Know Thyself

I’ve posted about self-reflection before. It’s something I try to do often- with positive intent, rather than as an impulse to self-criticize. This time of year, especially, seems to bring it out. The longer nights somehow induce a whole pile of inward-turned thinking.

I tend to see the holiday season as a good opportunity to engage in some reflecting and a little bit of analysis as I check in- with friends and family, certainly- but also, and perhaps most importantly, with the person I see in the mirror every day.

This wasn’t my favourite year of all time. 2014 started with Dad in the hospital- and we lost him a few, very long, months later. I’m not sure I’ve really encompassed that loss, to be honest. It hits me at peculiar times- when I find myself picking up the phone to give him a call, for instance.

That keeps happening because there has been a fair amount of positive stuff going on, as well. And Dad was the first guy I’d call when something great was going on. I’m working at a job that, while it’s outside of my ‘regular’ wheelhouse in many ways, challenges me and makes me feel that I’m contributing something of value. Something bigger than me- and something that benefits a whole lot of people.

And my team is pretty freakin’ phenomenal- so the fact that I come to a place 5 days a week and get to hang out with people I like and respect… well, that’s a damn sight more than I was able to say this time last year.

I haven’t been nearly as prolific as I’d like to be, writing-wise, either here in the WordPressWorld or with the creative projects that I have on the go. This is partly due to serious computer issues- Abe (my heretofore trusty MacBook) has given up the ghost well-and-truly, and you couldn’t pay me enough to set foot anywhere near an Apple Store until the consumptive consumerism of the season has settled somewhat. The SO’s laptop is filling the void as best it can, but, really, I need my own tools in order to work most effectively. I’m a creature of habit- and I like the comfort of my settings and keyboard set-up.

More than the technical issues, though, the world-as-it-is continues to cause me enough existential stress that I am completely and constitutionally unable to figure out where to start. I ruminate and seek response/reply for some of the insanity I see out there, and I just cannot do it.

That a disproportionate deal of the insanity arises out of the implementation of unthinking, anti-intellectual applications of outdated and irrelevant religious ideology, is a truth that is as evident as it is hard to swallow.

The other day, this article, by John G. Messerly, showed up on one of the newsgroups I read fairly regularly. I perused it with interest, and with something like alacrity, a couple of days after Xmas. I admit that my thoughts tend in that direction all the time- but when there is in-your-face evidence of credulity at every single turn, questions of belief seem to surface even more frequently.

I don’t get it. Truly, I don’t. How seemingly-intelligent people can subscribe to blindness of belief in fairy tale figures- however wonderful the myths may be- and societal controls that are millennia-old.

I can suspend my disbelief for long enough- at this time of year, at least- to allow for some wonder and child-like innocence to show up. When I watch the original Miracle on 34th Street, or It’s a Wonderful Life or, even, Elf, I get the need to believe in the supernatural. The realities of life can be so stark and shocking in comparison that the potential presence in the world of Kris Kringle, or Clarence (or George Bailey and all the residents of Bedford Falls, for that matter), or Buddy the Elf (and his adopted Papa Elf- how do you not love Bob Newhart- and Lou Grant as Santa?) can take a bit of an edge off of the harshness of the realities of this world.

And the world can be a pretty harsh place.

Messerly notes:

” …a significant body of scientific evidence suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction. Religion may be a coping mechanism for the stress caused by the lack of a good social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States.

There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.”

The fideism about which he speaks- the idea that faith is independent of reason- isn’t an epistemological theory I can understand. In any way.

I’ve read a whole lot of William James- I’ve included him, and his theories about religious experience, in course syllabi, in fact- but I just can’t get the justification behind his ‘will to believe’. It involves such circular reasoning that even thinking about it for too long makes me nauseated with the motion sickness.

Pascal’s Wager is even more inexplicable. The inherent intellectual and rational cop-out– that it ‘costs’ nothing to believe that (a) god exists, so why not believe in that god, since it might be beneficial in the long-run (forgive the paraphrase and over-simplification for the purpose of succinctness)- makes me grind my teeth in frustration.

Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of (or, more correctly, to) faith’, an attempt at apologizing for the inherent paradoxes and contradictions in Xianity, flies in the face of everything I know about the need for rational examination and discourse among human beings.

(Okay, his concept of the personal, individual interaction with the god, and the need to translate the values espoused by religions into positive, exemplary actions– as opposed to theoretical imaginings, used in judgment but without acknowledgement of context, relativity or relevance- may have some dialectical merit, but isn’t, unfortunately, the go-to impulse of most institutionalized religions.)

The presuppositions required for such (and, really, all) apologetics don’t hold water. They can’t hold water, in my pragmatic (I do get the problem with using that word/philosophical ideology, associated as it is with the foundational theories of Mr. James, especially after taking him to task for the irrationality of his fideism. Just goes to show that he was a man of his time and context, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that he’d defend that ‘will to believe’ stuff so much, were he around today. He was, after all, a scientist.), humanistic understanding of the world.

I’ve always tried to approach my interactions with others with a ‘live-and-let-live’ sort of mindset. I’ve said before that I don’t understand militant atheist types who run down their ideological opponents with personal slurs and the very-public questioning of their mental capabilities. Even when I agree with them. Wholeheartedly.

My years spent teaching the historical, social and literary origins of many of the world’s religions led me, I thought, to a level of ‘tolerance’ for the views of others- a hope that because the basic impulse underlying the construction of all religious belief stems from a need to understand and order the world around us, that we might, as we continue to evolve, come to the awareness that we have other, less-polarizing and -polemical ways of answering these questions.

The realities of the world are causing me to challenge that particular propensity. As I witness what seems to be a rising tide of ideology-over-equity, of belief-over-justice, I’m starting to feel as if indulging any such unexamined and irrational beliefs (an indulgence that is, admittedly, a wee bit patronizing) makes me complicit in the epidemic of anti-intellectualism that is rampant the world over.

That’s one of the very personal not-so-fabulous realities I’m having difficulty comprehending, let alone, assimilating right now.

“Religion may help us in the way that whiskey helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk.”

One of the manymany generous gifts I received this holiday season was a bottle of the Irish whiskey pictured up there ^^^^. Since my travels in Scotland this autumn turned me into a Scotch drinker, my littlest sister thought it prudent to enlighten me about the wonders of the Irish Water of Life, in order to acknowledge our familial heritage and give the distilleries of the Emerald Isle their fair due. There might be a bit of an implied dig there as well- at my lack of productivity in the writing department of late, but I’m assuming best intentions all around.

In any case, the whiskey is quite lovely (my first experience of a blend) and the message on the bottle is even more poignant. It describes the ages-old remedy that Irish scribblers of all ilks have applied to break the back of that most insidious and terrifying of beasts- Writer’s Block.

I’m not prepared to hit the bottle that hard for the inspiration/clarity I seem to be lacking these days, but a dram or two of an evening certainly won’t go amiss as I try to figure out the avenues down (up?) which my thoughts and insights and reactions to the world seem to be traveling.

The ancient Greek aphorism know thyself – apparently originating with the sun god, himself – has been associated with any number of philosophers. Like other such pithy sayings/admonitions (there are Ten, specifically, I can call to mind quite readily), this best known of the maxims (there are over 100 of them) recorded on Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, is interpreted in a number of ways.

Some suggest that it is a commandment to leave the things of the gods in the hands of the gods- to avoid overreaching and seeking that which the human mind is incapable of understanding. To know one’s place, in the universal scheme of things, and not look to ascribe meaning to those things outside of human purview.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses this particular edict to explain why he has no time to think about mythology/the gods or the nature of other ‘irrelevant things’. Since he has not yet achieved the self-knowledge the Oracle demands, he thinks it ridiculous to investigate the obscure, when the obvious remains misunderstood.

My interpretation of this Platonic wisdom says that in order to even begin an approach to understanding the elusive, one must focus on first comprehending oneself and one’s immediate physical– and temporal- environment. Postulating the origins or nature of something entirely supernatural and hypothetical without any sort of demonstrable proof while ignoring/failing to understand the evidence that speaks to the natural order of things is folly– in the truest, oldest and most complete senses of the word.

(Folly: from the Old French for “madness”. Also: evil, wickedness, mental weakness, unwise conduct).

In my quest for equity and respect and ‘tolerance’ I have always maintained that belief in the next/other world- and the god(s) who rule(s) it- is fine. No skin off my nose if people want to continue playing make believe long past the point of rationality and reason. To each their own, and all that.

Until it isn’t fine. Until those beliefs creep into our political and social and educational systems and permit the deterioration of the strides we have made in understanding and defining the real world. Strides toward knowing ourselves as humans- imperfect but adaptable and evolving people with the ability to shape our own individual and communal destinies- rather than as subordinate creatures of a created creator with an unknowable ‘plan’ for our future.

As I continue my self-reflection into the New Year, this new awareness is likely to be the biggest bit o’ something with which I’ll be wrestling.

Tolerance = complicity… that’s a tough one.

While belief may the easy answer for some, elenchus and dialectic are hard for everyone.

Freakin’ Socrates.

Perhaps I’ll need more of the whiskey than first thought.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
SOCRATES, HIMSELF, WAS PERMANENTLY PISSED…

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!

Eleatic, on a Tuesday

 

Fingers crossed that Old Faithful here hangs in while I get this done and posted. Not that my laptop’s name is actually ‘Old Faithful’. That would be silly. His name is Abulafia, but I call him Abe (Thank you, Umberto Eco. I only steal from the best…) Not holding out a lot of hope- especially since I went ahead and reblogged an older post earlier. Call me reactionary. Let’s see how this one goes…

Not only was my recent trip to Scotland and London filled with all kinds of friends and food and family and frivolous fun (seriously, the cup runneth waaaaay over with ALL those things), but it offered a chance for me to do a fair bit of geeking out of the historical kind over those two weeks.
We covered a lot of ground. We saw a lot of things. And, given the fact that Scotland and England are ‘countries of a certain age’, there was a whole lot of history to cover in a rather condensed period of time.

Beginning in Glasgow- and starting things off with a night out to forever remember with my lovely scottishmomus and her other half (there will be more about that evening of festivities forthcoming)- we visited many places of yore and learned vast bookloads of information about the history, culture and people of both Scotland and England.

Everywhere we went- Highlands, Lowlands, train journeys east, and then south- we were entertained and educated by some of the finest storytellers I’ve been privileged to meet. A history geek’s dream. And I’m nothing if not a history geek.

I’m still trying to process everything- and to take on board the geography, the stories and the artefacts to which we were privy over the two weeks we spent discovering that part of the (more or less) United Kingdom. I have yet to get through the pictures (again, computer issues cramping both my style and deep-seated need for timely organization), but I am enjoying the Scotch (I’m a Scotch drinker now- I seem to have become my grandfather while hanging in the Highlands) and absorbing it all as I think back over all of the experiences (while wishing I was back there more than a little. I’m serious, Anne-Marie. I could very much see myself living in Glasgow- you have been warned…)

Anyhoo. I’ve been easing back into things and re-embracing ‘real life’ as best I can, while getting over the plague I contracted while in Edinburgh (such is my desire for experiential immersion in the history, I decided to pick up a case of the pneumatic plague while exploring the underground vaults and hidden closes of the Scottish capital).

Which kind of leads me into the topic of tonight’s latest rant…

What the freakin’ hell is with the 24/7 fear-mongering that is everywhere these days? Okay- so I admit that spending two weeks completely (okay- mostly. I had to check on the cats and make sure all was still good back home) unplugged and disconnected offered a breath of oh-so-fresh existential air that my disdain for all things media-driven may be heightened slightly, but c’mon. Seriously?

Today CBC News Network has been ‘all-ebola’all-the-time’. Really. The CBC. That venerable, true-North-strong-and-free institution that I’m usually the first to defend.

And in brief moments when it wasn’t re-hashing the same old stories about unpreparedness and new precautions, they were telling us about the sentence received by a South African who shot his girlfriend through the bathroom door.

I have yet to figure out the extensive coverage that the latter story received. The former- well, that one is easy. It’s all about keeping the masses engaged with spectacle- and in order to engage the masses these days you have to freak them out, piss them off or titillate their seemingly-intrinsic voyeurism in 60-second soundbites. Nothing else seems to crack the self-absorption and speak to the lack of attention span that seems to be the norm.

I have witnessed insane degrees of hysteria and over-reactions and chest-thumping and reactionary support of violence all over social media as well- some of the fb groups and news feeds I’ve happened upon- when the laptop was functioning (come on Abe- hold it together for me for a little longer…) bear witness to all kinds of credulous and ill-informed rhetoric about the topics making headlines and jamming our technological devices on a daily basis.

It makes me want to bite something. And I haven’t even checked what those jokers at Fox ‘News’ and the like have been saying about the state of the world since I’ve been home. That would be too much to take.

I’ve waxed philosophical a time or two about my despair at this propensity we have to let the media- and our governments- direct and/or dictate our collective reactions to these things. I had thought that the vacation might help to clear the air and re-set some of my impressions about such things. And it did, I suppose. Just not exactly in the way I thought it would…

I mentioned the storytellers we encountered on the various tours we chose. They offered different and differing perspectives on history- and how that history informs and influences current events, like the recent referendum in Scotland, for example. A very well-read and well-informed group of people, to be sure.

While in Edinburgh- that most-haunted of cities- we made the most of our limited time there (and the early autumn Hallowe’en-ish temperatures and atmosphere) and took part in the spookiest tours we could find. We visited the vaults under South Bridge, Mary King’s Close, and the Greyfriars kirkyard with its resident poltergeist.

All of our guides were entertaining to the nth degree- especially, it has to be noted, Gerry, who led us to the kirkyard and declaimed and discounted the Disneyfied myth of Greyfriars Bobby, while questioning the creativity of JK Rowling, and convincing us of the veracity of the poltergeist’s existence.

Despite the diversity of perspectives on the town’s history, each of our guides (the daytime ones, too) were consistent in at least one thing- that, historically, the walled city of Edinburgh was a pretty grim place in which to live. What with things like the constant effluvium from that lovely tradition of ‘gardayloo’ that sent the waste of the many residents flowing downhill to the the Nor Loch (which was also the city’s water source), the recurrent episodes of plague, and the rise of the Resurrection Men who turned body snatching into a fine art, Edinburghers had to take their entertainment where they could find it. Such as it was.

What it was, often, was attendance at public punishment and execution. Oh, the stories. So many- and told so vividly and with a typically morbid sense of humour and relish- were about the reactions that the good citizens of Edinburgh had to the working out of the legal system of the day.

Historically, it was entertaining beyond belief. Historically. I sort of naively thought that we, culturally speaking, might have moved beyond such entertainments by now.

‘Fraid not. It all stems from the same impulse. Our need to forget- if temporarily- our personal/societal problems prompts us to get caught up in the spectacles provided- eagerly- by our leaders and media.

Jebus. It’s downright Eleatic.

The Eleatics were a pre-Socratic philosophical school, founded in the early 5th-century BCE by Parmenides. Among other things, the Eleatics opposed the theories of Heraclitus- specifically the idea that all existence can be summed up as perpetual change. Those Eleatics were all about the idea of perpetual unity- that things cannot come from nothing (so, no Creation, for example) and that things cannot arise out of things from which they differ.

In other words, reality- and, by extension, humanity- is unchanging.

This brief, Coles’ (or ‘Cole’s’- hee!) Notes, version of their wisdom is illustrative of a realization that fairly gobsmacked me as I innocently reflected on my travels and the things happening on my tv upon my return. We haven’t changed. Not fundamentally. Not enough. Certainly nowhere near the extent to which we are capable.

I never saw myself as a modern-day Zeno, although I can certainly appreciate the influence of the school on, say,  Platonic metaphysics, for example. I tend toward a more optimistic view of things than all that. But c’mon, peeps. The evidence is kinda sorta there. It’s bombarding us from the media- social and otherwise. It’s being made manifest in our policies of governance and corporate interactions. It’s dividing us socially and politically.

How have we not moved past this impulse? Focusing on the fear and the perceived justice of the punitive punishment of those deemed to be the source of the fear feeds the implementation of measures that gradually strip away our freedoms to engage in dialogue about the real sources of the ills of the world- whether those ills are naturally-occurring viruses, the normalization of crimes like domestic abuse, or inflammatory human rhetoric that seeks to divide rather than unite.

Have we progressed not-at-all from those Edinburghers who would gather at the Mercat Cross to witness, with enthusiasm, the punishment of the unfortunates of the city?

Whatever platitudes we might claim to embrace, we don’t really like change. We fight it- or (like certain Prime Ministers I could mention- at least as regards things like climate) deny its existence.

Travel, at its best, serves to open our eyes to different ways of looking at our world. I’m not sure I expected that this particular lesson was one that I’d take away from two glorious weeks in places- housing people- that I learned, quickly, to love.

Although its composer says that this particular song really isn’t about anything, I think that some wisdom can be found, imbedded in ‘those cheap pop lyrics’ (yes, Roland really said that).

‘When something on your mind, became a point of view…

When it’s all too late…

Change. You can change.

We must change. Or suffer the consequences already knocking at our doors.

And while we’re listening to Tears for Fears…

I’ll leave it at that- partly because the song’s title speaks for itself, partly because I could go on about that one song- and its importance in my life- for at least another 1600 words, but mostly because I think I’m pushing all the luck there might be. Abe has done a remarkable job of holding it all together, so I’m going to give him the rest of the night off.

Time for a dram. Lowland- from Lothian, near Edinburgh. I miss Scotland. And being unplugged.

‘You can see the stars and still not see the light’

Well that was interesting.

I was just dismissed.

Not as in ‘fired’.  But completely and utterly dismissed by my employer.

As in ‘to refuse to accept or recognize; reject.’

As in out of hand‘without thinking about or discussing it.’

Wow.

As I sat fuming stewing ruminating about the conversation that had just played out around me (since I didn’t seem to be actually involved in the discussion in any real way- I was very much being talked at rather than spoken to) my recent thoughts about atheism and secularism kept resurfacing.

Not because I feel as though I am in any way dismissive about the beliefs of others (I am more than happy to engage in dialogue about where our opinions may differ and/or correspond, provided my partner in discourse is also prepared to listen as well as speak) but because the assumption of rejection out of hand and dismissiveness about traditional beliefs is one that often drives critics in their, well, criticism of those who decide not to believe in the existence of supernatural actors in the world.

Way back in the day, Xenophanes rejected the Greek gods as human projections and recorded his musings explicitly for the posterity of future generations.  All this in the 6th century BCE.

He was a satirist (think Stephen Colbert 2500+ years ago) who took aim at the anthropomorphized pantheon of gods, the veneration of athleticism, and ‘popular’ writers like Homer and Hesiod.  He was a social and religious critic way before such became the norm at media outlets like the Huffington Post.

His skepticism was ahead of its time and based on five key points about a singular god who is NOTHING AT ALL like humanity.  Instead, Xenophanes believed in a god that:

  • is beyond human morality
  • does not resemble humanity- in physical form- in ANY way
  • cannot die or be born
  • is not part of any divine hierarchy
  • does not intervene in any way in human affairs.

Interestingly, some early Christian apologists (Clement of Alexandria for one) actually appreciated a lot of what Xenophanes had to say.  His theology went against the traditional polytheism of the Greeks (and the Romans and the Egyptians) and seemed to jibe with at least some of what the early Christians were saying about their god.

Except for the parts about not looking like people, not being able to die or be born, and the whole thing about total lack of intervention in human affairs.

(Clement was pretty good at picking and choosing among the syncretic beliefs that surrounded him in the shaping of his own theology- and, since he was a little tiny bit gnostic at times, it’s not hard to see why Xenophanes’ concept of the supreme, unknown and unknowable god was appealing to his Alexandrian sensibilities.)

Anyhoo.

Xenophanes lived a long, well-travelled life, spreading his ideas and engaging in dialectics, and influencing later philosophers and theologians.  He is generally viewed, in the Western philosophy of religion, as one of the first monotheists, although his writings speak of his concept of god as being ‘supreme among gods and men’, suggesting that he hadn’t given up on the idea of multiple deities all that completely.

My thoughts, since the end of my afternoon meeting have been circling back to this idea of dismissal vs. discourse and are reinforcing- if any more such reinforcement was the least bit required- that I am not, currently, where I should be.

I am doing all that I can to remedy this state, and while the going has been slow (to massively understate the reality) I have to hold on to the fact that I am moving in the right direction.

This song has been running loops in my brain for the last few hours.

(I realize that I keep coming back to the Eagles lately.  What can I say?  They are songwriters for all seasons/situations)

‘So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key,’

My encounter today has reinforced the necessity of finding my particular key, and continuing to surround myself- where- and whenever possible- with those who are looking to engage in dialogue and dialectic without resorting to dismissiveness and out of hand rejection.

There remain those, like Xenophanes, who demonstrate the ability to ‘look up in the sky’ and manage to ‘see the light’ as well.

That’s a ‘victory song’ worth remembering and holding onto.