There be dragons!

Monday, September 12, 2016

"The Cross and the Crescent" by Richard Fletcher

In his very engaging libellus, Richard Fletcher not only gives an excellent summary of the history of Muslim/Christian relations through the Middle Ages and Renaissance but also provides a worthy analysis answering Bernard Lewis' question "What Went Wrong?"

Essentially, Fletcher's analysis comes down to two main points;

First, for Islam there is no separation of Church and State.  
There is no priesthood in Islam.  Nor is there, nor can there be, a Church in the sense of a religious institution set apart from the secular world, with its own organization, customs, staffing and handling.  Authority within Islam is indivisible; there is no separation between the sacred and the secular.  Under a Christian dispensation, on the other hand, there is a distinction between ‘state’, ‘world’, ‘society’ on the one hand and ‘Church’ on the other.  The gap between them may be wide or narrow, relations between them warm or wary, but the distinction is always there, always containing the potential for tension and conflict… if there is a line of tension between Church and state (or society) w/in Christendom, which there cannot be under Islam that is going to open up completely different ways of thinking about authority and of organizing the community of the faithful – that is, of conducting politics.
The very monolithic nature of the religion makes the two entities one.  For Christians, perhaps originating in their Jewish roots, perhaps originating in the multiplicity of texts that make up the Bible (bibliotheca as Fletcher notes), this separation of the two entities allows for a constant critique and tension of one from the other.  
Our word ‘bible’ is derived from the Latin bibliotheca, meaning ‘a library’, and that is exactly what the Bible is.  Part of this library comprises a mass of myth, history, law, poetry, counsel and prophecy inherited from Judaism, in aggregate making up the Old Testament. 
Thus state and church keep each other in line, the one providing a counter weight to the excesses of the other.

Even more so, it needs mentioning, when some great crisis occurs, citizens can flee not only from Church to State but from State to State in order to escape tyranny and thus continue the conversation.  Monolithic government, Fletcher implies, whether in religion or politics is inevitably oppressive and toxic to intellectual freedom.  
Further, the separation of Church and State allowed for the creation (in Roman Christendom at least) of a canon of laws, thus providing for clearer thinking and guidance.  Such a canon also allows for the centralization of authority within the Church and thus "someone responsible" for what the Church professes or condemns.

Although both intellectual freedom and centralization of authority based on canon law have their drawbacks, they seem to have provided greater possibility of survival in the crises of the 1300s onward.  Though there was corruption in the 13th century, there was the possibility of taking such corruption to task due to the (relative) freedom of intellectual thought.  Thus Dante could put Boniface (and other Church notables) in Hell.  Though there was debate in the ecclesiastical universities between the nominalists and the realists it was healthy debate about consciousness and the nature of creation.  And when the bishop of Paris tried to silence the debate with his condemnation in 1277, there were other universities to which the nominalist thinkers could and did migrate, thus continuing the discussion in Christendom.  This same discussion allowed for the eventual emergence of the Renaissance, and then the Enlightenment.

Similar Renaissance and Enlightenment never occurred in Islam.

In the Muslim world, state is church; religion is politics.  Thus to conquer (jihad) is to do the will of Allah & thus an insult to (or critique of) the state is an insult/critique of religion.  There is no "other" place to flee in Islam if one disagrees with the state or the religion and there is no dissent against the doctrines or principles of the state or the religion.  Consequently, if a major critique occurs (such as seemingly did during the era of Averroes and Moses Maimonides) it must be crushed lest it threaten the very pillars of the state/religion.  The introduction of Aristotle, which seems to have prompted the nominalist/realist debate in Christendom, must have had a similar effect in the intellectual world of Islam in the 13th century.  If a fully complete worldview (such as Aristotle presented) can be derived in a pagan world, without the benefit of the revealed word of Allah, then are our thoughts derived from a divine pattern, or is the divine pattern merely a construct of the human mind?  In the West such a discussion raised healthy debate that saw the likes of great minds such as Thomas Aquinas attempting to create a synthesis of the two worldviews.  In Islam, the threat of the debate led to the slackening of intellectual curiosity and, as Fatimah Mernisi notes in her analysis, a closing of the Baghdad House of Wisdom, the Bayt al-Hikma, and expulsion of the filasafs (who fled to ... Christendom).

Second, Fletcher notes, Islam does not have the same kind of intellectual discussion as Christianity. 
The multiplicity and diversity of Christian texts, and especially of those letters and narratives bearing upon the teachings of Jesus and his earliest followers, have ensured that argument, debate and disagreement have been built into Christian history from its earliest traceable beginnings.  From a certain point of view, Christian history has been about the sprouting of different tendencies or sects, about cellular fragmentations and re-formations, played out against a background din of polemic, denunciation and skullduggery.  During the early Christian centuries the theological issues were the linked doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, God is One, but He is also Three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  …These and related questions, obscure and difficult, exercised the best intellects of the Christian Church during much of the third, fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, and are still debated.  In answer to them, theological definitions of great – and to the lay mind almost incomprehensible – subtlety were proposed.  In some quarters these definitions were accepted; in others rejected.

Doctrinal bickering of this type is not possible under an Islamic dispensation.

Though there is bickering in Islam, the bickering is usually about how wrong the other person is, not about the nature of reality. There never was a nominalist/realist debate in Islam; there never were any ecumenical counsels in Islam (and all the Credos, Apostolic injunctions, and anathema sits that entails), there never was a Renaissance or Enlightenment in Islam.  Further, Islam has been for almost its entire history, singularly uninterested in Christendom. This was true even during the Muslim golden era begun by Harun al-Rashid at the end of the 8th century.  As Fletcher notes
The very cursoriness of Rashid’s (al-Dun) ‘venture in occidentalism’, as Bernard Lewis has called it, simply underlines the lack of interest which Islamic scholars took in the West.

In Christendom, by contrast, there was eager interest in the Dar al-Islam.  It was an interest which ran in several different channels, now convergent, now separate.

Muslim aloofness from Christendom had the effect of obscuring from view what was afoot… the rise of the West took the world of Islam by surprise.  Given Islamic disdain for the West, perhaps it had to happen thus.

Such disdain for the workings of Christendom were not generally reciprocated from the West.  Though Christians might have disdain for Muslims in general, they took a singular interest in Muslim culture from early on.  Whether due to practical worry about Islam, romantic ideas about the East, or desire for conversion of the Mohammedan heresy Christians studied and debated the ideas of the Muslim faith and adopted the intellectual and practical discoveries of the Muslim world (witness the names for the stars bearing Arabic names).  Consequently, when circumstances (the famine of 1315, the Avignon papacy, the schisms, the wars, the Black Death of 1347) drove the populace of Christendom to engage in a Renaissance, an Enlightenment, an Industrial Revolution, their "advance" in technology and power came as quite a shock to the Muslim world in the 19th century.
Fletcher's observations about the remarkable interaction between Christian and Muslim culture are well worth reading and provide an excellent addition to the ongoing debate in the West concerning Islam.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Age of Kronos & the Age of Zeus

In her excellent article, The Myth of the Last Judgment in the “Gorgias", Alessandra Fussi examines the myth of the ages of Kronosand Zeus in Plato's dialogue The Gorgias.  

In the myth Plato describes the judgment of souls by setting the two ages against each other. In the age of Kronos the judges and the human plaintiffs are fully clothed at the moment of judgment.  Moreover in this age humans know precisely when they will die so they can prepare for the event.  After taking over for Kronos, Zeus changes this procedure which he deems to be ineffective.  Instead he has both judges and plaintiffs stripped of their clothing.  Humans also lose the knowledge of when they will die.  Zeus, like Yahweh after Adam and Eve eat of the malum tree, seems to lay a heavy curse on humans. 

In this myth, Fussi argues, Plato is incarnating an extremely important observation about the perspective we need to have toward the world around us.  Her brilliant analysis of this myth reinforces my opinion that, more than a philosopher, Plato is a myth-maker of the first degree, using imagery and stories to enact a cosmogonia in the soul of his audience.

Fussi explains that
According to Olympiodorus (in his commentary on Plato’s “Gorgias”), the age of Kronos and the age of Zeus are not successive stages; they represent two modalities of judgment always available to humans.  Kronos and Zeus do not project us in a world beyond the world; rather, they help us understand what we do when we judge others in this world.
Olympiodorus’ comment emphasizes the fact that, like most myths (and like most of the dialogues of Plato), the story of Kronos and Zeus is not to be taken as an historical reality but as an observation about realities that are eternal in the human heart.  Each element of the story represents a truth that humans, because we are human, have to grapple with.  Each person must deal with the one unavoidable reality of life which is its terminus.  How we address death determines how we live life.  Either we are Kronosians, those who dwell in the age of Kronos, or we are Zeusians, those who accept the age of The Olympian Zeus.
The age of Kronos is characterized by a specific attitude toward death and, correlatively, by a specific understanding of judgment.…fear tells me that behind what appears to be a possibility of the end of all experience.  Death is unpredictable and faceless: it is the indeterminateness hidden behind all the determinate events of my life.  In this respect Socrates’ description of the age of Kronos suggests that if death is feared as just one of many events, then what is really terrible, namely the loss of all experience in the sudden separation of body and soul, is denied by the mortals and fantasized as something they can control.  The age of Kronos knows death, but denies its meaning by interpreting death as just one of many objects of fear.
Further in the article Fussi notes that
For all those who belong to the age of Kronos the solitude of thinking is replaced by … the reciprocal gratification provided by being the members of a group.  Since truth is replaced by appearance, witnesses of what appears to be the case are all one needs: because there are witnesses, there is truth.  And since truth has no independent status, persuasion is everything… people in the age of Kronos are, literally full of themselves.  Foreknowledge of death allows them to live in the illusion that nothing can be surprising, nothing can strike them unexpectedly.  They can do everything, they can answer all questions.  Nor are their judges going to surprise them: never having died, still belonging to the age of Kronos, they are likely to ratify the mortal’s understanding of themselves.
People who live in the age of Kronos view death as one of many different events in their life – not in a Buddhist acceptance of death, but as one more event over which they have control; they can “fix” death and the ailments that attend death – eat right, exercise, surgery, or catechism, mindless thrills, social circles; the wild abandonment of Fitzgerald’s age of jazz.  The many “escapes” and distractions from the inevitability of death (whether it be social and environmental consciousness, drug and alcohol abuse, or snapchat and twitter) are all part of the age of Kronos.  Moreover, the sanctimoniousness and pharisaical pride of the closed minded philosopher rules the era. 
In the age of Kronos death is a terrible event, yet still an event of life.  I will be judged while my body and soul have not yet undergone separation.  I am not really alone: my witnesses cover me up, protect me from sight. I am mingled with others, who are in charge of saying who I am.  Even during my last judgment I do not speak in my own voice.  In the eyes of my judges I am what others say I am.
The age of Kronos raises the problem of pattern and therefore predestination.  There is a pattern (a Logos) which can be known and in that pattern the thread of my own life is already measured and known.  If we possess the knowledge of our own terminus in the age of Kronos we possess knowledge of the Logos as God himself does; we know the mind of God.  The pattern is beautiful, but there is no room for free will – all is predestined already and nothing new can be known.  Moreover, there is a smugness, a security of thought, like groupthink, which seems to assure the members of the herd that all will be well with them since they are still with the herd; they are “covered” and therefore safe.

By taking away foreknowledge of death, Zeus allows the mortals to become aware of the fundamental quality of death: unexpectedness.  Although we can see other human beings being born, grow, mature, and reach old age, death is not really the natural completion of or life since it does not have to wait for us to grow old.  It is indifferent to our being physically or mentally mature.  It is not just an abstract possibility for human beings in general but my own possibility.  Awareness of death in the age of Zeus goes together with awareness of separation.  In the face of death I am alone: all my appendages – body, wealth, ancestry, witnesses – cannot protect me.
What Zeus does, then, is a blessing for mankind, not a curse.  Though the event of death of unpredictable, though there no longer seems to be a Logos (or an Eden), and the lone deer is no longer protected by the herd, he is truly able to be free.  This event creates a paradox; if there is a god and a will of god then all things are set in a beautiful, unerring pattern which, in its beauty prevents deviation due to free will; if there is free will then there is alteration and variation in the world which prevents the possibility of a pattern, a will, and ultimately of a god.  Either there is predestination (Kronos) or there is free will (Zeus).  

But this paradox, I think, is a theme which runs through all of Plato’s dialogues; it is the main purpose he creates mythology, with all of its potential for misinterpretation and nuance, and not philosophy, a discipline which requires accurate thinking and permanent, comprehensible definitions.  To grapple with this paradox is to grapple with life, and therefore death, itself.  The grappling can prove traumatic to a person, even apocalyptic.  But this is precisely what Plato intends.
The metaphor of being covered by clothes… which pervades the myth, echoes Socrates’ invitation to Gorgias at 460a: “by Zeus, as you promised just now, draw aside the veil (apokalypsas) and tell us what the power of rhetoric really is.”
A soul stuck in the age of Kronos is trapped in pride – unyielding, remorseless, pharisaical pride.  They must be right for they are Legion.  Nor can such a soul show mercy to others or to itself because it is convinced of its own divinity and is uninterested in finding out the truth of its own mortal existence.
Polus (and others in the age of Kronos are) “fundamentally uninterested in truth because they rely completely on the reputation and number of witnesses, who protect them from any serious questioning.”  They have a “parasitic attitude of a mind that needs witnesses first and foremost and, for this very reason, cannot think by itself.”
As Fussi notes, this sort of attitude of Kronos denies the reality of truth itself.
…truth is independent of the mind.  The thinker knows that truth owes its being neither to the thinker nor to a collection of thinkers (the many reputable witnesses)… The myth suggest that the recognition of our powerlessness with respect to death, and the admission that death is beyond our control, opens us up to truth because  it removes the fundamental emotional obstacle to truth; our denial of the unexpected…
Our denial of the unexpected is a denial of the miraculous – a denial that God can work in mysterious ways, that He can save us, that there might be things under the sun that are not conceived of in our philosophy.  Essentially such a denial is a denial of the Holy Spirit; the one unforgivable sin since forgiveness cannot come unless we accept it.
those trapped in the age of Kronos are prey to appearance, always dependent on others, and fundamentally hostile to authentic questioning because truth, like death, is beyond their control, and they do all they can to deny it… they replace the search for truth with the exclusive adherence to appearance.
Consequently, the Kronosians are subject to shadow puppets, thaumatapoioi, things that seem to be, rather than things that really are.  To use Plato’s other great image, the Kronosians are cave dwellers, applauding or condemning the shadows cast on the wall.
From a subjective standpoint, while truth is totally indifferent to me, and is a reminder of my mortality, appearance glorifies my existence, no matter whether I am a mere spectator or a producer of images for the gratification of others.  Of course I can manipulate appearance, while I cannot manipulate truth. 
The “manipulators of appearance” are not all evil; some, like Plato, Dante, Tolkien, are myth makers who craft appearances to lead others to the truth.  Others, like the characters Gyges, Saruman, or certain political figures in our modern sphere, are sorcerers, who use the power they find to bend the world to their will.  Appearance ought to have a natural connection to reality, a connection which is the essence of truth.  But when a person is in the age of Kronos they end up using appearances to lead other people not toward the light of the verum bonum pulchrum (which for convenience we refer to as by the Anglo-Saxon word “God”)but toward worship of themselves, the wielders of the ring; they make themselves king, as does Gyges (the earth man).
Both as a spectator and as a producer of appearance I can assert my own existence over against the indifference of truth and the unpredictability of death.  It is for this reason – ultimately an emotional reason – that appearance can lose its natural connection with truth and exercise its spell.  By promising each other freedom from the external power of truth, spectators and producers of appearance are constantly gratifying each other, thereby reassuring and exalting the sense of their own existence… for the dwellers of the age of Kronos, as well as for their representatives in the dialogue, life is shaped by the dream that appearance makes us masters of our own lives.
Kronosians think they know everything, but are plagued with a terrible dark despair.  They require constant attention, reaffirmation, and awards of others who also witness shadows.  They have no new ideas but despairingly squelch any new hopes, plans or ideas that might come to them; like Kronos they devour their children.

In a footnote, Fussi elaborates on an idea by Wilfred R. Bion saying,
…the lie gains existence by virtue of the epistemologically prior existence of the liar.  The only thoughts to which a thinker is absolutely essential are lies.
As M.S. Merwin points out in his poem, "The Widow”,
You confideIn images in things that can be
Represented which is their dimension you
Require them you say This
Is Real and you do not fall down and moan

Not seeing the irony in the airEverything that does not need you is real

Fussi continues, 
Knowledge that I am going to die insinuates separation within my perception of my own wholeness.  I begin to perceive that I have a soul, that my soul is not the same as my body, that other people have souls too, and that what they appear to be s not necessarily what they are.  My own interiority becomes a mystery to me. How can I be one, and till be many?  What is interiority, after all? … I lose my dependency on witnesses when I lose foreknowledge of death.  I begin to think by myself… Human beings are now open to truth.  
 This is the very thinking which must occur for an immature soul such as Homer’s Achilles to grow up.  If we are ever to ask the right questions about life we have to stop thinking that we are “the best of the Achaeans” – and such a thing can only happen by the death of our better self, our projected image of how perfect we are.  Realization not only of our own death but of our complicit involvement in the ruin and death of great things and people around us becomes the catalyst for real change in the human heart.  We have to move from the static complacency of the monad, through the recognition and death of the dyad, to the living complexity of the multifarious universe.  We have to be exiled from Eden, bear our children in pain, and earn our bread by the sweat of our brow.  Only in such travail can we actually have children – only in such sweat can we actually have bread.
At the same time, however, Zeus’ mention of Prometheus suggests something more than that.  If human beings feel that they are incomplete animals, if they truly realize that they are naked, their capacity to think goes together with their awareness that they need to take care of themselves.  They lose a feeling of omnipotence while gaining a feeling of their own power.
This sense of our own power, gained by letting go the illusion of omnipotent control, has to become the dominant paradigm in our worldview if we are to see the world honestly.  Such a worldview also allows for the conception of new ideas, new children.  It allows for eternal potentially because it is outside of the cave.  Zeus, after all, has a comically inexhaustible love for women and sires children all over the place.  Kronos just eats his kids.  Thus in the Zeusian world there is the potential for hope.  

As Fussi points out, it is this hope to which Plato refers when he hints at his contemporary, Aeschylus’ work.
The human condition, the way it is transformed by Aeschylus’ Prometheus, comes to be marked by two contradictory, yet inescapable aspects.  What is lost in foreknowledge is gained in hope.  Fire gives meaning to life in that it illuminates it against a background of obscurity.  Besides bringing light, fire brings warmth to the naked animal and preserves it from nature’s indifference or utter hostility… the self-understanding of human incompleteness, in its inextricable mixture of knowledge and ignorance, allows for knowledge of the soul and right judgment.
Hope is the most important gift of Prometheus’ granting of fire, but it is also the gift of Zeus himself who includes hope in the dowry box of Pandora alongside the woes that are released.  Acceptance of the Zeusian “modality of judgment” over the Kronosian modality exchanges the illusion of omnipotence for the naked reality of our vulnerability and smallness; yet such acceptance also grants humility and real hope for our existence.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Christianity continued to use the word, “Zeus” – Dios – transposed to Latin as “Deus” when referring to the God who shows both anger and graciousness.

Spem in alium nunquam habui
Praeter in te, Deus Israel
Qui irasceris et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum
in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator caeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostrum

In a footnote Fussi quotes Hannah Arendt who explains that
“Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company.  Loneliness comes about when I am alone without being able to split up into the two-in-one; without being able to keep myself company.”
To put it another way, a childish existence cannot stand to be alone.  A child cannot survive well on his own.  The adult is able “split up into the two-in-one” – is able to keep himself company.  Those who dwell in the realm of Kronos are ugly, immature, childlike, dead, cave-dwelling, frozen souls.  They are like the denizens of Dante’s “Inferno” who hate having others around and yet gnaw on the brains of their neighbors, or like Walton in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, trapped in the ice and longing for a friend.  Such souls, condemned by their own volition, have already embraced the maxim over the gates of Hell
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Throughout his dialogues Plato reinforces this contrast between two modalities, the Kronosian – which denies the possibility of paradox and thinks itself a god – and the Zeusian – which accepts the paradoxical reality of human existence and lives with hope.  At the end of his trial, Socrates famously says to his own judges:

ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἤδη ὥρα ἀπιέναι, ἐμοὶ μὲν ἀποθανουμένῳ, ὑμῖν δὲ βιωσομένοις: ὁπότεροι δὲ ἡμῶν ἔρχονται ἐπὶ ἄμεινον πρᾶγμα, ἄδηλον παντὶπλὴν ἢ τῷ θεῷ.
But now the time has come to go away. I go to die, and you to live; but which of us goes to the better lot, is known to none but God.
His statement is similar to Deuteronomy 30:19 which expresses
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.
It would seem a clear decision.

And yet, as Fussi concludes,
Certain human beings can live their lives without ever allowing that truth is independent of their minds.  (There is) a close relationship between truth and beauty on the one hand, and untruth and ugliness on the other.  (Yet) those trapped in the age of Kronos replace awareness of human impotence toward death with control; paradoxically enough, their denial of impotence never really allows hope – Prometheus’ gift – to flourish in their hands.
In humility we accept that we are not God – that the moment of our death and therefore the answers to the universe are beyond our control – that to live in a Zeusian, Diosian, God-centered life is to live in vulnerability and fear of the Lord.  But to do so is also to live honestly, a life filled with love and hope.  As Socrates himself says at the end of TheRepublic,  
My counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Plato and the Decameron

I never gave Boccaccio's Decameron too much thought: just a bunch of dirty stories from the proto-Renaissance.  But lately, after having taught that period of turmoil in Europe that was the 14th century, I'm reconsidering the work.  Here's the initial thought (yet to be fleshed out by a bit of reading, research, and retreat from the chaotic landscape that is currently casa de Lasseter); is Boccaccio doing something similar to what Plato is doing in the Republic?

Plato's work is oft considered a repository of philosophic thought, and indeed it is, but I conjecture that Plato is using philosophy as a vehicle for constructing a mythological world (in much the same way that Shakespeare uses murder in Macbeth or Tolkien uses warfare and fantasy in his works).  The point is not the philosophy but the structure and underlying principles.  For Plato the structure is based on the number 10 (though the divisions, I think, are later imposed explicitly they are implicit in the original text) but more directly on the number (or ratio) of phi - the golden proportion.  What Plato seems to be suggesting is that there is a right and a wrong way of thinking and such dualistic thought is based on the relationship of the lesser and the greater to the whole.  The ultimate dramatic purpose of the work is to aid in the emancipation of his interlocutor, Glaucon, whose materialistic vision of the world borders on despair (Glaucon, after all, is the character that raises the image of Gyges' ring and suggests that everyone with such power would do injustice).

In Decameron there is a structure to the story based on ten as well; Deka meiron means "ten days" - there are ten characters - ten stories a day for a total of 100 stories.  The balance between the characters is 3 to 7; not quite the golden proportion, indeed - but suggestive of it.  The seven women in the story parallel (most commentators suggest) the Pleiades whilst the three men parallel the triune godhead.  Definitely a relation of feminine and masculine and definitely a number ratio that was chosen intentionally.  The names of the seven characters (referred to as "the Brigata", "the Brigade") themselves are all fanciful and reflect something of the hidden, or occult, knowledge of Western culture.

Looking just at the first and last story also gives a clue.  Just as Athens had suffered plague, warfare, riots, famine, dissolution, death, and corruption on a massive scale by the time Plato was creating his interlocutor, Glaucon, so too had Europe suffered corruption, warfare, famine, climate fluctuation, disease, death and moral disintegration by the time of Boccaccio.  The characters have fled into a remote castle to escape the horrors of city life and the plague, much as Socrates has "gone down" into the city at the beginning of the Republic.  The stories told by the characters in Decameron to pass the time reflect the stories and myths Plato incorporates into his lively discussion of justice in the Republic.  Indeed, in Boccaccio's work it is as if the characters are debating a subject through the use of stories; similar to what Chaucer does in his work "Canterbury Tales".  The subject debated in Decameron, though, is never explicitly expressed, but I conjecture it probably has something to do with the awfulness surrounding the characters and their opinion of the divine presence that would allow such awfulness to occur.  The fact that the Brigata congregates first at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella before retiring to Fiesole signifies as well.  Not only was this the first great basilica in Florence it represented the power of the Church, the beauty of Renaissance art and artwork, and the presence of the divine in His house.  It may even be that their congregating here first signifies their own deaths and the retiring to Fiesole is a passage to the next world.

The first story is about deceiving the whole of society and even God perhaps, just as Gyges does.  The main character of the first story lives a life of utter corruption and by a false confession at the end of his life secures a legacy of holiness which proclaims him a saint in the eyes of history, again like Gyges.  "And why not?" the author seems to be asking at the outset.  "If the promises of the divine god have all failed us why shouldn't we carpe diem?  The god, after all, is a fool and idiot, cruel and easily swayed.  Let us cuckold him and deal with him as the children of the world deal with one another."

The last story also suggests a path similar to Plato's story.  Just as the myth of Er stands as corrective to the myth of Gyges, so too the story of the long-suffering wife seems to stand in contrast to the charlatan saint.  In this story the lord who deceives his wife and puts her through the worst of trials (pretending to execute her children, divorcing and degrading her, only to restore everything at the end) reminds us of the divine being in Job.  The wife is a parallel to Psyche enduring for Cupid; she represents how the Church and the individual soul ought to act in a time of great travail.  Her story reminds us that there is great goodness even in the worst of darkness.  The very last story of the ten day sequence leaves the hearers with a sense that the divine is not a charlatan even if his reasons for testing us seem obscure.  It encourages endurance and persistence in a justice that transcends the calculating economy of getting our due and it shifts the mythological perspective of our relationship to the divine from cunning slave versus master to loving spouse obedient to a magnanimous bridegroom.

Whether Giovanni Boccaccio had direct access to Plato's Republic I do not yet know.  He certainly seems to have had access to the occult system of numbers and thought that informed both the golden era of Athens and the Italy of proto-Renaissance Europe.  It is, therefore, plausible that the structure and intent of both works might follow a parallel course.

Moreover, the stories in Decameron, just as the stories in Plato, are not mere entertainment.  Instead, like all great literature, they edify, inform, and create the mythological world out of which the characters, and thus the readers of the story, choose and act.  Mythology informs life and what we see and read, listen to and talk about changes who we are.

A very good blog devoted to this great work can be found HERE at Behold the Stars.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ragnarok and Camelot

A connection btwn the Arthur mythos and the Norse story of Ragnarok.
Glastonbury Tor where (at the Cathedral of Glastonbury) the body of Arthur and Guinevere were allegedly buried.

Some pictures.

God the Kangaroo

My fbf (FaceBookFriend), Glenn Fairman, recently wrote at his page:

The nagging truth (if such a thing can exist existentially) is that no matter which labor I set my hand to from the existentialist perspective, I am confronted with a fundamental absurdity that stands in direct contradiction to my commitment. If the universe is (as they say) as cold and as deaf to my cries and strivings as a stone, then whether I commit myself to the bedding of 10,000 women or seek to succor the starving in foreign lands, ultimately my efforts are for naught -- and they are for naught because the moral “ought” has no lasting currency in a meaningless universe.

Within the worldview of such a philosophy, my actions only accrue value subjectively through eyes which are sympathetic to my vision; and whether I slit the jugular of a child or nourish him back from cholera, ultimately I am less than an electron in the night sky. Interpreting life from beneath the lamp of existentialist reason: there is no ultimate justice, no abiding love that we can view as enduring in the metaphysical sense, and benevolence is patently absurd – albeit it is perhaps noteworthy from some foundationally unexplainable moral perspective. When the ideations of good and evil, justice and transgression or noble and base are cut loose from their perpetual moorings, what actions or judgments can escape the entropy of utter meaninglessness?

This called to mind something I have been thinking about for some time.  

Thomas Aquinas makes the point in Summa Q2 A1, refuting Anselm's ontological proof of God, that atheists (deniers of God's existence) cannot be persuaded of the self-evidence of His existence by argument alone.

Perhaps not everyone who hears this word "God" understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body. Yet, granted that everyone understands that by this word "God" is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.

Faith, I realized, is a language; just as math, or Spanish, or symbolism is a language. Like those others, Faith provides a terminology for understanding and talking about the Quiddity, the Something, the Incomprehensible, the Kangaroo (even if the popular legend is false, it's a fun story that illustrates the "Idon'tknowwhatitisness" of God.  He is Qadosh "otherness", what the Jewish mystics called the "Ein Sof", that is, "God unending".  To name Him, though, is to limit him and thus He ceases to be, in that instance of naming, the Ein Sof.  In Buddhist philosophy this is expressed by the great maxim that the Tao that is named is not the true Tao.  

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named is not the eternal name

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth

The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly free of desire

One observes its wonders

Constantly filled with desire

One observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name

The unity is said to be the mystery

Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

There is A SOMETHING which we don't understand beyond the physical world which, in order to talk about it, needs some language.  Whether that language is math, or German, or painting, or music, or religious terminology, the experience of, or encounter with that somethingwhichIdon'tknowwhatitis is the main point.

We can debate the nature of this Ein Sof; is it human intellect?  is it a being in another dimension?  is it a pattern?  is it a perception or perspective?  But to deny its existence leads into utter absurdity.  For this reason the Psalm says that "the fool in his heart..."; not b/c the psalmist is condemning atheists as an "us vs. them" or "they are not part of our tribe" but b/c to deny the encounter with the Ein Sof, or to deny the Ein Sof existing makes it impossible to discuss anything with anyone.  We can't search for the answer if we deny that there is an answer to be sought.

Either our symbols (math, music, painting, linguae such as French or Hebrew) signify something or they do not signify.  If they do not signify then all discussion is foolishness ("Papa Satan, papa Satan, aleppe!") and all enterprise without point; life itself becomes meaningless - no point, meaning, no purpose, no telos.  There is no merit or worth to anything b/c nothing signifies, so there is equal worth to crafting a polyphonic mass as there is to gunning down civilians from a moving car.

To claim, finally, that there is "nothing out there" - or that we are only chemicals shooting in the skull - or that there is no such thing as Providential guidance, only our own choices - is, therefore, the height of foolishness and the acme of arrogance.  Such a claim also betrays a tremendous lack of understanding about what the debate consists of.  If there is "nothing out there" then there is also "nothing in here" and the very statement emerging from the whited sepulchre of the head is meaningless noise made by the lips, the tongue, and the vibrations of the vocal chords.  If it is merely chemicals shooting in the skull there is no conversation, merely parallel chemicals shooting in each individual skull.  If there is no Providential guidance then there can be no such thing as free will and so there are no choices, merely being driven around by the gods of our synapses and libido.  Again, this is b/c to deny the language of the Quiddity is to deny the ability to deny the Quiddity itself.  We are left retreating further and further into a cave of darkness, chained to the earth, where we can merely crouch in the dark and ogle each passing thaumatapoioi that twerks on the stage in front of us in order to be elected to office.

IF however, we embrace the language, then we can have a healthy and intense discussion about what the Ein Sof really is; is the Ein Sof the unutterable?  is it a He or a She or a HeShe tumbling down the hill until it hits a rock and breaks in twain? is the Ein Sof the still point from which emerges the zygote of Euclid's Dyadic beginnings?  or is the Ein Sof the Tehom or the Abyss out of which emerge the generations of gods and Darkness and Thick Night?  or is the Ein Sof really US?  

"I Am (the Son of the Living God)" says Our Lord

 "Then I beheld, and lo, a form that had the appearance of a man," says Ezekiel

et vidi et ecce similitudo quasi aspectus ignis 

"One with the visage of a man," says Dante.  

Dentro da sé, del suo colore stesso,
mi parve pinta de la nostra effige
per che 'l mio viso in lei tutto era messo.

Perhaps we are the Ein Sof.  The only way to discover whether such a blasphemous concept is the reality is to accept that there is a reality against which to blaspheme.  Even if it may seem there is only the electrical interplay of synaptic conduits, this interplay itself is so miraculous and infinite as to give us ecstatic pause in which we ponder it in wondrous bliss (thaumata) and then search for some language to express that fractal we have beheld.

In that abyss
Of radiance, clear and lofty, seem'd methought,
Three orbs of triple hue clipt in one bound:
And, from another, one reflected seem'd,
As rainbow is from rainbow: and the third
Seem'd fire, breath'd equally from both.  Oh speech
How feeble and how faint art thou, to give
Conception birth!  Yet this to what I saw
Is less than little.  Oh eternal light!
Sole in thyself that dwellst; and of thyself
Sole understood, past, present, or to come!
Thou smiledst; on that circling, which in thee
Seem'd as reflected splendour, while I mus'd;
For I therein, methought, in its own hue
Beheld our image painted: steadfastly
I therefore por'd upon the view.  As one
Who vers'd in geometric lore, would fain
Measure the circle; and, though pondering long
And deeply, that beginning, which he needs,
Finds not; e'en such was I, intent to scan
The novel wonder, and trace out the form,
How to the circle fitted, and therein
How plac'd: but the flight was not for my wing;
Had not a flash darted athwart my mind,
And in the spleen unfolded what it sought.

     Here vigour fail'd the tow'ring fantasy:
But yet the will roll'd onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the Love impell'd,
That moves the sun in heav'n and all the stars.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The School of Athens vs. The Last Judgment

This image is "The School of Athens" by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, painted between 1509 and 1511.  

This image is "The Last Judgement" fresco by Michaelengelo Buonorotti, painted over four years time between 1536 to 1541.

The first image is during the apex of the High Renaissance when man was the measure of all things, the Classical worlds of Greece and Rome was being revived by the neo-Platonists, human achievement was glorified and all things seemed possible.  Man could accomplish anything.  

Note in the first order, structure, straight lines, clean streets, and magnificent examples of the male world of thought standing around debating great ideas or working together on some project or another.  Particularly note in the center Plato and Aristotle debating the nature of the world; friends, one his hand pointing into the air espouses the metaphysical theoretic, the other beckoning to the earth emphasizes the earthly practical.  They are unified.

The second image is chaotic, terrifying, like a whirlwind of bodies thrown about in the storm; the damned torn down to hell, one damned soul looking out in despair at the world of the living (us), Saint Bartholomew with his skin (Michelangelo's self-portrait) draped over his arm, even the heaven above being little more than naked or half-naked people floating about on clouds.  No industry, no discussion, no discovery - all eyes riveted on the central figure of Christ.  And note the posture, one hand gesturing in power and menace, ready to smite the damned and banish the wicked, but also gesturing toward the metaphysical, the other at rest below, consoling perhaps, but also gesturing down to the earthly.  It is Plato and Aristotle now fused into one figure, but no longer individuals, no longer friends, no longer benign - rather judgmental, dangerous, threatening.

I sometimes think of these two frescoes as hanging on opposite ends of the same room - bookends for the Renaissance.  What began in such freshness of thought, an open window letting in the breeze, seems to have ended with the storms of conflict, despair, doubt, and violence.  The great letters of Petrarch became the "words, words, words" of Hamlet.  The wonderful sketches of da Vinci became the siege engines and torture devices of the religious wars.  The beautiful bucolic scene of Boticelli's Primavera became the Blinding of Sampson by Rembrandt van Rijn.

In between the two ends of the room occurred the posting of the 95 theses in 1517 by Luther - a legitimate critique that threw down the gauntlet against Rome, despite Erasmus' warnings to the contrary; the sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of Charles V in which 40000 people perished and Pope Clement was forced to hunker down in Castel San Angelo whilst the city burned; the Act of Supremacy in England which separated a syphilitic Henry VIII from Christendom; and the publication of Machiavelli's The Prince in 1537 which burned like acid against the hegemony of Europe.  It's no wonder that what started as a brotherly enterprise of thought, art, and culture ends with a violent apocalypse by a fed up Christ.  Do we ever have a chance as a race to get it right?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Caravaggio vs. Baglione - a smackdown

Wow. I didn't know any of this story of Caravaggio vs. Baglione:

The name "Baglione" reminds me of the character from the Hawthorne story whose rivalry with Rappaccini ends in the death of the daughter, Beatrice. 

Caravaggio was, apparently, somewhat of a libertine - but, I suppose, of the bisexual sort. Baglione certainly accused him of this in the libel trial against he brought against the other artist, at the end of which the defendant was found guilty and did jail time:

Baglione accused Caravaggio and his friends of writing and distributing scurrilous doggerel attacking him; the pamphlets, according to Baglione's friend and witness Mao Salini, had been distributed by a certain Caravaggio and his friend Onorio Longhi. Caravaggio denied knowing any young Giovanni Battista, a bardassa, or boy prostitute, shared by boy of that name, and the allegation was not followed up. 

The art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon has summarised the debate: A lot has been made of Caravaggio's presumed homosexuality, which has in more than one previous account of his life been presented as the single key that explains everything, both the power of his art and the misfortunes of his life. There is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumour. The balance of probability suggests that Caravaggio did indeed have sexual relations with men. But he certainly had female lovers. Throughout the years that he spent in Rome he kept close company with a number of prostitutes. The truth is that Caravaggio was as uneasy in his relationships as he was in most other aspects of life. He likely slept with men. He did sleep with women. He settled with no one... [but] the idea that he was an early martyr to the drives of an unconventional sexuality is an anachronistic fiction. 

So, was Hawthorne aware of this? Certainly in his story he is making reference to Dante through the character names such as Beatrice (like Dante's paramour) and sets the story in Italian setting. Certainly Hawthorne would have been privy to certain works of Renaissance art and perhaps he saw in Baglione's "Sacred Love and Profane Love" a possible source for a story about the tension between the two. 

Or perhaps in the painting by Caravaggio, "Amor vincit omnia", to which Baglione's painting is a satirical riposte, Hawthorne saw a visual and theological lie which he sought to expose in his story about lovers, influenced by their superiors, destroying each other. 

Truth to tell, I've also somewhat despised Caravaggio so I'm inclined to side with Baglione.