"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Benefit of Hindsight

One of my former students writes the following:

“. . . I’ve always liked studying history, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to develop actual historical perspective.

“An example: I can’t remember who exactly said it, but one of the high ranking admirals in Japan said, after pearl harbor, ‘I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant.’”

“Of course it was true, but my historical study (too much of an emphasis on facts I believe) left out the really important part of that statement, that it was a perceptive analysis, and not at all obvious at the time. Only by mentally putting myself into that time frame, while simultaneously suppressing my knowledge of the future, can I really gain some insight into the past. . . .

“ . . . [L]ack of historical study really hinders us as a society. I think it’s especially detrimental to youth, as I felt as I was growing up that all the news and situations in the world at large were bad, and that the reality of any given time was that things are bad now, and they are probably as bad as they have ever been.

“I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the past doesn’t easily resonate in me, and that’s kind of scary. I can spend lots of time learning about ancient Rome, or the Aztecs, but I don’t instinctively feel that I am the inheritor of this vast tract of human experience—really, I feel that all that has come before me seems to barely influence me at all. And I feel that this is common in my generation, and perhaps in others. Rather than enjoying our new paths in art and science as additions to the vastness of human experience, I get the feeling that I’m subsisting just on the new as its own, rather than the newest chapter in an epic tale. The feeling that new is good, not because it’s better, but because it’s all we have.

“And I see this extending into avenues besides history and literature appreciation. Particularly in technology this disdain for the past is rampant. What’s heralded today as groundbreaking is mocked tomorrow as archaic.

“This is really scary now that I consider it—if we don’t appreciate and understand where we have come from, and what is good in that, how can we say that we have gone anywhere? If its all just a set of discrete points not connected, how can any one point be said to be anything other than that, a random point?

“What I’m really going for, I think, is that without the past, my future is pretty much dead. If I don’t have Plato and Shakespeare to learn from and build off of, how will I ever better myself in my humanity? To hope that I am some incredibly lucky person who just manages to fit all the pieces of life and meaning together in one lifetime?

“Hmmm, maybe that’s the really scary thing about my generation, this undercurrent of individuality, that all accomplishments and discoveries must be made yourself, and that study of the past or learning from past masters is useless without the discovery on your own. It’s that vibe I seem to feel from this age that worries me—that humanity is just one large rat chasing its own tail for all eternity, refusing to learn from the past out of pride.

“Then again, I’m guessing life has always been like this. And rather than worry that my peers aren’t reading Plato, I should get to reading myself!”

My response:

What you have very truly written can hardly be bettered. The essential thing to add is that your worry about this renunciation of the past is itself a sign that not all is lost. It shows that you don’t believe humanity is only a rat. One need only renounce that vibe and try to discern what we are that is not the rat, and behold!: the tail-chasing is revealed as a disguise behind which the inquiring mind may catch a glimpse of the unclear but inescapably meaningful story of man.

You are quite right about your generation’s apparent divorce from history—real divorce being impossible. Every generation feels something like this. Every age of serious intellectual activity strives to improve on the past, one among many examples being the turning of attention from heaven to earth in the Renaissance: from halos and gold backgrounds to linear perspective and blue sky, from pointed to rounded arches, from Everyman to Hamlet.

However, not everyone has shared our modern idea of entirely divorcing the present from the past, which is far more extreme. That idea (ironically) is inherited from the age of the American and French revolutions, when the worship of human progress as an inevitable natural phenomenon rose to preeminence in the writings of Enlightenment philosophes like Condorcet and of the Romantic Rousseau. In the 19th Century it took firm hold in the ideas of Darwin, Marx, and many others. Thus it is from the past that we inherit our contempt for the past, though the historically untutored don’t know it.

In some ways, of course, we are indeed superior to our forbears. The progress of scientific and technological knowledge (not considering social effects) is irrefutable. Computers get smaller and more powerful, and we can go to the moon and back. We abandon older machines for new ones as the fifth-century Greeks melted down archaic bronze statues for material to make what hindsight now calls “developed” sculptures, some of the greatest ever made by human beings. Progress seems to be the way of the world.

Seems. Because technology is so forceful a piece of evidence—every new machine more amazing than the last—people think that (to paraphrase Emile Coué) every day, in every way, we are getting better and better (my italics). (Coué’s method of autosuggestion shows him to be a true heir of Condorcet, who believed that by the power of reason and science man would soon conquer all obstacles to happiness, including death.)

The rub is that though we can spend a lifetime auto-suggesting our own improvement, we can’t feel that we are getting better in every way. There’s a bit too much contrary evidence. Some of those Greek bronzes of the highest period were themselves no doubt melted down to make way for inferior later works in which we can see the signs of cultural decay. In recent decades we have tossed away representational drawing and painting for abstract expressionism, unflagging Dada, and museum pieces involving urine and feces. At my last school taking roll by computer made life easier for the attendance secretary, but it diverted my attention during three of the five daily homeroom minutes from my students to the screen. Newer is better for a while, and then it is worse. The trick is to be able to see the difference in one’s own time.

American democratic government and the rule of law are certainly advances over any political forms known in the past. But the last century also saw by far the worst depravities that human beings have ever enacted. In terms of individual human happiness, it’s probably a toss-up: we are certainly more physically comfortable (though inhabitants of Darfur and North Korea are not), but we suffer from a severe shortage of ultimate meaning (though there are always some who can find meaning in any here-and-now moment).

The truth is that in some things we progress and in others we don’t, and that, as Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s more than that. It is almost impossible for those who do not live responsibly with the past and the future to have a meaningful present. As you wrote so insightfully, “if we don’t appreciate and understand where we have come from, and what is good in that, how can we say that we have gone anywhere? If it’s all just a set of discrete points not connected, how can any one point be said to be anything other than that, a random point?”

Philip Thompson
observed, analogously, that if the work week is a hell whose only solace is anticipation of the weekend, then the weekend is equally a hell whose torture is the anticipation of Monday morning. Only some concept of Sabbath, that is, of a relation between time and spirit, redeems the weekend from mere escapism and the work week from mere drudgery. Likewise, if the past is nothing but what needs to be got out of the way so that we can enjoy the present, then the present is nothing but one more bit to be got out of the way. In fact, from such a perspective there really is no way at all.

Without learning what has been excellent in the past and the ways in which we are both the fruition and the disappointment of past hopes, nothing of the “better” that we hope for our own future can be more significant than a deluding fancy. Only our participation in the human story, which is more than the mere succession of meaningless pasts giving way to new but equally meaningless futures, weaves our lives into a larger fabric of significance.

But such participation is extremely difficult in our supposedly post-historical time. All cultures live upon the lore of the past as conveyed in ritual and story. But most of our rituals and stories promote the value of unexamined technical or natural progress with no spiritual meaning in sight. Notice the TV commercial, our society’s most pervasive medium for communicating what is important to it, in which what sells (besides sex) is newness. And the institutions charged with preserving knowledge of the past—academy, library, museum—are now largely in the hands of those whose only use for the past is as a trash can. Few and far between are the teachers and curators for whom the past is the repository of those “monuments of unaging intellect” that teach our souls to sing (see W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”).

To complicate things, there is no single objective past to which anyone has access. Every history is a version of reality as perceived by a limited mind or group of minds. Believers understand that the whole story of the world, past, present, and future, and therefore of ourselves and our place in that story, can be known entirely only to God. Hence studying the past is always a matter of approaching the truth without ever totally comprehending it. As Wendell Berry has said, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”

Given the predispositions of our time, rightly reclaiming our inheritance of the past is not easy. It requires the same precious gifts that any good work requires: insight and imagination, talent and skill, conviction and humility, wisdom and love of truth—above all, vision.

Nonetheless, as Socrates said and exemplified, we must never give up pursuing the truth. In that pursuit, even if we fail, we shall become better human beings than those who, daunted by the impossibility of complete success, never even try.

Finally, a little lesson in the importance of facts in your study of history: Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the quotation that got you thinking on this subject:

“Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!, as saying after his attack on Pearl Harbor, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.’ The supposed quotation was abbreviated in the film Pearl Harbor (2001), where it merely read, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.’

“Neither At Dawn We Slept, written by Gordon Prange, nor The Reluctant Admiral, the definitive biography of Yamamoto in English by Agawa Hiroyu, contains the line.

“Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of Pearl Harbor, readily admitted that he copied the line from Tora! Tora! Tora!. The director of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, Richard Fleischer, stated that while Yamamoto may never have said those words, the film’s producer, Elmo Williams, had found the line written in Yamamoto’s diary. Williams, in turn, has stated that Larry Forrester, the screenwriter, found a 1943 letter from Yamamoto to the Admiralty in Tokyo containing the quotation. However, Forrester cannot produce the letter, nor can anyone else, American or Japanese, recall or find it.

“In The Reluctant Admiral, Hiroyuki Agawa, without a citation, does give a quotation from a reply by Admiral Yamamoto to Ogata Taketora on January 9, 1942, which is strikingly similar to the famous version: ‘A military man can scarcely pride himself on having “smitten a sleeping enemy”; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.’

“Yamamoto believed that Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States, and moreover seems to have believed that the Pearl Harbor attack had become a blunder — even though he was the person who came up with the idea of a surprise attack. The Reluctant Admiral relates that ‘Yamamoto alone’ (while all his staff members were celebrating) spent the day after Pearl Harbor ‘sunk in apparent depression.’ He is also known to have been upset by the bungling of the Foreign Ministry which led to the attack happening while the countries were technically at peace, thus making the incident an unprovoked sneak attack that would certainly enrage the enemy.

“The line serves as a dramatic ending to the attack, and may well have encapsulated some of his real feelings about it, but it has yet to be verified.”

There is no doubt more to the story, but I quote the passage to suggest how studying the past may deepen understanding. The phrase you remembered may be based on historical evidence of Yamamoto’s prescience; it is certainly historical evidence of the movie-maker’s justifiable pride in America.

Nonetheless, your insight stands: To study history well requires getting imaginatively into the minds and situations of past thinkers, who had, as we have now, to think and act without benefit of hindsight.

One more thing: You confess to a lack of an instinct for inheriting the past. This makes sense. Interest in the past is a function not of instinct but of intellect in the service of values. Most people have little enough impulse to enter even into the perspective of their nearest neighbor. But why should instinct be our only, or even our main, guide? When you do get back to reading Plato, you’ll find that in The Republic he helps to place instinct in right relation to reason: Let the mind’s wisdom temper the body’s impulses through the courageous discipline of the heart. Only then will justice—including our justice to the past and the future—appear.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Choosing Religion, Ethical Dilemmas, and Just War

I recently received questions on these three topics from a student on a spiritual search. She has given permission for me to quote our correspondence in case it might be useful to others.

“[T]his summer I’d been ‘shopping’ for a religion until [in one of your classes a student] asked you how one should ‘find’ a tradition if one was not raised within a religion. Following your advice that ‘no birth is an accident’ and that one should figure out where one comes from, I did a little research of my own; it ends up nearly all of my ancestors on my dad’s side are Lutheran. All this surprised me, since my birth has generally been called an accident and I’d thought I’d come from a fairly agnostic family. . . . I met with a Lutheran pastor . . . and attended services, and since then I’ve started reading some Lutheran/Christian texts, but I’m wondering if you have any more advice for me, in terms of ‘finding’ a tradition to belong to. I feel like I’m kind of copping out on my ‘spiritual quest’ or whatever you want to call it by just conveniently choosing a religion some people related to me were associated with. It seems too easy and too intellectual and I’m not sure my heart’s in it.”

First of all, the problem with “choosing a religion” is that the grounds upon which you can choose are functions of religious beliefs, even if they are not formal. Let’s say you reject Hinduism because of its belief in reincarnation. Well, on what grounds do you not believe in reincarnation? You are already the product of a civilization that rejects the idea of reincarnation and has influenced you in that rejection. But if a Hindu says “on what grounds do you reject reincarnation?” and you say “I have no religion, so I don’t know,” then how can you justify rejecting Hinduism? Or embracing it for that matter?

My point is simply that it is not really possible to exist so far out of a religious tradition that in the matter of “choosing a religion” you don’t have some pre-existing elements of faith. If you didn’t, you’d have to choose every religion or none, since the judgment of any implies the pre-existing faith in at least some of the tenets of it or of another. And of course “none” isn’t possible either. As my teacher Mary used to say, “all human beings worship. The only question is what they worship.”

I think you have begun well. Read those Lutheran texts and see to what degree they speak to you. And I would also suggest that you work backward and read the Christian documents that Luther was revising so you can decide whether his revolution or that which he was revolting against rings more true. You have already seen what Dante has to say. I suggest you read the Gospels, and St. Paul’s letters, and the writings of St. Augustine (in particular his Confessions and his City of God), and then read about St. Francis, and writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. Then you will be able to see what it is that Luther is particularly energized about. And then you will slowly grow to increasing recognition of where in the tradition you yourself might belong.

“I sure wouldn’t have believed it maybe three years ago but more and more lately I’ve found myself defending your (and C.S. Lewis’s) positions to other students here at college—advocates of atheism, utilitarianism, Objectivism. More often than not they attack me with some sort of “thought experiment” like the following: “you must torture and kill one person in order to save an entire city from destruction—what do you do?” And I can’t on earth figure out how I’m supposed to answer this sort of question. They all remind me a lot of “Sophie’s Choice” which you mentioned . . . a long time ago, but that doesn’t get me any closer on figuring out how to answer or respond to these types of intellectual challenges. Any thoughts?”

I’m very glad that you are defending the rational and true position of ultimate values rather than succumbing to the pressure of the fuzzy-minded crowds.

The first thing to say about the kind of test question they “attack” you with (and it is an attack, because they themselves would not want to be faced with such a question), is that the prior question is why they are asking it. Is it a real desire to know the truth, or is it a scoffer’s challenge (like the jailer’s question of the rebbe in prison [in the first chapter of Martin Buber’s The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism]: trying to trip him up with a question from the Bible)?

The second thing to say is that if the questioner does not share your belief in fundamental and ultimate universal values, then the question is pointless. Whether you say “do the torture” or “don’t do the torture,” the relativist questioner has no grounds for approving or disapproving of your answer because he has rejected both the principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and the principle of “he who saves a life is as if he has saved the whole world” (in their various versions). In other words, the question whether you’re allowed to cause one man to suffer to save many other men can only have any meaning to someone who believes it is wrong to harm others unjustly and it is right to protect innocents from harm. If you don’t believe in those absolute values, you have no moral grounds for preferring one answer of the question to another.

The truth is that only with someone who agrees on the fundamental values and on their universality can engaging in a discussion of the torture question be worth anything. It’s like trying to sue in court someone who does not believe in the rule of law.

The real response to such a challenge is to ask the challenger on what grounds he stands to condemn torturers or innocent village destroyers if he doesn’t believe in universal moral values? Why not torture someone or kill innocents if all values are relative? Then you will come to the real difference of opinion, which makes the question he initially asked trivial by comparison. And you will usually find that he is a relativist when it suits him and an absolutist when it suits him. He’s a relativist when he’s afraid you are going to hold him to some standard of value, and he’s an (illogical) absolutist in being against all moral absolutes.

A central business of human life is to apply the universal values we believe in to each particular situation as it arises. Each such application is a test of what we are and what we believe. And we make our choices not knowing the “answers,” not knowing whether we have passed the test of being judgment-making creatures. But we must judge anyway, and we will judge, whatever we think, and so we are taking the test, whether we like it or not, despite not knowing anything about how it will turn out. It’s what human beings do.

The clear-thinking person strives to discern and then to do the right thing, though it isn’t clear or easy. The confused person pretends there are no values to go by and so it doesn’t matter and, in practice, judges that it is “better” to avoid making any moral judgments at all. This is a great way of pretending to get off the hook, except that it can’t really work, because a) he himself has surrendered any grounds for justifying that “better,” and b) in a crisis moral situation, all decent, non-pathological human beings would recognize who is the more admirable, the man who strives to do good, even at great personal sacrifice, and the man who avoids making a decision and runs from it instead.

Finally, we have been given a long history of wisdom to help us. We know the universal values, and we are in the particular situations of our lives. Those are givens. But we also have great men and women and their sayings to guide us in making our decisions. We have Moses and Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov; we have Socrates and Plato and Aristotle; we have Jesus and Augustine and Aquinas and Francis and Bonaventure; we have Confucius and Lao Tzu, the Bhagavad Gita and the Buddha, Kant and Pascal, Dante and Shakespeare, Austen and Dickinson, C.S. Lewis and Viktor Frankl and Martin Buber.

And we also have one another: I mean those among our relatives and friends and teachers whom we admire and trust and whose own experience often can shed light on the difficulties of the decisions we must make.

Hence we do not have to invent reality for ourselves. Some of these guides speak to us more clearly, more relevantly than others. But the fact that in the abstract one cannot answer the kind of question the challenger asks is no evidence whatsoever for there being no better way to act, and no worse way, in a real life situation.

“Finally, just war. I’ve read Buber’s letter to Gandhi which you mentioned [in class], and I really want to say that war is justified in some cases, but how can you send people off to war when you know that some civilians/innocents will inevitably be killed? How can that be a just war?”

The question presumes that we live in a perfect and just world and that if we behave justly, no harm will be done. But this is a false premise. The world is not Eden. It is flawed or fallen or troubled with man’s sin, however you want to describe it, and goodness in the world can only ever be an approximation unless one is especially gifted with vision and grace (like Socrates or Jesus or St. Francis or the Baal Shem Tov). Again, one must make judgments. No just person wants innocents to be harmed in war. And yet, though war will inevitably harm some number of innocents, not to go to war may be a far worse choice, may result in far worse consequences to innocents.

There is a wonderful speech on this subject in Shakespeare’s Henry V. On the battlefield before Agincourt, one of the soldiers says, in the hearing of the disguised king, that the king will have a lot to answer for because men are going to die. Henry muses then on the king’s purpose in going to war (not that his men should be killed) and on the responsibility of each individual soldier for the state of his own soul. It’s worth reading.

Because this is true, any ruler, or any people who are voting, must consider all consequences and alternatives in every case. But anyone who makes a blanket statement about all wars being immoral, while strictly speaking correct because it would be better if war were not necessary, is denying reality if he cannot also recognize that sometimes war is the more moral choice.

If the choice is between conquering a neighboring town in order to get more land or striving to live as well as possible on one’s own, of course war is the immoral choice. But if the choice is between surrendering the values of justice, liberty, and the rule of law to a conquering tyrant like Hitler, then not to go to war against him is the immoral choice.

Here again, we must return to the fundamental values and use them as guides to see through the confusing facts of the situation we are in. And of course, we never have benefit of hindsight when we are making such decisions. They are always an approximation, the best we can do in the circumstances. But that is just what is wanted: the best we can do, not just any old thing. (For inspiration here, read the great speeches of Winston Churchill.)

“[How can we] reconcile what look like impossible paradoxes[?]”

The key thing here is to be very clear about what the paradoxes really are, and then to accept that we must all learn to live with paradox. Paradox is the nature of the world from the viewpoint of man. We are male and female, we want to live and know we will die, we have both selfish and generous impulses in us, we crave meaning and want not to be judged, we have faith and we doubt. This is the human condition, and I think that no human meaning or energy would be possible if we were not paradoxical beings. But it means there is no one, simple, easy rule to follow in all circumstances that will never lead astray. Always what is required is engagement of the whole self, all we are and all we know and all we believe, all our virtue, in making the decisions we are called upon to make. And that is the true path through life, and I believe the ultimately rewarded path: the path of meaning and the path most pleasing to God.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Link to Indoctrination U

Check out the Indoctrination U site about the politics of the present-day university. You can follow links to You Tube to see excerpts from the film.