Total Pageviews

Tony Fahey's Philosophy Blog

In this forum I have posted some of the 'big ideas' of those thinkers that have most influenced the way we think today. From the various postings you will see, notwithstanding the esteem in which their 'philosophies' are held, that these thinkers do not always hold corresponding views. It is important to realise that the philosophy does not ask you to surrender your beliefs:your own 'worldviews', only to ensure that those you hold so dear are worthy of esteem in which you hold them.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

John Scottus Eriugena c810-877

The disintegration of Graeco-Roman culture, which had begun long before Boethius, continued and even accelerated after his death. Europe entered a long period of intellectual torpor, when learning in general and philosophy in particular was not widely cultivated. With one conspicuous exception, this state of affairs lasted until after the turn of the millennium. The exception was the “Carolingian Renaissance” associated with Charlemagne (786-814) and his successors.

Charlemagne encouraged monastic and cathedral education throughout his realm, and gathered an international group of scholars at his own court. Amongst those who arose in virtue of this “renaissance” was John Scottus Eriugena (c 810- 877), who was in the court of Charlemangne’s grandson, Charles the Bald c 850. As his name suggests, Eruigena was Irish by birth and education. At that time Ireland was called Scotia Major – hence the “Scottus” in his name. In most of Western Europe knowledge of Greek had virtually disappeared by the Carolingan period. But for some reason, it had never wholly died out amongst the Irish monks. Eriugena knew Greek well enough to be thoroughly influenced by Greek thought, and to translate Greek writings into Latin.

Among them were the works of a certain Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. While Eriugena’s was neither the first nor the last medieval translation of this important author’s work, it was the most influential. The Corpus Areopagiticum consists of ten letters and four treatises: On the Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, On the Celestial Hierarchy, and On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. The first two treatises are the most important for philosophy.

The true identity of Pseudo-Dionysius is unknown. He lived in the Near East, probably in the late fifth century, to judge by his philosophical views. But his real identity is not so important as his assumed identity. For works erroneously ascribed to him claim to have been written by the real Dionysius who heard St Paul preach on the Athenian Areopagus have Dionysius the Areopagite.

In Eriugena’s main work, On the Division of Nature, he divides nature or things in general, into four kinds or phases. These four phases or divisions are (i) nature which creates and is not created (God), (ii) nature which creates and is created (the primordial causes or ideas), (iii) nature which is created and does not create (nature in the conventional sense) and (iv) nature which is neither created nor creates (the final end of things, the return of God). The calling of the first division “nature” has led some to see in John a sort of pantheism reminiscent of Spinoza’s “God or Nature”, but it is not clear that that is what he intends Eriugena uses ideas derived from Pseudo-Dionysius to describe knowledge of God – the via affirmativa et negativa - with particular emphasis on the latter. It is an attempt to determine the nature of God in terms of what his is not. But to these two “ways” Eriugena added a third way - the via eminentia, which reconciles the first two ways. Thus, there is a via affirmativa in which predicates are affirmed of God: we call God “good” in so far as he is the source or cause of all the goodness we find in creatives; the is the via negativa, which holds that, since God is not like any of the familiar things language is used to describe, predicates such as “good” cannot be attributed to God – in this sense God is not good, and in fact does not amount to outright atheism, as the via eminentia shows. God in himself is not good and does not exist. But this does not mean that he is less than good or less than existing; rather that he is “super-good” or “hyperexisting” – more than good, more than being.

The second division of nature, which is concerned with the primordial causes, is an attempt to explain how such a transcendent God can both bring about and manifest himself in the plural world. It provides a link, or attempts to do so, between the first and the third divisions of nature. Among the primordial causes is to be found the idea of man – a primordial man, free but lacking most of the characteristics that go with the body and life in a material. Eriugena gives an allegorical account of the Biblical story of creation, in which Adam’s fall is the coming into being of material man, and the whole material world with him. The final division of nature can only be regarded as the last stage of the process, constructed sequentially – the final return to God, which nature desires, and a kind of rest in God. It is clear that Eriugena’s account is highly mystical in character. It has been seen as a great metaphysical construction, and construed as a picture it has something of that quality.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


The term ‘Buddhism’ derives from the Sanskrit word ‘budhi’, which means ‘to awaken’. Buddhism is a philosophy or ‘way of life’ that has its origins about 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama, at thirty five years of age, after many years study, finally achieved enlightenment and became known as ‘The Buddha’ – ‘The Enlightened One’. Although often referred to as the religion without a god, Buddhism, since it is more concerned with raising one’s levels of awareness or consciousness, is more of a philosophy than a religion.

Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in Lumbini, now located in Nepal, in 563 BC. Although raised in luxury and married to the sensuous Yashodara (a woman reputed to be more beautiful than the Goddess of Beauty herself), with whom he had a son, at 29, finding that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, Siddhartha decided to abandon the worldly life and become a recluse, living a nomadic life of great austerity and reflection. After six years of study and meditation he finally found 'The Middle Path' and was enlightened. The ‘Middle Path’ is so called because it holds the centre road between hedonism and asceticism. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life (effectively until his death at the age of eighty) teaching the principles of Buddhism.

It should be noted that Buddha was not, nor did he ever claim to be, a God. He was simply a man who taught a path to enlightenment from his own experience.

The Middle Way consists of Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path.

The First Noble Truth:

The first truth is that all life is ‘dukkha’, a term that derives from the Sanskrit for ‘suffering’. Life, this first truth reminds us, includes pain, getting old, disease, and ultimately death. We also endure psychological suffering like loneliness frustration, fear, embarrassment, disappointment and anger. This is an irrefutable fact that cannot be denied. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because pessimism is expecting things to be bad. Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.

The Second Noble Truth:

The second truth is that ‘dukkha’ or suffering is caused by desire or craving. Craving, that is, for satisfaction and permanence in things that are transitory, impermanent, and elusive. Since all things are transitory, any attempt to find permanence in worldly things results in suffering.

The Third Noble Truth:

The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and true happiness and contentment attained. By eliminating senseless craving, dwelling neither in the past nor in the imagined future, we can learn to take each day as it is given to us, and be happy and free. Moreover, in such a state of mind, we can have more time and energy to help others. This is Nirvana. It should be emphasized that nirvana is not some out of body or otherworldly experience but a level of awareness, of consciousness that is attained by the physical and mental practices set out in the four noble truths and the eightfold path.

The Fourth Noble Truth:

The fourth truth is that the Noble Eightfold Path is the path which leads to the end of suffering.

The Noble Eightfold Path:

The Eightfold Path describes the way to the end of suffering, as it was laid out by Siddhartha Gautama. It is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things. Together with the Four Noble Truths it constitutes the essence of Buddhism. A strong emphasis is put on the practical aspect, because it is only through practice that one can attain a higher level of existence and finally reach Nirvana. The eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.

1. Perfected or Right View

Perfected or Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realize the Four Noble Truths.

2. Perfected or Right Intention

While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, that is, the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: (1) the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, (2) the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and (3) the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.

3. Perfected or Right Speech

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Right Speech is speech free from malice, gossip, or negativity. In other words, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.

4. Perfected or Right Action

Right action means: (1) to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently. ( 2) to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and, (3) to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others.

5. Perfected or Right Livelihood

Right livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. In short, avoidance of work that is harmful to others.

6. Perfected or Right Effort

Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness.

7. Perfected or Right Mindfulness

Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the ‘four foundations of mindfulness’: (1), contemplation of the body, (2) contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), (3) contemplation of the state of mind, and, (4) contemplation of the phenomena.

8. Perfected or Right Concentration.

The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means ‘wholesome concentration’, that is, concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.

In summary, the Eightfold Path is being moral (through what we say, do and our livelihood), focusing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and by developing compassion for others.