Friday 1 March 2002

Lewis Carroll and the Search for Non-Being (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 1 Spring 2002


By Pinhas Ben-Zvi 

In which Humpty Dumpty, a true Heraclitean, asserts that there must exist an opposite to a birthday which is an un-birthday.

Humpty Dumpty informs Alice that 'there are three hundred and sixty four days when you might get un-birthday presents'. It is obvious to him that un-birthdays are real Beings and not mere utterances. His statement is another augmentation to one of the oldest and rudimentary philosophical controversies: whether Non-Being, like Being, exists.

Footprints of this controversy, which was initially conceived by Greek philosophy, can be tracked all over the two books of Alice. Carroll conveys, through Alice's discourses with the various figures she meets on her way, his belief that Non-Being does indeed exist. This stand can be inferred not just from Humpty Dumpty's statement but from other passages in Alice as well.

The beginning of the 6th Century B.C. was a defining moment in the history of mankind intellectual thought. From this time on, for a period that lasted around 150 years, some Greeks, in later years called the 'pre-Socratics', began to ask new questions and propound new answers about the nature of the universe. (Most of the pre-Socratics flourished not in Athens, nor even on mainland Greece, but in Asia Minor, Lower Italy and Sicily. 'Greek', in this context, is a cultural expression rather than a geographical one.)

The pre-Socratics were the first to formulate tenets that were based on reasonable arguments rather than on theological doctrines, and they set the foundation on which the future intellectual revolution in philosophy would be created by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

But before we follow Alice into Wonderland, we should recall the roots of the controversy, in Elea in Lower Italy, in the early 5th Century BC. There, Parmenides, asserted in a poem that he had composed, that only the 'Is' is, whilst to speak of the 'Is not' is to take a '. . . wholly incredible course, since you cannot recognise Not Being (for this is impossible), nor could you speak of it, for thought and Being are the same thing.'

The grammar used by Parmenides in his poetic assertion gave rise to different interpretations. Did he mean 'is' as a predicate, as for instance in a sentence like: 'Parmenides is Greek', or is it the 'is' of Existence ? It seems most likely that the 'IS' means Existence since, later on in the poem, he characterise the 'IS' as a well-rounded ball, namely having material properties. Accordingly, to Parmenides, Non-Being was analogous to Non-existence.

Parmenides' concept, embraced by his disciples (the Eleatics) is considered to be a refutation of the teachings of his predecessor, Pythagoras, who claimed that a kind of Non-Being does indeed exist. Other pre-Socratics, such as Democritus of Abdera, the most prominent of the atomist scholars, and one who wrote and taught some decades after Parmenides, also insisted, like Pythagoras, that Non-Being must in fact exist, in spite of Parmenides' rigorous logic.

Certainly, the pre-Socratic philosophers conceived Being as (being) made of matter. Democritus for instance, and other Atomists, viewed Being as comprised of an infinite number of small particles- the word 'atoms' literally meaning 'indivisible'. Atoms combine to form all the objects in the universe. They are solid, microscopic, move in space and join one another to form more complex objects. Movement of atoms is possible since imbetween each one of them there is a void.

The void is not nothing at all - it is Non-Being. A Non-being that, however, exists. But Greek philosophy had to pass through another thinking revolution in order to postulate the existence of non material Beings; The leading figure in this revolution was Plato who conceived the tenet of the Forms (Ideai). The Forms are the ultimate real Beings, having no spatial nor material properties.

In the Sophist dialogue, Plato argues that what 'is not' in some sense also 'is', refuting Parmenides' concept of the impossibility of the Non-Being to exist. Non-Being is just a being characterised only by its difference from 'another' being. He asserted that the antinomy between Being and Non-Being is false. The only real antinomy is that of a single object of consciousness and all other things from which it is distinguished.

Carroll was no stranger to Greek philosophy, which was one of the subjects he studied as part of the Classics curriculum at Christ Church. It seems that he embraced Platonic Ideational thought by asseverating the existence of un-birthdays - un-birthdays are non-material beings.
Nor are they the only ones to be found in Carroll's realm of non-material beings. There also is the dog's temper. The Red Queen urges Alice :
'Try another Subtraction sum.Take a bone from a dog: what remains?'
Alice considered. 'The bone wouldn't remain, of course, if I took it -and the dog wouldn't remain; it would come to bite me -- and I'm sure I shouldn't remain!'
'Then you think nothing would remain?' said the Red Queen.
'I think that's the answer.'
'Wrong, as usual,' said the Red Queen, 'the dog's temper would remain.'
'But I don't see how –'
'Why, look here!' the Red Queen cried. 'The dog would lose its temper, wouldn't it?'
'Perhaps it would,' Alice replied cautiously.
'Then if the dog went away, its temper would remain!' the Queen exclaimed triumphantly.
Carroll is over and over again seen to be fascinated by the idea that Nothingness is more than what meets the eye:
'Take some more tea,' the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
'I've had nothing yet,' Alice replied in an offended tone, 'so I can't take more.'
'You mean you can't take LESS,' said the Hatter: 'it's very easy to take MORE than nothing'.
The Cheshire Cat's grin too is a non-material being. The cat appears from the void and slowly vanishes back into it leaving behind him just a grin. Can a cat's grin exist without its master? Carroll does not hesitate, he is certain that it does. For it is clear that to Carroll a grin is just a Platonic Form - a nonmaterial being which has real existence. He is not at a loss to see the phenomena of the cat's head without its body, the possibility of which brings about a heated disputation between the king and the executioner.

The executioner's argues that: 'You couldn't cut off a head unless there was a body to cut off from', but the king is not at all convinced. To him, like to Carroll: ''anything that had a head could be beheaded.' and the executioner's philosophical observations are just 'talking nonsense'. However, there is a philosophical hurdle for un-birthdays. Birthdays and Un- birthdays are of course also expressions of time. Plato did not consider time as a form. He held that: 'The moving images of eternity we call time, days and nights, are the parts of time' (Timaeus). One must therefore question whether Birthdays or Un-birthdays are indeed Platonic Forms.

Humpty Dumpty is not in the least troubled by this philosophical hurdle. He remembers well that the Hatter told Alice that he 'knew Time' and that one cannot 'talk about wasting it' because Time is 'him'. Time, says the Hatter, is someone that if you only 'knew how to keep on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock', for instance 'you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked'.

To Humpty Dumpty, as well as to the Hatter, Time is a real entity. Once we become aware of this reality, Plato's concept presents no hindrance to the existence of either birthdays or un-birthdays. As with Time, Numbers too are portrayed by Carroll as real entities. Upon entering the garden Alice comes up to three card gardeners presented by Carroll as Two, Five and Seven. To Carroll, the Christ Church mathematician, Numbers, like Time, are more than just abstract figures - they are real Beings. Carroll venerates here Pythagoras' concept about Numbers. Aristotle records that the Pythagoreans held that Numbers were: the first things in the whole of nature' and that 'the elements of numbers are the elements of all things'.

Numbers also play an important role in Plato's philosophy. It is commonly construed that he inclined to interpret his theory of the Forms in terms of mathematics, as in the Timaeus dialogue; Mathematical entities have real existence; they are nonmaterial entities that exist in the realm of the Forms.

Aristotle however held (in the Metaphysics) that Plato thought of the Number as an intermediate substance between the Forms and the world of appearances. The Neo-Platonics, who flourished after Aristotle, believed, contrariwise, that numbers were identified by Plato with Forms. Whatever is the right meaning that Plato intended for the numbers, it is widely agreed that the Pythagorean number theory is the direct ancestor of the Platonic theory of Forms.

Numbers afford Carroll creative freedom. The gardeners' numbers are equivalent to their identities, so it is only natural for the Queen, coming upon the gardeners, to ask: 'And who are these?' Since the gardeners 'were lying on their faces', 'she could not tell whether they were gardeners or soldiers, or courtiers, or three of her own children'.

Plato, as part of the cave allegory, asserts that the identity of a human being is not derived from their body but from the character of the their soul. Carroll, in pure Platonic reasoning, professed that a Number like the soul, is a nonmaterial entity that harbours the true identity of its subject. The gardeners' bodies are visible but, alas, their numbers are out of sight, hence their identity vanished and their very existence is in doubt.

Another issue that Carroll coped with was the question raised by Greek philosophy about the true nature of the Being. Ever since the pre-Socratics, Greek philosophers have disagreed with each other about the very nature of Being. Is it one or is it many? Can it move or is it immovable?

This controversy is interwoven in the two Alice books. In order to follow Carroll's adaptations in this respect, one must go back to the pre-Socratics' tenets and 'Begin at the beginning'.

At the beginning, Parmenides taught that the IS, namely Being, or sole existence, is characterised as being one and not many, as neither generated nor capable of being extinguished, and as complete, not divisible into parts and immovable. Being is immovable- due to its being one and as such filling the whole universe with nowhere further to extend.

Alice, it seems, is aware of this concept. After drinking from the 'DRINK ME' bottle and growing in size to such an extent that her whole Being fills the room completely leaving no space for anything else, she observes: 'Oh, you foolish Alice!' she answered herself. 'How can you learn lessons in here? Why, there's hardly room for YOU, and no room at all for any lesson-books!'

Parmenides' disciple, Zeno of Elea, formulated a few paradoxes to demonstrate his masters' teachings that Being is one and motionless. The most famous of his paradoxes is Achilles and the tortoise. If, in the race, the tortoise has a start on Achilles, then Achilles can never reach the tortoise for, while Achilles traverses the distance from his starting point to that of the tortoise, the tortoise will have gone a certain distance and, while Achilles traverses this distance, the tortoise goes still further, ad infinitum. Consequently, Achilles may run indefinitely without overtaking the tortoise.

The Achilles paradox purported to force upon the listener the truism that motion is impossible and what we see as motion is an illusion. Pursuant to Zeno's paradox Carroll wrote a lovely short piece which he called What the Tortoise Said to Achilles. Achilles, trying to follow the tortoise's reasoning, is left by the end mentally near despair failing to understand Carroll's adaptation of Zeno's paradox which leads to infinity.

Parmenides further portrayed the IS as: 'perfect from every direction, like the mass of a well-rounded ball, in equipoise every way from the middle'. This portrayal raised a question - if that is so then the IS extends only as far as the periphery of the ball. What exists beyond?

Parmenides' pupil, Melissus, was aware of this seeming inconsistency and added his own refinement. He negated every form of void: to him, Being is infinite in space as well as in time. Any other possibility will be inherently contradictory since it will imply a presence of some Non-Being beyond the edge.

Another pre-Socratic who conceived a tenet about the nature of Being was Heraclitus of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, a predecessor of Parmenides, who lived about 500 B.C. Unlike Parmenides' 'oneness' concept, Heraclitus taught that existence is dualistic - both 'oneness' and plurality. He further asserted that the nature of all things is governed by one universal principle- that of the logos, the ultimate reality, which is manifested by the interdependence of the opposites and by the process of flux (Panta Rhei) and change. His teaching is defined as the unity of the opposites.

The opposites may appear different but at the same time they are held together in unity as, for instance, health and disease, or hot and cold. They in fact define each other. As Heraclitus put it: 'Justice, which is a good, would be unknown were it not for injustice, which is an evil'.

The existence of the opposites depends only on the difference of the motion on 'the way upwards' from that on 'the way downwards'; all things, therefore, are at once identical and not identical.

Humpty Dumpty, a true Heraclitean, asserts that there must exist an opposite to a birthday which is an un-birthday. Alice enters the world where Humpty Dumpty lives through the looking glass, and, as is common in mirror worlds, every image has its opposite. The mirror images are different, right appears as left and vice versa, but at same time they are identical, since after all they are images of the same object.

Lewis Carroll rejects Parmenides' concept of oneness and the impossibility of movement; Equally Heraclitean he embraces the view that everything is in an everlasting process of flux, change and transformation, while its essence remains the same. This is evidenced by Alice's encounter with the Caterpillar: Who are you', asks the Caterpillar and Alice answers:
'I . . . I hardly know, Sir, just at present I know - at least I know who I was when I got up in this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then'.
Alice is uncertain:
'I can't understand my self, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.'
The caterpillar, unlike Alice, is 'not at bit' confused and does not 'feel queer' at his transformation 'into a chrysalis, some day, and then after that into a butterfly'. And why should he? As an Heraclitean thinker he knows that the process of his transformation does not change his essence and identity.

Carroll submits more evidence that sameness is not lost due to change. In one instance Alice refers to her previous height changes when she briefly suffers an identity crisis:
'I wonder if I've changed in the night? Let me think; was I the same when I got up this morning?''
And the unavoidable question:
'But if I am not the same, who in the world am I ?'
She ponders whether she 'could have been changed for any one' of the children she knew - Ada or Mabel. For a moment she believes that 'I must be Mabel and shall have to go and live in that poky little house and ever so many lessons to learn!' To avoid such a grim prospect, Alice, still deeply doubtful about her identity, expresses her preference to stay down in words that immediately call to mind Heraclitus' 'up and down' language:
'I'll stay down here! It'll be no use their putting their heads down and saying 'come up again, dear!' I shall only look up and say 'who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up; if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else.'
After another short cycle of height transformations Alice gains self-confidence and, with indisputable Heraclitean conviction she is 'very glad to find herself still in existence'. Alice still experienced another alarming transformation. After tasting the mushroom she found that 'all she could see, when she looked down, was an immense length of neck'. Luckily she was delighted to find that her 'neck would bend about easily in any direction, like a serpent'.And indeed a Pigeon, protecting his hatched eggs, insists that Alice is a serpent, not just by her snakelike shape but also in accordance with Aristotelian Categorical syllogism, which the pigeon applies in an upside down manner:
All Serpents eat eggs
Alice eats eggs
Alice is 'a kind of serpent'
Carroll, the author of several books on logic, is paying here tribute to Aristotle, the founder of logic as a branch of philosophy, and to Aristotelian syllogistic propositions of two premises and a conclusion like:
All Greeks are mortal
Socrates is Greek
Socrates is mortal.
The right Aristotelian syllogism, the Pigeon should have used, is of course:
Serpents eat eggs
A is a serpent
A eats eggs
One must excuse a Pigeon in distress for such a fallacy when many people, in more relaxed circumstances, reach similar false conclusions. Carroll suggests that in spite of all the changes that have transpired, Alice's existence has not been affected.

After the great Greeks, nearly all eminent philosophers, through the ages, have taken part in the disputation about the existence and nature of the Non-Being. This issue is still debatable and open on the philosophical scene.

Address for correspondence:


Rivers of Change (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 1 Spring 2002


By Henk Tuten 

A famous remark of Jean-Paul Sartre characterises this article:
Man is not the sum of what he has, but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he might have. 
I take this as my starting point to show that in philosophy of science, nature really is change. Karl Popper believed in a steadily growing scientific tradition (linear growth), and Thomas Kuhn furthered Popper's view on science, by introducing the idea of 'Scientific Revolutions' that put everything upside down once in a while (discontinuity). Several philosophers have since tried to find something new, but Kuhn's idea of 'paradigm shifts' has managed to remain standing upright against waves of alternative ideas.

In this article I don't add anything new, but only join two very valuable ideas. In short: I pose a new view on nature. To do so I only need to extend and refresh a forgotten major philosophical idea dating from the mid-20th century. I revive the words paradigm shift. Opening a debate that was in my opinion closed far too early. At the same time I pose that capitalism is just such a paradigm shift.

I invite anybody to join the debate.

Getting started: Karl Popper, born around 1900, stressed continuity in change. One of his students, Thomas Kuhn, stressed its discontinuity, and forgot about continuity. Instead, I want to mix both ideas into one total view.

Kuhn defined science as only one of many traditions, in one of his most famous and most controversial statements as a philosopher. Humans can handle the smooth flow and calm waters of continuous and linear aspects of change, but, as Kuhn pointed out, often have problems with rapids and waterfalls.

Like most people, I consider nature as far more difficult. To keep with the picture of flowing water I represent nature as a twisting river. My main assumption is that you can imagine change during relaxed moments, just by staring at the water. Then you observe little or big wrinkles on the surface. Maybe, sometimes even killer waves, but then afterwards you're seldom fit enough to tell a first hand story. The wind, waterfleas, even the breath of the fish or the shifting of small falling stones continuously cause movement in natural waters. In other words: change happens continuously, even in muddy motionless pools, where, as we all know, it's mostly linear. It also appears in the rapids of turbulent white waters (clearly non-linear), and sometimes in big splashing waterfalls (discontinuous change).

Incidental change often looks like a twisting river fighting a dry desert. Ways of change may look twisted to us ordinary people, but its goal is . . . progress and that object is always reached. This may be achieved through temporary retreat, and may take ages, but time doesn't matter in the eyes of nature.

Each day, we all meet and observe linear change around us, we observe it by seeing, hearing or smelling - or whatever. We're only able to 'see' the totality of change afterwards. Expressed in our scientific language: integrate the change function. That's why Kuhn is convinced that we need shocks to make real change.

Some more starters. Another famous quote from Kuhn:
The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly. 
Chew on this thought to find out that Kuhn indicates: (formal western) science is conservative. 'Flower Power' may be off the wall but some thoughts of their house-philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, remain valid. Marcuse was a special case. This philosopher splendidly analysed many parts of Capitalism. However, he tended to point too much at the bad sides of Capitalism, instead of regarding it as only a twist of nature. Everybody hates being bad, so this resulted in conflict. Furthermore Capitalism remained still very strong, and Flower Power pushed the balance far towards feeling. At least the name 'One Dimensional Man' he invented was brilliant.

During Flower Power, Marcuse made two ingenious observations that later became emblematic:
1) Many people are afraid of freedom, they are conditioned to be afraid of it

2) Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order that protect the establishment. Over time, the white water, like force of change, must destroy formal western science and anything rigid. Even in the rigid world of science, progress is speeding up, but this is not enough to outrun change. Try to imagine traditional science like a glorious sandcastle on the beach under attack by ever growing waves of water. The collapse of these castles is inevitable and only takes time.
These thoughts lead to the following two assumptions: 
First assumption. Nature is like a twisting river that flows steadily (linear change) and change in nature, other than linear, is like rapids and waterfalls. Every major change begins like a stone falling in streaming water and causes wrinkles in the form of ever expanding 'circles'. That's still understandable but, unexpectedly, the result may also be rapids or waterfalls.
Nobody will deny the statement that nature is like a twisting river that flows steadily. Still a lot of scientists act like everything can be made linear. So the second part of this assumption is the essence. Stones thrown by scientists ,or mudslips or avalanches disturb flowing water. Those concerned may not dwell at remote rivers and thus stay blissfully unaware of the consequences of such rolling stones. In the years to follow though, anything can totally alter this situation. Although, of course, they cannot influence the waves they caused before.

New means of communication can considerably accelerate change. The Iron Curtain was certainly not meant to stop radio waves, but only humans. But radio and television demolished the Wall as an example of the power of change.
Second assumption. The happenings around the Spanish Civil War caused a tidal wave in the water (paradigm shift), and on top of it rode Capitalism or 'One Dimensional Thinking' (I make a tribute to Critical Theory and its founder Marcuse.) Seeing capitalism as a paradigm shift is a worthwhile assumption. At the same time it is an example of my first assumption. It gives an impression of the extreme power of the river of change. I myself experienced how easy it is to drown during white water canoeing.
No doubt but Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Darwin caused many contemporaries a headache. After Galileo, the world was suddenly round, after René Descartes, romantic thinking had been turned into rational. Isaac Newton introduced gravity like a magician, and since Charles Darwin humans were reduced to being just apes.

Of course science continued, but in a totally different direction than before. All of these men produced paradigm shifts or paradigm shifts, or had revolutionary thoughts. More important was that like Galileo's thoughts, like those of Darwin, were serious non-religious views. Out of this small group, only Descartes is today counted as a philosopher, the others are seen as scientists. Yet Descartes was one of the early French philosophers that most influenced the western world. France lost the influence that was gained by the United States. Different major wrinkles used to follow each other a couple of ages.

Human influence seemed to speed up change. For cosmic lookers-on it remained the flash of an eye. Capitalism is not seen as a paradigm shift, but I humbly pose that it certainly is one and that the key change started around 1930. Unlike better known ones, it produced a slow but real revolution. We tend to think of revolutions as being fast, but most volcanos rumble for hundreds of years before erupting.

Capitalism is (most likely) not caused solely by the afore-mentioned Spanish Civil War, but this war serves as a nice anchor point. During it, romantic old-fashioned knights like Hemmingway fought together with communist diehards. It was a last big but unconscious spasm of irrational feeling to stop the ruthless rational power of money.

Once Capitalism got on its way, feelings were repressed and on the surface remained mainly rational (economic) thinking. In fact one went from the two truths feeling and rationality to mainly rationality. The present longing for feeling shows that this trait wasn't all that bad. Capitalism could be called 'Economic Rationalism' but, as I say, I prefer 'One Dimensional Thinking'. Capitalism is a perfect form of rationalism, only in a stealthier disguise. So, in less perfect forms, were Nazism and Communism. Feeling went into guerilla mode, hiding inside art, music, children's literature, anarchism and street culture. Feeling tends to get ever weaker but is still needed for balance.
Debates about nuclear science and DNA research show the obvious imbalance in feelings and rational thought. Practical experience conflicts with rationality, emotion faces and competes with scientific views.

The medieval, rational logic of Descartes can serve as an example. The dominance of nature seems obvious but, on second thoughts, it's painfully clear too that removing Cartesian maths would mean the collapse of the building of formal western science. That leaves the choice between adapting the building to earthquakes - or flying for the shakes. The third choice is fighting but that is both arrogant and ignorant. An old Zen wisdom says that bending yields more result with less energy than trying to stay upright. The same Zen philosophy would say: There are as many truths as dimensions, and per dimension there are many possible sciences. That there are more truths than only (a fundamental) one should be crystal clear to anybody. Anyway it still causes a lot of useless discussion.

In a fundamentalist religious law system (like that in Iran) any writer may be executed because of criticism towards the state-religion. Many laws still deny freedom of speech (even more the freedom of 'speed'). For proof, I repeat that general acceptance of Darwinism took more than 60 years. So a doctrine in power can postpone important ideas for a long time. Accepting Darwinism as a part of fundamental science even took longer, and yet still, in 1998, I found an article on the Internet by some religious group mocking comparisons between humans and apes. Change may be slow but is anything but rigid.

Human influence seemed to speed up change. For cosmic lookers-on, it remains the flash of an eye.

Note 1.

A reaction on the Weinberg criticism in 1998 of Kuhn's paradigms

In the eyes of Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg, Kuhn's modesty about science is just scepticism and (in his words) wormwood. Like Popper, forty years earlier, Weinberg takes a continuous viewpoint. By criticising everything in Kuhn's theory that neglects continuity he makes the whole theory seem ridiculous. Weinberg acts exactly as predicted by Kuhn. A continuous view sees only the advantages of science.

Weinberg asks why question science if such criticisms can't be explained anyway? In this way, he denies intuition and suggests there exists only one true view. Choosing only one theory seems wrong to me and possibly to you too. Try the procedure described here and you will conclude that both fighters are right:
(1) decide the truth or falseness of both theories ONLY against their own presumptions;
(2) accept that having more truths is better than having just one. So both are right. Weinberg in stating that science continuously offers the best of human imagination, and Kuhn in saying that to find new ways such a science incidentally needs shock treatment.

Don't miss the fractal philosophy of:

Address for correspondence: Email: Henk Tuten: htuten@daxis. nl

On Praxis (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 1 Spring 2002

By Martin O’Hagen 

Martin O'Hagan describes his search for wisdom in the context of war-torn Northern Ireland, a search that took him from Marx, to Hegel and finally to Augustine.

In 1969, what are euphemistically called the Ulster 'Troubles', raised their ugly collective heads for the nth time in the last 200 years. But, as a young man coming to terms with the pointlessness of a provincial bourgeois existence, I felt it was to give life meaning and even purpose.

I had left school at 15 and found my sense of freedom stifled in what I began to feel was an absurd existence. There had to be something more than living for the weekend and the invasion of bars and dance halls listening to the awful show bands.

Then the troubles began, with police men beating apparently innocent marchers off the Derry Bridge. Pictures of a thorn walking-stick wielding, out of breath, RUC Inspector repeatedly beating a peaceful protester found a ready comparison in people's minds with the harsh south African regime. Sharpeville was just a few years before.

Looking back, pleas for the common sense 'one man, one vote' falling on the deaf ears of the repressive Police now seem like a carefully choreographed piece of political propaganda. Certainly, it was mild by more violent standards that arose in the coming years.

Nevertheless, it launched me and thousands of other young impressionables. The Vietnam War protests, the students revolt of 1968, and the American black civil rights movement appealed to all of us hopeful for a brave new world. And it wonderfully dove-tailed with ideals of the bourgeois revolutionaries of the 1798 rebellion with their demands for freedom and equality of the marketplace. The call of ancient sectarian sirens of holy Catholic Ireland failed to find a willing ear among those, like me, who instinctively knew there had to be something else.

So I began my twenty year journey which would lead me into the Marxism of the Positivistic school that was the basis of official Marxist states. But it was a journey which would also justify my opposition to physical force - opposition to the men of the Provisional IRA who couldn't turn away from their sirens, which had turned out to be banshees keening for the dead.

Yet, it would also help me to rationalise why killing may not always be wrong, when seen from an Ulster political perspective. It was, after all, right for the black P.J. wearing youngsters of the V.C. (Viet Cong) to blow to kingdom-come young G.I.s. And this is not just that syndrome that condones far-away wars while condemning the conflict next door. Nor, in contrast to Lenin's pronouncements, was there any such thing as just and unjust wars. Rather, wars were necessary or unnecessary. The war against Hitler was necessary, but the American war in Vietnam was not necessary. (Instead, what was necessary was the defeat by force of arms of the mighty war machine of the US.)

And in Ulster it seemed natural that the British Army had to be opposed because in the 1970s it served a repressive regime, interning hundreds of, and at one point several thousand, men and women. People who were never convicted of any crime.

Then too, soldiers had shot dead 13 people on the streets of Derry in one particular, infamous, incident. But in general soldiers had shot dozens of others in equally controversial circumstances. But surely, as in any war, all sides suffer and no one has a monopoly.

Coming from a Catholic background and having been probably the last generation to experience the rigours of a Catholic education before the radical innovations of Vatican Two, I found my Marxism came as a great relief. (Only later was I horrified to discover Russell insisting that my Marxism may have been my Catholicism by other means.) Everything became relative. Everything I took for granted had its basis among human beings and was not somewhere up on Mount Sinai cut out in tablets of stone.

As it was, if I felt I could justify shooting another human being on political grounds then my morals had feet of clay. Although it was to be two decades before I heard about the Sophist, Protagoras, I acted as if man was the measure of all things and I was that man. The morality beaten into us by bullying Christian Brothers was no longer a restraining force. Years of brow-beating fell away like a dark cloak and there was the illusion of liberation.

And surely the troubles had begun as a romantic adventure of youth. The whisperings of Wordsworth continued to echo in our ears that to be young was very heaven. But years of gaol and needless deaths and hardship added cynicism. Marxism of the Positivistic kind failed to answer moral and psychological questions. Indeed it said such questions were petty bourgeois, that they ëbelonged to the anti-vivisection lobby' - as GPU interrogator Ivanov screamed at Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

As imprisoned revolutionaries, we were told that that book was heresy. It underlined what many had now begun to suspect. The conflict was not a struggle to rid us of the hated bourgeois overlords, complete the Irish bourgeois revolution and clear the decks for a ëproper' revolution. Instead, what it had become was merely a brutal sectarian campaign of assassination.

Later, freedom from the daily grind of prison life run on strict military lines was welcome. After years of incarceration the outside had become the panacea to all my ills. The fear and loathing, the choking claustrophobia of over a hundred men sharing two and a half standard Nissan huts, the powerlessness of year in, year out, sharing the same half acre of rough tarmac on a former runway, left its scars.

The war began again but by now the so-called best years were over and anyway age indicated it was a game for younger men. The drift into 'Quietism' contrasted with the heady days of red flags and tramping feet. Marxism remained in the background only to justify wheeler-dealer moves. Life on the dole became a sort of Robin Hood adventure, a facet of the class war, and dodging the dole snoops a game.

Now there was urgent need to get out of this humiliating situation. Education offered a way, but it was related to the struggle, which was now the politics of the parish pump and local government. This was the nearest we got to real democracy. A vote for a councillor was a vote for better burial arrangement and bin collection and a tidy park.

Class issues and Marxism can't survive the bitter bigotry that characterised politics in this corner of the planet. The only choice possible is between isolation and in-fighting. Brendan Behan, the Dublin playwright, once noted that when the Irish form an organisation the first item on the agenda is a split. And there was a split: me and the rest of the party. Someone had decided that I had a disruptive attitude - whatever that was.

I felt a great sense of relief as I cast aside the scribbled note that heralded my abrupt departure after 13 years of struggle, and lay back in bed and had a quick doze before getting up. The reality was, I was sick of it all. There were more important issues to be faced... such as me. We had never been allowed to consider me. It was a queer dialectic that considered only one half of the contradiction between the self and the rest.

The 1990s dawned with myself in a secure job as a reporter for one of the popular tabloids. Money was no longer a problem. I wasn't rich but there was a steady wage. My mind began to wander again - probably the onset of middle age. I looked for reasons and discovered nothing so far caught my imagination. I returned to Queens University in Belfast in search of this grail of sorts. There I came across the Stoics and the rest of the Greeks, whose approach to philosophy flew in the face of the discourse that was being promoted. Philosophy as a way of life interested me. It was a mode of existing in the world that might yet transform my mediocre being.

Philosophy took on the form of an exercise of thought, will and the totality of being. Its goal is wisdom. The search was for a way of life that brought peace of mind, inner freedom and cosmic consciousness. In his dialogue, the Symposium, Plato had shown that Socrates could be identified with Eros, the son of Poros (expedient) and Penia (poverty). Eros lacked wisdom but he did know how to acquire it. In Xenocrates the notion of philosophy curing mankind's anguish is explicit. Also in Epicurus who said, 'We must not suppose that any other object is to be gained from the knowledge of the phenomena of the sky... than peace of mind and a sure confidence'.

All through the Middle Ages the scholastic university had been dominated by theology. There, professionals trained other professionals. Education was not directed towards people with the sole purpose of becoming fully developed beings. It is no accident that between the 16th and 18th centuries genuine philosophical advances were made outside the universities. We have just to look at Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche and Leibniz.

At the end of the 18th Century, the new philosophy made its appearance within the universities. This was a philosophy without the trappings of theology. With a few rare exceptions, such as Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, philosophy becomes a discourse and begins to inhabit a different environment than that of Ancient philosophy.

Schopenhauer wrote that university philosophy was mere fencing in front of a mirror. He claimed its goal is to give students opinions that suit the local establishment He wrote:, 'And yet if there is one thing desirable in this world, it is to see a ray of light fall onto the darkness of our lives shedding some of the light on the mysterious enigma of our existence.'

I realised that while this is true it is not the whole truth. There was a need for serious philosophical discourse - if just to clarify matters. I found Hegel interesting on this point. Not the Hegel Marxists love to rubbish, but the real Hegel in all his turgid style, that obfuscates any sense. To gleam Hegelian meaning is to bend the mind. To open it to other possibilities and potentialities.

His concept of 'the Whole' did make sense, but it was his sense of morality I found compelling. In Kant I had discovered a Stoic practice that embodied an art of living to be found in Epictetus, Roman slave and philosopher. There should not be a separation between theory and praxis. For the first time Marx's words that philosophers only interpret the world... took on a new meaning. It was the beginning of a return to Ancient philosophy as a philosophy of practical wisdom. Could this be the Hegelian metaphysical circle?

I had gone in search of meaning and discovered a potential for morality and inner peace. Marxism was no longer the be-all and end-all but merely a tool to help cope and understand a world rapidly changing in several respects. At the finish, my model, if that is the proper term, turned out to be Augustine, who had, by philosophically re-examining his life, come to his own conclusions. His wisdom did not merely make him wiser - it changed his essence. It made him be in a different way.

Editor's note.
 There is a particular pathos, indeed power, to this essay now. Shortly after it was submitted as part of a Pathways to Philosophy project, Martin O'Hagan became another victim of the troubles, shot down in cold blood by Unionist paramilitaries.
 As is normal for all articles, this essay has been edited for the purposes of clarification and completeness. The original version can be found on the Pathways website.