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Nietzsche Unbound
June 1, 2015

David Taffel’s Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in an Age of Science is an unusual book for a scholar of philosophy. It makes its subject into a more mystical figure than informed readers have generally found him to be. Having read it, I remain uncertain how valid Taffel’s interpretation of Nietzsche is, but then, I need to remember that I agree with a point Taffel makes early in the book, i.e., that Nietzsche repays reading from a virtually endless number of perspectives and that it was his hope that he would, indeed, be read that way.

I agree also with Taffel that adopting a perspective on Nietzsche’s “new man,” or “over-man,” or “Hyperborean,” as Taffel likes to call him, is key to any coherent reading of Nietzsche. If one can’t fashion a defensible hypothesis about Nietzsche’s view of this figure, neither can he make much sense of where Nietzsche’s other propositions are leading.

For Taffel, the Hyperborean’s essential task is to avoid being flattened by modern science, to escape from the belief that scientific advancement will provide humanity with a never-ending process of making things better. The problem with this seemingly satisfying program is that it supplies no answer to what is better. How do we know that the improvements science incessantly offers us are leading us towards an enriched life? Taffel says we don’t know, and that by relying solely on science we never will know.

So far, so good; I suspect most thinkers would agree with him to this point. We have to possess something outside of science to know how to use science intelligently. But what is it?

Escaping from the labyrinth of the modern, science-grounded mindset is what Taffel says Nietzsche was trying to show us how to do. The primary passage in all of Nietzsche’s writing for Taffel occurs in The Antichrist, where Nietzsche announces that we have found the exit out of the labyrinth. But Taffel’s reading of this “exit” is where, for me, his book becomes a little sticky. He finds in Nietzsche a belief in a human wildness of soul that must be given expression if a future open to full human health is to be attained. But he’s never very clear about what this wildness of soul is. I think he’s got a less than adequate word. “Wildness” isn’t the metaphor for best revealing Nietzsche’s purpose.

I have to admit that Nietzsche at times appears almost drunk on the concept of Dionysus. He does argue that a full embrace of the god of fertility and ritual madness was essential to the achievement of the pre-Socratic Greeks in building a spiritual unity which delivered a kind of communal bliss. But Nietzsche also tells us we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can return to that psychic state, because we can’t. It seems clear to me he’s right about that. Whatever grandeur the early Greeks discovered, it depended on being innocent of science. And that’s an innocence we neither can, nor should want to, regain. Modern humanity is soaked in science, and trying to leech it out would be a kind of suicide.

Science is a wonderful pursuit. But the reason it’s a threat to the human spirit is that it prioritizes the abstract over the concrete and the particular. We all experience this priority incessantly. If you go to the doctor, he doesn’t see you. He sees, rather, a thirty-one year old woman who has borne two children, or he sees a sixty-six year old man who once had blood clots, and so on. One can say that’s what he has to see, and in a way that’s right. That’s the way he delivers the benefits of science to you. But in the process, he makes you feel that you’re no more than a biological machine with worn and defective parts. And that’s no way to see yourself. It’s flattening; it’s worse than that, it’s deadening. It’s that denial of genuine life that Nietzsche was trying to protect us against.

So how do we compensate for the suffering of life and transform it from a vale of horrors into something that’s beyond worthwhile, that’s entrancing? When you think about it, the answer is fairly obvious. We learn how to experience the immediate and find in its concrete reality a joy that can lift us out of our abstract selves. That’s what the over-man, the Hyperborean will learn how to do more fully, more intensely than the abstract selves of the present can ever do.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche said, “For seventeen years I have never tired of calling attention to the dispiriting influence of our current science industry.” And why is this industry a drain on the spirit? Because it turns us into abstractions. The Hyperborean will be a person who finds the means to fashion a life artistically out of concrete realities. And that won’t be easy because our social life is so packed with abstraction most of us are incapable of seeing -- or wanting to see -- ourselves as distinctive creations. We are all aware that no genuine artistic creation can be identical to any other. So if we are to be genuine artistic creations, what does that tell us about ourselves?

Using the ignorant translation of “superman” for what Nietzsche was trying to express has led to unimaginative interpretations of the over-man as someone similar to Genghis Kahn. I can only say that anybody who reads Nietzsche that way is a dope. It is very hard to be sure about Nietzsche, but of one thing you can be sure. If you’re reading him unimaginatively you’re reading him dead wrong.

David Taffel is not reading him dead wrong. His book has many valuable insights. I admit, he concentrates on the importance of concrete reality in Nietzsche’s thinking. Yet, it seems to me, that in positing a “wildness of soul” in every human being, a wildness which demands expression, Taffel is straying in the direction of the sort of abstraction that was anathema for Nietzsche. Perhaps any genuine distinctive expression does have a kind of wildness, but if we’re going to talk about the Hyperborean, we need to have someone specific in mind and say things like he saw more in the glistening droplet on a single blade of grass than most people can see in the universe. And even that would be too abstract.

Keep in mind, Nietzsche’s vision was radical.


The Free Spirit
September 14, 2014

The second chapter of Beyond Good and Evil is titled “The Free Spirit,” and it begins with a discussion of the types of exceptional persons. Distinctions of the sort Nietzsche makes here are one of his most telling characteristics, and perhaps one of his most useful contributions to a literate public.

He begins by pointing out that any exceptional person is bound to be disgusted to some degree, and perhaps even nauseated, by the habits of the common man. Unless he glistens occasionally in “all the green and gray colors of distress,” he is not a man of elevated tastes. His inclination is to seek out refuges where he doesn’t have to confront the vulgarity and the stupefying dullness of ordinary life. So far, so good, but there’s price to be paid for refinement of that kind. And Nietzsche, as usual, is blunt about it: the person who is content in his exalted citadel was not made, was not predestined, for knowledge.

The person who really cares about knowing the inner life of humanity will come to say, “The devil take my good taste ... the rule is more interesting than the exception.” This is unquestionably true. I translate it into modern example by pointing out that Elvis Presley is more interesting than Bach. If we’re talking about the elegance of music then Bach is clearly superior; but if our question deals with the phenomenon of public excitement, public adulation, public dreaming -- far more complex and therefore more interesting issues -- there is no contest. Elvis gives us more to think about then Bach does. In other words, refinement is not the same thing as knowledge. To study the average man one must be willing to practice “much disguise, self-overcoming, familiarity, and bad intercourse.” The latter is explained by the reminder that all intercourse is bad unless it takes place with one’s equals.

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends who concluded that programming on television is trash, and therefore were proud that they decided to ditch their TV sets. I agree with them that much, and perhaps most, of what appears on TV is trash, but I can’t see that as a reason to remain ignorant of it. That’s running away from knowledge, and as Nietzsche implies, the man who runs away from knowledge really doesn’t want to know. The answer of the TV-ditchers to such a comment would be that there’s only so much time available to us and consequently we should spend it on the finer things. And my response to them is that we should spend some considerable part of it on the more interesting things, regardless of their coarseness.

The lesson I take from Nietzsche in this second chapter is that the person who lives only with fine art and fine music will certainly lead a civilized life, and will experience many elevated emotions. But he or she will not add anything to humanity’s understanding of itself. The connoisseur does not create knowledge; he simply consumes it. But as Nietzsche reminds, a part of the life-history of every philosopher will be “disagreeable, odious, and disappointing.”

If a person wishes to discover knowledge he needs a succession of ups and downs -- up into retreats where he can, for a period, escape the stench of the crowd, but then, necessarily, down into the foul odors of the mob.

I have been teased lately for reading novels in the Outlander series and, at times, I ask myself why I do it. The common answer is that such reading provides “guilty pleasures.” But I think it provides more than that. Leaving aside for the moment that Diana Gabaldon strives for a finer literary craft than is common in wildly popular novels, I recognize that she rubs our noses in the filth of life, both moral and physical. The truth that I find both of these strongly repulsive may be the main reason I should gaze at them occasionally, displayed in extensive detail. Who am I to escape completely what others have been forced to live?

Nietzsche describes the worth of wallowing convincingly:

Whenever anyone speaks without bitterness, or rather quite innocently, of man as
a belly with two requirements, and a head with one; whenever any one sees, seeks,
and wants to see only hunger, sensual instinct, and vanity as the real and only
motives of human actions; in short, when anyone speaks “badly” -- and not even
“ill” -- of man, then ought the lover of knowledge to hearken attentively and
diligently; he ought, in general, to have an open ear, wherever there is talk without
indignation.

People who want to prettify everything have always disturbed me, because everything is not pretty. And the desire to escape to a world of culture and live in pure aesthetic satisfaction is also a desire not to know. Living for the sake of not knowing strikes me as a fairly craven business.

Nietzsche was aware, furthermore, that those who reach out towards this mode of living are unusually susceptible to becoming horrified and indignant. I suspect that’s the main reason why he found liberalism so repugnant. The principal purpose of both horror and indignation is to demonstrate one’s own removal from brutish action; neither emotion has much effect on it, and the effects it does have tend to be inflationary rather than mitigatory. We have seen this demonstrated vividly by the reaction in America and Europe to the beheadings recently perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East.

“How dare they?” has been the typical reaction, and the most common answer to that sort of indignation is the reply, “We’ll show you how we dare!”

Nietzsche concludes the 26th section of Beyond Good and Evil with the assertion that “no one is such a liar as the indignant man.” He is never telling you how he feels; rather he is concentrated on telling you what he wants you to think he is feeling. The goal is not knowledge or action based on knowledge. It is instead the appearance of refined feelings. Nietzsche thinks we should put knowledge first. And I confess I agree with him there.


Beyond Good and Evil, #23
September 13, 2014

As an antidote both to Hardee County and to, perhaps, excessive adventure novel reading, I’ve decided to wade through Beyond Good and Evil for what must now be the fifth time. Reading Nietzsche is, for me, a distinctive experience, in that when I encounter passages I’ve read before and think I have understood, I find myself puzzling them out in a different manner than I did earlier, and, consequently, coming up with a slightly different meaning. Actually I suspect that’s the way Nietzsche wanted to be read.

In this reading, I have been struck by Section 23 -- which is the final aphorism of the first chapter, “The Prejudices of Philosophers” -- as being one of the fundamental passages for grasping what sort of thinker Nietzsche was.

It begins with the assertion, which figures prominently throughout the Nietzschean canon, that morality is made up of a set of propositions which get in the way of understanding anything vital at the deepest level. It’s a common mistake to think that Nietzsche was hostile to morality, despite being, himself, one of the most moral of men. He clearly did not think it was an unhealthy thing for most people. In fact he argues that the investigations morality obstructs constitute “dangerous knowledge,” and advises that “there are in fact a hundred good reasons why everyone should keep away from it who can do so!”

In other words, don’t dig to the core of things if you can avoid diving below the surface. Rather, live as happily as you can with the common notions of goodness, and shape your life to them as carefully as you can.

One of the reasons Nietzsche has had a problematic reputation is that he doesn’t hesitate to challenge one of the fundamental assumptions modern morality has been reared on, the concept that every human is equal to every other human. I don’t know that Nietzsche would disagree with human equality in the sense of transcendental importance. He just didn’t write about anything of that sort. He had no interest in transcendental importance because he didn’t think there was any such thing. A curious modern phenomenon is that millions who also don’t think transcendental importance exists continue to defend its basic precepts. I’m one of those myself, and I’m uncertain what my holding onto the contradiction says about me. Nietzsche might well excuse my illogic because he didn’t see anything especially thrilling in perfect coherence. He was a philosopher of life, not of purity.  He says in the Preface of this very book that “it must certainly be confessed that the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error -- namely, Plato’s invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself.”

At any rate, Nietzsche was not afraid to assert that the many are dramatically different from the few, those who because of something in their basic constitution can not turn aside from dangerous knowledge, cannot stop digging into the heart of psychology, those who have earned the right to demand that psychology be recognized “as the queen of the sciences.” And if one should find himself in that company, if one has, somehow, drifted into the search for the core of things, then “very good, let us open our eyes and keep our hand fast on the helm. We sail away right over morality, we crush out, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage....”

Is this a doctrine of monstrosity? I suppose it can be seen that way, especially by persons proud of their own morality. But before one leaps to indignation, he might do well to imagine the underlying motive for embracing the dangerous knowledge. What if the world as we have known it has run out of drive, out of passion, out of any functional reason to keep going? What then? The result will be movement into pure nihilism. Nothing will make any sense anymore. What if the answer to nihilism is not to back off from it into the supposedly comfortable past, which if you are an adequate historian you know was not all that comfortable, but rather to drive through it?

Remember that Nietzsche said that, unless one has lost his mind, he should not leave off doing things that have been considered good, nor take up things that have been considered bad, but to do the one and avoid the other for reasons other than hitherto. We need reasons for living, reasons that morality can no longer supply. That’s the concept behind Nietzsche’s most famous pronouncement, about the death of God, and for his proposition about launching out beyond good and evil.

Doing “good” and fighting “evil” is not going to be enough in the human realm we are entering. And we will not know what will be enough, what will give reasons for health and life, until we plumb deeper into the human psyche, and come to know more fully what sort of creatures we are and what will encourage us to keep going.

For me the most fascinating words of Section 23 are “most tiresome” as applied to Platonism. If the backs and forth of human endeavor as they have transpired up till now have truly become tiresome, then you would think something else has to be discovered, that is if human efforts are to be worth the pain and suffering which always seem to accompany them.

When I, for example, hear the president. explaining why the people of the United States should use their public resources to drop bombs on people in Syria and Iraq, I respond with neither anger, nor determination. I’m just tired of listening to him. And I’m even more tired of listening to other leaders of the American government. They are presumably acting in the interests of morality, but what they propose makes no sense. That’s what Nietzsche was telling us: when morality as we have conceived it no longer makes any sense, and in fact works only to make us weary, we should move beyond it, and be brave and venturesome enough to find something else.

I recommend reading Section 23 of Beyond Good and Evil and see if it might set your mind to working in a different mode.


Johnson on Milton
September 10, 2013

The Johnson Society will meet tonight to discuss Samuel Johnson’s concept of evil. It’s not a topic I would have chosen. It has seemed to me that the Great Cham’s views of evil were conventional, being little more than the conviction that evil is that which challenges the ways of God. But since that will be the subject for conversation, I thought I ought to do something to prepare for it, so I decided to re-read Johnson’s biographical essay on Milton from Volume I of The Lives of the Poets (which, by the way, I consider to be Johnson’s finest work, surpassing even the dictionary).

My choice for preparation is fairly obvious. Since Milton’s greatest work is about the rebellion by Satan and his minions against God, I thought it would offer Johnson the opportunity to hold forth on such rebellions. And though I have read the piece a number of times, I couldn’t remember exactly what Johnson opined about the character of Satan’s disobedience.

Perhaps I should begin by confessing my own thoughts. It has seemed to me that the major question about evil is whether it is demonic, and therefore, in some sense, romantic, or whether it is simply flat and stupid. The latter is the stance of Hannah Arendt, and she has pretty well convinced me that she’s right. Evil, she says, is like a fungus spreading over the surface of things. Though it’s horrible, it has no deep roots.

This is not a contrast that would have captured Johnson’s interest (or, at least, so I think). He had a literary mind, not a philosophic one. What this means is that he was caught up in the everyday affairs of men more than he was in the overarching nature of the universe. You’ll remember that his best known philosophic statement came in response to George Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism: “I refute it thus,” said Johnson, kicking a stone down the road.

One of the delights of Johnson is his willingness to digress. He is always ready to offer some precept suggested to him by his subject, but not integral to it. In commenting on Milton as a teacher, he wanders into what he says was a pedagogical fashion of the 17th century, that is, giving precedence to authors who dealt with physical subjects. It was not a fashion of which Johnson approved, and his disagreement led him to one of his famous disquisitions:

But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which
that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or frequent business of the
human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be
useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right
and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with
those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the
reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and Justice are virtues, and excellences,
of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians
only by chance.

Johnson held an educational vision which the schools are again on the verge of forgetting.

Johnson was also sharply aware of the dangers of pedantry, and illustrated its foolishness with one of his sharpest jibes: “No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations, and of kings, sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.”

A reader has to wait till the final pages of this powerful essay before finding anything that will tell him much about Johnson’s sense of evil, and even then it is disguised by the great critic’s personal psychological weakness. He spends more time on Paradise Lost than on any other aspect of Milton’s life, and refers often to evil as though it has no need of definition. In other words he takes for granted a common piety in his readers’ minds because it is the piety to which he, himself, thinks he subscribes. Yet, in one of the finest critical passages in English, Johnson’s subconscious understanding breaks though to, in effect, refute what he propounds consciously, and which, indirectly, affords an insight into his understanding of evil. In addressing the common reader’s likely response to this universally acclaimed work of greatness, he admits something he probably never fully understood himself:

But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always
felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and
forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty
rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and over-
burdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for
companions.

In this renowned passage, Johnson reveals as much about himself as he does about Milton’s grand epic. In being who he was he always worried that he was deserting who he should have been. Nothing is more common in Johnson’s letters and personal writings than lamentation about wasted time and failure to live a pious life. In other words he was always deserting what he thought was his master in favor of companionship. And we can only be thankful that he did, despite the professed anguish it caused him. The Johnson roistering in his clubs and skewering trivial commonsense with his pithy sentences is the man we love, admire and learn from; the pious Christian, though no doubt an important element of his makeup, tells us little. He was a complete, conventional moralist on the surface and a raging rebel underneath. The tension between those two personas informs and invigorates virtually all his writing and supplies the excitement in Boswell’s biography.

When we come to his overt remarks about evil, they are flat. But why? Because they speak only to abstractions. Johnson doesn’t use the term about the things he really abhors. Genuine evil is particular -- a smashed head, a burned body, a tortured limb, a twisted, broken neck. We don’t feel it, or know it, from terms like rebellion against God. We don’t learn about evil from what Johnson says about it, but rather from what he doesn’t say. Still, I think it’s reasonable to sense meaning in Johnson’s silence about the real thing.


Harold Bloom
October 15, 2011

Harold Bloom has not been a large presence in my life. Occasionally I have to tell a non-literary friend that he’s not the same person as Allan Bloom and did not write The Closing of the American Mind. Even more often I find myself brushing aside the outrage of English professor acquaintances who feel insulted by Bloom’s contempt for their likes, a contempt that is generally deserved.

Bloom comes up most often for me in discussions at my literary club, The Johnson Society of Vermont, where some of our members are Bloom fans and from which we have issued Bloom a standing invitation to attend one our meetings whenever he’s in Vermont attending to his relations with St. Michael’s College, where his papers are to be deposited. He has indicated that he might take us up sometime.

I’ve read several of Bloom’s books. The best of them I found is The American Religion, which contains genuinely important insights. His discussion there of Mormonism is especially beguiling. Other of his writings haven’t impressed me as favorably. I tried pretty hard to wade through Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, and I found it less than enthralling. In particular, the essays on writers I knew well were the ones that impressed me least. The three pages on Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, will tell you almost nothing about Nietzsche. I think there’s more in them about Shakespeare than there is about the ostensible subject, and the entire essay reads as a farrago of literary associations, several of which have almost nothing to do with Nietzsche. It’s an example of Bloom’s principal weakness. He has read too much, and so he comes across similarly to the character in Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, who is reminded of something else so incessantly he never manages to reach his point. But then we need to remember that trying to say sensible things about a hundred important writers in a single book is a misguided project. Why would one ever think of such a thing?

A decade ago Bloom published a book named How to Read and Why which evidently was worse even than its title. It was the target of the most scathing review I think I’ve ever read -- by Terry Eagleton in The Observer for August 20, 2000, where he said that Bloom had once been a moderately interesting, if minor, critic, but had gone so rapidly downhill that “this rambling, platitudinous stuff is about the best he can now muster.” Here we are eleven years farther along and so we have to ask whether the descent has continued.

An answer has been offered by Robert Pogue Harrison in the New York Review for October 13th of this year. Writing on Bloom’s latest effort, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As a Way of Life, Harrison gives us a fairly balanced assessment which sounds sensible to me. It’s certainly not hostile but neither is it a pure encomium.

Bloom has said that his latest book will be his “final reflection on the influence process.” All in all that’s a good thing because he has pushed the “influence process” pretty hard throughout his career. I think, too hard. His notion has been that any significant writer has to be engaged in a struggle with previous writers, has to be trying to overcome them in some way. This doubtless fits with Bloom’s idea that literature is a “way of life,” but it tends to rule out or to diminish other influences on writers. I doubt that many people are as subsumed by literature as Bloom is and, consequently, he may have trouble grasping that literature, by itself, may not be everything for a writer, that there can be other concerns that drive his or her expression.

It may be the case that Bloom simply defines literature as only that which falls within his own concept of significance. Harrison comes pretty close to charging him with that sort of restriction, saying that Bloom has been hostile to the idea that the literary “could arise anywhere outside Bloom’s narrowly circumscribed circle of inclusion.”

This is the reason Harrison argues that Bloom ignores some writers who clearly have made a serious contribution to the American literary tradition. A notable example is Edgar Alan Poe, whom Bloom simply dismisses as a kind of hack even though he has had, perhaps, greater influence on European authors than any other American writer. Harrison explains this by saying that Bloom’s “chamber is large yet for the most part it remains a province of English departments.” There’s considerable irony in the statement since Bloom views himself as the scourge of English departments. But it’s not beyond possibility that Bloom is actually more professorial than those he scorns for being too much in that vein.

Harrison completes his assessment by agreeing with Bloom that literary criticism ought to consist mainly of acts of appreciation. That is, indeed, a very professorial view, to read for the sake of establishing a canon of greatness. My inclination is to ask, who cares? It may be fairly obvious that Shakespeare is a finer writer than some recent novelist like John Updike or Saul Bellow (I myself think it is). But what good does knowing that do me? Why not just let ranking take care of itself? Do we need learned critics for it? It’s as though the purpose of criticism were to build a staircase to perfection, when there is no such thing as perfection.

If you like a passage by John Updike, say why. Tell us what thoughts and feelings it brings to your mind. Help us have thoughts ourselves. And do the same with respect to all writers, Shakespeare included. Don’t worry about glorifying anybody over all the rest.

At one point Harrison speculates about whether Bloom thinks Shakespeare and God stand on the same level. One thing’s for sure, whatever level either of them stands on, he doesn’t need us to tell him what it is.

I see Bloom as a man who has read too many books and written far too many. But clearly he has found deep pleasure in his reading and has written some books that will continue to be worth our attention. That’s not a bad record. It is though, I suspect, a record that Bloom would strongly reject as being worthy of himself.


Richard Rorty
September 2, 2011

Until recently Richard Rorty was just a name to me. I knew that he was a prominent, and prolific, American philosopher, who was fairly controversial and was to some degree a disciple of John Dewey. That was about it. Then I read his Philosophy and Social Hope, a collection of essays written mostly in the 1990s, and he became immediately a figure of consequence for me.

Over the past several decades I’ve had fairly favorable feelings toward American pragmatism, based mostly on having read Dewey and William James. They struck me as practical thinkers whose advice about how to deal with the problems of life seemed sensible. And there was the added attraction that James was a charming writer (Dewey’s writing, though not as bad, or as boring, as it’s reputed to be, is not charming).

In the vagueness of my mind, however, neither Dewey nor James seemed quite deep enough. I didn’t know precisely what I meant by that, but the feeling operated to convince me that American pragmatists were not thinkers of the first rank. Certainly, in my thoughts, they were not on the same level as Nietzsche, or Foucault, or even Heidegger. Then comes Rorty to convince me that the Americans, philosophically at least, were saying about the same things as their esoteric European cousins. I had not thought of putting Nietzsche and Dewey together, for example. Rorty has shown me that I should.

The strongest lesson in Philosophy and Social Hope is that we should not expect a philosophical stance to determine, or even to influence strongly, moral or political position. There can be pragmatist Nazis as well as pragmatist social democrats (about this I’m not completely convinced, but I see what Rorty is saying and it’s not absurd).

The dividing line in Western philosophy is one’s take on Plato. Is he the key philosophical voice who presents us with the problems we should still spend most of our time on -- at least, our philosophical time -- or is his theory of knowledge so much the product of an outdated cosmology we really don’t need to worry about it anymore? In short, can we, or can we not, dismiss Plato?

The idea of dismissing Plato is for me absurd. Even if we don’t agree with him any longer, we need to know where we came from. And even if we do disagree, it is almost impossible not to find elements of Platonism slipping back into our thoughts.

Rorty is bold in saying we should cleanse our minds of Platonism. It gives us nothing. The idea that somewhere, somehow, there is a force and a realm that can tell us what we should strive towards, or that we should in some sense give our allegiance to, is for Rorty ridiculous. All we have to help us decide who we should be are our fellow humans and the accidents of history. That’s it, and the sooner we start looking in the right places, the sooner we can make our lives a bit better. Improving our lives, in the sense of making them happier and less miserable, is the only use Rorty sees for mental endeavor. You see why he’s generally considered a disciple of Dewey.

The twenty-one essays in Philosophy and Social Hope range widely. They take one into regions many have thought pragmatism couldn’t reach. Rorty is astute enough to convince us that pragmatism of his variety can reach everything, or at least everything anyone ought to care about.

If you consider the so-called big questions, the kind most people think philosophy should take up, you don’t find Rorty ignoring any of them, but he does have a way of slipping aside from issues most people think are essential (he’s an anti-essentialist, so I guess that explains why). Take the existence or non-existence of God. Rorty doesn’t have anything against belief in God. He thinks it’s perfectly all right. But he does appear to have difficulty imagining what belief in God entails. Religious belief is okay, he says, so long you don’t think your deity is telling you to do things that other people would regard as harmful to themselves. But that’s precisely what deities do. It’s hard to conceive of a proper god who wouldn’t tell his devotees to do things other people find offensive. What would be the point of being a god if he didn’t? Gods, by their very nature, carry with them the concept of evil, or anti-godliness. And, in the minds of believers, if people do anti-godly things they have to be opposed. I’m not sure Rorty gets that. But, then, we all have our blind spots.

Although Rorty deserves the title “pragmatist,” a better way to think of him would be as an analyst of language. It is through language that we think, say Rorty, and without language we wouldn’t be able to possess the images that inhabit our minds. And since language makes us who we are, the particular vocabulary we choose to discuss our problems, determines how we can work on them. It is very important, Rorty warns, to repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use and not let them impose it on us (I wish I could imprint that assessment on every Democrat’s brain). We need to stand up against a set of distinctions -- primarily the Platonic distinctions -- because they don’t pertain to differences that matter to us. Prominent among these are the absolute and the relative, the found and the made, the object and subject, nature and convention, and, most important of all, reality and appearance. If we spend our lives trying to sort these out, we will be floundering futilely and wasting the opportunity to figure out what actually matters to us (though I have to warn that Rorty wouldn’t like the word “actually”).

A second title Rorty deserves is “social philosopher.” He is far more concentrated on society and its effects than most thinkers are and, consequently, is not deeply concerned with the philosophy of private self-creation, in the mode of Emerson or Nietzsche. That’s because he thinks our moral character is determined almost completely by our social experiences. Here he is taking a position on what I regard as a chicken and egg question: does man make society or does society make the man? People have been arguing about that for a very long time and I don’t see them stopping anytime soon. But I do think it is useful to be reminded, as Rorty reminds us forcefully, that nobody would be who he or she is were it not that he or she grew up in a particular time and place. That we are creatures of history and that history decides what we think about are, perhaps, Rorty’s most potent messages. And because we are historical creatures, the quest for some sort of transhistorical certainty is an attempt to escape from the world.

Ultimately, pragmatism is for Rorty is an argument about what is not worth talking about -- God versus no God, for example -- and certainly not worth contending over.

I find myself, at this point in my education, willing to go most of the way with Rorty -- maybe 85% -- but not ready to give up all forms of what some would call Platonism. I continue to think that if you could survey the mind of humanity as a whole you could discover hierarchical distinctions that go with who we are. But that’s precisely what you can’t do, Rorty would answer. You can’t survey the mind of humanity as a whole. That’s an essentialist error. He may be right. But I’m not completely convinced.

In any case, these are entrancing essays, and though some who might be considered to fall in the category of common reader would find them tough going in places, I think almost anyone would benefit from trying to take them in.


Descartes' Bones
December 30, 2010

You may think that tracing the history of René Descartes' remains after he died in Stockholm in 1650 is curious basis for a book. But as employed by Russell Shorto, it turned out to be a fascinating device, leading to a very readable book. The reason it holds a reader's attention is not so much Descartes himself -- though he does contribute something -- but the array of characters who were involved in maintaining and transporting his bones in the three centuries after he died.

It turns out they didn't do a very good job. The only portion that remains of the body -- as far as we know -- is the main part of the skull, which now reposes in the Musee de l'homme, that is, the anthropology museum, in Paris. The reason it's still available is that it was stolen early in the story, when, after residing in a small cemetery in the northern suburbs of Stockholm for seventeen years, the body was dug up to be returned to Paris. The thieves and private owners who held onto the skull for almost two centuries did a better job of taking care of it than the French government provided for the rest of the bones, which probably were ground up during the demolition of a Parisian church in the early 19th century. At the time the church was brought down, records of the casket's being placed in the church wall had been misplaced, and, besides, they weren't very accurate anyway.

Though tracing the bones, and the arguments surrounding them, makes for a gripping detective story, the main part of Shorto's account deals with the ideas of the people who not only argued about the bones but argued even more fiercely about Descartes intellectual heritage. The great philosopher is widely viewed as the most influential pioneer of the Enlightenment, but exactly how his works and his thoughts should be perceived has never been a matter of consensus. That quarrel persists right until the present.

Descartes is famed for having held that the mind and the brain are separate entities. Obviously they are linked in some way, but how they're linked he never explained satisfactorily to himself. Actually, he came to the conclusion that the explanation lay beyond the grasp of human intelligence, more or less like the grasp of the universe does for us today. There continue to be important philosophers who say he was right.

In any case, the entire Enlightenment project depends to some extent on how one reads Descartes. Is reason the only guide we have and should consult? Or does reason need to be complemented by some other mental operation? And do we know what reason is anyway? No conclusive answers to these questions have been reached, and it seems fairly clear that they're not going to be reached any time soon.

In the final section of the book, which is the most interesting part, Shorto takes his own shot at the questions.  He doesn't leave readers thinking he has resolved them -- who could? -- but he gives us material for thought and offers some evidence that he's a competent thinker.

The quarrel between pure materialism and pure faith is not going away, as we once thought it might with the advancement of science. Shorto tries to sketch out a middle way -- ah! the grand middle way! -- Which he calls the "moderate" Enlightenment and which enrolled figures like Montesquieu, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Hobbes and Voltaire. They all made a kind of bow to faith, of one sort or another, but I would say mainly for the sake of getting it out of the way so they could devote their efforts to what they really valued. That's pretty much what Shorto does. A passage he includes about attending an antigay marriage gathering gives a flavor of where he stands:

But the beliefs I encountered in Maryland extend far and wide in America,
where Christian absolutism is a major force. They go beyond human sexuality to
biotechnology, education, social services, child development, and virtually every
facet of life. They have influenced the foreign policy of the world's only superpower.
In this system of beliefs modern history turns out to be a series of wrong turns.

Shorto doesn't think modern history has all been wrong turns but he does admit that a fanatical devotion to reason alone can lead to some pretty scary places.

At bottom what he's saying -- though he doesn't use this particular example -- is there's not much to be realized from a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Pat Robertson. I suspect most of us recognized that already. But if we're not going to rely on such a debate, or expect total victory for one side or the other, what are we going to do? Shorto is persuasive in pointing out that we need to think of something.

Maybe yet one more reading of Descartes can help us along.


Nietzschean Narratives
March 10, 2010

Gary Shapiro's study of Nietzsche's literary devices, Nietzschean Narratives (Indiana University Press, 1989), skates pretty close to academic preciousness but never slides definitely over the line. It becomes more readable as one goes along and despite a fair degree of jargon constructs a reading of Nietzsche that's worth considering.

His basic point is that though Nietzsche was the leader in the postmodern project of rejecting metanarratives, such as the Biblical account of human meaning, he never gave up using narratives himself nor did he fall into the trap of assuming that all narratives are of equal worth.

Shapiro's argument works to rescue Nietzsche from the idea -- widely held among scholars -- that his later books, and particularly The Antichrist, were products of a degenerating mind hurrying toward the breakdown of January 1889. Instead, says Shapiro, Nietzsche continued to use figures of speech skillfully throughout his writing career, right up till the end. How much he was consciously aware of the implications of his metaphorical campaign -- and Shapiro implies that he probably was pretty fully aware -- the results show that Nietzsche's structure of language always promoted his famed technique of arguing against himself, even in his most bombastic productions. We are left with the sense that self-deprecating irony may always be the final step in serious thought.

The major part of the book is taken up by a careful analysis of language in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This work has, says Shapiro, four tropological perspectives, with each device illuminating one of Nietzsche's primary ideas: general metaphor going with the Ubermench, metonymy with Will to Power, synecdoche with eternal return, and irony with the concept that a thinker should always engage in a struggle with himself. Thesis pushing of this kind always gets a bit forced and probably loses a good many common readers. Still, wading through it reminds us of how subtle words can be and even more of the impossibility of ever fitting them perfectly with the workings of the human mind. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Shapiro's analysis is the presentation of how "private language" works in Nietzsche's philosophy. The problems created by the concept that "my" thought is so uniquely mine that it can't marry securely with anybody else's can be viewed as crippling. Nietzsche, at times, hints that this is true, though the force of his whole work functions to deny it.

Analysis of language permits Shapiro to address several of the traditional mysteries that have perplexed Nietzschean scholars. He has, for example, one of the most useful perspectives on eternal recurrence I have seen. I'm not sure that anyone can make this idea fully coherent. Nor am I sure that Nietzsche expected it to be fully coherent. But Shapiro's emphasis on the consequences of taking the idea seriously affords it a practical applicability that strikes me as being compatible with Nietzsche's basic thrust of using thought to serve life rather than squandering it on an attempt to construct seamless patterns of abstractions. In reading Nietzsche, one should keep always in mind a directive from The Antichrist: "Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every 'impersonal' duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction."

Shapiro's reading of Ecce Homo carries forward the theme of self-contention. The very extravagance of the rhetoric in this peculiar autobiography may signal to the reader a warning to be careful about what's being said. Either Nietzsche was in the early grip of an oncoming insanity when he wrote it or he was playing with his readers. Those of us who hope he retained command of his mind right up until his collapse will prefer to read Ecce Homo ironically and with a sense of humor. Yet it's probably not possible ever to be certain. And that may have been the way Nietzsche wanted it.

This is not a book for those just starting to wonder about Nietzsche. I don't like to be doctrinaire but I do think the place to start with Nietzsche is with his own books. He is, after all, delightful to read regardless of whether one tries to plumb his depths. But after one has struggled with him for a while, a book like Shapiro's can be helpful and even, in a perverse way, enjoyable.


Revolution in Mind
February 19, 2010

George Makari's Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis is a formidably detailed history of a movement that many people mistakenly think they understand. They are mistaken because it is scarcely understandable, even by those who spend a lifetime in its twisting lanes.

Makari's principal thesis is that psychoanalysis was made by many minds though it has come to be associated almost exclusively with Sigmund Freud. Why Freud dominates general perception of the movement is not made perfectly clear by Makari. It may be simply that most people are lazy-minded and like to have simplistic concepts of complicated affairs. Nonetheless, through a forty year term, when Freud was often in danger of being marginalized by the evolving complex of ideas he helped set in motion, he managed repeatedly, sometimes almost magically, and with a good deal of luck -- itself a notion highly suspect in Freudian circles -- to reimpose himself at the center of the sprawling web.

In general intellectual history, psychoanalysis is known primarily for its ingenious defense mechanism which is built into the core of its basic proposition. Criticism of it is interpreted as emerging from hidden elements of injured minds and consequently is always the product of neurosis. This is a wonderful weapon for the movement in its battle with the world, but it carries with it severe internal dangers. Its proponents used it incessantly against one another and thereby turned the movement into a cascading series of schisms.

Freud himself was not immune from the toxicity of this form of argument. Fairly late in his life, when his daughter was charged with being insufficiently analyzed and, thereby, with extracting her ideas from her neuroses, the indignant father announced that analysts should not engage in this form of verbal warfare because it led to nothing but an endless exchange of insults. Makari, however, doesn't let the master get away with his paternal conversion to tolerance, noting that:

Freud was incensed, but really he had no right to be. He had let the ad hominem
genie out of the bottle long ago, and now in a moment of supreme irony, the
president of the I.P.A. reduced the theoretical positions of Freud's own daughter
to her neurosis.

To be fair we have to admit that psychoanalysis was -- and is -- attempting to pin down things that are extremely elusive: the workings of the human mind. The endeavor was made all the more difficult because the only instrument available to it was the human mind itself. The explorers were subject to the same delusions and fantasies they were trying to unearth and catalogue. The movement recognized this from the beginning and took measures to protect itself against the weaknesses it took as its subject. The main question about psychoanalysis remains whether those measures even begin to be adequate. To his credit, Makari makes no attempt to answer that question. He just tells us what the people who chose to call themselves psychoanalysts said and did.

From the beginning the question of what psychoanalysis was trying to accomplish was a big issue. Was it a new and exciting world view? Was it a therapeutic technique? Was it a comprehensive theory of the mind? All those queries also remain unanswered. Obviously, it was in some respects all three, but which was to be the dominant motivator? The disputes over that concern were endless and they were made even more interminable because each of the big questions broke down into numerous smaller ones. If, for example, psychoanalysis was to be a therapeutic technique, then what definition of health was it seeking to achieve?

Makari's account is fascinating not only for the concepts it presents to us but just as much for the cast of characters involved. They may constitute the wildest crew ever assembled under a single designation. If they were not the wildest, they were surely the most prickly. It's hard to imagine people fighting over some of the things they fought about. It's even harder to conceive the passions the fights aroused. Hatred of someone not because he disagrees with you but just because he puts a slightly different slant on his agreement is a strange phenomenon.

The emotional power of the book resides in the reader's knowledge of what's coming. Regardless of what one thinks about the validity or morality of psychoanalysis, it would be hard to deny that it represented a thorough refutation of Nazism. To read of how an entire network of institutions and associations were brutally ejected by a vicious political force is saddening. The result was that something eminently European was forced to find a home in an alien environment -- America -- and was thereby transformed. It's not likely that Freud would have been pleased by what happened, but, of course, he didn't live to see it. He died in the fall of 1939, a little over a year after he had escaped from Vienna to London.

Whether the movement that bears his name is any longer genuinely Freudian is a question that would take another book at least as long as this one to explore. Makari does little more than hint at some of the answers. He pretty much brings his story to an end with the death of Freud, suggesting that the opening of the conflict with Nazi Germany marked the completion of something and that whatever managed to rise out of its ashes was bound to be something else.


Gods, Men and Miseries
April 3, 2009

Given what humans are, and their passions, fears, and intellectual frailties, it becomes a ticklish issue to sort out what responsibility they have for the horrors that fall upon them.

This has been a perplexing question for a long time.

In the opening lines of The Odyssey, Zeus, leader of the Olympians, expresses exasperation with the way men blame the gods for their troubles. If humans would just stop being idiotic, he says, they wouldn't have nearly so much to contend with. But he doesn't tell us that all human difficulties would be banished.

All English translations give us the same general sense of Zeus's exclamation, but each is different from the others in ways that help us confront the problem itself.

Here are five notable English renditions that have held my attention lately:

Samuel Butler (1898)
See now how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their
own folly.

W.H. D. Rouse (1937)
Upon my word, just see how mortal men always put the blame on us gods! We
are the source of evil so they say -- when they have only their own madness to
thank if their miseries are worse than they ought to be.

E.V. Rieu (1945)
What a lamentable thing it is that men should blame the gods and regard us as
the source of their troubles, when it is their own wickedness that brings them
sufferings worse than any which Destiny allots to them.

Robert Fitzgerald (1963)
My word, how mortals takes the gods to task!
All their afflictions come from us, we hear.
And what of their own failings? Greed and folly
double the suffering in the lot of man.

Robert Fagles (1996)
Ah how shameless the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.

Here we have five different human deficiencies and though you could say that they all resemble one another, there clearly are distinctions among them that matter.

Folly, madness, wickedness, greed, and reckless ways are not exactly the same thing.

If one were a thorough scholarly pedant, he might say that the way to resolve the question would be to have resort to the text in Greek. But that would afford us no resolution of the intellectual problem. Even if one were a classical scholar and had deluded himself into believing that his grasp of the so-called original text was more accurate than anyone else's, there would still be the problem that we don't actually know what the original text is or where it came from. What we have now may be no more than one version of a tale of adventure which was sung more than two and a half millennia ago. The Greek text can be seen as having a certain precedence, but it is far from definitive.

After all, Butler, Rouse, Rieu, Fitzgerald, and Fagles were all intelligent men who chose their English words carefully. There's no intellectual degradation in taking their text as seriously as we take Homer's -- if there was such a man as Homer. In the end, we are left with words and we have to use them as best we can to think.

If I were to be presented with this list of moral turpitude and asked which of the five visits upon us the worst results, I guess I'd pick folly because it's the most general. In a way, it encompasses the other four. But because it is general, it's not very satisfying . We would like to know what is it, exactly, in the human heart, that most causes suffering. In this list, greed is the most specific. It stands out as something we know, have actually experienced. As such, it has an odor more vile than the rest.  Certainly, nothing exceeds it in the generation of delusion. Just think of the statements that have appeared in our newspapers over the past several months. So if Zeus is telling us that men agonize more than they ought to because of their greed, I'd have to say that Zeus is a pretty good god.

Zeus is also becomingly humble. He makes no claim that the gods, themselves, could banish all human pain. There is a proper share in the lot of man, a certain amount that ought to be. It is allotted by Destiny, which rises in power above the gods.

As I have grown older, I've become less satisfied with the idea of an omnipotent god -- or gods. If you're going to have a god who's omnipotent, there's nothing to do but revile him. After all, it is he, himself, in his overweening power, who decides to torture you. What possible decent motive could he have for doing that. Saying that god's ways are inscrutable is just silly mumbo-jumbo, at least as far as the human mind is concerned. It makes no sense to love god simply because he is powerful. It might make sense, if by loving him you incurred his favor. But history tells us that loving is not enough; it won't placate him. It is from the experience of unrequited love that notions of paradise arrive. It would be just too horrible, wouldn't it, if you loved omnipotence completely and abjectly, and it still smashed your hopes, dreams, and desires? So, there must be some pure justice and mercy out there somewhere, right?

Homer's Zeus doesn't deal in that sort of sentimentality. He notes, almost offhandedly, that Destiny allots suffering. But it doesn't bring us as much as we have. Much of it is our own fault, and if we would give up our foolishness, we would have to bear much less horror than we do.

It is, I suspect, this clear-eyed gaze at the nature of things which continues to give the Greek classics their hold on at least some of us. We can't know, for sure, what kind of life we would have if we accepted Zeus's analysis. Yet, the suspicion lingers that we would be more noble if we did. True, we don't even know what noble means, unless it means simply doing the best we can as long as we have the power to do anything. What's the good of that, one might ask, if there's no ultimate meaning, no eternal resolution?

It's a powerful question, one we're not fully capable of putting away. Or, perhaps I should say, it's not one I'm capable of putting away. Even so, I stay drawn to that man of countless exploits, that master of tactics, that man in word and actions both, who faced his fate on the wine dark sea. I also relish his relations with the gods, and, in particular, his interaction with his supporter, Athena. It would be a fine thing to have a friend like her, even if she weren't omnipotent. I'm reasonably sure if I could resemble Odysseus more than I do, I would achieve a healthier life.

Consequently, I'm grateful to Homer, or whoever it was, who told Odysseus's story. And, I'm also in debt to the men who took the ancient words and transformed them into phrases I can read and think about.


Celestial Choices
March 18, 2009

When Odysseus visited the land of the dead, one of the spirits who came flitting up to him was Tyro, who in life conceived a passion for the river god Enipeus. As he was about to reap the benefits of her love he informed her that "bedding down with the gods is never barren, futile."

I've been wondering about that promise lately. In the great battle for our souls between Athens and Jerusalem I've found myself being drawn to the former. The fruits it offers are not as consoling as those we get from the Holy City of Palestine but they are more bracing. Since the only serious purpose of religion is to counsel us about death, we turn to spiritual advice for help in deciding whether to stare it down or accept it. It's a decision every person has the perfect right to make for himself or herself. Nobody ought to be telling you the way to go. As for me, I can't get myself into a welcoming frame of mind where death is concerned.

Taking the Olympian gods as your pantheon is not as bizarre a choice as you might suppose. The great error of the conventional religions during my lifetime has been trying to base gods on belief. Belief has nothing to do with them. We choose them on the basis of how much awe or respect they strike into our hearts. You might think that Zeus, for example is a not a figure to hold up for admiration, but he does have his virtues. When he's on your side, you're in great shape, and when he's against you, at least you know where you stand. Clarity is not the least of the virtues and Zeus tended to be pretty clear, though he could change his mind.

Odysseus, that master of exploits and man of pain, had Athena to help him on his way home. Athena's flaw was that she was not omnipotent. Still, she was a useful assistant. It's a great mistake to place your trust in an omnipotent deity. Omnipotence is not a characteristic in existence, either among the gods or men. The best you can hope for is a reasonable shot and a god to steady your hand.

I think I'll ask Athena to come along with me for a while. I realize I can't be sure about her. As Odysseus says "Who can glimpse a god who wants to be invisible gliding here and there?" Still, the thought of her clearing the way is pleasant and if she decides to do it for me, the promise of Enipeus will have been borne out.


Timelessness
February 18, 2009

One of the more interesting passages in Augustine's Confessions comes in Book IX, where the author describes a conversation he had with his mother Monica on the day of her death. Mother and son are trying to imagine what existence will be once life on earth is over. He says that after they had talked and panted for this knowledge they were able to touch it "in some small degree" by a total concentration of the heart.

What this touch revealed was the nature of eternity, where there is no past and no future. His actual words -- in the translation by Henry Chadwick -- are: "For to exist in the past or in the future is no property of the eternal." Furthermore, this is a condition of wisdom "by which all creatures come into being, both things which were and things which will be."

Here is evidence that, at least since the 4th century -- and doubtless well before then -- the human mind has been intrigued by the notion that time is simply an illusion of this world, and that once we escape into the next realm we will no longer be tyrannized by it.

What might the source of this concept be? I suppose the most obvious answer is that time is the ultimate horror. Though it is always bringing us new things it is also relentlessly taking away things we love. The person to whom we talk one day in perfectly ordinary terms may the next be gone beyond any possibility of talking. This strikes most of us -- if we're willing to be honest -- as intolerable. So, perhaps, the mind just makes up something to banish that possibility. This is standard 20th and 21st century psychology.

Still, one thing we can be fairly sure of: current psychological explanation is not ultimate wisdom. There will be many other explanations which will operate with at least as much force.

Now and then a voice says to me that nothing that was once in the universe can disappear from the universe. Trouble is, the same voice says that nothing that was not in the universe from the beginning can ever come into it. Take those two notions together and you have something approaching Augustine's concept of eternity.

None of this fits well with common sense. It seems to have little effect on how we behave when shopping at Shaw's (our local supermarket). I suppose most people will say that common sense is all that counts. Even so, it seems a paltry thing. So we have moments where we seek "total concentration of the heart." And whenever we do, we seem, inevitably to put time in the docket.


Faith, Sixteen Hundred Years Ago
February 11, 2009

In his Confessions, Augustine tells us that the five elements of his faith are:

  • God exists.
  • He is immutable substance.
  • He cares for humanity.
  • He judges humanity.
  • Through Christ and scripture he has provided a way of salvation whereby humanity can come to a future life after death.

These matters are so firmly fortified in his mind, he says, they can never be shaken. He has doubts and confusions about other issues, such as the reason for the existence of evil. Yet about the five basic principles, there is no doubt whatever.

The content of his faith is not particularly surprising. You can find millions of believers today who would subscribe to the same list. Yet it is fascinating that such beliefs could have subsisted with virtually no alteration from his time to ours. That's sixteen hundred years -- a fairly long time. I suppose orthodox Christians would say their lastingness is proof of their validity.

There have been many books in which believers who profess to be certain, beyond question, attempt to explain how they arrived at their certainty. None of them work. It seems to be impossible for one mind to convey to another the process of achieving doubtless certainty.

Obviously, the elements of Augustine's faith are tempting. If there is something immutable which not only cares for us but offers us a way to escape the miseries and fears of life then a person would have to be an idiot not to want to get in line with it. But what is this something? How do we get in touch with it? How do we know it exists? How do we even know what the word "exists" means in this context?

These are questions no one seems capable of answering.

I have nothing against attempting to answer them or even against people who claim to have succeeded. The worm comes into the apple when these claims get embodied in institutions which exercise power over human lives right here in this commonsense world we inhabit. I don't see how that can fail to lead to corruption. To the degree that history can guide us, it tells us that it always does.

Still, we do have the mystery of these beliefs lasting as long as they have. I suppose you could say they are a perfect formula for addressing all our problems and, therefore, can't be resisted by uncritical minds. They are the ultimate in wishful thinking. It's an explanation I find partially satisfying, but not wholly. There is something else in them beyond a desire to escape.

That's why I think it's important for us to keep on knowing about them. It's possible they could be a stepping stone to a knowing that's better than we've ever had before.


Oracles
January 29, 2009

There is a type of literature rife in the world we need a common word to describe. "Rife," as you know is a term carrying harmful or undesirable connotations. If we were more intelligent, the literature I speak of would not be rife, it would merely be widespread, and that would be a good thing.

We do have a word that fills the need. The problem is it’s not well-known, and even many who think they know what it means are mistaken. I'm referring to "Delphic." If you look it up in most dictionaries, you find it defined as meaning "obscure" or "ambiguous." I suppose that's technically correct, but it misses the whole point of a Delphic text.

The purpose of oracles, as, for example, the sayings that came from the temple at Delphi, was not to confuse but to teach. They do confuse to a certain extent but their use is to challenge us to work through the confusion and make something with our own minds.

In the Western world, the most potent Delphic text is the collection of writings we call the Bible. Many people try to use it as an instruction manual, which is the reason for its low standing with considerable portions of the learned population. The latter are as wrong to reject it as the former are to employ it as a moral club (well, maybe not quite as wrong).

The Bible pulsates with Delphic instruction. You can scarcely open a page without finding an example of it.

Consider the passage I happened to read just this morning -- the third and fourth verses of the fourth chapter of the letter of James in the New Testament:

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your
passions. Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world
is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes
himself an enemy of God.

It presents us with four short sentences, which seem, at first glance fairly clear -- clear that is until we begin to dig at three of its words.

What is "passion"? What is the "world?" Who is "God?"

You could easily spend a lifetime trying to assign meaning to those three little words, and you would not complete the task. We could start by facing the truth that we have little idea of what the writer meant when he used them and go on from there.

Since we can't to the bottom of what's being said does that mean we should ignore it? I don't think so. The more you struggle with Delphic passages, the better and stronger your mind becomes. At the very least you learn that you're never going to sort everything out and that it would degrade your humanity if you could.

Quick and easy interpretation is the bane of human society. Its practitioners are trying to lead you down the paths of foolishness (to use a Delphic utterance myself). Preaching exactitude when there is no exactitude is the behavior of a charlatan.

And, "charlatan" is not a particularly Delphic term.


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