Saint Teresa of Avila is best known in her ecstatic state, as captured in marble by the sculptor Gian Bernini — her arched back, her body caught in an orgasmic wave, the moan from her parted lips almost audible. She felt the presence of God as an erotic power, the connection between the divine and the mortal as an energy unlike any other. This chaste 16th-century nun wrote about her soul being penetrated by the arrow of the angel, “so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish it to cease, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”

Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein. 304 pages. Schocken. $22. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. 432 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28. How… More…

 

Back in the olden days, philosophers thought a lot about water. Thales (sometimes considered the first philosopher) went out on a limb and proclaimed that “all is water.” This was a gutsy move given the fact that a simple walk around the block will convince most human beings that all is, in fact, not water. But Thales was after something more profound. He was trying to make a distinction between the “really real” and the way things seem, the way things appear. Water is the foundation, he was saying, water is what its all about. Such a distinction pretty much defined the act of philosophizing from then on.

The next guy to make a big claim about water was Heraclitus. He mentioned, notoriously, that you can’t step into the same river twice. For Heraclitus, all was not water…. More…

If the Bacchanalia created a blueprint for our most depraved debauches, the ancients also bequeathed us its more elegant counterpart: the learned drinking party or symposium. Like the Algonquin roundtable of 1920s New York, it was a brilliant excuse for all forms of excess: In classical Athens, A-list philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates loved to gather for wine-fueled intellectual bouts, during which they would recline on sumptuous couches, sip wine from ornate goblets, be entertained by beautiful lute girls and handsome dancing boys, and throw themselves into scintillating debate. In fact, Plato’s fundamental tract, The Symposium, is based on a real party in 415 B.C. Athens, attended by a revolving cast of artists, thinkers, and politicians, including the playwright Aristophanes and the dashing, up-and-coming general Alcibiades. The wine was mixed with water in a bowl called a krater, then passed amongst the guests in a communal… More…