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When I taught in a secondary school, I always had a rotating series of quotations on my classroom walls. Many were quite serious: “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” – Herman Hesse
Some were humorous: “Every place is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
Some quotes were somewhere in between: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
I even quoted myself: “Bladder control is a sign of maturity” and “When the mothership lands, know who your true friends are.”

Students would sometimes ask about a quote, and I would use them in lessons. On some rare and happy occasions, a student would connect a quote to something we were doing in class.

One quote that students usually thought was “stupid” was:

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

It is a quote from Blaise Pascal who can be described as both a mathematician and a mystic. He was born in Clermont, France in 1623. I told students that Blaise was homeschooled because his father, a mathematician, believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. My students found this to be sound thinking.

They were in lesser agreement on that approach when they learned that his home life was less fun and games and more geometric problems which he was told to work out using lengths of sticks in his backyard.

The method seemed to work. At 12, he showed his father that he had discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father invited him to join in his discussions with other mathematicians. He published an article on the geometric properties of cones at 16, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

TaylorBut what about Cleopatra’s nose? I always assumed that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but there are very few images or descriptions of her.

In my mind, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra (1963). That nose looks, like the rest of Liz, quite beautiful.

But it seems that power rather than beauty was the real appeal of Cleopatra.

coin

“The Lover’s Coin” a bronze showing Cleopatra (left) and Marc Antony.

She is described as being quite thin and quite small (about four feet tall). Julius Caesar was accused of pedophilia when she at around age 18 visited him in Rome. She was also depicted as having quite a big nose. But Cleo was  proud of her large nose because it demonstrated her pure Macedonia blood (she was not Egyptian) as a descendant of Alexander the Great.

Pascal had a good-sized nose himself, so maybe he identified with Cleo. But what did that odd quote mean?

I college, I was assigned to read some of Pascal’s writings in a philosophy course. The idea that stuck with me was that if you change one thing, you change everything. If you decide to go to a different college, or marry a different person, everything after changes. But even if you change something that seems less significant – whether to skip work today, the route you take driving, your nose or Cleopatra’s nose – other things will change. Every choice changes the consequences.

That kind of thinking moves easily into discussions of fate, destiny, free will and religion. Pascal’s family was not religious and he was not raised with religious teachings. By chance (if you believe in that concept), he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal.

The newly converted Pascal had no problem with these new beliefs and science. He continued working on scientific experiments. He showed that a vacuum could exist in nature. He invented the mathematics of probability.

He had his religious beliefs, but he wasn’t a blindly devoted believer.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.”

But then, in 1654, he experienced a “night of fire.” He had a divine vision. It changed his life and he decided to forget the world and everything except for God.

He left Paris the following year and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus.

He started to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity. He never completed the book. The notes he had made were posthumously published as Pensées (Thoughts).

What I recall most clearly from that book is his “wager.”

“God is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Let us weigh the gain and the lose in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two changes. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, lose nothing. Wager then without any hesitation that He is”

If God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him. But if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him.It is logical to believe.

In his writing, the “heart” is what experiences God, and not reason. The famous quote of his on that:

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…
We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

These are far larger questions than my quotations on the wall ever answered. Then again, they were meant to provoke questions more than provide answers. Pascal said that “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

“And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good.  Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”  –  Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig

Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, who I wrote about here earlier, died this week at the age of 88 at his home in South Berwick, Maine after a period of failing health.

He will be remembered for his two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Zen is a novelistic autobiography that inspired readers in many ways, including those who did their own road trip across America with or without a motorcycle.

Published in 1974, I read it as I was finishing college and the mix of road story, philosophy, Zen and some actual motorcycle maintenance tips inspired me to take a small road trip after graduation of my own.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

I would say the book is a classic, and not of the “underground” type, as it sold well then and seems to continues to find new readers.

Though published in 1974, it echoes a lot of the philosophies and issues that the earlier decade brought forward in America and also the “on the road” vibes of the 1950s. Pirsig used as inspiration a motorcycle trip across the West he took with his son Christopher in 1968.

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

While serving as a soldier in South Korea after WWII, Pirsig encountered the Asian philosophies and he went on to study Hindu philosophy in India. He started a philosophy Ph.D. at the University of Chicago but didn’t continue with it.

He went through a period of hospitalization for mental illness, but after his release he lived in Minneapolis, worked as a technical writer and began writing Zen.

The Zen was real for him. He helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”

He worked on and off on his second book for 17 years. Lila, his look at morals, came out in 1991 and  tells of a journey down the Hudson River in a sailboat by his philosopher-narrator, Phaedrus. He encounters Lila, a troubled woman who is nearing a mental breakdown. This book feels like an attempt to complete the “metaphysics of Quality” system introduced in his first book.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

 

All quotations here from  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

 

coelho

Paulo Coelho‘s novel The Alchemist spent an amazing eight years on The NY Times best sellers list. What attracted so many readers?

It is a tale of self-discovery. It has magic, mysticism and wisdom. It became a “modern classic.” It has sold over 150 million copies worldwide and won 115 international prizes and awards. It has been translated into 80 languages.

It is an allegorical novel. The story follows a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago on a journey to Egypt. His journey begins with a recurring dream he has of finding treasure there. The dream, which he feels is prophetic, leads him to a fortune-teller in a nearby town who interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that there is a treasure in the pyramids in Egypt.

Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in my soul.”

A friend loaned me her copy in 1988. I was skeptical. It sounded more “New Age” than literature, but she was a reader I respected, so I read it.

Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. He worked as a director, theater actor, songwriter and journalist.

In 1986, he made the pilgrimage to Saint James Compostela (in Spain). The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, together with those to Rome and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was a turning point in his existence.

A year later, he wrote The Pilgrimage, an autobiographical novel that is considered the beginning of his career.

The following year, he published The Alchemist. The initial sales were not good. His original publisher dropped the novel. Big mistake. It went on to be one of the best-selling Brazilian books (originally written in Portuguese) of all time, and then a global best seller.

I read it. It didn’t change my life. I enjoyed it and I identified with its theme of finding one’s destiny. I wanted it to change my life.

The New York Times reviewer said it is “more self-help than literature.” I think that was meant as a putdown, but plenty of us are seeking help.

The novel reminds me of The Prophet, a book of prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran.

It was originally published in 1923 but continued to sell and had a resurgence during the 1960s. It has been translated into over 40 languages and has never been out of print.

Parallels have been made to William Blake’s work, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The ideas of those writers, such as reincarnation and the Over-soul and more modern symbolism and surrealism, seem to run through The Prophet. I knew people who loved the book, and I knew people who made fun of it.

In The Alchemist, an old king tells Santiago that, “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true.” That is the kind of philosophy that fills the novel. You might find it inspiring. You might dismiss it as greeting card philosophy.

I read Coelho’s latest novel, The Spy, which is very different. It is the story of one of history’s most enigmatic women: Mata Hari. She arrived in Paris penniless and became a dancer, a courtesan, and in 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.

Coelho is not a guru. He is a prolific writer. He loves writing. He likes Kyudo (a meditative archery), reading, walking, football and computers.

He is very active on social media.  He was the second most influential celebrity on Twitter in 2010 according to Forbes and he is the writer with the highest number of followers in the social media.

He blogs. He is on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Flickr.

It sure seems like the universe has conspired so that his wish has comes true. maybe I should reread The Alchemist.

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 or January 4, 1643. (I have found both listed online, the latter more often.). You probably learned about him in school. He was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. He is considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. His monograph Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, lays the foundations for most of classical mechanics. In this work, Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.

But he was also an alchemist, and theologian and he wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies. He explored with great seriousness chronology, alchemy, and Biblical interpretation.

Many authors who have written about him believe that his scientific work may have actually been of lesser personal importance to him than his “fringe science” studies because for a good part of his life, Newton was focused on re-discovering the occult wisdom of the ancients.

On his scientific side, there is the “Newtonian Worldview.” Until the early 20th century, the classical mechanics of Newton and his followers was seen as the foundation for science as a whole. In fact, most people thought that the other sciences would follow suit.  But biology, psychology and other sciences didn’t really move in that direction. They did adopt a general mechanistic or Newtonian world view. And many people equate “scientific thinking” with “Newtonian thinking”.

So, did Newton have a purely mechanistic world view? If so, why did he search for the Philosopher’s Stone? Yes, that same stone that was the basis for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which was originally titled in the U.K. editions  Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. Newton’s writings suggest that the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold) was definitely a goal of his research. He also appears to have had an interest in finding the Elixir of Life.

Newton reportedly believed that a Diana’s Tree (an alchemical demonstration producing a “growth” of silver from solution and also known as the “Philosopher’s Tree”) was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.”

In the 1940s, economist John Maynard Keynes studied Newton’s alchemical works and concluded that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason; he was the last of the magicians.”

We should remember that Newton lived in a time when the distinctions between science, superstition, and pseudoscience were still being formulated.

Much of what we know about Newton’s studies in the occult is from his study of alchemy. Newton was deeply interested in all forms of natural sciences and materials science, an interest which would ultimately lead to some of his better-known contributions to science. During Newton’s lifetime the study of chemistry was still in its infancy, so many of his experimental studies used esoteric language and vague terminology more typically associated with alchemy and occultism.

It was not until several decades after Newton’s death that experiments by Antoine Lavoisier and others brought on analytical chemistry and the nomenclature that we are familiar with today.

There was probably more of Newton’s writing on alchemy that was lost in a fire in his laboratory.  Newton also suffered a nervous breakdown during the period of his alchemical work. Some historians think the breakdown resulted from the psychological transformation alchemy was originally designed to induce. Others think that it may have been some form of chemical poisoning (possibly from mercury, lead, or some other substance.

Newton wrote in 1704 about his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible. He spent much of his life seeking what could be considered a Bible Code and placed a great deal of emphasis upon the interpretation of the Book of Revelation and studying the Apocalypse. He estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

In Newton’s “The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms” there are several passages that directly mention the mythical land of Atlantis. He seems to have believed that Homer’s Ulysses left the island of Ogygia which was home to Calypso, the daughter of Atlas (after whom Atlantis was named). It appears Newton may have also believed that Ogygia or Cadis or Cales was Atlantis, a land as big as all Europe, Africa and Asia, but that it was sunk into the sea.

“Official” emblem of the Priory of Sion, partly based on the fleur-de-lis, a symbol associated with the French monarchy

Isaac Newton has also been connected to various secret societies and fraternal orders throughout history. The evidence is sketchy because of the secretive nature of such organizations, a lack of supportive publicized material, and weak motives for Newton’s participation in these groups.

One movement that seems to have  influenced Isaac Newton was  Rosicrucianism.  The Rosicrucian movement caused a lot of interest in the European scholarly community during the early seventeenth century. When Newton encountered it, there was less sensationalism and it influenced his alchemical work and philosophical thought.

The Rosicrucian belief that some are chosen for their ability to communicate with angels or spirits fit into both Newton’s alchemy and his religious beliefs.

Rosicrucians also claimed to have the ability to live forever through the use of the elixir vitae and they claimed they could produce gold from the use of The Philosopher’s Stone, which they further claimed to have in their possession.

Like Newton, the Rosicrucians were deeply religious, avowedly Christian, anti-Catholic, and highly politicized.

At the time of his death, Isaac Newton had 169 books remaining on the topic of alchemy in his personal library which was considered one of the finest alchemical libraries in the world. He had a heavily annotated personal copies of “The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity R.C.”  by Thomas Vaughan (which represents an English translation of The Rosicrucian Manifestos) and other alchemical classics.

Evidence that Newton was a Freemason is less evident, but he is often identified as being a member of several early Masonic Lodges including the Grand Lodge of England. There are few records of early Freemasonry but the modern structure of the organization was partly established during Newton’s lifetime in and around London.

Newton was a member  of The Royal Society and many Royal Society members have been identified as early Freemasons.  It is clear that Newton was deeply interested in architecture, sacred geometry, and the structure of the Temple of Solomon – subjects that also interested Freemasons.

It would be fun to believe that Newton actually a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. But the Priory itself seems to be mythical.  This path is more like the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail of a novel like The Da Vinci Code. Isaac Newton’s membership in the Priory actually does play a role in Dan Brown‘s book as one of the plot puzzles. The “tomb of a knight a pope interred” refers not to a medieval knight, but rather to Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, because Newton was eulogized by Alexander Pope (A. Pope but not the Catholic Pope).

Actually, Newton may have liked curling up in a chair to read our modern day Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail, and even Dan Brown‘s take on him in The Da Vinci Code. The occult side of Newton is as appealing to me as the scientific long shadow he casts.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

socialcontract

I was talking to my friend Steve last weekend and, as is often the case, we went off into lofty heights where ideas constellate. He was telling me about a new “social contract” he was investigating. That sent me back to Rousseau, of whom I have only a wisp of a classroom memory.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born in Geneva in 1712) was intrigued by an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon in 1749 that asked “Has the revival of the arts and sciences done more to corrupt or to purify morals?”

Rousseau started on an essay that he would title “A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” which ended up making him “a writer almost against my will. …The remainder of my life and all my subsequent misfortunes were the inevitable result of this moment of aberration.”

His essay won first prize. He argued that the advances of science and art had been harmful to humanity by consolidating power in the hands of governments and creating an atmosphere of competition and fear between citizens.

He went on to write many more philosophical works. His most famous is The Social Contract (1762). The essence of his argument, which is all I retained from any study I had of his work, is a bummer. He said that the natural condition of humanity is to be brutal and lawless. It is only through an agreed “social contract” of what constitutes a good society that humans are able to rise above their base nature.

Sometimes we rise. Sometimes we fall.


Visit Steve’s hibernating blog, The Constellating Image , and tell him to wake it up.

yoda

“Do. Or not do. There is no try.”  This little koan from The Empire Strikes Back (the second of the Star Wars movies, or Episode V, depending on your age) has been bouncing around as a meme since 1980 on t-shirts, buttons and then online.

The scene was set in the swamps of Dagobah where a rather whiny Luke Skywalker was being schooled by his mentor, Master Yoda.

I like Yoda. I have read in multiple places that the special effects folks modeled Yoda’s old, wise face (especially the eyes) on photos of Albert Einstein. His voice always sounds like a bit of Kermit the Frog is mixed into it. (Although the puppet was voiced by the wonderful Frank Oz who was not Kermit but was Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover, so perhaps I am hearing all of them.)

Yoda, at about age 900, is wise, but only as wise as his writers.

What did he actually mean to teach Luke with those words?

Some people interpret it to mean that since ultimately you will either accomplish a task or not, if you aren’t going to accomplish something, then there is no point in trying. That is quite unsatisfying as a philosophy. Since none of us can know if we will accomplish a task, how can we decide beforehand whether to try?

Since much of what we learn requires failing before we succeed, I don’t think he means don’t try unless you are going to succeed. That approach would leave many things left undone and many things never experienced.

I’ll give Yoda credit for not being that simplistic.

Let us give the quote a bit more context. Earlier in that movie scene, Luke tries to extract his X-wing ship from the swamp and fails. It actually sinks deeper into the water. Luke had been successful earlier with smaller objects, but this one was overwhelming because of its size.

LUKE: We’ll never get it out now.
YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

Master Yoda is able to use his mind and The Force to lift the ship from the swamp.

Amazed, Luke says “I don’t believe it!”and Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”

The key then must be in the believing that you can succeed.

It is not that we should not try, but you need to redefine “trying” to be something more than just any attempt. I don’t think Yoda believes that not doing something is an option.

The attempt is not an objective, and unlearning is a large part of learning.

Is it sad that some people have taken cultural references like those in Star Wars films as a kind of philosophy or even a substitute for religion? It is sad to those who have a religion or philosophy. I don’t think it is sad or bad for someone who has neither of those things and is starting on a path.

Can you believe in The Force without equating it to a God that connects and holds everything together? Yes, you can. You can also see it as a cultural reference to that God. I think it works both ways.

Films are like books in holding bits of wisdom. I’m sure that some readers or viewers of the Lord of the Rings, are attached to the line that Gandalf says to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Good advice, and like almost all good advice, difficult to follow. Difficult to do. Unlikely to succeed; therefore, not to try?

I think not.

Yoda is a backwards-grammar speaking little philosopher who has 800 years worth of teaching experience and quotes in him that were gathered (by writers) from religion, philosophy and literature. When he says,”Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” you hear the Buddha. Or maybe Jesus Christ, or the Tao.

But the Buddha he is not.

I don’t think Yoda was exposed to any of Earth’s culture in his far away galaxy. It reminds me of when I first took religion courses in college. As I studied one religion after another that I had known little or nothing about before that time, the major realization was that more often than not we have arrived at the same places by different paths. I believe beings in another galaxy would do the same.

Yoda’s little koans are useful in the same way that the koans are useful.

If you read these quotes:
Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
and they resonate for you, how much does it matter who the speaker turns out to be?

Was it Yoda or a philosopher? Are they from scriptures or the dogma? If I reveal to you that it was Einstein, do you need to know that he was spiritual but not religious, a scientist and a believer, someone who sought a theory to explain it all even though he probably knew he would never find it, in order to appreciate his words?

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