History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

What Does God Do All Day, Anyway?

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[Note: I reluctantly use the masculine pronoun to refer to God because I found I couldn’t write this without using pronouns, and using “she” sounds to me like an affectation. I don’t mean anything by it.]

I’ve been reading quite a bit about Islamic philosophy and history lately, and have just started getting into early medieval thought in the Muslim world. There’s a lot about it that I find extremely interesting – for one thing, Neoplatonism was an huge influence on Muslim philosophy, in large part because the Greek work Theology, which was enormously influential in the Middle East, and which was spuriously attributed to Aristotle, was in fact a summary of a large chunk of the Enneads of Plotinus. I pretty much never tire of Neoplatonism.

I also find medieval theology quite interesting, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s easy at a glance to look at some of the questions that medieval philosophers and theologians wrestled with, and to find them abstruse and quite ridiculous. For example, you could take the so-called Euthyphro Question of Plato, which found its way into the contemplation of many great minds. The question runs thus: do the gods do what is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods do it? Maybe take a moment to play with that one before going on, up to you.

On its face this sounds like a semantic chicken-and-egg question that doesn’t get us anywhere, but if you take the idea of an omnipotent God, then it leads to some interesting cul-de-sacs. For example, one question that divided early Muslim philosophers was based on this dilemma: is it possible that God could act unjustly, or out of pettiness or meanness? Of course not, some would argue – God’s nature is goodness and perfection, and He would never act in an imperfect way. But does this not set a limit on God’s omnipotence? Who’s to say God can’t act arbitrarily? Job might want to have a long talk with such a person.

Later in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas would deal with an interesting related question, asking if God could always be counted on to act logically and lawfully, or if some day we might find ourselves confronting a square circle, because God felt like changing the rules that day. Aquinas was very much of the opinion that God would act consistently, which led to an important consequence – by studying nature and its laws, we can learn something about God.

There is a position that was current for some time in Islamic philosophy called Occasionalism, which had a similar kind of logic. In this doctrine, because God is omnipotent, nothing in the universe can occur without His consent. Further, because God is not just really really powerful, but is all-powerful, there is no difference between what He allows and what is, and His consent is in fact identical with what exists. There is no distinction between God wishing something to be and its being so. Consequently, what appears to us to be causality is an illusion. All things that happen occur as they do through God’s will alone, and God is the sole causal power in the universe.

One variant of this theory holds that God does not in fact need to go around ordaining special providence for the fall of every sparrow, and making sure your car starts when you turn the key, because that would be a drag. Maybe He has better things to do with His day. Instead, things are imbued from creation with a kind of steering logic based on God’s intention that carries them through time without additional support, so things go as they’re supposed to.

I find this kind of thinking interesting, in part because it shows how people imagine what God is actually like, not just in the abstract, but in terms of a question that rarely occurs to me – what does God do all day, anyway?

Is God like a big light up there in the sky emitting love and golden light? Or does God actually run around all the time making things happen, tending supernovas, and making sure the sky doesn’t go out? Maybe it would be nice to create things with an intrinsic causal disposition to carry them through creation so He doesn’t have to worry about tending everything, but what would He do otherwise? Maybe it’s nice to just take it easy once in a while, drink some coffee, and read the paper. It sounds nice to me.

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September 28, 2015 at 8:53 pm

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What is inhuman?

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This morning I’m reading Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” and wonder if what I love most about the poem is precisely what Weil loves least – its unflinching recognition and affirmation of the simple truth that much within humanity’s heart is not itself, human. To the moralist and idealist, this is an insufferable torment; to me, it is the beginning of redemption.

Weil evokes lines from the final book of the Iliad:

No one saw Priam enter. He stopped,
Clasped the knees of Achilles, kissed his hands,
Those terrible man-killing hands that slaughtered so many of his sons.

And for a moment at least, re-reading these lines, I think that Homer is even greater than Shakespeare, and I love him for giving us an image of human beings reduced to their essence by the uttermost extremity of conflict, yet neither is evil.

Such a view holds them, and us, in acceptance, and does not require us to purge ourselves of inhumanity, and to become, thereby, inhuman.

Her essay:

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September 15, 2015 at 6:55 am

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The Creation, the Unconscious, and such

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The Muse, Picasso

The Muse, Picasso

I’ve just started poking around in one of the autobiographies of Lou Andreas-Salomé, an exceedingly interesting Russian woman of prodigious charm and intellectual gifts. Three of the men who fell under her spell were Friedrich Nietzsche (who sought her hand in marriage), Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud. Any individual who knew all three men is worth our attention, but the fact that she dazzled all three is intriguing indeed. I’ve read many accounts of her life and decided it’s time to go straight to the source, to see if her magic comes across in her writing.

She begins her autobiography in a grandly literary, Freudian style, ruminating on the primordial infancy from which we call come forth, and reflecting on the irony that the bounds which define our earliest memories are a shadowy territory which fluctuate in recollection between awareness and non-awareness, identity and non-identity.

This immediately struck me, as I’ve also been reading Erich Neumann’s Origins of Consciousness, which examines the history of mythology as a projection, or externalization, of the psychological stages of development of the individual ego through a process which Carl Jung termed “individuation.” In Neumann’s theory, insofar as the consciousness of the individual has a collective component, which is expressed in the symbolic language of dreams and mythology, we can study the way personal consciousness evolved over time by studying the developmental history of mythology. As he puts it, from the perspective of consciousness, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, which is to say, the development of the individual duplicates in microcosm the historical evolution of the species.

Neumann begins with cosmogony, or myths of world-creation, which in his view are an externalized account of how individual consciousness comes into being out of an early state of incoherence. In many isolated traditions around the globe, we find parallel accounts of world-creation out of a primordial chaos or darkness, with the act of creation itself a configuration of the originary matrix into an intelligible, orderly arrangement.

One thinks immediately of the first verses of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Sleeping Muse, Brâncuși

Sleeping Muse, Brâncuși

Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.

Jung, of course, wrote an important psychological commentary on the Bardo Thodol, in which he highlights the implicit cosmogonic myth in this Tibetan description of how consciousness comes out of the indeterminate “between” state after death, and reincarnates into the world again, once more taking up the eternal round. The circle or sphere is thus identified by Neumann as the mythological symbol of the primoridial pre-conscious state par excellence; he terms it the ouroboros. It was only by reading Neumann that it became apparent to me just how much of Buddhist doctrine can be accounted for as parallels to mythological descriptions of individuals in relationship to the unconscious – I now see the Buddhist doctrine of tathāgatagarbha as simply another version of the primordial goddess – but that is a story for another day.

What interest me here is that Neumann and Andreas-Salomé arrived at the same emphasis on the originary primordium in parallel. Both, of course, were in educated in the same milieu, and it is the milieu which here interests me. Their convergence in focus on the undifferentiated pre-conscious state provides some evidence for a thesis I’ve long held: that Jungian psychology is, on the whole, a re-articulation of the basic post-Kantian German idealist position in empirical-rational form. The basic problem of this worldview is the relationship of individual consciousness to the indescribable reality that serves as its basis, and which is in fact its original essence in a deep sense.

A final thought before I close this reflection – we are living in an intensely secular age, which, by and large, can only dumbly affirm religious and mythological symbols as literally true or literally false, and is therefore blind to its symbolic character. We are thus consigned to live in a period which lacks the spiritual sophistication enjoyed, say, by any educated Irish monk in the eighth century, or any student in a Paris university in the thirteenth. Part of the reason for this is, of course, the great success of science, but part, I increasingly believe, is because the two great Western European traditions which were in the process of bringing mythological thought forward into the modern age in terms which we could value and accept were both destroyed by the Nazis: the secular Jewish intellectual tradition of Europe, and the German post-idealist tradition.

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September 13, 2015 at 10:24 am

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BBC’s In our Times with Harold Bloom and Jacqueline Rose

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Ophelia (detail), by John Everett Millais

Here at Mesocosm we’re huge fans of Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio show In our Times, which may be streamed on demand here. The format is simple – Bragg moderates discussions of interesting topics with a select group of 2-4 academic specialists. Hosting that show is basically my dream job – I’ve listened to spell-binding episodes covering everything from Faust to the An Lushan Rebellion in China to the Cambrian explosion.

I was unusually transfixed by an episode on Shakespeare and Criticism, a half-hour discussion between esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom and the dazzling Jacqueline Rose of the University of London. Their conversation quickly took flight from Shakespeare, using a discussion of Hamlet as a touchstone for an animated defense of the western canon, upheld by Professor Bloom, and a bold probing of its limitations by Professor Rose. It’s a conversation I will long remember, which articulately embodies a dialectical tension in the way the humanities are taught, and I recommend it very highly.

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September 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm

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Nietzsche laughs at those who look to the skies and find but themselves, but not without kindliness

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Flipping idly through Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, I came across the following:

Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves or their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good or me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such presuppositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged – as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became norms according to which ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ were determined – down to the most regions of logic.

Thus the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seemed to be at odds there was never any real fight, but denial and doubt were simply considered madness. Those exceptional thinkers, like the Eleatics, who nevertheless posited and clung to the opposites of the natural errors, believed that it was possible to live in accordance with these opposites: they invented the sage as the man who was unchangeable and impersonal, the man of the universality of the intuition who was One and All at the same time, with a special capacity for the inverted knowledge: they had the faith that their knowledge was also the principles of life. But in order to claim all of this, they had to deceive themselves about their own state: they had to attribute to themselves, fictitiously, impersonality and changeless duration; they had to misapprehend the nature of the knower; they had to deny the role of the impulses in knowledge; and quite generally they had to conceive of reason s a completely free and spontaneous activity. They shut their eyes to the fact that they, too, had arrived at their propositions through opposition to common sense, or owing to a desire for tranquility, for sole possession, or for dominion. The subtler development of honesty and skepticism eventually made these people, too, impossible; their way of living and judging were seen to be also dependent upon the primeval impulses and basic errors of all sentient existence. (section 110, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

The Gay Science is probably my favorite of Nietzsche’s books – it has a more developed and mature insight than his earlier works, while retaining a lightness of tone and lacking the ponderous quality that increasingly dominates his later works.

Here we find a potent formulation of an insight that is, to my mind, one of his most important contributions to the history of philosophy – namely, that philosophers and sages, too, speak and act from self-interested positions, and very often what we find in their timeless systems is a projection of their own priorities and values onto the fabric of the cosmos itself. There is no impersonal philosophy.

And as one hand writes cherished conclusions in the Book of Nature, the other hand simultaneously erases all memory of having done so. Thus the sage usually discovers in the world what they most value within themselves. As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna memorably put it, “You are like a person who, riding a horse, forgets that very horse.”

Let us be forewarned, and proceed with caution, where the sage claims to have found the great truth, or to have brought themselves into identity or alignment with it, be they philosopher, scientist, doctor, or priest, of the East or of the West. They may have simply found themselves, and forgotten where they had looked.

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May 24, 2015 at 12:09 pm

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Thupten Jinpa on Buddhism in the West

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I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Thupten Jinpa speak about his new book A Fearless Heart, which is an accessible and entertaining presentation of traditional Tibetan techniques for cultivating compassion informed by recent research in psychology and neuroscience. It reminds me a bit of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in its ecumenical and rationalized approach to sharing Buddhist techniques for self-cultivation. It’s full of engaging autobiography and short on life stories of the Buddha or hagiography of various masters.

Dr. Jinpa has served as the principle translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years, having earned an esteemd geshe degree in the traditional monastic curriculum, and subsequently turning to lay life and earning a PhD from Cambridge.

During his presentation, I thought quite a bit about an episode in the biography of Je Tsong Khapa, the Tibetan master who founded the Gelukpa lineage in which Dr. Jinpa was ordained. According to traditional teaching, Je Tsong Khapa had a formative moment of profound personal transformation in a dream. He had been studying the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way, which focuses on the ultimate nature of reality, and in his dream he was approached by Buddhapalita, one of the key figures of that lineage. Buddhapalita held a copy of his principle treatise in his hands, and he touched it to Je Tsong Khapa’s head. At the moment the scripture made contact with the crown of his head, Je Tsong Khapa had a tremendous flash of insight into the nature of reality that animated the rest of his life.

So I remarked to Dr. Jinpa during the Q&A session that Buddhism had come to many cultures in its transmission out of India, and each time it has done so, it has taken on new symbols and new stories to serve as the matrix of its message. But its transmission to the West appears to be the first time that it has been transmitted into a context of no symbols.

I asked him, given the repertoire of profound images in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the integral role they have traditionally played in the process of self-cultivation and transformation, what happens to these practices when they’re abstracted into a scientific language, and the symbols are left behind?

Given his background, Dr. Jinpa is in a unique position to comment on this issue. He said it’s a very complicated problem, but in essence, he doesn’t believe that Buddhism will become a major religion in the West in the foreseeable future. The way he sees it, it tends to be concentrated into pockets of highly-educated elites. So the question becomes, not what form Western Buddhism will take, but how, in a larger sense, will Buddhism influence European and American culture. And in this regard, he believes that mindfulness and compassion techniques, which are already being taught in hospitals, have the most potential to provide a positive influence.

I found this a very illuminating and thought-provoking answer. Of course, Buddhism has typically first attracted the attention of well-educated elites in any new zone it enters. This has been true in Tibet, certainly, where ironically, the adoption of Buddhist beliefs by the imperial Yarlung court may have been a factor in precipitating the empire’s downfall, as doing so undermined the adherence to traditional religious beliefs that legitimated their rule.

But that is another story. The bottom line, I think, is that it becomes a question of doing the good that you can in the way you can.

It’s a nicely-written book, and if this is a topic of interest to you, you should check it out. I also like Jeffrey Hopkins’s Cultivating Compassion.

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May 21, 2015 at 11:36 am

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It’s Time for a Reappraisal of Central Eurasia in History

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Camel, Northern Wei

Camel, Northern Wei

Lately I’ve been studying up on the history and culture of Central Eurasia, which has been home for millennia to important settled and nomadic people, including the speakers of proto-Indo-Europeans, the Parthians, Scythians, Huns, Xiongnu, Turks, and Mongols, to name a few.

The story about these peoples has long been told from the perspective of the high centers of civilization. To the Greeks, Romans, ‘Abbasid caliphs, and Chinese alike, these are barbarian invader-folk who periodically amass in sufficient numbers to cause serious problems by raiding and invading past their steppe hinterlands, toppling empires and bringing ruin. Such is the legacy of the Huns and Mongols in particular, who, according to popular conception, surged out of the steppes on horseback to leave smoldering ruins and piles of skulls in their wake.

While this model isn’t without a grain of truth, as usual the truth is more complicated than that. There is a widespread and traditional antipathy between settled peoples and mobile populations, and wherever these two forms of society are found we see similar stories told by the latter about the former. They are thieves, primitive warriors, and bellicose brutes – this is said not only of the Huns by the Romans, but of the Apache by the neighboring Pueblo peoples in pre-modern times.

In the last generation in particular we’ve started to see an important revision to that prevailing conception, which examines history in the light of the Central Eurasians, not as a usually-unimportant people dwelling at the perimeter of history, but as a worthwhile subject in its own right, and that shift in emphasis is challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom. What is regarded by imperial powers as infringement on their rightful borders, for example, often dissolves into complex disputes regarding encroachment into new territory and violation of trade rights by some of the societies in question. And far from the brutish horsemen of their adversaries’ histories, we’re gradually coming to appreciate the complex societies, economies, and cultures of the peoples of Central Eurasia, which has been a key nexus of cultural interchange and transmission for at least six thousand years.

In the 19th century when historians started looking closely at the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the general understanding was that classical civilization and urban culture began in Greece and Rome. It took a couple of generations of looking at overwhelming evidence to the contrary before we collectively revised that understanding and appreciated the degree to which complex urban societies existed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt for millennia before the Greek iron age. I think we’re in the midst of a similar revision now with respect to Central Asia, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these societies cannot be understood simply as a footnote to Roman and Chinese history. They are themselves key drivers of history, and the closer I look at them, the more I see that the history of Europe and Asia simply cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of these cultures.

There is a lot of great information out there on Central Eurasia; one source I recommend to interested readers is Christopher Beckwith’s outstanding study Empires of the Silk Road.


In other news, a great recent discover of mine is the wonderful BBC Radio series In Our Times. Our lively host Melvyn Bragg guides animated discussions of fascinating topics in history, art, science, and culture, typically with three university professor guests. I’ve listened to spellbinding episodes on the Samurai, Sappho, the Venerable Bede, and the An-Lushan Rebellion, and look forward to streaming many more. Episodes are 45 minutes in length.

In Our Times Archive.

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May 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm

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