Saturday, July 30, 2005

Our Cries for Peace

Faint falls the gentle voice of prayer,
In the wild sounds that fill the air,
Yet, Lord, we know that voice is heard,
Not less than if Thy throne it stirred.

Not all the darkness of the land
Can hide the lifted eye and hand;
Nor need the clanging conflict cease,
To make Thee hear our cries for peace.

-Henry Timrod (1828-1867)

He was known as The Poet Laureate of the Confederacy. Although much of his poetry encouraged enlistment, after experiencing the horrors of war he wrote the hymn from which the verses above were taken.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


One way to deal with circles is to try to make them into spirals. When it seems that an argument begs the question, or presupposes what it is out to prove, one may respond that the conclusion makes explicit what was implicit in premises accepted on independent grounds. So, although the conclusion restates information that was implicit in the premises, it does so on a higher, that is, more explicit, level. Another sort of circle is found when A requires B, but B also, with any number of intermediaries, requires A. To keep the circle from getting vicious, one can respond that the instance of A that requires B is at a more advanced level than the A that B requires. Consider the hermeneutic circle: to understand the parts, one must understand the whole; but to understand the whole, one must understand the parts. Here one allows that it is some primitive understanding of the parts, incomplete and defective, that allows a flawed understanding of the whole, which, in turn, makes possible a better understanding of the parts, and so on. This came to mind as I was reading Francisco J. Gonzalez's masterful Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato's Practice of Philosophical Inquiry (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998). According to Plato, dialectic can only be successful when guided by a knowledge of the good, but knowledge of the good can only be achieved through dialectic. Furthermore, the knowledge gained through dialectic is not a one shot deal. It has to be repeated. The repeated circle suggests a spiral.

Peace is to be won through understanding, but understanding cannot be attained without peace. In the heat of war, there is no time or patience for understanding. However, as portrayed by Tolstoy, and in the film, Prisoner of the Mountain, even in war there are acts of compassion, glimmers of understanding that could sprout into something more, which, in turn, could lead to a greater understanding. Just as violence often spins out of control, peace and understanding could also form an ascending spiral.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


Goethe (1749-1832) sought to promote what he dubbed Weltliteratur by translating works from Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and English. His literary interests were not limited, however, to the European. His West-Östlicher Divan introduced the use of Persian motifs into German poetry, and sparked much interest in Hafez, who had recently been translated into Persian by the Austrian orientalist and diplomat, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856).

The benefit of translations and studies of the thought and literature of other peoples was for the language and culture of the source as well as the target. German cuture benefited from Carlyle's study of Schiller as much as did English culture, for example, just as German studies of Byron and Shakespeare focused on aspects of these figures that had been missed by the English. Goethe encouraged literary salons and journals in Weimar to realize the Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and mutual understanding that could bring peace:

Diese Zeitschriften, wie sie nach und nach ein größeres Publikum gewinnen, werden zu einer gehofften allgemeinen Weltliteratur auf das Wirksamste beitragen; nur wiederholen wir, daß nicht die Rede sein könne, die Nationen sollen überein denken, sondern sie sollen nur einander gewahr werden, sich begreifen und, wenn sie sich wechselseitig nicht lieben mögen, sich einander wenigstens dulden lernen.

These journals, as they gradually attract a wider public, will be very effective in contributing towards a general world literature; but, we must reeat, that it is out of the question that nations should think alike, they should only become aware of each other, understand each other and, if they cannot love each other, should at least tolerate each other.

The quotation and translation are from H. J. Hahn, German thought and culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 86.

Monday, July 18, 2005


One of the symbols used to represent the mystic path is the the ascent of a mountain. It seems that every culture has its sacred mountains. The gods of the Greeks lived on Mount Olympus. For the Hindus, Mount Meru in the Himalayas is the home of Indra, whose palace, at the summit, radiates light. After seeing a light, a firebrand, on Mount Sinai, Moses climbed it to recieve divine revelation. Christ revealed his gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, where he preached: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." (Matt. 5:14) Muhammad's first revelation was on Mount Hira, known as the "mountain of light". Among Christian mystics, St. John of the Cross authored The Ascent of Mount Carmel in the sixteenth century, and there is also the more contemporary allusion in the title of Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain. The Catholic stations of the cross also recall the ascent of Mount Calvary as they offer guidance on how to bear one's cross through life.

In ancient Iranian mythology, the Alborz mountains were the home of the phoenix-like simorgh. The Sufis called the home of the simorgh, Mt. Qaf, and the poet Attar described spiritual wayfaring in an allegory in which thirty birds overcome their faults and attain virtue as they search for the simorgh. Attar puns on the Persian words for "thirty", si, and "bird", morgh, to end his tale with the thirty birds looking at their reflections in a pool at the peak. This idea of finding God within the self is also a common theme. "He who knows himself, knows his Lord," is a saying attributed in some variants to Imam Ali , and in another to the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be with him and with his folk); and it has been subject to lengthy discussion by the Sufis. In the Hindu tradition we find the claim, "Atman (self) is Brahman (God)," and on Mount Parnassus the inscription of the Delphic Oracle was inscribed on the temple of the sun god, Apollo: "Know thyself."

So, we find two related references to mountains in mystic literature. First, the mountains are homes to gods or places of divine revelation. Second, climbing up the mountain is an alegory for the mystic quest. The result of successfully undertaking the quest is understanding, the knowledge of God that accompanies knowledge of the self. This understanding is a kind of illumination or enlightenment.

The understanding of God and self that is reached with the summit is characterized by two important themes. First, there is the Platonic theme of understanding as the grasping of eternal changeless patters or forms. This is the goal of dialectic. Aristotle rejects the forms, but keeps the Platonic idea of dialectic leading to the grasping of eternal principles, which he calls arche, fundamentals. Second, there is the idea that the goal of the journey is the process itself or development. This view of understanding as Bildung is a focus of much German philosophy and literature. The opposition between these two ideas of understanding sets the stage for much subsequent debate. Is the deepest understanding of which man is capable an understanding of the eternal or an understanding of the historical? Is a reconciliation between these views possible?

In "Chapter Zero" of his The Millennium Problems (New York: Basic Books, 2002), Keith Devlin discusses the understanding provided by mathematics, and the mountain of the mystics provides the imagery:

Doing research in mathematics is like trying to find your way to the top of a great mountain. You start in the valleys, where the brush and the trees are so dense it's hard to find your way around or even to know which direction to head in..... But after you have stumbled around for a while, through the trees you catch a glimpse of a tall, snow-covered peak reaching up to the sky. It looks absolutely beautiful....

Now you start to climb. As you go higher, the trees and undergrowth get progressively less dense, which tends to make the going easier.... On the other hand, the air gets thinner (the mathematics becomes more abstract), and that tends to make the ascent harder. What's more, the higher you go, the less likely you are to meet guides who can help you find your way.... But if you make it to the top... the view is breathtaking. From here, at the top of the mountain, you can look down and can see the way you have come, including all your false steps. You can also get a good sense of the terrain below you.... The next time you will start with the kind of global understanding that comes only from having scaled a large peak and looked down from the summit. (16-17)

Devlin's view of deep understanding is Platonic: "Because of the abstract nature of mathematics, mathematical knowledge about a phenomenon generally represents the deepest and surest understanding of it." (7)

Another point that often comes up in discussions of understanding that employ mountaineering imagery is the contrast between the partial view and the global view from the summit. One has understanding when one sees the whole. An awareness of history or tradition is taken to enable one to achieve this sort of history. The point is made with reference to Gadamer by George McLean: "One need not fear being trapped in the horizons of our own cultural tradition or religion. They are vantage points of a mind which in principle is open and mobile, capable of being aware of its own horizon and of reaching out to the other’s experience which constitutes their horizons. Our horizons are not limitations, but mountain tops from which we look in awe at the vast panorama all of humankind and indeed all of creation. It is in making us aware of this expansion of horizons that hermeneutic awareness accomplishes our liberation."

So, how does all this mountain climbing bring peace? In two ways, corresponding to the Platonic and historical views of deep understanding. Platonic peace is achieved by finding abstract universals on which all should agree, whether this is presented as law or dogma. Historical understanding, on the other hand, provides the familiarity that makes possible compassion.

Friday, July 15, 2005


What sort of expression is "Peace through Understanding"? It is a theme, a motto, a dedication, a theme statement, a slogan...; but does it have propositional content? Is it a recommendation, a plea, a demand? The plaque refers to man's aspirations for peace through mutual understanding. Is it a hope? It seems to imply that peace can be achieved through understanding, and that this is desirable--both peace, and that it be gained through understanding. It does not imply that the only way to peace is through understanding. Likewise, an advertisement might promise "Financial security through investment in the X fund", without suggesting that this fund is the only way to financial security. On the other hand, the implied claim is not merely that one way to peace among many others is understanding. The aspiration is that understanding will provide the way to peace, given that peace has proved to be so elusive when persued by other means, such as military superiority, empire, mutually assured destruction, diplomacy, international organizations, etc.. This does not mean that diplomacy should be abandoned in favor of understanding, just as the investment advisor might recommend the X fund without suggesting divestment of all other holdings. Although "Peace through Understanding" is not a declarative sentence, and does not state a specific proposition, it could be refuted in various ways. In general, one might find fault with a slogan, "Y through X", by claiming that Y can never be achieved through X, or very improbably can be achieved, or that Y is not worth the striving, or that although X is a reliable method for obtaining Y, it is so difficult or costly as to make the persuit of Y through X impractical. So, let's consider "Peace through Understanding" to be a special sort of promise or hope. It is not merely a personal promise from one person to another. It was adopted by the Fair committee. Adopting a theme or slogan for a public event like a World's Fair is a special way of using language. It invites endorsement, and the organizers hope that the theme will resonate with people who attend. Attendance does not suffice as endorsement, of course, but participation through the presentation of an exhibit at a fair with a stated theme does indicate some degree of agreeement with it--at the very least, no objection. Endorsement of the theme implies some degree of commitment to the following: (1) that peace is a worthy goal; (2) that understanding is a likely means for achieving this goal; and (3) that understanding itself is an intermediate goal that we have reasonable hope to achieve.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Dialectic, Understanding, Peace

Plato founded his Academy around 380 B.C. in Athens at a site that was originally a park and public gymnasium outside the city. The Academy was legally recognized as a religious fraternity dedicated to the Muses. Students were expected to train with ten years of mathematics followed by five years of dialectic.

Aristotle is reported by Diogenes Laertius (c. A.D. 300) to have credited Zeno the Eleatic (f. c. 450 B.C.) with the invention of dialectic. It was considered a type of verbal polemic, but was transformed by Plato into the loftiest of philosophical methods. Plato described the Socratic method of questioning (elenchos) as dialectical. Scholars have claimed that Socrates sought definitions with his questioning, and that Plato substituted the Forms as an aim. But maybe Socrates wasn't seeking definitions. Maybe he wanted to show that the key concepts he asked about could not be defined. Knowledge would still be approached through finding out what is wrong with various proposed definitions. This would suggest a reading of Plato as holding that ultimate knowledge of the Forms is a sort of illumination reached after dialectic clears the way by eliminating various global theories.

Much of the Gorgias is devoted to the task of distinguishing dialectic from mere rhetoric. Rhetoric is denounced for not having any specific subject matter, and therefore of not being a real art. Worse, rhetoric is condemned for being indifferent to the truth of the claims it would teach one to defend. Plato puts this in the form of a proportion: "Sophistic is to legislation what beautification is to gymnastics, and rhetoric to justice what cookery is to medicine." (Gorgias, 465c) In each case, there is a contrast between what offers mere appearances and what really provides the object sought. Here, however, rhetoric is contrasted with justice instead of dialectic. Rhetoric attempts to give the appearance of justice, while justice is only achieved through dialectic; just as beautification gives the appearance of the strength that is really achieved through gymnastics. The contrast between dialectic and rhetoric is made explicit in the Phaedrus, where Plato warns that "it is because they are ignorant of dialectic that they are incapable of defining rhetoric." (Phaedrus, 269b)

The relation of justice to dialectic is critical to that of peace to understanding. Dialectic is the method used to achieve understanding. This understanding requires justice, for to engage in dialectic one must do justice to the various sides of an issue. That process clears the way for understanding. It is precisely that even handedness, fairness toward competing claimants, that is found in the just, and it is this justice upon which peace can be established. Thus we are led to peace through understanding.

Sunday, July 03, 2005



Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls
In the afternoon. The proud and the strong
Have departed.

Those that are left are the unaccomplished,
The finally human,
Natives of a dwindled sphere.

Their indigence is an indigence
That is an indigence of the light,
A stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.

Little by little, the poverty
Of autumnal space becomes
A look, a few words spoken.

Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

-Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
From The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 383-384.
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