Monday, April 30, 2007

"Is that a Kite?"

Speaking of freedom -- the other day while I was walking on a sidewalk out of the woods and into a clearing, I snapped this picture. It was windy, and the bird wasn't flapping its wings... just hovering there. A lady was walking by with one child in a stroller and two more young ones excitedly walking alongside. One of them (7-years old?) saw me snap the picture and looked up with me. He asked his mom, "Is that a kite?"

Marley & Camus & Me

When I was 13-years old, I went to Panama City Beach for spring break with a pretty good friend and his family. While I was there, I heard some music I had never heard of before: Bob Marley.

See, I grew up here:

And that picture is hardly even photoshopped. So, as you can imagine, not very much Bob Marley in the neighborhood. I was very familiar with the Beach Boys and other bopping "oldies" music. When I got back home after spring break, I went to the music store and bought Bob Marley's greatest hits CD. I couldn't understand most of the words he was saying, but I was instantly taken by the sound. Here are the lyrics to the song that became my favorite the first time I laid ears on it:

Redemption Song

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the 'and of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill de book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.---[Guitar break]---

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfil de book.

Won't you help to sing
Dese songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs -
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.

Sixteen years later I remember the first time I ever heard that song. So imagine: a country-clubbing 13-year old listening to Bob Marley on his brand new deluxe Walkman CD-player as he falls asleep at night, thinking: This is my music!

Could there be anything more preposterous? "All I ever have; Redemption songs...?" Well, and a bunch of really nice clothes and as much food as I want and a new backpack and a TrapperKeeper and a front lawn like an outdoor carpet and a little league baseball team that's going to win the league and every opportunity in the world. Still, somehow, Bob Marley's music resonated in my soul... And!--this wasn't music I was telling my friends about. My parents had little or nothing to say. So I know I wasn't just listening to this music for its cool-effect. I was still a little young for that.

What to make of this? Even as I got around to understanding his words & strange use of pronouns, I obviously had no direct access to the kind of oppression he describes in this song. I didn't begin to understand about the difference between a "Redemption Song" and a "Freedom Song" until years later.

Then why would I be so immediately drawn to Marley's tune? What causes this kind of intercommunion of spirits to span the most unlikely cultural divides? Even if we leave the lyrics out of the question: why would Marley's simple guitar picking settle so deeply and comfortably in my soul?

Here's a hint, in the form of an excerpt from an essay by Albert Camus ("Helen's Exile"):
Both the historical mind and the artist seek to remake the world. But the artist, through an obligation of his very nature, recognizes limits the historical mind ignores. This is why the latter aims at tyranny while the passion of the artist is liberty. All those who struggle today for liberty are in the final analysis fighting for beauty.

Of course, for some reason, it seems less preposterous that a lyrical essay by Camus might inspire a kid like me. So maybe it's just my willingness to say yes to the great question: "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?" Eh... I probably give myself WAY too much credit. I'm certainly not an artist.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Unnecessary Neologism Alert: Multilogue

I'm on the brink of understanding what Q-Majin? is going to be all about. "Magine" this:

Global warming is proven to be everything that we think it is except detrimental to human or animal existence. Just momentarily imagine, in fact, that it's universally beneficial to human and animal existence. All we have to do is emit more CO2 into the atmosphere and everything will be better... Al Gore makes an updated documentary and urges everyone to burn as much fossil fuel as possible, and proposes subsidizing dirty Chinese smog-factories.

What would happen? Imagine the segment of population that now describes itself as "environmentalist" learning that global warming was a good thing, and that more industry would have a positive impact on the environment. Would they: A) Switch sides and endorse pro-industry policies or B) Drop the cause altogether and go back to protesting sweatshops?

It is my hope that Q-Magine? will have little to do with politics, and everything to do with thinking honestly about motivations. Like the pro-life-secular-humanist, the environmentalist who is skeptical about mainstream doom & gloom global-warming prophecies is an unrepresented anomaly. But it is a political/ethical position that I can imagine, and so I have... In fact, I'm starting to sympathize with my hypothetical character--like my character, I care deeply about living on a healthy planet; and like my character, I think most of the hot air being injected into the atmosphere is coming from anti-industrialists in disguise as environmentalists.

But!!! ...the doom & gloom position, too, could be made sympathetic if it were self-consciously deceptive. Imagine the character who is simply and straightforwardly anti-industry. Tough sell, right? Everyone knows that industry makes for cheaper and more widely distributed goods. But for the transcendentalist who believes materialism is a disease, the question is: how to sell this anti-industry sentiment. Hmm... ah! We'll call it "environmentalism" and slip the anti-industrialism in through the back door.

Now that would be a deft maneuver!--so clever I might almost be willing to call myself an "environmentalist" and write scary columns about how San Diego is sinking into the sea or something...

Have you ever seen every side of an issue, and seen them all with sympathy?

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I'm sure I've been typing too much lately -- if you prefer listening, this is what I've been trying to say lately:

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about the problem of authority.

Religion and Society & C-Span2

Today I watched about an hour of a panel on Religion and Society on C-Span; it was a converstation moderated by Thane Rosenbaum and dominated by Christopher Hitchens' personality, if not by his anti-religious argument.

During the question and answer session, after one man was shouted down by the panel for asking an apparently-forbidden question (I couldn't hear it), another man stood and asked (I'm paraphrasing): "Yeah, let's take a moment to bring science back into this if we can. We live in a world where, thanks to the advances of scientific understanding, our species has mollified (sic?) itself sixfold, and yet more Americans expect to be raptured than believe in evolution." I didn't really listen to the end of his question, because it seemed a softball that any of the men on the panel would've been happy to reshape in their own words. "Here, here!--Science!" Yawn.

Even if I'm totally alone in my generation, I want to say this: intellectuals between 40-60 (boomers and their younger cousins) seem increasingly willing to blame religion as the sole source of the world's problems -- this from the generation who blamed capitalism as the sole source of the world's problems right up until they made their fortunes in the stock market and bought a yacht or a new set of golf clubs. Christopher Hitchens, in particular, explicitly argued that religion (not just radical religion) is always and everywhere a source of trouble. Hitchens even suggested that religion effectively teaches radical solipsism, and that the ontologies of the major world religions all teach people to believe that they are somehow cosmically important. Imagine: the Baby Boomers calling other people self-centered!

I think all of this talk of panacea from the Boomers, whether it involves economic or religious revolution, is based in shallow and dead interpretation. Most of the panelists agreed, for example, that the book of Revelation is a dangerous thing -- "Yes," said Rosenbaum (I'm paraphrasing), "Isn't the problem radical religion, though, and not religion qua religion? I mean some of these people go to mass and then go to the opera." Okay, maybe. But the unstated assumption dominating the entire conversation this Sunday seemed to be: going to church or temple or whatever is okay just as long as you don't actually believe any of this stuff.

Obviously, I'm simplifying -- but not by much. The Boomers and 40-somethings seem willing to turn the ancient holy texts into so many straw-men whenever it suits them. Hitchens kept emphasizing that religion claims to explain the cosmos... well, yes, sort of: if you think you know what G-d is and what the universe is, you have all the answers you need! I'll give two brief examples; one short and one long:

1. The panel mentioned the story of Abraham sacrificing his child as a frightening story--One of them asked, in a mocking & simplifying tone, "if you hear the voice of G-d telling you to kill your child, you should kill your child?" Of course, if you're a second-grader, that's a very good reading of that part of the scripture...

2. My favorite passage in the New Testament (Mark 13: 32-37):
No one knows, however, when that day or hour will come -- neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father knows. Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come. It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. Watch, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming -- it might be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or at sunrise. If he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep. What I say to you, then, I say to all: Watch!

The way I see it, there are at least two readings of this passage. For the second-grader, this passage will be about "the rapture," which you can read all about in Revelation--there will be trumpets and 7-headed dragons and stuff (and, dear second-grader, feel free to read all of that stuff like you would read the next Harry Potter installment.). In my reading, this passage can very easily be understood as an allegorical treatment of death. After all, I don't know when I will die. And I suppose it may be like being surprised as a servant might be surprised by his master's unexpected return. And maybe I should be very aware until then -- maybe I should "Watch!" So: do I expected to be "raptured?" Well, yes -- the way I expect the sun to "set" tonight... not literally, perhaps. But your little poll might not capture the nuances of my religious beliefs.

This reading would certainly seem too radical for many a Christian; it's true, I have effectively "reduced" the Bible to less-than-literal meaning. But if I believe it, this is still religion, it seems to me -- and I cannot see how it is one of the fundamental causes of evil in the world.

When I teach my sophomores to read Moby-Dick, I push them to leap beyond the literal interpretation. "Why's it always gotta be about some symbol or higher meaning?--can't it just be about chasing a whale?," they ask. Of course it can, but a well-trained reader will understand that the story is about so much more than literal whale-hunting. No one would suggest that I have "reduced" the eminence of the book by pushing my students away from a literal interpretation. But!--if I dare to suggest that the phrase "Son of Man" might also be a metaphor, even if I claim it's a metaphor far surpassing in brilliance the metaphor of the white whale...

So: this is a manifesto of sorts. The world does not need to rid itself of religion; rather, it needs a better, more mature, deeper understanding of what is meant in the holy texts. Maybe this is one of the limitations placed on me by my I.Q. -- but I cannot imagine someone being simply too intelligent for Moby-Dick. Similarly, I am not convinced that the holy texts of the major world religions can be intellectually outgrown... all I can say here is: I've tried!

Hitchens' reading of the Bible, for example, seems about C-level work if I have my future-professor hat on. The very last thought that enters my head as I read the old book is "It's all about ME!"

I have often asked my students to write an interpretation of a certain scene or symbol in any of the good books we read for class. One of my favorite moves is to give them 20 minutes or so for that labor, and then to ask them to flip the paper over and write, on the other side, what their interpretation reveals about them. I'm not saying Hitchens isn't a genius, but I wonder what he would write on the other side of the paper after interpreting religion as pro-selfishness.

Joy Finds Wonder Everywhere

I've always been interested in understanding what intelligence means, or what it is. I remember taking a standardized "Intelligence Quotient" test when I was about 4-years old. In college I minored in psychology not because I wanted to know more about psychological trauma and coping or schizophrenia or Carl Jung, but because Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences seemed to be a clue. Also, I'm sure my personal childhood soteriology involved intelligence, because my kind mother always beemed brightest when she told me how smart I was.

And, although it's embarrassing to admit, I have a persistent interest in what seems a very immature question: "How smart am I?" Now, nearing thirty, I ask the question in fairly good faith--not so that I may congratulate myself on being a better person or belittle myself for being an inferior, but only because I genuinely am intrigued by the possibility that different minds have different limitations.

For the record, I remember the day of my 4-year old I.Q. test. It was raining, and I had a fairly long 1-on-1 session with the testing man in a classroom. The only question I remember involved the two of us laying out some wooden blocks in the shape of an arch-on-its-side. After the blocks were all in place, we stood the arch up by tilting up the slab of wood underneath it. When the arch was teetering upright, and the wooden support slab had been removed, the man asked me what would happen if he removed the top/center block? It seemed a ridiculously easy question to me, and I said, "It will fall." I guess most 4-year olds struggle with that question. Whatever.

But, I still want to know about intelligence, and I will even admit I'm probably still insecure about it sometimes--I guess I have always wanted to be recognized as intelligent or something. Again, embarrassing.

I read an essay yesterday by Aldous Huxley about mysticism and intelligence that seemed link-worthy to me at the time. Read it at your leisure. In the office the other day we speculated about an intelligence loop that looked something like this:

1. Unintelligent People
2. Intelligent People
3. Mystics (who could be confused with Dumb People)

So that it's not always apparent who is a 1 and who is a 3. Which made me wonder...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Hypothetical Mysticism

Q-Magine this?:

What if the fully human genius of Jesus consisted in his refusal to tell his wisdom to others? Example: What if, when he said (...the words he never actually said), "I am God," he did not mean that you and I were not (also) God? Follow my heresy:

A lie becomes holy when it leads to unadulterated joy for others--Q-Magine?: what if Jesus' first miracle, turning water into wine, involved nothing more than the combination of self-destruction, love for his neighbors, and the will to keep a secret? What if he "simply" went to the back room and poured water into the wineskins, then cut himself deeply at the finger tip so that his friends might continue drinking, then refused to admit his secret: would it be any less of a miracle? Would it be "that simple?" Could it possibly be that this is what is meant by miracle? Certainly it would involve a kind of sadness in the liar. To become the great imaginer, to turn water into wine like this, would be an awful burden.

Jesus gives us the prescription to create the holy lie in his advice about fasting:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

All of us have fasted--it need not involve the refusal of nourishment. Fasting might reasonably be defined as any kind of conscious refusal of joy. I'm not able to perform this kind of miracle... when I endure deprivation of any sort, I make it to known to my friends and family: "I am suffering!" To me, because it is something I cannot do, suffering in silence is a miracle.

Likewise, knowing in secret would be a miracle. My muse lately has been Emerson. In his Divinity School Address, he wrote,
It is very certain that it is the effect of conversation with the beauty of the soul, to beget a desire and need to impart to others the same knowledge and love. If utterance is denied, the thought lies like a burden on the man. Always the seer is the sayer. Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy.

But what if this is the structure of the Judas-kiss? What if this telling is the betrayal? What if these words, these that attempt to tell, are the most offensive to whatever is divine?

Can you imagine? What if there is a secret, a secret knowledge that is granted to many of us -- a secret knowledge that many of us try to describe, that all of us betray. In this view, Jesus was the secret-keeper: the only (or first, at least) person to gain the knowledge and to refuse the temptation to tell it.

I will not claim that the knowledge has been given to me, but I will say this: if it has been, even if it has been more than once, I have betrayed it as soon as possible by trying to tell it. Emerson's maxim, that "the seer is the sayer," is almost (but not quite) true. Imagine the holiness of the one who refused to tell the secret.

Image and the Evading Metaphor

This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so it is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts if at all other times he is not blind and deaf. --Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

And now, a 4,000 word essay on Nature, in honor of Emerson:

Easier than reading, isn't it? I went for a walk this morning and took my camera. On the sidewalks leading to the edge of the woods, I felt a genuine excitement growing in my chest--I knew that this was a good idea, a good project. I snapped the first photograph as evidence of how crazy modern life can be--the Romans will even make trees grow in abstract straight lines. The picture certainly serves its purpose; it supports my argument that there exists in American culture a desire to make nature subservient to human thought. But in itself, it is an ugly picture.

As I entered the woods for the first time this morning, it took my mind a while to switch into the mode I was looking for, so I snapped the second picture in hopes of supporting an argument: "Well," I thought to myself, "this will make a find case for..." And as the camera clicked, my sentence trailed off. Perhaps I was going to write about the wisdom and majesty of Nature, or possibly I was thinking of defending noble authority. What is important is not how I was going to conclude that thought in my mind, but that something stopped me. Picture #2 is not the kind of picture I was hoping for, but it served its purpose for me. I put my camera away.

Half an hour later, after following my own path through the woods, I came to the edge of the pond. It may have been the calmness of the water that prompted me, after a minute's peace, to take out my camera snap the third picture--the truth is, I don't consciously remember why I decided to start taking pictures again, and this third picture was in the camera before I realized why. The metaphysical inverse of Picture #2, Picture #3 is exactly the kind of picture I was hoping for, but seems to serve no purpose for me.

The fourth picture is, like the first picture, an idea-picture. That is, I was looking for an image that could express what I was thinking (in this case, whether or not geometric ideals exist in reality). If you look closely at Picture #4, you can see what caused the ripples: my spit. It is neither a good picture nor a very well-conceived thought... my philosophical intentions seem to undermine the foundation of the question.

In retrospect, the narrative reveals itself: it was that half-hour walk between pictures 2 & 3 where the mystery happened. My favorite poem by Wallace Stevens almost captures it:

It is posed and it is posed.
But in nature it merely grows.
Stones pose in the falling night;
And beggars dropping to sleep,
They pose themselves and their rages.
Shucks... lavender moonlight falls.
The buildings pose in the sky
And, as you paint, the clouds,
Grisaille, impearled, profound,
Pftt... In the way you speak
You arrange, the thing is posed,
What in nature merely grows.

To-morrow whent he sun,
For all your images,
Comes up as the sun, bull fire,
Your images will have left
No shadow of themselves.
The poses of speech, of paint,
Of music--Her body lies
Worn out, her arm falls down,
Her fingers touch the ground.
Above her, to the left,
A brush of white, the obscure,
The moon without a shape,
A fringed eye in a crypt.
The sense creates the pose.
It this it moves and speaks.
This is the figure and not
An evading metaphor.

Add this. It is to add.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The End of Reason

Mysticism is the only source of virtue for humanity. --Simone Weil

In certain conversations, I have been too-hastily labeled (and dismissed!) as a Platonic idealist. This isn't to say I entirely refuse the title, but I am suggesting that many of my academic collegues who have never even finished The Republic seem too comfortable assuming that "we" are somehow "past that." C.S. Lewis once described this kind of shallow understanding of intellectual progress as "chronological snobbery":
Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack of feels it necessary to defend them.
Needless to say, the academy has always been susceptible to this kind of bandwagoning--consult your local expert in postmodernism, and object to his sloppy metaphysics: then you will see his eyes roll. If you can keep his attention through that first moment, and clearly articulate your own metaphysical foundations, he will almost certainly wave his hand and dismiss you as "a Platonist," whether or not you are familiar with Plato (indeed, he's gambling that you are not). Further, should you try to dismiss him in reflective terms, by labeling him a Neo-Sophist, he will hurriedly assure you that his position is much more complicated than the Sophists'. A nation full of first-year Ph.D. students confident that they are "past" Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Gorgias, etc.--Let Alexander Pope's admonishment stand: What the weak head with strongest bias rules, is pride, the never-failing vice of fools. (Source: Google search: "Pride Quotes")

Anyway, I'm trying to defend my claim that the dismissal of Platonism is almost universally "too-hasty." For Socrates, the great path is the dialectical method, in which a person is encouraged to make their claims publically, and to defend them in the face of lengthy and complicated questioning. In the process, newcomers are typically refuted without much problem, and sent back into the world to learn more about their subject matter. Further, because every subject seems to bleed into other fields, the student is encouraged to study widely, to learn about mathematics, and science, and literature, and mechanics. With this background in mind, consider the following pair of excerpts from The Republic, Bk. VII:
[Socrates to Glaucon] Now, when all these studies reach the point of intercommunion and connection with one another, and come to be considered in their natural affinities, then, I think, but not till then, will the pursuit of them have a value for our objects; otherwise their is no profit in them.

And so, Glaucon, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.

Have all your studies reached a point of intercommunion and interconnection? Just asking. In this dialogue, Socrates tries to help Glaucon understand that the dialectic is not something that can be short-cut, and that it is a process that comes to an end. This "hymn of dialectic" is not something that can be readily described to one who has not attained the end for himself. In brief, it is wisdom. We are specialized in this era, and the person who knows her field deeply is hardly exceptional--but she who could begin to claim the title polymath, she is on the trail with us...

Recommended Reading: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid: A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll, by Douglas Hofstadter, 1979.

Rome or Something Else

The other day I read a really interesting article. Al-Qaeda wants to blow stuff up in England, and they conceive of it as an attempt "to shake the Roman throne." I cleverly wonder: wouldn't they be better blowing stuff up in Italy?

On the back of your standard U.S. one dollar bill, you will find a pyramid with an eye on top of it, and two Latin phrases: Annuit Coeptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum.

The second phrase is easily translated, and means "new world order." That phrase makes me uncomfortable, and I'll return to it in subsequent posts to explain.

The first phrase--Annuit Coeptis--is much more difficult to translate and much more difficult to understand. It means something like this: someone or something approves what has begun.

It is no secret that the founders of America looked to Rome as their model, and these phrases make explicit reference to the Roman vision. See the Federalist Papers for numerous examples; Federalist #6, or #41, etc. The Rome that inspired Madison and Hamilton was the Roman Republic (which turned into the Roman Empire) that lasted from roughly 500 BC until roughly 400 AD.

To be sure, Rome gave the world much: running water and sanitation, the concept of political and religious freedom (even if slavery persisted, the abstract ideal had been imagined), advanced learning, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, almost-modern architecture, and war. Rome also invented the idea and widespread practice of popular entertainment--they had the Colosseum; we have Wrigley Field. The Romans may not have invented trade, but they were the first to unleash the incredible powers of the market in ways that would not be unrecognizable to most industrial nations.

And now to some more specific history, and ultimately toward the question that has really been of interest to me in recent weeks:

In the year 415, Rome was undergoing a kind of dizzy spell that might be comparable to the feeling we get after walking too much for too long under the summer sun. Geographically, the empire had spread to cover most of Northern Africa, most of the Middle East, and almost all of Europe. Rome was constantly defending itself from external threats, which meant that their guard was down "back at home." For hundreds of years Romans had been drifting away from their pagan gods. Markets and education seemed to be meeting people's needs. Now, either watch Carl Sagan's description of the events or read the paragraph underneath the video:

The story goes: there was a genius professor working at the Great Library of Alexandria--a woman named Hypatia. She was a neo-Platonist interested in mathematics and literature and science; she drove her own chariot and commanded respect from the Roman citizens. Then one day, as she was headed home after a long day of instructing pupils, she was attacked by an angry mob and beaten to death with shards of broken pottery.

Who would do such a thing? -- well, that answer, at least superficially, is easy: a radical Christian mob, led by "St." Cyril. The same mob is sometimes blamed for burning down the Great Library. At the end of that YouTube video, Carl Sagan suggests that they were driven by fear, ignorance, and the lust for power. I wonder...

But after asking who, the real question must be asked: why would St. Cyril and his gang do such a thing? Short of reading deeply in Roman history, the wikipedia page seems to be the best place to start to answer this question... click here.

Back to the founding fathers of America, whose keywords were liberty and freedom. Those ideals have been largely realized in the 225+ years since America declared independence. When President Bush justifies his position on war with Iraq, one of his favorite phrases goes, "these people kill because they hate freedom." If that settles the question for you, read no further. But if you find yourself wondering, as I have many times in the years since 9/11, "Why would anyone hate freedom?" -- then please, inquire with me.

Why would anyone hate freedom? Why would anyone hate Rome? Who would burn the library of Alexandria (i.e., "the internet") or blow up a "Trade Center?" In the year 415, the year Hypatia was murdered for spreading knowledge, the answer was: radical Christians. Today, the answer seems to be the slightly more generic, Terrorists.

My preliminary remarks on all of this: Rome fell because it forgot one thing--it provided its citizens with more material wealth than any civilization had ever done before Rome, but somehow, in its abundance, its citizens were not content... how else to explain the rise of Christianity? The dead pagan gods, it seemed, could not be replaced by aqueducts and baths and marketplaces and the spirit of democracy.

One more time to my central question: how does a segment of the Roman citizenry become so radicalized and so alienated that they would be willing to kill one of the empire's most honored scholars? What followed, of course, was the onset of the "Dark Age." For one thousand years, Europe was slowly but thoroughly Christianized, and the markets, the libraries, the women with chariots were forgotten.

I believe that we are living in parallel times. So, Q-majin? It is 415 A.D. and you are a Roman citizen. You have cable television and running water and a car that gets you to work and back. Gasoline is getting expensive, but it's affordable. Once a year, if you're lucky, you get five days off and can afford to travel a little bit. And, if you're lucky, you will probably be able to get your children a relatively good education, though it will be nothing like the education that Alexander the Great had on the lap of Aristotle.

In the immortal words of Jim Croce, "Which way are you going--which side will you be on?" And, more seriously: is there a way to sympathize with Cyril's ends without sanctioning his violent means?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Emerson's "eternal revelation in the heart"

...and we're back.

On July 15th of 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous "Divinity School Address" at Harvard University. The school publically disclaimed Emerson's speech, a speech that was far too radical to earn the institutional stamp of approval. Signalling the end of the great age of Enlightenment, Emerson declared:

Thought may work cold and intransitive in things, and find no end or unity; but the dawn of the sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance that Law is sovereign over all natures; and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to break out into joy.

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another--by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself...

At Q-Majin, I hope to create a place where the thing that Emerson called sentiment is estimated as a higher and more sophisticated way of knowing than thought. In this first post, these two terms may remain ill-defined; but I hope to engage two of Emerson's other important terms: Law and heart.

To understand Emerson's Law, I first had to understand what is meant by heart. Consider an earlier usage, from the New Testament (Romans 2):

...when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

For Paul, the meaning of "Law" was clear -- it was the Old Testament Jewish law as it was written in the Torah. Paul argues that the law exists in all people regardless of whether the people have access to the Holy Scriptures. Not very orthodox of him.

Let me distinguish once and for all between thought and sentiment. I take Thought to be synonymous with the process of dialectical reasoning: think of all of the various propositioning and refuting between the time of Plato and Hegel. In my lifetime, in my experience, conscious thought been considered by many the only standard of genius or intelligence or wisdom. Indeed, looking back through the pages of history, I am convinced that, in almost every age since the mysteries were permanently sealed up in the Egyptian pyramids, thought has been the standard of intelligence. This was especially true in Emerson's day, when the Enlightenment of the 18th century had trickled down into popular Western and American culture. But Emerson balked at the idea that conscious thought was the only element of intelligence. I have frequently been labeled and dismissed as a Platonist or an idealist, but I reject the label insofar as Platonism is understood to be devoid of "higher law." (*Any refusal of my terms will not bother me at Q-Majin--if the word sentiment, or the word heart, makes you feel squishy and uncomfortable, feel free to choose another term for psychological phenomenon Z. If you believe that thought is all that human beings are capable of... well, keep thinking!--and come back to visit when the miracle happens.)

Emerson wrote, "The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance." To the last term, then: Law. For Emerson, the law is something that the soul or the heart must receive--it is not something constructed or actively created. Because the law is already in each of us, a person does not need to seek moral understanding outside of himself. Here, then, is Emerson's thunderbolt: my greatest responsibility is to discover myself. My deepest self. This task is not child's play.

One last comment on the Emersonian view before moving on: at times, Emerson collapses the distinction between sentiment and thought. Consider the movements in the following few sentences, and try to retain only the "Spirit" of Emerson's writing--forget the words if you can:

The expressions of this sentiment affect us more than all other compositions. The sentences of the oldest time, which ejaculate this piety, are still fresh and fragrant. This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Peria, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true... Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition. It cannot be received at second hand.

Now forget Emerson! His words are to the earnest seeker what a broken branch or a footprint are to the skilled woodsman and tracker: only evidence of something moved on long ago. The fruit will be ripe again by now, and growing on a different tree. We are hungry; the tree or bush or what it might be--I trust that we will recognize it when we discover it. Are your legs weary? Let the men and women of thought debate the more difficult questions, climb their barren, snowcapped mountains--we ask only for the fullness and joy that comes from sitting in the shade under fresh fruit... I promise the walk will not take long.

No: we are like the wide receiver who runs his route every play, never knowing when the quarterback will throw us the ball.

No: we are like the attentive students, their bright eyes.

No: we are the woodsman again, and now we are the tracker, now the broken branch, and now the trail itself.

No: we are like the arrow between bow and target, or the ball between hand and mitt.

No: we are the sperm and the egg; we are both. You are both.

No: we are the ones who have been born pregnant, who have died and given birth and lived a dozen lives.

Look there!--the trail has narrowed, but I can still make it out... there has been some growth, but I think I can see...