March 22, 2013

A newborn bard of the Holy Ghost

The theme at Goat Rope these days is the life and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose impact on 19th century American culture was pretty huge. I have a love/hate relationship with old Ralph. Some of his writings are really inspiring, others are totally unintelligible to me, while still others seem kind of idiotic.

At the moment, the focus is on his 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, which was pretty controversial in its time (and much of which seems to lean to the loopy side to me).

One reason for this was his advice to would-be clergy to disregard the dogmas and rituals of the past and trust only in their own direct experience.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.

Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.
 I suppose prattle like this sounds inspiring to people with an overly exalted conception of their own internal hiccups, but the asylums and alleys of the world are full of sad and misguided souls who consider themselves to be the newborn bards of the Holy Ghost. It's one thing to oppose unthinking dogmatism but it's another to disregard tradition altogether and to mistake our internal chatter as the voice of God. The capacity for self doubt is a virtue, but the tendency to self-deification is a delusion.

WRONG TURN. Here's a good Gazette editorial on the tragic waste of the Iraq war.


TALE OF THE WHALE. Here's a great feature on Melville's Leviathan and its evolution.


March 21, 2013

A wart and a wen

This time of year is the political equivalent of deer season in West Virginia. During this busy time, this blog has been focusing on the life and work of 19th century American literary giant Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the moment, the focus is on his 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, which was a bit over the top for his initial audience.

To tell the truth, parts of it are over the top for me. Although I am no pillar of ecclesiastical conformity, I do have a moments of orthodoxy and some of Emerson's glib delusions of spiritual grandeur seem pretty loopy to me.

One such idea that I have always had trouble with is the idea that God dwells within us. Emerson loved that kind of thing, as expressed in statements like this one:

That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being. Already the long shadows of untimely oblivion creep over me, and I shall decease forever.
 To which I am tempted to reply, we are warts and wens, Ralph. Suck it up.


NEANDERTHALS AND US. Apparently Neanderthal brains were more about things like vision than social networking. I guess this means they weren't big Facebook users.


March 20, 2013

This high chant from the poet's lips

This is a busy season for yours truly, so rather than scrounge daily for random topics I've been pondering the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Right now, the focus is on his controversial 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, which so antagonized his pious Unitarian listeners (strange as it may seem, there were pious Unitarians in those days) that he wasn't invited back for 30 years.

What got him into hot water were comments like these:
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'

(Actually, I think he was about as far from what the historical Jesus actually thought or said as his orthodox opponents. Jesus was no doubt many things in his earthy life, but poetic dreamyTranscendentalist probably wasn't one of them.)

Emerson then went on to argue that historical Christianity was based on a huge distortion:
But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips, and said, in the next age, `This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.' The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.
That pretty much did it, even for Unitarians.

LOOKING BACK. Here's another take on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war.




March 19, 2013

The doors of the temple stand open

The theme here these day is the life and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the focus at the moment is on his 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, which stirred up so much controversy that he wasn't invited back for 30 years.

It would be one thing to tick off a bunch of foaming fundamentalists with a little free ranging thought, but Ralph even managed to alienate relatively laid back Unitarians, who were more closely aligned with traditional Christianity then than now.

One thing that got him in trouble was his characteristic assertion that truth is not something once received and thereafter believed but rather something each soul must directly intuit. He believed that the same sources that inspired Jesus and other prophets and seers can inspire us today if we only let it.

If it sounds like he'd been hanging around with and reading about Quakers, he was. He was also learning or intuiting as much as he could about the religious traditions of Asia--so much so that the sounds Buddhist and even Zenlike in his insistence that every person must directly experience insight rather than merely accept some religious tradition:

...the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.
That's kind of how a 19th century American might express the Buddha's advice to "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." It also is reminiscent of the teachings often attributed to the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma, who was believed to have spoken of

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood.
Such ideas are pretty commonplace now. You can find some reference to them in almost any bookstore and in popular culture. But they were a bit over the top back then. They'd still upset quite a few people today.

SPEAKING OF PEOPLE WHO WOULDN'T LIKE EMERSON, here's an article about the fortunes of fundamentalism in the US and around the world.

WHAT WOULD FREUD SAY? WV legislators have gone gun crazy lately. Would Sigmund say it was castration anxiety or are they just trying to compensate for something?

CAN I HAVE ONE? This NRP story about an Indonesian zoo breeding Komodo dragons has me all excited.


March 18, 2013

Out of the same spirit

There's an old joke about a Zen master walking up to a hot dog stand and saying "Make me one with everything." I think Ralph Waldo Emerson would take his hot dogs that way too, metaphorically speaking.

I've been blogging lately about Emerson and his ideas and at the moment I'm on his Harvard Divinity School Address. In it, among other things, he embraces a kind of cosmic idealistic monism (as in all is one) and thus seems to suffer from the kind of over optimism that characterizes such world views.

Here he lays it out:

...the world is not the product of manifold power  but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.
He adopts a position on evil that goes back to St. Augustine and Plato, which views being as such as good and evil as merely the absence of good:

Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in different applications, just as the ocean receives different names no the several shores which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries;  his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he become less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.
Let those who can believe it. As far as I can, some of those motes and points can do quite a bit of damage.

10 YEARS OUT. Here's Krugman on the Iraq War anniversary.

WAR ON COAL? Here's another view.

ANIMAL RESURRECTIONS. Given cloning and all, which extinct animals would you bring back?