Know Thyself and you will know the universe and the gods
Wisdom is more profitable than silver and gold.
I read Bill and Melinda’s surprising and uplifting letter from alpha to omega; uplifting in its recording of handsome gestures and the encouragement of optimism. But as one song says: “I don’t understand this optimism when I’ve just started chemo”. But well balanced by another little voice that says: “Life is worth the trouble, have you a better choice?”
The Gates' letter is a balanced couplet from a binary pair with just noticeable difference in their atomic radiance. It is at once significant, because of who wrote it and refreshing and interesting in content that ranges from avoidable death, to the portrayal of a youthful Africa. In the Balkans, Albania is also young and still struggles with the usually neglected public health problem of diarrhea. Certainly, Bill’s appeal for international cooperation for the treatment of diseases is fantastic. His appeal is necessary, but actions so far taken by the international community are insufficient.
Charity through the church and later philanthropy with light from the north was always asymmetrical, more power afforded to the giver, less for the receiver. One of the great Philanthropists from my native Yorkshire as a boy, saw firsthand, the effects of the potato famine in Ireland. Later he would identify slavery, drinking alcohol, no work and poverty as social evils. Philanthropy helped public health development in the Balkans and has strenghtened social justice and civil rights worldwide. Today, debt continues to eat away at its social fabric. In global health, philanthropic emphasis is promoting the biomedical model which nurtures innovation through technology and puts much less emphasis on the shaping of social conditions with respect to sickness prevention and health promotion. Certainly yes to vaccines for all in need but the management of anti-vaccination campaigns as a significant threat to public health must be improved.
As I read their letter and in continuum many letters came to mind; for one St Paul’s Letter to the Athenians who were ever ready for new surprises but not easily impressed. It was a time when citizens spent time in telling of or hearing something new. Paul’s ire was provoked with a city full of idols while its philosophers, no longer classical, wanted to know what he was saying; why was he preaching the merits of a foreign divinity and what is resurrection? They took him to Areopagus saying: “Tell us the meaning of this new teaching!”. Paul’s Letter made it into the New Testament, as an Epistle. It was written at a time suspended between paganism and Christianity. The Olympic Games would disappear, Plato’s Academy and model for the modern university would be closed and the Asclepiad would give way to shrines bridging pagan and Christian, which developed into the charitable hospital of the church.
At a somewhat earlier time, Asklepios and his children, especially his daughter Hygiene and Goddess of Health, taught amazingly and taught amazing things. Asklepios with his student Hippocrates whose logo was “first do no harm” would proclaim: “We have an opinion… let’s consider it... if it is not confirmed by evidence we can change it!” This is a characteristic of a cultured mind, a mind that has a capacity to examine a proposal without necessarily accepting it. It is philosophy as a bastion against the narrowing of opinions and the narrowing of minds. Philosophy helps strengthen dialogue and decision-making, legitimacy and stability. In a recently unearthed letter, Einstein reveals a debt to Scottish philosopher David Hume in the development of his thinking on relativity. He tells us that scientific theories should be shaped by philosophical ideas.
And let’s recall Byron: “Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great”. Greece gave humanity the concepts of health, education, philosophy and helped in the evolution of Europe. Prometheus gave fire for warmth, Demeter, bread for sustenance, and Hygiene public health for man’s protection. An early American winner of the Nobel Prize, captured the fastest thing in the universe, light. He pinned it down to measure its colossal speed in a most elegant of experiments. Michelson mastered Greek mythology before mathematics, which he feared. It might have prevented him from going into physics but for the intervention of a smart teacher who told him mathematics should hold little fear since he had mastered Greek mythology.
Other Letters recalled? A Bohemian Princess discussing the relationship between mind and body with Descartes and letters between ordinary people in their world of daily humiliation lacking in self respect as described in a short story told by Dostoyevsky, Poor Folk. Dostoyevsky also tells us that beauty (as in handsome) will save the world, meaning through goodness and ethics. This is the ethical goodness as demonstrated by Bill’s beau geste to his old colleague Paul. It brings to mind a theory of goodness of my late colleague Slobodan Lang. Bill and Melinda’s letter also brought to mind: “I'll be here tomorrow, alive and well and thriving… simply going on”. It supports in full Melinda’s powerful tool of optimism. The Grand Tour and musical from which it comes was once reserved for European poets, Keats, Byron.
Once when young and with a wealth of optimism, I set out on the tour as a-would-be poet. Now the tour is extended to billionaires. Wealth that comes from a product of the mind, should in no way disgust. It is praiseworthy. Paraphrasing Proverbs, hearts at peace give life; envy rots the soul. Charlie’s cheerfulness can help. I recall my mother’s cheerfulness leaving us just short of one hundred.
It is good to be an optimist, better by far to be an informed optimist. In the Musical 1776, Benjamin Franklin is portrayed as a humorous optimist. He was concerned over mental health. It was driven by the insanity of his son a naval officer. Earlier in life he had advised him that he could do anything he liked in the new America. As Thomas Jefferson, a man of great learning feverishly penned the Declaration of Independence to give a new nation an enduring vision, Robert Livingston optimistically returned home to New York to celebrate birth in the family. While sure of self-evident truths and the inalienable rights of man, created in equality and free to pursue happiness, Jefferson was unsure of his listeners and worried that in the course of human events they would fall by the wayside. So, with raised voice to the theatre audience he asked: “Is anybody there?” And so, the World Philosophical Forum founded in Athens a decade ago asks is anybody there?
Letters and Men (and Women) of Letters is an important, learned and distinguished category of scholars who can help oppose rising social dementia an issue that is being highlighted and targeted by the World Philosophical Forum. One of the first Men of Letters was Samuel Johnson who gave us a Dictionary of the English Language. Where would we be without dictionaries? Then there are wonderful open letters, letters to editors, scientific letters, love letters, scarlet letters as well as unpublished letters, horrible letters of hate and threat and of course the entertaining Lettermen.
One wonderful letter from Milan Jovanovic Batut to Andrija Stampar when forced into exile by the King reads: “I am pleased to see that there are people who do not think that the world begins (and ends) with them… I cannot comfort you… being older (86) and more experienced I can tell you that time heals wounds… I commend to your heart all the questions of public health and health promotion… you have a stretch of time in front of you and two serious tasks, to bring up your lovely children and finish the work you started... let them be the main content of your life”. And so it was. Andrija Stampar introduced the Kentucky Closet into the former Yugoslavia supported by another Mr. Gates. He went on to be a President of the World Health Organization. He saw the Academy as the highest reference point for art and science of any nation, an institution in which the past would be deeply researched, the problems of the present kept in sharp focus and the future extrapolated. He reduced suffering from tuberculosis, alcoholism (plum brandy) and syphilis. Batut rubbed shoulders with Pasteur, Kock and Pettenkofer and gives good advice and to all of us.
According to the other Mr. Gates, Disease is the supreme ill in human life an apt phrase of 10 decades ago. In a letter later in life, to a childhood friend in Germany, Einstein refers to his ill-health as the devil. Stampar saw malaria killing one tenth of the population, annually and fertile land transformed into cemeteries.
Even as I write, an Open Letter to Microsoft from its work force protests the hololens and military contracts saying that technology should have a positive impact on people and society. It comes with the faith and expectation that technology does not cause harm or human suffering.
In parallel, we have Warren Buffett’s Letter to Shareholders, which implies that debt doesn’t much matter and he is right as far as it relates to government, big (USA) or small (Greece). Debt does not mean much to the disenfranchised or when the stomach growls with hunger or the coppers are after you for payment in arrears, or your credit is confiscated or your house auctioned off or your child can’t go to college. Saving what is left over after all has been spent and creditors hover, requires a miracle. It can’t happen in a world of privatization and a weakening safety net or in the supremacy of uncontrolled market rules and so called neo-liberalism. How can we explain high youth unemployment and inequalities, or easy home loans now in the red, the purchase of the latest of models in cars and world travel on the never-never, before the crisis?
As I read the Gates’ letter for 2019 I started formulating my own recent surprises of which I present just one together with a second and surprising issue, namely, an invitation that might not surprise.
My Surprise # 1 was first a soaking disappointment, namely that my unconventional proposal Public Health & Health Diplomacy: The Balkans with American Input, which was submitted from the Balkans was not even read at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation having been categorized as unsolicited1. Momentarily my optimism abandoned me and for a short while I did little and much of nothing. Then I recalled Bill’s Open Letter expressing frustration and dismay at computer software pilfering and the ripping off of what was Bill’s as well as the surprise when the software actually functioned so well. Then I bounced back and thought that the gold cup might still be won by the worst horse at the races. Trust and optimism returned.
My Surprise # 2 is I hope a welcome surprise; It is an invitation for Bill and Melinda Gates to be present during the 10th Anniversary of the World Philosophical Forum, Athens, October 15-19, 2019 and to be present at a reenactment of the death of Socrates. Come and stand outside his death cell near to a Byzantine church from where the Venetians lobbed cannon balls into the Acropolis then used as a Turkish munitions depot. It could inspire the world. It could contribute to the solution of man’s awesome existential problems. It may sway the world towards the deployment of classical (and not today’s scholasticism), as a practical instrument to readdress them. Socrates was a man of the marketplace, first Citizen of the World and the father of life-long civil learning from slate and marble, from tablet to textbook, from parchment to windows and on to the open information system. His last act was to send a cock to Asklepios for services rendered and leave no debt after death. In Athens Mr. and Mrs. Gates you can become Earth-XXI citizens as dreamed by the great Greek Philosopher Socrates and be included in the Supreme Council of Humanity.
Come to an eternal city where hospitality is still a virtue and a real part of everyday life. Let the World Philosophical Forum walk you through the streets of old Plaka, dine you in a colorful tavern, under the Acropolis. You can follow in the footsteps of St Paul as he contemplated his Epistle to the Athenians. Surprise us! Respond with optimism.
Come to Athens in October when tourism has fallen off. Continue to change our world for the better. Make it a Red Letter day by bringing Warren and think of a a most high meeting of the Oracles, Omaha and Delphi, through Windows, clearly. Ban Ki-moon, last in Athens received a symbolic life jacket and response to the migrant crisis. Hopefully, he will be here again. You Mr. Gates have access to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, WHO whom you helped to that office when he rubbed shoulders with two Presidents and with Bill Gates. Could he come to Athens too?
See you in Athens under the Acropolis! Help make a miracle happen.
1 A first fast response was followed recently with a little more detail.