Philosophical Stories for Teachers

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Stories on this page

It was a Dark and Stormy Night...
A Debate between a Sophist and a Disciple of Socrates
The House that Susan and Jack Built
Immortal, Invisible...
Augustine and the Promisekeepers
Angela and the Role-Playing Game
Four Tales of Glory
Back to Basics
Experience—It's Worth a Try
Great Expectations and Critical Limitations
The Flight of Reason
Two Happenings: Reflections in a Nietzschean Mode

It was a Dark and Stormy Night...

The Transition from so-called Mythic to so-called Rational Mentality in Presocratic Philosophy

Sharon’s Comments

My thought here was that a fairly normal, contemporary event--a child’s response to a storm--might illuminate the differences between two ways of reacting to the world about us: the mythic mentality of who? and why? questions and the rational mentality of what? and how? questions. This transition seems crucial for understanding the beginnings of Presocratic philosophy.

The Story

It was a dark and stormy night. . . A child awoke and began to cry, terrified by the thunder and lightening, and his father came in to comfort him. His rational explanations about the storm did nothing to reassure the child, whose screams almost drowned out the noise of the storm. Desperate, the father tried a story -- a tactic that often comforted the child.

Indeed, slowly, the child quieted his sobs in order to listen. It was a story about the god of lightning, drawn from fragments the father recalled from a collection of mythology. Before long, however, the child stopped the narrative with a question. "Why?" he asked. "Why does the lightning god live in our sky?"

The father tried to weave an answer to the question into the story, but the child soon interrupted with another question, and then another. Always "why?" The questions pushed the father’s creativity and patience beyond their normal limits, and he finally stopped, frustrated. At that moment an enormous bolt of lightning illuminated the sky, followed seconds later by its thunderclap. Immediately, the child began screaming again.

"What does he want? What can I do?" the father wondered. First the crying, and then the questions, which seemed to have no logical purpose, just the incessant "why?" -- a stream of queries without any end. Suddenly, the father had an inspiration. It must end at the beginning, he told himself. And he started another story. This time, he began as far back as he could imagine, with the birth of the world itself. The child gradually quieted once again and began to listen. And so, as the storm continued to rage, the father retold and recreated one of the ancient stories of origins for his son, until the boy dropped off to sleep.

As he walked down the hall back to his bedroom, the father heard his daughter call out. "Dad? Is that you?"

Sighing, he opened the girl’s door. She sat up in bed. "Robert’s afraid, huh?" she asked. And then she continued, "It’s a pretty bad storm. . . but I’m not afraid." The father asked if she would like to hear a story also. She hesitated a moment. "What kind of story? " The father explained that he had told her brother some of the stories from ancient mythology. "No thanks," she said. "We already heard a bunch of those in school." And, as if he might be hurt, she quickly added, "some of them are pretty cool."

The father then kissed her good night and began to go back to bed. "But look at that one!" the girl cried, as a spectacular lightning bolt struck. The father realized he wasn’t going to get back to sleep yet, and resigned himself to at least a half hour of watching and discussing the storm with his daughter. She was extremely curious about it and she was a great talker. "I wonder what it is," she said. Her father began to explain about electricity when she broke in, "I wonder what everything is. I mean, I’m not so interested in that old mythology, but I do wonder about the world and electrons and how they are in this bed," and here she thumped the pillow beside her, "and in the windowsill and the lightning and everything. And yet things are different, they don’t look like they could be just electrons and atoms, do they? It just looks like a regular world." The father nodded. She finished triumphantly, "Your stories can’t tell us anything about that, now, can they?"

A Dialogue between a Sophist and a Disciple of Socrates

Trust in Experience or Trust in Reason?

Sharon’s Comments

This dialogue illustrates the difference between placing primary trust in experience, typical of the Sophists, and placing primary trust in reason, typical of the followers of Socrates.

The Story

Sophist (speaking to two young men): -- and thus, there are three things that it would profit you to understand. But before I conclude, since I have already been teaching you for some time and a good teacher deserves some measure of recompense -- do you have something for me from your father?

Sophist (as he receives sum of money): Ah, that is good. Now, as I was saying -- (he breaks off)

(A disciple of Socrates approaches)

Sophist: But here is one of my detractors. Hail, friend!

Disciple of Socrates (dS): And hail, fellow teacher. I wish I could say fellow truth-seeker.

Sophist: I was just about to summarize my teachings for these two young men. Perhaps you would care to listen, to learn?

dS: I am always willing to listen. But not one coin shall you gain from me--it is not my habit to place a price on the search for wisdom. I seek wisdom as a lover seeks the beloved.

Sophist: Well, all honest citizens must earn their living. What better way than to teach? And now, here are three gems from my collection of wisdom.

dS: Display them one at a time, and, one at a time, I shall take them up and examine them; knowing, as we both must, that wisdom and gems are valued in large part by the extent to which they are free of flaws.

Sophist (turns to the 2 boys): First, I charge you to experience the world. Pay careful attention to the way that things and people appear to you, for these appearances are, in fact, your real teachers. How can you expect to know anything about the world if you do not respect the things in it? What you see, touch, hear: these things will reveal much truth to you if you take notice of them.

dS: This is curious. The appearance of things that change, die, crumble into dust (and thus the appearance of all that we see or touch in this world): can they teach us about what is eternally true, what can never change? And is not eternal, changeless truth the much-desired object of wisdom?

One of the boys: Indeed, it seems evident that truth, to have any meaning at all, must be constant and everlasting.

dS: Now, what would you consider more real: a face reflected in a pond, or the person's face itself?

One of the boys: That I can answer! The face is more real. The other will not last but a moment, and even then is shifting and fragile.

dS: Now the person's face. Is it the same at every moment throughout life?

Boy: No, of course not. Soon, for instance, I will be bearded, and then will have wrinkles around the corners of my eyes, and eventually even a creeping bald spot like yours.

Sophist (laughing): You see, I have taught the boys well; they are observant of things.

dS (smiling):You have indeed taught them to use their eyes and sharpen their tongue. True vision, however, is not merely a matter of keen eyesight. As teachers, do we not seek to make all lack of substance, whether of things or of statements, transparent to our pupils? Reason, and not merely observation, then, is the necessary tool.

Sophist: Careful thought is indeed the friend of every well-educated citizen, provided that it is applied to the fruit of experience and in the pursuit of a useful and virtuous life.

dS: Perhaps we can now apply our reason, carefully, to the fruit of this most immediate experience, our inquiry into the nature of appearances. Shall we say that the appearances of the changeable things of this world, for instance the reflection and the face, are like so many shadows compared to what is true? And that, no matter how meticulous our attention to their detail, we search in vain among them for truth itself? The realm where exist ideas like truth, changeless and eternal, must indeed be more substantial, more real than this shadow world of mere appearances; for just as we call the object that throws a shadow more real than the shadow itself, so an object subject to change and decay must have less reality than something which does not change. And truth, we have agreed, is eternal and unchanging.

Sophist: Attractive as this vision of another reality may be to one who dreams, I must speak words of common sense to these boys: the real world of experience is here about us, and it is our business to understand it so that we can lead better lives. I have no patience with a reality concocted out of too-subtle reasoning, a reality that has no relation to what a person experiences every day.

dS: I can agree that our experience of this world of appearances has real consequence. For appearances at best are suggestive of a higher reality. Since, moreover, they are even more likely to lead us astray, we do well to attend carefully to them. Here, your reason, however, and not your senses, will help you discriminate. And it is your reason, a faculty that you have as yet hardly exercised, that will carry you to the realm of higher reality and truth.

Sophist: They may perhaps be grateful that their education has not encouraged this kind of mental flight, and that their intellectual exercises have been directed toward skills that will be useful to them in their future lives as citizens of this city. But perhaps what I teach them—public speech, civic leadership—perhaps these things, too, are not real enough to be considered worthy of our attention?

(Doesn't wait for an answer) But this brings me to my second lesson, boys, which has to do with your response to your experiences. For people are in fact the measure of all things. Things, actions, are not good or evil in themselves--how could they be? It is people who think and deliberate and choose; and it is people who thus decide what is honorable, good, and just. But this is a great responsibility, one you need not bear alone. You must learn not only by paying attention to things, but by absorbing the collective wisdom of your fellow citizens.

dS: If this is so, I fear for our ability to lead virtuous lives. The good cannot depend upon the whim of a people. People change their minds, they make mistakes, they can have poor judgment, even about matters so important as education. (looks from boys to the Sophist)

One of the boys: This is true. (Reddens) I mean . . . that people can be mistaken. I have made errors in my calculations on many occasions.

dS: You would not trust yourself, then, to decide correctly in every situation?

Boy: I would not.

dS: But if goodness is determined by your judgment, and your judgment can be mistaken, or affected by strong emotion, then we must say that goodness itself is changeable.

Boy: That does not seem right.

dS: Would it not be more correct to say that goodness, like truth, is unchanging in its nature?

Boy: Yes.

dS: So you must see that people do not create a value like goodness, they only learn to recognize or know it, as a reality distinct from themselves. Such knowledge is not easily acquired.

Sophist: You have a very poor opinion of people. I believe that people can learn to act wisely, given adequate guidance from parents, teachers, and others. Part of such guidance involves recognition, as you say. Recognition of what, in the collective wisdom of a people, is considered good or right. This wisdom is attained through careful attention to experience, to the results of particular actions.

dS: Your speech must be judged a meritorious vessel in many ways, but most particularly as it draws attention to the goal of a worthy education, which I understand to be the revelation of the existence of changeless Ideas like justice, honor, or goodness, and their relationship to the good life.

One of the boys: Excuse me, I did not hear my instructor draw attention to this point at all.

dS: Ah, but that is because you were focusing on the place where he dropped anchor, and not on the ample berth between his mooring and the real pursuit of wisdom.

Sophist: I make no apology for emphasizing the way in which justice, honor or goodness have to do with the actual affairs of a citizen, and how people esteem these qualities in others. Some, engrossed in a fanciful world of the mind and endless conversation, have not adequately attended to the labors of our fellow citizens, or remarked their daily concerns with matters like equity in trade and fair legislation.

dS: On the contrary, I would like to be enlightened about a matter that very much concerns the problems of good citizenship. In what way can a teaching that fails to establish the true nature of truth or justice shed any light on the particular values involved in statehood and politics?

Sophist: My third lesson today is in fact a lesson about the people and their political role. You may judge it upon its merits. (Pauses here for effect) Democracy is the proper way to govern a city-state. As I have said, a well-educated people are a virtuous people, capable of great political wisdom. Of course, it all depends upon the right education. That is why I have devoted my life to this task, and the people's willingness to pay for their education is evidence of its importance.

One of the boys: Although we are familiar with the workings of democracy, perhaps you could say more about it as a vehicle for wisdom.

Sophist: Democracy is a means of bringing together the wisdom of many people. And thus the heart of the democratic process is participation. We cannot afford to lose the insight of any person simply because they lack riches or good birth.

dS: If democracy pools the ideas of the many, is it not just as likely to result in cumulative error rather than in wisdom?

Sophist: A common misconception. You see, because the opinions of many are sought, not just once, but on all matters of common interest, error is subjected to correction. For it is not possible that all the people could be in error all of the time.

dS: Even if democracy were to allow for some measure of accuracy about certain matters, I cannot agree that this holds for questions of legislation and leadership. Political wisdom, in my experience, is an exceedingly rare quality; only a few are capable of achieving it, and only after great effort.

Sophist: You neglect the fact that democracy is a proven political choice.

dS: And you neglect the fact that rule by the mob has often led to disorder, and even anarchy.

Sophist: But I recognize well that democracy is our only safeguard against the tyranny of would-be philosopher kings!

(Unable to come to any agreement on these touchy matters, they walk off in separate directions, shaking their heads, and leaving the two young men somewhat bewildered, center stage).

The House that Susan and Jack Built

Aristotle and the Four Causes

Sharon’s Comments

The following story illustrates several points about Aristotle’s thought.

The four causes are ways of understanding phenomena in the world by looking at reality, and particularly its fundamental aspect of change, from various perspectives. I include, parenthetically, suggestions for the 4 causes after each change occurs in the story, but I suppose the students themselves could try to do this.

The four causes encompass or suggest not only physical, but metaphysical and ethical concerns. The story develops to allow for increasing complexity in kinds of change and reflection involved. Thus, by the time we get to consideration of generation, one might be led to wonder about more than "proximate" causes and to consider remote or even ultimate cause. For example, with regard to the generation of a new tree, Aristotle would have considered not only the proximate causes (listed below) but the sun as the remote cause of all generation, and finally the first, unmoved mover as an ultimate cause (causing motion by being a final cause, being desired). Similarly, as we approach questions of generation, one is increasingly led to consideration of the potential/actual distinction as a way of grasping the notion of becoming.

The story hints at the hierarchy of being generated by Aristotle’s approach and depicts Aristotle’s system as dynamic.

My sources for the facts underlying the sources were, besides my own notes from Aristotle texts and various courses:

Ross, David. Aristotle. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Adler, Mortimer J. Aristotle for Everybody. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Collier Books, 1978. I looked at this to get a feel for a "popular" presentation of Aristotle. I thought it was accessible and accurate. Students might find it helpful. He avoids all questions of scholarly debate, but gives an interesting parallel table of contents in the back that lists very specific references to Aristotle for the materials in each chapter.

Copleston, History of Philosophy.

The article on Aristotle in Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Story

This is the house that Susan and Jack built. It is a weathered Cape with black shutters, 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and a detached garage. Outside is a large black walnut tree, from whose branches hangs a wooden swing.

When Susan and Jack first decided to build a house, they were living in a small apartment with one bedroom. Susan was pregnant, and they would need more room. They did not have much money, so Jack built the house himself, from wooden 2x4s, shingles, nails, and other materials he purchased from a nearby building supply company.

[kind of change: human production of inanimate object. Material Cause (MC): lumber, nails, etc.; Formal Cause (FC): house; Efficient Cause (EC): Jack; Final Cause (FinC): better living conditions.]

After they finished the house, they brought over their furniture from the apartment in a U-Haul and arranged it almost to their satisfaction. Unfortunately, two days after this, Susan decided that her mother’s old upright piano had to be moved away from the fireplace because it would be uncomfortable playing it while sitting so close to the fire in the winter time. Fortunately, Jack’s brother Earl was visiting for the weekend. So Jack and Earl, after great effort, moved the piano over to the window.

[kind of change: movement of object from one place to another. MC: the piano; FC: its new position by the window; EC: Jack and Earl; FinC: comfort.]

As Susan and Jack sat in their new living room, they could see a black walnut tree in the front yard. They loved the tree, and Susan, who became quite dreamy in the final weeks of her pregnancy, liked to speculate about its being there. How did the nut get carried to this very spot? How fortunate that it found the right conditions for growth when so many seeds were eaten, or fell in an unsuitable location. And how amazing that this tree could grow from the nut in the first place! It did get plenty of sun throughout the morning, and sunshine seemed crucial to the fact that it became this well-established tree producing fruit of its own. And then she began to ponder the sun, how crucial it was for the existence of everything in this world. Jack said we were just lucky. Susan wasn’t so sure.

[kind of change: reproduction (and growth). MC: seed; FC: tree; EC: tree (reproductive processes of plant), sunshine, water, nutrients in earth; FinC: tree.]

Jack and Susan’s son Mark was born not long after the house was finished. At no time in their lives had Jack and Susan been so filled with hope about the future, so quick to theorize about education and development, so caught up in plans to give their child the best opportunities for a good life. They wondered if he would be a great statesman, or a great scientist, or perhaps a great artist (their thoughts always ran to "great" in these first days with their baby). Jack always hoped he would be a good person. Susan knew he would be highly intelligent and use his intelligence wisely. Mark did little but sleep and eat. Being born seemed to have exhausted him.

[kind of change: reproduction. MC: fertilized cell; EC: Jack and Susan (human reproductive processes) (n.b. Aristotle said the woman bore the material cause and the man the efficient cause); FC: human being; FinC: fulfillment as human being - eudaimonia? wisdom?]

The years passed, and Mark became a fine, active, and always hungry boy. One day, as he was playing under the tree in the front yard, he picked up one of the green-husked fruits that had fallen from its branches, and split it apart to extract the nut. His mother helped him shell it and he then ate the walnut meat inside.

[kind of change: degeneration. MC: nut; EC: digestive system; FC: part of human body (as nutrients); FinC: nutrition.]

As she watched Mark run off to play, Susan thought: it won’t be long before he’s building a house for his own family.

Immortal, Invisible...

The joint influence of "Greek philosophy" and the Hebrew Bible on the development of Christian theology, especially Christian ideas of God

Sharon’s Comments

I thought that this hymn could be used to illustrate the point made several times during the first half of the course about the development of the Christian concept of God and the influence of "Greek philosophy" and the biblical (especially Hebrew) accounts of God and creation.

I’m guessing that the hymn "Immortal, Invisible" is as familiar to Methodists as it is to Episcopalians. The hymn could be sung, accompanied by keyboard or piano, played on a tape, etc. This will make the learning more concrete and participatory.

The Story

"Immortal, invisible" by Walter Chalmers Smith exhibits an interesting mix of imagery that illustrates how Greek and Jewish streams of influence were combined in the Christian concept of God, not without some awkwardness. The first two lines show the "Greek" influence, but lines 3-4 and the second stanza seem more Hebraic in concept, using language that points to a personal God (victorious leader; just, good & loving ruler). The third stanza is interesting. It first sets up a contrast between God as source of life and all those that thus live by God, recalling the direction of the development of Christian theological ideas that led to creation ex nihilo, but concludes with a return to the "Greek" focus on ultimate reality as changeless.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest, to both great and small;
in all life thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish, like leaves on the tree,
then wither and perish; but nought changeth thee.

Thou reignest in glory, thou rulest in light,
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all laud we would render: O help us to see
'tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

Augustine and the Promisekeepers

Modern Parallels to Augustine

Sharon’s Comments

To make detailed sense of this item, especially if you are not already familiar with the Promisekeepers movement, obtain copies of the following articles: from Newton Tab (8/5/97), p.29; Boston Sunday Herald (7/27/97), p. 6; and Boston Sunday Globe (7/27/97), pp. B1, B5. (Actually, you don't really need the articles, especially if you know anything at all about the Promisekeepers.) It seems that Promisekeepers echo certain Augustinian themes and raise some parallel issues in fascinating ways.

The Story

To make detailed sense of the following, especially if you are not already familiar with the Promisekeepers movement, obtain copies of the following articles: from Newton Tab (8/5/97), p.29; Boston Sunday Herald (7/27/97), p. 6; and Boston Sunday Globe (7/27/97), pp. B1, B5. (Actually, you don't really need the articles, especially if you know anything at all about the Promisekeepers.) It seems that these articles about the Promise Keepers (hereafter, PK) echo certain Augustinian themes and raise some parallel issues in fascinating ways.

"I cannot will the good", without Jesus’ help -- the Augustinian phrase could almost be a caption for the PK articles, and the emotional/conversional aspect (a stadium full of men "praying for upward of 14 hrs. at a time for Jesus to come and help them," Tab, col. 1) is also reminiscent of Augustine’s confessional approach to the problems of sin, grace, and free will. Moreover, the debate between Augustine & Pelagius about free will seems reproduced in a new conservative Christian vs. secular feminist format. Thus Clark (Tab) writes that true promise keeping can’t be the result of "hand[ing] your free will on a platter to an unlicensed religious zealot" and that a man must be a "steward of his own morality and his own mind."

The linking of a theological perspective to political issues, and the potential use of such a perspective to justify certain political actions is also highlighted here. The PKs interpret aspects of American social life as morally problematic (divorce, single parenting, etc.) and believe that the solution to these moral problems is a Christian solution. Feminists see a not-very-hidden political agenda here, with issues surrounding attitudes toward women’s rights, homosexuality, abortion prominent. Augustine’s theology/philosophy was used to justify certain coercive political actions against heretics, to bring them into line with the salvific plan of Christianity; "state" and Church allied. The feminist concern about the PKs is reminiscent: "the group’s intent is to secretly organize Christian men into a conservative political force," and "It’s government-enforced Christianity." (Herald, col. 4).

Rightly ordered love - A major theme in Augustine’s writings. For Augustine, this kind of love, caritas as opposed to cupiditas, reflected and respected the divine eternal order of universe. This of course also accorded with scripture. The PK notion that men must head the family, as stated in various member comments, is not only based on scriptural authority but suggests also that this ordering is right and "natural", what "God wanted" (Tab, col 2).

Apologetic and Polemic context. Much of A’s thought developed as response to various conflicts. And even though Augustine wrote after the era of Christian apologists, Augustine, too, attempted to give reasoned account, even defense, of Christianity in the face of other philosophical and spiritual alternatives and the social upheavals of his time. Similarly, the Promise Keeper movement seems to thrive in a polemic context.

Angela and the Role-Playing Game (RPG)

Knowledge of God and the Analogy of Being

Sharon’s Comments

I have watched my son, who is an expert on role-playing games, enough to become intrigued with them from a distance. I think you could even use one to teach the analogy of being to unsuspecting children!

The Story

Angela stared intently at the computer screen. She was playing Into the Real, a new RPG just out on the market, and was stuck on her first level. A strange screen had come up which displayed a field of grass crowded with flowers. Above it flashed a question: "Is the meadow smiling?" She had three choices: "Yes," "No," and "Sort of." Well, at least that was easy. Angela was good at taking a moderate position. She clicked on the "Sort of" icon and immediately a golden path opened up through the middle of the meadow and her character skipped down it. So far so good, she must have chosen correctly.

An apple tree loomed up on her right, and, instinctively, Angela stopped her character and picked an apple. The screen dissolved and they were in a wizard’s tower room dominated by three crystal balls lying on a table, labeled "Yes," "No," and "Sort of." Angela sensed this would be a safe place to experiment, so she clicked on the "Yes" ball. Her character sat down cross-legged in front of the wizard, who said "Univocal" in a low, mysterious voice, and then placed his fingertips together. "One meaning. If you had chosen this path, you think that there is one and only one meaning for ‘smile’ and that it can be used in only this one way." And the wizard and her character both stretched their lips in a bizarre imitation of a smile. "Therefore, when you say the meadow was smiling, you must have meant just that." Here an image of a meadow with a broad grin came up on the blackboard behind the wizard.

Angela clicked on the next crystal ball, marked "No." This time, the wizard said "Equivocal," and went on to explain that this meant it made absolutely no sense to say that the meadow was smiling. "And if you think that," the wizard said, "you are just plain boring. Nor will you be able to talk about the mysteries of the universe."

Angela clicked on the last ball. "Analogical," the wizard’s voice boomed. "You believe that it makes sense to say that the meadow is smiling, but you’re smart enough to know this doesn’t mean the meadow is doing this." The wizard’s face appeared by itself, wearing a large grin. A "quiz" sign flashed, and a voice said, "The Nature of Things." A person walked into the room and stopped in front of her character. In the lower right hand corner of the screen two icons appeared, a smile and a flower. Angela made her character pick up the smile and applied it to the person’s face. The screen flashed "Good!" surrounded by multi-colored stars. "It is the nature of a person to respond to a positive environment by smiling," the voice said. A meadow appeared in a window center screen. Angela clicked on the flower. Again, the "Good!" display. And then the voice: "It is the nature of meadows to respond to a positive environment by flowering." Angela clicked on a book lying on the floor, and a question appeared on the open pages of the book: "Is the meadow smiling?" Angela wondered if they were getting anywhere. She didn’t see any other options, so she clicked a little further down the pages of the book. The page turned, and displayed the words "In its own way." Angela clicked again. "According to its nature."

A door opened at the back of the room and Angela’s character moved through it without obstacle. The next screen was covered with a bizarre mix of images: the flowering meadow, a person smiling, a paper bag, an apple tree, an angel, a wolfhound, a pebble, and a goldfish. At the bottom of the screen was a series of labels. Angela studied them carefully. "Animal," "winged," "golden," "four-legged," "happy." She was puzzled. None of the labels fit all the images. Then she noticed a small box to the right of the labels. She clicked on it, and out flew a final label. "Being." That seemed to fit, so she made her character pick it up and dragged it toward an empty frame. When she pasted the label onto the frame, a sentence was highlighted above it: "Things have their own nature, but they share Being. This is the basis for analogies like ‘the meadow is smiling’." Angela saw the wizard disappear into a door below a flashing "Good" sign, and she followed with her character.

They were back in the tower room. Nothing happened. Angela made her character sit and the wizard said, "Try something harder." A moving list of terms appeared on the screen beneath a scroll that said "Being." Angela noticed that the terms were the names of the objects listed in the previous room. Suddenly, however, she saw a new term. It was the word "God," boldfaced, and so she clicked on it and the list stopped. The screen flashed "Good!" and the voice said, "God also has being. It is God’s nature to be . Try an analogy." Angela hesitated. The voice said, "It’s okay. Go ahead." Unsure, Angela typed "The meadow is smiling." Immediately, the screen changed to show her character in a free fall. She landed back in the meadow by the apple tree and spent the next twenty-five minutes retracing her steps. This time, when the wizard commanded her character to speak, she typed, "God is. . ." and then she paused. It didn’t seem to make much sense to say "God is smiling." None of her Sunday School teachers had ever talked about God smiling. She gave the keystroke for help and a pull-down menu appeared underneath a question mark on the wizard’s hat. Among the menu choices Angela saw the term "good." She decided to try that and typed, "God is good." A series of alarms sounded and a vivid image of a grimacing meadow flashed on and off at the top of the screen. Terrified that they would fall again, Angela typed, "according to God’s nature."

"Congratulations," the screen said. "You have just graduated to the next level. You are now a Junior Philosopher."

Four Tales of Glory

The Problem of Universals

Sharon’s Comments

I chose the following as both historically and typically representative of the major responses to the problem of universals. The tales don’t include the particular positions of Scotus and Ockham; instead they show the more pure "types" that form the outline of the debate in which Scotus/Ockham play an historically important role. I thought Scotus’ peculiar, "moderate" version of Aquinas’ position might be better described in the lecture, through a simple definition, showing the way he modifies medieval realism. Ockham is, of course, a precursor to the conceptualist position presented below in narrative form. Though Ockham became linked with the "nominalist" position, (in the sense that those who opposed realism were called "nominalists"), most scholars I read felt this terminology is somewhat misleading, and that, given his emphasis on the concept, he is better called a conceptualist. In the literature, "nominalism" is used in both this wider (anti-realist) and more strict sense.

I also provide my own working definitions of the four positions. I listed these simply to illustrate the general framework within which I constructed the stories; they are a patchwork of my own ideas, and ideas from the various sources. I wasn’t particularly careful about their wording. The specific references for these definitions are listed parenthetically below. The idea for the Humpty Dumpty story was borrowed from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "Universals" which suggests that Humpty Dumpty is perhaps the only "pure" nominalist.

Here are my definitions of the four positions.

Extreme realism: universals have independent reality (like the "Ideas/Forms" of Plato’s dialogues, at least on one interpretation). They are real, they exist outside of human minds, they are "prior" to things.

Medieval realism: universals have independent, intelligible reality as "Ideas" in the mind of God but "exist" in sensible world only "in things." Humans, using the abstracting/comparing functions of active reason, discover identical, common "form" in different material things; these are known imperfectly as approximation of true universals, which cannot be known "in themselves" by humans in this life (Aaron, 15-16; Edwards, 198-9).

Conceptualism: universals are concepts that people construct in their minds. Since only individual, concrete things exist, the universal is not a real thing, though some conceptualists say the concept (or act of conceiving) is a kind of "abstract entity" in the mind (Aaron, 220-21). The conceptualist begins with the fact of generality in language and recurrence/resemblance in sense experience and asks how we come to form and use general ideas and words (Edwards, 199; Aaron, 240).

Extreme Nominalism: universals have no real existence outside the mind; only names are universal. What is named is always individual, and there is nothing common to these individuals except the name (Edwards, 203). Aaron comments (20) that a nominalist would feel no need to "assert a concept" along with the name.

My sources for definitions and some concepts were:

Aaron, Richard I. The Theory of Universals, 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

Armstrong, D.M. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. New York: Signet Classic/New American Library, 1960.

Edwards, Paul, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. and The Free Press, 1967. S.v. "Universals," by A.D. Woozley.

The Story

Extreme realism (Aristotle's caricature of Plato, perhaps)

There was once a young athlete who yearned to achieve Glory at his first Olympic trials. He exerted himself to the utmost, and took the highest honors at every game in which he participated. But as he stood before the crowds, receiving their accolades, his brow draped with the olive branch, he felt a vague sense of disappointment. Somehow, true Glory seemed to have eluded him, though he had certainly reached the height of what most of his acquaintances would call glory. He could not understand his sense of disappointment until he happened into conversation with a wise woman. This woman told him that physical prowess, no matter how great, would never lead to true Glory. True Glory belonged to another realm, not the everyday realm of this world, where things were subject to change and decay, but an eternal realm where dwell Glory, Beauty, Truth, Goodness in eternal and unchanging splendor. The glory he experienced before his fellow athletes, before the great crowds at the Olympic games, was a mere shadow of this true Glory. She then asked him if he wanted to strive toward true Glory. Eagerly, he said he did. She then told him a great secret: before he was born, his soul had known this eternal world of Forms, and now, with great effort, he could remember something of this splendor. He must now, however, train his mind instead of his body, concentrating on mathematics and philosophy. Finally, if he were successful, he could advance toward the highest form of knowledge and perhaps even a vision of the Forms, including Glory itself.

Medieval realism (Aquinas, perhaps)

The old man stared at the waterfall sheeting endlessly over black rock. It is a blessing that I can still find the strength in these old limbs to carry me to this spot. Other scenes that he had observed over his lifetime came to mind: a sky on the verge of night, the surmounting habit of an ancient oak, the frenzy of the ocean in the clutch of a storm. They are all glorious, he thought. He sat near the place where the water pooled at the bottom of the cataract and pondered this manifestation of glory. Long ago, at the schools, he had learned much about the world, and over the years had often returned to this wisdom. From the beginning, the teaching went, God had glory in mind; it was just one of the many ideas that partook of the divine essence, and these were the "seeds" of Creation. In the Creation, the divine essence was actualized in matter, and this was the world, all things that exist, plants, creatures, people. The idea of glory still was, as part of the divine essence, above the realm of existence or created things, mysterious, apprehended directly in itself by angels. But we cannot know glory this way, the old man muttered, recalling the insistence of the master on this point. We humans know things, like this waterfall, or a field of lilies yet undisturbed by human passage. And we use our reason to discover what it is to be glorious. We take from these experiences of waterfall or lily the quality that makes them glorious; this quality is something real, something common in things. The old man rested his hands on his knee, and took in the waters before him. Perhaps we don’t know the essence of glory as do the angels, but to know glory at all is a gift. And it comforted the old man to think that his knowledge of glory was related to the glory of God.

Conceptualism (Hume, perhaps, and Ockham as a precursor)

"What is glory?" the woman exclaimed, in response to my question. "Why, it’s your idea of glory. It’s in your head." She thought carefully a minute, and then pointed to her child playing over by the fence. "Take Anne, there." And then she sighed. "I don’t know why her hair won’t stay braided. Anyway, if you could see inside her head, you would understand about glory. Let me try to explain. . . ."

"She’s a thoughtful child. Too quiet, I’ve sometimes said, but that’s neither here nor there. Now, Anne has habits. Maybe your child does, too. She has her little habitual ways of talking, and of carrying herself, and pulling on her earlobe, and that everlasting twisting of her hair. Well, just imagine now, inside her head, she’s doing all that pondering and wondering. Sometimes that’s like a habit, too." The woman caught the expression on my face. "No, I haven’t forgotten about glory, I’m coming to it."

"Let’s say she sees something, and tells me about it. Maybe the young Whitney boy winning all the races at the county fair and exulting in the attention, you know how he does. And I say, ‘My, isn’t he just taking the glory!’ And then she sees something else, like a picture of those Roman armies marching through the city, thousands of them, after a great war, and hears it described as glorious. Now those two aren’t exactly the same, are they? But close enough in resembling that we’d call them both by the same name, glory."

"This happens again and again. Then, by and by, she gets in the habit of thinking that way, of matching certain kinds of scenes or situations, or what have you, with that word, "glory," because she can compare them to what she remembers folks calling by that name. And she doesn’t forget much, I’ll warrant. Many’s the time I wish she would. By the same token, that habit helps her sort out what is sordid and ugly and petty from the things she would call glorious. And pretty soon, Anne builds her own notion of glory. It’s her own idea, all right, but as you can see it’s pretty much the same as my idea or your idea, because of the way she got it in her head. Close enough so we understand her and can all talk to one another. And that’s good enough to my mind."

Pure Nominalism (Humpty Dumpty, perhaps)

Alice and Humpty Dumpty are talking about the days of the year when one might get "un-birthday" presents. Humpty Dumpty speaks, looking at a page on which Alice has written a simple subtraction problem: 365-1 = 364:

". . . As I was saying, that seems to be done right--though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now--and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents--"

"Certainly," said Alice.

"And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!"

"I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’" Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don’t--till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ "

"But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that’s all."

Back to Basics

Descartes’ Method

Sharon’s Comments

Here I have attempted to present an analogy for Descartes’ "method"; there is no real attempt, however, to represent the particular discoveries Descartes made.

It is important to note that, according to Descartes (in the Reply to the second Objection), all aspects of his method are not necessarily represented in any one approach to a particular problem, though they represent, collectively, the means by which a legitimate system of knowledge would be built. Thus he states in this Reply that he had used only the method of analysis (and not synthesis) in his Meditations, because of the peculiar (metaphysical) nature of the problem.

In the following, one could say there is a parallel to the Meditations up to the point where Mildred discovers the "basics" of her wardrobe. Renée’s suggestion that Mildred might then go on to rebuild her wardrobe on this foundation is intended to suggest the process of synthesis.

The Story

Mildred had her head stuck in the closet and was tossing items of clothing out into the room in a reckless fashion. Renée was struck in the face by a maroon and white striped cardigan as she came in.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"Rethinking my wardrobe," Mildred replied with a muffled voice, and then pulled her head out of the closet. "I have nothing to wear," she continued. "I hate my clothes. Nothing matches, nothing fits, nothing is ever appropriate."

Renée peered into the closet. "Where’d you get all this stuff, anyway?"

"I dunno. A lot of it I get on sale. But some of it has been there forever. I’ve just always had it," Mildred concluded vaguely.

"So what are you going to do?"

"Give it all to the thrift shop and start again." Mildred ripped several dresses off their hangars.

Renée stopped her friend. "Now don’t do that," she said. "Some of it may be useful. What you need to do is get back to basics."

"Basics?" Mildred emerged partially from the closet.

"Sure. The classics. Things that never go out of style. I bet you already have some right in here." Renée started to rummage through the closet.

"How do you know?" Mildred sounded doubtful.

"The point is, how will you know. You just will. You will recognize a classic article of clothing right away. Clear as clear."

"Well, I will if I can ever find it in this mess. I’ll have to pull it all out just to begin." And Mildred began to throw more things out into the room, adding to the general confusion.

"STOP!" Renée shouted.

This was so unlike her friend’s normal behavior that Mildred did just that.

"You need a plan. A method." Renée spoke again in her normal, quiet voice. "Let me make a suggestion."

"Well, I wish you would." Mildred pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes.

"First, don’t settle for anything but the basics. Don’t be tempted by a fabulous velvet-trimmed jacket that might be great if you only had the right slacks to go with it and the right occasion to wear it. Ask yourself if it is unquestionably a classic. If it isn’t. . ."

"I know!" Mildred cried. "Throw it out."

"NO!" Renée said. "Of course not. It may come in useful, or I might want it. Just put it over here, on the bed."

"And you say I will know, for sure?"

"No question about it."

"Well, I better get started right away, then," Mildred moved toward the closet again, quite excited about the new plan.


"What now?"

"That was only part of the plan," Renée explained. "The second part of the plan is to sort everything out in an organized way so you can see what you actually have and discover your classic items. Right now this place is such a mess, you’ll never find anything, and you’ll be discouraged before you start."

"Is that the whole plan?" Mildred asked humbly.

"No. Later on, maybe tomorrow, after you come up with your basic items--and there won’t be very many, believe me, just a few key pieces--then you can begin to put together a decent wardrobe again, perhaps using some of the stuff you put on the bed, and maybe purchasing some new things. Only this time you’ll start from your basics and go from there. That’s the reasonable way. No more buying things on impulse." She gave Mildred a severe look.

"Oh, it will be such a relief," Mildred sighed. "I’ve been so muddled about what to wear."

"Follow this plan," Renée said grandly, "and you’ll never be confused again. But you have to follow it exactly. No getting lazy, no deviations, no sentimental favorites. Be ruthless. "

When Renée returned several hours later, Mildred had made great progress. She had organized her clothing and accessories by season, style and type, and was now contemplating a corduroy jumper. She looked up at Renée excitedly.

"I did just what you said. So far, though, I haven’t discovered anything classic." And she nodded over at the bed where she had placed rejected candidates in various piles. Renée gave her an approving smile.

"I can’t wait until I do," Mildred continued. "I mean, this will really be a breakthrough!"

The minutes passed, until, finally, Mildred held up a navy wool blazer. The two women, who had been chatting animatedly, fell silent. Mildred looked over at Renée, a strange gleam in her eyes.

"This is it. I’ve found it. There’s just no question about it! This is a classic piece of clothing." Mildred was triumphant.

Renée congratulated Mildred. She was very positive about Mildred’s accomplishment. "This will be your key to a whole new world of fashion. The modern woman, well-dressed for any occasion. It will mean a whole new you."

Mildred looked happily at her blazer, but then voiced a new concern. "A whole new me. I hope you’re right. I just hope that when I come up with these three or four "classics," it’ll all hang together in a total look, an ensemble. I don’t want to represent Ms. mix and match. You know what I mean--the kind of person who never gets beyond separates."

But Renée never heard her. She had already left the room.

Experience—It's Worth a Try

Locke's View of Knowledge

Sharon’s Comments

This one is self-explanatory, except that you have to know the tune to "Lavender Fair" to get it right.

The Story

Eli: "Well, I’ve been recruited."

Mary (shows excitement): "For what?"

Eli: "I am now an official member of the "Campus Champions of Knowledge for Living."

Mary: "Oh. . . I’m not really familiar with it. . . but it sounds very interesting."

Eli: "You bet. CCKL. We promote useful knowledge, even right here on campus! Common sense. Utilize your life experience. That kind of stuff. It’s catching on like crazy."

Mary: "Useful knowledge? How are you going to promote that? I mean here on campus. Won’t people resist it?"

Eli: "Some do. But resistance builds morale, group cohesion. . . sparks interest in the general public. We don’t mind resistance."

Mary: "I always do. . . It makes me feel people don’t like me."

Eli (not really listening): "Experience. That’s the key to it all. Everything we know comes from our experiences. It makes sense when you think about it. Where else could we learn anything?"

Mary: "That part is reasonable. But, like, doesn’t everybody already believe that?"

Eli: "Well, I don’t know that they really think about it much. . . But they should. I tell you, it used to be a really hot issue. "

Mary (politely): "Yes? I haven’t read about it."

Eli: "Well, it was a while ago. Inane ideas versus experience. There were these people who believed that we had these strange ideas just built into our heads, so to speak. And they thought about those ideas and came up with even more weird ideas. They were the inane ideas folks. The other guys pushed experience. They realized that we depended on our eyes and ears and brains to do the work. No ready-made thoughts."

Mary: "I don’t know. I don’t think women look at it that way. I sometimes just feel things."

Eli (exasperated): "Of course you feel things, that’s the point. Your senses are working all the time, and that’s where you get your basic ideas. Then your brain works on those, and you notice your brain working, and that gives you more ideas."

Mary: "Well, you seem to have a lot of ideas already."

Eli: "I just got back from a big rally. The p-a system wasn’t working very well, but I think I got it all. I even took a few notes. Great stuff. . . it won me over. So I joined up. . . Right away, as soon as the main speaker finished."

Mary: "What is that badge you’re wearing?"

Eli (proudly): "Official membership pin. I got it in my introductory membership packet. Came with a copy of the monthly newsletter called The Empiricist . . . and a bumper sticker."

Mary (sighs): "I used to love to get those packets. I remember joining one club that was advertised on the back of a cereal box and--"

Eli (with dignity): "This is not a kiddy club. (Tone softens) Hey, want to hear our theme song? You can follow along. . . it’s here on the front page (hands Mary the newsletter)."

Mary (frowning): "The Empiricist. I hope you aren’t going to get involved in exploiting underdeveloped countries."

Eli (impatient): "No, no. It has nothing to do with colonialism. Now listen."

(sings the following to the tune of Lavender’s Blue.)

Knowledge for me, dilly dilly, knowledge for you.
Inane ideas, dilly dilly--

Mary (reading along, breaks in): "Wait a minute. That’s innate ideas. I-n-n-a-t-e. It says right here."

Eli (grabs sheet): "Where. . . Yeah, you’re right. I must have heard it wrong. Well, same difference." (He begins again)

Knowledge for me, dilly dilly, knowledge for you.
Innate ideas, dilly dilly, your day is through.
What is the source, dilly dilly, of all you know?
’Tis just exper-i-ence that told me so.

Sense and reflect, dilly dilly, experience.
If you’re not sure, dilly dilly, don’t be too tense.
Out in the world, dilly dilly, probable’s best,
Though in your head, dilly dilly, certainty’s left.

What do you know, dilly dilly, what can you guess?
Essence is out, dilly dilly, one worry less;
Ideas of God, dilly dilly, don’t you agree?
Come from exper-i-ence, no mystery.

(Mary joins in. They both sing the last verse with gusto):

Knowledge for living, oh, give it a try;
Don’t waste your time, dilly dilly, head in the sky;
Tolerance, reason and plain common sense,
These three our guide, dilly dilly, for ever hence.

Great Expectations and Critical Limitations

Kant: God as transcendental idea and as a postulate of practical reason

Sharon’s Comments

The School of Theology building at Boston University has a row of vending machines in the basement. Imagine if they dispensed ideas instead of food and drink!

In his book on Kant (Kant’s Life and Thought. Trans. James Haden. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981, p. 46), Ernst Cassirer notes that Kant begins the preface to Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens with the statement: "Give me matter, and I will build a world." I’d never heard that, and thought it was a wonderful and telling phrase. So just passing it on.

The Story

Two students of theology are standing by a row of vending machines.

Mike: "I give up. I put my money in and punched in the code for God, just like I always do. But this dumb machine just gave me something called an RI. Not a very big package, either. So I thought to myself, I’m not stupid, I’ll try the next one instead. What’d I get this time? A postulate. I don’t know what that is, but I can tell you this--it isn’t the God of our fathers. "

Robert: "Ancestors."

Mike: "What?"

Robert: "My pastor always says ‘ancestors’ now. Its more inclusive."

Mike: "Yeah, well. . . what about my money?"

Robert: "I don’t think you can get it back. You got what you paid for."

Mike: "That’s just it! I didn’t get my money’s worth at all!"

Robert: "You just didn’t get what you want."

Mike: "I wonder why I didn’t get what I was expecting. I put in the usual amount of money."

Robert: "But you put it in the wrong machines."

Mike: "These two machines look just like all the others to me. They all sell ideas."

Robert: "Look again."

Mike: "Hey! You’re right! This one says it critiques ideas and sells conditions. Same goes for the other one! Is that what I’ve got, I wonder, conditions?"

Robert: "Yup. Some people don’t like them, don’t find them very satisfying, but they’ll keep you honest."

Mike: "This one’s called RI."

Robert: "God as Regulative Idea. Helps you to think of the world as unified, if you hypothesize God as supreme cause. And that will push you to try to figure nature out, scientifically, to try to understand its purpose."

Mike: "Now that supreme cause business sounds more like what I’m used to. You know, the alpha and the omega."

Robert: "Except you can’t say that there really is a God that corresponds with the RI. It’s just an idea you put out there because our minds are pretty compulsive -- always wanting to go further, to complete, to unify, to make things perfect, even though we know things aren’t perfect in this world."

Mike: "And this postulate?"

Robert: "God as Postulate of morality. Now some people like that one better. Gives you a bit more to chew on. Basically a way of responding to a problem: although we know we ought to do what is right, good people aren’t always rewarded in this world. So we have to assume that there is some other guarantee for morality. Something powerful enough to support belief in an ultimate good and happiness."

Mike: "You say it’s powerful? Will I like it?"

Robert: "I don’t know if I would use the term "like." The point is that when you accept the postulate, it encourages you to want to do what is right. To do your duty."

Mike: "Not very comforting, really. I don’t think it’s really what I’m looking for."

Robert: "But it’s probably all you need. . . and I have a feeling it’s all you’ll get. The other machines are all out of order."

The Flight of Reason

Hegel: The Dialectic in the Philosophy of Right

Sharon’s Comments

The following piece follows Hegel’s presentation of the dialectic in Philosophy of Right: family, civil society, state. But the state is not, of course, the highest moment in the development of Absolute Spirit, and so the essay refers to the further manifestations of reflective spirit in art, religion, and finally philosophy.

The Story

Howland sat before his desk in the gathering obscurity of dusk. He was not yet aware of the changing light, of how he was straining to read the print. He had spent the past hour reading and thinking, trying to prepare for his weekly commentary. But his thoughts lacked clarity and precision, weighed down as they were by his sense of gloom. Often, after contemplating current events, he felt depressed. Yet he knew, if he could only step back, gain a wider perspective, gather his thoughts, the feeling would pass, and his mind would be carried forward, once again, by the dynamic of the wider vision. Yes, Howland was a visionary. Unrecognized, but persistent in his pursuit of a rational response to all of the terrible problems of the world. It was just a question of method, and devotion to the progress of rationality, which is to say, reality.

It was not the deadline that drove Howland, but rather his awareness of the urgency of his work. Most commentators he knew strove to be pertinent, perhaps challenging, or witty. Howland wanted to be right. He also tried to give his readers a glimpse of the bigger picture, as he saw it. To that end he almost always included historical detail in his column, and composed his essays to reflect the importance of coming to grips with the past. There was never any doubt in his mind that his reflections on the important issues of the day made a difference. Howland sincerely believed that an accurate analysis of events was of immense benefit to human understanding, and thus to the progressive development of the rationality of the world. And it was only a rational world that was ultimately a good world.

Currently Howland was considering two seemingly disparate situations that nonetheless revealed to Howland a commonality. The first, divorce, was a topic that had distressingly wide applicability in society as far as Howland was concerned. Recently a well-known couple had divorced. Both parties had expressed their need for freedom to pursue self-fulfillment. The man talked about a personal "quest," although he had been vague about the goal of his search. But, Howland wondered, what about their union? What about the family? It is true, he admitted to himself, marriage-as-union can overwhelm the identity of those who enter into it, especially if there is not adequate communication and understanding between the couple. Nevertheless, need the bond be so easily sacrificed to individual needs? Had self-fulfillment nothing at all to do with responsibility to another, to an idea larger than oneself?

The room was smudged with grey, as if an artist’s impatient hand had taken a charcoal to the scene. Howland flipped on a light and glanced at his watch. Startled, he forced his mind to move on. The second situation that had piqued his interest was a series of disputes in a neighboring town over school districts. The town officials had to redistrict in order to shift a certain number of children to a newly built junior high school. Collectively, the citizens recognized the need for the new building, and were pleased that class sizes would decrease. But every neighborhood put forth a cogent argument why its children should not be forced to move to the new building, why another neighborhood was so much better suited for redistricting. Not one neighborhood spoke in consideration of the good of the town as a whole. They spoke as "individuals", pitted against the school board who dared to infringe on their particular rights. And they spoke that way because they felt only partially committed to the town. Ironically, in this case, the commitment was to their own families and those of their immediate neighbors. A decision would soon be made, of course, and people eventually would get used to it. The children would make new friends. But would there be any increase of real awareness of the social problem?

It takes something more. Howland sighed and stretched his neck, rotating his head slowly with a birdlike motion. The answer lay in a creative solution, an idea that was born of both situations. Was there a union of persons that neither swallowed up the individual, nor encouraged selfish excess, that allowed for diversity without exalting particular desires? A whole that promoted the self-fulfillment of its members by the very fact of their being members. This, Howland reflected, is the nature of the ideal state. A universal ideal. And that ideal state is itself only an intermediate goal, a fertile ground in which to foster the true fruits of the human spirit. Here Howland stopped his flow of thoughts to consider. Where does humanity discover in itself the movement of the absolute? In great works of art, certainly. And through the insights of the world religions. But most of all … through the work of reason itself. Reflection on the history of humankind, on the meaningful course of reality. As he whispered these words to himself, Howland was vaguely aware of their flight, well beyond the capacity or taste of most of his readers... But he had no inclination to moderate his speculations. Night had fallen, and he had work to do.

Two Happenings: Reflections in a Nietzschean Mode

Sharon’s Comments

Nietzsche: Man as a rope stretched between animal and Superman over the abyss

Two articles are referred to in this piece. They are:

Stodghill, Ron, II. "Portrait of the Artist as Polka-Dotter." Time Magazine, 15 August 1997, 4.

Kelly, Kevin. "Bonfire of the Techies." Time Magazine, 15 August 1997, 60-62.

The reference to man as a "rope stretched between animal and Superman … over the abyss" is a phrase cited by Copleston (Vol. 7, 413). Copleston references Levy’s English transl. of N’s Works, IV.9. It is from the Prologue to Zarathustra.

Maybe this is pushing it, but there are some articles you just can’t pass up.

The Story

A perspective. (Refer to the article "Bonfire of the Techies.") Techno-rituals in the Nevada desert. Is this the Dionysian urge erupting? Note the wild, seemingly meaningless cavorting, the mud people, the furry rabbit. Could the descent into utter meaninglessness be a sign that transvaluation is about to begin? The author even insists that "anything lacking meaning gets assigned one," an obvious recognition that all meaning worth the name is created. Perhaps the Burning Man festival represents a critical moment at the edge of nihilism: after the death of God, there is the burning of an effigy. . . of what? the techno-nerd? the mindless commuter on the information superhighway? Or is it something more diffuse, say, the mediocre American? So many manifestations of herd mentality.

Or. . . is this just a new, not very subtle priestly manipulation? The frenzy, the rituals. Choking dust instead of choking incense. Initiation rites via e-mail. The destruction of the towering figure (could it be a warrior?) re-enacted yearly. Is this merely resentment breaking out, once again? An attempt to impose, via the insidious route of internet and desert revel, a new and ever more oppressive moral absolutism, masquerading as innocent Dionysian play?

It depends on your perspective. Don the mask of the outstanding individual, and you, too, could experience Burning Man as a transformative moment. A break with any possible meaning or value you have ever known, and thus a positive manifestation of your will to power, the first step toward a new creation. A desert creation. Perhaps an upside down desert creation. That figure painted blue, smeared with mud -- who knows? Übermensch? The living myth? The line of cavorting celebrants stretching off into the desert may well be the "rope stretched between animal and Übermensch" and over the abyss; an act of bizarre defiance.

A different perspective. (Refer to the article "Portrait of the Artist as Polka-Dotter.") A woolly, innocent mask. You see a meaningless festival promoted by weirdo Californians with nothing better to do over their Labor Day vacation. A hazard to the health of the participants, indeed, last year, a tragedy. Something to disdain, to avoid, to warn your children about. As disreputable as Woodstock. An affront to all decent, law-abiding, morally and politically conservative Americans, who know it is better to be boring than beautiful, who would rather run bleating over the precipice than take a chance on that shimmering thread that dances over the open-ended question of existence.

And then there is the Apollonian urge to draw the veil over the ugliness, the horror, the poverty of life. To impose order on chaos. To decorate the ghetto with a profusion of abandoned soles. To polka-dot an entire city. Here, at Heidelberg (St.), one can witness the willful creation of new aesthetic value. It is the creative genius at work, at once folk hero and despised innovator. Beloved by tourists and artists who flock to experience his work, and unappreciated and resented by residents who mistrust his vision, and his new and more prestigious address. But nothing will stop the aesthetic warrior of east Detroit. His will to power expresses itself fearlessly. . . concretely. . . on sidewalk, slab, and half-razed wall. And the materials with which he will realize his vision are omnipresent. Indeed, once again, the discarded trappings of mediocrity provide a foothold for a new breed of outstanding individuals.

But wait. True culture will unite the two, the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It could not be mere coincidence that both attitudes should be so prominently displayed in one issue of Time. No. It must be a sign. But to what does it point? What will it look like, this higher culture? Whose truth will it reveal? It will be pointillistic, certainly. Given to pyromancy, do-it-yourself architecture, and a startling new approach to the remembrance of things past. Peopled by strange figures presenting yet another aspect to the world: all dotty and daubed with clay. Enough to give even Zarathustra pause.

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