A Poem Inspired by the Tao Te Ching

Who possesses himself,
Possesses the world
Who loses himself,
Loses the world


For turn inward an eye,
The answers therein lie
To seek Truth from without,
Is to impoverish the treasure within
To place oneself in the hands of another,
Is to tear oneself from one’s own Mother,
From whence we derive life

Heed not the words of the crowd,
Lest it cover your view as by a shroud
Be not the with the herd,
But be the shepherd,
Leading your fellow man
But not following blindly
For whoso follows,
Himself hollows

The man who surrounds himself with people,
Is surrounded by emptiness,
Neglects the emptiness inside,
The man who surrounds himself with himself,
Is surrounded by emptiness,
Yet acknowledges the emptiness inside,
The former knows not his lot
The latter has found what he has sought


The outward man himself deceives
The outward man pursues naught
The inward man in himself believes
The inward man discovers aught

Who loses himself, loses the Way
Who finds himself, finds the Way
Thinking he is ahead, naught is afoot
Thinking aught is afoot, he is ahead

To the words of the many,
The Sage does not hark
He listens inside, for the few,
Hears the beauty of the lark,
Hears the call of conscience
As it calls to him
He into himself withdraws,
Examines all of his flaws,
And thereby himself perfects,
So virtue becomes like a reflex

Who possesses himself,
Possesses the world
Who loses himself,
Loses the world.



Why Did Jax Take the Hemlock?

Unknown.jpegSocrates has gone down in history as one of the greatest philosophers in Ancient Greece, if not of all time, having turned the subject away from nature, from the stars, and to man, as Cicero put it. He went around Athens asking everyday people whether they knew such grand ideas like “justice,””temperance,” and “courage,” much to their annoyance, such that, by the time he had become notorious, he had been tried by the Athenian court for corrupting the youth and being impious toward the gods. He defended himself bravely, but in the end, he was sentenced to death. In 399 B.C., surrounded by friends, Socrates willingly drank the poisonous hemlock, which would momentarily kill him. Fast forward 2,300 years to Charming, California, where the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (SAMCRO) operates under Jackson “Jax” Teller. Started by Jax’s father, the Sons of Anarchy is the name of a network of motorcycle clubs. As can be gathered from the name, the Jax_706.pngclub values anarchy, or the absence of authority, and this is shown by the fact that they can pretty much get away with anything they want with impunity, be it bribing, selling drugs and weapons, doing drive by’s, or killing left and right—in a word, absolute freedom, anarchy. After the (forced) resignation of Clay Morrow, the young, ambitious Jax Teller becomes heir to the motorcycle throne, and becomes President, which leads to a tumultuous series of events littered with dead corpses. By the end of the show, Jax severs all ties, finally establishes peace—we hope—lets his sons live a normal life, and, with a slightly clearer conscience, decides to go out the same way his father did: At the wheel. And so, as we watch Jax extend his arms like Jesus, close his eyes, and smile as he rushes into an oncoming truck, we must ask ourselves: Why did Jax take the hemlock?

Thought to be written around 360 B.C., the Crito is Plato’s dialogue concerning Socrates and his decision not to escape from prison, but to accept his fate. While he sits in prison awaiting his execution, Socrates is awakened by his friend Crito, who is a wealthy man. Crito is a close friend of the accused and offers Socrates a way to escape if he wishes. He tells Socrates that he can easily bribe the guards, for they are known to accept low 738_734px-jacques-philip-joseph_de_saint-quentin_-_the_death_of_socrates_-_wga20664.jpgpayments. Socrates is not convinced, however, so Crito argues that his friend should escape because he owes it to his sons, whom he would be leaving behind if he should die, and they would be without a father and a wise role model. Furthermore, if Socrates were to run away with his help, then he could seek refuge in other city-states, which would gladly welcome him, based on his many friends, connections, and students. All this seems convincing, as it would to Jax Teller, too. After all, the Sons of Anarchy (abbreviated SOA or “the Sons” hereafter) are notorious for finding their way out of trouble. If an APB is put out on one of them, then they can just talk to one of their corrupt cops, or if someone is in prison, then they can talk to one of their contacts and get the problem “taken care of.” Throughout The Sons of Anarchy, gang members are constantly in trouble, including Jax, who, under the threat of being arrested upon sight, is rescued by the “Mayans,” another motorcycle gang, and safely contained. By the end of the show, Jax is wanted by the police because he has killed Charlie Barosky and August Marks and the rest of the SOA charters because he has killed another club president, and the punishment therefor is “Mayhem,” or death. As such, despite being in such a pickle, Jax can easily rely on his own charter to get him out of the mess, and he does—to an extent. If he were to escape, then Jax could take his sons elsewhere, and start anew, away from the club, away from violence. Unlike Socrates, however, Jax cannot just go to another charter as Socrates can go to another city-state, given the tensions between Jax and the other charters. Nonetheless, escape is a viable option if he goes out of the country, for example.

Unknown-1.jpegCrito says to Socrates, “I do not think you are undertaking a right thing by throwing yourself away when you can be free. What’s the good of taking pains to do for yourself exactly what your enemies would like to do, and what those who tried to destroy you want?” (Crito, 45c). In other words, Socrates is wasting his opportunity for getting his life back. All it takes is a little bribe and he can have his life back. Why, asks Crito, would Socrates want to die just because has been condemned to? The Athenians sentenced Socrates to death, so they are his enemies; but why do what his enemies want, why fulfill their sentence, when he can just as easily not? Likewise, the enemies of the Sons—the police, the Chinese, the other Sons charters—want to see Jax dead, or at least imprisoned, and by killing himself, Jax is only satisfying their needs, not his own. It seems nonsensical. Why not go on living? If such a fate is avoidable, why not avoid it? Jax can easily ride away free, with the help of his club.

Socrates is not content with Crito’s pleas. Instead, something is gnawing at his conscience; something is telling him deep down that to escape is not the right thing to do.  Unknown.pngHe engages in his famous dialectic to get at the why’s and wherefore’s of his resignation, and to convince Crito why he ought not to run away from his condemnation. Socrates begins by asserting that it is wrong to do evil or injustice to another in any circumstances whatever. Crito accepts this. Socrates, arguing on this premise, states that even if one is wronged themselves, then it would be wrong to fight back. In short, two wrongs do not make a right. Just because he was unfairly sentenced does not mean he is allowed to do something unfair to those who accused him. No evil can be traded for an evil, such as breaking a law for death. Moreover, Socrates is obligated to the state, above all, so to disobey the state is to do evil to it, and nobody should willingly do evil. Thus is Socrates’ argument, which moves Crito, although not entirely: A stronger argument is needed.

Now Socrates speaks to Crito through the voice of “the Laws,” a personification of the state to which he is obliged. What are laws, they say, if exceptions can be made by the privileged? A state is dependent on laws, of course. Socrates can get out of jail and break the law no problem, it is true; but what does that mean for the Laws? It creates an example: It says that, if Socrates can get away with this injustice through money, then anyone with enough money can! The Laws are thereby undermined, and soon, the city-state collapses into anarchy. Strangely enough, the Sons of Anarchy, despite their image.jpegappraised freedom, still live by rules, too. It is through and under the state that we live. Through institutions, we are conceived, raised, and housed. To do away with the laws of a city, is to do away with the city itself, for it will inevitably fall apart. The Laws observe that we are careful not to rebuke our parents out of respect; however, if the state is more powerful than one’s parents, then surely we must be even more respectful of the state. Socrates, bespoken by the Laws, questions, “Do you not realize that you are even more bound to respect and placate the anger of your country than your father’s anger? That if you cannot persuade your country you must do whatever it orders, whether it be flogging or imprisonment?” (Crito, 51b). By now, it should be clear that what the state or country is to Socrates, the motorcycle club (MC) is to Jax. We see that Jax, embodying anarchy, can be unfeeling, going so far as to kill both his step-dad and his own mother. But it is simply inconceivable to see Jax killing the club. Not only is it hard to do because it is an institution, not a person, but also because he has dedicated his life to it. So while Jax is not afraid to go against his parents, he is afraid and unwilling to against his own club. “Everything I do—,” he often says, “—I do for the club.” Whatever the club orders, be it his own charter or the neighboring one, he must comply with.

Unknown-4.jpegSocrates, by staying in Athens his whole life, thereby pledged his loyalty to it, implicitly. He stuck by it. At any time, he could have moved to another city-state, knowing full well how Athens treated its people. Similarly, Jax grew up in Charming and took his father’s mantle when it was necessary. However, there were several points at which he could have put the gavel down, walked away, and made a new life; he chose not to. By staying president, even after getting out of jail, Jax takes responsibility for his actions, and all that results therefrom. From what has been said, it follows that Socrates, being an Athenian citizen, must either act according to the state or persuade the state otherwise; by doing neither, he disobeys the state, meaning he is doing an injustice to them—something morally bankrupt. To quickly summarize the argument up until now: It is wrong to do immoral things, and we are in a social contract with the state when we stay in it, meaning that we must obey it, Unknown-2.jpegbecause disobeying is an immoral thing, or convince it, because lying is an immoral thing. Hence, there are two choices: Give in, or fight for one’s rights. Jax is given the same ultimatum by the SOA: The penalty for killing another president is a Mayhem vote, which must be unanimous. Therefore, Jax has two options: He can either accept his death penalty, or he can try to convince the other charters that what he did was out of self-defense, or was justified because the victim was a rat. The problem is, the second option is not an option at all, as Jax admits to the Sons that Jury, the president he killed, was not in fact a rat, and Jury’s club does not think that Jax’s actions were out of self-defense, seeing as it was Jax who instigated the brawl leading to Jury’s death. It seems unlikely at this point that Jax would disobey the MC in spite of it all.

The Laws of Athens say to Socrates, “[Y]ou will not be the least culpable of your fellow countrymen, but one of the most guilty” (Crito, 52a). By this, the Laws mean that Socrates, in defying the state, would be doing only himself a favor, to the damage of the city-state and its constituents. Because Socrates is not actually guilty, Crito believes Socrates has the right to go against the law, since it is unjust. On the contrary, Socrates’ leaving would not absolve him of any guilt; it would only add to it. By leaving, it is not as though all the wrong-doings of Socrates will be forgiven and evaporate; rather, by breaking a law, Socrates will be all the more injurious to the state. Take Jax’s situation: Even if Jury were the one who turned in the MC to the Chinese, Jax’s taking him out might appear righteous to the Redwood MC, but to the rest, it would seem like cold-blooded murder. However, this is not so, as Jury was not the rat. This only makes Jax’s situation worse, obviously. The death of Jury is just another wrong for a wrong, so Jax would not be pardoned for anything, only blamed more.

Unknown-3.jpegNow the Laws make another point: Socrates lived in Athens for all 70 years of his life, fought for it, had children in it. Is this not a man loyal to and loving of his state? Compare this to Jax Teller, the Charming native, whose father John Teller started not just SAMCRO, but the SOA itself. Jax then became president of the club, lived in it, fought for it, had children in it. His former wife, Tara, wanted desperately to get their two sons out of Charming, out of crime, and into a safe place, but all in vain; for Jax and his mother Gemma refused to move anywhere but Charming, and neither did they want their progeny to. Such is a show of loyalty for the club. The whole of Jax’s life was dedicated to the club. Even though he claimed his actions were for his sons, they were really for the club. If you count the number of times he states his motives, “for the club” will be more numerous than “for my boys” or “for my sons.” Another thing the Laws hold over Socrates is his choice to do things legally or illegally. During his trial, Socrates could have opted for banishment rather than death. Done this way, his escape would be legal; but if Crito were to help Socrates escape, then it would be illegal. Why not just do it during the trial and save all this trouble? Accordingly,  escape is not an appealing option for Socrates. In Sons of Anarchy, Jax might have been able to bend the rules so as to allow his patch to be taken off, and just that. He would have to live with that shame. That is, if the vote were not unanimous, which was a possibility. If it were so, then the legal-illegal distinction would not apply. Considering it does though, Jax, if he chose to escape, would be doing so contrary to the club. All of this arises from the fact that both Socrates and Jax, out of free will, on their lives, chose to obey through their actions their respective institutions—the former Athens, the latter the SOA.

7x12-Red-Rose-Tig-Jax-Chibs-and-Happy-sons-of-anarchy-37804979-500-374.jpgIf all these arguments from the Laws are not enough to dissuade Socrates, then surely the consequences of his actions will. Perhaps principles are too abstract, and repercussions are needed to show the severity of his disobedience and disloyalty. First and foremost, Crito’s helping Socrates would make the former complicit in aiding and abetting a criminal. Two innocents will be imprisoned at the cost of one. Should Socrates be caught being helped by either friends, or should the guard who was bribed be interrogated, then many innocents would unnecessarily be dragged into the mess and hurt. And even if Socrates were to escape Athens without being caught, who says the other city-states will let him in with open arms, like Crito said? If anything, they will see Socrates as a miscreant, a troublemaker, a criminal, and a breaker-of-laws. Such is not a good image. But Jax does not have to deal with this image, his being a notorious gang member and all. It would not matter his reputation; he already has one. When Jax escapes death by the hand of his own club—they orchestrated it together—he puts them at risk of being discovered to have helped him. This is a risk they are willing to take, though, given that he is their president. What if, when the other charters come to see if the job has been done, they see Jax escaped, and figure out they staged the whole thing? Surely, SAMCRO would be in big trouble, and not just Jax. The option of finding safety at another charter is basically insane, for no amount of history between Jax and them could pardon what he has done. No charter, like a city-state for Socrates, will harbor a defier-of-principles like Jax, no matter if he is the “son of anarchy.”

images.jpegLet us look at children briefly: If Socrates takes his kids with him, then they will grow up not knowing their home, and they might be considered as disobedient as their father; and if he leaves them in the care of his friends, then what is the difference whether he dies or flees? They will never know him either way. Jax could tell his ex-wife Wendy and business partner Nero to bring the kids with him to another country, but such would be too uprooting in Jax’s mind. Or he could leave the kids with Wendy and Nero to go up to a farm, which he does. Thus, it matters not whether he dies or goes out of the country: They are in safe hands regardless. Finally, the Laws caution Socrates that by obeying them, he would not be breaking any principles, and he would thereby be ridden of all guilt:

As it is, you will leave this place, when you do, as the victim of a wrong done not by us, the laws, but by your fellow men. But if you leave in that dishonorable way [escaping], returning wrong for wrong and evil for evil, breaking your agreements and covenants, and injuring those whom you least ought to injure—yourself, your friends, your country, us—then you will have to face our anger in your lifetime….” (Crito, 54b-c)

socrates-on-trial.jpgPut another way, Socrates’ acceptance of his death, albeit unfair and not at all deserved, would not be the result of the principle at work, the law, but the result of Socrates’ fellow Athenians, who pronounced this sentence upon him. Do not blame us, the Laws are saying, Blame those who condemned you, those who were only acting in accordance with us. In a sense, the Laws are just the messengers, and they are saying not to kill the messenger, in essence. To die at the hand of these principles is honorable; to flee from them is dishonorable. Because escaping, we have said, is just evil acting out against evil, it means that Socrates’ social contract with the state is broken. In doing so, he endangers himself, those who are close to him, the state, and the laws. We can relate this to Jax. The penalty of death was not put on Jax by the laws of the MC, but by the members of the MC, the charters of the SOA. The MC is just an idea, of course, an institution, nothing concrete. The laws prescribed by the MC were laid down by his father and the original members and have largely gone unrevised (except, recently, for the admittance of African-Americans). As such, Jax cannot shake his fists at the MC, shouting in revolt, “Curse you, Sons of Anarchy!” Instead, all he can shout is, “Curse you, members of the MC!” In a word, it is not the MC that is to blame for its rules, but those who make the rules, and those who enforce them. Perhaps pure anarchy was a better option than a representative democracy in retrospect? Notwithstanding, Jax, should he disobey the MC’s rules, would be injuring many in the process, not just himself, but SAMCRO, the entire MC, and his extant family.

Unknown-5.jpegIn conclusion, both Socrates the Greek philosopher and Jax the reflective motorcycle gang (actually, officer, it’s a club) president killed themselves in the name of a principle, of an idea. Like a heretic of the Renaissance, they stuck to Truth with a capital “T” and accepted the consequences thereof. Socrates urged his friends not to cry as he drank the hemlock, calm and collected, and Jax comforted his loyal members—Chibs, Tigg, Happy—telling them, “I got this,” before talking one last time to his father, only to ride out on his motorcycle, Unknown-6.jpega parade of police cars and motorcycles trailing behind him, a confident look on his face, replaced by an accepting smile as he approaches the truck, arms out like Jesus on the cross, going out doing what he loved most. Now, by comparing Jax to Socrates, I by no means equate the two. Socrates was an exemplar of virtue, Jax of mercilessness and impetuousness. Jax certainly had his virtues, but he also had many a vice. See, Jax had one thing many other characters in Sons of Anarchy did not: Acceptance of death. Much like Socrates, Jax regarded death positively and embraced it, seeing in it salvation, promise of renewal. The Will-to-live is prominent in the show, as you are able to see just to what extents people are willing to go to stay alive. Connor drives desperately to evade SAMCRO even though he knows he will die by either them or the Irish Kings. His death is certain, but he postpones it futilely because he wants to live. We see in Gemma this Will-to-live most: She spins a spiderweb of lies in which everybody gets caught up—all for what? She says the only things she has left are her grandsons, over whom she is fanatically possessive. Her lies get hundreds of people killed, and she refuses to tell the Truth because she will do whatever it takes to avoid death, to keep living, to be with her sons. Anything that keeps her alive, she will do. Jax, on the contrary, knows what he has to do and welcomes death with open arms—literally. Jax is not a good person. Even he admits it to Wendy. He is conscious of his shortcomings. Jax, viewing death as Socrates did, redeems himself and gives himself over to death, in the name of conscience, ideals, and principles.

It is as if, when Jax is about to hit the semi, we can hear him utter, “We owe a cock to Asclepios.”




For further reference:
Sons of Anarchy (2008-20014)
Crito by Plato (2008)

Philosophy—The Art of Wondering

The following poem serves as the prelude to James L. Christian’s exquisite textbook Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering—the likes of which have yet to be seen again, for the book is not a traditional philosophy textbook, but rather presents the subject in a playful, engaging way.

Enjoy the poem. Philosophy begins in wonder. The unexamined life is not worth living.


The following pagesUnknown
may cause you to wonder.
That’s what philosophy is.

To philosophize
is to wonder about life—
about right and wrong,
love and loneliness,
war and death,
about freedom, truth, beauty, time…
and a thousand other things.

To philosophize
is to explore life.
It means breaking free
to ask questions.Unknown.jpeg
It means resisting
easy answers.
To philosophize
is to seek in oneself
the courage to ask
painful questions.

But if, by chance,
you have already asked
all your questions
and found all the answers—
if you’re sure you know
right from wrong,
and whether God exists,
and what justice means,
and why men fear and hate and pray—
if indeed you have done your wondering
about freedom and love and loneliness
and those thousand other things,
then the following pagesimages-1.jpeg
will waste your time.

Philosophy is for those
who are willing to be disturbed
with a creative disturbance

Philosophy is for those
who still have the capacity
for wonder.


Source: Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering by James L. Christian (1973)

Of Worlds and Things [1 of 2]

greyhound-bus-window-tiffa-1302.jpgRiding on a bus full of kids, I stared solemnly out the window, eyes transfixed on the world passing quickly by, never sticking to one thing, but constantly darting to the next, deep in thought, so that I probably resembled a statue to the kid sitting to my side, who was probably trying to entertain themselves, while I was busy pondering the world around me, its transience, its vastness, its diversity, its beauty, and I thought about how neglected it was, the world, how nobody gave thought to it, how nobody stopped to look out the window and be curious, because, if you think about—what, after all, is a world, the world? We were on our way to overnight camp, and the bus ride was nearly an hour and a half, a fact that usually brings an exasperated look to any kid’s face; yet I, on the other hand, was elated to sit on the bus for 90 minutes, perhaps the only counselor excited to sit that long with “nothing to do.” And yet, having “nothing to do”—was this true? Every time I sit for a long ride, I look forward to looking out the window and contemplating the earth around me; but sometimes I do not even think about the world: Most of the time, I experience the world. I just sit and observe it attentively. Anyway, as I was gazing out the bus window, noticing the trees, admiring the sky, I began to think about two particular matters: The world and things—yes, things. In other words, what is the world, and what are things? A couple of months earlier, I had read Heidegger’s essay “The Thing,” and I understood about 30% of it; so there, on the bus, since I had plenty of time to think and converse with myself, I decided to try and recall as much as I could and maybe make some sense of what I had read, now that I had time to let it process in the back of my mind. This post will be a little short, as it is just some preliminary thoughts I had regarding “world” and “things” while on the bus. In the next companion post, part two, I will be presenting a more academic, more researched explanation of Heidegger’s thought concerning “world” and “things.”  

As we drove along the road, we kept passing things. If I looked out the window and saw a mountain at one particular moment, then it would be replaced with a forest the next. Unknown.jpegEverything in view came and went from my perception. I thought to myself, “The world is going by.” Was it really, though? Was I passing the world, or it me? In fact, the world could not have been involved at all, because I was not seeing the whole of it. To say the whole world went by, is to say that I have seen the whole world, which I was not at the time. I was experiencing merely a part of the world. So is the world the environment? Is it Earth? Or what about the Universe, the Cosmos? In my opinion, one is just as much world as the other. Each is implicit in the other. Where the Universe contains Earth, Earth contains environment, and without the latter, the former could not exist; they are interdependent. If one isolates Earth, then one cannot say it is “the world” independent of the others, for it would be excluding certain things, which leads to the first definition of world: World is what contains everything. Or, as Heidegger put it, world is “the totality of those entities that can be present-at-hand within the world.”¹ Admittedly, this definition is mostly okay, except that it mentions the word it is trying to define at the end, meaning he could have excluded the “within the world” part. What this definition says is that the world consists of every thing inside it. The trees, the oceans, the mountains, my own self, the bus, the kids inside the bus, the sky—all of these and infinitely more are what comprise the world. When Heidegger says “entities that can be present-at-hand,” he means whatever can be encountered as an object, something that exists there, an existent. One must ask whether this qualifies the world as a thing itself. Is the world a thing, an entity, or what is it, if it contains Unknown-1.jpegeverything? Can something contain the world? I think most of us are content with the definition of world as the totality of existent things. However, Heidegger went further and added a more abstract, unthought qualifier to world. According to him, the world is not just the entire set of things that exist, but it is also the realm of all possibilities, in the purest sense of the phrase. Realm is an interesting word, one not often used. To call the world not a realm of possibilities, but the realm of possibilities, is to say that world is the domain in which things can happen, in which actions are done, in which possibilities are both presented and actualized. The world is a field, then. In a word, world is where we do, what allows us to do, makes it possible to do. Pretty much, it is what is meant when we say “the world is our playground.” Therefore, we can revise our definition: World is the domain in which everything is and in which things are possible. With this definition, we cover both the concrete and the abstract: We can now encounter things in the world, and the very possibility of encountering is itself possible. Events and things constitute the world. To say the environment is the world is Romantic; however, it is limited in scope, because the world is much more than just the trees and rivers and stones that make it up in part. So what are things?

In his essay “The Thing,” Heidegger assures us there is a difference between an object and a thing. Considering this assertion, many of us would be curious. During the course of our everyday lives, we interchangeably refer to entities as “objects” and “things,” without heeding it much. Pointing to a tool, a thing, we say, “Pick up that object.” Conversely, pointing to something indeterminate, an object, we ask, “What is that thing?” Many of us get along just fine without making distinctions between the two; however, 083116_0835-copy.jpgHeidegger seems to think there is a vital difference. Heidegger uses as an example a jug throughout the essay, examining it as a thing as compared to an object. In this sense, a thing is more important, or rather, more meaningful, than an object is. Object is a rather lifeless term; it carries with it indifference. An object lies around. To call something a thing, is to award it some kind of status. We are interested in a thing. “Hand me that thing” is more common than “Hand me that object” presumably because in the first example we are referring to something specific in order to do something with it, whereas in the second example we are referencing just an entity lying around. A jug is an interesting example to use, for it is the product of pottery, a craft of the hands, which involves time, effort, and care. As such, in cultures like those of the Native Americans or, say, the Ancient Greeks, jugs were traditional “things” imbued with significance, not just because a lot of work went into them, but also because they were used for rites, an aspect that Heidegger touches upon. He says “things” involve a unity of four aspects, known as the fourfold: Things unite earth, sky, divinities, and mortals. I will go into more detail regarding what each of these symbols means in the next post, but a very brief introduction will have to do: Earth is the ground from which a thing is made, sky the horizon under which it is conceived, the gods those who bestow meaning, and mortals those who live finitely, bound by death. The jug is crafted from the earth, and is tempered by the rains of the sky, which refresh it, and we humans fill it with wine, using it to drink from, while also making toasts to the gods, before whom we are humbled. Unknown-2.jpegInvolving all four aspects, the jug is properly a “thing.” Looking out at the forests on the bus ride, I asked myself whether trees are a thing, and I concluded yes; and then I asked myself whether a bus was a thing, and I concluded, after some thought, no. Why is a tree a “thing,” but not a bus? Based on my interpretation of Heidegger at the time, I viewed things as authentic, objects as inauthentic. For example, the jug is authentic because it is meaningful and traditional; the bus is not. A tree sprouts forth from the ground, reaching its roots deep into the earth, from which it gets its nutrients, especially down so low, where it can suck in water from underground, just as it can be nourished above ground by the rain which falls from the sky, the horizon, from which flows the symbol of life, revitalization—water. We humans use the tree for many things: Shade, timber, fruits, among other things. Many chthonic, or earth-based, religions had pantheons of Unknown-3.jpegnature gods and goddesses, divinities who were personified by natural things, one of which was the tree. The tree also reaches toward the heavens, striving modestly to its heights. Hence, the tree is an authentic unity of the fourfold. Considering the bus: It drives on the road, which has torn up and ripped apart the earth, spreading its noxious fumes in the sky, poisoning it, and while it provides us humans with transportation, a means of moving easily in large numbers, it pays no respect to the divinities, for the bus lacks in significance. The bus qua object is inauthentic. Whereas the tree is an organic part of life, and a thing, the bus is but a vehicle for transportation, an object, a man-made, metal means-to-an-end.

Unknown.pngThe world is made meaningful by the things of which it consists. This is not to say, however, that the world consists solely of things, no; for the world is both the totality of objects and things—without the one, the other is impoverished. In a sense, my distinction between objects and things, inspired by Heidegger, lies in the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic, as I have said, the traditional and the nontraditional, the organic and the mechanical, the natural and the artificial. There is a hint of ethics in this, a hint toward comportment in everyday life; of course, this is not what Heidegger intended, per se, rather it is what I thought of it at the time as I was sitting on that 90-minute bus ride, staring out at the mysterious world in which we live. In the next post, I will be explaining what Heidegger really had to say about “world” and “thing.” Until then, I challenge you to, the next time you are either in the car or on the bus, identify both a “thing” and an “object” and explain why they are what they are, respectively, and also to wonder with curiosity about the world, both what it is and what it could be.



¹Heidegger, Being and Time, H. 64

Lines Composed During Overnight Camp, June 13, 2018

While the parents are standing, waiting on the grass,
A steady line of children continues to amass
We slowly load our things and get on the bus;
Meanwhile, the kids are still making a fuss
Making sure our seatbelts are on, we ourselves seat,
And we open the windows to let out the heat
We pass by beaches, forests, towns, and more,
Protected overhead by towering trees galore
Time passes on its own terms, at its own pace,
Such that it leaves its ghostly trail for our grace
The children, though, are restless and restive:
They want to get up, move around, be festive
What’s to them an eternity, is a second;
Yet when it’s over, it’s like match to flint
For landing, finally, at Camp Jones Gulch,
They dance ’round excitedly on the mulch.

But let us pause and appreciate Nature
We’ll bask in the sun, and ourselves the day inure
Everywhere we look, there are tall, majestic trees,
The sights whereof invite us to ponder and freeze
Solitary, regal, they reach high to the sky
Oh, imagine what it would be like to fly:
Soaring weightlessly, looking down with bird’s eye view
Surrounded by an infinite sea of blue,
Within whose depths you could see the whole world,
Entrapped by mighty trees that upward curled,
So that all of life were in Nature’s cradle,
And nurtured by Her, by Her ladle.

Here we are, returned to our old home,
Around which, with discretion, we roam;
But having been from her disconnected so long,
Having journeyed forth too far, we’ve forgotten our native song:
We don’t look upon Her children with curious eyes;
Instead, we ignore them, and so lose our ties
It’s as though we have been ripped from our Mother—
Now aught’s that not technology’s considered “Other”
Mother Nature’s been from us strangely estranged
—All is foreign that is not within Wi-Fi’s range
A dose of Nature’s medicine is what we need,
Lest we our apathy to it concede.


So how do we regain interest in whence we grew?
Firstly, by giving up what we took in lieu:
This means we must give up our devices,
Which also brings with it clearing our vices
For instance, we have succumbed to accedia;
Consequently, we accede to exceed in a
Temperament of mild intemperance
—And tempered so, have severe severance
To turn a new leaf, we foster compassion
As such, environment becomes the new fashion
And soon enough, conservation spreads like wildfire
Hopefully, this way, Nature will not tire,
Having suffered through our tire-less neglect
We’ve reneged on our promise, which we must re-elect
Our duty to uphold and love Nature—we fail
Oblig’d to make her travel her own trail of travail
This, the trail littered with our own trash, o lowly path;
Wherefore we have fated ourselves to her wrath
So, when She to us doth Herself disclose,
Acknowledge that She has Herself exposed
Her self-disclosure, methinks, is, to us, a gift
From hence to drift, is to betwixt us deepen rift
If Man’s legacy is not to be Nature’s reaper,
Then it is up to us to be Her keeper.

Nature we ought to embrace with open arms,
But if we close ourselves off, then it harms
This uttermost disgrace, I doth opine
To deal such disrespect to a tree—oh Pine!
Unto you all, to my clarion hark:
Denude not the trees, and rip not their bark!
Upon the banks, tread cautious ’bout the leaves;
As Nature appealeth to he who to her cleaves
With patient hands, preserve Her precious twigs—
Or prepare to be privy to what She rigs
Though its bathos be blue, keep Her waters see-through,
And do your best not to dirty her lands, too
Of the birds who in spring sing their songs, stay clear
Admire their distant-heard tunes, sincere
Nature’s rocks are old and full of stories,
So be mindful not to make out of them quarries;
Because even if to climb be your knack,
Surely, your mindlessness will cause in them a crack

Nature, you’ll observe, is full of beauteous sights,
But just like us, Nature, too, has Her own natural rights;
Therefore, let us in Nature enjoy our stay,
And for the whole day, we’ll have fun in our play.


What is Dreaming, What Do Dreams Mean, and Why Do We Dream?

170419.jpgMartin Luther King, Jr. once had a dream—and last night, so did I. At the end of a long day, we all get in bed, close our eyes, and go to sleep. Then the magic happens. It is as if when our eyes close, the curtains of the mind are opened, and a lively and magical performance begins on the stage of our unconscious, with dances, songs, and monologues. Bright, intense, and nonsensical, these images in our heads visit us every night, although we are quick to forget them, as they soon fade away, almost as though they never happened. Dreams feel real, yet they are unreal, illusory. Sometimes they capture things that have happened to us, but sometimes they show us things that have not yet happened, and sometimes yet they show us things that are happening. Dreams are the greatest mysteries of the night, which is why they have attracted so much attention, both from individual thinkers and collective civilizations, who have attributed to dreams some sort of importance. What are dreams, really? Why do we dream? Do other animals dream? These are all questions psychology has been asking and will continue to ask. As of right now, none of these questions has a confident answer, but is constrained to theory. We humans will not rest (no pun intended), though, until we get the answer; we will refuse to just “sleep on it”—literally, because we cannot. So in today’s post, we will be exploring the science behind dreaming, the history of dreaming, and the different interpretations of dreaming that have been proposed. Although no definitive answers will be yielded, we will still gain some valuable insights on the nature of dreaming.

What is dreaming?

Types-of-brain-waves.jpgIt is not like we start dreaming as soon as we get into bed. Instead, sleep has to pass through several stages in order for dreaming to initiate. Researchers study brain waves with electroencephalograms (EEG’s)—a fancy word that refers to the skill of finding and interpreting electrical activity in the brain at a given moment. With these brain waves, psychologists have found that there are at least four stages that occur in the sleep process: First, in our everyday waking lives, our brain produces beta waves, which are released when we think, usually at 13 or more cycles per minute (cpm); second, when we close our eyes and start to relax, alpha waves start to kick in at 8-12 cpm; third, theta waves are produced at 4-7 cpm when we enter light sleep, or NREM, and begin to feel drowsy; fourth, we experience delta waves, which are 4 or fewer cpm, created during deep sleep, known as REM. It is in this last stage, when Delta waves are produced, that we experience most of our dreams. But what is a dream?

A dream is “a sequence of images, emotions, and thoughts passing through a sleeping person’s mind.” In addition, “Dreams are notable for their hallucinatory imagery, discontinuities, and incongruities, and for the dreamer’s delusional acceptance of the content and later difficulties remembering it.”[1] One important thing which is to be gleaned from this definition is the fact that dreaming is not just confined to visual displays and imagery in pictures; rather, dreaming can involve many other senses. A lucid_Dreaming.jpgquestion many people are curious about is whether blind people can see things in their dreams, or deaf people hear. What has been found is that people with blindness, because they have never seen anything, dream using senses other than sight, and the same thing applies to deaf people. In other words, people with congenital blindness, who were born blind, can hear or smell different things since they have been exposed to such stimulation, but not with their eyes. Another interesting thing about dreams is that, besides not just being about pictures, dreams can also communicate intentional states, i.e., motivations, fears, desires, etc. Dreams are set apart from waking life due to their being illogical. Whereas there is a logical cause-and-effect and sequence of narration that follows a common story in real life, there are random and disorganized events in dreams. As such, they are characterized as fantastical, belonging more to fantasy and fiction than reality, adopting unrealistic exaggerations and possibilities, more incredible than realistic. When we say there is a uniform narrativity to life, we mean there is a set plot, with a beginning, middle, and end; but with dreams, there is no such narrativity, for there is nothing that links events together in any reasonable way.

Now, regarding what actually happens during dreaming: Once we reach deep sleep, once the brain starts putting out Delta waves, we switch between two stages, REM and NREM. REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” and there are about 4-5 of them that cycle through the night, 90 minutes at a time. While we are in REM, brain waves paradoxically Unknown.jpegresemble those that happen when we are awake. If we were to look at the brain when we were awake, then it would look just like how it is when we are in REM—despite the fact that REM is deep sleep, when the entire body is paralyzed and in total relaxation. This is a kind of “dream-state,” as psychologists like to refer to it, in which animals who undergo it are very stimulated. All mammals, not just humans, experience this dream-state. The only difference is how long each animal spends in the dream-state; depending on the average lifespan of the animal, they will dream more or less. We humans are in the middle. The reason REM is named so is because the eyes literally twitch rapidly while shut, which seems to contradict all logic, and the reason why psychologists are so puzzled about the phenomenon. Speaking of puzzling phenomena, some people experience “sleep paralysis” when they regain consciousness during sleep, only to find their bodies rigid, unable to move, as if stapled to their beds, their throats pinched. Why we wake up randomly, we do not know. Why we are paralyzed—this we do know: Psychologist Michel Jouvet found in an experiment that the pons, located in the lower region of the pons2.jpgbrain stem, actually inhibits all motor activity, meaning the muscles are completely stopped. He performed a study in which cats had their pons removed, and then he watched them at night to see what happened. Because he got rid of the part of the brain that stopped muscles from being used, the cats, he observed, actually moved around quickly and ferociously, in a predatory manner, because they were, Jouvet supposed, dreaming about catching mice. What this revealed is that, if the pons were not activated during sleep, there would be many more injuries at night. It has been reported by a number of people that they experience a sort of “falling reflex”; upon falling in their dream, they wake up, as if reacting to the fall and catching themselves. Imagine, then, what would happen to many of us in some of our more threatening dreams, if it were not for the pons in the brain stem.

What about NREM? NREM stands for “non-rapid eye movement”—I know, creative. As is to be expected, NREM is not called “deep sleep” for a reason; NREM is a lighter form of sleep that is not as engaging. To better illustrate the difference, take people who can Unknown-1.jpegsleep through their alarms, and those who cannot; the former are in deep sleep, the latter in light. For a time, it was thought that dreaming only occurred during REM; however, later studies disproved this, stating that dreams do occur during NREM, just that they are less memorable and exciting. Other things that have been found about dreaming regard the environment and dream content. The external environment of a sleeper has been discovered to affect their dreams. For example, a case had test subjects enter REM-sleep, then the tester would spray them with water. Upon waking, the subjects said they dreamt of some form or another of water, be it seeing a waterfall or swimming in a pool. What surrounds a dreamer or what they touch can create associations related to the outside stimulus, or effector. Such dreams are “self-state dreams,” since their content is centered around the state in which the self finds itself. Sometimes, self-state dreams can also lend insight into future actions. One thought-provoking fact is that 80% of reported dreams are negative (Domhoff, 1999). Accordingly, for every five dreams we have, only one of them does not involve bad things happening to us.

Another subject of inquiry—one which is unbelievably trippy—is lucid dreaming. When dreams are very high in lucidity, or clearness, we are aware of ourselves as dreaming. lucid-dreaming1.jpgLet us put it this way: Lucid dreaming is knowing that we are dreaming. But are we just dreaming that we are dreaming? If you want a quick look at the philosophical problem of dreaming, then you can read here! Aside from the armchair philosophy of dreaming, there is a little more substance to lucid dreaming. For instance, lucid dreamers feel like they have no sense of touch, allowing them to pass through otherwise impassable obstacles, and they also apparently lack any other sense beside sight. Lucid dreams are also said to be more bright than regular dreams. When aware of dreaming, dreamers can ignore natural laws, doing things that defy logic and physics. All of this raises the question of why we even dream in the first place. If sleep is necessary for us to rest our bodies, then why not just sleep, why have hallucinatory visions at night? Unfortunately, we have no solid answers. There is only speculation. I will discuss these speculations in further detail at the end, but for now, here is a brief overview.

  1. Wish-fulfillment. According to this theory, dreams are symbolic representations of repressed, unconscious urges that are mostly erotic. The problem with this theory is that, surprisingly, dreams with sexual content are actually quite rare and uncommon (recall that 80% of dreams are negative).
  2. Memory storage. Those who support this theory argue that because memory is improved during REM, it stands to reason that the purpose of dreams is to filter out the day’s experiences. If you have ever heard that it is unwise to study right before going to bed, then it comes from this. Just like your body, your brain needs time to recover, so if you jam it with knowledge right before bed, then you will overload it, and your learning will not be as effective; the brain works more efficiently if it takes in smaller chunks over a longer amount of time.
  3. Neural pathways. Random sensory information from outside stimulates the brain as it sleeps, strengthening their neural connections. Thus, this theory says dreaming’s purpose is to solidify our neural pathways.
  4. Biological model. Activation-synthesis is the theory that the brain stem creates random imagery that is interpreted by the limbic system, which colors it. Hence, seemingly meaningless visuals are turned into emotional, colorful images that resemble conscious life.
  5. Cognitive development. For some, dreams reflect our cognitive development. As evidence, they use the fact that children have relatively simple, crude dreams, whereas adults have more complex, egocentric dreams. The complexity of dreams depends on how much knowledge one has.

A History of Dream Interpretation

Egypt ba.jpgSince the earliest civilizations of man, dreaming has held an important place in our culture. If we explore the human mind over 4,000 years ago, then we will find the earliest records of dreaming to date. A document known as the “Chester Beatty papyrus” was excavated and is dated to be from around 2,000 B.C. On it are written 200 dreams that were reported and interpreted by the Egyptians. Based on Mesopotamian mythology, and adapted from Assyrian sources, this Egyptian dream codex reveals the universal nature of dreaming. The fact that these three great civilizations—Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria—all gave such immense attention to dreams, that they were related in study, shows how intimate dreams are to the collective conscious of a people. In all three societies, dreams were ways of contacting invisible realms through the guidance of either good or bad spirits. Then came Abrahamic monotheism. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all interpreted dreams as coming directly from God to them in their sleep. Understandably, these dreams were heavily filled with religious metaphors and symbolism.

A little later and the Greeks would become fascinated with dreams. The Greeks had their own religious groups—some might say cults—called “Mysteries,” and many a Mystery was focused on dreaming. In order to have better dreams, Greeks encouraged sleep to each other with oils and drugs, so that they would be more immersed. An important aspect of Greek life was the oracle: Each day, hundreds of travelers would go to oracles to have their fortunes told. Dream interpretation was done in the same manner. Specialized interpreters would have a place in the temple, where they were surrounded by natural smoke that they would read and decode, then pass onto the dreamer. During the Archaic period, though, a shift occurred. The Pre-Socratic philosophers began to steer away from religion and toward scientific, rational thought. Mystery and dream divination, or magic (oneiromancy), would be replaced with more empirical observations. Each of the following philosophers accurately predicted modern-day conclusions by themselves.

  • Heraclitus (c. 535-475 B.C.) claimed dreams were nothing more than day residue, i.e., recollection of things that happened throughout the day.
  • Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.) thought dreams were the result of the external environment acting on an individual’s consciousness.
  • Plato (428-348 B.C.) proposed that dreams were a manifestation of wish-fulfillment based on repressed desires in the soul. He also thought dreams were the divinely inspired and could grant people creative impulses.
  • Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued against prophetic interpretations, instead declaring dreams to be the result of sensory stimulation that could potentially affect our future actions based on their content.

Unknown-2.jpegThus, the study of dreams officially became scientific in nature. Artemidorus, coming 400 years after Aristotle, born in the same country as Heraclitus, wrote the largest encyclopedia of dreams for his time, the Oneirocritica. In it, he distinguished between two types of dreams: Insomnium and somnium. Insomnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the present. These are dreams that deal with current problems and daily occurrences. Somnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the future—self-state dreams, in other words. These dreams are “deeper,””more profound,” than insomnium dreams because they give us insight. But Artemidorus came up with even more fascinating idea, one that has hitherto been neglected and still does not receive a lot of merit today: Dream interpretation reveals more about the interpreter than it does the dreamer. Apparently, according to Artemidorus, by gaining the background of a person, by interpreting their visions in light of this, we gain insight about ourselves because we mix in our own beliefs and symbolism that they would otherwise miss. Contemporaries of the Pre-Socratics in the East—the Chinese, Buddhists, and Hindus—were the heirs of the Egyptians forasmuch as dreams were glimpses of a higher realm, a truer reality, to them. In their dreams, they would experience the transcendence of their souls from the corporeal world.

The scientific study of dreams would come crashing down in the Middle Ages, which saw a reversion back to religious symbolism. Only this time, the underpinnings were moral and theistic. The problem of interpretation came down to the whether the dreams were communicated by God or not, in which case it was either angels, and therefore holy, or demons, and therefore wicked. Thus, medieval dreamers had to discern between truth and untruth. A few hundred years more, and we get the great rebirth, the Renaissance. It is from the Renaissance that we get our contemporary connotations of dream interpretation, for it was during this time that divination once again became dominant. The Renaissance saw a surge of interest in practices like occultism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, prophecy, and hermeticism—in a word, magic. Nowadays, these associations still carry over, so when we hear people talking about interpreting dreams or discussing horoscopes, we tend to brush them off as useless, arcane magic.

Fast forward 400 years to the Modern Age in the 19th century. Still traumatized by the Renaissance, people in the 1800’s were hesitant to study dreams or consider their importance seeing as dreams were seen as “unscientific” and therefore unworthy of serious thought. The magical side of dreams was not wholly abandoned or dismissed, contrary to what some might think; literary geniuses celebrated dreams for their Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster_edit2.jpgcreativity. Famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his unfinished poem “Kubla Khan” after an inspiring dream, but he never finished it because he was interrupted by a mysterious “person from Porlock”; novelist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde based on a dream he had, too, in which he saw his hidden, unconscious urges battling his outward, conscious behavior; and Edgar Allen Poe also said his dreams contributed to his works. Around this time, in the mid 1800’s, anthropology was becoming a much-studied topic, so anthropologists were traveling around the world studying primitive tribes. What they found predated Jung’s theory of archetypes, and they also found that these tribes usually made their decisions based on dreams they had—the resurgence of prophecy. Next comes the 20th century and the rise of psychoanalysis, dominated by two figures, Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung, to whom we shall presently turn.

Modern Day Dream Interpretation Models

maxresdefault.jpgBefore discussing the psychoanalytic tradition, we will first return to the earlier models of dream interpretation (the cool name for which is oneirology) we discussed. The first model is the cognitive model, according to which dreams are a means of thinking about the day during the night. When we dream, our mind is thinking just as we normally would, but with multiple layers of metaphors emphasized unconsciously. In this way, everyday imagery is “translated,” so to speak, into metaphorical forms that stand in for ordinary things. These forms, furthermore, are colored by our emotions, so that they reflect our inner world of moods and feel significant to us. This theory also groups together the cognitive development one, so dream quality will differ based on one’s brain development. Some scientists contend that dreams are important for problem-solving. There is a scientific basis for the phrase “sleep on it,” after all. When we sleep, our unconscious and subconscious are most active, so thoughts we did not know we even had float around, and some by chance end up back in our conscious, while those in our conscious sometimes drift off into the Unknown-1.jpegsubconscious. Either way, ideas move around. A friend of mine told me the story of how he lost his headphones, only to dream about how he lost them two months later, whereupon he found them in the exact location of which he dreamt. How did something so insignificant, something that happened two months in the past, chance to occupy his dreams? The best explanation, I told him, was that after a while, his brain, by its own whims, conjured up the memory of where he left it. Why it took so long, I do not know. Whether timing is important or not and how long an average memory takes to resurface are also questions worth asking. Over time, the brain will relax, and things that were troublesome and problematic will be relieved, I can only theorize. This leads to the next idea, namely that dreams reflect our current state and condition, environment, gender, age, and emotions, according to the cognitive model.

Another model we discussed briefly was the biological model. In light of biopsychology, dreams are nothing more than mere creations of neuronal firings processed by the thalamus into visual displays that make no sense. As such, interpreting dreams is useless considering they have no inherent meaning. Personally, I am not proponent of the biological method for two reasons: First, (I know this is a terrible reason) it is too bland and boring, and it is too reductive for my tastes; and second, if these neuronal firings are so random, then how can they create coherent (in the sense of “being familiar”) images that do make sense and that resemble complete narratives and sequences? This is not to say that the cognitive model is more correct than the biological model—not at all. As I have said, these are just theories, and neither has been verified indubitably.

Freud-b.jpgMost famous, hands down, is the psychoanalytic theory, first propounded by Freud, and then expanded upon his student, Jung. Starting with Freud, he described dreams like this: “Dreams are the means of removing, by hallucinatory satisfaction, mental stimuli that disturb sleep.”[2] In Freud’s eyes, dreams arise from the irrational, hidden side of ourselves—the unconscious. As a result, dreams need to be interpreted by a therapist. Dreams work through association, creating nonsense connections between ideas that are seemingly unrelated. Since dreams are irrational and incoherent, interpreters use a technique called “free association” that Freud loved to use. The analyst says a word, and the patient says whatever comes to mind. The logic goes that if the dream is formed by associations, then the intuitional associations said by the patient will point to their roots. Having done this, the analyst can then find associations of which the patient was initially unaware. One thing Freud did that remains of a subject of interest is his splitting of dream content into manifest and latent content. Manifest content is the storyline of the dream, the surface-level meaning. On the other hand, latent content is the deeper, symbolic, underlying meaning of the dream. Whereas the dreamer has access to the manifest content, only the analyst has access to the latent content, because latent content is unconscious and therefore hidden from view; it has to be uncovered through free association. What is this elusive latent content, and why does the mind go through the trouble of disguising it? Freud said that dreams protects us from waking up due to “mental stimuli”—but to what kind of mental stimuli was he referring? He believed that the latent meaning of dreams were repressed, unacceptable ideas.

The basic formula for a Freudian dream is “any kind of trivial occurrence + a traumatic childhood memory.” Subsequently, dreams take some kind of ugly truth and dress them up with ordinary occurrences. This is why Freud said that dreams protect us from disturbances. If these unacceptable ideas were to be shown to us in full light, then we would never be able to sleep; we would be too disgusted or traumatized. Dreams prevent Unknown-2.jpegus from waking up by playing out fantastical scenarios that reflect our wishes, goals, and fears. By hidden means, the dream releases our repressed memories. Freud posited a theoretical “censor” inside the mind, a kind of watchguard that makes sure nothing from the unconscious creeps into the conscious. Obviously, then, a feeling of aggression cannot be made manifest; instead, the unconscious is clever, so it disguises the feeling of aggression, such that it is able to sneak past the sentry and make it into the conscious in the form of a dream that makes no sense, but which nonetheless has a deeper meaning. This explains why dreams are confusing and unclear, yet meaningful. How the unconscious goes about disguising the repressed ideas is called the “dream-work.” Its four methods are condensation, displacement, symbolization, and secondary elaboration.

  1. Condensation is what happens when two or more ideas are merged together into a single thought.
  2. Displacement is what happens when an emotion is misdirected toward something other than its target.
  3. Symbolization is what happens when an object is made to stand in for another.
  4. Secondary elaboration is what happens when the subject tries to recall their dream, only to distort the facts.

Unknown-3.jpegBy using all four tricks, unconscious impulses manage to invade the conscious mind. Freud went further and identified two types of dreams. Dreams of convenience are dreams related to one’s day. Closely linked to day residue, dreams of convenience focus on some kind of fear or wish that occurred during the day visually. The other type of dream is one of wish-fulfillment, for which Freud is most well-known. Basically, he said that dreams are a way of satisfying our desires with our imagination. Because we cannot satisfy these desires in reality, we are forced to do so in sleep, in ideality. These desires are either erotic or aggressive. To use an example, one night I was really thirsty, and I went to bed on my trampoline (for fun, of course!). I dreamt I got out of the trampoline, went all the way inside the house, got a drink of water, walked back to the trampoline, and fell asleep. When I woke up, I had no memory of getting up, and I realized that I could not possibly have gotten water, as it was far too cold, and it was a long walk. Thus, I came to the conclusion that I dreamed about getting water in order to satiate my thirst before going to bed. To summarize, here are Freud’s ideas about dreams:

  1. Repressed childhood memories are revealed through associations.
  2. Said memories are either painful or unrefined, which is why they are repressed.
  3. Dreams are illogical, resembling an infantile imagination.
  4. Dreams have sexual and/or aggressive themes.
  5. Dreams are disguised wish-fulfillment.

6534180_orig.pngThe reason we no longer believe in the psychodynamic model of dreams is because, simply put, there is no evidence at all that supports it. Carl Jung was Freud’s student, although he would later distance himself from his teacher’s ideas in order to develop his own in more detail. To begin, he classified dreams into three categories. The lowest level of dreams are day residuals and just focus on things that happened throughout the day. Above these are self-related dreams, dreams that are about us, our mental states—stuff like that. The highest dreams, however, are archetypal dreams, which are the deepest ones possible, for they connect us with each other through the collective unconscious. I feel the quickest way to present Jung’s views are by enumerating them and then contrasting them to Freud’s:

  1. Dreams are essentially creative.
  2. Dreams are a part of the collective unconscious. Each of us, no matter who we are, shares the same symbols and universal characters, or archetypes.
  3. Dreams reveal the personal unconscious, too. We learn about the hidden parts of who we are through dreams.
  4. Dreams give insights into the future.
  5. Dreams are positive and constructive, providing insights to the self.

And as contrasted to Freud:

  1. Dreams are meaningful in- and of-themselves, not by interpretation.
  2. Dreams represent present, not past, problems.
  3. Dreams are best interpreted based on patterns and recurrences rather than individual interpretations. Rather than look at each dream by themselves, it is better to look at them together.
  4. A holistic analysis of dreams is more efficient than free association.
  5. Symbolism is not repressed, but archetypal.

If we want a quick summary of the psychoanalytic model, then we can say that Freud’s focus was sexual, and Jung’s archetypal. But while they differed in many respects, they also had these traits in common with the modern world:

  1. Dreams give clues to life.
  2. Dreams bring the unconscious to the surface.
  3. Dreams are based on day residue.
  4. Sensory stimulation affects our dreams.
  5. Universal archetypes are a part of our collective unconscious.
  6. Dreams are a.) repressed or b.) creative.

1370918.large.jpgIn conclusion, while there is a rich history of studying dreams, there are also countless unanswered questions regarding dreaming. Will we ever know them? Who knows. Until then, we can only dream of what they might be. Since the Egyptians, who believed in otherworldly journeys, to the modern psychoanalysts, who believed in hidden symbols, there have been many views of what dreams are, and many revisions, too. What we can see from the history of oneirology is that how dreams are interpreted depends upon the culture in which one finds oneself. Where one lives, how one lives, what language one speaks—these can all affect how we interpret dreams. Does this mean that there is no objective meaning of dreams, that the purpose of dreams differs between peoples? The question remains of whether dreams are even meaningful in the first place, or whether they are, in fact, just biological accidents created by the brain. These questions create a living nightmare for psychologists. One thing that is for certain is that dreams are very personal, intimate things that happen to all of us, that are unique, and that are private to us alone. I have my dreams, and you yours. (Get ready for the cliché ending…). But then again, what if this is all a dream?  



[1] Myers, Psychology, 8th ed., p. 285
[2] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 499c*

*From Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 54


For further reading:
The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior Vol. 1 by Robert M. Goldenson (1970)
Psychology: Mind, Brain, & Culture 
2nd ed. by Drew Westen (1999)
In Defense of Human Consciousness 
by Joseph F. Rychlak (1997)

Introduction to Psychodynamics by Mardi J. Horowitz (1988)
Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought
by Ruth L. Munroe (1956)
The Secret Language of the Mind
by David Cohen (1996)
8th ed. by David G. Meyers (2007)

Anamnesis—Why We Know More Than We Think We Do: A Polemic

We know more than we think do.

Plato was an innatist. He believed in innatism, which states that all knowledge is “innate.” It comes from some Latin words meaning “born into,” so for knowledge to be innate means for it to be present at birth. This is the basis for his theory of anamnesis (ανἀμνηση), otherwise known as his theory of recollection. Because he believed in the immortality of the soul, and because he posited a transcendent realm of Forms, Plato wrote that the soul of an individual leaves the body upon death and enters the realm of Forms where it is able to see all them in their perfection; and having seen these Forms, having retained them, it returns to another body in another life to start anew. Still endowed with the memory of the Forms, the soul is tainted and stained by the foulness of the physical world, which causes it to forget the Forms; or rather, it represses them, and they enter the unconscious, to put it in psychological terms. These ideas are latent within the soul; they are resting, waiting to be awoken or excited, and so elevated to consciousness.

In Plato’s dialogue the Meno, his teacher Socrates discuss the nature of virtues and whether they are teachable, but is caught off guard by an argument that goes like this: If you are asking about the definition of something, then it means you do not know if, so Unknown-2even if you were to find it, then how would you know you had found it, since you do not know for what you are looking? On the flip side, if you already know the definition of something, then why ask about it? In other words, there is no point in trying to learn. Socrates says in response, “[S]eeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection” (Meno, 81d). Virtues are knowable, Socrates argues, because we already know them; it is just a matter of re-collecting them. To defend his position, Socrates asks for a slave of Meno’s, a boy who has not been educated at all. Socrates proceeds to question the boy about the area of a square, slowly but surely getting him closer and closer to the answer. During this demonstration, Socrates never actually tells the slave anything directly—”There is no such thing as teaching, only recollection” (Meno, 82a)—but only questions him, which guides the slave through critical thinking, allowing him to arrive at the answer without ever having done math. Thus, Socrates shows that knowledge is innate and is always present, but it needs to be awakened within the soul through the pursuit of knowledge.

In today’s world, the theory of recollection seems like spiritual nonsense. Not many believe in a soul, much less the immortality thereof; however, it has been suggested by a number of scholars that Plato’s anamnesis is actually mythical in nature, which would mean that it is not literal in its telling, but metaphorical, told through a spiritual lense, not for credence but interest.¹ So what would this mean in the real world, to apply anamnesis, the theory of recollection?

The reason why many of us do not think we know as much as we really do is that we seldom think in the first place. As a result, we underestimate our abilities and ourselves. Now, this is a generalization since many do think well, but my target audience here is Generation Z, who, in my opinion, is rather thoughtless (which, I realize, is a generalization in itself). Notwithstanding, my point is that the majority of us in the 21st century do not think. The kind of thinking of which I am talking is not simply having thoughts—this thinking is done by everyone. No, the thinking with which I am concerned is something like analytical or critical thinking, a skill that has been missing lately.

unnamed.jpgThe best examples I can provide come from school, where a lot of thinking should, but sometimes does not, occur. Oftentimes, the teacher will call on a student who is not paying attention, either because they are daydreaming or thinking about other things or because they are doing something else, like playing games on their devices. More often than not, these questions are pretty basic, yet they catch the student off guard. It hits them like a cold water balloon. Looking up at the teacher, dozens of pairs of eyes looking at them, the student blinks, goes blank, and maybe after hesitating blurts out some answer they know is not correct, but which will get the attention off of them. Although they are met with a few laughs from the class and a disappointed look from the teacher, they are relieved; thereupon, they go back to whatsoever they were on before they were “interrupted.” Obviously, this will continue in a cycle, because as soon as they return to the distraction, they will continually be called out. However, let us not get caught up in the cycle, for we wish to pause at the moment—freeze frame it—when the student tries to avert the focus.

History and math are common classes in which non-thinking occurs considering both involve lifeless, impractical facts that are usually just memorized. As such, the person who is called on, after asking to hear the question again, thinks, Why me? in two senses: First, they are confused and irritated that the teacher chose them; and second, they do not understand for what reason they have to know whatever the question is asking. Hence, the student detaches themselves from the question, creates distance between them, a distance that is thereafter insurmountable. Once detachment happens, there is no hope of reconciliation. They are lost. In order to quickly de-escalate this perceived threat, the student, instead of thinking, instead of paying attention, hardly tries and so says something they “think” is correct, whether or not it is.

This is what it looks like not to think. Not thinking is not trying to solve the problem at hand. Again, this is a generalization on my part: Sometimes people do know the answer, and the teacher catches them off guard, such that they blank or get nervous and forget images.jpegthe answer—this is totally fine because we are human, and we make mistakes; or sometimes, the question is a hard one. But besides this, the blatant unthinking that goes on in and out of classrooms is overwhelming and far more frequent than the type I just described, which can best be called a mistake. The difference between unthinking and a fault in human nature is that the former is intentional, whereas the second is accidental, given that it is outside of our control. All of us, when asked to think, have the choice of how we will respond. Not only is unthinkingness intentional, but it is also indifferent. To respond unthinkingly reflects on a person because it tells you that they do not care to think about since it is not worth their time or effort. But what should take place when we think? When we think, we think back. When we think back, we remember, we re-collect. Of course, this takes time and effort, I have said, so it is the harder of the two paths. Now I will explore some more examples and their implications:

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 11.51.19 PM.pngOne time, my friend and I were doing our Spanish homework together. I got through mine relatively quickly, so I went over to check on his progress. He was a few activities behind, although he was completing them fairly well. As I watched him, I noticed he was not actually doing the activity inasmuch as he was just guessing. He would glance at the question far faster than he could comprehend it, then he would put a random word in the blank space and check on Google Translate to see if his answer was correct; if it was not, he would repeat the process until he got it right. I told him to try to do the next problem without using Google Translate. Immediately, he stared at the screen, frozen, not knowing what to do. His crutch had been taken away, so he was leaning on his own weight. Then I said, “Alright, first try translating the sentence word by word, so you know Unknown.pngwhat it’s asking.” He slowly read out each word, replaced it with its English equivalent. “Oh, I get what it’s asking. This is so easy!” he exclaimed. I smiled as he looked at his options and chose the one that fitted the blank. During the next one, he did not know the meaning of one of the word choices, so he opened a new tab and was about to type it in when I told him to close it and do it himself. Once more, I gave him a little push: “Well, you know what these words mean, so through process of elimination, you can probably say it is not the ones you know, otherwise they’d work.” He nodded, chose the next word, checked it, got it correct. I said, “See, you can do Spanish if you actually try. You have it in you, you just need to think it through.”

My friend told me he was not the greatest in Spanish, yet he did totally well on his own. He underestimated his own abilities; he thought he did not know much, when, in reality, he was fully capable. Later in a conversation, I told him that this could be applied to all his classes: Imagine if he depended more on himself and felt confident he knew the answers—because he did have the answers. My friend knew more than he thought he knew; it just had to remembered. This prompted me to ask the following question: If he Unknown.jpegknew it all along, and if he was fully capable of summoning this knowledge, then why did it require my coming to help him? Why could he not have had done it himself? It is analogous to the student playing “.io” games on their computer while the teacher is lecturing, only to close out of the tab or hide it and get on their classwork as soon as the teacher comes behind them. It is similar in that they could easily be doing their work themselves, but it requires some kind of authority—in this case, the teacher, or in mine, me—to enforce it. Why is it that people feel like they can get away with not thinking? Why do they scheme and choose the easy way out?

Another example is one that particularly annoys me on a personal level. Whenever I tell friends or classmates about my blog and ask them to read it, they always come back to Unknown-1.jpegme saying, “Wow, it’s so cool… except that I didn’t understand any of it,” and I reply with a sad face, both over text and in person. In reality, what the person is really saying when they say “I attempted to read it” is “I did not try to read it fully, attentively, and thoughtfully.” One specific instance: A classmate who runs track with me, who is very intelligent and hardworking, came to me during practice and told me he did not understand my blog on whether babies exist or not. He said he tried to read the first few sentences, but did not understand them. Right away, I knew he did not read it with his full attention seeing as the first few sentences had nothing to do with philosophy, but were a part of an anecdote. But then he said he was confused by the “Descartes-I-Think-Therefore-I-Am” part. I asked him to break it down argument by argument how Descartes came to doubt everything, leading him to declare that his existence was of absolute certainty, whereupon my classmate said he understood it. “Not so hard, was it?” I told him. After thinking it through, he arrived at Descartes’ Cogito argument. He knew more than he thought he knew; he just had to remember it. To be fair, though, I understand that my blog can sometimes be hard to read, which is no one’s fault but my own. As such, while the philosophical knowledge I share is not innate, the cognitive capabilities for understanding and learning it—Socrates’ definition of recollection—are.

And lastly, a scenario we have all experienced: Math class. Whether you love it or hate, you are inevitably going to have difficulties in it. Even the smartest people in math get tripped up on a problem that stumps them. But there is something unique about math that makes it different in terms of thinking. Say you are trying to solve for a right triangle, which requires the Pythagorean Theorem and some trigonometric ratios. You 14608107_1180665285312703_1558693314_n.jpghave no idea how to begin because you are so overwhelmed, so you ask the teacher for help. The teacher comes over, and the first thing they will ask is for what you are trying to solve. While it seems obvious—solving for a right triangle—repeating the objective reminds you where to begin. Next, they ask, “What is the formula?” As if expecting some kind of trick, you reply, skeptically, “A^2 + b^2 = c^2” and then “the tangent of x is opposite over adjacent.” You then plug in the values, do some calculations, and—something clicks—”Ah!” you shout excitedly. It all makes sense! The teacher, having done their job, moves on to the next student. It feels as if you are Archimedes when he discovered water displacement and cried out “Eureka!” You have had a eureka moment. Eureka, traditionally translated, means “I found it,” so it is as though you remembered it; in searching the back of your mind, looking here and there, under this pile and that, you finally found it, re-collected it—recollection. What makes math unique is that it has formulas. With these schemas, we can easily and efficiently find the solution to a problem. In a sense, the answer is innate, is already in us, or in the formula, and we just have to educe it by plugging in the values. As with my friend and Spanish, the answer can be found by oneself, yet one does not do this, relying on something external to push them. For instance, in math, one only thinks as soon as one is vulnerable, when one is put on the spot, forced to think for oneself and put their mind to use.

Unknown-3.jpegSo why do we not think? Why are we not self-sufficient in the 21st century, and why do we depend on external enforcement or pressure? Importantly, pressure is the only means of encouraging thinking, it would seem. Implied by this is the idea that we will naturally resist thinking; until pressure is applied will we be forced to fall back upon ourselves and think. In a talk with my friend—the one whom I helped with Spanish—he suggested that not thinking is like a defense mechanism, an idea I found interesting. Just as Freud and his daughter Anna proposed “ego defense mechanisms” designed to protect the conscious mind and conserve its energy, so my friend proposed something like a “rational defense mechanism” designed to protect the thinking mind and conserve its energy. We have gotten to such a point when thinking is “too much,””too draining,” that we must defend ourselves from it. The thought of thinking tires us. We dread going to school because we have to use our brains. We would rather keep our peace of mind and ignorance than think hard to answer a question in class. We would rather look stupid and not waste mental energy than actually think and get a simple question right. There is a word, malinger, which means to pretend to be sick in order to avoid working. Unthinking is comparable to malinger, except that it is a very real sickness of the mind, a mental laziness, an apathy.

Unknown-4.jpegA student in my history class said, “I’m jealous of naturally smart people,” a remark very characteristic of this attitude. Whether people are naturally smart or not is for another blog for another time; regardless, while some people may be predisposed toward or may have an advantage in intelligence, implying that oneself is not among that population is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a detrimental one at that. The people who are “naturally smart” are perceived as such because they think. Ought this be discouraging? No, encouraging. If one gets to thinking, “I’m not smart, I can’t study, I’ll never be as smart as so and so,” if one compares one’s grades to another, then one will ineluctably study worse and perform worse on tests.  By comparing oneself to another, one stops oneself from focusing on what one needs to do. Consequently, such disaffected students decide not to try at all, thinking they will never succeed, thinking they will never be able to think as well as others, so they do not think at all; they are allergic to thinking and will run from it. Stubborn, unyielding, they will not try, will not care, unless forced, pressured, or expected. It is all the more intriguing that this same student, if alone with a teacher, will perform better—yet then again, this is to be expected. Without the assent of their peers, without the freedom to not think, the student is forced to confront themselves, and they can be guided by the teacher.

I am thankful I had this conversation with my friend, as he always thinks from different angles. He interrupted me and asked the following question: “So you’re saying that we actually think better when a teacher or parent is near. But if we have a parent, teacher, or Google always at our fingertips, ready to help us, then won’t we rely entirely on them?  Like, let’s say I’m doing math—what’s to stop me from having my mom or dad solve it for me? Doesn’t having someone to help guide us make us risk losing our self-sufficiency because we’ll be tempted to use them?” I formulated my response accordingly: Educators, be they parents or teachers, are much like the training wheels on bikes insofar as they are the prerequisites for learning to function by oneself. Before a kid can Unknown-5.jpegride their bike by themselves, they must first use training wheels to get used to riding; then, when they are good enough, they can ride by themselves, will be independent, and shall forever remember how to ride. Likewise, before a person can think for themselves, they must first have a guide to conduct them; then, when they are thoughtful enough, they can think by and for themselves, will be independent, and shall forever remember how to think. Now, this solution of mine is not a perfect solution, but a solution nonetheless. How does one know when one is ready? Is there an age whereat a thinker is mature? Does it differ between people? Surely. These are all questions for further consideration, further thought.

Unknown-6.jpegWho is the educator, and what is their role? To educate means many things, yet it originally meant “to lead or guide out (from),” for it derives from e-, “out,” and ducere, “to lead or guide.” What exactly this means and whether it even clears anything up deserves attention. To lead what out of where? This phrase, “to lead or guide out from,” can be interpreted in two ways: First, in light of the Socratic tradition, it can refer to the dialectic, known as elenchus, whereby the teacher and disciple arrive at the answer through question-and-answer. As Socrates said, “[I]f the question is put in the right way they [the student] can give a perfectly correct answer, which they could not possibly do unless they had some knowledge and a proper grasp of the subject” (Phaedo, 73a). Put another way, the teacher as the Socratic ideal guides the student along the path of thinking without actually intervening. Think of it like a blindfolded man in a maze and his partner on the outside who has to guide him. The partner on the outside cannot give direct help, but he can guide the blindfolded partner indirectly. As the Socratic gadfly, the educator guides out from the student. Guides out what? Knowledge. It is the job of the educator to lead the student to Unknown-7.jpegrecollection. By helping them to bring their knowledge to the fore, the educator conducts the disciple to thinking. In the Meno, Socrates guides the slave to solving the geometry problem by probing him. When helping my friend with Spanish and my classmate with reading my blog, I asked them indirect questions, which led them on the right path, on which they embarked by themselves—I was merely their compass. Second, in light of the Platonic tradition, “to lead our guide out from” can refer to the Allegory of the Cave, in which sense the educator takes the student and leads them by hand out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of reason, where reside the Forms. Symbolically, the student is the prisoner shackled to look at shadows, but as soon as they ascend, as soon as they behold the sun as the Good, they are beholden to a new, elevated kind of thinking. And having grown used to thinking, the newly bloomed thinker can try to help others to think, with varying success.

Unknown-2.pngIn the end, two things about these two interpretations remain constant: Maturity and curiosity. Like training wheels, the educator is eventually outgrown. After much distortion and misattribution, a quote comes from Plutarch that likens education more to the lighting of a flame than to the filling of a vessel. In other words, the purpose of the educator, contrary to modern day expectations, is not to fill their students’ heads with facts but to inspire within them a burning passion and curiosity for learning. Thus, the student will seek knowledge by themselves without having to be asked. Socrates states that it was only by stumping the slave that he was able to conduct him. This way, by leaving him in confusion, by leaving him with an unsolved problem, he was able to alight within him a flame. All of Socrates’ interlocutors are frustrated by the time they leave, for they are always defeated by his thinking. We in math class are just like they are, because we feel frustrated when we cannot solve a problem. Our heads hurt, and we feel stuck, as though in mud, but we know there is an answer—it is just a matter of finding, or rather, recollecting, it.

In conclusion, we live, as I have said before, in an unthinking age. Students all around the world are unsatisfied with education and are left with a sour impression of school, leaving them deprived of its fruits, both bitter and sweet. Jaded, cynical, they Unknown-2.jpegunderestimate themselves, compare themselves to others, and give up trying. Thinking becomes too demanding a task, and they would much rather preserve their image than uphold their dignity and fight for the mind. Knowledge is transformed from power into weakness, a disease that causes muscle atrophy and mental exhaustion, and so that must be avoided at all costs. Questions become interrogations, problems torture. Yet times are such that interrogation is the only means whereby we can be made to think, for we almost certainly do not do it of our own volition; we must be forced into doing it. When students contend they “don’t know the answer,” they really mean, “I’m not thinking hard enough—if at all.” They refuse to think back, to remember. Their chronic short-term memory loss is acute. The problem lies both with the disciple and the educator because both have failed, and the institution along with it. Not only have we forgotten loads of knowledge, we have also forgotten how to think in the first place. But whereas knowledge can be recollected, thinking must be re-learned.

We just need to remember:

We know more than we think we do.

¹Friedländer, Introduction to Plato, p. 340n7 

Why Are Owls Wise?

Unknown-1.jpegWhat is more symbolic of wisdom than the owl? When asked to think of an animal that is smart, mysterious, or nocturnal, we automatically think of the owl, who alights upon the trees of the forest in the night, its big, piercing eyes glowing in the dark, its haunting call—Hoo, hoo—like a wistful calling for someone who is gone, its panoramic view taking into account the entire landscape, watching patiently at twilight. Some people like to think of the owl as their “spirit animal,” an animal that represents their inner nature, their personality, that symbolizes who they are. But from where do we get these associations? Why is it that we associate owls with wisdom? Were owls always wise, or did they mean something else at another time? I myself am quite fond of owls and am in possession of a collection of owl stuffed animals, so this question appealed to me. Reaching back over 2,000 years, we find yet another enduring contribution from the Ancient Greeks, from whom we get our archetypal “wise owl.”

owl-dark-birds.jpgIt is important to note that, as with many symbols, meanings can change. While we nowadays impute owls with wisdom, they were once regarded as evil. Cloaking themselves in the darkness, stalking silently and surreptitiously, owls represented solitude. They hid in the shadows, unseen, and so were viewed negatively, in some cultures as the bringer of death, or at least the messenger thereof. Like the raven, the owl became an image of death and the afterlife, thought to be the animal that guided the spirits from this life to the next. Ancient civilizations in Mexico, the Middle East, and especially China created horrible myths around the owl, making it the pet of Hell or the punisher of those who have done wrong. Its loud, longing screech was unsettling, and because of its ability to see in the dark, the owl could see into the future, but it also meant, in the Christian and Judaic traditions, blindness, or an inability to pierce through the darkness, ultimately preventing spiritual insight. As such, early people saw the owl as a negative force, rather than a positive one.

Unknown.jpegHowever, this was not true for all the world, for other cultures, like the Native Americans and Greeks, designed elaborate mythologies that lionized, not demonized, the owl. What the eagle was to the sun, the owl was to the moon. Whereas other cultures linked the owl’s nocturnal nature with depravity, the Greeks linked its night vision with a special sight, a clairvoyance. Fortune tellers, seers, soothsayers, and augurs, all of whom specialized in predicting the future, had as their symbol the owl. It seems plausible, too, that owls’ nocturnal vision suggests a kind of sight that, by lighting up the dark, is revelatory, or which is diametrically opposed to darkness, a kind of clearing therein, or, as some Unknown-2.jpegscholars say, an ability to see through the shroud of obscurity. In the dark, things appear faint, in mere outlines, unable to made out; but the owl is wholly perceptive and has clear vision. The owl stands for rational, inner knowledge because it, like a mirror, reflects the light of the moon. This lunar reflection leads to the owl’s being described as pensive, as deeply thoughtful, and, consequently, as reflective. Quiet, reserved, yet vigilant, the owl kept watch, observant, cautious, curious. Owls tilt their heads to the sides, much as we do when we are confused or puzzled, as though they are mimicking our curiosity—their way of scratching their heads. Thus, it is no surprise why the Greeks related learning and studying to owls. The aloofness of the owl also lends itself to the idea of “bookishness” or “studiousness,” an image closely related to the scholar who stays up at night, working by lamplight (lucubration), disengaged from the rest of the world. It is from this comparison that we call people “owlish,” referring to the silent, intellectual type, who resembles the owl, both behaviorally and physically, in that they stereotypically wear big glasses, which look like an owl’s blank, penetrating stare. Owls seem to stay where they are and rarely move. They are some of the most patient birds we know. It is as if they are waiting for something, as if owls are awaiting images.jpegsomething. Perhaps it is their prophetic wisdom at work. Owls seem to know something we do not. They are symbols of inner-knowledge, of looking-inward. They are serious and lack humor. They are constantly engaged in thought. Being able to fly, to soar high above us, and to see in the dark, where everything appears concealed, owls have a perspective much more inclusive than ours: Owls have a bird’s eye view, an ability to look down upon us, to ponder and perceive the insignificance of our actions. Maybe when they are sitting in their trees, or hiding in their little nooks, they are, like a knowing parent, shaking their heads, wondering if we humans will ever learn; and therein lies the owl’s wisdom—to be patient and consider things from a grand point of view, with matters brought forth from the dark into the light, wide-eyed, all-knowing, and waiting until we are ready to receive their wisdom. But this does not yet answer the question: Why are owls wise?

little-owl.jpgAllow me to introduce to you the little owl, known also as the Athene noctua, from the family Strigidæ. Only 8.5 inches, or 22cm, long, it dawns a wide, low, and small forehead, putting it in a scowl, and it lives in wide, open spaces, like fields. What is so special about this small bird? The little owl is the very owl that rests on the Greek goddess Athena’s shoulder! Yes, that is right: The famous Owl of Athena, or Owl of Minerva in the Roman tradition, is a real owl—the little owl. The little owl became Athena’s symbol because they could be found everywhere in Athens. As Matt Sewell writes in his charming little book Owls, “The Acropolis [a fort in a Greek city-state, or polis] was once full of Little Owls, living amongst the pillars and rocks, looking down upon a great civilization.”[1] Again the imagery of “looking down upon” is supposed to connote protection and vigilance and insight. There is an idiom—”bringing an owl to Athens”—that refers to the abundance of owls in Greece; to bring an owl to Athens would be completely unnecessary, given the large numbers that already frequented it. Athens was one of the most famous Greek poleis, and after it was named the goddess Unknown-4.jpegAthena, who happened to be the goddess of wisdom. The logic goes: Because the goddess protected the city, she was named after the city, and because little owls could be found within the said city, they were to be associated with the goddess. Hence, little owls came to be Athena’s symbol. Later, at about the first quarter of the 5th century (c. 420 B.C.), Athens adopted its silver coinage with the owl of Athena printed on one side. There are many versions of Athena, including Pallas Athena and Athena Pronoia. Pronoia (πρόνοια) means “Providence,” or “foresight,” in Greek, from which came the idea that owls could see into the future.

G.W.F. Hegel in The Philosophy of Right wrote in his preface, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”[2]. In other words, what Hegel is saying is: True insight, or wisdom, can come only in retrospect. Dusk is the latest part of the day, the end of the night, and so, metaphorically, the owl of Minerva, representing foresight, reveals the lessons of life only after they have happened; it is then that they are taught to us, and that we can apply them.

So what can we take from the majestic owl? From the owl, we can all learn to be patient, attentive, humble, introspective, thoughtful, and reflective. Then, and only then, can we hope to achieve wisdom.



[1] Sewell, Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, p. 19
[2] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, p. 7 


For further reading: Owls: Our Most Charming Birds by Matt Sewell (2014)
The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder (2004)
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (1992)
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier (1994)
Birds of the World by Colin Harrison (1993)

Abulidecidibiblism: A Poem

Unknown-1.jpegI experience a great deal of anguish when I try to decide what to read. Perusing my library, scanning up and down, left and right, running my eyes over gripping titles, I find myself struggling to comprehend the true extent of what is before me. Stacks upon stacks of books, some layered in front of each other, present themselves to me, each calling my name, as if asking to be read; and I, not sure which to take first, am paralyzed, stuck in place, for I know not what to do. I say to myself, I cannot decide which to read first, so I will continue looking, which is a terrible habit because I then find more books worth reading, only to realize—I have such limited time, how could I possibly read all of these books? It is not to say that some are more deserving than others, no; each is intrinsically valuable, and the problem lies therein. A particular philosophy book is appealing to me, and it conjures up a longing for history, an urge which can only be placated through psychology, but only if I first read classic literature. This kind of paralyzing indecision regarding books I have invented abulidecidibiblism for. It is difficult to capture the exact feeling one has when one experiences abulidecidibiblism, but below is a poem I wrote:


There are so many books
Oh time, thou crooked crook!
Thou hast planted in me a seed,
To cultivate it, I need to read
With time doth a crop grow,
So when I read, I best read slow
But I lack such patience;
I desire to read every word,
Yet if I read too much,
They all become blurred
So I guess my energy should be conserved,
As my list of books is long
Oh but where to start!
Must I fling myself into the throng?
I cannot help that more books end up in my cart,
Even if they be unread, they’re in my heart
My of my! they’re piled so high,
They nearly touch the roof
The ceiling is the least of my problems:—
To read them all, I’d have to be aloof

Each book contains so much knowledge,
Yet they remain on the shelf
Can I really blame myself?
My shelf is limited on self-help
But God knows I need it:
I can hardly help myself
There’s not enough time in the world,
To be whirled away to another world
For as many books as there are

Must I choose between them,
Like choosing between kids?
I cannot choose favorites;
If I could choose all—
Then I should favor it
But each is precious in its own way
Unique, with its own story
Even if their messages,
Are retained in mere vestiges,
Then I shall love them—
But like children, I cannot just choose one

Cursed abulidecidibiblism:
Decision-making is a cataclysm!

My weekend is booked.

The Problem with Memetic Literacy

Unknown.jpegImmediately after they wake up, a large percentage of people check their phones to see the latest notifications from their social media or to respond to the influx of emails they have received. Similarly, a large percentage of people stay up late doing the same thing, checking their feeds, scrolling, nothing in particular on their minds, nothing to look out for—just scrolling, as if something will magically appear. Everyday, millions of pairs of eyes flicker over their bright screens, either on Instagram, Snapchat, or iFunny looking at hundreds of memes, short, humorous images or clips shared from person to person, starting with just one viewer, then spreading exponentially, until, like the game of telephone, it evolves with every share, becoming something new, something different, yet derivative, building off of the original, but with a new touch of interpretation by whoever appropriates it. It can be said that memes are one the greatest things of 21st-century technology since they are able to be universally understood, shared, and laughed at. Language barriers are no Unknown.pngmore, so someone in the U.S. can share a meme with someone in China, and they will both get it. How cool is that—to be able to communicate cross-culturally and get a laugh out of it? Memes allow for a shared knowledge and entertainment for people of all ages and backgrounds, connecting them through a single medium. While I myself like a good meme, just as anyone else does, and while they can be hilarious, I think the popularity of memes today, despite its benefits, also brings with it deficits, problems that need, and should, be addressed. The spread of a “memetic literacy,” as I like to call it, has supplanted a much more fundamental, more necessary cultural literacy, and so will, I believe, impoverish both today’s and tomorrow’s youths.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.33.01 PM.pngWhen we think of literacy, we think of reading and writing. To be literate is to be able to read and write; to be illiterate, to be able to neither read nor write. Defined this way, our generation has the highest literacy ever, according to the graph to the left. Over time, as education has become open to more people, as education has been improved, literacy has gone up, and will continue to. We are living in an Enlightened age, the most Enlightened age, with information stored in computers and more brains than there have ever been. However, there is a difference between being able to read and write and being able to read and write well. E. D. Hirsch defines literacy as “the ability to communicate effectively with strangers.”[1] What this means is that literacy is a common, shared knowledge. If I am literate, then I should be able to engage anyone on the street and be able to have an understanding conversation with them, one in which I am able to understand them, and them me. Despite our backgrounds, we are both able to know what we are each talking about; I and they are comprehended. During the 19th century when the world was industrializing, education was universalized. Schools were implemented worldwide to teach a shared culture. National languages were codified, instead of regional dialects so that people could understand one another, and thus, as in Unknown-1.jpegthe Renaissance, reading was made available for everyone, not just the learned elite, who were usually religious members. Because language was made singular, common, the koine, the vulgar tongue, the common folk could on a mass level learn to read and write in school. Some argue that it is a language and a culture that create a nation, for what is spoken and what is spoken about constitute a common people. There is a sort of egalitarian principle behind this, a principle of making everyone equal, of giving everyone—no matter their makeup, no matter their abilities, no matter their social position, the right to an education—the right to be a part of a culture. There are no distinctions between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the educated and the uneducated.

Unknown-2.jpegHirsch relates how the literate usually like to keep the illiterate illiterate by not telling them how to be literate, withholding the specific requirements for becoming so. It is subtle: There is no single, agreed-upon list of things to know in order to be literate, for the selection is just so vast. The Western Canon, for example, is but a sampling of the world’s greatest literature. So while some may call you literate for having read the whole Canon, some may not consider that criteria enough. As such, to be truly literate, to be well read, is to be a part of the elite, as opposed to the merely literate, comprised of those who are educated enough to read and write. I like to think that I am pretty literate in memes, but this was disabused when I was hanging out with a friend one time, and every phrase I heard out of his mouth I could not relate to. I thought I had a pretty solid grasp of memes, yet here was my friend, who was clearly more literate in memes, referencing different jokes whereof I knew not. It was like he was having an inside joke with himself that I could not understand; I lacked the shared background knowledge as he, and he assumed I had it, when I did not. On YouTube, there are famous playlists 300-videos long, lasting for several hours, full of Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 11.11.59 AM.pngmemes. If one can sit through all of them, then one, I guess, can be called “literate” in memes. However, he will still be lacking in other memes, meaning it is hard to specify what memes one should know if one is to be literate in them. In my case, how am I to know which memes are in vogue? Moving past this, the better one can read, the better one does in other subjects. From experience, I can attest to the fact that reading a variety of texts leads to a bigger vocabulary, and thence to a larger storage of knowledge and comprehension, resulting, ultimately, in easier learning through association. Such is the outline of literacy by Hirsch. Someone who is well-rounded in their reading, who reads not just fiction but non-fiction, who looks up words they do not know so they can improve, who not only specializes but generalizes their knowledge, who associates what they do not know with what they do know—they are literate, and they are successful in reading and writing.

E. D. Hirsch writes of a study he once conducted in Richmond, Virginia at a community college. There, he interviewed students and asked them to write responses to his prompts. Eventually, he asked them to write an essay in which they compare Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the latter of whom was himself a Virginian. Although they were in the capital of Virginia, what was once the capital of the South, the students were not able to write a response because they did not know who either of the two men was. Hirsch was flabbergasted, to say the least. The point he was trying to prove was this: Cultural literacy is integral to society. A universal background is always Unknown-1.pngpresupposed. We require tacit knowledge to understand things that are implicit, both in a text and in the world around. The culture is greater than the sum of its parts. Culture must be understood generally, in relation to all its parts, kind of like a Hermeneutic Circle, where the whole and its parts must be continually interpreted in light of each other. In this sense, cultural literacy comprises political, historical, social, literary, and scientific literacy, all in one, according to Hirsch. In other words, cultural literacy is the totality of all its subjects. One must be well-rounded and not too-specialized to be culturally literate, lest one neglect a subject over another. For instance, a writer writing a non-fiction book assumes his audience knows what he knows, or at least has some kind of background information coming into it; he least expects them to be coming in blindsided, without any preconceptions or context whatsoever. There should be an interplay between specialization and generalization, because, on the one hand, a reader should have a grasp of the subject overall, but also the details within it. Things that are assumed are connotations, norms, standards, and values, among other things—in short, shared knowledge. To have this shared knowledge, this basic understanding of one’s culture, such that one is able to engage with it, “to communicate effectively with strangers,” is to be culturally literate.

Durkheim spoke of a “collective consciousness,” a totality of implicit, pre-existent notions that exist within a society. Everyone in the given culture is under this collective consciousness, is part of it. It is collective because it is common to everyone; Unknown-4.jpegconsciousness because everyone knows it, even without acknowledging it. Being an American, I have the idea of freedom as a part of my collective consciousness, just as over 300 million other people do. Were I to stop a stranger and ask them about freedom, I am sure they would have the same background knowledge as I, such as the 4th of July, which signifies independence for the U.S. This example illustrates an interaction in cultural literacy. Things are a part of our collective consciousnesses only because they are meaningful and valuable; if they are not, then they do not deserve to be presupposed by all. If it did not mean something, why should it survive in all of us? Hirsch writes, “[T]he lifespan of many things in our collective memory is very short. What seems monumental today often becomes trivial tomorrow.”[2] It is hard to become a part of the collective memory. What makes good literature good is its longevity. Homer has long been considered one of the greatest ancient writers because he has remained read for millennia. Compare this to pop singers today, whose meteoric rises soon meet an impasse, only to decline, impermanent, impertinent. With memes, the same can be said. They all explode in popularity, only to reach their apex before either fading into obscurity or being replaced by another. A meme can be overhyped. It loses its importance, and although it seems “funny” or “important” one day, it may not the next. Memes are volatile things. On a whim, they come and go. Even though some have a longer life than others, they all eventually go. The classic Vine “9+10=21” was once extremely popular, and was quoted daily in school; now, it hardly exists in our collective F759C5A8B71089736889893797888_175ced7823d.3.2.mp4.jpgmemory; it is a ghost, a fragment from oblivion. Hirsch comments that about 80% of what is taught in the collective memory has already been taught for at least 100 years. The Western Canon, again, is a good example: Its core works have been fixed since antiquity, and as civilization progressed, more works were added to it to keep up, all the way to the 20th century. In 100 years, it is incredibly unlikely—albeit still possible—that we will remember, or at most care about, people chucking things while yelling, “YEET!” Memes, while communicating entertainment, do not express values. Therefore, the Western Canon as such is as it is because it has been formative in our world; they have been studied so long and by so many people, that it has left an indelible influence, an influence that persists today.

Given all this, I can now address the main problem of this essay, namely the conflict between cultural literacy and “memetic literacy.” I have not spoken a lot about memes yet save in small bits, but I shall discuss them presently. For now, I wish to direct your attention to the issue at hand: The decline of cultural literacy. A teacher created a quiz full of famous, influential persons and gave it to his class to gauge their familiarity with historical, artistic, literary, and philosophical literacy. He was disappointed when one of his students compared the test to a game of Trivial Pursuit, because it prompted the question, What counts as important or trivial today? This is a vital question that everyone needs to ask themselves. Are famous leaders like Napoleon now trivial today, compared to the importance of Viners and YouTubers like Logan Paul? If both names were to be put on a test, would students cry, “Why do we have to know this Napoleon Unknown-5.jpegguy? Logan Paul obviously has a bigger influence today”? Is knowing who Napoleon is just trivia? Furthermore, the teacher found that his students had no knowledge of current events, specifically of their own country and its involvement in foreign affairs. Jaime M. O’Neill, the teacher, states, “Communication depends, to an extent, upon the ability to make (and catch) allusions, to share a common understanding and a common heritage.”[3] Allusions are thought by many to be pretentious. Those who make allusions are called name-droppers, and are disparaged. Many and I would argue on the contrary, saying that it connects to Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy. Allusions are an example of shared knowledge. To be well-read, and therefore to know of many ideas and people, is to be involved in your culture. If I were to call something Kafkaesque, then I would be engaging with my culture, as I am expressing a background in literature, whereof the situation calls. Conclusively, we are losing the ability to make references to the collective consciousness, the ability to commune with strangers on the same basis. There is a paucity of literacy in literature and history. All teenagers know these days is what they need to know. No one goes out of their way to study history or literature; they are content and complacent with what they know. O’Neill records, plaintively, that some of his students thought Pablo Picasso was a 12th-century painter, and William Faulkner was an English scientist during the Scientific Revolution.

Throughout my day, I hear my friends and classmates complaining about impractical, specialized knowledge on their tests, knowledge they have to memorize. Although I can sympathize with them, and although I agree often that these tests are absurd, I also think they are in the wrong to say these things. Jeff Jacoby, a journalist for the Boston Globe, has written about the same subject. He talks about how it is actually easier to memorize what is on standardized tests than it is our peers’ standards. Put another way, we memorize so much useless information and trivia on a daily basis about sports, music, 91uBT9850xL._SL1200_.jpgand TV in order to keep up with our peers, that it is easier to memorize facts that are on a test. Unlike peer culture, whose facts are prone to change and in constant flux, tests’ facts are fixed and unchanging. Whereas 1789 is always the date of the start of the French Revolution, knowing Steph Curry is the point guard for the Golden State Warriors is bound to change in years to come. Memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem is applicable, as opposed to memorizing all the names of the band members of One Direction, which is impressive, but not applicable. The biggest complaints I hear, and which Jacoby also cites, are “I could spend my time more meaningfully” and “Why should we have to memorize facts?” Both points have merit, I concede, especially the latter. Please do not interpret me as supporting the school and not the students; I have many a problem with education today, of which one is standardized testing, because the memorization of lifeless facts is indeed a problem. My point is: We youths memorize countless dumb, trivial facts about pop culture and regurgitate them just as much as we do scientific facts, like mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell. I am forced to ask, If you claim you could be spending your time better, what, then, would that look like? Simply put, teenagers, myself included, are false and hypocritical; and while I am not saying we should not complain at all, I think we should complain less, unless we truly have grounds for doing so.

Kids set truly high performance learning standards for each other…. If students don’t know the details of the latest clothing fashions or the hot computer games or the to-die-for movie stars, they’re liable to be mocked, shunned, and generally ‘flunked’ by others their age. That’s why they so many spend hours each day absorbing the facts and names of popular culture.[4]

This is a particularly interesting insight. Writing for the Concord Review, Will Fitzhugh observes that teens memorize popular culture information to fit in with their peers, to pass their “informal tests” that they create for each other, to be cool. Just as school is standardized, so peer performance has standards, which, if not met, result in getting “flunked.” Students complain about testing in schools when life is a big test itself! One must struggle to stay afloat in the advancing rapids of entertainment that speed by. One must be “cool,” lest they be ostracized for not being a part of the peer culture. One should be studying hard for a test they have later that week, yet there they are, up late at night, stressing over whether they are literate enough in pop culture, cramming in short seven-second videos to fit in, obsessive, anxious. Memetic literacy is slowly overtaking cultural literacy. Jacoby concludes, “The question on the table is whether the subjects to be memorized will include English, math, science, and history—or whether the only mandatory subjects will be music, television, movies, and fashion.”[5]

So what actually is a meme? The following excerpt comes from the originator of the term, the scientist Richard Dawkins:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation…. [M]emes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.[6]

Unknown-6.jpegA meme is a certain kind of gene, a strand of code that is inherited. But unlike biological genes, memes are what Dawkins calls “cultural genes” in that they do not pass from person to person, but culture to culture. It is a gene on a mass level. Think viral. A “viral video” is so called because, like a virus, it spreads exponentially in its hosts, not just through the air, but digitally. The video goes “viral” as it is passed from person to person, computer to computer. He says a meme is a form of “imitation,” by which he means that the meme is copied and then replicated. It has copies made of it, either new ones or mutations. They are reproducible and copyable—in fact, there is a meta-meme, a meme about a meme, about stealing memes: Creators will take an already existing meme and put their own twist on it, then put their name on it to claim it, ad infinitum. A meme is a favorable way of cultural transmission, as Dawkins puts it, because they are easily reproducible. The basic meme consists of a picture background with an above and below text that makes some kind of predictable joke along a patterned outline. The picture stays the same, but the text can be changed to allow for different jokes among people. They are simple and easy to understand. Punchlines are short and witty, and they are so widely recognized that anyone, regardless of ethnicity or language, will be able to get a laugh at its comedy. Unlike cultural literacy, which differs transculturally, memes are universal. Any high schooler, I can guarantee, will know a meme from across the world if presented one. Memes have become the source of new allusions. This means, after all, that memes are a part of the collective consciousness briefly. Seen by millions daily, memes are a images.jpegworldwide shared knowledge. But of course, memes, for how good they are, come with problems, too. What is most important in the definition of a meme, I feel, is the word “idea.” Idea can be many things—a song, a joke, a theory, an emotion, a fashion, a show, a video, and a dozen others. This said, memes have great potential because they are good for spreading ideas that matter. The problem is: Memes spread ideas that do not matter. Viral videos are for entertainment, and nothing else. One laughs at a sneezing panda for enjoyment, not education, nor enlightenment. Memes are usually trivial, frivolous, meaningless, and humorous. Not all are, but most are. Despite their potential, memes are actually vapid and disruptive. I get a good laugh out of memes, and sometimes they can even be intellectual in their content, like historical memes. But for the majority of them, they are useless, fatuous entertainment. We need, in this age of ours, to find a balance between being literate in memes, and being literate in our world.

Unknown-8.jpegTo summarize, the problem at hand is that we are seeing a decline in cultural literacy, the ability to communicate with strangers with a shared, underlying knowledge; and a rise in memetic literacy, the ability to make allusions to videos, celebrities, sports, fashion, and other popular culture. This is not to say that memes should not be used at all, no; after all, Nietzsche said, “Without music life would be a mistake.”[7] A musician like Michael Jackson, being a part of popular culture, ought to be discussed just as much as Louis XVI because he is a part of our collective memory. Popular culture is, of course, a subdivision of cultural literacy, because without it, we would have little shared Unknown-7.jpegknowledge! I fear the day we no longer know of classical literacy, when we can quote Lil Pump’s “Esketit” but not Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be.” We should be able to discuss music and fashion and sports, but it should not be the priority; they are entertainment. Memes do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of harm. They spread universal joy. They can get an idea to be seen by millions. What we need to do is ask ourselves questions. We need to consider what is trivial and important today. We need to decide what is worth studying, what ideas are worth spreading. Entertainment is essential, but spreading ideas, good ideas, is more important. We are undergoing a fundamental change in our world, and we need to be present to address it. This is a proposal to look inward instead of outward, to examine our values, to find out what we care about.


[1] Hirsch, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, p. xv
[2] Id., p. x
[3]  O’Neill, “No Allusions in the Classroom” (1985), in Writing Arguments by John D. Ramage, pp. 400-1
[4] Will Fitzhugh, qtd. in Jacoby, “The MCAs Teens Give Each Other” (2000), in Elements of Argument by Annette T. Rottenberg, p. 99
[5] Id., p. 100
[6] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192
[7] Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, §33, p. 5


For further reading: 
Elements of Argument: A Text and Reader 7th ed. by Annette T. Rottenberg (2003)
Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings
by John D. Ramage (1989)
The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
by E. D. Hirsch (1988)
Challenges to the Humanities
by Chester E. Finn (1985)

An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones (2006)