On Eternity

on-eternity

There is nothing more shocking than realizing you have forgotten something you once knew so well. And realizing you are worse at something you once were very good at.

And yet all life is rise and fall.

And that is good–for whatever way do we know to live? Both heaven and hell, as perfect and unchanging, are such monstrous concepts because of this. But true infinity is the coincidentia oppositorum. The yin yang. The mobius strip–the symbol of infinity. Cosine and Sine. The wave and the trough. The eternal drama of one changing into two and back again. Motion is eternal and therefore always appears changing though it follows a set pattern. And that is how we experience living.

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Though many are familiar with religious and philosophical sayings about the beginning being the end, and the divine being a perfect circle (Plato/Campbell), or the circumference of a circle and its center (Augustine), or the alpha (first letter) and omega (last level), or the trinity (think in terms of time), the experience or representation of the divine is generally the outer limits of human experience or the totality of the representation. So, the alpha and omega are the borders to the alphabet (like the circumference and center are borders to the circle by defining or limiting its diameter), which represent the entirety of it. This, however, is not how humans experience the world. Though the eternity of the ocean might be helped by the flowing of rivers which find their sources in mountains (quite the coincidentia oppositorum there–the top of a mountain leading to the depths of the sea), humans, or people, do not experience the totality of being all at once, but generally temporally, or in part. And this is how most would wish to as well! For when I ask students about Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso they frequently respond in the same way!

“What does one do in heaven?” Of course they do not ask this about hell, because in all circles of Dante’s hell the sinners are suffering, except those hopeless few in Limbo. But this is a fine question–do the souls simply revel in eternal glory without willfully desiring anything else? Well, we can hardly imagine doing one thing with all our hearts and forever enjoying it–we think in temporal and material terms about diminishing utility, and how we could never be satisfied doing one thing for all time. And this makes sense given the fact that human nature strives always for growth sprung from conflict, and that life without change becomes stagnant. As the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus once said, “even the posset separates if it is not being stirred.” This is also born out perfectly well by our symbols for immortality or eternity–even on this vase painting below we see several:

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At the top edge is a conjoined chain, mobius strips, together symbolizing infinity, but differentiated into light and dark. We see beneath them two men, one white and one dark. Surrounding them are several other symbols of completeness: a circle comprising white and dark with a dark center. Four conjoined circles with lines through them. A square made of up of nine smaller squares with the space between being light and the squares being dark. And even in front of Polyphemos’ soon-to-be blind eye we see a symbol of the labyrinth, or eternally moving forward and inward. What these symbols represent, rather simply than the divine perspective of a god, is the more human experience of change, or cycle from one thing to another. For though the totality exists, and perhaps is how some divine being perceives things, like the author of a book with the whole story present in his mind, but it is the shifting of things, the turning of pages, until we reach the dramatic conclusion which seems most real to humans!

One of the best symbols for this is the shield of Achilles.  It is surrounded by Ocean and has the Heavens in its center. There is both dancing (leisure) and harvesting (work) occurring on it; there is a trial for a murder (an end) as well as a wedding (an end and a beginning–as represented by rings in our culture); and of course there is a city at war, and another at peace. Humans experience the totality of things only by experiencing the totality of things. Simply to see and understand the symbol does not provide one with such an experience, but it can guide one along the way.

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On the Nature of a Great Books Teacher

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I am often asked what distinguishes a “Great Books” teacher from an average secondary-school educator, and the answer is both subtle and tricky. I suppose, at the base level, the response is that a “Great Books” teacher must be a true educator, rather than one simply manufactured by training. To be a true educator, here, does not suggest that a Great Books teacher knows more than an average teacher, but the Great Books teacher simply has a different orientation or attitude from the normal sort. This is to say that a GB teacher wishes to live a life of infinite and eternal learning. So, in a way, rather than pursuing traditional professional development, a GB teacher desires to be a life-long learner. And though this sounds like being a professor, and is in this respect, less time is spent championing issues, serving on committees, and publishing literature–this time is generally devoted to increased learning, more reading, and pursuing public seminars with a broader community of learners. GB teachers, then, cannot be trained, are rarely found, and are thus diamonds in the rough.

How, then, does one become a GB teacher? On the one hand, of course, there is the attitude of being a life-long learner, and ocean fed by the rivers of boundless thought. This attitude, though natural, may be cultivated in several ways, and in fact, must be in order to be maintained. The path that I, personally, took was to pursue graduate work at St. John’s College, a Great Books school, known for training teachers, specifically, in its graduate program. In the program at my high school which I designed, however, there are teachers from several differing backgrounds who have been successful: some come from undergraduate programs with Great Books emphases like Gutenburg College or Biola’s Torrey Honor’s Program. Others come from backgrounds in local home-school high school programs which focus on the Great Books like Escondido’s own Escondido Tutorial Service. And then others come from traditional teaching backgrounds and learn the ins and outs of navigating great literature through in-house and community seminars run by veteran teachers. The cash-value, or bottom-line difference, thus, is that a GB teacher focuses on process over methodology and values communal, seminar-style learning over the more medieval lecture based curriculum and the more recent project-based learning model currently gaining traction. In pursuing an education which connects us to the past, not only the books, but even the methods lead us backwards.

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This attitude, therefore, of being a life-long learner redirects the current model of education from “giver-of-knowledge to recipient” to the more effective, and more honest model of “fellow seeker, or warden seeking to learn alongside another.” One then connects with one’s students through exploring the depths of the minds of the great thinkers together. One acts more as a final cause, always pushing forward by leading alongside one, rather than pushing from the back as an efficient cause and insisting on rote learning and the stifling practice of espousing unit goals, learning outcomes, and essential questions. What guides a Great Books teacher, and this takes art, which is to say more than simply training or knowledge, is the flow of thought in the current moment about an ancient idea–very much similar to Dante’s perception of the mutable image of the griffin in Earthly Paradise. Though the essence of thing remains unchanging, its image is constantly shifting. a Great Books teacher, therefore, recognizes well that one can never step in the same river twice, and yet one may step into a river many times.

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Essential to understanding the difference elucidated above is that the teacher does not view himself or herself as the giver of knowledge, but rather as a glass through which knowledge may pass–a mediator in the service of illumination. In Dante’s Purgatorio, Beatrice serves as an intermediary between Dante and the Divine which, like mentioned above, allows Dante to see the essential nature of the being through the mutable forms it appears to have. This is what a Great Books teacher does as well. Rather than considering himself or herself the source of wisdom, a GB teacher, as steward to the king (knowledge or truth), seeks to hone, refine, and clarify the knowledge which a great books shares, and in a way, to translate it to whoever his or her audience happens to be, and in whatever language or terms, such an audience speaks. A great books teacher must be a master of pathos, then, in this respect, and while a normal, average, teacher may be a cup filled to the brim with pedagogical tricks and formulae, and a relation of some strength to his curriculum, a GB teacher is an emptied cup, who shows his students how to fill their own by actually doing it himself. Most teachers are unwilling to show themselves in the process of learning–they feel it portrays them as less masterful because it shows that they do not know something. This is most unfortunate, because whether one studies Plato or Lao-Tzu, one perceives that the master does not know, but is always learning. And that is what he has to offer his students–how to learn, not simply “what-to-know”, its crass corruption. So, in its final analysis, an average teacher, overwhelmed by the pride of knowing, forgets what makes a teacher truly great: humility: which opens the golden path towards learning.

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Source:  (Dante and Virgil among the Envious on the mountain of Purgatory)

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Source: (Dante and the prideful)

On Geryon’s Spiral Flight

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As many of you may know, I teach Homer, Virgil, Sophocles and Plato to freshmen at a charter high school, and I spent the better part of two years ago recording the topics and questions considered during our seminars. Since that time, a sophomore course has been added to continue pushing forward and building the Great Books curriculum here into a fully-fledged four year program. Featuring prominently in the current sophomore year is Dante Alighieri’s  Comedia, or Divine Comedy, as it is commonly referred to as. In this text, we go canto by canto, and sometimes line by line. As we have been afforded the deep pleasure to take Dante as slowly as possible, and to discuss in seminar-style varied and deep topics,certain insights have been awarded our efforts, and in the series here commenced, they will be shared in part. Though these conversations and topics are being shared late, they will be all the more pleasant to read through on account of the acquired erudition the interim between event and written account has allowed. That said, the insights below are fresh.

“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!
So did my guide speak to me,
and then he signaled him to come ashore
close to the end of those stone passageways.
And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;
he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.”
(Dante’s Inferno 17.1-18. Mandelbaum tr.)

Geryon, the symbol of fraud, with his just man’s face, covered in whorls and swirls (spirals), descends to the eighth circle of Dante’s Hell where the ten bolgias of the sin Fraud, and its many manifestations, are included. To understand the significance of Geryon’s ponderous, yet quick and easy, spiral descent, one must compare Geryon to the Griffin, which is the dual-natured God, Jesus, at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory (itself created in the same event which created Hell). Just as Geryon, who appears just but is not, represents fraud, so does his flight downward represent the “untrue path” of following “false appearances.” That which seems good, but truly is not. That which appears one way but is not. That which is fraudulent quickly leads one down a dark path, essentially.

“I do not think that there was greater fear
in Phaethon when he let his reins go free—
for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched—
nor in poor Icarus when he could feel
his sides unwinged because the wax was melting,
his father shouting to him, “That way’s wrong!”
than was in me when, on all sides, I saw
that I was in the air, and everything
had faded from my sight—except the beast.”

(Dante’s Inferno 17.106-114. Mandelbaum tr.)

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One must then compare this to the spiral path up the Mountain of Purgatory. To ascend this mountain requires time, patience, suffering, directed will-power, help from the divine (in helpful tips on the location of doors by invisible angels), and a clear and meaningful goal. Also, at the top of this mountain is the Divine (appearing as a Griffin),

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which leads you there the whole way as a Final Cause, rather than Geryon, who acts as an efficient cause or even simply an instrumental cause in lowering one into Fraud. This difference is fundamental and illustrative: the path of following false-appearances quickly leads one downwards, into immobility, torture, and blindness. This happens fast and effortlessly, of course. The path towards the divine takes concentrated toil, struggle, faith, hope, and relying on others (or one’s faith in the process) when the way seems hopeless or unending. And it takes a great amount of time. Does this not perfectly illustrate the difference between fraud and truth, appearance and reality? Try this new diet. Here, this workout plan is easy and quick. Become rich fast! Our world is full of “low-hanging” or rotten fruit. The truth requires discipline, courage, patience, faith, and brutal honesty. Ask any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor, power-lifter, or even the Kung Fu Panda. The secret is that working hard and facing weaknesses is the path of truth. There is no shortcut which results in anything more than backtracking. Choose wisely.

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On Squares

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The symbol of conscious consistency, mother-earth, and form both complete and incomplete, perfect and imperfect, we meet the square. With its straight lines interconnected at right angles, with its rigid uniformity, it serves as an image of conscious control, without the interweaving curves, arcs, and general constant change in perspective of the circle, or any curving shape. Just as a circle might indicate the whole picture, a completed analogy, or an enlightening metaphor, so does the square show the necessity of practice, routine, and regular habit. If a brilliant metaphor illuminates a course in a moment, the routine of the square illustrates the day-in and day-out struggle of slowly perfecting a craft.

For example, if one is a power-lifter, and one only trains three main lifts: squat, deadlift, and bench-press, well the majority of one’s days involve training, accessory work, and just tons of volume of lifting at sub-maximal weights. Very few days does one see major personal records. It is the same across sports and even in more classical endeavors. It is a beautiful thing reading a line from Vergil’s Aeneid in the Latin original and leaving it untranslated and savored as a whole in one’s mind–arma virumque cano. But the vast majority of my days studying Latin involve copying down and drilling paradigms and struggling through lexicons for obscure (and common) words. That is the province of the square–the regular, the every-day, the conscious willing which inches one towards the completion of any endeavor. And when it is does correctly, and does not fall into mindless repetition, each day, though structured similarly, has its own uniquely creative aspect.

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That said, the square also shares in that deformity as well–it may be a purely conscious endeavor unconnected with one’s personal myth, vocation, or teleology. If this is so, then one’s personal libido (energy store) begins to be depleted, and what inspiration begins and generally meaningful activity continues on becomes so much hum-drum that is only a parrot-discipline, lifeless routine. Think of someone you might call a square who never “thinks outside the box.”

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Plain and uniform, it represents the negative aspect of infinity as endless, Sisyphean routine. When properly aligned with the circle, however, one’s conscious movement curves with new perspective and goes in straight lines in order to achieve a conscious purpose.

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Against the conscious nature of a square as a representation of routine, it is also a symbol of order through the insight into necessity which an ordered or disciplined life begets. Though David Hume is undoubtedly correct in saying that we never truly and fully know the connection between cause and effect, through consciously willed-directed activity, one almost always sees results: whether in the gym, learning a language, or acquiring or refining any new skill, one understands that regularly directed and refined energy used in the service of practicing a skill, will improve one’s capabilities over time–to whatever extent one’s consciousness, or talent, allows–until (or unless) one “takes the next step” in a spiral-like fashion. In philosophy, necessity denotes an action which must occur or a conclusion that must be reached, without exception. Therefore, physical cause and effect falls short of necessity’s pristine perfection, but in this temporal, mutable, and fallible sphere, one’s own conscious efforts towards embracing the connections between cause and effect (by repeatedly employing a cause, training, in order to produce an effect, performing better) helps one to see, as far as is consciously possible, that the cause of something, though invisible, is that which is universal and immortal, whereas the effect, which received so much attention, is simply temporal and soon-to-fade. Squares represent that regularity which teaches one about the eternal principles that govern the temporary consequences.

So, just as the a city is measured by its blocks, and we measure our land by acreage, or square meters and square feet, so is our life largely measured by that which we regularly do. Just as Plato says that squares represent the “earth element” in his Timaeus, or that which is most stable in our lives, so does Aristotle assert that good habit, as opposed to simple routine, is one of the keys to a happy or meaningful existence. Therefore, just as the body is the necessary receptive principle of the active principle of the soul, so is the square necessarily conjoined to the circle in its representation of life. Circles show the path in all its perfected completeness, a whole story told. Squares show the method by which one practices to get there, with regular and steady consistency.

On Spirals

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All life is a spiral upward, downward, or inward. Just as Dante’s Inferno is a spiral downward, like Geryon’s fell-flight, so is his mountain of Purgatory a spiral path upwards. Only Paradise, removed from material constraints, has true circles. In our own macrocosm, the Milky Way is a spiral.  And down to the microcosm, so is a snowflake, as Dr. Seuss reminds us in The Grinch, also spiral, or fractal in nature.

A spiral, or a twisted and labyrinthine line, curved infinitely inward, represents both physical and spiritual nature. Even look to the structure of the spiral itself. It begins with a point of departure from the pristine perfection of a circle–continues on a continuous slowly degenerating loop until it again fails to hit its starting point and loops back in on itself. How could this not be a representation of life in all its degenerating progress? Just as one attains greater consciousness and wisdom as one ages, so does the vitality of one’s body begin to fade. Perhaps just as when one marries, one turns one’s focus to a new family, and certain friendships or more tertiary ambitions fall to the wayside.

But spirals can also be directed outward, and while one’s loop is consistently going beyond one’s former boundaries, one can also expand or excel one’s limitations in other endeavors, almost unconsciously. As one begins to master a physical art, like Olympic Lifting for example, making great and deep strides which require an iron-like will, razor focus, and a great heart, one might return to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (only very loosely related) with a mindset primed and ready to learn up to or beyond the level attained in the prior sport. And that, like the spiral, is the deepest reason one pursues sports, as a measure of self-growth.

Not only does improvement in physical arts share its full expression through the spiral growth pattern. Really any measurable or immeasurable endeavor (harder to see, obviously)–which gives one’s self an opportunity to grow in a way that improves one’s capacity to learn and adapt, will invariably improve one to the next level in one’s art or craft–the deepest expression of one’s innermost nature. The greater one’s manner of self expression becomes (Language is the limit of our being?), the greater one’s conscious imprint on this world will be. This has very famously been called the true measure of a man. (know me by my effects?).

Every substantial form, at once distinct
from matter and conjoined to it, ingathers
the force that is distinctively its own,

a force unknown to us until it acts-
it’s never shown except in its effects,
just as green boughs display the life in plants.

Dante, “Purgatorio” (18.49-54)

And so the spiral shows the tripartite, or trinitarian, aspect of growth. Whether it be expressed as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or beginning, middle, and end, or as a man with an empty cup, who then fills his cup, and then empties it to fill it again, the spiral nature of becoming or degenerating is maintained in all endeavors. One must try, fall, and try again. Even in Jonathan Nolan’s brilliant new HBO prestige-show, Westworld, one sees both humans (The Man in Black–played by Ed Harris) and Hosts (Dolores). One sees that both the semi-conscious robots which inhabit this immersive, fun-house, west-style experience, and their violent delight-taking guests (humans) are both struggling to find meaning, to be truly conscious. And therefore a maze is designed as a sort of game to lead, or to the teach one, the way towards consciousness, or recognition of one’s place in the world, by recognizing the nature of the world. This process takes the form of traumatizing the hosts over and over until they finally develop trace memories of what has happened before–these memories are called reveries, and they very much upset the hosts usual Ground-Hog Day existence (they only ever live on a one day or one loop journey, and then as if the River Lethe were turned mechanical, they have their memories wiped after each loop.) One wonders to what extent this is a conscious analogy to us people who time and time again refuse to adjust and change, regardless of the negative results. It is as if we turn our backs on the truth. That said, at least one Host finds the center of the maze, reaches the next loop of the labyrinth, and expands “beyond her loop” to the next level of the spiral.

Dante would agree very much with this analogy for extending consciousness, having himself written (and supposedly had a vision of) a tri-partite after-life, very much with this analogy for extending consciousness. As would the apostle Paul, who tells us to become child-like. One must first be a child, and then “put away one’s childish things,” and then ultimately, one must again become childlike. One must empty one’s cup. One must become like the ocean and expand by placing itself beneath the raging rivers. A master begins as a white-belt, attains expert status as a black-belt, and eventually, his belt wears back through to white as he becomes a master. Such are the uniform lessons of the ever-changing spiral, ever growing outward, or inward, but always moving towards something, like Zeno’s paradox of the arrow which never reaches, but eternally approaches, its destination. Perhaps this is the limit of our mortal thought on immortality–forever becoming and striving against forever being–uniform and constant, without our beloved twists and turns, born of our own imperfect existences.

On the Disunification of Meaning: How Things Fall Apart

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“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”–Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”

Since the earliest days of post-modernism (with its roots deep in Logical Positivism), the agenda of intellectuals has been to separate perception and reality. In creating (they would erroneously say discovering) differing vocabularies and methods of discourse within split-off sub-sections of the humanities and sciences, facts and wisdom became separated from each other. Information replaced essential knowledge. In traditional philosophical language, accidents overcame properties and definitions of an essential nature disappeared from conversations. Meaning, naturally, left both the humane sciences and the lives of those “informed” by them.

Today is simply the logical conclusion of those leftist thinkers and their authoritarian shadows (think of Soviet propaganda, similarly divorced from reality). “Alternative facts” might be said to come from “alternative realities,’–like from one’s imagination, for example. Naturally, both “sides” may argue specific facts and lies and learn nothing and move nowhere. In psychology, if a person lives a false narrative asserting his view of reality against reality itself, a neurosis or psychosis develops. It is a natural defense against incorrect thinking and a check which goes beyond subjective perception. In the coming months and years, the test will be this: does a collective neurosis or psychosis develop? If so, then this vision of reality currently popularized by the new administration and backed up largely by un-vetted but ideologically possessed “cogs in the machine” will be shown for what it is.

All that said, a society is based upon a unified culture which maintains a shared view of values, order, and laws. This current split shows a deeply disturbed and disassociated American culture, a problem that will either manifest its synthesis (this is clearly the anti-thesis part of the disunity) violently or peacefully–through a symbol which instigates disorder, war, and chaos, or through a symbol which promotes order, peace, and harmony. Clearly, one of these camps is stronger than the other at current moment. Perhaps it has been allowed by a sickening and dying of true and essential culture.

In Jungian psychology, this would be the moment when a symbol of unity or wholeness, a mandala, or magical circle, would appear to relieve the tension of the unity of opposites (the coniunctio oppositorum). Let us discover this symbol together before divisiveness sinks its roots into the earth, the darkness of our souls, and breeds its many falsehoods, resentments, and outrages against each other. Each one of us has a duty to unity. Find your way to express it. That is all any one can do.

So, do collective neuroses and psychoses “spread” faster than their individual counter-parts, and if so (even if not), what do they look like? The short answer is yes, and that the illnesses (psychosis and neurosis) which afflict single minds are both quicker to “catch on/spread” and are “magnified” in their collective manifestations. As a mass of people has an inverse relationship between its size and level of consciousness, its movements and thoughts are actually much easier to predict than are the movements of the collective unconscious in a singular individual (with some level of education and culture).

The signs come out in the art, literature (high and low), movies, entertainment, and “celebrity” figures of a society (think of the manner of dress, coverage, and talking points we all “seem to know”). A collective psychosis looks like a definitive split between factions of people which disallows productive discourse. This generally means war or genocide in a people. A collective neurosis would like our current relationship to prescriptive drugs. There are problems and we treat the effects, not the causes (because the causes come from the notion that there is an objective reality that cares little for our limited subjective perceptions. And a tyrannically unconscious little ego cannot accept this basic truth).

And to those of you upset by name-calling who therefore resort to name-calling yourselves, this: keep in mind that those who call you a “snowflake” are likely as frustrated by the weight of their own ignorance as you are. As any scared, battered animal would act, they are lashing out and banding together (this applies equally to both “sides,” of course). Reasoning with them in the way that you might reason with a fellow, un-scared person, can only be a second step. First, you must assert that they, and this will look deeply ironic, are safe, and that you are willing to dialog with them, rather than chastise them. At the least, you will learn what they feel, and in doing so, you may acquire insight into how they think. This personal connection, then, may be used to help this individual dis-identify with a rapidly accumulating and new, un-thinking whole. You might even make a friend, and build a genuine connection based on mutual respect and shared insight. Society, from the Latin word Socius, or friend, is based on such individual connections. The more we connect individually based on individual thoughts, the less we will falsely stand opposed based on “social” issues with well-defined (kind of) partisan talking points.

On Culture or How America Saves its Soul

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The solution to a divided country is not economic prosperity, continued growth, nationalism, identity politics, nor an increase or decrease in legislation. All of those are effects, not causes of the state of the polity. Back at Marquette, I had the opportunity to read “The Funeral Oration of Pericles” from Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War” (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/…/pericles…). In it Pericles discusses why it is that Athenians can stand up to Spartans and achieve parity with them on the battlefield. In terms of raw time spent training, clearly the Spartans should have the advantage (in fact, that is the case in the movie 300, though it clearly completely misunderstood the message). Spartans spent their whole lives training to fight, and yet Athenians who were craftsmen, poets, and writers of speeches somehow stood against them. Why?

A deeply ignorant commentator would immediately jump to the power of their navy without seeing the cause of their naval fleet: the reason they developed a navy is because Athens was on the water and therefore relied on trade to lead to growth. But what was really growing was their culture. In interacting with other cultures and trading economically, Athens was really exporting and continuing to import its unique way of life. And on the battlefield they fared well because they had a unique bond shared between each other as well as a beautiful and lovely home to defend, like San Francisco in the 80s, perhaps even now.

The solution to our current crisis is clear if one observes where in our country is “red” and where is “blue.” The reds believe that the cultured elite of the blue areas of the country have abandoned them, while the blues believe the reds to be deeply ignorant of facts and the basic tenets of humane culture. They are both right. But the solution to this split is not looking the other way but joining together. This involves creating a shared culture, or a shared body of experiences–literary, cinematic, theatrical, and comic which can be enjoyed regardless of one’s “level of culture” and which brilliantly showcase the experience of living for all classes. Think of Euripides for the Athenians, Chaucer and Shakespeare for the English, and Goethe for the Germans. What America needs now is a uniting artistic voice which encompasses and expresses the unified feelings of (for) the entirety of the populace. Obviously this will be difficulty, and yet it is what is necessary. For some one person, or some group of intrepid, insightful, and investigative hearts and minds, greatness awaits. And greatness always involves unifying, not disintegrating a people. Culture binds people together. Nothing else will do.

Until Americans stop thinking in terms of poor and rich, elite and common, black and white, and every dichotomy which surely does exist in the service of only one side, America will be hopelessly divided into endless factionalism, precisely what Alexis de Tocqueville (as well as Founder James Madison in The Federalist), the greatest American writer (though French), was worried about as far back as 1831. And at that time there were only twelve million Americans and a much smaller America. Now there are well over three-hundred million Americans, and they (we) cover the entirety of the continent, sea to shining sea (including also a few imperialist holdings in both the Pacific and Atlantic). Factionalism over unifying culture has been a cancer in this country perhaps directly mirroring the rise in physical cancer research and treatments for at least the last twenty five (or one hundred ninety) years. Only when we as Americans begin to think like Kennedy and think: “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country,” in a legitimate and honest way, will the soul of this great land begin to heal, awaken, and grow. Each and every selfish thought and action taken in the service of a divisive cause, or negligent of one’s fellow man, attacks American unity as well as one’s own spiritual unity. In serving, we are served. In dividing, we are divided. It is a simple solution in contrast to simplistic economic ones, and it starts precisely with you, the individual. If you will not make a change, this country will not change. Take up the laurel and make a difference, even if just a small one.

The Purpose of Life as Cosmopoesis

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In all literature, philosophy, theology, politics, and religion the goal of a life is to bring order to chaos. Whether this be done through a philosophical system, applying strict reasoning axiomatically from the highest principles to the lowest elements, or through giving the rule of habit and law to those who will be governed by one’s order, this motif moves throughout all history, time, and geography as a fundamental, though cryptic, truth. The best place to start, when speaking of cosmopoesis, or world-creation, as an opus magnum, therefore, will be in the richest and most robust worlds created by man, epic literature.

The reason that epic literature has here been chosen to serve as the vehicle of one’s highest design is simply the pride of place this genre receives in the minds of those who read and study it. E.M.W. Tillyard weighs the epic as the master-achievement of a poet laying his claim to greatness on one seminal work, and Louise Cowan simply calls it, “so monumental and grand a mode of poetic expression…” The epic, in short, is the opus magnum of a poet, or their master-work. But what exactly makes an epic the product of a life-time? Is it its form or narrative structure, as commonly argued by scholars like Tillyard above? No, not at all. The reason epic literature, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Dante’s Commedia, captures our imaginations and endures through hundreds, or thousands of years, is precisely because an epic is not simply a piece of literature at all, but the creation of a kosmos, the creation or making (poiein), of a world.

Now, a detractor will immediately remind us that only the Divine has created a world, and this world, of course, is eternal and everlasting. This, however, even if one reads one’s Old Testament, is not quite correct. Looking to Proverbs 8.27, one observes that the Divine does not create the water and the earth, but rather sets limits to it. And really, this helps one’s reasoning if the existence of imperfection and sin are an issue to one’s thinking–the form applied to the world was perfect, but the temporal and material nature of the earth and beings on it tends towards decadence–therefore imperfection. This goes a bit afield, however. The point is that the purpose of an epic poem is to create a world which both represents and improves on the world at large by applying the principles of the “outside” world, or the “Divine/Natural Laws” to a plot, characters, and world within a story, or by means of logos. This, if one follows, John, is precisely the same act of creation which the Divine in Christianity enacted–regardless of theological/mythological tradition: the initial Divine act is also an ordering from chaos in Greek mythology, following Hesiod, the Hindu faith, and all the Abrahamic religions. The major motion forward, and key to one’s life on earth, however, is the aspect of giving logos or the form and structure necessary to a world.

How, though, is the giving of form or logos/morphe to a piece of literature in any way the same as the Divine setting limits to the earth and giving nomos, law, morphe, form, and logos, meaning, to a world? Well, it is precisely the same, but on a microcosmic scale. The function of an epic is to apply the law of the Divine to a world which exists and thrives according to the same law as the world outside. An epic begins with conflict, and then strives towards order, and in so doing, it orders the soul of one who reads it to such an extent, if it is understood at its deepest levels, that one then becomes capable of ordering one’s own kosmos, or work of art, literature, politics, et cetera according to one’s own ability to comprehend the divine law. The epic, as the highest human achievement, then enjoys this status, because the epic is the creation closest in nature to the divine act of creation/ordering. Just as the creation of the world was not the generation/production of it, so is the creation of an epic not simply a production but a performative act. Just as the logos did not create the world and disappear, so does it not disappear in one’s epic either. In fact, so long as the epic exists, the logos infused within it maintains its performative and transformative power, and in this way, an author’s personal immortality becomes linked with the transformative and enduring effect of the epic-work–the Homeric Chain, and one’s linking to it, as it were.

One’s purpose in life then, one’s deepest meaning, would lie in two major events: baptism by water: or the pursuit of and acquisition of the wisdom necessary to acquire the insight into the fundamental purpose of one’s existence–that is, realization of the task of one’s life, and then baptism by the word, when one sets out and accomplishes this task, if one does; just as Dante in his Vita Nuova, realized that his master-work would be a poem, rivaling and surpassing his own master’s, Virgil. And then he achieved this in his Commedia. But of course, he owes a debt of gratitude to Virgil, as it was the sublime wisdom of Virgil (and several other philosophers, warriors, poets, and thinkers) which unlocked this potential in Dante himself. Just as Kant says in his Critique of Pure Judgment that increased exposure to works of Greek and Latin refine and sharpen one’s mind, so does then exposure to epics, naturally, begin to order one’s being to such a degree that if one were, say, a person of five talents, willing to double his or her talents, that perhaps with some divine help, one might add to one’s self just one more, and in the eleventh talent, one might leave a perpetual act, a work, which continues to influence those who live after one dies, in such a way as to order their beings in a universal and particular way, so that they, with tremendous work and luck, might continue the chain down the line through history, and that, rather than simply the generation of further humans, and production of value or conveniences, is the true purpose of human existence.

This is but the first general introduction to this subject. Stick around as this author makes a run at his own opus magnum, for better or for worse.

In Part II, we will look at connections between Westworld, Homer’s Iliad, and Dante’s Commedia for further evidence of this universal truth.

To Return to Teaching is To Return to War

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To return to teaching is to return to war. And no, not simply the war on ignorance, as some might lamely suggest. Returning to teaching is all out war against time, space, and one’s personal endurance. It tests and requires one to will to commit to an endeavor which requires such a consistent, steady output of nearly all one’s energies that the profession most definitely could be considered life–(or having a life)–threatening in the service of a cause greater than one’s self. The classroom is a war zone, and the level of alertness one has to maintain, for 7 straight hours, drains one’s personal battery like a phone charged for two minutes too long. And then one does it again and again without hope for respite or a cease fire. War.

Your enemy will not let up.  And you cannot give in. This war is a war for the soul of the country, our country. Our people are more divided than they ever have been by thoughts and feelings that they barely stop to consider, while people are less and less able to speak to each other in meaningful ways (even with unprecedented access to communication devices). No one is more aware of this fact than an educator. And no one is in a better situation, or more meaningful one, to make a stand. Grassroots is a term frequently thrown around; it means starting an initiative from the “bottom floor” or “ground” and letting it grow, organically, rather than attempting some “top-down” legislative action. Few people are closer to the bottom than teachers, and more capable of affecting healthy, structured growth, like a gardener, truly. What do we grow? We grow citizens, thinkers, and people with a shared culture, value-set, and capacity to question. We grow the next generation of fighters of literally every fight at every level. And we take our work, our mission,  very seriously. Because we are the watchers at the gate. If we fail. America fails.

Failure. The chance of failure is always high, because there simply is no guarantee of success, no magical formula to mold and form young beings. There is plenty of empirical data,  but it has limited applicability in a battle which takes on infinite forms. Also, teaching is an art, not a science, and no amount of data, theory, or methods will make one an effective, not to mention great teacher. No way. Like a general who has a feel for battle, an intuitive grasp of how to maneuver troops and win skirmishes, a teacher must feel the pulse of the classroom and take action to achieve the class’ goal. One has to innovate, adapt, and improvise on the fly. No book can teach one to do this with grace. No thing learned will build one’s strength under pressure. A teacher must be strong to survive in a classroom. A teacher must be titanic in strength to thrive. Every single teacher knows exactly what her personal mettle is, there simply is no hiding from it. The act of teaching reveals it.

Incredible teachers are master molders of the soul. They have ordered their own souls in such a masterful and unique way that every young mind they meet is permanently stamped by their unique mark. This person is utterly fascinating to others–impossible to describe, impossible to miss. A force of nature. And that is what they offer your children. And they give your children their all. Everything they do, they do to better your children and the world we live in. Let that sink in for a minute. Everything they do revolves around bettering the children and this world. Even when a teacher is relaxing at home, that is only because they are trying to bring it the next day. Rest is commodified. It exists only that the teacher will perform even better tomorrow.

What is scary is just how easy it is to fail as a teacher. All one has to do is leave one’s heart out of it for a day, maybe two. And it all slips away.  One’s hold must be firm and constant. The consistency must be machine like, like an ever flowing river, constant and unstoppable–it just is and always will be so far as people perceive. But there is a will behind this feat, one that must choose to do this task everyday–give it one’s all, just to hope that one thing one ever says might stick in the soil and grow. Grassroots.

The reality of one’s singular nature as the giver of knowledge and former of souls is less aggrandizing than it is cause for panic. If one is tired or burnt out and does not feel like grading, then the grading does not get done. If one neglects to create an assignment, then the assignment is not created. If one does not plan out one of the 160 or so lessons one has to plan and then perform a year (as sole writer, director, and performer in one’s year long movie), then a lesson is not planned. There is no one there to do any of the work for a teacher, to cover for one where one is lacking. And therefore people can become highly critical of teachers–any flaw, however small, immediately comes back to the teacher. “That lesson did not resonate.” “This assignment could have been better.” “When will this essay be graded?” There is no institution, nor team, to fall behind. To teach is to know the bitter reality of the word personal responsibility.

Why then do people do it, given the extreme nature of the task, and the critical rather than utterly respectful attitude turned towards them? The profession offers few perks to those motivated by capitalistic desires. Especially in California, one is guaranteed to live paycheck to paycheck for the first several years–while one continues to pay to be a teacher by finishing a credential or then clearing it (which takes time and money away from a teacher). Those who desire a regular “work/life” balance, well they also should stay away from the profession, especially at the secondary education level where extensive planning and grading are a part of the job. There is nothing, in this world of glitzy advertising and marketing, which would attract some sane and rationally motivated person to the job. What, then, causes these noble souls to sacrifice their time, money, and life essence to help the children of other people grow and succeed? It is precisely the nobility of soul just casually mentioned which has this effect. Know me by my fruits says the teacher. Common are those who wish to help–rare are those who do.

A teacher who makes it through the inferno of her first years knows that she makes a tremendous difference, and that he or she is one of the few people capable of doing what she can do. A teacher lives in a state of knowledge of the value of her craft, while others remain largely ignorant of whether their contributions help society as a whole. That is the sole and primary benefit of teaching, against the tidal wave of negatives. Everyday, when a teacher goes to sleep, exhausted, possibly after a 15 hour day which has followed four other days, exactly the same, a teacher knows that when she dies, the best part of her soul will remain with all those she touched. And should that happen, a small battle in the eternal war is won, time and time again.

How to Be Reasonably Well Informed

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A few weeks back, I was conversing with a friend, and she was appalled at how conversant I was on a wide-array of issues: sports, culture, and politics. In her mind, and I do not begrudge her this, my main source of information came from Ancient or more recently Medieval epic poems. Naturally, she was correct that I spend most of my time either in a gym or reading old books, but what I was surprised at is that she had no idea just how easy it is to be informed in this digital age. With major news, sports, culture, and political sources now largely being consumed online, it is easier than ever to know what the social, cultural, political, and generally news-worthy events of the day are without ever seeking to find them. So long as one uses some social media service, Twitter and Facebook being the best I have found, one can quickly change one’s Newsfeed from a desolate stream of cat videos and baby pictures into a steady torrent of rich content, or a true RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication/Rich Site Summary). All one needs to do is to “like” the following sites–ones which now auto-populate my Facebook feed–and one will receive a steady stream of relevant content on a variety of topics daily.

News Sites: Now, instead of weighing-in on just how liberal or conservative these sources are, I will simply leave this link here which does it better, and I will encourage anyone to “like” a healthy balance of each source–the point of the news, of course, is to inform one’s view of the world, not to bias it.

News (Liberal):

  1. The New York Times: Generally considered a liberal news outlet, it offers a wide range of articles on issues domestic and international while also offering a balance view of economic and political issues through its famous liberal commentator, Paul Krugman, and its famous conservative one, David Brooks–neither are Trump fans, however.
  2. The Washington Post
  3. The Los Angeles Times
  4. USA Today
  5. CNN

All you have to do is click “like”on these sources on Facebook, and their articles, free of charge, will appear on yours Newsfeed 24/7. Like the sources above, and you will be off to a good start.

Conservative Political/News sources: Admittedly, a few of the following three sources can be incendiary at times (number four, in particular), but in the interests of balanced coverage, the following three sources are useful for understanding a strong conservative perspective.

  1. The Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp–who also owns Fox News)
  2. The Chicago Tribune
  3. Fox News Network
  4. Breitbart
  5. The Blaze

For fairly balanced international coverage of US and international matters, the following International News Sources are excellent:

  1. Financial Times
  2. The Guardian/The Guardian US
  3. BBC
  4. Der Spiegel
  5. The London Times

Now, onto political resources:

Politics:

  1. Politico
  2. Vox
  3. The New Republic
  4. The National Review
  5. The National Journal
  6. The Nation Magazine
  7. The Atlantic (also a cultural resource)
  8. The Jacobin
  9. Slate
  10. Harper’s Magazine

Like the sources above, and you will have the beginnings of strong and balanced coverage of major and minor political happenings in real-time. Again, these will simply show up in your Newsfeed ready to inform you.

Next, in order to take a break from the heavy hitters above, cultural literacy is equally important to knowledge of domestic and political happenings. The following few sites will do a fine job of “hipping you” to current trends in fashion, art, music, and style.

Culture:

  1. Rolling Stone
  2. The New Yorker
  3. GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly)
  4. Esquire (can be sultry)
  5. The Atlantic
  6. Vice (sometimes NSFW)
  7. Cracked (a slightly more intelligent take on Buzzfeed)

Getting even more specific, here are a few sites which will keep one updated on matters of

Science and Technology:

  1. Scientific American
  2. Scientific American Mind
  3. Gizmodo
  4. Tech Crunch 
  5. Popular Science
  6. Popular Mechanics
  7. BBC Earth.

If matters of education, elementary through higher education interest you, here are a few choices:

Education:

  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education
  2. Edutopia
  3. The History of Western Thought (Ha!)
  4. The Atlantic (again)
  5. TED (not a personal favorite, but it has its uses)

And finally, if one wishes to learn about sports and sports happenings, the following sources will quickly get one up to speed.

Sports:

  1.  ESPN
  2. Barstool Sports (divisive and frequently offensive language,ideas, and images–but a substantial multi-million person readership)
  3. Fox Sports
  4. The New York Times
  5. Sports Illustrated

And if one has a desire to be high brow and literary, these few sources are unparalleled.

Literary:

  1. The New York Review of Books
  2. The Times Literary Supplement
  3. The London Review of Books
  4. The LA Review of Books
  5. The Paris Review

Now, as written above, all one needs to do is to click “like” on the sources above via Facebook or “Follow” on Twitter, and each will immediately begin to populate your newsfeed. This will allow you not only to receive seemingly disparate information from varied sources but allow you to see trends in reporting that might otherwise remain unseen to you if you did not have such a wide array of resources at your disposal.

All the above said, this list is by no means exhaustive, but if you have been wondering how, exactly, one goes about receiving and sifting through the seemingly infinite data available today, this is a good start.