LIFE AND DEATH

“The goal of all life is death.” – Sigmund Freud.

Before we can talk of what happens after death we must understand exactly what life is, or perhaps what it means to be alive. Webster’s dictionary’s first definition of the word ‘life’ is:

“the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifest by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.”1

The German biologist and philosopher, Bernhard Rensch begins his defining of life by pointing out that the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not easy, as most distinguishing characteristics are shared by both groups. After an extended introduction, he concludes that living things have about a dozen major characteristics, one of which is temporary constancy, by which he appears to mean temporal continuity.2

On the other hand, the Webster dictionary defines ‘death’ as “the total and permanent cessation of all vital functions of an organism.”3

The philosophical implications of our definitions are self-evident.  First there are the two corollary principles: life requires continuity and death is permanent. Thus, by definition, there can be no life after death – it is logically impossible. Either the living being never died which meets the criterion of continuity or it is dead, which is irreversible.

Second, traditional conceptions of soul do not represent life as defined above, and therefore the soul cannot be the basis of eternal life. The consequence is that when most traditions speak of ‘immortality,’ they are not referring to unending life in the biological sense. It turns out there is ‘immortal’ life on planet earth, i.e. in the form of unicellular organism which multiply be asexual means, so that the original organism continues and in theory can continue to live indefinitely. However the price of multicellularity for humans is sexual reproduction and the inevitable death of the parental organism.

In addition to the epistemological proofs above, we have the experience of humanity – all human beings die, and none is later found living (we will discuss contradictions raised in the Bible in later posts). The only coherent conclusion is that human life is not eternal on either a logical or empirical basis. The concept of human immortality defined as eternal biological life can be discarded.

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1110.

2Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, pages 35-66.

3Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 513.

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CURRENT READING – IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? (cont’d)

In the last post I summarized an essay/lecture by Jacques Barzun from 1969 on the question of whether life is worth living. Today I will add some of my thoughts on his thesis and its application to our time.

I agree that we have difficulty separating feelings which are visceral from thoughts which presumably rely on reason. With so little in philosophy being certain, feelings and opinion become inescapable default criteria in the reasoning process. Barzun’s belief that life for each of us is experienced individually  rephrases a basic tenet of existentialism which when paired with Martin Heidegger’s observation that the self (or dasein) experiences itself as being-in-the-world, reinforces Barzun’s concern of society’s impact on the quality of our lives. But if we can only find meaning and happiness as individuals, society should be structured for every individual to succeed.

What is it about life that makes us wonder if it is worth living? Perhaps the answer is found in Buddha’s first noble truth; “Life is suffering.” In return for that suffering, man expects certain benefits – specifically the hope of happiness and meaning. Personal limitations, natural ills, and death can be accepted as unavoidable, but we seem unable to forgive the evils of the very society we created. For instance manners may appear superficial, restrictive, and inconvenient, but in fact Barzun, like Confucius, knows better – manners and respect for others is essential to their contentment. Immanuel Kant expands this into his  categorical imperative: we must never treat another as a means, only as an end.

Meaningful work is tied closely to the need for individual purpose in the achievement of happiness. Here I wonder if Barzun is being completely objective; the agrarian life of our ancestors seems no more meaningful than modern livelihoods. Nonetheless it is undeniable that finding societal purpose through one’s vocation is a critical piece of a flourishing life.

With regards to democracy and capitalism, they appear to allow the highest quality of life possible so far, but the negative consequences of materialism and futile competition are a trap that stymies fulfillment. In a world where the competition for physical survival is muted, we must be reminded frequently that material competition is a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche warns us that only through the careful examination of societal values and a powerful will to find our authentic role can we emerge from mediocrity.

It seems likely that within the near future (if not already), mankind will find the limits of secularism and humanism. Paul Tillich warns us repeatedly that the true ultimate concern must be identified for any hope of meaning in our lives. Humanism while noble seems to fail the test of ultimacy.

One place where I think Barzun can be challenged is on the end of great human causes. Hegel’s error on believing his generation was at the end of history should not be duplicated in our time. Homo sapiens is far too young to have mastered its mission as a species. There remains too much suffering in our world and danger to our planet, not to mention a universe only recently opened to our potential participation. Rather I suspect our immaturity as a species has left us unable to see through the miasma we have created by the failure to get our seven billion moving parts to work together.

I doubt Barzun would advise us to follow Arthur Schopenauer’s pessimistic path and  repudiate society. Instead he may be urging us to recognize the need to treat each other as valuable and deserving of respect, to identify a meaningful calling within the larger world, to redirect democracy and capitalism to the benefit of every living person, and to find our way to an ultimate cause. Humanity has much to offer the universe – it is up to us to find the means to accelerate that purpose and make life worth living.

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CURRENT READING – Is Life Worth Living ?

“That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions, and were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.” George Santayana

The Spring 2019 issue of American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, includes a half-century old essay by a 20th century historian, Jacques Barzun, with an introduction by his grandsons. It is the transcription of a lecture he gave at the University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine entitled “Man and Life” but which he called “Present Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life (1969).”

Barzun was a chronicler of the West’s decline and had been deeply affected by the horrors of the first World War that left him with a “permanent muting of the spirit.”  He matured into a humanist who insisted upon the inseparability of feelings from thought. He was deeply concerned with the individual’s interior life or ‘sense of self’ which he considered the primary determinant of one’s quality of life, and yet emphasized the role culture makes in the shape, form, and quality of our lives.

The dilemma of the 1960s according to Barzun (and perhaps our time as well) is that life seems to lack the right quality due to societal structure. Occupation becomes a rationalization rather than a reason for our desire to live. His critique of modern society describes six main problems:

1.   Social contacts are increasingly impersonal leading to alienation. Each of us begins to feel like a mere unit, manipulated by societal institutions, in a world without the manners that in earlier times served as a means of protection of the self.

2.  Work that leads to visible accomplishment has disappeared, and this is mirrored by the appearance of the failure of institutions and the state to ever solve problems. 

3.  Democratic competition and envy manifests as the repeated need to justify one’s existence, resulting in excessive self-consciousness that distorts reality as we become “spectators in our own life.”

4.  Secularism and equality limit life goals which leads to discounting of heroism and greatness, and dismissal of spiritual or religious life. 

5.  The historical success of the great human movements for democracy and equality left us without major societal causes within which individuals can find meaning. 

6.  Because most modern change is superficial rather than fundamental, there is only an illusion of change. He offers as evidence the thoughts of John Rushkin who predicted our misery of self-contempt and Thomas Carlyle who foretold the paralysis of social action.

Barzun worries that modern thinkers believe the solution to these problems can be engineered – genetically, psychologically, or politico-economically, but he disagrees pointing out that problems of human affairs rarely have such solutions. Many individuals instead default to neoprimitivism or drug-induced withdrawal.

He concludes that as a historian, his task is not to predict the future, but whatever it may be “What is certain is that the desire not for life alone, nor for brutish life, but for a special quality in life will not cease, even for the last shivering inhabitant of a devastated planet. That desire is planted deep, and it seeks its fulfillment, which is what makes humanity other than animal.”

(continued next post)

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SOUL – A SYNTHESIS – PART III – RECONSTRUCTION OF SOUL

“We are not our mind, we are not our body; our true identity is found in deep meditation joined with the universe.” – Eknath Easwaran.

 

 

Our last step is to reconcile the five human immaterial features – mind, will, personality, identity, and self – with the key characteristics of soul presented in the major traditions. These include:

    1.  Personhood

   2.   Indivisibility

   3.   Immutability

   4.   Platonic Ideas

5.   Subsistence

   6.   Timelessness

   7.   Connectivity to Universal Soul or Spirit

Most obviously, personality and identity seem to constitute the personhood of one of the Buddhist soul concepts, perhaps the least arguable element of man considered as soul. None of our five immaterial human features is divisible, so this part of soul theory is logically consistent as well. The identity and self are immutable and the contents of mind are the near instantiation of the Platonic Ideas. Subsistence is contained by will – Schopenauer’s thing-in-itself –  which I previously noted seems to be a visceral, unthinking self-preservation or self-affirmation.

Timelessness is a quality of the mind, that is its contents, rather than its origin in the brain. Newton’s description of the laws of physics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata do not exist in time; they are beyond time, and the thoughts they had, and similarly the thoughts we have, are not subject to the law of entropy and hence the direction of time. The will to exist, to grow, to love are not bound by time even if our biologic structure must cease to exist eventually.

Moreover the self in some circumstances can escape time, albeit briefly in terms of physical time. Hence the advice of the Tao Te Ching, “stay at the center of the circle (the Tao) and let all things take their course,” because “if you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart you will endure forever.” Plotinus similarly notes “immortality is not survival of the personality; it is the absorption of the soul in deathless things.” The metaphor of the immortality of the soul is encompassed in a spiritual experience of connection to the timeless, immaterial quality of the cosmos – the logos – which the great thinkers called the universal soul or spirit.

Our reconstituted concept of soul then is not a substance, but the immaterial depth and spiritual capacity of man. It does not require God, religion, immortality, or the supernatural. It is the seemingly universal ability of man to reflect deeply on himself and the universe, especially universal law. It involves science, art, morality, openness, freedom, hope, brotherhood, and love. It is not the concrete in our world, but the abstract, the ephemeral. All men and all women have access to it, and it ties all of us together beyond a particular body, space, or time.

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SOUL – A SYNTHESIS – PART II – HUMAN IMMATERIALITY

“My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it.” – Thomas Alva Edison.

 

Our next step is to compile a table of the human features indicative of soul scrutinized against the criteria for materiality listed in our last post (See Table 4 in Appendix). Of the eight intangible human features, only life fits all of the criteria of materiality, and thus should be rejected in a reformulation of soul. Perhaps it Is conflated with the presumed dynamic nature of the soul which may be contained in other features such as will.

Consciousness also meets several of the criteria of materiality, and is of course common among nonhuman animals. Man’s apparently unique capacity for self-consciousness seems to me an insufficient argument for immateriality, but if human consciousness of self can be united with a cosmic consciousness, that might signify an immaterial nature.

Being cuts across both material and immaterial reality so seems to be a neutral consideration, but it appears logically inconsistent to discard the characteristic of actual existence. For now it may be best to bracket being in our reconstruction.

The remaining five features – mind, will, personality, identity, and self – fail to meet even half of the criteria for materiality and thus deserve positing in our final reconstruction. They seem to be real, but cannot be directly perceived (by others); rather they are indirectly revealed by behavior of the physical body. They certainly do not occupy space and are indivisible. The main criterion of physicality they satisfy is particularity which seems a reasonably exception since it is essential to the logic of any discussion in which human immateriality is conceived as individual rather than shared.

In short, it seems that the soul can be reconstructed as the composite of these five immaterial features of man. They defy current scientific penetration, though that may change in the future. Based on this discussion and our scale in Table 4, the core of human immateriality are will and self with personality, identity and mind layered over them.

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SOUL – A SYNTHESIS – PART I – IMMATERIALITY

“What is finally the most revolutionary and fruitful aspect of our present age is the relationship it has brought to light between Matter and Spirit: spirit being no longer independent of matter, or in opposition to it, but laboriously emerging from it under the attraction of God by way of synthesis and centration. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man.

For those of us who find the arguments and warrants for belief in a soul unconvincing, we now reach the point of reconstruction. We have investigated the components of human existence which soul is presumed to explain and must now reconfigure them. Since the origin of soul belief is recognition that man in particular and reality in general seem to have two manifestations – physical and immaterial – we shall differentiate them first.

Physical reality is made up of matter which science tells us is subatomic particles (possibly themselves representing multidimensional strings of energy), that are compounded in steps into atoms, molecules, complex chemicals, visible matter, planetary and stellar bodies, and galaxies. It also includes intangible elements such as light, fire, electricity, magnetic fields, and gravity, which are not immaterial per se. Finally physical reality includes life, an emergent property of some complex organic matter..

Immaterial reality includes, mathematics, natural laws, ideas, thoughts, imagination, and possibly God. How real is the immaterial? Well, no perfect circle exists in nature, but the mathematics and concept of a perfect circle seem undeniable. We trust the laws of relativity are correct, but while the universe demonstrates its validity, the laws themselves are not a material substance. Neither ink on a piece of paper nor the sound waves of the voice of a reader are a poem, yet the poem seems real. We know the science of how an object appears red, but the mental qualia of redness cannot be seen on examining the brain.

There appear to be five general criteria to distinguish the physical from the immaterial:

  1. Spatiotemporality – existence in space (extension in classical philosophy) and time.
  2. Perceptibility – detectible by human senses with or without tools
  3. Mutability – ability to change (especially to be divided)
  4. Interactivity – participation in a causal chain within the material universe
  5. Particularity – individually unique

These are self-explanatory except the last. All physical substances are unique; no two material beings are the same – no two trees, birds, cows, or people. In the case of atoms with identical structure, numerical identity is still assured – two hydrogen atoms are in fact two different entities with the same make up (except for deuterium of course). Immaterial reality involves universals – the circle is invariable and appears to have no existential beginning or end. ‘Horse’ is a universal; Secretariat is a particular, hence the ancient Chinese paradox: “a white horse is not a horse.”

To repeat, the immaterial aspects of man resulted in postulation of a human soul. If we reject the soul, we are left with the original enigma of our immateriality. The monist solves this by rejecting the immaterial aspect of the person and disregarding any philosophical significance of the illusion of immateriality. The following posts will attempt an alternative understanding.

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DECONSTRUCTION OF THE SOUL – PART IV

“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” – Andre Malraux, La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate).

Deep within and increasingly elusive are three further intangible qualities of human beings: personality, identity, and self. There is much overlap in these, but what distinguishes them from the earlier characteristics is their roles in defining individuals.

Personality which Dagobert Runes defines as “the totality of mental traits characterizing an individual,”1 seems to be the most concrete and complex of these last three terms and has more psychological than philosophical meaning. It is also the most elastic of the intangible constituents of soul and loosely interchangeable with notions of external and internal self, for example Meister Eckhart’s inner man. Personality then is the fluid portion of the deconstructed soul.

Identity on the other had is more ontological in its meaning and so fixed – what makes a being or person the same at different times? The logician considers identity as x = x,  but this essentially never applies to existing things as at a material level, atomic and subatomic particles are constantly being removed and added, while animated beings by definition grow, change, and in the case of most animals gain and lose memories. The debates on the nature of identity are extended and complex and therefore beyond the limit of this short essay. Some philosophers deny identity at all (e.g. Hume). For our purposes, identity with respect to a human’s lifetime is best defined as physical and psychological spatiotemporal continuity. The usual theory of soul removes the physical requirement, but we will bracket that in our cataloguing of the soul.

At the very foundation of man is that quality called self – the subject side of soul – the me as opposed to the not-me in the words of William James.2 Ralph B. Winn defines it elegantly as the “metaphysical principle of unity underlying subjective experience.”3 Self is the central constituent of the soul, the sine qua non for both Eastern and Western religions and classical philosophers. But when the self is reflexively coupled to consciousness, the result self-consciousness instantiates the theory of soul. The difference for us is the choice not to treat the self as a substance per se.

This completes our deconstruction of the soul. In the next blog we will begin to reconstruct the catalogued constituents – being, vitality, consciousness, mind, will, personality, identity, and self – into a conceptual framework for thinking about the meaning of human existence.

 

1 Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p. 230.

2James, William, Principles of Psychology, The Great Ideas – Volume 53, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 196.

3 Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p. 288.

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DECONSTRUCTION OF THE SOUL – PART III

“It is us he inhabits, not the underworld, not the stars in the sky. The spirit who lives in us makes those.”- Agrippa von Nettesheim, quoted by Arthur Schopenauer in The World as Will and Idea.1

We have previously seen that being or actuality, vitality or life, and consciousness and mind are key immaterial or transcendental constituents of man and to a lesser extent other entities in the universe. Now we take up the fourth component, will. First I should clarify that I am referring to the noun – as in the referent for the adjective willful – rather than the verb referring to volition (we will discuss free will in a later section).

Will has an extensive philosophical history. Plato considers will as one of the three fundamental parts of the human soul – the other two being reason and appetite – though he refers to it as spirit as in spiritedness. Aristotle sees will as the motivating force which turns thought into action. Descartes finds will to be more extensive than intellect. Kant defines will as “the faculty of desire in so far as its inner principle of determination as the ground of its liking or predilection lies in the reason of the subject.” Locke distinguishes thought as passive while will is active. Freud repositions will in his psychological model as the ego.2

This spirited, motivating force, more extensive than intellect, the faculty of desire, and the active element underlying the ego is most richly developed in the writings of Arthur Schopenauer. He sees will as striving, impulse, instinct, interest, desire, and emotion. He asserts that we can know Kant’s thing-in-itself for ourselves by searching inside where we find the experience of striving or will. Will for Schopenauer is blind and unintelligent; his description of it seems to me a visceral, unthinking self-preservation.3 He attributes this conception of will to all of reality and decides the entire world of phenomena is objectified will. The path Schopenauer takes eventually leads to the Platonic ideas, the Upanishads and  Buddhism, aesthetics, and the tragedy of life and its suffering; but for our purpose, the key point is the place his description of will fills in understanding what lies in the abyss of human existence.

 

1Schopenauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, Orion Publishing Group, London, UK, 1995. ISBN 9778-0-4608-7505-9, page 27.

2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 1071-1076.

3Parker, DeWitt H. (editor), Schopenauer Selections, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1928, Introduction, pages ix-xxxii.

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DECONSTRUCTION OF THE SOUL – PART II

“The soul is only the thinking part of the body, and with the body it passes away. When death comes, the farce is over, therefore let us take our pleasure while we can.”- Julien Offray De La Mettrie, 1709-1751; French physician and philosopher.

The third traditional feature of a soul is consciousness, perhaps the greatest mystery of human existence. In his course on consciousness1, Daniel Robinson emphasizes consciousness as sui generis or unlike anything else and requiring science not yet available. It involves a difference between mere registering of an event as a machine can do and knowledge of it. It is a raw awareness and ability to experience, and in its most advanced form, reflexiveness or knowledge of the self. These unique characteristics within otherwise unconscious nature inherently lead us to consideration of a ‘soul.’ Mind adds to simple consciousness further features such as feelings, thoughts, memories, intentions, and so forth.

Robinson notes that typical philosophy of mind favors foundational explanations for the gap between the dynamics of the nervous system and the nature of consciousness – typically some form of causal law. In pure materialism, references to experienced phenomena or qualia (e.g.  the color “red”) are just states of the brain.  There are problems with this thesis, for example causation usually involves antecedent-consequent events to be of a similar type (e.g. billiard balls striking each other) which does not apply here. It is philosophically and scientifically difficult to see how mental activities lead to physical actions that realize mental purposes, and if mind states are just ‘states of the brain,’ mental acts do not seem to be physicalistically intelligible. People act for reasons not due to causes.

Alternatively if mental activities are ontologically identical to brain states, then relevant features should be interchangeable in linguistic use (Liebniz’s criterion). However as an example all of us know the mental state of ‘pain’, but most of us know very little of the physical basis for it, and regardless of  the brain state the neuroscientist pinpoints as ‘pain,’ we would still not deny the authoritative claim of a person to be experiencing pain in the absence of the correlating brain state.

Physicalists revert to modifications: (1) anomalous monism – how mental events and processes induce physical events precludes reduction to scientific terms, (2) supervenience theory – mental states arise from and depend on physical states just as a wood table supervenes on molecules and atoms (e.g. Donald Davidson), (3) proclamations that current physics and understanding of matter is too limited to explain consciousness (e.g. Roger Penrose), (4) default to quantum physics- the brain at the quantum level is an informational system where the mental and material merge (e.g. David Bohm). However Robinson seems to believe that all variations of monism are inadequate, and intuitively we all know mental life and consciousness are fundamentally different from physical states of the brain.

Each of us must reflect deeply on this difficult area of philosophy, but it seems to me the universal history of the bodily death of others as the end of demonstrable mental activity, the consistency of neuroscientific explanation of mind states, and my direct experience of the dependence of my mental life on my physical being (brain) invariably directs me to the monist school. Nonetheless, Robinson’s intuition of the lingering gap suggests an emergent quality of the brain as consciousness which we should incorporate into our revision of the soul.

 

1Daniel N. Robinson, Consciousness and Its Implications, Lectures 7-8. The Teaching Company, 2007

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DECONSTRUCTION OF THE SOUL – PART I

“The soul of man is – objectively considered – essentially similar to that of all other vertebrates; it is the physiological action or function of the brain.” – Ernst Heinrich Haekel,  The Wonders of Life.

 

After careful consideration of the proofs and warrants for belief in the soul, it appears we are at a dead end; it is simply a matter of faith or opinion. Perhaps we should back up and sort out those components of ourselves that suggested the possibility of a soul in the first place and see if they can be recast them for our purposes.

The ‘immaterial’ structure of humans appears – in rough order of increasing depth: (1) being or actuality, (2) vitality or life force, (3) consciousness, (4) mind, (5) will, (6) personality, (7) identity, and (8) self. All of these deserve some explication.

Starting with ‘being,’ we can review the teachings of Aristotle – to wit, the distinction between potentiality and actuality. In theory, there could exist any number of additional persons simply by further procreation. Those humans never conceived have potentiality, but only those born achieve actuality or being. Whatever concept we substitute for the soul will involve actuality.

Next is the characteristic of ‘life’ where I will draw on the writing of Henri Bergson.1,2  In his non-dualist system, both matter and life derive from a primal substance. Non-living things are more static, do not grow, lack memory, and do not endure in the same was as living things and especially conscious life. Life contains a dynamic element, accumulates a history, and is purposeful and creative. It contains an integrating force moving in a definite direction – a kind of cosmic vitalism or principle he calls the elan vital. Berson proposes that this force is trying to free itself from the domination of matter and achieve consciousness. Through experiment (trial and error?) the elan vital has found the storage and explosive release of energy possible by animals leads to freedom, and the greatest freedom is possible in vertebrates – culminating in man. Intelligence allows manipulation of matter, but is itself composed of static concepts. When intelligence is blended with instinct the result is intuition which is more fluid and allows knowledge of Kant’s thing-in-itself. Humans have this intuition in a limited form best seen in artists. In moments of intense joy or sadness, man connects intuitively with his inner self briefly and directly. Perhaps the elan vital  manifest in man is mirrored by a dynamic element in an alternate model of the soul  .

1Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, Random House, Inc. New York, 1944.

2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 477-485.

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