Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Oedipus & the Sphinx

Marble capital & finial in the form of a sphinx, 530 BC
Marble capital and finial
in the form of a sphinx, 530 BCE.
By Metropolitan Museum of Art -
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0
The Greek sphinx, like the Egyptian, has a lion's body with a woman's head … seductive but destructive: humans no matter how prudent are still drawn to the fate that will eat them.

: : :

At a crossroads a human being who flatters himself rational meets a monster liable to speak or act in unaccountable ways. We are tempted to identify with the egocentric human but that would be doom and folly as well: that is the archetypal misstep, in every life and every generation. In the contest between yourself and the world, side with the world, said the human sphinx of Prague.

: : :

"I can answer any riddle," boasted Oedipus.

"What is man such that he should be subject to the authority of mystery?"

"I did not make myself. So I do not know."

"Then how do you know you are omniscient? What have you declared other than your own egomania?"

: : :

"How can I tell whether I am asking myself the right questions?" petitioned Oedipus.

"Do you know from where questions arise, or why one is necessitated rather than another? How do questions ripen, and why? What makes the questionable questionable?"

"Because man has forgotten to think about it, or to think it worth knowing. But why does he forget and neglect?"

"Every man is obliged by life to be what he is least competent to be, the judge in his own case. His corruption only cheats himself. The issue is not intellectual but characteral."

: : :

"Why do sphinxes haunt the travelers' lanes?" pled Oedipus.

"There are mysteries also in the settlements and cities but there men sleep too deeply in the beds of language and custom. It is only in transit from one outpost of artificiality to another that the lonely wayfarer discovers how much of the world he did not know. When the great world is distracting him with its details and novelties, then he is most susceptible to those missteps that lead inadvertently but ineluctably into the mysterious. He awakens briefly and becomes fit for an illusion-killing question."

: : :

"What must I do to be happy?" implored Oedipus.

"Put your affairs in the hands of a god."

"And? What is the catch?"

"No god would have them. Gods have responsibilities of their own, for which they wish there were higher gods to help them. Even for gods, to live is to endure strife and distress: humans mistake the gods' bonus of wisdom for happiness."

: : :

"Why should I disturb myself over what is not known or knowable? Why should I care about limitations on my knowledge or understanding that are not my fault?" complained Oedipus.

"But they are your fault. Every child begins shaping his own mentality long before he comprehends the issues and implications of thinking or believing one way rather than another. No human knows what life may ultimately require him to be competent or resourceful for. All preparation for an unpredictable life may be delusory or irrelevant. What is most decisive is the elusive self-formation humans carry out long before they are fully conscious and perspicuous, the darkling first steps by which the character of the soul announces itself. Humans inherit themselves from their own more obscure selves. … How much of human finitude can even be put into words, much less explained?"

: : :

"Why do sphinxes harass humans?" challenged Oedipus.

"Not all humans, only those pregnant with a sense of their own incongruity or anomalous significance, whose minds are ripe with mindeating questions. A sphinx must be there as a midwife to steer the little head through, to turn it just so in birthing."

: : :

"Why do the gods send such a messenger as a sphinx?" shivered Oedipus.

"To remind men of how much in human life cannot be averted — because it is perennial, eternal, oceanic, fated. In awe, eerily, human will discovers the laws it is subject to. Immolated, incandescent, one life may prove a torch to illumine others' lives."

: : :

"Is there a correct mentality for living?" sought Oedipus.

"'Correct' is not the correct category. There are many ways to be intelligent or wise but many, many more to be wrongheaded or deluded. Not the authority of the gods but life itself punishes man's delusions; and not the rules of a particular form of society but history itself will draw the penalties for self-indulgence."

: : :

"Won't humans outgrow folly naturally, just in the process of living and being abused?" speculated Oedipus.

"Wisdom is too difficult, says every fool. How much harm can a little pleasant folly do? — as if any fool knew the measure of his own benightedness. I will make my mistakes and then repent on my deathbed, resolving my life on a chord of wisdom, thinks the fool — ingeniously strategizing a way to avoid suffering for wisdom. Instead he suffers relentlessly for folly, in ways he is too shallow and obtuse to sense. All lifelong he confirms habits that inure a fool to his folly, cleverly rationalizing away what should be educational, coddling his own feelings gingerly, caressing the tender delusions of his narcotic ego. Does he think to have it both ways, to indulge the godling Ego and then when it no longer matters make a deathbed conversion to principles? In extremis, as Death is about to take his pulse, is that the only time he makes himself deal with ultimate, last matters? For all of life is rife with finalities. Does the fool suppose a deadline will acutely improve his deficient thinking? A slack, improvident, wastrel life is killing itself every passing moment — paying for what is specious with what is truly precious, selling itself into slavery on the installment-plan. Wisdom is arduous but folly is murderous, killing the very meaning of being alive. A fool lives to drift and be gulled."

: : :

"Why do you kill those who misanswer your questions?" pressed Oedipus.

"To make wisdom matter as much to imbeciles as it does to the wise. Every lapse in sagacity is lethal, and a pattern of negligence is fatal, an index to structural and ultimate character. To lack wisdom is to suffer a life of self-immiseration and self-ruin, one illusion failing after another, seriatim. To kill an idiot is to enact a mercy — for which he would thank you were he not an idiot."

: : :

"Is the truth always and necessarily otherwise than how we conceive it?" resented Oedipus.

"It is not only otherwise but otherwise in such a way as to make humans misconceive it the way that they do. The truth is complex and deep enough to explain delusion and falsehood: falsity is one way truth may work on the mind; but falsity is also a necessary precondition without which truth is not possible."

: : :

"Why must there be mystery, a surplus beyond the reach of our minds? Why can't everything reveal itself and shine forth for us? Why must the world be shifting and deceptive, deep and surprising, rife with anomalies? Why not an obvious world that gives itself utterly to us?" demanded Oedipus.

"You seem not to know where the world leaves off and your own responsibilities begin. A mind simple enough to be wholly obvious to itself would not be able to think, and a world simple enough to be just a flux of seeming would not be complex enough to produce thinkers. Mystery is a boundless ocean and so is man's shameless lust for simplicity and obviousness: there is mystery to teach at least a few humans that the world does not revolve around the interests and preconceptions of idiots. You live in a world intriguing enough to induce your mind to grow; a wise creature, realizing what is good for it, would be grateful for that subtlety."

: : :

"Were you waiting here for me? How did you know the turning I would choose?" beseeched Oedipus.

"You carried me along with you, blind wretch. You breathed me, thought me when you did not think, saw me when you did not see. You incurred me as your own inverse; I am your liability and live implicit in every strategy you wedded yourself to."

for Lee E.

— Kenneth Smith, "Parable 95: Oedipus and the Sphinx." In Otherwise: 100 Parables, Paradigms, & Paradoxes on the Reality Alongside of Us. Dallas: Memnon Press, 1997.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

If a Prophet Had Come

Plaster life cast of Black Hawkl
Plaster life cast of Black Hawk,
original ca. 1830,
at Black Hawk State Historic Site.
Photo by Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia,
CC BY-SA 3.0
"Our village was situated on the north side of Rock river, at the foot of the rapids, on the point of land between Rock river and the Mississippi. In front a prairie extended to the Mississippi, and in the rear a continued bluff gently ascended from the prairie.

"On its highest peak our Watch Tower was situated, from which we had a fine view for many miles up and down Rock river, and in every direction. On the side of this bluff we had our corn fields, extending about two miles up parallel with the larger river, where they adjoined those of the Foxes, whose village was on the same stream, opposite the lower end of Rock Island, and three miles distant from ours. We had eight hundred acres in cultivation including what we had on the islands in Rock river. The land around our village which remained unbroken, was covered with blue-grass which furnished excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs poured out of the bluff near by, from which we were well supplied with good water. The rapids of Rock river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land being very fertile, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins and squashes. We always had plenty; our children never cried from hunger, neither were our people in want. Here our village had stood for more than a hundred years, during all of which time we were the undisputed possessors of the Mississippi valley, from the Wisconsin to the Portage des Sioux, near the mouth of the Missouri, being about seven hundred miles in length.

"At this time we had very little intercourse with the whites except those who were traders. Our village was healthy, and there was no place in the country possessing such advantages, nor hunting grounds better than those we had in possession. If a prophet had come to our village in those days and told us that the things were to take place which have since come to pass, none of our people would have believed him. What! to be driven from our village, and our hunting grounds, and not even to be permitted to visit the graves of our forefathers and relatives and our friends?"

—Black Hawk (1767/1838-10-03), Chief of the Sauk and Fox, Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of His Nation, Various Wars in Which He Has Been Engaged, and His Account of the Cause and General History of the Black Hawk War of 1832, His Surrender, and Travels Through the United States. Dictated by Himself. Antoine Le Clair, U.S. Interpreter. J.B. Patterson, Editor and Amanuensis. Rock Island, Illinois: 1833.

Project Gutenberg edition

Wikipedia article about the author

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Familiar

"Quite generally, the familiar, just because it is familiar, is not cognitively understood. The commonest way in which we deceive either ourselves or others about understanding is by assuming something as familiar, and accepting it on that account; with all its pros and cons, such knowing never gets anywhere, and it knows not why. Subject and object, God, Nature, Understanding, sensibility, and so on, are uncritically taken for granted as familiar, established as valid and made into fixed points for starting and stopping. While these remain unmoved, the knowing activity goes back and forth between them, thus moving only on their surface. Apprehending and testing likewise consist in seeing whether everybody's impression of the matter coincides with what is asserted about these fixed points, whether it seems that way to him or not.

"The analysis of an idea, as it used to be carried out, was, in fact, nothing else than ridding it of the form in which it had become familiar."

--Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, translation by Arnold V. Miller, Preface: On Scientific Cognition, Oxford University Press, 1977

"Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt. Es ist die gewöhnlichste Selbsttäuschung wie Täuschung anderer, beim Erkennen etwas als bekannt vorauszusetzen, und es sich ebenso gefallen zu lassen; mit allem Hin – und Herreden kommt solches Wissen, ohne zu wissen, wie ihm geschieht, nicht von der Stelle. Das Subjekt und Objekt u.s.f., Gott, Natur, der Verstand, die Sinnlichkeit u.s.f. werden unbesehen als bekannt und als etwas Gültiges zugrunde gelegt und machen feste Punkte sowohl des Ausgangs als der Rückkehr aus. Die Bewegung geht zwischen ihnen, die unbewegt bleiben, hin und her, und somit nur auf ihrer Oberfläche vor. 

So besteht auch das Auffassen und Prüfen darin, zu sehen, ob jeder das von ihnen Gesagte auch in seiner Vorstellung findet, ob es ihm so scheint und bekannt ist oder nicht.

"Das Analysieren einer Vorstellung, wie es sonst getrieben worden, war schon nichts anderes als das Aufheben der Form ihres Bekanntseins."

--George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes [Phenomenology of Geistes (Mind/Spirit)], Vorrede, 1807

Saturday, September 15, 2012

As a Man Is, So He Sees

[To] Revd Dr Trusler, Englefield Green, Egham, Surrey

13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, August 23, 1799
   [Postmark: 28 August]

Revd Sir,

I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World, Especially if I should have to answer for it. I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other, namely Visions of Eternity. You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas, But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Esop, Homer, Plato.

But as you have favord me with your remarks on my Design permit me in return to defend it against a mistaken one, which is That I have supposed Malevolence without a Cause. --Is not Merit in one a Cause of Envy in another & Serenity & Happiness & Beauty a Cause of Malevolence? But Want of Money & the Distress of A Thief can never be alledged as the Cause of his Thievery, for many honest people endure greater hard ships with Fortitude. We must therefore seek the Cause elsewhere than in want of Money for that is the Miser's passion, not the Thief's.

I have therefore proved your Reasonings Ill proportiond which you can never prove my figures to be. They are those of Michael Angelo, Rafael, & the Antique, & of the best living Models. I percieve that your Eye is perverted by Caricature Prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do. Fun I love, but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun, & Happiness is better than Mirth--I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision.

I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.

You certainly Mistake when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination, & I feel Flatterd when I am told So. What is it sets Homer, Virgil, & Milton in so high a rank of Art? Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book? Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?

Such is True Painting and such alone valued by the Greeks & the best modern Artists. Consider what Lord Bacon says "Sense sends over to Imagination before Reason have judged, & Reason sends over to Imagination before the Decree can be acted." See Advancemt of Learning Part 2 P 47 of first Edition.

But I am happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can Elucidate My Visions, & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I even hoped. Neither Youth nor Childhood is Folly or Incapacity. Some Children are Fools & so are some Old Men, But There is a vast Majority on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation.

To Engrave after another Painter is infinitely more laborious than to Engrave one's own Inventions. And of the Size you require my price has been Thirty Guineas, & I cannot afford to do it for less. I had Twelve for the Head I sent you as a Specimen, but after my own designs I could do at least Six times the quantity of labour in the same time, which will account for the difference of price, as also that Chalk Engraving is at least six times as laborious as Aqua tinta. I have no objection to Engraving after another Artist. Engraving is the profession I was apprenticed to, & should never have attempted to live by any thing else If orders had not come in for my Designs & Paintings, which I have the pleasure to tell you are Increasing Every Day. Thus If I am a Painter it is not to be attributed to Seeking after. But I am contented whether I live by Painting or Engraving.

I am Revd Sir Your very obedient servant,

Friday, June 24, 2011

Interlude: A Moment of Catharsis

Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not. -- Elias Root Beadle

My late paternal grandmother, Ann Saling, tried to cultivate in me a taste for the finer things, including serious literature, so she introduced me at a young age to Franz Kafka. When she sat me down to read Kafka's Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), I hated it. It repelled me. I could not stand how unrealistic it was, how wrong everyone's reactions were, how nothing strange was explained. It felt like drinking from a cup of sickness, and I pushed it away.

I missed the point of what she was trying to do until decades later, when I finally came to a place in my life where I could tolerate and even cradle a dark place in my heart for the grim humor, the enraged exasperation and contempt, the grief for humanity in Kafka's work. You need to experience the madness of the human world fully enough to accept it, to be willing to have it called what it is. After that point, one realizes that the status quo is the threat and the messenger is just a healer, a Good Samaritan forced to discuss repulsive things in the hope that a diagnosis will lead to treatment and impoved health.

Until then, one feels polluted by contact with ugly truths, feels that one's health, sanity, even purity are being ruined by hearing them. Until that point, the messenger seems like the threat, so we respond in kind. We accuse the messenger of being mad, polluted, sick, dangerous. We react with hostility not to the real threat, but to its revelation and those who reveal it, and we refuse to believe.

We look for excuses not to listen. If the messenger is upset, then we can rationalize away his message as the exaggerations of an overly emotional person. If he says we face intractable systemic problems, we twist his message to something easier to dismiss, accuse him of believing in conspiracies, of being paranoid or otherwise out of touch with reality.

The irony is that we are the ones out of touch with reality, not the messenger.

As we go about our lives, we fight those who try to warn us that our house is on fire, in the same way that a drowning person sometimes fights the lifeguard. We have powerful vested interests in the way we believe the world works, so those who disrupt our view of the world feel like the threats to all we have invested in our illusions.

When I first encountered Beadle's quote, I reacted as I had to Kafka, by rejecting it reflexively and rationalizing my prejudice to make myself seem more reasonable and the author less so - thereby ironically demonstrating the truth of what he wrote. These days I've concluded that either the human world has grown more in love with illusions than in Beadle's time or he underestimated the scope of the problem.

To those who still find Beadle's summation pessimistic, I offer this explanation:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" -- Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, 1935

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


When it comes to the truth, we are lappy. We insist that the world lay the truth in our laps for us, perfectly presented, with no distractions or imperfections, custom fit to our personal prejudices and habits of thought.

We take this habit of the mind for reasonableness, or common sense, or mathematical or scientific rigor (that is, we take it in the most flattering light possible), but it's none of those things. Those are just the clothes our mind wears to feel good about itself. Lappiness is one part laziness, one part obsessive-compulsive disorder, and one part self-centeredness. We expect the world to work the way we want it to, to present truths to us in prechewed form, to satisfy our irrational criteria for what counts as true (such as whether we like it, whether it makes us feel good about ourselves, whether it confirms what we already believe, whether it's easy to believe).

The world does no such thing, of course. Outside the world of theory and math, the truth never comes to us in pure, flawless form. The truths of the real world always come to us in complex mixtures, tangled, clad in imperfections and contradictions, precious metals but only in ore form, gems but only in the rough. If we focus only on the critical role of the mind, on searching for imperfections and pushing away anything that contains them, we will reject every actual truth the world has to offer us and eventually be left with nothing but those prejudices too strong and familiar and pure for us to bear to discard them.

This is one of those unpleasant paradoxes of the real world, that the critical faculty whose intent is to purify the truth will in human beings instead tend to purify their prejudices. Those who give in to this obsessive-compulsive habit of the mind tend to deal less and less with real information (too messy) and more and more in false but pure abstrations (mind versus matter, free will versus determinism, sane versus insane, conservative versus liberal, market versus government). This is how people tend to become caricatures of themselves over time, eventually seeing the world only as a dreamworld of artificial but pure categories that lend themselves to the lappy habits of the mind, reacting to other people not as who they really are but instead as how the viewer has categorized them, sleep-walking through life.

In the authentic search for the truth (rather than just its usual simulation), we do not get to begin with true a priori assumptions, nor do we get to logically deduce the truth like some kind of biological calculator. The mind is not a computer and life is not a logical syllogism. We take the processes of criticism and logic too much for granted as tools in the search for the truth. If we mechanically apply them outside their proper and limited domains, we become the man with the hammer to whom all problems look like nails. We become Procrustes again, stretching, twisting, and chopping the truth until its distorted corpse "fits" upon the bed of our minds.

The impurity, the paradoxes, the messiness and miscegenation of truth in the real world requires a very different approach. We have to start by abandoning the role of the lazy critic who waits for the truth to come to him in perfect, predigested form. On the contrary, not only must we search for the truth actively (to turn over much dirt in our search for gold, as Heraclitus put it), we must also learn to be suspicious of lappy information. The only truths that seem to fit us perfectly are those too consistent with our own prejudices to be true.

So here's an imperfect but useful logical syllogism for us all.

Delusions come easily to us, truths only with much difficulty. Therefore, if we don't have to work for it, it can't be true.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Content of Their Character

"We cannot walk alone.

"And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

"We cannot turn back.

"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," speech delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

Monday, March 07, 2011


Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior dreamed of the day when we judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Character trumps DNA. Skin color cannot make you a good person.

Neither can physical excellence.

A dishonest, self-centered coward is not elevated by vigorous might - it just serves his vices - but an honest, compassionate, courageous man is elevated beyond frailty. We covet health, but we need character.

If we take the reverend at his word, we must overturn many cherished notions. For starters, all men may be created equal, but some of them grow up to be jerks. We may grant sociopaths, bullies, and liars equal legal rights, but their character remains inferior.

So does their value to the world.

Much of what's wrong with our world is directly caused by dysdaemoniacs - people cursed with bad character. Any person might grow up to love their brothers and sisters and to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, but only some do. Many instead treat human beings as things, as abstractions, as resources to be exploited.

The problem is not discrimination; it's failure to discriminate properly. Race can predict a few things, like sunburns, but it cannot predict quality of character, nor value to the world. Character itself, though, predicts many important things.

Failure to discriminate on the basis of character may not only be negligent but dangerous.

For example, we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws, not men, but should we? We have tried for centuries to create a good world by using laws to constrain bad people, to force them to do the right thing. The result? The worst of us, the big criminals, rushed to take charge of that system of laws, to mold it to legalize the crimes they want to commit. Our democracy devolves into kakistocracy, rule of the worst, of those with the strongest vested interest in laws designed to control them.

When laws become the playthings of the amoral and immoral, all we have proven is that the rule of law is just as corruptible, just as prone to become a tyrant over the good, as were the kings of old who our founding fathers did not trust to hold power incorruptibly.

If neither men nor laws can be trusted to govern us, where then should our hope for a better world be placed?


Maybe it's time to reconsider the heretical idea that not only is it okay to judge people, we must. We cannot possibly create a better world until we do. After all, treating torturers and predators and nihilists as the moral and legal equivalent of saints - and vice versa - really hasn't worked out for us, has it?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cosmopolitan Crisis

As Brian Lord wrote in his comment to Cosmopolitan, if we resolve our personal culture crisis by reorienting ourselves to a cosmopolitan worldview, it puts us at odds with most of the people around us.

We will make some people uncomfortable. Some won't like us. Some will hate us.

That is, the solution to our first serious philosophical crisis, shifting to a cosmopolitan perspective, creates a second serious crisis.

It isn't fair, really.

After all, the pre-culture-crisis parochial mindset seems so stable, so effortless (so immune to the broader reality), at least until sufficient contact with other cultures brings an end to that ignorant calm. After all the work it takes to successfully navigate the culture crisis that disrupted that peace, it feels like victory ought to come with some kind of reward, at least a vacation.

Instead, the stable parochial worldview is succeeded by the doubly unstable cosmopolitan one - unstable first because we deliberately destabilize our own worldview over and over in the search for new perspectives and second because we will be treated with variable degrees of hostility for being conspicuously different from most people. We graduate not to a second contentment but to shifting ground with people throwing rocks at us.

That's deeply, inescapably, essentially part of the very definition of the cosmopolitan worldview. Our new, cosmopolitan status quo is a fluxus quo, a state of continuous change, fundamentally different from our mental childhood, different in kind. The cosmopolitan crisis is permanent and sets us in motion for the rest of our lives.

We can never go back to the childhood of our first parochial worldview. Stability and peace are what we sacrifice when we mentally grow up.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Hybris or philosophy? Why did Alexander do the things he did?

Certainly, like anyone else Alexander had many motivations. He did not conquer widely strictly as a result of his philosophical inheritance, to achieve philosophical goals. He grew up to lead the militaristic culture of Macedonia that had succeeded in developing an outstanding military force, so he was going to conquer someone regardless of Aristotle's input to his upbringing.

But Aristotle did shape the way Alexander chose to express his will to conquer.

For example, Alexander's father had already defeated the Greeks, leaving Alexander with a problem - how could he securely rule both Macedonia and Greece while simultaneously conquering new lands? It was Aristotle who warned Alexander that the people of Athens and the other Hellenic city-states would not stay conquered in the sense of submitting meekly to foreign rule. The Greeks were too ambitious, too competitive, too spirited. If he expected the abject submission an ancient conqueror usually expected from his conquered peoples, he was going to be disappointed.

Aristotle told Alexander that if instead he changed his expectations, he could rule even more securely than a traditional conqueror, albeit in a paradoxical way. The Athenians were too proud to submit, but they could be ruled through that very pride. With the right frame of mind and the right guidance, the Greeks could be made to conquer themselves, to rule themselves on his behalf.

Alexander snake-charmed the Greeks, fascinated them by his personal bravery and energy and vision, to draw their attention away from a galling, shameful past - in which Macedonia defeated them, in which they were victims who needed to strike back - to an unthinkably glorious future in which the Greeks and Macedonians would not be conquered and conquerors but rather fellow soldiers fighting side by side to conquer the known world.

Instead of Macedonia conquering Hellas (Greece), the two needed to merge to become something new, a Greek-derived (or Hellenistic) civilization.

They did.

It worked.

It often does.

That strategy, which was poetically described by Heraclitus as bending a force back upon itself as with the lyre or the bow, was explicated millennia later by the German philosopher Hegel, who named it dialectics. Hegel dedicated his entire philosophical career to developing those ideas because the principle involved, in which the conflict between two irresistible forces either is or can be resolved by the generation of a third force, is one of the core principles of the cosmos and helps shape the course of history.

Alexander could have just focused on winning, on merely using his undefeatable military to defeat as many enemies as possible, but had he done that he would have spent all his time defeating, destroying, leaving the world less than it was when he began. Alexander wanted to create, to unite, to leave a positive legacy, and because of Aristotle's expert tutelage he knew that his army could not do that if merely used to win.

Leaving the world better than you find it requires more than zero-sum, winner-or-loser thinking, more than an unbeatable army.

If you want to change the world, you have to be willing to change yourself, too, so that together you and the world can synthesize something new.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Far Outstripped

"I shall instance the history of science, which I divide into two periods, one ending in 1800, the other coming down to the present. Until the time of Volta, scientific research and speculation had from the beginning been practiced on identical phenomena. For example, no one had yet observed or even imagined that mechanical or chemical effects, or eifects of light or heat, could occur along the length of an oddly twisted wire. In any case, the very idea then held of science implicitly excluded the possibility of absolutely unpredictable facts.

"In that state of knowledge one could speak of the universe and the unity of nature without doubting that one knew what one was saying. There were such things as time, space, matter, light, and a quite precise distinction between the inorganic world and the other; and the expression to know everything, which is the complement of the word universe, seemed to have a meaning and to be a perfectly clear delimiting expression. Laplace was able to imagine a mind powerful enough to embrace, or to deduce from a finite number of observations, all possible phenomena past and to come.

"But once an electric current was set going, the era of entirely new facts began. Each new fact was in its own way an attack on the theoretical structure of universal dynamics, which was thought to have been conceived in the widest possible generality. The very notion of physical theory has in the end been seriously, if not definitively, compromised. First of all, the mental imagery that had done such good service lost all its meaning once speculation was concerned no longer with subphenomena assumed to be similar to the phenomena directly observed, but rather with "things" that in no way resemble the things we know, since they only send us signals which we interpret as best we can. Furthermore, our language, and hence our logic, our concepts, our causality, our principles, have been found wanting: all this intellectual material will not fit into the nucleus of the atom, where everything is without precedent and without shape. Debatable probabilities have taken the place of definite and distinct facts, and the fundamental distinction between observation and its object is no longer conceivable.

"What has happened? Simply that our means of investigation and action have far outstripped our means of representation and understanding."

- Paul Valéry, "Unpredictability" [1944], published in The Outlook for Intelligence, translated into English by Denise Folliot and Jackson Matthews

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What a Delusion Most Needs

"Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, one may well call thy name thrice, it would not be too much to call it ten times, if that would do any good. People think that the world needs a republic, and they think that it needs a new social order, and a new religion - but it never occurs to anybody that what the world needs, confused as it is by much knowing, is a Socrates. But that is perfectly natural, for if anybody had this notion, not to say if many were to have it, there would be less need of a Socrates. What a delusion most needs is the very thing it least thinks of - naturally, for otherwise it would not be a delusion."

- Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Sygdommen til Døden [The Sickness unto Death], 1849

Saturday, January 29, 2011

We are Lived by Powers We Pretend to Understand

"In Memory of Ernst Toller
(d. May 1939)

"The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice

"Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

"What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
Did the small child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

"Already been too injured to get well?
For just how long, like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

"About the big and friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?

"Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they'd done
Something that was an example to the young.

"We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

"It is their to-morrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends: but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving."

- Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973), May 1939, originally published in Another Time (1940), excerpted from Collected Poems: W. H. Auden

Friday, January 28, 2011

Possessed by Them

"[quoting from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe] Vol. i. p. 17. 'But my ill fate pushed me on now with an obstinacy that nothing could resist; and though I had several times loud calls from my reason, and my more composed judgment to go home, yet I had no power to do it. I know not what to call this, nor will I urge that it is a secret over-ruling decree that hurries us on to be the instruments of our own destruction, even though it be before us, and that we rush upon it with our eyes open.'

"The wise only possess ideas; the greater part of mankind are possessed by them. Robinson Crusoe was not conscious of the master-impulse, even because it was his master, and had taken, as he says, full possession of him. When once the mind, in despite of the remonstrating conscience, has abandoned its free power to a haunting impulse or idea, then whatever tends to give depth and vividness to this idea or indefinite imagination, increases its despotism, and in the same proportion renders the reason and free will ineffectual. Now, fearful calamities, sufferings, horrors, and hair-breadth escapes will have this effect, far more than even sensual pleasure and prosperous incidents. Hence the evil consequences of sin in such cases, instead of retracting or deterring the sinner, goad him on to his destruction. This is the moral of Shakspeare's Macbeth, and the true solution of this paragraph,—not any overruling decree of divine wrath, but the tyranny of the sinner's own evil imagination, which he has voluntarily chosen as his master."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Notes on Robinson Crusoe," collected in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 4 edited by James Marsh.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Box?

One way to get out of the box is to leave the box; that's what Diogenes did. The other way is to destroy the box; that's what Alexander the Great tried to do.

While Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon, was building the Macedonian army into the greatest in the world and then using it with diplomacy to conquer Greece, Aristotle was tutoring Alexander to build him up into a wonder of the world, perhaps the greatest ruler Europe had ever seen - Plato's dream of a philosopher king.

Alexander's conquests are much discussed, but they were only part of what he put in motion. He accelerated the melting-pot syndrome in ancient Greece by throwing together Greeks from different tribes, migrations, religions, and dialects. In his armies, the dialects merged into a common Greek called Koine Greek. The different strands of Greek religion likewise melded together into a complex, eclectic blend that added new strands from every culture they conquered together. So too was the learning of the different Greek peoples blended.

Under Alexander, the melded Greek peoples began to think of themselves as one people in a way they never had before, since they were now thrown together in battle against common enemies wherever Alexander led them. The incredible series of victories over even mighty empires had them triumphing together, celebrating together, becoming one people.

Alexander even set in motion the cult of youth we associate with Hollywood and glamour magazines. Until then, men wore full beards to prove they were not children, to prove they were worthy to command respect, but young, beardless Alexander swept them and their pretensions away. After Alexander, it became far more fashionable for grown men to shave to emulate Alexander's youth and vitality.

In so many ways, Alexander redefined the world to the Greeks but in this way above all others - after the experiences Alexander forced upon them, it simply was not possible for the Greeks to ever go back into their parochial polis-centric boxes again. The Library of Alexandria is an excellent metaphor for the Hellenistic culture overall that Alexander and his armies forged - the attempt to gather together the best and the brightest ideas and people from all over the world to create a continually improving culture that becomes better tomorrow than it is today. This idea of progress still haunts us today, of course, thousands of years later.

Phillip of Macedonia may have conquered the Greeks diplomatically and militarily, but it was Alexander who conquered them culturally and philosophically by exposing them to the much larger world they could not only participate in but also help create. He drowned the old Hellenic culture, for better and for worse, under the tidal wave of the Hellenistic culture, proved the superior power of a more world-encompassing culture over any one parochial worldview, however refined or worthy it might be.

Alexander set out to spread a cosmopolitan culture around the world, and though he failed in his goals what he did achieve was so unprecedented that it changed the world.

Between them, he and Diogenes proved there is more than one way out of the box.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Philosophical Inheritance

Diogenes and Alexander the Great were philosophical cousins. They each inherited some of their ideas from Socrates, their common philosophical ancestor.

Diogenes studied under Antisthenes who studied under Socrates, which makes Diogenes a kind of philosophical grandchild of Socrates. Alexander studied under Aristotle who studied under Plato who studied under Socrates, which makes Alexander a philosophical great grandchild of Socrates.

The difference in their approaches to the parochialism of the polis is due in part to their different resources rather than any serious differences in their philosophical ancestry.

Antisthenes, whose approach to philosophy may have been much closer to that of Socrates than Plato's was, was comparatively down to earth and skeptical. Diogenes himself had few resources - he was just one man, and he gave away almost everything he had - so it only makes sense that he would opt for the minimal approach to transcending his parochialism by changing himself.

Plato, though, was always more poet than philosopher, and his approach to philosophy was considerably less grounded than that of Antisthenes, more abstract and metaphorical. Plato was horrified when Athens condemned Socrates to death, and he retreated still further into his ideal and imaginary worlds. He transferred his loyalties from his polis of Athens to an imaginary philosophical republic of his own devising. Remarkable as Plato was, his ideal Republic may have been the first rigorous description of a totalitarian state. The worst excesses of the Inquisition and the Holocaust owe something to Plato's republic, as those totalitarian movements struggled to purify their own republics according to abstract theories about who should and should not exist in reality, much like Plato had done in theory.

Aristotle, Plato's most preeminant student, learned not just from Plato's strengths but also from his weaknesses. Instead of prescribing, he studied. Like Diogenes he was one of Plato's most severe critics. When Aristotle turned his attentions to the polis, instead of poetically theorizing about perfection, he studied the varieties of governments the polis has had over time and explored the reasons for their successes and failures. He systematically and empirically analyzed the polis to figure out what makes it work and how to make it work best. As far as we know he wrote little or nothing about Socrates's idea of the citizen of the world, perhaps because he had insufficient examples to study - Aristotle preferred the study of reality to speculation about possibilities - but it's pretty clear he talked about the idea because of what his student did with it.

Like Diogenes, Alexander inherited Socrates's ideas about the cosmopolis - the cosmos as the proper focus of our loyalty - but because of his superior resources he didn't stop by changing his own attitude about the Greek polis.

He decided to change everyone else's too. He decided to create a cosmopolitan world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Socrates said that he was not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.

Everything the man did made an impression. After all, he was willing to die for his philosophical beliefs. So it's not surprising that this statement, too, caught on and changed the Greek world.

After centuries of on-and-off civil war, Greece was almost ready for this idea. Certainly the Greeks needed some alternative to politics as usual, but they didn't quite realize it. The Greeks still had another half-century of civil war to go before they would exhaust themselves with the old idea of parochial patriotism, so when Socrates presented this radical idea, most Athenians wrote it off as just another crazy, provocative statement from crazy old Socrates.

Not everyone ignored him, though.

At least two of his students, Plato and Antisthenes, heard him and were inspired.

Antisthenes, who should be much better known than he is, was the teacher (whether directly or indirectly is unknown) of Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was a philosophical troublemaker and one of the founders of the philosophy known as cynicism - which beware! does not mean remotely what you think it does (it's a reference to dogs, for obscure reasons, not to sarcasm or sneering or pessimism).

Diogenes took Socrates's words to heart. He coined the term cosmopolites - the source of our word cosmopolitan - to mean a citizen of the world and, he tried his hardest to live his life that way. He became a living example of a man who could and did transcend parochial loyalties, who gave his loyalty to the whole cosmos.

If Diogenes did it, we can do it.

He transcended his parochial loyalties to a place. We need to transcend our parochial loyalties to any one worldview so we can give our loyalty to the cosmos of ideas.

We have been philosophically parochial. We must become philosophically cosmopolitan.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The biggest group the ancient Greeks could feel patriotic about was the polis, the city-state - that is, the city with its supporting countryside. Bigger than that just didn't feel real to most Greeks.

For some Greeks, even the polis didn't quite feel real. For them, only the family and tribe was real, and many city-states in times of stress broke down into factions along tribal lines. For most Greeks, though, patriotism meant loving, serving, and defending your city-state.

The Greeks knew they shared a language, and a religion, and a culture, and a homeland, but somehow that still wasn't enough for them to feel they were a single people, nor that they were a nation. When the Persians attacked the Greeks, they were able to unite to fight their common enemy, but whenever they weren't under that kind of pressure they tended to fall back apart into city-states. The idea of Greece, of all the city-states united and working together, just wouldn't stick with them for long, just couldn't compete with the simpler idea of one's own home polis.

As long as the relationship between people and polises remained Which side are you on? nobody could transcend the polis, and the history of Greece remained an endless civil war interrupted by periods of uneasy peace.

Although the Greeks had most of the makings of a mighty people, they couldn't stop fighting each other, and so their astonishing energies and innovations went into tearing each other down, leaving them vulnerable to conquest.

And indeed, eventually conquest found them, when Alexander the Great and his armies swept down from Macedonia and resolved all their conflicts for them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Want It All

A child may fixate on a hammer as the solution to all life's problems, but the adult craftsman knows it's best to use the right tool for the job.

Most craftsmen become collectors of tools to ensure they always have whichever tool that is the best fit for the problem at hand. Building up a toolbox is part of becoming a craftsman. The best craftsmen also become connoisseurs of tools to ensure that of the available choices for each problem they choose the highest-quality version. But even the best craftsmen learn how to use the lower-quality tools, in case they find themselves in situations where that's all they have access to. They become jacks of all trades, proficient with everything they can in their chosen fields of work.

These practices of great craftsmen are fairly widely recognized around the world, yet when it comes to religions, worldviews, and other forms of culture we reflexively revert to the golden hammer. As Abraham Maslow described the situation in The Psychology of Science: A Renaissance, (1966):

"I remember seeing an elaborate and complicated automatic washing machine for automobiles that did a beautiful job of washing them. But it could do only that, and everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed. I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

Not everything needs to be pounded, but this is what we're doing when we monomaniacally adhere to a single perspective on the world, even though we ought to know better.

So let's grow up. Instead of mental toddlers, let's become great craftsmen of thought.

Instead of pounding away at the world with just one perspective, let's collect viewpoints - all of them. Instead of putting ourselves inside the soap bubble of any one worldview, let's put all those worldviews inside ourselves.

We must become craftsmen of thought.

The mind of a craftsman of thought is a toolbox of ideas, viewpoints, cultures, and religions. Instead of one opinion, a craftsman of thought collects them all, learns to use them all, and learns to let each new problem shape its own solution. Judgments about "which one is true" are irrelevant to the initial problem of collecting them all and figuring out how they can help.

To rule your own mind, you must not let it become subject to any one perspective. This is the paradox of reserving judgment: that instead of holding one opinion we simultaneously hold all of them and none of them, because we collect them all but commit ourselves to none of them.

What I've described here is necessary but not sufficient. A long journey toward wisdom remains beyond this stage of growing up. This though is the pivotal revelation for this rite of passage. To pass through the culture crisis from mental childhood into the beginnings of true adulthood, you need to give up monomania and learn to put opinions in their proper subordinate role as your mind's servants rather than its masters.

After you free your mind, the rest can follow.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Anyone who tries to create the one true, perfect religion or worldview or philosophy or culture becomes a cubist. We may capture what others miss, but only by distorting reality beyond recognition, and we will still miss most of reality.

Inescapably, a single worldview can only see a limited part of the world, only what is visible from that one perspective. What it does let us see is distorted by proximity or distance, and most distant thing are hidden behind nearer things. Further, the soap bubble of our culture then screens the information, distorts it, by magnifying some things and minimizing or hiding or recoloring others solely on the basis of cultural affinity and prejudice. By the time a single worldview is done "seeing" or "thinking" something, what's left in the brain is a homunculous, a grotesque caricature that we then try to reason with.

Like optical illusions, all cognitive illusions are built upon such limited perspectives. Single viewpoints are easily tricked, and they trick themselves with every act of seeing or thought. Nothing we see or understand through them truly is what it seems to be, and most of reality remains obscured.

The attempt to show the hidden sides of things at the same time as the visible sides was the motivation behind the development of the cubist art movement, to show more than one side at a time. Cubism itself was inspired by exposure to the glorious and surreal art of the Pacific Northwest Indian peoples, who invented cubism to suggest the unseen, spiritual world that they believe accompanies and infuses the material world. Within everything depicted in this art, additional figures and faces peer out at us to remind us that there's more to the world than meets the eye.

Whether glorious and inspirational, as the Indian art is, or thought-provoking but grotesque, as so much Western cubist art is, cubism reveals in the plainest possible way - visibly - the limitations of any single perspective. Picasso's hideous gargoyle of a face that shows both sides at once may suggest the exist of the unseen, but only by grossly distorting it. Likewise, the Pacific Northwest Indian artists would be the first to tell you that no matter how beautiful and complex their art may be, it can only hint at what they have always believed about the nature of the cosmos. The real world achieves degrees of unseen complexity with economy and beauty that no single perspective can possibly portray.

So it is with our points of view. There can never be a perfect culture or philosophy or worldview or religion. No one perspective is capable of capturing or even reasonably approximating reality, because single points of view are inherently distorting.

Thus - the solution to the culture crisis is not to try to create a perfect culture, a perfect viewpoint, because that only replaces one soap bubble with another one, complete with its own defects and liabilities. Or to use our previous metaphor, it's like a cyclops trying to overcome the deficiencies of monocular vision by standing in a different place. None of the choices is "the right one."

Our fundamental problem is not the contents of any specific culture; it is the monomania of thinking that any single viewpoint could ever be adequate to comprehend the world and our place in it.

Our passage to freedom requires us to abandon that old reflex to "pick one" and replace it with the obvious strategy, the best chance we have at the truth.