Icons

We live in a world of icons: cloth, stone, digital, metal, paper: money, electronic devices, flags, statues, scriptures, media stars, and so on. Icons have been the stuff of human worship for centuries: the Hebrews worshiped the golden calf, early Christians worshiped fragments of the true cross, modern Christians adore Christ’s body and the crucifix, people all over the world will die to defend their particular country’s flag, the media produces household names and images that everyone knows.
​The following is a versification of the power of icons:

Icons

Statue straight, statue tall
Ever ready for when I fall,
Props me up when I am down
Gives me peace without a sound,
Mirror image of my dreams,
Gives me hope when all else seems
Empty, lonely, full of hate,
Mind and body, a terrible state.

Beautiful icon, destroy my fear,
Through clouds and darkness make it clear
What is true, what is fact,
How I ought to be and act,
You tell me what to perceive
Revealed in you, what to believe,
How do I know if what I see
Is an accurate reflection of what’s in me?

Tell me, Icon, that you are real
Tell me that the confusion I feel,
Deep inside, within my being
Is false, since not the same as seeing
The matchless beauty of human art,
Marble complement to the human heart.

No need for God, no need for Scripture,
All I need is a secular mixture,
Of stone from the soil,
And the sculptor’s toil–
To produce a heavenly deity,
Wrought from earthly fealty.

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment

Sibyl’s Leaves

One of my favorite authors is Michel de Montaigne, author of Essays. In Montaigne’s final essay, “Of Experience,” he traces his experience with the disease of kidney stones. He wrote about his anxiety and fears, his expectation of death, which became monsters, chimeras, in his mind. The fear was often overwhelming. Then he would turn to his notes and essays written previously, in which he discussed the symptoms of the disease, the fear, and how he dealt with it. Often he would feel better after consulting these “Sibyl’s Leaves” (the words of the prophetess).

I like Montaigne have often experienced crushing fear. And I sometimes turn to my own “Sibyl’s Leaves.” Indeed, I once wrote a poem about them, which follows:

Sibyl’s Leaves

Sibyls’ leaves,
tattered, scattered,
upon the shelves
of old ideas;
Dusty, musty,
mine alone,
chronicle of anguish.

Ancient prophecy,
History, personal mystery,
Events, long ago
through them I know,
What will be–
What’s in me.

Prophetess speaks,
Hidden oracle
veiled in words–
and thought—but not
the truth,
so silently out of reach.

Monsters approach,
The darkness
of my mind,
there to find
my error–
Cause of terror.

Utter fear,
The parchment’s near
for me to consult,
The answer’s there
(if not, somewhere),
Amid the riddles
​Of Sibyl’s leaves.

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment

The Shawl

The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick, is a small book combining a brief short story and a short novella that are connected together by the central characters, an event in the past, and a shawl.

This book has many themes combined together into the two stories. The essence of the two stories is that a young mother, Rosa, her niece Stella, and Rosa’s infant daughter Magda are Poles at the beginning of World War II who have been captured by the invading Nazis and brought to a concentration camp. The author provides no details in terms of dates, places, and events. The three females are starving, and Magda is close to death. Rosa hides her by embracing her under a shawl. Magda sucks on the shawl and stays quiet. Stella, jealous of Magda, takes the shawl from her, which causes Magda to run out into the ground of the concentration camp, where she is killed.

The brief story is of good v. evil, of moral choice, of the contrast of nature and humans, of the rudiments of life and death, of the contrast of body and mind.

Put in a situation of evil, of impending death, a person might choose self-preservation or altruism toward another. Stella chose self-preservation. Rosa chose altruism until the moment when Magda died, then she chose self-preservation.

We read about life and death hovering on the edge of time: one totters on the edge, then eventually goes over the edge. Stella, Rosa, and Magda are on the edge; Magda goes over.

Their bodies were disintegrating but their minds were alive: Magda was wide-eyed; Rosa heard the voices in the fence. “She felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air.” Like the realm of being, between soul and body.

The second, longer part of the book takes place thirty years later in America, specifically Miami. Rosa has lived in New York but abruptly destroyed her business and fled to Miami, where she lived in squalor and despair. She is haunted by the events of the past, and the loss of Magda.

It is a lost past and an empty present: a golden memory competing with a dismal present; as one ages a futile attempt to recapture youth, the body, the beauty, the potential of youth.

The story evokes images of the Madonna and Child: Magda the blessed babe, Rosa the Madonna; the child was sacrificed, died, but lives again, resurrected in Rosa’s crazed mind as a great university philosopher.

Rosa cannot escape from the evil that happened to Magda, and the greater evil that affected Poles in 1939 of their catastrophic destruction at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. Rosa was from the Polish upper class of Warsaw. Her family were Poles before they were Jews. When they lost their Polishness they became like everyone else, like other Jews.

Overall, this book is about time. It is about one moment in time, when, where, why is never described, but it burns itself into Rosa’s memory (“a blazing flying current, a terrible beak of light bleeding out a kind of cuneiform on the underside of her brain”), and she spends the rest of her life recalling it. This moment of time haunts her, from it she conjures up ghosts, memories that seem as real as the present, indeed are more significant than the present, for the past is more real to her, especially the one grand moment, not of her daughter’s death, but her daughter’s birth. In that moment it was like the Madonna and Christ child. It was an incarnation of a person, an idea, that became life. Magda’s death has seared her life, and her birth, upon Rosa’s brain as the most important event, the most significant event, that she knows of.

When this birth happened, life was good, she was betrothed, her Polish family living lives of harmony, sophistication, culture—all of which were subsequently rubbed out, or stolen, by the criminal invaders of Poland.

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment

When is a Historian Judge and Jury?

Over a century ago, the world became intrigued by the theories of Sigmund Freud and his interpretation of humans as irrational, rather than rational, creatures. People wondered about the significance and consequences of irrationality in courts of law, legislatures, schools, and houses of worship: if the judge, legislator, teacher, and priest are irrational, then how can we trust their decisions, laws, teachings, message?

Freud’s theory must have had a subtle impact on me at some point in the past, when it comes to thinking about and writing history. Most historians, in college classes, textbooks, monographs, etc., determine whether the person or people written about were morally culpable or not. What is the point, they argue, for being able to see what has happened in the past if we cannot pass judgment on historical persons so that we can learn from their wickedness, immorality, and overall mistakes? This was the exact point that the great historian Livy made when he argued that history is didactic, a teaching tool of morality. But what if the historian writing in the present has no greater wisdom, is no more rational, than the person living a century or more in the past? I constantly consider this when I write. I can hardly be a qualified judge and jury to pass judgment on someone like Captain John Smith, or Christopher Columbus, or George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln. Rather, my view of writing history is to try to recover from the past the exact feelings and mentality that the historical person was feeling and thinking. I try to resurrect the past, to empathize with past people, to look at them not from the benefit of my or my society’s values, rather to look at them from the perspective of their own time. I am not a judge and jury of the past. Rather, I want to give listeners and readers as much as possible an unbiased portrait of a past time so that the reader can make their own silent judgment.

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment

The Curse of the Bronze Amulet

He was one not typically given to dreams. Wakefulness was his way, for to be awake was to be coherent and rational, completely aware of what is, was, and will be. Wakefulness was a gift of God, a means by which a human is able to share in the wisdom and truth given us by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Dreams are foreign, illusory, when a human is weakest, fatigued, and one’s defenses are down, and anything, any foreign power, any outsider, even the Evil One himself, may enter into the hidden fantasies of the mind, exert control, and convince a person upon awaking of chimeras, charades, folly and falsehood. It is even unfortunate that a person must sleep, to let the guard down to the influence of dreams; ancient peoples such as the Greeks thought that humans were more apt to be influenced by the spirit, daemonic world during sleep. The Greek god Hypnos had a hypnotic effect on the sleeper. He was brother to Oneiros, dreams, and Thanatos, death, all three being sons of Night, when humans are most susceptible to the consequences of what has happened over the course of days, weeks, months, and years. Dreams are haunting specters that hover over the dreamer shaping what the coming day will be like: one of confidence or one of fear. Dreams herald the future, as it were, and just as dreams can change time and place, shape and being, at will, in the mind of the sleeper, so too is the conscience, the mind, the sense of self, shaped by the unforgiving presence of images in the night.

No, he was not typically given to dreams. But that was before he came to the islands, to a small group of rocky outposts in a cold sea. Islands are places given to dreams. The constant action of waves lapping the shore, hitting jutting rocks, splashing against cliffs, can lull the dreamer into sweet sleep or riotous nightmares. Writers go to islands to write, painters to paint, poets to rhyme, for they know that ideas and images, both real and fantastic, are birthed in a place of fantasy and myth. Everything mysterious can be found on an island: thick fog that crawls along like a monstrous Leviathan of the deep; ghosts of hapless souls who survived shipwreck—at least for a time; spirits of pirates or their victims guarding buried treasure, or engaged in an eternal search to find it; crashing waves, and the unexpected swell that inundates and sweeps everything in its path out to sea; and the relentless wind that sweeps over the island, allows flocks of birds to lazily float in the sky, soon to swoop, pounce on the innocent victim. Such is a dream to a newcomer, to a person innocent of the ways of the sea, of the hurricane and typhoon, of sharks and whales, cormorants and gulls, crabs and lobsters. And the relentless waves, the pounding of the sea, the daily grind of water on stone, eroding, chipping rock away by bits and pieces, like the wayward mind of the dream-world chipping away at the sturdy rock of reality.

Islanders know these ways, if the newcomer does not. They know the terrors of the night, the deep distant foghorns wrought by human hands or by the Creation itself: the sounds of rushing winds and pounding surf generating a mystical symphony played endlessly over time. They know the rumbling thunder and cataclysmic bolts of lightning one night, followed the next by gentle zephyrs streaming through a cloudless night sky of dazzling pinpoints of light. They know what the landlubber does not, that life can be lived fully, if briefly, on the isles, where danger is always afoot: the danger of the Creation, of the mysterious deep, under the surface of which nothing is seen, nothing can be known. Deep within the eons and eons of rolling waves lapping against time, scattering thither what has been, moving forward to what will be. Humans, being like the surface, seeing only the edge of what is, barely conscious of what lies below, what is hidden inside. It often takes the remarkable and extraordinary to peal open the surface experiences, to plunge within to the cold, dark depths, to find what is true, to find the self.

Such are the beginning words of my first work of fiction, The Curse of the Bronze Amulet. Interested in reading more? Go to this link:
https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=NAQ4KH28KAS94

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment

Is Science Inherently an Act of Piety?

During the past century science has become so focused on the material and the secular as to deny what was one of the essential characteristics of Western scientists going back three millennia: piety. Ancient Greek scientists perceived religion and science to be part of the same pursuit into the nature of being. Medieval scientists followed the Aristotelian path to discovering what they conceived to be the nature of God. Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists could hardly doubt that the Creation that they studied via mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and geology is Elder Scripture, the word of God older than, and just as authoritative as, the Old and New Testaments. The nineteenth-century geologist Edward Hitchcock’s belief that religion and geology are commensurate, the turn of the century psychologist William James’s belief that religion played a vital role in human psychology, and the early twentieth-century physicist Albert Einstein’s desire to know through science the mind of God, reveal that some nineteenth and twentieth century scientists relied on piety to approach the scientific study of human and natural phenomena.

Science is a pious enterprise and endeavor: the search to know the secrets of the universe and to reach the limits of human understanding occurs within the context of nature, an overwhelming entity that dwarfs us, generating a pious response, demanding reverence and humility, generating as well a sense of continuity and purposeful change, that answers exist to questions, that there is order rather than chaos, that reason and knowledge exist. Piety involves a sense of awe of the universe and a realization that being plays a role, whatever that might be, in its creation and constancy. Pious scientists have had an awareness of the profundity of existence, of life, and the role of something, an act moving upon potential, making and sustaining life.

Scientific and religious thought are complementary not contradictory. Scientists prior to the modern age were convinced that their research into nature shed light on the divine. The most valid response to God the Creator was a pious attempt to understand His Creation. Thinkers showed piety through natural theology; a belief in the continuity of and order in the universe; belief in natural laws; and a belief that human reason can (and will) discover natural laws.

Cultural and social influences during the past four centuries have led to a questioning of the divine role in the creation of the universe, resulting in a reconsideration of God the Creator, the divine role in the creation of the universe that is revealed through divine works, resulting in more of a general anonymous sense of a great mystery in the universe that could or could not be divine.

There was a definite change from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries in the perception of God the Creator. Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm in scientific thought helps to explain this change. The seventeenth century was a time of a providential God in control of all aspects of natural and human history. The eighteenth century moved toward a deistic God the Creator who put in motion a Creation that required very little divine intervention. Skepticism brought about by the critical discoveries of the nineteenth century resulted in the sense of the divine as a vague supernatural force that has some sort of a role in the vastness and complexity of the universe. Thinkers into the twentieth century were increasingly agnostic and atheistic in doubting any kind of supernatural agency at work in the universe.

Piety changes during this time from a clear sense of a personal God, a Christian God, to a more generic sense of a Creator God to a more amorphous mysterious presence; but during the whole there is an awareness and awe of the universe and (perhaps) its maker that is pious if not religious, piety being a sense of wonderment and humility when faced with a natural phenomenon that sometimes seems to defy explanation.

I wonder, is the driving motivation for those who pursue the physical, life, social, behavioral, and mathematical sciences, piety?……
(This is an abridged version of a much longer, 1100 word essay, a reproduction of which can be purchased at this link: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=N5XJG4LGWH7ZG)

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment

The Liberal Arts: The Continuing Foundation for Learning in Our Society by means of the Trivium and Quadrivium

The Liberal Arts are based in the historical trivium and quadrivium. The Trivium is Latin, literally “a place where three roads meet”. Quadrivium is Latin for where four roads meet.

The Liberal Arts of today derive from the meeting of three to four historical roads: the ideas of human expression and knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans; the Medieval striving to preserve the humanistic ideas of the ancient world; the rebirth of ancient learning that occurs during the Renaissance and Enlightenment; and the rebirth of mathematics and science during the Scientific Revolution of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The liberal arts involve the study of those subjects that open the mind and help bring about a free people.  Liberal is Latin for “suitable for a free person.” Arts is “skill as a result of learning or practice.”

Hence Liberal Arts means the study of subjects to gain an expertise so to acquire the habits and personality of a person who lives a free life, that is, lives in such a way to be free from outside influences, to know precisely what one’s personal beliefs, derived from personal experience, are.

The Ancient Greeks provided the foundation for the Trivium and Quadrivium, as they were defined later in the Middle Ages, because of their focus on philosophy, literature, rhetoric, history, art and architecture, mathematics, the life and physical sciences. The Roman Empire encompassed the learning of the ancient Greeks, and brought such learning forward into the centuries after the birth of Christ. But the Roman Empire went through a political and cultural decline—the liberal arts of the ancient Greeks declined as well. In the resulting period subsequently called the Dark or Middle Ages (Medieval Europe), there were some isolated centers of learning that continued to preserve ancient Graeco-Roman (typically called Classical) learning. These centers of learning were usually connected to Roman Catholic monasteries. It was during this time that the terms Trivium, for logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and Quadrivium, for arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, were coined. European society, culture, and economy went through a resurgence beginning in the 12th century, which led to the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

 

The Trivium: the arts of thought and communication

  1. Logic: logic refers to philosophy, to human thought, the fact that humans are thinkers, able to conceptualize ideas, to try to achieve a sense of what exists, or “is,” that is being, which is not subject to time. Example: Humans like all animals feel. When a human feels a sense of warmth toward another being, a sense of attachment, of not wanting to be separated, they conceptualize this feeling as Love. Love is not material or physical; it is simply an idea based on conceptualized feelings.
  2. Grammar: grammar refers to symbols that humans have invented to symbolize the concepts and ideas that they have conceptualized. These symbols can be learned and shared, which form the basis of communication. So, for example, the concept of Love can be designated by four symbols, L, O, V, E, joined together.
  3. Rhetoric: rhetoric are all of the arts of communication that humans use to share their ideas and concepts by means of symbols. Humans can therefore share an idea or concept, such as Love, by means of symbols that are expressed through writing or speaking.

 

Quadrivium: the arts of temporal and spatial reasoning

  1. Arithmetic: because humans live in time and space, they keep track of movement in time and space by counting and measurement. The Counting function is arithmetic, and the Spatial function is geometry. Arithmetic is the way to make sense of the multitude of things (quantities) and movement in our environment over time.
  2. Geometry: Geometry is the way humans make sense of the multitude of things and movement in our environment that take up space. We observe various things at particular moments in time and can make sense of how they relate to us in terms of distance, volume, and dimension.
  3. Music: Music is using arithmetic, counting things and movement in time, as it applies to sounds and harmony. Special notes are created to keep track of these sounds moving through time. Music symbolizes human creativity in different cultures.
  4. Astronomy: Astronomy is measuring space and its vast dimensions over time. We observe various things over time and can make sense of how they relate to us in terms of distance, volume, and dimension. Astronomy symbolizes the hard sciences, examining movement (physics), material substances (chemistry, geology), and organic substances (biology).

The Liberal Arts continue to form the basis for thought, expression, and reasoning in our culture, from the past to the present and into the future.

Posted in History and Philosophy | Leave a comment