Apr 26 2018

That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”

typewriter

That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”

I don’t quite understand Rod Dreher today when he writes:

In 1966, Philip Rieff [(1922–2006)] observed [in Triumph of the Therapeutic]:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.[1]

By this standard, Christianity in the US is dying. Rieff saw this happening in the mid-1960s; it is much, much farther along today. Christian churches and Christian schools have plainly failed to meet the challenges of aggressive secularism.

It seems as if Dreher is taking Rieff’s use of the word “culture” and applying it to “Christianity in the US” as a whole, but a culture is not quite the same thing as a religion. A Hindu religious culture is not the same thing as the practice of Hinduism. An individual living in a Hindu culture is not the same as “being Hindu.”

In fact, “culture,” as a word, is pretty darn arbitrary––if we follow Leo Strauss’s (1899–1973) interpretation of Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) understanding of that word:

Nietzsche has a deeper reverence than any other beholder for the sacred tables of the Hebrews as well as of the other nations in question. Yet since he is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what the others command, he is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or “values” of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of cultures is an outgrowth of 19th century Western culture; its application to “cultures” of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is then a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the radical subjectivity of that science. Differently stated, one cannot behold, i.e., truly understand, any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one’s own culture or unless one belongs in one’s capacity as a beholder to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs, must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating it, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. The variety of cultures that have hitherto emerged contradicts the oneness of truth. Truth is not a woman so that each man can have his own truth as he can have his own wife. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary.[2]

And when Dreher writes:

 It is troubling, from a believer’s point of view, that not everyone in Christendom actually held the faith, and that not all lived up to its tenets. But at least the values of Christianity were what we collectively professed. That was something.

I agree that one should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is something I think Dreher is getting at, nor could any concept of a “perfect Christianity” be achieved by human means alone. But in this passage, Dreher also seems to be saying that words speak louder than actions, that whatever was “collectively professed” once made for a sufficient Christianity despite many (laity and clergy) who did not live “up to its tenants.” But, as Goethe (1749–1832), the last true pagan (and hence someone who can never truly be followed by disciplines born in our age of disenchantment), words are not enough. One must turn words into actions:

Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not made clear by words. The spirit in which we act, is what is highest. Action can only be grasped by spirit and portrayed by spirit. No one knows what he is doing when he acts rightly, but we are always conscious of what is wrong. He who works only with signs, is pedant, a hypocrite or a botcher. There are many such, and they get on well together. Their gossiping impedes the student, and their persistent mediocrity alarms those who are best. The teaching of a real artist opens up sense; for where words are lacking, action speaks. A true pupil learns how to unravel the unknown from the known, and thereby develops toward mastery.[3]

And as far as the “cultural elites” go (mentioned in Rieff’s quotation by Dreher), I don’t know if Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was quite right (or serious) when he said: “It is to do nothing that the elect exist.”[4] I do understand LBJ’s observation that “the greatest bigots in the world are the Democrats on the East Side New York.” As a “true vulgarian,” I’m not interested in following East Coast elites, and my uninterest has very little to do with whether or not I’m a Christian (the way Dreher’s quotation of Rieff regarding “cultural elites” seems to imply).

Alfarabi (872–950 AD), following Plato and Aristotle, held that the elect can do very little for the vulgar:

The vulgar confine themselves, or should be confined, to theoretical cognitions that are in conformity with examined common opinion. The elect do not confine themselves to any of their theoretical cognitions to what is in conformity with examined common opinion but reach their conviction and knowledge on the basis of premises subjected to thorough scrutiny. Therefore whoever thinks that he is not confined to what is in conformity with unexamined common opinion in his inquiries, believes that in them he is of the “elect” and that everybody else is vulgar….

Whoever has a more perfect mastery of the art that qualifies him for assuming an office is more appropriate for inclusion among the elect. Therefore it follows that the most elect of the elect is the supreme ruler. It would appear that this is so because he is the one who does not confine himself in anything. He must hold the office of the supreme ruler and be the most elect of the elect because of his state of character and skill. As for the one who assumes a political office with the intention of accomplishing the purpose of the supreme ruler, he adheres to thoroughly scrutinized opinions. However, the opinions that caused him to become an adherent or because of which he was convinced that he should use his art to serve the supreme ruler were based on mere conformity to unexamined opinions; he conforms to unexamined common opinion in his theoretical cognitions as well. The result is that the supreme ruler and he who possesses the science that encompasses the intelligibles with certain demonstrations belong to the elect. The rest are the vulgar and the multitude. Thus the methods of persuasion and imaginative representation are employed only in the instruction of the vulgar and the multitude of the nations and the cities, while the certain demonstrative methods, by which the beings themselves are made intelligible, are employed in the instruction of those who belong to the elect.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Dreher, “Goodbye Jehovah,” The American Conservative, April 26, 2018.

[2] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, (University of Chicago Press, 1983) 148–49.

[3] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship) (1795–96), ed. and trans. by Eric A. Blackall, (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1983) VII, ix, 303–04.

[4] Wilde, “The Critic as Artist – II.” (1891).

[5] Alfarabi, “The Attainment of Happiness,” Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969) pp. 41–42, iv, ¶ 50–51.


Oct 31 2017

Initial Thoughts on the Breech between Digital and Analog

analog book spines

Initial Thoughts on the Breech between Digital and Analog

The steam engine with a governor provides a typical instance of one type, in which the angle of the arms of the governor is continuously variable and has a continuously variable effect on the fuel supply. In contrast, the house thermostat is an on-off mechanism in which temperature causes a thermometer to throw a switch at a certain level. This is the dichotomy between analogic systems (those that vary continuously and in step with magnitudes in the trigger event) and digital systems (those that have the on-off characteristic).

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

While Baylor University is not my alma mater, its Distinguished Professor of Humanities Alan Jacobs has been my teacher for the past few years. While I did not formally audit Jacob’s course this semester “Living and Thinking in a Digital Age,” I did recently finish the principal texts: Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) and The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016) by David Sax.

Writing about what I’ve recently read at Bookbread.com #tech #books #writing #digital #analog

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What follows are initial thoughts only. I intend to think more about these books and write something more in depth soon enough.

 Initial thoughts on Kelley: While it’s a Penguin paperback, the aesthetics of the book are wanting: pretty bland for a book told in such a cheerleading tone––just flat white pages printed with what looks like Times New Roman––as if it were a newspaper. Was this irony intentional? On the other hand, unless I’m a sucker for novelty (and I am), Kelly’s twelve trends in emerging technologies came across to the present writer, for the most part, as an interesting essay with many things to think about. Whether or not one agrees with the “inevitableness” of Kelly’s thesis, there are things to ponder further. But its cheerleading tone seems similar to feelings held by students whom Leo Strauss (1899–1973) once addressed:

We [moderns] somehow believe that our point of view is superior, higher than those of the greatest minds [of the ancient world]––either because our point of view is that of our time, and our time, being later than the time of the greatest minds, can be presumed to be superior to their times; or else because we believe that each of the greatest minds was right from his point of view but not, as be claims, simply right: we know that there cannot be the simply true substantive view but only a simply true formal view; that formal view consists in the insight that every comprehensive view is relative to a specific perspective, or that all comprehensive views are mutually exclusive and none can be simply true. [2]

Initial thoughts on Sax: With its hardcover, Baskerville font, cream-colored pages, and embossed dustjacket, I regard this book very highly in terms of aesthetics. Its contents, however, aren’t (at least initially) very captivating. Then again, maybe this was because (1) I was born in the analog era, so much of Sax’s book is review for me, and (2), because it’s review––by definition––it cannot be novel. Nonetheless, I found the most interesting portion to be Chapter 7 “The Revenge of Work” because here Sax (unlike Kelly) doesn’t explain his pattern finding in the voice of a utopian cheerleader. While Chapter 7 discusses Shinola watches made in Detroit in a hopeful manner, Sax’s writing remains quite sober and never pretends to offer easy answers.

Initial thoughts on reading and writing: Both Kelly and Sax write in a “breezy” style suitable for airport consumer readers—a strong contrast to say, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) where readers find a much slower-paced “storytelling”[3] style that demands reflection, review, rereading, and repetition.

Initial thoughts on technology: In the spirit of neo-analogic Zeitgeist, I confess I wrote the first few drafts of this blog post by hand (as I often do). I also printed Jacob’s syllabus for the “Living and Thinking in a Digital Age” course and read through it. Then, with regard to reading the books by Kelly and Sax and writing about them, I physically underlined what I thought were the important parts of the syllabus:

How is the rise of digital technologies changing some of the fundamental practices of the intellectual life: reading, writing, and researching? ….  So we will also spend some time thinking about the character and purposes of liberal education…. This is a course on how the digital worlds we live in now — our technologies of knowledge and communication — will inevitably shape our experience as learners. So let’s begin by trying to get a grip on the digital tech that shapes our everyday lives.

Finally, to find the quotations I needed, I consulted my previous digital notes on Strauss and Bateson, then copied-and-pasted where appropriate.

Initial thoughts on spirituality: (1) When I first came across Kelly’s line––

[Google] takes these guesses and adds them to the calculation of figuring out what ads to place on a web page that you’ve just arrived at. It’s almost magical, but the ads you see on a website today are not added until the moment after you land there. (181)

––it reminded me of an observation from the atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson:

My view of magic is the converse of that which has been orthodox in anthropology since the days of Sir James Frazer. It is orthodox to believe that religion is an evolutionary development of magic. Magic is regarded as more primitive and religion as its flowering. In contrast, I view sympathetic or contagious magic as a product of decadence from religion; I regard religion on the whole as the earlier condition. I find myself out of sympathy with decadence of this kind either in community life or in the education of children.[4]

(2) Kelly’s last line of his book––“The Beginning, of course, is just beginning,” (p. 297)––seems highly suggestive, perhaps because it seems highly biblical. But it might also be a tip of the hat to Joycian recourse. If digital technologies and patterns are as inevitable as Kelly says they are, then Analog’s Wake might’ve made for a more appropriate title.

More to come.

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

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NOTES

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[1] Mind and Nature, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 110–11.

[2]What is Liberal Education?” Address Delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. June 6, 1959.

[3] With regard to “storytelling,” early in his magnum opus, Taylor writes:

I ask the reader who picks up this book not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a set of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other, and offer a context of relevance for each other…. I have to launch myself into my own story, which I shall be telling in the following chapters… One important part of the picture is that so many features of their world told in favour of belief, made the presence of God seemingly undeniable. I will mention three, which will place a part in the story I want to tell…..  And at this point I want to start by laying out some broad features of the contrast between then and now, which will be filled in and enriched by the story. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP) ix, 21, 29)

[4] Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred, (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc., 2005) 56.


Nov 4 2016

The Theory of the Theory is Still a Theory

Texas wildflowers

The Theory of the Theory is Still a Theory

Writing about Freud and his loss of influence, Samuel Moyn at The Nation observes:

This skepticism toward the overarching theories of the 19th and 20th centuries has come to incarnate something of the spirit of our age and it is another reason why the prominence of psychoanalysis has declined.

But does Moyn not realize that this statement is itself a “overarching” theory? Or as A. J. Balfour put it:

If a proposition announcing obligation requires proof at all, one term of that proof must always be a proposition announcing obligation which itself requires no proof…. If we have a moral system at all there must be contained in it at least one ethical proposition of which no proof can be given or required….”[1]

Compare Leo Strauss:

All studies in social science presuppose that its devotees can tell human beings from other beings; this most fundamental knowledge was not acquired by them in classrooms; and this knowledge is not transformed by social science into scientific knowledge, but retains its initial status without any modification throughout. If this pre-scientific knowledge is not knowledge, all scientific studies which stand or fall with it, lack the character of knowledge….[2]

And Cicero:

For nothing can be reduced into a science unless he who understands the matters of which he would form a science has previously gained such knowledge as to enable him to constitute a science out of subjects in which there has never yet been in science.[3]

NOTES

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[1] Quoted from Pratt, James Bissett. “The Ethics of St. Augustine.” International Journal of Ethics. Vol. 13. No. 2. (January 1903.) 222–35 at 232.

[2] Strauss, Leo. “What is Political Philosophy?” Journal of Politics. Vol. 19. No. 3. (August 1957.) 343–68 at 352.

[3] Cicero, Marcus De oratore. Translated by E. W. Sutton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1967. I, 41, p. 55; I, 50, pp. 66–67.


Sep 22 2016

Hunting for the Well-Read Book

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Hunting for the Well-Read Book

I confess, I was awfully pleased with that schoolboyish explanation. I was strangely anxious to present the story in as absurd a light as possible.

––Dostoevsky[1]

As Signore Machiavelli puts it, a successful politician requires the optics of religious sincerity. That is, princes, if they are to possess any longevity, must appear to be religious…. [2]

Could this mean that in order for a book to become well-read, nothing is more crucial than for it to appear to be virtuous? Wouldn’t that mean books which appear virtuous must not be (or must not appear to be) self-published? A virtuous book should also at least appear to be written by the person claiming to be the author, no matter who actually wrote it….

Sons and daughters of royalty may wander to and fro about the earth as prodigal progeny, but true regents do not drift. Real rulers hunt for game; for unlike wandering children, regents have definite goals in mind. They pursue a prize. If books can be sought and found by regents, a virtuous regent will find a well-read book. But servants and royal children worm through words and thumb through pages looking for things that interest themselves in the moment, never for things that might gain interest over time….[3]

For every coupling of author and reader, one must look through Lenin’s eyes and Tully’s logic and ask: who benefits from this relationship? Who wields the most power? Deep may call unto deep, but the depths are apparent even on the surface—for the answers abide in the way the questions are constructed….[4]

’Tis neither original nor profound to observe that some of the least helpful books sit on shelves marked “self-help.” But I want to read (or dare I say write?) a book whose virtue is its selfless-helpfulness….

There’s a reason why the Bible calls it the Book of Acts, not the Book of Audiences. A century ago, Americans wanted a deity who acted, not one who simply listened. But today I want a book that acts upon me as a reader. I’m tired of being a reader who acts against authors.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. VI, p. 59.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò. Il Principe. (The Prince.) in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated by Robert M. Adams. NY: W. W. Norton. 1977:

Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this [religious] virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government. In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end….. (“Ch. XVIII. The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word,” p. 51)

But when these afterwards began to speak only in accordance with the wishes of the princes, and their falsity was discovered by the people, then men became incredulous, and disposed to disturb all good institutions. It is therefore the duty of princes and heads of republics to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united. And therefore everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false) should be received and availed of to strengthen it; and this should be done the more, the wiser the rulers are, and the better they understand the natural course of things. Such was, in fact, the practice observed by sagacious men; which has given rise to the belief in the miracles that are celebrated in religions, however false they may be….

With the line—“everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false)”—can this apply to all lies, superstitions, propaganda, bullshit? But see also Machiavelli’s maxim on Rome:

Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than to witness the fact that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they…. (Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livius in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica, “Book I – Chapter 12” p. 103)

Compare Poggio:

The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made Pope. (Braccidini, Poggio. Facetiae [Demenichi] in The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. Edited and translated by Edward Storer. London: Dutton. 1928. V, p. 37)

But comport Ben Jonson who says, opposite of Machiavelli, that we tend to trust our ears over our eyes:

We praise the things we hear with much more willingness than those we see, because we envy the present and reverence the past; thinking ourselves instructed by the one, and overlaid by the other. (Timber: or Discoveries (1640))

Now compare Jonson to Oscar Wilde, for whom “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” For Wilde, our eyes have priority over our ears, though our ears are quite discriminating:

When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely. (“The Critic as Artist” (1891))

A prince will appear religious by not talking about how religious he is; therefore, a well-read book will appear virtuous by not referencing its own virtue.

[3] Job 1:07, 2:02; Proverbs 2:04, 25:02, 25:11; Matthew 7:07, Luke 11:09 and 15:11–32; Pirkei Avot V, xxvii.

[4] Psalms 42:07; “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” Strauss, Leo. “Introduction.” Thoughts on Machiavelli. 1958. Quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica p. 183.

[5] See James Bissett Pratt who found that Americans weren’t interested in any affirmative knowledge about a deity, but only in what a deity can do:

But one result of the answers as a whole that seems fairly clear is that God’s “attributes” play a comparatively unimportant part in the minds of religious people, and that His relation to individuals is the really important factor in the concept. People are chiefly interested not in what God is, but in what He can do. Two thirds of my respondents describe Him as “Father,” “Friend,” “Companion,” “the ally of my ideals,” or by some equivalent expression; while only 12 thought it worthwhile to mention the fact that He is omnipotent, 9 called Him Creator, 3 mentioned Him as the Trinity, and one as the “Great First Cause.” Doubtless most of my respondents, if asked whether God were all these latter things, would respond Yes; the significant fact is that these attributes play so unimportant a part in their conception of Him that when asked to define that conception these attributes never enter their minds. Professor Leuba seems to be right in the main when he says that God is used rather than understood….

While the concept of God is, however, in one sense decidedly pragmatic, it would be a mistake to suppose that the ends for which the religious consciousness wishes to use God are chiefly ordinary utilitarian ends—such as protector, “meat purveyor,” etc. Unless my respondents are very unusual people, the chief use for which God is desired is distinctly social rather than material. God is valued as an end in Himself rather than as a means to other ends. Most people want God for the same reason for which they want friends, and His relation to them is exactly that of a very dear and very lovable and very sympathizing friend. It is quite naive, no doubt, but perfectly simple. Thus 53 out of 73 of my respondents affirm that God is as real to them as an earthly friend. Doubtless some of the 53 answered as they did in a purely conventional spirit, but that this was not the case with more than a small proportion is shown by the general tone of the answers to the other questions. The God whom most people want and whom many people have is a very real and sympathizing friend. Like other friends he is, to be sure, not only an end in Himself, but a means to other ends; He can help one to many things that one wants. These things, however, are as a rule not material benefits. They are chiefly of three kinds: comfort in trouble, hope for the future, and assistance in striving after righteousness. (The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. pp. 263–64)

Compare Pratt’s line––“A very real and sympathizing friend”—to Walter Jackson Bate on Coleridge for whom the former asks:

What was wrong with occasionally prizing literature when it was simply a “friend”––a friend that could comfort while it informed and uplifted? The great English poets could not be viewed (at least not yet) in exactly that way. Only the best were studied—and the best part written by that best. Around them was an inevitable association of demand. In this respect they offered no essential contrast to his other reading—the reading in Greek literature and philosophy, the Neoplatonists, the metaphysical writers generally, the skeptics, the modern writers on science and epistemology. (Coleridge. NY: Macmillan. 1968. pp. 9–10)

That is to say: Coleridge hunted for virtuous books in the same spirit one does when searching across a lifetime for a true friend.


Mar 9 2016

Fun and Philosophy with Martin Buber

bookbread pencil shavings

 

What’s not to like about Martin Buber? Walter Benjamin, Walter Kaufmann, Gershom Scholem, Franz Kafka, Leo Strauss et al answer that question in Benjamin Ivery’s interview with Dominique Bourel in The Forward:

Buber is often between two fields. He writes too well to be a philosopher, and that unsettled people.

Read it all here.