Tuesday 10 January 2017


'The classics hold a surprising fascination for we 21st-century moderns,' says Mark Vernon, commenting on the way Greek philosophy and classical history often feature on primetime TV and radio:
'Yet contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless, or aimless.'
Mark Vernon goes on to relate the 'loss of this crucial dynamic' to much that is of concern to us today, 'from mental health to climate change'.  As he points out, our modern narrative tends to exclude anything which doesn't fit with a secular view of things. The ancients developed human reason but not in order to shut down any sense of wonder or contemplation of a greater reality which might exceed our understanding.
'Reason's greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open on to transcendent vistas on which the soul can gaze and feed.'
A year ago at Wychwood Circle we were welcoming Oxford psychologist Professor Mark Willliams who has done so much to recommend the practice of mindfulness to the modern world, from the classroom to the houses of parliament.  Mark Vernon would not be alone in saying that this is the sort of practice which has long been part of religious traditions such as Christianity, as well of course as Buddhism. We shall be discussing again in March (with Brian Mountford) what it is to be 'spiritual' and there is no doubt a difference between secular and spiritual mindfulness. In a 2014 collection of essays entitled After Mindfulness a distinction is made between 'problem-solving' and 'spiritual' mindfulness. The latter might be said to address 'the questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular, the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine', says Mark Vernon.

Dr Vernon is a psychotherapist and he has pointed out that (evidence shows) the now quite common Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - originally inspired by Stoicism! - has not always delivered on what it promised.  'The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why', he says. 'If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.'  Well, at Wychwood Circle, we only cut out the censor, and whatever our point of view as we come to Wychwood Library on February 5th we shall learn a lot that we probably ought to know about reason and contemplation and doubtless a bit more about mind and mindfulness.

WHY WE NEED BOTH PLATO AND FREUD IN THE 21st CENTURY - a talk and discussion by Dr Mark Vernon at Wychwood Library at 7pm on Sunday 5th February. Open to all. Retiring collection. 

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