On The Effective Life

When one lets drip a drop of water into a placid lake, what happens? A ripple of concentric circles occurs.

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What then is the drop of water, exactly? Is it the water which drops into and merges with the larger body of water, or is it the ripples it creates? In the same vein, does one judge a tree based on its height or the shade that it casts? And would one judge a human by the body he or she possesses or by the effects which he or she has?

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Consider then the relationship between Virgil and Dante. Often, students have tremendous trouble with the fact that Virgil, like a man holding a candle behind him, who lights the way for others, without himself receiving any benefit, leads Statius and Dante to their conversions, but he is himself “un-saved”. And though his effects be so grand, he is himself relegated to Hell. Therefore, one must wonder this: s Virgil the shade that he leaves in Hell or the effect he has had on his students, like Statius and then Dante? If Dante and Statius are saved through Virgil’s wisdom, does Virgil live on through them? Though Dante did not have access to the works of Homer, the answer may reside at the very end of Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey at the very end of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld (Nekyia).

“And then I noticed mighty Hercules,
or at least his image, for he himself
was with immortal gods, enjoying their feasts.
Hebe with the lovely ankles is his wife,
daughter of great Zeus and Hera, goddess
of the golden sandals. Around him there
the dead were making noises, like birds
fluttering to and fro quite terrified.
And like dark night, he was glaring round him,
his unsheathed bow in hand, with an arrow
on the string, as if prepared to shoot.
The strap across his chest was frightening,
a golden belt inlaid with images—
amazing things—bears, wild boars, and lions
with glittering eyes, battles, fights, and murders,
men being killed. I hope whoever made it,
the one whose skill conceived that belt’s design,
never made or ever makes another.
His eyes saw me and knew just who I was.
With a mournful tone he spoke to me—
his words had wings:

‘Resourceful Odysseus,
son of Laertes and a child of Zeus,
are you now bearing an unhappy fate
below the sunlight, as I, too, did once?
I was a son of Zeus, son of Cronos,
and yet I had to bear countless troubles,
forced to carry out labours for a man
vastly inferior to me, someone
who kept assigning me the harshest tasks.
Once he sent me here to bring away
Hades’ hound. There was no other challenge
he could dream up more difficult for me
than that one. But I carried the dog off
and brought him back from Hades with my guides,
Hermes and gleaming-eyed Athena.’

Source: (11.776-810)

Here we learn that might Herakles (Hercules is the Romanized name), has left a shade in the underworld as well as become a god. What, exactly, does this mean? This means, like with Orion and Minos, that Herakles continues to do in death what he did in life, hunting down animals and accomplishing feats–in contrast to Achilleus who while living believed “all men were held in a single honor, both the heroes and the cowards,” (Iliad Book IX), but now in the underworld he would rather work as the thrall to a poor man rather than rule over all the “perished dead.” Achilleus, as opposed to Orion, Minos, and Herakles is never happy with where he is, whether living or dead. And thus he is immortally discontent. Herakles, Orion, and Minos, however all continue to serve while dead in the same way that they lived. And in fact in Dante’s Commedia, Minos will receive the high honor of judging and placing the dead. But what does it mean that Herakles “he himself was with immortal gods?” And how does that relate to whether Virgil is more his shade in hell or the effect he has had on his students? It means this: the shade left behind represents the action of the person while he or she lived: so if such a person was happy, he remains happy: Orion. If he were discontent, he remains so: Achilleus. If he were resentful, he remains so: Aias the Greater. So what does it mean that Herakles became a god as well and is “with the Olympians”? It means precisely the same thing as Statius joining with Paradise at the end of Dante’s Purgatorio. If Virgil left an effect in this world, or an epic poem called The Aeneid, and also his Eclogues and Georgics, and from those, Statius received the divine wisdom or truth which turned him (converted) towards “the light” or from material and temporary pursuits to eternal ones, then is not what was eternal within Virgil, then transmitted (in sort of a transmigratory way) to Statius? And if Statius then ascends to heaven as an effect of Virgil’s work, does not Virgil, truly, ascend to heaven alongside him, leaving only his shade, or worldly actions, behind him?

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Let us add to this: If Dante has been guided along through the Inferno and Purgatorio by Virgil, is not any impression which he leaves regarding such experiences, but proxy, also an impression left of Virgil? Now of course, Virgil is not present for the unveiling of the full Divine Mystery which is unveiled over the last two cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio, so yes, it is true that he never fully understood his own wisdom, but if one lives on through his or her effects, would not the work which Virgil has left and Dante be their shades, and their continuing impressions on current humans their “being with the Olympians”. They, then, would share their “living knowledge” with those who are living eternally, through that which they have left. Therefore, though they were but drops of a water, dropped into the ocean of this world, their ripples continue on through all those who learn from them, and they are eternal in this way.

*This article might just as well be entitled, “On the Eternal Life”

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*Does the conclusion of this article explain why we as a culture hold “selfies” in such disdain, and Narcissus? Because the effect one has is what one is, not one’s image. Thus is focusing on the image vulgar, or common.

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On Equanimity

Today, after working out I was greeted by one of my favorite things: a blinking green light on the top right corner of my cell-phone. A friend had messaged me via Facebook. What a delight! Now this friend has obviously seen some of my recent Facebook posts and possibly even read my most recent article on maintaining civility between private citizens, in contrast to the behavior of our political figures. He jokingly asked, “are you becoming a social justice warrior now?” Fair as this question seems, especially as I have been “championing” civility and open discussion between private citizens both online and in-real-life lately, it hides a subtle and sinister desire to quell open discourse.

For context, this friend, intelligent as he is, works in finance and is likely taken by and deeply influenced by his daily reading of Breitbart.com. Well, that is one way to perceive him in order to write him off in the way that he attempted to write off my thoughts– undoubtedly by thinking of me as a “liberal teacher championing the issue of “black lives matter.” Neither perception, however, would really do justice to the other person and would likely, if maintained, result in an all-too-common unproductive and unnecessary opposition to one another. In contrast to my initial adverse emotional response to him, I might also, just as honestly, perceive him as a current and former employee of a humanitarian organization with a special and personal insight into issues of race in America. Very different, indeed. And he might just as well perceive me as a non-unioned charter school educator specializing in the implementation of “Great Books” curricula (often accused of being conservative to the core against contemporary diversity initiatives)– these are dramatically different ways of perceiving the same person. Such misunderstandings are extremely common, and this is largely, I believe, due to private individuals, rather than doing the hard work of learning the subtleties and intricacies of each others’ beliefs, preferring or finding it more convenient to think of each other as public figures beholden to public beliefs neatly divided along a liberal or conservative line. This is hardly ever truly the case with thinking individuals, who are largely a mass of clear and confused thoughts, but always capable of listening, thinking, and changing their minds.

About my political beliefs and alliances, however, let me be clear. I agree, full-sail, with Emerson’s assessment of placing doctrine above discernment in his seminal essay Self-Reliance:

“The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, — the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean “the foolish face of praise,” the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.”

The full text of this short and perennially relevant text may be found here, and I recommend that everybody read it. Emerson’s contention, which I maintain, is that one’s thought ought not be dictated by party-politics nor even, I would add, the general talking points presented and repeated over and over again in the public sphere via the media. This is neither an attack on parties nor the media; this is an exhortation to use one’s discernment to discuss, develop, and determine one’s thoughts in accordance with one’s own thoughts and reasons. This is what it means, truly, to be free or liberal (from the latin word: libero–to be set free), and also what it means to maintain an ancient and medieval value, discernment, and to be conservative (from the latin word: conservare: to protect or safeguard).

So, rather than paint my friend as some party-minded conservative and ignore those aspects and thoughts of him which makes him far more moderate, and vice versa, instead of identifying myself with the liberal aspects of my profession (as seen in one way), I stand for and argue for equanimity. Equanimity, as a word, comes from the latin word Aequus–“equal, even” and animus–“mind”. It means to maintain composure and even-headedness in our language. As opposed to becoming angry or forcing one’s self or another into a doctrinaire position, I argue to maintain the middle, the place of thought and calm reflection in a time when the storm winds are rising.

In response, then, to my friend’s question, “are you becoming a social justice warrior now?” I will remove the word social, and with it its liberal connotations, and leave just the word justice there. I am now, avowedly, an advocate for justice, or justice as fairness, or “blind-justice”, as I imagine any American, really, ought to be.