CURRENT READING – Bryan Magee (further continued)

In the last two posts I reviewed the first three chapters of Bryan Magee’s final book, Ultimate Questions. In the fourth chapter called Can Experience Be Understood?, he restates Kant’s proposition that we can never know a thing-in-itself, only our experience of it.  Because “our conceptions and apprehensions of things are not constituent parts of the things apprehended,”14 it follows “reality is not and cannot be ‘like’ representations and thoughts.”15 The implication of this is that the empirical world is different for everyone and none of us can know what the world is like for another.  Seen reflexively, this means we can never understand the us others experience. By this line of thinking, the ‘empirical world’ is subjective not actual and did not exist before minds and will end when all minds disappear. This is a tricky concept since on initial hearing one is inclined to respond that  the world will be just as it was when we experienced it after there are no minds, but that is a misunderstanding  of the point. And the point is important since one implication is that at death (then mindless), we escape the empirical world and possibly enter the nuomenal world or ‘real reality’ as envisaged by, for example, Plato or religion, though he thinks this is doubtful. On the other hand when we die our unique empirical world comes to an end as well, thus both may lapse into nothingness, though that too is not certain.

In Chapter 5, Where Such Ideas Come From, he indicates his aim in writing the book is to express his thoughts as ‘directly as possible’ on the fundamental human condition, particularly as apprehended in his own existence rather than extracted from his reading of others. His two realizations of ‘bodily existence’ are (1) the contingent truth of the sensory equipment we have and (2) the dependence of  our sensibilities and categories of understanding on that apparatus. Therefore despite the devices we create to augment the senses, there will always be a limit on what we can know and understand. “We cannot get outside our apparatus. In fact, in one sense, we are our apparatus.” 16

At the end of the day, our concept of a thing, e.g. time, is not the reality of it. “In itself reality’s mode of existence must be unintelligible to us. This is so even in regard to our own existence.” 17 This means not only that there is much we can never know, but also that knowing itself is confined by the apparatus at our disposal, all of which is contingent on “the empirical circumstances that brought it about in the process of evolution.”18  It also means that “to conclude that nothing inconceivable can exist is an error,” 19 which also means “Anything else may exist.”20 He uses the example of radio waves; consider the deceptiveness of empirically empty air that contains innumerable radio waves we were unaware of until relatively recently. He concludes, “the most important single truth in philosophy…however difficult it may be for us to grasp, most of reality is unknowable by us and, – because beyond all possibility of apprehension – unconceptualisable.” 21

(third continuation next post)


14Magee, Bryan, Ultimate Questions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-17812-7, page 60.

15Ibid., page 65.                    16Ibid., page 73 .                   17Ibid., page 75.

18Ibid, page 76.                     19Ibid.                                     20Ibid., page 77.

21Ibid., page 85.

CURRENT READING – Bryan Magee (continued)

Last time I reviewed some background information on the late 20th century British philosopher, Bryan Magee, and reviewed the first chapter of his final book, Ultimate Questions. In the second chapter called Finding Our Bearings, he  begins by addressing the metaphysical argument for fate – that since a statement about future events is either true or false and always was, all events are fated to occur.7 Magee argues this is a confusion of linguistic reference with casual connection.

He notes that besides the future are other aspects of reality “permanently outside the possibility of human apprehension”8 due to limitations of the sensory equipment we possess to assess the world. He offers the analogy of a congenitally blind person who can have no notion of color nor comprehend what we mean when saying we see something. Due to similar but unknowable limitations, we may never be able to explain consciousness, free will, or even ethics, but we are still certain of some truths without knowing why, for example that we should not torture children. In spite of this ignorance, we still ought not try to assemble from what we know the totality of reality nor speculate as for example using God as an explanation for the unknown. The chapter ends with the conclusion that seeking the truth means leaving religion behind.

The third chapter, titled The Human Predicament, begins with existential observations of our involuntary appearance in the world, our ‘primal’ relationship to the universe, and the contrast between our material and our inside subjective sense of self. Like Fichte and Heidegger he accepts the inescapable sense of being a “living-seeing” or a “being-in-the- world.” His original insight is that we do not apprehend other people like we do other objects, but more like we apprehend ourselves. He suggests there is an inexplicable, invisible, immediate connection of our inner beings to those of other people which he calls an ‘inner oneness’ that may be the foundation of morality. But there’s more: “…the notion of inner oneness may possibly contain the key not only to morality, but to the enigma of life itself. According to the theory of evolution, a living individual existence has been passed on unbrokenly, continuous, self-renewing, from the amoeba to everything living today.”9

On morality, he adds “we can never be sure that something is right though we can be sure that something is wrong.”10 He uses two historical examples, first Socrates who said he had an “inner voice that occasionally told him not to do things, but it never told him what to do.”11 This certainty of wrong can lead to a commitment transcending even live and death, as in the case of Socrates who died rather than deny truth or flee the consequences of his denial. The second is Martin Luther who chose to appear at the Diet of Worms at the risk of death due to his beliefs, and offered only, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.”12 He ends the chapter again arguing religion is the wrong response to the mystery of existence and inner connectedness, suggesting explanations have a developing history and should not be pre-empted with speculation. In the meantime, regarding the world we live in, “the challenge is to live in it (and die in it) without understanding it, and without closing our eyes to the fact that, whether we like it or not, it is our situation…”13

(further continued)


7See post on this site titled Fate Part III– The Metaphysical Argument, published 8/12/19.

8Magee, Bryan, Ultimate Questions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-17812-7, page 21.

9Ibid., page 47.     10Ibid., page 52.                11,12 Ibid.                 13 Ibid., page 57


Ultimate Questions1  by Bryan Magee


 “WE HAD NO SAY IN EXISTING – WE WERE NOT GIVEN any choice. We just woke up into the world and found ourselves in it…most of us are in thrall to an instinct for survival that is programmed into us biologically. We are here now, and we want to go on living; so we try to make the best of it.” – Bryan Magee.2




On a recent trip to Boston, I found myself in the Harvard Book Store where I found this jewel of a book by Bryan Magee. I was familiar with Professor Magee (1930-2019) from YouTube searches I did on philosophy in the last four years. He hosted programs on the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s where he discussed and interviewed famous living philosophers on their philosophies or on their understanding of the thoughts of earlier philosophers.  His guests included W. V. Quine, Noam Chomsky,  A.J. Ayer, Hilary Putnam,  and many others and his subjects included Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Marx,  Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Logical Positivism, and so forth. I found his clarifications of even complex philosophical subjects incredibly helpful. I strongly advise my readers to check out his programs – Men of Ideas, Thinking Aloud, and The Great Philosophers – on YouTube.

His obituary available at says he was a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, King’s College among others, published over 20 books, was an authority on Richard Wagner, an erstwhile television and media critic, and twice a member of the British Parliament in addition to his broadcast career. According to Wikipedia, Ultimate Questions was his last book (2016), but in the author’s opinion his only original contribution to philosophy. He was quoted in 2018, then living in a nursing home, that with this book he hoped to approach the originality of Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, or Einstein “not because I want to be a clever chap but because I want to do things that are at a much better level than I have done them”3 – hard to believe!

The 127 pages that make up the text are divided into seven chapters of 10 to 26 pages each. The first chapter called Space and Time begins  with the simple observation that if we use 100 years as the extreme of age occurring in every era, human civilization is only 60 lives and Jesus is only 20 persons ago. Nonetheless, “each of us has no choice but to live the whole of his life in his own little bit of time.”4 Also “while we are enjoying our moment, our spatial movements are confined to a small space, so our limitations in that dimension too are draconian.”5  He then takes on reality in its totality reminding us that Einstein proved there is no objective now or flow of time, only time sequences, and that even at the speed of light, humans having short lifespans will always be limited to a small area of the cosmos. He reminds us that our apprehension of things is affected by relative sizes, that all beings are temporary rearrangements of subatomic matter that is continuously reshuffled, and that there is far too much in the universe for any of us to know or understand. He states his thesis succinctly: “it is surely clear that reality will never be intellectually mastered by humans.”6

(continued next post)


1Magee, Bryan, Ultimate Questions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-17812-7.

2Ibid., page 33.

3Wikipedia, Bryan Magee.

4Magee, Bryan, Ultimate Questions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-17812-7, page 7.

5Ibid., page 8.

6Ibid., page 15.


“…it is not rank but virtue that makes a man good; not office but character. A proud man disdains his former friends, ignores acquaintances made yesterday, is contemptuous to old companions.”– Lothario Dei Segni (Pope Innocent III).


Stoic teaching comes down to a metaphysic of cosmic order based on benevolent but deterministic Providence mirrored in human rationality and virtue, an ethic of universal brotherhood and unanimous duty to participate, and a psychology of apatheia or detachment leading to inner tranquility. The four most famous Roman Stoics discussed in the last 8 blogs arrive at a consensus on the following points.

First, humans are naturally social animals and thus have a need for others. On this Seneca is unequivocal; human society is necessary for human flourishing. Second the world of others is the arena of activity where our providential role and duty are fulfilled. Here Cicero emphasizes the importance of honor among acquaintances while Marcus Aurelius repeatedly observes that the harmony of the whole is dependent on the performance of the individual. Third, the challenge of dealing with others is the test of the philosopher’s capacity to maintain tranquility. Epictetus goes further seeing a superadded purpose in our serving as a model to attract others to a philosophical disposition. A fourth Stoic purpose of acquaintances is their potential to contribute to our self-improvement and honing of virtue. And last, as Marcus Aurelius reminds us, we may need to turn to acquaintances for help as circumstances require.

According to these great thinkers, the need for the society of others must not undermine the internal need for tranquility and order. They offer many techniques to overcome external disturbances such as mental preparation for the day ahead, withdrawal into oneself when in a crowd or when exposed to disorder, maintenance of a cosmic perspective on the ultimate insignificance of temporal disruptions, charitable acceptance of the inevitable imperfections of others, and control of one’s thoughts regarding others.

Drawing on the Hellenic traditions of Stoicism and Epicureanism, the Roman Stoics define our individual purpose with regards to other people more clearly than perhaps any earlier or later school. As a result, their teachings were adopted and modified by Christianity and serve as guidance even to this day. Next we look at two opposing thinkers from the 19th century – Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson.


The emperor-philosopher’s final guidance concerns our actions among other people – from our habitual behavior to the pursuit of fame or the seeking of help.  For example, it is no surprise that he inverts the issue of troublesome people on to oneself with “You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically or with conflicting motives. Do not dress up your thoughts in smart finery: do not be a gabbler or a meddler.”14 When dealing with others, he advises “in each case we must say: this has come from god; this is due to a juncture of fate, the mesh of destiny, or some similar coincidence of chance; and this is from my fellow man, my kinsman and colleague, thought one who does not know what accords with his own nature. But I do know: and so I treat him kindly and fairly, following the natural law of our fellowship, but at the same time I give him his proper desert in matters which are morally neutral.”15 Regarding anger and fame he sees them as passion and desire in which one surrenders oneself to the offence or judgment of others. As for needing help from others he says, “Do not be ashamed of help. It is your task to achieve your assigned duty, like a soldier in a scaling-party, What, then, if you are lame and cannot climb the parapet by yourself, but this is made possible by another’s help?”16

There is much, much more. Book 2:5 and 4:24 offer guidance on concentration on meaningful activities. Book 3:4:1 disdains wasting one’s time thinking about others faults or actions. Book 6:48 recommends cheering oneself up by reflecting on the good qualities of acquaintances. And amazingly, Book 11:17 gives a 10 point list of how the experience of others does not and cannot harm you. Marcus Aurelius is still a remarkably fresh guide to the reality of others as the furniture of the world. It is in this inhabited world where we must perform our duties and where we encounter the relationships that permit the demonstration of our capacity for kindness and our skill in maintaining tranquility. Next time we will sum up the Stoic idea of purpose in acquaintance, reviewing Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Join me then.


14Meditations, Book 3:5.   15 Book 3:11:3.    16 Book 7:7.


In the last two blogs we saw that the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius centers  on Providence, duty, and universal brotherhood and is premised on active participation  in the world. We also learned about his four basic techniques to maintain tranquility and his advice to prepare for each day and for the meeting of new people. Today we pick up a third flavor of Marcus’ counsel which addresses dealing with the faults and malice of others.

Take for example his advice for dealing with self-interested persons. “How cruel it is not to allow people to strive for what seems to them their interest and advantage! And yet in a way you are forbidding them to do this when you fuss that they are wrong; surely they are drawn to their own interest and advantage. ‘But is it not actually so?: well then, teach them, show them, do not fuss.”10  Another example is his reflections  on those with a variety of other faults. “Whenever you are offended at someone’s lack of shame, you should immediately ask yourself: ‘So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?’ It is not possible. Do not then ask for the impossible. This person is just one of the shameless inevitably existing in the world. Have the same thought ready for the rogue, the traitor, every sort of offender. The recognition that this class of people must necessarily exist will immediately make you kinder to them as individuals.”11

Marcus also has an almost Christian attitude to his adversaries. “When another blames or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what kind of people they are. You will realize there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any other opinion of you. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends…”12  Or we can follow a different course, “In the field of play an opponent scratches us with his nails, or gives us a butting blow with his head: but we do not ‘mark’ him for that, or take offence, or suspect him afterwards of deliberate attack. True, we do keep clear of him: but this is good-natured avoidance, not suspicion or treating him as an enemy.” 13 There is much more on maintaining composure in the face of others characters, for example: ignorance, disloyalty, or ingratitude (Book 9:42:3), wrong-doing (Book 5:25, 5:35, 8:56, 9:2, 9:20, 9:42:2, 10:30, and 12:11), untruthfulness or injustice (Book 6:47), propensity to criticism (Book 10:13, 11:13), obstructivism (Book 11:13) and even grief-sharing (Book 5:36).

(final continuation next post)

10Meditations, Book 6:27.            11Book 9:42.        12 Book 9:27.        13 Book 6:20.


Since Marcus thinks action in the world is essential to a meaningful life but worldly annoyances may affect one’s tranquility, he suggests one prepare for the day with a few useful reflections. Book 5 begins: “At break of day when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind; ‘I am getting up for a man’s work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out for what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world?’ ”4 And he defines ‘man’s work’ in this quote:  “Man’s joy is to do man’s proper work. And work proper to man is benevolence to his own kind, disdain for the stirrings of the senses, diagnosis of the impressions he can trust, contemplation of universal nature and all things thereby entailed.”5

He also suggests we prepare for the people with whom we will come in contact. “Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right , and the nature of evil what is wrong, and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none of them will infect me with their wrong.”6 Elsewhere he tells us “In this world there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true or just.” 7

He also advises on meeting new people, “ask yourself first this immediate question: ‘What beliefs does this person hold about the good and bad in life?’ Because if he believes this or that about pleasure and pain and their constituents, about fame and adversity, death and life, then I shall not find it surprising or strange if he acts in this or that way, and I shall remember that he has no choice but to act as he does.”8 And if you can, “show them the better way. If you cannot, remember that this is why you have the gift of kindness. The gods too are kind to such people, and in their benevolence even help them to achieve some ends – health, wealth, fame. You can do it too.”9

(further continued next post)


4Meditations, Book 5:1.      5 Book 8:26.        6 Book 5:1.            7 Book 6:47.

8 Book 8:14.                               9Book 9:11.


“If you want to gain control of pain, open up this blessed book and enter deep within it. Its wealth of philosophy will bring you to see with ease all the future, the present, and the past, and you see that joy and distress have no more power than smoke.”– Simokattes Theophylaktos (attributed), codicil to Book 12 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

We have now reviewed the thoughts of three famous Stoics on purpose and acquaintances: Cicero who sees their purpose in a fundamental need of humans for society and as the field of moral duties; Seneca who considers them a kind of necessary evil and test of virtue on the road to tranquility; and Epictetus who sees them as unavoidable and of limited value except for cautious enjoyment and as the arena for modeling philosophical principles. Today we delve into the mind of our last Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), Roman emperor and philosopher.

His book originally titled To Himself, but now universally called Meditations, has three functions – the exploration of metaphysics, mental exercises in self-control and tranquility, and a Stoic approach to dealing with society which has the appearance of a philosophical cognitive behavioral therapy. Consider this quote: “Do not come back to philosophy as schoolboy to tutor, but rather as a man with ophthalmia returns to his sponge and salve, or another to his poultice or lotion. In this way you will prove that obedience to reason is no great burden but a source of relief.”1 It is this latter function we investigate now.

Marcus’ philosophy is centered on Providence (or universal order), human rationality, duty, and the universal brotherhood. The text is addressed to himself and thus does not consist of rigorous philosophical arguments, but intense reflection and distilled self-counsel. He accepts the premise that one has a duty to participate in the affairs of the world via a ‘directing action’ or praxis. Societal life then is analogous to a wrestling match or contest where providential duties are completed in a virtuous manner and with tolerance of one’s fellow human beings.2 About one third of Meditations describes intellectualized techniques for dealing with others that facilitate equanimity and serenity.

In general, the most powerful method he describes is withdrawal into the self although this must be balanced with social involvement and fulfillment of one’s role in the world. A second method is to recall the insignificance of all events and all people, including oneself, in comparison to eternity and the cosmos.3 A third method is to remind oneself that all people have faults, including oneself, and thus it should come no surprise that offensive action or speech is at times directed at oneself. And the fourth is to remember that fame or recognition by others is ultimately meaningless; whereas consummation of duty keeps one in harmony with the universe and its order.

(continued next post)


1Meditations, Book 5:9.

2Clay, Diskin (introduction), Marcus Aurelius Meditations. Penguin Books Ltd., London, England, 2006. ISBN-13; 978-0-140-44933-4, pages xi-xli.

3See blogs on the Cosmic Perspective dated 5/7/21 and 5/10/21 on this site.


“Self-interest is but the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for man with self-surrender.” – Henri Amiel, Swedish philosopher.

In the last two posts, we looked at how two Stoics assessed purpose and acquaintance: Cicero who sees its purpose as filling a fundamental need of humans for society with others and as opportunity to carry out moral duties and demonstrate honor and decorum, and Seneca who considers acquaintances as a kind of necessary evil and test of virtue in the ultimate quest for tranquility. In other words Cicero seems to view acquaintanceship as predominately positive while Seneca views it as mostly negative. We move next to Epictetus (CE 60 to 138), the former slave and exceedingly pious pagan whose teachings emphasize the divine, metaphysics, internal ethics, and human mortality, and only incidentally address human relationships.

While an apparent hermit, Epictetus condones trying “to enjoy the great festival of life with other men.”1 He also asserts that humans are made for an active life. But perhaps the most revealing statement regarding his observations of human relations is this: “For universally, be not deceived, every animal is attached to nothing as much as its own interest.”2 Self-interest then is the modus operandi of most acquaintances. Alternatively a friend must remove this ‘bestial principle’ and suppress self-interest for friendship to flourish.

Epictetus offers guidelines in behaving with others. “Wouldst thou have men speak good of thee? Speak good of them. And when thou hast learned to speak good of them try to do good unto them, and thus thou will reap in return their speaking good of thee.”3 He urges forgiveness over revenge; devising his own golden rule – “My brother ought not to have treated me thus. True; but he must see to that. However he may treat me, I must deal rightly with him. That is what lies with me, what none can hinder.”4 The good demonstrate by example by being sufficient to themselves and avoiding the contamination of the crowd. “Strive to walk alone and hold converse with thyself, instead of skulking in the chorus!”5 He also advises “be cautious in associating with the uninstructed.” 6  A philosopher does not apply to others, but attracts them. When certain company cannot be avoided he advises “Bear and forbear.” 7 And finally “Nature hath given man one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” 8

In brief Epictetus believes the wise man is concerned with his own mind, with the study of philosophy, and remaining free from passion and perturbation. Human acquaintances are unavoidable and perhaps necessary, but relationships should be tempered and ground in virtue whatever treatment we may receive from others, and play only a secondary role in the ideal life.


Eliot, Charles W.  (editor), The Harvard Classics: Plato Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. P.F. Collier and Son Corporation, New York, 1937. Page 118

2Epictetus, Discourse Book II, Chapter 22 in Great Books of the Western World, Volume 12, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., page 168.

3Eliot, Charles W.  (editor), The Harvard Classics: Plato Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. P.F. Collier and Son Corporation, New York, 1937. Page 133

4Ibid. page 153.

5Ibid. page 155.

6Ibid. page 157.

7Ibid. page 179.

8Ibid. page 183.


“A crowd is not company.” – Francis Bacon




In the last section, I introduced the Stoic approach to acquaintance noting its strong psychological features and ended with Cicero who proposed that society and interpersonal interactions are vital to the ideal life while moral duty, honor, and decorum inform our purpose with acquaintances in the harmonious participation therein. Our second Stoic philosopher is Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE). Seneca seems to agree that society is necessary to human flourishing and even says, “You must live for your neighbor if you would live for yourself,” but overall his writings emphasize the dangers of others and of society to one’s virtue and tranquility. He is particularly cautious with respect to premature friendship recommending against considering a person a friend whom one has just met or whom one cannot trust as fully as oneself.  He advises long deliberation on a potential friend after a sufficient discretionary period warning, “Some people give casual acquaintances full accounts of what ought to be confided only to friends.”1

In the quest for tranquility and ethical perfection, Seneca cautions us to limit our contacts with certain types of people. “A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness, a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust of upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.”2 Frequent contact with unworthy acquaintances is a dead end; “Inevitably you either imitate or loathe. But both alternatives must be avoided. Neither become like the bad because they are many, nor hostile to the many because they are different.”3

He has similar concerns about large groups. “Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it.”4 He also warns of the danger of seeking public approval which has little value for the Stoic and is inevitably suspect; “The many admire you, but have you grounds for self-satisfaction if you are the kind of man the many understand?”5

Seneca’s guidance is a recurring Stoic theme: “Retire into yourself as far as you can.”6 With regard to the desire of publicity or fame, he counsels “Your merits should face inwards.”7 Purpose with regards to acquaintance for Seneca is perhaps best reflected in one line “Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.”8 In summary, where Cicero sees acquaintance as a forum for manifesting honor and virtue, Seneca is more concerned about its pitfalls and with its threats to one’s virtue.


1Hadas, Moses (editor/translator), The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-393-00459-7, page 168.

2Ibid., page 173.


4Ibid. page 172.

5Ibid. page 174.

6Ibid. page 173.

7Ibid. page 174.

8Ibid. page 173.