Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Remarks on ‘Macbeth’

By Kalev Pehme

Of the work of Shakespeare, no play has as an extensive elaboration of preternatural or (perhaps) supernatural beings as Macbeth. That the three witches are preternatural as opposed to supernatural means that the old crones do not come from the realm of the miraculous, although they do remain outside of the way of nature. If their reports and confrontations with human beings, notably Macbeth and Banquo, were miraculous, they would make rational sense retrospectively, as that is the character of miracles. A miracle makes sense after it happens because it comes from a clear, divine cause, while its happening has no rational prediction as men are denied access to the miraculous future, which, after all, is not predestined, but comes from the grace of a god. Unlike the numerous mentions of oracles in Shakespeare’s plays, no play provides us a more extensive delineation of the future of not only individual characters, but the future perfect of Scotland, which presumably culminates in James I, the Scottish successor to Elizabeth Regina. However we would like to make sense of the predictions of the witches, there really is no rational explanation of them as there is no true cause to which we may point as the origin of what happens. What we do know, however, is that the entire focus of the reunion of the three witches is to meet with Macbeth upon the heath. What Macbeth sees as “Prophetique” (Furness Variorum I:iii:83—sorry about the archaic spellings from now on) truly is not, if one sees prophecy to be, for example, reading the mind of god or receiving direct communication from a god even if through a pythia. Macbeth initially craves the prophetic as it would be a divine plan that he become Cawdor and king thereafter, but settles for the occult instead.

The three witches are often compared to the three fates as they are the weird or wyrd sisters, as weird as the three fates seem to be. But while the Greek fates spin out the lives of men and finally cut the thread of life, there is no real association of the weird sisters here to fate in the classical sense. Yet at the same time, there is something very fatal or fateful about them. A man’s fate, as opposed to his fortune, is that with which he born, whatever his advantages or faults, perhaps even what genes has sown by his parents and forebears. A man’s fortune is what he gains and loses in life. It may be fated that a man be poor all his life; however, it is his good fortune that he becomes wise in compensation for his fate. The conceptual confusion of terms between fate and fortune and what is preter or super to nature is essential as it emphasizes the irrational or the inability to make sense of what befalls characters and spectators. We are caught in the same bind as Banquo, a man of great integrity, who says with precise hypallage, “Or haue we eaten on the insane Root,That takes Reafon Prifoner? (I;iii: 91-2)” When there is no clear cause for what happens or for the words of the weird sisters, we are forced in the sorry situation where what we say about the characters and their interaction with the witches to be entirely conventional, i.e., a mere agreement whether codified by knaves for fools or simply to give fools a knavish security in interpretation. There is no objectivity. There is no criterion of relevance beyond itself. It the partisanship of politics internalized into a private imagination.

Insanity and tyranny have been linked for at least as far back as Plato’s Republic, Philebus, and other dialogues. The wicked imagine great pains that they believe belong to others, while not recognizing that they afflict themselves. The wicked are incorrigible by experience; They do not, paradoxically, know they suffer. They live in a dream world. And it is a dream world into which Macbeth enters after he meets with the wyrd sisters. It may be that in dreams begin responsibilities, however, at the same time, one might say that ambition, as we say often even day, is to live a dream or to realize a dream. While that may be the case, to collapse the distinction between dream and its apparent realization is truly not wise. Moreover, it is even more likely that the dream can out to be lucid, where the dreamer like a god invents all the characters and plays out their lives within himself. However, unlike the metaphysical being whose analog is the dream state, the tyrant’s dream is full of black intrusions of the mare’s hoof beats bringing bad and unwanted news when settled into secure sleep.

Macbeth muses:

This fupernaturuall folliciting

Cannot be ill; cannot be good.

If ill? Why hath it given me earneft of fucceffe.

Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cowdor,

If good? Why doe I yield to that fuggestion,

Whole horrid Image doth vnfixe my Heire,

And make my feated Heart knock at my Ribbes,

Againft the vfe of Nature? Present feares

Are leffe than horrible Imaginings:

My Thought, whole Murther yet is but fantafticall,

Shakes to me fingle ftate of Man,

That Function is fmother’d in furmife,

And nothing is, but what is not (I:iii:146-158).

 

Imagination is permeated by thoughts of murder. It is here that the play truly is a problem. Why does Macbeth go from Cawdor fron Glamis to murdering the king? The obvious response that any moderate man would take would be very simple: The wyrd sisters promised me Cawdor, which I received from the king. They also promise me the kingship. Let’s do nothing and see what happens. If they are right, then it is inevitable that I become king.

This notion is not lost on Macbeth, who says:

If Chance will haue me King,

Why Chance may Crowne me,

Without my ftirre (I;iii:160-162).

 

But Macbeth sees no inevitability in becoming king unless he acts and acting means assassinating the king. His wife shares the same view. Curiously, Macbeth puts the problem in terms of chance rather than either a divine providence or evil plan hatched by evil beings. Thus, we have to deal with fate, fortune, chance, particular providence, or occult powers at work in the world. That Macbeth puts the problem in terms of chance means that he is not completely convinced that what is at work are forces that control chance or are able to force chance to behave in some expected way, i.e., to his advantage. Yet, in Macbeth’s mind, there is clearly an inability to come to terms to what is actually moving him. There is confusion and while he wants what the sisters promise, he does not accept in his mind that they can be responsible or foreknowing what they predict.

Macbeth is a very unusual Christian, and as such the witches are not a manifestation of Jesus or of Christian goodness. If anything, they might be the manifestation of the devil. At the same time, even Banquo opines that “the Inftruments of Darkneffe tell vs Truths” (I:iii:139), and in this case the dark powers foretell a total destruction of the current regime and ultimately of the eventual establishment of a legitimate line of succession for two nations. Human access to knowledge comes from the negative as well as the positive.

Yet, it is also clear to the audience the three witches also know that Macbeth will be moved to murder. This knowledge obviates chance, as foreknowledge of future events prohibits randomness. Unlike the moderate man who is willing to wait and do nothing to get what he wants, Macbeth’s tyrannical character is fearful and it is fear that drives most political men. Macbeth fears that the “Prophetique” is not enough on its own to make him king. Tacitly, Macbeth equates the prophetic, the divine, with chance and luck, and thus he must in some way to make sure that he can overcome the random and translate that random into mechanical fulfillment. In Macbeth’s mind, he is not king. He cannot be king. He is not born royal, either conventionally or by innate character. He has no dynastic claim. He has no legitimacy, as all he is is first cousin to Duncan.

But not to have legitimacy should not make Macbeth illegitimate, theoretically speaking, but in Macbeth’s mind he is and thus conferred with only illegitimate powers, without legitimate powers to make him king. With absolutely no legitimate claim to the throne, Macbeth’s only coronation can be crowned by not only the death of the king, but the removal of his heirs as well. This seemingly insurmountable problem does not make Macbeth despair, but only with greater ambition.

Yet, the entire murder plot, hatched so quickly and hastened by the appearance of Duncan under Lady Macbeth’s “battlements” is improbable at best. Not only does Macbeth have to kill Duncan, but all the heirs and their supporters must either be discredited or killed as well so that Macbeth can ascend the throne. The absurdity of this possibility is completely buried under the way Shakespeare makes it appear that it is the most normal thing in the world that not only does Macbeth kill Duncan; not only does Lady Macbeth frame his entourage; not only does Macbeth then kill the entourage; but the entire legitimate side of the family and their supporters flee the country, giving excuse and justification for Macbeth to seize the throne with the apparent assent of the nobility. Such a thing would not happen in real life, so to speak. It happens in dreams and in fiction or when evil or preternatural forces focus their interest in a single man. But, then, are we not all the subject of some kind of divine plan that is ours alone? If, moreover, Macbeth were to take the throne because of some normal reason, then the play has no sense whatsoever. The impossible is at the root of the human condition of this play as it is at the heart of human life. The play makes sense, because the rise of Macbeth comes about totally against the natural way of things as what Macbeth does is against the natural way of things.

It also happens because somehow it is meant to happen. Everything happens for a reason is the common saying of our day, which in this case points to a concatenation of causes that of necessity is meant to destroy Macbeth and establish a legitimate line of succession to two thrones. Macbeth, by violating the natural order of things and the proper legitimacy of the political order, will not only destroy his own illegitimacy and unnatural ambition, but will restore the proper and natural order of things culminating in Banquo’s heirs enjoying kingship. Chaos cures chaos in the same way that the end of war is peace, i.e., it takes war to end war.

Yet, it is not so insane that Duncan’s sons, for example, flee. There is something amiss with Duncan’s reign. We come in media res during a rebellion aided by Vikings, where both Macbeth and Banquo distinguish themselves in battle against the rebels. Duncan’s sons are not confidant about their status in the regime. They flee. The only reason that could happen is if there is either a question of their legitimacy or because they don’t have the political support necessary among the thanes to take the throne that is legitimately that of the eldest son. Evidentially, there was some kind of consensus among the thanes to elect Macbeth king, even though there are two direct descendants who are proper heirs to the throne That the legitimate heirs flee to England must give us pause, if we consider the true history of the less-than-benign relations between Scotland and England throughout the years, even until today. However, under James I, there is a unification of England and Scotland, and Shakespeare gives it legitimacy.

Legitimacy is not a problem for moderns as it was for Shakespeare and the ancients. The moderns prefer Hobbesian absolute sovereignty and the will to power, to legitimacy, Aristotle tells us that legitimacy is conferred by a regime’s length of time on earth. This view is not as naïve as it seems, as, generally speaking, a good regime and its stability tends to last over time, except if attacked by superior alien forces. Yet, there is a problem: When a regime is established and has not had the benefit of time, how does this regime become legitimate? This problem is compounded, because it is through legitimacy that a regime is assured to continue and be maintained.

In modernity, legitimacy is conferred by someone (more of less) willingly giving the power he had to someone else. We have the absurdity, for example, of the notion that if Qaddaffi gives up power to someone else that anyone who takes over from him will be legitimate. (There is always the persistent problem of how to establish legitimacy is the overthrown refuses to bless the new government as we find, for example, in Iraq.) It was Tallyrand, the first modern man who did more to destroy the ancient notion of legitimacy, who knew precisely what legitimacy is: “The mysterious strength of legitimacy is being lost before it has not been understood. All the men of revolution reduce it to a means of preserving the power of kings, whereas it is first and foremost a requisite for the peace and happiness of the people, as well as the solid and even the only guarantee of the existence and continuance of nations. The legitimacy of kings, or rather the legitimacy of governments, is the safeguard of nations, and for this reason it is sacred…”

Had Macbeth been wiser, he would have worked most diligently to makes sure that his kingdom was secure and happy. Instead, he does everything possible to destroy the happiness of the regime. As such, he cannot establish any kind of legitimacy, and as he goes on a murderous reign of terror he destroys whatever legitimacy he may have had through his election to the throne.

Shakespeare’s radicalism, by the way, is seen in the fact that he places the legitimacy of Banquo’s line on dark forces rather than the obvious source of legitimacy, a god. In Macbeth, there is a suppressed Machiavellianism, i.e., the Machiavellian view that at the origin of any regime or any line of kings, etc. is a crime, a big crime. In this case, the origin is Macbeth’s murder of Banquo and his attempted murder of Fleance, Banquo’s son.

What is amazing about Macbeth is what a coward he is when it comes to assassinating the king. He is a warrior who has no problem of killing men on the field of battle, but when it comes to murdering the king in his sleep Macbeth’s resolve and courage wilts. Suddenly, his seeming conscience overcomes him. It can be said that Macbeth, like Hamlet, is a play of conscience. In Macbeth, there is even less churches or religious leaders and so on than there is in Hamlet. Macbeth does not blandish a rood. Yet, his cowardly conscience is very strong. It is not less a problem for Lady Macbeth as well, who in the end goes insane and ends up killing herself. The ever-perceptive Coleridge writes:

Lady Macbeth, like all in Shakespeare, is a class individualized:—of high rank, left much alone, and feeding herself with day-dreams of ambition, she mistakes the courage of fantasy for the power of bearing the consequences of the realities of guilt. Hers is a mock fortitude of a mind deluded by ambition; she shames her husband with a superhuman audacity of fancy which she cannot support, but sinks in the season of remorse, and dies in suicidal agony. Her speech: ‘Come, all you spirits That tend on moral thoughts,’ etc., is that of one who had habitually familiarized her imagination to dreadful conceptions, and was trying to do still more. Her invocations and requisitions are all the false efforts to throw the every-day substances of life into shadow, but never as yet brought into direct contact with their own correspondent realities. She evinces no womanly life, no wifely joy at the return of her husband, no pleased terror at the thought of past dangers, whilst Macbeth bursts forth naturally,—’My dearest love,’—and shrinks from the boldness with which he presents his own thoughts to him. With consummate art she at first uses as incentives the circumstances, Duncan’s coming to their house, etc., which Macbeth’s conscience would most probably have adduced to her as motives of abhorrence or repulsion.

Lady Macbeth’s imagination is that extends to the notion that she can invoke spirits to take possession of her in a most fearful supplication that is the heart of Coleridge’s analysis:

…Come you spirits,

That tend on mortall thoughts, vnfex me here,

And fill from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full

Of direft Crueltie: make thick my blood,

Stop vp th’acceffe, and paffsage to Remorfe

That no compunctious vifitings of Nature

Shake my fell purpofe, nor keepe peace between

Th’effect, and hit. Come to my Woman brefts,

And take my Milke for Gall, you murth’ring Minifters,

Where-euer, in your fightleffe fubftances,

You wait on Natures Mifchiefe. Come thick Night,

And pall thee in the dunneft of Hell,

That my keene Knife fee not the wound it makes,

Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke,

To cry, hold, hold (I:v:43-59).

 

For Lady Macbeth, her ambitions can only be achieved through the dark powers of the world, i.e., through what is terribly wrong. She is incapable to seeing that her ambitions, if destined to be great, could also be achieved through legal, legitimate, and naturally proper means. This dichotomy between what is right preventing her from becoming queen and what is wrong that insures her a throne next to her husband, also is at the center of what will cause her suicide: To make a pact with dark forces is to contract with the hopelessness of the darkest part of Hell, even if such a hell does not exist. One cannot define oneself in terms of what is totally negative and still survive, even today.

What goes for Lady Macbeth is much the same for Macbeth. However, what should be noted is that although both Macbeth and his wife have pangs of conscience there is no single instance of either expressing Christian remorse or a Christian desire for forgiveness or any other Christian remedy for their guilt. In that sense, we must not be too Christian in our approach to understanding what conscience is as it that moves this man and wife. The problem clearly is that both Macbeth and his wife see what they want into totally fantastic, i.e., imaginative, way. The reality of what it is to assassinate someone who is a guest of the house and so on is something that neither Macbeth nor his wife is strong enough to face. The point is very much one that we do not believe today: Christian conscience, the desire to do what is right or according to god’s will, is a part of the soul that has a supernatural (or metaphysical) basis., rooted in a god’s cosmic structure The total lack of Christian remedy both in the prevention and penitential relief of guilt for the murder indicates that what is wrong with Macbeth and his wife is something that is not related whatsoever to a god in heaven and perhaps not even to anything in Hell. Moreover, the entire play is very unusual insofar that there is no active presence of any divine law, Christian or otherwise. When that happens normally, we would turn to politics to interpret what is before us. However, the absence of divine law is very much matched by a lack of politics. We find that King and Queen Macbeth live in what Coleridge calls “fancy,” a term which he defined in his work elsewhere, but in the context of the creative imagination:

FANCY…has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice. But equally with the ordinary memory, the Fancy must receive all of its materials ready made from association.

While the Romantic Coleridge can use this associative power to create a magical poem, “Kubla Khan,” with very little meaning, Shakespeare uses fancy and its associative power to show how detached from reality Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are. Let’s start over: Macbeth is a man whose entire social self-construction was one of a noble servant and great spiritedness, especially in warfare in defense of his king. In his mind, the king is all that is right and legitimate, not to mention a guest in his house. Macbeth and his wife need to change their characters from what they think they are to what they want to be, killers, and then royalty. The problem Macbeth faces is that in order to achieve what he must, he must do things that in effect negate what would make him a real king. At the very best at any time, the murder of Duncan only makes Macbeth a pale shadow, a poor player, of a king, rather than a true king.

Moreover, there really is nothing to give fulfillment to Macbeth as a king. What satisfies a king? The obvious is the satisfaction from ruling well, i.e., justly, i.e., for the benefit of all in the realm. Justice, as it is the common good, must apply to all (which is why, for example, will-to-power Tea Party Americans are manifestly unjust and thus have no true legitimacy). But that seems to be beyond Macbeth’s ambitions. Yet, in the alternative, as a tyrant, Macbeth could do as tyrants have done throughout the years, set down laws and institutions that benefit him alone or take any pleasures from anyone he might want. Macbeth does not have that hedonism. At the same time, it doesn’t appear that Macbeth has any governmental or governing interests. He does not seem to be interested in conquering new territories or reforming the feudal system upon which he lives, for example. He does not want to create a cult-of-personality manifested by art and architecture dedicated to himself. For a very imaginative man, Macbeth has a very limited sense of possibility for the power he and his wife have attained.

What Macbeth lusted for was an end in and of itself, an end with a title, a genus, but without any content. The only thing he starts to recognize to be important to him is the immortality that comes with the founding of a dynasty, which the wyrd sisters have bestowed on Banquo rather than to Macbeth. Banquo, whose integrity make him a bit naïve, says to himself:

Thou haft it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all

As the wayward Women promis’d, and I feare

Though playd’st moft flowly for’it: yet it was faide

It should not ftand in thy Pofterity,

But that my felfe fshould be the Roote, and Father

Of many Kings. If there come truth from them,

As vpon thee Macbeth, their Speeches fhine,

Why by the verities on thee made good,

May they not be my Oracles as well,

And fet me vp hope (III:i:3-12).

 

The basic truth is that promise of mortal immortality seems inherent in human beings. While a place in heaven is a good prize, the assurance of having children and children of children carrying on one’s name is something that is an essential part of human love and eros. Clearly, however, Macbeth and his wife are not as fecund as they might wish. Macbeth may tell his wife to have male children only, but there are no little princesses running around or any infants or toddlers suckling on Lady Macbeth’s paps. It is problematical whether they can have children at all.

 

In his impotent envy, Macbeth hires hitmen to kill Banquo, and will do so to murder Macduff, if he is around, and the Thane of Fife’s wife and children. What he finds hard to do in person, Macbeth has no problem in giving as contract work. Professional killers were not socially acceptable then, any more than they are today, except in lands corrupted by tyrants. Yet, it is not hard for Macbeth to find assassins, apparently, and he has no problem giving instructions and paying the fees. Professional killers generally fall into two categories: First, there the insane who enjoy murdering people, i.e., they enjoy the power of life and death over others and depriving others of any power of any kind. The second are those killers who do so “for the money,” so to speak, killing as a form of art. Sometimes, it hard to distinguish the two.

 

Nevertheless, in either case, the professional killer, as we know from experience and history, does not have a conscience of any kind when it comes to killing someone for professional reasons. There are numerous people, good family people, who have no problem killing other human beings as we know from, for example, the behavior of Nazi or Soviet concentration camp guards or exterminators. Macbeth has no problem giving contracts to kill the imagined obstacles he has in his life; however, he is unable to kill Duncan without imagined pains settling down on him. The killing of these people is acceptable as they are no more than dogs.

 

The appearance of Banquo’s (and possibly Duncan’s) ghost(s) at dinner is apparently seen by no one except Macbeth. What is important is not that no one else sees Banquo’s ghost; what is important is that only Macbeth sees the ghost, i.e., he sees something that he doesn’t see as a ghost, but as something real. Macbeth’s hallucinations are a necessary part of his dream-;like life, which, after all, includes witches, visions of a dagger, effluvia from a magic cauldron, and so on. Of the ghosts Macbeth sees, all are his victims. Banquo sits at his seat at the dinner table as if he were really there, except that he is a bloody mess. If Macbeth saw him as a ghost, he would know that the ghost is not real, but some kind of spirit or self-delusion. Instead, Macbeth sees him as a bloody Banquo as if in the flesh. One might say that Macbeth is only capable of dealing with reality if it is not real. At the same time, however, to deal with reality outside of reality and only in imagination means that Macbeth is isolated from the very reality he must deal with. The compete internalization of his problems means that Macbeth cannot find any solution to his problems.

 

It is more than mere internalization; one might say that the entire pay of Macbeth is, for the most part, a view of the world as Macbeth sees it. There are soliloquies, of course, but the structure of the play and the interaction of the characters is as if Macbeth were writing the play, not Shakespeare. We are privy to Macbeth’s private self, and we see that the public Macbeth is practically obliterated in the sense that Macbeth himself cannot separate the two. As such, Macbeth lives apart from reality, and as such denies himself any happiness or any goods. The great truth of life that Macbeth cannot face is that what is good and what is brings fulfillment to human life is not in a dream, but in real life. We can dream of many happy moments, but those dreams no matter how seemingly real are not themselves happiness. It is only when one achieves one’s ambitions and ends when awake that there is any good in life. The tragedy of Macbeth is not that he is a man who has risen high and falls because of some character flaw; no, his tragedy is that he murdered a man to become king, but once king cannot find himself awake as king, doing what kings do, everything from waging war, giving out patronage, ministering justice, and so on.

 

Instead, we have a Macbeth whose public actions are murders, but these acts are hidden from sight as if they were private, not public. He does not execute criminals in public; he instead assassinates the innocent in the dark. Macbeth is more at home with criminals than with good subjects. But criminals are not the people that a king wants to be admired by or loved. However, because Macbeth alienates this good subjects, those who would even support him solely out of a duty to his status, Macbeth denies himself any love from anyone, as criminals would never care for him as they know what he is, while at the same time good subjects shun him.

 

The suicide of Lady Macbeth comes after her sleepwalking and wanting to clean her hands of Duncan’s blood. The problem is that Queen Macbeth became a sleepwalker when she called on demons to possess her. Evil demons are not there to make life comfortable, after all. They are there to make blood appear where there is no blood. Yet, why does the Queen hang herself? The nature of her despair is facing overwhelming guilt both when awake and when asleep. But to say the Queen killed herself out of guilt means that the Queen has recognized that she was a criminal of some kind, that she had come to accept that being a public offender was so terrible that she could find no way to expiate that crime. Nevertheless, this explanation assumes that the Queen had some kind of deep respect for public morality and mores, including the prohibitions against murder, especially the murder of a guest. This explanation seems to be superficial at best. There does not seem to be any indication that the Queen truly had any sense of dishonor or disgrace or shame, which is aroused by the disgrace one feels before those she loves. Yet, it is clear that although the Queen has affection for Macbeth, it is not the kind of affection that would arouse shame before the King.

 

It seems more likely that the Queen kills herself, because she wants to end the horrible condition of the nightmare she is living in. She is more ashamed of Macbeth than herself, seems to be indicated by the responsibility that the Queens takes for the murders of Banquo and Lady Macduff, which are the work of her husband, not of hers. Having given up anything that is good when living in reality, the Queen has not so much nothing to live for as killing herself is the only logical step left to her life. It is a suicide where nothing is said about its consequences in terms of divine law. Unlike poor Ophelia, there is no discussion about the suicide prohibiting the Queen from a proper Christian burial or the possibility that she will not make it to heaven. The doctor’s evocations of god fall to his own admittance that:

 

Foule whifp’rings are abroad: vnnaturall deeds

Do breed vnnaturall troubles: infected minds

To their deafe pillows will difcharge their Secrets:

More needs fhe the Diuine, then the Phyfitians:

God, God fogiue vs all (V:1:72-76).

 

The Queen may need the divine; however, her act restores nature’s order.

 

For Macbeth, the suicide of his wife, came at a bad time, as he is not able to provide her the honors that she may have deserved, or least those that his love for her would have given. (“She fhould haue dy’de hereafter; There would haue been a time for fuch a word…” (V:i:21-22). He then launches into his great speech where he finally concludes that life is a tale told by an idiot that signifies nothing. That may be true; however, these despairing words intimate that the best course of action for himself is to kill himself. But no, Macbeth clings to the last hope given to him by the wyrd sisters, that he cannot be killed by anyone born of woman. Just before meeting Macduff on the field of battle, Macbeth says:

 

Why fhould I play the Roman Foole, and dye

On mine owne fword? Whiles I fee liues, the gafhes

Do better vpon them (V:viii.2-4).

 

The Roman suicide that Macbeth disdains is the affirmation of the Roman’s freedom in the face of losing it. Roman legionnaires, for example, preferred to fall on their swords than to be taken by Germans and then sacrificed by burning to tree gods. Roman nobles took their own lives to be the master of their own lives. Macbeth’s decision not to kill himself is based on the false hope that all men are born of woman in the same way, and hence he is immune from death as well as not losing his imagined power. The tyrant accepts this enslavement to this insanity. While one might find Macbeth’s final fight with the Thane of Fife has a noble look to it, it really is the final denial of the reality that his tyrant’s life had fled. In the end, he fights with the hope that the three weird sisters were wrong, when throughout they have been remarkably right.

 

Macbeth is unable to understand the witches, because he wants desperately what they seem to promise him. Many oracles, not only in Shakespeare, but going as far back as Herodotus, use amphibology and equivocating words. Shakespeare does something remarkably different: The ambiguities of the occult predictions lie in the application of words to unexpected and surprising acts and events throughout the whole of the speech. When Birnam Wood appears to be moving towards Dunsinane, Macbeth realizes in part that he has relied on predictions totally in vain:

 

I pull in Refolution, and begin

To doubt th’Equiuocation of the Fiend,

That lies like truth. Feare not, till Byrnane Wood

Do come toward Dunfinane (V:v:49-53).

 

When Macbeth discovers that Macduff was untimely ripped from his mother’s womb, Macbeth’s final hope dashed comes out:

 

And be thefe Iugling Fiends no more beleeu’d,

That palter with vs in a double fence,

That keepe the word of promife to our eare,

And breake it to our hope (V:viii:25-28).

 

For Macbeth, he has been deceived by the witches. However, it is more like he deceived himself, because he went into a dream state from which he could not escape except through death. When he says he will not fight Macduff, the final cowardice of his life is revealed. Inevitably, the way Macbeth misunderstood the predictions was the way he lived his life and why he became a tyrant and could not be a king. His private desire to be a legitimate king by the very way he chooses to be king negates any possibility for him to be king. In the end, what is remarkable, of course, is that Macbeth makes no mention of any divine beings and he does nothing to evoke any help from any god.

 

In the end, moreover, Shakespeare manages an incredible political feat through this play. The beauty of his language, the depth of his analysis, and so on makes Banquo’s illegitimacy legitimate not only artistically, but in actual political terms as James I of necessity has to come down through Banquo’s line no matter how seemingly distant from the original and murdered man. Another strange thing happens in Macbeth: Tyrants have the unctuous habit of evoking the fatherland or the country or the motherland and so on. Tyrants evoke patriotism as easily as Stalin did the motherland and the Church against Hitler’s Fatherland. Macbeth appears to have no particular tie even to Scotland. He does not even appeal to the “people.” In the end, Macbeth does not raise any appeals against his nothingness, his tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Macbeth not only stripped his kingship of goodness and nobility, but he detaches his kingship from the very country he is supposed to govern. His tyranny was a complete abstraction, a dream, that he desired for its own sake rather than anything from which he may have derived even the smallest amount of immortal glory.

Posted in Philosophy, Poetry, Slow and Close Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kalev’s Anti-Blog: A Post Scriptum: Maimonides So Close Yet So Far…

In my previous post on Maimonides’s Letter on Astrology, I noted that Leo Strauss had implied that Maimonides had accepted the philosopher’s distinction between god as a remote cause the affects of proximate cause on human beings. I had thought to introduce Strauss’s mention of this problem in his very short essay on Maimonides’s Treatise on the Art of Logic. In that very short essay Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, Strauss mentions, “In chapter 9 it is made clear that the philosophers—here mentioned for the first time—admit God to be the only the remote cause in particular also of what befalls human beings and seek in case cause for a proximate cause.”

One the problems in using the term “proximate cause” is that it has a very extensive explication in the use of American tort law. I have no idea whether Strauss deliberately elided the difference between the Maimonidean view with the legal view. The same problem arises with “remote cause” which is understood to be a cause that is so far removed that it really doesn’t provide a legal action in tort law.

Maimonides, as every school boy knows, was an Aristotelian thinker, and a man who has a Jew attempted to harmonize Judaism with Aristotelian philosophy. When Maimonides speaks of cause we must make the assumption, a safe one, that Maimonides places the discussion within the four metaphysical causes as put forth by Aristotle.

The four causes are: The efficient cause which is the agent and the instruments. For example, the efficient cause of a statue is the sculptor and his hammer and chisel. The final cause is the end purpose that moved the agent to do what he did. For example, Julius Caesar wanted eternal glory and to be a god; thus, his intention is first and at the same time it was his last execution. The material cause is that out of which it is made as a statue may be made of marble or bronze. The formal cause is the kind of thing into which it is made, .e.g., Caesar, Lincoln, Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann.

The material and formal causes are intrinsic to what makes something what it is. To know something through a formal cause is to know its essence, i.e., that which makes something what it is without which it could not be what it is. In the human being, the formal cause is man’s rational animality (from animus, soul). The material cause of a human being, for example, is all that gives man’s organic being metabolism, supported by the formal cause, man’s soul. However man’s metabolism works, man remains the same throughout his life (and doesn’t become a tree or a bug), because of the persistence of the formal cause.

The context of this problem is the question of whether what happens to a man is a matter of luck and chance or a matter of judgment, i.e., that what happens to man is a matter of justice as presided over by god. The “remote cause” that is justice may be equivalent to the first or formal and the final cause. In the Aristotelian system, the first and final cause of all things is the theos who is the cause of all motion and the final end towards which all motions end. It must be remembered that Maimonides is not mutakallimum. For Maimonides, the elements and the entire corporality and immaterial constituents of the cosmos are either species or individual motions or they are the final and first causes. God or pure thought thinking itself is the first cause of all motion, because the noetic thought of god, perfectly spherical, is the motion imitated by corporeal motion that is supported by immaterial motion. For example, the motion of the planet Venus is directed by the perfect noetic motion of the separate intelligence governing the sphere of Venus.

The theos of necessity is the both the first and final cause of all things, but all things, material or immaterial, are the thought of the theos. You the reader here and I are both slices of the thought of the theos. But the fact that you are reading these words and that I have written these words have a more proximate cause. I, the writer, am the efficient cause and I use the electronic media as the material cause of my writing. The reason that I chose to write these words have a final cause, but, most critically, my final cause is not necessarily dedicated by or even inspired by the ultimate final cause that is the god.

That I have chosen to write about a particular subject and have done so at a particular time and place using a particular medium, the philosophers would say, is a matter of chance or luck. I have chosen to write this piece not because god’s justice demanded that I do so. I could choose, for example, to write something that is totally contrary to god’s laws and it would be very odd if god had chosen me to do so as what god wants for all men is the only the good. Underlying Maimonides’s understanding of god is that god has no imperfections and as such any acts of god cannot be anything else but perfect. To be perfect, god’s acts must be good, writ large. Hence, god would not use me to do anything bad. Anything bad that I choose to do is my own decision and a reaction to chance or inspired by chance. If, however, it is my intent to go only that which is good, then of necessity I would have to make the proximate cause of my actions to be in accord or to be the same as the first and final cause that is the theos himself. It is a way, so to speak, to be one with everything.

I, as a living being, am, as I said, a slice of the thought of the theos. That means that I as a being come out of “first things” that strictly speaking are not things, but out of nature. I may be a being that comes out of nature; however, that I write these words here is not strictly speaking a matter of nature. My words are not from nature, but from convention. The difference between nature and convention was once a paramount consideration, at least until modern times when Machiavelli and other moderns assumed that nature was not reasonable or well-ordered (there is no god) while at the same time chance could be controlled or even conquered.

Strauss explains elsewhere that the once-primary distinction between nature and convention became problematical through the effort to dispose of chance. Strauss writes:

The “explanation” of a chance event is the realization that it is a chance event: the fortuitous meeting of two men does not cease to be fortuitous when we know the whole prehistory of the two men prior to their meeting. There are then events which cannot meaningfully be traced to preceding events. The tracing of something to convention is analogous to the tracing of something to chance. However plausible a convention may appear in the light of the conditions from which it arose, it nevertheless owes its being, its “validity,” to the fact that it became “held” or “accepted” (The City and Man, 15).

One might say that in Maimonides, there is a distinction between the law that is conventional and the law that comes directly from god. To the extent that one does things according to the divine law directly given by god is the extent that someone lives by the first and final cause of all things. To the extent that one lives according to the laws that are merely accepted or held through chance events is the extent that someone lives according to the formal and efficient causes and through the dominance of chance and randomness in human life.

According to Strauss, Maimonides in the Logic apparently approves of a philosopher position: “In chapter 11 Maimonides quotes the saying of a philosopher according to which ‘everyone who does not distinguish between the potential and the actual, the essential and the accidental, the conventional things and the natural things, and the universal and the particular, is unable to discourse.’”

That list of dichotomies is apparently comprehensive.

Posted in astrology, Cosmology, Leo Strauss, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Maimonides’ ‘Letter on Astrology,’ Leo Strauss, and Some Luck

By Kalev Pehme

For my friend Scott Alexander, one of the best readers of Maimonides; may he get the recognition he well deserves…

One realizes when reading Maimonides’s Letter on Astrology, a comparatively short work, that it is an immensely complex and very difficult writing, written on many levels and addressed to various people of varying degrees of ability and faith. One also wonders when reading Leo Strauss’s two-and-half page analysis of the work in his book Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy whether Strauss has ignored the complexity of the work or whether Strauss has laid out the very problem at the heart of the epistle in a very terse way. It is not immediately clear.

In great part, one of the greatest difficulties of reading Maimonides, whether it be here or in the Guide for the Perplexed and elsewhere, is his use of allusions to Biblical verses. For example, at the very beginning of the astrology, there is an epigraph quoting the Song of Songs 6:10: “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” The plain text of the Song of Songs is basically a love song between a man and a woman which has been allegorized by practically everyone, including the Christians who interpret the text to be a text about the love of Christ for his Church, an interpretation which is just idiocy as it is an imposition of an ideology of sexual behavior on a ancient Israelite text rather than a reading of it and what it truly means (ancient Israelites, dare to say, had no interest in the future Jesus). Nevertheless, the plain text does not convey any sense as to why Maimonides would use it as an epigraph.

However, when one looks at the verse a little more carefully in a more traditional way, we see that the word for “looketh” in Hebrew is the hopeful gaze of lover, but also the hopeful gaze of those Jews who look past the horizon in looking for the coming of the Messiah, seeking salvation and redemption. In the tradition, the “she” is actually the schekhinah, the indwelling of god in the world, which is a feminine principle and thus can be likened to the moon. The brilliance of the sun may be compared to god as an emanatory who light is all light, like that of the sun. The military allusion may be an allusion to the twelve divisions, like the twelve houses of heaven, gathered around the tabernacle while Moses and the Hebrews were in the desert. It is an image of the dawn, i.e., the beginning of a new age for the people who have left Egypt, a people who are looking forward to conquering the land of Canaan.

A part of the letter involves the reason for the fall of the Second Temple, which Maimonides attributes to Jews who relied on astrology and not on military discipline, training, and arms to defeat the Romans, the military superpower of the day. When one looks at the various themes of the letter, all of a sudden the epigraph from the Song of Songs makes a great deal of sense if read in the way above. However, making sense of the Biblical verses themselves is quite a feat, and that comes before we even get to his Maimonides’s own writing interspersed with verses. One has to make a judgment as to how far we must go with the verses before we even get a chance to read Maimonides own argument. It is easy to go the wrong way, if one looks at the verses in a non-Maimonidean way. Of course, some traditional readings of Biblical verses may not anything to do with the way Maimonides reads the same verses.

This epigraph, in part, also draws our attention to what Maimonides says are the sources of knowledge: reason, the senses, and tradition from the prophets and the just. Clearly, the understanding of the Song of Songs 6:10 comes from the tradition from the prophets and the just. In fact, a great part of the various readings (between the lines as well as in plain text) has been determined the tradition. On the surface, 6:10 is part of a love poem between a man and a woman. According to the tradition, 6:10 is actually an allegory behind the plain text as noted above.

Strauss notes after he lists Maimonides’s three sources of knowledge: “He [Maimonides] tacitly excludes the endoxa either because they deal chiefly with what one ought to do or forbear, as distinguished from what one ought to believe or not, or because they can be understood to be parts of the traditional lore.” Individual opinion is doxa, while endoxa is better as it is in someway tested socially for some kind of reliability or validity. The problem here is exactly to what endoxa refers: It appears to be pointing to the “tradition from the prophets and the just.” If that is the case and if Strauss is correct, Maimonides truly finds the roots of knowledge in the sense or in reason and in the prophets and the just. The tradition is not completely reliable because it dictates how men ought to act, as well as what men ought to believe, but it is merely something conventional that people have accepted with little thought. There is an obvious difference between what one accepts on authority and what accepts through one’s own eyes and through one’s own reason or from the prophets and the just. Obviously, the tradition is not necessarily the same as the prophets and the just and the tradition that arises out of what they said is not necessarily a correct interpretation of what the prophets and the just said. To understand them requires a great amount of reason and good sense. One might say that the prophets and the just had very good sense and reason, because only individuals can have these traits, not a tradition, which is a matter of consensus or acceptance, whether that acceptance comes from assent or by force.

I only repeat this problem to give a sense of how difficult it is to read Maimonides’s astrology. In part, I want to concentrate on how Strauss read this letter and I want to deal with something that is at the heart of a lot of Strauss’s writing, but rarely, if ever mentioned, the role of chance or luck in the world. Ever since Machiavelli, the man who said that one can conquer luck in the same way one beats a woman into submission, moderns have believed that they can at the very least contain luck a great deal or rely on probabilities to master chance or at the very least minimize its impact.

The Oxford English Dictionary actually has a very good definition of luck, that the term is simply “the fortuitous happening of an event favorable or unfavorable to the interest of a person.” The basic problem is that human beings do not have foresight of everything that happens in the future. If we had unlimited access to the future and its events, there would be no luck. I should point out that Strauss does not use the word “luck”; he uses “chance,” a word from how the dice fall (cadere), and probably more academically acceptable as luck is too much the word of the groundlings. The randomness of life is very controversial over the years, and even today the unexpected good or bad is often rationalized away as something that is part of a larger plan, often a divine plan: everything happens for a reason.

Astrology is a strange art, and its origins are obscure. In the letter, the Rambam says astrology comes from the Chasdeans, Chaldeans, Canaanites, and Egyptians. The four groups are perplexing. First, there is the problem of the Chasdeans,, who are apparently the same as the Chaldeans. They were named from Chesed, the son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, according to Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 CE-4 April 636) who had researched the etymologies of the Bible and was one of the most remarkable of the early Christian scholars. (I thought that St. Isidore was a good choice here, because in 1997 Pope Jean Paul II named St. Isidore the patron saint of the Internet. In fact, it is St. Isidore who coined the word “etymology,” and we use his methods today in scholarship.) The Chaldeans are actually the Babylonians who had allegedly taken a vast number of Jews into captivity, including the conquered from Judah. The Canaanites are a number of different people whom the Hebrews eventually conquered and in many cases exterminated. Egyptians, of course, made the house of bondage from which the Jews were liberated by Moses. With that list we have a sense that these people who may have practiced astrology were also enemies of the Hebrews. Strauss, however, also points out: “Maimonides is silent here, as distinguished from the Guide (III, 37 [beginning]) on the Sabeans.” The Sabeans (conventionally spelled Sabians today) are an obscure group of people, in all likelihood Arabs who worshipped their gods or their god (yes, some are monotheists) with incense. For the most part, Maimonides tends to use the term Sabian to refer to all non-Jewish polytheists and idol worshippers, and not all of them are enemies of the ancient Israelites. That which is omitted both in Maimonides and in Strauss may be very significant in its absence.

[I have written a small essay on the basis of polytheism and how it works in my anti-blog last year. It is a metaphysical counter-argument to Maimonides and other monotheists. The piece is located at http://icastes.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/kalev%E2%80%99s-anti-blog-on-polytheism/.%5D

Clearly, Maimonides is attempting to keep astrology a province that is completely non-Jewish and non-Israelite. Maimonides, Strauss notes, also says that the astrology was considered nonsense by the Greeks, i.e., the philosophers, and the wise of Persia and India. Strauss counts seven nations mentioned by Maimonides, i.e., Strauss includes the Sabians who are not mentioned as a seventh to the six mentioned by the Rambam. Here is a problem, a problem which I don’t know whether Maimonides knew or whether Maimonides simply deliberately distorted. Both India and Persia’s wise were heavily involved with astrology, especially the Indo-Aryans, from the most ancient times. I am assuming that when the Rambam speaks of the philosophers, he means the Platonists and the Aristotelians, not the pre-Socratics like Hesiod. I mention Hesiod, because not only is there something about the heavens in his work, but there are allusions to the myths of various Mesopotamians in his work. Moreover, it is hard to say that whether Pythagorean numerology and astrology do or do not coincide, and it is hard to know to whether Thales’ ability to predict eclipses had an astrological use. What we do know is that the Ptolemaic Egypt had astrology in a form that many astrologers use today and Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos is a sourcebook for astrologers even today. The other great nation that is not mentioned by either by Maimonides or Strauss , Rome, had a well-established use of astrology, including its practice by the divine Tiberius before and after he became emperor. Moreover, during the reign of the divine Vespasian, the seditious rebels of Judaea were duly defeated and their temple destroyed by Romans, although they practiced astrology, soothsaying, and other forms of magic and sacrificial worship. But the Romans also knew the obvious: To conquer requires good arms and very good soldiers, first and foremost. The stars help those who help themselves.

It is a point that Maimonides also makes. It is the most painful part of the epistle on astrology. Maimonides says that the reason that the temple was destroyed was that the Jews at that time became too involved in astrology, i.e. a form of idolatry, and they neglected what the Romans would never neglect, the art of war and of conquest. Inevitably, what Maimonides says is that the ancient Jews who rose up against the Romans relied on what they thought were good aspects and planetary placements rather than the work that is necessary to fight the premiere military power in the world. In truth, the best thing that the people of Judaea could have done was not to rise up at all and avoid the horrors of the suicide of Masada that included the murder of children and their mothers, as well as the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent diaspora. Guerrilla war may be advised in such situations, but not direct military battles. Maimonides would not approve of the current trend to romanticize the Jewish rebellion and the murder-suicide that occurred at Masada and elsewhere at the time. To be blunt, the Jewish diaspora was caused not because of a heroic attempt to free themselves from the Romans, but because those who did rise up relied on idolatry in direct contradiction to the Torah. While there may be an implication that this rebellion was doomed because of this sin, I would say that prudence must inform even the most auspicious or inauspicious of omens. It is often the mistake of astrologers to interpret good planetary positions to apply to one’s friends rather than a sign that one’s enemies might do very well. Love of one’s own and great hope for oneself tends to obscure judgment when it comes to omens or, for that matter, whatever happened in the past and might come to be in the future.

The implication is that the Jews who rose up against the Romans did not rely on their own god, but basically became like Sabians, those who regarded the planets and the stars as deities, i.e., that these heavenly bodies had divine power on their own to decide the future of men. The true science of the stars, Maimonides says, is what we call astronomy today, i.e., the study and measure of the motions of the heavens. One can predict that there will be an eclipse on a certain date, but one cannot predict that this eclipse will bring down the regime of a country. The Jewish uprising against Rome was a tacitly brought about by the abandonment of the Jewish god in favor of a belief in the divine powers of the stars trumping the Roman might. Strictly speaking, one might say that the Jewish rebels had fudged the difference between what is unexpected with what is miraculous.

Going back a bit: Although Maimonides says that the philosophers regarded astrology as nonsense, it is hard to find anywhere in Plato and Aristotle which says that. Astrology simply is not discussed at all, at least astrology as it was known later in Ptolemaic Egypt, for example. It appears to me, looking at the murky history of astrology, that Plato and Aristotle never faced judicial astrology as it was know to be later in Ptolemaic Egypt. Their criticism of Pythagoreans, for example, who had ordered the cosmos in mathematical proportions and number, was not that the cosmos is rationally ordered, but that the order of the Pythagoreans had made of the cosmos a kind of model, like a globe that represents the earth. They envisioned the cosmos and articulated it with a logos that was not in truth an articulation of the true cosmic order, but was instead an artistic expression of what they believed the beauty and harmony of the cosmos to be.

Maimonides separates astrology and its idolatry (and in the Guide along with talismans, soothsaying, etc.) from any effort to connect astrology with a polytheistic belief that goes beyond simple worship of stone and wood. For example, Vedic or Jyotish astrology, an essential part of the Vedic religion, as practiced in India for over two-thousand-years, assumes that the astrological positions that one with born with are a picture of the karmic state of one’s birth. For example, good planets in the fifth house or a well-placed fifth house ruler indicates very good poorvapunya or past life credit. The entire astrological understanding that is at work is that the stars and planets reflect the state of one’s karma, i.e., that there is some kind of judgment that is built into the cosmos or directed by some kind of divine force that has assessed past lives and the work that is required in the present life to “pay back” what one owes for past transgressions in previous lives. This kind of conjunction between divine judgment and astrology is deliberately, I would say, avoided by Maimonides.

Instead, Maimonides treats astrology as if it were a belief in a fatum that rigidly applies a set of heavenly laws that are embodied in the planets and stars and imposed on life on this earth. Maimonides treats of it as if it were not rational in the sense that this order is beautiful and a part of providence, the good maintenance of the cosmos; instead, Maimonides implies that astrology’s belief is a dark belief in an alien and strange cosmos that can only be discerned through odd forms of divination and through attempts to harness irrational forces for the good of man through the use of magic or sacrifice. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides also treats idolatry as the use of any form of image or symbol as if it were truly divine or an expression of the god. The problem with idolatry is that it lies about the god and the divine by either limiting it improperly or anthropomorphizing it. God is not, for example, an old man sitting on a throne in heaven and cannot even be likened to such an image. That kind of view of god is idolatry. Instead, the proper approach, according to the Rambam, is apophantic , i.e., by negating the ephemeral and doomed and the image in favor of a perfection, goodness, knowledge, and power that is beyond any limitation. For example, god is the perfect being. This very statement, however, has the limitations of the language, even in expressing the positive character of god. It may be wiser to say that god is not imperfect, as what is true is indeterminate. Words fail to speak the whole of reality. (For the problem of articulating wisdom see my piece: http://icastes.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/kalev-%E2%80%98s-anti-blog-words-fail/.)
The wise way to speak of god is to speak only of the truth of god and not lie or create illusions that become objects of worship. That problem also points to the relation of the philosophers to the Torah, as philosophers tacitly make the claim that they speak of what is true in a true way, while the adherents of the Torah rely on vast correspondences of corporeal terms to describe god and his works.

The “broadest basis,” as Strauss writes, is that the Rambam believes that “the world has a governor, namely, the mover of the sphere.” The sphere is the whole of the cosmos, both noetic and physical. Basically, god is the noetic sphere whose is pure thought thinking itself, and whose thought creates the physical part of the cosmos. Although Aristotle believed the entire cosmos to be eternal, Maimonides “had refuted the alleged proofs of the philosophers against creation and in particular creation out of nothing.” What must be remembered here is that what is created is not god, the sphere, but the corporeal part of the cosmos, which Aristotle, for example, thought was co-eternal with the noetic spheres. According to Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroës in the Christian lands in Medieval times), Aristotle’s great innovation was the postulating of an eternal cosmos at a time when no one, both in his own time and before, had accepted anything but creation. At the heart of the Torah is the belief that god created the corporeality of the cosmos out of nothing or no-thing, i.e., out of nothing that has being.

According to Strauss, Maimonides makes an alliance of the philosophers and the Torah against astrology. He does so even though the philosophers truly don’t agree with the Torah that god performs miracles through the angels, although the philosophers do believe the whole is animate, alive, and thoughtful. The Guide has a very great angelology, one that was taken wholesale by St. Thomas, along with Maimonides’s notion that when god created the corporeal world he created the Aristotelian cosmos. The angels, according to Maimonides, are the “separate intelligences” of the one sphere that is the whole of all being, the first and final cause of all things. The separate intelligences were noetic divisions of the one sphere, but not truly “separate” from it in the sense that the separate intelligences have a standing of their own apart from the one sphere. One might say that the separate intelligences were different modes of the manifestation of the one sphere. But each of the separate intelligences was responsible for the movement of a planet or other heavenly sphere. These spheres were the angels, and it was through these angels that divine messages and miracles were done. (That the spheres were considered angels was a part of the Western theology, both exoteric and esoteric, well into the post-Renaissance alchemy of Hermeticism; however, the entire Christian belief collapsed with the Copernican revolution, but was preserved in various forms in the Jewish Kabbalah.)

Needless to say, when planets and heavenly bodies are equated with angels, there is a suspicion that the pattern of these angels in the heavens may have sway over individual and collective human life, i.e., that they can be a basis for astrology. Moreover, if that were the case, then astrology, if a reflection of angelology, would also be a very essential part of knowing the mind of god, so to speak. It also provides for the possibility that the ancient Jews who revolted against the Romans were not as idolatrous as the Rambam makes them out to be, but that they were relying on angels to help them. Yet, again, one can hope that angels will perform a miracle or even enter a battle; however, it is usually wiser to be well-armed and well-disciplined as soldiers when it comes to fighting a war. (Astrological images are not uncommon in ancient Israel: Consider the Menorah.)

Strauss writes: “Maimonides claims to have proved (in the Guide) that there is no disagreement between the Sages of Israel and the philosophers regarding the general government of the world.” Strauss silently alludes to general providence. According to Alexander of Aphrodisias, the greatest ancient commentator on Aristotle and a very important source for Maimonides, providence is the effect of the movement of the spheres and the sphere in preserving the continuity of the sublunar world, i.e., the earth and its processes of life that come to be and pass away. Built into the way the cosmos is a means of preservation of the way the world is.

Yet, that there is a general providence is well-accepted, the real problem is a major disagreement. Strauss writes: “All the greater is the disagreement between the philosophers and the Torah regarding particular providence. According to the philosophers what happens to individual beings or individual societies is altogether a matter of chance and has no cause in the stars. As against this the true religion, the religion of Moses, believes that what happens to human individuals happens to them in accordance to justice.”

Alexander of Aphrodisias attempted to bring general and particular providence as close as it could philosophically. He wrote and I am sure that Maimonides knew this passage, “If the gods exercise providence over human beings, they provide something good for them. For everything which exercises providence over something brings about some good for the object over which providence is exercised, so what does not bring about something good for a thin will not exercise providence over it either” (Quaestio 1.15). But clearly we are facing a kind of ambiguity here, as what is good is not truly clarified. Yet, if we are accepting of the notion that providence maintains the way things are in the best way, then that doesn’t mean that everything that happens to a human being has a reason for it or that this providence is responsible for a man being rich or being poor or, for that matter, that one’s karma is this way or that.

The philosophers see that the world is in a flux where chance or luck governs what happens to individuals. It may be that a man like Kant has such a strict routine that one can set a watch by his movement, but the unexpected is always there, heavy and dangerous, like a bladder exploding at a dinner because someone won’t rudely interrupt diners by going out to pee. The unexpected is not a matter of divine judgment. It is simply random. Accidents happen, and luck, like accidents, cannot be anticipated. Luck or chance has an odd normative sense of good and bad within it, which is recognized as lucky or unlucky when a random event happens. Chance, luck, tuche, fortuna, etc. is against all reasonable anticipation. Workers in a nuclear plant go to work with no thought that out of nowhere a massive earthquake will occur and a tsunami will cause a nuclear meltdown of their workplace, and yet it happens. The one worker who stayed home that day with a headache avoids the accident.

[For the connection between chance and the gods or god, read my previous post: http://icastes.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/kalev%E2%80%99s-anti-blog-fear-and-piety/%5D

Astrology, when narrowly defined as Maimonides does, is a way to predict the future, i.e., to see the unforeseen or unforeseeable, tacitly denying chance (and justice). Maimonides’s point about the ancient Jews who rebelled against the Romans was that they relied solely on luck in the guise of being able to see what is unforeseen with astrology. Clearly, to rely solely on luck to life is a rather fast path to disaster. The great difficulty with the unforeseen is very simple and yet rather difficult to accept: It simply means that life and the world, although it may have some general plan and proper end, on an individual level does not when one throws the dice or when one hopes that the next day the mailman will come with news that “hope/your uncle in Australia has died/ and you are Pope,” as we find in the Randall Jarrell poem. Although the rich and the capitalists won’t agree, the truth is very simple: No one becomes rich except through chance and luck. Although the fortunate tend to see themselves as foreordained to be rich, this delusion comes apart very well in a bankruptcy court.

In great part, as much as we like to believe that our sublunar world is orderly, it is also chaotic and chaos by its very definition is contrary to order. The reason that the world is in flux is very simple: No one being, organic or otherwise, is self-sufficient, i.e., encompasses the good and its proper end within itself. As such, every being depends on other beings, which themselves are not complete, and as such depending on others and so on and so on. The flux of necessity can only be overcome by an individual being, if, as Plato write, an individual may come to possess the Good, which is beyond all beings. (This essay it not the place to discuss how that may be done.)

That the world is into flux makes our individual lives governed by something that is seemingly irrational and not given to the normal rules of causation. (For a possibility that there is greater and deeper order to chaotic chance, read my previous piece at http://icastes.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/kalev%E2%80%99s-anti-blog-some-notes-on-the-yijing-and-synchronicity/)
While we may be fated to have certain advantages or innate disadvantages in life, that the world will provide the advantages with the means to use them is not a matter to be predicted. People may acquire fortunate advantages and disadvantages, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a run on Goldman Sachs tomorrow, even if they are running their operations smoothly and even ethically and legally.

That the philosophers see the world as governed not by justice or by karma means that the philosophers are not just divided from the adherents of the Torah about the eternity of the world, but on particular providence as well. Yet, that the philosophers regard chance and luck to be the force in the world also means that man is not under a compulsion that deprives him of free will. Although Maimonides apparently takes the side that there is a particular providence does not mean that he doesn’t believe that man doesn’t have free will. It is clear from the Letter on Astrology that the reason that a man is rich is not because god has chosen him to be rich or that god has judged for an innocent man to be executed by the State of Texas and with the political glee of Governor Rick Perry. The basic problem of particular providence as we find it in the Bible is in the Book of Job, whose interpretation has been a matter of dispute since it was written. Are we to say that the Jews who rebelled against Rome leading to the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora of the Jews, not to mention their own murder-suicide, was the work of the particular providence issuing from god? Was that horrific defeat and subsequent despair owing to the providential good of the rebels?

Strauss says about Maimonides’s judgment about the Israelite rebels and their sedition is “an illustration of the view according which the philosophers trace events to their proximate, not to their remote, cause.” When the world is in flux, then there is no true concatenation of causes that can lead to a god making a judgment that god has judged that a particular man ought to be king of Saudi Arabia or that a video ought to go viral on youtube.com.

Strauss concludes: “The remark referred to is at the same time a beautiful commentary on the grand conclusion of the Mishneh Torah: the restoration of the Jewish freedom in the Messianic age is not to be understood as a miracle.” There may be a time when the right Moses comes and he sets up the Messianic age and rebuilds the Temple. But that act will not be because the heavens and the celestial angels will be in a certain way, but because men will work together using their strengths and intelligence to do what they have to do. They might need to have a little luck as well.

Years ago, I was in Israel and went to the delightful Eretz Israel Museum in Tel-Aviv, a treasure house of rarities including a Canaanite archeological site. When I was studying ancient coins, I ran into one that caught my eye. It was a Roman coin picturing in relief the patron deity of Jerusalem. It took me a while, but finally I found the name of the goddess, Tuche, luck, chance, in ancient Greek, the language of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Tuche is a bit too much tilted towards the totally random, but when one considers the long history of the sacred city what better patron deity could that city have?

Posted in astrology, Cosmology, Leo Strauss, Philosophy, Slow and Close Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kalev’s Anti-Blog: The Renaissance and the post-Renaissance World of Rembrandt and Caravaggio and the Human Soul

The Renaissance died in 1620 in much the same way that the same way as the US Depression started with the stock market crash of `1929. There are many reasons for it, but if we want to be very contemporary about it one would have to say that the Renaissance died because in 1620 the economic structure of Europe based on trade stopped. Moreover, as the Thirty Years War became all-consuming in parts of Europe, economic depression and insecurity devastated any effort to keep the classical world alive. The Thirty Years War and Oliver Cromwell’s destruction of Catholic Ireland were so terrible that much later the revolutionaries in the former British colonies fashioned a First Amendment to prevent religious wars. The Reformation and the equally protestant Counter-Reformation made puritans of practically of everybody in Europe, not just in Britain, where in a generation after Shakespeare the Puritans closed all the theatres. The great extravagances of the Duke of Lerma in Spain, of Maria de Medicis in France, and of the Duke of Buckingham in England were swept away. There were great monarchies in Europe and they were all afraid that they, too, would be swept away. Thus, there were great “statesmen” whose work was to preserve the monarchies, men like the Cardinal Richelieu or the Count-Duke of Olivares (whose face glows in the portraits of Valázquez), and the Archbishop Laud who attempted to save the last Renaissance court, that of Charles I in England. War, depression, and eventually the creation of the nation-state meant that there could never be another Renaissance again. That’s one approach.

But that kind of analysis is what we would find when we read historians who are enraptured of the politics and the economics of the times. But there is something that is rarely incorporated into the histories. It is the radical change in thought arising from Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and later Spinoza and many others. Art and thought and politics radically changed, because the classical world that the Renaissance rediscovered had been abandoned and thrown away.

What I am about to say about Renaissance art is controversial and will seem too simplistic. Apologies, as I am not writing a long dissertation. Somewhere along the line, Italians looked around them and saw Roman ruins with which they had lived for centuries. Some began to study the works of the pagans, and they discovered a world that was entirely different than their own Christian way of life. They also re-discovered the Greek word mimesis, i.e., imitation as the method with which art works. The notion that art is the imitation of nature was first articulated by Aristotle, but today it is no longer understood. When Dr. Johnson said of Shakespeare that he held a mirror to nature, he did not mean that Shakespeare was a documentarian or that he had found a way to show the world exactly as it is. No, what Aristotle meant was that all beings have a natural development and a natural end or perfection, even if in nature these higher developments are rare to find. What art can do is to present what is potential in nature, including the perfection of something. The ability of that freedom-loving fiction is to show what is truly rare, something that has reached its proper natural end, both for good and bad. For example, Shakespeare wrote a sequence of history plays which encompassed the most difficult of times for England, i.e., of the civil wars that racked that country from the time of the overthrow of Richard II to the defeat of Richard III on Bosworth Field by the Earl of Richmond. This history is not a history as we know it. In fact, a large part of it is simple fiction that never happened. However, oddly, Shakespeare’s version of those years is better than the real thing, because it shows the political and human problems against a canvas that clarifies what the true problems are in a way that ordinary history cannot. Another example: Although Lear never existed as Shakespeare made him out to be, Lear represents the very epitome of the political perfection that English kings had sought. Not only does Lear rule a united England and the English isles, but his chief rivals, the Kings of France and Burgundy, are at his court currying favor to marry his daughters. We see how the most powerful of men undoes his entire kingdom and his own life simply because he loves his youngest daughter best. That he is the greatest king makes his fall and his love truly tragic. This mimetic approach to art imitating the perfection of nature is what gives Shakespeare his universality. Even though Shakespeare writes about some very parochial place in Italy, at the end one experiences the love of Romeo and Juliet not as some puny “feeling” between two kids, but as something universal about love itself.

Imitation of nature was a truly pagan approach to art. What made the Renaissance so classical was that it rediscovered that the Greeks and Romans in their art had attempted to show man not as he is, but as he could be, both for good and bad. Da Vinci, for example, did long studies of the relations of the various parts of the body, not in the way they usually are, but in their “ideal.” The pagan statues of the gods, for example, were perfect in their proportions, including the emphasis on the head through the reduction of the size of the penis (small was better than large for the Greeks), and these forms informed the Renaissance Italians in their statues of everything from the great David in Florence to the Michelangelo’s Moses for the grave of Pope Julius II. The entire pagan approach to art totally reinvigorated the primitive mythology of the Bible and Christianity, for example, its apotheosis probably being the Sistine Chapel.

The second and very important part of Renaissance art was not just the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, but their revival as gods and goddesses, all done in a Christian age. This remarkable development is ignored today, because people assume that the pagan gods as they were portrayed and housed on canvas and in marble were simply some kind of affectation of decoration and fantasy. However, that was not the case. It was a mass movement to revive these gods, but was done in a way that was meant not to arouse Christian resentment and censure. One can think of, for example, what one of the most beautiful books of all time, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, had done. The so-called The Strife of Love in a Dream is a vast myth where the erotic gods and goddesses are evoked without any interference from Christianity in the privacy of the dream.

Of course, perhaps the most essential thing about the pagan gods is their unabashed nudity. While the eroticism of these gods is self-evident, our ignorant modern sensibility fails to see that this nudity is symbolic of perfection itself. Michelangelo, for example, paints the pre-fall beings naked, because that was the state of man before Adam takes a bite out of the apple. Nudity and perfection also meant that the artist had reflected on how the human form can reflect the divine and it is amazing how remarkably beautiful the Renaissance bodies are.

Of the various examples that intrigue me, the most interesting to me is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Venus or Aphrodite rises out of the water, naked, with a face that is human, but a face that no woman has had or will have. Botticelli doesn’t merely show us some quaint little story: He has painted a divine moment and how it must truly be. It is as much a revelation as the claim that the Decalogue presented on Sinai is a revelation. We know what divine revelation is through Botticelli’s Venus. It is the mimesis of the presence of the goddess among us.

And it must be noted that these gods and goddesses did not just go away. They are revealed in the works of Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni, Bernini, Poussin, and even in Rembrandt’s The Rape of Persphone. Many other examples of the presence of these deities are found throughout the 15th-17th centuries, not just in painting and sculpture, but in architecture as well, as in the Villa d’Este. Underlying these deities is an assumption about the human soul. It is that the soul is part of the truth of all things, of the cosmos itself, i.e., that an understanding of the human soul is a key to the understanding of the whole of all things.

Then, out of nowhere there is a first-rate painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who appears briefly in the early 1600s towards the end of the Renaissance. A homosexual and perhaps a murderer and perhaps murdered himself at a young age, Caravaggio’s techniques, his use of light, his use of the secretive character of chiaroscuro, had an impact on painters all over Europe. But Caravaggio did something that no Renaissance painters before him did. Let us look at it in this way: Imagine a moment, you are painter and you are commissioned to paint a Madonna. You need a model, and you hire a well-worn prostitute to sit for you for a few coppers. You give her a costume and then you paint her. But unlike a Renaissance or Medieval painter, you simply paint her the way she is, facials marks and all. The portrait is that of a prostitute with a costume; the title has something to do with Mary. The technique of the painting is so different, so exciting, that is appears that Mary is truly there in the art, rather than a prostitute. Caravaggio did precisely that, but in a less muted way that I have described it.

Caravaggio did not “idealize” his subjects. Today, his paintings look harmless, even the ones that are obviously in part homosexual erotic fantasy. However, in his day, they were revolutionary. His paintings were no longer Renaissance as were the works by Raphael or da Vinci. They were something new. One of the painters he influenced was Rembrandt van Rijn and with Rembrandt there is a decisive change that put an end to the Renaissance approach to art, as well as in the view of the human soul itself.

The man who brought this problem to the fore is the late-Howard B. White of the New School for Social Research in his remarkable essay, “Rembrandt and the Human Condition,” which was published in the 1978 book Antiquity Forgot. White was a student of Leo Strauss, and Strauss both tapped and lobbied to have White replace him in the New School when Strauss decided to move to the University of Chicago. [A bit of extraneous polemics: There is a portion of today's rightwing that assumes and promotes Strauss as a conservative as in neocon or even in the Bachmann mold. At the same time, there are liberals who have swallowed the propaganda that was somehow the father of the neocon movement. These views are totally false. It should be noted that White was a socialist and he knew what a socialist is, as opposed to someone like Michelle Bachmann who doesn't have any idea of what a socialist or a communist is. It should also be noted that one of most important of Strauss's intellectual friends was Alexandre Kojève, who happened to be a rather eccentric communist. So much for the conservative nonsense, which I just wish would just go away.]

White, who was not an art historian, pointed out Rembrandt, like Caravaggio and Titian and other artists, found that the classical approach to art as Aristotle conceived of it, i.e., of imitation of nature and that of painting what is perfection, was too restrictive and that it was possible to replace that classical approach with a dramatic use of light and darkness as Caravaggio did years before and the affirmation of compassion for what was depicted. White writes: “Rembrandt in implicitly raises the question as to why, in response to the development of universality, in the face of the great metaphysical systems like that of Descartes, it was necessary to turn to the soul and the self.”

White makes the case that Rembrandt saw the truth of the soul as soul (i.e. the self) is not related to the truth of the whole of all things. This decisive step in art has ramifications with which we live even today. Apparently, there is an agreement that the young Rembrandt had painted or drawn at least 90 and probably more self-portraits. These portraits are self-portrait, not portraits of his soul. To divorce the soul from the truth of all things is the same as thing as establishing the self as primary over the soul. White compares the numerous Rembrandt self-portraits to the various confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where Rousseau exposed his self from everything from his best thinking to his masturbatory fantasies and his sexual deviances. What is important here is that Rousseau, too, never concerned with his soul, but with his self.

Throughout his life, Rembrandt made self-portraits, including portraits that were incorporated into other themes, in a way as if he were constantly looking into a mirror, a mirror not to nature, but a mirror that captures his physical shape. My favorite of his self-portraits is in the Frick Collection in New York. It is an amazing work, where Rembrandt’s hand seems completely malformed if one approaches the painting too closely. You also see colors in the flesh that are not in any human hand, but in the painting at a proper distance look exactly like flesh. The distance from the portrait has a lot to do with how one sees it. But these portraits are not a leap to universality, but it is a quest for individuality, an absorption into one’s individuality and the expression of compassion for that self.

White, however, interpolates something that is entirely unexpected when one reads his essay for the first time. It is that White believes that the philosopher Descartes, who was living as a nomad in the Netherlands, a very tolerant place and nearly secularist society, at the time, was an acquaintance of Rembrandt. Descartes is one of the founders of modernity, along with Machiavelli, Bacon, and Hobbes. Descartes doubted all pre-scientific knowledge, i.e., all traditional metaphysics as well as any god and found that there was only one thing he could trust: Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He created what is now known as the Cartesian duality. Descartes knew he had a mind, but that mind knows only what one can make and mathematics. The rest of the world is “extension,” that is, mere matter that goes on and on and is ordered mechanically. One might say that Descrartes’ duality is a radical “self,” which is radically subjective. The self, because it has no longer relation to any kind of universal truth, is thus completely relative to whatever the individual thinks about his self.

White evokes Leo Strauss about this problem of whether one makes a soul portrait as Shakespeare did or as a self-portrait as Rembrandt did. He quotes one of my favorite passages from Strauss:

Not a few people who have come to despair of the possibility of a decent secularist society, without having been induced by their despair to question secularism as such, escape into the self and into art. The “self” is obviously a descendant of the soul; that is, it is not the soul. The soul may be responsible for its being good or bad, but it is not responsible for its being a soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain whether it is not a self by virtue of its own effort. The soul is part of an order which does not originate in the soul; of the self it is not certain whether it is a part of an order which does not originate in the self. Surely, the self as understood by the people in question is sovereign or does not defer to anything higher than itself; yet it is no longer exhilarated by the sense of its sovereignty, but rather oppressed by it, not to say in a state of despair.

Descartes had replaced virtue, that activity that is directed beyond the self to the soul, by the passions, which are totally tied up with the self. White notes; “Rembrandt certainly had a hierarchy of the passions, wherever he got it. He either replaced virtue with the passions or identified virtue and the passions.” What makes Rembrandt such an interesting painter is that he subordinates everything to light and dark, instead of imitating the natural development or perfection of human activities and thought. The subordination of everything to light and dark is a rich way to appeal to the passions.

This fascination with the self that is Rembrandt has become a fascination throughout modern life and modern art. I had students who wanted to write novels and inevitably they wanted to write autobiographical novels, as if their lives were of paramount interest to the world. Occasionally, one would do it with remarkable technique and verve that would make me overlook the fact that the life that was the object of the writing was very boring, vulgar, and uninteresting. But inevitably, the success of such a novel rested on its evocation of what is light and airy, and what is dark. The students who wrote short stories or parts of novels that simply were about their lives were annoying small in scope and interest. But these students were really writers, as they were young people exploring the physicality, the materiality, of their lives and they wanted to know their selves, but not their souls, and as such their work were never satisfactory to read.

After Rembrandt, any evocations of classical things, including classical gods and goddesses, were simply conventional. They lost their natural character, and became signs or social symbols. The putti we find in Renaissance art are certainly not the putti we find in Victorian art, as the latter is not divine, but a quite decoration. Inevitably, because the soul was no longer of interest in art or imitating nature in the Aristotelian sense was no longer the method of art, painters and other artists were able to convert art into self-expression rather than a search of the expression of what is universal and true or, for that matter, what is just beautiful. Eventually, self-expression meant that there was no need for any examination of the self on the canvas. You could hammer away at two or three big squares all your life and then commit suicide after the squares went from a blood-orange glow to a dreary black surrounded by gray.

In a 1959 interview with poet and art critic Frank O’Hara, painter Larry Rivers said:

In the past you would walk right up to a painting if you were attracted, and the nearer you got the more intimate you felt with the work. There was something to examine close up. Today it doesn’t make a difference how close you get, you’re still just as far as away as you were. There’s nothing to learn from detail. Paintings are done close up. But today their impact is at a distance—the kind of painting that looks the same thirty feet away as it does at five feet. They’re practically made to be in buildings. But I think there should be an appreciable difference being near, in the detail. I thought that used to differentiate me from the others, but it’s fading fast. I’m trying to hold on to it. Just to add to my difficulties, I was talking to the painter Grace Hartigan the other day and she agreed with me. She said, “Yes, what is detail today?” Very depressing.

I only mention this passage, because I was thinking about Botticelli’s Primavera. It has more detail up close that it might take years of discovery to make a sense of, while at the same time at a distance it has another life.

In any event, in the Renaissance, there was an effort to universalize and to bring the soul to the fore, while today we are so absorbed in the self that we can’t even see what the self is any more. It is the same whether we are close or far away from it. What’s even better now is that one doesn’t have to learn to draw or to paint. The computer does it better. That sure makes the world a happier place.

Posted in Leo Strauss, Mythology, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Kalev’s Anti-Blog: A Short Story About Chicago and the Occult in the 1960s

Dark Forces

By Kalev Pehme

I was a young man in my first year in college when I was beaten by the Chicago police at a demonstration against the War in Vietnam. Fortunately, although one of the pale-blue helmeted officers managed to hit me, he didn’t bloody me and I managed to escape him hitting me on the head. I had enough that day. I was not a person who enjoyed a nightstick coming down on my head and body, not matter how much I was against the war. I wandered aimlessly until my body initially recuperated from the shock of the blows, and I found myself on State Street. I remembered something about State St. and I remembered a number, 611, and a direction, north. I remembered that one of my girl friends at Lake Forest had told me that the world’s oldest store dedicated to the mysteries and the needs of magic was located there, a great store founded by one D.G. Nelson in 1917. I decided to walk north until I would run into it.

I didn’t realize how long the walk would be. But being from New York City, I was always up for a long walk and, after all, I hadn’t finished my demonstration march. So, even after being rioted upon by the Daley’s goons, I still had energy and I needed to heal. Chicago was a different city then. It is hard to recognize the old city, as over the years Chicago slowly gentrified and today it is a more internationally esthetic city. At that time, however, Chicago was truly a working class city, a hog butcher, a stacker of wheat. It was a city that regarded my long hair and my peace buttons to be the alien intrusion of Dionysos into Thebes. As I walked in the center of the city, I frequently heard the welcoming, “Get out of here, you f***ing, long-haired creep” and many variations on this theme and something that could not be repeated in print at that time. Love it or leave it.

I felt a small pang of pain at the end of my ribs, and I lifted up shirt to look. There was a huge bruise there that was only beginning to take color. It was the first moment that I looked around and saw what a beautiful day it was. The spring sun was unusually warm, and the even the shadowy side of the street felt comfortable. The shadows had the cast of chiaroscuro, dramatic over some buildings which were now no more than three or four stories high. It was normally a drab neighborhood, but the light and dark of the street had dimmed its normal gray sensation. There was no street life as I made my way north, very few bars and restaurants, and, for that matter, not many cars. The blocks were very long and uninviting.

I was getting closer as I occasionally checked the addresses of the buildings. I was walking on the odd-side of the street, which was also very sunny. As if I were lucid dreaming, I heard a distant voice calling, “Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!” It took a moment for me to get my bearings and I looked back to where I had just walked. I had missed it before, and I thought that odd as I am normally very observant. There was a one-story building that was set back from the building line. It was opened widely, and the first thing I saw the side of a horse, a swaybacked horse, tan in color, with dapples of white. In and about it was various mounds of hay whose straws seemed to very fresh. Obviously, I said to myself, the horse was not calling me. The horse and the hay had caught the sunlight, but it left the rest of the interior of this stall or stable or whatever it was dark, as if the horse were a part of a diorama whose interior were painted black. Out of the darkness, came a woman who floated forward and again I heard her call, “Yoo-hoo!”

A woman, no, she was what men called a girl at the time. It was not what I expected from Chicago. This girl was dressed in a long dress with a scooped neckline that revealed the tops of her breasts. She had long hair, and I thought immediately that she must have been a hippie. But I had thought all the hippies had left Chicago in the same way that they had left New York some years earlier. They had gone into the rural nomadic lands of the West to found communes or to start families and live by nature away from the authorities.

From the distance, I couldn’t tell what her age was. She could have been 50 or 15 and I still couldn’t tell. That my eye sight was not particularly good and that I hadn’t changed my glasses for a while didn’t help either. Moreover, her hands and arms were not free. She cradled a large bundle of wild free flowers I couldn’t recognize. She looked like the Roman goddess of plenty, Pomona, or something out of Botticelli. I started to walk towards the small stable or whatever it was (for all I knew Jesus would be lying there in a manger), the girl closed her eyes and shook her head forcefully. Clearly, she didn’t want me to go there. I shrugged, and as I walked away I heard her cry, “I love you!” I turned and replied, “I love you, too!” It was a love that functioned to keep people mysteriously apart.

It was the 1960s after all. I was quite close to the occult bookstore, and it didn’t take me long to get there. I wasn’t at all what I thought it would be like. It was small, and the vitrines were dusty, and it turned out that the entire store seemed dusty. In one of the store windows, there was a poster of a pentacle hanging in front of it. At the floor of the window, there were various copies of occult books of various kinds from astrology to Crowley to general magic books. As I opened the door and walked in, the bell on the door was tripped. Inside, there was only one employee or owner or whatever he was. He ignored me, as I really didn’t fit the mold of an occultist. Although it had a lot of books by Blavatsky and other Theosophists, it was not theosophist store. I explored the various sections of the store. I noticed that beside books, the store also had various talismans and other handy practical magic objects.

I don’t know what possessed me, but I went to the clerk and asked, “Do you have the Daubmannus?”

He was a slight man, gray like the back alleys of Chicago, bespectacled with moon-round glasses that were in style at the time. He looked at me skeptically. Finally, he said, “A Daubmannus?

“Yes, a Daubmannus.”

“If I had one, what would make you think I would see a multi-million dollar book like that to you?”

I laughed and continued, “Of course, you don’t have one. No one has one. There were only three printed in the 1600s. One has disappeared, assumed to have been destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II. Another is supposed to be in a protective vault in Israel, and the other is rumored to be floating around from one book dealer to another or from one collector to another.”

“So, you know something about the Daubmannus. I’m impressed,” he said sarcastically.

“My father was an expert in the secret name of god, and he spoke about it often,” I answered.

“What is his name?” he asked firmly, but still skeptical.

“Was.”

“Was.”

“My father’s name was Jorge Ricardo, and I am Juan Ricardo,” I answered.

“Both names quite well known in certain circles,” the clerk replied, stifling any effort to show that he was really now impressed. “Some say your father was the only man in the world to truly know the name of god and how to pronounce the Tetragammaton.”

I nodded, and silently went on my way once more through the shelves. It was even then something remarkable to me. Here was a boutique rationally and neatly, needing a vacuum cleaning, that housed and sold the irrational and unreason as if it were it were Marshall Fields selling an old line of woman’s clothing. I was getting tired of it all. Too many people were subscribing to a system of belief that could not be rational or even in the most common way to be reasonable and my body’s bruises were now throbbing. Yet, rather than going back to Lake Forest, I decided instead to go the University of Chicago to visit my friend Vanessa from San Francisco, well, not a friend, not a lover, but I wanted her to be lover before friend.

I retraced my steps down State St., but the woman and the horse were gone. The hay was still there, but the woman and the horse were gone. Was I so long in the bookstore that they had time to leave? I didn’t know. I instead concentrating on getting way south to the U of C as it would be a long trip.

I was walking down the main drag of the campus when I saw a crowd of more demonstrators and strikers, the intellectual elite of the US arguing over the war and social justice. Justice was actually something important in those days, and it is word today that is connected solely with the punishment or execution of criminals. It was an odd sight as I came closer. On the podium was a professor from the economics department, someone named Milton Friedman. He was jabbering away about how he agreed with the strikers, but he had a better way, capitalism. Of course men like him never see that capitalism is, an occult and esoteric side of the communism that he feared would infect the souls of the university activists.

Vanessa was one of those lovely girls of the time. I always imagine her dressed in Errol Flynn dueling shirts and jeans. If not that, she wore the bright prints of long granny dresses, only hers were always just a bit better than everyone else’s. She was living in an apartment with two other girls in Hyde Park, an oasis from the black ghetto around it, which even the most socially conscious U of C student feared. There were the dark forces of poverty and ignorance hid waiting to spring like an African predator on the unsuspecting civilized man. Integration was no longer a goal by then.

Vanessa greeted me warmly, thank god. “What a surprise, Juan. I am so happy to see you,” Vanessa said. She was an English major, very much into Northrup Frye, seeking grand mythological forms everywhere. She kissed me in a way that made me forget how truly worn down I was.

“I went to the demonstration today, Vanessa. I got beaten up,” I said wearily, promising myself that I would never lead the vanguard any more.

“My hero,” Vanessa replied. I lifted my shirt and showed her the now exceptional colors of my bruises that reminded her of the dark hues of a Caravaggio painting. “Daley is disgusting,” Vanessa replied, reminding of the mayor that was to Chicago as Ho Chi Minh was to the revolution in Vietnam. Vanessa stripped me down and had me lie on her bed. Although it was too late, Vanessa brought an ice bag, and nursed my day’s wounds, front and back. After a while, I said, “You know, there is something that I would rather do.”

“And what could that be?” she teased. “I know, it’s time to get something to eat.”

I hungered for something else, and, fortunately, Vanessa was hungry, too.

Afterwards, we had some dinner, a typical deep-dish Chicago pizza. I almost fell asleep while eating, and it took Vanessa’s strength to bring me back to her apartment. Her roommates laughed at me, I remember, and then I fell asleep, a sleep I truly needed.

I do remember that I dreamed of the woman, girl, I had seen that day at the stable with the swayback horse. The light was on her now very young and innocent face and she was smiling at me, still holding the flowers as if they were a newly born child. Who are you? I asked in my dream. She simply continued to laugh at me, Who are you?

This time I could make out her face. She was the one out of Botticelli. Are you a witch? I asked her. She laughed even more, amused by ignorance. It doesn’t matter, I said, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget you, goddess, never, never, never. As with all dreams, the scenes shift. I found the girl on top of a grassy knoll standing besides the swayback horse. The breeze was brushing a few strands of her hair across her face. She couldn’t move them as her arms were filled with flowers. So, I decided to go to her, and gently I pushed the locks from her face and secured them from the wind.

When I awoke, I found Vanessa all naked sleeping beside me and, when I looked at my chest, I saw that the bruises were all gone.

Posted in astrology, Mythology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Math and Reality

By Kalev Pehme

In one of the great books of the 20th century, Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, Jacob Klein delineated the difference between ancient and modern mathematics. How we understand mathematics truly speaks to how we believe the entire cosmos or universe is. From the very outset of the book, Klein writes:

The creation of a formal mathematically language was of decisive significance for the constitution of modern mathematical physics. If the mathematical presentation is regarded as a mere device, preferred only because the insights of natural science can be expressed by “symbols” in the simplest and most exact manner possible, the meaning of the symbolism as well as of the special methods of the physical disciplines in general will be misunderstood. True, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century it was still possible to express and communicate discoveries concerning “natural” relations of objects in nonmathematical terms, yet even then—or, rather, particularly then—it was precisely the mathematical form, the mos geometetricus, which secured their dependability and trustworthiness. After three centuries of intensive development, it has finally become impossible to separate the content of mathematical physics from its form.

No matter how a modern physicist explains what the universe is, in the end that understanding cannot be expressed in any way except in a formal mathematical language. One might theorize about something in the universe, but in the end it was to be put in a mathematical language. The physical contents of the universe and their motions cannot be explained in any other way.

Klein’s work points to a very great difference between the ancients and moderns. The ancient Greek mathematicians, including Plato and Aristotle, when thinking about number, always thought of number as a number of things. There is no three, but there are three elephants, three daisies, three gulls, three triangles. You count off things, three objects. A number is always a definite number of things. There is no three that lives in a conventional Platonic heaven. Of course, one can say that the three young girls and three young men and that the three are somehow equivalent, but they are only equivalent insofar as the two sets of three are of three objects, girls and young men.

The implication of this approach is that numbers determine concrete realities. But more importantly it means the unit, the one, is not a number. The first true number as Aristotle tells us is the dyad, two. The unit, the one, is the beginning or the source out of which the not-one, the many, emerge. On a cosmic level that means the whole of all things is an indeterminate, a non-numerical infinite, which, when made determinate becomes “one.” Thus, the non-numerical infinite that is the whole has a dyadic structure, which in turn allows for manyness. It is like the beginning of base-two number system. It begins with zero out of which one comes and then all the rest of the numbers in series of zeros and ones.

When one understands that numbers are the counting off of objects, we understand that individual objects and things are inherently countable, because the cosmos is both an indeterminate unlimited as well as determined units. There is no such thing as an infinite number, because infinity is an indeterminate and every number is a specific determination of how many objects there are. The ancients would not make an equation in which the symbol of infinity would be placed. Moreover, the world is such and objects are such that the unified being of things of each number is possible.

It is very important to understand what a symbol is. All language as well as the mathematical language communicates through arbitrary sensible signs having a meaning imposed on it by convention. A sign can be perceived by the senses. The cause of the symbol is either from nature or from convention. A cloud, which is a sign of rain, has a meaning from nature. The traffic light red has a meaning from convention. Because symbols are by arbitrary agreement, symbols can be both temporary and permanent. Temporary symbols are the signals adopted by a baseball team, the password to a computer operating system, or the colors of a band. Permanent symbols are the soldier’s salute, the nod of yes, hieroglyphics, chemical formulae, and numbers.

When the new science started in Europe in the late 1500s and into the 1600s, a great change occurred in mathematics. It was to put in the simplest form that a number could be separated from objects as if it existed solely in the mind. Three existed as a pure concept. As Hegel said, the ancients begin with things, the moderns begin with concepts. That allowed for a pure general algebra where symbols alone are used. For example, I can write a+b=c and that takes on an objective reality even though we have no idea what the quantities are. Where once the species unity of things enabled the individual numbers of objects to be counted, the moderns made the symbol species an object itself. In other words, abstractions of the mind (like a+b=c) became real objects in and of themselves, even though they have no reality except the one we give it arbitrarily. With that change Descartes was able to create a duality where the symbols made real were part of the mind while the substance of the world, its corporeality, was thought of as extension. The mind of man has only knowledge of mathematics and what man makes, and the world is a mechanical extension whose true physics works through the imagination of the physicist. The scientist imagines and the pure intellect of man, full of symbols and symbolic mathematical procedures, sorts out the various elements of the imagination to give them mathematical form. There is no real reference to the world at all, only to images of the world in the head of the mathematician. What is critical is that what the mathematician does is to create what we call a virtual world or “virtual reality” today. Oddly, in this scheme of things, the virtual world is actually more real than the sensible world. In fact, it is Cartesian geometry that enables us to use our computers for everything from games to word processing, all in a virtual world. What is real is what is abstract in the mind, while the rest of the world is a machine or works mechanically, including living beings. Animals are machines. It is a mechanical, not an electronic view, so to speak.

When it comes to modern physics, the problem is very simply that it accepts the Cartesian duality as inherently true. A theoretical metaphysical change has to be accepted to be true to allow the mathematics to work as it does. Thus, mathematics exists apart from the world in pure form.

The ancient Pythagoreans, for example, did not work that way. Instead, they gave a mathematical interpretation by analyzing the whole of the cosmos and then they used ratios to give it a mathematical ordering. The octave has a ratio of 1:2 and the ordered world is full of the various proportions. These ratios were the logos (speech, reason, ratio) that is inherently a part of the cosmos. But we moderns don’t think that way. The world has no inherent rationality to speak of, in great part, because what constitutes rational today, a form symbolic language called mathematics, exists apart from it.

This duality thus does something else. It helps to distort thinking about the world itself. For example, while infinity is actually not a number logically, in modern mathematics it can be treated as if it were a number. Today, there are physicists who speak of infinite parallel universes. It is a logical nightmare, yet the in the imagination of the physicist it makes perfect sense because his mind and his imagination, he believes, are absolutely apart from all the infinite universes. All he has to do is to find the math to express that, and then see if he can find an experiment to prove it. (It should be noted that there are many problems with experimentation as well, but that is another story.) The Cartesian duality has already framed the scientist’s mind as to what is reality is, and he cannot think of any other reality except the mechanical extension he thinks it is. Inherent in the very conceptualization of number was an inherent understanding of the world. If, however, that duality is not true, then all of modern theoretical physics must be re-evaluated. While some theories are patently true because they are observable, a vast part of mathematical physics may in fact be false or a distorted version of what is true. Did the Big Bang create mathematics or did mathematics create the Big Bang? It is hard to say when the mathematics is understood to be apart in a special realm of the mind. There may not have been a Big Bang at all.

It should be noted that Descartes attempted to locate the mind in the brain itself, i.e., the mind has a material cause. However, he never went to the point of saying that mathematics is in the brain. Inevitably, it doesn’t take much reasoning to see that the Cartesian duality and the existence of mathematics apart from the world is very problematic, but the theoretical physicists don’t see the problem with their view of the world. The solipsistic character of Cartesian thought means that what he regards as knowledge is simply a kind of self-beholding within the mind while the rest of the material world is not truly knowable, because the mind has no place in that material world. It could be that the entire system of physics that we have may be an illusion in its theories of origin, of parallel universes, and so on. Modern theoretical physics may just be in great part a great imaginative picture has very little to do with the way the universe truly is.

The only remedy is that we have to be able to place our knowledge in the world again. But to do that requires that the universe be a cosmos again, a fully integrated whole which itself is reasonable and accounts for itself through reason, logos, and not just through a formal mathematical language of man-made symbols. That is going to be very hard for the moderns to do.

Posted in Cosmology, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Kalev ‘s Anti-Blog: Words Fail

By Kalev Pehme

In an essay on Thucydides, Leo Strauss writes: “Wisdom cannot be show by being spoken of. How then can it be shown at all? Wisdom is the highest form of the life of man. How can the life of man be shown? The life of man, or, if you wish, the inner life of man, man’s awareness in the highest sense in the widest sense, shows itself in deeds and in speeches, but mostly in such a manner that neither the deeds by themselves nor the speeches by themselves suffice to reveal it.”

We glimpse, we speak of the whole, in patterns of contraries. Some contraries are contradictions, things that are negated by their contrary, while other contraries are complements like yin and yang.

“To take the most examples: one man makes just speeches and does just deeds[;]” Strauss continues. “[a]nother makes just speeches and does unjust deeds; a third makes unjust speeches and does unjust deeds; and a fourth makes unjust speeches and does just deeds. In every case we see the man only when we both hear his speeches and see his deeds. And in every case the contribution made by the perception of the speeches on the one hand, and by the perception of the deeds on the other, is different.”

The principle of contradiction is simply that something cannot be and not be at the same in the same respect is not violated here. Because there is a whole, contraries that are natural parts of the whole cannot cancel each other out. They become two contrary poles within the whole.

Strauss then notes: “What is true of men applies also to measures or policies. Every policy proceeds from deliberation, from speech; speech is the cause of deed. Yet the speech, the deliberation, is itself based on consideration of facts, of deeds. Speech is neither the beginning nor the end, but a state on the way, or rather a beacon which illumines the way. Only through speech are the deeds or facts revealed.”

There has to be a point of beginning, which is both speech and deed at the same time, apparently, which is non-contradictory, yet has a dyadic structure where the indeterminate becomes a one.

Strauss: “Yet while revealing, speech also conceals or deceives. The speech, or deliberation, does not control the outcome: it has no power over chance. The speech may be based on some misapprehension of one kind or another. And the speech may be meant to deceive. The speech is meant to reveal causes or reasons of the deed, but it states only defensible reasons, which may or may not be the true reasons. The deeds without the speeches are meaningless, or wholly ambiguous. But the speeches add an ambiguity of their own. The light which the speeches throw on the deeds is not the light of truth. Speech distorts reality. But this distortion is part of reality. It is a part of the truth.”

But it is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because wisdom cannot be spoken of. Speech of necessity deceives, but it can do so in a systematic way, not in a random way where the truth arises from chance or luck. The role of luck in speech and deed, as it is in life in general, has far more efficacy than what we, as moderns, like to believe. For we believe that we can control chance, beat her down like a woman as Machiavelli says. You have a friend and you want to meet that friend at Windows on the World at the old World Trade Center. You are in the subway, and the train stalls. You are very late, but by then two planes have hit the towers. You are saved, and your friend dies. Chance has exceptional power over life and death. We don’t think much about chance, except when it hits us hard, breaking our routines which falsely gives us a sense of secure order. We think something is true when it is not or we don’t recognize what is in front of us. With that, we create a law or a tradition and then we force people to live by that. Or we go to war where by chance a soldier or civilian dies or lives. Not everything necessarily happens “for a reason.”

Because chance is such a great force in human life, chance itself is a cause of most of the events in our lives. It is rare when we actually have control over anything in our lives. The inseparability of speech and deeds affected by chance means that not only do words fail the whole truth and the whole of things, but, when we add the problem of secrecy and deliberate deception, means that speech and deeds are distorted almost always. The proper role we must take in life is constant caution and moderation especially when taking political positions. Sadly, today, our world is intensely directed against both caution and moderation. We live in a world of constant revolution through our economy and technology, while at the same time the will to power has become the core of our politics. Tea Party politics is nothing more than the will to power (made stupid).

It also means that if we strive for truth or wisdom that we must be constantly on guard when we examine human life at the very least in the way Thucydides did. He looked for what was concealed and hidden from view. It would have been very interesting to have seen the way Thucydides would have looked at the Weapons of Mass Destruction cause of the war in Iraq. For example, did Colin Powell, when attempting to persuade the United Nations, carried a small glass vial with a power in it used that vial to deceive the world? If he didn’t, and it was inadvertent, it is no less a lie. The lie set a whole host of horrors into the world, especially when we now know that the intelligence (the secret knowledge obtained by dark men) was actually faked.

We are also warned that we cannot make conclusions about human and political life with total certainty. All conclusions are provisional until we can ascertain both the private or secret from the public or open. In Thucydides, the narrative of events is more or less the way they were, while Thucydides made up the speeches or edited them. By doing so, he made the struggle between Athens and Sparta intelligible. In that way, Thucydides was able to control chance a bit, maybe even a lot. By editing or making up the speeches, the improvement means that the original true speech really was not true. The verbatim speech of Colin Powell in the UN was untrue both in terms of what was truly going on in Iraq and untrue because it is limited by the very events that were meant to be set in motion. Powell became a character in a drama that was much bigger than himself which limits the horizon he could see. If Powell knew what the lack of WMDs in Iraq would do, he would have given a totally different speech. Thucydides would have edited the speech in such a way that the reader would know that that Powell was lying, something we could not know at the time when we watched him give that speech at the UN carrying his little glass vial of powder that was mean to be a biological weapon of mass destruction.

Another thing we know is that Thucydides wrote about the events that occurred contemporaneously with his life. He was not researching the past per se. He questions the past, but he does so in the context of Homer, a poet, and the alleged greatness the Trojan War. The past is more than just a foreign country; it is another planet. Herodotus wrote extensively about the past with tremendous skepticism. Herodotus also was acutely aware of how chance and how misapprehensions and lies color human thought and human conduct. It is difficult enough to sort out the present; it is nearly impossible to divine the past. I can’t account for what happened in my own life two or three days ago. I can’t do it at all for years before, except by my memory, which is not only selective, but ever forgetting. I believe that forgetting is hard-wired in us, because if we remembered everything we did in our lives we could not function. We need to forget a great deal so that we can live every day.

The Greek word for forgetting generally is lethe. In Archaic Greece, the word was associated with silence, darkness, oblivion, and blame. The word for truth, aletheia, a negation of lethe, was associated with true memory, light, speech (i.e, logos both speech and reason together), and praise. Together, aletheia and lethe form a dyad in the same way that speech and deed, barbarity or Greekness, or war and peace do in Thucydides.

We can show wisdom by seeing a wise man in action. A wise man acts wisely, and he speaks wisely. However, we don’t see a wise man too often in the world. Instead, we can read how a wise man writes or we can read the dialogues that both Xenophon and Plato wrote about Socrates. There is a portrait of Socrates, the wise man; however, it is also clear that both Xenophon and Plato made up speeches and put words in the mouth of their character. By improving on Socrates’ speeches, Xenophon and Plato remove chance from the events in which Socrates participated. It is beautiful lie that suspends itself and gives us what is true simply. The best lie is the lie that reveals what is true. That is one wise way.

Posted in Leo Strauss, Philosophy, Slow and Close Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment