Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The Messenger (Story 2, Origin Cycle)

August 18, 2013 1 comment

File:Winslow Homer - Leaping Trout (1889).jpg


Waking people up, as we all know, can be difficult. Often what they need is not less, but more, sleep. Unfortunately, to some extent, writers are in the business of rousing people. So when we rush that cup of coffee to those of our audience who have pulled the comforter over their head, the morning joe had better hit the spot. 

And as regards the story that follows, the second installment in RT’s incomplete cycle of creation stories, the term “morning joe” is appropriate. Even more so than the opening story of the cycle, “The First Words,” “The Messenger” has been a labor of love. How to encapsulate fundamental truths in a way that carries authority and delivers its message quickly? The great problem of all short story writers, of course. But when the stage is cosmic, the stakes go up. So here is a cup of extra-strong morning brew:

2.  THE MESSENGER  (told by Min the Poet)


Shel floated on the waves; En breathed in, out, in, out.

“Open your eyes,” she whispered.

“What are you thinking about?” Shel asked.

“Language,” En said.  “Now that we have it, why don’t we make something?”

“Because we just did,” Shel said.

“What do you mean?”

“Wait and see.”

It didn’t take long.  Over the course of a day Shel’s body swelled until the next morning she gave birth without pain.  She took the child, a girl, and gave it to En to hold.

The couple cared for the child, creating whatever food she needed.  They called her Shelen.

Splashing woke En up.  Something was splashing water into the boat.  Now on the left side, now on the right side, En looked over once, twice, then saw a flashing silver tail beat the water. Then a fish stuck his head up out of the water and said:  “I am Utara, the messenger of the uncreated world.”

En was too shocked to speak for a moment; then he recovered and said, “How can you exist?  We didn’t make you!”

“That doesn’t matter,” replied Utara, “I’m here because your daughter won’t be happy.  She needs a world to play in and explore.  You’ve forgotten about making the world, and the world is getting impatient.”

“Of course you’re right,” said En, realizing that Shelen had driven his desire to make the world clear out of his mind.  Then he raised himself up and said with an expansive gesture:  “Earth, be!”  Immediately large continents and islands rose up from the ocean.  En and Utara went to the new land and continued creation….

Ice and rock and tree bark, moon rabbits and talking spiders and feathered serpents, people big and tiny, brown and black and green and white, all these things En and Utara made.  They lost count of all the things that had made, and yet they did not slow down or grow tired.  Everything was fine until, until

a tree got sick and died, the earth shook and a crack opened up in it and swallowed everything near it, people made weapons and killed each other.  En looked at Utara and said:  “Why is this happening?”

“There are more purposes in you than you know,” Utara said.  “We need Shel’s help to do it right.”

En agreed, and to stop more suffering he unmade all the things that he and Utara had made.  They were back at the boat, and only Shel was there.  She was crying uncontrollably.

“She’s gone!” Shel said, “Our daughter just disappeared.  What happened?”  When En told her what he and Utara had done, Shel was furious.  “You killed her!  You killed our daughter!  Get out, get out, I don’t want to see you ever again.”

En said that they could start over again and make a new daughter, that they could make the world better than they had done the first time, but all the time Shel flailed at him, beat him about the shoulder and then En lashed out and struck Shel on the mouth.

It was over.  What they said to each other no longer mattered.  Utara said, “You shall not see each other for long ages, and the worlds you make shall be caught up in bitterness and suffering.  And yet there is hope of healing your Estrangement, for the world desires Reconciliation.”

When these things had happened Shel rose up into the sky, and En continued on his way in the boat.  God was broken and the Divine Purpose forgotten.  In this way suffering came into the world.

Copyright  © The Rag Tree, 2013

RT’s Related Posts: 1) The First Words; 2) The Contest for Shel

Painting: Leaping Trout (1889); Winslow Homer. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Thinking about Origins

June 4, 2013 2 comments


this post is too cool; i just had to share…  RT

(reposted from Man of the Word)


Thinking about Origins.


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Cooler than Vanilla Ice Cream on a Hot July Afternoon: Gliese 581.

Perplexities of the Day: The Unannounced Guest (or the Parable of the Faithful Servant)

May 26, 2013 1 comment


Some days are easier than others for RT to visualize; today has been on the less-easy side of the spectrum. This morning centered on revising Gilgamesh tablet 5, this afternoon, on cleaning up the apartment, this evening on completing state 3 of RT’s Map of the Cherson (except that this conflicted heavily with cooking dinner and talking to Mom). And running through all of this was another thread, a reflection on Jesus’s program that greeted RT when he woke up this morning. Which reflection was fine, except that RT had already started a post on the organization of the Hebrew Bible.

More than once in his life, RT has felt like a juggler. But the good news is: Mom is listening to A Prairie Home Companion on her radio, and now RT has time to resolve his quandary and decide what he’s going to post on.

The winner? None of these topics, but one of RT’s reconstructions, something that was occasioned by a stickie that RT ran across back in 2010, he thinks, a stickie that lay on top of the pile of paper on his desk and read, “The Kingdom of God comes like a thief in the night.”

Said quote is actually not a quote, but RT’s response to reading 1 Thessalonians 5:2: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” (KJV). This reading inspired a search that led RT through Matthew, Luke, Thomas, and the Didache, with an emphasis on the Parable of the Faithful Servant and the Parable of the Ten Virgins.

And if this convoluted path weren’t enough, RT would like to point out that he thinks this parable or thread of thought originates with John the Baptist; its apocalyptic tone shares much with John’s preaching, at least from RT’s perspective. In any case, here is RT’s reconstruction.


The Unannounced Guest

John the Baptist said: “Therefore, do not put out your lamps or unfasten your robes—do not let them find you drunk or asleep. This I say to the world—be vigilant! For if the owner knew when the thief will come, the thief would never be able to break in and take the owner’s belongings.”

[based on the Parable of the Faithful Servant, Mk 12:34-37 (not in SV); Matt 24:42–51; Luke 12:35–48; CoptGThom 21b & 103; Didache 16:1a & the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Matt 24:32-36]


RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Syro-Phoenician Woman; 2) Mark and Peter: Origins of the First Gospel.


DrawingThe better part of valour. Sir Frederick Smith. “What’s the good of struggling?” (Punch, 1917). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Beauty and the Body

March 21, 2013 5 comments

File:Study of a Kneeling Nude Girl for The Entombment.jpg

We are physical beings. This fact is so difficult–reminding us of death as it does–that it has led entire societies to reject the world and our place in it. People suspect that much of our mind is also physical, rooted in the body, and therefore on death that part of our thought is lost. Does any part of our consciousness survive, or do we face oblivion?

Actually, it was a comment by fellow-blogger Simon H. Lilly that got RT to thinking about this.

If beauty is recognised, felt, experienced as right, then that suggests a deep brain nerve path, as you say. We tend to think of that sense of rightness as equivalent to a spiritual perspective of the ‘true’, whereas it may just be the familiarity and ease of recognition of well-worn neural pathways. Yikes. Beauty, Truth, Justice, Ethics, Morality, etc all just a learned pattern of synaptic fireworks….

No one, I think, really wants this to be the case; don’t most of us prefer the thought that beauty is an eruption of truth, a proof of something existing beyond ourselves? And what about morality?


RT likes to eat his cake and have it too. Maybe there is something in this metaphor that can help us with our dilemma. What we really want is the impossible: a mind that is undeniably physical, at least in part, but a mind which also doesn’t disappear at death. How can we accomplish this? By taking as our premise the impossible: the mind is rooted in the body, but doesn’t decay after we die. And how can that possibly be true? Because matter is not dumb clay sitting in a brick-mold.

In fact, the greatest minds among us have failed to understand the physical universe. Look at particle physics: just what is the smallest possible particle? How do the particles work together? And here is a fearsome question:

Will mathematics actually be able to lead us to a full understanding of the universe?


RT has been picking away at a possible answer: the problem is that we lack a unified understanding and experience of the world. Maybe we need to start creating a discipline that unifies poetry and mathematics. Wow! Now we’re really chewing away at the magic cake while it continues to stare at us from the table.

How do we do this? Mathematics students need to start writing poetry as undergraduates and continue the practice lifelong. Poetry students need to start studying mathematics and read and understand three or four equations a day.

Then we need to get them all into a classroom talking about how the brain works.


RT prefers coconut creme pie, himself…what about you?


ImageStudy of a Kneeling Nude Girl for The Entombment; Michelangelo (1500-1501). WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Celts & the Exile of Poetry

March 14, 2013 8 comments

File:Sanzio 01 Socrates.jpg

OF THE many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry.

To what do you refer?

To the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received; as I see far more clearly now that the parts of the soul have been distinguished.

What do you mean?

Speaking in confidence, for I should not like to have my words repeated to the tragedians and the rest of the imitative tribe– but I do not mind saying to you, that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them.

(Socrates speaking to Glaucon, from the opening of Book X, Plato’s Republic)


We are over fathomless waters here. The banishment of the poets from Socrates’ ideal city has had immense consequences for the practitioners of the art (and in the end, RT suspects, for all artists, whatever their medium). Here Poetry, and by extension all “imitations” of nature, is condemned as fundamentally uncivilized and destructive to its audience’s understanding, filling the mind with obstructive figments that may please for a moment but serve in the long run only to confuse people’s thinking.

And RT thinks it is no coincidence that Plato (424-348 B.C.) who lived to see the Celt’s sack of Rome and other depredations, may have been speaking not only of Homer and Greek poetry, but of the Celt’s poets, who formed a highly disciplined guild of practitioners, headed by a High Poet (or at least in ancient Ireland). Plato cared deeply for the city, believing it to be capable of producing the best human life possible. The Poets, as far as he could see, advocated an uncivilized life ruled by fancy and belief–the life lived by the Celts at the time, a life lived in the midst of nature.

The debate has raged down the centuries, Philosopher vs. Poet, hard reasoning vs. inspiration. The current state of things would suggest a nearly complete victory for the Philosophers, with enormous cities spread across the globe and poetry seen as an idle past-time, the Celts pushed to the edge of Europe, their languages besieged by the current koine, English.

How much discipline is good? When do we need to stop and feel the richness of experience? Certainly science has brought many miracles; but the argument for the survival and restoration of the Celtic speech must take into account the possibility that there is something good in the magic of poetry–and of language.    RT

Painting: The School of Athens, detail showing Socrates; Raphael, 1509, oil on canvas. WikiCmns, Public Domain. Text from Book X: Wikisource. Public Domain.


…the bumblebee: Emily Dickinson

March 8, 2013 6 comments

File:AD2009Aug08 Bombus pratorum.jpg

This poem may be RT’s favorite by an American poet; it certainly is the only poem he carries around in his wallet. Rarely does a poem possess the kind of precision and punch that Dickinson delivers here. She breaks right though the skin of things to reveal the whole world in tension between motion and rest, knowledge and mystery. Stillness is not death, but an infinite reflection of life…RT




SOME things that fly there be,—             

Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:  

Of these no elegy.


Some things that stay there be,—          

Grief, hills, eternity:              

Nor this behooveth me.


There are, that resting, rise.      

Can I expound the skies?           

How still the riddle lies!

–Emily Dickinson (1862)

Photo: Female Worker, Bombus Pratorum; author, Bernie Kohl; WikiCmns; Public Domain.


What would Buddha do? Views from the Center

March 2, 2013 2 comments

File:Stephen Batchelor.jpg


RT has not been much attracted to Buddhist philosophy in the past, though he has experimented with meditation, in one form or another, for some years. But Stephen Batchelor’s translation of Nagarjuna’s Views from the Center may be the book that persuades him that there is more than a remote connection between western and eastern thinking.

This, in a nutshell, is how RT sees the matter. The understanding of Buddha has largely centered on his struggle for enlightenment or awakening, which RT takes to mean the moment when the Buddha achieved a true experience and understanding of the world and humanity’s place within it. It is a dramatic story; but after his enlightenment, what did Buddha do with his hard-won wisdom?

The question seems to have been of secondary importance; early Buddhism emphasized the achievement of enlightenment, leading to the foundation of many monasteries and the branch of Buddhism known as the Lesser Vehicle. A premium was placed on meditation and the study of the received holy texts.

Three hundred years or so after Buddha’s life, the other principal division of Buddhism developed: the Greater Vehicle. The hero of this school of Buddhist thinking was the Bodhisattva, the enlightened person who remained in the world to help others achieve enlightenment. Nagarjuna is associated with the development of Greater Vehicle (or Mahayana) Buddhism.

Now this is what RT finds so important about Batchelor’s translation of Views (and RT has only finished the introduction): the idea that emptiness, Narajuna’s primary goal as a Buddhist, is an act. It is not the destruction of the self, as might be assumed from the English word, but the transformation of the self, when the self both is and is not. And when does this happen? When we are making a choice–that is when we have the freedom to do or not do something. Emptiness is choice.

In fact, we could follow this thinking further and say that choice is what makes us human. This ability to affect the world, to rise up from being and participate in transformation, is humanity’s particular gift.

But before we jump to the conclusion that Nagarjuna (or Buddha) believed in free will, we should also remember that, according to Batchelor’s understanding, Buddhism is not a religion in the western sense. It is a condition of openness, an awareness of the possibility and spontaneity in life. In contrast, belief is a means of surrendering the possibility of choice by adherence to a dogma, be it western or eastern or specifically Buddhist. We must take into account the teachings we have learned when we choose, but we must refer to own self when we actually decide. We must reveal ourselves (or non-selves) in choice.

Or, at least, that is as far as RT has got with thinking this through. Doubtless, there is more to learn about the Buddhist (or even Buddha’s) perspective on choice…   RT


Photo: Stephen Batchelor at Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. WikiCmns. CC 2.0 Generic.

Denis Diderot and the Book that Changed the World

February 20, 2013 3 comments

File:Denis Diderot (Dimitry Levitzky).jpg

An encyclopedia has an ambitious goal: to bring together all important information on an academic discipline into a single book. The challenges that face expert(s) who create such a compendium of knowledge are many: How do they determine which information is important and useful? How do they structure each article so as to present a summary of the material that gives readers a good understanding of its scope? Which reference works should they direct readers to for further information? What manner of person undertakes such a monumental task?


Denis Diderot (1713-1784) lived a life that epitomizes the struggles and achievements of philosophers ancient and modern. He came from a conventional background, but was himself highly unconventional. He was educated, receiving a master of arts degree in philosophy in 1732, but was also an autodidact, accumulating an enormous library during his life. His masterwork, the Encyclopidie, broke with tradition in several respects, and above all in its presentation of the emerging thought of the Enlightenment, creating a furor in the academic and scholarly communities of the time–yet never earned Diderot a penny. Officially banned by the French monarchy as it was being compiled, the Encyclopedie nonetheless was completed in secret with the support of such luminaries as Madame de Pompadour. The work comprised 28 volumes, with 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations. The first seventeen volumes were published between 1751 and 1765; eleven volumes of plates were finished by 1772. Diderot himself wrote several hundred articles, some very slight, but many of them laborious, comprehensive, and long–becoming a pariah in the process.

No less a person than Catherine the Great of Russia came to his rescue. She purchased Diderot’s library from him, then left it in Paris, paying Diderot an annual salary to act as her librarian. After his death, the library was sent to Russia, where the Queen had it deposited at the National Library of Russia.

As if all this were not enough, Diderot authored several important works of philosophy and literature.


Freedom of thought, religious tolerance, and the value of science and industry–these are some of the philosophical positions that Diderot championed. Diderot lived a life out of tune with his times because he practiced what he believed–and the excitement of helping birth modern Europe surely helped sustain him during the many difficulties he encountered. He had the courage of his convictions, and so remained at the front of his era’s intellectual vanguard.



PaintingPortrait of Denis DiderotDmitry Grigorievich Levitzky (1773). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Time and Self

January 6, 2013 2 comments


Sometimes, despite our best intentions to be humble and matter-of-fact, art transforms our work. Take, for instance, this illustration of Ammonite fossils published in the 19th century. The subject is undeniably beautiful, but surely what matters most here is the presentation. The soft, lustrous tonality of the lithograph, the wedge-shaped presentation of the middle and lower figures, and the superb draftsmanship offer an opening to the heart that would be difficult to emulate in, say, a photograph.

But beyond this, the spiraling, controlled growth of each shell constitutes a metaphor for creation itself. Here time transmutes stone into a pattern delicate enough to adorn china plate, to serve as a template for the unfolding of the mind. Each of us makes the repetitive, hypnotic journey up this ladder to our true self.


Lithograph: Ammonite Shells; WikiCmns; Public Domain; illustrator: Friedrich August von Quenstedt.


Trash Land by José Ferreira

December 30, 2012 2 comments

amid the beauty, it’s helpful to remember the pain… RT