Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Buddhism and Christianity

The major conceptual distinction (as I understand it) between Madhyamika Prasangika and Classical Theism is that in general, Classical Theism affirms the existence of a Something which we can ultimately say nothing about, and Madhayamika Pransangika affirms the existence of nothing which we ultimately end up saying something about.  This distinction can only be resolved, or dissolved, in silence.

The Containment Problem

Let us return to beauty and consider a possibility: Beauty unseen bestows on the world beauty in varying proportion, and the things of the world which we take as beautiful possess no beauty in themselves.  If this were so, then everything in the natural world would be perceived as an admixture in relative proportion of beauty and ugliness, even though beauty was not in fact an actual material ingredient of anything in the world.  I would now like to consider the definition of the beautiful.  How would we define the beautiful as we find it in the natural world?

We would have to divide the world into the beautiful things and the ugly things.  But we if have supposed that everything contains an admixture of the two, this would amount to the drawing of an arbitrary line somewhere on a scale of contrasts (like the definition of a color).  We would then define based on the relative difference, the ratio, between what we took as beautiful and what we took as ugly.  In so doing, we would treat beauty, which was a gift freely bestowed on all, as a possession, the property of the few.  There are two problems with this view.  First, another would undoubtedly draw the line differently, resulting in a new definition, a contrary definition from mine.  Second of all, one investigating this magical property of the few would be incapable of finding any specific property in the few which gave rise to the beauty.  For example, we could construct a physical description of the Mona Lisa, and perhaps program a three dimensional printer to make facsimiles of the Mona Lisa that are indistinguishable to the naked eye.  Yet nowhere in our description or the algorithm would be a description of the quality of beauty. One might conclude that the obvious, the beauty of the world, did not exist as it could not be defined or scientifically measured.  (You know what I mean, so don't tell me beauty is subjective.  The attribution of beauty in a particular context is a judgment call, similar to a strike in baseball.  It's not subjective when an Umpire makes a terrible call.)

Another problem is that our approach is static.  There are constantly emerging new forms of beauty in the world, and it is unclear whether they would meet our definition based on history.  We would then have fights about the application of our definition, even if we could agree on one, which I submit we can't.

This is the containment problem.  If beauty is a natural property of things in the natural world, then beauty should be definable and the subject of scientific investigation, like electricity.  The existence of beauty is both obvious, even to a little child, and a source of immense value to people across cultures and time.  To deny the existence of beauty sounds a bit like one's dogma ran over one's karma.  We can say that beauty is "subjective"--that most "subjective" of categories--but that leaves the mystery of why people are able to reach collective agreement on relative judgments of beauty such that the term has a stable collective meaning and can be understood across individuals and languages and cultures.

The only way to make the existence of beauty intelligible is to suppose that in fact its not the world that contains beauty, but that the Beautiful contains the world, and in perceiving beauty, we do not in fact witness the property of a thing, but the diffuse radiance of the source of all things.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Pascal on Might and Right

"It is right to follow the right, it is necessary to follow the mighty.

Right without might is helpless, might without right is tyranical.

Right without might is challenged, because there are always evil men about.  Might without right is denounced.  We must therefore combine right and might, and to that end make right into might or might into right.

Right is open to dispute, might is easily recognized and beyond dispute.  Therefore right could not be made mighty because might challenged right, calling it unjust and itself claiming to be just.

Being unable to make right into might, we have made might into right."

Pascal, Pensees

The Son of Justice

From a Wikipedia entry on Joseph de Maistre:

"SoirĂ©es de St. PĂ©tersbourg ("The Saint Petersburg Dialogues", 1821) is a theodicy in the form of a Platonic dialogue, in which Maistre argues that evil exists because of its place in the divine plan, according to which the blood sacrifice of innocents returns men to God, via the expiation of the sins of the guilty; Maistre saw this is a law of human history, as indubitable as it is mysterious."  
In previous entries, we have discussed matter as the principle of differentiation.  Material things are capable of discrete separation and as such, are capable of quantitative measure and definition.  Furthermore, quantity always entails the comparison of two things, a measuring stick and the object measured, so identifying how much something is a function of a dyad.  Measurement does not reveal the quantity of a thing, it reveals the relationship of a thing to another.  That is to say, definition, the identity of material things, depends on difference. 

We have a number of words which express dualities.  We speak of good and evil, truth and falsehood, beautiful and ugly.  To the extent that these concepts take material instantiation, we are defining things on the basis of difference.

If we take this reasoning to the political level, if we talk about Republicans and Democrats, Black and White, Native and Immigrant, 1% versus the Many, Northern or Southern, Straight or Gay, Liberal and Conservative, Protestant and Catholic, etc., we have to realize that the groups denoted by these labels must be perceived as different communities of belonging in order for this discourse to be meaningful.  To transcend all differences based on religion, class, race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, etc. means to subtract all meaning from these identity tags.  The translation of this vision into a political space is to imagine a collectivity composed of people who lack any stable sense of identity or belonging, mindless inter-changeable parts, literal nothings.  To be among your own people (as you define them) is to be apart from the other.  Further, we can suppose that if all contemporary identity tags were rendered meaningless by political and social development, because of the basic human need for belonging, new groups based on new identity tags would emerge (junkies and straight edge, tattoos and the uninked, old and young, English and Spanish).

To put this another way, political identity is based on a distinction between friends and potential enemies.  Politics occurs in the space in which groups form alliances and compete against each other, oppose each other, and declare one another enemies.  Political struggle inevitably occurs amongst domestic and foreign enemies.  If you want to decode someone's political orientation, ask yourself who are their domestic and international enemies--who are they trying to oppose or to legislate against?  Eventually, politics breaks down, the contradiction becomes intolerable, and war, the negation of the other, transpires.  Further, if we believe in a just order, we may even celebrate warfare if the war is fought to prevent tyranny or the ruthless domination of one group over another.  But it is in the nature of warfare that innocents will be killed.  Soldiers and civilians may live under a tyrant, but these individuals are not necessarily evil and wicked, and certainly not justly deserving of death even if they die under the banner of a tyrant.  As Hemingway stated, "Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."

The roots of warfare lie in the manifestation of the word.  The emergence of the word divides brother against brother, tribe against tribe, nation against nation.  The inevitability of tyranny and warfare ensues from human greed and lust for power, one group or one nation insisting on domination over another group.  This is the natural result of language conjoined with human wickedness.  It can never be legislated away.  Eventually, the slaves or the peasants or the workers revolt, or the elite stage a coup, or the foreign invaders see a nation divided and weak.  Human history is a story of corruption, greed for wealth and power, and class-based over-reaching, ultimately leading to the shedding of the blood of innocents.  Moreover, no state of political justice in the world has ever been achieved without the shedding of blood, whether we look at the civil rights movement, Indian independence, the Civil War, the American Revolution, or the Exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt. 

The existence of the soul can be viewed as principally a political question.  If humans have no soul, if humans are simply material things, then the only possibility for the species is a form of politics inevitably giving way to war and bloodshed.  No true justice is ever achievable, the death of innocents is meaningless, and justice a mockery.  The only truth for the worldly order is constituted power and death.  On the other hand, if human beings contained within their essence something immaterial, indivisible, and omnipresent, then the human species contains the possibility of achieving a unity and a harmony not based on numerical identity and difference, but above identity and difference.  Unity not through the destruction of difference, but unity within our difference.  We could call this quality Justice, and we would note that it is this quality which is most clearly revealed in our hearts when we witness the shedding of the blood of innocents.  We might go as far as to say Justice becomes incarnate in the innocent man going to his execution.  His death is necessary as the price paid for our collective sins.  And if we truly seek Justice, we must be prepared to follow him.