On the Relative Nature of Good and Evil

Just as all the ocean may be represented in a single drop, so may a thinker or writer’s perspective and perception be represented in small ways throughout their texts. Today, we will focus on a few small quotes from both Homer and Dante illustrating their shared perception that God exists as Nature within (and without) man, and that as God is both the form of man (soul) and the form of Earth (as heaven–or the soul of the world–that which forms it), there can be no such thing as absolute evil or absolute good within the realm of human nature (because God’s nature is perfect.)

We will begin with Homer’s Odyssey. Once Odysseus has symbolically woken up from his sleep aboard a fast-as-thought divine ship of the Phaiakians on his homeland, which he does not recognize due to mist sent by Athene (is this perhaps internal mist?), Athene approaches him incognito as shares the following notion–she says that she, so like one’s nature or soul,  would never abandon him because: “you are fluent, and reason closely, and keep your head always,” (13.332) and that she loves him because “you wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature.” (13.293-294) Is she saying that she will always be with a man who follows his own nature? Of course she is. Throughout the text of the Odyssey, either Athene, Ino, or Hermes helps Odysseus whenever he finds himself in a new situation which his “mind” or “Athene” must figure out the solution to. One might even consider the notion that Athene is simply an external representation of Odysseus’ internal workings, and Hermes too. It is almost as if what is within is the same as what is without. Let us add to this.

Remember that Athene has implored Zeus to help Odysseus escape captivity in Book V. Hermes then gave the order to set him free as well. Ino then helped Odysseus in the water after his raft was destroyed by Poseidon at the end of Book V. In Book VI, before Odysseus even awakens, Athene sends a dream to Nausikaa to ensure that she meets Odysseus the next day. Then after Odysseus has met Nausikaa, Athene in the form of a young lass directs him to Nausikaa and Alkinoos’ house (and places a mist around him). Hermes then helps Odysseus with instructions during the Circe episode even giving him black and white moly to help prevent him from turning into an animal (a representation of keeping one’s mind to stay human?), and later Athene meets and plots with Odysseus on Ithaka and even ensures, with Zeus’ help, that the fighting between him and the suitors ends in Book XXIV. Hermes also, finally, escorts the dead to the underworld in the same book, similarly to him conducting Priam to a similar world in Book XXIV of Homer’s Iliad.

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(Athene pointing the way home to Odysseus)

This all goes to show that the pagan or Olympian gods do not reward subjectively “good” or “bad” actions, but rather those actions in accordance with one’s nature, or inner deity. Though Odysseus may be sleeping with Circe or shooting an arrow through Alkinoos’ throat, it is precisely because these actions serve a larger purpose of either honoring the xenia (guest-host relationship), or in someway serve the divine plan in a way Odysseus or us would not otherwise see. An action which may be called evil or good to human eyes, thus, always mistakes a personal judgment for a divine judgment which it has no claim to, unless, of course, it understands the “divine plan”, which it generally does not. On to Dante.

In Canto 2 of his Paradiso:

“Direct your mind to God in gratitude,” she told
me, “who has conjoined us with the first star.”

It seemed to me that a cloud covered us,
shining, dense, solid, clear, like a diamond
struck by the sun.

Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as
water receives a ray of light while still remaining whole.

If I was a body–and down here it cannot be
conceived how one dimension could accept an
other, a must occur, if body coincide with body–

It should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature
and God became one.” (Paradiso 2.29-42)

If one closely analyzes the action of the quote above, one will immediately observe that the pilgrim could either be in an intangible, clear, and eternal space within or outside himself  (as shown in the lecture before), and this “encapsulated space” or space is clear and shining and receives the pilgrim, or his form and Beatrice’s, “as water receives a ray of light.” Water, which is translucent, like space, or a crystal, takes light into itself not by possessing it, but by reflecting it. If one then understands the function of the mind or rational soul as reflecting the world of reality, or the mixture of heaven and earth, or form and matter, in a purely formal way, one then understands the mind, like space, to appear precisely as that which it represents, like water reflecting light, in the presence of light or understanding. One might understand this as the Father and the Son sharing the truth or the Holy Spirit (as a messenger between), showing both reflecting each other! The Son, therefore, would be the mind or rational soul of an individual, and it would reflect the reality outside, or the Father, for which one was created to see.

The next quote of Dante’s then tackles the notion of evil in human nature in a characteristically circumspect way.

“There we shall see that which we hold by
faith, and not by demonstration, but it will be
self-evident, like the first truth one believes.

I replied, “My lady, as devoutly as I can I
thank him who has removed me from the
mortal world.

But tell me: what are the dark marks in this
body, that make people down there on earth
tell fables about Cain?” (2.43-51)

Here Dante is cleverly addressing the following question: if a celestial body, or intangible one, like the moon, or the soul, is perfect, how is it that there are seeming imperfections in both man’s soul and this  celestial body (the Moon)–why are there dark spots on the moon and why did Cain do what is apparently evil if human nature is good? First, one should consult this former lecture in order to see Dante’s proof that the root of good and evil, form and matter, and human and divine, all spring from the same source. Then, the question becomes: if human nature is the same as divine nature, how is it that some humans seem to be imperfect? Well, the answer, unlike one might suspect, does not involve there being a difficulty between how the form and matter of a person interact, nor does it have anything to do with the fact that with free-choice, a human can do as he pleases. For there is no such thing as an imperfect nature, there is only a such thing as a person whose nature appears to be lesser or darker relative to others.

First, though, Dante cleverly indicates that he does believe the soul within and heaven or reality “without” to be the same:

“Now, as under the blows of the warm rays of
the sun the subject of snow remains naked
of its former colors and chill,

just so, you, who have become such in
intellect, I wish to inform with light so lively it will
tremble when you see it.” (2.106-111)

If one here follows the analogy, Dante is comparing the soul to melted snow with the snow reflecting on it. What is melted snow? It is water? What is this image of the soul then but the exact same image of the Sphere of the Moon above: “Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as water receives a ray of light while still remaining whole.” It is therefore clear that the Sphere of the Moon and the Soul are “made” or “formed” of the same substance which lies beneath. How, then, could there be imperfections in either if it were not caused, as the pilgrim suggests, by denser and rarer amounts of matter obscuring the nature of the whole? The answer is simple: there is no such thing as an evil or bad nature–only those natures which do what is called bad or evil in accordance with human laws. By the Divine Law, there are only differing degrees of perfection, no good and no evil. So even a murderer of a brother, a fratricide like Cain, lived out his nature, though humans perceive him and his actions as dark or evil. But as we now understand from what appear to be blots on the moon, such dark or evil actions, also like the phases of the moon, are not ultimately evil, but relatively so compared to the “brighter natures” or “actions” of others.

“From that nature comes what seems different
from light to light, not from dense and rare:
it is a formal principle that produces,

confomably with its goodness, the dark and
the bright.” (2.145-148)

Just before this quote, Dante’s Beatrice explained that each celestial body, or soul, mixes to differing degrees with Intelligence (136), and therefore each alloy, or celestial being/soul has a differing nature. That then which appears dark or evil to human perception, by Divine perception, or Truth, is simply that nature or soul which Intelligence has not bequeathed more “goodness” into, and therefore appears to our senses to be lacking. By Divine vision, then, good and evil do not have absolute existence.

 

 

 

 

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Introduction to Dante’s Paradiso

Welcome to Dante’s Celestial Paradise, otherwise known as Heaven or the Paradiso. Let us begin with some introductory remarks about how the Paradiso is differently structured from the canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio) before. For one, in the Paradiso, no soul or body is actually moving in the physical or material sense of the word. Unlike Hell and Purgatory, there is no material basis here. In Hell, the sin was physical weight which dragged souls down to hell through its gravitas. In Purgatory, though the souls/shades were immaterial, they inhabited a place on Earth and still were purging their sins and therefore still partook of motion and therefore physical nature. Here in Paradise, however, though it will apparently be split into the spheres of the heavens, all souls are together, and not separated as they will appear to be for the sake of Dante’s still all-too-human and thus limited perception (4.37-39). And ours.

This makes more sense if we consider a second major difference in this canticle: just as gateways to the next circle of Hell were easily found with Virgil alone guiding, and terrace-gates were found only through a gracious Angel whispering their locations in Purgatorio, so here the pilgrim will immediately be transmitted from one sphere to the next, like the speed “in which a crossbow bolt comes to rest, and flies, and leaves the nut” or instantaneously when he looks into Beatrice’s eyes. This is telling, for it suggests that Paradise is not so much a physical place external to one, but rather an internal place within the soul. If we follow the clues, this makes sense. Beatrice first sent Virgil down to help Dante/the pilgrim through Earth and then Hell and then Purgatory in order to reach a state which would be capable of revelation. Beatrice, therefore, could only appear to Dante when he was ready for her to be revealed from Paradise, or within himself, where of course he kept her form and not her matter.

When one adds to this the idea that it is unclear even to Dante whether his body moves and is therefore in Paradise (2.37-39)*, the evidence, from three different angles (Beatrice’s eyes, Location of Beatrice’s form, and the speed of “motion”), the hypothesis that Paradise lies within, where human nature and Divine nature intersect (2.40-42)**, becomes clear.

Since the celestial experience is essentially the pilgrim taking a trip up the maze (Purgatory) to its center, himself, or the divine and human nature within, the majority of the text will focus on right interpretation of difficult philosophical and theological matters, which of course find their roots in the rational intellect or soul, and on the proper method by which one (1) doubts, (2) questions, and (3) resolves one’s doubt due to correct investigation of a subject. So, though the souls in Paradise all correctly understand that which they know, it is their task to help the Pilgrim, still full of doubt, to relieve his doubt through correct understanding of the Truth.

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(The Sphere of the Moon)

In the first Sphere of Paradise, the Moon, we encounter our first cadre of difficult philosophical questions—besides those “simple” ones of how one moves in Paradise, and how a body would move in it (it couldn’t—just like a rock’s matter does not enter one’s head, ideally), now we can consider the question of why the Moon appears to have dark spots if it is immaterial in nature. The pilgrim (Dante in the text) tries some interpretation, but as his reasoning involves material, he is necesse incorrect in his reasoning. Beatrice will then explain, loosely based on Aristotle/Aquinas’ cosmology, that each celestial sphere appears in accordance to the “brightness” or “luminosity” of the pure souls within. The “spots” or “seeming marks of imperfection” (which would have to be material) are actually a human’s misperception of the fact that that which appears dark is only relatively dark due to the brightness of the souls surrounding it. All the souls of the Moon and in Paradise, therefore, are perfect in accordance with their own natures, but some are more perfect than others, and some accepted and lived by their own natures better than others (else there would have been no free-choice, and humans would just be different in quality based on their natures alone, like angels.) So much for that question.

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(A and B are the same color)

Essentially, the luminosity of the angels can simply be represented by the “brain teaser” above. Though Square A and Square B appear different in coloring, they are the same. Generally this is called an “optical illusion”, but that term is a misnomer, because it is not the ops or eye at all which is deceived, but the mind based on the context one views the respective squares. Square A of course is surrounded by white squares and  Square B by dark grey. Due to the differing patterns around them, they appear either lighter or darker than they are to the rational intellect or mind. It is precisely this same principle of relative light or perception which makes some lights on Dante’s Moon to appear darker than others.

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(The moon and its dark spots)

Next Dante meets two radiant former-nuns who at first seem like “reflections in a deep pool” so faint are they to him—much like a vague thought, or reflection, one has not yet fleshed out. These two “sisters” are Piccarda Donati, sister to Forese whom we met in Purgatorio, and the empress Constance. Both of these sisters took vows to serve as handmaidens to god and brides to Christ (nuns are the brides of Christ as representatives of the feminine nature of the Church), but both were taken from their vows back into the secular world but against their wills. For this reason, they are in the lowest heaven, the heaven or sphere of oath-breakers or those with unfulfilled vows. Now, in order to justify her position in heaven (guilty conscience?), Piccarda explains the notion of contingent will vs. absolute will. Essentially, contingent will is the will which one uses to make every-day decisions about temporal things. The absolute Will, however, which appears to be the Will of God, can also be tapped into by a human by aligning their contingent will with it. If one, however, is forced by outside conditions to separate one’s will from the Absolute Will, there is not much blame if one truly does not wish to, but there is no blame, if like Laurence or Mucius (4.82-84), one united one’s contingent will with Absolute Will even under torturous conditions.

Returning to the notion that Paradise is all whole though broken into parts for human perception (just as Aristotle says that the soul is all one though it is logically divided for the intellect), let us consider the following passage:

“They have shown themselves here, not
because this sphere is allotted to them, but to
signify the celestial one that is least exalted.

To speak thus to your understanding is
necessary, for it takes from sense perception
alone what later it makes worthy of intellection.

For this reason Scripture condescends to
your faculties, attributing feet and hands to God
and meaning something different.

and holy Church represents Gabriel and
Michael to you with human shape, and the other
one who made Tobias whole.

(Dante, Paradiso 4.37-48. Durling tr.)

We see here that part of the project in Paradise will be to take that which we have perceived with our senses or been taught in a sensual way (like God having feet or Gabriel wings) and to teach the pilgrim and therefore us how correctly to dismantle the image through questioning and analyze the parts, and then put them back together as they were found but with a symbolic understanding of the thing itself. One therefore notices that the process by which one will come truly to understand things is also threefold: (1) learn through senses, (2) analyze the function of each part (dismemberment), and (3) correctly put it back together. If one thinks about this process hard enough, it sounds like the eternally repeated process of education: (1) learn something the first time through belief or by rote.  (2) Then truly analyze it and come to know the purpose of each part. (3) Finally, to show mastery, put the concept back together by teaching it to another so that they might do the same. Voila.

Welcome to Paradise.

*”If I was a body–and down here it cannot be
conceived how one dimension could accept an
other, as must occur, if body coincide with body–”
(2.37-39)

**”it should kindle within us more desire to see
that Essence where is seen how our nature and
God became one.”
(2.40-42)

On Impermanence

Aphorism 1: The world of our memories is totally gone. No matter at what point you imagine. You really can never step in the same stream twice. Think about that for a minute. It is totally gone. That is why we must write our history down. Because it will just disappear.

Aphorism 2: No wonder time heals all wounds. Eventually, you are a totally different person.

Aphorism 3: And the world one knows is but one’s personal store of memories. In no way is that as permanent as a world, the world.

Aphorism 4: Because the sands of time will wash it all away. So they warn us of how the world works. And like so many fools we resent and resist them. We have the answers, of course, we say as we already begin to fade.

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When we were younger, we loved that which was new precisely because it was real. And that which was old was that which was very not current reality. When the older, then, look down upon the young for chasing after new fads, they ought to hesitate a moment. It is true that the young are more “beholden” to the momentary events for their happiness, but does the adult sacrifice the perception of the moment, of true reality, for the comfort of irreal, though regular, generalities? Is it perhaps ultimately true what happens to the narrator of The Polar Express? Do we stop hearing Santa’s sleigh bells? Do we stop perceiving reality as we sink into a silken bed, complete with silken eye cover, and comfort ourselves with the softness of memories?

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This is why travel-time and study are such an awful bore to the young. It is taking time out of reality in order study what is no longer a part of reality. Truly, a lose-lose for the young person! And conversely this is why the young absolutely love live-events of any and all sorts. Being out–seeing and feeling what is happening is the height of sensation. And so the docile adults will nod their heads and knowingly assume they have “seen it all before”? But is this perhaps a pernicious assumption, based on interpretation of one’s own personal memories, and not accounting for present differences in the situation at hand? Undoubtedly.

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Look to challenges too. There is no little boy who will not take up the chance to wrestle an older man. Truly, it is not he who is de-natured! And also it is not he that is fooled by reality. We assume since he is small that he does not understand that an older and stronger man could injure or kill him. Quite wrong. Instead it is innate within the boy to know that the wrestling is but a game and will end as all games end with everyone going their separate ways. Even as a child, the natural conception of society as fundamentally a fun game we all play of “imagination” together is still intact. And then the children stare at us stressing and wondering when we forgot how to play. When indeed?

The 90’s film Hook with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman put this idea into neat perspective. The once formidable and devilishly talented Peter Pan has grown up and is now an out-of-shape workaholic lawyer who values profits over family. Oh, and he is afraid of heights. Early in the movie, Wendy, who Peter believes to be his foster grand-mother, looks up at Peter myopically and says, “Peter, you’ve become a pirate,” and so do we all as we “turn” into adults. That turn is the opposite of the con-version (turning-with) which we must effect in order “to become child-like” again, just as we once “put away childish things” in our original “turning into” adults. Perhaps in becoming child-like again, we are turning outward again and truly seeing. Is this then Plato’s progression out of the cave but in a slightly different light? One sees reality as a child, but then the rules, laws, and words of the world begin to obscure it, to over-shadow it, and only when one recalls, through perhaps a moment of insight, which leads to one unraveling a thread back to the beginning of the labyrinth, does one find reality again. So, though in Plato’s analogy one goes from ignorance in darkness to knowledge in light to knowledge in darkness (or having internal light–and therefore the capacity to serve as a torch for others while leading them out), in this analogy, one would start by seeing the light, and then cover one’s eyes with the “material” of the world (like the Avaricious in Dante’s Purgatorio), and only then, after perhaps seeing a gleam of light, beginning to wipe the lenses once again. And then one is no longer trapped in the past, in one’s self-created prison (Camus seems to have been thinking of this in The Stranger), and one can again see and rejoin reality, or the world as it is.

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This segues nicely into Carl Jung’s concepts of the persona, the ego, and the shadow. The persona is essentially the social adaptation of the individual, a blend of concepts of what is socially acceptable, and not much else besides. Imagine a person made of greetings and handshakes and tight-eyed smiles. There are some exceptionally witty types who get away with staying just within the rules by use of analogies, strange metaphors, and double entendres, but even they are limited by the rules of the social game and must act very restrained. Thus the persona, which means mask in Latin provides a useful barrier between an individual and society. The ego is then another conception removed from this in that the ego is the cluster of ideas and perceptions which think it is the being itself. The ego is the ideas one has developed, projected onto other beings (largely due to being fooled by their personas), and internalized thinking that these qualities are attributable to itself. In some cases perhaps it is right and in some it is most assuredly wrong, but in all cases it is certainly absolutely limited in the scope of its ideas and ability to perceive itself. And this is helped along by the existence of the shadow which contains within it all the concepts which the ego has developed, projected and then decided are definitely not it. What are the criteria for this judgment? Well, you tell me. Have you ever called someone a foul name after one bad encounter with them? Just one. So, the filter is pretty thin. And the vast majority of people, says Jung, see by the conceptions within those three conception clusters. Very few make it to perception of the motions of the archetypes or dominants of the unconscious in their lives and in the motions of reality. But once one does, one discards the concepts which one has hitherto used, and one, like a sailor, as Alan Watts would say, sort of sails the currents of the unconscious world. This is why all the greatest heroes (and several villains) are represented as sailors: Odysseus, Jonah, Ahab, et alia. They go with the flow of life–which of course one cannot simply “choose” to do without having chosen and acted on removing the world of one’s stained conceptions of things–and in so doing they live symbolic and meaningful and present lives. This means that what is outside is balanced with what is within. And really, could one ask for more?

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Waiting for Paradise

Is not waiting to be rewarded in Heaven the same as waiting until tomorrow to make a change? Think about it. When one says to himself, “Perhaps this will be different tomorrow,” is not one really saying, “I hope that someone else makes this change for me,”? Of course. Does one then inappropriately use the notion of Heaven to keep one from making the necessary changes in one’s life in the hopes that they will “spontaneously change” tomorrow? Well, who is going to make these changes, if not the one who is hoping for the change? As Gandhi has said,

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

There is no shade without a tree, no smoke without fire, and no effect without action in this world. Therefore, in order to affect this world, one must be like a drop of water in a placid lake, or rather, one must do things in order to create ripples, like the sound of a gong which hangs in the air even after it has been struck. So, when the gong, or the mallet, disappears, what sound remains? None, of course, and such is the nature of waiting until an after-life, or heaven, for one’s reward, or for one’s world to be perfect. That simply is not how it works. Just as Homer shows that immortality of the body does not exist by showing both that those who have died remain the same in the underworld as they did in the upperworld (Orion hunts, Minos judges, Aias resents, Agamemnon blames, Achilleus is discontent), and by suggesting a distinction between being a shade and being an immortal through the figure of Herakles. The shade of a man, like the shade of a tree, exists through the action or position of the mortal man during his life. His shade, therefore, is not a “living version of him” in the underworld, but more an impression, without substance, created by his living actions, which no longer learns or grows or changes. For how could it? Once the impression is made in the wax, there it stays. And Herakles’ immortality is not his physical immortality, because of course he physically dies and is burned by Philoktetes. His immortality, or his heaven, exists precisely in the fact that his story continues to live on through others and teach them what he himself learned: the value of perseverance and overcoming obstacles in this world. This lesson is also taught by Odysseus, favorite of Hermes and Athene, as well.

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Source: (Herakles receiving (wisdom) from Athene)

Is it then appropriate to wait for death or heaven or paradise to change one’s self today? Not at all. This situation is similar to the perception that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Let us analyze this image: if one perceives the grass to be greener from one side of the fence, and then changes positions and the grass appears greener on the other side, then has the grass changed at all? No, of course not. One has simply shown that what one truly desires is “that which one does not have”. And like the concept of “tomorrow”, does “that which one does not have” ever come into one’s possession? Of course not, so to believe the grass is always greener, is always to deceive one’s self. Similarly, because whatever one’s conception of the after life is, it is perfect to one’s thinking, which means complete, and also non-existent in the traditional meaning of the word–for that which exists, as it is subject to time and space, must always change. That which is complete, whether it be heaven or hell or nothing, cannot change, for a change would suggest incompleteness. So, might not a more motivating and accurate vision of “the after-life” be considering existence as a spectrum, or circle, ranging from being to non-being? And if one extreme tends towards the opposite extreme, where then would being come from?

Well, simply put, “the source” of all being, by this reasoning, must be non-being, or space– the place in which all things are made and from which all things come. And to which all things return, the alpha and the omega–ever-appearing to change, but always remaining–the great final cause and source. Why else would Dante have to be “clear and ready to go up to the stars” (Purg. 33.145) if not to indicate that in order to receive from space or heaven, one must be like space or heaven, and empty one’s self in order to be clear and therefore to receive in order to create.

 

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“Kind prince, many people are pleased and satisfied with the various limited religious doctrines existing in the world today. They all hope to live in the Kingdom of Heaven someday and sit sublimely at the side of their personal deity, but by entertaining such hopes and beliefs they only foster concepts of self and others, longevity and brevity, life and death, and so on without end.”

(Lao Tzu (Laotse), Hua Hu Ching Ch. 16)