There be dragons!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Comment on "that video"

One of the viewers at YouTube left this comment on my video.

ideas are great. beliefs are dangerous. if they are set up to be followed beyond all logic and reason, then beliefs are bad.
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, though not with the syntax. As I point out in the fourth video, we humans tend to construct our mythology in order to understand ourselves, but then quickly we concretize the mythology and lose the thing trying to be understood. The next step, then, is to impose that concretized mythology in a mindless, dictatorial fascism upon those around us. Rather than trying to bring others to greater understanding or trying to find what is best for others through love for them, we try to force others to abide by the actions and outer signs which are but manifestations of the understanding we are trying to achieve. Consequently, we tend very quickly to a dangerous form of totalitarianism which kills logic and reason; whether that totalitarianism is Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Deist, or Theist is inconsequential. As a race we have a tendency to "lose the forest for the trees" or "throw the baby out with the bathwater" or "make a club and beat each other on the head with it." This, I think, is utterly antithetical to the life of holiness.

But, that being said, what the commentator is suggesting is that there is a difference between ideas and beliefs - the two are diametrically opposed - the first is good, the second is bad, since the first corresponds to logic and the second to superstition. This needs addressing.

First, the Greek language had a better handle on this then we do. Plato distinguishes not between ideas and beliefs but between knowledge and opinion. Opinion is subject to error, but knowledge is not. Opinion does not have a basis in reason, knowledge does. Opinion is what the multitude possess, knowledge is what a true philosopher possesses. Opinion is closer to sleep walking, knowledge to being awake. Opinion is like being dead, or non-existence, knowledge is life and full existence. Yet between the two is something like
a correct judgment which does not yet have full confirmation of its reality. From the Symposium:

For true opinions, as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why. [...] After they are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. That is why knowledge is prized higher than correct opinion, and knowledge differs from correct opinion in being tied down. 98a
True opinions have to be transformed into knowledge if they are going to be reliable and fly away. How does one do this? Plato suggested it was through a form of katharsis, or emotional purging prompted by a traumatic experience, that releases one from the illusions of this world that lead to complacency and routine. But since we cannot go through such traumatic experience regularly we have to compensate with images, rituals, stories, and habits designed to prompt this cathartic experience.

Second, when the commentator above refers to belief I assume he means the ignorant, pigheaded, unquestioning belief that takes as concrete the images and rituals of religion as the end goal (telos) of that religion. But indeed, that's my point. The images and rituals of religion - any religion - exist to prompt the kathartic experience in man so that he asks the questions necessary to achieve knowledge and not rely anymore on opinion. Plato suggests that the images which prompt this katharsis, the icons (eikones), are merely shadows of the actual forms, ideas (eidos), which they represent. If one is to mature in religion he has to move beyond thinking that the eikons are the eidoi; the shadows are not the reality. If one does not do so, then to stare into that abyss is to see only one's own reflection, and to fall in love with that reflection (selfishness) and be transformed into something non-human; like Narcissus. As Simone Weil points out, the true life of holiness is a life of enquiry into the nature of things. Only by such enquiry, peering into the abyss, do we actually come to knowledge and move away from the complacent comfort of opinion.

Third, however, as the Cave metaphor shows, the movement beyond the eikones does not prompt their utter abandonment. One cannot throw out the rituals, images or shadows, but has to realize that they are not the end goal. Nor does insult or denigration of these rituals and images by those who are "in the know" (gnosis) actually help anyone else to move from opinion to knowledge. Rather it does damage to the mind, or soul, or nous. It is, as I say in the third video, a bit like telling in graphic detail to a 5 year old what rape is; they aren't helped by such description, merely terrified. Instead we tell them "Red Riding Hood". The story is about rape (or other forms of demonic violation) but children are able to understand the horror without actually seeing it. This is a bit like challenging the Medusa using a mirroring shield. Mythology, religion, is a mirroring shield to allow us to experience the katharsis that leads to knowledge without being turned to stone by the horror of it.

Consequently, it would seem, there are people of fanaticism on both the side of "belief" and the side of "knowledge"; those who are professed believers in Christianity (or another religion) frequently seem to think it their job to beat down non-believers, skeptics, and critics, insult them, or try to convert them using rigorous logic and quotations from the Bible. But non-believers also seem compelled to insult religion, ridicule believers, and convert to non-belief those who are part of a religion. I don't know the cause of such strange desires; perhaps childhood trauma, perhaps sexual license, perhaps weakness or laziness of thought. Whatever the case such actions seem little to correspond with what might be considered a life of holiness. Benedict XVI in his address to Regensburg made this very clear when he said that religion cannot be spread by the sword; metaphorically or literally. Religious understanding (or more accurately spiritual understanding) is a deeply personal experience; namely b/c one is confronting that greatest of abyssals that we are alone in the universe - but to understand this and convey it to others we have to have recourse to the images and rituals we use to express this experience.

The life of knowing is not diametrically opposed to the life of believing, in this sense, any more than the life of ideas is opposed to the life of icons. Indeed, the two are actually complementary. We must come to understand and to love and this is done through images and mythology that prompt catharsis away from ourselves and toward the reality which the images embody.

To concretize the images does damage to the understanding which they embody; but so too does insulting or denying the images. Thus, it seems, we are left only with the course which Plato embodies in his great myth; we go down into the shadows to learn what they have to tell us and thus escape, repeatedly, from our own little cave of confinement.

I plan to make more videos b/c I'm not done mumbling yet.


  1. Oh, and one other thing. I know he didn't mean it (b/c most people in our modern world don't know the roots of their language) but the comment that
    ideas are great. beliefs are dangerous. if they are set up to be followed beyond all logic and reason, then beliefs are bad.
    idea = eidoi; the forms themselves
    belief = gelēafa; Anglo-Saxon word for doxa (as in Orthodoxy) and Pistis (as in Epistomology) in Greek, or sententia in Latin (as in sentences). The expression of an idea not yet proven by logic but held by common sense, the judgments held by the majority. - in this sense are they dangerous only b/c the multitude holds them?
    logic = Logos; Greek word for the order or pattern discovered by reason; Plato's dialectic.

    But what do we do with things like love, honor, trust, justice, chivalry? Are these things provable in an absolute way by logic? Do we assume they are real by trust? Do we dispense with them (and all other things/rituals/stories unprovable by logic)? Don't most people in their daily lives have rituals or habits that they "follow beyond all logic and reason"? How does one account for that.

  2. Asking for ideas without beliefs is like asking for a pork pie without the pork, and then having the nerve to continue calling it a pork pie despite the fact that it lacks any pig meat.

    I do agree that beliefs are dangerous. But hey, danger is my middle name. I live for danger. To believe in things is a vital, unavoidable part of the human experience. Any attempts to live without belief, whether it be in God or a lack of god or what have you, is futile, intellectually dishonest, and kind of pathetic. It is, in essence, living a lie.

    I don't need a cold, logical defense of Love. I don't even need to define it. I just know it exists.