Friday, October 26, 2007

The meanings law, order and truth mingle in a single Sanskrit word: rita

Front Page > Opinion > THE NEED FOR VEDIC WORDS - A modern word may express a thought formulated long ago ROBERTO CALASSO The Telegraph Sunday, December 25, 2005
Before setting off for this journey, I wondered what you would have asked yourselves the moment we would have met. And the likeliest supposition I came out with was this: why an Italian writer, who has devoted books to subjects so specifically European as the President Schreber or Kafka or Greek mythology, has also felt the urge to write? and write again? on Indian matters, especially Vedic? As a point of fact, the longest book the I've published up to now, Ka, is a vision of India? from the Vedas to the Buddha and the Mahabharata? as a single immense forest of stories caught in an instant? which lasts thousands of years? by the eye of the divine bird Garuda flying between sky and earth. And I wish to mention here that I've now been working for years on another book on Indian topics, which probably won't be less bulky, but about which I'd rather add nothing else, on account of a superstition to which I hold fast.
India made its entry in my life very early, before I was twenty, as a shocking meteor. This happened when I read for the first time the early Upanisads, the Chandogya Upanisad and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, and the Bhagavad Gita. At the time I was inclined to think that the sharpest point reached by thought was to be found in Greece, somewhere between Parmenides and Plato. And the last great European philosopher, Martin Heidegger, encouraged us to believe that the natural language of thought was the Greek of the pre-Socratics. But the Upanisads challenged all this. Those texts weren't philosophy in the Western sense. But they had an essential point in common with the fragments of the pre-Socratics: they aimed at knowledge? and nothing else but knowledge. Indeed, in India, starting from the very word 'veda', knowledge seemed to be the hinge on which everything revolved: not only thought, but life itself.
It so happened that many years later, around 1980, the plan of a work in three parts, each completely different and secretly connected to the others, started to flash in my mind. The first volume has appeared in 1983 with the title, The Ruin of Kasch. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony followed in 1988, Ka in 1996 and K in 2002. I'm now writing the fifth part? and I try to refrain from further predictions, because in the course of time I've assessed that they turn out to be invariably wrong.
But what is The Ruin of Kasch about? When I'm asked this question, I never know how to answer? so I go back to a very witty definition given by Italo Calvino in his essay on the book. He says: "The Ruin of Kasch has two subjects: the first on is Talleyrand, the second one is everything else." When people hear the name Talleyrand, they usually react in two ways: either with indignation, or with admiration, the latter while considering him a genius of diplomacy. And the same happened with me.
And now let's come to India. the title "The Ruin of Kasch" refers to an African legend of Sudan, recorded by the great anthropologist, Leo Frobenius, as it was narrated to him by an unknown camel driver in 1911. The legend is about an ancient kingdom which was based on the periodical sacrifice of the king, decided by the priests in relation to the positions of certain stars in the sky. One day, a stranger coming from the East? which implies coming from the Indian Ocean and possibly being himself and Indian? appears in this kingdom. His name is Far-li-mas and he is a great story-teller. The power of his stories is so overwhelming that the priests forget to look at the sky in order to decide when it?s the right moment to sacrifice the king. So their regime is overturned and a new era starts, when there will be no more sacrifices of the king. But this era too doesn't last long, because some envious neighbours invade the kingdom of Kasch and make the new regime collapse. So this is the ruin of Kasch.
From the theme of this legend you may already guess that we are heading towards India, if only because of the theme of sacrifice. Yajna, 'sacrifice', is indeed an ubiquitous word in Vedic texts, especially in the Brahmanas. For the Vedic seers, speaking about sacrifice was equivalent to speaking about the ultimate essence of all. And the whole book happens, so to say, under their very Eastern eyes.
So the legend of the ruin of Kasch is the frame of the book with the same title: a book which is a sort of discontinuous narrative centred on various episodes going roughly from the years of the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War and further, up to today. But including as well various long sections on the metaphysics implied in Vedic sacrifice. In fact, one of the arguments of the books is that one cannot fully understand what happened since the beginning of the French Revolution and up to today if one doesn't take into account the very complicated and deep thoughts of the ancient risis on violence and the act of killing, which are both part of their theory of sacrifice. So the book is at the same time a narrative and a tentative reading of the metaphysical texture of modern history. All this is presented in a sequence of tableaux? and the function of Talleyrand in the book is to guide us from one to them to another, as a sort a master of ceremonies.
Why has an Italian writer of the last decades of the 20th century felt the need to refer to rita, an obscure Vedic word, when talking about the Congress of Vienna and Talleyrand? In dealing with the political masterpiece of Talleyrand, which was to invent and to implement a new sense of the word legitimacy, I wanted to go back to its origin. And my search didn't stop until I got to the notion of rita. No Latin, no Greek word was a comparable help. Because 'legitimacy' is only a timid and modern way of referring to something which must be at the same time a law and an order. And only rita is a word which is capable of conflating these two meanings. And that is not all.
One of the greatest Indologists of the last century, Heinrich Luders, spent some decades working on a big work called Varuna, which he left unfinished. One of the major points of the book is the analysis of the word rita, which comes to the conclusion that the first meaning of the word is not 'order' but 'truth'. This theory of Luders was, for a while, hotly discussed by Indologists, but what seems by now more plausible is that both Luders and some of his opponents were right, in so far as the word rita refers to a frame of thought for which the notion of truth and order simply cannot be divided, while on the other hand, in the course of time, they split and the word rita itself was superseded by two other words: satya for 'truth' and dharma for 'law' and 'order'.
Now, you see already what is appearing in front of us: going back from the intensely modern and technical word 'legitimacy' we are getting into a very ancient area where the meanings law, order and truth mingle in a single Sanskrit word: rita. And my point is that I had to reach that obscure and fascinating area if I wanted to understand the origin of our everyday notion of legitimacy. It was not the whim and eccentricity of a Western writer of today which made me refer to this word.
Now, one of the reasons why I believe that Talleyrand was such an admirable politician and diplomat is that he was the one who managed to give a new meaning to the word 'legitimacy', where a subtle resonance of the meaning of rita (of which, by the way, he couldn't possibly know anything) was still perceivable. And, after all, precisely to that word European history owes the fact that it could keep a precarious balance for a hundred years, until it collapsed in August 1914. And if there is a moment in which the word 'legitimacy' would urgently require to be used, finding new meanings and applications, now that the frame of international law is obviously and, possibly, forever shattered, well that moment is exactly today.
So you see how easily, and how quickly, one can skip from the destiny of a man who was the quintessence of the West to a seminal Vedic word and back. It is not out of goodwill or ?worse? humanitarianism that the West should look to India or India to the West, but in order to understand thoroughly what is happening under our eyes? and possibly referring to thoughts which were first formulated and practised thousands of years ago. ROBERTO CALASSO

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dawkins is a decent popularizer of science but compared to Kepler, Newton, and Einstein he is a Lilliputian

Q&A with Dinesh D’Souza (Part I) By Dr. Paul Kengor Thursday, October 25, 2007 Send an email to Dr. Paul Kengor Editor's Note: Acclaimed commentator and best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza recently released his latest book, What’s So Great About Christianity. D’Souza spoke to the Center for Vision & Values’ Executive Director Dr. Paul Kengor.
Dinesh D’Souza: We’re seeing a surge of atheist confidence and atheist belligerence. The best-selling atheist books like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dawkins’ The God Delusion are one indication of this. Another is the militancy of atheism on many campuses today. In a way, the atheist attacks on God and religion are a bit odd. I don’t believe in unicorns, but I don’t go around writing books about them. I suspect what has given atheists a boost is the Islamic radicalism we’ve seen in the wake of 9/11. The atheists glibly equate Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism, and then conclude that religion itself is the problem.
My book What’s So Great About Christianity is consciously written in the C.S. Lewis tradition. Just as Lewis, writing after World War II, dealt with issues specific to his time, such as “How can a just God allow the Holocaust?” so too my book is a response to the intellectual and moral attack on Christianity launched by the new atheists. I take the atheist argument seriously, and meet it on its own ground, which is the ground of reason and skepticism. I want to show Christians and religious believers that theism makes vastly more sense of the world and of our lives than agnosticism or atheism. I also want to persuade genuine seekers that they should take Christianity seriously, and give it real consideration. I don’t expect to convince dogmatic atheists, but I do intend to expose and refute and embarrass them.
D’Souza: While there are a lot of shallow arguments made by Dawkins, Hitchens, [Sam] Harris and the others, behind them there is the formidable atheism of philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche. My book takes the new atheists to task on specific fallacies and whoppers that they routinely make. But I’m not content to defeat them on their weakest ground. So at times I strengthen their arguments, remove contradictions, and give them the benefit of every doubt. I attack their argument not at its vulnerable point but at its strong point. If I succeed there, then I have defeated atheism in its strongest and most coherent form. Ultimately, it is Russell and Heidegger and Nietzsche who pose the greatest challenge to believers, not intellectual snipers like Hitchens and Dawkins.
D’Souza: There is a whole body of data showing that the world is growing more religious. One reason for this is that religious countries and religious people are having more children, while secular countries and secular people are not reproducing themselves. Interestingly while Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all growing worldwide, Christianity is the fastest-growing religion. Islam grows mainly because of Muslims who have large families, while Christianity is also growing through rapid conversion. Once a religion confined mostly to Europe, Christianity has become a truly universal religion and over time it will increasingly be dominated by Asia, Africa and South America. This is very disturbing news for atheists. Not so long ago the typical atheist could be comforted by the idea that as the world became more modern, more urbanized, more educated, it would also become more secular. Religion would wither away. This hasn’t happened, and the trend is actually in the other direction. In fact, religion is booming in rapidly modernizing countries like India and China. Perhaps the new atheism is a backlash against the unforeseen success of religion.
D’Souza: It seems like every year or so one of the news magazines does a cover story on Science vs. Religion. It turns out that this whole framework is a 19th-century fabrication. There is no sustained historical clash between science and religion. In fact, Christianity was crucial in giving birth to modern science, and the vast, vast majority of leading scientists over the past 500 years have been Christians. The whole warfare model relies on a handful of examples, mostly exaggerated or made up. Perhaps the best example that the atheists can cite is the Galileo case. I re-examine this case in the light of the best scholarship about it. We discover that the evidence for heliocentrism was not definitive in Galileo’s day. With hindsight we know that Galileo was right, but the arguments he made for heliocentrism were actually wrong. The Church’s position was far more open-minded and reasonable than Galileo’s. He made agreements that he didn’t keep, and blatantly lied about his views before the Inquisition courts. Still, he was treated leniently and allowed to continue his scientific work and died in his bed. I’m only giving hints of a remarkable story that readers should digest in full in the book.
D’Souza: Well, on the Christian side we have Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Brahe, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Gassendi, Pascal, Mersenne, Cuvier, Harvey, Dalton, Farady, Hershel, Joule, Lyell, Lavoisier, Priestley, Kelvin, Ohm, Ampere, Steno, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel and Lemaitre. Einstein too was a believer in God as a kind of supreme mind or spirit discernible through the complex and beautiful laws of nature. So none of these folks saw theism or Christianity as incompatible with science, as Richard Dawkins and others would have it. Dawkins is a decent popularizer of science but compared to Kepler, Newton, and Einstein he is a Lilliputian. So he works very hard to make Einstein look like an atheist. His proof is a complete failure, but give the man credit for effort. The deeper point to be made here, however, is not merely that leading scientists over the centuries have been Christian, but that science itself, in its assumption that the universe is rational and obeys laws discoverable by the human mind, is based on Christian precepts and cannot in fact be done without Christian presuppositions.
D’Souza: I could give numerous examples here—Boyle, Newton, Kepler—but let me focus for a moment on Kepler. Kepler wanted to become a theologian, but he finally decided to become an astronomer to demonstrate God’s hand in creation. When Kepler realized that planets don’t move in circular orbits, he was criticized by some for rejecting the creative beauty of God’s plan. These critics reasoned that surely God would have used perfect circles to choreograph the planetary motions. Kepler was sure, however, based on his deep Christian faith, that God had employed an even more beautiful pattern, and he labored hard to decipher it. When he discovered what it was—his three laws of planetary motion—he experienced something of a spiritual epiphany. In a prayer concluding his “Harmony of the World,” Kepler implored God “graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to the salvation of souls.” I don’t think we can understand the motivations and greatness of scientists like Kepler and Newton if we ignore their theological and specifically Christian beliefs.
Dinesh D'Souza is a best-selling author, former policy analyst in the Reagan White House, and the Rishwain Fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book, What’s So Great About Christianity, was just released by Regnery Publishing.
Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is
The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006).
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The poison isn't religion; it's monotheism

Bring back the Greek gods
Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high. By Mary Lefkowitz October 23, 2007 HOME MyLATimes
Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion "poisons" human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn't religion; it's monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn't advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view. There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.
My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren't mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children. Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children -- Athena, Apollo and Dionysus -- played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what's not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.
Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.
Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.
Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.
The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people's gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people's gods into their pantheon.
What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.
The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles' father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal. But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created.
In the Old Testament, God takes away Job's family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God's power. The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn't seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.
The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy -- that characteristically Greek invention -- had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.
Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.
Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today. Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita at Wellesley College and the author of "Greek Gods, Human Lives" and the forthcoming "History Lesson."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

To be an Athenian is to hold the quest for knowledge in high esteem

The Athenians and the Visigoths: A Graduation Speech -- by Neil Postman
Members of the faculty, parents, guests, and graduates, have no fear. I am well aware that on a day of such high excitement, what you require, first and foremost, of any speaker is brevity. I shall not fail you in this respect. There are exactly eighty-five sentences in my speech, four of which you have just heard. It will take me about twelve minutes to speak all of them and I must tell you that such economy was not easy for me to arrange, because I have chosen as my topic the complex subject of your ancestors. Not, of course, your biological ancestors, about whom I know nothing, but your spiritual ancestors, about whom I know a little. To be specific, I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them-Democritus by name-conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology.

About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear. But not what they had created. Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago.

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders-ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.

Like the Athenians, the Visigoths also disappeared, but not before they had ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages. It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from the Visigoths.

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question-these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind's most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth's language aspires to nothing higher than the cliché.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday's newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word "idiot." A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

And so, whether you were aware of it or not, the purpose of your having been at this university was to give you a glimpse of the Athenian way, to interest you in the Athenian way. We cannot know on this day how many of you will choose that way and how many will not. You are young and it is not given to us to see your future. But I will tell you this, with which I will close: I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

Thank you, and congratulations.

The Athenians and the Visigoths: A Graduation Speech -- by Neil Postman
RY Deshpande on Mon 15 Oct 2007 02:10 AM PDT Permanent Link
[Apropos of our current discussion about Maheshwari and Mahasaraswati in academic and educational institutions, (
I thought it apposite to post Neil Postman’s very living speech to reflect on some of the related issues. The original is at ]
Neil Postman, a critic, writer, communications theorist, and professor of communication arts and sciences...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Rorty has a laudatory essay on Kundera's fiction

by John Rothfork, from here
It is perennially fashionable to claim that Americans have no values (utilitarian greed being descriptive rather than normative) or that traditional (usually religious) values are in imminent danger of total erosion. Allan Bloom's recently popular book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), promotes the second charge in regard to higher education; that it is in danger of trivialization. Bloom blames Nietzsche for the putative fact that among Americans, "Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact" (143). I wish to argue the reverse: that Americans have deeply held beliefs, which are difficult to recognize or deliver up for a Platonic examination, because they are possessed in an Aristotelian sense as performative knowledge. A second issue complicates this. For there is currently a fight in America over the operational logic or vocabulary which enables public or ethical discourse to proceed. The fight is over how we -- as women, Native American Indians, Budddhists -- talk about our ethical performative knowledge.
One side hopes to conserve modernist terminology and the serious principles it articulates. Others, like Rorty, find the old lectures irrelevant and monotonous. Consequently the conservatives see Rorty and other postmodernists as threats; as iconoclasts, anarchists, juveniles, or -- at the least -- as irreverent. The tacit demand is that they must take seriously the traditional vocabulary of ethics or forfeit the right to speak publicly. The modernists fear that their enemies are trivializing a great and serious tradition that should be revered. The links in this Great Chain of Being comprise such things as Platonism, Christianity, German philosophy, and Marxist justice. It is significant that Saul Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom's book. For Bellow and Bloom are allies in the cause of modernist seriousness. Self-consciously dedicated to inviolate principles, they are offended by postmodern frivolity.
When Nietzsche, and those who further his cause, offer non-traditional metaphors, scholars like Bloom see an attack on what they consider to be the sacrosanct objects that lie behind their modernist terminology, the Platonic transcendentals that their words hope to denote and to which these men are seriously devoted.The preferred tactic of postmodernists is to avoid engagement, to talk about something else, often something silly or entertaining to break the tension, which, because it is so deadly serious, ultimately threatens coercive violence. One sees this in the fiction, for example, of Kurt Vonnegut and Milan Kundera. By the way, Rorty has a laudatory essay on Kundera's fiction, nominating his works as preferable to those of Heidegger, because, "What the novelist finds especially comic is the attempt to privilege one [set of] descriptions, to take it as an excuse for ignoring all the others" (Papers, 2: 74).
More concretely, Kundera's early fiction suggested that when confronted by the duress of orthodoxies, such as Cold War Marxism or capitalism, one would do well to avoid either submission or rebellion by changing the vocabulary in which life is rendered meaningful; changing the discussion, for instance, to one of love, romance, or -- as it is more likely to be expressed by Kundera's characters -- chasing women. I want to consider Rorty's work because, unlike postmodern novelists, he does not so quickly change the vocabulary. A considerable part of Rorty's fame comes from his polite and patient attempts to answer the modernist invective against postmodernism. It is difficult to be content with postmodern advice to forget the consoling, but dangerous, rituals that devotion to explicit principles offers; to accept "that liberal democracies might work better if they stopped trying to give universalistic self-justifications, stopped appealing to notions like 'rationality' and 'human nature' and instead viewed themselves simply as promising social experiments" (Papers, 2: 193).
Those of us who trust Rorty's advice, do not expect people involved in such experiments to be unprincipled nor to be mired in the philosophic swamp of moral relativism. We expect them to discover the principles that are important in their lives through their own experience rather than by taking principles off the shelf; out of some philosophy text or from a sermon or political speech.A generation ago (1953), the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote that, "The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling" (Mind, 29).
Milosz implied that Americans were too literal minded, too conservative, and not well enough versed in postmodern examples of social and ethical contingency. He testified that many East European intellectuals found it difficult to believe that Americans, who seemed so modern when it came to refrigerators and automobiles, could be so backward in regard to philosophy and logical consistency. In places like Warsaw, Milosz says he was sometimes asked: "Are Americans really stupid?" (Mind, 25). Like Polanyi, Professor Milosz adroitly suggested that it was this very backwardness -- which both writers associate with a stubborn and deep faith in Christianity -- that saved the Anglo-Americans from becoming enthusiastic partisans for the principles of Nazism or Stalinism.
I think both writers, especially Milosz, found something intriguingly similar between the inarticulate Christian faith of common people in the Anglo-American world and the equally inarticulate Christian faith of peasants in Eastern European and Russia. This being the case, how could the societies have gone in such polemically different historic directions? And if it was Christian faith that saved the West from concentration camps and gulags, why would we consider giving up the faith that saved us for the insipid satisfactions of academic philosophy, much less the Brahminic lectures of Rorty? Milosz suggested that the kaleidoscope of European enthusiasms for modern philosophic programs in the twentieth century incubated a profound relativism and cynicism.
Two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and other lesser traumas sensitized Europeans to the notion that tomorrow they may have to renounce today's enthusiasm for yet another novelty. Thus, Europeans developed a cautious rationalization in regard to all belief. To non-Americans, this cynicism may resemble Rorty's epistemological caution. Milosz suggested that European political tragedies had the effect of destroying all sense of trust and community. Eastern Europe was left with a sophisticated relativism, a pervasive cynicism, and unavoidably, a sense of nostalgia for what it could no longer bring itself to believe. Sneering at the British and Americans for being too stubborn to abandon their old fashioned and philosophically backward beliefs, they nonetheless envied their stable communities of law, science, technology, commerce, and even art and entertainment. What was nearly impossible for them to understand was how such communities came into existence and were sustained. As good philosophers, they looked for principles.
Although he did not identify Nietzsche as the villain, Milosz' charge was the same as Allan Bloom's: "Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything" (Mind, 81). Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Lev Tolstoy before him, Milosz was nostalgic for the cultural bulwark of Christian belief. Of course he was not a theologian and consequently not greatly interested in the terms of Christian faith. At the end of his book, Milosz sentimentalizes the state of belief itself, saying "the superstition of Polish women gathering herbs to make charms, the custom of setting an empty plate for a traveler on Christmas Eve betoken inherent good that can be developed." In contrast, he claims that "in the circles in which my friend lives, to call man a mystery is to insult him" (Mind, 249).
As Plato told us, principles must be clear cut. When the day-to-day tacit process of belief, decision, dedication, and community involvement breaks down, principles often assume an exaggerated, even a salvific, importance. For they promise to restore the very thing that was lost. The problem is that what was lost was not a principle, but a lived way of life, embodied knowledge, for which the principle is, at best, an abstraction, at worst, a caricature. In any case, this sentimental attachment is too poetic to deal with pragmatically; it cannot be the focus for social development. Milosz can be powerfully graphic in illustrating the terror of Nazism and Stalinization -- as when he conjures the uncanny feeling of how a familiar street suddenly seems alien because many of the cobblestones have been turned on edge by machine gun bullets -- but for many American readers, and certainly American pragmatists, Milosz becomes obscurantist when he turns to nostalgia, to hopes of making Christian metaphors as powerfully vivid to bourgeois Americans as they were to Milosz himself and his comrades when they faced terror and death.
The same difficulty is present in Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Over thousands of pages, they try to convince readers that the highest moral position, perhaps even the only authentically moral position, is that of standing in front of the firing squad; being crucified like Jesus in defense of a principle. The contemporary Russian wryly comments that we only discover our beliefs when they are imperiled: "When things are bad, we are not ashamed of our God. We are only ashamed of Him when things go well" (Gulag, 3: 104). Rorty would say, that is exactly the way things should be; that rendering tacit values into a set of principles can be caused, no doubt, by terror, but that this experience is not the paradigm model of morality.
Nonetheless, moralists like Bloom follow Dostoyevsky's religious existentialism to infer that Americans are morally dim-witted and ultimately without values. Milosz laments that "in the countries where Christian churches thrive there are practically no genuinely Christian novels" (Emperor, 80). From their East European and Russian pulpits it appears that American capitalists snore away like contented hogs in warm mud. The non-utilitarian moralists are provoked to hysterical self-righteousness when writers like Rorty shrug their shoulders. Thus Milosz informs us that "any normal human being who reads these Russian writers [Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak] in America, for instance, must have one dominant feeling -- that of shame," because Milosz says, we lead frivolous, narcissistic lives, ignoring our clear moral duty to come to the aid of our Christian brothers and sisters, who are the victims of a palpable evil (Emperor, 79)...posted by wolftrappe at 3:46 PM

Thursday, October 04, 2007

''The good old Great Books approach'' is the ''only serious solution'' to the crisis in education

By ROGER KIMBALL; NYT: April 5, 1987 THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. By Allan Bloom. Foreword by Saul Bellow. 392 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $18.95.
ALLAN BLOOM, a professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Chicago, is perhaps best known as a translator and interpreter of Jean Jacques Rousseau's ''Emile'' and Plato's ''Republic,'' two classic texts that ponder the relationship between education and society. In ''The Closing of the American Mind,'' Mr. Bloom has drawn both on his deep acquaintance with philosophical thinking about education and on a long career as a teacher to give us an extraordinary meditation on the fate of liberal education in this country - a meditation, as he puts it in his opening pages, ''on the state of our souls.''
Let me say at the outset that ''The Closing of the American Mind'' is essential reading for anyone concerned with the state of liberal education in this society. Its pathos, erudition and penetrating insight make it an unparalleled reflection on the whole question of what it means to be a student in today's intellectual and moral climate. But such qualities also make the book difficult to summarize briefly. Mr. Bloom ranges freely over centuries of thinking about freedom, values and the ends of education, moving with ease (to quote one of his more ambitious chapter headings) ''From Socrates' Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede.'' Yet the book's scope and considerable learning have not made it any less immediate or compelling. In fact, one of the things that distinguishes it is its successful blending of erudition with great particularity. Among the more noteworthy examples of the latter is Mr. Bloom's harrowing description, near the end of the book, of his experiences at Cornell University in the late 1960's when students seized buildings at gunpoint, held professors hostage and intimidated a pusillanimous administration into a policy of appeasement.
As his title suggests, Mr. Bloom's assessment of liberal education is not optimistic. In essence, he argues that over the last 25 years the academy has all but abandoned the intellectual and moral principles that have traditionally informed and given substance to liberal education, becoming prey to the enthusiasms - increasingly politicized - of the moment. While the eruption of violence and political activism in the 60's marked the high point of those enthusiasms, in Mr. Bloom's view, the university has yet to recover from the aftereffects of those disruptions. And because the university epitomizes the very spirit of free inquiry, which in turn is at the root of a free society, he concludes that ''a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis'' for a modern democratic nation.
Mr. Bloom devotes a large part of the book to analyzing the character and intellectual disposition of those students who form his main subject and raison d'etre, liberal arts students ''who populate the twenty or thirty best universities.'' Among much else, he describes the extent to which even such privileged students have in recent years ''lost the practice of and the taste for reading,'' forsaking the companionship of books for the more accessible but less sustaining pleasures of movies and rock music. He discusses how changes in the family, especially the high incidence of divorce, have impinged upon the character of students, leaving them at once more cynical and less questioning, less critical. And he considers how the revolution in adolescent sexual mores not only wrought radical changes in sexual attitudes and behavior, but also has tended to dampen what Plato described as the ''erotic'' element in education, the element of mystery and longing that has always been part of the excitement of discovering the world of liberal learning.
In all this, Mr. Bloom paints a sobering if not, alas, entirely unfamiliar picture. Today's students, he finds, are generally ''nice'' but passionless; above all, they are self-centered. More or less unthinkingly committed to an ethic of cultural relativism, they are intellectually and morally unambitious, ''spiritually detumescent.'' The fundamental questions that have traditionally motivated a liberal education -What is the good? What is truth? What should I do? -strike them as hopelessly naive and beside the point.
Mr. Bloom makes it quite clear that he considers ''the good old Great Books approach'' the ''only serious solution'' to the crisis in education; and, as he stresses again and again, liberal education consists precisely in ''knowing the alternative answers and thinking about them.'' At the same time, Mr. Bloom is skeptical about what he describes as ''the Great Books cult,'' enumerating its deficiencies - from its tendency to encourage a kind of autodidactic amateurism to its penchant for ''a certain coarse evangelistic tone'' - with greater penetration than many opponents of the approach.
In fact, one of the chief things to appreciate about ''The Closing of the American Mind'' is that its dominant stance is interrogative, not prescriptive. Everything problematic that the term modernity implies, all the doubts about the meaning of tradition, the legitimacy of inherited values, the point of preserving high culture - all this Mr. Bloom is perfectly cognizant of. He, too, has read Nietzsche, and his discussion betrays none of the naivete that many conservative treatments of such matters display. Nor does he imply that the answer to the problem of liberal education is to return to some simpler, less encumbered past. About changes in the American family, for example, he notes that he is ''not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them.''
Of course, this book will find many enemies - mostly, I suspect, because of its avowedly traditional vision of what it means to be an educated person. And no doubt many will object that this portrait of liberal education is in many ways a caricature or an exaggeration. Certainly, there are exceptions to the rule of mediocrity and ideological posing that Mr. Bloom anatomizes in these pages; but the question remains whether his general assessment is not in fact accurate.
Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that ''The Closing of the American Mind'' is that rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book, born of a long and patient meditation on questions that may be said to determine who we are, both as individuals and as a society. And while Mr. Bloom's indictment is severe, it is by no means despairing. As he notes in his concluding remarks, despite the fragmentation and disorder in the university today, ''The questions are all there. They only need to be addressed continuously and seriously for liberal learning to exist; for it does not consist so much in answers as in the permanent dialogue.'' With ''The Closing of the American Mind,'' Mr. Bloom takes his place as an articulate participant in that dialogue. ROGER KIMBALL REGULARLY CONTRIBUTES TO THE NEW CRITERION AND OTHER PUBLICATIONS.

We must cultivate consciously the art of saying nothing, but saying it beautifully

Michael Dillon is the apex, the ne plus ultra of contemporary philosophical discourse. Why? It is not because of the subject matter of his work, which is a sort of warmed-over, trendified Foucault (oddly enough, he seems to confuse 'biopower' with 'biopolitics'). No, it is possible to decode the passage, if one invests enough time and labor into such a project. The point is that the subject matter is irrelevant: it serves only as a shaky but sufficient foundation for a cathedral of words. If Homi Bhabha is Romanesque--his impregnable edifices are too dark, too simplistically impenetrable--Dillon is undoubtedly Gothic. His usage of words--long, flying strings of adjectives, occasional grotesque outcroppings of frippery, the sharp and striking peaks of phrase--recalls and reverses Panofsky's insight that Gothic cathedrals were based on the structure of Scholastic argument.
Here, the solidity of logic gives way to lightness, to leaping over the abyss. New towers spring up at random next to edifices already established, ancillary chapels accrete in later ages over once-simple apses. Occasionally, a stained-glass window with familiar themes strives vainly to illuminate each nook and cranny of the temple, but its incomprehensible positioning and strange colors only cast it into more darkness. Dillon's cathedrals are grotesque carnivals of bizarrerie... Posted by Greg Afinogenov at 4:04 PM Labels: Tuesday, October 02, 2007 Medieval Postmodernism and the Future of Philosophy Slawkenbergius's Tales Without ideals or violence.