Miscellany: On the soul, calculating “risk,” narcissism, and iconoclasm


Some questions:

What do we mean when we say “soul”? 

If I say that we reincarnate but we don’t remember, then are we actually reincarnating? 

What does it mean that, at a specific point in history, the Λóγος (Lógos) “became flesh and dwelt among us?” 

Can we discern a continuity through the Theogony of the Ancient Greeks? From Æther, the Uranus, to Saturn, to Jupiter, to Apollo-Athena-Dionysus—suddenly the Theogony breaks off because mythic consciousness withdraws into the subconscious and our dream life. Imagine a story in which every chapter was written in a different tongue so you had to learn many different languages to follow it.

On sense-making around risk, conventional medicine, and the coronavirus pandemic:

Among the more ostentatious demonstrations of mindless extremism today is the tendency for people to interpret someone’s skepticism around CoViD-19 vaccination policy as a wholesale rejection of modern medicine. To harbor reservations about the vaccine is not the same thing as asserting that one finds no good in modern medicine. It is a specific good that proponents of vaccination are attempting to convince other people of. And yet the former too often seem inclined to respond to specific points with reiterations of generic ones. For instance, a common argument for vaccination is framed in terms of risk: “get the jab because it lessens your risk of infection and transmission and, by extension, the collective risk of infection,” many people argue. But conceptualizing risk in statistical terms—which is how it is ordinarily thought of—is a way to describe “the generic person” and hence to disregard the actual person with whom one is in dialogue. In fact, it is impossible to be in dialogue with “the generic person” because it does not exist. The generic person is as much of an abstraction as a pitch without a tone. We encounter only actual people and not generic ones because this would be, in principle impossible. For everyone who dies from coronavirus, there is a specific reason and etiology and that reason or etiology can never be “statistics” or “risk.” The latter offer the semblance of knowledge but trade in mere shadows; “papier-mache knowledge” it might be called, because its only pith is vacuity. 

And yet, in our collective perception and sense-making around the pandemic seems to rely almost exclusively on such statistical conceits. If a person is taking measures against disease by coronavirus by not getting fat or allowing himself to be quarantined in an elderly care facility, for instance, and by taking care of other fundamental pillars of health like sleep and sunlight and water etc. then it makes no sense to treat him as the generic person, whose attributes represent averages culled from a diverse population, many members of which are not taking such measure. If a study were conducted that excluded individuals who did not take care of the fundamentals of health, the public would have a very different perception of COVID-19. If the same study furthermore sought to disambiguate the term “case” by dividing individuals with symptoms of disease from those merely demonstrating a positive PCR test with an arbitrarily high and generally opaque cycle-count, which is capable of amplifying genetic signature to register positive values for levels that are far below physiological relevance, I am not entirely certain that we would have had a pandemic the begin with. 

“That ye put off…the old man, which is corrupt … And that ye put on the new man”:

I have, on a prior occasion, inquired into the meaning of some Jews having recognised Jesus as the Christ and others not having done so. I think it is helpful and proper to consider Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as the prototype for this recognition in everyone who did not live during the time of Christ’s incarnation. I could rephrase the question from the last contemplation then as: how did Saul become Paul and what does the transformation mean? In a more mundane sense, one could wonder how it is possible for a person to change, given that the one who would have to allow for the change is identical with the one that needs changing. Ultimately, Galatians 2:20 seems to contain the answer: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Thus it is not we who change ourselves, per se, but rather Christ which works through us to work upon us.

On the Protestan iconoclasm and the value of tradition:

Protestantism largely put an end to the rich tradition of theology and hermeneutics that the orthodox (including Catholic) communities in both the Christian and Jewish faiths have continued to sustain. Most philosophers fail to recognise the manner in which the Catholic Church preserved the crème de la crème of Classical philosophy for well over fifteen centuries before Modern philosophers like Descartes and Locke began to pick apart something they had largely lost the ability to understand. From the 5th to the 15th centuries (at which point Gutenberg introduced the printing-press), which is a period of a thousand years, the only manner by which texts could be preserved and transmitted was by hand, and everyone literate in Greek and Latin and capable of such transcription was a monk of one or the other Catholic habits. So it is only in virtue of these Catholic monks that we have anything to read from Aristotle, Plotinus, or Augustine, for instance. 

I may sound as though I am idealizing the past but either I must deny this charge or interpret it in such a way that it is not a problem but in fact an expression of the basic injunction to “Honor thy father and mother.” There must necessarily be some value in preserving the traditions that we inherit. Most of what we call “the world” is something that we inherited from our forebears and it would be rash and arrogant to abjure it all and suppose that we know better. At the same time, it is plain to see that inherited ways of thinking can stifle healthy development and harden into oppressive dogmas. I think the key is to maintain a conscientious equilibrium and not become a fanatic. Put another way, we should try to be less like the mechanical scales of Justice than the living hand of the Lady who balances them. To be a Liberal or a Conservative generally means one has ceased to think for oneself and has become an extremist. Politics encourages mindlessness. I think it is quite sobering to notice that nobody was a Nazi until Hitler rose to power and so the fact that I don’t happen to be a Nazi today by no means establishes that I would not have been, or that I might not become one if a similar ideology should rise to prominence. Put another way, just because I am not an actual Nazi does not mean that I am not a virtual one, and would not be at the beck and call of the next Fuehrer. I happen to think that the people who are the most insouciant in their branding of others as “Nazis” today in public are the closest to becoming Nazis themselves since they have already started down the path of scapegoating.

On scapegoating:

Anthropological evidence indicates that every traditional society incorporated some variety of ritualistic sacrifice or scapegoating. An early record of scapegoating appears in the specific Levitical custom of singling out two goats for sacrifice and allowing one to escape. Hence, “‘scape goat.” This practice was also attested to among the late Anglo-Saxon societies. In many cultures, and perhaps all of them at one point, human victims were chosen as objects of sacrifice. In this way, the majority could expiate its own faults through the death of a minority. The social fabric was actually preserved by scapegoating because the members of the community could project all of its disagreements onto the victim and then vicariously kill their enemies. Blood feuds, which could wipe out entire communities, are an example of something that scapegoating was meant to preëmpt. The tradition of scapegoating was never questioned. After all, the majority could simultaneously celebrate for having reconciled its intercommunity grievances and propitiated the gods. Also, some sort of tacit shared guilt served to strengthen the community bonds. 

The Gospels, however, for the first time in recorded history, turn the story on its head. The sacrificial victim willingly offers himself to be the scapegoat to expiate the people for all of the iniquities in which he played no part. The majority, by contrast, is recognised as a mob; ignorant and wicked. This is one reason that it is very naive for people to say that Christianity is just an syncretic amalgamation of various pagan and Jewish teachings, or to say it fails to offer anything not contained in other traditions. On the contrary, the Crucifixion represented a threshold in the evolution of humanity. I am indebted to the work of a philosopher called Rene Girard, who was the first to understand the nature of scapegoating and its transformation in Christ.

On genealogy of rock music:

In a given field, it is possible to discern particular “moods” or Stimmungen amongst diverse genres, types, or genera, just as it is often possible to discern transformations through time within a single type. I will say a few words about music with the understanding that the content is just as much the form of inquiry as the findings that appear to follow from it. I will specifically focus on rock music with the understanding that this is by no means the only genre of music and that music is by no means the only type of phenomenon that reveals its essence to our perceptive feeling nature. I have chosen rock music because I am probably more familiar with it than other genres and because a certain continuity of style over a couple decades, which I believe could be easily extended into the past and the future. Van Halen strikes me as a typical eighties rock band. “Jump,” for instance, is a quintessential mix of excess, glamour, reverb, synthesizers. The moment I make a generalization I am moved to make qualifications and distinctions. Van Halen typifies early 80s rock music. I see the early eighties as something of a metamorphosis of many of the trends that Led Zeppelin introduced in the prior decade but with the increasing influence of commercialization. Led Zeppelin, in turn, represents an intensification of an element already discernible in The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and many traditional Blues musicians. Returning to eighties: by the latter half of that decade, the sheer glamour and surfeit of its early part was beginning to sound somewhat tired and dated. Many of the “hair metal” bands continued to release albums but the dominant sound seemed increasingly typified by bands like The Police and then U2 (who are one of my personal favorites; to this day, Joshua Tree remains, in my estimation, one of the greatest albums of all time). The sound of The Police and U2 to me had already anticipated something of the punk and the grunge trends that would come to greater prominence in the early nineties. Hence, the sound of bands like Nirvana and Oasis seems continuous. Of course, punk and grunge define themselves as counter-cultural and for this reason, even without the fickleness of popular opinion, the acceptance of punk and grunge into the mainstream necessarily signals their decline. Another way to perceive the metamorphosis that I have attempted to trace might be to simply listen to how the general tenor of Bob Dylan’s albums has been inflected by the trends of each decade. I am thinking of how much reverb the snare drums have gained, for instance, between Highway 61 Revisited and Street Legal..

One personal comment before I conclude: I came of age to appreciate pop music just after Smash-mouth released “Walking on the Sun.” They had a number one single with “Allstar” a couple years later in 1999 and in February of this year, I had the experience of hearing Allstar on the “Oldies” radio station. “Hallelujah,” I said to myself, “I’ve arrived.” Hegel famously observed that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk” and hence it is ordinarily only given us to understand the transformations we are living through once they have passed. Indeed, I’m not one to bemoan aging because, as Tennyson observed, “though much is taken, much abides.” Moreover, it seems clear to me that anyone who lament the advance of years proves that he has no basis for it. After all, to complain about getting old means that I had the privilege to live through the period of youth in its entirely and that I did not die of tuberculosis or a machine-gun bullet to the head etc.

On narcissism and pre- and post mortem existnece:

As a youth may be “in love,” and the philosopher strives to live “in love and in truth,” so most of us live “in narcissism.” I mean this in a technical sense: that we have identified with our images in “matter” while simultaneously having lost awareness of the source of those images. By “matter” I mean “what we are made of,” or predicates to what we are, in essence, as subjects. So “matter” could be our bodies, but it could also be our labels and appellations, like our political standpoints or social status or preferred sport team or whatever. Saint Paul expresses this in his first letter to the Church of Corinth:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (13:12)

As for whether the soul is many or one: here is Plotinus on the matter, writing in the third century: 

The One (i.e. God), then, should be compared to light, the next [Spirit or Intellect or Nous] to the sun, and the third [Soul or Psūche] to the celestial body of the moon, which gets its light from the sun. 

Matter is how the spirit learns about itself, since Matter individualises what, as Form, is universal. Aristotle seemed to be ambivalent about the question of the soul’s condition before and after bodily existence. During the first half of the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars like Avicenna and Averroës interpreted the Aristotelian teachings according to the opinion that the soul merges with Allah in the manner that a drop dies into the ocean. Saint Thomas Aquinas saw it as his calling to reclaim the Aristotelian teachings from his Islamic neighbours and in his meticulous commentaries, he demonstrates that it is consistent with the Christian doctrine of the soul’s individual survival after the death of the body. He did not address the soul’s condition before birth but this may have been due to certain arbitrary epistemological limitations that he imposed on himself.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. I happen to think that the people who are the most insouciant in their branding of others as “Nazis” today in public are the closest to becoming Nazis themselves since they have already started down the path of scapegoating.

    I’m of the mind that everyone branding others today with any label or identity they haven’t forged, chosen, adopted or displayed themselves are full of excrement, if I may be so blunt, especially considering that neither of our predominant political parties represent We, the People of the United States of America. God knows I’ve been alternately branded both a “liberal weiner and a right-wing nutjob” depending to whom I happened to be speaking at the time and, I’d venture to guess, I’m far from alone in this experience.

    A “spectre” no longer, I happen to agree that inverted totalitarianism is actually the order of the day across the globe and suspect that the vast majority of our “social issues” are as manufactured as the divisive politics propping it up. Should we choose to transform that state of being, we might attain the equilibrium of which you speak as a species.

    “Justice” will prevail regardless whether or not its prevalence requires our extinction.

    Liked by 1 person

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