Leaving Troy (rev.)

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The northwestern corner of “Asia Minor” (today’s Turkey) represented to the ancient world the westernmost cusp of the huge, heaving landmass of Asia, which stretched behind it all the way to Japan in the north and to New Guinea in the south. Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China all lie there, heavy with millennia of history and culture. And on that intruding tip we find the fabled city of Troy, an undisputed fact of history now that archaeology has unearthed multiple layers of a complex metropolis of almost prehistoric antiquity. From that eastern city of Troy, three voyages would begin that would leave their mark on what would later be known as Europe. Even the name of the continental newcomer traced its story back to the East, as the Phoenician princess “Europa” was said to have been ravished by the king of the gods and brought to the shores of Greece. That is myth, which is – as Coomaraswamy termed it – “penultimate truth.” The three voyages, however, were more than myth, and especially the third.

Our Greek cultural forefathers were forever interacting with the East. Their first great historical work (The Persian Wars, by Herodotus), and their first dramatic masterpiece (The Persians, by Aeschylus), both dealt with the inhabitants of what is today Iran. World history would have looked very different if the Greeks had not triumphed – against all odds – against the massively superior Persian Empire. But the Trojan connection goes even deeper than that. To begin with, that war predates the Persian War by centuries. In the latter war, the Greeks won, but they didn’t conquer; it was a war of successful self-defense. In the former war, both winners and losers launched myth- and history-making voyages. Troy haunts the Western imagination not as a defeated enemy, but as the stage of an iconic altercation that was to frame the emerging narrative of Europe from both sides of the contest.

On the winning side, Odysseus leaves Troy and undertakes his fabulous and prolonged voyage home to the peninsular country that – courtesy of the blind bard Homer – was soon to sing his story. Greece would begin to speak not only in sublime epic, lyrical and dramatic verse, but also in an idiom unmatched hitherto on Western lips: philosophical prose. A new wave of naturalistic sculpture would also rise out of that culture, fascinated artistically with the natural curves of the body as the new philosophy would be captivated by the natural trajectories of logic. During this philosophical apotheosis, their distant past heroes’ struggle on that Asian coast would serve as their defining epic recollection. Generations of Greek schoolboys would henceforth memorize their Odyssey and Iliad, and learn what example teaches even to theory.

On the losing side, another story was told, with a plot just as momentous as that of the victors. Aeneas also left Troy, but he wasn’t going home to a Penelope; he was fleeing a home which was burning to the ground. Odysseus met obstacles when he got home, but he did get home. Aeneas began with obstacles, and they continued as he searched for a new domicile. At long last, he found his new home on the Western shore of Italy: Rome. Thus, Western civilization’s two European fountainheads – Greece with its philosophy and art, and Rome with its law and architecture – both look to a founding saga based on an ancient war on an Asian shore. And since Rome was fated to ultimately conquer Greece militarily (and in some way settle accounts after their forefathers’ defeat at Troy), it would no less decisively be conquered by Greece culturally, blown away by the latter’s love and articulation of beauty and wisdom.

Virgil’s Latin Aeneid is already worlds apart from Homer’s two epics in style and tone, although alike in scope and ambition. But the text that will recount the third voyage from Troy is so different from all three epics (and indeed from all earlier literature of any genre), it stands alone in the world of the written word. I refer of course to the New Testament, and to the episode in St. Paul’s missionary travels that brought him to that very tip of Asia that bore the ruins of Troy. A new literary genre arose without warning. We call it the Gospel.

There St. Paul famously dreams of a Macedonian from across the Aegean Sea, pleading with him to come to the other shore (Acts 16,9). So often in religious history, the “other shore” has symbolized a decisive moment in one’s spiritual life – in Hinduism and Buddhism as a symbol of mosksha or nirvana, in Jainism the transcendent conquest heralded by the tirthankaras (the “ford-makers”). In Paul’s case, he is the one who is bringing liberation and enlightenment to that other shore. It is he who is fording the body of water that separates Asia from the Europe-to-be. And to the Hellenic fervor for aesthetics and dialectic, and to sober Roman jurisprudence and stately architecture, a new ingredient was injected. Adding to this civilizational recipe, Paul of Tarsus decided to act on a dream.

Centuries hence, the Celtic, Germanic and Slavic peoples of the north would inherit the fruits of this promiscuous Mediterranean mix, and the Europe we have known since the Middle Ages would begin to rise like a Gothic cathedral. But as the three major components – hailing from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – begin to interact alchemically, something new in history was afoot and the world was never to look the same. Odysseus’s and Aeneas’s sea crossings were long and sinuous, but Paul’s was swift and direct. Nonetheless, all three voyages began in Troy, and all three voyages led – directly or indirectly – to wherever you are sitting right now.

 

Bruckner! (rev.)

Bruckner_Anton_Postcard-1910

I first listened to Anton Bruckner in the mid-70s, inspired by a Viennese friend of mine in Austria. Amazed at my ignorance of the admittedly odd but formidable Austrian composer, he looked me in the eye with the kind of earnestness one only shows when about to divulge an esoteric and explosive secret. Bruckner’s music is (he proclaimed in German): wunderschön!  He then paused a moment to hold back the tears, and repeated: wunderschön!  In German, that means not just beautiful, but seriously and world-shakingly, tear-jerkingly lovely. I was moved by his insistence and passion, and, although slightly wary of possible Austrian self-promotion, finally overcame the humiliation at having my ignorance exposed. As soon as I could, I got my hands on a cassette tape of Bruckner and slipped it into my Walkman.

Consummate scholar that I was (at 22, I fancied I knew not everything, but almost everything), I decided I must first familiarize myself with the biography of this musical prodigy who had deftly flown beneath my radar for so long.  I ran to whatever encyclopedia or short bio I could find, and quickly came upon the photo you see above. Hmm, I thought, not as classical a look as Bach or Mozart, and not as intimidating as Beethoven or Wagner, nor as handsome as Mahler, and yet he will do. I admitted him to audition for my favorite composers club. But then I learned a bit more about this man, and was taken aback. It almost made me cancel the audition.

I had come upon what seemed to be the consensual low-down on Bruckner – something all the snooty classical music mavens have proclaimed for a century. In effect, they have told us not to waste their time with this cowboy. And they were right about one thing : Bruckner was clearly one of the most uncultured men who ever walked the Austrian Alps. Born in a small mountain village, he spoke an Alpine dialect (when he spoke coherently at all), dressed Salvation Army (with pants cut high, since he played the organ and, he claimed, needed unhindered feet for the pedals). He behaved with a clumsiness and self-effacement that would rival the most abject among our homeless today. He knew next to nothing about history, philosophy, poetry, drama, dance, science, etc. As I said: uncultured. But then he climbed onto the seat at his local church’s organ (and many others thereafter) and promptly morphed, Hulk-like, into a musical giant. Improvisation – arguably the supreme test of high musical endowment – rolled off his fingers with astonishing ease. It is regrettable, in retrospect, that he composed so little for the organ, but I think we can say he made up for it in a big way.black-and-white-buttefly-music-notes-facebook-cover-black-and-830x307

When I finally heard his unfinished 9th (why not start at the top?), I felt like I had just walked into Notre Dame cathedral, and I was enraptured (still am). Later came his 4th (an easier listen), and his accessible and popular 7th. But I hadn’t yet confronted the astounding, surprising, adventuresome 5th – I am in a small minority in my love of this imperfect symphony – let alone submitted my virgin sensorium to arguably the grandest, most demanding and most transformative of all his symphonies, the 8th. By this time, I had become an insufferable Bruckner apologist.

However, as I turned again to those mavens, I noticed – to my shock and disbelief – that this dwarfish musician was regarded, almost universally, as bombastic, disjointed, confused and, above all, incapable of economy (his symphonies are anything but succinct). He is seen by many as a kind of absurdly baptized Wagner; he idolized the German megalomaniacal genius, and the fact that he was, along with Wagner, one of Hitler’s favorites, certainly won him no converts. Add to this that unlike any other 19th century musical celebrity of comparable stature, Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and daily Mass attendant. So – we were soberly told – if it’s  late romanticism that you covet, go to Mahler, and leave this pathetic bumpkin to his self-indulgent musical swamps of piety and pretension.

Despite all this, Bruckner’s music is just too interesting to roundly ignore. The famous orchestral swells are of such transcendent grandeur and sublimity, tears and tears alone will reveal you were really listening. Europe was unable to banish him from its musical repertoire, and he was performed with some regularity, despite the nay-sayers. But he hardly ever crossed the Atlantic. Thus, I was delighted when I recently heard that the Argentine/Israeli pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim – a longtime fan of Bruckner – was honoring the composer in New York City’s Carnegie Hall with a full cycle of his symphonies.  That was earlier this year.

Anton_bruckner

Barenboim concedes that there are more melodic composers, more architectonic, better orchestrators and, certainly, those more concise and economic in expression. But he tells us also that it is not melody or architecture or orchestration or brevity that draw us to Bruckner. One is drawn to Bruckner by that which drew him to music: his faith. No one else in the 19th century composed more religiously, more spiritually, than Bruckner. No program music here, no poetry, no story, just an archaeological dig for God and the supernatural, as multiply hidden in the world of sound – like veins of gold in the earth. To be sure, his Te Deum and Masses are also works of genius, but it is in his symphonies where something otherworldly is on unmistakable display.

He digs, and digs again, explores and sifts – returning to an earlier spot to dig just a bit more – and then, often in an expectant crescendo, other times in a sudden cloudburst, there is an epiphany unlike anything else in symphonic literature. Nothing can equal those moments. When you know the music, you meditatively wait for them – like all of us wait for God – and grow impatient with Bruckner as the composer searches his heart and the orchestra for just the right convergence of sound and revelation. Bruckner’s organ playing is more visible in the shape of his symphonies than any reliance on Beethoven or even Wagner. In this way he stands alone. Finally, Bach is more consistently superb, Mozart more playful and varied, Beethoven more synthetic and rousing, Brahms more assertive and Mahler more expansive; but Bruckner alone creates a passageway between earth and heaven that reminds us that the beauty beyond is utterly overwhelming, and, for those willing to pursue it, well worth the wait.

(For those new to Bruckner, probably his 4th and 7th ought to be heard first. If you have less patience and want a bit of the best, take in the Adagio of the 8th (or of the 4th, the 5th, the 7th or the 9th….but I recommend the 8th). Of many fine versions, I like the tempo of Herbert von Karajan here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asJf3KmAg08 ; if you want to go straight to the Adagio, jump to 32:15.  There are versions with better sound, but he who seeks will find the one that seeds the glory in his heart.)

death mask Bruckner
death mask of Anton Bruckner

Is the Universe God’s Selfie? (rev.)

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The short answer is: no. A somewhat longer response, however, will give a measure of legitimacy to those at first beguiled by the notion. Genesis and the Abrahamic faiths insist that the world and everything in it is most emphatically not divine, and for a creature to think itself divine is in effect the source of all evil. But it is not quite as simple as that. The same Old Testament book will teach with equal authority that we were created “after the image and likeness of God.” So we are already like God in some way, although sternly forbidden to seek divine likeness in another way. Theological consensus suggests the image of God in us is found in our spiritual faculties (intellect and will), and the forbidden fruit symbolizes an expropriation of “divine rights” in the determination of what is right and wrong. But let us consider only the more abstract, metaphysical question, namely: How is it possible for the Absolute (God) to coexist with the Relative (creation) to begin with?

A couple of popular solutions to the problem of the One and the Many – of the divine and the created – are pantheism and monism. The first teaches that the universe is divine to begin with; the other simply proclaims that all is one. Although both get rid of the duality and might seem to be saying much the same thing, there is a subtle but all-important difference. In pantheism, the universe gets an upgrade, either by being declared identical to God (in some forms), or a dimension of God (as in Spinoza, for example); here are no Platonic shades or shifty maya, but rather simple identification. In monism, however, the emphasis is on oneness, and thus the multiplicity in which the universe glories is downgraded to a mere gossamer appearance – at best a phantasmagoric carousel of index fingers all pointing to the One and then disappearing; at worse (but more logically coherent), an illusion.

The doctrine of creation will have neither of these simplistic evasions. If God is simply the universe, he isn’t much of a god anyway, and we would do better to jettison our prayer-books and agree with the materialists that matter is all there is. If we insist on getting to some great “beyond,” we should study astrophysics instead of theology. And although apparent water on the asphalt may be an illusion indeed, Iguaçu Falls is not (or, for my American readers, Niagara Falls). Once more, our materialists are right again: this world is too real and insistent to be deemed a delusion.

As so often, the stars help us best to understand high matters. Stars that have no planets still shine, but those with planets not only shine, but also have their light reflected. Now, the amount of light does not change in this case, but the illumination – and this is the key – does. This has always seemed to me the best analogy for bringing home how the creation can have what Aquinas calls novitas essendi (newness of being), without thereby diminishing the infinity of God’s being. As with our sun – where there are more illuminated things, but no more light than in the case of a lonely star of the same size but with no planets – so with creation: there are more beings, but no more being. God is, as Aquinas says, not just one more being among others (not even the “Biggest”), but rather Subsistent Being Itself. He is utterly transcendent to the creation only by being radically immanent to it as its cause. He is in the cosmos as Charles Dickens is in his novels, not as a protagonist or a plot line in the story, but as the very cause of the protagonist, the plot and the story itself – in it by being causally and sovereignly beyond it. What Christ would later enjoin morally upon his followers, to “be in the world but not of it,” God himself realizes metaphysically in his mode of presence in the cosmos.

Sharing being is something like sharing knowledge, or love. Augustine teaches us that to share material things means to get less than you would have if you did not share; but by sharing spiritual things, you get more by sharing. Share a cake or a bag of nuts, and you end up with less cake and fewer nuts; but share your knowledge, or your love, and you end up with more knowledge and more love. If this is true of these spiritual realities, how much more of the root of all knowledge and love, which is Being itself.

Still, we have to turn Augustine somewhat on his head. You may not lose anything when you share spiritual goods, but there is one good, and a good that is beyond the distinction between spiritual and material, the sharing of which – even if it does not subtract from you – also does not bring you any “gain.” That good is being itself. When God gives being, he not only does not lose anything, but in contrast to our experiences of gaining by giving knowledge and love, neither does he add anything to himself. A huge increase in illumination results, but the amount of Light remains the same. And we creatures are the real winners. More beings, but no more Being.

 

The Tool of Tools and the Form of Forms (final version)

Vintage working tools on wooden background.

The so-called “logical” works of Aristotle have been grouped together under the title “Organon” (tool, organ) since his first major editor assembled them in the 1st century B.C.  It seems Andronicus of Rhodes employed this label to suggest that Aristotle considered the study of logic to be the great propadeutic, the unavoidable preparatory instrument one must first learn to use before embarking upon the real world studied by physics, psychology, metaphysics, ethics and the like. Although a significant measure of truth has been granted to this claim, a couple of questions have always troubled its articulation.

One is that the philosopher dedicates so very much time to this supposedly subsidiary instrument. The “Analytics,” his work treating of logical inference proper, is so extensive it came to be divided into two quite large (and quite difficult) works. If you group the other texts of the Organon (the Categories, On Interpretation, the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations – not to mention the Rhetoric and the Poetics, which Arab Aristotelians included, not without reason) together with the Analytics, you have material for a couple of years study, at the very least. Is all this just about a tool?

The second question is even more perplexing. If the Stagirite considered these logical works to be so intrinsically instrumental to his vast philosophical project, why, when we survey his physical, psychological, metaphysical and ethical/political treatises – and even his incomplete Poetics – do we find nary a reference to them?  If we are busily building the edifice of philosophy with our hammer, saw, screw driver, pliers and all the other tools of a well-stocked toolbox, shouldn’t we catch sight – at least on occasion – of their active and indispensable role in producing the structure? (“Hand me a hammer.”  “Now I need the pliers.” etc.) We don’t, and one wonders why.

Some have suggested – rather lamely, in my opinion – that since we only have a fourth, or even just a fifth of all Aristotle wrote, maybe he did make these cross-references in the works that have been lost. However, the best conjectures about those missing works is that they consisted of numerous early dialogues and piles of notes on his incessant zoological researches. His substantive treatises, as imperfect as they sometimes are, seem to have been preserved because they constitute the lion’s share of his mature thought. I find a better answer in the very book which discusses the nature of the intellect (nous), that is, the very faculty that employs logical procedure to begin with. I suggest this text explains the inspiration of the title “Organon,” on the one hand, but also gives us insight into why it receives such protracted attention at first and then seems to be almost forgotten in the remaining treatises about the “real world.”

When Aristotle famously defines man as a rational animal, we do well to remember the amplitude of the adjective in Greek: logikon, meaning that we are animals that produce logoi, i.e. discourses. We don’t bark or squeak like some fellow animals (at least not in our finer moments) but we speak, and when we speak we utter various sorts of discourses. Within the womb of the very first concept we generate – that of being (the most universal, the most fecund but as such the least specific of all concepts) – we produce logoi. These, in turn, go on to specify beings (in the plural), and do so by both signifying ideas and feelings in our souls, and also persons and ideas outside of us in the world. Such discourses are mostly approximate in terms of their inferential power (formulated in what Aristotle will call enthymemes, that is, arguments with implicit components). Thereafter, however, may come the dialectical, poetical and sometimes scientific discourses as well. Now, since we evidently perform all these acts, we logically must have the power to do so. That power, or faculty, is quite simply what we call the nous (which we can translate as intellect, mind, reason or intelligence).

hands

In the De Anima (“On the Soul”), where Aristotle studies psychology – the science of “souls” in all their forms, powers and acts – he arrives at a curious statement in the third book when discussing nous. He compares it to the hand, for the hand is that by which we “handle” just about everything, as the nous is that by which we think about everything. Like the mouth and the mind, the hand is designed with a constitutional openness – but that openness only exists in order to close. As our mouth opens to speak, but (hopefully!) soon closes to listen; or opens to eat, and then (again, hopefully) closes to chew and swallow, our mind seems to show the same pattern. It opens, but only in order to then bite down, as it were, on knowledge.

Aristotle is intrigued by this analogy between the mind and the hand. The latter is naturally open and in this way remains poised to grasp virtually any tool that is presented to it. It is relevant here that in our European languages the words we typically use to bespeak understanding and intellectual activity are “manual”; that is, we “grasp” something; we “comprehend” something (from prehendere, in Latin, meaning to grasp). In German the analogous words are ergreifenerfassen (both originally meaning to take something into one’s hand). In a sense the hand is the body’s principal tool, but due to its extraordinary versatility, its radical openness and ability to assume a large number of configurations (picking up an apple, turning a screwdriver, wielding a hammer, pushing and pulling a saw, gesticulating, and so on), it would be better, Aristotle suggests, to call it the “tool of tools.”tools-tool-hand-construction-23602042

His point is this: the intellect seems to do in an immaterial way what the hand does in a material way. The mind too “grasps” something; it too is in the service, as it were, of the “tools” it wields (concepts, judgments, arguments, hypotheses, etc.). However, the versatility and adaptability of the material hand is still limited by its very materiality. Although it is indicative, a “sign” of our rational nature (along with the face, as Aristotle asserts), it still cannot do everything. Nonetheless, it goes quite far, as it can gesticulate eloquently (a talent supremely developed by the Italians), but even in its first “logical” gesture – that of an infant spontaneously pointing to something outside of it – it also “points interiorly” to the power of the mind behind it, which is unmistakably “indicated” by that naturally extended index finger.

That mind, the nous, as an immaterial power, is able – unlike the material hand – to be entirely versatile and adaptable in relation to the formalities it grasps. In a sense, it can do everything. The hand still has a fixed form (palm, thumb and four fingers); the nous has not only no material configuration at all, but its immaterial “form” – its natural specification, its function par excellence – is precisely to have no form. It can accept, “become” all forms because by nature it possesses none. Analogous to clay that is formless so that it can be formed into any shape one chooses, the intellect is formless so that it can receive any knowable form with which it is confronted. It is open by nature. This leads to the title of my essay. As a hand which is open to all tools Aristotle calls the “tool of tools,” a “form” that is open to all forms should be called the “form of forms.”

It is this radically open nature of the nous that brings Aristotle to affirm – in one of his more famous and surprising statements – that the intellectual soul is, in a certain sense, all existing things. Anything and everything that is now, or that ever was, or that ever could be is in principle knowable by an intellect whose very object is, quite simply, being (that which, in any and every way can be considered to be). Some medieval philosophers called the “spirit” (the intellectual “part”, or center of the soul) the anima animae, the “soul of the soul.” But that same soul of the rational animal not only besouls the matter of the body, it is itself in turn besouled by its spiritual core. This “animation” means that it is open to, and quite literally alive to all being,  capax universi (“capable of everything,” in the somewhat over-the-top words of Thomas Aquinas). Through it, the soul “becomes all things” in the sense that its immaterial form permits it to be in-formed by any and all reality within its experience. It can become, intentionally (i.e., in an immaterial mode of being that signifies, that thus “tends toward” a reality beyond it) what the things known are in reality (i.e., in the extra-mental world of things).

All this explains why logical studies are considered instrumental, not just in the sense that you need a certain proficiency in them in order to think coherently in the sciences of the real, but also because they study the very intellectual “hand” of the human soul. The Greek word Aristotle uses to say “tool of tools” is the very word the tradition has employed to refer to logic: organon. The hand is the “organon of organons.”  The mind, in turn, is the “idea of ideas, or the form of forms.” From applying, analogically, the notion of organon (tool) to that of the “form” of the intellect (its eidon), the further step of calling logical studies a tool is a short one.

That intellectual organ exists only in order to reach out to reality. Its reach is so complex, so rich with articulations (not unlike, and yet so much more than the fingers of a hand), and the discourses it produces so multi-faceted in the ways in which thought can be logikon (“logical”), Aristotle delves deeply and extensively into its world, exploring how it works, and why. He does this by “taking it apart” (the root meaning of the word “analysis”; thus, his name for logic: “analytics”). This is the reason he spends so much time with this study, because it is so interesting in itself and so revealing of the way in which nous works.

But there is more. The absence of any conspicuous reference back to the logical works in his theoretical or practical scientific treatises is, in fact, evidence of the truly “instrumental” nature of logic. It highlights how this very special instrument – this tool that rises and soars as astronomically as does the hurled bone in that iconic scene in 2001: Space Odyssey – lives in the immaterial world of knowing. The concepts, the judgments, the syllogisms and all the rest of our intentional cognitive software – unlike the wooden and metallic density of a carpenter’s tools – are intentional realities, existing only in and of the mind. The scholastics called them “second intentions,” insofar as they refer not directly to the realities beyond them (as do “first intentions,” with which we directly interact with extra-mental being), but rather to the ways in which beings exist in the mind, once they are known, and only insofar as they are known.

Now, to the extent we are thinking coherently, and allowing the realities we encounter in sensation to enter into and temper our cognitive faculties, these “second intentions” have a tendency to function invisibly. They are transparent to the realities to which they provide access, like the lenses in a pair of glasses, or the pane of glass in your living room window. You look through them and not at them. It is only when the lenses crack, or a rock sails through your window pane, or when things simply get dirty, that you pay any attention to the glass. Likewise, it is only when thinking goes awry, or becomes uncertain of itself, that we need to reach for the toolbox of logic. In the same way, we only call the carpenter who built the house to come back for an additional visit when the house needs repairs. As it turns out, Aristotle’s substantive treatises about reality are rarely in need of such repairs.

Arist