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.)

Challenging Students

I founded and directed the Honors Program at the University where I taught for thirty-seven years. It was my pride and joy and I was privileged to have been able to teach some of the brightest and best students to graduate from that University. One of the innovations I promoted was a Senior Challenge session for the honor students. The students came from all academic disciplines, but I thought it would be good for them to have a bit of a challenge before graduating with honors to test the breadth and depth of their learning.

Initially the sessions were called “Challenge Sessions,” but one of he psychology professors convinced me that this was a bit too stressful for the students so we changed the name to “Senior Dialogues.” I always regretted the decision to change the name because I felt that we were preparing the students for the “real” world and they would face challenges every day of their lives. Why coddle them? But the name was changed in order not to ruffle feathers. One must choose his or her battles.

The sessions involved the student’s major advisor, the director of the program, and another faculty member selected by the students themselves. The questions came from every side on every possible topic. The goal was not to embarrass the student, but to prepare them for interviews after they graduated and also to find out where their weaknesses lay so they could work on developing those weaknesses after they “commenced.” After all, education does not stop with graduation. Or it shouldn’t.

My favorite questions were the following: What three famous people would you invite to dinner? Who were the three greatest human beings who ever lived? What is the greatest problem facing humankind today? And I then winged it from there, asking questions that forced the students into strange territory or asking them to address topics they might otherwise avoid. By and large it went well.

In the nearly thirty years of leading the sessions I always asked the question about the most serious problem facing humankind and not once did a student suggest that it might be overpopulation — which, in my view is the root of all other problems. There are too damned many people on earth and it is creating serious problems! Many of the answers were interesting and even insightful — such things as the unrelenting spread of nuclear weapons, climate change, failure to curtail weapons sales, abortion, and the like. But never the point about human population.

One of the brightest of the students was a psychology major who was finishing her degree in three years in order to go on to graduate school in psychology. I pushed her into foreign territory on purpose because I sensed that her background was a bit narrow. I asked who wrote the Divine Comedy, for example, or what a tetrahedron was or who painted the Sistine Chapel ….that sort of thing. Bear in mind that this was one of my favorite students, but I wanted her to realize that education is not about finding a nich, but about a broad spectrum of knowledge including, but not exclusive to, her major field of interest. After the session (and we all evaluated the performance of the students at the end, though they received no grades) I spoke with her and strongly recommended that she take another year to explore topics other than psychology. She thought about it for a few days and rejected the notion. She graduated and went to graduate school where she earned her M.A. in psychology. Years later she wrote to me and said that she wished she had listened to me because she was no longer interested in psychology and wished she had other intellectual interests while in college. That story is both sad and true. And typical.

Another student, a history major, in responding to the question of who were three of the greatest human beings (male or female) who had ever lived listed his own father first! He then gave a most interesting explanation of his choice, though I had problems accepting the answer myself. In any event it led to a lively discussion of “greatness” — a notion that has come into disrepute of late by many who deny there is any such thing. I wrote his father after the session to tell him what his son had answered and his father has kept the letter to this day!

There were other episodes as well and they almost always involved success stories. The students felt proud that they had survived and they almost always shone in the spotlight. Of all the things I accomplished in my many years of higher education, those sessions were at or near the top. And given that both of my sons graduated from the university and went through the honors program — and the Senior Dialogues — I had occasion to be doubly proud. Those were some great times and some exceptional students who have gone on to make their mark in the world.

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.

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.

Dante’s Relevance

In a most interesting article in a learned journal not known for its interesting articles, author Rod Dreher bemoans the fact that he didn’t read Dante’s Inferno — or the rest of the Divine Comedy — until he was in middle age (as was Dante himself).

     Midway along the journey of our life

      I woke to find myself in some dark woods,

      For I had wandered off from the straight path.

So begins Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and into Paradise, as well as the story about a twenty-first century man who had also lost his way only to pick up Dante’s poem by accident and find himself captivated. What interested Dreher most were the chords struck by Dante that resound in today’s world and which should be heard by all college students, if not all who can read. And while it is sad to note that Dreher hadn’t read Dante’s poem until his mid-forties, it is refreshing to have him echo my conviction that the classics are relevant to today (which, indeed, is why they are regarded as “classics.”) But how can a poem written by a medieval Catholic speak to today’s students whose attention is entirely on themselves? That’s the question this article seeks to answer.

It is precisely the fixation of modern youth on themselves that one finds in the occupants of Dante’s Hell. To begin with, they all tell lies, and Dante is warned not to believe all he hears — which reminds me of Jameis Winston’s press conference where he said, with a straight face, “I’m not a ‘me’ person.” But more important, the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno are filled with thousands of passionate people who do not know how to love. The circles begin with love perverted, the love of a man for a woman that never rises above the level of lust, and ends, eight levels later, with those who either love only themselves or or betray those who love them, buried in ice up to their chins and condemned to remain frozen for eternity — as far from God’s love and warmth as possible. In between Dante finds those whose love degenerates into mere passion and is misdirected (they love money or fame, for example); they sin but fail to repent. And, indeed, it is the unwillingness of the sinners in Hell to repent that places them there instead of in Purgatory. As Dreher points out, “All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant.” Such as it is, their love was twisted and self-involved, and it dwarfed their reason which would, together with love properly felt,  have led them away from themselves and into the world of others who are also in need of love.

And thus we find the message that rings true today when folks are told to “let it all hang out.” As the author notes,

“This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. . . . We live in a narcissistic, confessional culture in which speaking whatever is on your mind and in your heart is valorized as ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ — just as calling lust love falsely ennobles it by dressing up egotism with fake moral grandeur. . .  All these damned souls suffer hellfire because they worshipped themselves and their own passions. In Dante egotism is the root of all evil.”

Furthermore, Dante’s sinners are unanimous in finding fault with others, never with themselves. They are very good at pointing fingers elsewhere and refusing to admit that theirs is the fault. The relevance of the ancient poem begins to become apparent.

Dreher takes the reader through several other circles, but in the end he notes, appropriately, that “Dante’s egoists suffering in Hell would be admired and even heroic figures in twenty-first century America” [Cue Jameis Winston, et al]. There is much for each of us to learn from this ancient poem written by a poet in his darkest hours — suffering exile from his family and from his beloved Florence as well. In the end, as Dreher concludes,

Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things. It’s a subtle lesson, and a difficult lesson, and a lesson that is no less difficult to learn in the twenty-first century than it was in the fourteenth. But it’s still necessary to learn. Happy is the man who embraces this wisdom at any point in his life, but happier is the man who does so in his youth.”

It is sad that Dreher had to wait until his own mid-life crisis to read this remarkable poem. It is even sadder that very few will ever read it at all, though it is a bit of a stretch to think for a moment that even if today’s youth did read it they would see its relevance to their own lives. But it is certain that very few of them will read it at all if it is not required reading, which is even less likely in a culture that insists upon allowing everyone to find his or her own way — even at the risk of getting lost. Like Dante.

(Note: For those of us who don’t read Italian, I have found that John Ciardi’s translation is the most readable. Many are not.)

 

 

Cheap Trick

An ongoing story in Yahoo News has captivated the curious who peruse the internet. It begins as follows:

A man claiming to be a pastor apparently tried to stiff a waiter on a tip, explaining that his work for God absolved him of having to leave one.

A photo of the receipt, posted to Reddit.com, shows a bill for $34.93 with an automatic 18 percent gratuity (or $6.29) added above a blank space for an additional tip.

“I give God 10%,” the diner wrote on the receipt, scratching out the automatic tip. “Why do you get 18?” He then wrote “Pastor” above his signature, and an emphatic “0” where the additional tip would be. (The automatic gratuity, however, had already been added to the total.)

Photo from Yahoo News

Photo from Yahoo News

In a follow-up story it turns out the waiter was in fact a waitress who took a photo of the bill and posted it on her Facebook page. It went, as they say, “viral” and came to the attention of the pastor who is  a woman named Alois Bell a  minister for the Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries Church (I am NOT making this up. I couldn’t possibly), who became furious and complained to the manager of the restaurant who subsequently fired the waitress.

Apparently, as the initial story goes on to relate, the waitress was serving a table of 20, which is why the gratuity was figured into the total bill. Customers were encouraged to leave more if they thought the waitress’ good work deserved it. Instead this customer decided to leave a nasty note. This raises a number of interesting points.

To begin with, the waitress clearly lost her cool in putting a photograph “out there” on the internet with enough of the signature showing that it became an invasion of privacy. But why did this customer have to be nasty to someone who works hard for a living? She could have simply kept her opinion to herself and left the table and complained to her companions after she left the restaurant. But that’s a small thing. The second thing is that waiters work for a meager wage and if they do a good job they should be rewarded. I used to carry groceries out to cars when I worked in a grocery store while in high school for 80 cents an hour and the tip of a dollar here and there positively made my day. I suspect that is the norm: the waiters work for low wages and when they do a good job they hope that their work will be rewarded with a nice tip — certainly not a snide remark.

But this raises the third point: Could a so-called “woman of God” who brags of her 10% gift to God be so uncharitable as to rub this waitress’ nose in the fact that in this customer’s mind she doesn’t deserve the “huge” tip that she felt she had earned? Why the snide remark and the huge “0” to turn the knife in the wound? It is hard to fathom, but those of us who are gradually giving up on so many of their fellow humans who are increasingly wrapped up in their own little world where they are king or queen and the rest of the world is expected to wait on them (for free) point to examples like this one to make a case for total cynicism.

I keep reminding myself that this sort of thing is the exception, not the rule. But as it becomes more common it is hard to resist the temptation to draw the opposite conclusion. I realize that the media fasten on stories like this one because they know such stories will bring readers or viewers to them, but that in itself is grounds for complaint. There are good people out there (I will hang on to that thought) and they are doing good things. Their stories aren’t that interesting, perhaps, so they don’t get told.

I recall reading somewhere that Dante sailed through the writing of the “Inferno,” which was the first part of his Divine Comedy. But when he came to writing about Paradise the writing became more labored. He found that it is easier to write about sin and wickedness, and harder to write about bliss and beauty.  And I dare say more people read the “Inferno” than the “Paradiso.”  So, I suppose, we will continue to hear stories about snotty customers who claim to be religious persons totally lacking in Christian charity. And we won’t hear a thing about those customers who told the waiter “good job” and left an additional 5%.

What Went Wrong?

According to a Yahoo News story, pundits around the country lost no time in seeking answers to the question of what went wrong with Mitt Romney’s attempt to buy himself a presidency. As the story tells us:

Seeking answers to why their presidential candidate lost the election, the first round of consensus on the right has focused on the Republican need to recalibrate its message to connect with the nation’s shifting voting demographics—or, at the very least, acknowledge that the country is changing.

The search for answers about What Went Wrong began almost immediately on election night, a signal that some had already been mulling the possibility of a loss for some time.

One of the people who was attempting to figure out what went “wrong” was Karl Rove who spent $300 million of his own hard-earned cash on a losing cause before losing it himself on Fox News on election night when he refused to allow that the Republicans had lost Ohio — while in the process of losing every “swing state” except North Carolina. And no one knows for sure how much the Koch brothers lost, but it’s a safe bet that it’s quite a bit more than Rove lost. What a shame.

But even more interesting is our insistence on knowing what is going to happen before it happens. Think of the millions of dollars ESPN collects from sponsors each year to pay its talking heads to tell viewers before sporting events who will win and who will lose. Indeed, ESPN has a segment called “Cold, Hard Facts” in which experts give their opinions about what will happen next weekend in the main sporting events of interest to viewers — showing that (a) we have no idea what a “fact” is and (b) confirming our penchant for knowing what will happen before it happens. In any event these experts are almost always wrong, but we listen to them anyway — and we join in over beer at the local watering-place knowing even less than they do and having even weaker grounds for our predictions. But why do we do it? Why don’t we simply enjoy the moment we are in and let the future work itself out?

In the fourth bolgia, or ditch, of the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante see a group of men whose heads are turned backwards on their bodies and who walk through eternity with their tears streaming from their eyes and down their backs and between their butt cheeks not knowing where they are going. They are the fortune-tellers. They are in the eighth of nine circles of Hell, in the circle of malice and fraud — deeper down in Hell than murderers and suicides. Dante was strictly orthodox and he was simply giving us (graphic) images of the punishment that his church taught was waiting for sinners. It is wrong for humans to try to tell the future because only God can know what is in store for us.

Of course, people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers didn’t simply try to foresee the future, they attempted to force it to their will by contributing millions of dollars to the political candidates of their choice. Dante doesn’t place such people in his Inferno, but we can imagine these people in the fourth bolgia where they push a huge (gold) boulder up the side of the ditch only to have it roll back again as it nears the top — like Sisyphus. That seems appropriate.

Most of us reject this sort of thing in this enlightened age. We are way too sophisticated for that sort of superstitious nonsense: bodies walking through Hell with their heads on backwards or pushing boulders up the side of a ditch. How absurd! But the question remains: why do we not treasure the moment and let the future take care of itself? Why do we insist on knowing what will happen before it happens?  And what makes the obscenely wealthy among us think they can determine the future by simply writing a check? I do wonder.

Frames of Reference

And now for something completely different! I have always been intrigued by the way we look at the world as contrasted with, say, the people of Western Europe during the Middle Ages — from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. until the Renaissance in the 16th century. The most obvious difference comes in our way of looking at death. We don’t even like to think about it and I dare say if I had put the word in the title of this blog no one would have read it. As it is, I may have lost readers by mentioning it now! But hear me out.

We fear death and regard it as a “tragedy.” This is especially so when we hear of the death of a child. Much of this comes from the fact that we live so much longer than those in the Middle Ages who were lucky to see their 30th birthday. They saw death as a release from this life of pain and fear — which it was for most of them. Think about it: no way to alleviate pain, not even a toothache. Tooth decay was common and teeth recovered from the period show signs of rotting teeth that would send any of us to our knees in agony. It must have been a fairly common companion during those days when the only cure was to pull the tooth — without a sedative. There weren’t even any aspirin! And pain was accompanied by disease and almost constant fear of spirits who were everywhere and were as real as the person closest to them. They coped with the help of generous amounts of beer — an average of a pint a day for each man, woman, and child.

But the main reason we differ in our way of looking at death is that we really don’t believe in the immortality of the soul. When I say “we” I mean the vast majority of us. Even the most devout among us don’t believe in it the way the typical Medieval mind believed in it. They believed in it the way we believe in the reality of the computer screen before our very eyes. There was simply no doubt: when a person died he or she would go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. The latter was a place souls went to continue to do penance until they were pure enough to ascend into heaven. An innocent soul would be rewarded and an evil person would be punished for eternity. There was no doubt whatever. How comforting!

Think of the “Faust” legend. It dates from the sixteenth century, which was toward the end of the Medieval period. We first hear about it from a collection of letters presumably written by a Doctor Johann Faustus in Germany, who was a real person who had remarkable magical powers and who allegedly made a “deal” with the devil that allowed him success in this world at the price of his immortal soul. The fact that this legend became popular suggests that toward the end of the Medieval period people were increasingly attracted to the idea of success in this life and less concerned about punishment in the next. But the conviction remained none the less that there was another life after this one. No doubt about it. Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, wrote the “Pardoner’s Tale” about a cleric who made his living by selling indulgences, or “pardons” that would shorten a person’s time in Purgatory for a fee — though originally the idea was that one could earn indulgences only by doing penance. It was quicker and easier as people began to accumulate some extra cash to simply buy indulgences and there were those who made a very good living from selling them. Dante’s Hell is full of these types. And bear in mind that Dante’s Divine Comedy was generally regarded as late as the fourteenth century as a faithful depiction of the afterlife consistent with the science of the time (Ptolemy) and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas that was even more certain than science.

In any event, the reality of another life after this one made it possible for the Medieval mind to escape the fear and trepidation that was a part of this life for the peace of mind that came from assurance of a reward for their good behavior. They did not regard death as a “tragedy” but as a release from a life of pain and suffering to one of bliss and comfort. Our preoccupation with the here and now has cost us that assurance and may well be the root cause of the anxiety that many cultural historians insist predominates in our age. Perhaps this helps us to understand why so many of us are fearful.