There be dragons!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Five basic concepts to look for in essay grading

5 basic concepts to look for in student writing
(written especially for teachers in subjects other than English)

  1. spelling (feel free to grade as much or as little spelling as you wish, incorporate it into your overall grade if you wish; I normally give spelling at about a 10% of overall grade)
  2. grammar (students should be able to express themselves coherently if not expertly.  Grammar ought to factor into the grade at about the same level as spelling; 10%)
  3. organization of ideas (this remains subject to your judgment.  If their ideas are jumbled it should detract and if their ideas are organized, even if not perfectly organized, it ought to contribute to their overall grade; roughly 20%)
  4. clarity of expression (similar to organization of ideas is how clear students are expressing themselves.  Clarity includes things such as formatting, handwriting, headers, footnotes/endnotes, anything that needs to be clearly expressed to the reader; 60%)
  5. use of subject matter (normally this will be the remainder of the grade; appr. 40% of their grade.  Thus if they spell well and have good grammar, organize their thoughts and write clearly, they will get a passing grade – 60%.  The excellence of their grade then depends on the use of subject matter and that is left to discretion of the individual disciplines).  Included herein is succinctness and profundity of thought - what is the quality of what they are saying (this will increase in importance as the student progresses from year to year).

Rubric for essay grading

Grades are “an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.” ~P. Dressel

Rubric for Essay Grading

The grading system as we know it was invented in the late 18th century.  It took root in America through the progressive system under John Dewey.  In Neil Postman's book, Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology (1992), the author says that, "In point of fact, the first instance of grading students’ papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.”  He goes on to say this about the grading system:

And yet his [Farish's] idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself... Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.
I shall not argue here that this is a stupid or dangerous idea, only that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of us do not find the idea peculiar... If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did.
In every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. It is what Wittgenstein meant when, in referring to our most fundamental technology, he said that language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. And it is what Thamus wished the inventor Theuth to see.
This is, in short, an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

Students are not numbers, and though they must be required to learn certain quantifiable data, and though assessment of such requirements must be generally accurate, their intellectual progress cannot be limited to a single letter or percentage.

Consequently we are forced to conclude that the grade must be no more than a short hand for the judgment of the student’s progress by the master.  Grades reflect certain general principles of expectation which the student is required to meet.  The letter ranks the student both against other students and against the ideal which the master desires that they achieve.  The positive or negative marking indicates that the student still needs improvement in this area, rests solidly in this area, or is progressing in this area.

For essays this rubric consists of the following criteria.

Letter Grade
Verbal assessment
Criteria met
A, A-
Essay has
      strong, clear, simple thesis;
      three clear topics supporting thesis;
      three clear supporting points furthering the argument;
      Sufficient evidence grounding the supports in data; well-integrated, well-employed
      well-argued explication of the data in the form of commentary;
      clear introduction & conclusion;
      smooth, easy to read style with clear enumeration, metaphorical language, concise word choice
      impeccable punctuation/spelling/grammar
B+, B, B-
Above Average
Essay has
      Fairly clear thesis which could be stronger
      Three fairly clear topics which could be closer tied to thesis
      Three supporting points in each paragraph which could be more strongly tied to topic
      Good amount of evidence though could be better integrated or employed
      Attempt at explaining evidence
      Introduction & conclusion could be stronger
      Writing is readable but could be smoother
      Some punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws
C+, C, C-
Essay has
      Thesis is complex, compound, or vague
      Topics which don’t support thesis very well
      Supporting points not tied too closely to topic
      Evidence lacking or poorly integrated or employed
      Introduction or conclusion which are weak
      Writing that is choppy, hard to read, vague or confusing
      Punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws which need more attention
D+, D, D
Essay has
      No thesis; or vague, confusing, grammatically incorrect thesis
      No discernable topics, or vague topics pointing out fact
      Supporting points which are erroneous, vague or meandering
      Paucity of evidence poorly integrated or employed
      Meandering, confusing or nonexistent introduction or conclusion
      Writing that is erroneous, confusing, vague or banal
      Punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws need so much work as to be a distraction from the argument
Essay has
      No discernible thesis
      No discernible topics
      No supporting points
      No recognizable evidence
      No clear introduction or conclusion
      Writing that is erroneous, confusing, vague, banal or impenetrable
      Punctuation/spelling/grammar flaws so graphically poor in nature that they ruin any hope of finding the argument

The writing process explained (in 5 easy steps)

The writing process explained (in 5 easy steps)

At the inception note well that there is NO GOOD WRITING only good rewriting.  Rome was not built in a day and a stitch in time saves nine.  Most students when assigned an essay take the approach of Gene Fowler who suggested that,

·         “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” 

Others would rather be gnawed to death by Chihuahuas while listening to Justin Bieber sing than have to write an essay.  But no, writing does not have to involve some Medieval form of leechcraft. The secret, however, is primarily in the approach to writing adapted by most students.  When you sit down to write do not do as the Mad Hatter who advised Alice to “begin at the beginning and when you get to the end, stop!”  Do not write your essay from start to finish.  Instead, write from the inside out.  Think of the essay rather as a creation; a house or a bologna sandwich or a battle plan.  Begin with the basics and flesh out until you have an essay.  Here are five easy steps to accomplish your battle plan for building the house of bologna that is the essay.

Step 1 – digest the material
Reading the book or listening in class or doing the experiment is only the first stage of this step.  You really have to “digest”, that is assimilate or understand, the material.  This includes writing in the text, asking questions in class, getting the details straight, discussing the implications with others.  This first step also includes what is referred to as “brainstorming”.  The process of brainstorming is not done simply on the night before the essay is due.  You should make a habit of doing frequent, little, brainstorms (maybe a “brainsquall” or “brainzephyr”) during the course of your reading/study.  This activity is merely writing down the connections and questions that emerge from a central observation or detail.  If you think of essay writing as a parallel to constructing a house this is the preparation before the building; collecting of material (lumber, brick, mortar), drawing up of plans, asking questions about the project.  Doing these actions BEFORE you write will give you material to construct the essay later on and make your life considerably less full of pain.

Step 2 – construct a basic thesis
A very important step is to get your multiple ideas down to one thing about one thing.  What is the main thing you want to say/notice about the topic?  Articulate this central, governing idea in a single, simple sentence.  Three things should be stressed about the thesis;
1.      It ought to be a simple sentence; not verbose, not complicated, not densely full of impenetrable syntax – but simple.
2.      It ought to express some opinion, judgment or observation about the topic BUT consider that you probably aren’t going to be writing the definitive claim about the topic nor will you be surprising your teacher with the brilliance and erudition of your insight.  It is far more important that you express with clarity and accuracy something that occurred to you than that you construct the formula for cold fusion.
3.      YOUR THESIS CAN CHANGE WHILE YOU WRITE!  This is very important because the writing process is also a thinking process.  As you write you will continue to think about the subject and perhaps have greater clarity and/or insight about what you want to say.  Do not be so caged by your thesis that you think of it as an Iron Maiden or Procrustean bed to which you have to jimmy-rig your paragraphs in some Gothic form of Frankenstein essay writing.  The thesis is a starting point, not a terminus.

Step 3 – clearly articulate the three major points that support your thesis
Once you have your thesis clearly articulated in a single sentence, go back through your notes and brainstorms to find how you got to this articulation.  There should be at least three observations that lead you to this conclusion.  These observations, once articulated in clear sentences, will be your topic sentences.  Try to set the sentences in parallel construction (subjects & predicates in the same place in each sentence) at first in order to see whether you are making a clear argument.  This structure can be altered later to make smoother writing.

Step 4 – flesh out your paragraphs

  • Body paragraphs.  Your body paragraphs should be written first (before the beginning or concluding paragraph) and should emerge from the statement in your topic sentence.  Provide at least three sentences that articulate what you mean in your topic or how you came to that topic; smaller observations or details that you noticed while digesting the material.  Then provide the text or evidence that prompted you to these three observations.  Then explain the text/evidence such that your audience can understand how you derived your conclusions.  Remember to set up your paragraph so that you have similar supports, evidence, commentary grouped together (rather than doing all three of your supports, then all three pieces of evidence, then all three commentaries – which would confuse the juices out of your audience).  Finish your paragraph by rephrasing your topic sentence.  While writing this paragraph you may want to go back to your thesis to re-evaluate it, or to prior paragraphs to check if you are employing parallel construction or using similar grammatical cues. 
  • Opening paragraphs.  Once you have your body paragraphs done you can create your opening and conclusion paragraphs fairly easily.  Opening paragraphs generally serve to get to your thesis.  Since the thesis normally has two parts (subject & predicate) you can think of the opening paragraph as having two parts of about one to three sentences each.  The opening can start with a general introduction to your subject, perhaps naming the major details like author, title, main character or topic you are examining.  The middle part is narrowing to your thesis and can serve to introduce the second of two terms in your thesis.  The final sentence should be the thesis sentence itself.
  • Concluding paragraphs.  The last thing to do is the concluding paragraph.  This paragraph has one purpose - to conclude.  You want to leave your audience with a sense of finality or closure.  The best way to do this is a technique called “closing the circle”.  Think of the concluding paragraph in terms of three parts (like the opening).  In the first sentence rephrase your thesis.  Then go back to the opening paragraph and note whether there is a question asked, term introduced, problem raised, or particularly catchy phrase or adjective employed.  Echo this item in the second section; that means, don’t just repeat it but try to hint at, or remind about, or play off of the phrase so that your audience is subtly reminded about what they saw in the opening.  The final section can conclude by extending the idea into the future, suggesting a possible outcome, or deriving an application of what has been learned.

Step 5 – refine your writing
At this last stage you want to double check your thesis to see if it needs modification, especially to fit your paragraphs.  Check your basics like spelling, grammar, logical consistency.  See if there are any points that might profit from further explanation or example.  Do any detailing work (like page numbering, headers, title, footnotes, et alia).  Have someone else read over your essay.  Read it aloud to see how it sounds.  Walk away from it for an hour and go for a bike ride then come back and read it again.  The astute student will note well that this step requires that you begin your essay sometime prior than the night before it is due.  Experience will show that a student can spare themselves considerable agony and embarrassment by planning to complete the essay a night or two before it is due.

Four types of Essay Writing

It is helpful to note that there are four types of essay writing (according to the Little Brown Handbook); these are analysis, interpretation, synthesis, evaluation.

1.       Analysis: Students break the work into smaller parts (plot, character, setting, imagery & symbolism, word choice & conventions, historical or cultural influences & elements), examining how the parts fit to each other and how they fit into the whole of the work.  Students should gather basic information about the topic first. This is best accomplished by creating lists related to the topic; looking at the text itself; writing out the actual textual evidence (names of characters, number instances, evidence of symbolism, plot devices). From this students ought to draw connections between items within lists and between lists. 

2.       Interpretation: Students suggest what the connections found through analysis represent or imply, what the imagery used in the work might mean, what the author’s overall thesis is.  Students express their judgment on the topic based on the evidence before them. This judgment is not to be confused with mere opinion.  It is rather what the Greeks called doxa, (from which we draw the words Orthodoxy and Doctrine) which is a statement of judgment, meaning, or interpretation based on evidence; the informed opinion. Students are something of an informed authority by nature of having read the work.  They ought to be able to explain what each quotation suggests, reveals, or implies.  They ought to be able to express, in their own words, a conclusion drawn from the analysis.

3.       Synthesis: Students ought to be able to draw together their analysis and interpretation of the text, outside opinions (articles) and notes from class in order to reach a synthetic conclusion about the work.  They should be able to express a connection between their own informed interpretation of the primary work and some other work they have read.  They must express accurately their conclusions drawn from thoughtful study of the topic and, if possible, reading secondary sources of criticism about the work. 

4.       Evaluation: Students pass judgment on a work’s impact, significance, and worth in the larger context of history, the corpus of the author’s works, contemporaries, or literary writing in general, or the bulk of critical writings about the work.  Normally this is reserved for scholars who have thoroughly completed the other three levels of writing.  As such, it probably ought to be only the parvue of seniors at the earliest.  Most evaluation runs in the format of “these findings at Lascaux are significant for human culture” or “this development in Fermat’s last theorem is revolutionary in its impact on history” or “this work differs from Joyce’s normal mode of composition” or “Hauerwas is wrong in his evaluation of von Balthazar’s fundamental thesis.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Balance and conversion in The Republic

The Republic begins in the Underworld of Peiraeus (a trope of the underworld image of Hades to which one must descend in order to reach heaven) - Socrates "goes down" katabein into the port city to see the festival of the goddess of resurrection, Bendis/Persephone/Kore and is halted on the way back up by Polemarchus.  Such halting is symbolic of the halting soul of Glaucon, teetering on the brink of a dark vision of mankind (as witness in the beginning of Book 2 & the Myth of Gyges' Ring).  Like Eurydice he runs the risk of fading into shadows unless an artist of superior skill, like Orpheus, can "sing" him back into remembrance of what he really is, that is infinite.

Like Glaucon, the soul of the average reader of the Republic is on the brink of accepting the materialist vision of man's dismal nature - willing to accept that at heart we are opportunistic beasts that would cannibalize each other should the fear of the Leviathan, Law or Government, be taken from us; willing to accept that at best we can hope for a dull grey day without too much pain; willing to accept that, though we may not like it, life is a rum go and that's the truth.  The "dialogue" thus acts as a converting tool; a work of art designed like a cathedral to convert the soul from death to life, from darkness to light, from animalian ignorance to a higher state of consciousness.  

It does so by the use of esoteric thought and imagery, that is, imagery that operatives intuitively through connections of the smaller to the larger so that the soul eventually can reunite with the whole (as opposed to exoteric, or analytic, thought which breaks the whole into parts in order to comprehend the thing - at the end of which one is left with a pile of parts and no longer a viable bird).  Such a string of pearls rests on faith; one must believe that the larger can be comprehended through the smaller, that with faith the size of a mustard seed one can move mountains, that because we can be trusted with small things we can be trusted with larger, that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  It is this string of pearls that cannot be cast in front of swine (the symbol of mortality and darkness) and for which a man will sell all he has because it is of great price.

By a faith progression we move with baby steps to greater and greater vistas, the eyes of the mind are opened to see more of what the grand LOGOS really is.  This is called "gnomonic expansion" - movement from the "gnomon", or small, to greater expanses - and is the pattern and path of all great religious experience.  

The Republic is like a "cathedral of thought" showing to its readers the macrocosm of the LOGOS through the microcosm of dialogue.  Like a Cathedral or Temple the dialogue possesses a certain balance or architectural harmony by the use of chiasmi, or balancing elements in the work.  Images in the early part of the work balance images in the latter part of the work.  Once a reader moves through the whole of the work they can step outside and admire the whole frieze / structure in a single take, but while they are moving through the work they are as yet in time and cannot yet see eternity; past, present, and future are operative while reading the work but the higher conscious reached at the end allows the perceptive reader to comprehend all at once.

Given this, the three characters in the opening book, the vestibule or narthex of the dialogue, parallel the three images at the end in the myth of ER.  Cephalus, "the head", is a Hades/Osiris figure offering the idea that justice is "telling the truth and giving back what is owed"; he both sits in judgment over the justice and unjust but also starts the interrogation that rules over the dialogue.  

Polemarchus, "leader of the attack", is the son of Cephalus and, like the son of Hades/Osiris, he is Zagreus/Horus.  Like Horus, he inherits the argument and attacks the enemies of his father.  Like Zagreus, son of "Zeus in the Underworld" & Persephone, he represents the god that is torn to pieces by the Titans (creatures who appear later in the Myth of Gyges' Ring and from whose blood mingled with Zagreus' emerges the human race) and born again from Semele as Dionysus, the god of wine and the LOGOS.  Thus Zagreus is the god who is saved and not lost, as at the end of the Republic Socrates says, "Thus, Glaucon, a tale was saved and not lost" (Republic X: 621c).  Polemarchus has three definitions of Justice; the inherited Past definition of telling the truth and giving back what is owed, the Present definition of "doing good to friends and harm to enemies": the Future argument suggested by Socrates that Justice is "an art of stealing".  The arguments are a parallel to the three daughters of Hades, the Erinyes; Megara, punishing marital infidelity, Alecto, punishing moral crimes such as anger, cheating and theft, Tisiphone, punishing parricide, homocide and crimes of violence.

Thrasymachus with his anger, yelling, intimidation, the need to be held back by others, and the definition of Justice as "advantage of the strong" is Cerberus the dog (himself a trope of Tartarus, the black pit that devours the unjust).

If we have gone through the work, heard the myth of GYGES, seen the divisions of the kalipolis, encountered the myth of the metals, the myth of the cave, the divided line, the vision of the good, the regimes, then we reach at last the Myth of ER.  This last myth which is the vision of the afterlife from the perspective of a good, noble man, is divided into three sections; the four portals, the spindle of necessity, the judgment on the lawn. The myth is set up in an inverse of the three figures at the beginning - so portals (with the roaring voice and the casting into Tartarus of the unjust) corresponds to Thrasymachus, spindle (with the beautiful complex whorls and the three fates) to Polemarchus, judgment (with the lottery and choice presided over by the divine judge) to Cephalus. Such an inverse reflects Plato's frequent use of the inverted triangles of alchemical exchange; the dross of lead being converted to the wealth of gold in the soul - death being converted to life.  

In this vision the corrupt little earth man of GYGES (from Greek word for "earth" = GE) becomes the perfect macrocosmic man of ER (from the Greek word for the highest realms of air).  Thrasymachus' tyrannical roaring becomes the mouth that rejects the corrupt souls and the devouring Cerberus nature of Thrasymachus becomes the pit of no return, Tartarus. Polemarchus' democratic nature with all its attractive and persuasive colors becomes the spindle and its rainbow whorls, his definitions and their corresponding Furies become the three Fates; Clotho (past), Atropos (present), and Lachesis (future).    Cephalus/Hades, as wealthy an oligarch as Pluto himself, becomes the "certain spokesman"  and judge in the employ of Lachesis who "marshals them at regular distances" and presides over the choice of lives.  The underworld of Peiraeus becomes the bright pastoral lawn of the judgment area. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Gospel reading in Mass was from Luke:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

The interpretation by the deacon was good, standard fair: believing in Christ causes disagreements and division - but this leads ultimately to healing and unity.  It was a decent enough attempt to understand this difficult passage.
Let's look at it in an esoteric way.
To understand the passage better go earlier in the text to where Christ warns his disciples: 

"Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."

The Pharisees proclaimed a need to be obedient to the details of the Torah without any understanding; or more to the point, they were keepers of understanding themselves but they lorded it over others and used the esoteric knowledge of the law as a tool for oppression and control.  Their "leaven" therefore was hypocritical and hateful to Christ b/c it did not lead to any spiritual growth or understanding.  Then Christ gives a clue phrase (or more accurately, Luke gives the phrase) that

"there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known."

This phrase indicates that what he is about to say is code for esoteric understanding.  Such understanding was always hidden partly to prevent abuse or neglect of the deeper meaning but also to encourage ownership and growth in those who "had ears to hear."

Then Christ provides his disciples with this strange contradictory warning:

"he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.
And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven."

In the first passage he claims that anyone denying him before men will be denied before the angels, but if anyone speaks a word against the Son of man (i.e. denies him) this can be forgiven - only blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is unforgivable.  Why?  Why is the denial of the Holy Spirit an unforgivable offense?  is it b/c this means denying that salvation itself exists?  Thus one would be denying that there is an order, an esoteric structure, or mercy in the created world.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Love and the Nuptial Number (an exchange with my father)

I came across this portentous exchange with my father from a few years ago.  Fortuitous as my mind is going through a dark period now.  I think the company of saints is just this - the arrival of a piece of memorabilia, a photo, a message, a memory, a prompting from who knows where attributable to someone whom we loved and lost.

The Mass is important; but not as the modernists see it, a community sing-along around the campfire. Trivializing the Mass! The journey cannot be seen in a modern church in the round. One is, it is implied, already there, in the company of heaven already, surrounded by the saints on earth (and in heaven?). Wherever one looks, there are only other sinners and they as much confined into the prison as you. The sacrifice going on before us is itself obscured by the music and the casualness of the celebrant, and then the whole room becomes one great Platonic Cave, full of shadows.

I experienced much the same repulsion at *a certain school's* method of teaching the Scriptures.  I heard from a parent recently that they are ardently promoting this "sitting around a campfire telling our story" approach to scripture; promoted mostly by *a certain teacher*.  Not that scripture is a salvific history proclaiming a unique understanding of who the God is through the panoply of a highly structured literary architecture and use of symbols, but rather it's just "stories around a campfire in the dark";  never going anywhere, never having a cohesive thesis, never seeing the dawn.  No thanks.

Now my problem and where I'm wobbliest is exactly where Socrates indicates he is wobbliest.  That nuptial number that he raises in book VIII has always struck me as the key to any humble man's comprehension of these things (that seems redundant; how could any man truly perceiving these things not be humble)  But what makes humility is that one "sees" the greatness of the architecture, its wholeness, harmony, radiance, but than look around you; how did things get where they are?  Inexplicable.  More to the point, there is a lacuna, a disjunct, something of a system interrupt that occurs at a crucial point (and as this is the first time I'm putting this into print, bear with me).  We understand that the words in the story actually refer to a greater truth beyond themselves.  We understand that the mathematics refers most directly and purely to the same truth.  We understand that the same truths are expressed in multifarious ways; music, art, literature, philosophy, mathematics, nature, et alia.  Where the disjuncture occurs is whether there is anything that really IS being represented.  Certainly the scriptures claim that there is an IS and that He IS, and we can comprehend what is being said, but how do we know that what we give creedance to isn't just an accruing of images by humans who do not want to believe otherwise; i.e. that we really are totally alone on this hunk of rock?  Even if all the systems of thought were complex, harmonious, radiant, whole, even if we could spend hours and days staring at them for their beauty, would we still be deluding ourselves into thinking that our thought was actually connected to anything real?  Or was it just the complex constructions of an overly developed primate brain?

I think that is the sticking point to which Socrates is alluding with the nuptial number.  If we seek "real" proof we won't get it.  Instead we will get stuck by an implacable and impossible "number" which will be the absurd and unattainable linchpin for the success of this great and glorious city we just constructed.  So what is the point?  Not to seek for such a linchpin?  To turn aside from finding that and look instead at the beauty of the principle which instills in us a "knowing" beyond our intellect?  But what if it's delusion?  What if we're fooling ourselves?  What if...  Then the only calming response to such fears is "Let me tell you a story.  I once knew a man named (Er, or Lazarus, or Jesu barJoseph, or Fred the technician, or Bilbo Baggins).  And with that soothing bedtime story we can more easily go to sleep.


Ah, my son. You have reached the desert point. The desert is the making or breaking of a man. 

Is there an I AM anywhere, or did we make him up? Human inventiveness.

But what if there is a...? Then what?

That point of doubt is there for any man who tries to see God.  My point has to do with the natural connections, the natural symbols, of the buildings and the liturgies of the Faith. One must believe, but more importantly, trust; that is the real meaning of Fides. Trust, Troth.  He said, Lo, I am with you always, I am. And either we trust through the dark or we go screaming around the halls. Which is the truth? which is the paliative, comfort blanket, dream, fiction? The empty halls where we scream, or the voice in our heads that says I AM?

"I don't believe, I know," said the old C. G. Jung in an interview.  It comes down to that, do we know, intimately and personally.  On that trust hangs all our creativity and life, or else we give up and live by our appetites.  A pious atheist is a non sequitur.  Moral and humane perhaps, but not awake or full of vision. The world is dead for the atheist. But we who know always have that temptation in front of us, the temptation of the Garden and the Apple perhaps, to be as Gods.

My point is that for  the believer, the church shape is the shape of a journey, that is not an arbitrary interpretation, walking up the main aisle to the altar is a journey, from there to here, or from here to there. And what the church gives us on the road up there is the images of the journey, those we meet or should meet. Once we have come to the high point of the journey, the altar and the meal of Him, we can then experience his own journey, the Stations, in reverse and widdershins order, the road down. Until that point we don't know what all that story means. And if we go beyond the altar, we enter the cave of the skull, the apse, and find our contemplation, our "dark contemplation" as St. John of the Cross called it, passivity, there.  I am only making natural connections, not allegories.

Reading scripture as campfire stories is ok, campfire stories are spooky and stick in the head. But to make sense of those campfire images needs correct interpretation, connection to the greater whole of the story's parallels and connections.  What Tolkien called "correspondence." And that is done in terms of a moral world, and the consequences of choices, then a symbolic world, the natural field of the story, (Allegory) then the inner world of the anagogy, the "movement up," that is our own personal and non-communicable experience of the story within our own minds, How we take it in, what it feels like, etc. that is what the medievals called Heaven. Our innerness. In that innerness we participate in the greater cosmos and the reality that is the Forms, the Neters. But we cant say what we are experiencing, it is not verbalizable. Only by conventional connections, Gold Streets, Palaces, Domes, Spires, etc., or whatever, The colleges of Oxford, or the streets of an imagined New York. Or maybe one's infant bedroom and the presence of mommy and daddy.  I sometimes see that old room again and me on the floor beneath my parents in their rocking chairs, playing with my blocks and listening to the radio and the dramatized stories that were so popular then, movies, novels, etc. Most possible not what a child ought to have heard. My parents talking to each other or to my sisters who came in and sat on the bed above me. Is heaven that? Certainly not golden streets and harps everywhere. And no wings.

Jung and the others influenced by Freud saw all this as a form of Projection, a wish fulfillment, but at the end, he also came to say, "I don't believe in God, I know."  

So the point of doubt is the point of the nuptial number indeed, a move to find some rational way to name what isn't rational. One's trust.

Must close. My arm is hurting tonight where the pic line is in. Thursday I get a port like Beth had. And CT scan tests to see where I have come after seven chemo treatments.

Much love to my little ones and to you and Beth. I am so glad you are my family. I have put the wonderful photos of the kids on the mantel with the week's candle and my prayers.

Love, Dad

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Gawain and the Order of the Garter

See?  There it is again in Gawain.  The red dragon and the white. Bertilak and his Lady.  He is the sun and she is the moon; the masculine and the feminine; the solar and the earthly.  A British version of the dyad and Gawain torn between them.  They both pose a threat to him, one jovially posing an impossible exchange all the while threatening violence and the eviscerating doom that befalls the captured animals; the other seducing him like Oedipus' mom and lulling him into the carnal, physical, earthly illusion that nothing will change and there is no crisis.  They are Arthur and Guinevere pulling Lancelot apart, heaven and earth, the spiritual and the carnal, the paradox of human existence (expressed with a British accent).  Gwalchmei, Gawain, the falcon who is meant to soar is dragged down by his human desire for physical pleasure, love and the appeal to pride, then is bolstered up by receiving gifts and praise.  But it's all a game; an illusion; a vanity.  Vanity of vanities all is vanity.  How to escape all that?  Is it chivalry?  Is it cleverness of speech or gallantry of manners?  Immersion in physical pleasure or adherence to honor?  Perhaps a magical sash or some other miracle of science?  Yet inevitably the young hero most enter into the valley of the shadow of death to find the green chapel/cairn and face his own doom.  Perhaps then the nick on the neck, the fateful nert, is necessary - punctures in the hands to remind doubting Thomas - circumcision around the softer parts - that we never forget just what is at stake (or on the block, or in the docket).  Is Gawain the hero?  Does he deserve the order of the garter?  Does Camelot do any good but to produce blowhards and battle and eventually dissolve on the island into the hunters and the hut-makers?  I wonder. And there's philosophy for you.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Paradox in Book 6 of the Republic

Rep. 6.491b

“The most surprising fact of all is that each of the gifts of nature which we praise tends to corrupt the soul of its possessor and divert it from philosophy. I am speaking of bravery, sobriety, and the entire list.” 
“That does sound like a paradox,” said (Adeimantus).

The word "ἄτοπον" is defined in Liddell & Scott as "out of place; extraordinary" even "foul", "monstrous" and "absurd".  It is paradoxical that what we gain by nature also dissuades us from truly following wisdom, a spiritual state that requires the very negation of the things that should most easily lend us to the acquisition thereof.  But more to the point is the monstrousness of the word "ἄτοπον" - a word that makes men marvel, thaumazo, and since all philosophy begins in wonder the very road to love of wisdom begins at being gobsmacked by the paradoxical nature of human existence.  Man is both pig and angel, bull and man; he is a monster, scuttling between heaven and earth - and the marvel that he elicits should lead us down into the dark to hunt for gold rings.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Plato. The Ion.

The Ion

Lane Cooper writes in the introduction that

The dialogue is proof that the balance between opposites which had made the Periclean Age possible was passing away and had already passed to such a degree that the greatest of the Athenians had to put his effort into counteracting the rapidly growing disorder in a state ruled more and more not by the mind, but by the emotions.
But I tend to disagree.  As with most dialogues there are more questions than answers and Plato's mystery meaning is hidden beneath what appears to be a put down of art and a praise of philosophy.  As Cooper writes, "In this little dialogue Plato is amusing himself."  Yet the questions lead us away from such an interpretation.

Why, for instance, is the main character named "Ion"?  There certainly was a contemporary of Plato's by that name, a famous rhapsode specializing in Homer, but Plato never passed up an opportunity for mythological meaning in his characters and this is no exception.  Mythologically Ion was the son of Apollo and Creusa.  His mother abandons him in a cave and he is raised by a nymph, eventually adopted again by Creusa and Xuthus, almost killed by his jealous mother but finally accepted into the family.  A man at odds with his origins and, unaware that he is divine in nature, accepts his life as the son of a mortal man (much like Superman with Jonathan and Martha Kent).

Why is Ion's home in Ephesus, the land of Homer and the temple of Artemis, moon sister of the solar Apollo, lord of music and artwork?

Why has Ion come from Epidaurus, the capital of the cult of Asclepius and the home of healing?  Is this part of the healing art of the dialogue?  Is the healing begun at Ephesus only completed by Socrates inquiry into the true nature of the man?  "We owe a cock to Asclepius" says Socrates at the end of his life, in praise for his lifetime of healing work and himself being finally "cured" of life.

What does Socrates mean by the image of the magnet and iron RINGS, an image very similar to the chain of being brought up later in the Republic.
SOCRATES: In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration.  For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.  And as the Corybantian revelers when they dance are not in their right mind,so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains; but when falling under the power of music and meter they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind.

Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases, and makes one man hang down from another. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus, others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer... (translation, Benjamin Jowett)

Do the poets and artwork act as a medium between man and god?

Why is the magnet called by its other name "Heracleaneum"?  like Heracles?  Does the poet (and poetic imagery) do the Heraclean task of keeping man connected to the divine (or concept of the divine in spite of all pull toward the earth) - iron is the metal of the earth, after all.  Man is "iron" (piggish, apelike, bronze) until connected by poetry/art to the divine.

"... your words touch my soul, (says Ion in a remarkable poetic and religious, rather than philosophic/intellectual, metaphor) and I am persuaded that good poets by a divine inspiration interpret the things of the Gods to us."
SOCRATES: And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?
ION: Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives.
Later on in the dialogue Socrates seems to remind Ion of his real nature when he asks him about the charioteer passage in Odyssey.
SOCRATES: Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse-race in honour of Patroclus.
ION: He says:
Bend gently in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein. And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, yet so that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may not even seem to touch the extremity; and avoid catching the stone.

Here Socrates is posing as though he were Nestor and Ion (as his son) is coached better in his craft by the Athenian.  Perhaps also there is an element of Socrates riding or training the "horse" Ion, especially at the end when he cuts him off like a boss - "Enough"; "ἀρκεῖ." - which also is "ward off, or keep off." The race horses are like the black wild horse and the tame white horse of the Phaedo that guide the human soul.  Similarly the poet and images help guide the soul in the "race course" of life.
SOCRATES: You know the passage in which Hecamede, the concubine of Nestor, is described as giving to the wounded Machaon a posset, as he says,
Made with Pramnian wine; and she grated cheese of goat's milk with a grater of bronze, and at his side placed an onion which gives a relish to drink. Now would you say that the art of the rhapsode or the art of medicine was better able to judge of the propriety of these lines? 
ION: The art of medicine.
SOCRATES: And when Homer says,
And she descended into the deep like a leaden plummet, which, set in the horn of ox that ranges in the fields, rushes along carrying death among the ravenous fishes,- will the art of the fisherman or of the rhapsode be better able to judge whether these lines are rightly expressed or not? 
ION: Clearly, Socrates, the art of the fisherman.
SOCRATES: Come now, suppose that you were to say to me: "Since you, Socrates, are able to assign different passages in Homer to their corresponding arts, I wish that you would tell me what are the passages of which the excellence ought to be judged by the prophet and prophetic art"; and you will see how readily and truly I shall answer you. For there are many such passages, particularly in the Odyssey; as, for example, the passage in which Theoclymenus the prophet of the house of Melampus says to the suitors:-
Wretched men! what is happening to you? Your heads and your faces and your limbs underneath are shrouded in night; and the voice of lamentationbursts forth, and your cheeks are wet with tears. And the vestibule is full, and the court is full, of ghosts descending into the darkness of Erebus, and the sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist is spread abroad. 
And there are many such passages in the Iliad also; as for example in the description of the battle near the rampart, where he says:-
As they were eager to pass the ditch, there came to them an omen: a soaring eagle, holding back the people on the left, bore a huge bloody dragon in his talons, still living and panting; nor had he yet resigned the strife, for he bent back and smote the bird which carried him on the breast by the neck, and he in pain let him fall from him to the ground into the midst of the multitude. And the eagle, with a cry, was borne afar on the wings of the wind. 
These are the sort of things which I should say that the prophet ought to consider and determine. 

Socrates seems to know Homer as well as Ion.  Why does he prompt him, then to recite the charioteer passage?  Why does he choose these passages?

Why does he call him a general (a commander or leader of men) at the end of the dialogue?
SOCRATES: And are you the best general (στρατηγός ἄριστος), Ion?
ION: To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.
SOCRATES: But then, Ion, what in the name of goodness can be the reason why you, who are the best of generals as well as the best of rhapsodes in all Hellas, go about as a rhapsode when you might be a general? Do you think that the Hellenes want a rhapsode with his golden crown, and do not want a general?
ION: Why, Socrates, the reason is, that my countrymen, the Ephesians, are the servants and soldiers of Athens, and do not need a general; and you and Sparta are not likely to have me, for you think that you have enough generals of your own. 
What is the "war" in which humanity is engaged if Ion is a general?  Are poets commanders in a war?  Does the war involve images?
SOCRATES: ... indeed, Ion, if you are correct in saying that by art and knowledge you are able to praise Homer, you do not deal fairly with me, and after all your professions of knowing many, glorious things about Homer, and promises that you would exhibit them, you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore.
The question is larger than Ion - it is a question about artwork itself.  Is artwork artifice?  Mere calculated deception?  Is it dishonesty or is it inspired?
SOCRATES: ...if you have art, then, as I was saying , are not dealing fairly with me. But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired. Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired? 
Does art lead us as a general does his troops through the terror of battle against the ideas that we are nothing but iron, pigs & monkeys, clay?  Or does art merely deceive us into false hopes, convince us to buy more product, give us childish visions that have no basis in fact?  

The common interpretation of Plato is that only knowledge, philosophy, the mind's power can lead us to sure fact.  But I'm not so sure of this.  As Ion says, "what am I forgetting?"  Knowledge is a remembering of things latent in our person, so Plato says.  The remembering is a remembering of who we really are, that is, the Asclepian healing power of all Plato's dialogues is that they attempt to remind us of our real Apollonian, solar, greatness.  They do so by stripping away our false pretenses of knowledge and granting us instead poetic images of what we real are.  

Thus by the end of the dialogue Ion no longer claims to know everything there is to know about Homer but simply states that "There is a great difference, Socrates, between the two alternatives; and inspiration is by far the nobler."  For this humble recognition he receives the true crown of nobility from Socrates.