June 30, 2008

1. Variations On A Theme From Confucius

In a recent e-mail, I tried to explain my goals as a writer:

Yes, my manner is rational, while my content is often scornful of reason. I like to think that my work is part of the Western tradition — part of the tradition that goes back to the Acropolis, the Renaissance, Nietzsche, etc. I alter that tradition by bringing in Eastern perspectives, Jung, etc. The tradition must change and grow in order to remain vibrant. The ultimate goal is to revitalize the tradition by changing it — to bring Shakespeare alive, to bring Thoreau alive, etc. I hope to show that Thoreau is consistent with Zen, that Shakespeare is consistent with Jung, etc. I don’t want to destroy the tradition, or ignore it, I want to enrich it.

The epigraph of my book of aphorisms is a Confucius quote: “A teacher should teach what is new by resurrecting what is old.” Or one might say

2. Seven Brothers, One Worldview

Quantum physicsoccult connections between distant objects; reason baffled
Shakespeare’s worldviewall of nature marching to the same beat; man and the rest of the universe part of the same organic whole
Gnostic/Hermetic/Alchemical Traditionfrom about 100 A.D. through the Middle Ages; viewed the universe as an organic whole; believed the mind can affect external objects
Renaissance philosophyBruno, Pico, Ficino, etc.; inspired by Hermetic writings; pass along Hermetic ideas to Rosicrucians, Freemasons, etc.
Chinese philosophylooks for acausal connections, occult connections; seeks clusters not causes
Jungian psychologyespecially synchronicity, which notes acausal connections, meaningful connections between man and nature
Primitive worldviewbelieved in occult connections between objects that were once in close contact; believed mind could affect external world

Greek philosophers spoke of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. They also spoke of a fifth element (quinta essentia, fifth essence, quintessence), a non-material element, which Plato and Aristotle called Idea, and others called Aether. In this fifth element should be sought the mystery of life, the spark of life, the origin of life. As quantum physics says that communication between distant particles is “super-luminal” (faster than the speed of light), so the Hermetic thinker Robert Fludd said that Aether is “subtler than light.” One might argue that the ancient theory of elements is discredited, and so is the ether theory, but future attempts to understand the world, and to understand the occult, may return to the idea of a non-material something, a quintessence.

3. Waterville Valley

I recently spent a “long weekend” in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, a somewhat isolated valley that lies south of the Presidential Range, and north of the Lakes Region. It’s a scenic valley, with mountains on every side, a river along the bottom of the valley, and smaller streams coming down the mountains. A line from the Psalms kept running through my head: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.”

There’s no downtown, and no feeling of history; it’s a ski resort. There are great trails for cross-country skiing (or hiking, or mountain-biking). The adventurous can hike to the east, to the TriPyramid mountains, for “backpack camping.” The less adventurous can do “car camping” to the west of Waterville Valley, along Tripoli Road.

We rode the chair-lift up Snow’s Mountain, then walked down along Cascade Path; the little waterfalls are ravishing, and we vowed to return when the water is warm enough to swim. We found a hotel that accepts dogs; more such hotels are listed at takeyourpet.com. Many people rave about the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) lodges, cabins, and tent sites, but the lodges don’t take pets. If you want luxury and history, consider Mount Washington Hotel. We were lucky to be in Waterville Valley just before the black flies came out (we were there from May 23 to May 26); they wreak havoc for about 6 weeks.

4. Miscellanies

A. If you’re visiting Boston, consider Boston By Foot, an organization that offers guided tours of several Boston neighborhoods; the tours discuss architecture, literary history, etc. A similar organization is The Freedom Trail Foundation, but their tours have a narrower focus. The Freedom Trail is a 2.5-mile trail through the heart of colonial Boston. There’s also a newer, longer trail called the Boston Harbor Walk.

The National Park Service offers free, guided tours of The Freedom Trail, but they seem to lack the rhetorical pizazz that’s needed to make the past come alive. A better choice might be the free tours of Bunker Hill, the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), and the USS Cassin Young (a World War II destroyer); these three tours are in Charlestown, just over the river from North Station, at the terminus of The Freedom Trail.

I’m reading Johnny Tremain with my daughter. It’s a historical novel, a children’s classic; it’s about a silversmith’s apprentice in colonial Boston. Boston By Foot organizes tours of Johnny Tremain’s Boston.

B. Sine ira et dolore [without anger and suffering]. Is this a good formula for spiritual growth, for the detachment that comes with growth, for the tranquillity that comes with growth?1

I found this formula while reading Marie-Louise von Franz’s remarks on alchemy — more specifically, her remarks on the symbolism of the phoenix. Because the phoenix rose from the ashes, and was resurrected, it was used by alchemists as a symbol of Christ (who was also resurrected). The phoenix was viewed as “a remedy against rage and suffering, remedium irae et doloris; for he who finds this bird is cured of all suffering and affect. It therefore shows something like a possibility of spiritual transcendence, or of getting above these most common sufferings of mankind.”2

C. Saw three films recently: The War Tapes, a documentary about the Iraq war, The Kite Runner, a movie about Afghanistan, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The War Tapes was filmed by cameras attached to American soldiers (or their vehicles). It helps the viewer to understand what soldiers go through, though it doesn’t convey the feeling of combat, and it doesn’t throw light on the larger political issues. The Kite Runner grabs your attention, but when it’s over, you realize it’s just a series of implausible events. It has lots of graphic violence, and I’m surprised it isn’t rated R (it’s rated PG-13). One must admit, though, that it teaches one about the ethnic tensions in Afghanistan, and about life under the Taliban. Diving Bell tells the true story of a French journalist, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was paralyzed by a stroke, but managed to communicate, and even write, by blinking one eye. It’s an authentic, touching movie — good stuff. It’s based on Bauby’s memoir, which was published in 1997 and became a bestseller.

Before his stroke, Bauby was studying The Count of Monte Cristo, and planning to write a modern version. One of the characters in Monte Cristo, Noirtier de Villefort, is paralyzed like Bauby, and communicates by blinking, as Bauby tells us in a chapter called “Yet Another Coincidence.” Surely Villefort is the only such character in world literature, the only character who resembles Bauby so closely, and Bauby was not only reading about him before his stroke, but even planning to write a modern version of Monte Cristo. A striking coincidence indeed. Could it be more than a coincidence? Could it be some sort of synchronicity or foreknowledge?

D. On May 9, three days before the earthquake struck Sichuan, China, large numbers of toads were seen in Sichuan, and were shown on the evening news. Some people thought this portended a natural disaster. (Toad video here; Wikipedia article, mentioning toads, here.) One is reminded of the animal movements that preceded the tsunami. Before the Sichuan earthquake struck, various Chinese seismologists predicted such an earthquake, and people noticed strange clouds (“earthquake clouds”), and disappearing ponds.

E. In my book of aphorisms, I argued that the Iraq War has infinite causes. In an earlier issue of Phlit, I noted that airplane crashes, such as the Tenerife crash, have infinite causes. Every event has infinite causes, hence philosophers in India had recourse to the Doctrine of Mutual Arising, according to which everything in the world is causing and being caused, everything arises together. As the historian Arnaldo Momigliano put it, “Historians [were] not created by God to search for causes. Any search for causes in history, if it is persistent ...becomes comic — such is the abundance of causes discovered.”

F. Goethe said, “A man’s faults are the faults of his time, his virtues are his own.” The same positive, affirmative spirit can also be found in this Goethe quote: “What a man longs for in youth, he attains in old age.”

5. The Straussian School

A. There have been two great intellectual revolutions in the Western world in the last century: depth psychology and Eastern philosophy. The Straussians look at depth psychology and say, “We can ignore that.” Then they look at Eastern philosophy and say, “We can ignore that, too.”

B. Here’s how the Straussian Bill Kristol began his column in today’s New York Times:

Half a century ago the philosopher Leo Strauss remarked that the passage in which the Declaration of Independence proclaims its self-evident truths “has frequently been quoted, but, by its weight and its elevation, it is made immune to the degrading effects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of misuse which breeds disgust.”

This is a good example of Strauss’s prose style. Perhaps one in ten readers can understand this sentence at first reading. What a convoluted sentence! Would anyone call this good prose? If Jefferson had written like this, the Declaration would baffle schoolchildren, instead of inspiring them. But Straussians don’t seem to understand what a poor use of language this is, they don’t seem to understand that obscurity is the greatest literary sin, they seem to think that Strauss’s utterances are lofty and learned. Obscurity corrupts taste, obscurity is infectious; it has already infected the worlds of literary criticism and art criticism. Strauss contributed to the corruption of style, the corruption of taste.

C. There’s a striking parallel between the Straussian school, and the school of literary criticism called New Criticism.3 What Wikipedia says about New Criticism is also true of the Straussian school: “Its adherents were emphatic in their advocacy of close reading and attention to texts themselves, and their rejection of criticism based on extra-textual sources, especially biography.” I doubt there was any direct influence between the two schools; I suspect it’s a case of two groups reaching the same conclusion independently, two groups reacting against the same earlier tendency.

The New Critics went so far as to view “a text and its functioning as an autonomous entity, intimate with but independent of both author and reader.” I don’t think the Straussians went this far. Likewise, the New Critics argued that a text has multiple meanings, there’s no one true meaning. I don’t think the Straussians went this far. The Straussians believed that the meaning was often hidden, but there was a meaning.

6. The Variety of Life

I started reading a book that I recommended in an earlier issue: The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived, by Colin Tudge. I think I should make a foray into biology since my foray into physics yielded a bountiful harvest. After reading a few pages, and looking up some terms on the Internet, I’ve learned the following:

Perhaps biology could be wrapped up in a fictional work, as Sophie’s World wraps up the history of philosophy in a fictional work. I recall a PBS film that fictionalized Darwin’s career. One of the best German novels of the 19th century, according to Nietzsche, is Stifter’s Indian Summer (Nachsommer), which is chock full of biology and other sciences.

Biology has a Big Conclusion and a Big Mystery. The Big Conclusion is that species don’t really exist — at least, not in a durable, Platonic way. This raises the question, Does anything really exist — exist in a durable, Platonic way? Or is everything shifting and temporary — as philosophers have often said?

The Big Mystery is, Can natural selection alone explain all of life — all the intricate body parts, such as the eye, all the intricate machinery of DNA, etc.? One could make a long list of prominent thinkers who questioned whether natural selection alone could produce all this: George Bernard Shaw, for example, and Arthur Koestler. Shaw thought that evolution was pushed along by a Life Force. Koestler was intrigued by Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characters. Jungians have suggested that evolution may be pushed along by synchronicity.

When we study psychic phenomena, we find that the mind, the will, can reach almost everywhere, and do almost everything. Are we to believe that the will has no role in evolution? That species evolve by natural selection alone? Quantum physics shows that mysterious forces, occult forces, are ubiquitous. Are we to believe that these forces play no role in evolution? Perhaps contemporary biology thinks that it can prove its theses, that the evidence is abundant, that everything occult can be dismissed out of hand. But isn’t that what physicists thought before the quantum revolution? Isn’t it possible that biology will be revolutionized as physics was? I’m not suggesting that Darwin’s laws are false, just as today’s physicists don’t regard Newton’s laws as false. But perhaps natural selection isn’t the whole story.

7. Books on Biology

I discussed Tudge and others in the “Biology and Physics” section of my sketch of Western literature:

Perhaps the best writer in the field of biology is Darwin, whose most famous works are On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Voyage of the Beagle. The Norton Critical Edition of Darwin’s writings is a useful one-volume abridgement. One of Darwin’s staunchest supporters was the distinguished biologist Thomas Huxley, dubbed “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Thomas Huxley’s grandson, Julian Huxley, was a famous biologist in the early to mid twentieth century. Though a leader in the field, Julian often wrote for a lay audience. One of his chief works was Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.

A few decades later, Lewis Thomas became a popular writer on biology and medicine; his first collection of essays was called The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. Thomas had a keen interest in words, and wrote a book on etymology called Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher.

Like Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould was a popular writer on biology, and like Thomas, Gould published several essay-collections that were aimed at a general audience. Gould’s first essay-collection, Ever Since Darwin, was published in 1977 and became a bestseller. Gould also wrote larger-scale works, such as Ontogeny and Phylogeny and the massive Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which attempts to summarize the current state of evolutionary biology, as Julian Huxley had attempted to do sixty years earlier with his Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.

If you want to read about man’s impact on nature, consider Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People. Also consider two books by William Cronon: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.

A popular book by a scientist on the cutting-edge of knowledge is James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (available in a Norton Critical Edition).

One of the leading biology writers today is Colin Tudge. Tudge has found a “happy medium” between scholarly and popular. Tudge has written about early man, genetics, the development of agriculture, the biology of trees, etc. Tudge also wrote a tome called The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures That Have Ever Lived.

As Tudge makes modern biology accessible to the layman, so Gary Zukav makes modern physics accessible to the layman. Zukav’s book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, was a bestseller in many countries. Zukav is interested in philosophy and the occult, and he brings out the philosophical significance of quantum physics. Another popular book about modern physics is Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.

One of the few modern novelists who was also an authority on modern science was the British novelist, C. P. Snow. In addition to fiction and literary criticism, Snow wrote The Physicists, which contains lively sketches of leading modern physicists. Snow is best known for his lecture “The Two Cultures,” in which he laments the rift between the humanities and the sciences in the modern world — laments the fact that literary people are ignorant of science and vice versa.

Another modern novelist who wrote about science is Arthur Koestler. While Snow wrote about modern physics, Koestler wrote about the history of science in general; one of Koestler’s books on science is called The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe. Koestler is best known for his novel Darkness at Noon, which draws on his experiences in a Fascist prison during the Spanish Civil War. Koestler described his adventurous life in a memoir called Arrow in the Blue. Koestler had a keen interest in the unconventional and the occult; several of his books, including The Roots of Coincidence, deal with the occult. He was particularly interested in what might be called “alternative biology,” or “occult biology,” and he questioned Darwin’s view that evolution can be explained by natural selection alone. In his will, Koestler provided for the establishment of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh.

A popular introduction to many different sciences is Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Like Lewis Thomas, Bryson is interested in words; Bryson wrote a book called The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way.6

8. Selling Philosophy

I finally did it. I printed a new version of my book of aphorisms — the first new version in nine years. I used a printer called Lightning Source (as I mentioned in a previous issue), and a local graphic designer modified the old cover for me. I printed 50 copies, and I’m handing them out and mailing them out. I sent several to prominent writers (such as Mark Edmundson), hoping for an endorsement that will help to launch the book. So far, reaction to the book has been mixed; some people are completely indifferent, and seem unwilling even to read the back-cover blurb, while others are delighted to receive a copy, and eager to start reading it. If you’d like a copy, Paypal me $10, and I’ll send one anywhere in the world.

The most encouraging thing that has happened so far is that my new Chinese translator has received a positive response from two Chinese publishers.

I’m also working on my “other book” — Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature. This book was published in Taiwan six years ago, but was never published in the U.S. I’m expanding it, polishing it, improving it. It may turn out to be more marketable than my book of aphorisms — just as Schopenhauer’s essays were more popular than his chief work, The World As Will and Idea.

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. Leonardo’s figures possess this detachment, this tranquillity, while Michelangelo’s express ira et dolor. back
2. Individuation in Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz, ch. 5, p. 209 back
3. Elsewhere I discussed the similarity between the Straussian approach and Deconstruction.

The Straussian approach also resembles the approach of contemporary Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. According to Wikipedia, “MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) is widely recognized as one of the most important works of Anglophone moral and political philosophy in the 20th century.... MacIntyre seeks to find an alternative to Nietzsche’s philosophy and eventually concludes that only classic Aristotelian thought can hope to save Western humanity.” back

4. One might suppose that eidos is the root of “idea”, but actually idea comes from idein, to see. Idein is related to the Latin videre, to see, which is related to the word “wit”. Eidos and idein not only sound alike, but seem to be related; what one “sees” are “forms”, or perhaps one could say “forms are that which is seen.” back
5. Ch. 1 back
6. Other word books:
  • John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote The Word Detective.
  • Henry Hitchings wrote Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. Hitchings also wrote The Secret Life of Words.
  • David Skinner wrote The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, which discusses Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, a dictionary that ignited a “furious language debate.”
  • Simon Winchester wrote The Professor and the Madman (sometimes called The Surgeon of Crowthorne). Winchester’s book deals with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.