Monday, January 31, 2011

Without Repetition

British radio game shows are amazing.  No money or dumb contestants.  Just clever people from a country known for extemporaneous wit, playing a game with such panache that listeners stay enraptured by the entertaining volley of ingenuity.  If the phrase "game show" brings recollections of Let's Make a Deal to mind, think instead of Whose Line is it Anyway? (which started across the pond), and you'll be on the right track.

My favorite programme is Just a Minute, a panel show on BBC Radio 4 whose run has lasted now for forty-three years.  In this contest, four participants try speaking on a given subject for sixty seconds without hesitation, repetition, or deviation.  The first and third infractions would eliminate almost any American from the challenge: those in this country who can talk without pause almost never stick to a topic named for them.  But the second offense is what fascinates me, as players attempt astonishing feats of verbal gymnastics in order to avoid saying a word twice.  Someone having mentioned pants may try "trousers" on the second pass and "breeches" on the third, but what is he to use on the fourth?  "Coverings for the lower extremities"?  Often the solution involves something like "the aforementioned article of clothing."  Of course the other two rules don't always allow for careful thought and eloquent phraseology; Paul Merton once followed up "gravy" with "meat liquid."

The English language offers and has a preference for fresh and varied vocabulary.  It's not that every author has to be a master of slightly rare words, like Dickens, or the inventor of entire new lexicons, like Shakespeare.  It is enough to be able to get through a paragraph without reiterating what has once been written.  I'm enjoying Thackeray's Henry Esmond for, among other virtues, its creator's command of this very skill.  Consider this sentence:
These happy days were to end soon, however; and it was by Lady Castlewood's own decree that they were brought to a conclusion.
The switch from active voice to passive makes way for the substitution of "end" with "conclusion," and the result delights with the classically conceived beauty of unity in variety.  Soon afterward we read:
Tom Tusher's talk was of nothing but Cambridge now; and the boys, who were good friends, examined each other eagerly about their progress in books.  Tom had learned some Greek and Hebrew, besides Latin, in which he was pretty well skilled, and also had given himself to mathematical studies under his father's guidance, who was a proficient in those sciences, of which Esmond knew nothing.
How many ways of expressing the ideas of knowledge and learning do we find?  "Cambridge," "progress," "books," "skilled," "studies," "guidance," "proficient," "sciences," and "knew" skip through the passage like a well-practiced team shuffling a ball effortlessly back and forth without a misstep.  In the presence of a master, my humble hazard at the challenge sounds lumpy and awkward.

Some historical episodes of Just a Minute are available on CD, and selected recent offerings can be heard on BBC Radio 4's website.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Socrates Had Potential

On my desk at work is an essay called "Teacher Guilt," an editorial my wife printed from an online news source and gave to me for solace at trying times.  Pointing out that, with its proliferation of research in pedagogy, our culture provides educators with a legion of methods, ideas, and strategies for successful teaching, the article then lifts the weary, disheartened teacher with the assurance that, even in the presence of the most skilled instructor, some of the onus of the educational process still lies on the student's shoulders.  According to Spider Man, with great power comes great responsibility; but the teacher's power can never make the horses at the watering hole drink, and so the responsibility for learning cannot be the teacher's alone.  Some students don't have the aptitude for the material.  Others don't put in the work.  And others yet, with alternative interests and goals and motivations, end up enriching themselves by the experience in ways that don't show up on the teacher's tests.

Plato seems not to have understood this lesson.  And if we can believe him on the matter, neither did his teacher, Socrates.  In Plato's Meno, Socrates and Meno explore the question of whether virtue is natural or learned.  Socrates comes to the conclusion that neither is true: virtue in any given case is a divine gift, like a prophecy that the speaker doesn't understand.  The conclusion here improves on the treatment given to virtue in Plato's earlier dialog Protagoras, in which Socrates and Protagoras come to no conclusion on the question.  And I agree that virtue is a divine gift.  But not all divine gifts come as spectacular manifestations that use the recipient merely as a transparent conduit, as in the case of the prophecies Socrates had in mind.  Every natural endowment and every bit of learned knowledge or skill also comes ultimately from God's hand, so saying virtue is a gift from God doesn't tell me that it can't be learned.

Socrates comes to his conclusion by process of elimination.  Virtue doesn't seem to form a part of human nature, and it doesn't appear to be learned, so it must be acquired without learning, and that must happen by God's direct intervention.  But Socrates' view of education looks flawed to me.  He doesn't think virtue is learned because he can't identify any teachers.  The Sophists profess to teach virtue, he says, but every sensible man knows that they only corrupt the youth.  You'd think great, virtuous men would teach their children to be good, but history shows us that that doesn't always happen.  Socrates falls into the error described in "Teacher Guilt": if there are no skilled teachers, learning simply doesn't happen.

Most of what we think of as learning, according to Socrates, is only recollection anyway.  In the course of the dialog with Meno, Socrates leads a slave boy through a geometrical problem without exactly giving him the answers.  When the boy finds the solution, Socrates reasons: he didn't know the answer, and now he does, and yet he didn't learn the answer, because I didn't teach it, so he must have simply remembered it, and since he never knew it before in this life, he must have remembered it from a past life.  Besides ignoring the problem of infinite regression (how did the boy acquire the knowledge in the previous life?), Socrates doesn't recognize the possibility of an aptitude for figuring things out, a potential.  Some students have such great potential that they learn a thing even without a teacher, as, say, Newton did with calculus.  Some students have such low potential in a given field that they don't learn much even with a great teacher, as, for instance, me reading Newton's Principia Mathematica.  Recognizing the parts that both teacher and student play in the comedy of learning accounts for all of Socrates' other problems, including the sons who don't grow up as great as their fathers.

Plato makes another, related mistake consistently in almost every dialog: assuming that once people learn what's right, they will pursue it.  This Platonic error lives on in our culture's naive belief that if we just tell kids about the dangers of drugs, they won't indulge.  In Protagoras, Socrates says that everyone always chooses what seems good, that they weigh the short-term benefits as they understand them and the long-term costs as they understand them, and choose what will be most beneficial.  No one, he claims, chooses a petty pleasure in a moment of weakness, willfully oblivious to the consequences.  But his claim ignores the perversity of human nature that seems indisputable to me.  The evidence for this deliberate contrariness confronted Socrates at every turn.  Why didn't he pick up on it?  Well, because we just don't always learn the lessons presented to us.

But Socrates had the potential to learn it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Freedom and Coincidence

Most people reading this have probably had the experience of learning a new word or phrase, thinking you have never heard it before, and then coming across the very word more than once within just a few weeks.  Coincidences happen all the time, but some, like coming across the new word, stand out.  The odds of your car and that blue car coming up to that intersection at the same time were microscopic at the beginning of the day, and yet there you both are.  This coincidence doesn't stand out only because you meet some car at an intersection many times each day.  Only when an object stands out to begin with, like the new word, do we become aware of a coincidence it plays a part of.

Since I read two or three things each day, I'm bound to come across coincidences there, also.  But while I know not to be amazed, it's still intriguing when it happens.  One of these coincidences happened today.

Bonhoeffer has become confusing.  When he says that there is only one principle to the universe, God, I understand.  When he says that God created our world, took it on in the incarnation, and preserves it through his will, I understand.  But when he says that ethics is not about confronting the way things are in this world with the way things ought to be, I don't understand.  We don't just acquiesce in what is, he says, but we mustn't think in terms of an ideal that should be happening, either.  If that's true, I don't know why I pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."  I tend to think that God has an ideal will, which includes things like me never sinning, and a contingent will, which includes all the things He allows.  He has obviously allowed the world to be this way, but if the world as it is matched his ideal will, it seems Jesus would not have taught us that prayer.

Today I gained a little more understanding, though.  Bonhoeffer scolded Kant for saying that, since lying is wrong, we must always tell the truth, even if it means giving up a hiding friend to the enemy.  Instead, Bonhoeffer says, God's will is above all laws and all ethical principles.  Didn't Jesus break Sabbath law by eating grain in the field and by healing on the Sabbath?  God's will can't be codified, because it is always grounded in a specific concrete situation.  We can't even really know what the good option is in any given situation.  We learn to do God's will by doing his will, but He doesn't spell it all out for us, and He doesn't make us obey Him by force.  We must simply act in freedom as God gives us to see what is right in each situation, and trust to his mercy.  If doing God's will means breaking the law and being found guilty, so be it; that didn't stop Jesus.  After reading this today, it occurs to me that in this section Bonhoeffer was probably trying to explain to us (and to himself!) why it was right for a Christian to be part of a plot to kill Hitler.

The coincidences occurred in the Bible passages I read just after reading the Ethics.  In Psalm 32, I read, "I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle."   To have God's will codified, I thought, so that some written word or guiding principle would tell me exactly what to do in any given situation, would make me like the dumb animal.  As Bonhoeffer says, we must act freely, not under the compulsion of a spiritual or ethical bit and bridle, although our free act comes after being taught by God's companionable guidance.

The next thing I read, though, got me questioning Bonhoeffer again.  In Philippians I read, "It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent."  Where Bonhoeffer seems to say that we should do God's will in love without distinguishing good and evil and without even knowing if what we do is right (because such knowledge would come from a codified ethical ideal), Paul seems to say that growth in love requires knowledge and discernment.

I don't know exactly what to make of Bonhoeffer yet.  I do know that I should keep reading the book, a few pages a day until I finish.  And since it doesn't appear to be breaking any law to do that, I think I'm safe.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Audience is Mad

Several years ago, the School of Music where I work put on a production of Monteverdi's Orfeo, the first masterpiece of opera.  On the afternoon I attended, poor Orfeo lost his wife all over again, the act came to a close, and the audience burst into applause.  But I did not clap.  It's not that I disapproved of the performance; I was simply so engrossed that the applause around me startled me as an unexpected intrusion.  I felt bad for Orfeo; what were these other people thinking about?

In Plato's Ion, Socrates talks with Ion, a rhapsode who has just won first prize for his musical recitation of Homer.  The two agree that a good rhapsode must understand and be able to interpret the poem he sings.  But while Ion assumes that his skill is the product of art, Socrates points out that a different source is possible: divine inspiration.

A magnet, Socrates points out, can attract iron and then pass on its power to iron that comes in contact with it, sometimes resulting in a long chain of iron pieces hanging one from another and ultimately from the magnet.  In a similar way, a god can inspire a poet with divine madness (if the god gives the poem, he must be bypassing the poet's mind, and thus the poet is out of his mind, or mad), who then inspires singers with the same madness, who in turn inspire an audience.  Ion admits that when he performs a sad tale, his eyes fill with tears, even though no actual sad situation is present, and madness can be defined as behaving as though the unreal is real.  His audience, he says, often have faces stamped with the same emotions he acts out.

Now I'm willing to buy the idea of inspired poetry, but I don't believe that if and when God inspires, He bypasses the poet's mind.  So while I like the analogy of the magnet, I wouldn't say it's madness being passed on from poet to performer to audience.  Monteverdi's expressed intention was to move his audience to pity, horror, and remorse through Orfeo's story.  It works on me; does that make me mad?

Here's a follow up on Phaedrus: I should not have said that Socrates and Phaedrus were discussing a fellow philosopher's ideas.  Lysias is called a rhetorician, a speechmaker.  In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates says that speechmaking is to philosophy or truthtelling what fine clothes and cosmetics are to exercise.  The first of each pair (viz., speechmaking, cosmetics) is only a flattering pretense which brings about the appearance of health, while the second (philosophy, exercise) brings actual health.  In Phaedrus, though, Socrates begrudges rhetoric some virtue when he says that those who learn what they speak about in order to please God can speak what they know on a good foundation.

I also wrote previously in the middle of the examination of eros love, in sympathy with Socrates' argument that love based only on physical attraction is selfish and ultimately damaging to the beloved.  But after this point, Socrates points out that physical beauty derives from divine beauty, and that when a lover sees divinity in his beloved's face, he will want to serve his beloved and help her (him for Socrates) be more pious, more intelligent, more virtuous.  I agree that the perspective changes everything: when you see your beloved, do you see your possession, or God's?  Socrates says, by the way, that divine love can turn physically intimate without guilt; I guess Platonic love isn't always Platonic.

Phaedrus ends with a diatribe against writing.  Books hurt human memory by making us dependent on them, Socrates says, and they can never touch the soul with the kind of personal impact the spoken word has. Yet the dialog begins with Socrates noticing a scroll in Phaedrus' hand and begging him to read it: "Only hold up before me . . . a book, and you may lead me all around Attica, and over the wide world."  And of course Plato (or one of his pupils) wrote down the dialog.  I'm not sure what to make of the irony, but I know that Socrates has had an impact on my soul even through the written word.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How the West Was Lost

I'm taking Bonhoeffer's Ethics and its bold opening premise that we are wrong to distinguish good and evil in the light of Bonhoeffer's history as a member of the German resistance movement that sought to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis.  Clearly Bonhoeffer saw Hitler's program as evil.  (The book speaks in such generalities about events in Germany at the time that I refrain from guessing whether Bonhoeffer thought Hitler himself was evil, i.e. beyond hope.)

I'm about 40% of the way through the book now, and as Bonhoeffer's picture resolves itself in my mind, the focal point seems to be his tenet of the two kingdoms: the Kingdom of the Word and the Kingdom of the Sword, or the Church and secular government.  Each is answerable to Christ, since He established each, and each has its distinct mission.  As I understand Bonhoeffer at this point, the proper place for judgment of good and evil in this world is in the secular government.  It deals with the penultimate (see previous post), whereas the ultimate, preaching the Way of Life and offering reconciliation, is left to the Church.

Bonhoeffer looks back with some nostalgia to the age of Christendom, when Church and Empire both professed the same goal.  Wars between Church and Empire or between Christian nations don't seem to sway his view: these were "chivalrous" wars, he says, ones in which the combatants recognized God as Arbiter.  Contrast this with the typical Asian war, he says, a total war in which the combatants will do anything -- even kill noncombatants, including children -- to preserve their earthly vision of nation or empire.  (Was "Asian war" only a code phrase for WWII?)

Bonhoeffer sees the West as a unit, as the former Christendom.  The end of this unity's actuality happened when the two kingdoms split and eventually quit recognizing the relationship they should have.  (Intriguingly, Bonhoeffer points out that the English-speaking countries have not experienced a radical split of the two kingdoms.)  The Kingdom of the Sword no longer acknowledges the Church's mission, and the Kingdom of the Word hunkers down defensively in the face of the government.  Bonhoeffer wanted to see the relationship restored.

But what common ground can the two kingdoms have today?  How could they possibly work together?  Bonhoeffer answers these questions by dividing the penultimate (the things of this fallen world) into the natural and the unnatural.  The natural, he says, is a preserving element God has given the world: virtue, goods of the world, and all that preserves life.  The unnatural -- evil acts, destructive philosophies, totalitarian governments, and such -- works in the long run against life.  The Church must offer natural services as part of preparing the Way for the Lord: food, clothes, comfort, counseling, teaching on virtuous living, and the like.  John the Baptist, after all, prepared the Way by preaching repentance, not that good living makes Christ's coming sure but simply easier.  So the Church operates in both the penultimate world and the ultimate: she feeds and she preaches.  If the secular government can't see the value of the latter, it can at least support the former and thus, even unwittingly, serve her Founder.  Bonhoeffer tells us to pray for the revival of the unified West: both kingdoms in every nation serving Christ in their proper spheres.

In September of 2001, I watched the news for hours every day along with everyone else.  Horrified by the attacks and inspired by the courage of the rescuers, I was also troubled by the form that the appeals for prayer took.  Perhaps I should have been happier to hear so much about prayer on national television, but I couldn't help noticing that every last person asked Americans to pray for the victims, rescue workers, and their families. Not one that I heard, not even pastors or other acknowledged Christians, asked for prayers for the families of the attackers or for the Muslims of the world.  When I heard tax collector -- er, Senator -- Hillary Clinton voice the same tired phrase, "Pray for the victims, the rescue workers, and their families," I immediately thought of Jesus's words in his sermon on the mount:
You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Similarly, the Presidential Prayer Team, an online Christian organization, recently called for prayer for Representative Gabrielle Giffords, other victims of the shooting, and for their families.  I've been praying for these people, but where was the call for prayer for the shooter?  Our prayer guides appear comfortable with their roles as judges, distinguishing good people from evil people.  God rains on the just and the unjust, but we seem to insist on shining our sun only on the good.  In doing so, I think Bonhoeffer would say that we're making the mistake of living only in the penultimate.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bonhoeffer's Ultimate and Penultimate

A post from a few days ago told about my first impressions of Bonhoeffer's Ethics.  His message seemed unusual to me on day one.  Having read some more, I'd say now that Bonhoeffer has some unusual things to say, some classic Christian things to say, and some unusual ways of saying some classic things.  It's all a little clearer now but still challenging and definitely inspirational.

Bonhoeffer mystified me at first by saying we should not judge between good and evil, even though his argument for getting there (acquiring the knowledge of good and evil got us into the trouble we're in) resonated with me.  But once I read some applications of this tenet, it started making sense.  First and foremost, we should not distinguish good and bad people.  Everyone we come across is simply a human, and humans have already been judged and sentenced in the death of Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer doesn't quote II Corinthians in this passage (surprisingly), but I couldn't help think about chapter 5 as I was reading:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.
God judges; for us to judge is to arrogate his function.  Our job is to show Christ's love by giving anyone we meet what the occasion calls for.  Why identify the sinners and look in indignation on them?  Instead of denouncing the libertine, just teach the virtue of chastity, and let people come to Christ.

Second, not judging good and evil means not grading our own actions.  The Christian's task is to do the will of God, not to figure out what's good, do it, and then enjoy satisfaction in his own good deed.  The Pharisees tried very hard to discern what was good and to do it, and Jesus scolded them.  Christ is present in the individual Christian and in the Church, and his mission now, through both the individual and the Body, is reconciliation (also found in II Corinthians 5).  We try conscience, duty, responsibility, virtue, ideals, and programs to overthrow the evil we see in the world, when instead we should be acting and preaching reconciliation, and that message cannot be reduced to an absolute, unchanging program or plan.

This all sounds pretty good to me until I start to wonder how I know what the moment calls for if I don't have a sense of right and wrong, and whether in some situations love doesn't involve a declaration of evil -- a judgment.  Surely when Wackford Squeers is beating Smike, Nicholas Nickleby is right to cry, "Stop!"  But Bonhoeffer seems to address this concern with his idea of the penultimate and the ultimate.  Our new, fully-righteous life pertains to the ultimate, to the eternal, heavenly truth.  But ultimate implies a penultimate: our condition and life in this world of sin.  By his incarnation, Jesus accepted all that is human.  By his death, He judged and suffered for human sin.  By his resurrection, He gained new life for humans.  When we identify with Christ, we should identify with all these aspects of his ministry.  To acknowledge only the resurrected life and live only in the ideal world of heavenly vision makes us radical and judgmental.  To acknowledge only his humble humanity and his death and live only in the practical world of sin makes us compromisers. We must always do both.  When a friend's loved one dies, for instance, we must both sympathize with the pain (deal with the penultimate) and speak hope (deal with the ultimate).

Tomorrow a little bit about Bonhoeffer's intriguing view of culture in the West.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Plato and I Have Our Feet in a Brook

Sometimes I get sad about the current university's lack of interest in correcting our culture's gross ignorance of basic facts.  OK, I admit it: it's a lot of the time.  When significant numbers of graduate students state on an entrance test that English colonists first came to North America in music's Classical Period (1750-1800), I think we have a problem.  Thomas Jefferson must have been on the ship from England, pen in hand, ready to start a revolution right after landing.

But we should not wonder at the students' lack of knowledge considering the approach of many of the professors in the humanities.  "Critical thinking," multiculturalism, and political agendas all have positive interest in keeping the traditional facts of western liberal education out of students' heads.  They can't always even keep the facts about their own terms straight.  I've talked with professors, for instance, who think that "multiculturalism" and "melting pot" refer to the same political ideal, when they in fact represent opposite responses to the presence of people of various heritages.  In the middle of the twentieth century, politicians talked about the melting pot in America, in which all these various cultural influences get thrown together, each contributing a little to the mix, but losing their separateness in the process, just as the separate colors would disappear in a melting pot of crayons.  The result was to be that all would simply become mainstream Americans.  Multiculturalism represents a rejection of that policy in favor of everyone preserving his own culture while recognizing, respecting, and celebrating the other distinct cultures in his neighborhood.  But knowing and rehearsing this lesson of American history works against current agendas, so the terms themselves have been thrown into their own melting pot and lost their distinctiveness.

I've also heard many professors talk about using the Socratic method; but virtually every time the method is described, it boils down to using questions in class in order to try to get the students to make the statements the professor wants voiced.  That classroom method is fine, but it's not the Socratic method.  Socrates asked questions in order to take apart what his interlocutors say and to try to convince others that the most important knowledge we could acquire is the knowledge of our utter ignorance.  In the ideal university in my head, every professor has read Plato and knows what Socrates' goal was and has learned the lesson he was trying to teach.  In the actual university of 2011, outside the philosophy department, hearing the phrase "Socratic method" is almost a guarantee that the professor has never read Plato.

I started Plato's Phaedrus yesterday and after a year joyfully stepped again into Plato's world of entertaining philosophy.  The dialog format provides an inviting atmosphere and a helpful rhythm between intense arguments and the simple niceties of conversation.  The settings are always charming (in this one, Socrates and Phaedrus sit with their feet in a brook while talking about a fellow philosopher's ideas), and Socrates is always funny, challenging, annoying, brilliant, puzzling, humble, and ironic by turn.

When I read a Plato dialog, I always take notes the same way.  I note the characters speaking, the setting, the main topic, the successive definitions or answers to the main question, conclusions (which, considering Socrates' main lesson, aren't always there), interesting quotations, and unquestioned assumptions.  In this one, sitting under the tree by the brook, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss eros love.  Because Socrates always challenges unscrutinized definitions, most of Plato's dialogs follow a zigzag path of successive attempts to find the right ideas and the right words for them.  In Phaedrus, the two begin by agreeing that eros is a selfish passion that causes madness and does no good for the beloved.  But then Socrates remembers (or pretends to remember?) that eros is Eros, a god, and as such cannot be evil.  At that point he takes a very interesting sidetrack to discuss madness, the human soul, and reincarnation.

That's where I am right now, so I don't know if they'll reach any conclusions, but the path is fascinating.  I was deeply moved by the first arguments and their descriptions of the impassioned lover who cares for his beloved only for the sensuous pleasure he can get.  The beloved, Socrates says, must be kept ignorant and slavishly devoted in order for the lover to get what he wants, and of course one day the whole passion will suddenly end, and the beloved will be hung out to dry.  Sadly this mad, selfish lover sounds very familiar!  As Socrates explains that eros gets jealous, insists on its own way, and eventually ends, I couldn't help thinking of Paul's famous description of Christian agape love in I Corinthians.  (Sometimes I think Paul surely must have read his Plato.  Between Paul and a professor claiming to use the Socratic method, my money's on Paul.)  Obviously I see Paul's response to the problems of eros as far superior to Socrates' claim that Eros, being good, must necessarily cause a good kind of madness.  "God is love" is the answer to our problems, not "Love is a god."

By the way, since universities apparently aren't teaching it, I thought I'd point out that feudalism is not a twentieth-century western political structure.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Wait Is Over

Every time I reach the end of one book and start another that I've never read before, I think, "The wait is over."  Before I had a Plan, I had scattered mental lists of books I wanted to read, and I'd scribble down names of a few that I planned to enjoy over the next few months.  But I've always wanted to read so many books, the process of deciding and scheduling was always overwhelming.  After writing a list, I would always remember some book (let's say Great Thoughts by Smith) that I had thought about for years, and I'd think, "I'll never get to that book."  OK, so why not just start reading it now?  Well, that would mean reading Great Thoughts instead of whatever else I had planned (let's say The Complete Course of Mathematics by Brown), and then The Complete Course got bumped to that overwhelmed region of my mind, and I'd think, "I'll never get to Brown."

That's the beauty of a Plan.  I've wanted to read the Venerable Bede for decades, but I just never got to his history of the Church.  But now he's on the master list, and when I think of Bede or see his name in another book, instead of having to fight a feeling of frustration, I just remember that he's coming up.  As soon as I finished drawing up the Plan some four years ago, I looked at some of the titles in Year 10 and took comfort knowing that, even if I had to wait nine-and-a-half more years, I would eventually get to those books.  And then having planned for years makes starting those books so much more satisfying and fun!

Yesterday, I finished reading The Odyssey and started Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics with great joy.  I had wanted to read Bonhoeffer for decades.  His story is so intriguing: resisting the Nazis and then being executed just days before the end of the war.  Every once in a great while, I heard people (mostly pastors) talk about him and about how important his writings were.  But I seldom heard any details about his ideas; people generally referred to his life and not the contents of his books.

Now I know why.  Bonhoeffer has an unusual message, so quick quotations probably don't easily fit in to illustrate whatever anybody else has to say.  Bonhoeffer begins by saying that Christian ethics necessarily differs from all other ethics.  All other ethical studies seek to know good and evil, but Christian doctrine teaches that desiring and acquiring the knowledge of good and evil separated us from God.  Where we should have known only God and experienced everything else through Him, we wanted to become independent judges.  Each one of us, then, is separated not only from God but from all other humans and even from ourselves.  As a result, we wrestle every day with shame, alternately giving in to it and denying it.  What we need is not to judge good and evil anymore.

The thought is challenging and intriguing.  Today I read his explanation of the Pharisees as people who tried very hard to do good but missed the mark because they were always judging what was good.  God can only be pleased by our submitting to his judgment, by constantly seeking and proving his will, which can not be reduced to a formula.  But how can we learn his will if we aren't thinking about good and evil, right and wrong?  Bonhoeffer deals with the riddles about judging found in II Corinthians (in some passages, we must not judge people, and in others it is our express mission to judge) and explains, I believe, that the Christian must live on two levels at once: the psychological (which judges) and the spiritual (which doesn't).

I'm not sure at all right now that I even understand what it is I don't understand.  But that's why I gave myself a few weeks to read the Ethics; I had a feeling from all the oblique references to Bonhoeffer I had heard over the years that a book by him was not to be rushed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dante's GUT

Three years ago at this time, I was reading (for the second time) Dante's Divine Comedy.  Although the Inferno is the most famous part, I much preferred the Purgatory the first time I read Dante's epic.  The souls in Dante's Purgatory were glad to be there, ashamed of their sinful habits, and appreciative of the chance to work longer on driving these habits out in order to be fit for Heaven.  As I recall, they don't mention any desires to have people pray for them to shorten their time.  If God in his mercy has appointed a time for them, they gratefully serve that time.

This second time around, I was floored by the Paradise, the part of the Comedy that I remembered the least from my first reading.  In this final part, Dante, led by Beatrice, who represents true Christian Doctrine, moves up through the heavenly spheres, advancing in virtue as he approaches God's Empyrean Realm and the Beatific Vision of his holy face.

Each sphere corresponds to one of the planets, but Dante seems not to go onto each planet as much as into the light of each.  In the sphere of Mars, he is surrounded by red light, of course, and Jupiter bathes him in a golden glow.  Each sphere also commands a Christian virtue and is inhabited by saints who can teach Dante about that virtue.  The sphere of Venus bears those especially gifted in love -- not love as the Roman Venus would have thought about it, but Christian charity.  The sphere of the Sun is the home of the wise: Thomas Aquinas and others.  Mars does not represent war here, but courage, and provides eternal rest to those who have died for the faith.

As Dante climbs through these planetary spheres, his speech becomes more and more ecstatic and mysterious.  Reading it all in one afternoon took me through a progression corresponding to Dante's that I can only call mystical: in the end, I felt the presence of God in a way that I could not put into words.

Now why didn't Dante go through the virtues and the roll call of famous saints without all the science fiction?  First, I think, because grounding the abstract material in a concrete journey just makes for more effective storytelling.  But also, the planetary travel wasn't science fiction to Dante; it was science.  The medieval understanding of the cosmos placed the earth at the center of a universe of nine concentric crystalline spheres.  (Ptolemy's Almagest gives a very good argument, based on the best observation possible at the time, for why the earth must be at the center.)  The spheres all spun because they were moved by angels who loved God; the highest sphere spun the most quickly because it was the closest to God's Heaven.  As Augustine explains, Christianity is perfectly compatible with "astrology" to the extent of believing that the planets have influence; the earth, sun, and moon clearly have influence on us (gravity, warmth, tides), so why not Mars and Saturn?  The Christian only need balk at the idea that the planets determine our fate and can predict the future.

The medieval picture of the cosmos that Dante believed in found everything neatly in its place.  All earthly material things were made of four elements, heavenly things of a fifth -- a quintessence.  These elements combined to form things (ever changing in the realm below the moon, perfect and unchanging above it) that found themselves in proper places in one of the concentric spheres.  Things were also arranged in a hierarchy of nobility: lifeless things (rocks and such) superseded by nonsentient living things (such as plants), which were in turn superseded by sentient living things (animals), which were superseded by rational living creations in bodies (humans), which were superseded by bodiless created minds (angels), which were superseded by the Creator.  (C. S. Lewis details this view of the world in a very helpful way in his The Discarded Image, a great book that helps understand Dante and countless other medieval works.)  The way Dante saw this tidy picture, the orderly "heavens declared the righteousness of God," and God's "power and deity were clearly perceived in the things that were made."

It may all sound too simplistic to us today, and it's easy to feel smug about our advanced scientific understanding.  Where Dante identified only four elements, we now recognize over one hundred.  The planets are not on crystalline spheres moved by angels; they are held in place by gravity and kept moving by the Law of Inertia.  But don't we still look for a tidy picture, an understanding that we can grasp in one comprehensive glance?  We may have found and named 118 elements, but it's not really all that complex.  Each elemental atom is a combination of just three things: protons, neutrons, and electrons.  OK, so those aren't the fundamental building blocks, either: the world is actually made up of sixteen particles called quarks and muons and such, which can be neatly arranged in a 4x4 grid.  And maybe those are made of superstrings.  (I'm way out of my depth on the details here; "made of" is probably not the right phrase.)  Whatever is at the bottom of things, science searches for it with a zealous faith that it must be there, that there must be only a few varieties of it, and that the varieties must form some nice pattern that can be comprehended in one thought.  Science also seeks a simple understanding of how these particles interact.  Magnetism and electricity, at first thought to be separate forces, are now seen as part of one "electromagnetic" force.  If mathematical equations can be found that can link electromagnetism also with the force that keeps atomic particles together and the force that causes radiation, science will have found it's GUT, the Grand Unified Theory.

Now, I'm all for scientific advances, and I would rejoice to see the GUT discovered, even though I wouldn't understand the first explanations.  And I don't believe in crystalline spheres (although I'm not sure that angels don't oversee inertia).  But I haven't seen yet anyone write an inspiring epic poem about a journey to God through the sixteen elemental particles, or the virtuous lessons that can be taught by the one, or two, or three, or four basic forces.  It can be done, and I hope that someday in the next hundred years some brilliant Christian with both physics creds and poetry chops will do it.  But whatever the basic structure of the material world is, that poet will be no different from Dante in seeing that the coherent picture makes sense because a wise Creator gave it sense.  So until -- and even after -- this new poem appears, I'll keep going back to The Divine Comedy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Blindness of Homer

One thread I've noticed running through The Odyssey has to do with limited knowledge, with blindness and disguises.  Athena disguises herself as a friend, a peasant boy, a water-carrying girl, and so on.  The angels in the Bible usually begin their messages with "Fear not"; their overpowering appearance must have required it.  Perhaps Athena knows that if she appears to a mortal in her own form, she will have to spend most of her time dealing with how she looks; better to hide her identity behind a humble mask and deal strictly with the message she has to deliver.  If this is so, Odysseus ultimately learns more by being presented with less.

All messages about the future, from either god or prophet, seem to follow the same pattern: a traveler is told of a place that is simply and unavoidably in his future, and then he is given options and told of the consequences of each choice.  For instance, Kirke tells Odysseus where to find Teiresias, and then Teiresias tells Odysseus he will go to the island of Helios.  So far it sounds as though Odysseus is subject to fate (as are we, since travels in books usually represent life).  It may seem as if he has the choice to sail either east or west, but apparently either way brings him to the island of Helios.  And yet once there, he must face a terrifying dilemma: either he and his men must die of starvation, or they can slaughter some of the Sun God's herds and invoke his wrath.  So in this situation, he suddenly has a choice.  Perhaps the gods only speak of a few major choices because, again, limited knowledge is better: knowing and thinking about every tiny choice along the way would stymie the adventurer just as the centipede found himself immobile when asked to explain in detail how he moved.  Or perhaps the life Homer portrays here is the same one William James talks about: most of our lives we live by habit, while true, effortful acts of choice come to play only in moral dilemmas and other conflicts of will.

In any case, Homer seems to tell us that avoiding what we would call "information overload" makes the path to knowledge easier.  Two of the most knowledgeable characters, for instance, are blind.  The prophet Teiresias is blind, even after dying and going to Hades, and he has better information for Odysseus than even the goddess Kirke does.  Also blind is the minstrel Domodokos.  Homer tells us that the Muse loves these singing poets best of all men and gives them knowledge of the ways of life and of good and evil.  Tradition says that Homer was blind, and perhaps he, too, saw the ways of life more clearly for not being distracted by outward appearances.

Speaking of good and evil, I said in a previous post that at one point in the story the gods seem to want only sacrifices from their human subjects, not ethical lives.  After reading a bit more, though, it's clear that only god-fearing people are hospitable (hospitality being one of the chief virtues according to Homer) and that the gods "are fond of no wrongdoing, but honor discipline and right behavior."  I guess I'm too quick to critique ancient Greek notions of piety the way Plato does in Euthyphro: one would think the gods must be models for the way they want us to live, and yet they don't agree with each other on what they want from us, and they do to each other as they would not have us do unto ourselves.  The Greeks knew they should act righteously, but they had no clear divine revelation on how to do it.  And yet without clear guidance from their deities, the Greeks still knew that murder, theft, adultery, and neglect of worship were wrong.  "They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them."

The best part so far is the visit to the place of the dead in Book 11.  Steeped in eerie, bloody horror (complete with sacrificial calves lowing on the spit), its touching scenes include views of the famously punished Tantalos (who is tantal-ized by the nearby water he cannot drink) and Sisyphos (who continually pushes a rock to the top of a hill only to have it knocked back down by an invisible Power), and famous personages from other Greek legends such as Leda, Ariadne, and the mother of Oidipos.  Odysseus finds old friends, too, such as Akhilleus (Achilles), who declares it better to be a poor farmhand in the land of the living than a prince in Hell.  Odysseus' most powerful encounter comes when he meets his fellow general Agamemnon.  Agamemnon tells his friend that as his soul left his body, he saw that his wife did not even take the time to shut his eyes after her lover had killed him.  Odysseus is doubly afraid when he thinks that after nineteen years, perhaps he himself will meet with the same kind of homecoming.  But then, Penelope is no Klytaimnestra.

We, too, should become blind that we might see -- blind to the petty annoyances and distractions around us that we might see the profound themes Homer addresses in his saga, and yet blind sometimes to the specific circumstances of Odysseus' travels that we might see our own lives in this ancient mirror.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vive la difference!

So far in the last five days, I've read two of the Aristophanes plays and about half of the third.  It's funny the way we associate books with the places where we read them.  David Copperfield, for instance, always makes me think of Hazelwood Central High School, where I read the book as a substitute teacher during lunch and planning hours.  The Lord of the Rings always reminds me of the "TV room" in our house on Flamingo Dr., where my dad and I read the trilogy one Christmas break.  (We took a little time out one evening to go to dinner and a hockey game, but otherwise, we mostly just read.)  Well, now I'll always associate Lysistrata with a hospital in St. Peters, MO (just a scare -- everyone's fine), and The Ecclesiazusae with the dealer where I went to get the oil changed this morning.

I have the translations of these plays by Benjamin Bickley Rogers in the Britannica Great Books set, but this time I downloaded a translation (by an unnamed translator as far as I can see) to read on the Kindle.  Rogers's translations are metrical and clever, but according to the introduction to the online version, they were not literal.  I've certainly come across some potent words recently that I didn't remember reading in Aristophanes before.  But then Rogers published his translation in 1867, when such words were not considered tasteful.  Well, they still aren't tasteful, but they are found in published literature.  In any case, looking back at Rogers's Lysistrata, I see that he has the main character announce the sex strike by vowing to give up "the ways of love," whereas the online version has something distinctly more bawdy.

I also noticed that Rogers gave one of the characters a dialect with slang words and idiomatic pronunciations.  I can't help thinking that Aristophanes would have done something similar for a character from Sparta: the play may be about foolishness on both sides of the war, but why not have a little extra fun at the enemy's expense?  So the online version claims to have some previously expurgated lines, has more explicit references to body parts and functions, and comes with abundant, helpful notes.  But the Rogers version has rhymes and meters and dialect and wordplay.  I'm glad to have read the two different translations, but given the choice between poetry and four-letter words, I prefer the poetry.

All three plays have something to say about the female half of the human race, at least on the surface.  In Lysistrata, the women would rather have peace than sex, while the men prefer sex to war.  But don't the women declare their own kind of war?  In The Thesmaphoriazusae, the women try to kill Euripides for portraying women as weak and evil, and yet they partly prove Euripides' point by their bloodlust (so much for women uniformly wanting peace).  In The Ecclesiazusae, the women take over the Assembly and declare communism, thinking that crimes such as theft and murder will come to an end when there is nothing to steal and no motive for murder.  But for one thing, they break the law in taking over the assembly, and for another, they don't know what to do with people who refuse to follow their new, friendly laws.  Perhaps Aristophanes is really just making a point about humans: all are flawed, greedy, illogical, and self-centered, so why make a distinction along gender lines?

And yet Aristophanes does portray distinctions.  While they plan to infiltrate the Assembly, we find that the women must do more than put on false beards.  They must dress in men's less exotic clothing and carry sticks and other heavy things.  They must walk less daintily.  They must learn to talk differently and about different things.  They cannot go into the Assembly with their craftwork if they plan to pull off the deception.  It's not that the lines can never be crossed: on top of mentioning several effeminate and homosexual men, Aristophanes shows that Praxagora has plausible reasons to give when she is found wearing her husband's clothes.  But he appears to be saying that these very exceptions -- since they bring to mind lines that seem to be crossed -- prove the rule: that women and men do in fact tend to have different habits and tastes.  And the tendencies seem very familiar 2500 years later.

I wonder if these plays couldn't be translated, not just to English, but to twenty-first century culture.  All the quick topical references to famous statesmen of the time could refer instead to politicians and pop stars of today.  And instead of poking fun at Euripides, the women could be after, say, George Lucas.  The character of George Lucas could come on stage (the right wig and beard and some glasses would make the identification very clear) trying to solve all the problems by quotations from the Star Wars saga.  "George, you have to untie me!" "Use the Force."  "Wait, how did you know I was a woman under these men's clothes?"  "Your skin is soft and smooth, not like sand.  I don't like sand.  It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere."

OK.  Maybe the original playwright has to be as good as Euripides before the parody has a chance to last two-and-a-half millennia.

Monday, January 3, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good Greeks

It's a new year, 2011, and I've officially started Year Five of my ten-year reading plan.  I got in a few Father Brown stories during the last few days of December, but for the last three days, I've been reading ancient plays and The Odyssey, the first items on my calendar for this year.

Getting out my old copy of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey reminds me of homeschooling days.  Our son, Brad, told us one Thursday that the schools weren't teaching him enough.  The next Monday, after some fast but intensive investigation of the district's curricula, our kids stayed home, and we started schooling them ourselves.  Brad was about twelve years old, and for literature, we started him out with Plato's Theaetetus; he enjoyed reading it, and since he was able to summarize accurately its main argument for me, we figured we had made a good decision.

Soon after Plato, we started Homer.  I drew up worksheets for Brad based on words and passages that I marked in the text, and it is seeing these markings that brings back the memories.  We covered vocabulary: clarion and hekatomb and corsairs and numinous and other delicious words.  I made special note of names of gods, humans, and places: Zeus, the summoner of cloud; grey-eyed Athena; clear-headed Telemakhos; and the red-haired king, Menelaos; Olympos; Ilion; and Sparta.  And we discussed passages that give detail on customs at the time: that unexpected guests are welcomed and fed first before exchanging names and stories, that "ships" stay on the beach until the sailors drag them to the water, and that an unburied body brings dishonor and sorrow to a family.  Seeing just these names and hints of stories brings me back gladly to Homer's heroic world where the fate of the kosmos can turn on a simple gift or a stray arrow.  After reading, my world is not smaller by comparison with, but larger by infusion of its magnificent images.

I had forgotten that the epic starts in Ithaka.  For a full sixth of the poem's twenty-four books, Odysseus' son, Telemakhos, knows no more about the whereabouts of his father than we do.  Suitors have flocked like vultures around the rich, beautiful, and presumably widowed Penelope for years.  Just when Telemakhos can no longer bear it, Athena appears to him in the form of an old family friend and tells him to go seek news of his father.  On his travels, he hears the tales of all the other surviving heroes of the Trojan War, and thus in this sequel to The Iliad, Homer answers questions his listeners have been asking for many years.

Along with these catch-up flashbacks of Aias (Ajax), Menelaos, and others, Telemakhos and we also hear some philosophy about the meaning of it all.  Menelaos has not had the happiest of lives.  Helen, his wife and the most beautiful woman in the world, has been taken to Troy by Paris -- at the command of Aphrodite, but not entirely against her own will -- and the long expedition to win her back has involved countless deaths and heartaches.  On his way back from the nine-year war, Menelaos tells us, he was stranded in the doldrums around Egypt because of the wrath of Zeus.  And why was Zeus angered?  Because Menelaos did not offer sacrifices to him often enough.  At this point in the story, it seems the only obligations the Greek gods lay on humans are acts of piety and worship, not of moral living.

But are divine resentments the only sources of human sorrow?  Earlier in the poem we hear that Zeus, "who sees the wide world," simply gives out good luck and bad luck alternately, as on a whim.  Even earlier, on the other hand, Zeus himself complains that humans wrongly refer all their misfortunes to him.  "What of their own failings?" he cries.  The gods tried to warn Aigisthos, he says, but he stole Agamemnon's wife anyway, and so Orestes killed him in revenge.

It seems the Greeks weren't entirely comfortable with any one answer as to why bad things happen to us.  Sometimes it seems something like justice enacted by humans, sometimes a punishment from the gods, and sometimes just blind bad luck.  The best the poor Greeks could do was try to treat others honorably, make frequent sacrifices, and hope for the best, all under the gaze of immortal tyrants who threw about their great but limited power just because they could.  Ironically, the limits of the gods' power give the humans both hope and despair.  Menelaos finds out both why he is stuck in those Doldrums and how to get home by tricking and overpowering the Ancient of the Sea.  Three men can overpower THE ANCIENT OF THE SEA?!  The mind races with possibilities.  But finding the Achilles' heels of the gods will work only so long for a resourceful Greek: "The gods may love a man," Athena tells Telemakhos, "but they can't help him when cold death comes to lay him on his bier."

Within just a few centuries of Homer, the Greeks practically invented philosophy and took it in some instances to heights that have not been topped.  I've heard that this unparalleled development happened there precisely because the Greeks found their religion so unsatisfactory in explaining the world and the vicissitudes of life.  Their healthy combination of skepticism and inquisitiveness gave us Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, not to mention the disillusioned plays of Euripides and the irreverent satires of Aristophanes -- all among the greatest literary contributions of any civilization in history.  But how much better to find a God whose judgments aren't whimsical and who has power even over death!