On Esotericism

John Smith, according to Jill Lepore, was prone to making things up. He claimed to have bedded princesses while battling by land or sea the world over. Russia, Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, Poland – it’s almost like he had his own Eurail pass and then some. It makes sense, then, to question his account of life at Jamestown, a colony that was starving to death before he set them to work. The only problem with questioning him is that it does seem that life did get better for those he ruled. Maybe he was too harsh and self-promoting when he attacked the indolent, aristocratic character of many of the colonists. But those under his charge recognized necessity and acted accordingly. They worked, for a time, not to starve.

Perhaps politics is about the recognition of necessity. Maybe it’s about agriculture, sewage systems, bonds for bridges, jobs, and defense. That can’t quite be right, though. If you have to put a traffic light next to that bridge, you’re not just buying something needed, but creating rules and norms. People come together in politics and create law, and laws have a life of their own. To challenge them is to challenge an entire people at a moment.  The law does not merely stem from necessity. It shapes citizens a certain way, making claims about what can be said or thought, defining the scope of one’s virtue and freedom. The law educates in ways with radical depth: in all societies, it has spoken what it is to be divine.

It feels tempting to strip clean politics, prophesying a return to simpler necessities. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates initially describes a city which lacks spectacles, fancy houses, and banking systems. Instead, there’s a farmer, housebuilder, weaver, and shoemaker. Socrates says four or five people can comprise this city of “utmost necessity” (369d).  This becomes far more complicated almost immediately. If each produces for all in common, not paying attention to how exactly he receives goods, then the city of utmost necessity could conceivably provide for everyone without people making claims. However, since it is more efficient to create a lot of an item and trade some of it for things you need, a concept of value sneaks into the simplest city (369e-370b). Socrates emphasizes that what is held in common is replaced by minding one’s own business. If you, a farmer, trade part of your foodstuffs for shoes, you’ve held the shoemaker at a distance in a way you wouldn’t if you saw him as part of a whole you and him comprise. Perfect justice involves not having to think about justice, but the very concept of individuality involves understanding the value of your claim.

The complications become a hundredfold in the space of a few lines of dialogue. After all, maybe one is better than being a farmer than shoemaker, and vice versa. Maybe each of us can excel at one job: one man, one art, each of us specialized for a role in civic life (370b). It is only a matter of time before Socrates asks whether some arts are more important than others, thus placing different values on human life, but the Republic does not go where any given society goes just yet. Socrates continues treating all arts as necessary, as crucial even. People need to do their best at their jobs and not make mistakes. By implication, everyone depends on their work (370b-d). This causes an explosion of specialization: carpenters, craftsmen, smiths, herdsmen, merchants, sailors, tradesmen, and laborers all join the city, as they help everyone else get their jobs done well (370d-371e). A currency is established in this wave, thus doing completely away with any remnant of the time things might have been held in common (371b-c).

However, Socrates takes this massive, boisterous city and stops. He was in dialogue with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, when discussing it. Adeimantus more than likely loves the quaint origin of this city and the end. The end occurs when Socrates asks where justice and injustice lie within the city (371e). Adeimantus can’t figure it out, so Socrates describes the citizens as happy. With “bread, wine, clothing, and shoes,” they will be satisfied with their work. They’ll have houses: no need for clothes in the summer, when they work, and clothes and shoes and homes are there for the winter. They’ll eat barley meal and wheat, drink wine, sing of the gods. They will have “sweet intercourse with one another,” not produce too many children, and guard against poverty and war (372a-c).

Perhaps this satisfies Adeimantus: the need for divine intervention in this vision hides neatly in the midst of simple joys. Glaucon calls this a “city of pigs,” angered at its lack of ambition. He wonders why these people don’t want relishes for their bread. When Socrates provides the relishes, he again complains why the city doesn’t feature people who have couches or tables (372d-e).

Swift once remarked that ancient esotericism followed the bee. The sweet produces more sweet, whereas modern esotericism follows the spider: from the foulest comes the fairest. It’s entirely possible for a young man to see himself like Adeimantus, hoping for a simpler, more honest world, or like Glaucon, seeing ambition as a reality one must grapple with. And if one sees oneself in their place, one stands chastened. Ask for simplicity and you need the gods to provide, strive and conquer and you trade your health for specious goods. The moral critique provided by ancient esotericism is quiet but powerful. You can name innumerable thinkers of revolution or prophets of the future who can’t escape its silent judgment. They’re too busy writing one paragraph summaries of Plato which say that Socrates posited an ideal city which was doomed to fail. That paragraph, of course, is prelude to the rest of their argument, where they will tell you about their city which cannot fail.

The question “What is justice?” might be the most powerful legacy of Plato and Xenophon. In their direct and indirect consideration of the Socratic life, they find Socrates divinely mad, seeking knowledge and the truth, and strangely moderate. Moderation towards other human beings and moderation towards the gods is justice of a sort. Socrates did not indulge in hubristic enterprises or preach atheism; he left Athenian convention intact. He kept his life simple and counseled his companions to practice virtue. A focus on moderation can be said to change the question of “What is justice?” to “What is man?” Man, according to Aristotle, is between beast and god. What does it mean to create standards one wants to live up to, but cannot fully attain? What does it mean to guard against regression? In the latter case, consider the one of the chief concerns of classical political thought: the tyrant. Tyranny is the result of democratic collapse, the Republic tells us. Governed by desire, a law unto himself, man is the worst of all the animals.

II

In a way, the classical legacy is too elegant, too beautiful, too simple. Cicero spoke of Socrates compelling philosophy, brought down from the heavens, to speak about the human things. Cicero hints at Socrates almost wrestling with philosophy, struggling with it. Whereas there are many times people go to old books, read, and instantly feel smarter about themselves and their world, refreshed by a magical fountain of knowledge. The classical legacy makes itself known through difficult, carefully wrought books that reward diligence. Those books educate, but they educate relative to their narrative. They treat large, pressing questions, but in showing how more typical answers fail, they sometimes miss that the challenge of human life isn’t formulating an answer, but a question.

Above all, classical political thought only alludes to the questions and thoughts born in anger, in exile, in darkness. I can think of no better example of this than Thucydides’ hidden but utterly pitiable autobiography in The Peloponnesian War. He caught the plague and somehow survived; he fought the brilliant Spartan commander Brasidas and lost; he was exiled for that loss. None of this comes to us in a paragraph entitled “About Me.” They are scattered in his work of hundreds of pages, and while one can see that this tactic does lend itself to generating great sympathy on the reader’s part, I have to wonder about the combination of a powerful restraint and incredible trauma.

Thucydides’ work is a great, tragic, daring history. It challenges the moral order of Homer and the storytelling of Herodotus. The Iliad and the Odyssey can be read as the withdrawal of the old order, that time when gods directly entitled heroes, god-men, to rule. The wrath of Achilles that is sung of in the first line of the Iliad causes the death of all the heroes, save one. Odysseus survives, but his job is not to rule, but to pass Ithaca down to Telemachus, who is emphatically not a hero. Martial virtues are replaced by domestic ones, and the Olympian gods themselves withdraw by the end of the Odyssey, preferring to be worshiped in accordance with virtue and law. Herodotus’ History dwells on Persian imperialism, taking their claims to justice and rule seriously. In doing this, he initially demythologizes Homer, talking about the events that lead up to the Trojan War as a tit for tat between Greeks and barbarians. The Greek gods are nowhere to be found as divine entities, as their names are found among regular people. Instead of virtue, Herodotus is interested in the stories people tell which define their political order. Quietly, a notion of “Greekness” emerges which opposes Persian excess, fighting for freedom and nobility rather than empire.

Thucydides will have none of this. His work is anchored by major speech after major speech. Of those speeches, he pledges that he remembers the ones he witnessed as best he could, and of the others, he put the words that must have been said in the speaker’s mouth. Necessity is Thucydides’ governing principle. If a speaker pleads for justice, that means there is some very pressing necessity that must be taken care of and need not be spoken about. If a speaker does his best to show how necessary something is, that indicates he is concerned about the justice of a given action.

You are more than likely wondering how I can call such a brutal, harsh look at the world “too elegant, too beautiful, too simple.” It does look like Thucydides’ personal tragedy is intimately wrapped up with his recounting of events. And it is true that Thucydides brings into being much of that thought we consider “modern:” a focus on power in politics, a “realism” starkly opposed to pious or moral concerns, a concern with stability all the while understanding its opposition to passion and, practically speaking, freedom. But honestly, I wish I were challenged a bit less intellectually, being told as opposed to shown.

Because when all is said and done, the people who need political philosophy the most aren’t those who make up the elite class. They’re not being groomed to rule or become captains of industry. The people who need to hear from Plato and Thucydides need to hear that reasonable people get angry, make mistakes, fight for what’s better, don’t give up. They need to know that their anger matters just as much as any tolerance they profess or virtue they show, even though society keeps them as second or third class citizens. Even though rules are applied strictly to them where others get a pass. Even though they are forced to apply for jobs where the posting was merely a formality on the employer’s part. Even though they can be given nothing and still be told they are being given everything, and resented for it. Those who need political philosophy are always measured against another’s greatness, and found wanting. They’re the Other, the reason for the breakdown, considered deserving of exile by those who never feel shame.

The beauty of esoteric writing is also its curse. Dig deep into an esoteric work and you find the author’s humanity. You find the pain and the anger and the bewilderment. It’s beautiful but it takes years of careful probing. It takes years to find the slow burn of anger and disappointment, sitting there with the ideas which changed the world. Where do we find the self-respect we need, the ability to stand up to bullies and not break in the present? Where do we find the discipline to be ourselves? Certainly not among our fellow readers, where people can punish you for an “incorrect” read for years of your life, not to mention dismiss you because you’re different.

The fundamental problem of classical esotericism is that in the end you’re left alone. There’s you and the book, and in the book is a person you think you see. John Smith was an ass who once in his life did right. He knew he did right, as he saw that colony of his in America improve. When he was recalled to England, he was desperate to get back, but it was not to be. He died desperate. Was he broken? The only feeling pulsing through my veins right now is the number of times I’ve been ashamed to be myself compared to the utter lack of shame my country feels. Thucydides probably understood the great irony of his own narrative: the opposition of justice and necessity ultimately points to the necessity of justice.

Notes & References

Lepore, Jill. The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. 17-30.

Plato. The Republic. Ed. Allan Bloom. 2nd ed. New York: Basic, 1968. 46-49.

Strictly speaking, justice is moderation toward men, piety moderation toward gods. This is discussed in the following: Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. Reprint. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004. 101.

Swift’s distinction between ancient and modern esotericism is discussed in the following: Benardete, Seth. “Strauss on Plato” in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Blog in Review: Happy Halloween! 10/31/16

Not feeling well today. Errand running got pushed back, as did job hunting and even reading. All I did was say hi to a few people and skim a poem or two.

The only saving grace is that I can showcase a few things written over the past couple of weeks. The figure of Antaeus features in a few of Seamus Heaney’s poems; he points to the idea that mankind, in its very inception, feels like it conquered something, feels like it progressed. Heaney’s meditation on myth makes me jealous, for I wish I could get as much out of a story as he does. Seamus Heaney, “Antaeus.”

I spent a bit of time thinking about how Kay Ryan and Emily Dickinson deal with failure, death, and loss. Kay Ryan’s “Erratic Facts” struck me as especially powerful. She renders so vividly how in the midst of grief, we initially only see a cold, hard world. How we can, little by little, learn to see beyond. Dickinson, of course, takes no prisoners in fighting the illusions that threaten her mindfulness. Emily Dickinson, “As if the Sea should part.”

The secondary literature I am reading in order to try and better understand Heaney is rewarding. Michael Cavanagh’s review of his volume Seeing Things brought even more richness to a volume of poetry I’ve read. Still, it’s also a joy to discover new poetry, an absolute privilege to be treated to it as soon as I open facebook or twitter. George Szirtes has given me that privilege, and I urge you to read his “Travel Notes.”

I wanted a copy of Robert Creeley’s most recent “Selected Poems,” but it was $25 at the bookstore. Creeley intrigues me because I feel like I’m learning so much about writing itself while I read his experiments with form through the years. I read a bunch of his poems from Poetry magazine, put together some ideas on an epigram of his. Robert Creeley, “The Puritan Ethos.”

Finally, a workshop I held over the weekend went very well, and I thought I should document some of the things discussed. Hopefully it might be useful.

Teaching Scouts Communication

Regarding a merit badge workshop given 10/29/2016 at the National Scouting Museum in Irving, TX

The week before, I conducted a workshop on Public Speaking. The Scouts who showed up would have been better served teaching me how to speak. One was doing theater regularly, another was in media, etc. No serious instruction was required. They knew how to be natural, collected, thoughtful, informative, interesting. They were better listeners than they were speakers, and they were incredible speakers.

Approaching the Communication merit badge requires assessing what your Scouts need. Since this is a required Eagle badge, as opposed to Public Speaking, one cannot and should not expect Scouts to be polished speakers, or even want to be polished speakers. (I shall remain silent on listening.) It may be the case that your Scouts need to be sold on the value of communicating well, on what being more attentive to how they speak and how they listen entails. While it is useful to say that the badge is about presenting oneself as a Scout, representing the standards of the BSA, I do not think this is rhetoric that should be overused.

No, your Scouts are young men who are trying to figure out where they fit in. Their ages vary, and their ends regarding Communication differ slightly. With those who are younger, you’re simply trying to get them to focus on how communicating well is relevant to them. You want them to hone in better on what stories or questions make others interested. They should see that speaking up about the problems they face and the pressures they feel is a serious goal. It’s easy for those in middle school to be neglected or bullied. It’s very easy for them to be overwhelmed and have no idea what’s happening to them. Only now, years later, do I understand how awfully I was treated, how much more I was owed. Obviously, not all of this can be fixed by a merit badge. But showing that communication has a personal value, that it is about presenting oneself, is something we as adults need to do more. Oftentimes, we’re glorifying social dysfunction because we want to wax mystical about utility. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t know how to talk, we say, if they are busy designing nuclear reactors. This sort of reasoning could be masking neglect with the rhetoric of sensitivity. What if someone genuinely doesn’t know how to express themselves, but would like to know how?

For those who are older, communication is less about the quality of their speaking and more about their assertion and leadership. It’s okay if they are a little unpolished as long as they’re polite, honest, trying to help the other scouts, asking questions, staying bold. It may sound cheesy, but some of them will be fighting in wars or becoming EMT’s shortly. They need to know that a large part of communication is accepting respect and showing skepticism in situations where it is not given.

That’s the spirit of the merit badge as I conceive it. To that end, I had Scouts talk and present as much as possible. Here’s what we discussed to wrap it all up:

  • Communication depends on expectations. Even in the worst case scenario, where you’re booed off stage as a public speaker, there are expectations. Only when we talk about the death of society do we talk about mobs attacking people. For the most part, people know that being organized as many means power, and give a lot of slack to one addressing them. You’ve got to use this expectation when speaking publicly and go further. What you do when communicating is model the person you want to talk to for the audience. You communicate an expectation. Obviously, this does and doesn’t hold for private conversation. It’s really surprising, though, how good conversation with friends involves listening well. How you’re communicating, ever so subtly, how you want to be treated and what friendship means to you.
  • Self-respect, energy, pride, interest. It seems like a random list, but these are things you want to convey. Bad communicators fail to show self-respect; they’re not interested in communicating well but complaining. This is most apparent in a communication class where the first task is “introduce yourself,” a golden opportunity to work on speaking skills and share something interesting. Good communicators see an opportunity to hear and be heard, and they convey energy. They don’t boast, but they show pride, whether it is pride in their accomplishments or efforts. They show they have interests and set the stage for showing interest in the audience itself. Self-respect heads the list because of all the times we have to communicate that are awful, whether the difficulty is because of miscommunication with people who care or because we’re dealing with bullies and enemies. In those cases, you have to stand up for yourself while being tactful and disciplined. Without self-respect, it’s very easy to lash out without realizing what you’re doing.
  • Value communication with people who value you. There are a lot of times people talk to us like it’s a formality, or include us in their group for the sake of not truly including us. Learn to find the people who matter and spend your resources talking to them.
  • Keep it positive; do no harm. Sometimes, complaints against a culture too obsessed with self-esteem and coddling are exactly right. But there’s a lot of abuse out there. Starting harsh is a bad idea: you can reinforce some of the worst abuse without realizing what you’re doing. Staying positive as a communicator is a general rule, but one that might be very valuable in this age where people brandish their anger as if it were a badge of honor.
  • Modulate your voice. There’s more than loud and soft: there’s a variety of volumes and ways to speak. Use them, knowing that doing this well alone can mitigate a number of other problems as a speaker.
  • Youtube, mirror. How you say things – posture, annoying habits, gestures – is not unimportant. There is no perfect approach, but you want to make sure you’re not doing anything terribly awkward or disgusting without realizing it. Recording yourself as if you would put yourself on the internet or practicing in front of a mirror go a long way. Again, these lessons hold for communicating publicly and privately.
  • Ask questions, listen carefully to the answers, ask more. The difference this makes is all the difference in the world. I’ve come to see that the times we actually listen to kids are very rare.

In sum, I can’t say that communicating well is a moral task. A lot of what I learned about communicating and setting expectations came from a person I consider one of the sleaziest people I ever encountered. But I can say that people with integrity have to take communication seriously. And I can say that we do an immense disservice to the next generation when we don’t even give them the possibility of articulation.

Robert Creeley, “The Puritan Ethos”

Robert Creeley’s experimentation does not always work. Typically when I read him, I feel like I’m in the presence of a much greater intelligence. On the printed page, he can show how to make every line of verse count in a multitude of ways. Maybe you can read every other line of one of his poems and get the same effect as the whole, but from an entirely different perspective. Sometimes, his fragments cry with emotion, even if there’s nothing but a conjunction and a pronoun involved. He can render human experience in the sparsest words, the sparsest forms. This comes at a price. Here’s “The Puritan Ethos,” from 1968:

Happy the man who loves what
he has and worked for it also.

It’s tuneless. I’ve spoken it to myself a number of ways and it doesn’t quite make music. Compare with the Beatitudes, i.e. “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” or “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” Creeley’s verse follows their pronunciation, has their authority and seriousness. “Loves” and “worked” do receive accents, slightly shadowing each other. “Happy,” “man, “has,” “and” all share a vowel sound; “who,” “what,” “worked” almost give the lines a bit of lift with their “w’s.”

But the biggest problem is tense. “Loves” ultimately refuses to parallel “worked.” If you make the poem sound good, you do it by not lingering over that parallel. Drawing it out causes confusion. I understand why Creeley made the artistic choice he made, as the difference between “loves what he has” and “worked for it also” is the whole poem. If you love what you have, why did you work for anything? If God has given everything, why does one work so hard to preserve it, so hard that preservation slides into acquisition? The “ethos” ultimately does not make any sense because it tries to reconcile two contrasting notions of justice. First, that you should be grateful for what you have. Second, that whatever you have, you should have worked for. On paper, these don’t sound like they conflict at all. Put them together, though, and you’re not allowed to be grateful for anything, as you have to prove to yourself you deserve anything in the first place.

I don’t know how much I like Creeley’s poem, but the thought seems to be Platonic on a fairly sophisticated level. I recently finished reading a paper on Seth Benardete. Benardete holds that Platonic dialogues push you to see how two wholly unrelated things are indeed related; for the Republic, these would be no less than thumos (spirit, will) and eidos (form). Plato goes so far as to use the compound thumoeides, “spirit-like,” a highly unusual term. It’s one thing to say that just as people want to be good at sports and get glory, they want to be renowned at science. It’s another thing to drop “glory” and “renown” and speak of people simply wanting to be good at what they do. And still, it’s almost like Plato introduces a third thing, because the comparison is not necessarily between a warrior full of spirit and one who loves knowledge. The comparison is between spiritedness and objects of knowledge themselves. To say the least, this is very strange, but Plato’s Republic is convincing on this point. We accept it as legitimate to discuss the city in speech, with its philosopher-king and guardians; the cave, with its frankness about our absorption and defense of shadows; the divided line, where the truths of mathematics imply a much greater reality than we ordinarily perceive; the collapse of regimes into one another, where democracy and tyranny stand too close for comfort; the myth of Er, a tale that links the practice of morality to worry about the afterlife. The Republic holds that what we want to know and what we can know are two different things, and complicating this is an additional problem: belief and knowledge do not simply stand to each other as opinions or questions do to true opinion or answers.

References

Michael Davis, “Seth Benardete’s Second Sailing: On the Spirit of Ideas” The Political Science Reviewer, vol. 34 (2005): 7-21.

George Szirtes, “Travel Notes”

Travel Notes (originally posted on facebook)
George Szirtes

Air-conditioning.
Outside, the mountains blunted
by the soft darkness.

*

We are all alone
in the spaces between words,
in breaths, in commas.

*

Before early dawn.
The vast terrain of China
as dark as the sea.

*

One bad sentence ruins
the book, he says, our young aesthete,
breathing the night air.

*

Everything passes,
says the clock but nothing does,
nothing quite passes.

Comment:

Age changes how one travels. Originally, I wanted to see everything: climb every staircase, take every picture, hit every city. When I became a little bit older, I sat more places, mainly cafes, bookstores, and bars, and talked to people. I lingered more in cities, seeing how people actually lived. I had a lot of fun trying this, but its ultimate object failed. I never made friends abroad. What I got from it was the same thing I got when I was younger. There were moments: sitting in a conversation about starting an art gallery with EU assistance, Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene, strolling around for hours and taking in the color of it all. With few exceptions, those moments were lonely. Appreciation and understanding seem to be ends one sets for oneself.

“Travel Notes” starts with an observation. “Air-conditioning:” inside, one has noticed one’s artificial comfort. That comfort, a limit of sorts on experience, mirrors looking out at the landscape. The mountains are made less jagged, less an immovable obstacle, by the soft darkness.

Is it possible to ever see well enough to make travel worthwhile? The fundamental problem is that of communication: “We are all alone in the spaces between words, in breaths, in commas.” Just as our seeing is conditioned by limits, our speaking depends on how we are received. Those spaces are where we are heard, where others are heard. But is anyone ever understood?

Practically speaking, this seems a small problem for most of us. Our lives go on one way or another. But in another country, it can be everything, as being elsewhere highlights necessity, the crisis where one would otherwise see solipsism. To be the outsider in many places, to take a contemporary example, is to be blamed for everything, to be considered not worthy of understanding. A tourist confronts this in a small, indirect way when she cannot see: “Before early dawn. The vast terrain of China as dark as the sea.” Something immense is happening, something immense is right before you. It’s all around you, and it feels utterly inaccessible.

The poem stays with the milder version of the problem, but it is not hard to think about the times all could have gone wrong in a foreign country. The times one could be helplessly stranded, feeling utterly without dignity. In the face of lacking communication, of lacking knowledge, it’s tempting to go back to the familiar. Sure, one’s family does not understand who you are, but that’s not necessary for being loved. In crucial ways, you don’t need to explain yourself to your country. Not to the standards which just feel right, because we’ve been conditioned a certain way. Countries and climes have some startlingly different notions about beauty, notions reflected in intellectual life. Hence, it feels possible to say that one foreign element could ruin everything: “one bad sentence ruins the book, he says, our young aesthete, breathing the night air.”

That one bad sentence is the moment of illumination, the one time a conflict is sensed, that conditioning might be put aside. That sentence may not be so bad. It may be a part which demands another whole, another way of reading the book. That sentence may be terrible, and perhaps one would be better served breathing the night air, trying to focus on where one is. Communication isn’t possible without those who want to communicate and those who wish to listen. It’s rare those conditions will ever hold.

But it’s a rarity worth searching for. Travel is an accumulating of parts: softened mountains, awkward exchanges, dark landscapes, bad books. And it might be all done before anything has been comprehended. Those parts demand to be put together; they point to a wholeness we want to recover. “Everything passes, says the clock but nothing does, nothing quite passes.”