Rodney Codd thinks about... Gurus

As everyone knows, the celebrated sage of Greek antiquity, Diogenes of Sinope, lived the simplest of lives in a barrel, relying on the most minimal of material possessions to sustain him. However, his fame spred so widely troughout the ancient world that it turned him into a major celebrity, bringing him to the attention of the emperor Alexander himself, and attracting many students.
One day, while sitting outside his barrel, warming himself in the sun, Digenese was approached by a post-graduate student who wanted to be supervised on a doctoral programme. The student gushed with praise of Diogenes whom he treated with obsequious respect.

"Diogenese", he said, "you are the greatest philospher who has ever lived. I have read every word you have written: articles and books. I have watched every TV interview you have ever given. I have downloaded every podcast of every lecture you have delivered. I have attended seminars on every subject you teach and have spent my life-savings attending courses on your wisdom. I agree with everything you teach and I take every opportunity to inform others your ideas and to refute your opponents".

Diogenese looked glum.

The student continued, "I want to enrole in your study centre as a residential student so I can meet with you daily and learn at first-hand all your theories, emulate all your attitudes and absorb all your values".

Diogenese looked miserable.

"However", continued the student, "I have to warn you that after a few years studying under you I will begin to find mistakes in your teachings. I will identify prejudices, fallacies and sophistries here and there. I will pick trivial arguments with you just in order to show up some small error you have committed".

Diogenese started to smile a little.

"Later, the student said, "I will take the opportunity to publicly criticise your ideas and pour scorn on everything you teach. I will distance myself from your ideas and express embarrassment that I ever took your facile and fallacious ideas seriously. Eventually, I will deny that I ever learnt anything from you, or even knew you, and I will deride the absurd suggestion that I could ever have been your student".

Diogenese was smiling broadly now.

"Finally there will come a time", said the student, "when I will forget that you ever taught me. I will set up as a sage myself and those few ideas of yours that I continue to cherish I will claim as my own and forget that they originated from you. It will then be as if you had never existed".

At this Diogenese could contain himself no longer. He leapt to his feet with glee. "Yes, Yes!, he exclaimed, "of course I will be your supervisor for you truly know what it is to be a student!".
It was amongst the pre-socratic schools of philosophy that the idea of progress in knowledge through critical discussion was first invented. The idea that one might criticise the master outright and thereby modify and improve his ideas was utterly radical at the time. Up until then we find dogmatic schools of thought in religions and cosmological philosophies whose function is solely to impart a pure doctrine to the next generation unchanged from its formulation by the original master.

All thought in such schools consists of assertion, dogma and condemnation of error - never in dialogue and argument. The only *reasons* given for a doctrine are its derivation from orthodox tradition. The authority of the master and his legitimate heirs is paramount and it is vital never to admit new ideas from any other source.

Of course, in practice new ideas are introduced all the time, but it is never admitted that they are new. The heretic claims his doctrine is a return to the original, pure, orthodoxy or to a more accurate interpretation. The result is normally schism. A new school is formed with its own new dogmas - although the novelty is always denied.

There can never be a history of the development of ideas in this context as all ideas are ascribed to the master. All we can do is reconstruct a history of schism and a history of defence of true doctrine against heretics. There cannot be critical, rational discussion in a school - only arguments against dissenters, heretics and competing schools.

The principal heirs in the modern world to this classical tradition of critical reason are science and scholarship: the process of questioning and testing received opinion and modifying knowledge by discovering error. Science, has a genuine history of development and embodies real progress. However, regretably, the dogmatic schools are also still with us in the form of various New Age cults, pseudo-science theories, magical and occult traditions and so called "Complementary and Alternative Medicines". Unreason remains attractive!


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir/Madam

I violently disagree regarding your Diogenes piece. This is from ALfred E Neumann.

I know: I AM ALfred E Neumann. The lovely picture is me as an adolescent.

How dare you misrepresent me.


Anonymous said...

Dear Alfred

The likeness between us has been remarked on before but I can assure you that this is a genuine picture of me, Rod Codd. The truth of the matter is that many people do in fact look like AEN. Anyway - the veracity of my picture is irrelevant to the validity of my thesis. Just a matter of a simple logic!

All the best,
Rod Codd