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Why isn’t there more philosophy on TV?

Programme Name: Socrates: Genius of the Ancient World - TX: 12/08/2015 - Episode: Socrates: Genius of the Ancient World. (No. 2/3) - Picture Shows:  Bettany Hughes - (C) BBC - Photographer: Tim KnightThis Wednesday, at 9pm, a rare event is taking place: the BBC is showing a TV programme about philosophy. Yes, a philosophy TV programme! Rarer than a blue moon or a Scottish Labour MP. Classicist Bettany Hughes (that’s her on the left) presents a three-part show on BBC 4 called Genius of the Ancient World. The programmes explore the ideas of Socrates, Buddha and Confucius, and how these three ‘axial age’ thinkers challenged the dogma of their times and (it is argued) moved towards rationalism, coming up with fascinating answers to that perennially interesting ethical question: how should we live?

It’s rare for the BBC to have a TV show on philosophy, or even a mention of philosophy in one of its arts or history programmes. Why is this? And does the BBC’s religion and ethics department, which produced this programme, have a naturalistic bias (by which I mean it tends to favour rationalist / naturalist / atheist philosophies and view-points)? I asked Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion and ethics at the BBC.

This is the first series on philosophy for years, or so it seems. How hard is it to get philosophy programmes commissioned? Why are there so few philosophy programmes on TV?

It’s a fair question if you say is this specifically about philosophy and not a hybrid of many genres and subjects. There are many big thoughts that get pondered on television as well as moral and ethical debate but it’s been a while since there was something specific that shouted very loudly that this is a series about philosophers. It wasn’t a hard sell as the stories are so good because as long as the subject area and presentation of it feels like it will engage with a wide enough audience then the idea will get commissioned. The point of connecting these three minds to a particular collective moment in time and making the assertion that their philosophies in some way still affect us today was what made it stand out. The addition of Bettany Hughes and the track record of the team behind it in making similar high quality programming for BBC Four was a further factor as was the Open University’s support for the series.

If there so few programmes on philosophy it’s probably more down to the fact that finding an engaging vehicle and unique selling point has been harder for other ideas.

Why did you want to make this programme?

These are key characters who are globally recognised as having an impact on how we approach various notions of community, virtue and the self. And the fact that they all live in a similar time frame will be fascinating for many of our viewers.

An engaging series on them will both be of interest today to our audience who are aware of their impact but don’t necessarily know a great deal, but also tomorrow as part of learning journeys that our audiences can go on to help with religious literacy.

The programme description describes Socrates and the Buddha as naturalists moving humans beyond supernaturalism. Is that true?

The series shows how the  three philosophers played their part in a wider shift towards a more rationalist approach to the big questions of human existence. However, we see that they were still very much men of their time and didn’t deny the existence of Gods and spirits.

Aaqil Ahmed, head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC
Aaqil Ahmed, head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC

This line from the Socrates episode kind of sums up this balancing act: “Socrates didn’t deny the existence of the Gods, but his emphasis on the capacity of humans to shape their own destiny, could be seen as challenging their traditional authority.”

We learn that The Buddha also harnessed the power of the human mind, to examine his experiences, to work out, for himself, a solution to the human condition. But his understanding of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, that humankind was trying to escape from, still included the possibility of re-birth in the form of a God.

We explore the notion of a higher, more comprehensive ‘human good’ that seemed to interest all three philosophers: something to be worked out, through our own reflexive, analytical capabilities, without recourse to metaphysical speculation, or blind faith; and in terms of personal morality – comprehensive answers to what constitutes a good person and a good life, in this world, is what they come back to.

In the series we look at how Confucius was unwilling to talk about the spirits of the dead in any length. But he still seems to have accepted their existence. He says, in relation to a question from one of his students, about ancestor worship: “You are still not able to do your duty to the living, how can you do your duty to the ghosts and spirits.” He adds: “You do not understand life, how can you understand death”.

We examine how their beliefs seem to have been a question of emphasis, and priority. Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha were all ‘religious’ to a degree. But what fascinated them far more was a systematic understanding of what humans could achieve on their own. This did often mean challenging and transcending pre-existing conventions, traditions and values, but not necessarily replacing them.

In general, it seems to me the BBC’s religion and ethics department has a naturalistic bias and is wary of supernaturalistic explanations and beliefs. So even if you make a series on pilgrimages or the history of Christianity for example, you get agnostics or atheists to present them, like Simon Reeves. Why is that?

I don’t agree with that, this series and many of our other documentaries are shown in prime time and we want to work with prime time talent. All the usual factors apply to the selection of on-screen talent such as knowledge, appeal and time slot suitability. Over the last few years that has included historians such as Dairmaid McCullough, Simon Sebag Montifiore and Bettany Hughes; journalists such as Simon Reeve, Rageh Omar and Anita Anand; academics and theologians such as Robert Beckford, Peter Owen Jones and Francesca Stavrakapolou; writers such as Melvyn Bragg and Myriam Francois Cerrah and talent such as Fern Britton, Nicky Campbell, Meera Syal, Mark Dowd and Ann Widdicombe. It’s a fairly eclectic group and some are religious and some not, but all of them have been and are key talent for the BBC’s factual religion and ethics output.

So there you go – not sure he answered the last question entirely, or what naturalist versus supernaturalist beliefs have to do with ‘prime time talent’. Are atheists more prime time than theists?

Anyway, there’s still plenty of philosophy on BBC radio 4, it just hasn’t found much of a place yet on TV. That’s probably as much the fault of philosophers as the BBC – philosophers have lost the art of public communication, and academic philosophy lacks giants of the stature and celebrity of, say, Bertrand Russell. TV is also very much a visual medium, and it’s hard to bring ideas to life visually – it needs a decent budget, imagination, and a creative and ambitious producer. Perhaps young philosophers like me need to think of other ways to get their ideas out there, like YouTube channels, Udamy courses, or crowd-funded documentaries. In the meantime, this sounds like a good series, and proof that people are still interested in philosophers’ answer to the question: how to live?

Plotinus, Inception and the levels of the self

I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus. It’s marvellous – only 100 pages long, yet so much wisdom and poetry in it. My favourite passage in it is when Hadot talks about the ‘levels of the self’.

Plotinus’ hierarchy of reality

Plotinus believed in what Hadot calls ‘the hierarchy of realities’: at the top of the hierarchy is the One, God, the source of everything. Then comes the ‘Nous’, the intellect or Mind which rules all things. Then comes the psyche, or soul, which connects the intelligence to the world of matter, and then finally matter. Plotinus believed that the lower stages of the hierarchy flow down or ‘emanate’ from the upper stages, becoming progressively less simple, perfect and real. They owe their existence and their reality to the One, while the One is itself simple, perfect and self-sufficient. He was the opposite of a materialist, then – he thought matter owes its existence to Mind.

I don’t completely understand this either, to be honest. But let’s press on.

Hadot tells us that these ‘levels of reality’ also refer to ‘levels of the self’. The construction of the self mirrors the construction of cosmic reality. Our selves have multiple levels – matter, the psyche (which connects body and mind), the Nous or discriminating intelligence, and finally the One, the spark of God within us. Our consciousness usually exists only at the lower end of this hierarchy – in the realm of matter, and of material desires. But nonetheless, the upper levels of our self are still there, connected to God, even if we’re not conscious of it.

It’s an amazing thought – right now, a level of my self is in heaven. But I only become conscious of this divine level in my self in very rare moments of ecstasy. In such moments we don’t actually reach anywhere ‘new’ – our consciousness simply steps out onto the glorious penthouse of our self, as it were. We realize ‘oh, I’m home!’  The upper level is blissfully familiar to us, because we all came from the One, but forgot and got caught up in the lower levels.

Plotinus writes: ‘Not everything in the soul is immediately perceptile, rather it comes through to ‘us’ when it reaches percetion. Yet as long as a part of our soul is active but does not communicate [this fact] to the perceptual apparatus then the activity does not reach the entire soul.’

Hadot explains this passage thus:

Consciousness is a point of view, a centre of perspective. For us, our ‘self’ coincides with that point from which a perspective is opened up for us, be it into the world or onto our souls. In other words, in order for a psychic activity to be ‘ours’, it must be conscious. Consciousness then – and along with it our ‘self’ – is situated, like a median or an intermediate centre, between two zones of darkness, stretching anove and below it: on the one hand, the silent and unconscious life of our ‘self’ in God; on the other, the silent and unconscious life of the body. By means of our reason, we can discover the existence of these upper and lower levels.

This reminds one very much of Ken Wilber and his integral philosophy. Wilber also speaks of a hierarchy of realities, or ‘great chain of being’, which exists both in cosmic reality and in the self (pictured on the left). Wilber’s philosophy is, in fact, quite influenced by Plotinus. However, there’s a big difference between the two. With Plotinus, the ascent of the soul from the lower realms to the higher realms comes by trying to ‘forget’ the lower levels – forget the body, forget the emotions, forget sex, forget memories or the unconscious, forget the things of this world, forget everything except God. Wilber’s integral philosophy instead tries to include and integrate the lower levels in the ascent to the One – include the body, include the emotions, include sex, include the unconscious. Because if you try to forget this stuff or deny it, it will come back and haunt you, and block your ascent.

So the modern neoplatonism of Wilber and others is much more Jungian, one could say. It tries to integrate the lower and the higher levels of the self, including the unconscious.

I thought of Plotinus, Wilber and Jung when I was at a conference on psychedelics earlier this month, and a philosopher called Dave King talked about the spectrum of consciousness. He used this diagram to illustrate his point:

Threshold of consciousness.001

Most of these ‘levels of the self’ happen beyond our conscious awareness, although they’re always ‘running’. Sometimes, our consciousness moves down the spectrum and we can access these lower levels – when we fall asleep and start dreaming, for example, and we are able to access unconscious desires, habits and memories.

King suggests that spiritual techniques like psychedelic drugs or meditation can help us to move the ‘threshold of consciousness’ down, to unlock lower levels of the self, and to intervene. We can learn to consciously access and alter levels that are usually autonomic and unconscious, for healing purposes.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, we learn how to consciously access and alter automatic belief patterns. But we may be able to go deeper than that through more contemplative or ecstatic practices – unlocking and altering deep repressed memories, or autonomic processes like our immune system. King gave various examples of people who had managed to change auto-immune illnesses like allergies or even multiple sclerosis using psychedelics. Perhaps we can even go down and alter our processes at the cellular level – becoming conscious of our DNA or the chemical constituents of plants.

Now in Plotinus’ model of the ascent of the soul, we forget the lower levels. They exist only to be disciplined, silenced and ultimately expunged as the soul flies up the One. But compare this to Plotinus’ most famous student, St Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine plumbs the depths of his memories, his desires, his body, in order to remember who he is, in order to rediscover the deepest level of his self, which is God.

Where Plotinus flies up and tries to forget the lower levels, Augustine goes down, and tries to remember. That is a much more modern approach – the way up is the way down. Take the elevator down, all the way down, even into the limbo level, to try and remind oneself, that this is all a dream, that there is a divine reality which we have forgotten and left behind.

This was meant to be a blog about how these ideas play out in the film Inception, which seems influenced by some of these neoplatonic ideas. In Inception, Cobb rides the elevator of consciousness all the way down, through memories to the unconscious, in order to try and wake up.

The film is about one of the great risks of the Platonic mystical journey – how do you know, in your attempt to leave this world and ‘wake up’ to a higher spiritual reality, that you are not in fact merely leaving one dream for another? How do you know you have actually woken up?