outsiders by replacing the currency. Plutarch writes, “[Lycurgus] commanded that all gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only a sort of money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen”. This change also affected foreign trade and travel. Without traveling merchants or any immigration, Sparta became insulated, safe and constant. They maintained peace because no one desired goods or money. In this case, the science fiction aspect relates to how he used technology to completely eradicate wealth. Plutarch writes, “It was certainly an extraordinary thing to have brought about such a result as this, but a greater yet to have taken away from wealth, as Theophrastus observed, not merely the property of being coveted, but its very nature of being wealth”. I simply cannot imagine how we could remove wealth or make it meaningless in today's society, in the globalized society. I find it more likely that we will be able to populate Mars with potatoes (as in The Martian), than to eradicate the idea of wealth. I am quite sure that this is due to my short-sightedness. (Star Trek's government also disregarded the importance of wealth. A topic to be discussed on a future blog, I hope).

My point is that perhaps it is due to a lack of imagination that some societal problems persist. I enjoy Plutarch's experiment and gain much from his manner of writing as well as the historical comparisons he offers. The biographical note claims that “[Plutarch] states that his original intention had been to instruct others, but in the course of writing he discovered that more and more it was he himself who was deriving profit and stimulation from 'lodging these men one after another in his house'”. I believe that there is much profit to be gained by exploring two unlike entities, comparing, contrasting, allowing for context and measuring results as we alone would measure them. It is important to answer these questions for ourselves through thorough investigation. Plutarch, therefore, challenges both my imagination and my understanding, which leads me to, at the very least, a better understanding of leadership.


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The World Upside Down

October 14, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“So come out of your cave walking on your hands/ And see the world hanging upside down/ You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land” - Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”
“Without pride or delusion,/ the fault of attachment overcome,/ intent on the self within,/ their desires extinguished,/ freed from dualities,/ from joy and suffering,/ undeluded men/ reach that realm beyond change.” (The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna's Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man")

The Bhagavad Gita is written as a dialogue between the great warrior, Arjuna, and his spiritual leader, Krishna. Yet, the Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man", involves no true dialogue. Instead, Krishna explains man's spirit to Arjuna. Krishna begins the chapter with:

“Roots in the air, branches below,/ the tree of life is unchanging,/ they say, its leaves are hymns,/ and he who knows it knows sacred lore.
“Its branches/ stretch below and above,/ nourished by nature's qualities,/ budding with sense objects;/ aerial roots/ tangled in actions/ reach downward/ into the world of men.
“Its form is unknown here in the world/ unknown are its end,/ its beginning, its extent;/ cut down this tree/ that has such deep roots/ with the sharp ax/ of detachment.”

This idea of branches above and below, as if nurturing two different aspects of the world, is vital to this view of detachment. I am drawn to images that reflect this inner/outer phenomenon and the relevance of detaching. There is a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) realizes the literal difference between sunset and sundown. Once he realizes that sundown is a direction, then he gets the crew to flip the ship. The next image is a switch of ocean and sky. This creates a new world, or at least, a new perspective on the world. It also mimics the idea presented in Plato's "Allegory of a Cave". The Allegory is one of the most widely read and discussed pieces of philosophy. It has numerous elements of interest, but for today's purpose, I wonder about the idea of human nature as set in his initial premise. Is it possible for the chained being to realize that there is more than what he can physically see and/or experience? Could the chained man realize a simpler answer without the physical removal of the cave? Could he instead, rise out of himself without ever having left the cave? Plato notes that these men in the cave would see shadows only and not reality. He writes, “[W]ould they not suppose they were naming what was actually before them?” While it is certainly true that we only know of a thing by its dimensions and sensory details, or by our experience of them, it is also true that the importance of names is important to the self. Therefore, the self is intrinsically involved in the naming of a thing. In other words, would the man in the cave be able to find that inner self which enables him to create names?

Action is vital in The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps because it is written to a warrior who is saddened by the current battle. Action, however, does not reflect the self so much as Krishna himself who physically leads the body towards a true destiny. In the Thirteenth Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita: “Knowing the Field”, Krishna states, “He who really sees/ that all actions are performed/ by nature alone and that the self/ is not an actor./ When he perceives the unity/ existing in separate creatures/ and how they expand from unity,/ he attains the infinite spirit.” The field is our current circumstance, or current existence and environment, whatever that may be. Action may not necessarily be physical, but in thinking, we also prepare.

The image of an upside-down world is all about changing perspective. About looking into a new place for answers, in some cases, perhaps the simplest of places. I suggest the interior self as the simplest, but also, ironically, the most complex, place to reach. In the introductory quote (“You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land”), then, the “maker's land” is understood to be the self, not the landscape. In this sense, the landscape merely offers a reflection of ourselves. And it claims that we gain an understanding of dependence, which I assume means on our need to continually find and understand our interior being. What we become dependent upon might depend upon the person. In The Bhagavad Gita, one becomes dependent upon seeking Krishna, who also represents things like knowledge, spirit, self and unity.

Perhaps another way of looking at this is through the idea of a vessel. Plato writes, “And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels”. These vessels are only visual objects for the chained men. However, if they have noticed the jars at all, then they have a reason for identifying it as separate from other things. Either the vessel contains intrinsic meaning or the chained men have located a meaning within themselves. We perceive, separate, and seek to know our world as best we can. Plato's allegory is only one attempt at perception. Knowing that there are many others, I end with this quote from “The Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens:

“The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild./ The jar was round upon the ground/ And tall and of a port in air.”


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After the Adirondacks

“But to what purpose/ Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves/ I do not know.” - T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”


October 7, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog post.

Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend Philosophy Camp in the Adirondacks of New York. St. John's College in Santa Fe and SUNY-ESF campuses combined forces to offer this fantastic experience. I will continue to dwell on some of the points discussed during this exceptional conference, but in the meantime, here are a few reflections based upon the time among vibrant trees and colorful conversation.

I wanted to attend this conference with the idea of listening first and speaking second. I am not sure if I achieved my goal because, of course, I did participate. But in separating from our daily lives and heading into the forest, I think we each desired a moment of peace and perhaps even a moment of clarity. I am curious about the ways in which so many of us are able to disconnect and also reconnect (or even connect at all). One of the questions that the group struggled with was a way to understand, visualize and discuss time. It is something so inherent in our being, yet we rarely take note of the language we use regarding time or how it structures our internal lives. Is there a way to comprehend the metaphor of time in some sort of container? Is there a way to capture the connections we forge through dialogue? Is there a way to enter each other's past in a way that enriches our future?

In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot greatly abstracts time to explain how past moments filter into present times and even overwhelm the present scenery. So, in looking at a garden, he layers past memories over the roses. The roses themselves, then, transform, becoming both childhood and flower. Sound and emotions filter into the scene, which literally carries past and future into the present. He calls this the “still point of the turning world”. It is almost as if the emotionally heavy moments weigh more than others, even than the present. These become our focal points through which we see dimensions of other times. Therefore, we communicate through universals, ideas which exist both inside and outside of time. In other words, universal and timelessness must participate in some communicable chronology. Perhaps they offer a language of sorts, or more likely, they offer perspective of a thing that perpetually changes perspective. A thing such as time.

If time perpetually changes, and our understanding of time perpetually changes, then so does our experience. This is of vital importance because humans resort to metaphor in order to articulate our own specific perspective. Just as Eliot intentionally reshapes the past throughout these four poems, the reader finds common points of access and is then able to interpret some of his memories through the reader's own. However, gaining these access points still does not allow the reader to experience time in the way that Eliot writes it. In fact, an infinite amount of access points would not enable the reader to experience life as Eliot has. In other words, the points of access are functional, but not direct. Therefore, ten readers of Eliot's poems come away with ten different perceptions of time. These poems focus on language's inability for clarity. However, they also focus on the miracle that language allows intersections at all. There is a beauty in the idea that we must all participate in metaphor to create connections. In pictorial representations of language, images such as rose bowls and gardens carry more weight than a point to point transfer would. Language is not exact. It is representational. What then, enables language to transfer from one point to another?

These points would interact on a variety of grids, but no common ground. The grids themselves act as fields or frames that offer points of intersection – mutually experienced realities. Euclid says that a point is that which has no part. After reading Chomei's Hojoki, the Bhagavad-Gita and Eliot's Four Quartets, I think that we are all points on a field. The individual self equals one point. The field is our current circumstance. Our circumstance affects and influences all action. Our actions create a narrative by allowing us to move through, past, around, next to, adjacent, inside and outside of the space also inhabited by others. The points where we intersect make all the difference. They distill time in a way that is unique to both the present and memory. From these still points, we construct our world.

T. S. Eliot says that these points allow for a dance and he emphasizes that “there is only the dance”. There is only the dance – the face to face rhythm of beauty and grace, the face to face approach of two unlike points, the face to face twirl that allows an intimacy, a connection. There is only the dance – the fact that we can connect and communicate with grace and emotion, with passion and eloquence, with hesitation and honesty, with experience (our own) and experience (all). There is only the dance and when we complete this dance, we have reached an end. For me, dance is the container of time. The ebb and flow of rhythm, time kept as a movement, is the metaphor: it is the movement in which we all participate. Hopefully the completion of every path (even incomplete paths) results in an elevated dignity that the world can at least see, if not fully access. Presence almost becomes clarified through absence – through the interaction on the field and layers of memory, emotion and present circumstance.

And so there we were, all of us among the mountains, lakes and trees of the Adirondacks. All of us on one field. All of us dancing.

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Nature Resources

September 30, 2016

“We do not organize education the way we sense the world. If we did, we would have departments of Sky, Landscapes, Water, Wind, Sounds, Time, Seashores, Swamps and Rivers.” - David Orr, Author of Ecological Literacy

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Merriam-Webster defines nature as: the physical world and everything that is not made by people. It also says, however, that nature can be: the way that a person or animal behaves. This addition, makes us wonder how much of our behavior is made by us, which would, according to Merriam-Webster, imply that our behavior is both natural and artificial. Understanding nature versus artifice sounds straightforward, that is, until you try. In the Syntopicon, Mortimer Adler writes, “The conception of nature which tries to separate the natural from what man contributes seems to depend upon the conception of man. Controversies concerning man's difference from other animals, especially the dispute about human freedom (considered in such chapters as Man and Will), bear directly on the issue of the naturalness of the things which result from man's doing and making.” Man simultaneously acts upon nature both internal and external to himself.

Vitamin N, a new book by Richard Louv, also tries to understand nature through immersion. He claims that all humans have an inherent connection to nature and the more we step away from this aspect of ourselves, the more barren we will feel. Therefore, instead of separating man and animal (as in the Syntopicon), Louv writes,

“Defining 'nature' isn't easy. To some people, nature is everything. To other's, it's the Grand Canyon or the wren outside the window. Science has tended to leave the definition of nature up to the poets. This lack of a clear designation is one of the prime reasons why scientific research on the impact of nature on human development has been so thin until recently and that such a high proportion of current research is funded by commercial interests.
“Here's one working definition of nature: biodiversity. That definition may not include, say, rocks – at least not directly – but it does describe the process: in order to survive, life needs other life, and it needs variety.”

He continues to claim that the more interaction with nature, the higher the satisfaction and sense of well-being one feels. Nature fills a primal need within us, one that we may not yet be aware of or able to understand. Furthermore, nature filters into nearly every view of ourselves as human beings. It is relevant when discussing our biology, psychology, creativity, imagination and religious structures. Louv continues: “Most religious traditions, especially in indigenous cultures, intimate or actively offer ways to discover the divine in the natural world.” Therefore, humans may be better able to understand their own nature while walking in nature. Added to that, physically moving in nature often improves memory and clarity of thought.

While a discussion of nature can quickly overwhelm, Vitamin N gives simple ways of interacting with nature. His book demonstrates that nature, while daunting, impressive and ubiquitous, is also necessary, energizing, thrilling and restorative. It is filled with ideas for all levels to gain access to nature. In it, he writes of a “hybrid mind” in which one can access nature to their own level, using both technology and the outdoors. Therefore, no one is left out or obstructed. Simply step into nature to the extent that it pleases you.

Therefore, coinciding with the National Parks 100th anniversary, I thought it fitting to place a couple of resources mentioned in Louv's book on today's blog. His book proposes many other ideas, 500 to be exact. There are also excellent suggestions for getting children involved with nature. For more from Richard Louv visit his website.


“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” - Crowfoot, Chief of the Siksika First Nation, 1890


Understanding Land Ethics from the master himself, visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation for more information:

Humans need to interact with nature, but wonder how to do so without changing it. Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics studies the same things:

Humans are always interested in navigation – internal and external – as a way of locating ourselves. Find out more about celestial navigation and navigation in general from AMC, Appalachian Mountain Club:

The National Audubon Society's tips for getting outdoors:

If you have no time or place to garden, create a seed bomb (try sticking to plants that are native to the region):

Create, volunteer or learn about Homegrown National Parks:

Learn about nature firsthand – from your own surroundings. Be aware of the first buds, birds or insects in your area each year. Check out National Phenology Network to understand more:

Help for teachers and parents of K-12 from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Learn all about hiking from the American Hiking Society. There are also volunteer opportunities:

Become an environmental education advocate through the North American Association for Environmental Education:

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