Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2015-01-13 A Year With The Harvard Classics - Rousseau Seeks Sanctuary in England

January 13 - Rousseau Seeks Sanctuary in England - Rousseau taught that men were not created free and equal.  To substantiate his daring beliefs he traced man's history back to his primitive beginnings.  For his teachings, Rousseau was forced to seek refuge in England. (Jean Jacques Rousseau arrived in England, Jan. 13. 1766) Read from Rousseau's Inquiry on Inequality", THC, Vol. 34, pp. 215-228.

Click HERE for an online version of Rousseau's "Inquiry on Inequality". 

Near the end of the second part of Rousseau's "Inquiry" we find the following:

What a sight would the perplexing and envied labours of a European minister of State present to the eyes of a Caribbean! How many cruel deaths would not this indolent savage prefer to the horrors of such a life, which is seldom even sweetened by the pleasure of doing good! But, for him to see into the motives of all this solicitude, the words power and reputation, would have to bear some meaning in his mind; he would have to know that there are men who set a value on the opinion of the rest of the world; who can be made happy and satisfied with themselves rather on the testimony of other people than on their own. In reality, the source of all these differences is, that the savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him. (J.J. Rousseau, "Discourse on Inequality," THC, Vol. 34, p. 227)

Here the political philosopher points to the paradoxical phenomena that the affect of civilization and its "progress" often seem perplexing to those who have not benefited from such advantage. Which reminds me of an old story. . .

A vacationing American businessman standing on the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico watched as a small boat with just one young Mexican fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. Enjoying the warmth of the early afternoon sun, the American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

"How long did it take you to catch them?" the American casually asked.

"Oh, a few hours," the Mexican fisherman replied.

"Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" the American businessman then asked.

The Mexican warmly replied, "With this I have more than enough to meet my family's needs."

The businessman then became serious, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, "I sleep late, play with my children, watch ball games, and take siesta with my wife. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs..."

The American businessman impatiently interrupted, "Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, before long you can buy a second boat, then a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats."

Proud of his own sharp thinking, he excitedly elaborated a grand scheme which could bring even bigger profits, "Then, instead of selling your catch to a middleman you'll be able to sell your fish directly to the processor, or even open your own cannery. Eventually, you could control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this tiny coastal village and move to Mexico City, or possibly even Los Angeles or New York City, where you could even further expand your enterprise."

Having never thought of such things, the Mexican fisherman asked, "But how long will all this take?"

After a rapid mental calculation, the Harvard MBA pronounced, "Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard."

"And then what, seƱor?" asked the fisherman.

"Why, that's the best part!" answered the businessman with a laugh. "When the time is right, you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."

"Millions? Really? What would I do with it all?" asked the young fisherman in disbelief.

The businessman boasted, "Then you could happily retire with all the money you've made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, watch ball games, and take siesta with your wife. You could stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want."

May we love to live simply and simply live to love.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2015-01-12 A Year With The Harvard Classics - What Is good Taste?

January 12 - What Is Good Taste? A Turkish Sultan, relates Burke, when shown a picture of the beheaded John the baptist, praised many things, but pointed out one gruesome defect.  Did his observation show the sultan to be an inferior judge of art? (Edmund Burke born Jan. 12, 1729) Read: Burke "On Taste," THC, Vol. 24 pp. 11-26.

Click HERE for an online version of Burke's essay.

"A fine piece of a decollated head of St. John the Baptist was shown to a Turkish emperor; he praised many things, but he observed one defect; he observed that the skin did not shrink from the wounded part of the neck. The sultan on this occasion, though his observation was very just, discovered no more natural taste than the painter who executed this piece, or than a thousand European connoisseurs, who probably never would have made the same observation. His Turkish Majesty had indeed been well acquainted with that terrible spectacle, which the others could only have represented in their imagination. On the subject of their dislike there is a difference between all these people, arising from the different kinds and degrees of their knowledge; but there is something in common to the painter, the shoemaker, the anatomist, and the Turkish emperor, the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated; the satisfaction in seeing an agreeable figure; the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident. So far as taste is natural, it is nearly common to all."
(from Edmund Burke, "On Taste" (1759))

Here we have the 18th century philosopher's attempt at a description of what binds us together as a species related to our experience of that which is familiar, and thus because it is recognized, even if in part criticized for its short-comings, is an example of what human experience brings to the moments of aesthetic sublimity.  Thus the Turkish Sultan is made distinct from other admirers of the rendering of a gruesome spectacle because of his experience, which is what each of has the potential to bring to art as unto life itself.  Thus I agree here with Mark Blackwell when he writes, 

"The Burke of the "Introduction on Taste," however, seems to find the social divisions that result from the refinement of commerce and the arts--from the refinement of taste--a melancholy spectacle. He attempts to articulate a compelling argument for a shared standard of taste as a means of overcoming such divisions, but at the same time drifts toward a vision of the man of taste as an aesthetic aristocrat whose powers of discrimination not only alienate him from the untutored, but also become analogous to the exercise of naked force. Burke's aesthetics do not reflect any particular, programmatic political commitment--his ruminations on taste do not constitute a conservative manifesto or a celebration of "bourgeois" progress in another guise--but the "Introduction on Taste" does discloses a Burke who is pulled in various directions by the contradictions of his enterprise, alternately championing an aesthetic commonality linked by Eagleton to the bourgeoisie, theorizing a "natural" aristocracy of taste, and associating such cultivated taste with a potential for tyranny." (from Mark Blackwell "The Sublimity of Taste in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" Philological QuarterlyJune 22, 2003)

Let us endeavor to honor and celebrate the spectrum of experiences which enliven and energize us to bring our best selves to serve the wider world; mindful, that in the process, if we are note chaste by the partial nature of our experience, we have the capacity to turn the sublime into the tyrannical.  

2015-01-11 A Year With The Harvard Classics - Hamilton--Father of Wall Street [& Jay]

January 11 - Hamilton--Father of Wall Street [& Jay] Hamilton organized the Treasury Department.  He penned most of the Federalist papers, which were greatly influential in bringing New York into the Union--the firs step toward its eminent psition in national and world finance.  (Alexander Hamilton born Jan. 11, 1757) Read:  "The Federalist," THC, Vol. 43, pp. 199-207.

Click HERE for an online version of The Federalist Papers.

The Harvard Classics here includes the text of The Federalist Papers, 1 and 2.  The first paper, authored by Alexander Hamilton, no. 2 authored by John Jay.  Both papers provide a general introduction to the purpose of the forthcoming series arguing for the radification of newly penned Constitution.

What is perhaps most worth remembering about these introductory remarks to the series of papers is the faith that is placed in the public to wrestle with and weigh for themselves the consequences of a united or divided Union.  Of particular note the words below bespeak such faith and desire.

Admit, for so is the fact, that this plan is only RECOMMENDED, not imposed, yet let it be remembered that it is neither recommended to BLIND approbation, nor to BLIND reprobation; but to that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand, and which it certainly ought to receive. But this (as was remarked in the foregoing number of this paper) is more to be wished than expected, that it may be so considered and examined. Experience on a former occasion teaches us not to be too sanguine in such hopes. It is not yet forgotten that well-grounded apprehensions of imminent danger induced the people of America to form the memorable Congress of 1774.
(John Jay, The Federalist Papers, #2)

Could we please return to this ethic?  Could we imagine a time when we might be given facts instead of spin about our most important projects and decisions as a republic?  I'm not naive about the history of our country and the reality that spin was part and parcel of the debates since the early pamphlet wars began.  What I long for is faith in our elected leaders to share with us truths as they experience them, not partial falsities or spin.  I long for debates about the matters at hand instead of personal attacks.  Would those who have been elected to govern please do so instead of seeing their purpose as mere opposition to and denigration of the Office of the President?  Could we please discover our faith in each other again, even if and especially when we have honest disagreements?  Lord, for the sake of our Nation and the World, I hope so.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015-01-10 A Year WIth The Harvard Classics - Where Love Lies Waiting

January 10 - Where Love Lies Waiting - King Pantheus of Thebes contended against Dionysus, the God, for the adoration of the Theban woemn, The god was winning by bewitching the women when the king interceded.  Euripides tells the story in a masterpiece of Greek drama. Read from Euripides' The Bacchae, Vol. 8, pp. 368-372.

Click HERE for an online version of Euripides' Bacchae.

That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.  
My mother sinned, said they; and in her need, 
With Cadmus plotting, cloaked her human shame
With the dread name of Zeus; for that the flame
From heaven consumed her, seeing she lied to God.
(from Euripides' The Bacchae, THC, Vol. 8, p. 379)

In  the Prologue  of Euripides' play we behold Dionysus, son of Zeus, who addresses the audience, describing Thebes, his birthplace and the ancestral home of his mother, Semele, who is mortal. After Semele's has an affair with Zeus, his wife, the goddess Hera, becomes jealous and taunts her husband's lover for never having known Zeus in his divine form. Semele then begs Zeus to appear to her as a divinity;so he appears as lightening bolt and Semele, who is unable to behold him, burns to death. Zeus then rescued the unborn fetus, Dionysus and stitches him into his thigh. 

Cadmus denies Dionysus divinity, his family accuses Semele of having a human lover and lying about Zeus, dying at his hands as punishment. The God-Human now returns punish the house of Cadmus for their disrespectful treatment of his mother's memory and their refusal to permit him to be worshiped. Appearing in Thebes in the guise of a male Lydian stranger, he has already driven the women of the place mad and they have taken to the hills of Mt. Cithaeron, where they, the maenads, sing, dance, and perform bacchic rites. And Pentheus, (grandson of Cadmus), who is now King refuses to worship Dionysus.

One study resource for the play notes that Euripides deviates form the traditional use of the prologue to show the human side of Dionysus in order to introduce the audience to the complex nature of this character who represents ambiguity itself.

The god not only embodies differences (belief and madness, celebration and destruction) but in his actions demonstrates a similar fluidity. His punishment of Pentheus, for example— which proves excessive, gruesome and terrible—is brought about in an extremely subtle, devious and gradual manner. 

Furthermore, the audience is the only entity that knows the true identity of the Lydian stranger which adds a great deal of emotional intensity as the audience forecasts the unavoidable tragedy that is unfolding before them.

Another study resource suggests that what is really at the heart of the play is the tension between rationality, represented by King Pentheus and the intuitive, represented by Dionysus, suggesting:

The Bacchae seems to be saying that it is perilous to deny or ignore the human desire for Dionysian experience; those who are open to the experience will find spiritual power, and those who suppress or repress the desire in themselves or others will transform it into a destructive force.
(Euripides. Dodds, E. R. trans. Bacchae; Plays of Euripides. Clarendon Press, 1960. pg.14)

How often have we experienced the destructive force of repression and oppression in this world?  The lesson of the Dionysian lust for revenge is that violence, in both its brutal and subtle forms begets violence. A lesson worth returning to again and again, especially as we prepare again this week to honor one of modernity's most beloved prophets and peacemakers.

2015-01-09 A Year With The Harvard Classics - The Treasure Hunt in Nombre de Dios

January 9 - A Treasure Hunt in Nombre de Dios:  With only fifty two men, Sir Francis Drake conceives the idea of attacking his archenemy, Spain, at her most vulnerable point the treasure of Nombre de Dios.  (Drace died at Noumbre de Dios, Jan 9, 1596.) Read from Nichol's Sir Francis Drake Revived, Vol. 33, pp. 135-145.

Click HERE to read an online version of Philip Nichol's Sir Francis Drake Revived (1910).

Shortly upon our first arrival in this island, the Governor and the rest of his Assistants in the town, as we afterwards understood, sent unto our Captain, a proper gentleman, of mean stature, good complexion, and a fair spoken, a principal soldier of the late sent garrison, to view in what state we were. At his coming he protested "He came to us, of mere good will, for that we had attempted so great and incredible a matter with so few men: and that, at the first, they feared that we had been French, at whose hands they knew they should find no mercy: but after they perceived by our arrows, that we were Englishmen, their fears were the less, for that they knew, that though we took the treasure of the place, yet we would not use cruelty toward their persons. But albeit this his affection gave him cause enough, to come aboard such, whose virtue he so honoured: yet the Governor also had not only consented to his coming, but directly sent him, upon occasion that divers of the town affirmed, said he, 'that they knew our Captain, who the last two years had been often on our coast, and had always used their persons very well.' And therefore desired to know, first, Whether our Captain was the same Captain DRAKE or not? and next, Because many of their men were wounded with our arrows, whether they were poisoned or not? and how their wounds might best be cured? lastly, What victuals we wanted, or other necessaries? of which the Governor promised by him to supply and furnish us, as largely as he durst."
Our Captain, although he thought this soldier but a spy: yet used him very courteously, and answered him to his Governor's demands: that "He was the same DRAKE whom they meant! It was never his manner to poison his arrows! They might cure their wounded by ordinary surgery! As for wants, he knew the Island of Bastimentos has sufficient, and could furnish him if he listed! But he wanted nothing but some of that special commodity which that country yielded, to content himself and his company." And therefore he advised the Governor "to hold open his eyes! for before he departed, if GOD lent him life and leave, he meant to reap some of their harvest, which they get out of the earth, and sent into Spain to trouble all the earth!"
To this answer unlooked for, this gentleman replied, "If he might, without offence, move such a question, what should then be the cause of our departing from that town at this time, where was above 360 tons of silver ready for the Fleet, and much more gold in value, resting in iron chests in the King's Treasure House?"
But when our Captain had shewed him the true cause of his unwilling retreat aboard, he acknowledged that "we had no less reason in departing, than courage in attempting:" and no doubt did easily see, that it was not for the town to seek revenge of us, by manning forth such frigates or other vessels as they had; but better to content themselves and provide for their own defence.
Thus, with great favour and courteous entertainment, besides such gifts from our Captain as most contented him, after dinner, he was in such sort dismissed, to make report of what he had seen, that he protested, "he was never so much honoured of any in his life."
(Nichols, Sir Francis Drake Revived, (1910) THC,, Vol. 33, pp. 141-143)

This scene from Drake's plunder of the King's gold reserve at Nombre de Dios is breath-taking, especially in a day and age when it is hard to find in fiction or reality a representation of this kind of civility. The very idea that we would approach, much less be entertained and engaged thoughtfully by those who we had defined as our enemies, and to receive form those we entertain such care for both our well-being and that of those in the care of the other, is a reminder that midst of the the strife and blood-shed that continues to plague our species, there are moments when we can and ought to be reminded of other, more human proclivities.  It reminds me of the 1914 "Christmas Truce" during WWI when Allied forces and German forces entrenched sometimes only 30 to 40 feet apart, took it upon themselves to celebrate Christmas by exchanging cigarettes, rations, helping each other bury the dead, and by playing soccer games.

Let us endeavor to remember our humanity, especially in those moments when it is easiest to forget it.  Let us strive to remember the common bonds of our species that make us kin far more deeply than our nationality, culture, religious or political affiliation could ever affect. 

Friday, January 09, 2015

2015-01-08 - A Year With The Harvard Classics: Trying the Patience of Job

January 8 - Trying the Patience of Job:  God was pleased with the piety of Job, but Satan accredited the piety to job's prosperity and happiness.  So a trial was made.  See how each succeeding affliction visted on Job shook the depths of hisw nature, and how he survived. Read from The Book of Job, Vol., 44, pp. 71-87.

Read an online version of The Book of Job (NRSV) HERE.

As I prepare to teach the Sociology of Death and Dying at Worcester State University in the Spring 2015 Semester, I turn again to the Book of Job and read the tale of the man who has everything, then has it all taken away on an outrageous divine game of "let's see what happens now" only to have life return with abundance when he proves himself a faithful soul.  Along with this tale of woe and wonder I also reread Harold Kushner's little gem, When Bad Things Happen To God People.  The lecture in which I refer to these too sources has to do with the concept of theodicy, and dealing with death as punishment.  

We review the essentials of the story and turn to Rabbi Kushner's theological response which is to posit that when things are going well, three things can be held in tension and relationship: 1) Good is good; 2) God is all powerful and 3) Human kind is good.  Once things start to go badly, one of these, says the Rabbi, has to go.  For him the answer early on is "God is all powerful." That is to say that as biological beings we are susceptible to all of the power and vulnerability that come with such origins.  That disease, trauma and death are as much a part of our reality as the joy of birth, the benefits of good health and the gratification of sexual expression. Recently, I discovered an updated and more theologically nuanced explanation offered by the Rabbi.

"I could have created a perfect wold, a clockwork world in which nothing regrettable would ever happen…I chose instead to to make a world of challenge and response, a world in which humans would eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and have to make a hundred decisions every day as to what was the right thing to do…It would be a world with no shortage of problems, but a world blessed with great minds and great souls to solve those problems, to invent things, to discover cures, to create great works of art that can only be born out of great pain (like the book of Job). And most important, I did not abandon this world when I finished making it. I was always here, comforting, inspiring, strengthening. Where do you think people would get strength to overcome sorrow, to fight injustice, to heal the wounds of body and soul if I were not there to infuse My spirit into them?" (The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,

The notion here is that the spirit which is infused into us that gives us the strength to deal with life's hardest problems is itself sacred, is part of our heritage as human beings who were created in the image of God and living it is itself part of the way that we live up to that genetic predisposition.  So I turn again to the words that Kushner himself finds so meaningful in his famous little book, from Archibald MacLeish's play JB.  

It's too dark to see...

Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we'll see by and by. . .

2015-01-07 - A Year With The Harvard Classics: If He Yawned, She Lost her Head!

January 7 - If He Yawned, She Lost Her Head!  The Sultan had a habit of beheading each dawn his beautiful bride of the night before, until he encountered Scheherazade. Cleverly she saved her life a thousand and one mornings.  Read from the Thousand and One Nights, Vol. 16, pp. 5-13.

An online version of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights can be found HERE.

Some might easily dismiss the stories in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights as noting more than bawdy stories best told by men with other men around a camp-fire somewhere. Interestingly enough I was exposed to them as a child, when I was pre-conscious of the particularly sexual content of the stories.  Which I think proves more that you often can find in folktales (and scripture) what you are looking for.

In the case of this Arabic classic, I would argue that the stories, and the story behind the story, of Scherazad's plight, wit, and wisdom, suggest that the entire collection might well be viewed as a wisdom tale.  I was particularly moved by Mary Gaitskill's introduction to the most recent republication of these tales by Hanan Al-Shaykh in her One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling (2013)

Shahrazad is not just out to save her skin, she wants to heal; she is asking for forgiveness, not only for women’s sexual infidelity but for men’s violent possessiveness, for human boobishness in general. She also acknowledges that certain things cannot be tolerated. In her stories, foolishness, lust, greed, jealousy, lying, cruelty, cowardice and vanity are exposed and readily forgiven; rape and cold-blooded murder are not forgiven . The moral codes are honored sincerely—but then there is that lewd demon’s mistress, a consistent narrative mischief, a respect for pure, life-force passion that runs through the tales, which reminds me of what William Blake said about Paradise Lost: that Milton, being a poet, was of the Devil’s camp whether he knew it or not.

Given the present lust for blood that seems to have consumed so many parts of the world, perhaps its time to return to these tales.  Perhaps its time we learned something different.....


2015-01-06 - A Year With The Harvard Classics - Warned by Hector's Ghost

January 6 - Warned by Hector's Ghost:  In the dead of night Hector's ghost appeared to warn Aeneas of the impending doom to come upon the walled city of Troy. Aeneas lifted his aged father on his back and, taking his son by the hand, sought safety in flight.  Off to Latium! (H. Schliemann, discoverer of ancient Troy, born Jan. 6, 1822.) Read from Virgil's Aeneid, Vol. 13, pp. 109-127.

Read the 2nd Book of the Aeneid HERE

"I blurted out these words, and was rushing on with raging mind,
when my dear mother came to my vision, never before so bright
to my eyes, shining with pure light in the night,
goddess for sure, such as she may be seen by the gods,
and taking me by the right hand, stopped me, and, then,
imparted these words to me from her rose-tinted lips:
“My son, what pain stirs such uncontrollable anger?
Why this rage? Where has your care for what is ours vanished?"

What interests me most about the introduction to the reading for Jan. 6, is that it leaves out of it what I take to be a pivital point for Virgil.  The introduction suggests that the text is only about the visage of Hector, supreme Trojan warrior, who is killed in the fall of Troy and then visits his friend Aeneas to warn him of impending doom, at which point Aeneas picks up his father and holding the hand of his son, retires to the safety of Latium.

However, the more important point of this episode, may not involve Hector at all, but is to be found in the interlude between these two scenes (that of the visage and the other of leave-taking) when Aeneas, paragon of virtue, is on the verge of killing Helen of Troy for her part in bringing about the fall that now besieges them both. (A temptation that he considers after witnessing the gruesome execution of Trojan Prince Polites and King Priam on his own altar.)  It is here that Aeneas is visited by his mother Venus (which some scholars suggests is symbolic of his conscience) and is convinced not murder the woman with a face that launched a thousand ships but to return to his father Anchise, his wife and his son and to take them to safety.

Why is this episode so important?  To me it represent's Virgil's attempt to humanize Aeneas, to show that virtue is not a gift, but a constant struggle with temptations and forces that might ultimately provide each of us with the means to be less than we are capable of being and becoming.  

In a strange way, reading this episode I flashed to the 1988 Presidential debate between V.P George H. W. Bush and Gov. Michael Dukakis, when the debate moderator, Bernard Shaw asked Gov. Dukakis "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"  Dukakis reply pointed toward his continued opposition to the death penalty.  Many believe that this incident and the campaign ads which followed utilizing it cost him the election.  

I wonder whether we'd have had a President Dukakis if he'd risked saying in that moment, "As a husband I'd've wanted to pull the switch myself.  As Governor, I would have relied on those around me to remind me of my truest self and help me make a more just response." Like Virgil's Aeneas, perhaps the reminder that as human beings we often struggle to do the right thing and in the end outcomes, which make for a better world, make the struggle worth every ounce of energy and anxiety it takes.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

2015-01-05 A Year With The Harvard Classics - The Soaring Eagle and Contented Stork

January 5 - The Soaring Eagle and contented Stork - [Giuseppe] Mazzini labored for the freedom of Italy, but was exiled.  Byron and Goethe also battled for liberty.  Mazzini wrote an essay in which he compared Byron to a soaring eagle and Goethe to a contend stork. (Byron arrived in Greece to fight for Greek freedom, Jan. 5, 1824) Read: Mazzini's Byron and Goethe, vol. 23, pp. 377-396.

"I STOOD one day in a Swiss village at the foot of the Jura, and watched the coming of the storm. Heavy black clouds, their edges purpled by the setting sun, were rapidly covering the loveliest sky in Europe, save that of Italy. Thunder growled in the distance, and gusts of biting wind were driving huge drops of rain over the thirsty plain. Looking upwards, I beheld a large Alpine falcon, now rising, now sinking, as he floated bravely in the very midst of the storm and I could almost fancy that he strove to battle with it. At every fresh peal of thunder, the noble bird bounded higher aloft, as if in answering defiance. I followed him with my eyes for a long time, until he disappeared in the east. On the ground, about fifty paces beneath me, stood a stork; perfectly tranquil and impassive in the midst of the warring elements. Twice or thrice she turned her head towards the quarter from whence the wind came, with an indescribable air of half indifferent curiosity; but at length she drew up one of her long sinewy legs, hid her head beneath her wing, and calmly composed herself to sleep.   1

I thought of Byron and Goethe; of the stormy sky that overhung both; of the tempest-tossed existence, the life-long struggle, of the one, and the calm of the other; and of the two mighty sources of poetry exhausted and closed by them."

Read an online version of the essay by Mazzini HERE

Giuseppe Mazzini, (1805-1872) was one of the great political idealists in the struggle for Italian independence in the mid 19th century.  His work here is a masterpiece of literary criticism that compares and contrasts two of the grand poets of his century.  Through this crisp prose we find a description of two ways to engage the world--either for the world to become a reflection of one's self, OR for one's self to become a reflection of the world. In Byron we find an example of the first.

"There are two forms of individuality; the expressions of its internal and external, or—as the Germans would say—of its subjective and objective life. Byron was the poet of the first, Goethe of the last. In Byron the Ego is revealed in all its pride of power, freedom, and desire, in the uncontrolled plenitude of all its faculties; inhaling existence at every pore, eager to seize “the life of life.” The world around him neither rules nor tempers him. The Byronian Ego aspires to rule it; but solely for dominion’s sake, to exercise upon it the Titanic force of his will."

In Goethe, we find the latter--whose genius was to be a vessel for reflection of the world.

"Goethe—individuality in its objective life—having, like Byron, a sense of the falsehood and evil of the world round him—followed exactly the opposite path. After having—he, too, in his youth—uttered a cry of anguish in his Werther; after having laid bare the problem of the epoch in all its terrific nudity, in Faust, he thought he had done enough, and refused to occupy himself with its solution. It is possible that the impulse of rebellion against social wrong and evil which burst forth for an instant in Werther may long have held his soul in secret travail; but that he despaired of the task of reforming it as beyond his powers. He himself remarked in his later years, when commenting on the exclamation made by a Frenchman on first seeing him: “That is the face of a man who has suffered much”; that he should rather have said: That is the face of a man who has struggled energetically;” but of this there remains no trace in his works."

The reader here is left to ponder not just what kind of person each poet was, but also to ponder which orientation toward the world is most fulfilling.  To tussle with reality or mirror it, and thus cause the tussel in others.  To demonstrate the heroic or by virtue of one's calm assessment call forth the heroic in others.

It is a question worth continuing to ponder.

Monday, January 05, 2015

2015-01-04 A Year With The Harvard Classics - The Flounder Fish Story

January 4 - A Flounder Fish Story:  A fisherman, so the story goes, once caught a flounder that spoke, begging to be released.  This was granted,whereupon the fisherman's wife demanded that it grant her one miracle after another until even the flounder was disgusted.

Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
Wants not, wants not, what I will

The tale of the Fisherman and His Wife, recorded by the Brother's Grim, is an old German fairy-tale ostensibly about what becomes those who are greedy (click HERE for an online version of the story). In the story a talking flounder is caught and released and grants a series of requests by the one caught him, on behalf of his wife, for ever increasing places and then positions of power until a request to be like God returns the wife and her fisherman husband to their original state of destitution.

On the surface this is a morality tale which has been used throughout the years to teach the terrors of greed.  And from a moral frame such lessons seem appropriate.  However, from a theological frame, the lesson might well be that the desire to be "like unto God" may well be to embrace life as it is in all of its mundane ordinariness.  

It reminds me of a tale by Edward Hays in his book Feathers in the Wind.

Once upon a time there was a woman who longed to find out what heaven is like. She prayed constantly, “O God, grant me in this life a vision of paradise.” She prayed in this way for years until one night she had a dream. In her dream an angel came and led her to an ordinary looking house. The angel, pointing toward the house said, “Go and look inside.”

So the woman walked in the house and found a person preparing supper, another reading the newspaper, and children playing with their toys. Naturally, she was disappointed and returned to the angel on the street. “Is that all there is to heaven?”

The angel replied, “Those people you saw in that house are not in paradise, paradise is in them!”

May we remember that the qualities of paradise most worth "having" are those we we possess within not those we seek to own or have bestowed upon us.

2015-01-03 A Year With The Harvard Classics - Cicero on Friendship

January 3 - Cicero on Friendship "Fire and water are not of more universal use than friendship"--such is the high value put upon this great human relatnship by the most famous orator of Rome." (Cicero born Jan. 3, 106 B.C. [E.])

"Therefore I gather that friendship springs from a natural impulse rather than a wish for help; from an inclination of the heart, combined with a certain instinctive feeling of love, rather than from a deliberate calculation of the material advantage it was likely to confer.  The strength of this feeling you may notice in certain animals. They show such love to their offspring for a certain period, and are so beloved by them, that they clearly have a share in this natural, instinctive affection." (Cicero, On Friendship)

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman orator of the 2nd century B.C.E. draws a distinction here between what I would refer to as friendliness and friendship.  Friendliness being a disposition toward others which may, or may not indicate the desire for a relationship conferring material advantage to the one demonstrating such a quality. Friendship, or   amicitia, in the Latin (derived from amor, the Latin word for love) notes Cicero, "admits no pretense" and is both genuine and spontaneous.  In other words, there is no other reason to "befriend" someone than to have a genuine and unqualified desire to love and honor the other.  That friendship is, by its very nature reciprocal and equal suggests that such love and honor is returned in like measure.

As a professional religious leader and a Pastor serving a congregation, I understand the reciprocal nature of friendship to be paramount, which is why I make it clear that I do not craft friendships, in the truest sense, with those I serve as minister. It is not that I don't desire to be loved and honored by those I serve, more that I do not expect those I serve to provide the emotional support that is often the most felt form of love and honor from them. I understand to be a fundamental dynamic in ministry, that the power and authority which is often shared, is not equal in the sense that those in ministry should look to members of the congregation to develop primary friendships.

That I am clear about this has been most helpful in my ministerial career, and why I am able to "friend" and be "friended" by those on social media.  I do this because I am clear that 1, what is called "friending" is fundamentally about friendliness, not friendship in its truest sense; and 2) social media is not the primary means through which I establish and maintain friendships. For me it is an easy way to share experiences and insights.  And while it also serves as a vehicle for expressing support for a variety of life situations, it is not a substitution for the depth that true friendship can muster.

This was made clear to me as I pondered my experience at my 30th high school class reunion.  While some of the folks there I've kept in touch with over the years through social media and other means, there are a handful, whose shared experience continues to shape my life, whose welfare I cherish enough to drop whatever I'm doing when they call and who'd I travel to support at a moment's notice.  Like Walter Winchell I too believe that "A friend is someone who walks in when the rest of the world walks out." And I think Cicero would agree.

Friday, January 02, 2015

2015-01-02 A Year With The Harvard Classics - School Day Poems of John Milton

January 2 - School Day Poems of John Milton - At the age of sixteen, Milton first appeared before the public eye as a promising young poet. These early verses, written while he was a boy in school, indicate his brilliant future (First edition of Milton's collected poems published, Jan 2, 1645) Read Milton's Poems, vol. 4, pp. 7-18 (From The Harvard Classics Fifteen Minutes a Day: The Reading Guide (1930))

Excerpt from Milton's On The Morning of Christ's Nativity (1629)


No War, or Battails sound
Was heard the World around:
The idle spear and shield were high up hung; [ 55 ]
The hooked Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by. [ 60 ]

This stanza is from a poem Milton wrote at the age of 21 and has been described by one scholar as his "coming of age poem." (See an introduction to and full text of the poem HERE.) As we begin a new year, some 370 years since the first publication of this piece, I was particularly caught by verse IV of The Hymn.  It reminds me of the oft sung but more often forgotten lines of of the popular Christmas Carol, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876)..

But with the woes of war and strife the world has suffered long
beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we who fight the wars hear not the love song which they bring.
O hus the noise of battle strife, and hear the angels sing.

Which is why I think I'm often drawn to the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

There is something in humankind that is deeper than violence and more profound than our flights of inhumanity, if we would pause long enough to remember.

So then, let us pause. . .remember. . .and remake our world this year.

A Year With The Harvard Classics - 2015-01-01

2015-01-01 - Intro & Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography


One of the most prized set of books I inherited from my father is a complete 51 vol. set of The Harvard Classics. Also known as "Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf," the series was compiled and edited by then President of Harvard, Dr. Charles W. Eliot and was first published in 1909 . I remember marveling at this collection, returning to it many times during childhood to find one quote or another and more especially as I researched papers during my collegiate and graduate careers.  When I inherited the set shortly after my father's death in 1994 it became a constant reference for early sermons and reflections, especially as anniversaries of renowned works and authors came and went (I remember especially enjoying rereading Don Quixote in preparation for the 400th Anniversary of the publication of this masterpiece in 2005.

It has long been a dream of mine to make the time to engage this gift in a disciplined manner.  So I have resolved this year to attempt to complete the annual cycle of readings published as Fifteen Minutes a Day: The Reading Guide, and reflect regularly on what I experience on these blog pages.  I hope the journey is fascinating enough to warrant your return to tag along and if inclined, engage in dialogue.

On "How Dr. Eliot Solved Your Reading Problem" the reading guide includes the following from the compiler himself.  [Italics not in the original]

"Before the reading plan represented by the Harvard Classics had taken dfinite form, I had more than once stated in public that in my opinion a five-foot--at first three-foot shelf would hold books enough to afford a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading."

On "Dr. Eliot's Aim" Dr. Eliot continues:

"My aim was not to select the best fifty, or best hundred, books in the world, but to give, in twenty-three thousand pages or thereabouts, a picture of the progress of the human race within historical times, so far as that progress can be depicted in books."

On "Liberal Education Defined" Dr. Eliot notes:

"Liberal education accomplishes two objects.  It produces a liberal frame of mind, and it makes the studious and reflective recipient acquainted with the stream of the world's thought an feeling, and with the infinitely varied products of the human imagination.  It was my hope and belief that fifty volumes might accomplish this result for any intelligent, ambitious and persistent reader, whether his early opportunities for education has been large or small.  Such was the educational purpose with which I undertook to edit The Harvard Classics."

January 1:  Franklin's Advice for the New Year

"Resolution:  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform with out fail what you resolve."--was one of the rules for success framed by America's first "self-made" man"  Read from Franklin's Autobiography (vol. 1, pp. 79-85)

Resolution (above) is a description of the fourth of Benjamin Franklin's thirteen virtues which he outlines as follows in his autobiography:

1. Temperance - Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence - Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order - Let all things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution - resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality - Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry - Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity - Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and , if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice - Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation - Avoid extreams [sic]; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness - Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths [sic], or  habitation.
11. Tranquility - Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity - Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness [sic], 
      weakness, or the injury of your own or anther's peace or reputation.
13. Humility - Imitate and Socrates.

In his reflection on these, Franklin describes his discipline of attending to each virtue, one at a time, assigning one per week over the year, in order of rotation, as listed.  During his daily reflection each evening, he would take care to mark those virtues for which he had found fault in himself.  He would resolve his week successful if the row was blank, pertaining to the particular virtue to be dealt with at the time, on the columned sheet he developed for this discipline,  .  

Of this discipline of reflection Franklin notes particularly, 

"My scheme of Order gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho' it might be practicable where a man's business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours.  Order, too with regard to places for things, papers, etc, I found extreamly [sic] difficult to acquire.  I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceedingly good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method."

In other words, Franklin was a "piler."  A revelation that makes me appreciate him even more, and one that I share in particular with him.  I say this even as I spy a clean desk for the first time this fall; having taken the past few days of vacation to clean up so that I might at least begin the new year with a pretense of order.

The fact that I will return to clean up my desk many times in the next year, and each time, struggle with the feeling that I have somehow failed in my vision of being "more organized" is also answered by Franklin, and something worth reflecting on, especially as the annual round of New Year's resolutions is upon us again.

"In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory had, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour [sic], a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho' they never reach the wish'd for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible."

This is perhaps the most important reminder for the beginning of any New Year and for the making of resolutions.  As we begin again, let us be of full resolve that we will accomplish more of what we plan and strive to be.  And even if we fall short of the set goal, as will often be the case, let us remember that we are made better in the act of striving toward these goals.  

Here in is the essence of hope eternal.  Not putting our faith in outcomes.  No one can predict the future.  Instead, let us put faith in the aiming, knowing that regardless of what the future brings, there is something important to do now.

Among the handful of quotes that adorned the little book that Franklin crafted to catalog his attempt to live virtuously, is the following prayer he wrote.  May the essence of its sentiment be a guide and reminder in the coming year and beyond.

"O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide!  Increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. Strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates.  Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for the continued favors to me."

Amen and Blessed Be.