“Compassion is the radicalism of our time,” I read on Facebook recently. And whose words were they? I wasn’t surprised to find they’d come from the Dalai Lama, who elsewhere goes so far as to assert that compassion provides the basis of human survival.
Perhaps, then, Pope Francis is a radical, too. He’s certainly saying some of the things espoused by that other high-profile radical, Jesus.
Occupying my thoughts lately: the relationship between justice and compassion; I’ve been trying to break through the innumerable cognitive impasses that loom up every time I try to come to some understanding of the chaos that is our world. But I find myself shaking my head and parroting Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
The myriad issues around crime and punishment, original sin, human nature – and whatever else might have just come to your mind – are all well beyond the scope of this post. Or are they?
In Plato’s Republic, the cynic Glaucon posits that justice is a social contract between people who are roughly equal in power. According to that theory, justice operates on the basis that “no one is able to oppress the others, since the pain of suffering injustice outweighs the benefit of committing it.” (Wikipedia: Glaucon) But there’s a hollow ring to all such claims. In matters of justice, the “roughly” far outweighs the “equal”.
Glaucon told Socrates that “people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched,” explains William Saletan, reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 title, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “No man would be just if he had the opportunity of doing injustice with impunity,” says Glaucon, arguing that the just man would do the same as the unjust man if both had the power to get away with injustice exempt from punishment. (The story Glaucon tells to illustrate his reasoning has to do with an invisibility ring (see Wikipedia: Republic (Dialogue)).
In my view, justice is a creation of human societies and cultures, not the outworking of some universal harmony, divine command, or natural law. Furthermore, I come down firmly on the side of those who argue that justice is the creation of some humans, not the creation of all humans (see Wikipedia: Justice). Thrasymachus, another of Plato’s characters, argues that “justice is the interest of the strong – merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people” (Wikipedia: Justice).
Jonathan Haidt’s book has, as Saletan says, made a significant effort to “[challenge] conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum.” Amazon.com describes Haidt as the co-developer of Moral Foundations theory, and of the research site YourMorals.org , adding that his research aims “to help people understand and respect the moral motives of their enemies.” Beyond understanding and respect, however, what can we do?
Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have different intuitions about right and wrong, Haidt says. And he makes a crucial contribution to a burgeoning debate by “[showing] how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings” (see Amazon blurb). And, cutting short another long story, our gut feelings have been trained by what another reviewer calls “brute evolution” (see Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Tuesday 7 May 2013).
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells me that “Western philosophers generally regard justice as the most fundamental of all virtues for ordering interpersonal relations and establishing and maintaining a stable political society.” But then, stirring a dash of Schopenhauer into the stew, I call to mind his assertion that “Compassion is the basis of morality.”
What I am interested in – and, to me, this is crucial – is not how to reason, argue, or persuade someone to vouchsafe “justice as a right” for this or that disadvantaged or disenfranchised group. That simply isn’t about to happen, as far as I can see. Rather, I’m seeing “justice as a possibility”, arising not out of gut feelings or sentiments, knowledge of right and wrong, or anything moral, but out of the same source from which Jesus pulled the Sermon on the Mount.
That is possibly what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he wrote: “I say more, the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; / …” (see “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame“, undated poem, c. March–April 1877)
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (The Dalai Lama)
In the end only kindness matters.
In philosophy and logic, the liar paradox or liar’s paradox … is the statement “this sentence is false.” Trying to assign to this statement a classical binary truth value leads to a contradiction … (Wikipedia)
The Epimenides paradox (circa 600 BC) has been suggested as an example of the liar paradox, but they are not logically equivalent. The semi-mythical seer Epimenides, a Cretan, reportedly stated that “The Cretans are always liars.” (ibid)
St Paul, writing to Titus in Crete, reminds him: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” (Titus 1:12, KJV)
St Jerome, in a Homily on Psalm 115 (in protestant versions, Psalm 116), further compounds the issue:
I said in my alarm, “Every man is a liar!” [Psalm 116:11] The Hebrew text varies a little: I said in my alarm, “Every man is a lie!” for the meaning of the word ZECAM is lie. … There is no truth in our substance; there is only shadow and in a certain sense a lie – | I mean in our corporeal being, not in the soul. (The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 1, pp293-4)
It is one thing to devise sentences that illustrate mathematical or logical principles. But “classical binary truth values” do not provide a complete understanding of the way things work – and that’s something a writer needs to learn.
Our lives are based on what is reasonable and common sense; truth is apt to be neither. (Christmas Humphreys)
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there. (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī)
Nothing but lies comes out of my mouth. There I’ve done it again. (I keep saying it’s a Zen saying, but I’ve not managed to find it anywhere since I first found it, many years ago.)
Thus, even the philosophical achievements of the Tractatus itself are nothing more than useful nonsense; once appreciated, they are themselves to be discarded. The book concludes with the lone statement: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Tractatus 7) This is a stark message indeed, for it renders literally unspeakable so much of human life. As Wittgenstein’s friend and colleague Frank Ramsey put it, “What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” It was this carefully-delineated sense of what a logical language can properly express that influenced members of the Vienna Circle in their formulation of the principles of logical positivism. Wittgenstein himself supposed that there was nothing left for philosophers to do. True to this conviction, he abandoned the discipline for nearly a decade. (Garth Kemerling)
The “spam queue” for this blog usually contains a high percentage of nonsense – including insincere and irrelevant compliments (often couched in broken English), or handfuls of disjunct excerpts nefariously grabbed from unrelated and unacknowledged sources – and including links to sites offering goods and services of no interest or value to me.
Once in a while, I find the material interesting – such as this excerpt from what turned out to be (thank-you, Google) an essay by Garth Kemerling dealing with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on a site calling itself Philosophy Pages.
The human brain, three pounds of tissue, held more than a hundred billion brain cells and five hundred trillion synaptic connections. It dreamed and wrote music and Einstein’s equations, it created the language and the geometry and engines that probed the stars, and it cradled a mother asleep through a storm while it woke her at the faintest cry from her child. A computer that could handle all of its functions would cover the surface of the earth.
The hundreds of millions of years of evolution from paramecium to man didn’t solve the mystery, thought Kinderman. The mystery was evolution itself. The fundamental tendency of matter was toward a total disorganization, toward a final state of utter randomness from which the universe would never recover. Each moment its connections were becoming unthreaded as it flung itself headlong into the void in a reckless scattering of itself, impatient for the death of its cooling suns. And yet here was evolution, Kinderman marvelled, a hurricane piling up straw into haystacks, bundles of ever-increasing complexity that denied the very nature of their stuff. Evolution was a theorem written on a leaf that was floating against the direction of the river. A Designer was at work. So what else? It’s as plain as can be. When a man hears hoofbeats in Central Park, he shouldn’t be looking around for zebras. (William Peter Blatty, in Legion [pp104-5])
Originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1983, and subsequently turned into what Rinker calls “a more than satisfactory sequel … Exorcist III (which, mercifully, has nothing to do with Exorcist II: The Heretic).” Legion appeared in a Tor paperback edition in 2011 (Tom Doherty Associates, New York).
Everything is nothing with a twist. (Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five)
On the surface, Kurt Vonnegut’s tricky little aphorism seems simple.
Mapping “zero” onto the “ensō” of Zen, the possibilities are endless.
I’m a fan of ex nihilo omnia fiunt … and I love this juicy brush-stroke.
PS: I’ve no idea whose it is – the ensō, I mean.
PPS: Using Google Images, I found the following link: http://www.jingshen.co.uk/index.html , but it doesn’t attribute the image.
We need not stride resolutely into catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders. (Noam Chomsky)
If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion. (Noam Chomsky)
In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival. (Noam Chomsky)
Though [On the Road] didn’t really emerge from his brain fully formed in those frantic three weeks of writing, he did type it up on a single scroll of paper, 120 feet long. (from “Jack Kerouac’s On the Road“, on the NPR website (USA public radio))
There are several schools of Ikebana, each with its own traditions, disciplines and rules. In broad terms, however, the approach is minimalist and “subtractive”: the practitioner assembles the materials in accordance with the rules of structure and the disciplines of practice, shaping and trimming each piece until what remains articulates not merely the essence of the individual materials but the relationships between them.
In Ikebana, silence, mindfulness and attention to detail together clear away distractions and create harmony, elegance and space in the arrangement. The craft of writing has its equivalents.
Of particular significance to me is the value of articulating clearly whilst also affording opportunity to read between the lines.
This connects with the distinction between denotation and connotation. Poets, who often strive to convey their meanings within compressed forms, will often choose words with specific connotations that enrich both the text and the reader’s experience of reading.
One final thought: The narrative that played out in Kerouac’s long scroll started life as myriad details recorded in a tiny notebook.
Reviewing Jack Kerouac’s second novel, for The New York Times of 5 September 1957, Gilbert Millstein called On the Road “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’, and whose principal avatar he is.”
Over the past few days, I’ve been looking into what lay behind that one long scroll onto which Kerouac typed his novel.
Concerned about how certain kinds of writing tends to distance the writer from the reader, reduce the reader to abstract function, or even erase the reader altogether, Kerouac began “to search for a relationship to writing that would recover something of the interactive and behavioral immediacy of spoken language.” (Tim Hunt)
Intent on rescuing literary language from this tendency to alienate, Kerouac sought to emphasize “the aural and oral nature of language as speech,” and was determined “to find a way to make writing, like speech, function in actual time.” (Tim Hunt)
What interests me most, I realise, is the use of compositional reflection to create writing that feels natural and spontaneous, and that reads like conversation — and not merely a transcript of the conversation.
For me, that means “listening to the voices in my head” and recording them faithfully.
Spoken language is at root … an interactive behavior even more than a mode of communication, and it is, thus, inherently performative; writing, though, is potentially, perhaps even inherently, compositional. Writing can be recursive; speech can only be additive. (Tim Hunt)
Six days ago, a friend and I sat in a quiet uptown bar — by which I mean a busy bar at a quiet time on a Friday afternoon — with a couple of glasses of red and no pre-planned agenda. We hadn’t met to discuss any specific topic; we simply allowed the conversation to happen.
I sometimes write like that — poems, especially — simply allowing the writing to happen. Not in a bar, I might add, but usually in the city library.
And sometimes, to my delight, the thing comes out fully formed, needing little or no reworking. More often than not, however, I must resort to recursive composition. Even so, I have learned to trust the old addage, “just write”.
Tim Hunt regards writing as “solitary labor, a matter of will.” For me, though, there’s always an internal conversation going on, with a natural alternation of writing, review, reflection, reworking.
Yes, there are times when I stop myself mid-sentence to add something, scribble in an alternative word choice, or change my mind about the direction I’m heading in. But trying to ensure that it’s perfect in every respect before I write it down would be equivalent to interrupting my friend every time he opened his mouth.