There be dragons!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Plato's 7th Letter

In his famous letter to the relatives and friends of Dion in which he sets forth his ideas about the Forms and the order of the universe, Plato has this line:
I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition (on the hidden knowledge of forms), as it is called, on this topic-except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.
Why do poets craft masks? Why is truth hidden like leaven in bread? Why are the images shifting and various but the message remains the same? And why is imagery so important and attractive? Perhaps it is this; the trivial and vicious will either not see the reality even when laid bare before them or else they will abuse that reality. Imagery and myth become, then, a "smelting process" of alchemy by which the leadlike men are burned away and only the gold ones remain. Perhaps.
To wit, this video series:

A Dialogue

This is a conversation that occurred at my YouTube site. I thought it was interesting so I post it here.


ideas are great. beliefs are dangerous. if they are set up to be followed beyond all logic and reason, then beliefs are bad.

Thanks for that, vicmackey2008.  my commentary on this can be found at my blog.

Yes, your beliefs shape the way you view the world, that should be obvious to everyone. I am an Atheist and no I do not believe in ANY myths. I don't believe any claims without evidence and what I believe could change at any moment when new and better evidence comes to light. I don't need myths to justify or explain things in my life and I am comfortable in knowing that there are unknowns. I don't need a book to tell me how to be good and moral, I help people because I feel good when I do so.

What do you mean by "belief"?  You doubt that they exist? Or you doubt their veracity? Or you doubt their effectiveness in conveying truth?
Are you sure you don't believe any claims without evidence? Would that be belief? Or do you mean accept any claims without evidence (and consequently know, not believe)?
Do you believe that there is a thing such as a self? Love? Honor? Dignity? and if so, why?

Of course I think beliefs are real. I just think some beliefs go far beyond what we as thinking beings should accept. Religious beliefs do this. I believe in my country, but if they were to do wrong, I would speak out against that. Same thing goes with my parents, my friends, etc. Religions just seem to be the kind of beliefs where not only is logic discouraged, it dpesn't even apply. This allows for illogical fanatacism to arise. Ideas can be changed, beliefs not so much.

1. some beliefs do go far beyond what we are able to or ought to accept - that is, if acceptance is to be taken as literal acceptance. But acceptance of a truth seems to rely on what we mean by truth: i.e. the correspondence btwn an image and the reality imaged. Consequently, I can say "that story about those guys on the Enterprise is true" b/c it embodies a reality - but if I mean it is true in that it actually happened I would be committed.

also, "doing wrong" implies that a person holds a system of morals that allow them to judge a right from a wrong. that system is based on an absolute (humans are important, the environment is a good, logical thought achieves truth). this absolute frames the basis of our perception w/o which we could not say "this is right" or "this is wrong".
Many religions do discourage logic and lay themselves open for illogical fanaticism. Would that make ALL religions therefore bunk?

I think all religions are bunk. I understand why religions have arisen, and how they help us deal with the unknown. When looking at the evolution of religions, one begins to see interesting things. Religion/superstition has been used to explain sickness, natural disasters, etc. In today's scientific world we know these statements to false. We know that someone's pig did not die, or that a man is sterile because there is a witch in our town. Well, most of us do anyways.

I would distinguish btwn religion and superstition (even though the 2 are intertwined by many people). Superstition is believing in illogical things w/o reflection on their reality - a bit akin to bigotry. Religion is the outward expression of signs and symbols to represent or express an interior movement of spirit.
Is it possible that there could be a religion (even in theory) that could then facilitate rather than hinder the remarkable ability of man to think logically? Would it be bunk?

As to the question of whether or not there could be a religion that would excel the ability of man, I would have to say we are not there psychologically as a species. I guess it's the term "religion" that I have problems with. If religion was set to change to facts, evidence, etc, than I would be okay with it. Religion however is not set up to do such. This kind of changing idea that is based on evidence and observable facts is what we have termed as science. Science does further our abilities.

Religions have been said to do good, but I disagree. A person finds religion, begins to become a better person, but is this because of the religion, or in spite of it? I mean I don't like the idea that the only reason why people become better after finding a religion is because they want to be rewarded for it. I hold no such notions of heaven or hell, yet I choose to obey the law, and to help others. Why? Because I want to, rather than be coerced into it by threats of eternal torture.

I agree fully that threats of eternal torture (imperfect contrition) is the least reason for doing the good - yet it is a reason. Becoming a better person may be because of or in spite of the religion, depending on the religion. But again is it conceivable that there is a religion that facilitates rather than hinders self-improvement (if religion is defined as the outward expressions through signs and symbols of spiritual movement)?

Furthermore, I feel that the only reason religious people do become "better" people (assuming they have done so) is due to many factors, none of which are due to supernatural causes, such as the Holy Spirit, etc. I think it has a lot to do with group mentality, finding common ground, fear of death, fear of hell, the ability to actively participate in one's own delusion and take mere circumstance as evidence of it's authenticity. It's takes lack of awareness to buy into it.

This is undoubtedly true, though the language used to describe the improvement could be "the holy spirit" and it wouldn't detract from the improvement. I would add to your list above spiritual reflection - that is, the reflection of the spirit on its situation through reading, conversation or thought (just like now). May not be supernatural, but may not be natural either. Then what is it? What causes us to improve? And where do we get the idea of imprving from worse to better (and to best)?

I think we better ourselves because we have no choice. We are a very curious species, and this has led us to "discover" things, and either put them to use, or maximize them to their greatest potential. Now for things that we do not understand, we are prone to think up something magical to explain it, or we kill it, or at least we used to. Something that is just a natural response from the body, or from nature in general, would be seen as a miracle to the layman.

I must disagree with your opinion on the usage of the language, such as "the Holy Spirit", as I think such language does detract from improvement. I do not mean to say it detracts directly, and that such improvement would not be as great without such language, but when the improvement is given credit to the supernatural, as opposed to the individual, I feel this only causes the mind to continue to buy into a self-limiting ideology. Improvement always comes from within, not from the "beyond".

A vigorous discussion and very enjoyable. 
Thank you vicmackey2008.

AbecedariusRex, I enjoy this discussion as well. Let it be so for as long as we are able. Feel free to ask any questions, as I am delighted to be able to speak with one as intelligent as yourself.

Where do we get the idea to improve from good to better, and from better to best? Good question. We began improving ourselves in our primitive years from nescessity. First it began with improving the hunt for food. This brought a rise to making weapons, which led to making tools, which gave rise to many more improvements. With the domestication of certain plants for food we then set out to maximize our yield such of crops (best). The increase in food led to a sedentary life for some - continued.

This sedentary life allowed some to sit and ponder the why's, and to think up answers to the questions posed. It took thousands of years but this evolution of thought, which went from thinking up ways to feed ourselves, to thinking about other matters led us to improvement. Improvement, I think, is just something we do, as thinking and sentient creatures. We see the world around us and seek to make it better. Why? Because it brings comfort, and allows us to enjoy things more...supposedly.

perhaps your last argument is true. but thinking about what? about improving? improving toward what? better thinking? better comfort? then all our great ideas, loves, hopes, wars, artwork are all about comfort? From whence comes enjoyment in anything in such a hedonistic vision of the world? Or do we simply create pretty "lies breathed through silver" in order to comfort ourselves from the terror that we are apes in clothing?

Yes, our love and wars, etc have been about comfort. We were comfortable to let Hitler siege Europe until Pearl harbor. We dropped bombs on Japan because it comforted Amercians to know that their boys didn't have to die invading it. The paradox though is that we have created as many problems as we have solved to get to where we are today. We rise up and take action when we are discomforted, and continue in this action until comfort/peace etc, is obtained.

From whence comes enjoyment? I enjoy things because I can. Knowing that flowers will wilt and die does not make them ugly or smell bad. Knowing that I too will die does not make me not care about others or this world's future. Knowing this, and continuing forward is the greatest aspect of humanity. Mankind knows nothing lasts forever, but we persist in our optimism. Maybe it is because we don't know any better? Life is about the struggle against the tide, up till the last breath. Just breath.

forward toward what? how do we know where we are going? Is to live simply to breathe? If so why would I sacrifice anything, even the smallest bit of pleasure in my life for the sake of another person/thing/ideal? Optimism is for fools. Persistence is for dreamers. I say submit to the tide.

Optimism may be for fools, but I think this os what allows us to enjoy. I would say your sacrifice is noble in that you do it for reasons that are illogical, but yet in the end that sacrifice is for a better tomorrow. Such selflessness is something we are studying. It appears, so far, that we are genetically predisposd to altruism, in that in the end it helps us to help others, at least to a certain point.

i don't buy the better tomorrow thing. ought it not be a better here and now? tangible? isn't the better tomorrow simply eschatological periphrasis? if we are predisposed to altruism doesn't that betray something unspeakably wierd in us? reflection? cogitation? conscience? how do we deal with that? what is the language/myth/symbolism to be used? if it does not exist do we reinvent the wheel (rather than consult Lady Fortune and her rota fortuna bellisima)? & wht reasn have I 2 hlp others?

The better tomorrow thing is what compels most of us to engage in altruistic behavior. Perhaps it is merely the end to a story we thought up for ourselves? Such concepts make me laugh to beat the band. However, I cannot say I am not grateful for that sacrifice. What reason have you to help others. None, other than the reasons you have agreed to. These reasons come from inumerable teachings, events, and circumstances. I would tell you that you are obligated to help others.

Correction, I would not tell you that you are obligated to help others.

I believe we are apes in clothing. We are clever, and we have done many a great thing that no alien watching from the stars would have predicted, but we are what we are. Perhaps we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Thin of it as a machine, or a wheel, perhaps a wheel of time. Things flow where they may, but the wheel is still there to direct us to act by certain laws. We are moving towards a future we can't possibly predict, of both comfort, and misery, as always.

Have you read Boethius on time in his "consolation of philosophy"? the idea that we are "part of something much bigger than ourselves" gives me the willies. How would we know? And how would we talk about such a thing w/o a language by which to so do? the idea of the machine is disturbing too - fatalistic - fated by whom? what? points within the pattern dictated to by implacable gods. Is that not back to square one and the neolithic religions of stonehenge (recast in another language)?

In a sense yes, but we cannot deny that we occupy a universe that exerts certain laws. I think the superstition comes in when we try to apply beings to such things, then we shape them in an image that pleases us, gives our lives meaning, and then we set about pleasing that which we created to please ourselves in the first place. What a state of being! An absolute truth would be that we that live in a universe that flows according to laws. We are not special, we just are.

thanks again for the answers you give. your confidence and courtesy are appreciated.
"where we are today" - are we better or worse, I wonder? If better, why so much violence and fear? If worse would prior ages w/so much superstition be better? from whence comes the sense of comfort/peace? Is peace merely = comfort? Is it simply silence? At what point can we count ourselves truly "at peace"? Or is that merely an illusion? And why, as a race, are we so restless at heart?  2 many Qs no As

Peace is not about people dancing in the streets and loving one another. This is a misconception. Peace is not killing each other, and letting the world turn. We will never achieve this because the world is dependent on chaos and misery as a source of money. That useless thing we created, and now has become our masters. Are we better or worse. Neither. That is a subjective question. The question should be, "Are you better or worse?" Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Are you at peace?

and if I am ought I to pull the trigger?

there's a great movie about this called "Revolver". Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie, I think.
Yeah, I saw it. I need to watch it again, and think more on it. At the time I was merely hoping it to be like Snatch. I was disappointed. Such things cause us to overlook the lessons that can be learned.

We shall continue this discussion at a later time. For now, I am off to lands unknown, where the laws of the universe do not exist, and where time does not apply. Will I see mere glimpses of other realities, or live an entire lifetime in the span of minutes? This is what it means for me to sleep, as my dreams are what allow me to enjoy and live out that which we can only imagine and write about, or recreate in films. Being able to do so for an eternity, would certainly be heaven to me.

I thought perhaps you were referring to having to teach a class of high school students. I frequently find that to be a realm where the laws of space & time do not apply.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fagles and the Closed Circle

I was struck this time around teaching Aeschylus of the remarkable nature of this play. Robert Fagles in his illuminative commentary,
"Serpent and the Eagle", claims that the Oresteia stands as one of the two greatest works of the golden age (the second being Phidias' Parthenon). Indeed, when one considers the problem of, as Fagles calls it, the perpetual cycle of human barbarity then the Oresteia offers a solution that is unique in history and pivotal to the development of Western thought.

When I teach the work I always begin by reflecting on the idea that drama originated as a bloodless representation of the bloody sacrifice of a goat or man for the sake of the city. The cathartic experience of seeing another living creature die for the sake of the city's sin, literally of witnessing a "scape goat", cannot be underestimated in the modern world. We all still need this cathartic experience which, as Walker Percy points out, seems to elevate us out of our daily life of complacent normalcy. Thus we still go for thrills at amusement parks, sports, movies, games, anything to jolt us out of the dull greyness of life. For those witnessing this early form of ritual violence the result must have been powerful.

But for the victim it was probably no bed of roses. Thus the myth that the goat sang a song of sorrow before being killed; a goat (tragos) song (oidos) that led to the tragedy (tragoidos) of later civilization. Tragedy became the bloodless representation of the bloody ceremony of death that prompts catharsis. The same jolt could be had through seeing simulated violence instead of seeing real violence and thus a civilization gained the merits of the cathartic experience without the barbarity of bloodshed that disrupts with its inevitable consequences. Mythologically, some god must surely have sent this bloodless substitute. Thus Dionysus, it was said, granted to Athens the Dionysiad; the week-long religious festival of dramatic performance. What began as a single chorus chanting the sorrowful dirges of death (perhaps as accompaniment to the impending sacrifice) evolved at some point to a chorus and a single actor (named Thespis for the sake of argument and thus "thespians"); this evolved again into chorus and several speakers and eventually into several individual characters as we have in modern drama.

The tragoidoi were, however, much more like modern religious ritual than modern entertainment. Just as in the modern Mass of the Catholic Church a single speaker (the priest) would lead a chorus (the congregation) in a series of movements, setting, dress, music, and words all designed to create a mythological world separate from daily experience and reinforcing the idea of a greater or elevated reality to human existence. (As a side soap box, the Church used to have, therefore, beautiful music, robes, incense, lighting, a dress code all in existence to create this separate world. Modern Catholicism abandons all this and so losees the whole sense of drama as ritualized transcendence. But that is another issue).

Aeschylus' plays are not too far removed from the chorus and one or two speakers of earlier drama. His play is still a religious iteration of the reality underlying human existence (like someone writing down the words of the Mass read by later generations). Oresteia, Fagles says, is a dramatic retelling of an eternal human story of death and rebirth; a movement from darkness into light. Yet the play also answers the age old question of what to do with human violence.

The problem with our race is that our default state of thought is tribal; we think first and foremeost in terms of The Tribe. Most of our history is a bloody business of violence and retaliation which emerges primarily from thinking in terms of ourselves as members of a tribe rather than of a polis, or city. Tribe does not mean just primitive societies such as Africa or Indians of Brazil or natives of Borneo, nor is tribe merely a question of sanguinity; "our kin". Rather it is a way of thinking about the world that keeps us primitive and violent

I refer, here, to the analysis of David Pryce-Jones in his study of the Middle East, "The Closed Circle". Pryce-Jones sets out three main criteria that distinguish tribal thought from polity thought. Tribal thinking consists of

1. "our group" greater than "their group"; us vs. them; we are blessed and they are damned
2. honor and the gaining of honor as the driving force of society; all is justified in the acquisition of honor
3. coersion as the main force to influence those w/in the tribe; force or violence

All lead to greater violence, retaliation, and more violence. The constant violence in Palestine, Afghanistan and Africa; the gang wars in Los Angeles and Chicago; the bloodshed in Japan all emerge from this form of thinking. How to break this? Can one break this especially since it goes back to the neolithic era or beyond? The cycle of violence seems perpetual; something ingrained in us from the dawn of rational humans. We specialize in slaughtering one another. Nor is our slaughter ended simply by sending Jimmy Carter to the Middle East.

Aeschylus' play suggests, to the contrary, that the perpetual cycle of human barbarity can be overcome.

Yet it can only be conquered by a radical shift in thought. First recognizing that this bloody cycle is a reality, is perpetual, and emerges from thinking in terms of the tribe. Second, Aeschylus suggests that the cycle can be overcome only by triumphing over "the barbarian latent in ourselves"; the hubristic capacity to commit all manner of horrors. This violence is a form of barbarism antithetical to civilization, yet within every person - everyone is capable of committing horrors. Only by triumphing over the barbarian w/in can we possibly break the cycle of violence. But how is this triumph over ourselves accomplished?

Aeschylus suggests, according to Fagles, that it is done by compassion and lasting self-control. The first, compassion, is loving your neighbor as yourself, seeing the annointed image of God in your neighbor. The second, lasting self-control, is pulling the plank out of our own eyes before taking the splinter out of our neighbor's eye. It must be lasting - like the alcoholic realizing he is an alcoholic must take steps against his disease and refrain, for the rest of his life, from drinking. So too the person wanting to conquer this barbarism must act upon love, realize he has been bought at a great price, and continually control himself from acting contrary to this love.

The serpent of our tribal barbarian, loathsome, close to the earth, inhuman in its reptilian coldness, has to be conquered by the eagle of our political self, immortal, autonomous, angelic. Only this conquering of the serpent in us, this movement out of darkness to light, from earth bound slavery in sin to the freedom of the new dawn, only this is a solution to what otherwise would prove a lasting servitude of horror and blood. This remarkable insight on the part of Aeschylus at the dawn of the Golden Age of Athens, even if it didn't take root in the Athens that was eventually defeated by Sparta at the end of the Polyponnesian war, nevertheless paved the way for the greater and more powerful mythology that was to dominate Europe for over 2000 years, which was to alter the course of Western Civilization from barbaric tribal roots to civilized political cultures, which even now seems the only solution to the problem of perpetual bloodshed and retribution.