Sunday, April 30, 2006

Health and Information

Dear Reader,

I was going to write today to recommend a health supplement I use when sick, but upon studying the label I see it was recently reformulated to include dairy products, which means neither I nor anyone else allergic to dairy can use this product any longer.

The product in question is Wellness Formula from Source Naturals (, a website down for maintenance at a time when it ought to be alerting existing customers about a change in formula). Source Naturals is conscious of allergies; the original formulation contained a notice that read:

Contains no yeast, dairy, egg, gluten, soy or wheat. Contains no artificial color, flavor or fragrance.

This earlier formulation qualifies as hypoallergenic, and the inclusion of gluten as well as wheat shows its creators understand allergies well enough to know why they should be listed separately--because there are other sources of gluten than wheat, and because there are other proteins in wheat to which a customer might be allergic.

The obvious question for me is why a company so clearly aware of the problem of allergies would reformulated a successful product to introduce an unnecessary and common allergen whose absence they had previously marketed as a selling point. I have left a voice message with the company asking them to call me and explain what happened. The only shift in the supplement facts in the new formula is an additional 5 mg of Vitamin C, which will not have come from any dairy product. I would guess that some other ingredient, perhaps the calcium, has proven easier to get from dairy than from its original source, or that some problem with the other source was discovered, but the new label neither explains the shift nor in any way draws the customer's attention to the shift. The front label has in no way changed and still reads "#1 Immune Formula!" which strongly suggests it is the same formula as it was, which is unintentionally false.

On the bottom of the second label, the allergy statement has been changed to read:

Contains no egg, gluten or wheat. Contains no preservatives, or artificial color, flavor or fragrance.

In the middle of the second column on the back label, this statement has been added:

Contains milk/dairy and soy.

I see no duplicity in this. The use of boldface was clearly an attempt to draw the reader's attention to the potential hazard of the product for those with these allergies. This change in wording is sufficient for new customers, but not for existing customers. New customers with allergies are used to carefully reading ingredient lists looking for their problem ingredients, so the combination of a boldface statement identifying the presence of dairy and soy along with a later statement identifying those allergens excluded from the product (a list which does not mention dairy or soy as excluded) will be enough to warn them off.

Existing customers though have already gone through this exercise and added Wellness Formula to their safe list. The back label is crawling with text--necessarily, to accommodate all the great ingredients along with a description of the product and explanation of its use--so even bold face will not be enough to make the new warning stand out from a wall of text that already included five other bold-faced phrases or statements. Existing customers with allergies need a far more obvious signal that they need to reevaluate this product or suffer potential health consequences. Letting my medical concerns override marketing considerations, they could have added the wording "Less Hypoallergenic Than Before" or "New Allergenic Version." Obviously no marketer would be that forthright, so for example at a minimum the word "Revised" could have been added in some prominent color under the banner "#1 Immune Formula."

The lack of any such clear highlighting aimed to capture the attention of and warn existing customers has resulted in my consuming a number of these new tablets in a misguided effort to help fight off bronchitis, misguided because my bronchitis is triggered by stress or allergies, of which my allergy to dairy is by far the worst. It is a safe bet I have made my condition worse rather than better by taking the new Wellness Formula tablets.

I do not mean to single out Source Naturals as being worse than most companies. On the contrary, they are better than most. For first-time customers their label is clear and attentive to the right details, and their formula is great. To anyone not allergic to dairy or soy I recommend these strong, pungent tablets. As their label suggests, taking three of these stinky tablets every three hours does indeed put the whammy on your illness. After discovering the disappointing change in formulation, I scrounged around my house and found a bottle (not that old--it doesn't expire for a while yet) containing the previous formula, which I am using instead. I will have to find someone not allergic to dairy or soy I can give the new tablets to, since I wouldn't want this valuable stuff to go to waste.

Apart from this disappointing change in ingredients, a lot of thought has gone into this formula, which its creators have loaded with immunity-boosting nutrients in a careful balance. It isn't perfect, but it's better than any other product I've found at such nuances as including copper any time you supplement with zinc, including zinc and bioflavonoids if you supplement with Vitamin C, and so on. It could stand to up the copper content to 2.3 mg to bring it to 10% of the zinc, and ideally the amount of bioflavonoids needs to match the amount of C to be fully effective, although that would be hard to do without creating truly huge monster pills. Overall, the shotgun approach of including a wide range of relevant herbal products such as garlic, echinacea, astragalus, goldenseal, pau d'arco, and so on, makes a reasonable addition to any strategy for battling ordinary illnesses, and one sniff of these tablets leaves no doubt about the potency of the herbs included.

So, the three lessons I would most draw out of this morning's discovery are these.

First, companies should pay far more attention to allergies than they do, should reformulate their products where possible to reduce the number of allergens present, and should never if at all possible introduce new allergens into an existing product.

Second, as we know from Heraclitus, change is inevitable and natural and important, so any labeling strategy should be oriented as much toward alerting existing customers of change as toward attracting new customers.

Third if I had not been planning to write a blog entry today recommending this product, I might never have noticed the dairy in the new formula; hence, blogging can be good for our health in unexpected ways.

Yours truly,

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Aidos and Nemesis

Title: Aidos and Nemesis

Dear Reader,

I am reading Gilbert Murray's The Rise of the Greek Epic. I loved his Five Stages of Greek Religion, so Epic was the easy choice of the many fine books on Greek history, culture, and philosophy I have to choose from.

I am reading about Aidos and Nemesis. Many students of Greek mythology are familiar with Hesiod's description of the five ages of mankind--golden, silver, bronze, heroes, and iron--and remember this as a sequential loss of happiness and goodness. Murray quotes Hesiod as saying things are so bad in the Iron Age that even the last two of the Immortals on Earth will eventually abandon us to join the rest on Olympus. These two are Aidos and Nemesis, the last divine spirits of mankind in this bleak era.

Aidos refers to the capacity to be moved to pity or mercy by the helpless, that noble feeling that causes us to care for the orphan, the aged, the stranger, the dead, when we are not compelled to but only because we are moved by the divine emotion of Aidos to do so.

Nemesis refers to the righteous horror and anger of those who witness a crime such as cowardice, falseness, lack of reverence, or lack of aidos on behalf of another. Fear of the nemesis of witnesses, even imagined witnesses, can turn aside from criminal intent anyone not wholly lost to goodness.

Hesiod predicted there would come a time when the people of Iron would fall so far that they would lose even Aidos and Nemesis and be left with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, no touch of the divine left. Murray, writing in 1907, commented that "the time which the prophet feared never came." One of the more remarkable things for me in reading Murray's books is the reminder that we once imagined history was a great march of progress toward higher forms of civilization.

Now for certain lessons in goodness and hope we have to look more to the past than the future.

Yours truly,

Friday, April 28, 2006

Hide and Seek

Dear Reader,

Two and a half millennia ago in his masterpiece On Nature, Heraclitus wrote Physis kryptesthai philei; in English: Nature loves to hide.

Nature hides most things in Time's currents, almost hid these three Greek words from us, did hide most of his words, leaving only fragments. Heraclitus dedicated his book at the temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) in the ancient city of Ephesus and left a scroll of it there. That scroll and every other copy of his writing vanished long ago. Later, the writers Themistius, Philo, and Proclus quoted this terse sentence of his, or we would never know he had written it.

As I wrote in Verbal Medicine December 19th, 2004, Heraclitus's writing always compresses layers of meaning, entire books or essays worth of information, into the shortest of sentences, and we cannot fully grasp his intentions without using his other fragments and the ancient Greek worldview to put them into context and thereby help them to speak clearly to us across the millennia.

Understanding Heraclitus always begins by seeking the paradox, the seeming contradiction that points toward the truth. He implies that nature loves to hide from us. Here is the contradiction. Nature is all around us and within us, apparent to everyone, and everything is part of nature. How can something obvious and everywhere hide from us? This paradox encapsulates one of Heraclitus's two core messages from On Nature, something fundamental about human nature and the nature of the cosmos that everyone should learn and relearn from infancy throughout their lives, but that is instead not taught at all because modern culture considers it a heresy, forbidden knowledge.

In the fragments that follow to help unravel Heraclitus's meaning, I will use Philip Wheelwright's translations, except for one by Kenneth Smith and one of my own, a modified and I believe more accurate version of one of Wheelwright's. I am also rearranging the fragments——whose original sequence we do not know anyway——to help them in the unveiling.

Although this Logos* is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it——not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time. That is to say, although all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem to be quite without any experience of it——at least if they are judged in the light of such words and deeds as I am here setting forth. My own method is to distinguish each thing according to its nature, and to specify how it behaves; other men, on the contrary, are as forgetful and heedless in their waking moments of what is going on around and within them as they are during sleep.

* Logos = the cosmic, interwoven logic of the forces of nature and the interwoven forces of the logic of nature.

Here in the opening words of his work he gives the expanded form of the paradox within "Nature loves to hide." The Logos is everywhere, and everyone experiences it, but they cannot understand it. We look right at the truths about the cosmos and do not see them. It is as though we are not awake at all, a race of sleepwalkers.

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own. Although intimately connected with the Logos, men keep setting themselves against it. Most people do not take heed of the things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they suppose they do. Even he who is most in repute knows only what is reputed and holds fast to it. Fools, although they hear, are like the deaf; to them the adage applies that when present they are absent.

As sleepwalkers, instead of reacting coherently to the cosmos we respond to our private ideas/beliefs/delusions/dreams about it instead, each person behaving idiosyncratically in response to his own hallucinations, which we mistake for reality; our worldviews are crudely aligned with each other, but so badly that we are in a continual state of war and confusion with each other. Our private worldviews make sense to us, and when we experience the world we interpret it in terms of those private worldviews so that we believe we understand what we are seeing, but we do not. Our beliefs about how things truly are are merely self-consistent lies. When we interact with people, they are not really interacting with us but with their dreams of us, as though they are drugged out or hallucinating or sleepwalking. When a man looks at you, he cannot see you, only his waking dream of you.

Character is fate [tr. Kenneth Smith]. Human character has no real understanding; only the divine character has it [tr. Rick Marshall]. Man is not rational; only what encompasses him is intelligent. Much learning does not teach understanding. What is divine escapes men's notice because of their incredulity.

The problem is internal and intrinsic. The problem is human nature, in the essence of what it means to be human. We are inherently irrational. It is not in our natures to understand the cosmos. We are not gods of reason; we are crazed monkeys. The truth is an alien language to our minds. Given more information or education, we use it not to escape from our labyrinths of delusion but instead to construct more and more intricate and self-reinforcing systems of falsehood, internally consistent but profoundly false worldviews. Our confidence in our own beliefs leads us to discount the cosmos when it contradicts those beliefs. We look right at the evidence in the world that proves us wrong and scoff at it. The truth is out there, the Logos of which actuality is woven and by which it dances and transforms, and only it has the power to set us free of our delusions, but it can only do so if we turn away from popular opinion and authority and our most cherished beliefs and certainties. We must suspend disbelief and look at the cosmos with fresh eyes, disregarding the many rationalizations within us and our cultures that urge us not to question our beliefs.

The human mind craves strong, clear patterns, prefers them socially popular or personally rewarding——not uncomfortable uncertainties, not the nuances of the actual ever-shifting cosmos. The lies we tell ourselves are designed to appeal to us; the truth is not, so it is never as compelling. Never. The truth feels cold, alien, unreasonable, unlikely. We know the truth isn't true. Only our comfortable lies are true, and over our lives we build sophisticated, self-reinforcing, often internally consistent logics out of those lies, entire worldviews of flattering falsehoods. We hate change, so we protect our lies from attack--protect ourselves from the truth--with pride, with arrogance, with hostility or aversion toward anyone or anything that makes us uncomfortable, that dares to challenge the fragile houses of cards within our minds.

A gap, a chasm, an abyss separates our beliefs from the real world. Worst of the lies we believe with utter certainty is that the abyss does not exist, that we see the world as it is, at least in its essentials. This lie above all demands we reshape everything we experience to obscure the gap——ignoring, misinterpreting, misremembering, forgetting anything necessary to make reality seem consistent with our core beliefs, protecting our false certainties, reacting with anger if anyone dares to challenge them. Our lies are precious to us.

To break through our beliefs enough to challenge them, the gaps between our delusions and the truth must strike us too completely and suddenly for us to rationalize away, because we are master rationalizers. The chasm must lurch crazily open at our feet, shocking and frightening us. It can happen, rarely, for that tiny percentage of the population who can distinguish a challenge to our beliefs from an attack on us, who can turn the shock and anger of disillusionment against our old beliefs instead of against whoever questions them. When the light of reality sears our eyes momentarily, almost everyone almost everywhere almost always turns away from that painful disillusionment to seek a new delusion, a new certainty that differs in its disproven details but feels familiar emotionally, equally compelling, equally addictive.

Minds capable of real understanding would seem alien to us. This is why Heraclitus opposes the human and the divine, to emphasize the otherness and superiority of a mind capable of perceiving truth instead of the merely human capacity to perceive self-selected patterns and imagine them to be the truth. To perceive the truth, we must become better people, almost more than human, a transformation that burns away the merely human to become like the divine capable of true understanding, like Heracles burning away his humanity to become a god and join his father Zeus on Mount Olympus, an apotheosis by fire.

To extinguish hybris is more needful than to extinguish a fire. Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find [truth], for it is hard to discover and hard to attain. The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives signs. The hidden harmony is better than the obvious.

If we want to see the world, if we want the truth, we must approach the cosmos humbly, abandoning pride. To give up our arrogance is the most important thing we must do to approach the truth. What we expect, what we believe, what we already know to be true, all of these are false. To find the truth we must struggle against ourselves and search those ideas and beliefs we least want to consider. Nature does not truly hide; we hide from it. But neither does the Logos give itself to us easily. The important truths about actuality lie not in the surface patterns with which science is obsessed, but deeper than that, in the principles by which all things are related and shift. Nature exposes these deeper truths to us in principles that can be observed all around us, but we have to work against our reflexes to see them at all, and have to distinguish the obvious noise from the subtler principles that generate all things. Underneath the details of the cosmos is a music by which all things dance, and that is where the Logos may be learned.

Here is another implicit Heraclitean paradox: to become capable of true understanding, we must transform ourselves to become like the divine nature, like gods, yet we can only do so and remain so by extinguishing our hybris, through humility. The divine nature is both vastly superior in its understanding and simultaneously vastly humbler than human ego, which emphasizes how horrifically inflated the human ego is. Given that bizarre scale of human hybris, it does constitute a life-threatening emergency; it is a fire that endangers us all, and whose smoke blinds us to the truth.

Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men having barbarian souls.

This sentence elegantly refutes science, especially the premise that anyone following the right methodology can determine the truth; it refutes the very idea of educating people by pouring "objective" knowledge into their heads. Even if the truth were not hidden in an underlying harmony of the cosmos, even if it were directly perceivable in the surfaces of nature, in the appearances of things, still the mind must interpret those perceptions to create true knowledge. The mind is not a passive receptacle; it organizes any "information" to which it is exposed. Even directly perceived truth can be--will be, must be--converted by a barbarian soul into falsehood, because the barbarian soul wants to satisfy its appetites, stroke its ego, and reinforce what it already believes--so that is how it will twist everything it sees and hears. And, most crucially, every soul is a barbarian soul unless and until it is cultivated, something Modern education does not do. Those signs by which nature hints at deeper truths can only be perceived and correctly interpreted by those who make a lifelong project of cultivating their souls to raise themselves up out of their birthright of barbarism.

Heraclitus recognized that cultivating people competent to perceive the truth is profoundly difficult, that anthropoculture--the cultivation of good and wise people competent to govern themselves--should and must be the main purpose and priority of any culture if it is to achieve any lasting good in the world. To even know what is truly good is impossible unless the soul has been bent back against itself, cultivated into a capacity for recognizing the truth, a capacity with which we are not born, for which we must struggle lifelong to discover, attain, and retain. As all of Greek tragedy exists to attest, unless you know what is truly good and keep your hybris in check, all your actions are liable to lead to hamartia, missing the mark, which is the source of most evil in the world. Without this cultivation of the soul, the mind has no access to the truth and therefore no reliable capacity to judge good and evil; without the truth and right judgment, there can be no democracy, no free market, no justice, nor anything else worth having, only the swinish pursuit of appetites and the struggle for power. Science, by abdicating such isses, abdicates everything worth having and pursues only the means to better control the mechanisms of the universe, powers that are then made available to the highest bidder, usually those with the most barbarian souls.

To accurately perceive the world, we must be able to undo the distortions introduced into our perceptions by the barbarian tendencies of our souls. We must be able to twist our minds to look at themselves, and to know themselves so well that they can reverse their own involuntary defense mechanisms and thereby lay bare the truth of what we are seeing. Even then, to properly interpret what we are seeing we must understand the hidden harmony of the cosmos, which means we must have been adept at this back-bending trick of laying bare our perceptions for long enough to become acquainted with the true world, to slowly, painfully, step by step retrace a lifetime of missteps in service to a barbarian soul, idea by idea stripping off the layers of false interpretation from everything we think we know. Because our minds are not naturally socketed to permit us to bend them backward enough to do this, we must practice this almost like a kind of mental yoga to introduce a kind of flexibility into our thinking that does not come naturally to us. There are no shortcuts to this difficult discipline if we ever want to become realiable witnesses of ourselves and the world around us.

Gnothi seauton: Know thyself.

This is why the ancient Greeks, although having no commandments, did have divine advice that they carved into the entryway on the temple of Delphi within which resided the sacred Oracle; chief among these recommendations was this two-word, deeply profound seed of all wisdom, which a proper reading of Heraclitus reveals to be the implicit flipside of Physis kryptesthai philei, where I started this essay. Nature loves to hide because its truths are to be found in a hidden harmony hinted at by signs we ignore because we have barbarian souls. Those with barbarian souls--all of us--are sleepwalkers who look right at life and misinterpret it, interpreting it in terms of our private dreams. If we ever want to understand nature--that is, everything, for to the Greeks even the Gods are part of nature--we must wake up. To do that, we must first understand our own souls well enough to cultivate them well enough to become competent to recognize the truth when we see it. We don't need something new to think about; we need something new to think with.

We are the obstacle between ourselves and the truth. Pogo was right: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Until we know ourselves and our liabilities we cannot know anything else. Until we know ourselves, nature hides from us.

Yours truly,

Postscript: The bronchitis continues.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Dear Reader,

This morning I woke with bronchitis, or at least my version. I am congested, weak, with a raw throat and phlegm. I must cancel my other activities and focus on recovering.

It is not surprising that illness should find me today. I felt it coming on yesterday and could not work. Last night I could not sleep until 2:30 a.m., often the final trigger. Above all, I knocked myself out by applying 480 patches in only six weeks to the codebase to bring it up to date. In doing so, I may have set a VistA patching record, but that push came at the cost of my self-care, and ultimately my health. I understand now that price was too high to pay.

Illness is a teacher; I need to become a better student.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Making the Bed

Dear Reader,

This morning, as every spring, Beverly and I stripped off the winter bedding, the darker sheets and blanket, the thick comforter, and replaced it with the lighter, thinner summer bedding. Hardly something to cry about, but here I am.

The bottom part of the bedding is a bed skirt, whose plain white cotton sheet rests between the mattress and the boxspring, and whose colored skirts hang down over the boxspring and side boards of the bed's wood frame. The winter bed skirt on my side of the bed, toward the wall, had picked up some cat hair over the last six months, as it inevitably does, so it needed washing, more than you might think.

You see, I am mildly allergic to cat dander and dust mites. If we do not keep these allergens under control, I tend to develop bronchitis and depression. Therefore, we wash our sheets and blanket weekly. We have hardwood floors. We run a HEPA air filter in the bedroom twenty-four hours a day. We have housecleaners come in once a week. We scoop the cat box every day and change the litter and wash the box itself once a week, and we keep it in our bedroom on the other side of the air filter to make sure we don't forget. We keep the house clean enough that friends and relatives with stronger cat allergies than mine are able to stay at the house without any ill effects.

The exception to this rigorous cleanliness is that bed skirt, which is awkward to remove from between the boxspring and the heavy mattress, and even more awkward to slide back in between them and arrange so that it hangs down evenly. We don't wash it weekly with the rest of the bedding. We just try to keep it clean with the lint roller, and otherwise just change it every six months when we rotate bed clothes for the seasons. Today it was time to wash the bed skirt, even though it will never have that cat hair on it again.

Our kitty Morgana has never been responsible for the hair that tends to accumulate on my side of the bed skirt. Morgana is far more interested in getting up on the bed to sleep with us, especially on me since I tend to lie still during the night, than in walking beneath the bed. Besides, she is small and fastidious, cleaning herself repeatedly throughout the day, so she rarely has great quantities of loose cat fur to shed. There she is right now, a little furry shadow curled up asleep in front of the fireplace in the basement after taking her morning bath. The bed skirts are safe from Morgana.

It was our other kitty Shakti who loved to lurk beneath the bed in the mornings and evenings, who loved to brush herself on the bed skirts, weaving back and forth, out from under the bed, and then back under again, purring and purring. She loved to have me reach down from our high bed and pet her as she came out from under the bed skirts. I would have to lie flat with my arm reaching all the way down to her, and she loved it best if each stroke began at the tip of her nose, passed over her eyes and cheeks and ears, then down her neck, back, and gently to the end of her tail in one long stroke. She loved this game so much, she would not even wait for the stroke to finish before she was already turning back under the bed skirts to start again. When she was so happy, the rhythm of her tread would break, with her paws thumping on the floor in a heavy but rapid, off-beat staccato. Back under the bed, her thump-thump-thumping paws on the hardwood would pause for a few seconds before starting up again just before she emerged, purring in happy expectation. Eventually, I grew to understand that she paused because she loved that moment so much that she even savored the expectation of it. Our little ritual together was not a daily occurrence, because Shakti liked to play many different games, but over the course of a week we might play the bed skirts game several times. Shakti and I had our bonding time together, and the cat fur would gradually over the course of a month accumulate on the bed skirt until I took it off with a lint roller, and eventually washed it, as we are doing today.

The bed skirts are safe now from Shakti. She died about 1:00 a.m., Tuesday, February 21st of this year. A couple of weeks before she died, when she began to need more help, Beverly and I had set up a mattress and bedding from one of our guest beds on the floor of our bedroom, so I could sleep near her. For her last few nights she slept in bed with me, which is where she died. Exactly seventeen years and eight months before, she had been born in bed with me, on a mattress and bedding on the floor of my friend Ron's old apartment, along with her sisters and brothers.

Now Shakti's ashes are in a beautiful copper urn on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in the family room, the bed skirts are upstairs in the washing machine, and I'm down here in the basement writing my blog and crying a little.

Yours truly,

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Progress, Hubris, and Humility

Dear Reader,

It was as a student of evolution that I first remember articulating the myth of progress. I thought it was true, as most people do, that history, or evolution, or something about the human condition was like a child growing up and getting better, a linear progression from worse to better.

We believe medicine is better today, that we live longer, that we are better educated, that we are more enlightened, less racist, less sexist, more free--in short, better in most ways than our ancestors. We believe mammals are more "advanced" than fish, which in turn are more "advanced" than worms, which are more "advanced" than bacteria. We believe creating a nuclear power plant is a greater accomplishment than knitting a really comfortable, warm sweater. We believe someday we will fly through space in great ships, and we believe that will be better than living on Earth. In one field of study or belief after another, we strive to organize the entire world into a hierarchy with ourselves and our dreams on top. This myth of progress serves us by appealing to something essential to human nature, one of its defining characteristics, a state we find ourselves in all the time, unconsciously.

This is a state of perpetual defensive hubris, of overweening pride. Why does everything have to proclaim our greatness? Why do we work so hard to stack the deck in our own favor? Why isn't it enough to strive to be good? Why do we insist everything demonstrate that we are the best, that others are worse? Why are we so insecure? Why aren't we willing to work to be great? Why do we look for these cheats of definition to demonstrate we are great without our having to work for it? Why are we so lazy?

Heraclitus wrote that it was more important to extinguish hubris than to extinguish a fire. That is, hubris is so terrible it constitutes a life-threatening emergency.

History shows he was not overstating the case. Faith in the superiority of the Aryan race over the Jewish (and heterosexuals over homosexuals, and Catholics over Jehovah's Witnesses, and fascists over communists, and so on against all the other target groups history unfairly erases from the Holocaust) was used to justify the mass exterminations by the Nazis. Faith in the superiority of human industry over nature was used to justify the Soviet destruction of their own ecology--and all industrialized countries fall prey to the same myth to varying extents. Faith in all kinds of superiority was used to justify European theft of land from the Native Americans. The history of our efforts to define ourselves as superior in order to justify the crimes we want to carry out goes on and on, our own mirror relentlessly reflecting back to us the source of our own problems. We must acknowledge the pervasiveness of this self-promoting self-deceit, and the universal tendency of the human species to fall prey to it; it appears to be one of our most essential defining characteristics, since we all fall prey to it.

In making this criticism of human nature, I am not arguing for nihilism--the belief that nothing matters. There is meaning in the cosmos; all things are not relative and all people are not equal. Hubris is not the belief that some things are better than others. Hubris is more pride than is warranted by the truth, pride out of balance with reality, unearned pride, pride for its own sake.

The proper level of pride is not its opposite, overweening shame; nor its negation, nihilism/relativism/scientism; but simple humility. We can take pride in our simple successes without inflating their significance to ourselves or others. Just because so many others can lift more weight than you does not mean you should not take pride when you can lift another five pounds than you could before. Humility is the harmony between your estimation of you and yours with the truth about you and yours.

Likewise, we must beware of hubris by association, the borrowed pride of "We're Number One!" It is every bit as irrationally arrogant to lie about some organization with which we associate in order to puff ourselves up by association with it. The hubristic human ego is cunning, and will happily disparage itself to hide under false humility as long as it can puff up someone or something else and then cuddle up close to it, basking in its borrowed false pride. Jingoistic flag-waving and fanatical boosterism are just hubris by proxy, as far from true patriotism as hubris is from humility.

We can strive for excellence without giving in to hubris. The solution to the quest to become the best at something is not to short-circuit the work by claiming victory at the outset, nor even at the end. The point of excellence is not some trophy or acclaim or finish line or record, but rather the effort to improve, and the gradual ongoing improvement, and the humility that comes from putting ourselves into proper context with the world, learning about what is truly better or worse in some way. In that quest to better ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our countries, our species, our world, in that quest to leave things better than we find them, we must be ever vigilant against the myth of progress and other ploys of one of our true enemies in life--the hubris of our own grasping egos.

The more fully we resist our own hubris to embrace proper humility, the more we tune ourselves to the hidden harmony of the cosmos.

Yours truly,

Monday, April 24, 2006

Ancient Greek Philosophy

Dear Reader,

I am taking a class on Ancient Greek Philosophy from my friend in Texas, Kenneth Smith. It's really more of a tutorial, since I am the only student, but it is based on the course he used to teach. I bought a shelf of books, including the few textbooks but also many auxiliary references, and I paid a reasonably hefty tuition as I would to a university. What's different, though, is that with just the one student Kenneth can tailor it on the fly to my concerns and questions, and since said student is at once highly curious and indulgent Kenneth can use the course outline as a mere launching pad for embroidering the most convoluted but interesting and ultimately relevant streams of discussion. The simplest quotes take on whole new meanings when put into the context both of the culture of the time and its contrast to our time. This class fascinates and challenges me, as few classes have.

Yours truly,