Meditations on Ouroboros

I

Like the dog chasing its own tail, Ouroboros has forgotten a part of him that belongs to himself. There is a split, a splinter separating the head (mind) and tail (body), and this split manifests in many diverse yet similar ways.

Think of our chemically enhanced foods which stimulate the mind but malnourish the body, or cigarettes which satisfy cravings but decay the organism, or the incessantly stimulated mind titillated by sights, sounds, and smells but never allowed a moment’s rest; the body suffers at the expense of the mind. Or, not to put too fine a point on it: in the pursuit of pleasure, the mind consumes the body.

II

Following the wretched logic of Descartes’ (which, despite being intellectually unsound, offers a philosophy consistent with how we live), there is a mental or spiritual realm and an earthly or material realm; the mind belongs to the former, the body to the latter. The material realm – messy, convoluted, chaotic, and free as it is – must be replaced with the smooth, frictionless, and infinitely plastic workings of reason, rationality, and mind. And so, we live in a world increasingly ruled by abstractions and inventions of the mind.

The rhythms of seasons, sunrises and sunsets are replaced with clocks and the demands of the work week. Abstractions like ‘success’ or ‘power’ increasingly drive us; a modest life seen as rather petty and pathetic; with those who chase money for its own sake (money being only a symbol of real wealth) as the most extreme example of this thinking.

The food of the Earth is inadequate; our cereals must be fortified with vitamins, our vegetables must be artificially ripened, our fruits must be preserved with chemicals. While we enhance every food with additional vitamins or minerals, we simultaneously drain our food of any nutritional value. Real nutrients must be discarded so we can inject our food with the right nutrients in the concentrations and volumes we see fit.

Like bad alcohol, we are too much spirit lacking body. The domination of the head is coming at the expense of the body, for it is to no surprise that living according to clocks disrupts our sleep, chasing money leads us nowhere, and our food is making us sick.

M.C Escher, Dragon, 1952

III

While he may commit to his meal, Ouroboros will eventually reach the point where he is faced (if we can entertain such a confusing metaphor) with the back of his own head; where he will eventually be forced to eat his own mouth. Then, and perhaps only then, will he break out of his illusion.

Here, eating is analogous to suffering. We can immediately see our illusions for what they are, and therefore, not fall into the trap. However, as is often the case, we fail to recognise our illusions as such, and we fall for them, consuming ourselves in the process.

We may be inclined to believe that not falling for illusions is the way we should strive to live. But perhaps this misses the point. We cannot help but fall for illusions, what is required of us, therefore, is an appreciation that once we break out of illusions we know something that others don’t: we know what our own tail tastes like.

IV

While every internet page – in a seemingly endless self-referential circle – claims Ouroboros is a metaphor for infinity, I believe there is another, far more fruitful interpretation. Rather than a circle of life, Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of a vicious circle, where one part of the body is in conflict with the other.

The vicious circle takes many forms, on many levels. There is the vicious circle of a society which extracts resources which destroy nature in the name of saving it, thereby encouraging ever more extraction to compensate for the destruction wrought from the first round of extraction. There is the vicious circle of pesticides to protect crops, which thereby create more resistant insects, thus requiring ever more concentrated pesticides to deal with them. There is the vicious circle of the man, who in his insecurity, flees into what makes him feel safe, thereby making his insecurities more daunting, and thus calling for ever further retreats into safety. There is the vicious circle of trying to forget a thought, and in the process, giving this thought such prominence that it become impossible to forget.

Ultimately, Ouroboros represents the resulting conflict when two inextricably linked parts are seen to be separate (society and nature, crop resistance and insect strength, the feeling of insecurity and the quest for security, trying to forget and remembering). In each instance, it is the intellect (societal or individual) attempting to subdue the body (of Earth or of ourselves) without understanding its fundamental and inescapable reliance upon it.

It is only when we see that the circle is a circle that we will stop. Because to ask ‘what shall we do’ is to fundamentally miss the point. Because, if a dog could see its tail belonged to it, it would cease the chase; and once Ouroboros sees he is eating his tail, he will stop eating. Once we see the circle for what it is, the illusion that the head and tail are separate disappears.

V

Yet, there is a certain truth in imagining Ouroboros as a symbol for infinity, a truth buried amidst a thousand rehashings of the same idea, like a tired phoenix buried beneath its ashes.

Ouroboros symbolises the illusion of controlling the flow of life. Ouroboros, like life, has a beginning (his head) and an end (his tail). But, failing to see that what flows in must also flow out, Ouroboros fights this, consuming his tail, fighting death, failing to realise that death is as inseparable from life as a tail is from a head.

It is not infinity which Ouroboros symbolises but rather, the conflict which arises when we separate death from life.

A Parable

It was a warm summer evening as King Darius and Abtin, his scribe, were walking the winding paths of the palace gardens. Surveying his beautifully manicured gardens, the king leant forward to breathe in the perfume of particularly striking Chrysanthemum.

At this point, Abtin felt a whisper of ice cold air run up his spine. He turned around, only to behold Death, his bone-white scythe shimmering in the light of a naked moon.

Before Death had a chance to speak, a breathless Abtin told the king he must immediately leave for Acre, having seen Death and wishing to be as far away as possible. The king acquiesced, granting Abtin his fastest horse.

In an attempt to regain his stately composure, the king continued his walk through the gardens, only to soon come across Death himself.

“Why did you frighten my scribe”, queried King Darius.

“It was not my intention”, replied Death, continuing “I only came to inform him that I would see him on the road to Acre tonight”.

The Vegetable Garden As Teacher

To live virtuously, we need look no further than the garden, for it is the most steadfast and honest of teachers. Through the act of gardening, we learn humility, patience, kindness, empathy, and commitment; and likewise receive an antidote to the vices of arrogance, impatience, selfishness and hubris.

I

Kneeling down in prayer in front of a bed of soil to plant a seed, a seed with no promise of germination, is an act of faith. Planting a seed is a communion and celebration of life outside ourselves. Our wealth, prestige and power have no bearing on the seed; and in planting one, we cross the boundary from seeing ourselves as the centre, to seeing ourselves as a part in a much grander whole.

II

In gardening we learn to care. Sometimes (more often than not) we do not know what the garden needs. We can’t throw whatever we have at the garden in the hope it will work (well, we can, but then gardening is more akin to gambling); we must pay attention. We must look and listen, see the signs that are before us and heed the call. The garden, whether we enter it desiring to be one or not, requires us to be a loving partner. Not loving in the sexual sense, but loving as Erich Fromm saw it, loving as ‘reaching out…and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself’ and in the process, becoming more than oneself.

III

Gardening is an antidote to the self, or rather, the myopic individualism and stunted sense of selfhood consumer culture encourages us to emulate. Our society is centripetal, where everything deemed important collapses into the personal. The garden, however, is centrifugal, where the self moves outwards, is enriched, and then moving inwards, is enlarged, only to move outwards and repeat the process yet again.

Whereas in life I may find value in the limited realm of personal gratification, in the garden, as I tend for my lemon tree, I begin to see myself in that tree, and caring for myself involves nothing less than caring for it (and caring for it involves nothing less than caring for myself). I become enlarged by my care and identification by the things around me; the world is not reduced to me, I am increased by my identification with the world. Forgetting myself means losing myself, and then finding it in the world around me.

IV

Through deliberate and constant attention, gardening encourages a particular type of sensitivity; to the wind, to the sun, to the waxing and waning of the moon, to the turning of the seasons, and most importantly, to the quality and nutrition of our sustenance.

Insensitivity means we are not affected; we are not affected because we lack imagination, and we lack imagination because it has never been called for. Gardening works this problem backwards; by becoming responsible for the garden, we start to imagine the current state and potential of our garden; which encourages further involvement in the garden, and as a result, a sensitivity to the needs of the garden and all that affects it.

One of the unintended abilities gained by spending a lot of time in the garden is knowing, deeply knowing, the weather. Weather apps become superfluous. The taste of the air and the shades of sunrise are subtle indicators which we learn to discriminate through experience alone. Needing to consult our phones for one less thing and instead developing and relying on our own abilities is surely reason enough to garden.

V

Gardening is an antidote to the hollow consumerism of contemporary capitalism. As consumers, we are rarely a part of production and furthermore, have limited knowledge of the processes of production from which we benefit. Questions – such as how is your iPhone made, or even what is it made of and from where are the materials sourced – are basically unanswerable, and few, if any, bother to ask. As a result, we become disconnected from what we own and the functioning of the economic system on which we depend.

But, in the garden, you must plant the seeds, tend the soil, and cultivate the plant. While you may not know all the specifics – where are the seeds from, what trees were felled for your garden bed – you become involved in the process, and as a result, the fruits of your labour become that much more precious. You are no longer a consumer, but a producer; and as a result, the joy of consumption includes all the labour and time that came before it; home grown food may not taste better than store bought food, but it certainly feels better.

VI

By affirming your position in the natural order, gardening offers a corrective to the intellectually deadening language of industrialisation. There are no ‘natural resources’, there is nature; not timber, trees; not pollinators, bees and butterflies; not pests, companions; there isn’t even food anymore; there are spinach, tomatoes, kale and corn. Even more so, it is not just kale, it is my kale; I have become intimately involved in the process; the type of abstract separation which industrialisation encourages is undone with the forging of bonds imbued in the act of gardening.

VII

The garden teaches us how to be patient, loving, kind, attentive and sensitive; but its teachings do not begin and end at its borders.

In gardening, while you may think explicitly about the state of your peas or whether certain vegetables are receiving enough water; what you are implicitly doing is caring, paying attention, and being sensitive. As you spend time orienting yourself in this way, you are subtly shifting, neuron by neuron, piece by piece, the very process of your thinking. A caring, attentive, and sensitive gardener is reinforcing the neural pathways towards being a more caring, attentive, and sensitive human.

And, striving to be this, I can think of no better place to begin than in the garden.

Beyond Small Talk

Seen for what it is, small talk is imprisonment of false bonhomie and an utter failure of communication. But, seen for what it could be, small talk is an opportunity to step beyond the banal and into the deepest and most intimate realms of another’s mind.

But such an imperative can be overwhelmingly intimidating. As a result; we may withhold talking about anything beyond the weather, where we plan to travel next year, and how our job is faring because we fear delving into the topics we care about – the scourge of war, our apocalyptic visions of climate change, or our fraying relationship with our parents – would scare other people away. We try to stay safe, but by remaining so safe, we become boring. Our partner, doing the same thing, likely feels the same way.

But, small talk need not be verbal imprisonment (giving new meaning to the phrase ‘jail sentence’). It could, instead, become a stepping stone for deeper discussions. For example:

‘What do you do for work’ can lead to deeper questions such as:

  • Why did you choose that career? What makes it fulfilling?
  • We both work full-time, if money wasn’t an issue, what would you be doing instead?
  • If you could go back and pick another career, what would it be? What do you want to give to the world?

‘Did you see the news stories about the floods’ can lead to deeper questions such as:

  • Does climate change frighten you? Do you ever wish you could do more to stop it?
  • It’s very disempowering seeing footage of events we can do nothing to change. What do you think?
  • Have you noticed how hard it is for opposing groups such as climate change activists and deniers to find common ground and speak to each other?

There are ways of broaching any topic that can be banal or unique, trite or meaningful. We can have dull conversations about death and engaging conversations about rainbows; what matters is how deep we are willing to go and how far beyond safety we are willing to venture.

While we may loathe small talk, to a significant extent, the onus is on us to push the conversation further. While we may feel trapped, it is doubtful that our conversation partner really wishes to continue talking about the price of apples or why Savoys are superior to Jatz biscuits. They certainly want to talk about the titillations of their mind and the depths of their heart; they may just need a little push in that direction and an assurance that they are in safe company. Perhaps we could start…

The skilled conversationalist can see a goldmine of information hidden in the most ordinary of observations. If handled correctly, a comment about poor drivers on the road can lead to fruitful discussions about the expectations of others, and a statement about the beauty of thunderstorms may provide fertile ground for discussions about the perverse charm of destruction. The point is that an observation, basically any observation, if we are paying attention, can be a stepping stone to something more meaningful in another’s mind.

We all want to move towards intimacy and sincerity. Small talk is the keyhole through which we glimpse what lies within the room of another’s mind. Once we see the potential in small talk, it won’t feel so painful anymore.

Meaningful Work

If you had asked a serf 400 years ago if they found their work fulfilling, they would have looked at you in confusion; the necessity of work was absolute, the type of work was non-negotiable, and toil was considered a part of the process; a type of thinking which backgrounded Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism, and to which we are to some extent rebelling.

In this current historical juncture, we look to work not only for basic survival but also for the fulfilment of wishes, dreams and desires. Survival now guaranteed, we want to find meaning.

There is already an implied problem. We think of meaning as something found, as opposed to, for instance, created/cultivated/adopted. Finding ‘meaning’ is a fallacy implying that meaning is some sort of quality existing in the ether, waiting for us to pluck it like ripened fruit.

We could (and perhaps, should) instead say we wish to find what is meaningful for me. But, such a proposition hinges on something very important: we must know ourselves.

This is the first and arguably, most difficult step in finding meaningful work. If we do not know ourselves, what gratifies, inspires and moves; and contrarily, what irritates, demoralises and defeats; then finding meaningful work will be nearly impossible. Instead, we could start by writing a list of things we like a don’t like or free-associating from something we do; but, what we first must do is start investigating ourselves, and move out into the world from this point.

Upon understanding what elates and deflates us, we run into the implied next problem: it is nearly impossible to find a job perfectly suited to us. If there are jobs which satisfy our every desire, those with these jobs are great at keeping secrets. The likelihood of finding such jobs is slim, if not infinitesimal. Upon finding what we like and dislike, we are called upon to adjust ourselves to reality as it stands. Knowing we will not find work that satisfies every aspect of our personality, we may at least find one which can stimulate as many parts of ourselves as possible.

For example, you are a talented digital artist who wishes to inspire and move people; however, you cannot survive selling prints of your work on Instagram. So, you get a job working as a graphic designer for a multinational firm. While you might not inspire people (and move them only to purchase a new commodity), you are at least speaking to an important aspect of your personality; that is, the desire to create digital art. You might, contrarily, get a job as a digital artist for fringe festivals, and while you may still need to create within the parametres of somebody else’s expectations, you can still produce digital art which inspires and moves. The point is that you can’t have everything, but you can negotiate and adjust your expectations to achieve a satisfying sense of fulfilment.

But, perhaps, the option for satisfying a sufficient number of aspects of personality is out of reach, another option is, rather than expecting more from work, we can expect less from it. If we use a smaller glass, we need a lot less water to fill it. Rather than expecting work to be emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and economically satisfying, we could settle for maybe just two, or even one. If we could sufficiently lower our expectations of what we want from work, it wouldn’t be as hard to find work ‘fulfilling’. After all, if we went into work only expecting a paycheck and nothing more, we would be considerably less afflicted with pangs of doubt and disappointment about the state of our soul. But, a silent finger point appears here. That is, maybe the problem is not that work fails to fulfil us spiritually, but instead, we feel our life is spiritually unfulfilled generally, and look to work to fulfil it.

For example, if we want to be an artist, a consolation, a helper; we could satisfy these dreams by becoming a content writer, a psychologist, a disability support worker. Alternatively, we could work our 9-5 job (with no expectations for anything more than a paycheck), and in our time outside of work write a philosophy blog, help out at soup kitchens, help an elderly neighbour with their gardening.

Perhaps the issue is not that work fails to meet our expectations, but rather, we expect so much from work. If we could take work in its proper context, we would see it is only one part of life, and as such, expecting it to satisfy all of our desires as foolish, overly-optimistic and dangerous. We would benefit from putting far less significance on work, and more on everything we do outside it.

A Tale of Two Flowers

Two seeds carried on the back of a strong wind were cast into a garden.

One seed fell into a sunny bed of soil, which was judiciously cared for by the gardener who lived on the land.

The second seed slipped through the cracks of the concrete upon which the gardener walked.

The first seed was graced with sunlight, nutrients, water and the gentle hand of the gardener. The second seed was afforded no such kindness.

The first seed soon developed into a flower. Its roots stood undisturbed by movement, its stem unhindered by objects, its leaves uncovered and open to full sun. It came to bloom in the most magnificent colours. The second seed struggled to lay down roots, was constantly nudged and pushed by the movement of the gardener along the path, and its dark crevice afforded it minimal light. It took much longer to come to bloom, in colours far less striking and bold.

But one day, a storm came through.

The first flower was torn from its bed and cast asunder along the same path the gardener walked. Yet the second flower stood strong throughout the storm.

The disturbances along its roots which delayed its growth caused them to bury deeper; the hindrances which pushed and pulled at its stem impelled it to grow thicker; the coverage which prevented light from shining through drove it to conserve energy. The second flower survived the storm because its whole life was an act of training, leaving it well equipped to handle more difficult times ahead.

But we aren’t really talking about flowers are we?

The blessed children who are afforded perfect childhoods can sometimes be the worst equipped to deal with the storms that rage through life; contrarily, those who know suffering well are best equipped to deal with it.

We all face storms in life, and to those who suffer more than most, the meagre radiance of gratitude one can take from all that suffering is that it leaves one better equipped to weather the next storm to come.

A Blank Page

A blank page can be for writers (including yours truly), both paralysing and debilitating. Signalling a potential waiting to be realised, it is likewise unlimited potential, potential without direction; any decision taken closes down others which could have been made in its stead. To the extent that a blank page signals absolute freedom, it likewise signals absolute uncertainty. Will this be the right way to start? Now that I have come 73 words in, is it too late to go back, to start anew, to return to the ungerminated seed which prompted this piece?

A blank page on a computer is a vast tundra of meta-visual space, glaring, naked, brutal white. Nothing here, nothing yet…

Transcribing another text onto a blank page is no difficult task; I know where to begin and where to end. But, for what it makes up for in certainty, it loses uniqueness, creativity and genuineness; so too with living. Mimicking will ease the pangs of uncertainty, but it likewise empties life of meaning; because we aren’t writing our story, we are writing someone else’s.

The blank page confronts us with a deeply existential problem. For every decision we make, there are decisions we do not; and for every decision we do make, we narrow the range of future possibilities. What’s frightening is not making a decision, but the implicit thought at the back of our minds that asks: could another decision have been better? Within this question is captured the most difficult task of writing indeed, but also of living itself.

Android Jones, Forward Escape, 2015

When discussing his creative process, Android Jones remarked on an internal movement relevant to all art, including the art of living. He observed that when confronted with a blank canvas, he didn’t think too much about where or how to begin; he simply began. Anywhere was as good a starting point as any other, he observed; with other aspects, dimensions, and forms following from this starting point. While a canvas physically has a central point, for him, the philosophical centre could be anywhere.

For life, what is of paramount importance is not whether you decide to become an electrician or a fountain pen salesman, it is the very act of deciding, of acting, and from this, seeing new directions, colours and forms for your life to take. To endlessly ponder how to begin an essay is to wait until the computer battery runs out, only to find you haven’t written a word. The poorly written essay can be improved, but there is nothing to change on an empty page.

It can be debilitating to be faced with a blank page, empty canvas or unlived life. How to know what to do, where to start, what direction to take? The essence here is that any point is as good as any others, in a way, choosing the ‘right’ place matters less than the very decision to ‘choose’; that is, begin writing, drawing, acting and from this, all else follows. I did not know how this essay would unfold until I got to the end, and so it is with life; once I began, it became clearer what I needed to do. Did I start in the right place with the right words? Once you get to the end, you see such a question begins to matter less and less.

The More Loving One

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

This poem, penned by W.H Auden, is located in his chapter on history. It could have gone under another chapter but didn’t. I believe this was no mistake; because loving, with no guarantee that one be loved back, is a tale told throughout time. Dealing with the disorienting imperative of loving a universe insensitive to our wants and desires, this poem is an elegy to the unrequited and perhaps vastest love of all. The indifference of the stars to our wonder and admiration is the triumph of the human heart – loving with no demand for us to be loved back.

You’re Not Normal

Looking in the mirror, you probably say to yourself in particularly self-hating moments that you aren’t normal. Everyone else seems able to hold down a job, maintain emotional equilibrium, and manage healthy relationships; it is you, and you alone, who are singularly cursed to abnormality. If only you could change, be different, be normal…

But, of course, this type of thought process is myopically narrow. You have no idea about the destructive storms raging within the hearts and minds of those around us; you merely assume because their outer appearance is calm, their inner experience must be too (imagine how you must appear to those around you).

But, other people aren’t as normal as you might imagine. You can tell when more than one person watches a video on topics like No One Is Normal by the School of Life or Am I Normal on Ted Talk; we all feel, deep down, a little bit like imposters, a little bit like sickos, a little bit ‘not-quite-right’.

We are unintentional solipsists, forgetting that other people have internal worlds and are suffering just like we are. We would do well to remember that everyone wears a mask. If you think other people are completely normal, you’re just an emotional wreck and psychological freak, I guarantee others are surely thinking the same thing about themselves when they see you. Do you smile for a photo even if you feel dead inside? How do you know others aren’t doing the same?

You aren’t the only one who has driven down a road and thought ‘I could drive onto the sidewalk and hit 20 pedestrians right now if I wanted to’, you are not the only one who has been at the top of a tall building and thought ‘I could jump off right now’, you aren’t the only one to have an inappropriate sexual thought about a friends partner, and you aren’t the only one who might sniff, scratch or taste a weird part of their body. The only difference between you and other people is you know all the weird, messed-up and frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses you’ve had. Not knowing them in others doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

It might not be normal (whatever that means) to cry at a cartoon movie on Netflix, but that sensitivity is what makes you such a great listener and artist. It might not be normal to disdain eating meat, but that empathy is what makes you such a great friend. It might not be normal to want to spend nights alone instead of going out, but that dedication to your internal world is what helps you maintain emotional equilibrium. What might be weakness and weirdness in one setting becomes a defining strength and a sign of character in another.

Trying to be normal is an attempt to ‘fit in’; to become a part of the background, the wallpaper; to be an unassuming and invisible brick in the wall. In a weird way, it speaks to a desire to delete a part of ourselves in order to deal with the pain of being ourselves. But, this type of partial suicide will never rescue ourselves.

Saving ourselves begins when we realise that everyone is weird (in different ways, to different degrees); you’re not normal, no one is.

Measure

To the Ancient Greeks, one of the essentials of the good life was keeping everything in proper measure.

As a part of this, Greek tragedies portrayed man’s suffering as a result of him going beyond the proper measure of things. So did Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s noble vice was a quality in his protagonists (Othello, Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.) that went beyond the proper measure; Macbeth was courageous, but disproportionately so, to the point where he killed the king and brought about his own demise. In the Shakespearean and Ancient Greek sense, measure was not utilised as a means of comparing size or distance, but rather, attuned to an understanding of the harmony and essential relations between things.

An insight into measure can be found by way of etymology. The Latin ‘mederi’ means to cure, and is also the root of the modern word medicine, reflecting the view that health is contingent upon a proper measure, or balance, of the inner harmony among parts. Cancer, being a proliferation of cells without limit, is a sickness, because it is growth without proper measure according to the functioning of the body. ‘Moderation’, one of the key virtues of the Ancient Greeks, derives from the same root, again speaking to the rule of ‘not too little, not too much’ and implying an inner harmony among parts; meditation too, is “weighing, pondering, or measuring of the whole process of thought” in order to bring about an internal harmony. So, physically (medicine), personally (moderation) and psychologically (meditation), measure was seen as key for a balanced and harmonious life.

The Greeks understood all human qualities: avarice, cowardice, selfishness, contempt, and violence; as well as generosity, courage, selfless, and kindness as potential human virtues; a worldview that stands in stark opposition to our own. The caveat? Each became a virtue when properly (or ‘proportionately’) measured.

We can better understand words by tracing their lineage. To help understand ‘measure’ it is useful to understand another Ancient Greek term, proportion, or, as they would have said, ratio, a word from which our modern ‘reason’ derives. For the ancients, ratio was relevant to understanding the nature of things and the proportions of relationships. So, to take an earlier example, cancer is problematic because it exists out of proportion to the growth of the rest of the body, and its disharmony results in mismeasure that requires medicine, or ‘remeasuring’ to bring everything back into harmony. Or, courage is fine, but when courage exists out of proportion to context (such as rushing head-on into a battle without a plan), it creates danger and requires a ‘remeasuring’ to be put in its proper place.

The Ancient Greeks, therefore, would have been bemused by questions such as ‘is lying wrong?’ or, ‘is it wrong to steal?’ because for them, lying or stealing; courage and meekness, were not moral absolutes; all morals and virtues existed in a totality proportionate with each other. Sometimes, lying is wrong, but if Germans came to your door in 1943 to ask if you knew any Jews, while you had some hiding under your floorboards, the Ancient Greeks would answer here that lying is not wrong; because the lie is indeed proportionate to the context. They understood that virtue was not predicated on a particular quality (like courage, truthfulness, strength), but on the relationship of this quality to other qualities, and to the context of the human who possesses them.

This notion of measure undergirded many aspects of Greek life. Measure was crucial to understanding harmony in music (measure as rhythm, proportion of sound intensity) to the arts (with ‘the Golden Ratio’ providing the clearest example). Measure went beyond the moral to inform all aspects of daily life; which is something which we have sorely lost, with words like ‘measure’, ‘proportion’, and ‘ratio’ used in a mathematical and strictly external sense.

So, when Protagoras said ‘man is the measure of all things’ we shouldn’t look at him as saying ‘man is the highest form to which all things should be compared’, but rather as saying ‘reality is not independent of man, and his insight should be in harmony with the reality in which he lives’. This implies clarity of perception and seriousness of thought. Measure or ‘moderation’ encapsulates how the virtues should work in harmony with each other to bring about a coherent whole. Man isn’t the measure of all things in the traditional sense, measure is an insight created by man to understand life.

We do, luckily, have modern re-workings of these older concepts. ‘Putting things in perspective’ is one such example. To ‘put something in perspective’ implies nothing less than taking a step back and seeing how one thing relates to another in the hope that, with the new vantage point, we will be able to fit something in, or adjust its magnitude, so that we regain a sense of inner balance or harmony.

To live ‘virtuously’ as the Ancient Greeks would have said, requires us to dissolve the fragmentary nature of our thinking whereby we say certain qualities are ‘bad’ and others are ‘good’. Instead, we must see that our beliefs, values, and ideals are like ingredients for a delicious recipe, and for it to turn out right, we must put add these ingredients in the right proportion. Living well is a balancing act, one we must be constantly attuned to. As Socrates understood, the examined life is the beginning of the virtuous life.