2.28.2009

Meditation & Reflection

I'm gonna leave this blog alone for a while. My last ten posts have been spectacular (don't stop scrolling when you reach the bottom of the page!), and I'm feeling grudgingly underappreciated. So suck on these ten for a while.

Questions for meditation while you're perusing these gems:
  • Who is an authoritative teacher, and why?
  • Why do we prefer to read teachers that we anticipate agreeing with to teachers we anticipate disagreeing with?
  • Why do we filter our reading through the agree/disagree machine?
  • If the circumference of your trust is no bigger than the circumference of your knowledge, how can you learn anything?
  • What is Trust? Confidence? Faith? Pistis? -- what are these things to the intellectual?
  • Have you read the ancient Isha Upanishad, all 18 tiny stanzas of it? More than one translation? Have you read the Diamond Sutra of Buddha? The Sermon on the Mount?
  • Can a person claim to know what Yoga is without doing Yoga?
  • Can a person speak authoritatively about Justice without doing Justice?
  • Are the seeds inside of a pomegranate alien life forms that have travelled here from a great distance to teach us something?
  • Who are you?

2.27.2009

Allegorical Parable

If anyone you know ever gives up all attachments (ideas, concepts, names, aversions, fears, preferences, etc.), you will find it sitting in a chair or standing still. It will have a look in its eyes of great awareness, but nothing else will be discernable in its eyes. In that moment, be reflective: consider carefully what you ask of it. It has become divine love. If you ask it to stop looking so spacey, it undoubtedly will. If you ask it to speak, it will -- and if you don't like what it says, it will stop saying what it was saying. It will seek to please you, and over time will accumulate an understanding of how you would like it to behave; over time, it will become your creation.

If you have known it before, be cautious about asking it to return to being like it was before -- because although it has no preferences, and would without hesitation become something totally unlike what it was until the moment of detachment, it will also return--if you command it--without hesitation to the way it was before.

I'm pretty sure about all of this.

2.26.2009

How to Learn the Higher Education

At the center of Empedocles' teaching, in the middle of his poem, "On Nature," there is a very important paragraph. Here are eight different translations; I'm most interested in the lines that I've highlighted in red:

1. For if thou shalt fix them in all thy close-knit mind and watch over them graciously with pure attention, all these things shall surely be thine for ever, and many others shalt thou possess from them. For these themselves shall cause each to grow into its own character, whatever is the nature1 of each. But if thou shalt reach out for things of another sort, as is the manner of men, there exist countless evils to blunt your studious thoughts; soon these latter shall cease to live as time goes on, desiring as they do to arrive at the longed-for generation of themselves. For know that all things have understanding and their share of intelligence. (Source)

2. For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man's true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Source)

3. For if reliant on a spirit firm,
With inclination and endeavor pure,
Thou wilt behold them, all these things shall be
Forever thine, for service, and besides
Thereof full many another shalt thou gain;
For of themselves into that core they grow
Of each man's nature, where his essence lies.
But if for others thou wilt look and reach—
Such empty treasures, myriad and vile,
As men be after, which forevermore
Blunt soul and keen desire—O then shall these
Most swiftly leave thee as the seasons roll;
For all their yearning is a quick return
Unto their own primeval stock. For know:
All things have fixed intent and share of thought.
(Source)

4. For if, thrusting them deep down in your crowded thinking organs,
You gaze on them in kindly fashion, with pure meditation,
Absolutely all these things will be with you throughout your life,
And from these you will acquire many others
; for these things themselves
Will expand to form each character, according to the growth [nature] of each.
But if you reach out for different things, such as
The ten thousand wretched things which are among men and blunt their meditations,
Truly they will abandon you quickly, as time circles round,
Desiring to arrive at their own dear kind [literally, “birth” or “generation”]
For know that all have thought and a share of understanding.
(Source)

5. Thou wilt behold them, all these things shall be
Forever thine, for service, and besides
Thereof full many another shalt thou gain;
For of themselves into that core they grow
Of each man s nature, where his essence lies.
But if for others thou wilt look and reach
Such empty treasures, myriad and vile,
As men be after, which forevermore
Blunt soul and keen desire O then shall these
Most swiftly leave thee as the seasons roll;
For all their yearning is a quick return
Unto their own primeval stock. For know:
All things have fixed intent and share of thought.
(Source)

6. If you push them firmly under your crowded thoughts, and contemplate them favourably with unsullied and constant attention, assuredly all these will be with you through life, and you will gain much else from them, for of themselves they will cause each thing to grow into the character, according to the nature of each. But if you yourself shall reach out for the countless trivialities which come among men and dull their meditations, straightaway these will leave you as the time comes round, longing to reach their own familiar kind; for know that all things have consciousness and a share of intelligence. (Source)

7. If you press them (these truths?) deep into your firm mind, and contemplate them with good will and a studious care that is pure, these things will all assuredly remain with you throughout your life; and you will obtain many other things from them; for these things of themselves cause each (element) to increase in the character, according to the way of each man's nature. But if you intend to grasp after different things such as dwell among men in countless numbers and blunt their thoughts, miserable (trifles), certainly these things will quickly desert you in the course of time, longing to return to their own original kind. For all things, be assured, have intelligence and a portion of Thought. (Source)

8. If you press them down underneath your dense-packed diaphragm and oversee them with good will and with pure attention to the work, they will all without the slightest exception stay with you for as long as you live. And, from them, you will come to possess many other things. For they grow, each according to its own inner disposition, in whatever way their nature dictates. But if you reach out instead after other kinds of things--after the ten thousand worthless things that exist among humans, blunting their cares--then you can be sure they will only too gladly leave you with the circling of time, longing to return to their own dear kind. For you need to know that everything has intelligence and a share of awareness. (Source: Peter Kingsley's Reality, pg. 520-521)

In the poem, Empedocles is speaking to a young person who is applying to be his student. Empedocles is telling the student how he must receive the teachings -- the gist of it seems to be that the student must learn the teachings at a level deeper than mind (Kingsley insists that the word diaphragm is exactly corresponding to the original)... and then "tend to" the words as if they are seeds in soil.

Empedocles' demands may seem unreasonable, but I know of no better way to receive spiritual teaching than the way he seems to be describing--not critically, but like a farmer, patient for his crop to grow.

2.24.2009

Inner Tr-th Resurgence Detected

I'm swearing off politics again. Maybe you should too. Reading Thoreau reminded me how humiliating it is to carry water for one politician or another -- it would be bad enough if I were getting paid to do it; to do it for free insults the soul. Here's how Thoreau convinced me:
Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office [or television, or website]. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

An Observation that May or May Not be True, May or May Not apply to You

He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher. --Walt Whitman
I observe that the vast majority of the young men of my generation ('74-'82ish) have yet to overcome their fathers. Accepting and sharing their fathers' views, they do their best to justify all that their fathers have taught them. They have not yet learned how to read about the legendary patricides of history and fiction, have no authentic understanding of Oedipus, or the Karamazovs, and dismiss Freud as if it is Freud who is fixated. They are not Russian enough. They have understood love shallowly, or not at all, as a kind of petty loyalty. They are a generation of Nietzsches, grown up to be pastors like their fathers and grandfathers before them. They may be worse: obedient Adams, yet to taste the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.
Tyler: After I graduated, I called him long distance and asked, "Now what?" He said, "Get a job." When I turned twenty-five, I called him and asked, "Now what?" He said, "I don't know. Get married."

Jack: Same here.

Tyler: A generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is the answer we really need.
Would you ask for my credentials? I do not vote the same way as my father. He was a basketball coach; I sit still and do yoga or study ethics. He believed that "Persistence and determination alone, are all that matter;" I believe patience and silence are primary virtues. He lives for golf and never gets upset when he plays; I play only when he visits, and break a club over my knee once or twice a year. He eats meat and potatoes; I eat tofu and broccoli. He combs his hair--I don't! He is a trinitarian--I may be a Unitarian, or a Buddhist! He wears ties--I hate ties!!!

And yet I think I may know my father in ways that my unrebellious peers cannot: see, my grandpa (my father's father) smoked cigarettes; my father did not. My grandpa loved boxing; my dad did not. My grandpa was casual; my dad is not. My grandpa devalued religion; my father is quite religious. My grandpa was manic-depressive; my father is steady-Eddie. My grandpa managed a bus station; my father is a professor of kinesiology.

In short: my father and I, even as our worldly experiences and preferences diverge, are united by the psychological structures, by the experience, of rebelling against the father. It is in this way that I have come to understand the meaning of the Gnostic Gospel of Philip: "What the father possesses belongs to the son, and the son himself, so long as he is small, is not entrusted with what is his. But when he becomes a man, his father gives him all that he possesses." It seems to me that the son who does not make his father's ideas look ridiculous has not fulfilled one of his most fundamental duties on earth.

Become men, lads!--receive your inheritance bravely!

More News in the "Duh" Section

To follow up on my post from below: the NY Times printed an important article today that ought to be read very carefully by people who don't have a father who wrote a dissertation titled "The Importance of Play," like I do. It's about how recess is important. One set of "researchers" (who are these people!?) "discovered":
A small study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year found that walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration. Notably, children who took walks in natural settings did better than those who walked in urban areas, according to the report, published online in August in The Journal of Attention Disorders. The researchers found that a dose of nature worked as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration, or even better.

Duh. Next thing you know they'll discover that walking in nature cures depression and anxiety too. Oh, wait.

Facebook vs. America

In a predictable article about how Facebook can turn children's brains to mush, we read:

"We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist," [some expert] told [some newspaper] yesterday.

"My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment."
And there we have it. I won't even bore you with meandering speculation: living in the moment is so unacceptable to Rome America, and the notion of individual existence is so necessary to the project, that we are in a closed-loop, constant struggle against our natural state. Marijuana, LSD, and now Facebook--all dragging you into the eternal present--all the potential ruination of the Empire. And you wonder when we left Eden.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Babies need reassurance that they exist?--or what?!

And maybe better still, in his book To Be Human, Jiddu Krishnamurti said,
Concentration implies exclusion, narrowness, focusing on one thing, and keeping everything else in darkness. But when one understands what it is to be attentive, with the body, the nerves, the eyes, the ears, the brain, the whole, total being... to be attentive to color, to thought, to one's speech--then, in that attention, there is a concentration which is not exclusion. I can attend, I can look, I can work on something without exclusion.
If you remain unconvinced that "separation" and division (as opposed to Unity & Oneness) is an ideological position--if you believe that intelligence is equivalent to analytical consciousness: then keep your children away from Facebook!

2.23.2009

Answering Holder, Part 1

One of the representative texts that appears in the current Norton Anthology for Ben Franklin is called, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America." I love the essay, and I teach it every semester. It begins:
Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.
Invited by Eric Holder, I thought I'd do my part in overcoming our collective cowardice when it comes to "Race" by updating and renewing the context of Franklin's piece -- instead of Native Americans, I'm talking about African Americans. The Diane Rehm show today was about our (lack of?) national dialogue on "Race," and everybody -- John Payton included -- agreed that improving public education in inner cities was a good place to start. So let's start there.

Listen to Franklin:
Our laborious manner of life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless. An instance of this occurred at the Treaty of Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, anno 1744, between the government of Virginia and the Six Nations. After the principal business was settled, the commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians by a speech, that there was at Williamsburg a college, with a fund for educating Indian youth; and that, if the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their young lads to that college, the government would take care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the learning of the white people. It is one of the Indian rules of politeness not to answer a public proposition the same day that it is made; they think it would be treating it as a light matter, and that they show it respect by taking time to consider it, as of a matter important. They therefore deferred their answer till the day following; when their speaker began, by expressing their deep sense of the kindness of the Virginia government, in making them that offer; "for we know," says he, "that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges, and that the maintenance of our young men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counselors; they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them. "
So, here's my polling question, which will enable me to write part 2 of this post: are African Americans in 2009 like the Native Americans depicted in Franklin's essay? That is, do African Americans have fundamentally different values than "America" as a whole? Please don't try to deconstruct this question: public education is a monolith, and does reflect an overarching, single, set of values (if you have any doubts, lurk around on NCATE's webpage for a while)--one must either submit to the values of public education, or, as the Native Americans do in Franklin's piece, renounce them explicitly.

2.22.2009

A Celebration of Frivolity

My post yesterday showed that Philosophy used to be a more personal thing than it tends to be these days. Zeno died for it; Empedocles probably did too. Socrates certainly did. Today, it's hard to imagine even my most noble friends opting for death rather than renouncing Derrida. Something seems to have been lost through the centuries. These days, philosophy, and its bastard step-child, "Theory," seem like nothing more than Kenneth Burke's famous parlor metaphor make them out to be: a way to pass the time.

Some of the material I've been reading lately seems to take itself more seriously, and I like the idea that convictions about ideas may prove consequential in some "ultimate" way. In the interest of putting my money where my mouth has been, I went with my wife to a Unitarian Universalist church this morning. With all of my recent interest in theologies of unity, "the One," etc., it seemed a kind of next logical step.

By chance (!?), my first visit to the UU church of Charlotte fell on Carnival Sunday -- the last Sunday before Lent. The "program" for the service included a quote from Henry David Thoreau on the cover, so they sort of had me at hello.

The first five items on the agenda were: 1) Our Un-Principles, 2) Prey-Lewd ("Anything Goes," by Cole Porter), 3) An Unprofessional Processional, 4) Opening Worms (see "can of"), and 5) Opium Hymn.

No worries, we sang a "Her" later (an equal opportunity designation, the program said).

Then we listened to some "Inflammatory Words" before singing the Chorus:
We sing this tune most every time.
It transports us to the sublime.
It always has a certain rhyme.
Except today, when it does not.
Then we sang "Singin' in the Rain," had a "Time of Deflection," told some George W. Bush jokes, jokes about Unitarian Universalism ("You might be a UU if you call your pastor and say, ine tones full of worry and anxiousness, "I think I'm... starting to believe in God!")... and then came my favorite moment. We all stood to read in union, in our dry, monotonous collective voice, we read from the program:

Blah, blah, blah.
Every week, we do these inane readings.
None of us ever pays attention to the words.
We just drone on and on, pretending to care.
We'd never notice if it were all pure nonsense.
We're just happy when it is over
And we can sit back down again.

[Honestly, I couldn't make it through this part: I started laughing and didn't stop until I was crying.]

Then the "Welcome," then the "Concerns of the Congregation" (which bordered on serious), then the "Meditation and Exasperation," a word about how a 5% tithe is sufficient, and then the closing hymn. Then the choir (dressed as various Carnival goers) and the preacher & lay-leader (cross dressing) threw beads to the congregation.

I guess it's not like that every week, but they've certainly earned a second chance in my book. I'm not saying I'd die for it, yet; but I'm glad I let some new ideas guide me into a new experience, rather than just leading to another conference paper proposal.

2.20.2009

For Comparison & Consideration

1. From Parmenides' fragmentary poem (5th Century B.C.)

How could what is (being; to eon) perish? How could it come to be (be born)? For if it came to be, it is (was) not, nor if it is ever about to come to be. In this way coming to be has been extinguished and destruction is not heard of. Neither is it divisible, since it is all alike (like);(OR:..., since all is alike (like);) Nor is it in any way more in any one place, which would keep it from holding itself together; Nor is it in any way less; but all is full of what is (being; eontos). Therefore all is continuous; for what is (being; eon) comes near to what is (being; eonti).(OR:Therefore it is all continuous; for...)
2. From Plato's dialogue, Parmenides (~370 B.C.):

If the one were greater or less than the others, or the others greater or less than the one, they would not be greater or less than each other in virtue of their being the one and the others; but, if in addition to their being what they are they had equality, they would be equal to one another, or if the one had smallness and the others greatness, or the one had greatness and the others smallness-whichever kind had greatness would be greater, and whichever had smallness would be smaller?
3. From Plotinus' Enneads, number 1 (~250 B.C.):

And how do we possess the Divinity? In that the Divinity is contained in the Intellectual-Principle and Authentic-Existence; and We come third in order after these two, for the We is constituted by a union of the supreme, the undivided Soul-we read- and that Soul which is divided among [living] bodies. For, note, we inevitably think of the Soul, though one undivided in the All, as being present to bodies in division: in so far as any bodies are Animates, the Soul has given itself to each of the separate material masses; or rather it appears to be present in the bodies by the fact that it shines into them: it makes them living beings not by merging into body but by giving forth, without any change in itself, images or likenesses of itself like one face caught by many mirrors.
4. From St. Basil's On the Holy Spirit (~360 A.D.)

For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king's image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case or the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead. One, moreover, is the Holy Spirit, and we speak of Him singly, conjoined as He is to the one Father through the one Son, and through Himself completing the adorable and blessed Trinity. Of Him the intimate relationship to the Father and the Son is sufficiently declared by the fact of His not being ranked in the plurality of the creation, but being spoken of singly; for he is not one of many, but One. For as there is one Father and one Son, so is there one Holy Ghost.
If you've made it this far, you'll expect some commentary. My comment is simply this: a close reading of these four representative texts--texts that span almost a thousand years--reveals very clearly that distinctions that we currently take for granted (especially the distinction between Philosophy, which we imagine to be objective, "scientific," rational, etc., and Religion, which we conceive to be subjective, emotive, irrational, etc.) were no distinction at all for those who lived during the ancient era.

I think even some of the best educated intellectuals, clinging to the order enforced by linguistic categories, make the mistake of projecting their own divisions where no divisions (or different divisions) may have existed. So here are four intellectuals: 1) Parmenides, whose only surviving written work is a fragmentary poem, and who is sometimes understood to be the father of Reason; 2) Plato, whose name is perhaps more firmly associated with "Philosophy" than any other individual's; 3) The great "Neoplatonist" (!?), Plotinus, who is said to have been influenced by Christianity; 4) St. Basil of Caesarea, a saint in the Catholic church, an early Christian.

So how shall we divide our subject matter? -- Philosophy students shall take Parmenides and Plato; Theology students take Plotinus and Basil? Or perhaps Plotinus may be studied in Philosophy classes?

What about Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose famous philosophical tract, The Monadology, begins:
The Monad, of which we shall here speak, is nothing but a simple substance, which enters into compounds. By 'simple' is meant 'without parts.'
Who will study them all? Who will release themselves from pre-established categories to make a study of what is consistent in these thinkers? Are you able to see, to really understand, that the words Truth (alatheia), God, One, Intellectual-Principle, the Monad, may be referring to only one thing? Are you able to see that the dialectic may be a manifestation of dualism?--that Hegelian synthesis may be the third leg in a latter-day trinity? That some of us have never not been talking about this (one!) thing? That it doesn't matter what you call it? That language subserves it (Wrangler)?

Can you understand that the author of Federalist #10, "Publius" ( James Madison) was thinking of all of this when he wrote, to begin that letter:
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
Should it be surprising through all of this that it was not only ("spiritual") Jesus who claimed to be divine, but also ("philosophical") Parmenides' near-contemporary, Empedocles? And should it be surprising if ("political") Emperor Halie Selassie I "specifically declined to refute" that he was divine in 1966?--that Bob Marley's "One Love" is one of our favorite songs?

Outrage Outrage

In a story that anyone who's reading this blog should've read, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the title character goes on a walk in the woods with the Devil. Reluctant to leave his wife, Faith, home alone for the evening, Goodman Brown heads into the woods nevertheless: "My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise."

Like all of Hawthorne's fiction, this masterpiece seems simple the first ten times you read it. But there is truly great psychological insight waiting in the middle of the story, in the middle of the woods. As Brown approaches the hellish circle of fiends gathered in the middle of the woods, and after the Devil points out that those gathered around the fire have all already joined in communion with him -- and after he recognizes the people gathered there as "all [those] whom [he had] reverenced from youth" -- after all that, the Devil works his magic. Here's how Hawthorne tells it:
And there [Goodman Brown and Faith] stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? Herein did the shape of evil [i.e., the Devil] dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. (italics added)
Lately, I've been observing a lot of moral outrage and very little admission of personal guilt. I see it in my sophomores, who write with unselfconscious ease about how "appalled" they are by the way the Puritans treated the Native Americans. Or about how "disgusted" they are by the way the slavemasters treated the slaves. Or about how the holocaust was "astonishingly evil."

Obviously, it is appalling & disgusting whenever injustice arises -- but there is a very real danger, I think, in looking-without-involvement, in confidently wagging your finger at others where inward reflection ought to be evident. When a person looks, at history and the world, "more conscious of the secret guilt of others... than they [are] of their own," I believe they begin to pave a new way for evil. I've written (complained) about this problem before (Monica, you promised a follow-up in the comments there; I'll accept it here!) as it relates to academia.

Back to the much anticipated Parmenides sequence tomorrow.

2.18.2009

Backlash Backlash (update)

Wait: I had posted something about the cartoon of a monkey getting shot by cops. But some people on the radio today convinced me that it's not worth making a point of... so, nevermind. It's not worth making a point if it hurts anybody's feelings.

The Denial that Precedes Understanding

You: "I disagree with that, and repudiate it."

Me: "But, I'm not convinced you understand that."

You: "Stop trying to make me accept it."

Me: "I'm honestly not; I just wish you'd understand it."

You: "I don't trust you. You are trying to make me accept it."

[Inspired by readings of Mxrk's recent post and Wrangler's recent post.]

2.17.2009

Hometown Blues

There's a pretty moving video floating around the YouTubes featuring my hometown, Saginaw, MI. Like any town, it would be difficult to summarize. There are parts that look better, and parts that look bleaker, than what's shown in this clip. The music seems very fitting. Don't think for a minute I'm moving on from Parmenides: this video shows where the idea of Oneness might've first taken hold of me:

2.13.2009

Parmenides, Cont'd.

Okay I'll continue alone, then. The first thing to understand when talking about the Parmenides dialogue is something about Socrates' metaphysics (because Parmenides was the opposition figure looming largest). In Socrates' view, any actually existing thing must partake in an unmaterialized "form" (or "idea"). That means that if there are three people who look different, we know they are "people" only because they "partake" in the form of a "higher" ideal person.

So the three actually existing people on the left (above) are people insofar as they are like the not-actually existing (but also not "imaginary") ideal person on the right. It might help to think of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as the ideal forms of man and woman, and the rest of us as falling short of that (tho' of course they also fall short of the REAL ideal).

Now read the following excerpt from the Parmenides dialogue:

While Socrates was speaking, Pythodorus thought that Parmenides and Zeno were not altogether pleased at the successive steps of the argument; but still they gave the closest attention and often looked at one another, and smiled as if in admiration of him. When he had finished, Parmenides expressed their feelings in the following words:-

Socrates, he said, I admire the bent of your mind towards philosophy; tell me now, was this your own distinction between ideas in themselves and the things which
partake of them? and do you think that there is an idea of likeness apart from the likeness which we possess, and of the one and many, and of the other things which Zeno mentioned?

I think that there are such ideas, said Socrates.

Parmenides proceeded: And would you also make absolute ideas of the just and the beautiful and the good, and of all that class?

Yes, he said, I should.

And would you make an idea of man apart from us and from all other human creatures, or of fire and water?

I am often undecided, Parmenides, as to whether I ought to include them or not.

And would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about things of which the mention may provoke a smile?-I mean such things as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry; would you suppose that each of these has an idea distinct from the actual objects with which we come into contact, or not?

Certainly not, said Socrates; visible things like these are such as they appear to us, and I am afraid that there would be an absurdity in assuming any idea of them, although I sometimes get disturbed, and begin to think that there is nothing without an idea; but then again, when I have taken up this position, I run away, because I am afraid that I may fall into a bottomless pit of nonsense, and perish; and so I return to the ideas of which I was just now speaking, and occupy myself with them.

Yes, Socrates, said Parmenides; that is because you are still young.

So... Parmenides wants to show Socrates that there are no forms (because that would indicate a division of the One: the forms being "one thing" and the actual existants "another thing"). He makes a sweet move known as the "Third Man Argument." That's where Parmenides says that if the actual existing people on the left partake in the ideal form on the right by being "like" the ideal form, then there is a likeness between them. Consequently, there must be an imaginary form standing between Brad Pitt and myself... a third man (with good abs, like Brad's, say, but still a round face like mine).

Then, of course, the whole Socratic notion of ideal forms is effectively exploded: because if that third man exists, then there is another standing between myself and the third man, and so on to infinity... in this way (if I'm right?), Parmenides shows that "there is only this, and nothing more." That is: nothing exists that does not exist in physical form. Never has, never will.

But that's only part of the argument... next I'll try to understand how Parmenides shifts from saying that "this world" is the only world to saying that "this world" is undivided, is One.

Please stop me if I'm making assumptions I shouldn't or reading wrong or whatever. I'm out in deep water here.

2.11.2009

Parmenides Discussion Post

[Updated 2/13/09]

Mostly for B-town Thompson and Kat(i)e, old friends (or rediscovered parts of the one), this post is just for talking about Parmenides. Use the comments section. Anybody else who feels like playing is welcome to play.

Here's a link to the text of the dialogue I'll be working with.

(P.S. -- I can't believe you guys are reading this. I mean, what the hell? Was there something in the township water? Nobody reads Plato, and the Parmenides least of all. Anyway, thanks for being so intrepid. I have genuine curiosity about this thing, and I can't make it fit in my head right now. Questions, comments, and questions will be carefully considered.)
Wait: I feel like I should start by saying something... just to get the ball rolling. I'll start by saying that my unsophisticated understanding of this debate between the one & the many is based around the central question of whether, in short, we are really Casey, Bry, and Kate (that is, three separate things--Socrates calls them "ideas") or only One thing, One thought, playing tricks on itself by calling itself "Casey," "Bry," and "Kate."

And by extension (because Parmenides doesn't stop halfway): am I and this computer screen, this oxygen I'm apparently inhaling, my thoughts about what to type next, my memory of my popsicle parties... is all that "one?" Is it true that movement cannot be?

(Also, note: Zeno was Parmenides' best known student. It might help to read about his famous paradoxes, if you haven't recently. Evidently Zeno was tortured to death for his ideas, and he never made a sound on his way out). Being willing to die for the conviction that motion (all motion) is impossible is... weird.

***

Update: I'm reading an article by Michael C. Rea right now ( in Philosophical Perspectives, 2001) called "How to be an Eleatic Monist." Parmenides was from Elea, and he's the monist the article has in mind. The first two paragraphs might be of interest to us:
There is a tradition according to which Parmenides of Elea endorsed the following set of counterintuitive doctinres:

(A) There exists exactly one material thing.
(B) What exists does not change.
(C) Nothing is generated or destroyed.
(D) What exists is undivided.

...Eleatic monism flies in the face of common sense. Scholars of pre Socratic thought rarely have anything to say in its defense beyond what the Eleatic philosophers said themselves, and virtually no one treats it as a serious option in metaphysics today. Jonathan Barnes declares that (A) by itself (never mind the remaining doctrines) is "at best absurd and at worst unintelligible." It is not hard to see why. How could anyone possibly look at a sandy beach, witness the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, or gaze into the far reaches of space and believe that there exists exactly one thing that is neither generated nor destroyed, unchanging, and undivided?
Leave Heraclitus out of this, Santos.

2.10.2009

Parmenides for Stoners (My Best Post Ever)

Here's what Parmenides says to a very young Socrates in Plato's dialogue, Parmenides:

...the present is always present with the one during all its being; for whenever it is it is always now.
Of course, that will sound like nonsense unless you read the whole dialogue. But another way to understand it is to watch the video below. BUT WAIT... listen: you only get one chance to do this experiment, so don't screw it up.

DIRECTIONS:

Click "play" and watch the video until precisely 0:27 seconds into the video--pause the video at 27 seconds. If you wait until 0:28 seconds, you'll have seen too much. Do that now, and continue reading as you've got the video paused at 27 seconds:



If you've managed this procedure correctly, you will have just heard the kid say, with obvious and growing excitement, "Okay now... okay now I..." and you will notice that his eyes are widening as if an idea has occurred to him. He is on the brink of having a breakthrough. [Here you might play a little game with yourself: what great idea do you think is occuring to the child? How will he finish his sentence: "Okay now I __________ (fill in the blank).]

When you're ready, click play. That--precisely that--is what living in the present, in the now, in the eternal kingdom of heaven looks like. It is this moment that Parmenides spent his whole life trying to describe, and it is that kind of pure presence that Plato's entire dialogue is concerned with.

Interesting, right?

2.08.2009

Pause & Reset

Yesterday I found one of those books that's going to leave me very, very speechless for a while. As if in direct response to my frivolous plea for worldly understanding the other day, the gods delivered up this gem, apparently written by Peter Kingsley especially for Casey Pratt on his 31st birthday: Reality. I've read a hundred pages so far, and I'm going to try to slowly savor the remaining 500.
If you aren't curious about Parmenides, may the unspeakable-Goddess-help-you. Here's a link to his wikipedia page. Here's a link to Plato's dialogue, Parmenides. And here's a link (read it if you dare--there's no going back) to his famous poem, a poem that has long been judged unfavorably by useless academics who would've done better to avoid uttering the name of its author.

When I do return, it will likely involve a couple of posts concerning the relationship between poetry & logic, mystery & Tr-th.

Thanks, Peter Kingsley, for the reminder.

2.06.2009

Manic Plea for Understanding

Okay look: I don't want to be the last person in the world who believes that tax cuts and laissez-faire policies are the engine of a healthy economic system (I hope it's not too late?!). So I'm willing to come over to the light side if somebody will just follow the logic of Democratic/progressive economics through to its conclusion. I admit that I have read more books on the laissez-faire side than I have on the... other side. It's likely I've been lopsidedly educated on the matter of economics. I want to find a better explanation.

The question is: if government intervention and federal spending stimulate the economy to a greater degree than cutting taxes and laissez-faire-ing, then the government that spends the most and regulates the most should have the strongest economy... right? If federal spending on stuff like "infrastructure" adds more jobs than the market can left to its own devices, then why should there be any ceasing?

I cannot understand (This is not an ideological argument. I'm ready and willing to convert. I'm waiting to be convinced--) why America's Democrats are not socialists. If more government spending is a good thing, crank that shit up! Why bother to include tax cuts in a stimulus package? Follow the logic through to its conclusion.

[Here I am even willing to concede that I was brainwashed from 4th grade through college to believe that communism fails every time. I am willing to concede that Fourier was a bad and desperate example, that Marx was misinterpreted, that Russia was the wrong place for it, whatever. I just want to hear a theoretical model: I want to hear a reason: I want to understand why you think the stimulus plan will work: and I want to understand why no one has understood it until now: and I want to understand why you think the Bush administration was an exemplar of laissez-faire policies: I want to see a list of which of Bush's programs were essentially laissez-faire so that I can feel confident that opposing those (failed) policies with socialist government control is a good response.]

I also can't understand why the American public (via its public representatives) seems to have lost faith in the idea of supply & demand. And there was a time not long ago when it was understood very distinctly that if a government wished to spend more on public works it would have to pay more in taxes--I cannot understand when that idea was proven unsound.

I am genuinely interested in understanding what makes an economy work, and I cannot understand what the trick is. What do we believe, people? What makes an economy grow? How are jobs created? What determines the price of a house? What determines who should get a loan? I want to know, and I'm nothin'-but-pissed about this stimulus package until somebody tells me how these $900 gazillion dollars are going to make Americans wealthier in material terms.

Today on the radio I heard an economist supporting the stimulus package say something like this: "For every $1.00 in taxes we spend on public works we get roughly $1.50 of production in the economy. It doesn't work like that with tax cuts. With tax cuts, people just save their money: they don't spend it. We don't get as much as $1.50 back for every dollar cut in taxes."

Oh!? Good to know! Is that so? If we get $1.50 in production for every $1.00 of taxpayer money spent on public works, OPEN THE FUCKIN' SPIGGOT! Why stop at a trillion? Spend ten times that much! Spend a real gazillion. You'll certainly get a gazillion and a half back! How have we not figured this out yet? It's such a good deal.

Is this how it works?

Thanks, Internet!

I don't know when this started, but somebody should've told me. MIT's "MIT World" website rivals TED Talks in awesomeness... Here's a link to MIT World.

2.05.2009

My Alchemical Romance

I think I've understood something. Something essential about why conservatives and liberals can't agree on economics. It has to do with the question of where & how value is created.

Something clicked in my head last night as I was watching an episode of Terry Jones' 2004 series, Medieval Lives. In the episode about the alchemist, Jones made it clear that, for many of the alchemists, the effort to create gold by transmuting "base metals" was not driven by greed. The fact is, gold is essentially indestructible and does not degrade over time -- it is a physical manifestation of perfection, and that is what obsessed the medieval experimenters. I'll come back to this fact in a moment.

-----

A few years ago I slacked off at what I was really supposed to be doing to give myself a pretty rigorous amateur education in classical and modern economics. Much of what I learned convinced me that the reforms of 1913 that led to the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank (and the end of America's gold standard) were a bad move. Shifting to "fiat money" that was not backed up by an actual "good" was risky because it created a system of value that was held together by nothing but confidence.

But as I continued reading, and especially as I talked to other liberal arts graduate students (experts all), I became convinced that a gold standard was not a solution because it simply backed the risky confidence up one step: gold-standard doubters convinced me having confidence in gold was just as arbitrary as having confidence in dollars printed at the mint.

-----

But of course it's not, if Terry Jones is to be believed. There is a relatively-essential* reason for valuing gold. If you doubt all of this, check it out yourself (watch the first few minutes, especially from 3:15-4:45):


If the embedded video doesn't work, click here.

And here's what I finally understood about the division between liberals and conservatives: both groups don't understand why they believe what they believe (which makes it an especially rigid impasse), but this is what they believe:

Conservatives believe that value cannot be created out of nothing... they believe that value is something that arises in mutually agreeable transactions where both sides take a certain kind of "profit." For example, the person who has $5.00 and the person who has a fresh bottle of Acai Berry juice. At the moment of exchange, conservatives assume, both parties are satisfied because the person with the Acai Berry juice values $5.00 more than they value the bottle, and the person with $5.00 values Acai Berry juice more than he values $5.00. "Value" is created in the profits: probably 50 cents or so for the seller and a fully belly for the buyer.

Liberals believe that value can be created out of nothing, and this is why they have no attachment to the Gold Standard: if the Fed prints money, it's valuable... and that's that.

I would say neither group has a lockdown on "correctness." The truth is, confidence can be attached to arbitrary signs and "fiat" symbols. The truth also is, confidence naturally attaches to beauty, truth, and goodness, and gold seems to be a physical manifestation of all of Plato's ideal forms.

Does that make sense? Interesting, ey?

* Somebody should write a paper on this term. I may have just invented a word for an important concept.

2.04.2009

Good Ol' Days: Here to Stay?

I complained the other day. But President Obama just got even more awesome by making Daschle leave town. I almost think he nominated him just so he could embarrass him publically -- as if to make it completely, utterly clear to baby boomers that their number is up. Despite the fact that some news sources are calling this a "heavy blow" for the new administration, it earns Obama & Co. a get-out-of-doghouse free card with me. Feel free to remind me about that next time I get all nasty-critical.

2.03.2009

Zen Teaching

I have been frustrated lately by my students' collective resistance to the experience of literature. In search of a remedy to the problem, I turned to the Alan Watts Podcast (not really: I turned to the Alan Watts Podcast because I wanted to distract myself from my problems in the classroom).

In my earbuds, Watts was talking about the strategies used by the zen master. Apparently, the zen master tries to refuse whatever student shows up on his door: "I have nothing to teach you." And if the prospective student continues, the zen master tells him the monastery is too poor to take another student. If the student still persists, the zen master makes him wait outside for a week, letting the student in for shelter only at night, and expecting that the student will not fall asleep.

"Zen master, teach me how to do zen," begs the student. And the zen master presents the student with some silly koan or other -- maybe he puts tar on his left hand and feathers in his right hand, rubs them together, and tells him to pick the feathers out. Or he tells him not to think of a green elephant, etc. Or he tells them to think about thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking.

He persists in these reversals until the student recognizes (or rather, experiences) zen. I love this approach. I admire it. It comes naturally to me. It is how I want to practice.

But my students are essentially unwilling. As I mentioned the other day, 18 out of 19 of them would take the diploma and run if I could hand it to them -- they are diligently incurious. Faced with their passive resistance, I am forced to become the teacher I never wanted to be: active, demanding, authoritative.

And here is where I would have said to myself, one year ago, "No!--don't do that! Sit there for as long as it takes. If you have to waste two classes sitting in silence, it is worth it!" What I didn't realize last year--what I couldn't have known--is that our academic department, indeed our entire college, is beholden to the standards of an accrediting agency.

In case your reaction is, "Well, back them into it (or, 'zen them into it')," let me make one thing clear: students who take my introductory writing class must be able to (I'll spare you the ugly actual details) or else the department loses certification:
  • Tie their shoes
  • Hopscotch
  • Walk a balance beam
  • Stand on their head

Now, is it possible to be the zen-practicing professor if you find yourself students who want to learn all kinds of things, but who are adamantly not interested in learning about tying shoes, hopscotching, balance beaming, and head-standing? Don't mistake this for a hypothetical question: I'm actually asking.

I have considered starting class conversation this way:

  • What could I tell you (pl.) this story is about that would make you (pl.) disagree with me?
  • Did you hate this story? Why/why not?
  • What would you say about this story just to sound good if someone mentioned it to you at a very important business meeting five years from now, minutes before you sign the big contract?
  • Name something painful that you'd rather do than discuss Updike's short story, "A&P."

And I've thought about giving lectures where I launch into ridiculous misdirections and bad interpretations (Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" is about alien abduction, Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a secret cooking recipe, etc.).

I remember learning in college that Confucius would take only one student at a time and would never take any but the most eager student. I want to be like Confucius. Help.

2.02.2009

The Fall of '08, The Good Ol' Days

My wife took this picture with her cellphone the day before Barack Obama was elected President. I fiddled with it a little to make it look vintage. Look at these people's faces: they wanted change. They did not want tax-evading, money-laundering leftovers from the days of the Clinton administration who are named Tom Daschle.

But Daschle apologized today. So I am not troubled at all that he will be America's next Secretary of Health and Human Services. This is all unproblematic and totally acceptable. I'm sure Obama chose the most qualified white male Washington insider without a conscience person for the job.

Restoring our National Confidence


A lesser, whiter president would have said something like, "They should go easy on Jessica Simpson -- I think she looks great." But this video sums up everything I love about this new guy, President Obama. Now: can't we get a government program to remedy Jessica Simpson's weight problem? Isn't restoring this worth paying higher taxes for?:


Yes. Yes it is, America.

Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?

Today, as I wrapped up a freshman class dedicated to reading Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths," I realized that the situation of the English teacher is very much a Borgesian problem.  Most English teachers -- maybe even all -- were partially inspired to become English teachers because of their own experience as a student in English classes.  They had an image of what things were like in a classroom devoted to the study of English/Literature, and that appealed to them -- and they thought, "I could do this forever."

But there was one thing they could not forsee, and that was the absence of themself as a part of the culture of the class.  That is, in every class they ever experienced as a student, they were one of the students.

As my students sat there today turning into mush, refusing to ask a question or make a statement or share a perspective, I felt my absence acutely: I wished I could have called on myself:  "Casey, what did you think about the notion of parallel selves across time?"

Waiting to be saved by oneself... such a persistent pathology!