Here And There

I only remember a few things from my trip to the Beyond when last I was there. To begin with I noted that those who were There (and are no  longer Here) were simply doing the things they really wanted to do when they were Here. The Beyond is simply an eternity of doing that which we want to do. It’s a reward that, for many, turns out to be punishment.

So I vividly remember the flurry of activity among those who had been interested in so many things before they went There. Their curiosity and imagination were insatiable and in the Beyond they were always busy finishing projects they had long wanted to complete before they went There, searching hither and yon for answers to the mysteries that surrounded them, curious to know as much as possible and finally getting answers. Philosophers and theologians collected in groups listening to one another seeking the truth about those things that had long puzzled them Here. The scientists were busy conducting experiments that they knew would lead them to a deeper understanding of the puzzles that had confounded them Before. The artists and musicians were busy creating works of inestimable beauty and when finished sharing those works with others of like mind who were able to appreciate what they had done and applaud their efforts. Thespians were acting out the parts they craved while they were Here. All seemed very happy and fulfilled.

Those who were focused on petty things while Here were doomed to remain focused on petty things There. I recall vividly the throngs of people walking barefoot on scorching hot sand from which rising waves of heat could be seen; they hopped from one foot to another, bent over looking for gold coins and gold chains which they either placed around their necks or in the leather pouches at their sides which grew heavier and heavier as they went along, making their movement more and more difficult and the heat from the sand more and more unbearable — with no water for relief. Their attention was on the ground, the scalding hot sand beneath their feet suggesting the heat of the earth they left Before while denying that it was in fact growing hotter each day while the aquifers dried up. Their attention Then, as now, was on the growth of their wealth which they identified with happiness. Above all else, they were alone.

One figure especially stood out. I was astonished to see him because he’s still Here and hasn’t gone There yet. But apparently they have the ability to show us what is certain to be the case in the near future and this was simply one of the more impressive examples. While the others around him were thin and wore tattered clothing this one had very small hands, a permanent frown, was overweight, and wore a crown of gold to accompany the dozens of gold chains that were hot to the touch and dragged his head down until his body was almost doubled up. He was holding an electronic device in his hand and his attention wavered from looking at the ground for more gold and playing with the device in his hand. He couldn’t seem to leave it alone! But this is what he wanted. It is what they all wanted.  Now they were learning a lesson — a lesson which would go on forever.

In the distance, beyond the scalding hot sands I could barely hear the faint sounds of very loud music in a closed arena. There were also bright lights constantly flashing on and off that I could see through the windows — even at a distance. I heard from one of the people I was able to talk with that the arena was full of people who were being entertained though many were holding their heads and complained of excruciating headaches. They would remain there forever.

Those who loved other people while Here were surrounded by those they loved and admired who shared in their joys and even their struggles — because there had to be some struggles, even There, or those who were There would never fully appreciate the many moments of satisfaction that came with being with those they wanted above all else to be with and doing those things they most enjoyed doing. They seemed to be unaware of themselves while so many of the others I saw were oblivious to others and to most of what was around them.

The key here is that those I saw were simply doing what they wanted to do. If their wants were shallow Here, they were shallow There. And they would pursue those shallow goals forever. If their interests were varied while Here they would be so There.

(With apologies to Dante and his Divine Comedy.)

True Conservatism

In the spirit of reposting, a spirit that has moved me of late, I repost  here what I wrote seven years ago. A reminder that words have meanings.

It has always struck me as strange that those who call themselves “conservative” are so often violently opposed to environmentalism, especially in these times when the survival of the planet is in question. They love to throw stones at the “tree huggers,” even though the tree huggers are also conservatives, which is to say those who want to conserve what is important and beautiful. The stone-throwers are simply what my thesis adviser at Northwestern called “dollar conservatives.” These people just want to hang on to their money and watch it grow. Dante placed them in Hell with a bag of gold hanging around their necks forcing their heads down and their attention directed to the bag — waiting, presumably, for it to grow even larger.

This all goes back to the loose ways we use words, a theme I have visited before in my blogs. And one of the loosest words is certainly “conservative.” There are a great many types of conservatives among whom I number myself on occasion. Like George Eliot I enjoy it when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

I am indeed eager to conserve tradition and the great works of the human spirit; I am no devotee of progress for its own sake. Such people, I am given to understand, are called “intellectual conservatives,” as distinct from “dollar conservatives.” The latter want to lower taxes by cutting social programs, such as education, social security, environment, energy, and science, and even veterans’ benefits while at the same time increasing “defense” spending which already comprises 58% of this nation’s “Discretionary Spending” and is a misnomer if there ever was one (speaking of words and their meanings). I hesitate to suggest that it is possible that dollar conservatives are more interested in conserving the contents of their own pocketbooks than they are this nation and the world around them.

That is, those who seem preoccupied about lowering the taxes don’t seem to realize that lowering taxes might just destroy what is essential — not just social programs, which they would as soon see dry up, but the fiscal well-being of a solid middle class which many would regard as the backbone of a healthy society. In fact, lowering the taxes — without, say, reducing such things as defense spending, which is currently 15 times larger than the amount we spend on education — would put is in even deeper debt to nations like China and India to whom we now owe billions of dollars. The notion that we can save the country by reducing taxes is not only short-sighted, it is incredibly stupid. Like it or not, taxes are a necessary evil and we actually benefit by paying more, not less — as we know from the years after World War II when the dollar conservatives paid their fair share and the economy was booming.

Thus, dollar conservatives are not true conservatives at all. The true conservatives are the tree huggers and those who want to save life on this planet together with those who refuse to let go of the beautiful and magnificent works of the human mind that have defined Western civilization for hundreds of years. In a word, conservatives are preservationists who are focused on things they regard as more important than their pocketbook.

The Social Critic

In a most interesting critique of an essay by Roger Kimball in his blog “Word and Silence,” Tim Miller raises some interesting questions about the role of the critic in today’s society. Since I regard myself as a social critic of sorts — certainly not of the stature of Robert Kimball — I was intrigued. Miller confesses that he has been “behind enemy lines” in reading Kimball’s essay in The New Criterion, a conservative publication. (Heavens, what next!) But it is best to know what the devil is up to, as I am sure Miller would attest.

In any  event, while he hesitates to follow Kimball in embracing Donald Trump (as I do), Miller tends to be sympathetic with many of Kimball’s criticisms of contemporary society. But, in the end, he has a problem with Kimball’s concern that we have lost sight of any sense of authority.  Also, he insists that there never was a golden age in which everything was hunky-dory and that whatever bed we have made for ourselves we had best learn how to lie in it. Those are my words, by the way. Miller takes more words to say the same thing much more eloquently.

In any event, I am inspired to raise the question of just what the role of the critic is in today’s world. To be sure, it is not a popular one. Folks would generally prefer to keep their collective heads in the sand and not think about what is going on around them. I do think that Kimball is right and that something went terribly wrong in the 1960s when the kids took over, American society became child-centered, and the attack on the “Establishment” (which was long overdue and richly deserved) resulted in tossing out far too much of lasting value in what we loosely call “high culture.” Much needed to be changed, to be sure, but declaring open war on anyone over 30 and on all of Western Civilization was marginally stupid, to say the least.

In the end, the critic simply asks us to open our eyes and see what is going on around us. My blog posts are not overly popular, and I understand that. No one wants to read some old curmudgeon in Minnesota carping about the wrongs around him, especially if those woes are not generally acknowledged by those who are busy making money and having as good a time as possible. The glass is half full, many would say, and they don’t want to read some guy telling them that it is really half empty.

The purpose of social criticism, as I understand it, is to raise issues that are worth raising, ask disturbing questions about the goings and comings of contemporary men and women, and hope that all this generates thought. Things are not as they were. There never was a golden age in which everything was as it should be. But, on the other hand, imagine yourself, if you will, in a world in which you KNOW that you will be rewarded in heaven, that folks like Donald Trump will rot in Hell, and that this is as certain as 2+2=4. Think of the peace of mind that a fellow like Dante must have experienced as he imagined himself in the afterlife walking with Virgil and Beatrice to see sinners punished and look on the face of God. Those were awful times, in so many ways, but they were also certain times, times in which there was a solid center to life and things were black or white. A person’s life made perfect sense and the authority of both the Church and the powers above gave comfort and succor to those who suffered. We no longer have that certainty; our world is coming unglued. Miller’s concern with Kimball’s stress on our need for authority is misplaced. We do need authority: kids need it and adults need it. It may not come from above or from the Church, but it should come from parents and teachers who provide structure for the kids and from something more assured than common opinion for the rest of us — whether it be “values” or a conviction that there is something greater than the self.

Times have changed. To point that out would be trite, but the observation is not designed to make people pine after a time when things were more certain. It is designed to help us better understand the present which is so very different. This may take thought and it may even be a bit difficult at times, even painful, but the critic’s role is to help us get our heads out of the sand (or wherever they happen to be at the moment) and look around. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Criticism should not be dismissed out of hand because the critic is deemed to be a pessimist. We should all want to know what is going on and if some, like Kimball, are able to help us better understand and see things in a broader perspective we are all better off for it in the end. Ignorance is not bliss; as Socrates noted long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living.

 

Our Disenchanted World

My previous blog post, the latest in a series about the Death of God, fell on deaf ears for the most part. I am not surprised given the nature of the topic; it is not a popular one. But, then (while I was a bit disappointed to see the lack of response from the two or three readers I tend to count on) many of the topics I choose to write about are not of the popular variety. I realized some time ago that if I wanted to assure that those who “follow” me continue to do so, or if I were intent to increase the numbers of followers, I should write more cheerful posts. But I must tell it as I see it, and from where I sit there is not much to cheer about these days, though I will continue to look and to laugh whenever possible in order to maintain some semblance of sanity.

In any event, I have spoken about the Death of God, by which I mean the disenchantment of our world. I have asked that in order to better understand our current angst we contrast our world with Western Europe during the  Middle Ages. That was a time when to protect themselves against life’s uncertainties the typical man or woman carried talismans, amulets, charmed stones, magical writings, and almost certainly the “agnus dei” or a crude cross made of wood. He or she memorized prayers and magic spells to suit a variety of circumstances. They did not distinguish between these charms and the icons and prayers in Latin they heard in church — all of which they hoped would alleviate their fears and pain. As Carolly Erickson told us in The Medieval Vision:

“. . .the availability of occult and religious counter-forces prevented a sense of hopelessness, and made possible a certain accommodation between the visible and the invisible worlds. And the Church, while condemning certain (by no means all) occult knowledge, in practice cooperated actively in this  accommodation.”

More to the point, these charms gave those people a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. Typically, medieval men and women spent time each day in Church and most, if not all, of Sunday. They were all-too happy to risk life and limb in building cathedrals despite the fact that those who worked on them, if they survived, rarely ever saw them completed in their brief lifetime. The point is that theirs was an enchanted world of miracles, mystery and authority. These elements provided them with an anchor in a world that otherwise held out only threats of suffering and violent death. Everything meant more than it seemed to as we can see from Dante’s Divine Comedy which has as many layers of meaning as an onion: everything was a symbol of something else. They trusted their eyes less than they did their deeply held convictions about what was real and what was not.

We, on the other hand, have rejected all three, miracle, mystery, and authority. We reject truth and even legitimate authority in the name of personal opinion which we believe to be infallible. We have embraced scientism (please note the spelling. I don’t speak of science, but of the conviction that the scientific way of knowing is the ONLY way of knowing: if a thing cannot be measured, weighed or poured into graduated cylinders it cannot possibly be known) and we have rejected miracles and mystery in the process.

Thus, to return to my main argument, our disenchanted world is considerably less certain, reassuring, and comforting than the medieval world — despite the very real threats and dangers in that world — because we are alone in a labyrinth of our own creation, having rejected anything that might provide comfort and succor. We are too sophisticated to believe in what we cannot see and our intellectual community, at any rate, finds it difficult to discuss theological or religious questions since this is a sure sign of naiveté and heaven knows we don’t want to be thought to be naïve. Better to lose ourselves in literary theory, postmodern gobble-de-gook, alternative facts, political correctness, or, as a last resort in those electronic toys that give us a sense that we are all-powerful when, in fact, we are becoming slaves to those very toys.

We cannot recover the world view of medieval men and women. It is not only impossible, but also almost certainly not to be recommended. But at the same time, it might be wise to open our eyes and look again at our world, accept that there are things in heaven and earth that cannot be known by science and the empirical method, mysteries that lie beneath the surface of what we call “reality.” This is not to deny scientific truth — that would be absurd and something we shall leave to the politicians. It’s to acknowledge the limitations of scientific method and allow for the possibility that there is a great deal we do not know; in order to begin to learn about it we need to put our toys aside, read what has been written by the great minds that have preceded us, talk to one another, and think deeply about what things mean and where we are headed.

 

Imagining Peace

I have referred to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey and I do recommend it. Trilling writes well and has something important to say. That is unusual. Indeed. In the eighth chapter of that novel his central character is reflecting, as is his habit:

“. . . he thought how weak the human imagination is because it so dully represents peace and brotherhood. A careful, shabby Hindu student and a skinny Methodist student shake hands and agree that there are no real differences between people that cannot be overcome by mutual understanding and education and the cider and doughnuts they will presently be offered by the religious director. The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive. It allowed men their force and their selfhood as well as their evil. Yet in actual fact . . . the true emotion of reconciliation is an heroic one. Hamlet never appears in fuller virility than when he offers Laertes his hand, and nothing he says rings with a sweeter and graver note of masculinity than his ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.'”

There are so many things to delight in this brief passage, but I will start with the weak imagination that “so dully represents peace and brotherhood.” It raises the deep question why we seem to relish the violent and hateful and hear so little about the true heroism that goes on all around us every day. The news media, which ought to be called the “entertainment” industry to be accurate, glories in all the mayhem and animosity in the world and says little, if anything, about the beauty and goodness that is easily as common. So many of our fellow bloggers — including myself, though with the exception of our good friend Jill Dennison — tend to dwell on the bad and nasty and ignore the good and the magnificent. But our weekly posts from “Filosofa” remind us that there are good people doing good things each and every day. It just takes more of an effort of imagination to represent the good than it does to represent the evil in the world.

It has been said that when Dante wrote his Comedy he sailed through the Inferno, slowed down when writing about Purgatory and swam upstream slowly when writing about Paradise. Even Dante, he of the most extraordinary imagination, working with an impossible rhyme-scheme and burdened down with the immensely complex theological/cosmological baggage of the Middle Ages he had to carry with him as the made his way, even Dante struggled to describe peace and brotherhood. They are hard to imagine, much less write about.

But Trilling also speaks of true heroism, which consists in humbling oneself to the realities of a harsh world and swallowing one’s pride to admit that he or she was wrong. We see the antithesis of this every day in the media which cannot look away from the absurdities of a president who is unwilling or unable to admit he is ever wrong and who shows a singular lack of heroism with each and every tweet he compulsively sends forth into the world, unable to exhibit the “true emotion of reconciliation.” True heroism is simply less spectacular, and less easy to imagine. Perhaps also less common. So we don’t hear about it and confuse it with athletics or military endeavors that are sensational and take no imagination whatever to relish. But we need to remind ourselves that it is out there, the real thing and not the cheap imitation.

Trilling wrote his novel in 1945, soon after the Second World War. He would despair to see how much more diminished the human imagination has become in the meantime with the rise of the entertainment industry, the electronic toys, and the sensationalism of the cinema that glory in violence and mayhem and shy away from, or are in fact unaware of, the true heroism of those who suffer quietly, admit their mistakes, and forge ahead with their difficult lives.

“The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive.” Indeed.

Religion and the Church

Of considerable interest is the struggle within the Church of Rome during the nineteenth century regarding the notion of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith. The issue was of major importance in the First Vatican Council in 1868 when Pope Pius IX introduced the notion for adoption and it was met with considerable opposition by a number of influential Bishops — led, interestingly enough, by Lord Acton who was not a Bishop and had no vote but who was very active behind the scenes seeking to strengthen the opposition. He was convinced that the doctrine was in direct opposition to the New Testament which is the fundamental text of the Christian religion. Acton eventually failed in what became a heated political battle. Several Bishops who opposed the doctrine were excommunicated by the Pope and the only reason Acton, a devout Catholic, was not, presumably, was because he was a powerful man with powerful friends back in England.

In any event, Dostoevsky, himself a deeply religious man, was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Infallibility as well — as he was opposed to the Church of Rome in general which he was convinced was established as a Church on Earth that stood in direct opposition to the fundamental Christian doctrine as set forth in the Gospels. Of special interest to Dostoevsky — who mentions this in both The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, two of his five major novels — was the passage in St. Matthew 4: 8-11 recounting the three temptations of Christ (repeated almost Verbatim in Luke 4 1-13), but especially the third temptation:

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THELORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Dostoevsky read the three temptations of Christ, which he regarded as divinely inspired (they couldn’t possibly have been invented by humans; they are far too wise) this was a direct admonition from Christ to reject things of this earth and live a life of sacrifice and love. But the Roman Church, according to Dostoevsky, sought earthly power in direct opposition to the words of Christ. In fact, he puts his own convictions in the mouth of his character Shatov in Demons:

“. . .Rome proclaimed a Christ who had succumbed to the third temptation of the devil and, having announced to the whole world that Christ cannot stand on earth without an earthly kingdom, Catholicism thereby proclaimed the Antichrist, thus ruining the whole Western world. “

Lest the reader think that a great author such as Dostoevsky would never put his own words in the mouth of one of his characters, we have the words of the man himself in the pages of his 1877 Diary:

“Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, — that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”

Years before the Vatican Council  the Catholic poet Dante had been critical of what he called “The Donation of Constantine” in which the recognition of the Christian Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine lead directly to the earthly power of the Church (and divisiveness within the Church, according to Edward  Gibbon) and the corruption which he pillories in his Inferno — filled as it is with Bishops and Popes, who have succumbed to temptation.

In any event, the issue for both of these thinkers was the embracing on the part of the Church of earthly power. For Dostoevsky this was in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ and an acceptance of the lures of the devil himself. For Dante it was the beginning of a long and terrible period of struggle within the church between the promises of Heaven and the lures of earthly treasure.

What is of interest here is the radical difference, in the minds of these three deeply religious thinkers, Acton, Dante, and Dostoevsky, between the teachings of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Roman Church. We know, as a matter of fact, that when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English 1526, thereby making the sacred text available to all who could read, the Church sought to confiscate and burn copies of the book.  They saw it as a direct threat to their power and authority in matters of religion, which was already being questioned by Luther who had posted his 95 theses in 1517.

The point is that this struggle allows us to see clearly the rift between religion, properly understood, and religion as embodied in earthly institutions that led to such things as purges, excommunications, and Inquisitions — not to mention the forced denial by Galileo of his mathematical discoveries. And we should also bear in mind the many atrocities committed by Protestant Churches in their attempt to establish themselves as power-brokers in the game of earthly power.

Many who have turned against what they regard as “religion” really have a quarrel with the institutions that have been founded and supported by human beings in the name of what they take to be the true meaning of religion. The two are not the same as these men saw so clearly. They wrote and spoke against this false identification because they saw that what human beings do for the best of reasons, at times, turns out to be antithetical to the very principles and fundamental beliefs of the causes they espouse. We could do worse than to take a page from their book — or their books — and keep this difference in mind.

The Eighth Circle

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States”

(William DuBois)

As last year started to draw to a close — and what a year it was — my mind turned to self-scrutiny and it occurred to me that a confession of sorts is in order. As one who has spent his entire adult life attempting to put young people in possession of their own minds (and free them from the clutches of others, myself included), it occurred to me that what we are doing in higher education is a bit fraudulent. This put me in mind of Dante whose extraordinary Inferno deals with those of us who are guilty of fraud. I speak of the eighth circle of Hell.

There are ten levels in the eighth circle, the so-called “malebolges.” In the sixth of those ten levels — all worked out as if by magic with Dante’s poetic eye on medieval dogma and the wisdom of Aristotle — we find those who are the hypocrites, those who have been duplicitous, leading others to follow the wrong path. As the excellent translator, Ciardi, says in his introduction to this Canto in the Inferno,

“Here the hypocrites weighed down by the great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly guided on the outside and are shaped like a monk’s habit, for the hypocrite’s outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which his soul must bear through all eternity.”

In Dante’s own words, which we can feel in spite of the fact that they are translated for us:

“All wore great cloaks cut to as ample a size

as those worn by the Benedictines at Cluny.

The enormous hoods were drawn over their eyes.

 

“The outside is all dazzle, golden and fair;

the inside, lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes,

compared to these, would seem as light as air.

 

“O weary mantle for eternity!

We turned to the left again along their course,

listening to their moans of misery.”

Why all the fuss? And why charge myself and my fellow “professors” with hypocrisy? Because there is hypocrisy in the willingness of those of us in “higher” education to say one thing and do quite another. We promise those who pay their tuition that they will be educated. The evidence suggests that this is simply not happening. The students who attend college go away thousands of dollars in debt but little affected by their four years — except, perhaps, having learned how to binge-drink and party hearty. And, perhaps, one or two have picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. So many slip between the cracks. So many go away unchanged in important ways by what has occurred.

The problem is that education has become a business and like any business the only measure of success is the “bottom line.” And the bottom line reveals that higher education, so-called, is taking the undergraduates for an expensive ride and not getting the job done. Students are charged high tuition fees and are promised an education– and, at best, they get job training or, perhaps, an occasional glimpse into a world not of their liking, a world of ideas and wisdom that demands of them more effort than they are willing to put out — or, indeed, are used to putting out — and little assurance of employment after graduation.

There are notable exceptions, of course. There are a few colleges, mostly small ones, that stress the “liberal arts,” that do attempt and at times succeed in educating their charges. But on the whole the entire education edifice rests on sand. The promises have become mere words on paper, they mean little and they smell of gaseous air. Instead of committing themselves to the education of those that come, hat in hand, to be educated they instead provide them with emotional counseling, a country-club atmosphere, and a smattering of tips designed to help them get a job after graduation — whether it fulfills them as human beings or not.

In a word, the colleges care not a tittle about the students and their real needs. Instead, they deliver what the students want and the faculty are willing to deliver — as long as it doesn’t take them away from their own personal and professional diversions — and they get a decent paycheck.  Surely, this sort of behavior is precisely what Dante was talking about and what those who promise one thing and deliver quite another are deserving of in the end.

(My tongue is only part-way in my cheek. My concern here is serious and the problem deserving of serious thought — as is the failure of education on the whole.)

Play The Hand!

“The fortunes that the gods give to us men

we must bear under necessity.

But men that cling willfully to their sufferings

. . . no one may forgive nor pity.”

(Sophocles: “Philoctetes”)

 

I am about to stop reading Facebook. Honestly! There are many reasons, but the main one is that so many contributors find it necessary to pull scabs off sores, refusing to allow time for healing. There is a surplus of weeping and gnashing of teeth about the new president-elect and everyone has an opinion about what will almost certainly happen once the man takes office, watching his every move while feeling it necessary to comment ad nauseam. And one person’s prediction is more dire than the next. If we could see these people we would expect to see them rolling around in the dirt tearing out their hair!

Can we all agree that this man is a wanker, as our friends across the Pond would say? He should never have been elected and he will turn government into a circus where he takes center ring demanding all the attention. In the end, it is my sincere hope, he will be impeached by a Congress that becomes sick and tired of his shenanigans, his thin skin and his vulgarity. But this is all speculation and it is time to stop speculating and accept the fact that the next four years are going to be difficult for us all, a real test of our fortitude and even our courage.

I find some solace in the fact that, historically, people have risen to the occasion. Challenges and problems tend to bring out the best in people. One of the greatest political documents ever written, the U.S. Constitution, was written by a handful of men while under the sword of the most powerful nation on earth. Most of the great art, literature, and music has been created during periods of great stress and even suffering on the part of the artist, writer, or composer. Dante, for example, wrote the Divine Comedy after being ostracized from Florence and separated for years from his family. Human beings have shown themselves to be incredibly resilient and creative during times of stress. We can hope that this will once again be the case.

Heaven knows Americans are a spoiled and self-indulgent people and we have needed a wake-up call for some time now. The ancient Greeks (sorry to bring them up again, but there were many wise people among them) together with great thinkers such as Dostoevsky were convinced that suffering brings with it wisdom, a deeper understanding and sympathy for other people and a greater appreciation for the gifts we usually take for granted; given the self-absorption of the American people this must be regarded as a good thing. We are facing a struggle like none other we have faced in several lifetimes. We can only hope that we will pull our collective head out of our collective butt and face up to the fact that the situation demands that we start to pay attention to what is going on around us, while not going on endlessly about what a terrible hand we have been dealt.

This means making every effort to effect change where we can have a positive impact and accepting as unpleasant, but inevitable, those things we have no control over. The important thing is to know the difference and to stop whining about the pair of deuces we have been dealt in what has become a high-stakes poker game.

The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

Hope

An inscription over the gates of Dante’s Hell, we are told, reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” As Dante is guided through Hell by the poet Virgil, he finds dozens and dozens of people who live forever without hope. Several times he feels sorry for the sinners but he is admonished by Virgil. After all, who is he to second guess God who, in His infinite wisdom, placed those sinners where they are? The New Testament tells us that there are three great virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love. The greatest of these is love and Dante finds very little of it in hell. Indeed, at the frozen core of hell he finds those who are incapable of love, whose hearts were frozen long before they died. The medieval thinkers married those three Christian virtues to the four pagan virtues wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These seven comprise the cardinal virtues of the medieval church, virtues that are all but forgotten today in our work-a-day world. But permeating through Dante’s Hell is the sense of lost hope. It is dreadful, indeed.

We here in Minnesota know about hope. Those of us who follow our sports teams live on hope, hope that next year they will achieve the Great Prize that almost always eludes them, and hoping we can forget last year’s disappointments. “Hope springs eternal.” For my part I hope that the world will be a brighter place for my grandchildren than in my darkest moments I fully expect it to be. I know in my heart that my generation is not leaving the world a better place than we found it — as we most assuredly should. I continue to hope that somehow the world will find itself at peace and that those who profess love for one another — as the New Testament admonishes us all to do — will in fact embrace this code fully and not merely pay lip service to those wise words. And, on a very mundane level, I hope that this twisted and convoluted political battle we see going on around us will somehow resolve itself without further violence and that a man or a woman with a grain of wisdom will finally be placed at the head of a fragile government that needs wisdom now more than ever.

I do hope for these things because without hope there is only cynicism and, while I tend in that direction, I refuse to allow myself to go there, because I know that to abandon all hope is to be living in Hell. The greatest virtue is of course love, but right behind it, surely, we find hope abiding.