In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.


Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.

How Do We Know?

For the most part inquiring minds embrace the scientific method. They may not know exactly what that method is, but they would swear that this is the only way we really know anything for sure; it is the heart and soul of what we loosely call “common sense.”  That science has advanced civilization in numerous ways is incontrovertible — especially  scientific medicine which has prolonged life and made suffering comparatively rare.

The scientific method relies on empirical testing: seeing is believing. An investigator asks questions, suggests a possible explanation and then devises a test to determine whether the hypothesis they have come up with seems to bear out. If it does, it is regarded as true — at least until at some future date another test disproves the theory. The most reliable theories are those that can not be disproved: if no matter how hard we try we cannot dislodge the theory, it is regarded as the truth. An example of this is the theory of evolution which, while a theory, is still regarded as undeniably true by the scientific community — if not by some zealots on the far right. The same might be said about global warming, or what we euphemistically call “climate change.”

However, a blind commitment to the scientific method that rules out any other way of knowing is called “scientism,” and, strange to say, it suggests a closed mind. It does not simply accept the scientific method, it insists that all knowing must be reached by way of this method, and this method alone. It ignores the possibility that there may well be other ways we can know things that may not be empirically testable or falsifiable, but which may still be true — such as paranormal claims, poetic insights, intuition, and the like. Such truths are rejected by the strict scientist because they are neither testable nor capable of predicting future behavior. Paranormal phenomena, for example, while striking in many known cases, are measured against probabilities, and are not open to strict scientific methods. The ability that a few seem to have  to predict the turn of a card 93% of the time is extraordinary and highly improbable. But it is not predictable. Such phenomena are thus rejected by the scientific community.

None the less, a book entitled Crack In The Cosmic Egg written some years ago recounts innumerable striking examples of strange phenomena that cannot be tested by the scientific method but which still appear to be true — such as the ability of entire groups of people to walk on red-hot coals while in a hypnotic trance and not even feel the pain. Indeed upon further inspection, by disinterested Western observers, their feet showed no signs whatever of any burns! Various other examples are cited by the authors, yet there remain a great many skeptics. Consider the reluctance of Western medical science to accept as legitimate “holistic” medicine, such things as acupuncture or controlled diets which have shown remarkable capacity to cure pain and eliminate its cause. Additionally, it has taken years for many in the medical community to admit that allergies can be a serious health problem. Some medical people in the West, including the Mayo Clinic, are beginning to open their minds to new cures, including dietary changes, since it is impossible to deny that they have been successful for many years in Eastern cultures and among so-called “primitive” people. The same thing can be said for herbal cures, which defy scientific explanation but which work nonetheless. But it is still a major challenge to convince those who have committed themselves to the scientific method as the only possible way to know anything. As Hamlet said to his friend Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy — which in Hamlet’s day meant science.

In any event, there is something to be said for keeping an open mind. The exclusive commitment to scientific ways of knowing is just as stupid as the wholesale rejection of science by such groups as the fundamentalist Christians who see it as the work of the devil. Just as scientific minds were quick to condemn the Catholic Church for forcing Galileo to recant his claims about the heliocentric hypothesis (which we now know to be undeniably true), we should warn those same minds not to be closed to the possibility that science may not be the only way to find our way to truths that may assist us in coming to a deeper understanding of our fellow humans and the mysteries that surround us. In the end, we should always remain open to the possibility that there are questions we simply cannot answer.

One of the fascinating things to question is the limits of human knowing: Just how far can the scientific method take us? How many puzzles are open to rational explanation? How many things must remain a mystery regardless of how precise our methods of research happen to be? and How many things we know for sure cannot be proved in a strict sense?  Where does one draw the line between different ways of knowing? How do we separate truth from mere opinion? and How far we can extend our knowledge before we must simply admit we may never know? Whatever the answers to these questions might happen to be, we should never stop asking them.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

Unmitigated Tragedy

As is the case with many of the words we bandy about these days, we tend to misuse the term “tragedy.” We think that if the running back gets a nasty hit and tears his ACL it’s a tragedy. It may simply be terribly sad. We don’t distinguish between pathos and tragedy. The Greeks thought tragedy arises from the conflict between a wrong that is also right and a right that is also wrong — like Antigone’s dilemma when faced with Creon’s prohibition against burying her brother. You can’t win for losing. Ultimately, somehow, tragedies affirmed the rightness of the universe, a cosmic harmony where wrongs are punished and humans learned by suffering from their mistakes. The evil that they commit is due largely to their overweening pride, or hubris, and they get what they deserved.

Shakespeare pushed the envelope a bit, suggesting that tragedy arises from within human hearts resulting in evil on a scale that defies explanation — not just from simple blunders, but from thoroughly wicked motives, from minds that are deeply disturbed or, perhaps, deeply troubled. There is also the sense in Shakespeare that tragedies are frequently undeserved. This sense of the word is reflected in tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and, especially King Lear.

My thesis adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, agreed with Shakespeare. He thought there were “unmitigated” tragedies, those that simply could not be explained away.  King Lear, for example, showed us human beings, like Lear’s “dog daughters” Goneril and Regan, who are fundamentally and irreducibly evil. One cannot explain it away on grounds of pop psychology/sociology, or even the machinations of the depth psychologist. They are simply evil. And they are representative of whole groups of people who are simply no damned good — no matter how you look at it. Unmitigated tragedies occur every day and they cannot be explained away.

Wallace Stegner sensed the same thing and wrote a powerful, if disturbing, novel entitled All The Little Live Things about a fascinating young woman who loved life and affirmed her enthusiasm for every living thing, but who died an awful death when cancer worked its way into her liver and kidneys, killing both her and the unborn child within her. That, thought Stegner, is pure evil, and it cannot be explained away as some sort of human mistake.  But let him tell it:

“. . .how random and indiscriminate [evil] is, think how helplessly we must submit, think how impossible it is to control or direct it. Think how often beauty and delicacy and grace are choked out by weeds. Think how endless and dubious is the progress from weed to flower.. . .Think of the force of life, yes, but think of the component of darkness in it. One of the things that’s in the [mother’s] milk is the promise of pain and death.” 

Stegner quotes William Wordsworth in the front pages of his novel: “Oh Sir! the good die first,/And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust/ Burn to the socket.”

Stegner’s heroine is in her early 30s and pregnant. She desperately hopes the baby will be born before she herself dies. So she refuses any treatments that will prolong her own life and threaten the child within her. In the end she also refuses pain killers on the same grounds. She hopes that her child will live, but in doing so dies a gruesome death and her child is born, “a blob of blue flesh that moved a little, and bleated weakly, and died.” There is good in this world, and real beauty. But there is also ugliness and ineluctable evil. Unmitigated tragedy.

One who is able to take the leap of faith, like Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, can somehow embrace the absurdity of human existence. He takes the leap with love and hope — and an anguished heart, because he knows evil is real and cannot be explained away. But he still believes. For the rest of us we are left with doubt, uncertainty, and bitterness when we read or hear about the death of an innocent child or a loving adult. We demand an explanation that makes sense to us. But we cannot find one. The person of true faith, who has taken the leap, doesn’t ask. He simply accepts.