Only one sin is unspeakable

Boston suburbs, late 1970s.  Ron was heir from a well-known brand of instant coffee who opened his mansion to our peer counseling splinter group a few times a year for personal growth weekends.  We experimented with pagan rituals, nude dancing, drumming and chanting.  There was a lot of confessional openness and support for venting feelings of all kinds. One time I brought a paper bag full of dollar bills, fives, tens and a few twenties to publicly burn them in Ron’s ample living room hearth.  This brought up more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of feelings for most of us, plenty of grist for the mill. People laughed or screamed or just shook heads with their mouths open.  Ron was the one who didn’t see this as “feelings” at all.  It was just wrong.  He reached into the fire with his bare hands, tried to find the higher-denomination bills, pulled them out and rescued at least a few of them from the flames.

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Back when the word had very different connotations, the original “cynic” was Diogenes of Sinope, the philosopher who was mad enough to act on his professed beliefs.  Son of a banker, Diogenes slept homeless in a wooden bathtub, let his beard grow to unfashionable lengths, tramped mud into Plato’s soirées, and mocked every pretense to civilization and respectability.  There were things that people were not supposed to do in the Agora, including urination and (strangely enough) consumption of food.  But Diogenes professed that what we do in private we should not be ashamed to do in public.  How else he offended respectable society might be surmised from his response when chastised, “I wish it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”

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What would become of a Diogenes on the streets of San Francisco or New York today?  In the Golden Age of Athens, Diogenes was tolerated and even commemorated, so that we may read of his antics to this day.  He did, however, commit one unspeakable sin for which he was banished from Sinope, and it is recorded as “debasing the coin of the realm”.  What does this signify?  Some say that he and his father flooded the city with counterfeit money, others that he defaced the city’s good money with a hammer, or that he melted it down.

If you are to be kept right, you must possess either good friends or
red-hot enemies.  
The one will warn you, the other will expose you.

 

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What do we live for?

 

For what is glory but the blaze of fame,
The people’s praise, if always praise unmixed?
And what the people but a herd confused,
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, and, well weighed, scarce worth the praise?
They praise and they admire they know not what,
And know not whom, but as one leads the other;
And what delight to be by such extolled,
To live upon their tongues, and be their talk?
Of whom to be dispraised were no small praise—
His lot who dares be singularly good.
The intelligent among them and the wise
Are few, and glory scarce of few is raised.

According to Milton, when Satan tested Jesus after forty days fasting in the desert, he offered him first food, having previously disabused his lesser devils of their own idea that he could be tempted with beautiful women.  He proceeded up Maslow’s pyramid (300 years before Maslow), attempting to seduce him with wealth, and then with power, then with fame and esteem of people the world over.  Jesus, of course, demurred.

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More problematic (at least for me), Satan offered him the power to displace tyrants and to relieve suffering, to rule over the masses with wisdom and justice.  He proceeded to offer knowledge and culture and beauty and the power to create beauty.

Nah, Jesus didn’t spring for any of these.

(Having failed at the top of the pyramid, the Prince of Darkness, desperate, reverted to the bottom of the pyramid, threatening Jesus that he would be scourged and spat upon and tortured to death, losing his temper and then his balance, making for a dramatic exit.)

Admirer as I am of Milton’s artistry with words, I have to wonder, from what value system the story proceeds from here. Milton’s Jesus declares that he has as much knowledge as he needs, and that all he really needs to know is what is adequate to make him a faithful servant of his Father’s will.  Such answers are unsatisfying to our post-modern sensibilities, though I hasten to repeat that Milton’s language in the telling is wondrously rich.

…This brings me to the question of what it is that we do value in itself, and what myths we might still find compelling.  We pretend to believe that physical reality is all that exists, and that our universe is a meaningless outgrowth of arbitrary mathematical laws acting on random accumulations of matter.  But this world-view offers us no light whatever to guide our aspirations or our morality or our politics.  So we leap from there to valuing life and love—and fall back to a very natural tendency to value some life and some love more than other.  And we spend great energies fending off the dark spectre of futility that threatens to remind us that all our good works must someday end in dust.

What, then, are our values.  And, were we completely honest about their provenance, how would we confess to having arrived at these values?  I’ve tried your patience too often with my answers in this web space, so I’ll leave the questions for your comments and discussion.


I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;

— Shakespeare, Richard II

Plus ça change…

The President has paid dear for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace, and the best of his manly attributes. To preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appearance before the world, he is content to eat dust before the real masters who stand erect behind the throne.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

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Pres William Henry Harrison died after one month in office, April 1841

 

for whom poetry was invented

Rainer Maria Rilke distilled his feelings and his revelations into words with a painful, half-embarrassed sincerity, and ever-probing honesty. He wrote of his compulsion,

“Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write?”

And now the hour bows down, it touches me, throbs
metallic, lucid and bold:
my senses are trembling. I feel my own power–
on this pliable day I lay hold.

Until I perceived it, no thing was complete,
but waited, hushed, unfulfilled.
My vision is ripe, to each glance like a bride
comes softly the thing that was willed.

There is nothing too small, but my tenderness paints
it large on a background of gold,
and I prize it, not knowing whose soul at the sight,
released, may unfold…

— Rainer Maria Rilke was born this day in 1875

“I love all beginnings, despite their anxiousness, their uncertainty, which belong to every commencement. If I have earned a pleasure or a reward, or if I wish that something had not happened; if I doubt the worth of an experience and remain in my past—then I choose to begin at this very second.

“Begin what? I begin. I have already thus begun a thousand lives.”
— tr. Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows

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If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things
that are in God’s heart,
that have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

Apologia pro scientia sua

Were I, like Adam, choiced by evil snake
That fruit of knowledge I might free partake
Or, spurning insight, might forever be,
And dwell in vast, obscure eternity…

By two such options I’d be sorely torn—
’Twas not for blind submission I was born.
Infinity sans knowledge is no prize,
While light that fades to black before mine eyes
Is destiny no man would freely choose,
For what we have is all we have to lose.

Posed thus, ’tis plain: rebellion is my path—
I’ll risk the flaming ire of God’s own wrath,
His knowledge, freely giv’n is not so dear
As what by our own efforts we make clear.

With tools of science I’ll investigate
The logic of this world and mine own fate;
While passions I will equally devote
To quest for health, and death’s own antidote.

— Josh Mitteldorf

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Wings

Impatient of the tardy axe and oar,
Life clothes her tender flesh in toiling steel,
And like a broken mist the years reveal
The unascended heights that wait before.

Matter that was the king is king no more,
And we, released from that despotic heel,
Go up against the sun on slanting keel,
As men that crawled like ants like falcons soar.

How great those altitudes they do not know
Who see far upward their eternal snow,
And dream to join the eagles of their dome.
O valiant hearts, O you that take such wings
Above the humble heritage of things
Remember that the earth at last is home!

— George Sterling was a California transcendental poet, born this day in 1869.tumblr_static_8dj3sk32lw0s84g8okgss480g_640_v2

Mining Science for Deeper Insight

From the origins of cancer to the nature of personal identity, the life sciences do not merely provide us with ever-greater numbers of disconnected facts. They also offer us the best data for putting together a broader picture of what the world is really like, a picture that confounds many common assumptions about what things are and where they come from.…to choose to adopt a naturalistic metaphysics is, by definition, ultimately to ground one’s picture of the world in our best science.

…and to shift from thinking in terms of things to thinking in terms of processes.

Read more from John Dupré at Aeon