Active Learning

Often I find myself finishing a book without remembering much of what I have read. The gist of the argument is apparent to me, but its nuances and particulars elude me. If asked what it was about I would be able to contrive a response that seemed meaningful, but it would be sketchy and laced with misunderstandings. The truth is that I usually understand little and have read the book from cover to cover aimlessly. Of course, this misses the point. While fiction can be read purely for pleasure, non-fiction is generally read with a view to assimilating information. The point is to understand something by it.

Reading alone cannot achieve this because we are passively receiving the information and no real thinking is being done. It is only when we actively learn that information can be assimilated in a way that is memorable. Whether this means writing down your convictions about the matter, or speaking on the topic, the information must be used in some way before it is understood deeply enough to be remembered. But for most of us this seems too long a process to be worth our time or effort. Nevertheless, where we would read and reread to no effect we can instead write notes in the margins or take down summaries, and in this way actually save our time.

The cone of experience or more appropriately, its myth, is shown above. While it is peddled on many educational websites as being an accurate representation of how much we retain from different activities, its creator admitted that the figures are arbitrary and that the point of the cone is to show the deepening levels of abstraction, and in this way show a continuum. This is to say that the further we move down the cone the deeper we take our understanding. The statistics themselves are without evidence, but seek to demonstrate the extent to which we abstract and use the idea in question. While reading the idea is being used at a superficial level whereas during a presentation it is being applied at a deeper conceptual level. This is obvious enough, in order to be able to expound on a subject we must at some level grasp the concepts at play. In other words, to learn anything deeply we must move from using it passively through reading, hearing and seeing to actively learning through writing and speaking.

The course of action then suggests itself; we must prefer active learning to passive incomprehension. While some of us feel we lack the time even to read, let alone to do so slowly and critically, it makes little sense to read a book without learning its contents. Solely reading and later finding that you have forgotten what you just finished suggests that you have wasted your time and effort. This is not to say that reading gives us nothing, but that if we want to remember the information it is unsuited to this end if we go no further. For the best understanding to be developed it is prudent to read and either take notes or highlight key points. Admittedly, I have always felt heartburn at the prospect of writing in my books, feeling that this somehow damages them. All the same, a book’s value lies in what you can get from it and the means employed to extract this information is of no consequence if it is successful. What do we read books for after all, if not for understanding their content?

A Philosophy of Procrastination

We all would like to be productive, to finish our work comfortably within deadlines, and free ourselves up to pursue the goals we have beyond whatever it is we have to do everyday. Our problem is that we allow rein to doubt, so that we feel justified in putting things off presently because we will be better prepared in the future. However, when the time comes we make the same argument and do so indefinitely, until we cannot possibly delay any longer. At that point we have recourse to the excuse that if the result is not perfect it was because we did not try that hard and, while this is clearly our fault, it allows us to think that if we had done more we would have approximated that standard better.

Nevertheless, our preoccupation with perfectionism conceals a hidden aspect that guides procrastination. What we are really after is freedom from judgement. The things we procrastinate around generally have criteria by which they can be judged. We don’t procrastinate around walking or listening to music because we aren’t judged on those activities. The prospect of being judged (negatively) causes us anxiety that we would like to be free of but, because no work we do that is imperfect will be spared from it, we aspire to an illusory perfection that would put us beyond scrutiny. That is why, for example, we put off writing essays; there is a standard by which we are judged and the only way to escape it is through perfect work.

However, this strains us because, try though we might, nothing we ever do will be perfect. How well we perform is ultimately a matter of indifference if it is perfection we are after, because improvements can invariably be made. The solution to procrastination may then lie in accepting that we are going to be judged and being comfortable with this so that we can begin the work as earnestly as we can. If people are going to say something about what you do, invite them to it, but don’t for a second think twice about doing it for fear of judgement. The only way to avoid judgement is to do nothing, say nothing and be nothing; in a word, to cease existing.

Recognising this, that procrastination achieves its aim only by doing the impossible, by attaining perfection or obscuring us from judgement, see the doubt for what it is. In that context it is perfectly rational – we can’t ensure those things. The problem is that the aims set by perfectionism are absurd. The only way past procrastination is then to reassess our goals. If we are to achieve our potentials and live our lives to fulfillment we have to give up aspiring to perfection, which is nothing less than a neurosis. Even more simply if we are struggling to start it is helpful to realise that something is always better than the nothing we would end up doing.


The Belvedere

The ‘World’s Most Livable City’ was as one would expect; the striking architecture, regal palaces and amenities lend a beauty to Vienna that few other cities could hope even to compete with. Marry this with the compact proximity of the most notable monuments, almost all of which are clustered around the city centre, and it also becomes one whose defining features are within reach.

The first night there I visited Stephansdom, the church that is arguably the most famous monument throughout Austria. St. Stephen’s cathedral is a beloved landmark that has been around since the 12th century, and it represents one of the finest examples of the gothic mode of architecture. Though it was damaged by bombing in WW2, its restoration was successful, and presently it has become a symbol of hope, a testament to the country’s ability to come back from the ruins of conflict.


The next day I sought out the Belvedere, a baroque palace built for a Prince with ties to the Habsburg monarchy, the rulers of Austria. Eugene of Savoy had recently completed a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign which ended successfully. The proceeds from his victories were channeled into the development of the complex, which has been around since the start of the 18th century, and is now open for public view. As such, housed in lower Belvedere is a musuem whose chief attraction is ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt, the artist at the head of the secessionist movement, but more about that later. I am not overly fond of art, but I appreciate masterworks all the same. If only for what it represents, the expression of an emotion present in us all, this is one.

‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt

As for the palace itself it was divided into upper and lower Belvedere, in their time the former had been the orangery while the latter had constituted the palace stables. These were on either side of the well kept gardens lined with shrubs and fountains among other things. The extent of the garden verged on superfluity and led one to question what you could actually do with it all. Tourists walked about in their droves, caps and hats on under the sun, and yet all of them still failed to take up any meaningful amount of space in the expanse of that path. It was unnecessary, but definitely a nice problem to have. In truth, I found it charming and it must have seemed that way to many over the centuries. I suppose it appealed to me so much I wanted it for myself but no matter, as with everything we want it would have bored me after a while. It must have been the same to those that lived here, it likely became commonplace to them. We lust over it only because it is beyond our experience to live in a place like it and human nature wants what it can’t have. It’s all a matter of what you’re used to.

View of the garden from the terrace of Upper Belvedere

Karschirche, St. Charles church, was built in the wake of the plague epidemic by those who survived to show gratitude toward providence. While many lives had been lost, they felt they had been shown mercy. As such, they named it after the patron saint of the fight against the plague who they felt had interceded on their behalf. After a competition between architects that wanted to build it was won by Johann Fischer von Erlach, the man who set forth the inital plans for Schonbrunn Palace, construction was completed over two decades later, though the finishing touches were applied by his son after his death. The baroque masterpiece complete with a dome and roman columns, which apparently represented the saints qualities of steadfastness and courage, was finished in 1737. Outside were statues of angels while inside various paintings were placed across the walls and a cupola with frescoes was above.


The Secession building was built by artists that rebelled against the fine art institutions of Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. Gustav Klimt was at their helm and sought to encourage artistic independence in a time when he saw mediocrity on display. ‘Radicalism’ was then to champion only the very best and most worthy artworks, rather than the ones painted by those best known. Artistic freedom was for him necessary in the creation of masterpieces, but the critics in place placed constraints on what could be done and preferred certain styles over others. As a result, Klimt broke from the recognised institutions and set up his own exhibit, where art could find free expression. As such, inscripted on the prologue to an exhibition here were the words ‘To each era its art, To art its freedom’.

Secession Building

The National history museum of Austria, called the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was the last item on the itinerary for the day. Perhaps as a result, there was less time to take it all in than I would have liked. In the end I managed to see just about everything, but so briefly that I could almost be said not to have seen anything at all. I was in such a rush walking around the many exhibitions that I rarely stopped in one place for more than a few minutes. When I did I quickly read the descriptions of whatever it was I was neglecting to really look at. I took pictures though and I suppose that accounts for my inability to remember what I never saw. The relics of the past surrounding me reminded me that no matter how long ago they were made the course of history extends far beyond our experience as a race, so that all our memories cover no space of time in the grand scheme of existence. That’s what I like most about museums; they set into perspective how insignificant we really are and leave us in awe of the fact so that, realising nothing matters, that therefore nothing is in our way, we can begin to make our marks on history, if only our own.

Schloss Schonbrunn was built as a summer residence for the Habsburg family and is among the most historic monuments in the country, having consistently been a popular attraction for tourists since it was opened to the public in the 1950s. At the cafe I treated myself to some red wine whose effects wore off too quickly for my liking. While the various rooms of the palace were crowded with people on guided tours, and therefore oppressive, the interior was easy on the eye. Despite this, the rooms themselves were relatively dull when held up to the palace gardens, which were brimming with life that was variegated and in bloom. A great deal of plants and flowers populated the lawns and the red and white ones were arranged in such a way that various streaks across the grass were made to resemble the Austrian flag.

Schloss Schonbrunn

Hundertwasserhaus was created by the artist to celebrate nature and encourage us to live in line with it, rather than ignore our roots. The aim of the house is then to help us rediscover the longing we have for a life in harmony with nature, of which we are inextricably part. Though we have evolved and gradually mastered our environment so that we can live away from nature, it is still important for our wellbeing. Merely seeing a plant can calm us down because of what the same sight had meant to our ancestors; signs of life and therefore sustenance. When it comes down to it we remain animals, and no amount of metropolitan living will undo our attachment to nature. Returning to it then keeps us from dissembling, from lying to ourselves about that need. The concrete jungles we live in, filled with moving metal, are alien to our primitive consciousness and absurd in the light of our species experiences till now, while nature will forever make sense. Perhaps that is why we are so depressed, we run away from what we are used to in order to surround ourselves with lifeless objects that do nothing for us, corporate jobs that keep us in debt, and grey buildings in which we while away the best part of our lives. Ironically, we reject our needs for green paper whose origin is the very thing we are missing.


The Hofburg was the main imperial palace in Vienna when the Habsburgs had been in rule and is now the workplace and residence of the President of Austria. It was first opened in 1279 and has since undergone many developments and expansions. Consequently, the grand complex of buildings presently takes up a substantial area of the city centre. The growth of the dynasty had meant successive emperors added to their content. Swiss gates near the entrance are a nod to the guards employed by the monarchs in the 18th century. The Austrian national library housed here possesses historic manuscripts of inestimable worth. The parks surrounding the palace, called the Burggarten and Volksgarten, are now where parts of the palace had previously stood before Napoleonic troops blew them to pieces. Though malice had been intended and enacted, that destruction nevertheless led to beautiful public gardens now.

The Hofburg

The hidden gem in this lively city was Prater, a colourful fairground that could satisfy any adrenaline junkie. One of the more extreme rides teased you by slowly rising to the top and coming to a standstill for a while when it reached there, in order to make the sudden dramatic drop that much more pronounced. The feeling as it plummeted was almost beyond expression; your body just does not have the time to adjust, it is filled with so much adrenaline that you are robbed of the time to think and understand what is happening over those few seconds of intense sensory experience. It is fear in its purest form so why the feeling of excitement? We detest fear, yet run toward it when we see pretty lights. Predictably, this contradiction has explanation in nature. Our primal selves are unused to a peaceful environment in which we are rarely at risk. We then seek out thrilling experiences precisely because these rides offer us controlled fear, an adrenaline rush without our being in danger, which puts us in mind of our past. Paradoxically, these metal cages spiralling around steel beams, which if we are being logical it makes no sense to strap ourselves into, are loved by us because our natures are still used to a more chaotic life, where the physical sensations of fear were familiar. As such we look to regulate it so that we can fully live out the emotion of fear, which we experience in a less obvious way in modern society. Unsuprisingly, this thrill-seeking is a uniquely human phenomenon. Perhaps facing our fear satisfies us because that sense of control, though illusory, gives us a hold on an emotion prone to running riot in a world that has changed rapidly, while in a biological sense we have lagged behind.


Vienna deserves its reputation as one of the most affluent and livable cities. The transport in general presented no problems and once you got to the centre of the city there was no shortage of things to do. The vast expenditure of those in power in the past has meant that the city is the epitome of decadence. The grandeur of the capital and the opulence betrayed by its many regal buildings make it unforgettable. You would do well to imagine a place more beautiful.


Brandenburg Gate

It was to be my first time in Germany and the only reasonable place to start was Berlin, the capital where so much had come to pass, where history had been made time and again. Symbols of this illustrious past were scattered across the place and one felt the significance of each in the life of this great city. Chief among these was the Brandenburg gate, which stood to represent peace and unity not just in this city but throughout Germany itself. During the cold war it had represented disunity and was closed with east and west either side of it, allowing none to pass. Once Germany had reunified it took on a new meaning and came instead to symbolise this union.

Another building synonymous with Germany is the Reichstag, the national parliament where the decree to wage WW2 was passed. Perhaps as a result, this iconic edifice has been the target of bombing and arson across the last century. A dome overlooking the city has been built into it but viewing this had required booking in advance so I elected to visit other notable monuments instead.


Among these was the Berliner Dom, a cathedral church that assumes a baroque style and is the largest of any kind across Berlin, easily towering above 100m. It is located on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island, where many world famous Museums can be found. Of these the Altes, Neues and Pergamon museums most stand out. The Altes showcases Ancient Greek and Roman culture, the Neues sheds light on Prehistoric and Protohistoric life, while the Pergamon displays Persian and Babylonian exhibits. Of these the Ishtar Gate, which used to lead into the city of Babylon, is perhaps the most striking. Here it leads into the Persian exhibit but many had passed through it into that famous city.

Berliner Dom
Ishtar Gate

The Zoologister Garten claims to have the most species of any zoo throughout Europe. It was easily one of the largest I have been to though it was perhaps more impressive for its design than for the animals themselves, half of which were inside and out of sight. Nonetheless it was interesting to see those that were on display, though the thought that people controlled the lives of these creatures bothered me a little, if only for the contradiction. Our cousins especially made me think, those apes that are unfathomably stronger than us yet remain subjugated to our intellect. What power are we really justified in holding over them? Put us in the enclosure with one and that would be it for us. Our intelligence only helps because it shows us how to avoid them, to keep them at a distance. Thinking on this and having walked around the path to my content, I went to the aquarium but only succeeded in reaching it a minute past closing time.

I left shortly after to go back to my hotel by the river, and strolled along it, taking in the view. Situated at intervals across the river were bridges under which boats were travelling intermittently. Around the river bed were foliage and trees populated the other side of the river, obscuring the city beyond. Near my hotel was a building the precise purpose of which I remain ignorant. An indication as to what it was may have been provided by the unfurled flags stood up outside. Besides the German flag was the familiar symbol of the European union that has become even more pertinent in recent times, especially for those of us from the UK, of which I am numbered.

It is regrettable that imaginary lines should be drawn between places so that walls can be taken to exist. For my part, I see no point in divorcing from the EU beyond the satiation of the fragile egos of nationalists, who are fundamentally the same as racists in their us-versus-them mentality. Of course, pride in a nation is the only recourse for those without their own achievements, who need to identify with something without to overcome this inward lack. Their insistence on defending the faults of their country, to vote for an independence that is empty, is all that is left to them. Taken to the extreme this feeling of being the better group leads to genocide, a lesson that has seemingly not been learned from this country’s past. Thinking about the needless division that was to come, I realised the mistake had not been made yet. That, for now, the whole of Europe remained open to me without my being an ‘outsider’. This bittersweet revelation was my consolation.

The next day I visited Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque palace commisioned to be built by the wife of the elector of the district around the 18th Century, and after whom it was named. Beyond it was the palace gardens and an even more extensive park with rivers. There was also a lake by the way, with a path one could walk alongside it by. The views I was afforded across the lake were striking and walking around the place I found even better vantage points on bridges over the rivers intersecting the park. I explored the palaces garden as far as I could and was impressed by the many imperious buildings dotted about the place. To think this used to be someone’s summer residence seemed absurd, but reality often is.

Schloss Charlottenburg

Soon, I found myself walking down Unter den Linden, the main road of Berlin, which literally translates as ‘under the linden trees’. Along it were many notable monuments and buildings worth seeing. Among these was a sculpture of Frederick the Great, the king that had overseen the development of this boulevard so that it became what it is today. Also along the road was Humboldt University, named after Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher that specialised in linguistics. It is the oldest and most highly regarded university in all of Germany. A war memorial to all the victims of war also stood out and, though it was erected as far back as 1816, it nevertheless foreshadowed what came in the last century.

Though the world wars will always put people in mind of Germany, more recently the division within the country was a topic of great interest to the rest of the world. The separation of East and West Germany finally came to an end in 1990, though not without struggle. The Berlin Wall then stands as a reminder of a unity that was hard to come by. The public were invited to paint across it with the result being a variety of murals relating to ideas of freedom, solidarity and peace. There is such a wide range of these, some more meaningful than others, that you are compelled to recognise that this is a city that is now united, and which will continue to have influence in the future, now that they have understood their past. With this in mind I thought seeking out the new Germany would be a suitable note on which to end the trip.

Postdamer Platz is known for the architectural marvels. The skyscrapers are perhaps the best example of what modern Berlin is like. The Sony centre, a massive, spiralling dome has one of the most celebrated and unique designs of any building in all of Germany. By day it is filled with people visiting its many restaurants and cafes. At night it lights up in a range of colours, becoming visible from a distance in its luminence.

Skyscrapers on Postdamer Platz

Berlin continues to hold a lasting fascination for many people, by some for its history, but more and more for what it presently conveys. Being the capital and the location of the country’s parliament it represents a hotseat of discourse for wider Germany and even Europe. It is then a major and lively city filled with affable people seemingly obsessed with cycling, some of the best beer around, and museums that celebrate the history of the world.



The first thing that struck me as I walked down the steps from my plane and looked around was the sheer beauty of the place. From the ground you could see an idyllic landscape teaming with hills surrounded by a vast expanse of greenery. As yet the city itself was not in sight. The sun was beating down and I already felt lighter in the fresh air. As I made my way through the airport I was quite disappointed not to have my passport stamped; it seemed to make my trip less official. The lack of ink would seem trivial to most but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. I wanted to fill up my new passport and this wasn’t a great start; in fact it wasn’t one – it remains empty. Sometimes having been to a place isn’t enough and we need proof of our experience to really feel it was meaningful, in order to look back on it with some sense of achievement. We feel each stamp adds value to a passport, that they give weight to it. Nevertheless, I made my way to the hotel, asking locals for directions when I was unsure about how to navigate my way through the city. Annoyingly, I usually asked when I was at the place I was trying to reach or near enough to it that they could point and perhaps wonder whether I was joking. This happened more times than I care to admit over my stay in Greece. All the same, it was one of the best experiences of my life. If ever my sense of direction failed me I found myself down some charming street or in view of a monument I hadn’t planned on seeing. In the end I walked a greater distance than I normally would over a month and did so gladly.

My first evening there was spent at the national museum where historically significant sculptures were housed. The most striking of these were the kourai, idealised youths with superhuman musculature and size. Some were armless or heavily damaged but they remained imposing. The statues of the Greek pantheon were scattered around the place and helped to give life to the myths that are so deeply entwined with the country’s culture.

That night I went to a restaurant recommended to me by the hotel. It overlooked a church, lit up from each angle by street-lamps. I was sat down at the table I chose and the waiter genially wrapped an arm around me and asked me what I wanted. Once I had decided I was surprised I didn’t need to produce my wallet. In Greece it is customary for diners to pay after eating. Call me cynical but in London I imagine this trust would be betrayed more often, though it was once exploited here. On that occasion a man that was unwell was sat on a table next to me. He had a nervous tic and from time to time he would get up and walk over to the nearby wall which he perched himself on, looking about as if talking to an invisible man. You could tell he would neglect to pay, not out of ill-will, but simply because he was out of touch with what was around him. He ate with almost childlike attentiveness, bending all the way down to his plate and slowly, carefully, cutting apart his meal. After finishing, he wandered over to the till to pay, correctly sensing that this was the place he had to go, but finding himself in a line he looked around awkwardly. A waiter saw him and gestured that he would get to him soon but not seeing this the man left, leaving the waiter frustrated he couldn’t go after him; he was otherwise occupied. The waiters then angrily cleared his table, complaining to each other about the man, their frustration in part due to their own feeling he would not pay, which they had failed to explore in time.

This brought to mind the economic crisis in Greece which had meant it remained in recession for nearly a decade, with many unemployed. Though this man perhaps could have paid for the meal, others could barely afford shelter. The influx of migrants could also not really be accommodated and many came here to be homeless. Poverty can be found in any major city but here it was less concealed. I once saw a man foraging through rubbish and he didn’t seem to notice me; it was of no consequence if anyone should see, but rather a matter of necessity for him. I understood perfectly well, survival took precedence over what people might say.

On my first full day there I thought it best to seek out the main sites, so that I could later explore as many places as I could without feeling like there was something important I had left undone. This meant a walk to the centre of Athens, where the Agora and Acropolis were to be found. In the city I was sometimes mistaken for a local and spoken to in Greek, with the only possible result being my saying ‘I don’t understand’ more times than I felt was respectable. I was slightly ashamed at this. Many of us go to other countries expecting the people to speak our language, not because it’s right that they should but because its convenient. Then when foreigners come to our country we look at them uncomprehendingly when they dare to ask us something in their native tongue. I realised I was part of that problem and looked up how to say ‘Hello’ so that I knew at least one word. I forgot it within an hour.

Arriving at the foot of the path toward the Acropolis I began to make my way up and soon enough I had reached the Propylaia, the grand entrance to the archaic temples at the hill’s summit. Once there I could understand why the Parthenon had been championed as one of the greatest feats of architecture of all time. It stood high and impressive, having remained virtually intact in all the intervening years since. Even today there is nothing comparable to it. It was bittersweet to consider that there may never be.

Theatre of Dionysus

Later walking through the Agora I couldn’t help but imagine what the marketplace would have been like during the golden age of Athens. The streets would have been filled with a lively bustle and at certain points in history will have been populated by some of the greatest minds to have wandered the earth. Here Socrates had debated with locals, St Paul made his speeches and democracy was born. Thinking about that public rushing around what was their home I wondered whether they could have anticipated that milennia later people would be roaming around for leisure. Having envisioned the agora alive with people presently I regarded it with vague unease. What had remained of them? The finds collected at the Stoa of Attalos cast some light on their lives but much was left to conjecture and they themselves had faded into obscurity, forever lost to their time.

Those that escaped oblivion to be remembered as heroes were buried at the edge of the ancient city, at Kerameikos. The outer walls that had surrounded Athens were now long gone, but they had ran through here. At Dipylon, the largest entrance to Athens in Ancient Greece, many arrivals and departures were marked. This was where warriors had returned to Athens and received a hero’s welcome, though some were not so lucky; many warrior’s tombs lie here alongside other notable people. The presence of death lent a sombre air to the place but this was not so oppressive as one might expect. Some tombs depicted those perished as being alive and with their families, with others celebrated by monuments.

After a day of almost uninterrupted walking I allowed myself a drink at a charming rooftop bar overseeing the Acropolis, whose crowning jewel the Parthenon assumed a golden hue in the city lights. The cocktail cost more than any of the meals I had but in truth I would have paid for the view itself.

View from rooftop bar

I started the next day at the roman forum, to which the marketplace was moved under their occupation of the city. The edges of the courtyard were punctuated by roman columns and the tower of the winds, an octagonal tower whose sides each apparently represented a type of wind, stood highest. A mosque, erected during the ottoman rule of Athens, drew the eye. This in part because it cast light on the number of times that the city had changed hands.

Following this I soon found myself at philopappos hill, known as the ‘hill of muses’ and named after a syrian prince. Socrates prison, where he was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of his day, was easily recognisable and I made it my focal point. The pnyka further up had held the first democratic congress, with an area for the public cut into the hill. A monument for the hill’s namesake stood at the very top. Having explored and taken in the hilltop view I made my way back down and through the national garden.

In a short time I had another hill in my sights that I recognised. I had seen it from the Acropolis the day before. This was no suprise, the summit of lycabettus hill was the highest point of the city and was visible from anywhere in Athens. The hill itself had paths spiralling around it and I began to climb my way up, taking in the view as I did and quickening my pace out of impatience at reaching the peak in this roundabout fashion. I was suprised to have to negotiate my way through a restaurant near the top but soon after I had reached it and from here I could see the whole city in all its glory. I was on top of Athens.

Lycabettus Hilltop view

Having conquered Athens I made my way to syntagma square, the hub of the city’s transport, in order to find my way back. Along the way I saw armoured police vans and wondered whether anything was amiss, but soon found my worries were misplaced. With the task of protecting the citizens of Athens stationed at each of the metros were heavily armed police, dubbed the ‘black panthers’. This was a common occurence and thinking about my experience so far I questioned the point of it. But perhaps my reservations were even simpler; I doubt the assault rifles helped people to feel safe.

I strolled through Plaka, which was apparently the place to get souvenirs. I went to two shops and took my time in both, if only because I wanted to be certain I liked what I was getting. I didn’t know when I would come back here. At either place, the shopkeepers began to walk around me in order to rush me but this only increased my hesitation in picking things out and lengthened their wait. The old man in one shouted a lower price whenever someone expressed an interest in something, discounting it further if they were still unsure. Sensing this pattern when I picked up something I wanted I feigned suprise at the price and moved to put it back and he always gave a much lower price right before I let go, with my reaction always the same disinterested nod as I handed it to him to later wrap. In this way, I saved a considerable amount on what I thought were reasonably priced souvenirs.

On my last day I went to Glyfada beach an hour or so away from the centre of the city. First I took the metro to syntagama and from there I initially went the wrong way on the tram but quickly realised my error. Once I had reached the beach I was taken by the picturesque view of the ionian sea from its shores. The horizon was almost entirely aquamarine save for a ship in the distance. The beach itself was stunning and I strolled up and down the shoreline while the sun shone high above me, watching the waves crashing in at intervals.

Glyfada Beach

Athens is a great city in the history of the world, that no one can deny. Even today the influence it exerted in its prime is still felt. We still marvel at the works of architecture and think over the writings that were set forth from here. In fact, it is the cities intellectual history that is especially important. Plato and Aristotle have between them influenced centuries of thought. The formers Republic continues to inform politics while the latter contributed to practically every subject we now study, so that even today they are looked to for guidance. Our buildings are now much more advanced, our lives last much longer and yet we haven’t really thought up anything new to solve the problems they contended with, those of justice, morality and truth. There is nothing new under the sun. In all the centuries since we have grasped with the same age old questions they did, and have not fared much better. As a result I arrive at a sobering truth; we haven’t come as far as we tend to think.

A Conservationist Philosophy

Blue Marble

So long as we feel the world belongs to us there will be little hope for our survival here. Believing that it is our birthright to rule the earth we neglect its care and take from it unsustainably. We set ourselves up as the sovereign power and seek to secure our position by whipping nature into submission. Failing this, we do not fall back to earth but reach out to the stars for absolution. Though we belong to the world we do not feel our destiny is to remain here. This is clear, as climate change takes hold of the world, we plan out our route to another potentially hospitable planet. We divorce ourselves from our home, leaving it to its fate and damning ourselves along with it. Until we realise that this world is our home, that we came from it, were born of it, we will fail to save it.

Law of Attraction or Law of Action?

Can thought really shape reality?

The law of attraction holds that your thoughts, whether good or bad, will attract events of the same nature. Positivity then brings about welcome events while pessimism gives rise to undesired outcomes. In this way your thinking is said to create your life and to bring about what you focus on. Thought is held to be a powerful tool which the successful learn to use effectively. At first this seems an exciting prospect, our life is placed firmly in our hands and we can guide it in the way we choose. We need only think with enough purpose. However, there is no reason that it should not likewise work the other way – for our worries to then also take effect negatively. This brings contradiction as our response to disquieting thoughts is to reassure ourselves that they usually fail to materialise.

The reality is perhaps as simple as a chain of influence where thoughts, strongly believed, dispose us toward certain behaviours which elicit the corresponding results. It is not the thinking itself that ‘attracts’ events of our choosing but the actions the thoughts give rise to and the attitude thereby encouraged. If you believe a thing will happen any doubts that might prevent this being the case will be robbed of their strength and your actions will have more effect, if only because you feel free to carry them out without restriction.

The law of attraction would then more suitably be called the law of action – thoughts cannot shape reality without being acted upon. They can change the behaviour of the person who then interacts with the world in a different way, but at bottom action is the catalyst. ‘Attraction’ implies passivity or waiting for a thing to occur and is appealing to those who want their goals to come easily to them. Nonetheless, acting on what we want is the only way to truly attract the life we would like to live.

The Value of Philosophy

Science is what we know. Philosophy is what we don’t know – Bertrand Russell

August Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, Paris

Philosophy concerns itself with the big questions in life; it is the study of the nature of knowledge, reality and existence. The etymology of the word itself comes from ancient Greece where ‘philosophia’ meant ‘love of wisdom’. This seems apt, the first philosophers were not content to accept the explanations afforded them. Instead they took it upon themselves to understand the world and provide workable theories for the laws of nature, even attempting to explain the universe at large. That some solutions were naive is a matter of indifference. The desire for truth and understanding embodied by these philosophers and those since has been crucial to our reaching what is today the pinnacle of knowledge. This attitude toward learning has lead to progress across every sphere in society.

The scope of philosophy is so broad that it extends across a wide range of disciplines, sharing a link to almost every other subject where, in many cases, it provided the foundation from which they were later derived. It has enjoyed a rich history in which it has been at the forefront of academia for milennia. Philosophy is at the root of most of what we know. In modern times however it has become somewhat unpopular and those studying it are, on some views, resigning themselves to lifelong unemployment. There is a feeling that it does not offer us much, that it has no real usefulness anymore. The problems raised by philosophers seem to obscure what we know and complicate matters whereas other subjects provide us with new information whose application is usually evident.

This is perhaps the problem. If we go by appearances philosophy seems to be at the periphery of any advances in knowledge. It tends to concentrate more on abstract thought, on positing theories and formulating problems, rather than actually proving and solving them or so those who scoff at philosophy suppose. The sciences take most of the credit, while philosophy languishes in the shadows, picking up the scraps it is left. Presently, it seems to be contributing little to the body of knowledge we are amassing. On account of this impression people feel justified in relegating it to a lesser subject, one of little or no meaningful consequence. However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is merely an illusion that is prima facie tangible. 

The reality is that once something positive can be said about a thing it ceases to be a part of philosophy. What was formally a theory that belonged to philosophy will, once factually proven, become a part of another specialised subject such as physics, psychology, or economics. Indeed, many of these have their origin in philosophy and were the consequence of the work of people who were initially philosophers. Psychology was the result of Wilhelm Wundt separating philosophy from theories that were shown to be true through the scientific method. Adam Smith, the father of economics, studied social philosophy at Oxford. A few centuries prior at Cambridge a certain Isaac Newton studied natural philosophy. Science itself was included in philosophy until the 18th century.

Why then is philosophy no longer esteemed as much as it was? To be a philosopher today is seen as eccentric and almost invariably invites ridicule from those who champion what they suppose are the important subjects. Philosophy is for many people a thing of the past, formerly useful, but no longer worth inquiring into. This shift is perhaps best related by the inevitable question ‘Why are you studying philosophy?’. This is usually followed by a friendly smile which seems to invite an answer, when in truth any provided will be fleetingly considered but ultimately ignored. That it is asked is itself revealing as those doing mathematics or physics will rarely be met with that question or, if they are, never with the same air of condescension. Those studying philosophy are expected to offer a justification for their choice and interrogated as if they had acted wrongly in making it.

The sciences are deemed practical because the use of research is usually obvious and the benefits of technology can be quantified and measured. The effect of philosophy is not so easy to interpet. Philosophical output consists in ideas whose impact is inferred indirectly, through the person espousing them. A philosopher works within the realm of ideas, objectively assessing the cogency of any views and theorising their own. Philosophical speculation is a preliminary to later knowledge but, because its truth or falsity is uncertain, it deals with what we don’t know. Science takes over where philosophy leaves off, when theories are proven true and become something that is known to us. A hypothesis, once verified, is said to belong to science and philosophy is deprived of the credit.

As a result, some question the point of the inquiries philosophers engage in as these, because science lays claim to any definite knowledge, seem to lead nowhere. The common view of a philosopher is of an individual who raises problems and questions everything, almost out of compulsion, but fails to provide any answers. They have in mind a sceptic who argues that it is not reasonable to accept that he exists until this is absolutely certain. Such doubts fail to explain life and deny it instead of shedding new light on it. To those interested only in practical affairs the debates occasioned by these doubts represent trivial pursuits and, associating philosophy with this, they feel that it is itself likewise unworthy of attention. They regard it as an intellectually stimulating yet fruitless pastime, to be distinguished by the discussion of trifles.

Nonetheless, these inquiries seek to show what we really know and suggest what might be through the generation of new ideas and theories which offer novel ways in which to understand the world. The outline for knowledge is sketched out for science to eventually fill in when it is capable of doing so. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus postulated the existence of atomic constituents of matter in the 5th century bc but this theory was ‘philosophy’ until the 19th century because it was purely hypothetical. Atomism only led to the atomic theory and became ‘science’ when no doubt could be had about the interaction of atoms, when it was no longer conjecture. Nevertheless, this is only one example. In this way much of philosophy has been spirited away to the sciences and other branches of knowledge. This begs the question; if not in the theories posited by philosophers, where are we to look for the value of the subject?

Whereas science aims at an end outside itself, the end of philosophy is itself. The value of philosophy lies in a way of thinking. Its merits are to be sought primarily in what it offers those who take it up. The student of philosophy adopts a cast of mind that encourages them to think for themselves and to analyse and communicate ideas lucidly and persuasively, both orally and in writing. During the course of study they learn to construct logical arguments and come up with solutions to problems. Proficiency in critical thinking and inductive reasoning is also inculcated in students, alongside the ability to self-motivate.

The versatility these skills grant allow graduates to work for practically any type of employer in the public and private sectors. It is not uncommon for philosophy graduates to move into business, law, journalism, marketing and media. We might then answer the earlier question about the point of a philosophy degree with ‘I’ll be able to do just about anything with it’. It is a non-vocational degree after all and those studying it are essentially given free pick of a career as a reward for the transferable skills they acquire. The employability of philosophers is, on average, better than that of most degree holders. However, this is only incidental to the worth of philosophy, representing nothing more than a recognition of the benefits of undertaking its study.

Ideas are behind everything we do. They inform our actions, direct our businesses and structure our societies. To leave them unchecked without casting a discriminating eye over them is to give ourselves up to problems that could be avoided. Prudence would then consist in deliberating over our ideas and resolving upon the best way in which to either revise or apply them, a decision that is reached through structured argument. This a philosopher is taught to do.

To ponder the questions that have puzzled humanity since the beginning of civilisation is itself fulfilling. To speculate at what might follow death and consider the place we hold in all existence, to think on what man lives for; philosophising about these questions keeps alive a sense of wonder. The love of wisdom leads one to reflect on the entire scope of life and the vastness of the universe. It takes the whole of reality and existence as its object and it is this, the greatness of what it contemplates, that sets it apart. In the pursuit of knowledge of such themes as the meaning of life and truth, I took to philosophy.