Magnum Mysterium (Great Mystery)

For your convenience I have provided an interlinear translation of the text below.  Please enjoy this acceptably dignified and sensitive performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as Paul Salamunovich directs them on Morten Lauridsen’s well-known setting:

Source: youtube.com

O magnum mysterium,

Great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum,

And sacrament wondrous

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

That animals would see the newborn Lord

jacentem in praesepio.

Lain low in a manger.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera

O blessed virgin, whose womb

meruerunt portare

Became worthy to carry

Dominum Christum.

Christ the Lord.

Alleluia.

Alleluia.

 

Note: some overeager grammarians and Catholic theologians may take umbrage over the fact that I have translated meruerunt as an ingressive.  To all such people I offer my most humble and sincere apologies for this liberty.

How to Impress Girls

Dear Ernest,

Everyone loves a good anecdote, so I thought I’d tell you one: several years ago, while at a composition workshop, I had the privilege of meeting and befriending a fellow by the name of Ben Nakamura.  Ben’s English skills were intermediate at best, but as you and I both know, this put him on par with the upper percentile of all native speakers—a brief perusal of any blog like this one can reveal as much.  Employing such and aptitude for English, he once asked me why I began writing music.  I offered him in reply a lengthy exposition on the purpose of art, the human propensity for creativity, and other such kinds of pretentious philosophical ramblings.  When I had sufficiently despoiled from his mind any presumption of eloquence or compendiousness that he might have held for me in light of my life-long familiarity with our mother tongue, I stopped blabbering and returned to him with the same question.  His response was much simpler: “I started writing music,” he said, “to impress a girl.”  Then he laughed at himself before adding, “it’s okay though.  It turns out I like doing it anyway.”

In your last letter: “I fear you despise your own tongue at times”

In answer to your accusation, I must submit entirely.  I can hardly stand my accursed tongue!  It’s always sloshing around like an unwelcome guest, the umbrage of my mouth, all wet and gross, and always arguing with me.  I don’t care how amusing a scene it makes for passersby—my debates with my tongue are utterly infuriating!  Just the other day we were arguing about Dante.  My loquacious antagonist was of the opinion that the Divine Comedy can be read and appreciated much more deeply under the assumption that Beatrice was not a real person.  I opposed him directly.  If Beatrice were not an actual woman, it would mean that Dante has neglected to provided us with any real-world advice on how to impress girls.  Naturally, I would find this all rather disappointing, since arguing about Dante with my tongue already puts me at a disadvantage in that category.  In defence of my viewpoint, allow me to extrapolate evidence from one of his sonnets, quoting in a language that’s much more dear me by heart than native to me by birth:

“or voi di sua virtù farvi savere.  / Dico, qual vuol gentil donna parere / vada con lei, che quando va per via, / gitta nei cor villani Amore un gelo, / per che onne lor pensero agghiaccia e pere; / e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa o si morria.”

trans: Now let me make her [Beatrice’s] virtue known. I say that it behoves whoever longs to seem a gentle lady to walk with her, for when she passes by, Love casts a chill into the hearts of the villainous, so that their every thought freezes and perishes.  Whoever might endure standing beside and beholding her—he would either become something noble or die.

(Vita Nuova XIX)

As this sonnet implies, the main point that Dante will try to make in the Divine Comedy is simply this: the best way to impress a girl is not to compose music for her but to write immortal Italian love poetry.  All throughout the epic, the same question recurs.  Dante asks his readers and himself, ‘how does one become worthy?’  Worthy, that is, of so virtuous a lady as Beatrice, of so lofty a poetic theme as the salvation of the human soul, and of so glorious a kingdom as that unending realm of Him who is from Everlasting to Everlasting.  The solution is always immortal Italian love poetry.  Live a life, Dante tells us, that is a love poem addressed to no less a muse than the very God whose name is Love.  Come as you are, base and villainous, and He will cast a chill into your heart so that your every vile thought vanishes into oblivion.  Perhaps this will begin somewhere quite superficial—perhaps you’ll begin ‘pursuing God’ only to impress others with your conspicuous virtues or specious magnanimity, both of which are among the many practical benefits of being a nominal Christian.  But by the time you find yourself ‘midway through the journey of our life’, you just might realise that God has been using all those trivialities to cultivate his own radical vision for you.  He has been pursuing you through all the stupid fancies, all the vanities and futilities that first inspired you to turn toward Him, and now, as the impetus and completion of everything that you are becoming, He has overwhelmed you with His grace and bereaved you of every source of pride, even the pride you might take in your own morality and righteousness.  When He has done all this, you may very well arrive at a solidarity with my friend Ben Nakamura: “it’s okay,” you’ll conclude, “it turns out I like doing this anyway.”

Your servant,

TWM

P.S.  Everything I told you about Ben is true…except his name.  He didn’t really go around using a pseudonym as far as I know.

For the Love of God

Dear Ernest,

As, in my shameless, Victorian manner, I bemoaned and bewailed your long absence from our dialogue, in my lowest state of bereavement, when all hope had very nearly drained out from my lifeless heart, I began to imagine, though the very thought seemed to harrow me with an insurmountable consternation and perturbation, what would inevitably become of our nearly forgotten deliberation if, little by little, in small degrees, our letters became less and less frequent, less thoughtful, and altogether less interesting.  I quickly realised, as I evaluated this nightmarish fantasy of mine, that the whole situation would, without a doubt, be your fault entirely.  This was only a matter of elementary reasoning, for after all, you were the one who, in my imagining, stooped to writing a letter about the proper cultivation techniques for growing eggplants, and to so dully penned an expository, I could hardly be blamed for responding with a comment, however lengthy or tedious, on the economic and culinary benefits of owning a refrigerator.  I need hardly mention your spiritless droning on over the superiority of the colour blue to all others, and my response, a mere ‘sup’, was simply the best answer that I, or even the most masterful and creative intellectual, could ever muster.  In short, the gradual decline of standards, and the incremental deterioration in quality, while perhaps expressing itself in my letters just as much as in yours, was solely and unmistakably the fault of your own failure to provide interesting content, which, while bad enough in itself, also accounted in full for my own demise into an unending literary lifelessness.

In your last letter, when quoting a very clever gentleman: ““How can an earthly purpose point to a heavenly one?””

Anyway, now that so much is cleared up, I’d like to discuss something else: the love of God.  I recently had a conversation with someone about the theological doctrine of Penal Substitution (Jesus dying from the sins of man).  In an attempt to point out how ridiculous the whole idea is, my philosophical friend said something along these lines: “If John Somebody steals a cup of tea from Don Quixote, and for that offence, you sentence Sancho Panza to thirty years in prison, then you’re not upholding justice and mercy at the same time, you’re just being a jerk to Sancho Panza”.  In retrospect, I realise that the best response would have been to point out that everyone is a jerk to Panza, even Don Quixote.  But since this is an intellectual blog, and at that, one of certain standards, I’ll offer a more thoughtful response:

The problem with this quixotic situation is simply the choice of third-person narrative.  Penal Substitution is a doctrine based on the circular reciprocity of requited love.  By this I mean that if, for example, Romeo loves Juliet, then one of his greatest objectives in life is to keep her happy and healthy.  However, if Juliet requites Romeo’s love, then a large part of serving her means, for Romeo, taking care also of himself.  In this way, love is a lot like writing letters back and forth: the better one letter, the better its response, and if Romeo is well off, then Juliet will be also, which is the lover’s greatest concern.  By loving Juliet, Romeo has not taken away resources from himself—though it may seem like this at first—but rather, he has increased the over all purposes that he and Juliet collectively possess for staying alive.  Obviously, Shakespeare is a bad example, seeing that Romeo and Juliet were never actually in love, but it serves our philosophical purposes just fine.

Between God and man, there is a very similar drama, only man is not well off, and therefore, God will suffer.  And He does.  Penal Substitution doesn’t mean choosing a third-party at random to suffer for the crimes of another; rather, it means that, when man has turned from God, such that either he or God must pay, Jesus chooses Himself.  After all, in the third-person, it doesn’t make much sense that one man should need to die in order that another might live, but the situation does in fact arise, and the Christian answer to the conflict is different for each narrative.  In the first-person, the crucifixion illustrates that the proper answer is, ‘I die’, and in the second person, the resurrection tells us to answer, ‘you live’.  But if, as humans, we respond gratefully to both of these divine answers, saying back to Jesus, ‘I am dead in my sins’ (Ephesians 2:1), come, ‘you live’ inside of me, then the third-person narrative will have no mention of death at all: ‘He lives’.

I propose that pointing earthly purposes to heavenly one’s is all a matter of Imitation Christis.  If on Earth, we can experience this drama in the first person, not just reading about it in books and obscure theological doctrines, but actually knowing Jesus in the second-person—as a You, not a Him—then having been so deeply loved, we will find it difficult to respond in any other way toward others.  We are the recipients of an incredible letter, to which, if we offer any reply at all, everything we write thereafter will bear a resemblance, and gradually, by small degrees, our Earthly story will be transformed into something very near a Heavenly one; we will understand other characters in the text more thoroughly and love the more fully than ever before—and indeed, this entire literary revolution, the demise of the old and rise of the new, will be entirely and unmistakably His fault.

 

Your Servant,

TWM

Faith, Fear, and Fiction

My honourable Ernest,

By whatever trifles of insight my fastidious, observational nature has profited me over the years, I have come to regard the dealings of nearly all mankind as some composite exercise of no more than three essential virtues or vices, which may server either one’s honour or shame, summarising the human experience as a response to the prospective unknown, an artful compilation of but three elements, namely, of faith, fear, and fiction.  Of these, perhaps only the first strikes us quite evidently as being a virtue, while the latter two seem to be either vices or mere misfortunes, but I find myself convinced that these may follow, just as does faith, directly from the most universally recognised virtue: love, on account of which is it not but a show of prudence to fear on behalf of the beloved, or of grace to envision something better wherever there may be a deficiency?  And yet it seems that love, by which name we are apt, in modern parlance, to call nearly any form of deep affection or attachment, may serve just as well as a virtue or a vice—consider the ‘love’ of Romeo for Juliet, Dido for Aeneas, or perhaps even Adam for Eve.  For many, the handling of such cases is a simple matter of refining one’s definition of the word, ‘love’, whittling it down until it lacks all such splinters and no longer allows for these uncomfortable notions of self-destruction and depravity, but the fact that an ideological carpenter finds himself with so much sanding to be done demonstrates a complicated feature of human nature; there is a fine line, as it turns out, between love, the highest virtue, and hate, its utter opposite, which is the lowest vice.

We are left puzzling over just such a paradox when Milton depicts for us the role of love in losing paradise; I am referring mainly to the drama that unfolds in book nine of the Paradise Lost, the apex of which we might explore at line 896 and following.  Adam has yet to partake of the fruit, when he somehow finds time to unravel an entire speech to consider Eve’s demise and the human condition, doing so—quite miraculously it seems—without Eve hearing so much as a single word.  Our present focus lies in lines 904-8:

… Some cursed fraud

Of enemy hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,

And mee with thee hath ruin’d, for with thee

Certain my resolution is to Die:

How can I live without thee?

It is difficult to regard Adam’s love for Eve as a virtue, when it seems so distinctly, in this fictitious depiction, to serve as his hamartia.  Adam has invented a fiction, a beautiful, quixotic dream, that perhaps even the fallen Eve is the same woman whom he so loved from the start, perhaps he may yet find all the former beauty and splendour of the divine paradise even among its ruins.  Along with this fiction, which by an uneasy inclination we are tempted to consider a display of grace, he fears, and prudently so, what the future may be apart from Eve.  Ultimately it seems that for better or for worse and by virtue of his connubial duty to Eve, he has no choice but to invest total faith in the judgment of his beloved.  He is like the charismatic man who follows his friends when they all decide to jump off a cliff—for whom we may hold a certain admiration, regarding him, perhaps, as a charming and credulous fool, but more pragmatically, we must also fear for his own safety and well-being.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Milton’s drama is the way it ends.  Paradise is in fact Regained, and in some very bizarre sense, it seems the whole drama of all mankind is ultimately to be so reconciled.  On the other side of death, we know there is a resurrection, where by virtue of Adam’s vice, his absurd and inappropriate faith, he lives once more.  By God’s grace all that has been broken is redeemed to something better still than it once was; as if even the fall of man itself were in His plan.  In this way, it seems that something evil in itself may be used for a good end.  The crunching of an apple echoes throughout all eternity as an object of universal derision, but God has harmonised this disgraceful memory with sweeter tones than we could ever imagine, reworking the whole chorus of angels in heaven so that it may be all the more beautiful yet again.

 

Your servant,

TWM

Are you alone?

If words didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to read this sentence.

Dear and Deliberative Humphrey,

In your last dispatch, through whatever form disparagement and flower diversion as is your wont, you seemed to make but one thing remotely clear, or at least very nearly verging on or flirting with the possibility of being intelligible to me.  I mean simply this: you are locked inside your own mind.  Aside from that I can’t say I made anything of the entire letter; the good Lord knows I can’t understand a word of your philosophical rambling and intellectual bereavements.  Furthermore, I can’t seem to truly understand even the small portion that I was able to interpret.  If you’re isolated in your own mind, then why on earth are you telling me about it?  It’s your mind, what am I supposed to do? Nonetheless, allow me to offer, in reply, a bit of ancient wisdom and a few spontaneous outburstings of interpretative fancy.  I ask that you begin by considering with me these words:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος.  I will not tell you what these words mean, because I am not sure of this; instead, I will write of them obliquely, and perhaps somehow you, by your honourable wisdom and scrupulous understanding, will discern my words and even these.

The LSJ, a Greek-English lexicon, defines λόγος as “I. the word by which the inward thought is expressed: also II. the inward thought or reason itself”.  This hardly explains anything.  It simply means that λόγος refers, whether indirectly or directly, literally or metaphorically, by definition or by metonymy, to some normative or empirical element, feature, or aspect of the real, imagined, or supposed universe, or to some such item—idealist or realist, specific or universal—that exists beyond the scope of the natural and supernatural universe as we define it.  So a λόγος is something that either communicates something else, or is a thing to be communicated by something else, or else it is the very action of communication, or the universal or circumstantial standard to which things that are communicated ought to be held.

Anyway.  It stands a worthy question for both of us whether thoughts precede words or words precede thoughts.  People often use the word circumlocution.  They talk of forgetting common phrases and being lost for words; as if words were independent objects sitting around somewhere in normative space like scattered buoys, long since set loose across the sea, and now waiting to be found anew or even discovered for the first time.  Neither is the thought often pilloried to fancy a man, at least intellectually, as a lost, normative pilgrim, wandering alone through that very same space, and looking, as it were, for external trappings, to satisfy his inner ardor for expressivity.  The mind is often conceived of as naked and independent agent, shameful and unfit for public exposure; it must be properly clad—by some nameless standard—in lexical decency before departing from the Platonian cave of knowledge.  But was Plato’s a cave of words or of thoughts?  If ever a philosopher thought of a word, did he not do so without using words?  What words could constitute the wording of thoughts?

Any philologist you ask will tell you that ἦν is a form of εἰμί, the ancient Greek ‘verb of being’.  Every language has to have one; you can’t talk about things without them existing or existing in a certain way.  And it’s no secrete, to anyone curious enough, that verbs of being are always among the most morphologically abhorred of lexical units.  They are used so much more frequently than any other word or idea that it’s simply disgusting.  And all those responsible for the existence of ancient Greek seem to have gone out of their way to make existence especially existentially challenging in that language, always to be confused with going or hastening, or beginning a conditional, or a relative clause (sometimes those particles hardly mean anything at all; still, that won’t stop us from writing massive books about them).  But as imperfect as ἦν is, or was, or was being, at least it denotes that much.  The Greeks never made an aorist form of existence; things existed in the past, but always progressively.  Perhaps the concept of instantaneous existence, some romantic, ephemeral beauty, is after all incompatible with the teleological nature of reason and human thought.  That which truly dies never truly was; such things are only beautiful in potential.  Hence, ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Nor, for the teleological Greeks, was seniority any different from sovereignty.  Few people question whether that which comes before is of greater consequence than what follows.  It’s vital for a man thundering away in the desert to make clear that the subject of his shouts precedes the actual words he uses, otherwise his words are worthless in themselves.  But perhaps even in the desert, where there is no one around to hear, the very sense of one’s words, the thoughts that they express, can hold value if the λόγος of them was existing ἐν ἀρχῇ.  Perhaps it’s hermeneutically irresponsible and academically barbaric or uncouth, but I consider it neither poetically offensive nor rhetorically dishonorable to offer a large number of equally authoritative translations: “Reason held sovereignty,” “Logic was in power,” “His word existed first as something separate but προς (beside) Him, but also existed first as the perfect μίμησις (representation, Aristotelian) of Himself, and therefore, θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (God existed as the Word)”.

It is also curious that for the logically positive medievals, something already as physical as a verbum would have to become flesh.  It seems a λόγος must be something both transcendental and substantial.  It is not an omom isn’t a word.  That’s because om doesn’t mean anything.  I believe a λόγος, while perhaps not merely a word, is surely something that means something, or else is the thing it means.  If we suppose that all words are defined using other words, then there is an infinite web of lexical connections that never explains itself.  But perhaps the inclusion of the definite article to describe ὁ λόγος makes it something real, and as such, something of infinite meaning—it is a worthy consideration whether ὁ λόγος might be the ultimate explanation of the endless, tiresome lexical-web.  Perhaps this is the difference between ὁ Σωκράτης and Σωκράτης.  A λόγος may very well be just another thing—something that exists in a single context at a single point in history.  But then we could hardly doubt that ὁ λόγος must be more than this.  ὁ λόγος must be The Idea, The Universal Truth, Reason, or The Sacred Word, that, while real and physical as the very sounds of one’s voice, or as Socrates himself, yet exists in absolute sovereignty and seniority, standing to the end as it was in the beginning, as something a priory, significant, and personal to all that follows across all nations, tongues, and ages.

Lexically and Intellectually Yours, to Whatever Extent Such a Thing Were Metaphysically Possible,

R. P.

A Theological Preface

This post is the inception of a new series on hypnosis and related topics.

Prologue

I want to begin this inquiry by making it perfectly clear that I do not hereby endorse the practice of hypnosis in any way.  The essential pursuit of this study—and I think it has, in this regard, proved itself acceptably, and indeed, even exceedingly, fruitful—is to better understand the human condition, and in so doing, to better understand God Himself, the designer of that condition, which is the central pursuit of all scholarship that I here publish.  Mind you, this is primarily a philosophical argument, not a theological one, and so, God willing, there should be many useful ideas to be found in it for my honourable, non-christian friends as well.

Abstract

You might just skip this section if these things bore you.  I hope you don’t mind my sort of informal use of the first person plural–although it’s a little unprofessional and conceivably, to some, pretentious, I think it makes this stuff a little more enjoyable to read, or perhaps, only slightly less dull and unbearable.

We will begin the argument with this theological post–of course I use the term ‘theological’ loosely–on the morality of the argument itself.  The question here is whether it is moral to even study something like hypnosis.  In this sub-argument, we will explore the requisites that Christian doctrine entails for acceptable and pious scholarship, and then ask whether the pursuit in which we are about to engage, with its particular ends and means, satisfies such requisites.  We will conclude that it does so.

We will then proceed, in a following post, to layout a philosophical framework for and model of the metaphysics of hypnosis.  In this post, we will ask whether the possibility of hypnosis is self-evident.  In the second volume of his Summae Theologiae Thomas Aquinas writes Dicendum quod contingit aliquid esse per se notum dupliciter, uno modo secundum se et non quoad nos, alio modo secundum se et quoad nos, “It must be argued that the fact that something is self-evident touches us on two accounts, in one way according to itself and not to us, in the other way, according to itself and to us”.  The former of these manners is that in which we shall expect the possibility of hypnosis to be self-evident.  On the surface, it is not known to everyone that people can be hypnotised, but logically, it can be deduced, by anyone who so chooses, without any reference to empirical observation.  This is the task we shall undertake in answer to the question, and is the true end of asking the question.  What we will end up with is a metaphysical model of what happens when a person enters into a hypnotic state, and such a model will be valuable for the critical evaluation of the practice of hypnosis and related occurrences.

In posts following that one, we will explore the way our philosophical model relates to current psychological theories, and then, ultimately, we will evaluate the morality of hypnosis and discuss several other applications of the theory of dissociation (which we will have derived by that point).  I’ll write a separate abstract for those posts if I believe it to be necessary.

Is the Study of Hypnosis Moral?

It is a curious proceeding to begin this argument with an inquiry into the morality of ‘hypnosis’, before we have even so much as trifled to define the term.  However, it is also, to some degree, a necessary prerequisite to a discussion of the matter; before we study hypnosis, we must confirm that such a pursuit is not itself immoral, lest we should find ourselves seeking plus sapere quam oportet sapere, ‘to know more than is fitting’ (Romans 12:3).  And so we must begin this essay with an inquiry into the essay’s own morality.  Hence the question follows: Is the study of hypnosis a moral one?

Notice, I have quoted the Biblical passage from the Latin Vulgate, not the original Greek New Testament; this is because the Vulgate is, for that particular verse, as for many others, a slight mistranslation.  The actual Greek appears to concern itself, as we conventionally interpret it, with pride, and not directly with seeking more knowledge than is fitting.  In it, Paul cautions against ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν, ‘thinking more highly [of one’s self] than it is necessary to think’.  There is some ambiguity—which I believe is intentional.  Paul has left out the personal pronoun, so that, in a sense, the passage could have a double meaning; it could in fact be a warning against thinking of loftier things than is fitting.  However, the sort of pronoun that should have been included, an ‘accusative’ personal pronoun, would have created a sense of ‘thinking with respect to one’s self’, and the pronoun is very clearly implied due to the impersonal construction in the restrictive relative clause;˚ in fact, it is so clearly implied that the sentence doesn’t make sense without it.  Most literally, Paul tells us not to think ‘beyond what thing, with respect to us, it is necessary to think’, where the accusative of respect—the part that translates, ‘with respect to us’—would seem to apply to both the necessity and the thinking; thus, ‘it is necessary for us to not think too highly about us‘.

In English, the phrase is generally rendered, ‘do not think higher of yourselves than is necessary’—it is a warning not against thinking ‘to highly’ in general, nor even against thinking highly of one’s self, but against thinking higher of one’s self than is necessary or fitting.  This interpretation particularly makes sense in the context: Paul has just finished encouraging the Romans to seek to know the Good and Perfect Will of God through τῇ ἀνακαινώσει, ‘the renewing’, of their minds, and has told them to present their bodies as a living sacrifice.  He follows the aforementioned warning by saying, “but think toward being sober-minded, each individual as God appointed the measure of faith.  For as in one body we have many members, and all the members have not the same purpose, thus are we, many individuals, one body in Christ, and each individual is a member of the other.”  So the focus is on sacrificing one’s individual identity to a new identity in Christ.  The old body is to be laid down in order to become a unique member of a larger body; to gain a purposeful identity.  Thus, Paul tells the Romans to not think higher of themselves, as individuals, than is fitting, lest they should, in so doing, fail to see their proper πρᾶξις, ‘purpose’, ‘action’, or ‘function’ in the larger body of Christ, which they must seek to discern by continually renewing their minds.  In this way, the focus is on what they should seek to know more than it is on what they shouldn’t.

Hence, Paul does not seem to explicitly discourage us from pursuing any study, and hence, my warrant for the discretion that must be taken upon entering a study is much more of an appeal to medieval, Christian philosophy and wisdom than to any direct Biblical principle.  Dante (1265 – 1321) was fond of isolating just this verse, as it appears in the vulgate, and premising an argument on it—dealing with what one should and shouldn’t seek to know.  (Of course, he did so using the vulgate, the only ecclesiastically accepted version at the time.)  What further added to the power of such an interpretation in medieval times was the etymology of the word sapere.  The original meaning of the word in classical times was ‘to taste’, and then, by metaphor, it came to mean ‘to discern’ or ‘to think’, a meaning that paralleled the original Greek more closely than what followed, which is probably how St. Jerome would have understood the word when he wrote it in the late fourth century AD.  However, in modern Latin, it has come to have a meaning closer to its usage in Italian, ‘to know’.  Hence, by the time Dante, the Italian, was writing, this verse about how highly one should think, presumably of one’s self, was instead considered a comment on how much one should seek to know.  As a result, Dante, in his Vita Nuova and Commedia, offers us some wonderful insight into the ‘limits’ a virtuous Christian scholar should set on himself—the bounds within which it is fitting to think.  But such arguments should be taken as the philosophical output of a Christian, medieval thinker, and not theological, for the reasons just discussed.

However, this does not all together deprive Dante’s discussion of its value; it is still, in any case, the philosophy of a wise man, and it may even yet hold some theological basis.  It is interesting to note that, while we Christian thinkers have often lost an absurd amount of sleep over the difference between substantiation, transubstantiation, and all the like of ivory-tower nonsense, knowing, to our sheer horror, that all the while, people throughout the entire world will never even read enough to join the discussion, let alone find the right answers for themselves—while all manner of such scholarly worries pervade our minds and make us doubt the very point or significance of our work, even then, the whole substance of these minor interpretative issues, and even of archaeological issues, has a way of discreetly ironing itself out in the background.  Such is the case here.  As I have said, the Greek itself is a bit ambiguous.  I believe this is on purpose.  As we understand the text today, it warns us against pride, while at the same time, encouraging us to exercise the full capacity of our cognitive faculties.  Hence, the verse remains, in part, an advisement as to how one should use his or her powers of reason: do not use them to think too highly of yourself, but to think of God—to pursue and to know Him, in short, to sapere Him.

So Paul’s advice to the modern scholar may be very close to Dante’s interpretation after all: a scholar is to think about and pursue the truth, not himself.  The focus is to be on fulfilling one’s πρᾶξις, one’s function, and serving, with discernment and the renewing of one’s mind, the larger body, the Body of Christ, as apposed to that which will bring the scholar personal glory and with which he might cultivate a foolish sense of pride.  This focus has been the essential guiding framework of the Christian mind, and consequentially, the Western mind, throughout the ages.  It is what has given structural integrity and coherence to western philosophy, and I would argue that it’s exactly the principle to which the medievals were referring, though they discussed it in their more archaic manner.  (For a good illustration of this, see Erasmus’ cynically brilliant Stultitiae Laus, trans. The Praise of Folly, or according to the Greek pun, The Praise of More, in the first section of which Declamatio, we find Stultitia, the female personification of folly, mocking the Christian thinkers of the day for the sort of vices as are illuminated by the aforementioned verse in Romans.  Erasmus points out, to the condemnation of his contemporaries, that such esoteric exercises as calculating the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin were of little service to the body of Christ.)

But our present discussion is about the morality of writing an essay on hypnosis.  So the question is whether such an inquiry is fitting for a sober mind and whether it will help illuminate the Perfect Will of God, illuminate what is Good and Acceptable.  And for this purpose, this function, I believe it will serve wonderfully.  What this inquiry ultimately aims to accomplish is to pull the foggy mysticism of what shall be loosely termed ‘New Age philosophy’ (with its heavy emphasis on ‘meditation’ or, to use the more scientific term, ‘self-hypnosis’) into a scope of reason so that it may be critically assessed; however, I expect that we will discover a number of other valuable and useful insights along the way.

________________________

˚ I have emphasized the fact that the clause is restrictive because such an observation supports the translation here posited: “do not think higher than what is necessary with respect to yourself” makes it easier to borrow the accusative of respect from the relative clause; where as, if the clause were nonrestrictive, “do not think higher than something, which it is necessary for you to think”, our translation would be more of a stretch.

The Poetic Optimism of Christmas

Some three or four years ago, I and three others had a discussion on the existence of God and whether, if God exists, he is anything like the God we find in the Christian Bible.  That particular discussion was between two Christians, myself included, and two atheists or agnostics.  At a moment in the discussion that, to this day, stands as an exceptionally vivid recollection in my mind, one of the non-christian gentleman asked of a particular doctrine, ‘but what’s the point of that?’, as if to say that the notion was unpleasant or inconvenient, to which the other offered the corrective reply, ‘No, it isn’t a matter of practicality, they actually believe it’s true’.

What was so memorable for me about this moment, and what should be so significant about it for others, is the way it blatantly uncovered a fundamental misunderstanding that many non-christians have about Christianity: we Christians do, as my friend said, actually believe in what we read in the Bible.  This seems, to most Christians, like it should be obvious, but from outside the tradition looking inward, it’s not.  Outside of Christianity, allover the world, people believe in things not because they are necessarily convinced of their truth, but because they want to.  In the common model, human comfort and happiness precedes, and is even the essential purpose of, human reasoning and philosophy, and philosophy is built around what is pleasant and practical; it is a rationalisation of that which is easiest to believe.

This pattern of human behaviour likely stretches all the way back to the beginning of mankind’s existence, ruling the human mind ever since we left the Garden of Eden, but I can at least vouch for its continued existence and dominance since antiquity.  This is significant because it means that even since the very birth of Christianity, there has been friction between the rest of the world and this very different kind of tradition—a kind of tradition in which, among other things, the sacred text is believed to be absolutely true.

At large, the pagan traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans centred their doctrines around the magnificent works of the epic poets, such as Homer and Vergil, among the which are the yet extant Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and also many others we have since lost, all of which likely derived from an oral tradition predating the time of Homer around the seventh or eight century BC.  The tales of these epics were called μύθοι (transliteration: muthoi) by the Greeks, from which we get our English word, myth.  This is why the vast body of pagan religious literature in which those works are included is called ‘mythology’ in modern times.  Today, one of the primary meanings of the word ‘myth’ is ‘a false story’, but to the ancient Greeks, a μῦθος was, first and foremost, a story.  Hence, the word itself did not denote these tales as necessarily false, but even in ancient Greece, the word was also used for fables and professed works of fiction.  So, even for the ancient Greeks, as I would argue, there was a looming undertone of falsehood in the connotation of the word.

This semi-modern usage of the word myth is what makes the world of Indian religions, and many similar traditions, go round.  Indian religion is of interest because it is comparable to ancient Greek traditions in this respect.  Just as in ancient Greek mythology, there are many formulations of the same myths, and each one is considered valuable in its own right, though, to account for the contradictions, none of them need be true.  They are myths, didactic fables that have significance in the moral and philosophical principles they present, but not necessarily in their histories.

This is the same sort of religious scene into which a very different kind of story, the true story of Christ, entered some two-thousand years ago.  In principle, Christianity should not have been dramatically different from what preceded it.  We can find the idea of a reversed hierarchy, in which the God of the universe is made to be born, a man, in the humblest of circumstances—we can find something very similar to such a concept in Odysseus’ return to his family as a beggar instead of a hero, after his rightful place as head of the house has been usurped by suitors, just as Christ’s rightful sovereignty was held by the Roman empire.  And the idea of self-sacrifice is all over ancient tales of battle and κλέος, epic glory.  But these things were principles and philosophic ideals that were thought of with a kind of dreamy romanticism; they were the way things ought to be.˚

On the other hand, the radical proposition of Christianity that such stories could be historical fact, and indeed, could be the singular story of God Himself, is something all together unprecedented in human history.  In this way, Christ’s birth is the epitome of what I have called ‘poetic optimism’ in my last post.  Just as Catullus takes the vulgar understanding of love and humanity and transforms it into something better, so does Christ’s birth transform pagan mythology.

As I pointed out in my last post, our word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin vulgaris, meaning ‘common’, or ‘that which belongs to the vulgus, the common people’.  This is the way we might describe pagan mythology before Christ.  It was something common, and even, occasionally, something vulgar.  In Greek and Roman mythology, references to love are really references to Venus, sexuality and lust.  But Christmas presents a fresh ideal of love, a transformation of this common thing into something far more weighty and worthy.  It’s the story not of a god falling in love with or lusting over a human, but of the God displaying His sacrificial love that He has born for humanity since He first conceived of her.

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˚ On a less serious note, I’d like to point out that the Greeks even mocked the ridiculousness of their own mythology, with one of my favourite examples being a line from Aristophanes’ comedy, Birds: Heracles addresses Poseidon, “Just hold on a minute there, Poseidon, by god!  Do we really want to fight a war over a single woman?  That’s ridiculous!”  I would make a footnote explaining the humour of this line for those of you who may not get it, but this is already a footnote, and right now, making a footnote to a footnote is a little too silly even for me.

φίλει ἐμὲ for now

bible

I once had a professor who took great pleasure in whining about all the short comings of the Christian Church. “Christianity,” he often complained, “is a very nay-saying religion.”  He went to great lengths to illustrate how negative and oppressive the Church has been throughout history. It’s curious, but I can hardly remember him ever saying ‘yea’ to anything.

I believe there is, however, something to be learned from these sorts of people. For some reason, whether it be valid or invalid, a significant portion of the world has accumulated a great abundance of animosity directed toward the Christian Church. Of course, we might find it pleasant to focus primarily on the ungrounded reasons for this hatred, or the fact that Satan hates the Church and so it is most natural for his dominion to hate it too, but I find myself convinced that there is also some truth—and perhaps even more than we’d like to admit—in the accusations others lay on the fallen Body of Christ. I think a particular favourite of secularists today is the ‘self-righteousness’ or ‘holier than thou’ conviction. It seems the modern image of a Christian is that of a highly judgmental and proud individual who finds self-worth in following a set of moral principles, or even a set of mere rules, more closely—as that individual perceives it—than anyone else.

I need hardly mention how this image is the product of an unbelievably scrutinising world, the sort of world that perpetually scours the Church for flaws and inflates them to no end—in short, a ‘nay-saying’ world. As Shakespeare observed, “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74-5). Vice is always more quickly made famous among mankind than virtue. But we must nonetheless consider why the Church suffers from this vice, even if it is not as severe as the world may exaggerate it to be.

The most evident cause I see is the same thing that keeps all the secularists out of the Church in the first place—fear.  We Christians often fail to realise from the start that if you don’t store up treasures here on earth, you will end up without any treasures here on earth—it’s that simple. A virtuous scholar who spends his life honestly pursuing the truth rather than outputting bizarre liberalism for the sake of acquiring fame and admiration will most likely end his life without either of those treasures; a mother and father who devote their lives to raising children and loving their family rather than pursuing prestige and fulfilment in the work place or elsewhere will probably never have that fulfilment; and a lonely custodian who does nothing more than clean up and offer an understanding smile to the occasional passerby will probably never acquire anything valuable on this indifferent earth.

Human beings are very attracted to the idea of becoming poor for love’s sake, but they don’t like poverty itself. And so the last temptation of a disciple of Christ is to find fulfilment in ‘religious merit’.  Once a man is striped of everything he thought he owned and is left naked with nothing but a Bible in his hand, he begins to clutch that Bible and exhibit a possessiveness over it that has only been intensified by being frustrated. But as he stands there, trembling in the fear that he has just thrown away everything of value that he ever knew, he has arrived at the precise moment when his sacrifice ought to be consummated. After all, he didn’t become poor merely for the sake of being poor, but in order that he might become rich. So he is demanded to let go and realise that even his sacrifice is worth nothing in itself, for only the blood of Jesus can save him—and so indeed he has become poor merely for love’s sake. But for some reason, this is among the most terrifying moments of the human experience.  This is when we start to realise that the phantasmagorical Jesus-dream we’ve been chasing for so long better be more real than the very beating of our hearts, for all that we are is resting on it.

In John 21:15-7 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  The Greek word that he uses the first two times is ἀγαπᾷς, meaning “Do you love me unconditionally?”  But Peter responds each time with, “yes, I φιλῶ you”, meaning “yes, I am fond of you”, or “yes, you are a friend to me”.  So the third time, Jesus asks “Do you φιλεῖς me?”, meaning “Am I a friend to you?”  And then something strange happens. The scriptures say that Peter was upset because Jesus had asked him three times “Do you φιλεῖς me?”  But this isn’t what Jesus did; Jesus first asked Peter twice if he loved him without limits—that is, if he loved him enough to give up everything for his sake—but it’s as if Peter never even heard this calling.

Simple, not Minimalist

lucem at quoque noctem plus vel enim amo.

Upon moving into my residence hall here at the university last week, I encountered a bit of difficulty.  It seemed my plans were too complicated for the room.  The microwave plug didn’t fit into the power strip and this meant that the whole apparatus I had formed—with the printer on top of the microwave and the microwave on top of the refrigerator—had to be relocated to a place in the room that would better accommodate for all the electrical connections.  I had, from the start, opposed my bringing of so many appliances to school, but my parents insisted that I do so in order to make the place more comfortable and ‘home-like’.

After trying out a few different arrangements of the room, each one feeling more cramped than the last, I settled on stuffing all the appliances except the refrigerator into a small storage space in the upper part of the wardrobe and moving the furniture into the least confining arrangement possible.  When I was all done with this, I felt quite remarkably liberated; suddenly the little space, which had seemed very much to resemble a prison only moments ago, transformed itself into a rather pleasant study and dormitory.  Now I have a big beautiful desk basking in natural sunlight beside the window where I can lay out my orchestra scores to work (see figure 1).

I told my mum how I felt about this when I rang her up that evening.  She and I both agreed that if I felt more comfortable without all the clutter, I didn’t need to use it, seeing as comfort was the original purpose of the supplies.  As I write this, all of the mentioned supplies, along with several other items, are sitting in that storage place, waiting patiently to be brought home.  The new order of my room is by no means minimalistic—aside from the refrigerator I mentioned, I also have here a good number of my books and my unicycle—but it is simple.  That’s the beauty of it.

On the same day that I made these arrangements, I was thinking about economic styles of music, art, and writing.  Among the many examples of the aesthetic I had in mind were a couple of scenes in Shakespeare, that popped into my head, as well as the opening line of Milton’s famous epic, which reads:  “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree”.  Part of the brilliance of this line is how simply it conveys something so large and complicated.  Instead of droning on and on pedantically to lay out the details of a theological framework for the ‘fall of man’, Milton leans into the lexical and philosophical associations already built into the English language—perhaps placed their directly by the hand of God himself—in order to discuss not only the hamartiology of an ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity’, nor the soteriology of ‘salvation’, but the entire human understanding of all the associated ideas, dreamings, and truths that have been passed down via the Indo-European language from before the time of the Romans to the present, now to be contained in the single English word ‘fruit’.

You may have already sensed this by now if you read this blog often, but I am, quite frankly, all about complexity.  I make nearly every form of art or study that I engage in as complicated as I possibly can.  But the reason things ought to be so complex, in my mind, is because that’s the only way they can become simple.  One of the greatest transformations that western languages have undergone over time is simplification.  Dead languages often have very complicated grammars, and it is through these original complex systems that modern languages have come to posses the power they hold today in their much simpler forms.  We might also note, however, the way this complexity supported something simpler even in the ancient languages themselves.  If this post were written in Ancient Greek or Latin, you would probably be finished reading it by now (assuming you were as fluent in one of those languages as you are in English).   Indeed, you would have probably finished reading a good while ago; the reason for this is that the more complicated grammars allowed for more economic communication—simpler sentences had more complicated meanings than in modern English.

I am not here by proposing that ‘less is more’.  That’s ridiculous!  Less is less.  But somehow the God of the universe has been able to communicate to humanity everything they need to know in order to be self-conscious and self-willing creatures, and if so much is possible, then is it not our duty, as artists, thinkers, and human beings, to at least try, by virtue of that very possibility, to stuff the entire human experience into something portable and sharable?

The beauty of fractals is that no matter how much or how little of their detail you can make out, they look similar and appear the same.