Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ten Years in the Making!

It's a nice feeling when a project gets finished.  It's an even nicer feeling when that project has been ten years in the making.  2002 was the year when Steve Mayo and I began to write our on-line commentary on Plato's Republic.  The idea was to provide students with a section-by-section commentary of Plato's text that would help them make sense of the fairly difficult philosophical concepts in the work. 

During the ten years that the commentary was on-line, we received hundreds of questions, comments, and requests for clarification from students and faculty members all over the world (from Latin America to Africa to the Australian outback to almost every state in the U.S.).  We also got a fair amount of praise from people who said that the commentary helped them to get through the text with far fewer tears than they might otherwise have had. 

Two years ago I took down the Sophia Project in order to create SophiaOmni, a publishing company founded upon distributivist economic principles.  Our commentary on the Republic came down with it, but Steve and I promised that we would rework what we had written and publish it through the newly established press.  That work has finally been done

The text of Plato's Republic, along with our section-by-section commentary, will be used for the first time in a college classroom this fall.  I can't promise that all the students in the class will be delighted about having to read Plato, but I know damn well that they'll be far better human beings for having struggled to make sense of the greatest ideas conceived by the greatest philosopher the world has ever known!

And that's got to count for something, doesn't it?


THE REPUBLIC is universally regarded as one of the most important works of philosophy ever written.   The text was written by Plato at the height of his literary and intellectual powers and treats subjects as diverse as politics, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, human psychology, family life, the role of women in society, educational theory, leadership, and warfare.   Some would say that the text is as relevant today as it was in the fifth century B.C. when it was written, providing a unique window into our own political and social lives in the 21st century.
SophiaOmni’s study guide to THE REPUBLIC is unique in that it has been designed for the philosophical novice in mind.  Assuming no prior knowledge of the discipline of philosophy or Plato’s thought, this edition provides the reader with the tools he or she needs to read Plato’s work profitably.    Each section of the text has been divided topically and provided with clear commentary aimed at illuminating the major themes of the text and their philosophical significance.  References at the end of each section of the text provide resources for those seeking to delve further into any of the ideas presented in THE REPUBLIC.

Stephan T. Mayo and Michael S. Russo are Professors of Philosophy at Molloy College in New York.


Great ideas endure forever.  SophiaOmni Wisdom Classics Editions are perennial works written by some of the world’s most provocative, iconoclastic thinkers, whose ideas continue to inspire and enlighten in our own age.  Each edition has been carefully edited and introduced by experts in the fields of philosophy, religion, or ethics to provide a helping hand to those who might otherwise be intimidated by the thought of reading great works from the past and set them on their way to a lifelong love affair with the pursuit of wisdom.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Plastic Conundrum

What is it? 
Why is it a problem? 
Why are we to blame? 
What can we do about it?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Reconsidering the 1970s


I’ve always  had a real antipathy towards the 1970s.  Part of it undoubtedly has to do with the fact that I grew up during this decade and had to suffer through stagflation, the Carter presidency, and disco, which is justification enough, I suppose, for my hatred.  Compared to the magical 60s, the 70s also seemed like a downer, with none of the innocence and optimism of the previous decade.
But lately, I’ve begun to realize that the beautiful magic of the 1960s didn’t really end in January, 1970.  In fact the early part of the 70s contained much of the same spirit that made the 60s so much fun (woman’s liberation, the antiwar movement, student activism, and rock and roll).  The 70s that I’ve always hated, in fact, didn’t really begin until about 1977.  That’s when film began its precipitous decline with Star Wars and Jaws, two movies that are not bad themselves, but which signaled the death of the truly artistic film that had sprung up in the United States from about 1967 with films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.   It’s also when music began to be corrupted by disco and every song had to be obnoxiously danceable, instead of something you listen to intently with your friends in your parent’s basement.

I’ve recently undertaken a project to study 70s culture, and amazingly I’ve discovered that most of the films that I love the most come from the come from the early part of that decade:  Lovers and Other Strangers, The Godfather, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Annie Hall, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Last Detail, Network, Patton, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s  Nest.  There was a grittiness and an authenticity to these films that has never been captured since on film and probably never will be. 

I’ve also noticed that many of the albums that I’ve come back to time and again over the years are also from this same period:  All Things Must Pass (George Harrison) Loaded (The Velvet Underground), Déjà Vu (Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young), Cosmos Factory (Creedence Clearwater Revival), L.A. Woman and Morrison Hotel (The Doors), Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen), Tapestry (Carol King), Planet Waves and Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan),  Band on the Run (Wings).  Like the films of the early 70s, the music of that period had an honesty and integrity about it that I simply don’t find in later music.  Perhaps it was because the Viet Nam war was entering its most contentious phase or maybe turbulent politics of the times had something to do with it, but, whatever it was, there is a seriousness about the art of the early 70s that I think stands the test of time quite well. 

And even the decadence aspect of the early 70s, unlike what came later, is all in innocent fun.  As a case in point, watch the video I posted from 1973 featuring the Defranco Family.  The hair is atrocious, the bell bottoms are ridiculous, and the dance moves utterly and completely preposterous.  But when one considers what the country was going through in 1973 (Remember Richard Nixon?), there’s an innocent and joyful quality to the music that is actually quite impressive.

So the next time any of us feel like bashing the much maligned 1970s, we should keep in mind that what we really hate is the rise of the 1980s, which began the slick and superficial cultural decline in the United States that has not yet ended.  1977 started what Bob Dylan quite accurately referred to as “the age of masturbation.”  Before then, from about 1967 (the Summer of Love) to about 1976, we had what I would refer to as the age of infinite possibility – a time when it really did still seem like we could end war, poverty, disease, and racism.    We may not have succeeded in achieving these lofty goals, but you can hardly blame the polyester-clad prophets of the 70s for that.  They did their part; we’re the ones who have forgotten what these great visionaries of the past tried to teach.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

On True Systematic Derangement

The following is an expert from Primal Regeneration by neo-beat writer Nicolo Capelli in which the author talks about the historic role of “systematic derangement of the senses” as the key to creative inspiration. 

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley once famously wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”  In the same work, Huxley states the goal of mankind as to be “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large.” 

Huxley’s view is that we human beings have allowed ourselves to view the world through the narrow and constricting prism of ordinary perception.  In The Doors of Perception, he posits that if we could but “cleanse” our way of looking at the world—to get beyond, in other words, the tyranny of our scientific, pragmatic ways of understanding reality—new possibilities that are virtually limitless would open themselves up to us.   The full potentials of our fantastic selves, in other words, would inevitably be unleashed.

So how exactly does one go about liberating his or her mind from its ordinary, mundane forms of perception?  Actually, this has been a question that has intrigued artists and writers for most of the 20th century, but particularly during the 1950s and 60s in the United States, when a new consciousness was developing in the country and young people in particular were searching for ways to break beyond the conformist sensibilities of their parents’ generations.  The figure that many of these iconoclastic visionaries looked to in particular was a young poet with a checkered past and some rather strange ideas about artistic liberation—the 19th century French bad-boy, Arthur Rimbaud.  

Born in 1854 in the small French town of Charleville, Rimbaud had already begun winning awards for his writing by the age of 13.  Attempting to flee the sterile conformism of his home life, he went to Paris and began a torrid affair with the poet Paul Verlaine, which ended badly for both of them.  In 1873, he wrote his most famous work, A Season in Hell (Une Saison en Enfer), which had an enormous impact on the direction of modern poetry.  By the age of 19, Rimbaud stopped writing poetry completely and left for Africa as a colonial tradesman.  In 1891 he developed a cancerous growth in his leg; the leg was amputated, but the cancer continued to spread, and he died at the age of 37.

In letters that Rimbaud wrote when he was still only a teenager, he outlined his vision for the true poet:

Right now, I’m beshitting myself as much as possible.  Why?  I want to be a poet, and I’m working to turn myself into a seer: you won’t understand at all, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to explain it to you.  It has to do with making your way towards the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. The suffering is tremendous, but one must bear up against it, to be born a poet, and I know that’s what I am.

The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved and logical derangement of all the senses.  Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only one essence remains.  He undergoes unspeakable tortures that require complete faith and superhuman strength, rendering him the ultimate Invalid among men, the master criminal, the first among the damned—the supreme Savant!  For he arrives at the unknown!  For, unlike everyone else, he has developed  an already rich soul. He arrives at the unknown, and when, bewildered, he ends up losing his understanding of his visions, he has, at least, seen them!  It doesn’t matter if these leaps into the unknwn kill him: other awful workers will follow him; they’ll start at the horizons where the other has fallen.

As I mentioned, Rimbaud inspired many of his own contemporaries, but it was not until the 1950s, when he was “discovered” by Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Alan Ginsberg that Rimbaud’s vision truly began to take hold.

In particular Rimbaud’s view that true vision is attained by the artist though “a long…and systematic derangement of the senses” (dérèglement raisonné de tous les sens) would have an enormous role to play in the art, music, and culture of the Beats and the Counterculture.  For Rimbaud, this disorganization took the form of wild evenings drinking absinthe and smoking hashish to excess and engaging in outrageous behavior that scandalized Parisian society.  When the Beat writers encountered Rimbaud during their years at Columbia University they too attempted systematic derangement through excessive alcohol consumption, experimentation with narcotics, and anti-social forms of behavior (cohabitation, homosexual activity, the celebration of the criminal, the junkie, and in general all outcasts of society). 

Later in the 1960s, Rimbaud provided the inspiration for the founding members of the Counterculture, who saw LSD as a way of achieving Huxley’s cleansing of the doors of perception.  Individuals as diverse as Timothy Leary (a Harvard psychologist), Richard Alpert (later to become Hindu mystic Ram Dass), Huston Smith (theologian and author of The Religions of Man), and Andrew Weil (natural health guru) would unite to form the Harvard Psychadelic club, the aim of which was to use drugs like LSD to achieve personal and spiritual liberation. 

There’s no doubt that some of the greatest achievements of 1960s Counterculture—in particular the wild, psychedelic music of the period—were fueled by the use of LSD.  Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Greatful Dead, The Doors, and Jefferson Airplane wrote some of their most original music while under the influence of the drug.  Unfortunately, LSD  proved to be a gateway drug that lead to the deaths of some of the brightest stars of the sixties music scene—most notably, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimmy Hendrix—and to serious rehab issues for many others. 

The heavy toll that drug use took on young people during the 1960s would make the lifestyles of the Counterculture—and to a lesser extent the Beat Generation—seem somehow illegitimate as a result.  But what exactly was the goal of those admittedly unconventional lifestyles?  It was nothing other than the desire to liberate oneself from the tyranny of conformism, to explore one’s deeper potential as a human being, and to allow one’s innate and unique creative potential to reveal itself as a result.  To the extent that human beings have fantastic selves buried within them, it seems evident that at least some members of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the Counterculture of the 1960s were extraordinarily successful in unleashing them and produced wild, uninhibited, often surrealistic creative work as a result.

Systematic derangement is certainly the key to breaking free of static, conformist, bourgeois notions of the self and is the catalyst for true creative inspiration.  But this derangement, if it is to be sustainable and non-destructive, must take a form other than chemical.  Hallucinogenic drugs may jolt the artist into perceiving the world around him in unconventional, spontaneous, and fluid ways, but the price he pays for such flashes of insight is often far too great—madness, debilitation, and ultimately premature death. 

So how does one engage in systematic derangement without damning his soul at the same time?  The answer lies in existential revolt.  The artist must constantly be in a state of resistance against all those social mechanisms that would confine his spirit.  He embrace the social outcast as his constant companion, he must spend his time in the dark places where the truly original minds lurk, he must pursue forbidden love, he must reject all static notions of the self, recognizing that he can be all things, that he is not limited by any essential nature.  Revolt enables the artist to become Rimbaud’s “first among the damned; the supreme Savant.”

Such revolt against the status quo is never easy and often comes at a sharp price.  But unlike chemical derangement, existential revolt offers the artist the possibility of transcendence without the total annihilation of the self.  In this sense, it is the only true solution to the modern crisis of spiritual banality that we all face. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ethics of Eating Meat

Can eating animals ever be morally justifiable?  Read the article on Ecoblog and let us know what you think.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Defending the First Science

I get seriously peeved when people slam the study of the humanities as being irrelevant or out-dated. I get even more upset when people mock my own discipline of philosophy and discourage students from majoring in it in preference for more “practical” subjects. Given how touchy I am about this topic, you can imagine how I reacted when I came upon a piece by Frank Bruni (an otherwise intelligent fellow) last week in the New York Times Sunday Review that all but told students that they were doomed to living in their parent's basement for the rest of their lives if they even considered a major in field like philosophy. Here the section of his article that really set me off:

According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

Enraged, I whipped off a response to the Times that attempted to correct some of the mistakes that Mr. Bruni made in the article.  The article didn’t make it into the paper, but that’s the good news.  Apparently many people had the same reaction I did and there was a flood of objections to Bruni’s piece.  Here’s how I responded:

As someone who has spent much of his life promoting the humanities as a Professor of Philosophy at Molloy College on Long Island, I cannot help but be dismayed by Frank Bruni’s uninformed assault upon my discipline (“The Imperiled Promise of College”).  Mr. Bruni cities a report suggesting that philosophy and anthropology majors are “among the least likely to find jobs reflective of their educational level”  and then proceeds to make a snide insinuation that the best that philosophy graduates can hope for in life is a job at their local Starbucks.
What Mr. Bruni fails to realize is that while there is no specific career path for philosophy majors, the critical thinking and high-level communications skills provided by a philosophy degree at a reputable institution of higher education serves majors extremely well in whatever field they choose to enter—business, law, medicine, teaching, and government, and many others as well.   Perhaps that’s the reason why there has been a dramatic rise in the number of philosophy majors at some of the best colleges and universities all around the county.  At my own college, we’ve recently seen one of the largest increases in majors in the history of our institution and the vast majority of our graduates have gone on to rewarding careers where their philosophical training has proved to be an immense asset.   These students obviously know something that Mr. Bruni doesn’t. 
We keep hearing from business leaders that recent college graduates are ill-equipped to succeed in a highly competitive, global economy like the one in which we are living.  Perhaps the reason for this is that instead of promoting disciplines in the humanities, like philosophy, which train people in precisely the kinds of skills that we desperately need to reestablish our position as a leader in the world, we resort to simplistic stereotypes that serve only to discourage students from considering such majors.   That’s not only a loss for college students, but it’s a serious loss for our country as well. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Most Despicable Human Beings on the Planet

Who are the most despicable human beings on the planet?

des·pi·ca·ble  [diˈspikəbəl] (adj):

1 - deserving to be despised.
2 - so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation.
3 - really, really, really stinking rotten! [take my word for it: these folks really stink!]