Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

A new series of real-time online discussion groups using Skype begins from 21st Sept. This series will be led by Robert M Ellis, and based around the introductory book ‘Migglism’. Please see the Online Discussion Groups page for details, and submit the online form if you would like to participate.

Poetry 40: First Sight by Philip Larkin

lambsInWinter 300x215 Poetry 40: First Sight by Philip Larkin

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The MWS Podcast 33: Iain McGilchrist on Dogma and the Brain

In the first of a series of regular dialogues with thinkers on various subjects, the chair of the society Robert M. Ellis discusses dogma and the brain with psychiatrist , author and patron of the Middle Way Society Iain McGilchrist.


MWS Podcast 33: Iain McGilchrist as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_33_Iain_McGilchrist

Click here to view other podcasts

The quarrel between philosophy and poetry

‘”The part which relies on measurement and calculation must be the best part of us…. So is not the part which contradicts them an inferior one?”

“Inevitably”‘ (Plato’s Republic, 603a)

Thus does Plato provide the basic rationale for his condemnation of poetry, along with the other arts. He says that the works of the poet, like those of the artist, have “a low degree of truth” and “he deals with a low element of the mind”. “We are therefore quite right to refuse to admit him to a properly run state” continues Socrates, in pronouncements that are only echoed and accepted by others in the dialogue. Thus begins the long quarrel between philosophy and poetry.

It is easy to see this quarrel as reflecting that between those who judge solely on the basis of the representations of the left brain hemisphere at a particular time, and those who, using the right hemisphere, want to look beyond such certainties and integrate the contents of the left hemisphere at different times. Plato, through the mouthpiece of his dramatised Socrates, appears to reflect that left brain certainty: that rightness dwells only in the apparent clarity of our current representation, and in its tools of positive measurement, critical analysis, and planning. Humour, ambiguity, and grief should not be publicly shared in art, he says, but rather repressed and made objects of shame, made subject to the control of ‘reason’.raphael athens plato 238x300 The quarrel between philosophy and poetry

Fortunately, Plato’s ideal Republic of the left brain was never created in the fashion he envisaged it. However, he has had many imitators, particularly in the shape of political revolutionaries of a kind who wished to purge the world of all untidy ambiguity that did not fit their utopian vision. Rather than keeping them out of the Republic entirely, the Fascist and Communist regimes of the twentieth century subjected poets and other artists to censorship and control, so that they could only publicly express what fitted the party line.

Plato attacked poetry because he believed it was a form of rhetoric, which would stir up and manipulate uncontrolled emotions, but ironically it is philosophy that has too often become allied to rhetoric by offering naïve political schemes or supporting conventional views of the world, at odds with the immediacy of poetry. It is the poets who have generally understood rather better that meaning resides, not in representations, but in embodied experience. Language that does not speak to that experience appeals only to the shared lowest common denominator of human experience. Without poetry we are too often left to the clichés of the crowd and its groupthink, unable to summon creative responses to new conditions because the very tools of our thinking have been blunted by the platitudes of conventional certainty.

I have recently come across a quotation from the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats that gives wonderful expression to this poetic counter-attack:

“Ideas and images which have to be understood and loved by large numbers of people, must appeal to no rich personal experience, no patience of study, no delicacy of sense…. Manner and matter will be rhetorical, conventional, sentimental; and language, because it is carried beyond life perpetually, will be as wasted as the thought, with unmeaning pedantries and silences, and a dread of all that has salt and savour.” (from J.M.Synge and the Ireland of his time, 1910, quoted recently in a TLS article by Roy Foster)

Of course, philosophy is a varied thing, but if modern philosophy has a consistent theme (with only a few exceptions) it is the overwhelming dominance of limited, ‘flat’ left hemisphere thought in which the wider use of thinking in experience is completely ignored. In the case of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, it may be precise, analytic and highly technical, but nevertheless have the effect only of reinforcing conventional attitudes, or (in the case of post-modernism) it may be highly critical of all conventions, but again in a decontextualized way that gives no attention to the depth or breadth of experience or the practical context in which it is read. Whilst this kind of philosophy may seem of marginal interest to most people in modern society, that marginality might be seen as the unintended and ironic outcome of Plato’s approach. By relying entirely on an inadequate conception of ‘reason’, philosophy has made itself marginal. However, the conventionality, parochialism, cynicism and relativism that dominate it are shared with much of the rest of society.

Has either side ‘won’ the debate? On the one hand it seems that philosophy has ‘won’ in the sense that poetry is extremely marginal in our society, and superficial representationalism rules supreme. On the other hand, however, it seems that poetry has ‘won’, because it has not been banished from the state, and every new generation finds new ways of connecting with the imagination, however puritanical the public discourse. It is, of course, an unwinnable war and a delusory conflict, because both philosophy and poetry address central areas of human experience. Every time we machine-gun down the ‘opposition’, it is likely to pop up again, like an army of indestructible revenants.

It’s time for a new attempt at lasting peace negotiations. Part of a lasting solution, in my view, involves the deconstruction of the wrong assumptions on which the whole conflict has been based. No helpful philosophy can be assembled on the basis of a representational view of meaning that denies the body and its shaping effect on even the most abstract of our constructions. But if we begin with this recognition and face up to its revolutionary implications, philosophy can be shaped anew in a way that works in co-operation and peace with poetry. Metaphor is the way in which we appreciate meaning and connect it to bodily experience, not a dispensible ornament on a ‘literal’ base. Beliefs constructed on the assumption that they are even capable of reflecting reality become dogmatic, entrench us in inadequate attitudes, and create conflict. ’Emotion’ is part of our basic response to the world, and is not ‘subjective’ and ripe for repression, but rather, like ‘reason’, part of our provisional account of the world, to be shaped with increasing adequacy.

Poets have been telling us about the power of metaphor and the need to face up to repressed ‘emotion’, for thousands of years. Now it’s time to start listening, and to incorporate that view into a richer and more adequate kind of philosophy. I will close with a quote from Seamus Heaney (who died a year ago), which I also found in the same TLS article as the one from Yeats above:

“Within our individual selves we can reconcile two orders of knowledge which we might call the practical and the poetic…. each form of knowledge addresses the other and… the frontier between them is there for the crossing.”

Paolo Uccello 1397 – 1475. The Battle of San Romano 1432.

san romano Paolo Uccello 1397   1475. The Battle of San Romano 1432.

 

How does an artist represent three dimensional space and an illusion of depth on a flat surface? One early example of how this can be done would be to look at the work of Paolo Uccello who was born in Florence in 1397, his father was a barber-surgeon, his mother a high-born Florentine. Uccello is his nickname, Paul of the birds, so named because he liked to paint birds and other creatures. He was a mathematician and painter and is remembered for his development of perspective, a method of producing a sense of space and depth in a painting, there are other ways such as with the use of colour. The Egyptian and Byzantine artists had totally disregarded perspective, Giotto in Italy had made some strides to obtain this sense in his wonderful murals, now we do not find it difficult to achieve providing we learn a few basic rules. It was not until the early Renaissance era that perspective was used , these years between the 14th and early 17th. centuries were a time that heralded the end of the Middle Ages, it is thought to have began in Florence. New knowledge focused through the developing natural sciences was sought and collected by philosophers, scientists and artists, this new approach was thought to have been brought by Greek scholars who fled from Constantinople when the Ottoman Turks concquered the city, they brought their texts and knowledge with them, Greek and Roman mythology was studied once again and would be again by artists like Picasso.

Uccello was so interested in solving the problem of perspective that he would stay up at night attempting to find vanishing points, he was an idiosynchratic character who had no school of followers although he influenced artists such as Piero della Francesco, Albert Durer and Leonardo da Vinci, his tutor was Ghiberti who designed the magnificent doors of the Florence Baptistry. Uccello married in 1453.

The Battle of San Romano was depicted in three panels painted over several years with egg tempera on wood, the battle was between Florence and Sienna which lasted for eight hours, the forces of Florence were the victors – Italy was not unified then. These paintings were a secular commission, most artists then worked mainly for patrons in the church and so did Uccello, this tryptich was admired later by Lorenzo de Medici who did much to foster the Arts, the Medici family were a powerful dynasty who ruled in Florence. I have chosen the middle panel painted between 1435 and 1455, the three panels were intended to be hung high on three walls, they are now separated, one is in the National Gallery I think, another in the Louvre in Paris and the one I have chosen is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, each panel is about three metres long.

In this work we see a colourful pageant, a tournament rather than a real battle scene, Uccello was a mathematician with a purpose! In these paintings he exhibits his theories on perspective, he was not concerned with the feelings of the participants on the battlefield, the result is a rather wooden look to the characters, the horses could be rocking horses and the knights stuffed dummies, forms are foreshortened, we see a forest of lances and some are broken and lying on the ground as are two of the horses one with the knight still in the saddle, foot soldiers are bunched together in the middle distance, all methods used by Uccello to exhibit perspective as our eyes are led to the background, strangely there is a hunt also taking place across the fields. I like the use of the warm and rich colour, for the horse’s bridles he used gold leaf and for the armour silver leaf, which has tarnished over time. Uccello was a man of the Renaissance but as with many artists he also had  knowledge the past, in this case earlier gothic art. The work is more like a fairy tale  in pictures even though it depicts an historic violent event, I think that is why I like it.

Bernard Berenson, an art critic who wrote about Renaissance art in Italy was perhaps a little harsh when discussing Uccello’s work, he pointed out that art is not simply skill or a show of dexterity or to be used for scientific purposes, I would agree but Uccello did achieve what he set out to do, and as early example of perspective he was successful. Berenson worte ‘ Florentine art rushed to its end’ because of these failings, other schools of art in Italy prospered. Sadly Uccello went the same way, spending his latter years forgotten and lonely with a sick wife, he died in 1475.

Image from wikipedia,