Thy will be done

Woke up from a dream that caused me to wonder, right off:

Have I done
a single
will

?

Will I have

?
done

° ° °

A white policeman shot an unarmed black man, triggering the 1943 Harlem race riot. Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – sweet, somehow raw essays with seemingly simple rhetorical movements.

The Americans in Baldwin’s Paris, the “little band of bohemians” who share “a total confusion about the nature of experience.” They discount the power of society because they can’t believe “that time [i.e., a society's powerful history] is real.” Without society they are rootless, unable to find themselves. With society they are trapped, because “society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations.”

Experience, if permitted, leads to untenable associations. Experience will always teach me that I killed the Christ.

No loving mercy unless you need it. But experience for Baldwin’s bohemians “is nothing more than sensation – so many sensations, added up like arithmetic, give on the rich, full life.” It’s not even a particularly creative way of avoiding experience.

° ° °

The notion of travel and the notion of staying put. The cosmopolite and the provincial. On the one hand, travel gives perspective. Homesickness may be the ultimate perspective. No. But it suggests it. I’m homesick for somewhere I’ve never been.

Staying home, on the other hand, and being washed in love by the differences each day makes to something that, to others, always looks the same. The place takes on a kind of holiness, which bears some relation to nostalgia. Maybe nostalgia is holiness’s demiurge. Holiness’s half light.

Recalled myself riding the Pentran Bus to the shipyard, marveling at the different faces of the James River. The gray alone is a lifetime’s obsession. “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Popper thought Heraclitus’s adage was Plato’s obsession. Maybe so. The gray gradations, some leaning against a blue buoy, some clinging to a green lover. Red is never arrived at. Not until the evening bus when the sunset sometimes skips across the river like a hot rock. God in a dream dropping down Jacob’s ladder.

Robert Lax this morning:

each day
the same
walk up
the hill

same turns
same shad
ow of the
tree

each sta
tion of
the way

takes on
its own

set of
meanings

– Poem 22 in A Thing that Is

° ° °

3PictureWashPost20140812FrontPgWhat is the distinction between universal truths and tribalism? We can’t exist in ideas, even ideals, alone. We’d lose the scent of our identity, the roots that ground and feed us. The soil of good and evil. The mystery of the past.

We can’t exist on tribes alone. We’d lose our identity, the sun and air that we all share. The promise, the mystery of a deeper past.

The difference between the Big Bang (universalism) and the first motion not a moment after (tribalism).

The militarized police in Ferguson. Blacks may see it as an expression of white fear, power, and repression – of tribalism and its dehumanization of outsiders. Whites may see it as a tool of the state, the federal enforcement of universal truths that would take away their tribe. “The Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (John 11). Kill the Christ, Caiaphas counseled.

Your basic cop is underpaid. They’re told to take on more than even teachers.

° ° °

Experience, for Baldwin, can be avoided. One then develops a narrowed, occluded soul. One becomes Jason Compson. But experience, for Baldwin, can lead to destruction, as it does in Another Country for Rufus. Or it can lead to humility and the first hints of freedom and self-knowledge, as it does for Ida, Cass, Eric, and Vivaldo.

° ° °

Isn’t beauty in the tribe?

Isn’t holiness in the universal?

Is this our problem: we find beauty in ideas and holiness in our tribes?

(life)
is
not
hol
y

be
cause
it
is

beau
ti
ful

it
is
beau
ti
ful

be
cause
it
is

hol
y

– Poem 27 in A Thing that Is

The circle from hope to patience to experience (transformation) to hope again in Romans 5:1-5 is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, depicted also as a circle. From hope to hope, from home to home.

England and nowhere

Know the place for the first time

Heaven, perhaps, is where God helps us sort out the slides to share our trip to the audience we never quite locate on earth.

On earth as it is in heaven

[My journal entry this morning between “thy will be done” and “on earth as it is in heaven.” Video is of the James River this past spring. I took it while walking my parents' dog. Photo is a detail from the front page of the August 12, 2014 issue of the Washington Post.]

We stayed this week in something like a bungalow. Three bedrooms, two set inside the roof without even the headroom dormers would afford. A single bath for the five of us. And the best part Victoria and I didn’t discover until the second day – a screened porch, just outside the kitchen window.

3PictureChincoteaguePorch01

I’m not sure I lived the past this house suggested. Chincoteague Island’s dignified, modest homes just off the bay reminded me of Hilton Village, a World War I-era planned community that surrounds the Episcopal church we attended when I was a kid. My parents and I leapfrogged Hilton when I was not yet two, moving from a downriver apartment to Brandon Heights, an uptown development with bigger houses, where my siblings were born.

3PictureChincoteaguePorch2

Everything was not a block from the tidal James – the apartment, the church, the house in Brandon Heights, and the house we moved to in Riverside even farther from downtown Newport News when I was six, the house my parents still live in today. It doesn’t take much to wade in again. The slam of a screen door, or the cry of a gull.

3PictureChincoteaguePorch03

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements, that is, to define certain groups to which I happily don’t belong as subhuman.

No matter which way out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself— of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.

“. . . the law is the public conscience . . .”

– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

3PictureBookHobbesLeviathanWe know too much about the sausage factory – the lobbying, the money, the special interests, and the compromises – to equate law with the public conscience. We may, in fact, believe that there is no such thing as a public conscience. If so, we may hold to what seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls a “seditious doctrine”:

Another doctrine repugnant to civil society, is, that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin; and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of good and evil. For a man’s conscience, and his judgment is the same thing; and as the judgment, so also the conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no civil law, sinneth in all he does against his conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a commonwealth; because the law is the public conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided. Otherwise in such diversity, as there is of private consciences, which are but private opinions, the commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the sovereign power, further than it shall seem good in his own eyes. (Kindle loc. 5022-5027)

You would think from this passage alone that Hobbes has great faith in legislation. But Hobbes doesn’t care much for legislatures. He prefers a strong executive, to put it mildly: he believes that the judges and any legislature should be in the service of the executive. And he admits that, no matter what the form of government, all laws may not be just. Hobbes asserts, however, that we are bound to obey even unjust laws because we made our public conscience forever superior to our private ones when we entered into compact to create a government.

Hobbes’ description of this “seditious doctrine” of individual morality anticipates Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century German philosopher whose famous “categorical imperative” asserts that “one chooses to act or not act solely on the basis of principle and never on the basis of the calculation of results.” Kant believes that, “in order to be a moral principle, a precept needs to be chosen for oneself, not imposed by someone else or by ‘nature’” (Koterski 80). The king’s or the legislature’s law, then, cannot be a moral principle, cannot be or substitute for a private man’s conscience. So Kant champions private morality, and Hobbes champions public morality.

Neither leaves much room for the other. Hobbes would find that Kant’s categorical imperative leads to weak government and eventually anarchy. Kant would find that Hobbes’s notion of conscience would lead to a loss of individual conscience and freedom. (Here’s a link to a great article in rough draft form by Gerald Gaus entitled, “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?)” that addresses these competing ideas much better than I can.)

Middle ground is suggested by the reference to “nature” in Joseph Koterski’s characterization of Kant’s position above. While my individual conscience may not be enough to justify my disobedience to law, the relation between my conscience and natural law may be enough to justify disobedience.

Natural law – not a king’s or a legislature’s law – is the public conscience. This public conscience doesn’t displace my private conscience in governmental matters, as public conscience as expressed in positive law does for Hobbes. Instead, my private conscience bears witness to the public conscience through reason. Indeed, if natural law weren’t universally available to all people through their God-given conscience and capacity to reason, natural law could not exist. But because natural law is available to all people through reason, one’s private conscience can find some of its expression in the public conscience, and one has legal grounds to revolt from King George III, to prosecute Nazi war criminals (who obeyed German positive law to the letter), and to sit in the front of the bus – all forms of civil disobedience justified by one’s conscience as well as by natural law.

Natural law’s theory and use from the ancients forward as well its partial delineation makes it objective. Its appeal to conscience, its unwritten status, and its incomplete delineation make it flexible. We can argue about whether natural law’s notion of equality applies to homosexual rights, for instance. But when we do, from the perspective of the philosophy of our nation’s founding, we’re asking the right questions.

Each of these three positions with respect to the public conscience reflects one of my three interlocking circles of moderation. Each of these circles from my June 28, 2004 post, therefore, now receives its patron philosopher.

“Of the people” – active government – tends to emphasize the public conscience as expressed by law. While the New Englanders who most championed active government in the United States and Thomas Hobbes have very different theories of governmental structure, they both believe in a strong government whose laws express society’s conscience. Hobbes is, therefore, active government’s patron philosopher. (I know the idea of associating Hobbes with those who seek more government activism today would offend many of Hobbes’s admirers and many activists, too, but I’m limiting their association to the role of the public conscience and the relationship between government and the individual.)

“By the people” – responsive government – emphasizes individual rights and conscience over government. I anoint Immanuel Kant as its patron philosopher.

“For the people” – responsible government – emphasizes public morality and minority rights over majority rule. Seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke, whose writings formed part of the basis of our Declaration of Independence, is hereby installed as its patron philosopher.

Moderation starts when we assert one patron’s views with due respect to the views of the other two.

Philosopher Hobbes Locke Kant
Public conscience is . . . Positive law Natural law An invalid construct
Patron philosopher of . . . “Of the people” – active government “For the people” – responsible government “By the people” – responsive government

Works Cited

Gaus, Gerald. “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?).” (2014): n. pag. 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas; J. C. A. Gaskin (1996-07-04). Leviathan (Oxford World’s Classics) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Koterski, Joseph. Natural Law and Human Nature: Course Guidebook. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2002. Print.

A book’s a funny place to look for answers. If customer support took that long to answer my question, I’d hang up.

Some books make the Bible into an answer book. On supermarket displays back by the butcher’s and druggist’s counters, you may pick up books of Bible verses, helpfully categorized by issues. Spin the display, and the cookbooks appear.

When I was younger, many of my Jesus friends made decisions by closing their eyes, opening the Bible, and pointing to a verse. They honed their prophetic sense by learning how to read the sometimes-opaque tea leaves.

I’m not reading much differently if I’m still reading just for answers. I’m not living by the book; I’m limiting my reading to my narrow questions. Michael Casey puts it better:

Anything that feeds into our current concerns is accepted as relevant; everything else is dismissed as of lesser importance. . . . As a result, we do not build the infrastructure on which “relevant” insights will depend.

My reading must, at least, broaden an issue until the original question becomes, in retrospect, a fillip, and now an afterthought – maybe even irrelevant (ironically). But I must not set out on my more important reading to find anything relevant to the day’s exigencies. Casey:

Not everything is immediately relevant. Sometimes we have to juggle two apparently divergent themes in our minds until some sort of connectedness links them.

Living by the book means, in part, carrying the word around and watching it shape life. Casey:

Perhaps we hear the word and understand it intellectually. Because we do not carry it around, bridges are not built between the text and daily life.

Seek wisdom, the Bible says. But wisdom may not have answers.1 Maybe wisdom isn’t even only the expansion of a question into a broader, more comprehensive issue, though that’s often important. Maybe wisdom is God’s fellowship.2

Answers are overrated.

Am I like Saul, going to the prophet Samuel to find my donkeys?3 “Blah, blah, blah, and your donkeys have been found.” I won’t find the “blah, blah, blah” on supermarket carousels.

Reflections on reading “Irrelevance,” a paragraph on page 74 of Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

  1. Maybe a “word of wisdom” redirects my inquiry – points me to a better path.
  2. Or maybe God himself. The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman (chapter 9). And Paul says, with little explanation, that Jesus is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  3. 1 Samuel 9 & 10.

3PictureMarja-Leena-Rathje-paperwhites2014I live out essentially two notions of slow reading. One focuses meditatively over a verse’s or small passage’s phrasing. The other digs into an entire book through marginalia and multiple reads. One is meditation and the other is study, though, happily, the lines blur.

Over the past seven months, I’ve tried both kinds of close reading on the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Each morning I’m reading a psalm, or part of a psalm, depending on its length and how things are going, from an unfamiliar translation.  I’ve also tried to wear out two larger Kindle books. In the process, I typed 178 margin notes in one Kindle book and 452 margin notes in the other. (I love marginalia: my best writing is in my margin notes.) This post reflects on my experience of close reading these three texts on the Kindle.

By the way, the psalms translation is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. The first of the two larger books is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, and the second is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.

While I was reading Niebuhr’s book on my Kindle, I was also alternately “reading” it by listening to an unabridged recording of it on my phone’s Audible app. I’d stop this performance on occasion to record notes, and a transcribed version of my recorded notes would collect along with my typed margin notes when the phone’s app synced.

I wasn’t reading these books just to test the Kindle, of course. But I was curious, as I went along, to see how close reading on a Kindle stacked up against close reading a physical book. I also wondered what a well-lived-in Kindle book would feel like. Here’s what I’ve discovered in terms of both function and feel.

1. Typing margin notes on a Kindle is slow, but that’s not all bad. More ideas sometimes occurred to me as I used a single finger to press the tiny keys at the bottom of my Kindle. In a way it was more tactile than writing notes with a pen in a paper book. I found that I reflected more on what I was writing.

2. With 452 margin notes in Open Society, I need a way to search them. The search function on the Kindle and on the computer’s Kindle app doesn’t search my marginalia; it searches only the book’s text. To search my notes, I log into kindle.amazon.com on my laptop and click “Your Highlights.”

3. The “Your Highlights” page produces my few thousand notes on a single, slowly loading page. To search the page, I type Command-F, as I’d type to find something on any web page. Amazon hasn’t developed a serious research tool for Kindle yet, though any search function beats searching for marginalia in paper books, of course. Read More »

3PictureKarlPopperAs I mentioned in my recent post, “A framework for political moderation,” I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. I wasn’t searching for it here, though, in twentieth-century, Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political science magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Instead, I picked up Popper to learn what the originator of the appellation “historicist” had to say about that Hegelian juggernaut of a philosophy.

I’ve spent six months reading Popper’s book, mostly a few pages a night. Now that the school year’s over, I’ve had time to finish the book and to concentrate on what it is teaching me. I’d like to examine Popper here both for his take on historicism and for what I have come to recognize as his contribution to a modern, moderate political philosophy. I’ll start with historicism and meander into Popper’s broader philosophy.

Popper and historicism

Historicists, you may know, explain away claims to universality in scientific or political standards by pointing out these alleged standards’ subjective, historical contexts. (Subjective sociological and psychoanalytic contexts have since been advanced, too, of course, and Popper addresses them.) I’ve written a bit about Southern secessionists’ central historicist argument against the Equality Clause: all men are not created equal because (1) no man has an existence outside of the context of his tribe (or race) and (2) each race must earn its rights over time in the judgment of history.

Popper defines historicism this way:

[They believe that it is] the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. (xliii).

Popper hates historicism as much as I do, but he cedes more ground to it than I do, though with little loss of effectiveness. He concedes to historicists that there are no a priori, or self-evident, truths. I like seventeenth-century Locke, who believes in self-evident truths. Popper likes eighteenth-century Kant, who doesn’t. But both of us have a faith in reason in common, and both of us dislike nineteenth-century Hegel, who overturned reason in favor of historicism.

Faith in reason or faith in equality?

Popper’s faith – or a priori political starting point – is not in equality, as mine is, but in reason. Popper believes that historicists such as Hegel undermine mankind’s faith in a universally understood reason, a faith necessary for advances in science and self-government. Like Popper, I find a faith in reason to be vital: our ability to reason about something like what Aristotle calls first principles permits us to have a chance at governing ourselves. But to me, “faith in reason” feels too much like “faith in faith” or, speaking from a Christian standpoint, too much like “faith in prayer.” It doesn’t feel like rock bottom. The Bible teaches faith in God, not faith in prayer; likewise, Locke and the Founders’ faith in equality is more fundamental than their faith in reason. The backbone of equality is its inherent hierarchy among God, mankind, and nature, and God’s absence or his ineluctable wrath, if accepted, creates a political vacuum that demigods fill, making equality impossible. I’d rather start with equality as the beginning (the standard – the individual in the state of nature) and the end (the goal – the realization in society) and reason as the means from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think Popper would call his faith in reason a priori, but I would: reason presupposes a certain metaphysical understanding of human nature. My assertion of mankind’s essential equality is no more metaphysical at its core than Popper’s assertion of mankind’s ability to reason. To affirm reason’s universal application – to assert that all men can reason enough in a democracy to effectively hypothesize about social problems and to work together toward possible solutions to them – is an affirmation and an assertion about human nature. Read More »

3PictureJobByzantineManuscriptRobert Alter finds a neat way to end Psalm 39, the psalm that most focuses, in semantics and structure, on man’s evanescence.

Alter’s notes for Psalm 39 demonstrate (1) the predominance of “breath” (e.g., “Mere breath is each man standing”), (2) the echoes from Job (e.g., “You . . . melt like the moth his treasure”), and (3) the contrast between the psalm’s triadic lines (psychological tension) and dyadic lines (symmetry). Alter’s last verse confronts these components.

I’m used to the psalm ending on something like the Revised English Bible’s simpering:

Frown on me no more; let me look cheerful
before I depart and cease to be.

But Alter likes how Raymond Scheindlin translates Job’s end for its chapter 10, rendering the “disputed verb avligah” as “catch my breath”:

Let me alone so I may catch my breath

before I go on my way, not to return
into a land of darkness and deathgloom

Psalm 39’s final verse uses the same verb. Alter adopts Scheindlin’s strategy, giving the last verse’s dyadic structure something of the roundedness of the previous triadic lines:

Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.

Based on these lines alone, I just ordered a copy of Scheindlin’s Job – a used, hardcover copy for next to nothing.

The illustration is from a Byzantine manuscript in Rome’s Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. You have to love how it depicts who I guess are Job’s friends: all mouth.