INSCRIPTION ON ANY TOMB
Let not the rash marble risk
garrulous breach of omnipotent oblivion,
in many words recalling
name, renown, events, birthplace.
All those glass beads are best left in the dark.
Let not the marble say what men may not.
The essentials of the dead man’s life —
the trembling hope,
the implacable miracle of pain,
the wonder of sensual delight —
will abide forever.
Blindly the willful soul asks for length of days
when its survival is assured by the lives of others.
You yourself are the embodied continuance
of those who did not live into your time
and others who will be (and are) your immortality on earth.
~ Jorge Luis Borges, tr. W.S. Merwin
Borges was such a “singular” man (I mean it in the sense of unusual, exceptional -- but the word insists on its most common meaning) that it’s striking how he doesn’t buy “individualism.” He does not insist on his “exceptionalism.” Simply because we are human, we are not isolated individuals; we are humanity. We pass as the water in the river passes, but the river remains.
This realization may have come to Borges in part from his life among books. He realized that his mind is a tapestry of the endless volumes he’s read, influences he’d absorbed. From there it’s only a step to seeing oneself as part of the larger human community across time, and of the human continuum.
His acceptance of the collective mind set Borges apart from those writers in his generation who insisted on the cult of the artist as completely separate and alienated. But Borges communed with great writers across time, and knew he was part of a continuum.
This is not to deny the uniqueness of each of us, something we bring to the universe only once. “There will never be another you.” In the Western culture in particular, everyone has had at least moments of feeling so different from others that loneliness threatens to overwhelm: no one really knows me, so how can they love the “real me.” Never mind that the “real me” is so elusive, so . . . unreal. Even our memories are not fully ours, but a collage of we absorbed in all kinds of ways, including books and movies.
If we were words, each person would be an oxymoron: a collective individual. A single individual has no meaning apart from his social context. As Christian Wiman said, “Experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others.”
It took me a while to get beyond adolescent “individualism” and see that indeed “no man is an island.” The meaning of our lives is in how we touch the lives of others.
As Borges reminds us: others are and will be our immortality, here on earth.
The tomb of Borges in Geneva. The inscription, in Old Icelandic, says, “Be not afraid.”
WE ARE NOT CHRISTIANS; WE ARE GREEKS AND ROMANS ~ A.C. Grayling
For most of the time since the seventeenth century, Britain and its growing empire were run by graduates of the ancient universities. The main studies at those universities were the classics. That means that the British governing class was brought up on the literature, philosophy and history of classical civilization — ancient Greece and Rome. This was a fine education — in government, military strategy, ethics, political theory, examples of good and bad rule, management of an empire, social conditions, how to mitigate popular unrest, educational theory, institutions of law, and much besides. Aristotle and Cicero, Homer. Aeschylus and Vergil, the ancient myths and legends, the examples of Horatio and Mucius Scaevola, had as much if not indeed more influence on the minds of the British ruling class than the etiolated beliefs of Christianity, which provide very little in the way of instruction or guidance - beyond a few generalizations about being nice to people — for dealing with the complexities of life.
And it is not surprising that this should be so. Only consider: if you go the New Testament for instruction on how to live, you are told to give away all your possessions, make no plans for the future, reject your family if they disagree with you, and stay celibate if you can (see respectively Matthew 19.21, Matthew 6.25, Matthew 12.48, and 1 Corinthians 7). This is the outlook of people who sincerely believed that the Messiah was going to return next week or next month, anyway very soon. It is an unlivable ethic, and when after several centuries the Second Coming had still not materialized and hope of it had been deferred sine die, more was needed in the way of ethics. Where did it come from? From Greek philosophy – not least from the Stoics – and from the Roman Republican virtues of probity, honor, duty, restraint, respect, friendship and generosity that Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Horace, and countless others wrote about and enjoined ceaselessly. ‘Christian values’ are largely Greek and Roman secular values. So Christianity is not even Christianity.
An associated point reinforces this. The early Christians, like St Paul, were Jews. They believed that when you die, your body sleeps in the grave until the Last Trump, at which points the graves open and all the dead rise to be judged. St Paul said that the faithful will ‘see no corruption’ — that is, their bodies will not rot in the grave. But anyway at the Last Trump when all rise, the faithful will be clothed in ‘new bodies,’ resplendent and fine.
But when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire (which it very quickly did; it was legalized by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, and made the empire’s official religion by Theodosius IX in 381; within the next few decades all other religions were proscribed) and churches were being built apace, all requiring relics of the martyrs and saints, these latter were found to have rotted (‘seen corruption’) in their graves. This embarrassing problem was quickly got over by importing another useful idea from Greek philosophy: Plato’s doctrine of the immortal soul, which entered Christianity via the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and his followers. That is why, starting from several centuries after the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe in such a thing. Once again, Christianity is not Christianity but borrowed Greek philosophy.
Mr Cameron would in fact have been more right to say that ‘we are Greeks and Romans’ and meant that we are defined by the following words — and therefore concepts — of classical Greek and Latin origin: democracy, liberalism, values, history, morality, comedy, tragedy, literature, music, academy, alphabet, memory, politics, ethics, populace, geography, energy, exploration, hegemony, theory, mathematics, science, theatre, medicine, gymnasium, climate, clone, bureaucracy, dialect, analogy, psychology, method, nostalgia, organ, encyclopedia, education, paradox, empiricism, polemic, rhetoric, dinosaur, telescope, system, school, trophy, type, fantasy, photography…take almost any word denoting political and social institutions, ideas, learning, science and technology, medicine, and culture, and it derives from the language — and therefore the ideas and the history — of ancient Greece and Rome.
Christianity attempted to suppress all this heritage, and for a time succeeded. The Emperor Justinian closed the schools of Athens – the institutions founded by Plato, Aristotle and others – in 529, because they taught ‘pagan’ philosophy (‘philosophy’ then meant everything – science, history and the rest included). There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christianity’s dominance, because it had suppressed it, leaving only the thin pickings of scripture; later it persecuted those who advanced scientific ideas in conflict with scripture: Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, and Galileo nearly so, for not accepting that the sun goes round the earth as Psalm 104 and Joshua 10.12-13 says it does. If the list of words just given provides us with the terminology that we use to describe ourselves today, then the mighty endeavor of Christianity to obliterate all those words and what they mean makes us anything but a Christian nation.
We who had protest against the description of us as a ‘Christian nation’ had in mind the fact that we are a highly pluralistic nation, with many faiths and none, and that the ‘nones’ are net contributors to our society and culture in major ways that does not deserve having the fact of their principled rejection of religious belief overlooked.
But the remarks above should be further evidence that the description of us as a ‘Christian nation’ is deeply misleading if taken to imply that we are a nation of believers in Christian doctrines and legends. I hope and trust that Mr Cameron intended to mean something different and far better: that we are an open-minded, tolerant, generous, kindly nation. And I hope and trust he is right.
This essay describes the situation I noticed chiefly in regard to the 19th century: the emphasis in education was the classics, creating a this-worldly counterpoint to the otherworldliness of Christianity. The thorough knowledge of classical mythology that every educated person had, the free banter about “the gods” and similarities such as a divine father and a virgin human mother, may have sparked the suspicion, at least, that all religion is mythology.
Another interesting point is that the idea of the immortal soul came from Plato. Ancient Jews believed that life ended with the last breath — but god could, under extraordinary circumstances, reanimate a dead body with breath again. The early Christians believed that the dead bodies slept in their graves, to rise incorruptible at the sound of the Last Trump. The reality of the post-mortem decay was an inconvenient fact resolved by introducing the idea of the immortal soul. But how many Christians realize that Jesus himself did not believe in any such thing? That’s why RESURRECTION IN FLESH was of such importance. There was no disembodied soul flying around in the clouds (or anywhere else). Plato probably got his idea from Ancient Egypt.
WE ARE GREEKS, NOT CHRISTIANS ~ Aleksander Krawczuk (redux)
“I bring joyful news: the gods are back! Let me summarize it in four major points:
1. the joy of the body, games, sports.
2. the joy of sex between consenting adults. In the eyes of the immortal gods, sex is good; it’s not a sin.
3. the joy of knowledge, meaning freedom of inquiry and the true cult of science. We have finally dropped the idea that the ultimate truth comes from revelation. We use our limited mind, the faint lantern of our reason, to light up the surrounding darkness. For fifteen centuries Christianity managed to prevent the progress of science. Since truth is contained in revelation, what’s the point of seeking it? But slowly, slowly, since the Renaissance we’ve been returning to the idea that all we have is our reason. And we are discovering the magnificence of the Universe.
4. the joy of democracy. It was created in ancient Greece and grafted onto Rome, which remained a republic for several centuries. Now we claim that democracy is the best political system, and it should be adopted everywhere -- including the Catholic church. But it will be most difficult to democratize the church, since the church is anti-democratic; it stands for theocracy and feudalism, left over from the Middle Ages.”
~ Aleksander Krawczuk, interview in Pantheleon, December 29, 2009; translated by Oriana
WHY CHRISTIANITY CHANGED, BUT NOT ISLAM: SECULAR GOVERNMENT
“Why did Christianity change?
The very thing that has forced Christianity to redefine its positions, is the very thing that is not permitted in Islamic states, and it is a secular government. If it was not for a secular government to protect the rights of individuals to speak against religious dogma, free-thought heroes like Frederick Douglass would never have been permitted to say, “I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” It was only because individuals like Douglass were free to write and speak as they pleased that Christianity was forced to incorporate verses like Galatians 3:26-28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,” into its theology.
Likewise, it was the restraints of a secular government that allowed women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton the liberty to say, “The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women,” and Susan B. Anthony to state, “The religious persecution of the ages has been done under what was claimed to be the command of God.” It was the protection of a secular government that required Christian theologians to redefine their stances on women with verses like Acts 2:17 “… your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”
We should expect nothing less in the Islamic world. The religious despots of Islam have never allowed a Reformation, and it is time world leaders begin encouraging one. It certainly does not help when leaders like President Bush compare the battle against terrorism as a “crusade.” Where were the leaders advising Iraq that a democracy only works if it is secular? Perhaps they were too caught up in the false belief that the United States is a Christian nation.”
SUICIDE IS THE NEW MURDER
“Unknown to most Americans is the fact that the rate of suicide is sharply on the rise and has been over the past decade. At the same time, the rising suicide rate is contrasted by a steadily declining homicide rate.
There are now nearly three suicides for every murder committed in the U.S. Suicides also outnumber deaths in motor vehicle accidents. To put it in perspective, there are currently about 15,000 murders, 33,000 auto fatalities and 38,000 suicides in the U.S. annually.
Suicide is no longer concentrated among isolated, elderly Americans and, to a lesser extent, troubled teenagers. It has been dramatically on the rise among middle-aged Americans. There has also been a dramatic increase in suicides among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Dr. Ileana Arias, Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told The New York Times that the rising suicide rate among middle-aged Americans might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.
There is a tremendous stigma attached to suicide in the U.S. that I believe is linked to the Protestant religious ethic and its emphasis on individual choice and responsibility. That is, the Protestant ethic would suggest that if you commit suicide then you alone are culpable and society is relieved of any moral responsibility for your actions.
This religious perspective which is at the heart of American culture can help to explain why politicians, religious leaders, and law enforcement authorities are not discussing the current suicide epidemic. As a result, it is invisible to the general public. The pervading American ideology of fierce individualism based on the Protestant ethic precludes an open discussion of suicide as a serious social problem.”
I'm not sure if Protestantism is a really important factor anymore. As I experienced it, this culture immediately divides people into winners and losers, and losers vastly outnumber winners. Big and unrealistic expectations are planted in the young, who are then not given much help as they flounder in the difficult adult world for which the schools have not prepared them. I do agree that suicide is not seen as a social problem.
ending on beauty
How can you gather together
the thousand fragments
of each person?
~ George Seferis
The walls of Troy