Jan 30 2018

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

A post shared by Rich Pellegrino (@dustyatticrarebooks) on



[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1979) 147.

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.

Oct 21 2015

Texas Hawks & Greek Omens


That’s a broad-winged hawk, making a pit stop here at the University of Texas at Austin, probably before heading to Mexico for the winter.

In literature, particularly the Hellenic variety, bird-is-the-word, that is,  any unusual sighting or behavior of a feathered figure, was taken to be an omen for something:

[230] Then with an angry glance from beneath his brows spake to him Hector of the flashing helm: “Polydamas, this that thou sayest is no longer to my pleasure; yea, thou knowest how to devise better words than these. But if thou verily speakest thus in earnest, then of a surety have the gods themselves destroyed thy wits, [235] seeing thou biddest me forget the counsels of loud-thundering Zeus, that himself promised me and bowed his head thereto. But thou biddest us be obedient to birds long of wing, that I regard not, nor take thought thereof, whether they fare to the right, toward the Dawn and the sun, [240] or to the left toward the murky darkness. nay, for us, let us be obedient to the counsel of great Zeus, that is king over all mortals and immortals. One omen is best, to fight for one’s country. Wherefore dost thou fear war and battle? [245] For if the rest of us be slain one and all at the ships of the Argives, yet is there no fear that thou shouldest perish,—for thy heart is—not staunch in fight nor warlike.

(Homer, Iliad, (XII, 230–45) in The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924. )

Here, Hektor’s rebuke against the interpretation of the eagle-serpent omen basically seems to say, “I have what God/Zeus told me—and because I already have it, signs and omens and interpretations thereof mean nothing.”


The Odyssey is bookend with bird omens, beginning with Book II:

Without atonement then should ye perish within my halls.” So spoke Telemachus, and in answer Zeus, whose voice is borne afar,1 sent forth two eagles, flying from on high, from a mountain peak. For a time they flew swift as the blasts of the wind side by side with wings outspread; [150] but when they reached the middle of the many-voiced assembly, then they wheeled about, flapping their wings rapidly, and down on the heads of all they looked, and death was in their glare. Then they tore with their talons one another’s cheeks and necks on either side, and darted away to the right across the houses and the city of the men. [155] But they were seized with wonder at the birds when their eyes beheld them, and pondered in their hearts on what was to come to pass. Then among them spoke the old lord Halitherses, son of Mastor, for he surpassed all men of his day in knowledge of birds and in uttering words of fate. [160] He with good intent addressed their assembly, and spoke among them: “Hearken now to me, men of Ithaca, to the word that I shall say; and to the wooers especially do I declare and announce these things, since on them a great woe is rolling. For Odysseus shall not long be away from his friends, but even now, methinks, [165] he is near, and is sowing death and fate for these men, one and all. Aye, and to many others of us also who dwell in clear-seen Ithaca will he be a bane. But long ere that let us take thought how we may make an end of this—or rather let them of themselves make an end, for this is straightway the better course for them. [170] Not as one untried do I prophesy, but with sure knowledge. For unto Odysseus I declare that all things are fulfilled even as I told him, when the Argives embarked for Ilios and with them went Odysseus of many wiles. I declared that after suffering many ills and losing all his comrades he would come home in the twentieth year [175] unknown to all; and lo, all this is now being brought to pass.” (Homer, Odyssey, II, 150-75) The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.)

Then again at Book XX:

[240] Thus they spoke to one another, but the wooers meanwhile were plotting death and fate for Telemachus; howbeit there came to them a bird on their left, an eagle of lofty flight, clutching a timid dove. Then Amphinomus spoke in their assembly, and said: [245] “Friends, this plan of ours will not run to our liking, even the slaying of Telemachus; nay, let us bethink us of the feast.” (Homer, Odyssey, XX, 240-45)


Centuries later, Plutarch imparts:

But when they set out to establish their city, a dispute at once arose concerning the site. Romulus, accordingly, built Roma Quadrata (which means square),and wished to have the city on that site; but Remus laid out a strong precinct on the Aventine hill, which was named from him Remonium, but now is called Rignarium.

Agreeing to settle their quarrel by the flight of birds of omen,1 and taking their seats on the ground apart from one another, six vultures, they say, were seen by Remus, and twice that number by Romulus. Some, however, say that whereas Remus truly saw his six, Romulus lied about his twelve, but that when Remus came to him, then he did see the twelve. Hence it is that at the present time also the Romans chiefly regard vultures when they take auguries from the flight of birds.

Herodorus Ponticus relates that Hercules also was glad to see a vulture present itself when he was upon an exploit. For it is the least harmful of all creatures, injures no grain, fruit-tree, or cattle, and lives on carrion. But it does not kill or maltreat anything that has life, and as for birds, it will not touch them even when they are dead, since they are of its own species. But eagles, owls, and hawks smite their own kind when alive, and kill them. And yet, in the words of Aeschylus:—1

How shall a bird that preys on fellow bird be clean?

Besides, other birds are, so to speak, always in our eyes, and let themselves be seen continually; but the vulture is a rare sight, and it is not easy to come upon a vulture’s young, nay, some men have been led into a strange suspicion that the birds come from some other and foreign land to visit us here, so rare and intermittent is their appearance, which soothsayers think should be true of what does not present itself naturally, nor spontaneously, but by a divine sending (Plutarch a.k.a Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, Parallel Lives – Volume I. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb’s: Harvard UP. 1928. 1982. “Romulus,” ix, 3–7, pp. 115–17)


Aug 4 2015

An Epistle to Cousin Paul: or, How to Subvert Irreconcilable Differences

bookbread Canterbury

Hola, Primo:

Oft (how oft!) do I don my contrarian cap and criticize something only for the sake of criticism rather than as a way to pursue truth. Yet I recall your observation from July 18, 2015:

It’s really a shame how low things have gone in our country, with each side of whatever issue willing to demonize the other and vilify anyone with a difference of opinion. Our time in this world is short and winning an argument is pointless. I’m tired of all the anti-Obama AND the anti-Republican stuff out there. It’s hard being a teacher trying to teach kids to treat each other with respect when adults behave even worse.

Now even though I pursue the truth in my spare time, I cannot call myself a philosopher. I’m a student, and while actual philosophers and scientists have the advantage of peer review, students can only review their own self-understanding. Actual philosophers and scientists contribute to everyone’s understanding, but students can only contribute to their own. Students pursue truth but do not speak, write, present, or publicize anything about their pursuit. Students can, however, read (alone or aloud) texts and quotations from actual philosophers as well as take notes. So to be absolutely sincere, I must first admit that I’m really not writing to you, but only to me, and only for my own understanding.


A philosopher might have the capability to organize their thoughts into a formal model, but since I am a student, an informal scheme should suffice. Being informal, I write in a casual manner in proposing a scheme to solve some disagreements between citizens of our country who are divided on particular political issues. I propose this scheme because “agreeing to disagree” does nothing to prevent the rash of resentment from spreading over the entire body politic.

But I also believe a scheme is needed simply because the sages (at least the male ones) point out over and over how it is so much easier to tear things down than rather to build them up. So often do folks make divisions, even when they know there are none:

To offer objections against a discourse which has been delivered is not difficult, but very easy; but to set up a better against it is a very laborious task.


And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved.

––Francis Bacon[ii]

The greater part of our success & comfort in life depends on distinguishing the similar from the same…. It is a dull and obtuse mind, that must divide in order to distinguish; but it is a still worse, that distinguishes in order to divide. In the former, we may contemplate the source of superstition and idolatry; in the latter, of schism, heresy, and a seditious and sectarian spirit.

––Samuel Taylor Coleridge[iii]

Be afraid to destroy the unity of people by stirring bad feelings amongst them against another with our words.

––Leo Tolstoy[iv]

Must you again divide the indivisible?

––Martin Buber[v]

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

––Albert Einstein[vi]

But because we must divide, to reduce the emphasis on any one traditional division must, in the long run, mean an increase of emphasis on some other division. And that is the subject I want to discuss. If we do not put the Great Divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where should we put it? I ask this question with the full consciousness that, in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide.

––C. S. Lewis[vii]


My scheme requires four “givens” or assumptions, that is, the immediate context, or brute facts concerning political disagreements between groups of citizens. These four givens are:

1. Group A and Group B disagree to an irreconcilable degree (so much so that they cannot even “agree to disagree”).

2. A group is bound together by a “declared cause,” which is the idea that binds and makes its members part of the group. The declared cause is also the principle issue of disagreement between the two groups:

 By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community….

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (Madison, “Federalist 10”)

3. Because all causes, including declared causes, are derived from other causes, all causes can be deconstructed in terms of their prior causes. Hence there are no monolithic or indestructible causes. Nor is a group monolithic––not even in an age when human bodies can be cloned––for while a group is united around its declared cause, each member of that group has a distinct, individual perception of the declared cause. In other words, if a group was monolithic, it would cease to be a group of anything, and would only be one, indivisible thing. (Again from “Federalist 10”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”)

For example, groups that advocate gun control and groups that advocate gun rights both have a declared cause of “guns.” But an analysis (or deconstruction) of the rhetoric of both sides reveals that whatever they’re arguing over has very little to do with actual armaments. The word “guns,” for all of these groups, really refers to the conflict of mental illness and its alleged relationship to crime as well as the question of its limitations and intrusions on privacy; the word “guns” for these groups means the lack or surplus of law enforcement in the immediate lives of the members of these groups; the word “guns” for these groups also means reading the Constitution literally, pragmatically, practically, critically, cynically, or skeptically.

4. The history of humanity shows that resentment from one group toward another group increases the resentment both groups have toward each other. No matter the origins, the aim of one group’s resentment toward another ends only in “mutually assured resentment.” Or as Baylor Professor Alan Jacobs has recently put it:

Both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.[viii]


My scheme proposes that the two groups might come to an agreement via a technique of subversion, or more specifically, a counterintuitive method of divide-and-conquer. Through this method all members of all groups can arrive at the goal of united disagreement. United disagreement then makes for a new foundation to build understanding upon.

So if the four givens are met, a four-step scheme is proposed:

1. One member from Group A subverts the opposition by “joining” Group B; and one member from Group B subverts its opposition by “joining” Group A. The subversion is driven by each group’s mutual will-to-grudge (the drive to resent the opposition). These subversives are called “undercover members.”

2. The undercover members of each group cannot be blatant in their subversion. Instead, each undercover member “preaches to the choir” or, in other words, promotes the declared cause of the subverted group so tirelessly as to induce ennui within that subverted group. Through rhetorical bombast, the undercover member invokes boredom in the minds of the actual members. Each undercover member should recall Tolstoy’s advice:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people.[ix]

A counter-intuitive subversive approach by undercover members fosters faction within the actual group, because boredom among members of the subverted group will eventually spur those actual members to deconstruct the declared cause of their group. In other words, if the undercover member holds up the whole, sooner or later other actual members of the group will pick it apart. Actual group members will start to “split hairs,” championing exclusivity among themselves. By then, the undercover member has successfully divided-and-conquered. For:

3. As both Groups A and B become more inwardly divided, soon enough no one within either group will agree on their particular declared cause, and the majority from both groups will begin to disagree within their own group as well as continue to clash with the group they originally opposed.

4. If no one from either group agrees on anything, then both groups are united in disagreement. An equilibrium of resentment will have been achieved.


“What was the one thing?” asks Oedipus, for: “One may be the key / To everything, if we resolve to use it.” Perhaps counter-intuitive subversion is not the one thing. For Plato, at least according to Aristotle, the mind is the one thing, while knowledge (science) divides into infinite specializations. Neither knowledge nor science can ever be one thing, because they are collaborative group activities requiring peer review.[x]

Nearly 2000 years after Aristotle, James Madison saw property as the one thing:

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (“Federalist 10”)

This is probably why Ben Jonson pointed out, a century before Madison, that––no matter the faction, or the direct cause of the faction, or the strength of its resentment––the whole of humanity remains united in greed, which can be a synonym for property.[xi]

But Tolstoy taught a century after Madison:

 If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.[xii]

I hope to read more and think more and write more––that I may one day improve my community.


Cousin Christopher



[i] Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures” Moralia. Vol. I. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1927. § 6, p. 221.

[ii] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning. 1605. Edited by William Aldis Wright. 1858. Fifth Edition. Oxford UP. 1957. II, ix, 1, p. 129.

[iii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Chapter XXII.” Biographia Literaria. 1817; “Introductory Aphorism XXVI.” Aids to Reflection. 1825.

[iv] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. NY: Scribner. 1997. January 5, p. 17.

[v] Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1922. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. NY: Scribners. 1970. I § 10.

[vi] Einstein, Albert. “On the Method of Theoretical Physics.” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 2. (April 1934.) 163–69.

[vii] Lewis, Clive Staples. “De Descriptione Temporum.” [“A Survey of Time.”] Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge. 1954. So They Asked for a Paper. p. 11.

[viii] Jacobs, Alan. “Code Fetishists and Normolaters.” The American Conservative. July 29, 2015. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/code-fetishists-and-normolaters.)

[ix] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 28, p. 100.

[x] Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1887. l. 120; Aristotle, De Anima. Translated by John Alexander Smith. Oxford: Clarendon. 1931. I, 2.

[xi] Jonson: “The great herd, the multitude, that in all other things are divided, in this alone conspire and agree—to love money.” (Timber: or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter. Edited by Felix E. Schelling. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1892. p. 47.)

[xii] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 17, p. 89.