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That’s a nice philosophical question. The question doesn’t ask what purpose does the world exist for, though you might read it that way, but rather it asks why does the world exist instead of not existing. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz asked it succinctly in 1714 — “…the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?'” In the history of Western philosophy, it’s a rather recent question.
Jim Holt, a contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times, has written a book on this subject called, in fact, Why Does the World Exist? (Liveright: New York, 2012. 307 pages, $27.95) Holt doesn’t propose an answer himself, but reviews the answers given by others long gone, such as Leibniz, and those more recently gone, such as Sartre, and interviews one recently among us, John Updike, and most of all, visits and chats with those still above ground.
In other words, the book is a survey of people who have thought about the existence of the world and have written about it. Actually, Holt’s book isn’t a plain survey. The book is subtitled An Existential Detective Story, and the jacket flap says “Jim Holt takes on the role of cosmic gumshoe, exploring new and sometimes bizarre angles to the mystery of existence. His search for the ultimate explanation begins with the usual suspects — God versus the Big Bang.” We’ll get back to this nonsense of the author as gumshoe later. (more…)
Summer is going to end too soon, so we suggest you take up a salt shaker, go into your vegetable patch and pick a tomato — one of those ripe red tomatoes that have soaked up the sun and internalized its heat and color. The garden is looking bedraggled by now, because you’ve stopped pulling weeds and the tomato plants themselves are sprawling over each other. The air is sultry with the tangy odor captured under the tomato leaves. Now bite into the tomato and, while you’re enjoying its warmth and juiciness, sprinkle a tiny bit of salt where you took that bite and take another bite. You can finish the tomato that way — just the very slightest amount of salt for each bite. You’ll be a mess, of course, your hands and chin soaked and dripping with tomato juice, but you’ll have eaten a real tomato such as no one who lives in a fancy apartment in the city will ever know. Let them eat their hearts out! You know how to live.
Stephen Hawking points out that in the structure of contemporary physics, time doesn’t exist apart from or prior to the existence of the universe, so God wouldn’t have had any time in which to create the universe. So, how did we get here? According to Hawking, the universe just came into being all by itself. There was no God creating it.
It’s interesting to note that St Augustine, who also thought deeply about the nature of time, came to something very like the same conclusion about time and creation. Of course, St. Augustine believed there was a God — “almighty God, the all-creating and all-sustaining, the architect of heaven and earth. ” Or, to quote him directly, deum omnipotentem et omnicreantem et omnitenentem, caeli et terrae artificem. (Writers in St Augustine’s day didn’t impose capital letters on God, the lower case deum [god] was good enough for Augustine.)
While reading Augustine’s passages on time you get the distinct impression that this extremely sophisticated man is being driven crazy trying to figure out exactly what the nature of time is. (Indeed, he looks pretty sullen in that portrait to the right.) The past, as he notes, doesn’t exist, the future hasn’t even come into being, and the present is continuously vanishing into the non-existent past while advancing on the not yet existent future.
In Book Eleven of the Confessions, Augustine wrestles with the problem of time and has what amounts to a dialog with his God, saying “For thou madest that very tine itself and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no time before heaven and hearth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was not time.”
And, as he says more pointedly in Chapter XIV of Book Eleven, “There was no time, therefore, when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself.” The Latin is Nullo ergo tempore non feceras aliquid, quia ipsum tempus tu feceras. And if we avoid the intimate forms, which are so unusual in English, we can translate that as Therefore, there was no time before you made anything, because you made time itself. In other words, God creates time and everything else. And for Augustine, there’s no paradox here at all. Augustine’s God is not bound within by the rules that fence us mortals.
Isaac Newton’s conception of time was much like St. Augustine’s. Newton saw time as distinct from all things. “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equable without relation to anything external, ” he said. Most of us live in Newton’s universe, not Einstein’s. We instinctively envision space undistorted by gravitational forces and we imagine time passing whether or not there’s anything with which measure it. Einstein himself, though he was able to envision time and space as inseparable and was able to discover relativism where earlier generations had been certain of absolutes, found himself baffled by the discoveries of a younger generation of physicists. He wasn’t able to accept the fundamental uncertainties and probabilities of the universe as described by quantum mechanics. Einstein said many times, and with slight variations, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” The critics at Critical Pages sure don’t know.
The physicist Stephen Hawking has answered the prime question of whether or not the universe was created by God. According to Hawking, it wasn’t.* It’s good to get that question out of the way after so many heads have been bothered by it for so many thousands of years. Here’s the next question — Is a universe without God a universe without any hope? In Dante’s poem, the entrance to hell has an inscription that says Abandon all hope, you who enter here. In Dante’s view, to be without hope is to be in hell. So, what about hope? With that question in mind, Jo Page turned to the philosopher Julian Baggini who has written a bit on that subject. She found his words less than satisfying. Very much less. Here’s Jo in her own words.
When Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the Soul” I think she comes closer to a definition of hope than Julian Baggini, a British philosopher, does in his lips-tightly-pressed-together piece, “Hope Against Hope” in the online magazine, NewHumanist.org.uk.
He engages in some deft word play and studs the article with quotations from everybody he knows and some he doesn’t—Benjamin Franklin, Jean Paul Sartre, a British comedienne, the British comedienne’s mother—just barely saving it from prim-faced misanthropy. But his zeal to dash all hope comes across as mostly overwrought, over-thinking. (more…)
Yes, you remember now, Holmes was a Supreme Court justice — but that was several decades ago, maybe a century ago, right? Just to refresh your memory, Oliver Wendell Holmes was an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, when he retired at age 90. He’s one of the most widely cited Supreme Court justices. He often said that judges decide first and then look for the laws and precedents that will justify their decisions. He wasn’t being witty or making light conversation. In his very first law review article, written in 1870, he said, “It is the merit of the common law that it decides the case first and determines the principle afterwards.”
That may strike you as exactly the reverse of what should happen. But nothing that Holmes came across in his long life as a lawyer and judge made him change his mind. Indeed, he once told his fellow supreme court justices that he could take any established principle they wished to cite and he could use it to uphold or reverse any decision. Holmes may have spoken or written in ways that startle us, but by and large he was right in his view of how judges decide. Or how we all decide, for that matter.
You’ve noticed that Supreme Court decisions are generally not unanimous. Judging whether or not a law is constitutional requires that the justice interpret the Constitution. And — Surprise! — interpretations differ. Yes, old Oliver Wendell Holmes was right. Decide the case first and determine the principle afterwards.
We do need a national health insurance plan. Even Chief Justice John Roberts saw that right away. The reasoning came later, fashioned rather like a corkscrew, but it got the job done. We applaud the Chief Justice.
The photo shows John “Rick” Santorum smiling, but the man has a tendency to get into a rage. Recently he said that the famous speech given by John F. Kennedy on the separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.” Santorum later said he wished he “had that particular line back.” He spoke that particular line to George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” in February of 2012. The reason the subject came up was because Santorum was asked about having said something like that back in October. Back then Rick said he “almost threw up” after reading the speech.
What made Rick Santorum want to throw up or almost throw up was that – according to Santorum – Kennedy was saying that “people of faith have no role in the public square.” Of course, neither Kennedy nor anyone else has said that. Everyone knows that Kennedy made that speech in 1960 to set at rest the anxieties felt by certain voters about Kennedy’s Catholicism. The only other Catholic of a major party to campaign for the presidency was Al Smith in 1928, and he was defeated in part by the fearful bigotry of certain Lutherans and Southern Baptists who believed that if Smith were elected he’d be taking orders from the Pope. Now that Catholics can participate in politics at the highest level, Rick Santorum, a Catholic, almost vomits when he reads that speech about the separation of church and state.
Until Rick Santorum got so angry he nearly vomited, even Republican voters believed that ” separation of church and state” meant that the institution of state is separate from the institution of any church. Or, as that iconic Republican Ronald Regan said in 1984, “Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.”
But Rick Santorum gets into a rage about a lot of things. President Obama, in his speech to Congress in 2009, asked “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”
And Santorum flew into a rage. “What a snob!” he cried. Why is it snobbery to ask your fellow Americans to commit themselves to a year of higher education or vocational training or an apprenticeship? Rick Santorum, has an undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University, an M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, and a law degree from the Dickinson School of Law. That’s about as much higher education as you can get!
Sometimes it seem that Santorum distorts the words and policies of his political opponents simply in order to get into a rage about them. Or maybe it’s the other way around: he distorts and misquotes his opponents in order to justify his habitual rage.
Rick Santorum is a man of faith, despite — as he would say — despite having gone to college. Because, according to him, “62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it,” Wow! That’s terrible! And hard to believe. He made those observations to George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.” He said he got that figure from a study that may be out of date and, he added, “I suspect it may even be worse.” That might explain his sizzling anger about asking people to get at least one year of training in anything from a college to a trade school. According to Santorum, those educational institutions are places where liberals indoctrinate students. Golly.
A lot of studies have been made about the effect of educational level on religious beliefs and, by and large, they don’t support Santorum’s views. Quite the contrary, the study that Santorum was referring to points out that “76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.” Apparently, not going to college damages faith more than going to college.
Purposely distorting another person’s words is called bearing false witness. And making assertions that you know are not true is called lying. Rick Santorum’s behavior gives faith a bad name. Or maybe he’s just looking for ways to justify his inner rage.
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011, and at the same time brought popular attention to another book, the two-thousand-year-old On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. Greenblatt’s book is an engaging account of Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of one of the few surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ philosophical poem, and that discovery, at least in Greenblatt’s view, altered the course of intellectual history in Europe and “made the world modern.”
To the contemporary reader, the most astonishing thing about Lucretius’ philosophy is that it is based on an atomic theory of physics. Certainly it’s a marvel that a Roman poet writing around 50 B.C. should understand the natural physical world as being the result of atomic interactions, but Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, himself an inheritor of the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, all of them believers that the basic unit of the material world was the atom — meaning “un-cutable” in Greek.
Whereas our contemporary atomic theory is based on experimental evidence, the Greek and Roman philosophers arrived at their theories entirely through reason and speculation. Seeing the world as composed of complex structures built up by aggregates of simpler elements (look around you; you’ll see the same) those thinkers worked down to a theoretical solitary building block and down below that to nothingness. That’s where Lucretius begins: there’s the void and atoms falling endlessly through it, occasionally swerving to hit other atoms, and over time those atoms hook together to build up the material world we live in. Furthermore, says Lucretius, the void is so large and atoms so numerous that other worlds have also arisen, many other worlds, in addition to our own.
And that is all there is to life, to this world, to the cosmos, to anything. Lucretius’s materialistic vision was intended, he wrote, to rescue people from belief in the intervention of gods and the fear of death. Gods exist in De Rerum Natura, but they exist off at some distance, rather diaphanous beings, with no interest in the world they didn’t create and the humans who inhabit it. As for death, don’t fear an after life, says Lucretius; you are only your constituent atoms and death merely frees those atoms to regroup, perhaps, in some other form. Not everyone will find freedom from fear or any comfort in Lucretius.
De Rerum Natura is a long, long poem of some 7,400 lines. Even though it’s apparently unfinished, Lucretius gets around to explaining everything from how sound manages to get through walls to how it is that adolescent boys have wet dreams. Nothing is beyond his interest, from the grandest, such as the evolutions of human society, to the smallest, the infinitesimal wearing down of a statue by the touch of innumerable hands. Lucretius himself comes through the lines as a man interested in just about everything, a man who apparently loved the things of this world and loved writing about them. The work is, after all, a vivid digressive poem about this world.
Teachers of Latin and their more advanced students are well aware of Lucretius’s book – six books as Lucretius assembles it — and they’re also aware that much of it is difficult Latin. If you had Latin in high school only, you’ll find Lucretius somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible. Say Catullus is easy and Ovid is easy, admit Quintillian is not easy and Horace is hard. If so, Lucretius is hard. Happily, there are translations.
Unhappily, translations of Latin poems aren’t wonderful. Yes, Arthur Golding’s translation in 1567 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is admired and is probably the best translation of that work, even after four centuries, but we nowadays read it not to get a sense of Ovid but to relish the wonderful rush and verve of the brash translator’s Renaissance English, a marvelous vulgate.
The most recent translation of Lucretius’s hexameters is by A. E. Stallings and she, like Golding, uses “fourteeners” — lines of fourteen syllables, usually seven iambics — linked in couplets. Indeed, her translation gives De Rerum Natura a certain liveliness and bounce – and possibly a classicist finds the same spirited animation in the original. None of us here at Critical Pages can read Latin like a classicist, but maybe you guessed that already. We favor the Loeb edition of De Rerum Natura published by Harvard University Press with the Latin on the left-hand page and the plain English on the right. But we admire A. (Alicia) E. Stallings translation. She’s a remarkable poet all on her own, as her many prizes attest.
[The original posting of this article had a number of typographical and spelling errors for which we apologize.]
Not everyone who stumbles upon Critical Pages is familiar with the Platonic Ladder which we mentioned in an earlier post. That’s been made clear to us. Thank you, all.
The Platonic Ladder is one of Plato’s cool concepts. You can read about it in his Symposium, but to make life easier we’ll give you a brief summary along with some quotes from Plato himself.
Plato tells us that we can and should begin by loving “the beauties of the body.” We’ll skip what beautiful bodies Plato had in mind. The important thing is that loving a beautiful body is natural and easy to do. It’s the lowest rung on the ladder.
To get to the second rung you “must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other.” Soon, says Plato, you will “be the lover of every lovely body.” You do this, says Plato, in order to see that the single body you loved first isn’t all that unique.
Frankly, we at Critical Pages have our doubts about that second rung. But let’s continue up the ladder. You “must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul.” (Maybe you can see what we’re climbing toward.) The person who continues to climb upward, “wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish.” Soon the climber will discover that “every kind of beauty is akin to every other, and he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.”
That’s a big achievement, because at that point you’ll see the beauty in many things, even in institutions and abstractions like, say, human rights and justice. (Plato doesn’t actually say human rights and justice, but that’s close enough.) To quote him again, “Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung–that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself–until at last he comes to know what beauty is.”
That’s how it goes upward. You start by a natural love for the beauties of flesh and end up loving pure beauty, truth and goodness. That’s the Platonic Ladder. We’ve tried climbing it many times. And it’s good to try, even if you get no further than the first or second rung.
Now that a hard November wind is whirling the leaves about, it’s time for Shelley and his Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a brief life, but it was so vivid with poetry, so politically radical, so sexually unrestrained, so romantic and Romantic, that he still arouses controversy among readers who know even a little about him.
He was born in England on August 4, 1892 and drowned in a stormy sea off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822, not having quite reached age 30. Shelley ran afoul of law and convention a number of times. He wrote some great poems, many political and social pamphlets, and a number of papers which advocated atheism. He also indulged in sexual shenanigans, inspired loyal friendships, and left a few ruined lives in his wake.
Technically, Ode to the West Wind is composed of five cantos in iambic pentameter and the overall rhyme scheme is terza rima – a beautiful method of linking three-line stanzas with aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth. Terza rima had been rarely used in English. It was most famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, that poem of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where the number three recurs in a multitude of ways. Terza rima isn’t easy to work, and nobody has succeeded in doing a good job of translating Dante into English using his rhyme scheme. As for the meaning of Shelley’s Ode, that’s impossible to cram into a brief paragraph — yes, it’s about the weather, but much, much more as well. Don’t sweat it. You can read a bit now and come back to it later. OK, here’s the poem:
Ode to the West Wind
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou 5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill 10
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear! (more…)
“Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs