Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life, The Universe, and Spirituality

Like many people, I tend to mentally divide my life into periods. There are different classifications involving mental, social and physical phases, with some overlap. One such classification, something that I never really had a name for before, but for the purpose of this post I will call it my view of the big picture. It has gone through a couple of different stages. What I mean by my view of the big picture is a combination of my views on the Universe in terms of the materialistic, rationalistic and spiritual. It also includes how I think about what the rest of humanity, both historically and currently, has to say about these things.

Definitions are important here, so for the purposes of this post, when I use the term “spiritual,” I am referring to beliefs and feelings indicating that there are forces in operation within the Universe that are beyond the realm of the scientific method and that these forces exhibit a tangible and noticeable effect upon our everyday lives and/or our fate after we are deceased. I know that there are much more expansive definitions of this word. In fact, I often use these more expansive definitions myself, but for clarity I will stick to this limited definition here.

What I would call the first step in my path to my current view of the big picture was reached more or less as follows: I grew up in a household that espoused the Catholic religion. Furthermore, many of our friends were members of various Christian denominations or were Jews, who espoused a belief in God in various intensities. In addition, a significant percentage of adults around me expressed a belief in other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, premonitions of the future, etc.  Most of these adults did not generally attempt to justify their belief systems through reasoned discourse. Instead, they were generally uncomfortable by the act of questioning. I was exposed to some dissenters, however. There were several adults who questioned the existence of God as well as of supernatural phenomena.

Very early on, I began to gravitate towards the skeptics, and I began to read books and watch television programs that advocated scientific and analytical thinking. I began to question religion as a spiritual basis underlying the Universe and eventually settled into what I would call strong agnosticism trending towards atheism. As time went by, I moved closer to an atheistic worldview. This is what I like to think about as my first major step in formulating my view of the big picture.

Like many people I know, I settled into what I would call a rationalistic and scientific thought system. This was not the cold and mechanistic viewpoint that Western popular culture all too often painted as caricatures. Instead, I was, and still am, bursting with awe at the wonders of the Universe and strive to find my place in it. Furthermore, I always held to the firm conviction that the things that make life worth living were human values such as kindness, love, morality, dignity, etc. and that human beings needed to be valued.

However, like many adherents of similar worldviews, I held, if not with contempt, a lack of respect and a wariness for views of reality that tended towards the spiritual and that relied heavily on faith. Occasionally, I was even downright hostile.  Unfortunately, for myself and for others with similar mindsets, this led to a kind of “us verses them” mentality. I, of course, identified with the rationalists. “Them” were the folks who were more spiritually inclined.

My view of human history was common with non-believers.  It was the story of rational people being mercilessly persecuted by religious fanatics. I saw religion and spirituality constantly at war with the truth and those who sought it.  Throughout history, skeptics were persecuted, murdered and tortured by religious people. Religious texts were, at best, benign fairy tales and, at worst, guideposts to a horrendous morality.

Then, there came the second big intellectual step for me. No, I did not convert; nor did I surrender my firm beliefs. Instead, I realized that the world was not such a simple place after all. The state of things is not so black and white.

My moving into this next level did not displace my core beliefs, though it did eliminate some of their sharp edges. I am still a rationalist, and I do not believe that any kind of spirituality can describe any of the hard facts underlying the Universe. Nor do I believe that a balance between science and spirituality can tell us anything about the nature of reality. I do, however, despite my disagreement with a good portion of the various worldviews, know that I can learn a lot when interacting with people who have a more spiritual outlook than myself. Of course, examining our history and culture in terms of religion and spirituality is also a valuable endeavor.

 One of main things that led to my changed outlook was my realization of just how complex the world is. An illustration of such complexity as it relates to this topic is best drawn by a series of examples. Below are more or less random thoughts that I believe will illustrate my point.

For instance, though I find that some of the moral systems espoused in some revered religious texts to be reprehensible, other moral teachings have represented in vital ways posts and cornerstones of human ethics. Though I find some of what is advocated in the Old Testament and in the Koran abominable, to their credit, modern believers almost universally, consciously or unconsciously, reject such immorality. Personally, I know folks whose faith has helped spur them into very noble acts. While religion has often repressed science and rationality, during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church was instrumental in preserving knowledge and culture.

Friedrich Nietzsche, with some justification, grouped Christianity and other religions in with liberal democracy as well as as with the human tendencies for pity and the desire for equality. The famous philosopher and some thinkers who came after him were contemptuous of these beliefs and rejected them, labeling them as a “slave morality.” I find myself siding with the adherents of religion on this one.

 My fellow secularists are very quick to point out how war, murder, rape, torture, etc. have been perpetuated in the name of religion throughout history. They have, but we often forget that at other times, particularly during the French Revolution and under Communist regimes, folks who claimed to be adherents of a rational worldview carried on all sorts of oppression with just as much ferocity and barbarity as the religious fanatics. I still believe that, generally, the path to a better world leads down the path of secular humanism, but as the above illustrates, it is not so simple.

 While such folks seemed to be sparse during my childhood and adolescence, the world is full of believers of various faiths or thought systems who think a lot about their beliefs and who argue for them using logic and reason. Some of these people are a lot smarter than I am. In addition, there are also many out-of-the-box thinkers out there that do not easily fall into any one category or another in regards to these beliefs.

 Of course, as a person who prides himself on being open minded, I must also leave the door open to the possibility that I may be wrong about a lot this. When I look at people with contrary views, I see a lot of compelling arguments being made by very bright people.

 So exactly what is my modified view of the big picture? I believe that the reality of the Universe, as well as our lives, can only be explained by using scientific methods. I strongly doubt the existence of God, but I acknowledge the possibility.  However, while it has spurred plenty of horrific acts, religion and spirituality have at other times done plenty of good. Adherents of reason and rationality, while having a net positive effect on humanity, have also done terrible things. People of faith and believers in spiritualism, just like non-believers, represent the spectrum of intellect that ranges from the unthinking to the brilliant.

Human history, culture and our systems of thought are rich and vast. Engaging in too much overt hostility and being closed-minded about such a great part of this aspect of the world and humanity is not the path to personal enrichment. I am in no way advocating that anyone give up his or her personal beliefs, convictions or morals. I am advocating that people learn and strive to interact with the portions of the world and culture that we fundamentally disagree with.

The above represents personal observations. Many of my readers have very different beliefs and may thus conclude that I have reached the wrong conclusions. However, I hope, at the very least, to impart the sense that the world is a complicated place. Those who stand on opposite sides of the fence have a lot to learn from one another. Generalized opinions of religious, agnostic or atheist folks, as well as the histories and cultures that accompany such beliefs, are often too simplistic. While our core beliefs are important to us, they need not stop us from understanding the nuance and complexity inherent in the world. By looking at other worldviews from time to time, we can all be exposed to a more comprehensive view of the Universe in which we inhabit.

Dedicated to my sister Olivia, one of the skeptical bright lights of my childhood.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio is the third biography of Lafayette that I have read. This is a really good history book that is well written and researched. It contains much insightful analysis of its subject. Though the book falls a little short due to its brevity, I would recommend this as a first read over other the other works that I have read on the Marquis.

Auricchio’s book is less biased in favor its subject than Unger’s work. Though perhaps unfair to compare with Gaines’s work, not pairing Lafayette’s life with the more famous Washington has obvious advantages in a biography.

Having played an important role in the American Revolution and a key role in the French Revolution, Lafayette is a unique figure in history. He is a fascinating character for me. I summarized his life as part of my commentary on Unger’s book here.

One thing that distinguishes this as a very good history book is a combination of astute analysis and really good writing of the type not always found in works like this. This book could have been  longer. While certain aspects of Lafayette’s life are closely examined, other parts are presented in a way that seem a little rushed. Fortunately, as the book begins to describe the early days of the French Revolution, the pace slows down and the narrative begins to focus more tightly upon specific details. This is the period of the Marquis’s life that the author spends the greatest number of words exploring. Auricchio is at her best when describing and analyzing this period of Lafayette’s life.  In fact, the explanation of the early French Revolution’s events may be presented here in a clearer way than in any other history book that I have read.

Lafayette fascinates me, and I could talk about many points that are addressed in this book.  One of Auricchio’s main themes is an issue that is particularly interesting to me. It is based on a stereotype, but I think that this is a stereotype that is somewhat true. The issue centers on the opinion that Lafayette has remained so popular in the United States, both in the eyes of the public and by historians, yet at best, the French are lukewarm to him.

 The author writes,

In America, we remember his triumphs; in France, few outside of his native Auvergne see him as a hero. So little does France love Lafayette that the monumental Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, published by a leading team of French historians in 1988, states flatly that “the man has drawn few eulogies.”  

Auricchio tries to answer why this is so. She writes,

Part of the answer is that Lafayette succeeded so completely in cultivating an American identity that, even in France, he remains a distinctly American hero. 

Elsewhere the author comments,

Although Lafayette was an indefatigable champion of righteous causes, he did not always meet with success. During the French Revolution, he failed spectacularly.

Lafayette’s popularity in America dates back to his lifetime. When he returned to America in 1820 for a Grand Tour he was met by enormous and adoring crowds. Based on other readings that I have done, it might be argued that at that moment, he may have been the most popular person in an America.

Auricchio writes,

Why did the celebrations in honor of Lafayette loom so large in people’s minds? In part, the phenomenon reflected a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation for a man who had come to our nation’s aid at a moment of need and whose dramatic life story had unfolded in the pages of American newspapers, books, magazines, and prints for the better part of fifty years. Words of gratitude and admiration for the French hero of the American Revolution filled the songs and poems written in his honor.

I can attest to Lafayette’s popularity with Americans, at least those who are interested in the American and French Revolutions. I have been reading and discussing the American Revolutionary era since I was a teenager. We Americans tend to gush over Lafayette. Personally, though I recognize his flaws, I admire him more than I do most historical figures. The reasons for such esteem are numerous. He relentlessly strived, despite severe obstacles, for liberty in both America and France, he was an unwavering moderate, he was a never-say-die optimist, even under terribly adverse conditions, by all accounts he had a sunny, optimistic personality and, contrary to many of his cotemporaries, he was anti-slavery, to name some of his virtues.

There is a lot more on the subject of Lafayette’s dichotomy of popularity in America and France contained in this work. It is one of many reasons that this book is well worth reading.

Despite its relative brevity, this is a very good biography of an intriguing historical figure. The writing is well crafted and the book is engaging. Auricchio has a knack for explaining complex historical occurrences in an understandable way while not straying into the simplistic. This book will work for those who initially know little of Lafayette and his era as well as those who are already well versed on the subject and are looking for more.

I previously posted about Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger here, and For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines here .

Saturday, January 10, 2015

William Shakespeare Sonnet Number 8

From time to time I will be posting commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing;
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

The theme of encouraging the “Fair Youth” to marry and have children continues in this sonnet. However, a slightly different approach from that of the earlier sonnets is taken. Here, the imagery that Shakespeare uses is related to music. The “Fair Youth” is told that he cannot enjoy “well-tuned sounds.” The reason for this unfortunate reality is that beauty, in the form of music, is chiding the sonnet’s subject because the subject has not taken a wife and had children yet. Specifically, the melody, as strings “Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,” is compared to the beauty embodied by a small family.

In my posts on the previous Sonnets, I have observed that the argument presented to the “Fair Youth,” at least to my modern sensibilities, ranges from the unconventional to the odd. The subject of the sonnets is cajoled to marry and procreate essentially for two reasons. First, he is advised that he can live on for posterity through his offspring and thus, in a way, cheat age and mortality. Second, he is chided that the world should not be denied the glorious results that would be embodied by his decedents.

This sonnet seems to represent a shift. Here, we have the “Fair Youth” exhorted to marry and to have children for what seems to me as more conventional or understandable reasons. Here the beauty inherent in the art form of music is compared with the beauty inherent in having a family.

Appropriately, I find the lines of this sonnet particularly pleasing and beautiful, even in comparison to several of the previous sonnets in the sequence. This one seems to exude warmth not apparent in the earlier verse. The aesthetic joy that is created by music seems to be a fitting, or at least understandable, comparison to the joy that the subject will presumably feel and display when he finds a spouse and has a child.

If we look at the sonnets in chronological order, their “voice” has implored the “Fair Youth” to have children by using flattery, guilt and now an appeal to the subject’s sense of beauty and joy. As I read through these short poems, this one is among my favorites so far.

My commentary on additional Sonnets: