“Peace in the Eye of the Storm”
Today in morning meditation I noticed a sense of large-scale peacefulness in me. (Don’t worry, friends. It’ll pass, it’ll pass! I’ll still be me.)
I must say it took me quite by surprise, though you never know what you’ll find at the heart’s core. Especially since, in recent days, I’ve felt so overloaded that I had to postpone two much-anticipated reunions with friends.
It’s very rare for me to postpone dates. Gee! I must be coming apart, I thought. But no. Just very much needing some doing-nothing time.
A lot’s been happening in my humble life, and it would overload this weekly column even to list the elements. But let me pick out two dense recent encounters, just to give the idea.
Last week, Jerry and I went into New York City to see an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s one I’d been longing to see, but was unsure that my footing would be good for the whole walk-through. At any worthwhile museum exhibit, at least two things are in play: the stuff on view and one’s bodily ability to take it in.
Aristotle’s students were called peripatetics (from the Greek for “walking up and down”) because Aristotle was always walking, while he was talking. The visitor to a museum exhibit is in that sense a peripatetic viewer. So Jerry was there in case my peripatetic part failed to hold up its side.
Before going on to the museum, we stopped at the Asia Society’s café to meet one of Jerry’s young colleagues from the American Academy of Religion. From the first few sentences he uttered, it became clear that our luncheon companion was a talented young philosopher. We talked about an important but vanishingly elusive contemporary philosopher, whom he characterized with a moral directness and conceptual accuracy that’s uncommon in a young philosopher — or a veteran for that matter.
He also shared with us an academic situation where he finds himself a reluctant combatant. Though he’s a very popular and successful teacher, a student who claimed to have been “offended” by a topic he’d discussed called in the help of a Bully with Power over Personnel, given warrant from one of the government’s Offices of Groundless Denunciation. By now, he has managed to clear his name and get the accusation lifted. But he’s been left on a list of Cleared Suspects Available for Future Denunciation. The next groundless accusation will be treated as a second black mark, even though there was in fact no first black mark!
The reader who has never been groundlessly denounced may not know what a fight it takes to clear up a tainted personnel file. It’s something I happen to know about, however.
The net effect, for gifted and dedicated teachers, is to put a cloud between them and the spontaneities of a common search for truth. There are risks but also joys in such a search. Transmitting the heritage of a civilization is a teacher’s primary mission. Originality itself depends on this transmission. If one wants to innovate, it’s necessary to know what’s been done so far and what still needs doing.
Can witch hunts be stopped, once they start? The hunt stops when the Hunters find themselves hunted. The Salem witch trials ground to an embarrassed halt when the Denouncers noticed that their own wives were getting denounced! Let us in on the fun! Why stop at everybody’s wife but yours? The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror stopped when its leaders found themselves sentenced to the same guillotine to which they had sent so many others, pitilessly.
Through the device of his hero’s last thoughts on the way to that scaffold, Dickens writes:
I see …. long ranks of new oppressors
who have risen on the destruction of the old,
perishing by this retributive instrument
before it shall cease out of its present use.
Lunch was over. Having talked philosophy and shared war stories, we shook hands, exchanged sincere good wishes and went on to the Met.
“Pergamon,” the name of the exhibit we were going to see, was a city and domain in Asia Minor that had fallen to the control of one of the dynasties founded by Alexander the Great’s generals, once they divvied up the empire he had left them. It was excavated in the nineteenth century, mostly by German archeologists. It’s got shards and slices of the high post-classical culture that Alexander managed to spread all the way to the Ganges. Fruits of war, fruits of conquest, but beautiful. (The ugly part wasn’t on display.)
There were portraits of our old philosopher friends: Aristotle, as he might have looked in life, Diogenes, Epicurus, various Stoics. There was Alexander himself, riding high, astride a horse that wasn’t there any more. There too was his good looking “favorite.” A dense, climactic, celebratory gathering. What a party! The gang’s all here!
Some civilizations bear their antinomies within themselves. You can see the fault lines, foretell what they’ll die of. But the classical world never strikes me that way. If I find myself inside a Roman temple, or a Greek amphitheater, still carving out a hillside, I see a stone configuration that seems destined never to end, its equipoise embedded in its very stones. It looks to me like the very last word in human excellence. Why should it ever end?
Why did it end? Why do civilizations end?
One of the figures we saw, in bronze I think, was a sculpted Prometheus. He was the legendary hero who stole fire from heaven, to bestow on humanity the gift of power, shelter and progress. For his temerity, the gods punished him, laying him out on a rock in the Caucasus where an eagle gnawed at his liver daily, though the liver grew back at night for the next day’s gnawing. They say no good deed goes unpunished, but what an agony undeserved!
Can a civilization punish itself – as Prometheus was punished by the gods — for its very gifts of power, shelter and progress? Wasn’t something like that now happening to the young colleague we had met for lunch earlier that day?
There are people who speak of waves of history, or waves of the future, ideas (good or bad) whose time has come. In the 1930’s, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of the aviation hero, wrote The Wave of the Future, extolling Hitlerism as an “idea” whose time had supposedly come.
So what if its time had come? It still had to be defeated.
Hegel, the most influential philosopher of history, cautioned against supposing that we can read the future. “The owl of Minerva” (the bird of wisdom) “takes flight only at dusk” (when it’s all over) he wrote. The past is legible. Hindsight is 20/20. But the future doesn’t necessarily announce itself in the waves we see today.
I certainly possess no ability to read the tea leaves with regard to the big story of humankind. The deserving can perish, but not always. Sometimes they win. Miracles happen, but don’t keep your accounts on the assumption that a miracle will turn the red to black. Don’t drink and drive, hoping for a miracle.
“God doesn’t work for us,” said an Israeli mother whose son, prayed for by a whole nation, had been murdered anyway by his kidnappers.
The adventure of life summons us to the frontiers, to guard the best, to try what is best, to hope for the best.
If we got guarantees,
The adventure would not be one.