Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

I am thankful for the ability to make an error.
I am thankful for the desire to correct it.
I am thankful for living in a Nation founded upon the understanding that all Men must be free to do both, in body and soul.

I am thankful to the Men and Women of the United States Military, who through defending this Nation, make it possible for me to lead the life I do, and with those I love.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Adding The First Leg to the Three Legged Stool of Reason - Reasons of Reason pt.5

T.S. Elliot – Poetry communicates before it is understood

Where do the legs of Reason come from? Two of them came from (or at least were first shaped by) the Greeks. How?

As we touched upon earlier, the poetic leg is transmitted down through a long line of stories and myths, passed by the likes of community elders and bards likely via campfire, from person to community and from Mother to Child, to one and to all. And while these stories contain the inductive observations, and attitudes towards life – and evaluations of them, which a people recognize and nod their head to, and stir their soul to; how do they get there?

The many who authored and updated our early tales, took fact, opinion, evaluation, and passed them on up past simple ideas and into wider poetics, to become part of a greater Whole, a poetic force which simple and particular facts have no comparative power or place to gainsay, but how?


If our archeological record is relatively intact, then it took about 160,000 years to reach the point where something resembling culture, as in Art, Poetry – The Good, The Beautiful and The True, reached the point where it could begin to define a community (see the cave paintings of Lascaux). From there it took another 30,000 years before we progressed from wandering bands to settled agricultural communities, and I don’t think it too much of a stretch to say that we did that because our grasp of the whole had progressed to the point where we could bring it to bear upon the particular.

During that time, over the course of thousands of years, our furbears worked out the mental equivalent of a deeply hierarchical, integrated and massively hyperlinked, set of compact stories; stories that direct our attention to the One behind the many, to how important it is for us to recognize and tap into it, to the consequences of doing and not doing so, and how we can best interact with our fellow Many to realize The Good, The Beautiful and The True within us.

For us, or any generation, to just cast off this, the distilled poetic grasp upon ourselves, still remaining to us from that foundation, would be nothing short of incredibly ignorant, foolish, etc, particularly to do so in favor of the kind of shallow glitz peddled by the lefties of today; like trading stone foundations for drywall, it all but invites a cultural hurricane to come to call – Hubris comes to mind as a better name for such a storm, more so than its microcosm we saw demonstrated in Katrina. We should be aware that it takes only a moment to destroy the work of ages – well, so it seems to those in the last moments, anyway. From our pinnacle at the end of the 1700’s, Descartes, Rouesseau and Kant sowed the seeds of our current discontents, and they took three quarters of a century to take root, another one quarter to begin to bear fruit, 60 years to over-ripen on the vine with the Progressive era, until finally they came precipitously into view with the open psychslide we've experienced from the 1950’s to the 2000’s.

But even so, the tearing down is easy, still, how is such a set of cultural DNA built up in the first place? How does this happen? Is it random? Hardly, it is the distilled essence of real events, distilled and grasped through poetic story, the heavy construction work of the Wise, which encodes our reams of knowledge and educational material, into simple lyric imagery.

Where there is no vision, the people perish – where there is, the people become what they see
T.S. Elliot said that Poetry communicates before it is understood, and it is so. Even these simple snippets, Athena staying the arm of Achilles from drawing his sword, Adams evasion of blame for the apple, Washington & the cherry tree, Honest Abe walking miles to return a penny to the library, you find a weight of meaning passing into mind at their mention, meaning that you can't quite put your finger upon after considering them… but beyond what that meaning is, how did it get there (asking ‘What?’ is an even longer path than our current one – we’ll leave that for later)? Something prompted each of these tales to first be told . Through their telling and retelling, if it is structured well, the core of the tale does pass on. Well told tales, properly grasped, selectively told, may grow in elaboration and adornment, but they do so in such a way as to better convey the meaning of the tales underlying meaning - that hard to finger weight which slips past the words into your mind, and which you in turn must begin to mine its meaning with words which will never be fully able to tap it out (I went more fully into this in a previous set of posts).
Before going back to one of our origins, lets take a look at the modern generation of such tales – one that may or may not survive the current generations, but it’s a thread nonetheless.

Events into Mythic
Take a look at the tales surrounding Abraham Lincoln. He’s mostly escaped the anti-western assaults that the founders have been subjected to. Lincoln, in myth, has grown into someone of mythic stature, poetically spiced by the fact of his assassination and its occurring on Good Friday. ‘Honest Abe’, who debated cleanly and without technique with Douglas, who fought tirelessly to end slavery, who freed the slaves because slavery was evil and because all people were equal.

Now, if you examine the factual story of Lincoln, you’ll find that things aren’t quite as rosy or clear-cut, for instance in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, you’ll find an abundance of rhetorical jabs and tricks which he employed liberally, even the way he maneuvered Douglas into agreeing to have the debates. You’ll find that though he was always repulsed by slavery, he did not have a view that blacks & whites were equal, and that what he set out to do was not primarily to stop slavery, but to stop it from spreading, and even more so, he desired above all to preserve the union, with or without ending slavery. Lincoln hoped that by preventing slave states from spreading to new territories, that the foul institution would die from quietly from malnutrition, without having to be confronted directly; and that shouldn’t be that hard for us to understand, for as with most of us who if we found ourselves strapped to the back of an aging but still ferocious tiger, we’d prefer to wait for it to drop dead, rather than attempt to climb down and out run it. However, as events developed that turned out not to be possible, still though, the emancipation proclamation freed slaves in confederate states, not union states – to begin with. And it wasn’t until just a few days before he died, that Lincoln expressed his support for black suffrage – and John Wilkes Booth, in the audience, decided that that would be the last speech Lincoln would ever make.

What I’m looking at here is the process of lifting fact off of the ground, and up into the Mytho-Poetisphere, I don’t mean in any way to take anything away from Lincoln, I’m certainly not poking around for feet of clay, in fact if you research him, you’ll find just the opposite case to be true. It is fascinating and astounding and positively heroic to observe him as he inexorably reexamines and modifies his views, step by step, Lincoln modified, updated and changed some of his deepest convictions and evaluations, which did bring into reality what would become the mythic telling of his deeds. To properly grasp and study Lincoln, requires many volumes and years of study – but to grasp his heroic nature and stature, requires but a few apocryphal tales.

It would take many volumes to describe the uniquely skilled politician that he was, determined to maintain his gov’t , but that doesn’t have a poetic ring to it – ‘Honest Abe’ does. Describing a President who, as a war measure freed slaves in states he had no political control over, has far less of a ring to it than ‘The Great Emancipator’. But as well, a blinkered examination of the individual ‘facts’ of Lincolns political actions, will convey far less understanding of who Lincoln was, and would convey far less Truth, than the mythic tales do.

Similarly the poem ‘Song of Roland’ describing a medieval heroic stand against Islamic invaders, in historical fact describes the inflated recounting of a raid on a baggage train. Did the Homer’s Iliad have a similar small footprint? Perhaps, but it is equally unimportant.

Aristotle put it this way:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.

The Mythic and Poetic is far more True, and not just factually true, but grasps what is true about Man as Man and in relation to reality, than the mere recounting of a string of facts could ever convey. Poetry elevates, and heirarchicalizes the horizontal fact into the Vertical Realm of transcendent Truth.

Back to the Greeks – Easy Go, Easy Come.
Sam Harris likes to rattle his audience with “To the ancient Greeks we are all atheists, you are a-Olympians, you don’t believe in Zeus – how is that any different than being an A-Theist?”

How indeed?

To take a hint from Sam I-am-not-that-I-am, rather than go to the Bible which is far too defined, correctly and incorrectly, in people’s minds, instead, I want to go back to the People, the myths and stories of the Greeks, and how those affected the people who first defined Reason in the Western tradition.

You probably know that the Greeks formed the first democratic government, wrote the first Tragedies, were the first to discover Science, Philosophy, History, took the first stands for freedom against tyranny in Western Civilization, and gave it its first literature in the form of The Iliad and The Odyssey … but did you know that they were also the first to lose it?
These cultural Babe Ruth’s not only were the first cultural homerun kings – but like the Babe, they were also the first strikeout kings; the Greeks are the only known people to have discovered, and then lost, the Art of literacy – the ability to write and read (Perhaps if Linear A, the one scrap of writing we have from that far off pre-Homeric period, is ever deciphered we’ll find it is one of the last newspapers heralding “Bushnegoreus, in a bid to be the educational Archon, is touting the new whole word method of teaching our children to read and write”).

Today they are mostly known, at least the part the teachers will grudgingly acknowledge to dead white European males, by way of the Pythagorean theorem, but the Greeks were who they were, long before Pythagoras and Thales came upon a stage already prepared for them, by them. As Matthew Arnold put it, “There was something in man which inclined him towards the Greek”, and that something was first brought out in the Greek myths exemplified in the poetry of Homer; in the tales of Troy and the Olympian Gods – there are lessons to be derived, and the way of thought ignited through it – it is worth looking at.

The people who became what they saw - Mythic into Poetic
Their Bible, the Homeric Epics are unlike those of most any other culture – not just War glory and anguish, but questioning, consequence, ungraspable order and tragedy. Importantly, they found questions and focused upon them, not chimerical answers.

What is Fate, and is it only brought about by trying to avoid it? Can you foresee the consequences of your actions? If so, how far should you try to? What is Pride and what is Honor? What is a good life? Does the Whole determine the parts – the One in the many?, What a Person should do as a person, and as a citizen, and more.

These questions replay over and over throughout the conflict, the unseen depths and repercussions of seeking to avoid fate, the reexamination of pride and honor, What is Good, and what to do when you discover that something thought to be good is in fact bad, these questions lead to the core of what has made Western civilization.

When the Titan Prometheus (whose name means forethought) gave the fire of the Gods to Man, Zeus had him chained to a cliff for eternity, set an eagle to eat out his liver each day, growing it back by next morning. But Prometheus knew a secret Zeus was desperate to have – the secret of someone who could overthrow him, and he knew that eventually Zeus would trade him his freedom for that secret – and he finally did, allowing Hercules to slay the eagle and cut his chains. His secret was that Thetis would birth to a child who was greater than his father – (Zeus’s libido made this a clear and present danger), and so Zeus, pleased at avoiding the doom Prometheus foresaw for him, had her married to a mortal man, and so Achilles was born superior to his father and greatest of all mortals, and Zeus was safe and secure (Except that the tale of Troy is the last of the age of heroes and Gods, so like all others who seek to avoid fate, he only welcomed it in and gave it comfort and direction).

Zeus, thinking he’d successfully outwitted Fate, threw a feast for her wedding. Wishing not to be troubled by conflicts, the Olympians decided not to invite Discord to the feast, since she was THE troublemaker. Well, Discord, not taking too kindly to the snub, rolls a golden apple into the feast with the words inscribed upon it “To the fairest”. Well, in short order the goddess’s slugged it down to three who each was certain that she was the fairest, Hera, queen of the Gods, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Aphrodite, goddess of love. Unable to convince each other that one should receive it, and Zeus too wise to make the decision for them, they decide to let a mortal decide. Enter Paris, who preferred Aphrodite’s bribe of beauteous Helen to the others bribes of fame and fortune, and so begins the tragedy of Helen of Troy, Achilles and Hector and ten years of battling among the Gods with numerous demigods (half human, half God) children being slaughtered as well.

The myths begin to transform into poetry with the question of what price Glory? Agamemnon declared that he would lead all the kings of the Achaeans to battle against Troy in revenge for Paris’s abduction of Helen. But the Goddess Artemis, before she’ll allow the winds to blow, requires him to sacrifice his beloved daughter upon the altar, that he cut her throat and let her blood flow out – as his wife Clytemnestra later laments “As a charm to stir the winds”, without which the Face that launched a thousand ships - will not be Helen’s, but Agamemnon’s with egg on it.

He lives and embodies the conflict of society vs the Individual. He is King and he is her Father, he cannot do it. But he is King!, he must lead this war against Troy, the abduction of Helen cannot go unanswered! He must do it. It is horrible, the war to come will be horrible, he struggles, but in the end accedes to it. He cuts the throat of his own daughter, the light of his life, in order to do that which he as King, must do. The obligations of the Individual vs those of the Society, and your pride as the refractor.

Do you dare focus upon the moment and avoid the far eyed perspective? Artemis, seeing the slaughter to come, demanded of Agamemnon that he explicitly choose and condone and experience what he will unleash, as a price for his Glory. At first glance Artemis’s demand seems unfair, to put it lightly, but in mythic time, Artemis was viewing the crimes to come that would be committed, as we who hold the story whole within our minds, past and future exist in a spherical whole rather than a straight line or even circular one. It was less the acts to be committed, than the ill considered stands that would lead to them.

Decisions. De cision. Cutting yourself off from one path and committing irrevocably to another, a path which you think you see the end of, but that is just where it dips below the horizon – it leads further into lands unseen, and there there be Dragons. Stands, once taken, are hard in unforeseen ways.

Priam, as King of Troy, cannot let foreign Kings make demands of him, he doesn’t make Paris return Helen, and because of this his favored son, Hector, will die; Hector’s son will die, his city will die, he will die – because of this decision made to preserve them all.

The priest of Apollo asks for his daughter back from the marauding Greeks, offers plenty of treasure to ransom her. Agamemnon, who was awarded her, but perhaps having in mind his own daughter who could not be saved with alternate sacrifice – refuses, and Apollo unleashes plague upon them. His honor is at stake, he cannot back down, yet his troops and Kings demand that he do so – again a no win situation follows a position staked out through false pride and puffed honor – he relents, but demands Briseis, the treasured prize, loved most dear, of Achilles.

This is the source of the Anger of Achilles, with which the Iliad opens.

Achilles discovers in that moment, IMHO one of the most momentous conclusions in History, in that moment when Athena stays his arm from drawing sword and killing Agamemnon, that Honor and Reputation, what is Right, are revealed to him as being different than what he had held them to be. We don’t see his understanding of this until book 9, we see as onlookers only, the Anger of Achilles, which is the opening line of the book - but in between we see examples of many varying shades of Honor(personal, public and hospitable) and Right; the folly of puffed honor, of using honor to defraud and doom others, to express nobleness, or cleverness or propriety.

But Achilles, grasps that more than mere honor has been taken from him – and can be taken, his life, property and happiness have been trod upon as being trifles, as being thought of as being of less value or worthiness than Agamemnon’s… discord sows deep, layer after layer, after layer, and it is only in the whole that it can be grasped, that lessons can be learned, until the delegation scene in book 9 we know only of the rage of Achilles, it isn’t until then that he answers the harm and folly done. In the moment, you can be deceived by sensible, reasonable actions the wider perspective must be sought – but rest assured, you will never be able to fully grasp it - as the God of the people who are the complement to the Greeks put it, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?!”

And what may be the most painful of Man's traits is, that even aware of the pitfall, you may still be seduced into it, as Achilles is even again, when he agrees to allow Patroclus into the fight in his place, thinking upon how the Trojans will react at just the thought of HE, Achilles being within the armor, that just the thought of him without the actual presence of him, will win a battle – such pride and honor! – and he thinks that surely he can nullify the danger to his dear friend through planning, through warning him to avoid danger....

Awakening to the Hubris of Agamemnon, was no protection from committing Hubris himself; he is wrong, his friend dies, and Achilles knows. Achilles had withdrawn from the world in Rage at what was done to him by others, but now his rage, his anger, is focused inwards and he turns his terrifying response outwards in a torrent of destruction that even lesser gods quail before.

Agamemnon, triumphing in the end, returns home from Troy, is welcomed home by his wife Clytemnestra, who prepares a nice warm bath for him, and as he relaxes in it, she takes a battle ax to his head. Her own son, Orestes, will avenge that… and in Aeschylus retelling, eventually leads to the founding of the first courts of law (read Aeschylus “The Oresteia", the only extant Greek trilogy of Tragedies consisting of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.), developed out of the timelessness of Homer, into the present (More on this in a later post, a proper example of Reasoning the timeless Vertical to the present Horizontal).

Do you follow? All of this stemming from a desire to avoid fate, initially on the part of Zeus himself, and the Olympian Gods seeking to avoid discord, Man’s seeking after glory, not to face up to it, to reality, but to avoid responsibility by overriding reality. Now, there is Hubris.

Poetic Guides Towards The Good, The Beautiful and The True
You could, as do the likes of Sam Harris, dismiss these episodes as silly, mere examples of Religious beliefs spurring wars based on readings of entrails, of unjust punishments (Artemis demanding the sacrifice of Agamemmnons daughter) and other impossible supernatural tales, or you could examine think, think upon them, maybe come to a first level conclusion such as ‘You can’t avoid discord by trying to avoid it, better to meet it face to face, than have it plotting behind your back, to do otherwise is to invite Hubris, the pride like attempt to assert your wish over reality. In doing so you begin to touch upon true capital 'R' Reasoning.

This is part of what comes through to those willing to listen, that it is Man’s lot to be separate from perfection but always striving for it. We must balance the moment, against the long range, ever mindful of the ungraspable eternal, (or as Thucydides said “the imponderables of war”) – to forget that, is to invite Hubris and destruction. We must live IN the moment, informed by wider wisdom, conscious of, but not daring to dictate, our future consequences.

We can grasp the breadth of a decision, but the depths are ever deeper than we are able to reach. But the real point is that the myths of the Greeks and the Poetry of Homer, the imagery, the language (which we get course interpretations of only) convey meaning shot deeply throughout the story, without the direct words to that effect. We can’t see every twist and turn of fate, but through imagery we can know that they are there.

The image conveyed by Achilles in fury reaching for his sword, but stayed by the hand of Athena Goddess of Reason, or Priam kneeling to do what no man has done before, to kiss the hand of the man who has killed his son, the different apprehensions of honor by Ajax, Odeysseus, Diomedes, Glaucus, Hector, Achilles, from his first grasp, through their instances, up to his later grasp and connected through Priam to resolve all into inner peace, solace – the poetry doesn’t say it, it conveys it, and more deeply than even the instances of discord woven through the story.

One of the reasons that it is not true that ‘reason can refute the godly’, is because what is poetically understood to represent the Godly, is not a three footed syllogism, it rests upon, is made up of, the cumulative accretion of every detail of the House of Atreus, Prometheus, Achilles, Pandora, etc. the implied conceptual structure which MUST lay behind their actions, stances and words. As a simple example, take a look at the poetic image of the Sword of Damocles:

Damocles gushes to Dionysius how wonderful it must be to have the power of such a wide ruling King. Dionysius say’s ‘ya think so? Here, you try it’, lets Damocles take his spot and wear his crown, calls his dancing girls and suppliants to attend and fawn over the man, only after he has gotten comfortable in the throne, he glances up and sees a Sword suspended over his head by a single horse hair – stir too much and the hair will snap, and the sword will plunge down into his skull – mister gushy gets up and excuses himself and skedaddles asap. Such is the comfort and ease of mind of those in Power.

The poetic imagery makes it easy to grasp that the hair's breadth is a precarious thing and to stir too brusquely or otherwise to snip the hair suspending the sword, will bring on the fall of doom upon Damocles. The scientifismic peruses such a tale, and refusing to allow his mind to travel the imagery, will condescendingly begin by pointing out that a hair could never support a sword in the first place, and no King could or would hand over power in such a way to begin with – he is self blinded to the massive amounts of information, concepts, implications and understanding inherent in the Reasoning that single poetic image contains.

The Greeks revered Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, and through him and other Poets, the Gods and the good life, of Arete’, similar to Virtue, living excellently. Finally – as at the end of all the Gods machinations, heroic wars of the Iliad, and then through the battles and connivances, Odysseus in the Odyssey, strives against all to return home to his kingdom, his son, his farm and his wife – and there awaits still one more battle of arms and wits to secure them, coming back to reality, to Life, seeking an answer to the larger question of what is worthy of a good life.

But the real secret of their tales, and to the Greeks in general, was not that the Iliad and the Odyssey laid out answers, but questions. Questions that gave no easy answers, and which must be asked with care and reasoned out, that process of applying the Vertical to the Horizontal, in your life.

In the little we’ve touched upon through their myths, Homeric and otherwise, even this little fragment of them are spider webbed through with moral lessons, with heroic images, lives to be lived up to. This is what the people did, they idealized the Homeric Heroes, Odysseus, Achilles, Hercules, they strove to emulate them, to bring their lives and selves up to the level of the beautiful Poetic ideal they beheld. And the power of that has rung down through thirty centuries of the West.

From the Poetic Heights, the Greeks descend to discover the World
From the broad timeless questions of Religion and Myth, to their focus upon the narrow & immediate, the Greeks did something which no other people had done before in all the known history of Man on Earth - they discovered the World!

They were the first to ask “What is this?” of the Here and Now, implying that the Here was indeed Somewhere! They wanted to know just what this was, here. It was Thales of Miletus, and his followers, who discovered the world as a thing upon which we lived, and existed, that could be verified, and didn’t Bob and weave with the unforeseeable layers of discord which the poetic tales of the Gods conveyed. Here, this, this thing, we could examine, discover, and verify – and its answers stayed put.

Next and last post in this series, how their new Science first blended with, and then overthrew the Vertical in the Greek world, and how it waited until the Founders Era to put it all into balance.