We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.
Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?
But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.
The development of quantum mechanics in the first decades of the twentieth century came as a shock to many physicists. Today, despite the great successes of quantum mechanics, arguments continue about its meaning, and its future.
Some of us are stressed. Others are overworked, struggling with the new responsibilities of parenthood, or moving from one flawed relationship to another. Whatever it is, whatever you are going through, there is wisdom from the Stoics that can help.
Followers of this ancient and inscrutable philosophy have found themselves at the centre of some of history’s most trying ordeals, from the French Revolution to the American Civil War to the prison camps of Vietnam. Bill Clinton reportedly reads Roman Emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations once a year, and one can imagine him handing a copy to Hillary after her heart-wrenching loss in the US presidential election.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy which was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century and then progressed to Rome, where it became a pragmatic way of addressing life’s problems. The central message is, we don’t control what happens to us; we control how we respond.
The Stoics were really writing and thinking about one thing: how to live. The questions they asked were not arcane or academic but practical and real. “What do I do about my anger?” “What do I do if someone insults me?” “I’m afraid to die; why is that?” “How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?” “How can I deal with the success or power I hold?”
There also happens to be a decent amount of advice on how to live under the looming threat of a tyrant (“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honour,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca). All of which makes Stoic philosophy particularly well-suited to the world we live in.
While it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “stoicism”— with its mistaken connotations of austerity and lack of emotion — in fact, nothing could be more necessary for our times than a good dose of Stoic philosophy.
Written language, the hallmark of human civilization, didn't just suddenly appear one day. Thousands of years before the first fully developed writing systems, our ancestors scrawled geometric signs across the walls of the caves they sheltered in. Paleoanthropologist, rock art researcher and TED Senior Fellow Genevieve von Petzinger has studied and codified these ancient markings in caves across Europe. The uniformity of her findings suggest that graphic communication, and the ability to preserve and transmit messages beyond a single moment in time, may be much older than we think.
Where is your mind? Where does your thinking occur? Where are your beliefs? René Descartes thought that the mind was an immaterial soul, housed in the pineal gland near the centre of the brain. Nowadays, by contrast, we tend to identify the mind with the brain. We know that mental processes depend on brain processes, and that different brain regions are responsible for different functions. However, we still agree with Descartes on one thing: we still think of the mind as (in a phrase coined by the philosopher of mind Andy Clark) brainbound, locked away in the head, communicating with the body and wider world but separate from them. And this might be quite wrong. I’m not suggesting that the mind is non-physical or doubting that the brain is central to it; but it could be that (as Clark and others argue) the mind extends beyond the brain.
According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other
On 11 January 1672, the Fellows of the British Royal Society were treated to a demonstration of Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, which formed images with mirrors rather than with the lenses that had been used since the time of Galileo
Tom: Actually, Suits is careful to distinguish game-playing from play. The first is an activity that fits his definition, with the goal, rules, and so on, and the second is any activity chosen for its own sake. So there can be game-playing that isn't play (if you play, say, football only to make money) and play that isn't game-playing (like a kitten's playing with wool). And the value his book defends is primarily that of game-playing, though in his utopia, where people don't need things like money, the game-playing will also always be play.
Now I think Suits exaggerates the value of game-playing when he says it's the supreme good, and he does so because he's tacitly built into his utopia other things that are comparably good, such as pleasure and knowledge. Still, his claim that game-playing instantiates one important good, and in fact is the paradigm expression of that good, is a wonderful insight.
In game-playing you aim at a goal that's in itself completely trivial: that a ball go into a hole in the ground, that you cross a line on the track before anyone else does, that you stand atop a mountain. But the rules of the game make achieving that goal complex and difficult, and it's that difficulty that gives the activity its value. To play the game you have to aim at a trivial goal, and you haven't succeeded in the game unless you achieve the goal, but the value of the activity is independent of the value of the goal. That's why I say game-playing is the paradigm expression of modern values, because what those values emphasize is process not product, journey not destination. And there's the big contrast with someone like Aristotle, who said that if an activity produces a goal outside itself, the activity has to have less value than the goal does. Not true! That a ball go into a hole in the ground is completely trivial. That Tiger Woods can make it do so from 562 yards away in four shots is tremendously valuable.
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