Symposion III
  Coordinated by: Gn. Dionysius Draco

  1. Gn. Dionysius Draco, Sophist
  2. Q. Aurelius Orcus, Platonist
  3. M. Scribonius Curio, Eclectic
  4. Q. Claudius Locatus, Cynic
  5. Ti. Coruncianus, Stoic
Topics and conversation:

Draco: Our first topic shall be: Can there be a limit to our knowledge?

Curio: (walks into the villa, assessing the small audience. They all have their drinks to hand, and Curio asks for a rare wine from Apulia, to moisten the back of his throat.)

Our first topic is the limit of knowledge, and I shall be arguing the case from my own unique Eclectic point of view.

Of course, the first point to make is a distinction between different types of knowledge. Firstly, there is personal knowledge - that which a sentient being knows. Then there is absolute knowledge - quite simply, that which is a fact. After all, it may be that no sentient being knows the mass of a certain planet on the outer reaches of the universe. But can you deny that this is nonetheless knowledge?

However, given that the question asked was "Can there be a limit to our knowledge", I will assume that we are debating the nature of personal knowledge.

This question is not discussing human fallacies or faults. Some might argue that, since no memory can be infinite, our knowledge is inherently limited. However, the question still refers to our knowledge, and therefore it is speaking of collective knowledge, including written knowledge, which has no blocks such as memory.

I do not subscribe to the idea of certain single concepts being "unknowable" - surely that goes against the very nature of a concept. If a concept or idea is unknowable, then what is it? It's nothing, because it is inherent to the nature of a concept that it is knowable. Some might point to the human brain as being incomprehensible, but that is only by ourselves. A being with more intelligence would have no problem understanding our mind, and hence the mind is not incomprehensible.

The same goes for concepts that are, by their very nature, incomprehensible for beings that use our mathematical system. For instance, consider the square root of -1. An impossible number? Only for us - the square root of -1 has been proven to exist, and it is comprehensible, just not by humans.

So there are certainly limits to our knowledge, if "our" indicates humans. There are blocks to our knowledge of our own making, such as our mathematical system - meaning that we can use mathematical concepts without truly comprehending them, as with the supergravity theory.

And there are limits to the knowledge of all sentient beings, for which we must not look outwards, but inwards. As the renowned philosophical saying goes, "Know thyself." However, this is an impossibility. No person can know themselves entirely; in addition, no person can have complete knowledge of another person.

Such knowledge is unknowable in a complete form, because no person can have complete knowledge of him/herself or another person. Such is the limit to our knowledge - but the majority of knowledge is knowable, if not always comprehensible by our own minds.

(Curio draws in a deep breath, and notices that most of his audience have finished their drinks, and appear to be considering whether it would be bad taste to throw them at the speaker. He hurriedly sits down, and waits for the screams of abuse to commence.)

Orcus: (puts his glass of red wine on the table and stands up. He coughs first before speaking.)

Knowledge is both limited and unlimited to me. There are things in our universe that we don't know of, are impossible to know and can only be speculated on: the creation of our universe, black holes, et cetera... I believe that the Empiricists were the ones who said that all knowledge, all theories should be tested before accepted to be true. This is a true statement; however, we cannot test all theories, which leaves room for speculation and beliefs: for example, it is hard to test that there is life after death because there will always be someone who can discredit the theory and evidence, or who has a valid argument. But some theories can be put to the test (pro exemplo, the existence of extraterrestrials).

However, Curio has a point which I tend to agree with. It is impossible to know everything because our minds can only process as much information as they do, which in some ways can be compared to a personal computer. Put too much info/data into the PC and it will overload. I believe it to be true concerning the brain. How much information we can process with our brain is limited because it is subjected to natural laws. Our souls, however, may contain info gathered over past lifetimes, just not reachable by everyone. It can only be reached through series of meditations or rituals to gain access to the info our soul has gathered over past lifetimes. Even though I tend to believe that the metaphysical and the physical work together, the one does not need the other to function. And the metaphysical laws are yet another subject to debate and speculate about.

It is also something that we may not fully understand because we belong to the natural and not to the supernatural which is the realm of our souls, daemons and Gods. Supernatural beings, like daemons and Gods, can teach us anything there is to know of everything; but the real question or questions we should be asking is: Are we ready to receive such information? And can we handle the truth?

(Orcus takes his glass of fine red wine back into his hand as he is going to sit down again. He anxiously awaits any comment and criticism as the next speaker is prepared to step up to the plate.)

Coruncanius: First, it is a pleasure to be here in your company at this symposium. I have enjoyed what I have heard so far and hopefully, I shall be able to speak my piece as well as you.

So I am to speak of Stoicism next. This is fine with me though I admit a bit of apprehension and nervousness at speaking of the Romans' predominant philosophy at this point in the conversation. Certainly, there are those better qualified than I to expound the virtues of this philosophy. Think of this not as the final words on the matter but the first words of something worth reflecting upon and discussing for many times to come.

On to my reflections; may I prove to be a worthwhile guest here.

The extent of our knowledge is the question put to us. I think this rightly may be considered different from the question, “What is the extent of knowledge?” Scribonius Curio has demonstrated this already, so I am left to begin with my statements.

In preparing for this discourse, I broke down the question put to us, “What is the extent of our knowledge?” into parts. First, what is knowledge and how do people come by knowledge? And, what, if anything limits our knowledge? How does a person obtain their knowledge about themselves and the world around them? The answer is a simple one. A person learns about everything they encounter by what he or she experiences with their senses. This is why Stoics say that the human mind is a blank slate – tabula rasa. Upon this blank surface all of our experiences are recorded. From these sense-experiences we derive our knowledge.

Is the total of sensory experiences whatever they are, to be taken as our knowledge? This is certainly a question posed as a challenge to the Stoics. Some might indeed say, “yes” although I admit I would answer “yes” conditionally. I am all too happy to offer the statement of the Skeptic Arcesilaus as preserved by Cicero which asserts, “No impression arising from something true is such that an impression arising from something false could not also be just like it.” Certainly this could be the case. As an example, Diogenes Laertius relates an anecdote about Sphaerus, a student of Zeno. Sphaerus was shown a bunch of fake fruit, wax pomegranates to be exact. Sphaerus said after observing them that they most likely were pomegranates. When it was revealed to him that the fruits were nothing more than wax, his opponent thought that he proved the Stoic premise wrong. Did this somehow prove the premise wrong that knowledge is based upon our sensory impressions? No, in fact it did not. Sphaerus agreed that the wax pomegranates appeared to be what they appeared to be - pomegranates. When shown that they were actually wax, thus showing his observation in error, Sphaerus replied that he agreed that what he saw appeared to be pomegranates he never stated that what he saw necessarily had to be pomegranates. It is up to the person to decide, based on the information they have obtained through their senses, what is true and comprehensible from what is actually false and only appearing to be true. This, I think is done by applying one’s intellect and reason to sensory experience. Only then, I think, would this actually become knowledge.

As shown in this rather simple example, knowledge can change. The more that is revealed to us through our senses, the more we learn about something. This could add to our knowledge of a thing, it could change our knowledge of a thing or it could prove that what we thought we knew something to be was in fact something different. Certainly, there are cases where our knowledge could be complete, where it does not change, “where our cognition is secure, firm and unchanged by any reason.” In many other cases, as we live our lives day to day our senses provide us with opportunity to allow us to add to and revise, if need be, our knowledge about the world.

So then to the main question, what factors limit our knowledge? From my previous remarks on knowledge and how we obtain it, it is clear that our senses are limiting factors in our knowledge. If we are unable to receive some sensory input through our sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, then how will we begin to learn about such a thing? Through experiences with our senses, we come to know the world around us. I am not suggesting that we are all somehow hampered by these senses, for how else could we learn about the world? I think a greater limit on our knowledge is the poison of our emotions that cause us to err because they lead us to attachments to, or aversions from, certain things that exist around us. Our reason, which is a primary attribute of the nature of humans, allows us to determine what is true from what is erroneous. Our intellect permits us to then determine how what we experience relates to the rest. The closer one lives according to reason, the greater their limits of knowledge. If a mind is free from emotion, then it is more capable of perceiving more and obtaining more knowledge of the world around it.

Thank you for your attention, that is about all I have to say right now.

Draco: Salvete, salvete amici mi!

Good to have you here. Heard some interesting opinions. Allow me to comment on them and show you how I feel about attaining knowledge from my own sophist point of view which will mainly be in our own style; by contradicting the arguments of my fellow philosophi. Let it be known that Plato was a liar. He depicted his idol, Sokrates, as his great champion who could silence all Sophists. In fact, Sokrates was repeatedly sent home by us after a rhetorical thrashing he received, but since some of our books were burnt - dangerous types we were! - the other party is never heard. Plato reeks of hypocrisy. He condemns rhetorics but uses them himself. He uses poison to poison the poisoners and claim he's not a poisoner, bathing in the blood of the innocent.

But enough now, I am digressing!

Our good friend Curio claims that only personal knowledge exists. As far as that goes, I agree in terms of empirical knowledge. It shows that he is definitely still a Briton, and not as Roman has he'd like to be, nonne? (cheeky wink at Curio) It's a good point of view: knowledge we don't have is simply no knowledge and therefore nothing. But on the other hand, every human being is limited by his very being. This implies the recognition of knowledge we can't possess yet which is most certainly there. Knowledge is not always bound to observation, by the way. Think of mathematics or physics. Mathematical knowledge is obtained without observation.

Curio sails around these limits by implying the infinite potential of a collective memory. But a collective of finite memories does not build an infinite one. In fact it never can. Zillions of cars will never be able to walk because they don't have legs. As such, zillions of human beings will never be able to think in five spatial dimensions simply because they're only made up of three - as far as we know, of course (gracious bow to Curio). I do agree with his point of the "knowability" of a concept. Once you name something, you start knowing it, even if it is just a little. And in fact from this point on I agree with most of what he says even though I feel it's a little self-contradictory for reasons I gave earlier.

I think that we all agree that we are limited by the very instruments through which we also get our main input to explore the world. I don't think, however, as our humble friend Coruncanius, that one of these blocks is emotion. In fact, emotion can augment our rational mind in several ways. A good psychologist able to help a person will certainly be a man of the mind more than intuition and emotion, but emotions are also important in getting a firm grip on the situation and being able to help a patient. The importance of emotion and instincts is gravely underestimated in getting to known the world. And in fact, they can never be set apart from our rational mind and our senses. Just like body and soul are one continuum, so are our senses, our mind and our emotions. Separation is dangerous and luckily also impossible. A mind without emotion is a cold lens... A telescope with no one to enjoy the stars!

Orce, amice Belga, I wonder how you got in posession of such fine glasswork. Must be a very personal custom. Have a cup, man, and cast aside these new fashions. Although (smirkingly, tongue in cheek) I must say I do admire your subversiveness. Have some more wine, you!

So, Orce, unlike me you believe in gods, in daemons and in the soul. As this topic revolves around knowledge... If these things you talk about exist, how can such knowledge be attained? Like all Platonics you claim meditation, rituals and study form the basis of this. But in turn these must be based on something else - something, according to the Platonic point of view, earthly and imperfect unless you want to beg the question. So, arriving at perfection by imperfect means again, eh? I don't think so!

(Draco lies down again, waiting for replies to come or for Locatus, our notorious Cynic, to speak.)

Locatus: I must say I had a good laugh about all the chit-chat that has been told until now. Is there a limit to our knowledge? Dare, dare...

What is knowledge? I do not know. Is there knowledge? I don't think so. People think they know something, but actually they don't. Everything we do is not about 'knowing' something, It is just because of an animalistic impulse we had to do it. Thinking is no more and no less then what nature has given to us. A kind of instinct. We should try to guard it, and not spoiling it by questions as 'What do I know?' or 'Can I know everything?' These questions lead to nothing and will not help us in our deeds.

Knowing is no more than the biochemical reaction in our brain, as Mother Nature has given to us. So how much can we know? As long as our biological system can store 'knowledge' (if there is something as 'knowledge'). And we shouldn't spoil our minds with it; we will act as we have to, as we will do what nature orders us to do.

Why should we try to understand, supress and rationalize? Do animals understand? supress feelings? I don't think so, and still they live a happy life without worrying about the day of tomorrow.

Give me some more wine, Scorp... er... Draco! You know, I'm quite cynical about your name change.

Draco: The next question for you gentlemen is: Is absolute peace possible? Be crafty, be wise!

Curio: (coughs, and replies to Draco's announcement) "Err... I think not, amice. If I remember correctly, my starting first entitles me to a short speech to reply to the comment that the rest of you made. I'll delay my speech on peace in order to reply to the comments.

I don't think I said only personal knowledge exists - unless the Punic girl really did fog my thoughts... No, looking at the records the scribae have made, I see that I spoke of absolute knowledge, not just personal knowledge. And, amice, I am quite happy being a hybrid, thank you. Bear in mind I don't just have Briton and Roman origins - I am also influenced by those Germanic peoples who will, in centuries to come, conquer Britannia - those known as the Saxons. (Curio considers the nature of this knowledge, and decides that if Draco can know of boomerangs, and Orcus of glass and computers, then Curio can have a time machine.) ;-)

Also, look at mathematical knowledge that is gained without observation. All of it is based on earlier knowledge, on more basic mathematics that does have a basis in observation. For instance, even the extremes of theoretical physics and mathematics, such as dark matter, were thought of when considering that the amount of matter in the universe and the speed at which the universe was expanding did not match.

Written knowledge, theoretically, can build infinite knowledge. Even assuming that knowledge is infinite, then knowledge does not only have to be stored in a mind. It can be stored on paper, stone, hard disks, and other such methods of storage.

And now: Is absolute peace possible?

In short, my answer is: no. As to why, I first state my own religious leanings - I'm an atheist. I therefore don't subscribe to the theory that absolute peace is possible through the acceptance of any particular deity.

Without the intervention of a benevolent deity, absolute peace is not possible, due to the problems of human nature. The pressures of the world - not just modern, of any era - combined with the way we face them mean that we cannot attain absolute peace. Absolute peace of mind entails a complete acceptance of and contentment with one's lot in life. Such a trait is not inherent to the human race, because even the least ambitious person still has personal goals.

My apologies for the somewhat sketchy nature of this argument, but it's all I really have to say on the matter (heh heh).

Orcus: On the question of if absolute peace is possible I'll have to go with Curio on this one. I will add my own comments. I think that peace is impossible. There will always be people against it and find it opression. We live in a world supposedly ruled by democracy (in most Western countries), while it's actually capitalism that rules the world and it is through capitalism that absolute peace is impossible because absolute peace isn't a concern for the average capitalist - only making more money. We all have to work to pay our bills, making us bitter that the rich get richer and we get poorer. In this kind of climate it is impossible to obtain absolute peace. This is one example.

Our very nature is rooted in the natural world. If we look at animals and how they behave, we can recognize our behaviour in theirs. One might say that we must give up our roots, I say that whoever says this is a fool. This behaviour, instinct, is what kept us alive and going all these millennia. But still, these instincts, behaviour as I called it are still shown today by most people but not as clearly as they once were. It's this kind of behaviour that prevents us from obtaining absolute peace. Look at nature. Through fights and deaths, the weak are separated from the strong and the strong get to reproduce themselves. It also keeps the community in balance so that it doesn't get overpopulated as our human communities today are.

I disagree with Curio that a deity can save us and use its power to obtain absolute peace. All gods know that life is for the strong and even if a deity does bring peace to us, i think it should also decide who gets to reproduce themselves and who not. Because if the weak reproduce themselves, and the strong don't, it will affect the whole community. That is how I see it.

Coruncanius: These questions are more complex than they might first appear. “Is absolute peace possible?” our host asks. Absolute peace for whom, is not specified: the individual, a group or the entire human race. In many ways I believe that to answer this question, one needs to address all three possibilities to offer an answer.

Certainly, with all that has gone wrong in the world as of late, I can apprecieate the case that my fellow guests Aurelius Orcus and Scribonius Curio are trying to make. In fact I think that they even apply some Stoic thought to the subject. However I think they err in respect to the question. You seek to prove the negation, with specific examples or assertions that peace is not possible with specific cases. This is not the same as demonstrating that the negation holds all the time. Real cases and examples do go a long way in proving this is possibly the only case but they do not disprove the positive that absolute peace is possible. Not for me at least. The potential that there could be absolute peace remains. To the question “Is absolute peace possible?” I seek to show that it is possible, in some cases.

First, for the individual, Stoics reason that there indeed could be peace. I suppose this is the “inner peace” that some people speak of. It is necessary to show how and when absolute peace is possible for the individual. Absolute peace for an individual is possible, I think, when he or she has found happiness and contentment. This, the ancient philosophers agreed, was a goal of every person. You might ask me, “What, if anything, might bring people happiness? What could give people more than a moment’s pleasure in this world?” I believe what brings about happiness and contentment is possessing what is good. Possessing what is good will, in turn, lead the individual closer to absolute peace. This is not to suggest that we all go and purchase the best foods, clothes and luxury items, quite the contrary; none of these things will bring about more than a moment of joy and satisfaction. They are only impulses. No, what will bring about happiness and contentment for an individual is something that will benefit the possessor in all circumstances and this we Stoics refer to as Virtue. This is possible when one lives according to Virtue. Virtue, in its simplest terms, is living according to nature. What does this mean? Should we cast off everything and live like animals do? No, that is not our nature. For the individual human being, this means that they must live according to their place within the nature of the world, the laws of nature. It means that we must do what natural law demands of us. We must eat, we must sleep and we must do what preserves us. Also, it means that we live according to our nature as humans, which we Stoics believe is reason. By employing our reason, we are able to determine what is the right thing to do, the right choice to make and the right course of action with respect to our nature. When a person has embraced virtue and has chosen to live by their reason, and has shunned the poisoning emotions and immoral vices that lead to want and cause detrimental problems to themselves and others, a person is living according to their nature and is able now to understand themselves and the world, leading to an absolute peace in themselves.

In the case of a group of people, I believe the dynamics of the group have the potential to obtain absolute peace. However, there are the variables of the members of the group and those without the group which will determine the outcome. If each member of the determined group has elected to live according to reason and following virtue, then this group should experience no conflicts, no antagonistic relationships and no internal disturbances. It will function in a state of absolute peace. It will, however, experience conflicts from without. Those outside the group of people, who possibly do not abide by their nature, may reach a point of conflict with the group at peace. They might be governed by emotion that envies or despises what they represent. This could only lead towards conflicts. Thus, peace in this case is not possible.

If, however, this set is expanded to the entirity of humanity, then again we ought to consider whether absolute peace is possible. Potentially, this could be the case. This is because all humanity would be included in the group that lives according to virtue and our nature, which is reason.

I think this basically answers the question our host put to us. Absolute peace is possible. One question the question we are discussing begs is, “Is absolute peace probable?” I believe that the other speakers have addressed this question more directly in their comments. I would be inclined to agree with them.

Thank you.

Draco: Well then, in good ol' Sophist tradition, let me start by delivering comments on my fellow symposiants here.

Mi Curio, I agree with you that absolute peace is impossible, although I completely disagree with your reasoning. Even the existence of a god could prevent absolute peace from occuring, depending on the type of god we are dealing with. Also, peace and god have no special relationship. If, for the sake of argument, I believed that absolute peace existed in a godless world, why could that not be? Personally I don't see the connection.

I do agree, however, with what you have said regarding acceptance and ambition. As long as there is desire and ambition, peace is impossible. Some philosophies or religions strive for the extinguishing of ambitions and attachments. Somehow, someway this makes sense to prevent suffering from happening (because, after all, we assume that absolute peace requires the absence of suffering, at least on an individual basis), but on the other hand it's unnatural and a noble way to commit emotional suicide.

Orce, while I agree with most of what you have said, I think Plato would be rather upset with your acknowledgement of our animal sides! By the way, it's not because we are rooted in reptilian instincts that we should behave like them. We have evolved beyond that, and I suggest that we use these capacities to our own advantage rather than to return to a more primitive level of society and way of life.

I tend to agree most with Coruncanius, even though our respective outlooks on life are separated by a million miles and a million different thoughts and words. On an individual basis, peace is possible. There have been cases of those enlightened individuals who had flashes of insight, or long years of complete tranquility. Such states of mind, however, don't last forever, or at least not in my opinion, because man is at least physically a changing organism. Accepting change is very important.

On a global basis, peace is impossible. Even if war dies out (which eventually may happen), there will still be economic, social and cultural competition. In a sense this is also good because it improves the overall quality of the human race and what it does. Differences are good!

Thank you.

Orcus: Thank you for your comments. I think I demonstrated that even though one defends the philosophy he has chosen, he doesn't always have to agree with the founder of that philosophy. To be honest, my philosophy on life and all is more of a mix between Platonism, Neoplatonism and a nature philosophy. To be honest, I would have mixed feelings if we were ruled by a deity. I would prefer that this didn't happen, but I would favor a reign of the gods over men.

Locatus: Absolute peace? Ah, this is an easy one!


Oh, you also want to know why? You should have told me that earlier... Well it's about this:

As humans are animals (and thus animals humans), we can live peacefully next to each other as long as there are enough supplies. Once our supplies get limited, we will fight about it. It's rather simple, isn't it?

The human species will continue to grow. The goal of every species is to become as dominant (thus safe) as possible. The resources won't grow as fast as the species, and the supplies are limited. (I forsee that in the future one nation will attack another because of their 'NAFTA' supplies...) So people will extinguish themselves. It's only a matter of time...

Coruncanius: Perhaps the good Censor has had too much wine already.

While I won't get into the Human as Animal and Animal as Human double implication with you, Locatus, I will take issue in at least an abstract manner with your assertion that economics determine whether there will be peace or war. Although I do not disagree with you that limited resources can be a factor in the causes of conflicts I think there are more causes, perhaps many more. Ideology motivates some. Fear or hatred motivate others. You even miss some support for your argument by ignoring greed - that prime force in many conflicts because people become easily swayed by their emotions and want more than they could possibly need. Would this not make your assertion more clear, that absolute peace is not possible because of a person or persons' desire for more? More than they could ever need or use?

Not to worry, the Cynic's argument, even employing the greed factors, would not hold. For it neglects those instances where humans faced with challenges and even your root cause, shortages and limits, faced the challenges with innovation and invention which in turn lead to even greater abundance without resort to fighting, conflicts and war. Certainly, such efforts have not eliminated conflict or peace. They do however make peace possible. The nature of humanity, which is reason, can provide the solutions we require if we allow reason to govern our decisions instead of petty emotional attachments.

The chances of such events happening soon are slim, I might agree. Unlike Cynicism, however, I do not believe in simply abdicating any hope I might have that humanity might embrace its nature - reason. And as the Cynical Censor points out, all things - whether individuals or groups - strive for some form of dominance. I would not be as quick as he to equate dominance with safety and security. This is only an emotional state brought on by satisfying impulses and it is a very dangerous one. It is often the belief of those thinking that they are dominant that they ought to and can rest upon their gains, whatever they are. Such a mindset only breeds more dangerous thoughts like complacancy, arrogance and arbitrariness. These the ancients knew as indications of something else - hubris. By employing our nature, our reason, humans are in a better position to become satisfied to meet our needs as individuals and as a group.

Perhaps now I could use a krater of wine.
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